The Kandahar Marathon: Week Forty-Three

The Kandahar Marathon: Week Forty-Three

“When your legs get tired, run with your heart.”


I was interviewed after the I-35 Challenge by Coach Eladio Valdez of Runner’s Edge in Kansas City, as was Becki Culler—I can share her interview with you if you’d like, but I’m only including mine below for now. I was glad Coach reached out. I’m not sure I’d have taken the time to reflect so thoroughly upon the experience had he not asked me the questions that he did. Below is the interview he sent out in his “Runners Edge Ramblings” newsletter last week.

Ordinary People Achieving Extra-Ordinary Things 

Why did you decide to take on this challenge of running 2 marathons in 2 states in 2 days?

I think I used to run marathons in part because of the uncertainty–I was never entirely certain when the gun went off that I would finish. Over time, as I’ve become a stronger runner, that uncertainty faded. One thing about the I-35 Challenge that was appealing in a way was that I was genuinely unsure of whether or not my body and my brain could pull it off. So often you wake up the day after a marathon stiff, achy, bleeding. To know that despite how I felt, eighteen hours after finishing KC I had to run Des Moines required some pretty serious mental gymnastics. I liked the idea of being tested like that. 

There were other reasons, too. I talked my good friend Scott into it. He’s an ultra runner, as is his girlfriend Tiffany, and it was fun to do it with them. I also got to check two states off of my fifty-state list in one weekend, plus I get to say that I ran as many marathons last weekend as I did in my twenties. The so-called humble brags write themselves after finishing two marathons in thirty hours.

What adjustments did you make to your regular marathon training to prepare for this? 

That was tricky. We all know you don’t train for a marathon by running marathons, right? But how do you train for something so ludicrous as two in two days? One thing that felt important to me was to finish a marathon with something left in the tank, to prove to myself that I could, so at the last minute I signed up for the Heartland Marathon in Omaha and locked on to the 4:45 pacer for the entire race. I ran a 4:09 at Grandma’s in June, but finished with terrible cramps and almost to the point of collapse despite terrific weather and a great course. When I crossed the finish line at Heartland, at a significantly slower pace, I felt great. I hugged my kids, ate pizza with them, then went home and we played catch. Having that finish behind me gave me confidence. 

Another thing I worked hard on was my diet and, more specifically, in-race fueling. I love that people provide food on the course, but you can’t count on that. In Born to Run, I read that Jurek carries pita and hummus–real food instead of processed gu–when he runs, so I started carrying simple trail mix with me. Salty nuts, sugary dried fruit, a bit of chocolate. It’s perfect. I carry four of them, and eat one about every six miles. I rarely eat the fourth. After cramping so badly at Grandma’s, I’ve also started popping salt and potassium every four miles during the race, along with a few hundred mg of ibuprofen. You have to be careful with that stuff, but it seems to work for me and I limit the excess to race days. 

I also cut a bit of weight, sort of as a natural consequence of high-mileage training. I’m an Asics, guy, so the other thing I did was made sure that two different pairs of shoes, one pair of Gel Nimbus Lite 3’s and one pair of Gel Cumulus, were broken in and ready for each day. I had my kit and my fuel down to a science. That helped give me confidence going into this thing.

What was your gameplan going into this for how you intended to run the first marathon and the second marathon the next day? How about what you planned to do in between the marathons? Were you able to stick to the plan or did you have to adjust it? If so, in what way(s)?

Pacers were key–I knew that going into it. I also know, as a pacer myself, that they aren’t all created equally. Part of my issue at Grandma’s was that there was no 3:55 pacer, and that was my goal. A smarter, more discerning me would have gone with the 4:00 group. Instead, I went with the 3:50. He was erratic and too fast out of the gate and by mile sixteen I couldn’t hang on to him. By mile twenty-one, the 4:00 pacer was passing me. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

In KC, we had Sarav, easily one of the best marathon pacers out there. We walked aid stations and hills. He chatted us up the entire time, encouraged us. Tiffany ran ahead, but Scott and I found it easy to hang on with him. In Des Moines, we gave ourselves permission to slow down. There was no 5:00 pacer so we started with 5:05 but quickly caught up to the 4:50 and held on to her. Using pacers to control tempo, for encouragement, to be reminded to walk aid stations–even for a very experienced runner who paces a lot of races, I found it invaluable. I’d never endeavor to do something like the I-35 Challenge, or even a marathon, without using pacers.

In between races, we fueled and rested. The three-hour drive wasn’t my favorite part of the experience, but it’s unavoidable. We got to Des Moines and immediately ate. We found some soup and salad, but fueling on the road can be challenging. Part of the fun of running races in other cities is seeing the city and going out to eat, but the availability of your usual foods is unreliable. In retrospect, I’d suggest packing a cooler to anyone with religious eating habits. Then we went to the hotel, turned on the Husker game, and did our usual. I soaked in the shower for a while. Scott has some leg compression sleeves we shared. My massage gun died so I rubbed my quads and hamstrings out by hand, flossed a little on the edge of the hotel desk, and wolfed down several bagels and a sandwich. I turned the game off before it was over and got as much sleep as possible. There was no perfect way to prepare to do something like this, but we did everything we could.

Share about your double marathon challenge experience.

