Monday, March 12, 2012

My Don Kardong Story

Last weekend I was freaking out about how little I've been able to train for the last few weeks. Turns out going from moderately low mileage to marathon training... not easy to pull off without aggravating a few muscle groups to the point of mutiny.

My return to the marathon is not going to be quite as glorious as I'd hoped. In fact, it's probably going to hurt a little. Big Sur will be beautiful, inspiring, and most likely long, slow, and kinda painful.

Dwelling on this reminded me of my Don Kardong story.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a few minutes to chat with US running legend Don Kardong.

Don Kardong leading the pack in the 1976 US Olympic Trails 5000

Don Kardong is best known for his wonderfully fun writing about running (think Dave Barry, but in running shoes) and his 4th place finish in the 1976 Olympic Marathon. For those who don't remember, the gold medal for the marathon in 1976 went to an East German who, in this blog we will call Helmut Von Cheaterpants, because he was so juiced for that race that he left a trail of steroid drippings the entire 26 miles, 385 yards.

There were suspicions at the time, like when Helmut ate half a bale of hay in the athlete's village, but confirmation came after The Berline Wall came down and documentation was discovered. Those East Germans were meticulous about their cheating. Don is the rightful bronze medalist, in every way except for having the actual medal. And in the official results. We all hope that Helmut is enjoying his ill-gotten gold medal and that it doesn't accidentally get wrapped too tightly around his cheating throat.

I also hope that Frank Shorter got his silver medal gold plated.

Don Kardong and Bill Rodgers at 1976 Olympics.
Bill: "Helmut just ate an entire apple, in one bite, right out of that little girl's hand."
Don: "He has like 60 carrots in his bag."

Anywho, there I was chatting away with Don Kardong. It was a little surreal. It was like a budding chef bumping into Julia Child in the produce section. Or a Formula Ford driver finding himself on an elevator with Mario Andretti.

My marathon "career" was just starting. I'd run my first and was training for my second. That first one had kicked my ass and given me a crash course in respect for the distance. I was punished for my early-miles cockiness with a final 5 miles of "survival shuffle". Five miles is a long way when you're not sure if your legs will support you for even one more step.

I had been training especially hard for my second marathon, and reading and studying and learning as much as I could about preparing for the distance, mainly because I did not want to go through that torture again.

So, back to the story... I was standing with, and had the undivided attention of, a bonafide (mostly) Olympic medalist in the marathon. We were talking about running and his books and his race, but in the back of my head, I was coming to the realization that I was as close to the fount of marathon wisdom as I was gonna get before the gun went off in Chicago. It was my best chance to mine the vast experience of an international mega-stud. So I waited for the right moment, and asked as cavalierly as I could manage, "So, Don, what do you do when you hit the wall? How do you work through it?"

I was ready for the wisdom. Eyes, ears laser focused. Brain set to Record.

Here's what he said...

"You know, I've never really hit the wall. I'm pretty lucky that way."

... that's when the awkward moment unfolded... me staring at Don, him looking at me, me unable to speak and trying really hard not to show on my face everything I was thinking in my head, four examples of which are:
  • Astonishment ("Wait, what?!? You've never... never?!?"), 
  • Stark and utter surprise ("That is NOT what I was expecting you to say.")
  • Disappointment ("So, there's no magic training regimen or mental imagery to save me from lactic acid hell?"),
  • Jealousy ("I'd give just about anything to be able to run a marathon without hitting that moment when I would rather crawl into the sewer, that's just right there next to the sidewalk, and snuggle up to an unidentifiable sewer-smelling rodent until my everything stopped hurting, than keep running, even though I know that my leg cramps are way too severe and there's no chance I'll be able to bend down and make it into the sewer.").
It never dawned on me. I always assumed that those elites had to deal with the race, the distance, the same as I did. It didn't seem fair. Why didn't they have to feel the pain like we mortals do?

People like Don Kardong are just different than the rest of us. The same way Julia Child and Mario Andretti are.

For a moment I was devastated. I would never run a marathon like Don Kardong. Not only would I never be that fast, but it would never be as "easy" as it was for him.

But then I tried to imagine what it was like to beat everyone in the world except Karel Lismont from Belgium, defending gold medalist Frank Shorter, and a remorseless cheater to the finish line 26.2 miles from where you started.

I remembered the last race I'd actually won, a 600 meter indoor heat race in college... 600 meters against college kids... and how for the last 423 meters of that race I thought I was going to die.

Reality is that a marathon isn't even remotely the same race for elites as it is for us. They are running unimaginably fast for over two hours.

To race a marathon, not run it, but race it, must be excruciating. Those who do race it don't face a singular moment of increased difficulty. For them, it's balls out, from gun to tape. For them, it's really one 26.2 mile wall.

I can't imagine what it must be like to race hard, against the best in the world, pushing so hard, for over 2 hours.

But Don Kardong can't imagine what it feels like to have your quads and calves and hamstrings turn into steel rods 4 miles from the finish, and still trudge on.

And neither of us can imagine what it's like to run, or walk, for 6 hours, finishing the marathon when 97% of your fellow finishers are back at their hotel, showered, dressed, enjoying their 3rd beer.

That's the greatest beauty of the marathon. It's a challenge, monumental challenge, for every one who puts their toe behind that starting line... some of our toes are waaaay behind the line, but we're still there. We're still covering the same distance, at roughly the same time. We're in it together. It's hard for each of us. It's different for each of us.

Every marathon has many runners. Every runner runs their own, unique marathon, right alongside everyone else. And every marathoner understands, and honors, the time, dedication, courage, and fortitude that it takes to make it to the starting line, and to the finish line, no matter how long it takes to get from one to the other.

And for every runner, each marathon is completely different experience. You just never know. You never know if you'll finish, let alone how long it will take, and how you'll feel. You never know what's going to start you laughing out loud, what you'll step in, what will touch your heart, or what's going to make you wonder how you can possibly keep going, or where you'll summon the strength to do just that. You never know what's waiting for you down that blue* line. And that's a pretty cool, if you like that kind of thing.

I spent the weekend moping about the glorious marathon that won't be. Now, I'm anxiously awaiting the marathon that will be, whatever the hell it looks like.

Good running,

"No doubt a brain and some shoes are essential for marathon success, although if it comes down to a choice, pick the shoes. More people finish marathons with no brains than with no shoes."
- Don Kardong

* Your color may vary, but your mileage will not.