“Keep your head high no matter the challenge.” – Ronald Olsen
Before I was thirteen, I did not know about my dad’s high school running life. I was familiar with his all-star baseball life, but it was not until I joined the cross country team that he disclosed how he was also quite the track star in high school. Running very quickly became a bonding interest. I loved running for myself, but I also loved the excitement my running generated out of my dad. In 9 years of middle school, high school and college running, I never did beat his personal record in the 800 or 1600 meter races.
My dad, like most high school athletes did not continue running into his adult life and the 40-year-old dad I knew when I was 13 was a far cry from the lean athlete I heard stories about. 12 years ago, I felt certain I would one-day run a marathon. However, if you told my dad 12 years ago he would run a marathon, he would have laughed in your face.
I am not sure exactly when it started, but my earliest memory was after running the Cotton Row 10k in 2007, my first road race. My dad was there to cheer me on. I remember being caught up in the excitement and fun spirit of the road race and I remember my dad catching that excitement too and announcing that he would run the Cotton Row 5k the next year.
He didn’t start training right away and I remember forgetting his announcement until one day he took our dog, Charlie, and said that they were going to run a mile. He and Charlie started running the same one mile loop three days per week on a very consistent basis. This was no ordinary one mile loop. This one mile loop was TOUGH and hit every hill in our neighborhood.
The one-mile loop was the beginning. After building from there, he ran the cotton row 5k. Then he ran the Turkey Trot 5k and the following year, he ran the Cotton Row 10k.
One day, he announced he would train for the Staten Island Half-Marathon. Staten Island is the place he grew up. However, after a major ankle twisting injury, he missed the race.
I spent YEARS trying to convince him to sign up for another half. He wouldn’t do it. His excuse was that he was too old. I knew this was utter crap and told him so, but he never listened.
Fast forward. I graduated high school and college and whenever I came home, we would put in many miles together. After I graduated college, I couldn’t wait to train for the longer races I knew I was destined for. On January 1st of 2015, I texted my family to tell them that I signed up for the Pinhoti 100. They were very supportive. Less than a week later, my dad calls me to ask me if I will run the Bridge Street Half Marathon with him. My jaw fell on the floor of my apartment in disbelief. I spent YEARS trying to convince him to run one and now he finally was.
He worked hard to get ready for his first half-marathon and we had a great time.
The first people I invited to be part of my crew for Pinhoti was my family. My dad said that he wanted to not just crew, but be a pacer for a few miles as well. If you want to read more about that story, check out my Pinhoti post: here.
After spending years trying to convince my dad to run a half-marathon, I was content. I’ve realized since then that the running world can unfairly put pressure on runners to always sign up for the next longer distance, even if it is not the right choice for them. I did not want to participate in that culture.
Despite not receiving any encouragement from me, while we were driving back from Pinhoti, my dad announces that he wants to run a marathon. I was too tired from the race at the time to take him seriously, but he called me a couple of days later to let me know he had decided upon the Montgomery Marathon and asked if I would join him.
These are my dad’s words explaining exactly what motivated him to run a marathon:
One way to burn 4000 calories is to run a marathon (26.2 miles). Although losing a few pounds is a nice benefit, the people that often run this crazy long race do it for many different reasons. For me, I said I would never run a marathon because it required too much training plus my legs said no. That being said, I was inspired to give it a go after my son David ran a 100 miler in November 2015, and encouragement from my family. As you can imagine running for many hours is tough, but I’m not sure what is tougher to do, the training or the actual marathon. Perhaps neither! The mental aspect is the key in that you have to really want to check this box. I was also motivated to run this race for Jamie and Josh (my other son in law) who are in foreign lands defending our freedom. The race in which I selected was the Montgomery [Ala.] Marathon on March 12. This choice provided a low risk of bad weather (cold or hot), and it was not too far from Madison, Ala. (my home). In addition, David agreed to run the race with me, and I was able to complete the race before granddaughter number 2 and 3 are born in April and May, respectively.
Coming off of a long, trail ultramarathon, I was genuinely excited for this race. It would be a good opportunity for me to drop a fast marathon time. It had been over a year since I had run a marathon and I was not thrilled with my personal record.
