The Flat-Footed Marathoner Does Washington

A version of this story first ran in Canadian Running Magazine

by Margaret Webb

I decided to run my first marathon after eating my way across Canada for my book, Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover’s Tour of Canadian Farms. But logging more than 15,000 kilometres on the food trail did not prepare me at all for what a marathon dishes up: an encounter with the stuff you’re made of.

In my case, this is an intuitive yet Ram-headed Aries who is able to perceive signs that the universe serves up to protect us while simultaneously ignoring those very same signs. Even with the 48 years of experience I had accumulated on this earth, I had no idea I was capable of such multitasking — until I was starring in my own marathon drama.

Training went extraordinarily well, given the pounds I had accumulated in the cause of Canadian gastronomy and more acutely the flat feet I run on, which are best described as plank boards. So, when I ripped eight minutes off my half marathon personal best, I rushed to readjust my goal of simply completing a marathon to finishing it in four hours, good enough to qualify for Boston in my age group.

More experienced runners in my club told me that trying to qualify for Boston on a first marathon was insane; I knew it to be insane and asinine. Yet, once that goal lodged itself in my frontal lobe, no sign, rational or otherwise, could dislodge it.

For instance, three weeks before the race, my right arch seemed to drop from flat to convex, if that is actually possible. My foot doctor told me it was not. While my flaming arch was telling me to ease up, I told my foot doctor to rebuild my arch support, which he did in time for the race, though not in time to actually train on it.

I chose the Washington Marine Corp before I had any time goal, making it an excellent choice, for this “People’s Marathon” is about history, politics and pretty scenery (as well as recruiting), but definitely not speed. The nearest Metro stop strands runners a 30-minute walk to the start line. The Marines’ latrines – a pathetic row of porto potties overwhelmed by 35,000 runners – kept me standing on my plank feet for another 45 minutes before the race. With ten minutes to the start, I bailed on the line, made for the bushes and still had a half kilometer scamper to the start, which left me too little time to find the 4-hour corral or 4-hour pace bunny.

That meant I would have to run with only my inner Ram to guide me: another very bad sign, which I duly noted and ignored.

I expected two hills on the run out to historic Georgetown (after scanning the course map and elevation chart). I got through those in fine form, thanks to hill training I had done in Toronto’s ravines. Also my very cool technical shirt with a stylized Canadian flag on the front was fetching lots of “go Canada’s.”

Then, after the two hills came more hills, so many that I lost count — six, eight, ten? Or were those first two hills merely the false summits of two mountains?

By mile nine, the course finally flattened out and, with it, my thighs, thanks to trying to make up time by taking the descents like a Crazy Canuck on downhill skis. Subjecting my thighs to that kind of pounding was probably not a good idea, I had thought at the time, even as I bent lower into the slope in order to run faster.

At the half mark, as we were passing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, my legs felt that first bilious surge of lactic acid or, as I call it, poisonous toxic sludge. I knew this to be a sure sign that my fitness was not up to holding a 5:35 minute-per-kilometre pace and that I should readjust my goal.

About then, I caught up to a group of five marines running behind their “semper fi” flag, maintaining a reasonable 5:55 per km pace. I thought, I should give up on my clearly debilitating pace and just run with these strapping young 20-year-old marines and let them guide me home to a 4:05 or 4:10 finish, a very respectable time for a 48-year-old, flat-footed, slightly pudgy food writer.

But then the Ram had another thought: Why not pass those strapping young marines?

At the 28 k mark, I ran into an undeniable signal that I was in very deep trouble when I encountered a guy who had pinned this on the back of his running Tee: “Hi, my name is Fred.” During training runs, I nicknamed my pain “Fred,” to make pain seem more like a friendly running buddy rather than something to dread and fear. Some days, Fred ran in my left calf; other days, in my right thigh. I figured, as long as Fred did not park himself anywhere for too long, I would not call Fred an injury.

I had just run past Capitol Hill and was winding down the south side of the National Mall when I found myself running behind “Fred the man” just as “Fred the pain” was exploding in both thigh muscles, more specifically, the rectus femoris, and they were certainly feeling rectus.

I must be hitting the so-called Wall, I thought, except, it did not feel like a wall. I had energy. My breathing was great. The rest of my body felt fine, except for Fred.

How to describe this Fred? Imagine a pork-loin roast tied tight with butcher string at half inch intervals, then pull the strings very tight. Now, throw that pork loin on a gas barbecue grill, light it and turn the gas up high. Yes, that’s what my thighs felt like.

With 12 K to go, I had little choice to let go of my four-hour goal. Fred was in charge of my legs now.

Still, I held out hope of hobbling to a 4:15, so I passed Fred the man and pushed for the bridge over the Potomac River. This is the infamous “beat the bridge” point of the race — if you don’t cross it within five hours, officials pull you off the course and reopen the road to car traffic. Let’s just say, I beat the bridge and the bridge beat me.

As I descended the bridge towards the Pentagon, my thighs had crisped up nicely. The pain was so searing, I lost all will to run. I fantasized about walking the last four miles.

At that moment, like a bad déjà vu, those young strapping marines passed me, doing about 6-minute Ks, but I could not keep up with them now.

With every sign screaming at me to give up for the sake of ever being able to run again, this last feeble thought struck me — beat Oprah’s Marine Corp marathon time of 4:29. She did it, I might add, when she was skinny and just 40 years old, eight years younger than me. I also told myself that she probably had personal trainers along, at least five, to hold her personal waters and gels and fan her. I told myself all this. I told myself, have some pride for god sakes: Don’t let some skinny pampered billionaire talk show host kick your ass.

And so I started running again.

Over the last mile, the course circled by Arlington Cemetery, with row on row of headstones reaching diagonally across a shimmering green carpet of grass. I felt like crawling in there, but I knew I would survive the race, which was a disappointing thought, given the pain in my pork loins.

The uphill finish finally came into view and, despite the grade, I determined to keep running, until I faced the final insult — breaking two toenails 200 metres from the finish line, one on each foot.

I checked my watch. I still had a few minutes on Oprah, so I plunked down on the side of the road, yanked off my shoes and socks and pulled out the broken nails to keep them from puncturing the blisters on my toes. Someone on the sidelines pointed out a medic and suggested I get first aid, but I was determined to salvage my last pathetic goal — kicking Oprah’s butt.

I laced up and limped to the finish line, crossing at 4:23 and a few seconds, but let’s just call it six minutes faster than Oprah, shall we?

I got my medal from a marine lieutenant then hurried back to my hotel as fast as the crushing crowds and my tortured loins would allow, for I had yet one more leg of the marathon to get through: nausea pouring from every orifice of my body.

I had heard people talk about throwing up after marathons, but no one ever said anything about diarrhea. The nausea from both ends lasted through the afternoon and evening and well past midnight. I survived it with this thought: “never ever again.”

And then the nausea passed in the morning. As I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stepped down to searing pain in my thighs, I thought, hey, my flat feet held up pretty good!

And then another thought struck me: maybe on a flatter course, I could get my four-hour marathon.