This is an article about how I ran my first marathon. It’s dedicated to my aunt because none of this would have been possible without her rather insane generosity. Who trains for a marathon over summer break as a gift? Who does that? That’s crazy! This story also has a non-linear structure, so the chronological order is IV, VIa, III, V, I, VIb, II. It’s a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure. For example, if you don’t like my observations about European politics, feel free to jump.
I. Laugavegur – ~12:50 p.m.
I staggered up the street holding bits of the greatest pretzel I had ever eaten.
It was a warm afternoon in Iceland. The city of Reykjavik hummed with energy from a citywide festival that helpfully coincided with a concert that would draw 100,000 people later that day (statistics according to the hotel concierge). The streets were swarmed with tourists. A chorus of American accents echoed off the cobblestones. Families reclined in packed outdoor seating areas. The marathon festivities roared around me.
It would all have been tremendously pleasant if I hadn’t just run the marathon in question. I neglected to pay for a cab or a bike after the race, so I prepared to walk another 0.75 miles back to my hotel.
II. Advanced Metrics ~ 6 days later
On August 21st, Jared Ward finished sixth in the marathon at the Rio Olympics. In addition to being a top-tier marathoner, Ward has a master’s degree in statistics and teaches at BYU. For his master’s thesis, he calculated the optimal pace to run a marathon. According to Ward’s research, the best way to run a marathon is to go out at a conservative and controlled pace to save energy for the end. He followed through with his work and ran almost robotic split times in Rui. It served him very well.
This is not mind-blowing stuff. My friends and coaches gave the same advice. My father, taking advice from his own marathoning days, agreed. I even promised anyone who asked that my goal was to not burn through 50 percent of my energy in the first hour.
That is a picture of my split times. As you can see, I did not pace myself at all. Keep in mind that my goal time for this half was around 3 hours 15 minutes. After 10 kilometers, I was already six minutes ahead of schedule. But that’s okay, you can always slow down at 10K. Haha, nope. I was nearly nine minutes ahead of schedule at the half marathon mark. It would have taken a collapse of epic proportions to finish over four hours…
Given this wealth of advice, statistics and science, I can only include that I am a complete dunce. I’m dumber than baseball managers who order sacrifice bunts down by three runs. I’m dumber than football coaches who don’t go for it on fourth down. I may never be able to criticize a sports mistake ever again.
III. The Panacea Vanishes – 10:42 p.m.
Blue Powerade hastily mixed from powder has a very industrial taste. Powerade is already a step down from Gatorade, and drinking a watered-down, cameo appearance of otherwise potent artificial flavoring is already somewhat pitiful. It’s a step up from electrolyte water, but not an ideal hydration method at the best of times.
At the 30km water stop, each glass of Powerade I quaffed was the most precious liquid on the entire island of Iceland. I had just staggered through 5 kilometers and 30 minutes of calf cramps to reach this point. This was already the longest run I had attempted in months. My caloric intake to this point was one chocolate Gu and some light cereal I’d eaten several hours before. At a rate of about 100 calories per mile, I had burned about 2,100 calories. Thus far, I had consumed maybe 200 calories that morning. Thanks to a unforced error from my aunt, my last meal had included a huge portion of mussels that sat in my stomach and hampered my sleep.I wolfed down another Gu and three pieces of banana and pondered whether I could continue.
My marathon preparation was an exercise in systemic stupidity. Prior to the marathon, my “long runs” usually maxed out at 10 miles. My longest continuous run was maybe 13-14 miles. I was mostly going off base mileage I’d racked up in the spring, as an minor injury, travel, heat and overall laziness had sapped my long-distance range. During the race, I was a sitting duck, literally. My calf muscles were not prepared for the distance and they all cramped up. Of course, I refused to stretch until it was too late. I was barely hanging on. I had half-limped from the 25km mark and dragged myself to this Oasis of Blue Powerade and bananas. The pain of trying to move while also avoiding a muscle spasm was agonizing. I had started the race at a blistering 6:33 per mile pace. The last 5km had reduced me to 8:25 per mile pace. But it didn’t matter. I would gladly run 8:25 pace for the last chunk as long as I could finish.
