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Running like a Flandrien
2 years ago, after running my first marathon, I had sworn to never run another one. I had gone deep, very deep, and paid a dear price for it: one year of knee injuries.
But about a month ago, the more I read about the Green Marathon, the more it started itching again. This wasn't just another 42 K of doing loops in Beirut Suburbia and that depressing marina. This was an epic journey connecting 2 legendary cities: Beirut and Byblos. A true commemoration of Pheidippides' fabled run from the battle of Marathon to Athens.
The question remained: would I be up to the challenge? I picked up running again in December and I did an extremely lousy half marathon in March, finishing in a pathetic 2 hours and 5 minutes. Yeah, that marathon seemed really far away.
I thought of the Belgian cyclist Johan Musseeuw, the legendary 'Flandrien' (a general term given to courageous cyclists taking initiative and attacking - not just referring to his origins Flanders) who decided to do a final Paris-Roubaix at the age of 38. It was supposed to be his 4th victory in that classic, an absolute record, if it wasn't for that flat tire in the last 5 kilometers. He finished 5th. In tears, just like all of us watching. But it didn't matter: the old lion had dared to challenge the young Turks of the entire peloton. He had shown Flandrien spirit, considered more important than victory itself.*
At the age of 41, I could use some of that.
So I decided to ask the advice of Lebanon's Flandrien, Mister Roger himself: 'do you think this is suicide?' was my straight-forward question.
'With only one month left, do 2 x 3 hours run during the weekend and 5 shorties 15-20 K in between' was his short reply. Eh, yeah, easy. Especially the "shorties" bits. I couldn't even do 20 K.
I decided to make them "longies" of 20 K with nothing in between. My knee wouldn't keep up. And indeed, during a 30 K test, I hit rock bottom. But giving up? Not in the Flandrien's dictionary. I decided to make a giant bet. Let my knee rest for 2 weeks and go full blast on D-day. For a final marathon, one more time, yeah, the last-last one, like Johan Musseeuw. Pain or no pain.
And off we went on Sunday. With 100 fellow runners on my side, the '300' of Lebanon. My IPod playing a fresh selection of easy-listening tunes (Moby-Bruce-Crowded House-Alice in Chains), my mind repeating Pia Nehme’s final advice: "keep smiling, after 30 K, we're all dead." Great, so it's not just me.
The first 20 K were uneventful. I once read "What I talk about when I talk about running" from the famous Japanese writer and runner enthusiast Huraki Murakami. Apart the great quote "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional", the book is truly disappointing. And I got to understand why. The trick of running long distances is to think of absolutely nothing. Reach a kind of Zen state, which I call “the white wall”, as the kilometers pass by. Not much to fill 200 pages of prose.
|So, what do I think of? Silly calculations.
10 K? The first 10 K done, we’re on course.
12 K? Only 30 left!
17 K? Hey, that’s 30 percent.
21 K? 50 percent, wow, this is going fast here.
27K? Only 15 left, peanuts!
Running is a mind game. Short term goals make the long distance easier to digest. Kilometer signs become milestones.
Meanwhile my pace is going down. I’m starting to ‘sur place’, I laugh after 22 kilometers. The clock shows 2.5 hours. This ain’t going to be a world record, but enough to finish within the 5 hour limit.
But what’s more important, my knee is holding on. The more I can postpone the pain, the less I’ll have to run crippled. Once again, my mind starts playing games. I focus on some minor cramps in my lower legs. “See, there’s nothing wrong with my knee, just these bloody feet.”
My Zen mood switching to slight panic, as giant busses make their way on the parcour in Kaslik. The runner in front of me barely escapes a collision with a bus filled with pilgrims going to a nearby shrine. Divine intervention I guess.
I get more worried when the first water station at K 20 doesn’t have food. I really need to re-fuel. 2 kilometers further I start stuffing myself with fruits.
K 30. I am surprisingly fresh. But that is soon about to change when we have to run up a dreadful hill, the first of many to come. Unlike the Beirut Marathon, the final 10 K of the sea road is a leg killer. I carry on, meter by meter, waiting to hit the wall.
My pace is reduced to something that hardly qualifies as running. Traffic flies by at horrific speed. Bystanders in villages aren’t even looking at me. And I can’t see another runner on the horizon. I’m starting to get an idea how Pheidippides must have felt.
3 kilometers to go. All of a sudden, I am a walking zombie realizing how long a kilometer actually is. I am really losing it when I can’t seem to find the finish line. Do I turn at Edde Sands? Man, at this stage I can’t afford to do a detour. I remember asking about the exact finish location and involving some F-words. But the soldiers are laughing.
But then I see it, that small arch with hardly any supporters left. I hope at least my wife is among them to take the classic finish photos. For which I pose gracefully. I am aware of this, but it’s like a rock guitarist playing a solo during a concert. He may have played that tunes millions of times, on stage, he is supposed to play it with wild gestures and ‘in pain’, as if inventing the piece on the spot.
And hell yeah. It’s OK to make wild winner’s gestures, even if you’re coming in last. It’s rock ‘n roll, it’s a marathon!
My last marathon? No way, I’m just starting to get a taste of it. See you in November.
* As for Johan Musseeuw’s last Paris-Roubaix, he later got caught using epo. His hilarious excuses turned him into a joke and spoiled his entire career. But to me, he’ll always be the winner of 3x Paris-Roubaix and 3x Tour of Flanders. Merci Johan.