Running a marathon is no different than my favorite fall game – watching CU in a great game right now with Washington State. It’s played in 4 quarters. 10K meters per quarter. Technically 40K meters lands on the 25th mile, but I think of the final mile as a game’s worth of bad calls that have gone against me. I measure my progress at 10K, 20K, 30K and 40K – with the real battle in the fourth quarter.

I ran my second Denver Marathon this morning. I ran the first in 2010. I was a bit gun shy to run another marathon after getting beat up by the Austin Marathon in 2011, but signed up this year for a couple of reasons. I told my buddy Keith I’d sign up for whatever he did when he was considering running his first marathon this year as part of celebrating his 50th. And because I knew running the IPR would have me in shape for a marathon.

When I saw the weather last night on my weather channel app, I made the call to pin my bib to a short sleeve shirt. I went with the hi tech T that came from registration. Sort of a wimpy baby blue to be honest, but my eyes are blue so it couldn’t help but look good. I need more blue shirts. I paired this with black North Face running shorts that have good pockets and a nice overall feel. No gloves. No hat. Just sunscreen, my ID, $20, candy and an iPod in my pockets. I listened to a playlist from mile 6 to mile 13 but grew weary of it. I did wear some fleece warmups waiting for the start but stored those in my gear bag with my iPhone. The weather was awesome. Starting at 7 in Downtown Denver means the sun is too low to clear the buildings and most trees in the parks until half way through the run. And even then, the air kept some coolness in it.

I looked for Keith but couldn’t find him. I didn’t have too much time. My starting corral was 2 and his was 10. It’s a fairly big run with I think 16K runners. No doubt most run the half marathon. I started out slow the first mile and many runners were passing me, but I loosened up and picked up my pace. Toward the second half of the first 10K, I felt like I was running too fast but I kept it up because I was feeling pretty good. I found myself pacing with a few others who would occasionally pass me and I’d pass them back. Some of them didn’t look like they could run a marathon, at least not at that pace. But then that made them seem even more impressive to run a half marathon so fast. There are some guys that just look too big to run long distance so fast. Maybe it’s supplements – I don’t know.

I completed the first 10K at a nice clip, under 50 minutes, which made me happy I was under an hour but concerned I was running too fast. I didn’t know I would be able to keep this pace but my next goal was to try to keep my half marathon (20K meters) time under two hours. This meant that technically I could run the second 10K in 70 minutes. My projected time today was between 4:00 and 4:15. My #2 corral was for a 3:50.

At about 10 miles, a little boy barely taller than my waist passed me at a strong pace. A few of us adults gave each other incredulous looks. He was maybe 9 years old, had straggly blonde hair down past his shoulders and was clearly raised by wolves. I looked over my shoulder for the rest of his pack but didn’t see any. He was a lone wolf. I would find myself passing him back several times over the next mile or so. Hopefully, he was the one with the inconsistent pace. He split off for the half marathon around 11.5 miles, along with what seemed like 80% of the other runners. I was now running alongside pure marathoners. My peeps.

I crossed the the half marathon point about 15 minutes under 2 hours – so I only lost about 5 minutes on this second quarter. Again, I was super happy with my time but even more certain I was headed for a crash and burn. I haven’t run this well in about 2 years – since my last Denver Marathon. I did begin to feel my core weaken somewhat after 13 miles. I shortened my stride a little but didn’t slow down too much. Next goal would be to keep my 3rd quarter under 3 hours.

I kept a good pace for the next 5K meters but I could feel my core melting after 16 miles. By 18 miles, I had slowed down considerably, although I think I still had good form. I wasn’t winded and never hit the wall. I’d been drinking at nearly every aid station and felt extremely confident of finishing. But my core – from my lower stomach to my upper legs – was shutting down and shortening my stride with it. 20 miles also marked the 30K meter point and the start of the 4th quarter and I was still nearly 15 minutes under par. This meant, baring catastrophic meltdown, I could slow down considerably and come in under 4 hours. This was now my goal – to run the low end of my pre-run estimate.

