“You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless.”
I typed “marathons in october” into the web browser on my iPhone, and I began scrolling through the list. Though it was only a day after I had completed my first marathon in D.C., I immediately started searching for my next race. I could hardly walk without any soreness, but I knew this was something that I wanted to keep doing. So while my girlfriend took the wheel on the four hour drive back home and I sat in the passenger seat, I began my search.
But I didn’t want just another marathon. I wanted to push myself even further. The last few miles of the D.C. marathon proved to me that I still had more to give. And that had been just my first full marathon. I was still practically a new runner. I would learn even more throughout my next training. I wanted to test my limits.
One particular race caught my eye: the Cape Cod Marathon. The reviews were strikingly positive; runners reported a gorgeous course. For most of it, one would be able to take in the colors of a New England fall morning – the trees festively adorned with reds, oranges, and yellows. At the tail end, the course hugged the coastline and runners would overlook the majestic Atlantic Ocean. And the weather would be close to ideal: not too hot and not too cold. The last six miles were also apparently very hilly, which also appealed to me since I was looking for a challenge.
Challenge. On the next page, the answer I was looking for jumped out at me. The Cape Cod Chowdah Challenge: 39.3 miles over two days. A half marathon on Saturday followed by a full marathon on Sunday.
Before I spoke up and talked to my girlfriend about it, I went over it in my head. I knew I could run a half marathon. And I knew I could run a full. Back to back would certainly be difficult. But it was two known quantities. Worst case, I could easily convince my girlfriend to run the half, and I could run with her to conserve my energy. I had essentially seven months to train and get ready for it. Sure, I had nine shorter races that I needed to run in order to get into into the 2019 New York City Marathon, but I could weave those into the training plan. And I could slowly build up my mileage on weekends. Four miles on Saturday, then double it on Sunday. Five miles on Saturday, then double it on Sunday. And so on until I reached 12 miles on Saturday and 24 on Sunday, just to get as close of a feel as possible to race weekend. And Cape Cod in the fall? What could be more beautiful? I had always wanted to visit Cape Cod and running afforded me the excuse to travel and experience areas I may not have visited otherwise.
Yep, that’s a bingo.
“Girlfriend, what do you think about Cape Cod the last weekend of October?”
The morning after the final race of the 9+1, I woke up and couldn’t put any pressure on my foot. I had almost exactly three months until the Cape Cod Marathon Weekend, and the only running I had done over the course of the previous month was the four New York Road Runner races that I ran with a sprained foot. And now, I could hardly walk again. Granted, I had been going to the gym, but that wasn’t going to be enough. I was back to where I started. I had automatically qualified for the NYC Marathon the next year, but completing the Cape Cod Marathon in three months was in serious jeopardy. And that wasn’t even taking into account the half marathon the day before. I had too many irons in the fire and now I was paying the price. I was too hard-headed for my own good sometimes.
The previous chapters detailed the concept I refer to as “Running”. Running, as opposed to “running”, is the macro view of the sport: the motivations, inspirations, the internal processes, the meaning we derive from the training and how we apply it to our own lives. I love talking about “Running” and wanted this series specifically to dive into this notion, because it was such an important element that informed how I approached running early on. Running allowed me to dig deep into my psyche and helped cauterize many of the wounds that I had merely placed bandages on for years.
But in this chapter, I want to focus more on “running”: the small procedural and actionable steps that make us better runners. I got the whole intrinsic motivation thing down (I mean, I ran two and half races with no shoes on a sprained foot). But it would have been pointless to outline the whole step-by-step process of my training before this, because – as I alluded to in earlier chapters – I made many mistakes when I was first starting out.
But in training for the Cape Cod Chowdah Challenge, this is where everything came together. All of what I had learned coalesced into one final product. And it is the runner that I am today. In this chapter, I step out from behind the curtain and reveal all.
I think it is important that I give you an overview of my methods. Because even though I wasn’t able to walk the morning after the final race of the 9+1, I was able to walk without a limp later on that evening. And even though I wasn’t able to run for close to two months after that final race, I packed all of my training and running into the month leading up to the Chowdah Challenge – like cramming for the final exam of a college class you decided to sleep through the entire semester.
I had to make do with the situation I was in. I certainly don’t recommend cramming for a marathon like an exam, let alone one preceded by a half marathon. But this proved to me that anything is possible by approaching it intelligently and listening to your body. It is the reason that I am beyond excited to participate in the 2019 DICK’S Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and in the 2019 New York City Marathon (as well as the 2019 Hampton Half Marathon and the 2019 Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon) – to test out the tricks and techniques that I gathered.
I know they say a magician never reveals their secrets. But you already know I’m not the kind of guy that holds anything back.
Be warned, however. This is not meant to be a how-to guide. As with any running advice, take everything with a grain of salt. Everybody is different, and the most important thing I will harp on is to listen to your body. Know your body. That will take you farther than anything I say can.
And you don’t have to take my word for it. But I’ll let the photo that was taken of me at the finish line of the Cape Cod Marathon do the talking.
This is how I got there. How I crossed the finish line. This is the story of how I came to run well over 41 miles on those two days.
Recovery (It’s not just about RICE!)
The story left off on the morning after the final race of the 9+1.
I felt fine during the race, but when I stopped running, the pain was unbearable. And the problem only got worse the next morning. The sprain was still bothersome, but the real source of discomfort came from my heel. It was so tender that if I even grazed the floor with my heel, it would give me a violent jolt. I was reluctant to put any weight on my right foot.
Luckily, I had planned a spa day at my second home: Sojo Spa Club.
