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Being proud of John Isner, an overachieving American tennis player

You have to feel for John Isner.

He has one of the best American tennis stories in the last 40 years, a collegiate tennis player for four years who has become one of the best 15 players in the world.

But since Isner’s career has coincided with a historic low in American men’s tennis, the historic low, not his remarkable story, is often the focus at Majors.

Isner at Wimbledon (AP photo)

Isner at Wimbledon. (AP photo)

Take, for instance, what happened last week at Wimbledon.

Isner lost in the third round in five sets to Feliciano Lopez, the No. 24 ranked player in the world. That’s nothing to be ashamed about if you’re an American tennis fan.

Meanwhile, however, no other U.S. singles player advanced past the third round, either, marking the first time that had happened since 1911.

Asked about the stat, Isner understandably replied, “I didn’t know that, and I don’t really care, either,” according to published reports.

From Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times:

So he felt no real burden, no need to try to carry the U.S. torch?

“No, no. Not at all,” Isner said. “You know, whatever.”

It’s hard to blame Isner for responding so tersely; he’s hard variations of the question throughout his career.

Such is the life of the leading American man during one of the biggest lulls for American men’s tennis.

(We won’t rehash details of the lull here. You can find that herehere, and here.)

But Isner is hardly to blame for this dry spell.

He arrived at the University of Georgia a lanky, big server focused on collegiate tennis. (His official freshman year numbers: 6’8″, 198 pounds.)

It wasn’t until Isner’s junior year at Athens that he even considered becoming a professional tennis player.

When Ernest Gulbis, arguably one of the most talented players on tour, was 20 years old, he was already taking sets off Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick.

So, my fellow American tennis lovers, be mad about few American men competing with Nadal and Federer and Djokovic; but don’t be mad at Isner.

Instead, appreciate the overachieving American while he’s still playing.

The Big Four, March 2014

Amidst the Big Four shakeup that was the 2014 Australian Open, we rightfully questioned tennis’ royalty, the Big Four, in both name and future. Consider: the Monday after the Australian Open, the Big Four were ranked Nos. 8, 6, 2 and 1.

A month later, we deflect the hype and measure the Big Four’s more complete starts to 2014.

Roger Federer

Federer has the strongest start to 2014 of the Big Four. (Lesson: Set the bar low.) The GOAT dispensed of Murray in the Australian Open, only losing to Rafael Nadal, who was, unsurprisingly, playing unreal tennis.

And a month later, Federer has already matched his 2013 title haul by winning his sixth Dubai ChampionshipsMoreover, his mind is right and his back is better. All good signs that Federer, whatever version, is back for 2014.

Andy Murray

Hard to share a fair read on Murray so far. He explicitly lowered his expectations before Australia and rightfully so after the back surgery.

One way to read his 2014: He’s had a rough start. Murray didn’t reach the Australian Open finals for only the second time in five years. Last month at Acapulco, he lost in the semis.

Another, more realistic way to view his year so far: He’s had a solid start. He reached the quarters of the AO, pushing a resurgent Federer to four sets. Murray also has been able to stay healthy so far this year. (Knock on wood.)

From ESPN news services:

He played four matches in four days, including three three-setters and some late-night finishes, without his surgically repaired back bothering him.

“I woke up the next morning feeling good for the first time since the surgery,” Murray said Monday.

With Murray in 2014, we, again, recognize the beauty of not expecting much.

Novak Djokovic

Here, we can authoritatively say that Djokovic has had a rough start to 2014. Djokovic, three-time AO champion, a gladiator in five-set battles with Stan Wawrinka and whomever else challenges him Down Under, was upset in the quarters to Our Man Stan. That was unexpected.

We can cut the upset a couple ways. In five-set marathons in which the players are so evenly matched and three points decide the match, a guy is probably going to lose one of the contests at some point. We could say the AO was simply Djokovic’s turn and Wawrinka’s breakthrough. But Djokovic also has been the guy who has owned these matches. In 2012, he beat Nadal in a five-set AO final. What’s going on?

All that said, we’ll take the contrarian viewpoint with Djokovic and remain bullish the rest of the way. With all the questions and doubts swirling around him, he’s too good not to revive the year in a big way.

