Running With the Butterflies
My First Half Marathon – The Dismal Swamp Stomp
Today I ran my first official ½ marathon. I did better than I expected to, not quite as good as I hoped to. I saw amazing effort from a wide variety of men, women, and children. I saw compassion and caring, genuine pleasure in the eyes of strangers as they shared one morning in the spring sunshine. And I saw butterflies.
I have been running, as many of you reading this know, most of my adult life (starting around age 30) but there have been huge breaks where I quit, got lazy, got fat –and any number of other things I regret. Last August I found myself at nearly 230 pounds, 54 years old, and pretty much disgusted with the way I looked and felt.
I had just finished reading (thanks to my buddy Roger Knowles) a book called Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. This book changed my understanding of some aspects of running that have actually, in turn, changed my life (not just the running part). For instance, I now wear VivoBarefoot shoes without exception. The key is not that they are this brand, but that they are “minimalist,” or barefoot shoes. I have had problems with my right foot, hip, and my lower back for years. Changing to shoes that forced me to learn to walk properly, and to run without slamming my heels into the pavement, has very literally removed all of that pain.
Still, I didn’t start off right away. Born to Run is about the Tarahumara – a tribe in Mexico who run like scared rabbits up and down mountains and across the desert. It was an inspiring book, but I don’t intend to train for any fifty mile races in my lifetime. What I got from the book was the shoes, the technique, and the very interesting concept that Homo sapiens outlasted and outlived Neanderthal for the simple reason that we have an Achilles tendon, and we were born to run long distances.
Since, as you also know, I’m a writer, this got me thinking. I actually ordered the silly sandals those Mexican runners used. They didn’t work for me (no big surprise). I also started thinking about running again. Next I ordered some “minimalist” shoes from New Balance. They didn’t fit right – too tight – but I kept looking, and I kept thinking.
Someone somewhere suggested I look at Vivobarefoot shoes. Either that or I just happened to search for barefoot dress shoes and found that, at the time, they were the only ones making any. I bought a pair of black semi-casual dress shoes. I started wearing them, and immediately noticed a change for the better. Still, I had not started running. Not really.
My life has become a complexly scheduled mess. I have a career as an IT Manager that I love. I have a family, and a house. I have a writing career, and now I have Crossroad Press. For me, finding time to run has always been part of the issue. A couple of years ago I clocked a lot of miles by running at lunch and paying for a downtown gym membership so I could use their showers and treadmills. The cost ended up being too much, and for a while after that, I quit running again. That was several years back.
To make a long story short, I am back to a schedule I’ve never really loved, but have managed to stick with it. I get up at 6:30 in the morning, and I run. I started back up in August, when I bought my first pair of Vivobarefoot Neo Trail Running shoes. I had a vague plan that I waited a while to tell anyone about. I wanted to run 100 miles before my 54th birthday. Considering that when my overweight, 230 pound, bald old body hit the road… I was able to do about 1.5 miles in the morning (maybe 1.62) and make it through a shower and off to work. I ran on weekends as well, but at first, those 1.62 miles were it. I got a little faster, and it got easier to finish, but progress was slow going this time around.
Over time, I stretched it out. On the weekends I managed to bump it first to 2.2 miles, and then a bigger jump to 3.5. My pace was horrifyingly bad. Probably in excess of 12:30 miles. I kept at it, and things improved. I managed a 4.5 mile and then even a 5 or 6 mile run. My pace picked up a little. I hit the 100 miles before my birthday, and I was very proud of it.
Still, the 230 pounds was melting way so slowly that it was barely noticeable, and I started to get discouraged. That’s when Trish chipped in. She was also losing weight. We’d bought a serious treadmill from Nordic Track, and she started walking and reading during the day. She also changed her diet drastically. Fiber/protein bars… very little more during the day, and by mutual agreement, we dropped dinner to a reasonably sized portion (not easy).
Along with this, I stopped going to 7-11 for breakfast. I have oatmeal or a fiber/protein bar for breakfast with a banana. I’m now down to rice and steamed vegetables at lunch, a pear or other fruit, or an avocado for snacks and a yogurt in case I still get too hungry. This, along with eating small portions at supper, and running, has dropped me (as of this morning) from 230 to 202 and I’m still dropping. Most of the sites that claim to know how much a person should weigh from their height, etc. say 195 would be my ideal weight. We’ll see where it evens out. I’m not starving myself or doing anything crazy, so I figure when I hit that “just right weight,” I’ll stop losing.
