My dad started to run when he was 41 years old, when we lived in Mexico City. He was the first British citizen to run the Mexico City marathon and while my mom, sister and I never went to his marathons (I believe because my mom opposed what she considered to be his crazy, selfish hobby that would surely result in a heart attack), my dad’s running is a distinctive part of my childhood memories. On several occasions he would bring me to the track with him and I would half-heartedly jog a few laps, but I didn’t learn to love to run until my mid 20s. When I eventually entered races, going from 10ks to a half marathon to a sprint triathlon and eventually two Ironman triathlons, people assumed it was because my dad, now 71, had influenced me in this way.
A few weeks ago, my dad completed his 20th marathon, and for the first time, I raced alongside him. I use the term “race” loosely because we walked the entire 26.2 miles, taking 6:50 to complete it. In the fall, when I agreed to walk the Myrtle Beach marathon with him, my dad urged me to make sure I train for it, although it was “just walking” and would probably not be much of a challenge for an Ironmom. To be completely honest, I couldn’t get motivated to train. I didn’t know how to train for a walking marathon. I didn’t want to lose my running fitness, and it seemed like a waste of time to set aside 1+ hours to walk. The only times I walk is when I’m with people who don’t like to run, or if I’m in the supermarket. So I was in denial until a few days before the Feb. 18th Myrtle Beach marathon, and then I started to get a little nervous. I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it, I just didn’t want to end up in pain for days after.
When I emerged from the plane in Myrtle Beach, my dad & stepmom (Janet) greeted me in the airport and then my dad said, “Oh by the way, you’re on TV.” Sure enough, there was a TV camera crew filming our reunion, and after being instructed to “act like we’re not here,” they followed us through the airport. It turns out that my dad was the oldest local resident participating in the marathon, so they did a feature on him in the news, which they ran for a couple of days. The reporter was especially touched when my dad said I was coming to do the marathon with him.
It was really fun going through all the pre-race preparations with my dad. He had given me excellent advice preceding my first marathon, so while I may pretend to ignore him when he gives me life advice, I’m all ears when it comes to running. When we began to talk about other meatier subjects such as the prostate surgery he was having 2 days after the marathon, or whether or not gay marriage should be legal (a firm YES), or what he learned about the Bible while getting his MA a couple of years ago (yes, he graduated with a Master’s at age 69)- we would cut our conversation short so that we would be sure to have something to talk about during the marathon.
The most common remark I would hear from people was, “wow, that’s going to be hard for you to walk a marathon – I’m mean, you’re an Ironman!” They were right – it did feel physically different, and each time my dad and his enlarged prostate made a pit stop, I would run ahead and then run back (my marathon ended up being 26.75 miles instead of 26.2), in order to give my hips a break. My dad is 6’3” and I’m 5’4” so my cadence was a little faster than his in order to keep up with his long strides. A few times I did try to urge my dad to pick up the pace a bit – my ego wanted to get credit for helping him set a walking PR – but my dad resisted and I quickly backed down. However, in the last 5 miles or so I would pick a target (person ahead) and tell my dad, “That person is NOT allowed to beat us – look how slow he is!” – and my dad would accept the challenge and we’d pass him. Physically, the hardest part for me was the blisters I could feel growing on the padding on the ball of my foot. At one point I had my dad walk ahead while I stopped on a curb and had Janet, my stepmom, help me put some bandaging on it, then I ran up to catch up. It didn’t really help but at some point I no longer thought about the discomfort as pain, I thought of it as a reminder that I was doing something really awesome – walking a marathon with my dad! Making that mental switch actually dimmed the pain.
We generally walked at about a 15 min mile pace, maintaining a consistent pace throughout. We chatted with each other (had the prostate and the Bible conversation by mile 5), chatted with the people we passed, and for 5 miles were joined by a surprise visitor, my dad’s former work colleague who used to walk the marathon with him but didn’t do so this year. We passed Gene, the 76 year old lawyer who has scoliosis and yet does 20-30 marathons per year; this was to be his 487th. We passed the guy dressed in camouflage with a 20 lb backpack (when my dad asked him, “why the backpack?” the guy answered, “why not?”). I decided that people who walk marathons are an eccentric bunch. While walking may be easier in some ways than running, especially running hard, it is certainly not easy to walk at a good clip for 26.2 miles – in fact, in some ways I think it’s harder. So it takes a certain type of person to commit to doing this. My dad has been walking marathons for 10 years, as he felt his knees announce they’d had enough. But he didn’t want to throw in the towel, as he loves the health benefits and purpose that training for a long distance event give him.
Mentally, walking a marathon is at least as hard as running it. It’s much more isolating. There were stretches where we were the only ones out there. My dad warned me as we approached the part where the race split and the marathoners stayed right while the half marathoners would go left, that we would become very lonely since most back-of-the-packers don’t do 26.2 miles. He was right. Then there’s the lack of excitement among spectators. When people run by spectators at, say, mile 18, there’s lots of cheering. When you’re walking past the same point, people who happen to be there because they’re going somewhere (5 hours after a marathon has started there really aren’t any spectators left at mile 18) are not exactly excited, especially if your lunacy is disrupting traffic. I think what surprised me the most was the fact that when we got to the finish chute, there was nobody left. There may have been 10 spectators, tops. I didn’t care, I didn’t need the cheering, but it made me realize that the back-of-the-packers are intrinsically motivated in a way that us competitive age groupers aren’t. They are willing to endure the work and the pain of 6+ hours simply for the sense of accomplishment it gives them – because they certainly aren’t being celebrated in the way that the 3 or 4 hour marathoners are. Who is the better athlete here? I suppose it depends on your definition of athlete.
Will I walk another marathon? Absolutely. Not on my own, at least not for as long as I can run them. I’m not patient enough to do it without doing it with someone who has to walk it. As we crossed the finish line, my dad grabbed my hand and held it up in victory, as the race photographer snapped our picture. He later told me that he did that so I wouldn’t sneak ahead of him and beat him. I checked our time later and it turns out he beat me by a second (long legs, remember?). So I have challenged him to a rematch: Myrtle Beach Marathon 2013.