Written by Bob Woelk Wednesday, 14 May 2008 10:00
An exhaltant Bob Woelk crosses the finish line at the Memorial Marathon in Oklahoma City.
I finished my third marathon a couple of weeks ago, and it turned out to be one of my best days to date—and, I’m not just speaking athletically.
I was hoping to finish the 26.2 miles in under four hours and 16 minutes. And, to be honest, I had my doubts. I had been hampered by a sore knee for the final two weeks leading up to the Oklahoma City event. Though I had trained consistently, I hadn’t done any extra work in preparation.
Actually, training for the 16 weeks up to the April 27 Memorial Marathon was as much fun as it could be. My running buddies were Anna Woods, local certified personal trainer, and Donna Spoonemore from out Goessel way. I also ran once or twice with Tom Leihy from Hillsboro.
Randy Wiens, the best barber in town, and Glen Kliewer, a local marathon veteran, joined us for our last double-digit jog as well. We encouraged each other as we struggled through training during one of the windiest springs in memory.
We had hoped to run the marathon together as much as possible. But, when we arrived at the predetermined spot for the Marion County contingent around 5:45 a.m., only a few of us were present.
Anna was AWOL, and we couldn’t raise her on the cell phone. Tom needed to return to the hotel, though we didn’t know that at the time. So, it was Donna, Glen and me, along with Glen’s daughter Jocelyn, a 2002 Hillsboro graduate who was running the half-marathon that day.
We continued to try to call Anna, but we had no luck. Tom was nowhere to be found as Donna, Glen and I approached the staging area. The ROTC boys entrusted with the task of keeping spectators behind the protective fence let Donna and me in, but for some reason, they would not allow Glen to enter the staging area. He was sent a block down the street. We never saw him again until the run was over.
As race time drew near, I used my 6-3 height to try to spot Randy. His wife Lindy was participating in the half. I couldn’t see them anywhere. So, it looked like Donna and I would be on our own, at least for the time being.
The starting gun sounded, and we crossed under the starting arch and over the starting mat, which triggered the computer chips attached to our shoes and began our official time. At that point, it was all we could do to keep our feet beneath us as the more than 7,000 runners began their quests for finisher medals.
Our focus was on staying together through the maze of bobbing and weaving runners. This stage of a marathon always reminds me of skiing down a slope through spring break crowds. Tricky.
Both Donna and I were carrying cell phones, so the first chance we got, she called a friend along the route and asked him to keep an eye out for Anna. He called back and said she was about a minute and a half behind us and would try to catch us. Unfortunately, she never did, though we did see her at one point when the trail doubled back.
The race went well through the first half, and I have to credit Donna with keeping our pace brisk. My job was to hold her back through the first 15 miles or so. Then, if she was feeling stronger than I was, she could go ahead. Her goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon next spring. She would need a time of below four hours and one minute.
Through the first 16 or 17 miles, we were right on pace at just a few seconds over 9 minutes per mile. We were feeling strong, though both of us had some age-related aches and pains at that point.
I have this theory about running marathons. Is there a point at which a person can run too slowly to maintain efficiency? If you think about it, a walk from Hillsboro to U.S. Highway 50 and back would take a certain amount of energy to accomplish, whether it was done in six hours or eight hours. Doesn’t it make sense that a brisker walk would mean less time on a person’s feet, therefore making the trek less exhausting? I think it does.
As we maintained that four-hour pace in OKC, I figured this might be the chance I had been looking for to test my hypothesis. Perhaps I could actually reach that point of equilibrium where I would shorten my time on the course but not overtax my reserves and fade miserably at the end. Why not give it a shot?
Then, at about 18 miles, I had a moment where I suddenly felt faint. I thought I would have to drop out. Could it be a dip in blood sugar? I had been munching on pretzels the volunteers were handing out along the route. I had been drinking water and Powerade.
A wave of panic covered me as I realized I might have to drop out or worse. I looked ahead for the nearest aid station, but we were in a fairly desolate section of the course.
Then, something I can only describe as a spiritual moment happened. I felt a new strength overwhelm me at 10 a.m., and I had more energy than I knew what to do with. It was so tangible, I asked a woman standing beside the road what time it was so that I could make a mental note of the exact moment.
I felt a complete release of all my fear about not finishing the marathon. An urge to PICK UP the pace came upon me. It was no longer a question of whether I would finish, but how fast my time would be.
I turned to Donna and told her what had happened. We had been in conversation for most of the run that morning. She said she had noticed that I had suddenly become quiet a few moments back.
At this point, we had dropped off our pace a bit, and we had lost sight of the four-hour pacer with the yellow balloons. The larger marathons offer this service for those hoping to reach a certain time. We had kept her in sight most of the first 16 miles or so, but she had advanced to about a half-mile ahead of us.
Donna and I started talking about what time we might be able to achieve, believing at that point that the four-hour mark was not attainable any more.
Eventually, mile marker 21 came into view. We had been walking a minute about every two miles, so we slowed down and took in some water. (It’s much harder to drink while running, by the way.) I told Donna that I might not walk every two miles any more. It all depended on how I felt.
I can’t remember for sure; things were a bit of a blur after that, but I may have walked one more time. That’s it. At one point around mile 23, I told her I was taking off, I was “on fire.” I picked up my pace and set my sights on the four-hour balloons in the far distance. Once again, I felt a surge of energy and confidence. I took off on some of my fastest three miles of the morning.
I passed the yellow balloon lady with about three-fourths of a mile to go. As the official clock came into view, I saw that the four-hour mark was easily within my grasp. I crossed the finish line in ecstatic exhaustion, raising my hands in tribute to the one who had given me strength when I most needed it. I knew at that moment that the power I had felt earlier was from God. Some will laugh or scoff, but to me, it is an indisputable truth.
My final time was 3:58:49, nearly 18 minutes better than my previous best time from 2005. I have no earthly explanation for what had happened to me in those final eight miles.
Donna finished shortly after I crossed the line. Unfortunately, she missed qualifying for Boston by less than a minute. Anna finished just under four hours as well, though at her age of 25, the Boston time was quite a bit quicker for her.
The cranky knee that had concerned me before the race felt great, and my recovery time since has been minimal. I have already returned to my routine of four-mile runs three or four days a week.
All in all, it was a fabulous day for Marion County runners, as all six of us completed the course. The three half-marathoners, Lindy, Jocelyn and Tom’s son Sean, completed their races as well.
But, it was a most important day for me personally as I learned that even something as seemingly trivial as a marathon can be a chance for God to demonstrate that our strength comes from Him, and when we stop relying on ourselves and give ourselves up, He will touch us at times and in ways we least expect. Our job is simply to spread the word.