Rafael Nadal

Nadal might have scared us the most so far this year, which is fitting, because he freaked out the tennis world in 2013. Despite the awkward final in Australia, we give the world’s No. 1 an excellent grade for his 2014 start.

Nadal made the finals of the AO, a Major he has won only one other time. Nadal in Australia wasn’t Nadal cruising on clay in Paris; this was Nadal fighting and dominating on a fast surface. Scary, indeed.

Of course, thanks to tennis’ crazy season, in which year outlooks turn on a week’s worth of results, this could all change in a mere 10 days. In that case, enjoy the tennis.

 

 

An Iowan moves South, learns about winter

I spent my first 20 winters in northern Iowa. When I was 10, school was cancelled for days because the temperature was more than 30 below zero; “polar vortex” before meteorologists created sci-fi names for cold weather.

When I moved to Columbia, S.C., last fall, I thought I knew everything about winter. But little did I know that my first winter in the South would teach me something that I had never learned while living in the Midwest, something that would save homeowners and renters like myself hundreds of thousands of dollars.

During the middle of the Deep Freeze, I went for my midday walk. It was still about 37 degrees here and sunny. Not warm, but pleasant enough for a stroll. As I enjoyed the walk, I politely chuckled as I thought about how South Carolinians were so worried about this cold air. And then I saw this by the entrance of an apartment complex:

Polar Vortex hits Cola

Keep your cabinet doors open? Keep thermostat above 60 degrees? Where was I?

I had never heard such warnings during any Missouri, Nebraska or Iowa winter. Sure, it was colder than usual in S.C., but nothing unbearable; the temperature was forecasted to be about 10 degrees, not 30 below.

So I did the only thing that would prove my point: I Googled this foolishness. I read about cold weather in the South and this outlandish “freezing of pipes” warning. And then, as often happens when you think you’re smarter and wiser than most, I learned something even more interesting: I was wrong.

The Weather Channel informed:

Water pipes in houses in southern climates often are more vulnerable to winter cold spells. The pipes are more likely to be located in unprotected areas outside of the building insulation, and homeowners tend to be less aware of freezing problems, which may occur only once or twice a season.

This all made too much sense for even me to continue about, acting as if I was the bearer of all winterly knowledge. I quit the act.

The next day, before leaving home for work, I even sort of played along; I set my thermostat to 55 degrees.

U.S. Open Final: Key points steal Djokovic’s momentum

Momentum jerks and hurls every team and every play in every sport. It dictates plays, shifts halves and forces turnovers.

In tennis, momentum sways championships.

On the courts, big “Mo” aggressively accelerates or severely punishes.

David Goldman photo

David Goldman photo

It is one player against another, both of their minds swerving from excitement to doubt by their strokes and their footwork. Their movement controls their shots, and their thinking forces their movements. A doubt here, and a flubbed volley there. Two more missteps and a clean winner from their opponent, and the game is lost. The player’s serve has been broken, and the set is gone. The match could be slipping away.

In Monday’s U.S. Open final, Novak Djokovic was in control of the match, eyeing at least a third-set tiebreaker. He had already broken the once unbroken Rafael Nadal three times in the young match. Djokovic’s forehand was dragging Nadal across the court, his drop shots were tugging Nadal to the net and his laughable lob volley had nudged Nadal back to the baseline.

Djokovic had fully answered Nadal’s dominating 6-2, first-set performance.

But Djokovic gave Nadal a break point, a chance to seize momentum, and Nadal snatched it with a sound forehand and more aggressive play. The Spaniard took the third set. Djokovic was crushed, defeated.

His posture changed. His head dipped. He had no hop in his step, no wide eyes and eagerness to return Nadal’s serves. He was as shocked as Nadal was excited.

Like that, with two points in the third set, Djokovic lost a chance at a tiebreaker, and he lost momentum.

There were no long-time teammates out there to help him recover, no five-minute substitution to let him clear his thoughts and get back out on the field. That’s why tennis can be the most mental and the most intense of sports. Djokovic had nowhere to go to change his mood; he had to stay on court and endure Nadal feeling his 13th major a set away.

It was momentum — and an unreal performance — that helped Nadal and crushed Djokovic to end another fine U.S. Open.