The Powerade, bananas and stretching left me feeling quite a lot better, and although I’d lost about five minutes, I was no longer concerned with hitting a time. I just wanted to finish. Five miles stood between me and the finish line. An easy run, I just needed to finish one more easy run. Because of the pause, I was relatively intact from a cardiovascular standpoint. My calves felt okay to continue, and I entered the ring for my final round of torture.
IV. Iceland, I love you, but your marathon is bringing me down. – 24 hrs. earlier
Twenty-four hours earlier, I boarded a tour bus and headed for the Golden Circle. They might as well call it the “Tour Bus Circle” because that’s what it really was. I saw some incredible things, for about 40 minutes. As my stay in Iceland was only three nights, doing a full tour of the magnificent island was impossible to schedule alongside a marathon. My aunt suggested we do a relaxing bus tour to keep ourselves fresh.
The Icelandic tour guide started talking as soon as we set off on our journey through the Tour Bus Circle. And she kept talking. She did not stop talking for the entirety of the three-hour bus ride.
The incessant voiceover was a magnet that sucked all daydreaming and appreciation for the countryside into the maw of raw information. And by the one hour mark, the information had ceased to even be relevant to the tour, or Iceland whatsoever. There was a five-minute discussion comparing and contrasting the gaits of Viking horses and Icelandic horses. There was a long storytelling session in which we were subjected to an Icelandic fairy tale about elves. We listened to someone discuss elves and trolls with complete seriousness for 45 minutes. The bus, usually a place of mild chatter and incessant small talk, was completely silent except for the voice of the tour guide. Everyone had either fallen asleep to temporarily escape or was unable to get in a word.
Every sight we saw became something more than just a pretty landscape or enormous geyser. It became a respite from the incessant noise piped in over the bus intercom. It was a lesson in pain tolerance. I tried to sleep. I tried to look out the window and ignore the speaker spewing inane garbage in my ears. I tried to argue that it was no different from listening to a podcast or the radio. That was not true. It was totally different. When Sarah Koenig’s voice crackles to life on my headphones, she’s not standing right there expecting that I pay attention to her rants about Bowe Bergdahl.
My aunt is a university professor. She has been lecturing students for over fifteen years, I reckon. She was not having it whatsoever. At the first stop, she wanted the tour guide to shut up. At the second stop, she wanted her to shut the hell up. At the third stop, she wanted her to stop f***ing talking about bloody nonsense (my aunt lived in England for many years). At the final stop, we exited the bus without leaving a tip. Yes, the tour guide baldly suggested that we should tip her, despite it not really being a thing in Icelandic culture. Nobody on the bus spared a cent. I guarantee it.
If you are going to run the Reykjavik Marathon, I suggest staying for at least seven days before the race itself. Tour buses are tour buses, and you absolutely do not have enough time to experience the country in its full glory. In a brief journey, however, you can experience Reykjavik quite well, as the city is slightly larger than Madison, Wisconsin. It feels emptier though, as there are only 130,000 permanent residents, and most of them seem to avoid the extremely expensive and tourist-y areas within the city if possible. As a denizen of a growing tourist town myself, I completely sympathize.
I can’t really give a true description of the natural wonders of Iceland, given that I only saw them for about 45 minutes at a time, but I have this picture of a rainbow over a waterfall on the side to prove that this actually happened. I can, however, give a good account of the city of Reykjavik. The city is very quirky. The language, an isolated descendent of Old Norse, has scarcely any basis in common European parlance. There is a museum that displays the world’s most diverse public collection of penises. There is construction everywhere to accommodate the booming tourism industry and the hordes of upper middle class Americans with collegiate sweatshirts that the streets feel like southern Maine rather than Iceland. The majority of people I saw spoke English as their primary language.
