Or how to train for a marathon without running a mile
It’s 6:15 in the morning and the pavement is flying beneath me. With each stride through the dark, frosty morning, I’m gobbling up yards of San Vicente Boulevard as I head for the final stretch back to the office. Even though I’m cold and clammy, there’s a certain exhilaration knowing that there aren’t many others up at this hour, let alone preparing for an event like the marathon: 26.2 miles of grueling, energy-sapping punishment.
I’d wanted to run a marathon for more than twenty years. But even during the fog of my alcohol and drug addiction, I somehow acknowledged that subjecting my body to that kind of stress would be a more expedient death than a bottle, pill or another line of coke. But, when I finally got clean and sober on October 21, 1986, the world opened up to me. For the first time in my life, goals, and aspirations seemed within reach without the artificial obstacles of youth, immaturity or my own physical and mental limitations. I could do anything I put my mind to.
Ironically, what complicated the issue was my college degree — in particular, my area of study. In 1983, I graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in Exercise Physiology and went to work for a cardiac rehabilitation out-patient clinic. My denial allowed me to drink to excess every night while I lectured patients on the importance of taking care of one’s health by day. For the next several years, every patient that I came in contact with naturally assumed that I was the picture of health and a marathoner. After all, haven’t all exercise physiologists completed at least one marathon? I struggled with my disease while in my own mind I felt invalidated as a fitness expert lauding the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
When I finally entered recovery, I had no excuses or limitations. I was determined to go for it. Over the next six months, I read every conceivable book on the subject of marathon training. I researched everything from diet, running shoes, shorts, and fluid replacements; even underwear. Every Saturday morning was reserved for my long runs (between 15–25 miles) while the weekdays were peppered with a combination of shorter hill climbs and weight training. As the mileage and dirty laundry piled up, I became a fit and highly tuned running machine.
With one week to go before the Los Angeles Marathon, short cruising runs were the order of the day; the concept being after months of preparation, its time to relax. Just keep limber and get ready for the big race on Sunday.
As I approached the final stretch of my pre-dawn run, out of nowhere a pothole suddenly appeared, dropping me to the asphalt. On the way down, I heard an audible “pop” from my left knee. In one split second, six months of training evaporated in the wake of my dislocated knee. By the time I hobbled back to the office, it had swollen to the size of a cantaloupe.
While I wasn’t initially sure just how bad I was injured, I had taken enough anatomy classes to know that knees were not supposed to make sounds and rival the size of large fruit. But, the thought of missing the marathon in 5 days concerned me far more than my physical infirmity. I had not just given the marathon a small place in my life; it had become my life. I had shared all of my competitive dreams of running my first marathon in my hometown with my friends and everyone else that was important in my life. Now it was gone.
I managed to get in to see an orthopedic surgeon the next day, having already lost one valuable day of training. For the uninitiated, losing a single day of training when preparing for a marathon begins a downward spiral that can potentially erode the confidence necessary to complete a race that defies the limits of common sense. Lying on the exam table with a synovial fluid-filled syringe protruding from the side of my knee was not exactly instilling the type of pre-race confidence that I had hoped for.
The good news was that after a thorough examination, x-rays and an MRI, nothing appeared to be damaged. When I stepped into the pre-dawn rut, I stretched every ligament, tendon and joint capsule to the extent of their unnatural limits; but nothing was broken. The first thing I asked the doctor was, “When will I be able to run again?” Remaining cautious, he explained that as soon as the swelling went down, I could do whatever I felt I could tolerate. The gauntlet was thrown down.
Later that afternoon, my self-confidence began to return to normal, even though my knee hadn’t. The injury damaged my body, but not my spirit. The next day, I hobbled into a local running store and asked if there were any marathons later in the year. With all of the training that I had put in, I was certain that I’d be back on the streets within a couple of months.
“There aren’t any more marathons until the last part of November,” said the clerk. “Oh, wait. There is one smaller race next month: the Long Beach Marathon.” A ray of hope emerged.
Even despite the rosy picture the orthopedic surgeon painted, I was convinced as I limped along on my gammy leg, that there was no way I could pursue the Long Beach Marathon; that was only three and half weeks away. Impossible. But, Aristotle once said, “Hope is a waking dream.” My dream was only three weeks away.
Fortunately, due to my area of study, I knew more about physiology than the average weekend athlete. I knew that if I could sustain my fitness at its current level while my knee mended, there was a possibility that I could run the race; maybe even finish it.
The next morning, I embarked on a self-prescribed training regimen unlike any you’ll read about in the Runner’s World; probably the first time anyone has ever prepared for a marathon without running. I was fortunate enough to be working in a hospital out-patient cardiac rehabilitation center that had a wide variety of stationary bikes, treadmills, and free weights. One of the bikes was a Schwinn Airdyne; arguably one of the finest pieces of fitness equipment ever invented. The Airdyne is an over-sized contraption that has not only pedals, but arm cranks that thrust up from the flywheel. With a large fan mounted in front of the rider, the faster you pedal the greater the resistance. Hmmm… This could actually work.
I hooked myself up with a series of electrocardiograph leads designed to monitor the heart rate and rhythm of cardiac patients during exercise. Having already calculated my training heart rate range based on my previous program, I knew that I could theoretically maintain my fitness if I could persevere through 90 minutes a day at a minimum of 150–165 beats per minute. I dragged a bar stool up next to the bike and propped my ice-packed knee on it and proceeded to pedal with my good leg and both arms until I reached 150 beats per minute.
Over the course of the next week, I downed prescription-strength anti-inflammitants like candy. The swelling in my knee went down as my fitness level soared. I was actually becoming fitter without putting in so much as a mile of running. After about two-and-a-half weeks, I solicited the doctor’s approval to start running again.
He gave me his blessing.
The first day back out on the street was torture. I was handicapped more by my mental fitness than physical. After a few easy miles, I returned to the office with renewed confidence that I just might be able to finish my first marathon.
Within a week, I was back up to ten miles. The Long Beach Marathon was now only a week away. At a time when everyone else was tapering down, I was ramping up. Trainers advise anyone contemplating running a marathon to complete at least one run of twenty miles or more before the event. Fortunately, I had already completed mine, so I just considered my injury a minor “interruption” in my training schedule.
By the time race day arrived, I was fit and motivated to run the race of a lifetime. I completed the race in just under four hours, running the first 18 miles faster than I’d ever run before. As I crossed the finish line, the loudspeakers screamed my name and hometown to the crowd of cheering spectators. I immediately broke down into tears as the preceding seven months of stress finally poured out of every pore of my body. I could finally relax; I had completed my first marathon.
Over the next few years, I completed three more marathons, but none of those victories was a sweet as the first. The power to overcome overwhelming odds to obtain an impossible goal made it even better than if my training had gone exactly as planned.
The Marathon Miracle is an excerpt from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners: 101 Inspirational Stories of Energy, Endurance, and Endorphins