- Jonathon Braden

 

Two tennis stars serving, two very different reactions

We know Victoria Azarenka’s Australian story well, but what about the similar struggle of Sam Stosur?

Two of the very best women tennis players. Two pressure situations. And two very different reactions, followed by similar explanations.

***

In the second round of the Australian Open, ninth-seeded Sam Stosur was serving for the match.

After losing the second set, she rallied and led 5-2 in the third.

The score was 30-15; Stosur was two points away from winning the match.

First serve, out. Second serve, out. Double fault. 30-all.

And China’s Jie Zheng won the next two points, breaking Stosur.

Missed was the Australian’s first chance to serve out the match.

She moseyed to the shade in the back of the court, took off her sunglasses and grabbed a towel to wipe the sweat off her arms. Seconds later, she was walking to the baseline, preparing to return a serve from Zhen, who, at 3-5, had gained a mental edge.

Sam Stosur/The Australian

***

In the semifinals of the Australian Open, top-seeded Victoria Azarenka was serving for the match. She had cooled off the 25th-seeded American Sloane Stephens and was a point away from her second straight Australian Open final.

Leading 40-15, Azarenka dumped a backhand into the net. At 40-30, she whaled a forehand 15 feet long.

She would blow three more match points — that’s five in all — before Stephens would end the 13-minute tentative contest with a screaming forehand up the line.

Gone was Azarenka’s first chance to serve out the match.

She grabbed her towel, wiped off her arms and racquet handle. She sauntered to her bench to sit in the shade and alone ponder her nerves during the changeover.

But Azarenka quickly had company. Medical staff gathered, and she kept pointing at her chest. She took a deep breath and exhaled. Soon, Azarenka was off her bench, mysteriously walking off the court, leaving Stephens to sit in the shade and sip her sports drink for 10 minutes.

Joe Castro/European Pressphoto Agency

***

Stosur had no such luxury. She was not injured; she was just nervous, what happens when you serve for matches, especially in front of thousands of people in your home country.

Zheng went onto hold, break and hold to give Stosur a chance to win four points and extend the match. But, after Zheng earned a match point, Stosur double-faulted.

She tried to explain after the match.

“You make an error and you tighten up. Unfortunately, it kept happening point after point. Crazy things pop into your head,” Stosur told reporters. ”You start not wanting to miss instead of making the winner.”

***

Azarenka returned 10 minutes later. She still catapulted a couple forehands long but seemed somewhat more composed, bouncing the ball in play enough times to win the next game.

She was relieved.

“I almost did the choke of the year right now,” she said on-court after the match. “I just felt, you know, a little bit overwhelmed.”

Innocently, an Australian announcer voiced the obvious in reference to her 10-minute “medical timeout” and her on-court chat: “She didn’t really tell us what was wrong with her.”

Later, yes, she tried to clarify: She had a rib injury.

***

Friday evening, Azarenka won her second straight Australian Open title, beating Li Na in three sets.

“You just have to go out there and try to play tennis in the end of the day,” Azarenka said after the match. “The things what happened in the past, I did the best thing I could to explain, to do everything I could, and it was left behind me already.”

Friday evening, Sam Stosur probably watched the match on television somewhere, wondering how and if she will overcome the nerves that have overwhelmed her in big matches.

Perhaps she should get some advice from Azarenka.

image

Serving under pressure excruciating, even for the pros

From an Associated Press story:

Ninth-seeded Samantha Stosur, who has spoken of her anxiety over playing in front of her home fans, served twice for the match but double-faulted on match point in a 6-4, 1-6, 7-5 loss to China’s Zheng Jie.

“It was a bit of a choke,” Stosur admitted. “Obviously it’s a hard one to take when you get yourself into a winning position and you lose five games straight.”

Stosur, who had nine double-faults and 56 unforced errors, has never gone beyond the fourth round at her home Grand Slam, lost in the first round last year and also lost in her first matches at warm-up tournaments this year in Brisbane and Sydney.

(Thanks, AP.)

Getty Images

Getty Images

Sam Stosur. This is a woman who beat Serena Williams, the most mentally tough player on the women’s tour, in a final at the U.S. Open, Serena’s playground.