My training took a big hit in December when I rolled my ankle at a trail race I joined for fun, but it healed quickly and my confidence for this race grew as I threw down strong finishes at the Resolution Run, The Red Nose Run and Adam’s Heart Runs. I made some changes to my training. I joined the Birmingham YMCA to add more cross training and experimented with my diet. Both the cross training and dieting paid off in big ways for my running.
My dad had this to say about his preparation for the race:
My daughter Erica said, “you know you can die from a marathon” [in reference to being in shape]. She caught my attention and we discussed the importance of preparation. I received a lot of good advice from fellow family marathoners (David and Jamie, my son in law) which enabled me to devise a serious plan. I followed the plan and enjoyed the journey which spanned running in seven states, and which accumulated about 250 miles in a 72 day span. Also, I ran at least 13.1 miles every weekend since Christmas and daughter Jennifer got me through one cold weekend by providing a house and beach to run on in Destin. In addition, I never realized how much really happens on Hughes Road every Saturday morning.
We got lots of Father-Son bonding time the week leading up to the race. We took a road trip up to Kansas (taking the “scenic route” and lots of detours) to pick up my 8 month pregnant sister and bring her down to Alabama. We stopped to run many times along the way.
My oldest sister and mom tagged along for the adventure in Montgomery to cheer us on and everyone was very excited.
Before the race, I was excited. I had spent the first quarter of the year making the transition from trail ultras back to a road marathon and I felt I was in great shape and would have no problem breaking 3 hours. I thought I might even get close to 2:50.
As we lined up in the corral, I heard the announcer make a comment about the prize money for the top 3 in the race. I paid little attention to this. Whenever there is prize money, it means that elite runners will show up and give me no chance of claiming a top spot. The announcer also gave a warning about the weather heating up. This wasn’t good news because it was March and I had been training in the cool Alabama winter. I was not acclimated for a hot day. There was also a chance of rain. I love running in the rain, so I hoped for that instead.
I looked around the starting line looking for the elite runners. I couldn’t find them. There was one guy who looked like he might fit that category, but he was wearing a bib colored for the half-marathon. One minute before the gun went off, that guy came up to me and asked which race I was in.
“Umm. The full.” I offered suspiciously
“Cool. I’m in the half. What’s your goal time?”
“Okay. See that guy in the white shirt? He has the same goal.”
Then he ran back to his start spot. I was a little confused as to the purpose of the conversation, but I was glad for the information. When the gun went off, I found the guy in the white shirt and introduced myself.
“Hey!” I said, “I was told you are trying to break 3 hours too.”
“Yeah, it’ll be my first time under 3, you?”
“Me too. Glad to have someone around the same pace.”
We ran together at 3 hour pace, or 6:50/mile and noticed no one in front of us besides the half-marathon leader. That was strange. In a city marathon with a prize purse, the leaders should running much faster than 3 hour pace.
The guy I was running with was named Chris. He is 28 and lives in Montgomery. I was glad to run with Chris because he was obsessive about checking his GPS watch and keeping us exactly on 3 hour pace. I was happy to let him do all of the pace work and I could mentally relax and run whatever pace he was. He was also a really nice guy and thanked every single volunteer we passed on the course.
Around mile 7 another runner caught up to us. His name was Jonathan. He was 30 years old and ran with a wild stride and arm swing that reminded me of Prefontane.
“HEY GUYS!” he shouted with an obnoxiously chipper attitude, “What time are you trying to run?”
“Three hours.” We replied.
“I would also be delighted to finish under three hours today!”
“The more the merrier.”
The three of us became the official three hour pace group of the Montgomery Marathon. As fun as it was to have someone with Jonathan’s positive energy in our group, I had a feeling that his presence would mean trouble for my race.
I was right. Up until this point, Chris and I had maintained a stead 3 hour pace for every mile. The mile after Jonathan joined, we ran about 10 seconds faster. The next mile, 20 seconds faster.
Chris decided to drop from our group of three and stick with his three hour pace. I should have let Jonathan go as well. However, I didn’t want to. I was feeling really strong and I truly believed I could hang on at this pace. Truth be told, he wasn’t always the one pushing the pace. In my excitement to be leading a road marathon, I was just as responsible for our irresponsible pacing strategy.
Jonathan and I continued on and continued talking as a way to keep the pace under control. I really enjoyed getting to know him as a person. His enthusiasm was fun to be around.
