Pittsburgh (May 5, 2002)
I can't remember when I first decided that my bucket list included a marathon. I ran cross country and track in high school, but I don't think our mid 1990's training plan ever called for us to run more than 8-10 miles at a time. The thought of running 26.2 miles seemed unfathomable and never really crossed my mind back then. I was more focused on the classic 5k cross county distance.
I continued to run every now and again as an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, but not nearly as much as I did in high school. Without weekly races my motivation waned. I began law school at Cornell University in the fall of 2001. The events of September 11 happened my first month there, while I sat in my torts class. A difficult breakup with my girlfriend of nearly two years happened shortly thereafter. Those two events were definitely related, but that's another story for another day.
It seems that difficult breakups usually spur people to either stop taking good care of themselves or start taking good care of themselves. For me, it was the latter. Whenever one chapter closed, I always took the opportunity to better myself for the next chapter. I don't want to give the impression that I had let myself go because I hadn't. I probably weighed somewhere in the mid 160s, but I wasn't setting the world on fire with my physical activities. I was managing the rigors of my first year of law school as best as I could, which involved plenty of reading and studying, but also plenty of socializing at Ithaca bars and late night fast food. I wasn't overweight, but I certainly wasn't healthy either.
When my second semester began in February 2002, I found myself living alone for the first time in a long time and I became determined to clean up my diet and to start running again. I knew I would need a goal to follow this through so I searched for any marathons in the vicinity in the near future. Turns out finding a sanctioned marathon anywhere close to central New York in the wintertime isn't an easy feat due to the weather: snow and ice, and lots of it.
The only one I could find that was remotely close was more than 300 miles away. It was the Pittsburgh Marathon, scheduled for Sunday, May 5, 2002. I signed up and begun my training. I can't recall with great clarity the precise contours of my training schedule or even if I had something all that structured, but I do remember that I stuck to it religiously. I regained the discipline I had in high school. I cut out all alcohol and sweets. I meticulously counted my calories to limit myself to no more than 1600 to 2000 calories a day, even when I was putting in a lot of miles. When all was said and done, I lost nearly 20 pounds that semester. I was often hungry.
I underestimated how difficult training through the Ithaca winter would be. There were a couple of treadmills in the tiny gym in the basement of my apartment building, but they were often occupied, making it difficult to count on them as a consistent part of my training. It turned out that nobody else really relished training outside in the wintery conditions, meaning the treadmills were often occupied. I ran outside as much as I could, but this often involved snow and ice. Slipping and falling became fairly routine. On the worst days, I had to resort to the treadmill at whatever time it was open, sometimes very early in the morning and sometimes very late at night. I distinctly remember having to do a few long runs on the treadmill, 10 miles or more. I would feel bad when others came down to the gym wanting to use the treadmill that I had occupied for 2 hours or more.
In the early 2000s, of course, there were no wearable fitness devices, no apps where friends and strangers alike could give you kudos. I told my closest friends about what I was going to do and they were encouraging, but this was mostly something I just had to accomplish on my own. Nobody was volunteering to run with me in the Ithaca winter. There were a lot of things I missed out on due to my training, but that was the price to pay for achieving my goal, which I had set as running the marathon in under 4 hours, which equates to about a 9 minute per mile pace. My training went well and I definitely felt like I was in good enough shape to run a sub 4 hour marathon as the big day approached.
I don't know if I realized it when I signed up, but the marathon itself fell on the weekend between the two weeks of final exams. Not ideal, but it was the only option I had. Thankfully, I would be tapering in my training the week before the marathon, so I could just focus on studying and taking exams but, as my classmates were studying and preparing for the second week of exams over the weekend, I was making the 5+ hour drive to Pittsburgh on Saturday, the day before the marathon.
I had never been to Pittsburgh before. I booked a hotel that wasn't too far from the starting line so I could just walk over there in the morning. I can't remember what time I arrived on Saturday and what I did. But I remember being really pumped up on Sunday morning. I had trained for months in cold and snow, but the time for racing had finally arrived. It was shaping up to be a nice day and there was electricity in the air at the start line!
This was my first real race other than high school cross country and track meets. I wasn't ready for all the pomp and circumstance that often accompanies a big city marathon. So much energy. So much entertainment. So many people. As the gun went off, I told myself to follow my plan but the energy got the best of me and I took off like I was shot out of a cannon. The spectator cheers and the multiple musical acts along the way buoyed my spirit. I distinctly remember running alongside another racer some miles into the race. He started a conversation with me and I revealed this was my first marathon. He asked me what my target time was and, upon hearing it was just under four hours, he told me I was running too fast and I should slow down. But what did he know? I felt good and kept the pedal to the medal.
I crossed the 10 mile mark in about 70 minutes. I knew it was way faster than I had intended to run, but I still felt good and I told myself that I was feeling strong enough that I could just keep up this pace for the whole 26.2 miles. I hadn't done any research on the course whatsoever, which meant I had no idea that there was a pretty significant hill around the 12 mile mark. I don't recall training on any hills in Ithaca. There are of course hills there, but I don't think I ever ran them. In fact, I avoided them.
The hill nearly broke me. It sapped my strength and my resolve. After finally scaling it, I had nothing left in the tank. I had to start walking and even that wasn't easy. How could I have been so foolish to train all these months and then run like an idiot for the first 10 or so miles? There was no way I was going to be able to even finish this race. I was devastated. I thought about having to go back to Cornell and tell my friends that I wasn't even able to finish the race. How embarrassing. I was mad at myself.