Now maybe the U.S. Open had the opposite effect on Stosur. We’ll give her that. But this is a professional tennis player, a Grand Slam champion, someone who makes millions of dollars to compete. How perplexing — and fascinating — that she cannot overcome the anxiety of high-pressure points in her home country?

Of course, she’s not the first player to struggle with hardest part of the game, the mental aspect.

A more recent example happened in late October to another tour veteran:

The New York Times: In the first match of the day, a doubles semifinal, the defending champions, Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber, fell to Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, 7-6 (6), 6-1. Huber had a set point on her serve at 6-5 in the first set tiebreaker, but she double-faulted twice. Hlavackova hit a forehand winner on her pair’s ensuing set point, which left Huber crashing to the ground and shifted momentum in the match for good.

The bolded words are my doing.

Liezel Huber: 53 doubles titles. Almost $6 million in prize money. A 745 – 355 record to date.

Forget the technology. Forget the shoes. Forget the weather.

What still matters most, as we know, is what’s going on in the head.

More on Stosur’s home country struggles to come.

Wednesday: Another great day to be alive.

Long live the Queen: American women’s tennis in 2013

May she play for another decade, years after people stopped saying her priorities were mixed up, her focus was misplaced and her training too lax.

For Serena Williams is already one of the best tennis players of all time, one of the best, if not the best, competitors and one of the more interesting athletes of our times.

Think about it all: Her family. Her life. Her sister. Her health.

At the age of 31, though, conventional tennis wisdom tells us she has few years left to play.

Getty Images

Getty Images

But Serena is and has always been unconventional, with her own clothing line, her own life and her own hobbies. She is the atypical women’s tennis player. We know her simply as Serena, the woman who rededicated herself to tennis and wound up winning 15 Grand Slams in the process.

And she may be hitting her prime. Her 2012: Fifth Wimbledon title. Third and fourth Olympic golds. Fourth U.S. Open championship. Third WTA Championship title. Her record to end the year? 58-4.

With 15 Slams, there are only three to beat in the Open Era: Steffi Graf, with 22; Chris Evert, 18; and Martina Navratilova, 18.

Age 31. Fifteen Grand Slams. Three more years, nine more Slams?

Let’s hope so, because after Serena, the U.S. women’s tennis field slips. Long, long gone are the days of two or three top American women ready to be replaced by the same crew only fewer stops and starts.

There is Varvara Lepchenko, ranked No. 20 in the world, her highest ranking in her 12 years of playing pro tennis. Lepchenko, 26, did just finish her best year on tour, though, reaching the fourth round in Roland Garros, her finest appearance yet at a Slam.

There is Venus Williams, the champion sister. Venus, 32, figures to be nearing retirement faster than her younger sister but could dominate doubles for years to come.

And there is Sloane Stephens, the name you’ve been looking to see, the player you want to see face Serena again. At 19, Stephens is the U.S.’ best bet to replicate Serena on the court. She is already ranked No. 25 in the world, played Serena tough in Brisbane and has withstood the pressure of already being called the “Next Best American.”

But she is likely years away from a major run, a Slam semifinal or a WTA title. Her model, Serena, might have won her first singles Slam at 17 but the game is far too physical now, far too demanding and taxing.

So, for now, let’s not look too much farther than where Serena slams her next overhead or where she places her 20th ace or where she stares into the sky as she screams while celebrating another Slam.

For 2013 and American women’s tennis, let’s sing, “Long Live the Queen”, and forget about the future.

American Tennis, 2013

On today, the start of the 2013 Australian Open, let us again examine the prospects of an American man doing something he has not done in 10 years: Win a Grand Slam.

It is a tired premise in which to begin, yes, but one worth asking in 2013 because of what happened to American men in 2012.

Phil Walter/Getty Images

Phil Walter/Getty Images

Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open winner and the flag carrier for a decade, retired. Mardy Fish struggled with heart issues. And John Isner, No. 13 in the world, experienced pain in his right knee that led him to withdraw from this year’s first major.

Leading the most powerful country in the world, No. 20 seed, Sam Querrey. He is 25 years old, has a career record of 184-147 and had his best showing at the Australian Open in 2008 when he made it to the third round.

That’s the bad news.

The good: Querrey made it into the semifinals of a warm-up for Australia and has ascended up the rankings to No. 22, 71 spots higher than where he was this time last year.

