Autumn, agony, and endorphins

Running the Seattle Marathon, mile by painful mile.

I'M AN OVERWORKED college English teacher with weak knees, a bad back, 20 extra pounds, poor circulation, questionable nutritional habits, and I smoke a pack a day. One might reasonably ask, Mike, why enter a marathon? Do you have a death wish?

No, I run for the glory—and the official T-shirt.

That's the short answer as to why I signed up for last year's event, but the long ordeal it entailed may be instructive to those running—or at least watching—this year's race (to be held Sun., Nov. 25).

So what inspired me?

IN 490 B.C., a Greek soldier ran from Marathon to Athens (about 25 miles) to bring news of the Athenian victory over the Persians. After delivering his report to the king, the soldier died and instantly became a posthumous hero. I didn't mind the hero part, but the dying part concerned me, especially in view of my nicotine addiction and the Seattle Marathon's affiliation with the American Lung Association. This paradox was brought to my attention with considerable zeal by my English 151 class, which I suspect was secretly conducting a betting pool on the mile marker where I'd collapse and die.

As if 25 miles weren't long enough, another mile and 385 yards got tacked on at London's 1908 Olympic Games because the king's punk kids couldn't go outside to view the race. To accommodate the royal brats, the start and finish lines were extended so those delicate, inbred kings-and-queens-to-be could watch from the convenience of their own palace. (I knew I'd be thinking about these Windsor rug rats if and when I made it to the 25-mile mark.)

A marathon demands copious preparation. In 1999, I ran the half-marathon (13.1 miles) and in my demographic—male, age 40-44—I'm proud to say I placed 147th out of 152 runners with an official time of 2:35:49. The way I looked at it, there were five guys out there that I thoroughly smoked, and I planned to engage in some serious trash talk if I saw any of those losers in the '00 marathon.

To back up those boasts, I trained four months for the big event: five to 10 miles a day, over 10 miles on most Sundays, and an inordinate amount of time at my chiropractor's office. Did I eat any special food? To me, all food is special.

As for clothing, no athletic endeavor in modern America is worth the effort unless you can spend hundreds of dollars on equipment. Thank God my mother wasn't alive to see me forking over $100 for tennis shoes. Then there was the special headband, socks, radio headphones (to fight possible boredom), running tights, running jacket, and microfiber running shirt. Because wet, sweaty clothes have a tendency to rub your chest raw, on race day I would wear athletic tape in places people usually don't wear athletic tape. My biggest concern, however, was inclement weather. Any severe rain, wind, or cold, and I'd be doomed.

RACE DAY

7:45 a.m. I'm doomed. The severe rain, wind, and cold are a serious concern, and the tape on my chest is already driving me crazy. I feel like the world's worst stripper. I eat a protein bar and my wife kisses me good-bye. She agrees to meet me with a dry shirt at the 13-mile marker. I wear my special St. Louis Cardinals hat for good luck and wave to the cat hiding under the table. He's already made it clear he does not condone running unless being chased.

8:05 a.m. One last cigarette. Even the cat recognizes the firing squad symbolism. Runner 297 reporting for duty, sir.

8:15 a.m. I walk down the wet pavement of Fifth Avenue to the Seattle Center where prehistoric-sized birds circle the treetops. They're either the largest crows I've ever seen or some rare breed of Northwestern turkey vulture. They seem to be meticulously scrutinizing the weaker runners; one stares menacingly in my direction.

I stretch my legs and check out the roughly 9,000 people (participating in three events), some of them wearing black plastic garbage bags to protect them from the wind, though most are outfitted in brilliant neon colors, fancy gloves, and looks of valiant determination. One guy's wearing an Uncle Sam outfit. Another's pushing one of those high-tech aerodynamic baby strollers. Do they realize this is 26.2 miles?

The weather, which has been dry all month, has decided to create a misty light rain, but it's not as bad as earlier this morning. I meander toward the back of the pack so as to not get stampeded and subsequently cursed by legitimate competitors actually trying to win this thing (a lesson learned from nearly being trampled last year). As I scan the crowd, it's painfully obvious that I am, clearly, the fattest person here.

Mile 1: The gun sounds and the race begins. A colorful human caterpillar wiggles and sloshes its way forward upon thousands of pumping legs. There's tremendous electricity and energy in the air, and I'm not referring to the mood of the participants. Lightning crackles behind the skyscrapers downtown. I stay in the back of the pack. It rains harder and my right shoe becomes untied. I bend over to tie it and by the time I finish, I am literally in last place. Fortunately, I'm more or less incognito because no one can see my bib number. I only brought two safety pins to attach it to my shirt, so it keeps flapping up in my face.

Mile 2: There's a swarm of people lined up for the first Port-O-Potty, probably the same ones sucking down Starbucks before the race. I'm feeling quite superior to these poor schmucks until a woman, shorter and even heavier than I am, effortlessly passes me on the I-90 viaduct like I'm standing still.

Mile 4: I stop at an aid station just long enough to get a cup of water. I'm not really thirsty, but I always think it's cool when those marathoners on TV take a sip of water and toss the cup in the street. I discard my cup with great panache. My wife knew I'd be good at this because I'm a slob around the house. Marathoners are messy people. They leave a trail of trash in their wake and, of course, many of them are still wearing Hefty bags. Some folks have no passion for fashion.

Mile 5: The moment of truth. A large sign delineates the choice between two potential directions, a decision that could ultimately prove to be a modern-day Greek tragedy: "FULL MARATHON/ HALF-MARATHON." I hang a left. No turning back now. Tell the king daddy's comin' home!

