Folie á Deux: The St. George Marathon

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In our last episode, brothers John and Matthew took to the streets of Chicago in a brilliant if misguided 26.2 mile struggle for glory. Still heady from victory, and not the kind to rest on their laurels, the brothers solemnly resolved to meet the following year in St. George Utah to re-live the dream. In medicine, the term “folie á deux” is used to describe the phenomenon of two or more persons sharing the same delusion. In the Westhoff family, it is called “Marathon.”

The St. George Marathon is a marathoner’s marathon. When you tell a (non-Utahan) non-runner that you’re going to run it, the typical response is “Where is St. George?” A marathoner on the other hand, will more likely than not nod knowingly and respond with something like: “That’s a fast course.” The race has a reputation for being a well organized run on a gentle downward slope through beautiful red-rock desert wilderness. The marathon is well-known and popular, but the field is capped and entry is by lottery only--presumably because the town of St. George only has so many hotel rooms and everyone has to be bussed to the course’s start in an armada made up of what must be every school bus in southern Utah.

Matt and I had gone into the Chicago Marathon with less than optimal preparation. This time, it was going to be different. It was. This time, we were much, much less prepared than we had been the year before. Plagued by back pain, Matt had not run more than four miles at a time, though to his credit he was running regularly, several times a week. I had gotten some of my long runs in (the longest being an 18-miler), but had otherwise all but stopped running for the two months before the race. I think I did a total of three miles in the three weeks prior to the big day. A couple of weeks before we met in Utah, Matt called to tell me that he would still be coming out but that he wouldn’t be running given his lack of training. I suggested that maybe he could walk backwards from the finish line and when we met he could run with me the rest of the way for moral support. He agreed. Great, at least I’d have company when I needed it most.

The day before the race Matt met me in the Salt Lake airport. We picked up a rental car and drove immediately to St. George, with a brief stop over at my Sister’s in Provo to mooch some lunch. At a Red Lobster in St. George we talked about race day logistics over two large bowls of Cajun-style chicken linguini (breaking my usual rule of not ordering non-seafood in a seafood restaurant, but we were there to “carbo-load” and I wasn’t prepared to assume the minimal but real risks associated with eating seafood in a land-locked state). Should Matt wear his chip since he’d be crossing the finish line but not really running the race? Should he wear his number? What if they pulled him off the course, accused him of cheating? We decided it would be better to both go up and start the race together; Matt would run 10 miles, maybe go halfway if he was feeling really good and then drop out and hitch a ride down on a service vehicle. After dinner we went to buy Matt a pair of running shoes--not expecting to do any serious running, he had not even brought a pair.
John keeping warm before the St. George Marathon.
I woke up at 2:19 AM, a little earlier than I’d hoped, but Matt was already up so we showered, ritualistically greased our armpits and thighs with Vaseline, dressed our nipples with Band-Aids and headed out. We caught one of the first busses up, and I think we arrived at the start somewhere around 4:30. The race didn’t start until 6:45, so we had plenty of time to keep warm sitting around one of the 50 or so campfires provided by the race organizers. We were in good spirits; the atmosphere before a marathon is always electric. I teased Matt that he should run all the way with me—we joked about the subsequent hospitalization. “I may run halfway,” Matt said “but no matter how good I feel at 13 miles do NOT let me continue!” “Alright,” I lied.
John and Matt pause for desert photo-op.
It was a bit surreal running through the desert. We were in the middle of nowhere, but surrounded by people as far forward and backward as you could see—and all of them running. As advertised, the course was mostly downhill, wonderful. We started running right before sunrise. The desert was gorgeous and the miles seemed to go so much faster than they had in Chicago. The positive energy you feel from everyone at a marathon—the runners, the volunteers, the spectators, has to be experienced to be appreciated. 8, 9, 10 miles—we both felt great, particularly considering our lack of training. Matt had none of the knee pain that had plagued him last year, and I was sure I would be able to finish. The halfway mark came and went and, breaking my promise, I said nothing to Matt about dropping out. We both knew what was happening, though Matt did not dare voice it until we reached mile 18—he was going to go all the way! Suddenly the race was transformed from half-hearted mockery of the sport to epic against-the-odds battle of man against marathon (and, Aunt Erma might add, against common sense). Matt had an eye on the finish line, and we were on pace to break his Chicago time by a pretty good margin.
Matt feeling good.
I “hit the wall” at mile 18. I was so tired that I was starting to wonder if I could keep up with Matt. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I reached into the little pocket of my running shorts and pulled out a “Sonic Strawberry” (“Sonic” is a euphemism for “with caffeine”) energy gel that I had picked off the road at mile 5 or so. Euphoria came quickly to my methylxanthine naïve system and the “wall” proved to be little more than a hedge. My mental well-being restored, I turned my attention to my little brother, who had begun to cramp at mile 20. Plying him with platitudes like “Pain it temporary, glory is forever,” we ran and walked through the last six miles. Matt’s calves were in rebellion, and at times the cramping was severe enough that he was afraid of falling.

I am starting to believe that “anyone” can (and dern well should) run a marathon at some point. This belief is based on the humiliating fact that no matter how fast I run, I always end up behind some determined senior citizen. Don’t get me wrong, seeing a grandmotherly woman skunk me in a 26.2 mile road race is actually inspiring, but it is simultaneously a bit of humble pie. This race was no exception. At mile 23 we were on the heels of a couple from the Shady Groves Skilled Nursing Facility. I couldn’t take it and urged Matt that we HAD to speed up, for the sake of our self-respect and the dignity of young whippersnappers everywhere. It took about two miles to catch them, but we passed the seasoned athletes as we entered the final stretch.
Giddy from having crushed the over-65 competition, we crossed the finish line almost a full twenty minutes under our Chicago time, a personal record for Matt (4:46), and a moral victory for us both. As I write this, the pain in my legs is all but a memory and I look forward with excitement to next year’s race (San Diego?), and perhaps participation from some other members of my family (Kate?). One thing I am sure of: ready or not, Matt and I will take to the field next year for the third annual Westhoff family bonding-through-mutual-suffering extravaganza. Join us, and together we will smoke that old lady.
Matt ices his legs after the race.


Aunt Erma is right, you guys are crazy!!! but I am proud of you both.

I am very proud of both of you - I am just thankful that neither one of you hurt yourselves!! Your race commentary got me all pumped up John and almost made me forget the back pain I had last night just getting ready for my PT test.I would love to be able to run a marathon with you guys one of these days! Your Dad thinks I am crazy but I haven't given up on that dream yet!! I think we all should run one together - except maybe Dad - wouldn't that be great??? We could probably even make Runner's World!! Love yall, Mom

Don't forget John next summer is the San Diego and I have decided that after Boston we need to go international. Mt Kilamingaro here we come!

Not even if Hell freezes over!

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This page contains a single entry by John published on October 9, 2003 4:08 PM.

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