The GAP Trestles Marathon – The story of my first 26.2

I started running in 2016.  It was a desperate attempt to get into shape, and I expected to hate every step.  But, as I explained in my Office Chair to Half Marathon post, things changed after I had run regularly for about a month.  Running became something I enjoyed and looked forward to, but I didn’t really plan to take it any further than short races like 5ks and 10ks.

Then, later in 2016, I watched a movie called Spirit of the Marathon, which is a story of six different people as they prepare for the Chicago Marathon. If you’re a runner and don’t want to run a Marathon, don’t watch that movie, because it might just change your mind.  When the movie was over, I knew I had to run a marathon.  And so the journey began.

I originally hoped to run a marathon in the spring of 2017 with my brother Ty from Kentucky.  However, he had signed up for a 50k trail run in the spring, so we couldn’t find a suitable marathon that worked for both of our schedules. I was tentatively planning to just run by myself at the Garden Spot Village Marathon in New Holland, PA. It was fairly close to home, and looked like a nice run.  I would ramp up training throughout the winter, run the Chambersburg Half in March as a training run, and then be ready to go for the marathon in April. Things were going well until I misstepped during a snowy run in December and injured my knee. As a result, I was not able to run during the Month of January, and I knew it was foolish to ramp up my training in time for a spring marathon.  I did run the Chambersburg Half, but then I concentrated on the local 5ks for the summer.

Around mid-summer, my brother and I began searching, and we found the GAP Trestles Marathon, a small marathon in Meyersdale, PA.  There was a lot to like about the marathon.  It suited both of our schedules, it was about an hour and half from my house, and it looked like a scenic run.  We signed up and started to ramp up the training.

My training was going well until July.  My long runs each week were up to 15 miles. I was planning to drive over to Meyersdale and scout out the course, which is a bike trail, and put in a 17 mile run in the process.  But the day before, I manage to stub my toe on a piece of furniture in my living room.  I ended up taking the family and scouting the marathon course by bike. An x-ray the following week confirmed my fears:  the toe was fractured and I would not be able to run for three weeks. By August I was back into the training, but I had to ramp it up slow to be sure I didn’t re-injure my toe.  When it was said and done, I had lost a month of training that I could ill-afford to do without.

There was no turning back now.  I was able to work up to a single 18 mile run and another of 20 miles three weeks before race day.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was going to have to work.

I went into race-day with three goals.  In order of importance, they were:

  1. To finish the race
  2. To run the whole way (no stopping or walk breaks)
  3. To finish in under 4 hours.

I knew the last one was a bit ambitious, but a few of the race calculators out there said I could do it.  I would need to run at a pace of 9:09 a mile or less.  I had run the half marathon at exactly 9 minutes per mile, so I told myself that with the additional fitness I gained over the summer, I could do a marathon at that pace.

The starting line of the race was the Meyersdale Area Historical Society, a historic train station. The runners would head east on the Great Allegheny Passage for about 2 miles.  The trail had a hardly noticeable downgrade in this direction.  After crossing the 1900 foot Salisbury Viaduct, the runners would turn around and head west on the GAP for a slightly uphill 6.55 miles, passing the starting area and crossing two other trestle bridges before again turning around and going back to the starting area for a total of 13.1 miles.  For the half marathon runners, the journey would end there.  Those running the full marathon would repeat the course to get to 26.2 miles.

A nice feature of the course was that we would pass the starting area three times during the race, at miles 4, 13, and 17.  This allowed my family to supply me with fuel on the way through.  I supplied them with three bottles of water mixed with TailWind Endurance powder, and also three small bags, each containing a few pretzels and half a banana.  Each time through, I would take one of the drinks and one of the bags of food.

Ty and I started the race running at an 8:50 pace.  We felt great and everything went well for a time.  Kelsey and Cole, Ty’s children who were running the half, fell behind us slightly over the first few miles. The downhill grade was hardly noticeable, but when we made the turn-around 2 miles out, we could tell it got a bit harder for the 6.55 mile uphill stretch.

My Garmin Forerunner 15 can display only average pace or current pace, but not both.  On longer races, I typically set it to show average pace. By the half way point, it showed we were averaging 8:52 per mile.  I was still feeling great and optimistic that I’d meet our four-hour goal. After the turn-around at mile 15, we slowed a bit as we headed east on the final uphill stretch. By the time we passed the start/finish area at mile 17, our average pace was showing about 8:55, but we were still ahead of the game.

