That Was Then, This Is Now
by Dave Borowski
Eighteen years go I ran my first, and only, marathon, the Marine Corps in Washington, D.C. It’s called the “People’s Marathon” because of its lack of prize money and its ability to transform joggers into first-time marathoners. In 1984 I was a 36-year-old jogger who wanted to be a marathoner, so it was a perfect match.
My completion time back then was 4:56—fast enough to avoid Monday morning rush hour but not a time to volunteer in general running conversation. Disappointed with my performance and disillusioned with long distance running I declared to my wife and friends that I would not run another marathon and I kept that pledge for almost two decades.
In April of 2002, at age 53, I decided I wanted to again go from jogger to marathoner. This wasn’t a sudden compulsion but a desire building for a year or more, probably triggered by some mid-life brain cell firing when I hit the big Five-O. Not only did I want to run again, at Marine Corps, I also wanted to best my 1984 time. Running a marathon in middle age is a challenge, but far safer for marriage and family than buying a red sports car and less life threatening then skydiving or bungee jumping.
Remembering and Researching
Ambitious goals demand ambitious plans, and running as fast as I had at 36 years old couldn’t be done without preparation, so I sat down and analyzed how I trained in 1984. To help me uncover the mistakes of that long ago race I did what any self-respecting baby-boomer would do—I bought a book and consulted an expert. The book was How to Train for and Run Your Best Marathon by Gordon Bakoulis Bloch. The expert was Ken Mierke, head trainer and coach for Fitness Concepts in Fairfax County, VA. Ken has trained national champion triathletes, so he certainly could help me accomplish my goal.
What did I do wrong the first time? I gave Mierke a rundown of what I remembered of my training regimen. It was pretty simple; I went out and ran—every day, which at the time seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I was already running four days a week at two or three miles a pop, so I just upped the ante. At lunch I’d leave my office and do three or four miles around the Mall in Washington, D.C. at about an 11 minute pace. On weekends I’d bump up my mileage a bit at the same pace. Both Mierke and Bakoulis Bloch agreed that running the same distance every day at the same pace was not a training strategy that would guarantee marathon success.
More importantly, I also realized that a core problem with my 1984 race was that I failed to set an obtainable goal (other then finishing.) I had defined no steps to hit a target—in fact I didn’t even have a target. Now I had a real tangible goal—finish under 4:56—and I could plan and measure my progress toward achieving that goal.
So, armed with a goal and a plan, I could set about training.
I bought some basic equipment: a digital running watch and a running log. I measured my time over known routes plus timed my speed work. Fast is, of course, relative, and for me fast is, say, an eight-minute mile. Some of this speed work was done at a local high school track and some on a treadmill. I occasionally did fartleks during road training.
At the suggestion of both Mierke and Bakoulis Bloch I varied my training regimen, taking off one day a week and doing cross-training like the Stairmaster or walking. My arms get tired and sore on long runs so I did some upper body weight training.
For the last several years my running had once again fallen into a routine of a daily three-mile run. I knew I had to increase that but I wanted to avoid injuring my soon-to-be 54-year-old body. Again, both my book and expert encouraged me to build my mileage slowly using the popular 10% rule.
For June I averaged a modest 18 miles a week. I slowly increased the mileage until by July I was averaging about 25 miles a week, August about 30, September 35, peaking in early October at about 40 miles per week. Most days I divided my runs into two chunks, one at noon and one in early evening. On weekends I did my long runs.
The “long run,” I learned, is considered a must for the successful completion of a marathon. When I ran the Marine Corps in 1984 I hit “the wall” at around mile 18. After that point my forward progress slowed dramatically until at times there was no progress. I don’t remember actually sitting on the curb, but I did walk a lot.
To avoid a similar fate, I added five long runs of 12 or 13 miles to my schedule. This was on the short end as long runs go, but there were noticeable improvements in my time and I was feeling much stronger than I had in 1984.
This modest training regimen did concern me as I approached race day. I was tempted to continue my training schedule until the day before, but friends persuaded me to taper off. The week before the race I did short easy runs, lifted light weights and took off the two days before the event. By race day, I was ready.
Marine Corps Marathon Day
October 27th was a beautiful day to run in Washington. The morning was cool and the forecast was for sun with temperatures in the low 60’s.
With nearly 16,000 fellow travelers (up from 12,000 in 1984), I lined up. When I ran this the first time it took a few minutes for me to even get to the starting line. Not that those few minutes made much of a difference in the standings, but at least this time my exact start and finish were electronically calculated by the Champion-Chip tied to my shoe. Every little bit helps.
Looking around, I could easily see that the “People’s Marathon” draws runners for a variety of reasons. Some, like me, were running to beat a personal best or just to prove they can do it. Others were here for deeply personal reasons like memorializing a loved one. Singlets and T-shirts bore the photos and names of fathers, mothers, siblings and friends who had passed away—many in the 9/11 terrorist attack, others in long ago wars.
I had a lot of company at my pace, some of it, uh… unusual. I was happy to pass a group of women dressed as Uncle Sam and a juggler, while a guy in a pink tuxedo had the audacity to pass me. I figured I’d pace myself and catch the two firefighters running in full firefighter gear later because I thought they’d hit their wall at around seven miles. I wasn’t so sure about the Marine in full pack. Marines get encouragement from their brothers with grunts that can be heard all along the race. It’s odd running next to a leatherneck and all of a sudden hearing a chorus of “Huuh, Huuuh.” I joined the boisterous runners around me clapping, whistling, grunting and yelling “USA, USA” whenever I went through a tunnel or under a bridge.
Cruising and Crashing
The splits Marines called out at the mile markers confirmed I was on target—slowing down a bit, but O.K. At mile nine as I was coming to the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Arlington, I heard my wife shout “Borowski!” Later she said, “It was like you just started.” In Rock Creek Park, somewhere between mile 11 and 14, a coworker was holding a cardboard happy face. The next day she said that I had looked “Great!”
But around mile 20 or 21 I seemed to be losing that “just started” and “great” feeling. It wasn’t the doomed “I’ll never finish” soreness I distinctly remember from ’84, but soreness just the same. I began stopping at all water and gel stations just to walk a bit. The problem with stopping is starting again, and it was all I could do to get the mass of my body back in motion. It was at this point that I wished I had done some longer runs.
The joyous outbursts under the bridges had toned down, and soon waned entirely with everyone silently plodding along in the familiar marathon shuffle. People along the way started telling us “You’re almost there, keep going,” around mile 15. I knew I really wasn’t “almost there,” and I smiled and waved but secretly wished they’d can it. When I got to mile 24, however I was almost there.
At mile 26 “almost there” translates into 385 yards, almost four football fields. But these football fields were uphill and on a curve, and I was really sore. It took forever.
I eventually crossed the finish line with the clock reading 4:47 and raised my hands in victory. My chip time was 4:45:14. Age adjusted, that represents a 4:14:09 effort for my youthful self of 18 years ago. Better information, better goals and better training had paid off. I was faster at 53 than at 36, and in far better shape for my age.
Would I do it again? I think this time I may really retire from marathoning. But who knows in another 18 years I may want to go from jogger to marathoner once again. And if I do, I’ll look to the Marine Corps Marathon to accomplish it again.