The Daily Double
Two marathons, two states, one day. What got into this Chico runner?
I was starting to lose it. My legs felt as if snakes were wrapped around them, tightening their grips with every stride, and my head was swimming in a soup of pavement, bright lights and an oozing, shape-shifting, amoeba-like swarm of humanity.
This was not what I thought would happen when I got the clever idea of running two marathons in two states on the same day. I was full of confidence, certain I could do it.
I was still confident just a few hours earlier that day, after finishing the first race—the California International Marathon in Sacramento—with a time of less than 3 hours, 15 minutes.
But here I was in Las Vegas about eight hours later, nine miles into the Las Vegas Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, and my confidence was declining with every stride. My legs were in torment, and my reaction time was slipping away.
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do another sub-3-hour, 15-minute marathon, but I was determined to finish. I resolved simply to keep the legs moving for another two hours, or until I’d reached my second finish line, and thereby completed 52.4 miles. It was just a question of getting there.
Like any personal challenge, this one started with a question: Is it possible?
In spring 2011, the popular magazine publisher and race-series organizer Competitor Group Inc. added the Zappos Las Vegas Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon to its lineup. The race (its mantra was “Run the Strip at Night”) was scheduled to start at 4 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2011, the same day as the CIM in Sacramento, one of my favorite marathons (and one of the nation’s premier events for fast times). My mind skipped around wildly.
Let’s see, I could run the CIM at 7 a.m., get a ride from my wife to the Sacramento airport, catch an 11:55 a.m. flight to Vegas, land at 1:15 p.m., cab it to the hotel, rest, then run the Las Vegas Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon at 4 p.m.
And since I had to finish my first race in enough time to make my flight, what if I set a goal time we marathoners cherish most? Is it possible to run two separate marathons in two different states in one day and qualify for the Boston Marathon in both?
It turns out that running two separate marathons in the same day actually has a name: The Daily Double.
I’m no stranger to the 26.2-mile marathon. I’ve finished eight of them (including a 50-kilometer ultra marathon) and met every one of my competitive marathon goals. I qualified for the Boston Marathon (agreed upon as the pinnacle for pedestrian marathoners like me) four times, ran Boston in 2009 and broke three hours at the Eugene Marathon (2:57:49) in May 2010.
The thing about me is that I’m pretty average in most ways. I’m a 40-year-old married father of two in a two-income household who tries to squeeze in training runs however and whenever he can.
But since running my first 10k race as a fifth-grader with my father, running has played a large role in my life. It’s part of who I am.
To prepare for my Daily Double, I used the Jack Daniels training program (no, I didn’t rehydrate with three fingers of No. 7). As one of the premier distance-running coaches in U.S. history, Daniels channeled the talents of numerous collegiate distance runners beginning in the 1960s. He revolutionized training by measuring how much and how quickly a runner processes oxygen.
I followed Daniels for my last two marathons (Boston in ’09, Eugene in ’10) and sliced a combined 11 minutes off my personal record. I trusted the training, despite the fact that it destroyed my calves, producing puzzling tightness, excruciating pain and bruises with colors not typically seen in nature.
I had to break 3:15 in order to run a Boston-qualifier (BQ). I was confident, but I had to stay healthy, and I hadn’t been that fortunate the last few years.
As a heel striker (my heels hit the ground first during every stride), my Achilles tendons, calves, knees and hips have borne the brunt. So, after 30 years of competitive running, could I teach myself to run differently?
From Day 1, I made a conscious effort to land on my forefoot and show mercy to the other parts of my legs. It worked. I had fewer injuries and my legs felt fresher leading up to race day than at any of my previous marathons.
A few wobbles, however, reminded me of my mortality. On the third day of Phase III, after an easy 20-miler, that familiar pain invaded my right calf. I also gradually developed patellar tendonitis in both knees. And for the first time ever I felt a pop in my hamstring—twice in three weeks.
For the most part, though, my 24 weeks of training was about as uneventful as you’d think running for 24 weeks could be. It was the most effective training I’d had leading up to a race.
The money was in the bank. It was time to attempt my Daily Double.
At 4:40 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4, my phone’s alarm dutifully buzzed me awake.
I’m typically visited by bizarre dreams the night before a marathon. This time, I was awake from 1 a.m. to just after 3 a.m. My mind swerved toward and sped over every conceivable speed bump of anxiety, from my breakfast to what I’d packed for the trip.
The moments just before a marathon are the worst part of the race for me. I’m usually beset by nausea-inducing jitters, but this morning (welcomed by cool temps, bright blue sky, not a hint of wind), I felt pure calm.
I spent the first six miles of the race jiggling out the nerves and soon found my rhythm. Then, during mile 7, I felt hunger as if I hadn’t eaten a scrap.
