I Bought a New Scanner

The Awakening  used to be at the tip of Hains Point, the perfect expression of running a marathon!  Photo by Ryan Sandridge

The Awakening used to be at the tip of Hains Point, the perfect expression of running a marathon!

Photo by Ryan Sandridge

The scanner arrived and I got busy sorting photographs for days, dated and labeled them by film roll. All so I could scan them. In the process I came across some race proofs mixed with the negatives. Contact prints, the size of 35 mm negatives so you have to squint.

Scratched my head and stared at the date: November 6, 1989. Holy crap! First week in November–had to be Marine Corps Marathon. For years my training schedule aimed for it. It’s curious that I don’t remember getting the proofs, because I sure remember the race. Cold November morning with lots of cloud cover. All my PR’s came in the fall.

That last marathon in 1989 was my best.

Just turned forty and in the best shape of my life, running 70 second quarters all through the summer, peaking with a handful of 20 quarter workouts and 60 mile weeks. Sunday morning training runs we’d go out at a 7 minute pace for 5 miles, then turn and burn at race pace, finishing with a 6 mile cool down loop around Lake Accotink. The pack included several Olympian candidates, so I was by no means the fastest.

I’d never run in high school. Low self-esteem, and weak lung power, though I thought about cross-country. I took up running for fitness two years out of grad school at twenty-four. Running loops around Grapeland Park under the flight path for the Miami International Airport. The jets taking off kept me from being bored, sometimes wondering if a wrench left forgotten on a wing would drop on my head.

I was inventing the sport all on my own in Miami; the running craze hadn’t hit the Gold Coast yet. Seldom saw any other fools running in Miami heat, though there were plenty of retirees on the golf course next to the park. I’d wait until the sun’s red ball dropped below the tree line before starting, but there was no escaping the humidity–that was 24 hours a day in south Florida. I ran in Converse ‘high tops’ and wondered if my crippled calves would ever stop hurting, figuring so-called running shoes were a marketing scam. My first pair of Nikes told me different. Like I said, I was inventing my own sport.

Moving to Northern VA, I ran a first marathon in 1980. Barely crawled in under 4 hours because I didn’t know how to train. I recall thinking I needed to run several 20-milers per week… so I joined the NOVA Running Club to train with people who did know how. By ‘89 I was closing in on my potential, and in that time I’d found a purpose in the mental discipline.

As much as I was in a zone on the track at TC Williams HS, my home life was dissolving. Sixteen years was as much as either of us could take. Purposeful as the training was, that was how purposeless our relationship had become; the two boys were all that held us together. That same fall I was starting a new architectural business, one of four partners. Pledged our houses for collateral and sixty-hour weeks for a decade. No stress. When the break with my wife finally came, I was still in the middle of buying the business with all our assets being pledged. Which I was grateful she didn’t argue; we still needed the nut I was bringing home.

There are lines in a poem about reading Ryan books the night I left, clearing my throat to keep from losing it.

In retrospect, I have no idea how I ran that marathon with anything close to a clear head. My ‘normal’ must have been orbiting out past Mars that year.

A local boy won the 1989 Marine Corps Marathon, Jim Hage from Lanham in a time of 2:20. The first woman was Laura DeWald from Grand Rapids in a time of 2:45:16. Sixteen thousand runners started. Marine Corps is called the ‘people’s race’ for all the amateurs; no prize money means pros don’t run the race. But where else can you run where every ten feet a teenager in dress khakis is calling you ‘Sir!’ for encouragement?

Marathons were not my best distance, but I liked using Marine Corps as a training goal. 2:50 for men was the men’s qualifying time for the Boston Marathon. Boston is still the granddaddy marathon. That was my goal, breaking 2:50. The Marine Corps racecourse had one hill at around 13 miles–Capitol Hill, and the Iwo Jima hill at the end. All I needed to do was average 6:30 miles. Easy.

With 16,000 of your closest friends waiting for the starting cannon (it’s the Marine Corps, after all) and only a four-lane highway to start on, I’d learned not to get too far back in the pack. In a previous half marathon in Philly, I’d been tripped by a goofball who didn’t know where to put his feet. In road races of this size you’re supposed to get self-seeded by expected pace. But as I looked around, there were lots of joggers pressing the front line, so, knowing a number of them, I got right behind the real runners, figuring the first mile would be fast. It was, but I stayed clear of the joggers.

The course meandered south through a bit of rundown Crystal City before turning back north for Georgetown. In those early miles, you’d see people veering off around office buildings to take care of the business they’d meant to do before the race.

Barbara and Cathy picked me up going into Rosslyn and Key Bridge. Barbara and I were long time training partners; Cathy had just joined the club that year. NOVA had a reputation for training hard as a team, and Cathy wanted in.

I was happy to see them. The crowd was happy as well, cheering who they assumed were the leading woman, chatting with me and each other, no less. They paced me through Georgetown, past the Kennedy Center toward the Mall. I remember Barbara beside me laughing, then seeing the 10-mile marker. 62 minutes. Oops. My best 10 miler hadn’t been but a few minutes faster, and there were still 16+ miles to go. I put it out of my mind. I felt on top of the world, but I’d make a rookie mistake.

