In my last blog post about runners’ obsessions, I expressed my view that the vast majority of beginning runners (especially those starting from a very low level of fitness) would do well to set modest running or triathlon goals, such as competing in 5K runs or sprint triathlons. Trying to train for and complete an Ironman or even a marathon is very likely to lead to injury, and demands a huge commitment in terms of time, focus, and energy.
Some of you might surmise that my opinion is influenced by my own failure to ever do a marathon worthy of my physical ability. In the next couple of posts, I’m going to explain my attempts to conquer the beast that is the marathon.
In 1983, when 10K times dropped from the low 34s to regular times around 32:30, my coach George Gluppe and I naturally started hoping I could make the 1984 Olympic team. However, my best event, the 10,000m, was not yet on the Olympic program for women. I had to make the choice between trying to make the team in the 3,000m or the marathon, both of which would be open to women for the first time in 1984.
The “A” standard for the 3,000m was something like 8:54, and in 1983 my best 3,000m was 9:03.9. Considering my PB of 4:17.00 for 1,500m, George and I figured I could probably break 9:00 in the 3,000m with the right training, but getting much faster than that would be very difficult. The problem was that ever since I’d had a severe Achilles tendon injury in 1980, I hadn’t been able to do much of the fast speedwork on the track that is necessary to race well at those middle distances. Achieving the 3,000m time seemed a near-impossible goal, so I decided I’d train for the marathon. In July, I started adding long runs of between 90 minutes and 1 hour 50 minutes to my already heavy training and racing schedule.
I raced a lot in the spring and summer of 1983. My “breakthrough year” began after George drove me and some of my other talented teammates down to Cleveland for a big 10K. I ended up winning the race in 32:34, minutes ahead of the “invited” female athletes. After that, race directors from all the major US road races started calling me. I competed in the biggest races, including the Cascade Run-off 15K (49:39 for third place), the L’Eggs Mini-Marathon 10K in Central Park (another third place), and the Falmouth Road Race (second-fastest time ever behind winner Joan Benoit). I was also a member of the Canadian team at the World Student Games in Edmonton, where I placed 5th in the 3,000m.
By virtue of my running the 10,000m in 32:37 at the Ontario Championships, under conditions of stifling heat*, Canada sent me to Knarvik, a tiny place near Bergen, Norway. The IAAF was staging a special international 10K track race for women in Knarvik to make up for the event’s not being part of the World Championships in Helsinki that year
* This was in the days when giving water to track racers was against the rules. A friend of mine surreptitiously handed me cups of water he obtained from the steeplechase pit. It was a wonder I didn’t get sick. Women were also forbidden to wear racing tops that didn’t fully cover their midriff. Notice how I got around that rule in the photo below.
I had terrible problems with jet-lag and insomnia on the Norway trip, but despite hardly sleeping for three days, I managed to finish fourth in the race with a new Canadian record time of 32:23.04. Exhausted, I took a brief holiday on my own at a hotel high on the mountains above Oslo, and did only easy runs for a week. Then I returned to Canada, and, jet-lagged, ran in the Canadian Road Race championships in Toronto. Fighting desperately against my club teammate Ann Marie Malone (who I could usually beat handily over the 10K distance), I won the race in my slowest 10K time of the year (33:29 to Ann Marie’s 33:33) to grab the prize of a Honda Civic for the third year in a row.
After that—after five months of hard track races and road races—surely it was time for a break? No—I had decided to run the Toronto marathon at the beginning of October, so it was time to up the ante in my marathon training!
Now that is obsessed. But my twisted reasoning told me that with the marathon trials coming up in May of 1984, I should have the experience of at least one marathon under my belt. I could have chosen to go anywhere to run a fall marathon—but after my insomnia nightmare in Norway, I thought it would be better to race at home, where I could sleep in my own bed.
If George had been in Toronto that month, he would have forbidden me to train as hard as I did. Unfortunately, he was competing at the World Masters Championships in Puerto Rico, and wasn’t even in Toronto to watch my first marathon.
I was so anxious about the race that I slept little, even in my familiar surroundings. It was a perfect morning for the marathon, though, cool and sunny. I had lots of support along the course; my two brothers and my running teammate Marj followed me the whole way on their bicycles. My future husband Paul Tinari introduced himself to me early in the race and ran almost the whole marathon beside me.
I had a very rough time of it. The main problem was that my shoes started killing me only five miles into the race. These were shoes that I had run comfortably in for several of my long training runs. I could only guess that the hard surface and a pace slightly faster than my training runs caused my feet to swell. From five miles on, with every footfall I felt a hammer hitting my toes. I started praying for the slightly uphill sections where the pressure on my toes was less intense.
In spite of drinking apple juice and water, my blood sugar plummeted and I lost control of myself mentally. I complained and cried constantly about the pain in my feet. Paul kept encouraging me to try to relax. With my fans’ support, I managed to struggle to the finish line at Varsity Stadium, placing third in a much-slower-than-expected time of 2:40:50. My mother was at the finish line to help me to the medical tent, where Paul found me a few minutes later. (He had moved ahead of me at about 38K to finish in 2:38.)
Even though I had hoped to run sub-2:35:00 (a conservative guess based on my 10K times), I wasn’t crushed by my performance. In fact, I still remember how high I felt a few hours after the marathon. After being in acute pain for two solid hours, I was enjoying the huge rush of endorphins into my bloodstream.
Besides, I had accomplished my basic goal of completing a marathon and learning something about how it felt and how to pace it. If I found the right pair of shoes, it would be considerably easier, I reasoned. In hindsight (now even more than then), I realized that I was terribly overtired going into the marathon. With a longer, more solid period of preparation followed by a proper tapering phase, I should be able to run much faster. When George returned from Puerto Rico, we would plan my training for the seven months leading up to the marathon trials in Ottawa in May of 1984.
To be continued…