Mile 7: I make a mental list of 10 things I'd rather be doing right now: 1) sleeping, 2) collecting stamps, 3) clipping coupons, 4) watching Martha Stewart make a gazebo out of cotton swabs, 5) sitting in a Jacuzzi, 6) reading a comic book, 7) watching a fishing show on TV, 8) coloring, 9) cleaning the bathroom, and 10) consulting a qualified mental health professional.

Mile 10: One woman is wearing a yellow rain slicker, a bikini swimsuit bottom, and running shoes. Her legs are as red as legs can get and still be considered legs.

Mile 12: The bona fide contenders at the head of the pack have looped around and are now running past me in the opposite direction. They are obviously very serious about their running. They are also very thin. If I were standing next to one of them, we'd look like the number 10.

Mile 13: Seward Park. My wife had planned to meet me here to give me a dry shirt. I don't see her anywhere near the mile marker or the aid station, so I keep running. After the race, I'll learn that she took a wrong turn and ended up in Burien. I'll also learn that a sympathetic pedestrian was able to direct her to a nearby department store where she was able to shop for a few hours and recalibrate her inner compass.

Mile 15: I'm a little hungry but I'm glad I didn't bring any protein bars. Those things are like eating chocolate-covered tree bark.

Mile 16: I wonder whatever happened to my wife. Gee, I sure hope she's OK.

Mile 18: I'm starting to get my second wind as we exit Seward Park. There's music around the bend. Someone's boom box is playing the Olympic theme, the fanfare with all the trumpets. For a fleeting moment I share that glorious gene of utter psychosis with all the other runners, great and not-so-great, since 490 B.C.

Mile 20: Every runner I talked to during training told me the same thing: The marathon is really two races—the first 20 miles and the last 6.2. There's something at the 20-mile mark called the wall. This is the point where the brain no longer agrees to send blood to the legs. I'm not there yet.

Mile 21: I'm there now. Not only have I hit the wall, the damn thing has completely collapsed on top of me. My legs are tree stumps and will stay that way for the next three miles. A guy at my athletic club told me the hardest thing about running a marathon is coping with depression. I didn't understand what he meant at the time, but I do now. I find myself actually crying from the pain even though I'm trying not to cry—as if my tear ducts have surrendered without my consent. (Later, my wife will welcome me, as she puts it, to the wonderful world of menopause.) This really, really hurts. I imagine it is to my legs what childbirth is to the uterus. (Later, I'll keep this theory to myself.)

Mile 23: What fucking idiot laid out this course? They saved all the uphill stuff for the end! It's killing me one step at a time. The ultimate irony is that I paid a $50 entry fee when one of my students would've gladly volunteered to beat my legs with a baseball bat for free.

Mile 24: My thighbones are no longer connected to my knee bones, which are no longer connected to my anklebones, which are no longer connected to my feet bones. I see the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile parked on a side street, a giant red hot dog on a yellow platform with four wheels. It honks at me, so I wave. Is that my wife behind the wheel? In the rain-swollen gutters I see swans swimming in slow motion. The race has become a Fellini film. My life flashes before my eyes—a decidedly short and uneventful tale. Look at the pretty lake. Mikey want a pony.

Mile 25: We pass The Seattle Times building and a few spirited people, who I assume are there to support the runners, but in truth they are on-strike picketers. I give them a big thumbs-up. My thumb feels great; everything else is completely shot to hell. I'd be at the finish line sipping bottled water by now if it weren't for those wimpy little heirs to the throne in 1908.

Mile 26: My fantasy to become the first marathoner in recorded history to smoke a cigarette at the finish line will go unrealized. (It's too wet to light a match.) Instead, I distract myself from the pain by imagining creative ways to torture the royal children. At least we're going downhill again.

Mile 26.2: Five hours, 26 minutes and 43 waterlogged seconds after beginning, euphoric and delirious, I stride with renewed pep in my step into Memorial Stadium. Tsunami waves of adrenaline pulsate through my body. I feel light, as if defying the laws of gravity. I expect to see two types of runners at the finish line: those who look like they could do it all over again, and those who look like me. Instead, the serious athletes have already showered, checked out of their motels, and eaten a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's. The winner, for example, Uli Steidl, a UW doctoral student (and a nonsmoker), broke the tape three hours ago. There are only 30 or 40 people left in the stands and milling about on the sidelines. Then something amazing happens.

In a tinny, overamplified voice, the public address announcer says, "Number 297—Mike Hickey." I raise my hands in the air and start screaming, "I made it! I made it! Number 297 is in the house! That's what I'm talkin' about!" By this time I'm really whooping and hollering, having an in-body/out-of-body experience, an endorphin orgy, an ancient Greek apotheosis. And despite my finishing 1,482nd out of 1,522 male runners, the spectators stand up and cheer wildly, each and every one of them, like I've just broken a world record or liberated Paris.

I wave to the small but adoring throng and blow kisses. A race official asks for the ankle bracelet that contains my timing chip, but I can't bend over. Graciously, she removes it for me. Like a drunk at the end of a party, I tell her I love her. With each step, I make a small, indecipherable squeaking noise that corresponds to the pain. (It sounds like I'm speaking in tongues.) I remove the mush of six wet headbands and a single squishy glom of breath mints from my jacket pocket. In the other pocket, the radio headphones—never needed them.

INDEED, AS I LATER considered of my marathon experience, you feed off the energy of the crowd and the rhythm of your own breathing. There's a powerful and unexplainable force that kicks into gear, like a firefighter pulling a child out of a burning building. I'd never felt like that before. Over the past year, various people have asked why I ran the marathon. (After heated negotiations with my feet and knees, I'm stepping back down to the half this Sunday.) I try to explain to them the glory of that otherworldly energy, the triumph of the butterfly bursting forth from the chrysalis and elevating itself to the dizzying heights of the gods.

Then I light up another smoke.

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