The 26-Mile Itch

A middle-aged marathoner's tale of training -- and something called a Fuel Belt

Training for a marathon is not easy, even when you're 25 and have the growl of a middle linebacker. At 46, it's even more daunting. But the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing the race is intensely personal and powerful. I speak from experience, having recently trotted across the line in April's New Jersey Marathon, a mercifully flat 26.2-mile course that runs along the northern part of the Jersey shore. My finish? Not first, and, fortunately, not last. More on that later.

First, let's talk about what it takes to get to the start. If you're a middle-aged jogger, be prepared to invest a lot of time and a few hundred dollars. Most running gurus suggest at least four months of training and three runs of 20 miles or longer before race day.

Stretching before running is a must, although I wasn't always as diligent about that as I should have been. I am careful, though, to loosen my hamstrings since an injury last year that hobbled me for a few months. Most runners' Web sites have good information on prerun stretches.

TRAIN WITH FRIENDS. One way to cut the drudgery of training is to join others. About two years ago, I fell in with a group of lawyers, physicians, journalists, and college administrators, most nearly eligible for AARP membership. We call ourselves the Baltimore Pacemakers, but defibrillators might be more apt. Despite our advanced ages, many Pacemakers are marathon vets. They're not snobs about it, though. The Pacemaker credo is camaraderie, not competition.

Running is a relatively cheap sport -- no health-club dues or greens fees. But preparing for a marathon does cost. The entry fee was $75 -- a little higher than average -- and I ran through two pairs of $90 running shoes during my training. I also spent $31.95 on a gadget called the Fuel Belt, a bungee cord rigged to hold four small drink bottles. It sounds as goofy as it looks. But at Mile 18 of a training run with no water fountain in sight, the Fuel Belt is indispensable.

Your training also may incur some medical bills. Running 30 to 40 miles a week is not natural, and your body has many ways of telling you so. In January, I was 14 miles into an 18-mile run when a dull ache in my right shin became a throb. I walked four miles to my car and, when I stopped shivering, made an appointment to see my internist. To his everlasting credit, Dr. Tim Krohe had me back in running shoes in three weeks. It was only a muscle strain, not the stress fracture I feared. I had one visit to the doctor before I began training -- for an echo cardiogram and stress test, which my wife, a physician, insisted on to be sure my ticker was in good shape.

A marathon had been on my to-do list for 20 years, since I began jogging three nights a week on a YMCA track in Dallas. I ran my first half-marathon in 1999. When I began training for the New Jersey race in December, it became painfully obvious how much preparation would be needed.

The night before a long run, I would lay out my equipment the way my 85-year-old dad arranges the pills he'll be taking the next day: Vaseline to avoid chafing on the inner thighs; energy gel, a foul-tasting but rejuvenating snack formulated for distance runners; a strap-on monitor to measure my heart rate; and the Fuel Belt.

In the end, it paid off. I missed my goal of 4 hours, 30 minutes. But I was not too disappointed in my finish of 4:41. Besides, it gives me something to shoot for in October at my next marathon, either in Scranton, Pa., or Portland, Ore. Training begins in two months.

By Mark Hyman

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