The city is fairly easy to navigate once you get used to the street names. Laugavegur, the street our hotel was on, has a wide variety of tourism areas and expensive restaurants. The food was passable at most places, and very good in certain cases. Yet you can see where Reykjavik attempts to rebel against its growing reputation as an easily accessible Nordic vacation area. The older residential areas around the tourist areas are completely untouched, unlike Caribbean islands, for example. The buildings around the city are a mix of bland 20th-century architecture and newer buildings constructed to match tourism and business demand. The 20th-century buildings obstinately cling to life. There are obviously no skyscrapers or even too many imposing office spaces in the city center. The quaint independent coffee shops still outnumber Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts (yes, there is a Dunkin’ Donuts in Reykjavik).
You get the feeling that Reykjavik, like the rest of Europe, is in a state of transition from the 1990s to the vigor of the 2010s and beyond. The staff at these tourist destinations were often Polish. Iceland allows any citizen from a European Free Trade country to work without a visa, even though it is not in the European Union. Where there is work, people will come. Thus, even Iceland, a small island in the North Atlantic that has been isolated linguistically and physically for centuries, is feeling the vast effects of globalization. There are construction cranes everywhere. There are new hotels, new restaurants, and new people. Asian fusion restaurants dot the streets. Reykjavik, one of the most isolated cities throughout history, has gone global.
Yet, there’s still incredibly strong local pride. I made fun of the tour guide who droned on for three hours about Icelandic culture, but the fact that they make it such a priority should reveal something. In a European world in which this clash of globalization and the “Old World” has occurred with very mixed results (don’t even get me started), Iceland seems to be doing okay. That’s all you can ask for.
V. The Battle of Marathon – 10:45 p.m.
Nobody cares about the Persians. According to Herodotus, the Persians lost over 6,000 men. The Greeks lost precisely 192. Now, I don’t take Herodotus’ account at all seriously, and the Battle of Marathon has been so magnified in importance over the centuries that it probably scarcely resembles truth. However, the kernel of historical truth remains apparent. The Persian invaders were crushed and limped home. The invasion of Greece was suspended. Nobody cares about the Persians.
Defeat is not glamorous. Defeat can be an ugly process of methodical erosion that ultimately results in total disintegration (e.g. the Western Roman Empire). Defeat can also be a lightning moment that results in the complete destruction of the best laid plans of mice and men. In my case, it was both. No random stranger looking at the results of the Reykjavik Marathon will notice that it took Tristan Jung 1 hour and 17 minutes to traverse 7.5km of ground. No one will note how strange that someone who reached the half marathon mark a full 35 minutes before his next-closest finisher only beat that finisher by five seconds.
The forces of systemic stupidity, like some demented pack of hounds chasing after a hunk of inexplicably mobile meat, refused to let me finish my marathon in peace. There were too many mistakes. In a race like the marathon, where, like the Challenger disaster, one mistake can mean the difference between success and a dreaded “did not finish”, the sheer vastness of my errors were coming back to haunt me.
If you recall, I was huddled at the 30km mark, desperately trying to inject life into my cramping body through Powerade, bananas, and water. I had not eaten enough food. I had not gotten enough sleep. I had not paced the race whatsoever. My legs were cramping, I had lost a large amount of useful minerals, and my mind was exhausted. But there was a silver lining. Well, more like a golden nugget that I had systematically panned from the depths of a river. I had finished three-quarters of the marathon. I had, by my estimation, less than an hour remaining.
My aunt, a veteran of four marathons, including London (twice), Berlin and Chicago, had told me the familiar yarn of the “20-mile wall”. She explained that while marathoning was not more painful than childbirth, hitting the 20-mile wall was pretty damn close.
“Your mind just keeps constantly asking, why am I even doing this?”
18 months earlier, when I explained my intention to run a marathon within the next year to my grumpy and stoic track coach, an ex-marathoner himself, warned me about the 20-mile wall. My friends told me that in my coach’s biology classes, he often lectured about how once the body reaches 20 miles, it has reached the breaking point of its physical capabilities. Going beyond this point is not healthy. My father, who once ran the New York City Marathon, told me that this was where he felt his toenails starting to come off.