It was supposed to be a treat for completing the nine races, but really I’ll take any excuse for a spa day. Between Sojo and BRC Day Spa, I’d say that I went to a spa approximately twelve times throughout 2018.
Now keep in mind, I don’t spend my money elsewhere. I don’t go to bars anymore or eat out at restaurants. Save for a few concerts that I go to, the spa is one of my few indulgences.
But it is not simply an indulgence. As you might have guessed, I’m not the kind of patron who goes to Sojo simply to take selfies of myself with the New York skyline in the background. I go there with a purpose. My spa game is strong, and I take the same no nonsense approach as I do with my running.
Saunas, hot tubs, hydrotherapy, foot reflexology, and massage therapy became integral parts to how I heal and take care of my body.
The first time I went to a spa, my girlfriend took me for my birthday. I was skeptical at first mostly because it was a new experience. I felt uncomfortable when I first got there, but once I got used to the surroundings I was off.
The next time I went, I went completely alone. Just let that image sink in. Me in a hot tub surrounded by couples and groups of girlfriends. And then just one guy (me), sitting there in a corner. But I didn’t care. That’s how pivotal it became for my recovery.
My favorite thing I like doing at spas is what I affectionately refer to as “the circuit.” The circuit consists of four parts. The first part is sitting in a hot tub for anywhere between ten and fifteen minutes or as long as your body can tolerate it. It gets your blood flowing and helps you relax.
After that is the second part, where you immediately take a dip in cold tub for the same amount of time. Yes, it is uncomfortable at first, but believe me, you’ll get used to it. And the benefits are extraordinary. It reduces inflammation and – for me at least – gives me a sense of mental clarity that the fog and haze of the hot tub does not.
This idea of jumping between hot and cold leads us to the third and fourth part of the circuit. After the cold tub is the dry sauna, where again you stay for ten to fifteen minutes or as long as you can. To get a really good sweat going, try some push-ups or your favorite yoga poses. Static stretches have helped me out in the sauna as well. For maximum heat, bring a towel in and swing it around overhead. Generally speaking, the hotter the better.
Once you’re nice and sweaty, you’re ready for a dip in the cold plunge. Many spas will have a cold plunge adjacent to a sauna. Take advantage! Don’t think and don’t hesitate – just jump right in. It might shock you at first – enough to take your breath away – but when you step out, you will immediately feel the benefits. Your entire body feels as good as new. I’ve turned many people I meet at the spa on to the cold plunge, and while they’re all hesitant at first, a short time later everyone is jumping in multiple times.
After one full circuit the day after the race, I was able to walk somewhat regularly again. After the hydrotherapy pool and the foot reflexology rock path, I was walking limp-free by lunchtime. I don’t want to say it was a miracle, but let’s just say if you use the spa as more than simply a social gathering and you go in with a plan, you can really affect your body’s natural healing process.
Now you might be wondering what I do when I don’t go to the spa. After all, not everyone can go to the spa once every couple of months.
I apply the same principles of hot and cold but in the comfort of my own home. I wasn’t getting the results I wanted before when I was just using an ice pack. So instead, I bought two cat litter pans – but really any receptacle that fits your feet comfortably would work. I would fill one with warm water and Epsom salt and the other with ice water. I would simply then dunk my feet and alternate between the two every few minutes or so. After thirty minutes of that, my feet would feel a lot better.
Though I only used this method for my foot, the same would hold true for any ailment of the ankle, knee, or just about anywhere else. Invest in a warm compress and a good ice pack. I’m telling you, it’ll work wonders.
In addition, in order to combat the plantar fasciitis that plagued me, I had been using a lacrosse ball and golf ball and would roll each one under the affected foot. It’s a tried and true remedy, but that alone oftentimes doesn’t fix the problem. You have to supplement it with other treatments.
One of those things is a splint specifically for plantar fasciitis. They’re supposed to be put on before bed, but it is rare that anyone is able to tolerate it for the duration of a full night’s sleep. I usually wear it when I’m reading or on my laptop. If I wear it while I’m sleeping, it usually only lasts several hours before I have to take it off in the middle of the night. Still, the relief you get from it is incredible. In fact, I’m wearing it right now as I type this.
Like many runners, I also use a hand held massage in addition to a foam roller. Though I don’t use them as much as I did when I first started running because my muscles don’t get as sore, they’re handy to have around in case you do have a sore calf, IT band, hamstring, or quad.
To recap, treat pain and soreness with BOTH hot and cold therapy. Invest in a quality massage and foam roller. If you suffer from plantar fasciitis as I did, roll it out with a lacrosse or golf ball (a frozen water bottle works as well) and buy a splint. But most importantly, go to a spa. Even if it’s just after races. You won’t be sorry that you did.
Rest & Mindfulness
Even though David Goggins has become my spirit animal, there is an aspect where our philosophies deviate. Like him, I also don’t adhere to strict rest days. But I do believe in rest if used properly. There is definitely something to be gained about going hard at all times, making yourself uncomfortable, and callusing your mind. But I really don’t think my mind needs anymore callusing. Reliving my most traumatic experiences when I first started going on runs already did that to some extent. I can certainly benefit from going harder, but it’s also important to listen and understand your body and know when it needs a break.
Like any Phish fan will tell you, any good Phish jam involves tension and release. The build up and then the bliss. I model my training after this, working myself and my body up to a boil before cooling it down and letting it simmer. The trick is knowing how to do it properly.
