Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Running It Off

Marathoner/former drunk.

By Rob Simbeck

JANUARY 26, 1998:  I'm facedown on a cot in a makeshift medical suite at the Hilton Hotel in Huntsville, Ala. Two women are applying big plastic bags of ice to my calves, which feel like someone's been hitting them with sledgehammers. Every nerve from my waist to my feet is screaming, and my leg bones are throbbing like toothaches. I have just lost seven pounds in three hours, and I'm half-delirious.

I did this to myself. Someone fired a gun and, along with about 1,000 other people, I began running through the streets of Huntsville. Now, after 26 miles and 385 yards, I am hoping the medical personnel can get the bottom half of me numb. Beneath the pain, though, the operative feeling is one of giddy delight. I am now, officially, a marathoner.

Actually, I have considered myself a marathoner for the past year, a period during which I've jacked my running up to eight-to-10 miles a day, with extremes ranging from four miles to 26, in preparation for this very Saturday. That level of running has consequences aside from the ones I'm experiencing now. Most days, I negotiate a tightrope between the insanely demanding, bone-deep hunger I feel and the absolute necessity that I not gain weight--to perform well, I've got to stay an unnaturally thin 170 pounds or less. (I'm 6 foot 3.) When I cut back on mileage before races, my body, which is addicted to that daily hour or so of cardiovascular overdrive, goes through withdrawal, leaving me edgy and hyper; when I run long, my legs ache and my blood sugar gets drained to the point where I have to perk up just to get listless.

I am thinking that probably nothing else pushes the human body this hard, gives it this kind of daily stress and abuse and requires this much concentration and energy.

And then it hits me.

I spent 16 years drinking almost a case of beer a day, sleeping when and where I passed out, throwing up in the morning, bloating to 245 pounds, swelling my liver, hallucinating, wrecking cars, and finally destroying my health. The details differ, but the poundings, as I think about them, have a lot of parallels--so many that running was able to fill a lot of the gaps in my life after I quit drinking in April 1987.

There are many people who have crossed the gulf between drunkard and marathoner, traveling in one direction or the other. I am fortunate enough to have crossed over in the more desirable direction, and thereby hangs a tale.

There are many elements of the drunkard's life that transfer quite nicely to that of the marathoner. There is, first of all, compulsion. Without it, you don't have much of a chance as a drunk or as a distance runner. Nothing that takes as much out of you as consistent inebriation or high mileage can be sustained without an unwavering and insuperable inner longing. The legions of people who have partied hard in college and then become occasional drinkers, and those who begin and then abandon hard exercise, speak to that reality. As one who has experienced both longings, I can tell you I get as restless waiting for my daily run as I used to waiting for that first cold one.

Then there is stamina. Drinking and running require enormous expenditures of energy, mental and physical. Most drunks are functional, holding jobs and managing, socially and otherwise. For such people, getting from Point A to Point B can require a chess master's concentration and a gymnast's ready energy. When I am tempted to back off my mileage, I recall the deep inner wells I drew from during my drinking days.

There is community. Drinkers understand drinkers, and marathoners understand marathoners. Few outsiders understand either group, and no one who hasn't been there can truly empathize. In each guild there is a language, a camaraderie that is often called into play in quick, manic moments, during shared drunks and before and after hard races; but the fellowship is nevertheless real and profound. Each group often looks at everybody else as civilians--earthlings, even.

And there is, despite what I have just said about community, or perhaps because of the nature of that community, a profound aloneness. There is no lonelier profession than that of drunkard, good-time or otherwise. If you have ever sat before a TV set as the sun comes up, neither drunk nor sober, wishing to God it would just stay dark, you know what that is. Marathon training requires countless hours of often solitary running, on city sidewalks, suburban streets, or country lanes, with much of your awareness devoted to the endless monitoring of your own body's signals and your efforts to keep moving.

There are also the peaks and troughs, the fact that in the early stages of a drunk, and for hours after most runs, there is a lovely exhilaration, a feeling that life is good and there are no troubles worth calling to mind. It is a profoundly spiritual feeling, akin to that produced by a life lived well, stolen chemically by the drunk and attained somewhat more naturally by the runner. Still, both know periods of ragged weariness and skewed thinking. When I'm doing high mileage, it often seems I'm tired and sore most of the time, and I'm sometimes spacey and unable to concentrate. Just like when I drank. The period after the marathon, as the pain and weariness reach a crescendo then gradually taper off, is often referred to as a "hangover."

