Dr. J on Running

12 Paavo Nurmi Marathon, Hurley, WI, 5:54:40

13 August 2011

I flew into Duluth, MN, on Friday afternoon, and battled traffic and road construction on the 114-mile trip east along route 2 towards Iron County. I reached Hurley in time for packet pick-up and pasta dinner. The Paavo featured an anemic expo and a no-frill dinner in the school cafeteria. The packet contained the bib number and a few flyers – the T-shirt must wait until the finish.

The Hurley Inn showed its age and neglect. My room had no fridge, no microwave and no coffee maker. The Sleep Number bed had broken controls. The assist bar in the bath tub was torn from the wall. The door closed only if slammed, which seemed the case all night throughout the inn.

I got up early, ate two slices of raisin bread and a banana, and drank a fresh cup of coffee in the lobby. The vending machines refused to sell me a bottle of water. The weather channel reported 60 degrees and 96 percent humidity. Thunderstorms loomed just south of us. I drove the 2-miles to the finish line, and awaited the shuttle to the start.

The small shuttle drove a dozen of us to the start line, and we huddled in the cold open country. I met Isabelle from Ithaca, along with a handful of 50 state club members, and we passed the time. The rumor that the Paavo featured fast women came true, judging from shapes and outfits. As 0730 neared, my Timex refused to lock onto satellites. The gun came too soon, and I started the stopwatch without the GPS.

I ran within myself, breathing in for four steps and out for four steps. I reached mile 1 just under 10 minutes – too fast. As mile 2 appeared in the distance, my Timex announced GPS lock, 18 minutes into the run. Timex were to lose lock several times during the run, rendering it into a cumbersome stopwatch. I lost sight of Isabelle at start.

With an unreliable GPS, I walked about half-a-mile at even mile markers. The 5x5 relay runners provided a good distraction and constant change of scenery. Isabelle caught up with me just past 12 miles. She had suffered severe hip pain in the first mile, stopped to stretch, went eventually off course, rejoined the course, and settled into a 10-minute pace. We ran together until the half-way point, which we reached in 2:29. A old guy sat comfortably in a lounge chair in front of an old church, and rang a large 50+ inch Meneely bell as we passed by.

When I resumed running after the 13.1-mile water station, my right foot developed a mind of its own. It became wobbly and floppy, and refused to plant in front me. I lost command and control of my right foot. I was able to walk, but running became all but impossible. I tripped every time I tried to run. I bid Isabelle farewell, and I contemplated my predicament.

I took stock of the situation: I felt no pain. I had four Ibuprofens and two Harvest Powerbars in my pockets. The finish line closed at 1400, so I had four hours to walk 13 miles. I decided to go for it. I had never walked 13 miles before, so I had no history and no expectation of how my body would behave.

I reached 15 miles under three hours, and I heard the announcer at the finish line, a mere half-a-mile ahead. Yet the course took us on an 11-mile detour into the country. I attempted repeatedly to resume running, and realized instantly the futility of my attempts. My right foot flopped out of control whenever I tried to run, and refused to plant in front of me or propel me forward. I reached mile 19 in four hours, maintaining a 15-minute walking pace.

The fully-stocked aid stations presented a variety of surprises. Besides water and sports drink, many offered bananas and oranges. Some had sports gel, donuts and apple fritters, Oreo cookies, and ice cream bars. A relay runner held a handful of black cherries, so I took three and enjoyed every byte.

Bob joined me around 19 and questioned the meaning of the verse on the back of my shirt. I explained that the strength to finish the race did not come from within, but from Him. He challenged me and asked if the verse meant that non-believers could not finish. I clarified that the verse said “I can do all things”, not “Bob could not do anything.”

A retired fourth amendment attorney in his late sixties, Bob was running his 192nd marathon. Our intellectual discourse moved from religion to international politics to cyberspace. Time and miles passed. Around mile 22, Bob took leave to empty gravel from his shoe. I pressed on.

With three miles to go, the sky became threatening. The sweep bus hovered like a vulture waiting for any sign of faltering to pick us up. I dreaded the thought of lightning closing the course and voiding five hours of sweat. I tried running, and my foot cooperated for about a minute. I made several running attempts, and was able to run farther each time, building up to three minutes.

I crossed the finish line in 5:45:40. I finished 171st, my best marathon finishing place. I ran the first half in 2:29 and walked the second half in 3:16, maintaining a 15-minute walking pace. At the finish line, I picked up a coupon that entitled me to a medal and t-shirt. I enjoyed a cup of Mojakka – Finnish stew – with some bread. I topped it off with a soft-serve ice cream dipped in chocolate from Dairy Queen.

Dr Kamal Jabbour ended up in physical therapy following his Paavo ordeal. Dr. J's RUNNING Column appears in Cyberspace whenever endorphines call.

© 2011 Dr Kamal Jabbour