Marathon running: From ‘why?’ to ‘why not?’

Times/Review Newsgroup sports reporter Jake Williams is training to compete in the Long Island Half Marathon. This is another installment in a series of articles about his quest.

Seven and a half years on, the details of my first marathon are rather sketchy in my memory. The aftermath of one of my first sports journalism assignments is not.

I still remember 43-year-old Gerald Holtmeyer, the Heart of America Marathon’s oldest-ever winner, folding his body into a pool of ice water near the finish line on Broadway in Columbia, Mo., on Labor Day morning, 2002.

Fourth-place finisher Kyle Minnich, 27, dragged himself over for an ice bucket dive as well. Their sweat slowly turned the tubs’ contents into lukewarm salt water.

“That was nasty, wasn’t it?” Minnich said.

I asked runner-up Thomas Whalen, 36, for his thoughts on the race. He finished second in the 1991 HOA while studying medicine at Missouri. Afterward, he said he would never compete in the race again, a pledge he had kept for 11 years.

About breaking his promise to himself, he told me, “I’ll never do this again, again.”

This was crazy. They had signed up, presumedly of their own volition, for a marathon that started at 6 a.m. on Labor Day, the dog days of summer in mid-Missouri. At 6 a.m., it was 69 degrees with 90 percent humidity. By the time the leaders finished, the temperature had risen to 75 and the humidity was still in the 80s.

In between, there had been four miles on the MKT Trail of runners kicking up dirt clouds along the Missouri River. An exit from that haze at the race’s halfway point revealed Missouri’s answer to the Boston Marathon’s Heartbreak Hill. Easley Hill, it is called, an incline of 246 feet over seven-tenths of a mile. That is where Holtmeyer made the decisive move that ultimately won him the race. To me, Easley Hill looked overwhelming. I’m not the only one.

“Most runners go into what we call the Easley Hill Shuffle, somewhat, but not much, faster than a slow walk,” HOA race director Joe Duncan said in an article on the race’s Web site.

Though I spent quite some time talking with the runners, I remember only one positive comment about the race. As I was leaving, Holtmeyer gradually unfolded himself from the tub and steadied himself on a stone column. “So,” he asked, “am I going to see you in this race next year?”

Even if I had raced in 2003, I wouldn’t have seen him. He didn’t run HOA again until 2008, when he finished fifth. Whalen has since broken his promise and run the race four more times — finishing second once, third twice and also sixth. Minnich has not run the race since.

I was supposed to ask the questions, yet I received the toughest of the day. At that point, I had probably never run five miles in my life. The only time I had even matched the time duration of the run they’d just finished was when I rode my bicycle 40 miles along Lake Michigan. It took two days for me to be able to stand up straight again.

I did not consider myself in the same league as these runners, but wanted to be accepted as part of their ranks. They had the kind of lean, athletic build I wanted. But, physically, I was headed in the wrong direction. I ate too much and, at age 26, I put on the freshman 15 in one semester.

When I returned to Missouri in January 2003, I rededicated myself to exercise. Like the little kids in the Gatorade commercials of my youth who wanted to be like Michael Jordan, I wanted to be like these runners. It took a lot of work, and in the midst of the sometimes bone-chilling Missouri winter, a lot of books to get through what would otherwise have been countless mind-numbing hours pedaling a stationary bike.

But it gave me the endurance to start running on the trail behind my apartment complex — the same trail where those four dirt-soaked miles were run before ascending Easley Hill. I always ran in the other direction, my own approximately two miles on the MKT Trail. The uphill climb through campus was my Easley Hill.

I don’t remember my answer to Holtmeyer’s question, but I finished the 2002-03 school year much closer to being able to say yes than no, even if my longest run then was seven miles, far short of a marathon’s 26.2.

But in a few weeks, I will most likely have completed a half marathon, and at that point, Mr. Holtmeyer, perhaps I can consider taking you up on the offer to reconvene in Columbia. That is, if my wife would ever consent to our spending a wedding anniversary that way.

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