It is astounding what the human body will put up with, and what it can do when pushed. I speak from experience. I was a party animal, someone whose main objective in his early 20s was to feed his appetites. By 25, I was bloated and manic, but between all the throwing up and the car wrecks I was often having a pretty good time. I had swollen from a high-school weight of 182 pounds to a peak of 245.

The rough times were quick in coming. In high school I had been a weekend drinker, the life of the party, trying a little too hard to be wild but generally harmless. Within a few weeks after hitting college, I was a hard daily drinker, and I gained 25 pounds before that first college Christmas. A year and half later, I had lost 35 pounds and gotten mononucleosis. I rode that roller coaster for the next 15 years.

I'm not going to claim to understand alcoholism, although years of being around other alcoholics, drunk and sober, has led me to believe I understand them pretty well. Early on, I drank because it loosened me up and gave me a nice if heartrendingly transitory euphoria, and because my idols--writers and rock stars, with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Jim Morrison chief among them--were by and large drunks, tragic, romantic, and deadly attractive. After a while, I drank because I was addicted to alcohol. I'm not sure what the methodology is, but something inside me clicked and that was that.

At 22 I had some sort of nervous collapse at the newspaper where I was a reporter. I was able to drive to the local hospital, where they filled me full of B-12 and sedatives and told me to slow down. I didn't.

I began writing a lot of gloomy poetry, influenced primarily by John Berryman, my main poetic and alcoholic hero. His death in 1972 (he jumped off a bridge over the Mississippi) merely added to his romantic stature. I also began to find trouble. In my mid-20s, I was picked up by the police twice. Once, in New York state, I was mildly drunk and was driving with an open beer in my car. (I had to pay a small fine for the open container.) The other time, around 3 a.m. on a New Year's Day, I was so drunk I couldn't talk or see. I was driving then too. The police chief, who knew me, figured the judge, himself a drinker, would probably suspend my sentence or dismiss the charges. He just had his deputies drive me home.

That New Year's Eve had been one of my hard-liquor nights. Normally, I drank beer, drinking in long gulps and hard swallows. With whiskey or gin, I tended to drink the same way. I drank a quart-and-a-half of gin that way on another New Year's Eve and went to work at the newspaper the next day with two black eyes and blotches all over my skin--alcohol poisoning. After that, as much as possible, I stuck to beer.

Through stretches as a musician and as a factory worker in Rochester, N.Y., and as a magazine editor in Los Angeles, I kept up the drinking. There were blackouts (periods when you're walking around but don't remember at all after you sober up), more hospitals, declining health, and bizarre and humiliating episodes of all kinds--one Friday night while I was living in Hollywood, I locked myself out of my apartment, naked. That was a treat.

None of that, though, caused me to quit. And since quitting is a pivotal point--the pivotal point--in my life, I wish I knew what exactly made it happen, but I don't. Something inside me just broke, as if I were at the end of a long pregnancy. I just gave up. I was 34, living in a rented room in East Nashville with no curtains, no bed, and no furniture, and I knew I was dying. I was drinking nearly a case of beer a day and smoking three packs of cigarettes.

I woke up one evening, sweat-soaked and desperate, and got on my knees. I was agnostic, but I was well beyond letting my intellect stop me. "If You're there," I prayed, "this is Your chance. I can't stop drinking. I can't run my own life. I hereby give You what's left of my days and I vow to try to seek Your will. If this works, the credit's Yours."

I haven't had a drink since. I have tried since that day to live spiritually, as best I understand spirituality. I went back and endeavored to clean up the messes I'd made, apologized to people, paid back money I'd stolen or owed somehow. I began meeting regularly with other recovering alcoholics, and I made prayer and meditation regular parts of my life. I'm not an adherent of any particular religion, but I have an advisor to whom I turn in spiritual matters, and I try, with him, to make regular assessments of my spiritual condition and progress.

And I began running. Actually, I began walking; I couldn't run at first. It was spring, warm and lovely, and I had to do something with the time where the drunks and hangovers used to go, so I began walking around the block. If it had been the dead of winter, I might be writing now about chess. I weighed well over 200 pounds and was up to four packs of cigarettes a day, so I started in about the worst condition possible.