By all accounts, unless you train exceptionally hard, staying strong through 20 miles is incredibly difficult, even for elite marathoners. This is why you pace out the beginning. This is why you eat food. This is why you sleep more then 7 hours the night before. This is “crunch time”. This is the moment that all the warnings and cliches have been building up to.
If you have not noticed, the entirety of my thought process in the Powerade Oasis was as follows: I will reach the finish line in x amount of time. Of all the dumb things I did in preparation for and during this marathon, that was the dumbest mistake of all. Because, of course, pondering when you will reach the finish line is not the mentality you should be adopting as you prepare to scale the wall. You should be focusing on getting through the next 400 meters. You should be focusing on each and every step, because each and every step is a fight against the complete obliteration of your will and physical strength. The finish line should be an abstract concept. Don’t think about the end. Or at least, try to forget about finishing, because if you don’t stay focused in this next section, you ARE NOT GOING to finish.
I continued on my way. I ran for 3,000 meters and the bomb dropped. At some point, I crossed into the longest run of my entire life. Then, my left quad popped and exploded in pain. Compared to the pulled calves that had preceded this, my left quad was about 15 times worse on the pain scale. I had pulled my calf on long runs before. I had never pulled my quad. You’ll have to excuse my bragging for a minute, but I really have rather large quad muscles attached to my legs. They are, in effect, the engine that keeps my running career alive.
I stopped. I shouted in pain. I cursed very loudly and continued to scream. I couldn’t move away from the bus stop in the middle of the sidewalk/course in which I had taken refuge. Somehow, the pain eventually started to dissipate after a few minutes, and I prepared to start running again. If I had any food left or energy drinks on me, I probably should have consumed them right here. But I didn’t have any food left. I took two packages of Gu with me, assuming it would be enough to get through the marathon. And of course, the whole reason I was cramping so badly is because I hadn’t put in the time and done my long runs over the summer. But that didn’t matter. I staggered forward, and my other quad cramped up. And my left calf and hamstring started to spasm as well.
In the dying minutes of any soccer match that goes to extra time, players go down with cramp. Before I ran the marathon, I used to think that the pain of a cramp shouldn’t warrant a player collapsing on the ground and wasting precious time as the clock ticks over to a penalty shoot-out. Constant cries of “cramp” on television desensitized me to the pain of the players. How bad could a cramp at the point of complete physical and mental exhaustion possibly be? Does this player really need three minutes of medical attention?
A local Icelander came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to his house to recuperate. Uh, thank you, but no. I’m not going to recuperate in someone’s house during a marathon. That sounds as bad as taking the subway or riding in a car. If I accepted the deal, I was dropping out of the race. There was no way I was going inside a stranger’s house and getting 20 minutes of medical attention and finishing the race afterwards. My only goal was to start gingerly inching toward the finish line. I had already lost another ten minutes, but I could still finish in a decent time if I could just get running again.
In any rational, non-first-marathon situation, I probably should have stopped. I was aware that if I started to run again, I was probably jeopardizing the rest of my running season (and possibly my whole career, if I was particularly unlucky). I could have torn any number of muscles at this point (and I probably did suffer some microtears, as the current state of my calves suggests). Plenty of people drop out of the marathon. I recently saw a stat on Jon Bois’ “PRETTY GOOD” that 75 percent of runners who have attempted the marathon in the Olympics, the pinnacle of the marathon circuit, dropped out. Considering how stupid my preparation and in-race strategy was, I could have just stopped. It would have been fine. My future contained three months of NUTC that I really needed to stay healthy for. At age 19, I had countless marathons that I could finish with much better chances of survival.
But that day, I decided to be the biggest idiot in Reykjavik. I continued. I tried to run. My legs completely seized up. I walked. I tried to run again. My legs seized up. I stopped and started to walk very slowly. I repeated this process for about two miles. It felt like several kitchen knives were being dug into different parts of my legs.
As a dumb person, I have a tremendous amount of pride in my running ability. I am most definitely not ashamed to admit that at all. The fact that I have written over 3,500 words about one race should show that I am, indeed, a complete narcissist when it comes to running. This article is more to sate my soul than to entertain the masses. Because of this pride, it actually pains me to admit that I walked a portion of the race. I NEVER FUCKING WALK DURING RACES.