And I was clearly running slower now, but content until 22 miles when my right hamstring cramped. This was a true momentum killer and I went down to the curb. It took me about 3 minutes to recover. I didn’t know if I’d be able to finish now but eventually my stride returned, albeit noticeably slower. I still didn’t care though because as long as I didn’t start walking, I was going to make 4 hours. At 24 miles, the 3:45 pace sign passed me with a large cohort. I asked them if they were on pace and they responded in the affirmative. I tried to stay up with them and did for a couple of minutes. Then the cramp in my hamstring reminded me of why I had slowed down. This was my new governor. Between this cramped muscle and my depleted core, my pace was beginning to approach a shuffle.

While nervous that my hamstring could take me out at any moment, I was still quite confident of both finishing and doing so under 4 hours. This confidence was reinforced when I hit 25 miles – the end of the 4th quarter at 40K meters – and I was still running with no signs of needing to walk. The 26th mile began uphill for the first half and then coming back down through the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Stronger runners were passing me now but I didn’t care. I was locked into a single gear. Try to speed up and I knew my hamstring would cramp up. I wanted to be able to speed up a bit for the finish because last time they took video, and I was able to marginally. But as I rounded the final corner I ran into an idiot spectator crossing the street without paying attention. I avoided hitting her too hard and held her to keep her from falling. This nearly cramped my leg again but I was able to recover without stopping. Momentum killer for sure though. Then, just yards away from the finish line a woman I was passing began to lean forward. Just as I passed her, she did a face plant after passing out. It was super gruesome and I stopped for a fraction of a second but continued as I saw the medics on her immediately. After all this distraction, crossing the finish line was almost anti-climatic. The clock read 3:49 though which left me stunned. Not dramatically faster than my expectations, but I just didn’t think I could run quite this fast. My official chip time was 3:48 even.

Keith came in a little over 4 hours, pretty impressive for a 50 year old running his first marathon. From talking to him after, I think he found it a struggle. Honestly, had he not felt enough pain, I might have been a bit upset. I know he was in shape for this based on his training regimen, but still – the 4th quarter is supposed to hurt. Even without hitting the wall, running over 20 miles is hard. My experience is my core melts down. I’m going to try harder to strengthen that before the Boulder Marathon next month. Although Keith had a tough go at it, he wasn’t exactly incapacitated afterward. I didn’t talk to him too much but I don’t think he suffered any injuries. He did in fact injure his foot earlier in the week – possibly a fatigue-induced injury from his massive training. He could barely walk the next day. That he followed through by running this today demonstrates his toughness.

As I walked through the finish shoot, my body began shutting down. It’s a long gauntlet though photographers and marketers handing out food and drinks. I posed for some pics and then began collecting a few things – water, Gatorade, a fruit cup, banana and a smoothie. Then, as I neared the exit, my legs struggled to maintain forward motion. I wasn’t dizzy but was simply losing all semblance of forward momentum. I looked around and it occurred to me that sitting inside the security area was ideal as this place has all the freebies. I lowered myself to the curb and began eating and drinking my load of supplies.

Ten minutes later I tried standing and found I couldn’t. My calves began cramping whenever I tried to stand. Then they began cramping just sitting there. Soon, both lower legs were cramping non-stop. I don’t know what the thin muscle is called that runs along the top of the shin, but it would cramp as soon my calf would recover. These two muscles alternated cramping non-stop. And this was occurring in both legs at the same time. Not sure I’ve experienced this level of pain in decades. And I was hardly quiet about it. A couple of medics soon came over with a wheel chair. They were simply volunteers and didn’t really know how to help me, let alone get me in a chair. Then a paramedic arrived who was also a collegiate sports trainer. He massaged my legs hard – quite literally crushing my muscles. This worked. He was also able to help me to my feet. I had to go to the medical tent where they made me drink a 20 ounce Gatorade spiked with salt. This was like drinking from the Gulf of Mexico but I drank it down. I walked out before they formally released me because you can’t drink beer in the medical tent and from where I was standing I could see the beer tent. This was a slow, awkward shuffle, but I was able to manage.