I tucked in with the 3:10 pace group for about 10 miles, while soreness predictably leaked into my quads like an IV drip. At mile 20 I broke rank until I crossed the finish line in 3:08:36. I’d done what I needed to do: I’d qualified for Boston and expended as little energy as possible.
But from the moment I crossed the finish line, my legs switched gears, tightening up and gliding gently into recovery mode. As I walked to the car with my wife and kids, I reflected on two things: I wished I could run the second marathon now, immediately following the first one. And I was suddenly washed over with the feeling that this was going to be much harder than I thought.
On the drive to the airport, a boa constrictor found my quads, coiled around them and squeezed. And it clutched tighter during the 10-minute drive to the airport.
Wobbling to the back of the car to retrieve my backpack of gear was painful. Squeeze. Fatigue rolled its bank of clouds over me. I began to double-guess my strategy of running a Boston-qualifying time in the Sacramento race.
But I’d had no choice, really, I told myself. I had to run a good time in order to make my flight.
After the uneventful 70-minute flight touched down in Las Vegas, a cab shuttled me to the entrance of Excalibur, my castle for the evening and just a short walk to the starting line, which I spied as we throttled through the hotel parking lot. After checking in, I procured a turkey sandwich, went to my room on the 16th floor, showered, ate the sandwich and lay down to rest.
As I watched Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning trade interceptions on TV, I thought, “Don’t get too comfortable.”
Looking back, this was a critical moment. Here’s why.
The Competitor Group doesn’t allow anyone other than registered runners to pick up their race packets containing, most important, the race number and timing chip (beginning the runner’s official race time when he crosses the starting line, not when the gun goes off). To do that, I had to present my ID and a signed race confirmation sheet, which I’d previously printed out.
No confirmation sheet = no race packet.
I’d also have to find race-day-packet pickup and drop my race packet at gear check, where I’d grab it post-race.
But I chose to shut the drapes, kill the TV and close my eyes for 30 minutes, setting the alarm on my phone to a gut-rattling volume. I bartered the sure bet of getting to the starting line on time for a little rest.
As I lay there, I felt my mind drift into primordial goo. This was beyond just being tired and dozing off into la-la land. I was fatigued, my mind was clocking out and my body would soon follow.
I sat up slowly. This was 4:40 a.m. all over again.
I gobbled my last bit of pre-race food, completing my between-race menu of more than 90 ounces of water, a 32-oz. Gatorade, two 8-oz. chocolate milks, a banana, three mandarins, an eight-piece sushi roll from Safeway, a turkey sandwich and a Clif bar. I grabbed my hotel key, ID and cellphone and was off.
Outside, people swarmed. Knowing the general area of the race-day packet pickup, I moved with the rest of the herd. To my left, and separated by a line of formidable metal barriers, were the first few hundred yards of the course on South Las Vegas Boulevard, empty except for a few racers warming up.
I asked a race official to direct me to race-day-packet pickup. She said Mandalay Bay, but I’d have to go down that street, turn the corner at the light, and blah blah blah … That was where she lost me. She might as well have told me it was back in Sacramento. My brain struggled to find second gear. I had at least a quarter mile to go, and time was running out for me to reach the starting line.
And then, catastrophe. I saw a woman drop a paper and pick it up. It was her race-day confirmation sheet. And mine was back at the hotel! My mind had failed me. I may or may not have yelled a profanity, multiple times, then turned around to run back to the room.
Only now I was swimming upstream. Moving quickly and knocking a 24-oz. can of Bud Light out of someone’s hand, I pressed my way through an opening. And I bolted, using this as my much-needed race warm-up.
The next 20 minutes remain a blur. Up to the hotel room, confirmation sheet in hand, down to the street, running on South Las Vegas Boulevard to that light at the corner, weaving through more and more people, too many teams of fat dazzling Elvises taking group pictures, finally race-day-packet pickup, my race just started, race number pinned to my shirt, timing chip on my shoe, bag dropped off at gear check, back to the race area, and I felt like I’d already run a second race.
I crossed the starting line alone and heard my timing chip chirp. I was officially in last place, with only 26.2 miles to go.
There comes a time, in nearly every marathon, when the runner’s mind and body brawl for the upper hand. Whether it’s mile 18, 20 or 25, runners hit the wall.
For me, it was soon after I crossed the starting line.
Ordinarily, I would have considered stopping. At no point in any previous marathon had I felt this utter void of energy and spring in my step. Sure, my muscles burned and my joints ached, but my clarity and engagement with the race were also off-kilter. And that worried me right off the bat.
The first few miles dragged by, and it was obvious a BQ time was beyond me. So be it. But I was feeling the most discomfort in my legs that I had ever experienced. The pain pulsed through my body. At any point, I realized, I could drag my toes, fall forward and kiss the concrete with my two front teeth.
