Hitting The Wall

A gray mist shroud­ed a sea of bob­bing heads crawl­ing past the Mile 23 sign. A sinewy ancient man wear­ing plaid Bermu­da shorts, black nylon socks, and orange ten­nis shoes clumped along beside me. His iron-gray hair cinched in a pony­tail, his leather face lined with a thou­sand creas­es, his every breath whistling like a tea ket­tle, he rasped in a singsong, sand­pa­per voice, “Run for the mon­ey, wheeze-wheeze, run for the gold, wheeze-wheeze, run till you’re o–o–o–old, wheeze-wheeze.” He flashed a taunt­ing grin at me, picked up his pace, and dis­ap­peared into the crowd up ahead.

By then, I felt no shame in los­ing a footrace to Zom­bie-Man. What­ev­er sem­blance of ath­let­ic pride I’d car­ried to the start­ing gate of the fif­teenth Los Ange­les Marathon flat-lined at Mile 21 when a sledge­ham­mer of fatigue slammed me in the chest. From there on, I plod­ded for­ward in a crab-like, mus­cle-cramped gait, my legs filled with gelati­nous sludge, my arms stone-heavy pet­ri­fied fos­sils, each breath heaved through a pin­hole in a plas­tic bag draped over my head and tied tight­ly around my neck. A vast herd of run­ners of all ages, shapes, and sizes passed me by – fat lit­tle kids, bone-thin octo­ge­nar­i­ans, a mid­dle-aged squat­ty man with a rotund beer-bel­ly, an old lady push­ing a Dachs­hund in a baby stroller, a cow­boy wear­ing a ten-gal­lon hat and snake-skin boots, twin Elvis imper­son­ators run­ning side by side. I didn’t care. After I hit THE WALL, excru­ci­at­ing pain crowd­ed out all thoughts and feel­ings except for my des­per­ate goal, a long-held dream, now a gasp­ing night­mare, of tee­ter­ing across a marathon’s fin­ish line.

This death march went down on March 5, 2000. I was 52. Thir­ty years ear­li­er, I’d tak­en up run­ning in col­lege to relieve stress and kept it up through­out my work­ing life. I wasn’t fast, but I could run a long way at a slow pace. Some­where along the line, the dream of com­plet­ing a marathon got ahold of me, but my work sched­ule couldn’t accom­mo­date the rig­or­ous train­ing required. Sud­den­ly faced with an abun­dance of free time when I left Safe­way in Jan­u­ary, I signed up for the LA Marathon.

Being a slow run­ner, I set a snail-paced goal of fin­ish­ing in 5 hours, an easy 11¾ minute per mile jog. Expe­ri­enced marathon­ers rec­om­mend at least four months of train­ing, five “short” runs on week­days, begin­ning with 4 miles build­ing up to 10, and one long run on the week­end, start­ing with 10 miles and end­ing with 20-plus. I’d been run­ning a cou­ple miles a day for years so I thought I could be ready in half the time. The eight weeks flew by, but I reached the 10-mile week-day stan­dard and made it up to 18 miles on the weekend.

On March 5 at 7:30 am, 20,000 run­ners gath­ered in the start­ing pen on Figueroa Street in a tor­ren­tial down­pour. I stood at the back of the pack, peer­ing through the mon­soon at May­or Rior­dan, perched on an ele­vat­ed plat­form at the start­ing line. Laugh­ing mani­a­cal­ly, his hel­met of thin­ning white hair sop­ping wet, he shout­ed into a bull horn, “Wel­come to sun­ny Cal­i­for­nia” and fired the start­ing gun.

I was so far back I couldn’t move for a while, and even when the run­ners ahead of me lurched for­ward, I could only slow-walk. About fifty yards past the start­ing point, I final­ly had enough space to break into a trot.

Fol­low­ing Runner’s World magazine’s advice for first-time marathon­ers, I set­tled into a slow pace for the first half-marathon. I thought the rain would make the going more dif­fi­cult, but it turned out to be an advan­tage. The tem­per­a­ture lev­eled off at a com­fort­able 60 degrees; my light­weight par­ka kept me dry; and my Nike’s flicked the water away.

As we ran through down­town, peo­ple clad in rain gear lined the streets. “Keep going! You’re doing great!” Vol­un­teers at the USC Col­i­se­um hand­ed us cups of water and shout­ed encour­age­ment. Far­ther on, some­one bugled a cav­al­ry charge from a sec­ond-floor apart­ment win­dow. At Mile 8, light­ning struck, and thun­der boomed. We all gasped, then cheered, and ran on.

