Marathon Training: The 20 Mile Run

There comes a time in every marathon training plan where you have to run 20 miles. The topic of 20 miles is always brought up when I talk to people about running a marathon. For some reason, 20 miles is the physical and psychological wall. It’s the distance that should be feared. But why? During training, I’ve ran 15 miles, 18 miles…all distances that are very close to 20 miles. Why is 20 any different? I don’t know the answer, but I do know one thing…20 miles is no joke! My 20 miler was this last Sunday and I learned first hand how hard 20 miles is and the accomplishment that comes with completing something so grueling.

I knew that if things went well, I could finish around 3 hours 45 minutes. I also knew that if things went bad, it would take me about 4 hours to finish. So I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best by hitting the pavement at 5:56am. Running before the sun comes up is something I cherish. It gives me a boost of motivation, a mental edge so to speak, to know that I am running when other people are sleeping; that I am trying to improve myself when others think it’s crazy. I fully understand this may not be true, but to run long distances, I need to play mind games with myself to complete the run. I know that running is mostly a mental game and I intend on winning that game.

As I began my run, I felt strong and excited to be embarking on 20 miles. It was not something that I feared or was intimidated by. I was actually excited to get a chance to tame the beast. The early part of the run was peaceful as I didn’t encounter any cars or foot traffic until I hit mile 5 or so, which is another reason why I like running before the sun comes up. At that time of day, there is only me, the road, the music and the thoughts bouncing around in my head like a racquetball game. I’ve worked very hard at understanding my thoughts while I run and injecting positive thoughts to keep the negative ones at bay. This is easier said than done, but I needed to rely on positive thoughts if I wanted to complete 20 miles.

Mile 5 of 20The sun was starting to make an appearance as I was approaching 5 miles. The morning air was a bit cool and the few rays of sunshine was a welcome feeling. 5 miles in and I was running strong. My pace for five miles 10:26/mile, which is a fast for me. I would normally be really concerned about going out too fast and that thought crossed my mind but I felt felt really good and believed I could keep that pace up for a while. Right after I took this 5 mile picture is when I saw the first car of the morning and it startled me a bit. I was so into the run and thinking positive thoughts and focusing on the task at hand that I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. In retrospect, I appreciate that car for getting me out of a trance because it helped me look around, pay attention to my surroundings and enjoy the journey I was on. There are so many cool things to see and absorb while running, it would be a shame not to allow myself to experience that.

After mile 5, the course that I planned out headed downhill. As I was enjoying the downhill all I could think about was “HOLY CRAP…I’M GONNA HAVE TO RUN BACK UP THIS MONSTER OF A HILL TO GET HOME.” Before I reached the bottom of the hill, I was already trying to recalculate a new route home so I didn’t have to face this hill. These are negative thoughts that I don’t want in my mind. I dug down deep and decided that I will face the music on the way home. I want to conquer this hill, I want to prove to myself (and this hill) that I own it. This hill will not stop me!


Denver from the Highlands

At the bottom of the hill I am greeted by the awesome view that is the Downtown Denver skyline. To make it more of an awesome view, the sun is rising between the buildings and the scene is majestic. This view fills my mind with positive thoughts and gives me more fuel for the run. The picture on the left is the view that I had running down the hill. A couple of things to note: this picture was not taken at the time of day that I ran, however, it is the scene that I saw. Imagine this picture with the sun behind the buildings. Also, this picture does not do justice to the slope and length of the hill. This thing truly is a monster. It’s steep and it goes forever. I apologize to the hill for not doing it justice and showing its true awesomeness. I cross the bridge (the weird white thing in the picture) and hang a right to get to R.E.I. where I can catch the Cherry Creek trail/path and get off the road and out of the way of traffic. Approaching the path, I heard voices over a loudspeaker. It was loud enough for me to hear it over the music playing in my headphones. As I look up to Speer Blvd and the bridge over the Platte River, I see thousands of people lined up at the starting line of the Race for the Cure. I make a left onto the path and I’m on my way.

The Cherry Creek trail is awesome. The path runs along Cherry Creek which empties into the Platte River. The path winds it’s way through most of downtown and into Cherry Creek. It’s situated below the roads which makes it a very safe place to run/bike. It also provides a ton of scenery from the creek to the greenery growing along the creek to homeless people finding a safe and dry place to sleep for the night. It was still pretty early when I was running along the path and most of the homeless were still sleeping. I feel awful for these people and wish I could do more to help them. When I see them sleeping, I feel very fortunate to have the opportunities I’ve had in my life including the ability to be healthy and run. I want to take full advantage of the fact that I can run and can afford to buy gear, shoes and even the entry to the marathon. Not to get all emotional here, but seeing people sleep under a bridge and next to a river puts my life in perspective.

Mile 10 of 20I was still running strong and fast (for me) as I near the end of the path. The path dumps me onto the sidewalk in Cherry Creek near the Denver Country Club. The sidewalk is wide and allows for a few cyclists to pass me as they make their way toward the beginning of the path. I realize that I might be getting close to my turnaround point but I haven’t looked at my Nike + GPS watch for sometime now. I take a peek at the watch to see how far I’ve run and what do you know? I’m halfway! I stop for a few seconds to snap a pic of my 10 mile halfway point and turn around to head home.  My watch tells me that I am running at a 10:40 pace which is really fast for me and I feel awesome. At this point, I felt that I could make it all the way home at that pace. After the photo opp, I start making my way home. I made a quick decision to run on the sidewalk along Speer Blvd instead of getting back on the path. I thought it would be really cool to run along Speer and into the Race for the Cure crowd. If timing works out perfect, I will be able to race crash for about a mile before heading home.