It wasn’t too long after I finished my first 100 miles that the old worry kicked in. I hate to run in the cold. I’m also not really fond of treadmills, but more on that later. I remembered a friend of mine had done the Dismal Swamp Stomp several years ago, and I looked it up. They were already taking early registration for it, so without giving myself time to think about it, I signed up and paid my money.
I had no idea how to train for a longer race. I knew that if you were going to run a marathon you needed to go past 17 miles at least once…so I figured there was probably a “wall” for half marathons too. There is. I found all kinds of useful training programs.
Unfortunately, they were generally 12 week plans, or even shorter. I was months out. So I modified them all into my own plan. I started running longer runs on weekends. I still only had time (at first) for about two miles in the morning. On the treadmill, I did 20 minutes. Soon that bumped to 25 and then up to 30. I didn’t get any more time, I just got faster. On the weekends I stretched out to four, and then five miles.
I want to put this in perspective if I can. When I started, as I mentioned, 1.6 miles was pushing myself. I had gotten way out of shape, and when I say this changed my life, I’m not kidding. When I moved up to five miles, that day was one of the hardest running days I can remember. But I kept at it. I regularly ran 3.5 to 4 miles at least on weekends, and three of five days in the workweek (sometimes four) I ran 30 minutes on the treadmill.
Then I pushed it out past 6 miles – the first 10k since I’ve started running again. Again, this felt almost impossible at the time, but I pushed past it. All this time the regular runs in the morning 30 minutes on the treadmill, began climbing in mileage, the pace quickening.
Currently my morning run is a 5k. If I have to do it on the treadmill it comes in slower, but since I’m in this for endurance and for weight-loss and health, I don’t mind that. I tended to run faster on the road. I still didn’t know, though, if I was kidding myself about the 13.1 miles.
I mapped out a course that was between 7 and 8 miles, running from Elizabeth City back to home down a windy back road. Trish drove me out, dropped me off, and I was on my way. I made it, but there were periods of walking, and I was not fast. I recorded it, kept running, and looked ahead.
I finally figured it was time to find out if I was in, or out. I opened the app I use to keep track of my miles and runs, http://www.mapmyrun.com, and asked it to give me a route that was 12 miles. It actually gave me several. I studied them, and picked one that looked like I could finish it, a big loop that led me back home. I got my belt with the twin water bottles (I know now they are too small). About 2:00 in the afternoon I headed out. I had a power bar with me, but I lost that somewhere on the first mile. When I get to what I’ve learned about equipment, I’ll explain this. I was not worried.
I should have been. The thing about maps and country roads… little things like missing street signs don’t show up on them. They also don’t shop up in your “app”. First lesson learned on this run was that driving the route first is a good idea (maybe even stashing water along the way). I ran out, and at about the five mile point, I should have turned. There was no sign. I saw the crossroad, and thought about turning, but I didn’t. I ran on. Eventually, after having gone more than six miles, I knew I’d made an error. I knew, however, that I needed to turn right. Foolishly, instead of backtracking, I turned right.
I will shorten this surreal story into bullet points:
1) People who live out on farms and in trailers in the country don’t understand running.
2) Directions given by such people are not reliable.
3) Dogs, chickens, horses, and wild turkeys are all interested in runners, but no help in finding your way.
4) When you ask directions, and they ask you where you want to go, and both of the choices are a lot farther from home than you thought you were, it’s not good.
5) Having a way to track yourself is a good second idea to driving the route ahead of time.
6) Carrying your phone on a really long solo run is a GOOD IDEA.
By the time I finally got back on the road that I knew led home, I had already run about ten miles. There were a few patches of walking, but for the most part, I ran. I kept running. I ran past 13.1 and finally stopped any pretense of running at 15.1 miles. Why? Because my mp3 player battery died and I could not listen to the audiobook any longer. My Garmin watch showed low battery, and I wanted to save the 15.1 miles before it died and I lost the information. I was starting to feel light-headed, and only had about half of one of my too-small water bottles left. I also (as it turned out) had three or four miles to go.
I walked. I still hadn’t seen anything that I recognized, and I was dizzy-brained enough at that point to think I might even be walking AWAY from home, but I stuck with it. I ran out of water, and was REALLY dehydrated. It was getting darker, and it started to get cooler, almost chilly, which cooled the sweat and did not help. I even started watching the side of the road to see if someone might have tossed a bottle of water that wasn’t empty… I was pretty desperate.
