17. The Marathon Miracle

17. The Marathon Miracle

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

The Marathon Miracle

Miracles happen to those who believe in them.
 ~Bernard Berenson

It’s 6:15 in the morning and the pavement is flying beneath me. With each stride through the dark, frosty morning, I’m gobbling up yards of San Vicente Boulevard as I head for the final stretch back to the office. Even though I’m cold and clammy, there’s a certain exhilaration knowing that there aren’t many others up at this hour, let alone preparing for an event like the marathon: 26.2 miles of grueling, energy-sapping punishment.

I had wanted to run a marathon for more than twenty years. But even during the fog of my alcohol and drug addiction, I somehow acknowledged that subjecting my body to the rigors of long-distance running would be a more expedient death than a bottle or another line of coke. But, when I finally got clean and sober on October 21, 1986, the world opened up to me. For the first time in my life, goals and aspirations seemed within reach without the artificial obstacles of youth, immaturity or my own physical and mental limitations. I could do anything I put my mind to.

Ironically, what complicated the issue was my college degree — in particular, my area of study. In 1983, I graduated from San Diego State University with a degree in Exercise Physiology and went to work for a cardiac rehabilitation clinic. My denial allowed me to drink to excess every night while I counseled patients on the value of taking care of one’s health by day. For the next several years, every patient that I came in contact with naturally assumed that I was the picture of health and a marathoner. After all, haven’t all exercise physiologists completed at least one? I struggled with my disease while in my own mind I felt invalidated as a fitness expert who was touting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

When I finally entered recovery, I had no excuses or limitations. I was determined to go for it. Over the next six months, I read every conceivable book on the subject of marathon training. I experimented with everything from diet, running shoes, shorts and fluid replacements — even underwear. Every Saturday morning was reserved for my long runs (between 15 and 25 miles) while the weekdays were peppered with shorter hill climbs and weight training. As the mileage and dirty laundry piled up, I became a fit and highly-tuned running machine.

With one week to go before the Los Angeles Marathon, short cruising runs were the order of the day; the concept being after months of preparation, it’s time to cruise and relax. Just keep limber and get ready for the big race on Sunday.

As I approached the final stretch of my pre-dawn run, out of nowhere a pothole suddenly appeared, dropping me to the asphalt. On the way down, I heard an audible “pop” from my left knee. In one split second, six months of training evaporated in the wake of my dislocated knee. By the time I hobbled back to the office, it had swollen to the size of a cantaloupe.

While I wasn’t immediately sure just how badly I was injured, I had taken enough anatomy classes to know that knees were not supposed make sounds and look like cantaloupes. But the thought of missing the marathon in five days concerned me far more than my physical infirmity. I had not just given the marathon a small place in my life; it had become my life. I had shared all of my competitive dreams of running my first marathon in my hometown with my friends and everyone else who was important in my life. Now my dream was gone.

I managed to see an orthopedic surgeon the next day, having already lost one valuable day of training. For the uninitiated, losing a single day of training when preparing for a marathon begins a downward spiral that can potentially erode the confidence necessary to complete a race that defies the limits of common sense. Lying on the exam table with a synovial fluid-filled syringe protruding from the side of my knee was not exactly instilling the type of pre-race confidence that I had hoped for.

The good news was that after a thorough examination, X-rays and an MRI, nothing appeared to be permanently damaged. When I stepped into the pre-dawn rut, I stretched every ligament, tendon and joint capsule to the extent of their unnatural limits; but nothing was broken. The first thing I asked the doctor was, “When will I be able to run again?” Remaining cautious, he explained that as soon as the swelling went down, I could do whatever I felt I could tolerate. The gauntlet was thrown down.

Later that afternoon, my self-confidence began to return to normal, even though my knee hadn’t. The injury damaged my body, but not my spirit. The next day, I hobbled into a local running store and asked if there were any marathons later in the year. With all of the training that I had put in, I was certain that I’d be back on the streets within a couple of months.

“There aren’t any more marathons until the last part of November,” said the clerk. “Oh, wait. There is one smaller race next month: the Long Beach Marathon.” A ray of hope emerged.

Even despite the rosy picture the orthopedic surgeon painted, I was convinced as I limped along on my gammy leg that there was no way I could pursue the Long Beach Marathon. It was only three and a half weeks away. Impossible. But, Aristotle once said, “Hope is a waking dream.” My dream was only three weeks away.

Fortunately, due to my area of study, I knew more about physiology than the average weekend athlete. I knew that if I could sustain my fitness at its current level while my knee mended, there was a possibility that I could run the race and maybe even finish it.

The next morning, I embarked on a self-prescribed training regimen unlike any you’ll read about in Runner’s World; probably the first time anyone has ever prepared for a marathon without running. I was fortunate enough to be working in a hospital fitness center that had a wide variety of stationary bikes, treadmills and free weights. One of the bikes was a Schwinn Airdyne, arguably one of the finest pieces of fitness equipment ever invented. The Airdyne is an oversized contraption that has not only pedals, but arm cranks that thrust up from the flywheel. With a large fan mounted in front of the rider, the faster that you pedal the greater the resistance. Hmmm… This could actually work.

I hooked myself up with a series of electrocardiograph leads designed to monitor the heart rate and rhythm of cardiac patients during exercise. Having already calculated my training heart rate range based on my previous program, I knew that I could theoretically maintain my fitness if I could persevere through 90 minutes a day at a minimum of 150-165 beats per minute. I dragged a barstool up next to the bike and propped my ice-packed knee on it and proceeded to pedal with my good leg and both arms until I reached 150 beats per minute.

Over the course of the next week, I downed prescription-strength anti-inflammatories like candy. The swelling in my knee went down as my fitness level climbed. I was actually becoming fitter without putting in so much as a mile of running. After about two and a half weeks, I solicited the doctor’s approval to start running again. He gave it.

The first day back out on the street was torture. I was handicapped more by my mental fitness than physical. After a few easy miles, I returned to the office with renewed confidence that I just might be able to finish my first marathon.

Within a week, I was back up to 10 miles. The Long Beach Marathon was now only days away. At a time when I should have been tapering down, I was ramping up. Trainers advise anyone contemplating running a marathon to run at least one run of 20 miles or more before the event. Fortunately, I had already completed mine, so I just considered my injury a minor “interruption” in my training schedule.

By the time race day arrived, I was fit and motivated to run the race of a lifetime. I completed the race in just under four hours, running the first 18 miles faster than I had ever run before. As I crossed the finish line, the loudspeakers announced my name and hometown to the crowd of cheering spectators. I immediately broke down in tears as the preceding seven months of stress finally oozed out of every pore of my body. I could finally relax; I had completed the Long Beach Marathon.

Over the next few years, I completed three more marathons, but none of those victories was a sweet as the first. The power to overcome overwhelming odds to attain an impossible goal made it even better than if my training had gone exactly as planned.

~Allen R. Smith

More stories from our partners