So it could be worse.

At this point, however, no matter their ranking, it’s time Querrey and others snatched the flag and sprinted with it, even if they slip, stumble and chip their teeth all yearlong.

It’s time for the U.S. to move past the Roddick age, however frightening that might be in the near future. It’s time for players such as Querrey, Ryan Harrison and the resurgent Brian Baker to have their chance at the top of the American game and see how they like the view and if they can stay for dinner.

Let’s line them up, one by one, and see who fares the best in the Slams and tournaments without Roddick — for good — or Fish or Isner — in the near future — shielding them from the pressure of playing No. 1 singles in Davis Cup or being called the “highest-ranked American” in the field for the thousandth time.

That has to get old, and it’s time for somebody else to see how quickly that happens.

Think about this again: Roddick made five Grand Slam finals and was a semifinalist four times in his career. No American man playing professional tennis today has reached a Slam semifinal.

That’s not a bad thing — it just means the U.S. is due for a restart in men’s tennis, a chance to see how the younger players adapt.

American tennis has been here before — after Pete Sampras retired or Andre Agassi finally said goodbye — albeit the players coming up were more promising the outgoing leaders more successful.

But this is not completely new territory.

In any sport, when the standard-bearer departs and the young guns remain, there is a oh, no, feeling, and doubts abound.

But there’s also excitement and the possibility of what’s next.

That’s where American tennis is today, a day before the year’s first major.

And you know what? It could be worse.

Would You Rather? Tennis Edition

Joe Shults and Jonathon Braden battled on the tennis court for many years in Columbia, Mo. Just ask someone in the home of the Missouri Tigers, surely they all remember. (Actually, don’t ask.) Now they take their tennis battles here in the first of an ongoing series on JonathonBraden.com. We ask a question, we pick sides and we debate our point, all in the name of tennis.

Q: Would you rather have the talent of a top player for a year, competing at the highest level, winning major tournaments and acquiring fame and fortune, only to have the talent “turned off” after a year, or be a journeyman player; one who never wins a major and cracks the top 35, but has a 15-year career, celebrates longevity and becomes one of the most consistent players on tour?

STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS Murray-esque talent for a year?

Top player for a year:

A: Think back, if you can, to your childhood; to the time you spent hitting ball after dirty ball against a wall, or to when you and your buddy from down the street rode to the park and pretended you were pros. Got it in your mind? Good. Now this:

What were you doing and thinking about while you played in your youth? Was it grinding out a qualifying tournament win in Tashkent, only to get beaten in the first round of the main draw in front of 55 Uzbeks and four goats? Did you then, in your dreams, catch a plane for Johannesburg or some other far-flung locale to do the whole thing over again — for 15 years?

The answer to all of these is, of course, no.

When you were a wee lad, you pretended that you were locked in a battle on Centre Court at Wimbledon. The match went back and forth. Match points were saved, the server came up with opportune aces and pinpoint passing shots were struck. The crowd went WILD! You held the golden trophy high above your head while the Duke of Kent joined with the lower classes in chanting your name.

Wouldn’t you want to see the realization of our dreams, even if that realization is but a fleeting moment. Wouldn’t you want have just a taste of glory, instead of a full stomach of mediocrity?

Consider the practical point related to what makes the world go ’round: money. Novak Djokovic had a nearly unequalled season in 2011, winning 10 tournaments, including three grand slam tournaments. The compensation for Mr. Djokovic’s toil? $12 million in prize money. Of course, that’s eclipsed by endorsement deals, exhibition payments and appearance fees. As of this writing, Djokovic has earned nearly $7.5 million in 2012. What can you do with $19.5 million? If you’re not, I don’t know, a complete fool, you can live the rest of your life in luxury. Italian Filippo Volandri, currently ranked No. 75 in the world, has made $315,873 in 2012. Nothing to sneeze at, no doubt, but take into account travel and expenses, and it’s nothing close to an amount that sets you up for the rest of your life.

I would choose to be the best at something, even if I’m the best for only two years. I would choose to run like the wind, to be able to hit any shot from anywhere on the court, to outwit my opponent and to taste adulation, fame and fortune the world over.

I think I’d owe it to my 10-year-old self.