Instead of rest days, the perfect way to supplement all the running I do is with yoga. At first, I was doing a quick sequence before and after every run. That wasn’t really sustainable with my schedule – nor did I find it necessary – but instead I switched to a longer sequence once or twice a week or whenever time would allow. If I didn’t have any running or cross-training scheduled for that day, some yoga would do the trick. It is a perfect way to balance out my body and give it the rest and recovery it needs (though some yoga poses certainly don’t feel very restful!).
Before you assume I’m some hardcore practitioner, I want to preface this by saying that I only started doing yoga during training for Cape Cod. Before this, my only experience with yoga was an elective in high school. I am far from flexible, and I look clumsy at times – especially when I first started.
If yoga is something you are thinking about, I highly recommend Yoga With Adriene on Youtube. She is incredible for people of all experience levels but was especially helpful when I was first starting out. She has great sequences for runners, but any video that involves hip openers would suffice.
Related to yoga, I had mentioned previously that I had also gotten into meditation. I know sometimes talking about meditation can be off-putting to those that don’t. But I’ll say this: it has completely transformed my running. Of course, it has had many other benefits in my everyday life, but I’ve come to hate going out for a run if I haven’t meditated first.
Sometimes, the only time I would be able to run is after a long day at work. The worst thing you can do in that instance is just lace up your running shoes and step out the door. This can cause us to go too fast (which was happening to me) and run with improper form, because we are distracted. By meditating, think of it like rebooting your computer. You’re fresher and ready to go and less likely to be distracted. That feeling of mental clarity you get after running anything over eight miles? Imagine feeling that with your first steps. At that point, you have nowhere to go but up.
It is controversial in the world of meditation, but the Headspace app has really helped me dip my toes into the water. You can meditate on your own, and in fact many of my most productive sessions were unguided. But for many people who don’t know where to begin and have no frame of reference, Headspace is a great tool for our Western minds to help guide us through these uncharted waters. They have meditations for sport, but also for sleep, stress, anxiety, and many more. The animations are particularly helpful to explain the essence of our minds in terms we can understand.
Sensory deprivation tanks are also an excellent way to relax and unwind. I don’t have my own like Joe Rogan just yet, but whenever I have an opportunity, I like to go for a float. It definitely has physical benefits, but for the most part I do it for the mental benefits. We are bombarded with so much stimulus in our everyday lives; isolation tanks help us escape from it all. No sound and no light. Just you floating in a tank of salt water. When I’ve meditated in a sensory deprivation tank, I’ve reached some astounding levels of profound introspection. It has definitely leveled up my everyday meditation, because I now have a baseline – a mind state to try and attain.
Of course, we couldn’t talk about rest without talking about sleep. Even though I wake up at 5 AM most days because of work, I take my allotted eight hours very seriously. Remember, eight hours is a MINIMUM for what we can function with. You know that saying, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”? Well, maybe you’ll be dead a lot quicker if you don’t sleep.
All jokes aside, sleep is extremely important. It affects our mood, our reaction time, our energy levels, and so much more. If you’re a runner or any sort of athlete, you need to take your sleep seriously. In fact, one of my favorite post long run activities is a nap. After running fifteen miles, sometimes a nice, long nap will have me feeling completely energized. I had been a big napper until I started running, and honestly it has become a lifesaver, especially in instances where a full eight hours isn’t going to be doable for whatever reason.
As you can see, rest doesn’t consist of one designated rest day for me. It is full of many activities that I weave into my routine that works to aid my running. It is not one day I have marked on the calendar where I go to the movies or mall with my friends and eat junk food. Everything I do is to serve a purpose and in this way, I get the most out of the moments that I do rest.
Cross-Training and How to Be Productive at the Gym
In addition to yoga which also serves as a great cross-training activity, a runner needs to think about how to incorporate other low impact forms of cardio as well as a solid strength training routine. The issue is making sure not to add unnecessary bulk or that will slow you down, as it did to some extent before my first race in the 9+1.
When I was weightlifting in college, a lot of it was for appearances. So I would target all the muscles you could see. Chest, biceps, triceps, abs – all of the exercises you see everyone at the gym doing. Sure, I would also work out my back and have a leg day, but I was lifting more to get bigger and to look ripped. There is a big difference between that and going to the gym to maximize performance. Unfortunately, that was all that I knew.
When I first had to take a break from running, I would alternate between the cardio machines. The stationary bike and the elliptical are certainly two classics that have many positives, but my two favorites quickly became the Stair Climber and rowing machine. Not only are they great forms of cardiovascular exercise, but they help strengthen specific muscle groups. The rowing machine especially is a spectacular full body workout that – if done properly – works out your upper and lower body.
As far as weights go, after fumbling around and doing the same exercises that I used to do back in college, I did some research and came to the conclusion that bodyweight exercises – while also incorporating some dumbbell and kettlebell workouts – would yield better results. Kettlebells especially would do a better job at targeting and correcting any imbalances in my muscles – especially due to a misaligned pelvis – as opposed to anything with a barbell.
Instead of targeting specific muscles groups and scheduling particular days like chest day, leg day, etc., I focused on exercises and routines that targeted many muscle groups. I wanted to be as efficient as possible. Deadlifts with a trap bar was the one power lift that I would afford myself, though even that was with minimal weight and was more focused on repetitions. I didn’t want to get bigger – I just wanted to get stronger and build up my muscle endurance.
Exercises for the upper body include push-ups (along with all of the variations), pull-ups, hanging leg raises, flutter kicks, and dips. Exercises for the lower body include split squats, lunges, goblet squats, pistol squats, and calf raises. Full body workouts I also incorporate are the aforementioned deadlifts, as well as the farmers walk and kettlebell swings. I also include fun pieces of equipment like a battle rope and Jacob’s ladder into my routine.