After all, what is the main mantra of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, a book that is essentially my bible? My aunt first got me this book, ironically. In the novel, Murakami, a great fiction writer/ultra-marathoner, obsessed over the words “at least I never walked”. He wanted “at least he never walked” on his freaking gravestone. This phrase has been the central governing principle of my life for four years. And now it is false. I can never use that phrase again. This phrase has been my credo forever. “He never walked, except for that one time” is ridiculous.
“At least I never walked.”
Also, despite the fact that I had now been walking for two miles, I was still trying to run. But after I reached the 37.5km mark and heard the piercing buzzer noise that signaled that I had reached the live timing point, I stopped trying to run again. My family watching the race at home, starved of updates, now knew what had occurred. I had started to walk. There was no other way around it. By this point, the cardiovascular exhaustion that I had avoided came back in full force. I had been walking underneath the northern sun for over 30 minutes. It was hot for Iceland. The temperature had increased to over 65 degrees.
But at this point I had psychologically damaged myself beyond repair. I didn’t want to run anymore. I was prepared to walk my way to the finish line. Now that I had opened the dreaded Pandora’s Box of walking, it couldn’t be closed. This sport had given me so much, and now it was all slipping away into the Atlantic Ocean that stood impassively on my left. Hundreds of people passed me. And I’m not exaggerating one bit. I was in 40th place at the half marathon and I finished 482nd. At least 440 people passed me.
I basically never wanted to run again.
6,000 dead Persians. If this ancient battle was indeed like most other ancient battles, the vast majority of the Persians died retreating. They died in flight after the army had broken apart as Greek hoplites speared hundreds of their countrymen.
VI. The part where I get a grip. – 12:30 p.m.
A. It was a beautiful day. Reykjavik, by the way, constantly has an incredible view of the Atlantic Ocean, punctuated by mountains that rise from the water to add the finishing touches on the scenery. The start of the race weaved through the outer residential areas of Reykjavik. It was stunning. The townspeople all came out and banged pots and pans together, as if it was 1616 instead of 2016. There were bands. I particularly appreciated the band that played “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division, even if it was completely inappropriate for the situation.
“Love, love will tear us apart, again,” rang through the group of runners trying to establish a baseline pace. Not the most optimistic choice.
There was a runner in his mid-twenties who was wearing a singlet with a Scandinavian soccer club emblazoned on the back. I tried to keep pace with him for a while, but he eventually broke ahead of me and probably finished under three hours. Good for him. A group of three men that looked older than my parents was rolling with me at 6:30 per mile pace. They were only running the half marathon, but they rocked every minute of the race.
For a while, I paced off Katarina. I learned her name through the results; there wasn’t time for conversation. She was also running the half, but I paced off her for a good 15 minutes. She was one of those runners who fluctuates between different paces while on runs, but it eventually all averages out. I breezed through those first 10 miles. I hadn’t felt this good on a run in a very long time, what with my weird summer foot injury and oppressive New York heat. It was perfect. Temperatures were around 50 degrees, the ideal temperature to run a marathon, and I was having fun. The Reykjavik course was 40 percent rolling hills, but they were the hills that you barely feel. Perfect hills really, the kind that give you a challenge and variety, but don’t leave you knackered when you reach the summit.
Of course, I was ruining my pacing and leaving absolutely nothing left in the tank, but it didn’t matter. This is what running was about for me. The hard pavement meant nothing to my legs. The only sign of things to come was when the half marathoners turned right at a fork in the road to finish and I had to continue. Honestly, this feels like an entirely different day. I swung past the dazzling open-air national soccer stadium, in which the Icelandic team that famously advanced to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 played matches. I then entered a state park that we ran through for a good 7 miles. It felt like I was back in New York on a casual Saturday morning run along the Hudson River.
I felt good. I was probably on a runner’s high at this point. I passed by a runner with a University of Wisconsin singlet and I made casual conversation. Big Ten bros, right? Keep in mind, this dude was definitely good at running because he was also about to split a sub 1:30 half.