- Joe Shults

 

Mikhail Youzhny, photo by Jason Szenes/European Pressphoto Agency

Top 35 career:

Who do you admire the most, Gaston Gaudio, 2004 French Open champion, or Mikhail Youzhny, currently ranked No. 25 and has been on the ATP Tour since 1998? (Gaston who?) Your answer to this question tells you everything about how we view tennis players in the Open era.  Think about it: What do we admire most about Roger Federer, about Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick or any of the top players?  Yes, their flashy points, their “Was that real?” shots and their laughable serves miles out of reach from their opponents.

But, more than those, more than their skills, we admire their endurance, their consistency, their ability to grind out matches every few weeks. The tennis season is like no other, with a year-round calendar and few guaranteed breaks. These players grind away for two weeks at a major, take a break, play a tournament and have to again play their best in another major championship.

The hallmark of a great tennis life is not stringing together a few good tournaments, winning a big match here and there and sneaking a major out during a down time of tennis. The seal of a Hall of Fame tennis career is consistency, being on the service line match after match, competing for championship after championship and depositing your body on the court every tournament. And so what if you don’t break through and win a major, do you realize how many stellar tennis players DO NOT win a major? How nearly impossible it is to win a major statistically speaking, especially these days when you only people with the first names Novak, Rafa, Roger and Andy can have a shot?

No, you do not want to be a Gaston Gaudio, someone who had a good run on red clay but is barely a footnote in tennis history. You want a career, not a fun vacation. Besides, go ahead and win a few tournaments one year and go away. How many fans and sportswriters won’t wonder aloud, Hmm, how did he win so much so fast? The rumblings will only grow louder when this mystery performer never wins again. All credibility from the hot streak disappears without the consistency we have come to expect from the top performers.

In 2012, we do not judge a player by a hot tournament, by a nice run in one of four tournaments. You want much more than a lucky streak, and so would I. I would want a career. I would want to be in the top 20, experience what the best of the best go through and endure a tennis life.

So, if I had to pick, I would gladly answer to Mr. Youhzny.

- Jonathon Braden

Five years later, running a marathon

Jonathon Braden running the 2012 Omaha Marathon, about mile 14. JAMES R. BURNETT/THE OMAHA WORLD-HERALD

“Meskha, it can’t be.”

Forty minutes had elapsed since my 5 a.m. alarm. The sky was dark. The air brisk, almost freezing. Gusts passed through the open windows of my apartment.

It was 5:41 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 23. Omaha Marathon day.

My mother couldn’t believe it, and I could barely myself.

Five years earlier, I had also attempted what tens of thousands of people do every year: dedicate four months of their lives to training for a 26.2 mile race. I was in my fourth year of college and lived in Columbia, Mo., a gorgeous town with a moderate climate and an expansive system of gravel and concrete trails: the perfect place to train for a marathon, I thought.

I built my way up to running 15 miles, only to experience some pain in my left leg, and eventually used that injury and the demands of college — partying, studying — as a good excuse to stop running so many miles.

My inexperience had sabotaged my efforts. When I signed up for the 2007 Kansas City Marathon, I wasn’t running much and mostly wanted to lose weight. I remember initially jogging three miles and feeling out of breath.

What a different feeling this will be in a few months, I thought.

Two years ago, when I moved to Omaha, finishing a marathon had essentially become an official lifetime goal.
I trained and ran two half marathons using a formal schedule, and I hated and liked the discipline that a schedule forced upon me: Staying in Friday nights to run 12 miles Saturday morning, getting up early before work to run five miles because I knew I wouldn’t run after work.
Because of a solid running base, the idea of doing a marathon wasn’t daunting this time around. No, it was something I was fairly certain I could complete.
I finished training with the regular pain and dreadful thoughts, and the weekend of the marathon, I surprised myself by being very excited, even eager.
On Saturday night, I giddily and cautiously consumed my salad and pasta, careful not to overeat but also not to walk away hungry.

Sunday morning, per Hal Higdon’s recommendations, I warmed up some oatmeal, had a banana and drank a glass of water.

At the race, the democratic nature of running stood out more than the 35-degree temperatures. Everyone runs races. Elderly women. Ultra-fit men. Fit young ladies, out of shape former football players. And their reasons are all so personal: running for a lost loved one, a deceased partner, because someone else can’t. I had no inspiring tale that spurred me to run, save for the fact that I wanted to show myself I could do it, and my uncle said I should do it now, at the age of 26, if I wanted to finish under four hours.

