From Marlboros to marathons

Like most war stories, it all started on gravel and dirt.
Huffing, puffing and wheezing my way toward a single mile, any attempt to run made my blackened lungs burn and my legs feel as if they’d personally experienced the second rapture of their Lord and Savior, Glycogen Christ.
A mere three days before, I had sat stagnant — as I so often did — high atop my regular seat at the bar, sucking down cheap whiskey and cheaper beer as I funneled sweet nicotine into my lungs, courtesy of a never-ending string of Marlboro Blended No. 27s.
A pack each day had become a sad common courtesy to my foggy existence, a decade’s worth of practice congealing into one phlegmy, stinking and slightly rotund man, straight down to my bread-like midsection.
My futile attempt at a “brisk” 13-minute mile pace painted the portrait of a newly-minted 27-year-old manboy who had all but given up on athleticism.
I felt defeated.
Bloated, tired, hot, and oh, so defeated.
As cliche as it sounds, at that moment, I breathed in my own mortality.
Gasping and sick, my lanky and wire-thin frame that had never failed me before did just that.
A wire had snapped.
That very night, I became an expert in nicotine vaporizers, the toxins that plagued my body’s circuits — although, being the son of a physician it was more of a refresher course in a class that I had never paid attention in — and what I had done to myself to be where I painfully collapsed that day.
Like I had done one thousand times before, I formulated a plan for cessation and sent it spiraling into motion. This time, as I had so desperately hoped — proved to be different.
This time, I had the run and the run showed me how hurt I was.
Painfully, one mile turned into two, which then glided toward a seemingly impossible 5k.
Every step and punctured breath broke a new barrier. Every burnt tobacco wrap passed and substituted by glycerol vapor was a massive victory.
Within two short months, I felt ready to carry a banner with my now acne-ridden and sunburnt face at the mast.
Five, six and seven mile increments fell to my now unfrozen lungs. On the first dawn of 2016, I ran my first 10k in a gloriously sloppy 59:17, just barely under my hour cap.
There was no runner prouder, and none so ecstatic as I crossed my first finish line to receive, with bended head, the cotton-strung and pewter-clad fruits of my labor.
I was in love, head over heels striking.
As the son of a Boston marathoner and an Ultra, Ironman and trail-ridden, Barkley-like badass, I felt that I had finally realized what drove my father to traverse endless miles.
There is a certain meditative property to distance running. At a certain point, the world seemed to melt directly into my Spandex pocket.
The rhythm, the pace, the music and the ever-changing environment blends together in unison, always the same, and yet, somehow, always different.
Every heated blast from a passing car who didn’t change lanes, each extended twig that gently brushes my torso and every mile chirped into my ear by a melodic British voice places me farther away from the chaos and smoke that once consumed me.
The time each run takes is an escape into a world I wish I had visited from birth.
I have goals now, future accomplishments that I would have scoffed at mere months ago. For the first time in a decade, I have something to work for.
After a decade of sucking down smoke, I was trained and ready for my first marathon in Waxahachie, Texas after a mere six months off the coffin nails.
After that, my eyes are wide to set the fastest known time on the Lone Star Trail, 128 miles of Texan awesomeness that begs the speedy foot traffic and bounding cadence of me and my trusted trail partner, Lea, my sleek black lab. Even further, I happily plan to bear the heat, humidity and humiliation of the Habanero 100 50k, and once again in the Blazin’ 7s 100k in the same year.
No matter where I place, or even if I finish my first 26.2, I have guided a once shoddy vessel to a new, uncharted destination.
One that begs to be seen and then asks, ever so forcefully, to be left behind for something even greater than what I have just passed.

Strung out in the Sand

Just after sunset on Friday night, we found ourselves in the northernmost section of a 45-acre cow pasture, searching for trees, a sturdy fencepost, literally anything that could support the weight of two gingers in a few barely-used camping hammocks.

After trolling the fence line, my sister, Rachael, and I, settled for a dusty patch of grass that bore the early, still-fluffy seedlings of the sticker-burs that would become one with my shins and shoes in a few short hours. Far from the aired-up starting gate now checkered with lights and thumping music, we set up camp.

Wait, I should rewind.