At that point, things started to get rough.  My appetite was gone, and I didn’t think my stomach could take any more pretzels.  I nibbled on the banana for a mile or two, and finally discarded the last bite.   My last bottle of tailwind drink was about gone, and I was glad because I was having trouble taking that as well.  Now I was craving water, and that was all my stomach would handle.

Ty started to move away from me a bit as our average pace started creeping up.  By mile 19 it was about 9:05, which meant our current pace had slowed considerably,  and I knew I was in trouble. Ty was about 150 feet ahead of me and I yelled to him to go on without me. I hoped that somehow I would be able to keep my average below the target 9:09 until the turn around at mile 21.5, and then I’d have the downhill grade to help me. But it wasn’t going to happen.

I had heard that late in a marathon, the challenge is more mental than physical, and now I was experiencing that firsthand.  My heart rate seemed fine.  I wasn’t out of breath.  There really wasn’t anything physically holding me back from keeping the pace except the severe pain in my legs. My body was screaming at me to slow down or stop, and my mind was starting to give in.

At mile 20 I let go of my goal of finishing in under four hours. Meeting two of three goals wasn’t too bad, I told myself, and I could be satisfied with that.  As I approached the turn around, I met Ty coming back the other way.  I glanced at my watch. “You’re in good shape for a 4 hour finish”, I said as he passed.  It read 9:12 average pace, and he was well ahead of me.  “They have Coke at the next aid station”, he called over his shoulder.

The downhill grade after the turnaround was too little, too late.  My current pace picked up slightly, but my average kept slipping. Ty had told me that Coke was “rocket fuel” late in the race, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I grabbed one on the way through next aid station, but could only drink about two swallows.  My stomach was in no shape for rocket fuel.

I was all alone now, except for occasionally passing runners going the other direction.  Somewhere along the way I passed a small group of people running together.  One of them had the name “Larry” printed on his shirt, and the words “1900 marathons and counting”.  I later learned he was the famous “Larry the Marathon Maniac“, who has indeed completed almost 2000 marathons and has been featured by ESPN  and several times in Runner’s World.

At the next water station I grabbed two cups of water.  I guzzled most of both, and then poured the rest over my head in effort to stay cool. I was suffering now, and the mental battle was getting worse. Why was I stupid enough to sign up for this? What’s the point of running 26.2 miles, anyway?  I wanted so badly to walk a few steps, but my stubbornness would not allow it.  I had suffered this far, and I wasn’t going to give up on the second of my three goals.

I started to mumble a hymn to myself as I ran, something that has helped me through some hard patches during training runs. Somehow the hymns that came to mind seemed to fit well with my situation:

O land of rest for thee I sigh!
When will the moment come
When I shall lay my armor by
And dwell in peace at home?

I had lost track of the miles now.  I knew my watch could tell me if I pressed the button on the side to flip to the next screen of data, but I didn’t want to know. All I could do is just continue to put one foot in front of the other.

I knew there was one more water station, and I desperately needed water.  But there was a slight dilemma:  the last water station was unmanned, meaning that if I wanted water I’d have to stop and fill up my cup myself.   To this point, I had never stopped.  I had always grabbed what I needed on the run.  I would either have to finish without more water, or let go of goal #2, which was to run all the way.

As it turned out, there was a third option: as I approached the water station, a familiar figure was there, pouring water over his head. Ty had been well ahead of me, so he must have ran into trouble.  “Hey, pour me two cups of water”, I yelled ahead.  “I am going to die!”, I shouted, jokingly referring to stage 5 of the 8 Stages of Marathon Running. I swiped the water off the table as I ran past, and asked him if he was OK.  “Got some severe cramps, but I’ll finish”, he said.

My watch beeped, and this time I allowed myself to look down. Mile 25. I was going to make it.  I kept looking back, thinking Ty was surely going to overtake me, but he was nowhere to be seen. He must be hurting bad, I thought. If it was humanly possible, he would be giving me some competition. It’s not often his office-dwelling brother has an opportunity to beat him at a sporting event.

My watched beeped again and the finish line came into view. A much-needed surge of adrenaline allowed me to break into a sprint for the last 50 yards. The time was 4 hours, 12 minutes and 45 seconds.  Ten minutes later, Ty walked gingerly across the finish line as well. The year-long journey was over.

Final Notes & related links

In addition to Larry the Marathon Maniac, we also shared the course with a woman who is attempting to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks in 52 states/districts/territories.

GAP Trestles Marathon Info
GAP Trestles Marathon 2017 results
Meyersdale Area Historical Society
Great Allegheny Passage