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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.