The first half flew by, just as a good friend suggested it would. My parents yelled at mile 1 and 6. I ran with a co-worker from mile 1 to 13. He veered right; I stayed the course and saw more than half the pack bail. The good chatter began as the focus shifted to the reason we got up at 5 a.m.

“What are you shooting for?” a fellow marathoner asked.

“Oh, about four,” I said.

We were on pace for 3:47, he said, which made me surprised and excited. Could I keep this up?

“I’ve learned these things don’t really start until mile 20, anyway,” said the man, who wore a moustache and a slight beard and was probably in his 40s.

We looked ahead, to a lean woman on a steady pace some 15 years and 30 yards ahead of me.

“I think she’s going for that,” he said. Going for 3:45. If we can keep up with her, we’ll have it.
More than the cool temperatures and the water stops, the crowd makes the race. Loved the crowd. The random people who would high-five you upon request, who would laugh at you or cheer you by number, who sat with blankets around their legs and beers in their hands, and yelled, “Looking great, runners! Keep it up!”
They made the race, as does your attitude, the willingness to talk with other runners and people in the crowd in order to save your own spirits.
A few turns later, we were at mile 18. Mile 18!? The race seemed to be going fast. Only eight to go. I am actually going to do this, I thought. I can do this. I can run eight more miles. I am going to do this!
When you talk about training for a marathon, people mention a four-letter word: “wall,” a metaphor used to describe what happens during a marathon when bodies stop wanting to run and runners solely rely on mental strength to continue.
Throughout the race, I gaged my body in search of this wall, looking for a time in which I would physically halt for a mile or two. I felt no such urgent pain, but my wall was more of a gradual build-up, as brick by brick attached itself to my body. First my waist, my hip flexors, my IT band on my left side. Then my hips, later my thighs. Lastly, my ankles, calves, and my stomach, shoulders and back.
When I spotted my good friend waiting to cheer me on at mile 20, the aching wall had hammered itself aboard.
“There’s like hardly any left,” she said. She knew better — having ran two marathons — but I adored the enthusiasm.
“Bring it home, Jonny! Bring it home!” shouted my father, right knee on the ground, right arm waving me home.
Four miles later, my father would have what he later called a “messianic” experience. Another runner, maybe hallucinating, probably panting, jogged past my dad, who was wearing a red Iowa State Cyclones hoodie.
“Iowa State,” said the runner. “I went to school there.”
His eyes reportedly stretched. His pace quickened. Later, he would tell my father, you have no idea how much that helped me. Thank you.
Running a marathon is like that, so I’ve been told and have experienced. The tiniest of things boost you up, help you finish. The softest voice in the crowd can keep you going. Or, in that runner’s experience, just a 65-year-old’s presence.
Around mile 24, pure euphoria — and pure dread — joined the “festival,” as my dad would later call the race. I had weaved around waste plants and gravel roads and country paths. I had high-fived strangers who recognized my headband and afro later on in the race. And I had slurped down four Gu gels.
All I had was two miles to go, only two miles. The illusion that two miles is easy, that it’s only 1/12 of what you’ve already done is particularly hilarious once you have ran 24 miles.
Two miles. I still had two two miles to finish.
But I was again saved by a fan: another co-worker, who earlier ran the half, went home, came back and spotted me around mile 25.
“You got it, man. You’re doing it! You’re killing it” he said, running a few paces ahead of me.
“One mile left. Thank God!” I said, wall gaining traction, me slowing down. “Oh, my gosh.”
Finished runners and enthusiastic fans clustered near the finish line, to whom my co-worker would yell, “First-time marathoner. Cheer for him!”
They happily obliged. I laughed. The aches felt soothed.
At mile 26, it is pure joy. You feel no pain for .2 miles. You have heard and now can see the finish line, the packs that have gathered. You try to go faster but don’t really know feelings at this point.
“This is all yours,” a finished runner said alongside the path.
And, finally, it was. The race. The day. Knowing that I wanted to do something, trained for it, and did it.
A different feeling, indeed: it felt great.