After the KC race, I was pretty sure my left big toenail had given up the ghost, but instead it was just swollen and bleeding from all sides, oozing pus (sorry), and generally a painful mess. Every step pushed the loosened nail back into the quick and sent a stabbing pain into my foot. The KC race had been easy, thanks largely to good company and a great pacer, and minus the issue with my toenail, I felt pretty great. Scott had cramped in KC, but on the whole we felt good at the finish. Someone handed me a cold Bud Light around mile twenty-one and frankly, it was amazing. The carbs were great in that moment. I drank the entire thing in about a quarter mile (I also won a beer-mile earlier this year) and then FaceTimed my children since they weren’t at the race. By the time we finished I was tired, sure, but felt pretty good. I do think that the idea that we had finished a marathon and we were only half way done for the weekend was sort of an unpleasant notion, but we put it out of our minds. I did anyway.

In Des Moines, I woke up with my toe in so much pain that for a while I doubted whether or not I’d be able to run at all. Then I stubbed it on the bed while I was getting ready and invented some new swear words because the old ones felt entirely insufficient in that moment. I told myself I’d give it my best shot, drop down to the half or drop out if I needed to. The weather was perfect. The course in Des Moines is excellent, not only scenic but for the most part pretty flat, and amazingly well-supported. I think I was handed four bananas on the race and I ate them all pretty greedily. No Bud Light, unfortunately. It was probably not until mile fifteen that I became somewhat confident that I’d finish. We had a solid pace group that included Scott, Tiffany, and myself, as well as several other runners and Ashley, who had paced KC the day before and was now pacing us. That group made it work, despite our collective exhaustion. 

By the end I was entirely beat, but I also felt absolutely incredible. I had done something that I genuinely had no idea whether or not I could accomplish at all. I told my graduate students a few days later that it was probably the first time since writing my dissertation that I had done anything like that. I think I’m still processing it–and still paying for it with my toe–but it’s an amazing feeling.

Are you glad you took on this challenge? Why or why not?

Absolutely. If you’ve never run more than a 10K, your first half is a mind-blowing thing, right? I knew that I could run a marathon. I had no idea if my body and brain were equal to the task of running two of them back-to-back. Knowing I can gives me a feeling of strength and a confidence I didn’t have before in my ability to run. I don’t see me transitioning to ultras, but I no longer have much doubt that I can finish the fifty-state challenge. I joked to Scott and Tiffany that we should do it again next year–but I’m not sure that’s a joke. I’d do it again if I’m healthy and injury-free next fall. 

What advice would you share for someone who wants to take on a double marathon challenge?

Bart Yasso commented on my tweet about the I-35 Challenge with an important reminder to me: “The most important thing to pack is the reason why you are running the I-35 Challenge. You were born to run this race(s).” Remembering, first, that we are indeed born to run, that running long distances is the one things humans excel at physically, was huge. Remembering my own personal reasons for taking this on was equally valuable. I was grateful to the legend for his timely advice. 

I really feel like running a marathon in advance was a benefit, and having a routine in terms of fuel and supplements was the difference between this and those races that have punished me. The most important thing, I think, was not setting ambitious time goals. As a pacer, so often people will join my group and, when we start talking, tell me they “barely trained” or that they’re hoping to PR by twenty minutes. I think it’s natural, if also sort of stupid, for runners to be ambitious and to have big goals. That being said, most of those “I’m going to PR by an hour!” people fall off by the halfway point and wind up getting passed by pacers they could have stayed with if they set more reasonable goals for themselves to begin with. So, my advice to anyone running the I-35 Challenge or anything akin to it would be this:

1. Make finishing the goal. Don’t worry about time. In regard to time, go out at a pace that’s almost boring. By mile fifty, I promise you won’t be bored.

2. Taper. Do not fail to taper. 

3. Get your fuel down to a science. Use a marathon as preparation and practice in advance and see if you can finish one with as much as possible left in the tank. 

4. Stay at a race hotel, within walking distance of the starting line.

5. Use pacers. 

6. Pack your reason why and remember that you were born to run.

That’s how I ended the interview. Reminding everyone, most of all myself, that we were built for this.  In the weeks that had followed my back-to-back marathons, I’d been an odd combination of sedentary and active. I rested that week only to run a half marathon the weekend after, and the following week, this past week, I found I had little left to give. The hips, quads, and hamstrings were sore and achy. My calves were twitchy. Everything felt heavy. After a half on Sunday, I rested Monday. Tuesday, I went out to run five which quickly became walking two. Wednesday, I went out for seven but barely completed five. After a rest Thursday, I managed seven slow miles Friday, but finished feeling as tired as if I’d just run twice that distance. Reluctantly, I took Saturday and Sunday, the days usually reserved for long runs, off. I knew I was pacing back-to-back halves down in Kansas the following weekend, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my ability to help others the way my pacers had helped me.

I’ve never been very good with moderation, and the thing is that it usually catches up with me. The worst part of having to take time off to rest is knowing that every mile I don’t run is a few bucks that I don’t raise to help people, and that’s hard to take. That said, if my legs fail to freshen up soon, it could cost me a lot more mileage in the long run, and as I wrap up writing this on Sunday afternoon, I’m considering taking Monday off as well in the hopes that I can finish November and December this year as strong as I started. Time will tell.