I was at a crossroads. Either quit or slog it out. I vacillated between those two choices for a couple of miles before I finally decided the embarrassment of not finishing was worse than the agony of continuing. So onward I went. Mostly walking with some jogging when I could manage. I didn't think the finish line would ever arrive, but it did. I had gone so slow the last half of the race that, despite my early speed, I did not achieve my goal time of under 4 hours. Instead, I came in at 4 hours and 25 minutes. I was very disappointed in myself, but also happy that I had toughed it out and managed to finish rather than quit. The last part of the course concluded with a lap inside the stadium where the Pittsburgh Steelers play, so that was pretty cool.
Here is my official finisher photo:
And here is the finisher medal that I earned for my troubles:
I had already checked out of the hotel that morning so right after the race I simply got in my car and drove straight back to Ithaca. That, my friends, was a very bad idea. My legs were in agony the whole time and they felt horrible when I arrived. I could hardly get out of the car and walking was almost impossible. I looked and felt like a very old man hobbling from the parking garage to my apartment. The intense pain persisted for at least a week. The good news is that I was mostly just sitting around studying and taking final exams. The bad news is that it was torture to even stand up to walk to class or to the bathroom. And it was nearly impossible to walk down stairs. When I studied at the library that week, I would walk up the stairs and take the elevator down!
One thing was very clear in my mind. I would NEVER, EVER run another marathon again. The pain I experienced afterward simply was not worth it. I had checked this off my bucket list and that was enough for me. Sure, I hadn't broken the 4 hour barrier, but that was okay. The important thing is that I finished the 26.2 and nobody could take that accomplish from me, no matter how dicey it was during the effort.
Well, over the next 17+ years, I raced many half-marathons, a much more manageable distance that was, for the most part, enjoyable. But my Pittsburg Marathon experience never really left me and, like bad fashion, the idea of running another one suddenly started to seem like a good idea nearly two decades later.
Red Rock (February 22, 2020)
By the time 2020 rolled around, I had been living in Las Vegas for more than 10 years and I often ventured to Red Rock National Conservation Area, a mere 20 minute drive from my house. There is great hiking out there and I had even run a half-marathon on the scenic loop that winds through the property.
On Saturday, February 15, 2020, I raced the Sinners & Saints half-marathon in Boulder City. It was an entirely downhill course and, because of that, I had set a personal record of 1 hour, 50 minutes, 27 seconds. What I had not realized at the time was how sore I would be from running a downhill half-marathon. The pounding on your legs makes for a longer recovery than I had expected and definitely longer than I was used to after a half-marathon.
Nonetheless, for reasons unknown, I was contemplating running the Red Rock Marathon on Saturday, February 22, 2020, just one week later. This was, of course, pre-pandemic, so everything was business as usual. None of us knew that our entire world would change a few short weeks later. In any case, I wanted to take another shot at a marathon. It was simply time. I was under no illusion that I could break 4 hours on the rolling hills of the Red Rock course, essentially consisting of an out and back on the scenic loop, but there is something magical about running out there and I wanted to do it.
I kept waiting for my legs to recover before I officially signed up. They weren't any better on Wednesday or Thursday, but I was running out of time, as the cutoff for signing up was approaching. By the time we reached Friday, I was still sore but just decided to bite the bullet anyhow. I signed up. Why? Because I am crazy. I picked up my race packet at a local casino on Friday afternoon and set out my gear for an early morning start. There is no parking at the start or finish, so my wife graciously agreed to drop me off before the sun even rose. It was cold out but I didn't want to overheat, so I showed up in shorts and a t-shirt and basically froze until the start of the race. My legs were definitely still tired from my half-marathon effort the week before, but the major soreness had mostly dissipated. It was game on!
The scenery at Red Rock is phenomenal, but the weather wasn't great, as it started to rain pretty heavily halfway through my race, which ultimately disabled my phone for awhile because I hadn't brought a ziplock bag big enough for it. Before that happened, I remembered Face Timing with my mother about 8 miles into the race. My, how technology had changed since my last marathon! I didn't take many photos during the race due to the rain, but here are a couple of them, plus a couple official race photographer photos:
Towards the end of the race, the rain let up, producing some pretty amazing scenery. Some photos I took after I finished:
I'm not going to say the marathon was easy because it wasn't, but I was much more disciplined than back in Pittsburgh, so I was able to run most of it, with some power walking over some of the bigger hills. Around mile 18 or so, I hit a wall that lasted 3-4 miles, but then I was able to find a second wind that brought me to the finish line. The finisher medal was pretty great too, way better than the one I earned in Pittsburgh:
My official finish time was a few minutes under 5 hours. I was very happy with that considering I thought I would finish closer to 5 and 1/2 to 6 hours. On that course, averaging 11:20 miles is quite an accomplishment, especially coming off a bruising half-marthon. Here are the relevant details, including a map of the course and my mile splits. Again, none of this technology existed back when I ran Pittsburgh, when I think I just rolled with the then industry leading Timex Ironman watch.
I finished 50th overall out of 97 participants. So, the question remains, will I crack the 4 hour mark in the marathon and, if so, when? All I can say about that is stay tuned...
Steve Yeager is an ultra runner who rarely turns down a challenge. When he is not out putting miles on his shoes, he practices law and serves in the Nevada State Legislature. Steve lives in Las Vegas, Nevada with his very understanding and patient wife, Bita.