The Last Marathon

01/22/2018 - 16:10

By Art Zimmerman

Art Finishes 2018 Charleston Marathon (2).jpgWhen I started running in 2001 at age 55, just to lose some weight, running a marathon was definitely not on my radar. But in the process of getting hooked on running, and since 55 year old legs are not normally built for speed, definitely not mine, I found myself enjoying the challenge of seeing how far I could run. The following year I managed to finish my first marathon on Kiawah Island under my optimistic 5 hour time goal. I was hooked again, this time on the marathon.

In 2015, at 69 and 12 marathons later, including some of the big ones from New York and Washington to Big Sur and over the pond in Rome, I lined up for my 13th and probably last marathon in Nashville. While I was eventually able to cross the Nashville finish line, the hills and the heat and a chronic bad knee from an old teenage injury told me my full marathon days were most likely over.

But since it’s never really over ‘till it’s over, I decided to try just one more marathon after turning 70, and the perfect race would be the 2016 Charleston Marathon in my own backyard. Nice and flat, a familiar route and cool running weather were all in my favor. And when the race started, everything was indeed in my favor. Until disaster struck at mile 13 and my knee collapsed.

While I couldn’t continue running that marathon, I deluded myself into thinking I could force march the final 13 miles. Stupid is as stupid does, but dropping out just wasn’t an option. Until mile 19 when my knee had swelled to what closely resembled a grapefruit and the pain was in the redline zone. So after well over 100 races, I was forced to drop out for the first time in my last marathon.

That is until last Spring when I decided to give the Charleston Marathon one more try in 2018, just to make sure that last marathon in 2016 was really the last. For the past two years, I had finished a few half marathons with no problem, including the Red Rock Canyon, Indy 500 and Greenville Spinx halfs in 2017. And so on January 13 of this year, I was optimistic as I once again lined up for one more last marathon.

Before the race I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out a slower and smarter pacing strategy than my previous Charleston Marathon, when I went out too fast for my knee to handle it. I needed to find a pace that would give my knee a chance and still finish under the time limit of 6 and ½ hours. I worked out pace goals for the first 10K, halfway and 20 miles. If I could get to 20 miles with my knee still functioning, I thought I would have a shot at finishing. And to avoid the temptation of going out too fast, I also decided to start near the back of the pack, something my ego had always avoided.

Art and Kathy Charleston Marathon 2018 Photo (2).jpgRace day was cold but sunny. The problem was the cold stiff north wind that would be in the runners faces most of the race. After an early loop around the Battery and through scenic downtown Charleston, the course headed towards North Charleston directly into the wind.

The first 10K pace went right on schedule. And I only missed my halfway 3 hour time goal by 3 minutes. The wind against was still relentless, but so far so good. When I got to the spot where my knee went out the last time, while not a superstitious person, I gingerly walked past it hoping the ghost of marathons past was preoccupied with someone else.

At 20 miles and now on fumes, but with my target of under 6 1/2 hours still in sight, my knee and I pressed on. With my wife Kathy and several friends waiting at the finish line, I called Kathy and told her I was still in the game. By mile 24 I was running completely alone, but for the first time, I felt like I was actually going to make it. Still reminding myself it’s never over ‘till it’s over, when I reached mile 25 I knew I was actually going to get there.

With a couple hundred yards to go, two of the race volunteers came out to run it in with me as I passed my dedicated wingman Kathy and our cheering friends. I crossed the finish line at 6 hours 25 minutes and 22 seconds, a few minutes under my 6 1/2 hour goal. My pacing strategy had worked out perfectly.

Later in the day when I reviewed the results, I was not surprised there were only three of us in the Men’s 70-74 Age Group. What did surprise me was that I had finished second by just 4 seconds! A perfect ending to my last marathon. Until the next one.

Art Zimmerman lives in Mt. Pleasant SC, and is a member of the Charleston Running Club

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