Their Sunday runs finished, Barbara and Cathy dropped me around the Lincoln Memorial so they could jog back across the river to watch the finish. I wasn’t the only NOVA runner in the race. Barbara told me Dave Glidewell from the club was running with the lead pack when it had gone by in Rosslyn. I’d worked out with Dave all summer, he running mile repeats to the same pace as my quarters. The boy could move along. His brother, John Glidewell was a nationally ranked runner, so it came with the genes in Dave’s case. Great person. It was Dave’s first marathon and he couldn’t hold the pace; he finished 4th in 2:21. Another of NOVA’s crew was a sweet, petite woman, Mary Salamone who smoked all but the leading woman, finishing 2nd in 2:45.

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So the first of the photo proof caught me mid-race running strong and focused. I’d realized by then I would pay for the fast start, only question was how much? Was it all the speedwork I’d done in training? It was certainly running with Barbara and Cathy in the early going; they were all sorts of inspiration.

A major challenge in distance running is staying hydrated, though you can’t totally in a marathon. But what you pass up at the water stops will pay you back later with calf cramps and joints locking up when what you need is to marshal yourself to finish. It’s hard, but you don’t skip water stops in a marathon. There’s a technique. Grab a first cup and pour it over your head, then grab a second–preferably diluted Gatorade–and third, swallow and one or two more to carry, folding the paper cups so they don’t splash as much. The trick is not gulping down air, or choking on the water. But you don’t stop. Even a slow jog is better than walking. Marshaling the strength to run again after walking is beastly hard.

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In the second picture it appears I’m running into Hains Point, with the river to my right.

Overall, the Marine Corps course is flatter than not, and Hains Point is the pancake from hell. In those days there was a giant sculpture of a man in agony rising from the dirt and clawing the air, placed right where you rounded the point–very apropos. In its inimical wisdom, the US Park Service never said it was more than temporary, and the work was sold to a private developer in Maryland. It belongs on Hains Point.

The Awakening   by J. Seward Johnson  Photo by Ryan Sandridge

The Awakening by J. Seward Johnson

Photo by Ryan Sandridge

Heading into Hains Point was about the 18 mile mark going to 20 miles. The expression is that the marathon is two races: the first 20 miles and the last 6. You need to run the first 20 just to reach the second half of the race.

You’re nowhere near the finish but your body is now talking loudly about the benefits of walking. Or sitting down–just for a wee bit. This is where you see droves of runners giving up. Blisters that were just red at 10 miles are now very unhappy, and if you overdressed ‘cause it’s cold!’ at the start, you’re now shedding clothes, long-sleeve T’s, Gortex jackets, beanies, even balaclavas and tons of gloves. Like the French fleeing Moscow.

Leading to a next lesson: do not run in shoes that haven’t taken you on several long runs first. New shoes are not your friends. Nor are new socks. Nor even a new singlet. They also hand out vaseline at the water stops for the blisters in awkward places. Bleeding nipples hurt men and women alike; I’m just saying.

My Sunday training buddy, Peter picked me up at 20 miles, handing me water from the stops as it was obvious I was flagging. I went through 20 miles at just over 2:20 hours. 20 miles in 140 minutes. Even brain dead, it was easy math; not fast enough. I was averaging 7 minutes a mile. Twenty miles into a marathon, you will not recover much time to speak of; even holding the pace is hell. From then on it was an all-mental game. I wasn’t going to break 2:50, so what was the point?

It becomes a survival zone you drop into, withdrawing mentally to throw one foot in front of the other. Time is suspended and the distance elongates. Counting minutes takes too much effort and is depressing as hell. People are dropping out right and left, and you’re passing ones who you’d seen way ahead of you earlier in the race, but there’s no pleasure in it because you know you could well join them momentarily. You pass another NOVA runner or he passes you and you both temporarily cheer up, urging each other on. “Looking good!” “See you at the finish!” There are few parts of your body that don’t hurt. This is the place where you remember that your best races are the shorter ones, even the 5Ks.

It hurt but the feet kept moving.

It hurt but the feet kept moving.

The third and fourth photos are of the infamous 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac, usually a traffic jam in Washington’s rush hour, and now a death march slogging back into Virginia with four or so miles to reach the Iwo Jima Memorial. Once you begin to stare at the ground just in front of you, you’ve officially ‘hit the wall.’ You can see it in my expression.

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I finished in 2:58, eight minutes slower than the goal, averaging eight minute miles over the last 6. So I gave back every minute I’d saved in the first 10 miles, and then some. I’d broken 3 hours, but barely, and walking was an experiment in unusual motion afterwards. But the sun was out, the beer was free and lying in the grass was pure pleasure.

A month later, last race of the season on a very hilly course in Baltimore, I set my PR in the 10K, breaking 36 minutes. I tore up the first two miles doing 5:20s pacing another NOVA runner who was normally ahead of me; we traded leads and pushed each other. By next spring at the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, I did another PR at close to the same pace, floating past the giant at Hains Point. I was built for 10Ks and 10 milers in a way that I wasn’t a marathoner. You learn these things.

By the summer of ’90, I’d be finished as a road racer, though I didn’t yet realize it. Plantar fasciitis like a knife in my heel killed my last serious 10K. I won’t claim I was the smartest in training, but I’ll take credit for determination. In ‘91 I paced a close friend for a piece of her first marathon, and by ’94 we were married. The decade of the 90s as a master, I couldn’t train consistently for all the injuries. But I loved my children, found a partner in life and a career worth pursuing.

Oh yeah, and our first husky rescue, who loved running any season any time. When you pulled out his harness from the gear closet, he’d do this little jump for joy, kicking his hind legs out. Five years old, Butz was as focused on the trail as a committed cross-country runner could be.

The gang in Prince William Park

The gang in Prince William Park