I have never been a guy to run for money. Mostly because money is never something I’ve had the opportunity to receive from running. However, all I could think about during the race was how badly I wanted to win the prize purse. I didn’t know how much it was, but I knew it was sizable and I wanted it. I am in no desperate need for money, but my house does need a lot of repairs and this would be a huge help.
Around mile 12, we ran up the only hill on the course before turning onto historic Dexter Avenue by the Alabama State Capitol and descending into downtown Montgomery. This is where I let my excitement get the best of me and I took the lead. I knew that this was a pace I couldn’t sustain, but as an ultra-marathon runner, I felt confident in my ability to still run stronger than Jonathan in the later miles of this race.
While I blowing my race strategy out of the water and overthinking my approach to every mile, my dad was perfectly following his race strategy and having a good time:
My game day strategy was simple: drink as much as you can and listen to your body. Drinking also included a food/energy supplement called Tailwind. I am very glad that I followed this strategy. The first half of the run, through the sights and sounds of Montgomery including the Capitol building, was amazing as so many people came out to cheer including bands and partiers. One cheer had something to do with enjoying an adult beverage (i.e., beer for me, but not for you). The best were the small children that clapped, and the many volunteers, on what seemed to be about 100 street corners, cheered. There was also a woman in downtown Montgomery, that may have been pushing a shopping cart, yelled, “you go pops”.
Photo Credit: Montgomery Multisport
Dexter Avenue was dead silent. It was surreal running by the state capitol with no one around and passing Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, taking the chance to pay my respect for the people who fought for the civil liberties of so many people in that building despite the political corruption going on down the street.
When I passed the half-marathon mark, the coolest thing happened to me. The pace car pulled in front of me to guide my way through the second half of the race. I have NEVER chased a pace car in my life. In that moment, I knew no matter how the race ended up, I needed to soak in the moment I was chasing the pace car at mile 13 of a city marathon.
I was extra excited in this moment because my mom, sister and niece said they would be cheering at mile 14. I couldn’t wait to see thier excitement when they saw me in the lead. Except they weren’t there. They are forgiven because my sister was 8 month’s pregnant and getting anywhere on time with a 2 year old is nearly impossible. Also, I told them before the race to not worry about cheering for me and focus on supporting my dad. This was a bigger milestone for him than for me.
I could hear Jonathan catching back up to me. He has a wild form that can be heard from a distance. This early in the race, however, there was nothing I could do about it. I was not confident enough to pick up my pace, because I was sure I would not be able to hold the pace I was currently running. I let him catch up and that was all he wanted. We slowed our pace and made our way into the Air Force base where the majority of the second half of the race would take place.
We were deep into the race, but Jonathan and I were still talking and joking. This happy attitude only made the pace naturally quicken. I could feel in my legs a future bonk on its way. I just had to hold it off as long as I could. I told myself I could overcome tired legs with a strong mind.
The Air Force base was a relatively boring place to run. The roads were long without turns and the scenery was uninteresting. Mile 19 was the first time I noticed our pace slow down dramatically despite maintaining an even effort. I knew the last 6 miles would be the real race, so I made the decision to make my move early and get a head start on the final 10 kilometers.
I could feel instantly in my legs that there was no way I would be able to hold this pace. I went from feeling fresh and strong to rapidly declining in a matter of minutes. Doomsday thoughts were racing through my head and I was fighting to silence them with everything that I had. That is when I turned a corner and the sun came out in full force and the wind started to blow directly into my face without any change of direction in sight.
Meanwhile, my dad was finishing his first half of the race and gearing up to run into the Air Force base himself.
The second half of the race was mostly in the beautiful Air Force base called Maxwell. Just before entering the base I received some much needed encouragement from my terrific wife Nancy, daughter Erica, and granddaughter Hadley. Nancy filled my water bottle with Tailwind, Erica took photos, and Hadley was so excited that she ran after me. I am sure she will catch me in a few years. The folks cheering on the base were super nice including encouraging words such as “good job sir”. I didn’t see any alligators along the river, but we did come very close to a shooting range that caught my attention. All of these distractions, from the achy legs and feet, were well appreciated plus the many great people that provided beverages every two miles.