It is important to check your ego at the door. Many of these exercises I do with very little weight. I focus on the repetition and form. There is also very little downtime between exercises; I will often superset, if not incorporate stations of three or four of these exercises – throwing in a cardio machine on occasion just for fun. In about twenty minutes, I will become the sweatiest person at the gym, even though I might only be using an eight kilogram kettlebell.
I also mentioned in a previous chapter how beneficial swimming can be. You don’t even have to be a great swimmer; my technique for front crawl is atrocious so I usually opt for the breaststroke. If the swimming lanes are occupied or you’re too intimidated to share the lane with more advanced swimmers, don’t worry: I’ve also spent plenty of time in the deep end just treading water. An hour or so of treading water is a great full body workout. The most important thing about pools is that they also double as great tools for recovery for running, because there is no impact on your joints. So if yoga really isn’t your thing, make your rest day a pool day. Your muscles will thank you later.
Footwear (Or Lack Thereof)
Once I was ready to start running and training full-time for the Chowdah Challenge, it was time to figure out what I was going to put on my feet. Only running barefoot wasn’t going to be sustainable, and I wasn’t completely used to the FiveFingers just yet. I wanted to build a rotation of shoes – like the starting rotation on a baseball team – so that I wasn’t just going through one pair and had to replace them every two months or so. Different types of shoes also engage your feet differently, so I didn’t want to get used to only one shoe; I wanted to work out as many different muscles in my legs and feet as possible.
I knew I wanted to take a more minimalist approach. I had witnessed the benefits firsthand on the few occasions I would attempt to run. My feet hit the ground more naturally, and I wasn’t overstriding or heel striking. It just felt right.
Maybe I didn’t absolutely need minimalist shoes per se, but they helped me be more mindful of how I stepped. They aren’t the only solution. I think that’s why so many people soured on the FiveFingers years ago after the initial craze. They expected a magical elixir, but didn’t equip themselves with the information or put in the necessary amount of work to transfer over. Still, they worked for me. And that was all that mattered.
I would certainly still run barefoot on occasion. Though it can be rough on my soles, the feedback it gives me is unparalleled. I knew immediately if I was running with proper form or not based on if it hurt. Though it might be tempting to run on grass or sand or a track, the absolutely best surface to run on is pavement. There is no better litmus test to see if you are running properly than running barefoot on pavement.
I would also still use the FiveFingers. They became my everyday gym shoes, but I also take them out on the trails when I want to simulate barefoot running without the inconveniences that comes from it. They do take some getting used to and they should be slowly incorporated into any running program, but the lightweight feel makes you forget that you’re wearing anything at all. At first, I was worried about how the individual toes would feel, but you get over it quickly. I recommend wearing toe socks, as the shoes can get smelly if you just slip them on your bare feet.
I also had my trusty Brooks Ghosts. Even though I was switching to more minimalist shoes, I loved the feel of the Ghosts. It was my form that had caused the injuries, not the shoes. I would improve my form with a minimalist approach, but would still incorporate the Brooks Ghosts into the rotation to not forget how to run or walk in regular sneakers. I didn’t want to be a slave to just one method – I wanted to be as flexible as possible. The Ghosts would have to stay.
But now I had to determine what other running shoes to add in. After research and trying on various models and brands, I decided on the Altra Escalantes and the Luna Monos.
The Escalantes is a typical road shoe but with zero drop – which means that there is no elevated heel like regular running shoes. In addition, the toebox is wider which supports a healthy, more natural splaying of your toes. The lower heel also discourages heel striking, which in turn promotes better running form.
The Luna Monos would be my first running sandal, but since I had finished reading “Born to Run” I decided to give them a try. After comparing all of the other models, I settled on the Monos. They seemed better suited for my purposes.
Armed with a plethora of options, I was now ready to begin my training.
Because I only had a little over a month to fully prepare for the 39.3 miles I would be running over the span of two days, I didn’t have the luxury of starting out with a few miles and slowly working my way up. I had to be in tune with my body and run until I felt I was nearing my limit – but then pull it back and use my various tools and methods to recover. Every week I would increase my mileage by the recommended 10-20%, until I reached my peak week two weeks out. After which I would taper until race weekend. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.
The first week back, after a few shorter test runs in other shoes, I took my Lunas out for a spin. I wanted to see how far I could go in them. Sixteen miles later, I had my answer. Not bad for my first week back.
Later on that weekend, I wanted to do the same for my pair of Altras. The Lunas held up for sixteen miles and were now my first choice for the half marathon. I wanted to use different pairs of shoes for each race, basing the decision on factors like speed, feel, and comfort among others. If I can push that mileage on the Altras, I essentially found my two pairs of shoes.
The run felt effortless. All the cardio I had done at the gym had paid off. It wasn’t close to a record-setting pace, but I ran twenty miles on those Altras. My first week back into running, and I had run 36 miles between two runs. The first time I ever wore each pair of shoe. Granted, the two runs were a few days apart, but this did wonders for my confidence. With only a few weeks to prepare, I knew I could do it.
I want to stress that at no point during any of these runs did I push the pace. That lesson about not going too fast in training? It finally clicked. I didn’t want to mess things up now. I had zero margin for error. I didn’t even care about my finishing time in the races. I just wanted to finish both of them without walking. That was my goal.
Part of the reason I was going slower was because I was consciously holding back a little. But a larger part was because I was much more mindful of my form.
