The Inner Marathon

by Sam Martin

On Saturday, October 12th I ran a marathon inside my head. I had a moment of clarity when I picked up my bib and saw for the first time the energy, enthusiasm, and massive scale of the race I was running. A vision appeared to me: I saw myself running triumphantly up Michigan Avenue—smiling wide, confident and easy in my stride, having a blast—feeling so good at the end of 26.2 miles that I did a cartwheel across the finish line.

I had no rational reason to believe that this would happen the next day when I ran the race for real. My training was, frankly, shit. My longest run was twelve miles, and that run did NOT feel good. I was so nervous about this that I lied and told friends I had run fourteen miles to make my situation seem less desperate. On top of that, I got sick three days before the race, coming down with a sinus infection on Thursday morning. On Friday morning I was still blowing my nose every five minutes, sitting on a box to teach my classes at the gym.

Things were not looking good. I had signed up for this marathon in February planning to train my ass off, break four hours, arrive at the starting line with no doubts. My good intentions slowly helped pave the infernal highway, and the training spreadsheets were pretty empty come October. On Friday morning (two days before the race), I gave myself a choice:

(a) Quit the race, eat the registration fee, and hold on to my excuses about bad training and an ill-timed cold.

(b) Quit bitching, recalibrate my expectations, do the best I could, and have fun.

B it was. I decided not to worry about my time and just focus on finishing and having a good experience. If I felt great, maybe a 4:30 would be possible.

I woke up on Sunday and had one last doubt. I can’t believe I signed up for this, I can’t, it’s scary… and then I just let it go. I watched that doubt sail off to sea, got dressed, ate breakfast, and headed downtown.

The energy in Grant Park that morning was unbelievable. 45,000 people gathering, preparing to do something they trained for, something they cared about, something good. We corralled up. The announcer got us fired up. The music blasted. The clock struck eight, and we started. A flurry of sweatshirts and jackets arced over the crowd as runners ditched their warm-ups. At 8:04, I crossed the starting line and it was on.

While I ran, I stayed focused on a few things:

  1. My breath. Four steps breathe in through my (now clear) nose, two steps breathe out through my mouth, two steps no breath. Whenever I got distracted, I came back to this.
  2. My technique. This is what saved me from disaster. Years of practicing barefoot-style and POSE running allowed me to stay in a good position and run efficiently. When I found myself getting tight, I relaxed my shoulders, squeezed my butt and pushed my hips forward, and leaned ahead.
  3. My self-talk. I allowed two phrases to enter my head, and any other thought was immediately replaced with one or the other.
    • “I’m just getting warmed up.” The race didn’t start until the last two-plus miles up Michigan Avenue. I reminded myself at mile 8, mile 13, mile 18, and mile 21. This is just the easy part!
    • “Lookin’ good, feelin’ good, oughta be in Hollywood.” I stole this from legendary coach and former Navy SEAL Mark Divine. In an interview on my friend Kenny’s podcast, he said that this was his mantra throughout BUD/S and hell week. He repeated this to himself throughout the incredibly arduous training process, and he never broke. He kept the vision of himself triumphantly completing BUD/S in his head, and he finished as the honor man of his entire class. Which brings me to…
  4. My vision. More than I wanted to stop, slow down, quit, feel pain, or anything else, I wanted to make that vision a reality.

On Sunday, October 13th I ran the Chicago Marathon. I ran triumphantly up Michigan Avenue with a smile on my face. I kissed my girlfriend at mile 25 and told her, “I’m just getting warmed up!” I was confident, staying true to my stride to the very end. I felt so good I did a cartwheel across the finish line, 4 hours, 29 minutes, and 13 seconds after I started.

Sam Post-Marathon