10 straight months of staying in marathon shape challenged me in ways I hadn’t been before. Sure, one marathon is a challenge in and of itself, but it’s an achievable goal—hundreds of thousands of people do it every year. Leading up to the first marathon in Washington DC back in March, I kept thinking about how I needed to take it easy and use that race as a training run. Don’t push it—it’s 1 of 11. I didn’t wear a watch in order to keep my priorities straight. I ended up running a 3:52, the fastest marathon of my life.
In Salt Lake City, just a couple of weeks after Washington DC, I figured running fast marathons was easy. I mean, I had just PR’d with very little training. How tough could this be? I ran a very trying and painful 4:16.
At Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth I was finishing my 5th race in 9 weeks. I needed to finish this chapter and get some much needed time off from the roads in the coming weeks. I figured I could run a sub 4 in decent weather. I hit a major wall getting into Duluth at mile 20. The 4-hour pacer passed me at mile 25. I shouted at myself to suck it up and break this time barrier. I finished in 3:58.
11 marathons ago I started this over-the-top goal of raising $11,000 for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. I figured a place filled with that much darkness and sadness really needed our care and resources. We couldn’t eliminate childhood cancer with $11,000, but maybe we could shine a little light on it. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital isn’t dark. It isn’t sad. In fact, it’s easy to forget it’s a hospital at all. On Friday, December 2nd, Tara and I saw with our own eyes what it was I was running for all year. We were given a tour by ALSAC employee Kaitlin. It was just the three of us for almost 2 hours of exploring and learning about this incredible place. The hallways were lined with artwork. The walls were painted as changing seasons. It didn’t smell like a hospital. Doctors walked around with stethoscopes and sneakers. Think Patch Adams, not ER. We toured the school and spoke with a teacher. We saw the teen room. We saw the medicine room and the admitting area. But what we really saw was a place where people went to get better. Not the dark sad place I had expected. The patients we saw were normal kids. Some of them didn’t have hair or were wearing masks, but there was nothing else different about them. The memory of one boy, probably about 2 years old, stands out in my mind. He kept peaking around the corner to our amusement. I’m pretty sure he was flirting with Tara. His shiny head and denim suit are locked into my memory.
Later on Friday evening Tara and I attended the St. Jude Heroes pasta dinner at the convention center. Someone told us it was the largest room in all of Memphis. We were able to hear from the CEO of ALSAC (the funding arm of St. Jude’s), a St. Jude family, and running legend Hal Higdon. As far as pasta dinners go, I haven’t seen one even come close to the St. Jude event. After a very busy day, Tara and I headed back to the Marriott to get ready for Saturday’s race.
Race day started bright and early with a 6am alarm. I went to the window and glanced out. Our hotel, the Memphis Marriott Downtown, overlooked the St. Jude campus. There was a beautiful purple sunrise beyond the hospital campus. The forecast was for sunny skies and highs in the 60s. By 7am I was out the door for the 8am start. The start was located near Auto Zone Park, home to the Memphis AAA baseball team. The start line music was great—lots of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and the like. At 8am the first corral was released. I was in the 4th corral so I didn’t get started for about 6 or 7 more minutes. Eventually, I was off to finish #11.
For whatever reason, my right calf was bugging me for a couple of days prior to this race. I didn’t really think too much about it. Just a couple of miles into the marathon, I realized I should have paid attention.
The first couple of miles were in sections of Memphis one wouldn’t generally visit. We passed the Lorraine Motel and Civil Rights Museum early on. I was working so hard on starting slow that I missed it. By mile 3 we were running down Beale St. It was here on the bricks of Beale that my calf became a great concern. I figured the pain would go away after I got warmed up—it didn’t. It felt like a constant, mild cramp.
Just before mile 5 I was entering the St. Jude campus. There was a fantastic band playing at the entry gate. Running through the balloon arch I encountered the first spectators. Some St. Jude families and families were outside cheering us on. It goes without saying that this was an incredibly emotional experience. The crowd support was amazing. This is also the first time I saw Tara. She was up ahead and I easily spotted her when I read her sign. It said, “11 marathons in 2011? Check!” I gave her a prolonged hug when I got to her. The entire year seemed surreal at this point. Man how I wished this was mile 25 and not mile 5!
After exiting the campus the course became quite boring. A couple of 3 mile long straight-aways and we were back near Beale St. where the ½ marathoners would turn off. As is the case in most marathons, I’d guess 5 or 6 marathoners sprinted to the finish for every 1 of us that continued on.
By this point my calf was causing some serious issues. I had changed my gait enough that I was starting to feel twinges in my left leg from overcompensation. I saw Tara again around the ½ way point on Beale St. I wanted to tell her about my issue, but didn’t.
It was somewhere around mile 14 when I saw a sign that stuck with me. “Blisters don’t need chemo.”
The rest of the course was again, straight and boring. I tried to maintain a pace but when the actual cramps started, there wasn’t much I could do. First it was my right calf. Then it was my left hamstring. In the end it didn’t matter—I just kept momentum going forward.
At mile 25 I saw a group of people standing on a grassy knoll along side the road we were running on. There was an old man holding a sign that said something like ‘The Smiths appreciate you for what you’re doing.’ In scanning the rest of the group of 6 or so people I realized that in the middle of this family was a young man in a wheelchair with a mask on. His mother was behind him holding a blanket up to keep him out of the sun. I remember her smile—she was beaming. That was it for me. I lost it. Full-on, choked-up lost it.
Rounding the last couple turns onto the warning track at the baseball stadium, I saw the finish line and immediately beyond it, Tara in the stands. I finished in 4:19 which tied Green Bay for the slowest finishing time of the year. But like I said after the Green Bay race, it was a FINISH time. 11 in 11 was complete.
We slowly headed back to the hotel. I hadn’t felt that much pain after a marathon the entire year. Even while trying to sleep I’d keep waking up with extremely painful calf cramps.
We did celebrate later that evening at my all-time favorite rib joint, Rendezvous. We even spent some time on Beale St. No dancing for me, though.
This entry is longer than it should be and there is still so much to wrap-up. I think I’ll do a separate entry in the coming days. But before I sign off for now, I wanted to update you on the fundraising total. Ready for this? The total raised for St. Jude Children’s Hospital is now at $8,085.06! A special thank you to Scheels for their generous donation. They’ve joined Kwik Trip as my favorite businesses. Donations can be accepted for another week or so if you’ve been waiting to see if I’d actually do it. Thank you for your support!