I knew Trish would be looking for me, because I was way past when I should have been home (like an hour). She was. As it turned out, she missed the same turn I did, and when she finally got to the road I was walking down, she passed just ahead of me. I arrived where she turned AFTER she passed.
I turned down old Highway 17 with about a mile and a half from home, literally stumbling. The final turn runs directly between the volunteer fire department, and the Ruritan Club. At that point, moving forward, I saw a car with lights on across the way, watching. Thankfully – it was Trish – because I am not 100 percent certain I could have walked that last mile. I crawled in, and they got me home – we swapped mumbled stories about being lost, but I was probably not very coherent. I got home, managed (I have no idea how) to guzzle a bunch of water and get in, and out of the shower. Then I started to shiver like I had a fever. I curled up in my reclining chair, wrapped a San Diego Chargers throw blanket around me, and chattered myself to sleep. No idea how long I was out… When I got up, I ate, had some more to drink, and – basically – still felt okay…but shaky.
It was a close call, and it drove home just how little I actually knew (and likely still know) about distance running. I didn’t take enough water. I ran by myself. I didn’t take anything to eat (or a suitable substitute). I didn’t take my phone. I didn’t verify the route. Bottom line is I’m lucky not to have collapsed alongside the road. Also, I’m lucky to have Trish, who not only got me home, saved my life and fed me, but has been putting up with the running all along, even when my run on the weekends interferes with other activities.
Despite all of that, the 15 mile run verified that no, I was not crazy and yes, unless something went horribly wrong, I was going the distance. After that I continued my weekly pace of about 18-20 miles, long runs on the weekend. I ran the 8 mile track one more time and that went pretty well.
There’s more, though – there is ALWAYS more. I booked a hotel room in Chesapeake Virginia for the night before the run. I could have gotten a room at the Hyatt, where the race expo was set up, but I did not. Instead I chose to “double my HHonors points” and stay at the Hampton Inn, nearby. (There is nothing bad to say about the Hampton Inn – the room was nice, the beds were comfortable, and the Internet and TV worked – all I needed). I got the dogs reservations at their kennel (The Barking Lot). I arranged the time off from work so I could make all my preparations on Friday.
My last purchase, a case of “GU” energy gel, arrived on Thursday, right on schedule. I had read in the book “Running with the Kenyans,” by Adharanand Finn, that he and his fellow marathoners used the gel packs for a burst of energy, calories, etc. I didn’t do anything about my low water supply because I knew there would be aid stations. That turned out to be correct – I did not need much of my own water.
We got the dogs and other pets settled for a night without us, and when Katie got out of school, we picked her up and headed to Virginia. We had a quick start, and made good time. It only took me one “turn around navigational thingie,” as the family saying goes, to reach the Hyatt Place, where the race packets were to be picked up. A very nice man helped me find my registration number and then Katie and I went into the back room to pick up our bags, complete with safety pins and number bibs. Mine had the Chrono Track chip on a strip on the back. Katie signed up for the “Cub Run,” a ½ mile run for kids to take place at 11:30, 3 hours and a half after the race started. At that point I hoped I’d be back from my own run in time to watch, or hobble along at her heels.
We both got shirts, too, which was cool. I saw some t-shirts in that room that I’d like to have – “The Dumbest Idea on my Bucket List,” and “Seems like a lot of Work for a free banana,” and my favorite – “If found beside road, drag over finish line”. I’ll probably collect some of those shirts in the months to come, but I ignored them at the time. We still needed to find our room, check in, and meet my son Zane and his buddy Matt for dinner.
This is where it got interesting. We got to the hotel, and the parking lot was FULL of bikers. Literally. “Free Rollers Inc.” were in town for their annual Chesapeake gathering. I later read on the net that they had a dinner, and a dance to attend. They arrived just ahead of us, and there were a lot of people in line at the front desk. There was also a lot of talk about beer runs and Crown Royal, but it was a pretty calm gathering. I rode with Tiburon MC in Rota, Spain and in Norfolk, Virginia later on, so I was right at home. Katie, however, had a moment when she tried to use the restroom and found it contained a very large, very naked lady changing clothes who had not bothered to lock the door.
