FREE FALLING

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BOB WOELK
The first thing I have to do is eat a little crow. I have to admit that Hillsboro High School student Meredith Kliewer was right. It is possible to enjoy participating in a marathon.

A year ago, I boldly pronounced to my yearbook students that nobody enjoys a marathon. I believe I also made the statement that I would never attempt one. Guess what. I was wrong on both counts.

Not only did I attempt the Memorial Marathon April 24 in Oklahoma City, I finished it in a time of 4 hours, 16 minutes, 44 seconds. And, I completed it on the run.

I thought I was smiling as I crossed the finish line, but a photo taken by a company trying to sell me a memento clearly showed otherwise. I would have to more accurately describe my facial expression as a grimace. It was a happy grimace, though.

For the 24 hours that followed, I walked much like a man who had just been released from the hospital after surgery. The pain was limited to my knees mostly, and it was especially bad after I had been sitting for a while.

Most of what I felt was a sense of euphoria. Considering the experiences of the three weeks or so leading up to the big day, I was ecstatic just to have completed the 26.2 miles. (By the way, every marathon by definition is 26.2 miles long.)

About a month before, I was blessed with a case of shingles. They were not particularly severe as they were located on my back and side. The disease, apparently somehow connected to a childhood case of chicken pox, though not debilitating, left me feeling like I had scratched off some chigger bites while somebody was rabbit punching me in the ribs. It’s a strange malady.

I was well on my way to recovery by the time the doctor confirmed my Internet-assisted self-diagnosis. There wasn’t much anyone could do about it at that point. As it turned out, I suffered no ill effects from the shingles.

Then, to keep things interesting, I developed a sore throat that turned into a full-blown summer cold at the start of the week leading to the marathon. To top it all off, I tweaked my calf muscle picking up my watch in the motel room the morning of the big run.

I began to wonder if God was trying to tell me something.

The rest of the Hillsboro contingent-Randy Wiens and Glen Kliewer (Meredith’s dad)-faced similar problems. Randy had been battling pneumonia since the end of March, and Glen was fighting a case of bronchitis.

Fortunately for me, my cold was short-lived, and I was pretty well recovered by race time. I forgot all about my calf incident by the time I arrived at the staging area.

Randy ended up completing a respectable half-marathon, and Glen finished a short way behind me, so we were all pleased with the outcome of our struggles.

The race itself was fascinating. There was never a dull moment. As Glen and I lined up at the start with 11,500 or so of our closest friends-there were actually several events beginning at the same time and place: the marathon, the half-marathon, the marathon relay and a memorial walk-a sea of heads presented themselves as far as the eye could see in both directions.

The first few miles were simply a matter of dodging in and out of traffic and trying to stay together. It reminded me of skiing down a crowded mountain run or roller skating at a crowded rink.

I wanted to stay close to Glen because he was going to provide the pace. I was eager to take off early, as my race experience was limited to 5-kilometer contests, where starting speed is crucial. He did a fantastic job of setting a comfortable rhythm for us as we headed down the streets of OKC.

I felt like a racehorse waiting for the gate to open, but I also knew we were running a smart pace. A slower beginning would keep us fresh for a strong ending.

Somewhere between miles two and three, an unfortunate event occurred, however, that could have spelled disaster for my first try at my ultimate distance challenge. I stepped on what felt like a rock, and it stuck in the bottom of my shoe.

At first, I figured it was no big deal; I would just kick it out. But I scuffed the street several times, and the sucker wouldn’t budge.

Eventually, it was time to walk, so I took a look. What I saw was not a rock, but a large oil-drain plug jammed underfoot. I tried to pry it loose, but it would not come out. I took off again, hoping I would come up with some way to dislodge the thing at my next walk break.

We slowed again a mile later, and this time Glen and I both did everything we could to pop the bolt out. It still refused to budge, and I began running. It didn’t hurt, but I could feel it causing a hard spot under my heel. I knew I did not want to carry that dude the rest of the way.

Glen and I both scoured the gutter as we ran for the next three miles or so, looking for something with which to break that bolt loose. Finally, I spotted a 6-inch piece of smashed copper tubing. I snagged it, leaned up against an electrical pole and forced that plug out with such force it skittered across the street.

I felt light as a feather, knowing I had narrowly averted a major complication. I wasn’t totally in the clear yet, however, because all that hopping around had caused a cramp in my hamstring. Luckily, I managed to run through it, and it went away in the next mile or so.

If the purpose of the run itself was not inspiring enough as we paid tribute to the victims of the heinous bombing of the federal building in 1995, the people who lined the streets for the marathon were encouraging. At one point, I saw a sign that read: “We’re all Kenyans inside.”

Bands were playing on some of the street corners. We were even treated to a belly-dancing exhibition. I met a couple of running celebrities, including four-time Boston and four-time New York Marathon winner Bill Rodgers and former American record holder Dick Beardsley.

I had been totally stoked already before the race, and in my haste to get to the starting line, I had neglected to apply sunscreen. Maybe the fact that it was dark and below 40 degrees had something to do with my faux pas.

It didn’t seem like the kind of day I would need to worry about protection from radiation. As it happened, I actually had no need to worry. A couple of miles into the race, I passed a support volunteer passing out Vaseline and sunscreen on tongue depressors. I grabbed the sun screen and applied it to my face and neck on the run.

Of course, we were also offered all the water and sports drink we would stomach. In my case, I took some fluid every couple of miles until mile 22 or so. At that point, I was beginning to get a bit nauseous, so I wasn’t in the mood for a sweet-tasting drink.

Late in the race, Glen bid me a fond farewell. His lungs were holding him back, and he said he didn’t want to slow me down. I took off somewhere around mile 16.

Thanks to his expert pacing plan, I was fresh as a daisy-not including smell-as I crossed mile marker 20. This was virgin territory for me. I had never completed more than 20 miles in training. I cruised on autopilot, thinking there was nothing to this marathon thing.

Even my concerns about chafing in the chest area had been alleviated the evening before with the purchase of a package of devices called NipGuards. I believe the brand name says it all.

My journey continued smoothly until I hit mile 23. My body said, “You want to go how much farther? I did not sign on for this.” My legs began to cramp, and though I was sure I would finish, I wasn’t sure whether it would be walking or running.

This was the “wall” I’d heard and read so much about. But, I struggled onward, and soon the finish line was in sight. I have to say, the feeling of crossing under that banner was the athletic highlight of my life.

I have been asked many times what would possess someone to want to complete a marathon. My answer is simple: I will likely never be more than an average golfer at best; I know I will never play professional sports or bowl a 300 game. But, I have done something very few other people can claim. I have finished a marathon.

Will I do it again? I would certainly love to have another go at it next year. I’d also like to see the Hillsboro representation grow because now I know that the only thing standing between most people and a marathon finish is the will to do it.

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