I throw around the term heel striking a lot. What that basically means is that whenever we walk or run, the first thing that touches the ground is our heel. Most people do it. Some people surmise that this is the cause of a lot of the injuries that plague runners – injuries like plantar fasciitis. The elevated heels in our running shoes foster heel striking, because of the cushion. In addition, because of our penchant for wanting to go faster, we overstride and overstep our own reach. Overstriding makes heel striking a near certainty, because you have almost no choice but to land on the heel.
So now, I was relearning how to run. Relearning how to walk. With minimalist shoes, heel striking would hurt, so I had to make sure to keep my legs underneath my hips. This would cause me to land on the midfoot – a more natural way of running. By literally feeling the earth underneath me because my shoes had little to no cushion, I could feel how I was stepping.
In turn, the muscles in my feet and ankles got stronger. I didn’t have any aches in my knees or hips that I would sometimes get. My muscles wouldn’t be as sore. I was going slower, but I forgave myself because I was teaching myself to run as if for the first time. And I knew I was onto something, that this was going to be more beneficial to my long-term running career. The first week back into running I nearly cleared fifty miles like it was nothing.
I got another twenty mile run in a few weeks before the race as part of my peak week and followed it with a ten mile run to get the feel for thirty miles in back to back days. I had done it once already months prior, before the injury and during the nine NYRR races. But I wanted to make sure I could do it the new way.
I passed the test with flying colors. After a week or two of tapering and taking it easy, I was ready for the Chowdah Challenge.
Nutrition and Fueling
Before I get to race weekend, I want to touch on one of the most overlooked aspects of running (one that I certainly had to be especially careful with especially running two races on back to back days): food.
Fueling up for a race can be tricky. You want to have plenty of calories in the tank, and afterwards you want to replenish them. But when you have two races on back to back days, the time in between is crucial. You want to make sure you not only replenished the calories you burnt, but you are well stocked for what you are going to burn. There was no room for mistakes here; I had to get this right.
Ever since our road trip the previous summer, my girlfriend and I became vegetarians. We would also occasionally have seafood, but we primarily followed a plant-based diet. My body immediately felt cleaner, and I had much more energy. I wasn’t consuming as much protein as before, but the carbs I would consume would sustain me on long runs.
The problem with that was I was becoming too dependent on carbohydrates. It caused me to hit a wall towards the end of the D.C. Marathon, because I was used to the sugar from sports drinks and energy gels. I would rely on it to help get me through long runs, but I knew this wasn’t going to be possible in Cape Cod. I had to find an alternative.
I had dabbled in the ketogenic diet before (high fat, moderate protein, low carb). I needed my body to be able to tap into my fat stores and burn that as fuel. Fat is a more efficient source of energy for the body than carbs. So I gave keto a try to help train my body to use fat as fuel.
It worked like a charm during the months I was going to the gym and not running. I would have enough energy to last two, three, sometimes four hours at the gym. I figured long distance running would be the same.
And how wrong I was. As I set out for an intermediate run on my first week back, I started crashing just a few miles in. The problem was I simply wasn’t consuming enough calories – I was getting full before I had eaten enough. If you couple that with the fact that it is particularly difficult to be keto while also pescatarian, it was a recipe for disaster.
On the humbling walk back to my apartment in the middle of that run, I called my girlfriend and told her to hell with all of these diets. If Courtney Dauwalter can run over 200 miles eating candy and nachos, I had to also be true to myself. I had to listen to my body and give it what it craved – whether that meant a steak or pasta or grilled chicken or mashed potatoes. Or three double cheeseburgers in that particular instance.
I needed to bring balance back to my diet. If I was going to fuel myself for these long runs, I had to make sure I had enough to eat.
The one modification I did keep was I had been implementing intermittent fasting into my regimen. The concept is you eat only a few hours out of the day as much as you can and fast for the remainder. It is supposed to help with digestion, but of particular interest to me was that if I trained and ran while I was fasting, it would help my body use fat as fuel because it didn’t really have any other choice.
So on the days I would run, I would simply drink a cup of hot tea before I headed out the door. I would still bring some gels and water on my runs, but I needed much less than I did before. I only really used gels if I was running anything over twelve miles.
There are plenty of famous runners that follow a ketogenic or even vegan diet – and it works for them. The thing I keep coming back to is you have to do whatever works for you. Test out different things and see what your body adapts best to. Being vegetarian helped open my eyes to many foods I was overlooking, and it also helped broaden my palate. Keto helped me realize the importance of using fat as fuel for long distance races. But neither of these diets were sustainable long-term for me. Do something that you can stick to. When you’re running so many miles, you’re going to use it all anyway. Like I said, if Courtney Dauwalter can be one of the fiercest ultrarunners in the world eating candy, there really is no right or wrong way.
Immediately after work on Friday, my girlfriend and I made the drive to Falmouth, Massachusetts so we can get a decent night’s rest before the half marathon Saturday morning. We wouldn’t be able to pick up our bibs at the expo, so we would have to wake up even earlier on Saturday if we wanted to have enough time to warm up before the race.
The issue was the weather forecast; a nor’easter was supposed to hit that weekend. It was especially going to be intense in the Cape Cod area. I had flashbacks from the Montreal fiasco, but the race organizers made the announcement early: the half marathon would take place rain or shine.
This would dampen most people’s moods, but I relished the challenge. I loved training in the rain and snow. It hardens your mind and makes it impenetrable. It’s easier to stay indoors and skip a training run. But the mental benefits of getting out there and getting your run in regardless of the weather cannot be overstated. And running a half marathon in a nor’easter was going to bring the toughness I had built out into the forefront.
On the other hand, I felt terrible for my girlfriend. She had followed the training plan I had written for her – the first time she had ever followed a training plan from beginning to end. She was primed for a PR before the forecast was announced, but I knew what inclement weather can do to your pace. Plus, I knew she wasn’t armed with the array of running gear that I had. She was facing an uphill battle.
