sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock


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Last weekend I completed the NJ Marathon. People want to know how it was, and I feel like I gotta tell it straight: It was awful. It was a grueling, physically brutal experience, and the physical part was nothing compared with the mental torment which itself paled in comparison with the emotional torture. It was bad. When I got home, stunned and wounded, my youngest, the little guy, asked me, “Were you happy when you crossed the finish line?” My answer?: “No.” I wasn’t. But now, after a recalibrating week, I’m finding some peace and a few lessons.

Alas, I didn’t share in the finish line euphoria so many revel in. When I finished, I looked at a woman who crossed about the same time. We were both like, “My god, what have we just done? Why?” But the lessons about myself would come.

For one, I learned about preparation. I should have trained more. I’m busy in the winter. I was traveling in Jan-Feb-March. The weather was bad in the Northeast. But the marathon accepts no excuses. The days, weeks, and then months flipped by, and I simply wasn’t getting the raw mileage on these 46-year-old legs. The facts were staring me in the face, but I felt I could survive. While that ended up being literally true, the last 90 minutes almost had me following the call of the Coyote Spirit because of the sheer agony, the obvious result of putting in fewer than half the required miles and weeks of recommended training regimens (like Hal Higdon’s).

I also gained great insight into my own sphere of the possible: physical, mental, emotional. I wanted things to be over so badly during the last few miles. What you are about to read is all true. I had many fantasies/hallucinations. I wanted to get hit by a car or crushed by a rogue wave lashing impossibly from the nearby ocean. As I ran across a low bridge, I thought about toppling into the water, bobbing along pathetically until someone fished me out. I wanted a drunken cyclist to barrel into me. I saw this ugly red-headed duck at one point and wished, prayed, that it would waddle out and bite my Achilles in two. When I saw other runners lying in the grass, writhing in pain, one thought would emerge: “Lucky!”

Can I recommend to others, to my own kids, to take on an event in which the mind turns on you so? Every good soul who yelled “Looking good runner!” spurred a reactive anger in me during the run. I thought of leaping off the course and pummeling them, which became another early exit strategy I cooked up. I could see the headline: Struggling runner jailed after (weakly) assaulting fans.

Afterward, even with the medal and awareness of the accomplishment, even after reading great marathon pieces (like this one), I wasn’t coming around. But the week passed, and I started feeling better. What changed? Why could I start telling my little son that I was glad to have done it? It wasn’t just because I started to realize, “Dammit, you ran a marathon. Stop sucking your thumb!” I think it was largely because the marathon became a lens through which I saw anew some of the great people around me. I saw in them the joy and pride that one of their friends, me, had done this thing. And I realized through that just who it is I’ve been lucky enough to have around me.

My wife has been so purely excited for me, bragging to everyone about her marathon-running husband. She supported the whole endeavor without a word of complaint.

Stan. If it weren’t for Stan, I wouldn’t have done it at all. He got me going (after he got me drunk) last year about the prospects of running a marathon with him – his second – and his structured, serious approach over the past four months were inspiring. As I approached the finish line, there was Stan, waiting patiently — he ran an hour+ ahead. Afterward,  he sent me a great text: “Thanks again for running the marathon with me today. I had a great time, except for the running part. It was fun sharing our stories on the ride home.”

Then there’s Jim B., who drove 1.5 hours to see me and ended up in an unexpected role. My first 13 miles were great, but at mile 17, my tank was already running dry. Out of the crowd popped Jim B’s bald head – “Yo, Scott Warnock!” He jumped in and started plodding along. We were talking for a couple miles, and I said, “How long are you going to go here, Jim?” He looked around and said, “I’ll run the rest with you if you want.” So he did, as a great coach. He offered the best encouragement to my deflated spirits when during a portion of the course that doubles back we saw some miles behind a runner who juggled during the whole race. Jim said, “At least you’re not behind him!” Also, in an effort to distract me, he got on the phone to talk business during miles 24-25. Of course, no one knew this guy was just helping a friend, and people exclaimed, “You’re about to finish a marathon and you’re on the phone?!” This of course was instead of them providing “Looking good, runner!” to the near-weeping blob of humanity next to him.

A friend in need. A friend indeed.

A friend in need. A friend indeed.