In any case, we got into our room, changed clothes, and hit the road to pick up my youngest son, Zane. He’d just come back to the area from US Navy “A” school in Great Lakes, and we’d made plans to go to dinner with him, and his friend Matt. We got Zane, overcame restaurant confusion, and got to The Olive Garden for a carb-up Pasta meal (and salad) for me – and various other Italian delights for everyone else.
The meal was a success, and afterward we handed Zane off to Matt and headed back to our hotel. It was about then that I started to realize Trish was not feeling well at all. She was shivering, and pale, and lay down almost immediately. We watched a little TV, and I checked Facebook, and e-mail, but at that point I was wondering if the run was going to happen. No way I’d have taken her there and left her two hours in the sun if she was too sick…
We set all the alarms available for 5:30 AM and – thankfully – slept pretty well for a little over six hours. In the morning I had fresh oatmeal, a banana, and coffee. We got all our stuff into the car, headed out into a very nice morning – weather perfect – Trish feeling a little better – and headed for the foot of the Dismal Swamp Canal trail – the carved bear – and the culmination of a LOT of miles.
We got there just in time for me to hit the line at the porta-potties. EVERYONE seemed to be in those lines. I got to the front after a short conversation with a very nice guy who lived in Hertford, NC who said he was more of a bike rider, but looked like he could crush ½ a marathon. The door in front of me opened and a very tall, pretty black woman stepped out. She waved me away with a warning. No paper. I waited a little longer – again – disaster averted… As it turns out, she was one of the elite runners. She came in fifth or sixth, but still in about half the time I did.
After that, there was nothing to do but to load up my hydration / equipment belt. I took four GU packs, poured “Smart Water” into my two plastic bottles, hooked up my MP3 player, and started to drop out of everything but the moment. I was listening to “Eat & Run,” by Scott Jurek. I figured what better way to spend my miles, than with someone who ran hundreds of them at a time. He has not convinced me to drop meat a hundred percent, but I’m already leaning down the healthy eating trail, and he has some powerful arguments.
They lined us up, made some speeches, talked about the charity and the sponsors… and had us let the hand-crank bike competitors to the front. There is a story of heroism. A four year old in one of those bikes finished the 1/2 mile cub run, and most of the other hand-crank athletes finished the 13.1 miles in just a bit over the time it took the elite runners. That’s a story in itself. They sent them off ahead of us, and they tried to arrange the runners that followed by pace. It was still something of a jumble.
I have never run a race of this type, so it was a surprise to me to see the grouped people “pacing” – playing music that kept them at the right speed for 2 hours, 2 hours and fifteen minutes, etc. The only other time I ran this distance it took me nearly three hours, but I had a personal goal set for the Dismal Swamp Stomp – to try to beat 2:30. The first part of the race I set myself up for this by making sure I was following the 2 hours and 15 minute pace group. I can say that for nearly eight miles, I was ahead of that 2:30 group. Then they caught up with me. I ran ahead again, and they caught up again…but that’s getting ahead of myself (and not of them).
I started off the run at a pace slower than I’m used to. I don’t know if that was a mistake, or a good idea, and likely won’t know until I’ve run the distance a few more times. The truth is I could have cleared the first 6.2 miles in under an hour, and if I still held my slower pace after that, would have beaten the 2:30 handily. Overthinking – under-thinking – and unimportant. I was happy. It was a beautiful day. I was running a few yards from the trees that lined the Intercoastal Waterway, stretching all the way from Virginia down to Florida, and engineered by brilliant men like George Washington.
Along that route, I know, is the point that was the border of Virginia and North Carolina in the late 1800s, and the site of the Lake Drummond Hotel – sometimes called The Halfway House, because it stood half in one state, and half in the other. My novel, Nevermore, a Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe, was set in that hotel, and in the swamp beyond.
I was chasing ghosts, both real, and those from my own stories. I found myself catching up to, passing, and then being passed again by the same groups of people. For the first five or six miles, it was just like any of my regular runs. I listened to Scott Jurek tell me about his epic 50, 100, and beyond mile runs, heard how turning vegan changed his life, and I ran. (More recently I’ve listened to another ultra-marathoner talk about eating Hawaiian style pizza while running, so I take it all with a grain of salt.)