Without hesitating, I told her to wear my rain jacket for the race. It would be much larger on her, but it had kept me dry during heavy rainfalls before. Because the temperature wasn’t excruciatingly cold, I knew I could get away with a few layers and a long sleeve shirt. Based on how I felt in the short amount of training I had, I approximated that I would only be running for around two hours. I would have a fresh change of warm, dry clothes waiting for me at the finish line. It was an easy call: she was going to wear the rain jacket.
The bigger issue for me was what I was going to wear on my feet. I had brought my pair of Lunas and my pair of Altras. The plan was to run the half in the former and the full the next day in the latter. With a torrential downpour on the horizon, there was no way I was going to be able to wear sandals for the half. And I had better pray that it cleared up before Sunday. I would have to wear the Altras for the half, and then either hope they dried in time for the full or go with the sandals. I was hesitant running the full in sandals, considering the most I ran in them was sixteen miles in training. But if I had no choice, what else could I do?
The night before, I had two burritos (yep, you read that right) on the drive up to Cape Cod. The carbo-loading in order to run 39.3 miles over two days was officially underway. Once we got to the house we were staying in, we chatted with my friend and his girlfriend while we unpacked, but then headed to bed to try and get as much sleep as possible (though this can be extremely difficult the night before a race).
The next morning, I woke up before everyone, did a quick meditation on Headspace, and fired up one of my favorite Yoga With Adriene videos while I warmed up on the porch. I didn’t need a complicated stretching routine – one of her videos is more than enough to get my muscles ready. After a quick cup of tea (and a well timed pre-race poop), I was ready to go. (Editor’s note: while it may seem like this is superfluous information, runners will know just how important it is to get your poop schedule down to a science. This is arguably one of the most important factors of training and is a big reason why I recommend coffee or tea before any run.)
The rain was already coming down hard, so staying dry before the race was going to take precedence over warming up. After we picked up our bibs, we tried to find an area under shelter closer to the starting line where we could get some last minute stretching done. Once the horn went off signaling the start of the race, we joined the rest of the runners as we prepared to run straight into the heart of the storm.
The Cape Cod Half Marathon takes you through the quaint, picturesque town of Falmouth before making a beeline for the coast. It is an out-and-back course; the promise from locals of a strong tailwind on the second half of the course was the only thing that kept me going through the first half.
I have run in snowstorms and I have run in rainstorms. But nothing was quite like running in this. Running along the Atlantic, we were completely vulnerable with no protection. The wind was so fierce and the rain was coming down so hard, I could hardly keep my eyes open for miles at a time. Every runner who was out there that morning – which also included my girlfriend, her sister, and my friend – earned my respect. Because the easier option would have been skipping the race. The only people that impressed me more were the volunteers, who were still out there offering runners water and Gatorade even in the midst of an epic storm.
The headwind in the first half of the race had me feeling like Wile E. Coyote at the hands of one of the Road Runner’s pranks. It felt like I was barely moving. After my experience in the 9+1, I decided to not bring my running watch altogether on this trip and simply run on feel alone. I had soft goals as far as finishing time went, and I really only cared about running the two races without walking.
When I got to the halfway mark and I glanced at the official race clock, I saw that finishing within two hours was a very real possibility. Granted, I didn’t want to go much faster considering I had to run a marathon the next day, but I felt like I was going at such an easy speed. This new information was extremely heartening. I took my only energy gel at that point and prepared for the second half of the race.
I finished the half marathon at a comfortable 1:53:25. Considering I had much more in the tank for the next day, I was ecstatic. I hadn’t expected on cracking two hours, especially since I was still nursing injuries to my right foot and hadn’t ever gone at that pace in training.
I don’t know if it was because of adrenaline from the storm or from the race, but the second I crossed the finish line, I turned right back around. I knew what I had to do. It was time to cheer every other runner on as I waited for my girlfriend.
I picked a spot under a tree about a half mile before the finish line to try and shield myself from the rain as much as possible since I didn’t have any rain gear on. I took this opportunity to stretch while I cheered.
My friend arrived first, shortly after I took my post. He had also signed up for the Chowdah Challenge and was on the fence about running the full the next day. He had to stop training the final month because of his job and didn’t want to risk injury. Regardless, he was out there in the middle of a nor’easter, giving everything he had.
My girlfriend and her sister were taking longer to the point that I was starting to get concerned. Her sister hadn’t trained at all, but my girlfriend had. It was now well over two and a half hours. And I was absolutely drenched and was starting to shiver violently. I had to start moving. I had no idea what hypothermia felt like, and I didn’t want to find out.
I started jogging slowly in the opposite direction off to the side of the course. I was slowed by my waterlogged clothes and shoes that sloshed with every step. Every time I came upon a volunteer on my run, I would ask them for the time. The race had a hard three hour time limit, and I was worried my girlfriend wasn’t going to make it in time.
I made it all the way back to the coast and past the twelve mile marker – to the final volunteer station. The wind had picked up even more, and now I began to very visibly tremble uncontrollably.
“You don’t look so good,” one of the volunteers told me.
“I don’t feel so good, but I’m looking for my girlfriend. She was supposed to finish by now,” I replied.
“Don’t worry, you’ll see. She’ll show up soon.”
Right on cue, I see her far off into the distance. Thank heavens too, because I don’t know if I could’ve lasted another minute in the forty degree rain.
I get to her, and her eyes immediately start to well up. She was down on herself, because she hadn’t hit her goal. She had started the race feeling good but was quickly met with fierce adversity in the form of Mother Nature. She couldn’t quite recover. Her mind had gotten the best of her.