And then there are the two Js, to whom I dedicated the run. My one J continues to lift me every day in her own fight against cancer. It’s well beyond any marathon. My other J… ah, what can I say? He passed away last week from the disease after a long, heroic battle. I linked them with this challenge not to buoy me or motivate me but to say I’m going to do this and I want you and your families to know that I’m with you all. I wish it were more.

I don’t know. Sitting in my comfy chair at home now, a marathon looks better. But it took so much from me. While I didn’t pump my fist when crossing the finish line, it taught me some things, I ended up telling my little man. But have I learned my lesson? Now Stan’s talking about running another one…

In memory of Jimmy O, 1963-2014.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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12 Responses to “Marathon”

  1. Ah. The Coyote Spirit. I,. too, have seen him. (If you want, I will ban marathons — that will take the whole thing off the table for you.)

    Congratulations on the accomplishment and on the new awareness as well, Scott..

  2. Congratulations, Scott…remember..LIFE IS YOURS..GO FOR IT!!…you always have and always will..proud of you..

  3. Great job, Scott….for not only completing the NJ Marathon, but also the Broad Street Run a few weeks later. You trained hard and did something most people can’t. I’m sure the J families are as proud of you as I am.

    One thing though….please don’t wish to be hit by an ocean wave. I’ve been on the beach with you many times and the only thing that will happen is you getting a pulled hammy…..AGAIN !!!

  4. Wow! I am exhausted just reading this! You have that innate talent for writing that literally drags us along the miles of your torment. Not really a marathon type and this confirms it for me. Your honesty is so refreshing- your little one will FOREVER appreciate that about you, once he’s old enough to look back on these impressive life -lessons. Your bride deserves to be proud- she is a staunch fan in all rites of sport and this is truly an accomplishment that took the support of all members of Team Warnock. And finally, for the little that I knew Jim O, I know he had a marathon spirit and will! I am so sorry for your loss of such a kindred soul in your quest to be a good family man.

  5. Two points:

    I’ve often read of the human ability to forget pain – like women who give birth being able to go through it again for another child. :D

    We established a rule last summer – no discusing any athletic events after the second beer. (Given the propensity to agree to things liek mud runs, 30 mile bike races in Perkasie, PA or half marathons in Bethlehem of all places. Who would run the mountains of Bethlehem?!?!)

    Great job – and it doesn’t even lower the item on my bucket list any.

  6. Well done Scott! Well written too. I briefly, very briefly, thought while reading this that I should do a marathon. This of course means I am not allowed to have more than two beers in your (or Stan’s) presence.

  7. Ha! Tell it like it is, brotha!

    I’ve done three of those things and I have to say the first one completely, utterly, and unapologetically sucked ass. The final 6 miles were a torturous nightmare of introspective regret, anger, and frustration.

    Of course, having had such a positive experience the first go-round, I did it again a year later and much to my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as terrible. By the third race, I have to admit, I actually liked it and managed to finish with a 3:39, which for a guy in his 40s is almost respectable.

    Pretty much everything you said about training and prep is 100% on the mark, but the thing you can’t train for when it comes to a first marathon is the psychological beating you take. Once you know what you’re in store for, it actually becomes easier. “Oh, I remember now… this is the part of the race where I want to kill myself. Right on schedule.”

    If you do another, I can almost guarantee, it’ll be much less shitty. Still not good, but less horrible than last time. Happy running.

  8. Congratulations Scott. You did much better than Phidippides post-marathon.

  9. Hi Scott,

    I shared with some of my coworkers who have joined in a goal of running the Miami marathon in February. Oddly, their reaction was “cant’ wait til February!”

    They also suggested that you run fast when Stan starts talking about a trip to Pamplona in July

    Great writing!

  10. Thanks for sharing, Scott. I wrote about my first marathon on here in January of 2013. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, although it was certainly one of the hardest things I have ever done. Like Henry, above, the final several miles were brutal. My 2nd marathon was in November, and again like Henry, it was a little better. Third one is coming up in October, as I will be running the Chicago Marathon. I can’t wait.

    Not sure if you’ll do it again, but I have a feeling your opinion of the experience will improve if you do.

  11. The next marathon you run, we run together, Scooter.

  12. have been meaning to read this. proud of you! you will never forget it. it is an awesome memory- good or bad- to have…. and I know what you mean about feeling like you want a car to hit you ;) miles 20-23 are always the roughest for me…. so incredibly awesome your bud ran beside you… the pic of that is fantastic! he needs to hang it in the bistro!

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