I'd get up around 7, smoke a couple of cigarettes, put on whatever shorts and sneakers I had, and head out. I discovered I liked it. As my body got a little better, I'd jog a few paces here and there, and eventually I could jog slowly all the way around the block.

Within a few months, I was running maybe three miles a day at an easy clip, and I was pretty much hooked. I lost a little weight, my muscle tone improved, and I began to like the way I felt. I was still smoking like crazy--it would be another year before I quit--but my health was improving. Then, one fall morning about six months after I'd taken that first walk around the block, the question that turned me from dabbler to competitor struck me. "How fast," I wondered, "could I run a mile right now?"

It turned out to be 7:02. We are not talking world-record time here, but for someone who nearly drank himself to death and who was still smoking 80 cigarettes a day, it wasn't bad. I bought real running shoes and a stopwatch and started training more seriously. The desire to know what I could do, to see how far I could push myself, took over and began driving me. By the next spring I had run a 6:15 mile, and by the next fall, 18 months after I'd begun, I ran a 5:45. I bought a running book--Bob Glover and Pete Schuder's The New Competitive Runner's Handbook--and studied it intently. I measured a 5K course in the neighborhood and began timing myself. When I could run it in 21:30 (6:55 per mile), I decided it was time to enter a race.

In October 1988 in Nashville, I took part in my first race--the Crievewood Run, on a hilly course near the Ellington Agricultural Center. I finished in 21:30, the same time I was running that distance at home. I raced about once a month, and by the next fall I'd brought my time down to 18:28 (5:57 per mile). Then I hurt an ankle and had a couple of horrible colds back-to-back and got out of shape. For the next two years, I settled back into a four-mile-a-day routine that kept my heart and lungs in pretty good condition but didn't get me in racing shape. I regained 15 or 20 pounds--I was back up to 195 or so--and pursued running as a laid-back avocation.

I worked my way back into shape in 1992, and by the spring of '93 I'd gotten my PR (personal record) down to 17:45 (5:43 per mile). I ran a few longer races as well, and did a five-miler in 29:46 (5:57 per mile) and a 10-miler in 1:05:58 (6:36). I backed off again for three years. Until about a year ago, I was running those four miles a day to maintain minimum fitness. Then, after 10 years of running, the marathon monster began to awaken in me. It happened, I guess, because I was 44 and knew I might never be in the shape to try one seriously again. The last time I had felt an urge like this--call it a mini-midlife crisis, something I can do and get out of the way--it led to a parachute jump. That took all of 30 minutes, though; this one would obsess me for a year.

Running a marathon puts the body through major trauma. People have suffered heat stroke, dehydration, and exhaustion doing it. A runner once pushed herself so hard she actually broke her leg approaching the finish line of the New York Marathon. People have died running marathons. I wasn't going to do it as a lark. I wanted to go in well-trained.

I read a newspaper piece about Randie Arnold, a local runner my age who had improved his running dramatically, so I called and asked him how he'd done it. "I lost weight," he said, "and I picked up the pace of my daily runs. I don't run anything over seven minutes a mile. It hurts sometimes, but I had to ask myself, 'Am I in this for fun, or do I want to do some really good times?' "

I began learning what my body could take. During long runs on hot summer mornings, I might lose eight or 10 pounds of sweat, with the peak being 12 pounds during a three-hour 23-miler late in the summer. I learned my body could take pretty much what my mind asked it to take. In August I averaged 70 miles a week and ran two 23-milers.

In October and early November, I ran five races in five weekends, hoping to sharpen myself. Among them were my first two competitive half-marathons, each of which I ran in about an hour and 21 minutes. That meant I could probably aim at a sub-three-hour marathon.

The last two weeks before a marathon are about backing off the mileage and getting relaxed and psychologically prepared. Theoretically.

I started the weeks before the Huntsville marathon in a panic. My scale told me I weighed nearly 180 pounds in the wake of Thanksgiving, and I needed to be below 170 for the race. I skipped meals and ate light when I did eat. Still, I could feel fat pockets everywhere, and I looked huge in the mirror. Then, the Tuesday before the race, I discovered that my scale was off by 12 pounds--I actually weighed 166 pounds. The fat pockets, the widening profile, the increased weight were all imaginary. My body fat was at 6 percent, which is low. I bought a new scale and convinced myself to relax.