Exactly one year prior, on a similar Friday night, you would have found me high atop my regular seat at the bar, sucking down shitty whiskey and dark beer as I funneled toxic nicotine into my lungs, courtesy of a never-ending string of Marlboro Blended No. 27s.

Just a pack a day. Sometimes more. Rarely less.

But on this Friday night, just 11 months removed from officially taking those nails out of my tar-stained coffin, I was preparing to run my first 50k ultra-marathon and Rachael was on the tail end of her first week off cigarettes, too.

Perfect fucking timing.

It was here that we rallied. Around the dim light of headlamps and lanterns that watched us throwing clouds of vegetable glycerin into the sky in place of tobacco smoke, we sat in a cow pasture and stared at the sky.

We spoke of the unending brain fog, those full-body cravings and how the sweet smell of your favorite brand will never fade. And somehow this all worked to calm my unending nerves.

No amount of training will ever quell my self-doubt before a race. I’ve learned this.

I could wake up the day before and interpretively dance the distance without breaking a sweat, but I’d still be nervous and unprepared at the starting line when the gun goes off.

Despite the doubt, I had it planned out.

Super-planned, over-planned, I even had a well-planned plan on how to execute the race-day plan. Down to the calorie, down to the minute I’d finish each loop and what I’d be wearing while I was thinking about finishing that loop, I had it thought through.

None of those plans would have worked without Rachael. None.

Every six miles I had someone to bounce off. Every six miles, someone to answer a winded phone call or a text.
“Do you need anything”
“Are you eating”
“Got your Hammer Heed in a bottle and a gel too. You’re kicking ass!”
“Doing ok on battery power?”
“DUDE YOU BUMPED UP 10 RANKS!! From 39 to 29 overall 50k!”

I don’t remember many of the miles, but I do remember plodding along and counting down the turns until I’d get back to the starting line for a quick high-five and a refuel. Having her there was a Godsend.

She jumped on for a few miles as a pacer on mile 15, and I proceeded to run a negative split for the next 10 miles. The numbers don’t lie and neither did the motivation she brought me.

The course was equal parts beautiful and brutal. Jutting horse-trail switchbacks gave way to wide open prairie and hardly-trodden fence lines. Gnarly pits of sand packed my shoes with extra ounces, while sticker-burs attempted to find and penetrate the crevices in my shoes that even Asics reps wouldn’t know about.

I fell to the back of the pack at the start like I had planned. I figured I could keep the peloton in sight and stay fresh for the first 25k.

I was dead wrong.

The race began and by the second mile I was in dead last. There was no pack group in sight, and by all accounts, I had already assumed they had finished and were chugging beer at the finish line without me.
At the first aid station, a gentleman right ahead of me told the crew he had fallen and lost his bottle. I gave him mine and he high-fived me, memorizing my bib number as I left and promising it’s safe return. His significant other was waiting for me at the finish line with it as I crossed. Those are now the two greatest high-fives I’ve ever received in my life.

I’ve read countless race reports where runners say that everything clicked. I never knew what they meant until this day.

It all worked. Everything.

I fueled properly. I paced myself. I hydrated properly. I had a playlist so chock full of trap music and steaming fresh indie that even God himself would chunk the deuce while riding by.
My running form felt elegant, slow and methodical, like that older gentleman at your golf club who’s been playing the course for so long that they named 19th hole after him.

I felt that fucking good.

That is — and I know this is the legitimate cliché of every endurance race — until everything fell apart in the last three miles.

I had run 26.2 only a few months prior, but man, those extra few are where your body really starts to get sassy with you. It’s like at a certain point, your legs start conversing with the rest of your body to form an alliance.

“His ass is crazy, we ain’t gotta do this. That log is super comfy and they’ve got golf carts to come get us. Fuck a medal, we want a chair. Did you see that sand?”

I feel like the majority of training has so much more to do with your mental fortitude than it does with your physical strength.
Those last few miles show you what you’re made of, why you trained, and what you’re worth as a runner.

On the first 25k, at the 14th mile, I ran next to a woman who was as ready for the finish as I was. She asked me what mile we were on and I guessed, from my shoddy GPS, that we were at about 14, about a mile from her finish and our collective camp. She noted, with a big laugh, that the last four runners she’d asked had said the same thing over the past three miles.
As we chuckled and parted ways, her friend came into view and screamed, “This is it, you’re almost to the finish line its right around the corner!”