When I would run with her around the park near our apartment or during a few of the races in Central Park, I would often play motivational mind games with her. I would withhold the time or give her a fake pace. Tell her we were closer than we really were. Anything to make her feel more positive. But when I told her that anyone who ran a half marathon in a storm like that was a warrior in my eyes, I truly meant it. There was no quit in her, and that showed me everything. Any limitations she had were self-imposed. She had greatness inside of her.
We ran that final stretch together. A mile and change. Before we got the the finish line, I peeked at the clock.
Under three hours. She had made it.
I told her congratulations, told her I loved her, and then ran completely off course. I wanted her to enjoy the moment. I didn’t want to take some of the luster off of her. She alone had done it. The months of training culminating in that one moment of triumph. She had done it when many others would have quit. It was the first time the camera caught her smiling in any of the race photos ever taken of her.
As I prepared myself for bed early that evening while everyone else in the house watched television, I had serious concerns about the marathon the next morning. Fueling wasn’t my worry – the three hearty meals I had after the race made sure of that (the last one consisted of a chicken parm sandwich, an order of penne marinara, and a full order of garlic bread just for me – plus whatever I finished from my girlfriend’s sister’s plate). How my muscles felt also wasn’t a concern – the massage roller and lacrosse ball I packed in my luggage was all I needed. Not even how I sick I felt from being in the cold rain for over three hours was the biggest worry on my mind.
No. It was my damn right foot again. My heel specifically felt as worse as it had ever felt. I had emptied one of the wastebaskets in the bed and breakfast with ice water and dunked my foot in, but not even that helped. I tried to play it off in front of everyone else, but I had trouble even walking. How I was going to run 26.2 miles the next morning was beyond me.
Luckily, I had convinced my friend to run the marathon as well after he was debating whether to run it or not. I didn’t want him to regret not having completed the full Chowdah Challenge and reasoned with him that worst case he could walk if he needed. But really, maybe convincing him was just my way to take my mind off of the excruciating pain coming from my foot.
And to make matters worse, I had to run in my sandals. My Altras were nowhere near dry enough to wear. Sure they felt comfortable when I took them on a few training runs. But this was different. I would have to run my second marathon ever in sandals.
I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed. Because I was exhausted from a restless sleep the night prior, I was able to fall asleep very early (with the help of a Headspace nighttime meditation) and got well over the required eight hours.
Even though my muscles felt great, my heel felt terrible. I could not put any pressure on it. There was nothing else I was going to be able to do to get my body ready. So I had to work on my mind. That was the only thing that was going to carry me the entire distance. I had no choice but to relax and enjoy it. Or at least tell myself I was enjoying it.
For as foul as the weather was the day before, that Sunday morning was the complete opposite. It was nice enough that I decided to wear just a short sleeve shirt and shorts during the race. Before the race however, I went with the same strategy of wearing warm up clothes over it like I did in D.C. I prefer staying warm until the last possible moment and then shedding all of the extra layers. You get the added bonus of feeling like a basketball player before a Game 7 or a UFC fight before the weigh-in.
I warmed up and stretched a short walk away from the starting line. I was joined by my girlfriend, my friend (who was also stretching), and his girlfriend. My girlfriend’s sister and our friend were going to join us later.
But I was in silence. Even though I stopped listening to music on runs, I still liked to listen to music before, so I had my headphones in. I was already getting there mentally but had to ensure myself of it by listening to all of those curated playlists that had helped me in the past.
As I listened to songs by The National, My Morning Jacket, Sigur Rós, U2, and Phish, it all came rushing back to me. This entire journey.
Running in Lincoln Park for the first time when I could barely huff and puff my way through two miles, weighing nearly eighty pounds heavier than I do now.
Crossing the finish line of my first half marathon seven months after that, with my arm around the same friend I would be running the Cape Cod Marathon with.
Sprinting the final stretch of the Rutgers Half Marathon with “Lateralus” blasting, on my way to a personal best finishing time.
Cheering for my girlfriend and friends in Montreal when they ran their races and I dealt with the disappointment of having mine cancelled.
Charging to the top of the hill at mile six of the marathon in D.C. – the biggest hill I had ever climbed – and then the feeling of reaching 26.2 miles for the first time.
Gutting out two and a half races with no shoes and a sprained foot – over twelve miles total – in New York City just a few months before.
This was going to be for me. Not for my girlfriend. Not for my parents. Not for my brother or sister or grandparents or my great-grandparents. Not for my students or my cats. I owed this to myself. I knew how far I had come. This was going to be another chapter in my story. Something else to put on my life resume.
I dropped into a yogi squat and felt the eyes of those around me dart in my direction.
Oh that’s right, I forgot I had sandals on.
But I didn’t care. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it my way. Play by my rules.
I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths in. By focusing on the present – focusing on the now – and blocking out all of that noise, I could focus on the task at hand.
I didn’t want to think about my time or pace.
Or my girlfriend and the child we didn’t have.
Or my friends and what I had put them through when I hit rock bottom in my life.
Or my family and the mental anguish that whole fucked up situation had caused me.
Or the feeling that I wasn’t ever going to be good enough. That I’m doomed to forever be the person that I am. That I am not special.
No. I was going to run 26.2 miles. And I wasn’t going to walk. I was going to do my best. To leave it all on that course.
I walked to the starting line as relaxed as I had ever felt. Never once did I think about the pain in my heel. Nor the pain that resided in my heart. Through all of this, I discovered the person that I truly am – underneath it all.