Just before I hit the half-way point, I saw my first butterfly. I happened to glance off to the side of the road, toward the swamp, and there it was. It was a beautiful Zebra Swallowtail – silver and black–and it was pacing me. I watched it as closely as I could, not wanting to lose my footing and have to explain that I didn’t finish the ½ marathon because I was watching a butterfly and tripped. Amazingly, I felt a surge of energy, and at the same time, I felt myself relax. Some of the strain drained away, and I nearly laughed. The silly butterfly had centered me in a way that I couldn’t define. It was almost like a sign, though I’d hate to speculate from whom, or from what.
I kept religiously sucking down the GU gel packs every half hour, as directed on the box and on web-sites I’d checked (I think that’s too many now, but that’s for another day). I had been chasing the two hour and fifteen minute pacers, but they were out of sight. The groupings were more spread out on the second half, and though I still passed, and was passed by, some of the same folks, it was like a second, completely different race.
I started hearing that little voice in my head, for one thing. It’s the one that says – what are you doing? You can walk – as long as you pass the finish line, what difference does it make? You don’t even know these people. I hear that voice (and ignore it) a lot…but it was strong out there. Fortunately, I had allies. The butterflies became more frequent after about mile 7 – or maybe I just started noticing them. Sometimes they flew beside me. Sometimes they flickered into sight, and back, without spending any time. By mile ten, though I’d walked a few steps, I knew I was going to finish it. I sucked down my last GU pack and got to work. I kept watching for, and smiling at the butterflies.
The last mile, I sped up. I started picking each person in front of me and working to catch them. I managed to pass seven people in that last mile, one just before the finish. As I started that last half mile, the butterfly made a final pass. This time, it was coming straight at me, slipped by on my right side, and was gone…I never looked back.
I am sure that I’m going to remember that first long race. I’m also sure it won’t be the last, or the longest. There is a marathon in my future…something I would have said before, but not really believed. Every time I run a little farther than I have before, I sort of stand at the end, and wonder how much more I could have done.
From now on, wherever the roads take me, I’ll be watching for the butterflies, and when I see them, I’ll follow. Who knows where they might lead…
Now… I’m not an expert, but I have some thoughts for people who want to embrace the running kind of crazy. Take the time to learn to run in some form of minimalist shoes. It’s not about being barefoot, it’s about running with the right posture, and decent form. Your feet know how they work better than you do – and better than Nike, too, for that matter. Trust them.
If you are going more than 5k in distance, take water. There are dozens of ways to carry it. You can just carry a bottle of water in your hand. I have a belt with two pockets for small water bottles, but I’ll be upgrading soon. That same belt has to be able to hold something to eat, possibly your phone, or your mp3 player…money is a good idea. You don’t expect something to go wrong, and most of the time you’re fine believing that. Trust me when I say, though, that when you are staring down three beer-swigging rednecks who wonder if you’re crazy, or making the wrong turn around that cotton field and heading for the next town instead of home, you’ll be glad you were prepared.
Along with the water, take something with calories and protein. I recommend GU gel packs. They taste like frosting, and their effect on your body mid-run is almost magical. There are a lot of other gel packs, and power bars. The Gel Packs are easy to pack into your pockets or belt. Don’t leave the wrappers out there – Mother Nature deserves your respect.
Choose goals to work toward to silence the inner voice that says it doesn’t matter anymore. You ran that ½ marathon, it’s saying to me now. What else to you need to prove? Roll over and go back to sleep… (I run at 6:30 in the morning because it’s what I have for time). I try to run at least a 5k every morning that I run, and I go out at least four, and hopefully five days a week. If the weather allows it I go at least 6 on the weekend and hopefully will be pushing that up to 10 and 12 this summer… When I started, a 5k would have put me down in the dirt. Now, I can run one in the morning, and if someone came by during the day and said let’s go, I’d go and be happy to do it – because I like to run, and because everything has changed.
I used to play an online game named Bejeweled. When you finished something – met a goal – a deep rumble shook out through the speakers, and a big imposing voice said… “Level Up.”
I leveled up after the Dismal Swamp Stomp. Now I just have to shoot for that high score. Thanks to everyone who prepared the race, organized, handed me water and didn’t laugh as I chugged past. Thanks to those who took time to talk, smile, joke, or encourage. Thanks to the dogs, and the amazing hand-crank athletes, and those incredible elites leading us all the way…the pacers and the plodders, the racers, and the rest. Thanks for a wonderful day – and the perfect culmination of an entire winter’s work.