Crappy lighting, the inherent chaos of the aid stations and cracked, uneven pavement added more danger to the event. And my reaction time was seriously disintegrating.
Around miles 5 and 6, the discomfort meter ramped up big time. My quads begged me to stop, and my brain told them to fuck off. I’d made too many sacrifices over the last six months. I wasn’t giving in that easily. I intended to finish what I started.
Mile 9. Four more miles and I’d be basking in the party with the masses along the city’s centerpiece (“Run the Strip at Night!”) for my day’s final 13.1 miles.
Then the feeling came and went with frightening swiftness and power. I can only describe it this way: I felt like I’d been picked up by my feet, swung around violently, then plunked back down.
I moved to the side to take attendance inside my head. I wasn’t dizzy anymore, but the memory lingered like a sunburn. Then I panicked. And I started to hyperventilate. This wasn’t happening. Not here, not now. I placed my hands behind my head, shut my eyes, focused on breathing … deeply … slowly … fill the lungs … with oxygen.
“Hey man, you OK?”
To my left was the paramedic who asked me that ridiculous question, while his portly partner looked on. I knew if I answered no, I’d be chaperoned into the back of his rig, and it was curtains for me. But I’d also promised not to be stupid. Would it be stupid to continue running after my head felt like an orbiting satellite plummeting to earth?
“No,” I said. “I’m not OK.”
That was it. I was done. After 30 years of running races, I was about to digest my first DNF (Did Not Finish). Somewhere between lying on a gurney with the chill of pure oxygen cooling my nostrils and signing a waiver indicating I was quitting the race (any finish time I received would be invalid), I was obligated to inform this guy about my day.
“I should probably tell you,” I began, speaking to his back, “that this is actually my second marathon of the day.”
He turned his head to me. “What?”
“Yeah, I ran the California International Marathon in Sacramento this morning at 7.”
He turned to face me and smiled. “So, let me get this straight. You tried to run two marathons in two states … in the same day?”
“Sure, why not?”
I sat in the rig for another five minutes, and the medic told me it was his opinion I should spend the night in the hospital for observation—a sentiment echoed by an emergency-room RN checking me out at a medical tent 20 minutes later. I thanked them both and said I just wanted to go back to my hotel room.
Eventually, a shuttle bus picked me up (along with other stragglers), and a too-cheerful race rep announced we could still cross the finish line to receive our finisher’s medal. After the bus belched us free, that’s what I did. I closed in on the finish line and was welcomed with:
“Sean Murphy, from Chico,” the race announcer snarled, as I crossed the line in 2:39:19 to indifferent applause. “Sean finishes in seventh place in the full marathon.”
Even running only one marathon in a day, I’m nowhere nearly capable of that kind of time. I wobbled to gear check and was again greeted by dozens of applauding volunteers. I broke the news of my day: my first marathon, my partial second marathon and the most frightening moment of my life.
The cavernous building fell silent.
On Jan. 14, 2012, Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman placed 1-2-3 at the U.S. Olympics Marathon Trials. Dathan Ritzenhein (second at the 2008 U.S. Olympics Marathon Trials and the first American to finish in the Beijing Games) placed fourth—just eight seconds behind Abdirahman.
Up until mile 20, Ritzenhein ran with the leaders. Leg cramps forced him to slow his pace, and he dropped out of contention. He still finished in a personal-best 2:09:55.
“Maybe I’m not made for the marathon,” Ritzenhein said following the race.
And I was bummed about my finish.
Imagine being Ritzenhein, whose Olympics dream came up eight seconds short. What I went through is small potatoes in comparison. Sure, I wanted to complete my Daily Double very badly. But I’m just some guy who had a goofy idea, tried like hell, and couldn’t get over the hump. Then I went on with life.
My body sent me a message. Actually, it was sending me messages throughout the nine-plus miles in Las Vegas with aches, pains, discomfort, disorientation and soreness I accepted as the day’s by-products. But the memo I heard loud and clear just before mile 10 shook me to the core.
I’d absolutely expected to finish, and it’s taken me a while to get over my “failure.” Since then, I’ve pulled some positives from the day. I qualified for Boston. I tested my limits, met them and tried to push beyond them. I also realized that I knew when to stop.
If I’d gotten back out on the course once my brain returned from the mother ship, something catastrophic and life changing (i.e., dropping to the ground like a 155-pound bag of rice and splitting my head open on a curb like a melon) could have happened.
In the hours after my Las Vegas race, a friend wrote me in an email: “We never know what we are capable of doing until we at least try. You’ve shown your children an important lesson. It never hurts to try—sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.”
She’s right. My kids are still wee little things, and someday they’ll hear about it, and possibly understand it. For now, though, I just like the idea that I’m here.