Born to Run the Oakland Marathon Answered
On Sunday, I ran the Oakland Marathon, finishing in 3:54:29, and placing 215th out of 945 runners.
I know it's cliche, but I read Born to Run and got inspired me to run a marathon. It's the best book I've read in years: the characters (all real people!) are fascinating, the setting and story are fantastic, and it just made me want to get out and go. Halfway through the book, I decided to run a few miles to the grocery store in the rain just to run out back, not because I needed anything.
Prior to reading Born to Run, I had been running a 2-3 miles twice a week to vary my preferred morning exercise routine of biking or swimming (the kitesurfing season hasn't really started yet). Running was something I did if I couldn't get to a pool or didn't have the time for a long enough bike ride; it was exercise I did while traveling and when there were no better options. Born to Run made me question that assumption, and I decided to see how longer runs would feel.
Over a year ago I read "You Walk Wrong", a New York Magazine article on going barefoot. It convinced me that I should be able to go unshod, or at least with minimally foot coverings. Why would 30 years of running shoe development be able to produce better results than millions of years of foot evolution? So I bought some Vibram Five Fingers to protect my delicate soles, and had been doing lots of hiking and a bit of running.
The difference between running in running shoes and Vibram Five Fingers was profound for me. In running shoes, I typically stopped running because my knees and hips hurt, not because I was exhausted. The Vibrams forced me to take smaller, faster strides without heel strikes, and suddenly I was getting closer and closer to being able to run long enough to catch exhaustion without any joint pain. The concept of going barefoot was initially tough because of my flat feet and overpronation, and the possibility of re-dislocating a kneecap. I never went anywhere barefoot, and after I initially dislocated my kneecap in 2000, I was told by a sports medicine doctor that I should never walk without the aid of custom orthotics in my shoes. However, barefoot websites and forums are full of stories about people's arches coming back, and how kids raised without shoes never have flat feet. Amazingly, it's all worked perfectly for me. I now run without my orthotics without any knee pain, and my arches appear to have (re?)formed. After hopping out of the pool, I always inspect my wet footprints, and they now have distinct arches. I wish I had taken photographs every day to plot progress.
With the characters and race in Born to Run still fresh in my mind, I looked for nearby races to give myself some motivation and something to train for. When I discovered that Oakland was holding its first marathon in 25 years, and that the route literally went through my neighborhood, I immediately signed up for the half-marathon and convinced Christy to do the same. I researched training regiments online, and discovered many were 4 and 5 month plans; since I had 50 days before the race, I decided simply to run longer and longer distances at a comfortable pace, and not worry about a rigid structure. I ran most of my miles on trails in the Oakland hills, and some on the streets, but all of them in my Vibrams. During a practice run on the half-marathon course three weeks before the race, I completed the half in less than my target time for two hours and felt so good that I opted to do the full marathon.
In the marathon, I ran with GEICO-sponsored pacers aiming for a 3:50:00 time (8:46 miles on the flats, and slower miles in the hills; course elevation PDF here). Of the three pacers, one was running his 34th marathon, and the other two were ultra-marathoners training for a 200 mile race from Calistoga to Santa Cruz; their normal weekend run was 50 miles, so a marathon was like taking a break. Running in a group is awesome and way better than running by myself listening to audio books. On multiple occasions, I imagined that we were the hunters of a tribe out running down game -- water stations every couple of miles broke the illusion, but I still eagerly grabbed cups, and the community support was tremendous. There were bands, drummers, DJs, and gospel choirs making music along the route; families with full brunch buffets setup in their front yards offering all the runners fresh fruit and homemade baked goods; and many people just thanking us for running in Oakland.
The second image shows all my runs in the 50 days leading up to the marathon. The first 5-mile run on the chart was the longest I had ever run at that point. While I was coming from something of a limited endurance background (I've biked 135 miles on a tandem from Boston to Provincetown in a single day), I didn't really know my limit. At mile 23 of the marathon, I finally caught up to exhaustion, and fell behind the pace group. The last three miles were painful, but in the last quarter mile, I couldn't stop grinning and felt like I might laugh and cry at the same time. When it was over, I just wanted to sit down.
I was aiming for a sub-4-hour marathon, and I'm really proud to have done that on my first try. Everyone made fun of me for walking like a zombie the next day at work, and I have some pretty large blood blisters on my feet, but nothing that won't disappear in under a week. Go and read Born to Run, it might inspire you, too.
I'd always had to run as cross-training for other sports (I swam competitively for 13 years) and ran when I needed quick exercise, but hated it - my joints hurt, and it just wasn't fun. I was a distance swimmer and can hike nearly forever, but could literally swim farther than I could (or would) run. The most I'd ever run before was about 4 miles.
I got my Vibrams with Eric, and really enjoyed hiking with them on my feet. I hadn't run in nearly a year and a half (pregnancy loosens the joints, which made running feel even worse) so when Eric announced he was signing up to run 13 miles I was dubious. However, I read Born to Run and was suitably inspired - I was in good cardio shape from swimming and stationary biking, and would happily hike 13 miles, so why couldn't I run that far? I decided to go out for a 5k jog to see what running felt like in my Vibrams.
Long story short, I accidentally ran 6 miles, stopping not due to fatigue or joint injury but because of a blister from a poorly-adjusted shoe strap. I signed up for the half marathon that evening, and started taking increasingly pleasant runs through the parks and across the city. I ran the half-marathon course with Corvidae in her jog stroller, stopping to feed her periodically. Eric finished while I was on mile 8, so he backtracked along the course and met us at mile 10, by which time she was thoroughly done with this stroller nonsense and had migrated to the sling. I left the two of them to their own devices and jogged the rest of the way to the finish, about 3:25 after I started in the morning. Not terribly speedy, even given the breaks! The next day the bottoms of my feet were sore, and one of my Achilles tendons was a bit inflamed - I'd describe it as having overused my springs - but even though I was limping, my muscles were still in good shape.
My pace is still quite slow (I ran the half-marathon in 2:42, for roughly 12:26 mile splits) but it's frighteningly consistent - I negative split most of the race, and at the end discovered I still had plenty of energy to sprint past a dozen exhausted runners. Clearly I didn't run fast enough or far enough, but I was specifically setting a pace I felt able to maintain indefinitely.
The weak link is still my feet! While I had plenty of muscle and energy left at the end of the race, the bottoms of my feet were tired from use - more practice is necessary to balance out years of shoe-wearing. However, I recovered much more quickly this time, and was able to run again by Tuesday morning. No zombie shuffle for me! Of course, this means next time I'll be running the marathon, and at a faster pace!