Everything was in place but the weather, and there wasn't a thing I could do about that. Sun, rain, snow, wind, whatever--I'd be running. My task from Wednesday through Friday of the pre-race week would be to eat a lot of complex carbohydrates, to give my body something to store to get me through the ordeal, and to drink a lot of water. Then there would be the simple matter of pacing myself wisely. On Saturday I'd find out whether I'd done it all correctly.

On Wednesday I got a massage; then I spent the rest of the week eating pasta and bread, with some cherry muffins and a cinnamon roll from Great Harvest Bakery thrown in toward the end.

Conditions on race morning weren't exactly optimal. It was about 30 degrees, with a stiff breeze that would be hitting the runners smack in the face for the last 11 miles. Wearing my running shorts and shoes, two long-sleeve T-shirts, a Mavericks baseball cap, and light gloves, I lined up at the starting line. I had an empty stomach and an empty colon--highly desirable conditions, both--and I was well-rested.

I ran the first few miles through downtown Huntsville at a relaxed pace, just trying to establish a good, flowing groove. I was averaging about 6:40 per mile, which was just where I wanted to be. Then, at about five miles, in a residential neighborhood, I got a side stitch and all the muscles around my groin started tightening. I knew it was probably just tension. I concentrated on breathing deeply and evenly, and tried to relax. The stitch went away, then came back. I felt awful through about Mile 10 and then, as suddenly as they had come on, my symptoms left. Feeling great, I rounded a curve onto Bailey Cove Road, a four-lane suburban highway with strip malls and businesses--a five-mile straight-away.

The first couple of miles were a slight downhill, and the wind was at my back. I felt wonderful. I was flowing like a Ferlinghetti poem, slamming oxygen at about six times the normal rate, feeling ageless and timeless. I knew at the end of this long stretch I'd be turning to face those last 11 windy miles, but for now it didn't matter.

I probably passed 15 people during the next few miles. Then, at Mile 15, I rounded the corner, and the wind hit me. Still, it wasn't as bad as I had imagined. I passed a woman who tucked in behind me, using me as a portable windshield for about a mile. I crested a hill at Mile 17 and flowed down the other side, still running in the 6:40s, feeling great. Maybe, I thought, I won't hit The Wall, that fabled spot at about 20 miles where many runners run out of fuel and suddenly find their legs turning to lead and their mile splits slowing by a minute or more.

Just on time, though, at Mile 20, on a long, gradual uphill that led to a pedestrian tunnel marking the beginning of the last five miles, things changed. All that pounding the pavement, undertaken at a much faster clip than my normal long runs, had taken its toll. My legs ached. I slowed down by 15 or 20 seconds a mile, and had to call into play all the mental toughness I'd developed with those long runs. My body did not want to keep running like this, but my mind dictated a steady groove and demanded that I ignore the pain. It went on like that for the last six miles, with teeth-gritting determination and a robotic, step-by-step progression replacing the floating joy I'd just known. It was like moving up another level on a computer game, finding myself in new surroundings and an ever-darkening atmosphere.

But the final miles gradually fell away, and I crossed the finish line two hours, 57 minutes, and 28 seconds after the gun. Then I stopped for a moment, and all the pain hit me at once.

Yet it was only my body that ached. My spirit was soaring. I was in love with the moment, with the fact that I'd come through this challenge. What I had experienced was as much about a year's self-discipline as it was about the event itself.

As I walked toward the medical suite, I recalled reading about a black woman who had participated in the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1956. She was older and not in very good shape, but she walked great distances. When a reporter asked her, "Aren't you tired?" she said, "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." To the extent that her participation in the Civil Rights struggle can apply to my efforts to overcome the life I once led, I felt like that too. On a cold December morning in Huntsville, after nearly 11 years without taking a drink, my soul, which had for years known only profound weariness, was somehow freer.

I turned over on the cot in the medical suite, and the two women reapplied the ice, this time to the front of my legs. I was making a strange combination of noises, laughing in between the full-throated moans and cries of "Owww" that accompanied my every movement. It hit me that my time qualified me for this spring's Boston Marathon. I laughed again. I knew I'd be there.


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