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What It Feels Like To Win A Marathon

June 24, 2005

Editor's Note: The Following was publised in the May Issue of OFF! Magazine

What It Feels Like To Win A Marathon
by Eric Heins

Heins won the 2004 Spirit of St. Louis Marathon. He is an Assistant Cross Country/Track Coach at Southeast Missouri State University and competed for the University of Cincinnati.

Beep, Beep... Beep, Beep... Beep, Beep... It's Sunday morning and I try to coax myself out of bed, "Get up Eric. You've got to run...Maybe just a few more minutes of sleep, it feels so comfortable here in bed. No! You want to win St. Louis, get up now."

It was the middle of February and winter was far from over. There was a bad ice-storm last night and the city was all but shut down, no cars were out on the streets, let alone anyone running. Why don't I wait until tomorrow, it's suppose to clear up and may be a little warmer. Again I tell myself no. I have to run today. Only a runner understands the obsession of running the workout on the day it is suppose to be run. Sunday is my long run day and if I wait until tomorrow that only gives me one day of recovery before my next hard workout, no I am going and I am going now.

I believe that this run was the defining moment in my training towards the St. Louis Marathon. If I could run twenty miles during an ice storm, in freezing temperatures, I could win St. Louis and I could run fast doing it.

There are many reasons people attempt to run a marathon. Some just to finish, others to raise money for a cause and others to try to see just how fast they can cover 26.2 miles on foot. My goal going into St. Louis was to win, pure and simple. I didn't care if I ran slow or fast, as long as I got that 1st place paycheck. The only problem is that when the gun goes off in a race, I cannot hold myself back. I am not only racing the other people in the field, but I am also racing myself. How hard can I push myself, how fast can I run? Maybe this is the last time I will have this opportunity to race, I might as well try to run fast.

In a marathon, you have a general idea of how fast you can run, but it all depends on conserving a little energy during the first twenty miles so you can push the last six. This was my fourth marathon and I understood this concept of conserving. I knew that I could hold 5:45 per mile the whole way and be fairly comfortable. My goal was to run 5:35's though.

So at the start of the race I told myself to bank a few miles slower than pace, no matter what. The gun went off and I kept my emotions in check, not getting carried away, but running my race. I had done my research and the results from the previous years of this race had not been too impressive. If the same people were running, I should be able to win. But here right from the beginning were two good looking runners taking a very decisive lead. At the first mile marker they were leading my 50 meters.

I stuck to my plan and hit 5:45, but began to question my chances already, "Are these guys for real? Can they hold this pace for 26 miles?" Just as I was starting to get worried a race official informed me that the two leaders were suppose to run the half-marathon, but had started on the wrong start line. They were going to continue to run, but stop halfway, so I was the leader. This relaxed me for another mile, until I saw one of them drop out in disgust. The race official came back to tell me that the leader did want to run the full marathon and now I was in second place, nearly 400 meters back.

I could not panic though, I had to stick to my pace and trust that he would come back to me over the course of the next few miles. I gradually increased my tempo to 5:35 pace after running conservatively the first few miles. It wasn't a big difference, but I could tell that I was gaining on him. By Mile 8 I pulled up along side of him to let him know that he was not going to run away with this race.

We ran together for the next five miles, until the half-way point, where he started to fall back a little bit. I was hoping that maybe he would decide to drop out at this point, but I yelled back to him to encourage him to stay up with me. He then tried desperately to pull away from me over the next two miles. Every time he put a gap between us on a downhill, I made it right back on the next uphill.

Now we were entering Forest Park and the hills around the campus of Washington University. I had run a half-marathon here just two weeks earlier in order to judge my goal marathon pace and to push myself over the final three hilly miles. I had also run a 20 mile long run up and down these hills during March, a day after the annual St. Patty's Day 5 mile run downtown. I knew these hills well and was confident that now was my time to break him.

I threw in a 5:32 mile on these hills during the 15th mile and pulled away for good. From Miles 16-20 the half-marathon course and the full marathon course are right next to each other. So while I was running the race alone, I did have many people cheering me on. As I passed them they started out astonished, "Oh my God, is that the leader?" then quickly to support, "Way to go, Keep it up". This was amazing to my confidence and kept me going to Mile 20, where the marathon race really begins.

With the help of the crowd I made it to Mile 20 in a time of one hour fifty-five minutes and thirty seconds. This is where marathoners start to do math. I didn't know how fast I could run, but I know that if I kept even 5:45 pace that I would run my best time ever. I had asked one of my athletes to run with me the last 5miles of the race, but I did not know if he was really going to show up or not. Then somewhere between mile 20 and 21 I saw Gabe step out of the crowd and start jogging. When I reached him, I told him that I could set a personal best if we kept the pace at 5:45.

We hit mile 22 in 5:37, by now my legs were beginning to hurt, not a hurt that you can really describe, just a dull ache with every muscle contraction. I had been running for two hours faster than I ever had. And the hills kept coming, I started to get pissed at the course.

Mile 23 was another 5:37, not that much faster than I had asked Gabe to run, but now my mind was really working on me. I started to get pissed at Gabe, who was doing me a favor. "Dammit Gabe, what are you trying to do, kill me?" I did not complain to Gabe outloud because I knew I was in for a great finish if I could get through the next mile. I put my head down and kept grinding through the pain.

There it was Mile 24, 5:36, just two more to go. Everything now is just trying to talk yourself into continuing, you are so close, but until you actually experience a marathon you will never know how often you just want to step off to the side of the road and get a ride back. Now we were turning around and running back to the finish line. People had told me before the race that the last few miles were flat, but that was far from the truth. I cursed the hills again and getting to the top of each hill became my motivation. I felt that as I crested the top of the hill I had won a small battle.

I ran Mile 25 in 5:31, "Holy shit! I just ran one of my fastest splits of the day in my 25th mile." I got a little excited when I saw that, but there was no amount of excitement that would make the pain in my legs go away. My legs felt like Jell-O, I had no idea how I was still picking up my feet. I felt like I was in a bad dream being chased by a knife-welding maniac and I could not move, except I was moving and moving fast! I had only one more mile to run and this would all be over. My hands were beginning to go numb, my legs were on fire and screaming at me to stop. But I could not, I had to keep running.

I got to the last mile now and I was going to finish this thing off good. Every muscle in my body was hurting, but I just continued to pump my arms and lift my knees and push myself forward. The streets were lined with people cheering me on now. All that I had to do was get up one more hill, make two turns and I am done. Gabe had dropped out after helping me keep my pace the last few miles. The finish line was the same for the half-marathoners as it was for the marathoners and I was trying to catch as many as I could as I raced towards the finish line.

My time was going to be fast, real fast. I finished in 2:25:42, just 3minutes and 42 seconds shy of the Olympic Trials Standard. Winning to me was a huge accomplishment, but the most exciting thing for me was my time. Here I was a kid from Ohio that had never even qualified to the high school state championship meet in track and now I was within four minutes of going to the Olympic Trials! It wasn't about beating the other runners, it was about pushing myself right up to the edge of my limits and then trying to go beyond that. I learned a lot from winning that marathon - even when you think you cannot go on, you always have something left.




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