I was excited to race crash as I approached the starting line of Race for the Cure. But ethics took a hold of me and I felt it would be wrong and somewhat tasteless to crash an event that honors survivors of breast cancer. So I hop off the sidewalk and get back to my originally planned route on my way back home. It only takes a couple of minutes before I am looking up and facing the aforementioned hill. I’m about 13 miles into the run and I felt great and was determined to own this hill. I am determined to run all the way up it and stand with arms raised in victory at the top, kinda like Rocky at the top of the stairs. Well…that image quickly vanished. About a quarter of the way up the hill I felt like I was dying. My calves were on fire, my heart was pounding and I was breathing harder than I had been all day. In a moment of weakness, I decide to walk the rest of the way up the hill. I feel defeated, guilty and slightly mad that I had to walk it. Upon reaching the summit of this behemoth, I look back down the hill and offer my respect. The hill got me, but it won’t be the last time I see it. When I meet this monster again, I will be victorious. Today it was the hill’s day; next time it’ll be my day.

Now that I had the hill behind me, I turned my focus on the last stretch of the run. I am about 6.5 miles away from home and I feel great. WRONG! Right as I hit mile 14 something happened to me that I have never experienced in my entire life. My lungs felt great, I could go on forever in that regards. But my legs are blasted. My legs instantly tightened up, not in a cramp type of way, but in a “I refuse to go on” type of way. I have no idea what caused this but I refused to give up. I will make it home! I tried to run, but my legs were causing me great pain. It was very painful to jog and even hurt a little to walk. I figured that if it hurt to walk and run, why not run and end this misery sooner. This seemed like a good idea, but I can’t run for long as its hurts too bad. So I start alternating walking and running and my pace suffers. I am now at 14 minute miles and I’m watching my average pace climb higher and higher. I feel a great sense of failure so I try to run again but the pain makes another appearance.

To throw salt into my wounds, I ran out of water and was very thirsty. I find a way to consume every last drop in my water bottles and even suck down a Power Gel to get added energy. I can’t do it, I can’t go any longer without more water. I borrowed an idea from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and used a lifeline to phone a friend. I called my wife and asked her to deliver some water to wherever I was on the route. I was only about 4 miles from home. So far, yet so close. My wife found me and handed me a bottle of water. It was like I hadn’t drank water in 7 days. I pounded down an entire bottle of water before she could say “you look like you are in pain”. Thankfully she brought a second bottle of water that I grabbed and headed along the sidewalk. I smiled as my wife drove away as I was proud of myself for not catching a ride home and deciding to stick to the 20 miler.

20 MilesThe rest of the way home was slow going as I alternated between fast walking and slow jogging. At this point, I was only about 2 miles from home and I had to give myself the kick in the pants I needed to gut it out. I started to visualize my house being the marathon finish line and, as funny as it sounds, it allowed be to dig deep and run/jog the rest of the way home. It wasn’t glorious and it wasn’t fast, but I gutted it out and ran home. As I approached my house, I kept a steady eye on my GPS watch and counted down the distance: 19.96…19.97…19.98…I picked up the pace into a slow sprint…19.99…holw cow…20.00! I did it! I knocked down the dreaded 20 miler. My legs were on fire and I was in a lot of pain, but wow, what a sense of accomplishment. I friggin did it. A guy who used to say “run only when chased” finished 20 miles. Even though my legs hurt, I know I could have finished a marathon. As you can see from the image on the left, it took me 3 hours 56 minutes and 25 seconds to knock down 20 miles. That is a pace of 11:51/mile. While I am stoked that I finished, I am bummed that my time and pace were slower than I had hoped and expected.

I took a long shower that allowed me to reflect on the run. Like a movie running through my mind, I went through the highlights, the lowlights and how I felt at different times during the run. I hurt, but I was (and still am) very proud of myself. I finished my shower, donned my Broncos jersey and got horizontal on my couch. I looked forward to a full day of watching football with my son. A funny thing happened though, I didn’t feel that bad. The pain in my legs disappeared and returned as soreness. I don’t mind soreness. In fact I kinda like it. In my mind, it’s a sign of progress. When you’re muscles are sore, you kicked ass! I loaded my son up in the truck and went to my buddies house to watch football with him and his son. As it neared time for my son’s nap, we headed home were I assumed my horizontal position on the couch after I put my son in his bed. It felt great to lay there, watch football and feel the sense of accomplishment of running 20 miles. We went to my parents for Sunday night dinner which was a great ending to a great day.

BUT….I still have 6.2 more miles to go!


4 Responses to “Marathon Training: The 20 Mile Run”

  1. Lynne Petre

    Hi! Fellow FF and Denverite here – just wanted to say hi! I ran the Denver RnR too but just the half 🙂 Are you running Colfax this spring?

    • Jon

      I am, but I’m going to be running the relay! I’m going to try and do the Las Vegas RnR this year. What’s on your event calendar?


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