I am a runner. I am a fighter. And through it all, I’m still here.
The cannon (yes, an actual cannon) fired and we were off. 26.2 miles awaited me to bring my grand total to well over 41 miles over the two days (once you take into account the quick rescue mission after the half).
And I couldn’t be any happier. I finally found my purpose. I had climbed the highest mountains and had run through the fields. Through running, I had found what I was looking for.
It was at mile marker 25 that I lost it.
The entire race was punctuated by the same consistent pace. Visits from my cheering section – consisting of my girlfriend, her sister, and our friend – where I was usually handed a fresh water bottle. Jokes I told the other spectators. The beautiful rolling hills of Falmouth. Flying up and down those said hills – the only time I broke my steady pace. Never once did I think about my foot. In fact, I barely thought about anything at all. I had a flashback to that kung fu tournament when I was a kid, but other than that my mind was completely blank and focused on the present. Everything I had learned over the two years culminated in this one performance. I had no idea how fast I was going, but I also didn’t care. I was running by feel alone, and I hadn’t broken stride. I felt like I could run fifty miles at whatever pace I was running at. My foot was the farthest thing from my mind.
But it was then at mile marker 25 that I lost it.
I remembered back in D.C. during those last few miles. I was on autopilot, and my brain couldn’t register my surroundings. I was going faster, but my body was breaking down. I was had my sights set only on the finish line. I just had to get there and that was it. It would all be over soon.
When I hit mile marker 25 at the Cape Cod Marathon, I did a quick full body scan. My body felt like it was at mile five. Like I had just started the race. And this gave me a surge of energy that I could hardly contain.
I lost it.
I burst out smiling and the triumphant guitar riff of “Tweezer Reprise” played loudly in my head. Just for me.
So I started singing along to myself. I started speeding up and high-stepping as I crossed mile marker 25. The volunteers and spectators saw what was going on and started cheering louder. And I started egging them on with my hands, urging them for more. They would yell things like “Yeah sandal guy!” or “Run free!” (what it says on the complimentary bright yellow Luna bandana I had received with the purchase of my Monos that I was now wearing for the race). And I would call back and motion my hands upwards as if to say, “Louder.” Maybe I wasn’t going at a blazing speed, but it was clear to me that they hadn’t seen anyone on the course with this amount of energy at this point in the race. Or with a smile this big.
I kept picking up speed as more people cheered. I didn’t have my running watch, but based on experience, it felt like I was running at a sub eight minute per mile pace. I hadn’t run at that pace since the injury. It looked like my body had one more performance in it before I fully rested from running for the next two months and gave my body a real chance to heal.
There was no mile marker 26, or at least I didn’t notice it. But when the course started heading towards the familiar shops of downtown Falmouth, I knew the finish line was close. The crowd of people was more concentrated, so it was clear that the end was near.
My heart rate went through the roof as I started scanning the crowd for my girlfriend. I was so out of it by the time I made it to the end at D.C. that I didn’t even see her or her sister or my parents or the two cardboard cutouts of my cats. But now, I was alert. I was fresh.
As I rounded the corner and saw the finish line, the crowd grew louder. And I kept scanning. It was like the scene at the end of “Rocky” where he is calling out for Adrian after the fight as she slowly makes her way to the ring.
But I wasn’t beat up. I wasn’t spent. Other than the soreness in my arm from carrying my handheld water bottle for so long, I felt completely fine. And I wanted her to see that. I wanted her to see that no matter what life would throw at me, I would still move forward. There was no quit in me.
When I finally saw her about twenty feet away from me, I locked eyes with her. I started running even faster. With tears welling up in my eyes, I kept going even faster. Never once did I break eye contact. I hadn’t run the fastest 39.3 miles that weekend, but I was probably the only one who ran over 41. Who cheered for runners in a nor’easter for close to one hour. Who ran the marathon when I could barely plant my right foot squarely on the ground.
And I was still here. But I wasn’t just enduring this time. I was thriving. By not breaking eye contact, I wanted to convey to her that it was all because of her. It wasn’t the crowd or her sister or our friends or anything else. Over all of our years together, her love and her support had helped me find this superhuman strength within me. I had turned myself from a loser – always looking for the easy way out – into a straight-up animal. And I had more in me. I could do so much more.
As I passed her, I took the handheld water bottle that had been weighing me down off of my hand and launched it as high up into the crowd as possible. I took my bandana off and clutched it in my hand as I sprinted towards the finish line.
I was filled with equal parts excitement and frustration.
Excited because in spite of feeling that I was going slow throughout the entire race, I had finished in a little over four hours. Excited because it was extremely encouraging that I had as much energy as I did. Excited because I knew that if I really wanted to, I could run another 26.2 miles.
But frustrated because I still had more to give. I had run 26.2 miles, but I wasn’t completely spent. I had more. I could’ve run faster, though maybe I didn’t really want to run faster. It felt so comfortable running at this pace; I felt like I could go on forever.
But mostly, I was frustrated because I just wanted to keep running. I finally found my purpose.
Because when I crossed that finish line, there wasn’t that feeling of relief you might expect – like crossing off a task that has been lingering for way too long on your to-do list. This was just a beginning.
Where that will lead me, I have no idea. As for the rest of my story, you’ll see it unfold in real time. I had a general plan that started to crystallize during that race, but I would have to sit down and mull it over. Talk with my girlfriend. My brain was still buzzing from the high of finishing the race, and a hot bowl of New England clam chowder awaited me.
But one thing was clear:
There is more work to be done. I have a much longer way to go. I could go further. I could do more.
But this is only the beginning. And it’s an alright start.