Crest­ing a lit­tle hill at Mile 11, we came upon the red-and-blue flash­ing lights of an ambu­lance. Para­medics sur­round­ed a run­ner down on his back in the street. Sin­gle-mind­ed­ly focused on run­ning the race, none of us stopped. We didn’t even slow down.

The rain light­ened at the halfway mark. In the cool mist, I kicked into over­drive. On a runner’s high, I ran sev­en-minute miles through Han­cock Park, pumped uphill to Hol­ly­wood, and sped back down toward the heart of the city, cruis­ing through Miles 17, 18, and 19.

Then the ter­rain lev­eled off. I start­ed to feel strange. Hol­lowed out. Numb. In the mid-Wilshire Dis­trict, the course took a sharp turn, but my rub­bery legs kept going straight. To force my strides to make a wide arc to the left, I had to lean side­ways at a thir­ty-degree angle like a guy on a motorcycle.

To the naked eye, the grade mov­ing along Wilshire Boule­vard toward down­town looks flat. It is not. There is a one-degree lift. I know this because run­ning 21 miles gives you a whole new def­i­n­i­tion of steep. Run­ning over that slight, almost imper­cep­ti­ble incline felt like scal­ing Mount Ever­est with­out an oxy­gen tank.

All the peo­ple I had passed in my speed-run since the halfway mark, plus thou­sands more, over­took me, includ­ing Zom­bie-Man. I couldn’t keep up with any of them. Each tor­tur­ous step required a supreme act of will. I slowed to a walk, then stopped and leaned over, prop­ping my hands on my knees. I thought I was done.

A woman on the side­lines shout­ed to me. “Don’t give up!” Oth­ers chimed in. “Keep going! You can do it! Dig deep!” A run­ner going past me pat­ted me on the back, “Come on, bud­dy. We’re almost there.”

A short stout lady trot­ted by me. I gazed at black let­ters on the back of her yel­low t–shirt. “IT’S NOT THE DISTANCE. IT’S YOU.” My blur­ry brain strug­gled to assim­i­late the message.

Riv­et­ing my eyes to those words, I leaned for­ward and fell into a painful, stag­ger­ing jog. Through Miles 24, 25, and 26, when the t–shirt’s let­ters grew small­er, I’d reach way down and some­how find the strength to reel them in. They’d fade again, and I’d bring them back. Again and again, they pulled me forward.

The last 385 yards. Down­hill. Thank you, Jesus.

At the inter­sec­tion of Figueroa and Wilshire, a team of men from Lit­tle Tokyo wear­ing white and red head­bands pound­ed big drums, an upbeat boom, boom, boom. A race offi­cial with binoc­u­lars perched on a cat­walk iden­ti­fied run­ners by the num­bers pinned to our jer­seys and called out names. “Ken Oder, San Mari­no,” boomed over the loudspeaker.

I made a left turn, motor­cy­cle style, onto Flower Street. Thir­ty steps to go.

A dig­i­tal timer hung over the fin­ish line. Big red num­bers, 4:59:53 and ticking.

I tried to sprint. I could not.

I stum­bled across the line at 5:00:05.

A race proc­tor draped a foil blan­ket over my shoul­ders. He clipped from my shoelace the microchip they had sent us to record our times at the start­ing line, var­i­ous check­points, and the fin­ish line. Then he guid­ed me to a grassy bank where I col­lapsed. Lying there cramped up, depressed that I’d missed my goal by five sec­onds, and exhaust­ed beyond all imag­i­na­tion, I vowed nev­er to run anoth­er marathon.

A few days lat­er a pack­age from the race offi­cials came in the mail. My com­put­er chip deduct­ed the time it took me to reach the start­ing line. My offi­cial time was 4:56:06. I’d beat­en my goal. No mat­ter that 6,990 run­ners fin­ished ahead of me, I was elated.

In two weeks, the sore­ness eased off. I start­ed run­ning again, a cou­ple miles a day. In June, I upped it to 5, then 8 in August. In Sep­tem­ber I ran 15 miles on a week­end day.

I felt good. Real good.

Maybe I wouldn’t hit the wall with a full train­ing reg­i­men. Maybe I could break 4 hours.

On March 4, 2001, a cool day with a light mist, I ran LA XVI. I hit the wall, but not as hard. My time was 4:25:29, a 30-minute improve­ment. I fig­ured if I could lop 30 min­utes off my time each year, I’d break the world record when I turned 62, so I signed up for LA XVII.

I didn’t break the world record. I couldn’t even break 4 hours, but I kept try­ing. After all, it’s not the dis­tance. It’s you.