I came though mile 20 and tried to find a steady pace that would keep me in the lead. At this point, I was doing everything in my mental reserve to inspire myself to keep it up. I thought about the cash prize and how I just drained my savings account the day before to pay for a big repair on my house. I thought about the Instagram post I could make after the race celebrating the victory. I thought about the excitement I would see on my family’s face if I turned the corner into the stadium in first place and how cool it would be for my dad to celebrate his first marathon finish at the same race that I celebrate my first marathon win.
Despite all of this, I heard footsteps behind me get closer and closer and there was nothing I could do about it. During mile 21 a guy passed me for the lead who I hadn’t seen the entire race. Shortly after, Jonathan passed me placing me in third. Being passed broke teh final strand of my mental strength and my pace slowed to a jog because it was all I thought I could handle. The sun was blazing, the wind was pushing me and I was so tired from pushing for 21 miles that I was now using everything my arsenal just to keep from walking. I couldn’t help but laugh at the noticable change in attitude I was experiencing compared to an hour before.
Eventually I found my way back into downtown Montgomery, made my way around the Montgomery Biscuits’ Stadium and put on my best sprint to cross the finish in 3:03:53.
Despite being a 15 minute personal record, I was incredibly frustrated after the race. I get a lot of comments from friends and family who read this blog informing me that I have a problem with being too hard on myself. Frustration was in full force after this race was over. All I could think about was the fact that I should have won this race and I blew it. I simply got over excited and arrogant and blew it. I was angry when I should have been grateful and I didn’t hide it very well.
Meanwhile, my dad was still out there and getting closer to the finish.
The air temperature warmed quickly, and so did I, at about the 17 mile mark [with a long nine miles to go and about the time (3-hours) that David was getting close to the finish line]. My legs also growing weary at this point, but I knew from training that I could finish this race with a sensible pace. The good Lord delivered some nice cloud cover after mile 18, and a strong head wind from mile 18 to 21. The race sponsors exaggerated a bit when they wrote that the extreme heat kept several runners from finishing the race (i.e., relatively extreme heat after training in the cold for the last three months).
I have a tradition with my dad after I finish a race to go back and find him and run the last section with him to the finish. I had over an hour until he would come in and I was feeling beaten up, so I took my time eating the post race food, talking with fellow runners and playing with my niece before heading out to go find him.
I started walking backwards along the course and as soon as I saw him running with strength down the street, any negative feelings I felt completely dissipated and were replaced with a sheer pride. I’ve seen my dad after many races and many long runs and he is the king to looking like death has consumed his face and whole body. I fully expected him to be hobbling down the road with an arch in his back and a runny nose. However, he could not have looked better. He was confidently running down the road towards me getting ready to finish his first marathon in a great time! I caught up to him and started to jog along side him. He immediately thrust his empty water bottle into my hands and I told him how good he looked and exactly what to expect as he approached the stadium. I left him about 400 meters before the finish line to catch up to my mom and sister and cheer him in as he finished the race by himself with arms lifted in celebration.
Here is my dad’s account of his run to the finish:
With 1.5 miles to go a nice woman runner, that I passed while she was helping somebody else, told me to keep my head high. I did just that, where I bounced (exaggeration) over the last hill and down to River Front Park [home of the AA baseball team in Montgomery] where David greeted me with a half mile to go, as I emotionally ran the final stretch not knowing if my legs would give out or not. I forgot about the pain to the cheers of my family and the crowd as I crossed the finish line 58th out of 142 in a time of 4 hours 48 minutes and two seconds. Nancy then helped me up the stairs so that I could finally enjoy that free beer provided by Bud.
It was pretty exciting to watch someone else’s finish line when you know the amount of work and effort that was part of the journey. What I love about this sport is that if a thousand people line up for a marathon, by the end of the day there will be a thousand different stories of personal triumph, defeat and overcoming the distance. I am simply thankful that I got to share the story of this race with someone who means so much to me.
If you have the desire, the opportunity and the health to run a marathon, go for it. If you train you’ll be fine and worst case you might lose 4000 calories. Special thanks to all my family and friends that sent notes of congratulations, thanks for taking the time to read this blob-in-a-blog, congrats to David for taking third overall in the race, much appreciation to Nancy for taking the journey with me, to my children and sons-in-law that inspire, and remember, keep your head high no matter the challenge.