“Are you on the club at Wisconsin or something?”
“No, I’m just doing this on my own.”
“Wow, that’s impressive. I train with a club at Northwestern.”
And then I sped ahead. In hindsight, as one of my friends explained, I was in very good shape for a half marathon, but probably not in good enough shape for a full.
The thing about bliss is that you can never remember what it feels like when the pain comes. When you have a headache, it’s impossible to conceive of what not having a headache feels like. When you’re in pain during the marathon, the hardest part is remembering what normality feels like. David Foster Wallace explains this feeling best, I think, during the first Katherine Gompert segment of Infinite Jest:
“But when you’re in the feeling you forget. The feeling feels like it’s always been there and will always be there, and you forget. It’s like this whole filter drops down over the whole way you think about everything…” – Infinite Jest p. 74
B. I did not walk to the finish line. You’ll notice that at the 37.5km mark, I shifted from a hilariously bad 16:31 mile pace to a slightly more reasonable 11:43 per mile pace. But that is misleading. I kept walking, tired and miserable. There was another young man in a blue shirt, who had also clearly gone out too fast and was also struggling with cramp and dead legs. But he was 50 meters ahead of me, we couldn’t exchange consolations, and we were both hopeless cases. People, seeing me walking from a distance, stopped shouting encouragements at me. I had tried to start jogging a few times, but my legs were not having it.
As the four hour pace group passed me, with a trail of balloons and a crowd of mostly middle-aged women in tow, I shrugged my shoulders. The course was looping back around, and I could see the city center in the distance. While some would think it was far away, I knew that it was not. At the 38km mark, I realized there were only about 2.5 miles remaining. That is one Van Cortlandt Park 4K. On a good day, I could run a 4K in 13:48. At this point, I would have settled for 23:48. I started running again.
In reality, I could have started running earlier and probably caught the four-hour pace group if I hadn’t broken down mentally. But after that last dumb mistake, I am happy to report I finished the race intelligently. I started passing people left and right. I passed my partner-in-arms in the blue shirt and he started to run again. But I moved well past him. I probably looked pretty good at this point, as everyone had slowed to a crawl, but my crawl was still faster than most people (I did mention I was incredibly narcissistic about running). I did not try to speed ahead and trigger another cramp. I saved a little energy until the final 800 meters. I even kicked a little.
I want to tell you a story about a 60-year-old man named Gianpaolo. Gianpaolo knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He paced out his 10K at 9:16 per mile pace. He finished the marathon in 4 hours, 3 minutes and 46 seconds. That works out to 9:17 per mile. He paced the marathon perfectly. He had everything prepared and under control.
Gianpaolo was 17 minutes behind me at the 10K, 35 minutes behind me at the half, and 43 minutes behind me at 30K. But as the finish line approached, he started to use up all the energy he had saved. He passed me. And just to show how prepared he was, he pulled out an Italian flag that he had been saving in his pocket for four hours and started waving it to the crowd. He was having the time of his life. The crowd cheered him on and he started pulling out a lead on me. With my legs completely toast, I actually tried to out-kick this 60-year-old man waving his Italian flag. I surged ahead slightly, but Gianpaolo was not having it. The crowd went crazy for Gianpaolo as he waved his flag in the air and crossed the line. Gianpaolo beat me by one second. If you needed another reminder to never give up, I hope that was sufficient.
As I quickly rushed to find the pretzel stand and some blue Powerade to relieve my cramp, I saw him give a small fist pump. Gianpaolo beat me, and I would imagine that even he didn’t realize how much he deserved to beat me. He took his time, relished the journey, and ran without fear. Thanks to Gianpaolo, I stopped regretting the whole marathon experience. I couldn’t feel regret. Distance running is just the best.
Video proof that this actually happened:
Postscript: My aunt also finished the race in just over five hours. She was disappointed that she didn’t break 5 hours. We were both very disappointed, but glad we did it. We zombied our way through the next day in Reykjavik and flew home.