Detroit Rock City

By Jesse Squire

October 24, 2019

“Absolutely not.”

That was my reply when my brother asked me if I wanted to run the Detroit International Marathon. It was 16 years since I last ran a marathon. In that interim, my brother started running with his son, went further and further…and found he liked marathons. He was looking at Detroit in order to check Michigan off of his 50 state pursuit.

I mean, I wanted to do a marathon again. I want to make an attempt at a Boston qualifier in the fall of 2020 but figured getting up to a full marathon in just six months was too much, too soon. Then I looked out the window at my hometown of Toledo, which is more or less Detroit in miniature, decided I needed something crazy to make myself take it seriously and I told Walter “yeah, I’m in”.

Holy Crap

At first, I thought that it hadn’t been that long since I was thin and fit and somewhat fast…wait, that was twelve years ago. Between then and now I’d had two surgeries, spent more and more time coaching and writing and announcing and less time running, and gradually put on nearly 50 pounds. Hey, I’d once lost 50 pounds in a two-year span…but I was 30 then and I’m pushing 50 now.

So yes, I quickly realized I had overestimated my conditioning and how quickly I’d be able to improve it. The day it really snapped into focus was a July 11-mile run – my longest of that week. The course I chose was out to Lake Erie, which was pretty but almost completely in the sun, and I didn’t get started until later in the morning when it was beating down on me. Have you ever had a run when you started going down the heat exhaustion checklist? And done that when the only way to get the last four miles back to your car is by running…walking…crawling?

At least I have a job that makes summer run training easy to do. I’m a high school teacher, so for ten weeks out of the year I can run whenever I want. And it was still hard.

I decided I had to change my registration to the half marathon. I’d still get to run the cool parts of the course: across the Ambassador Bridge into Canada and back into the Motor City via the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

Keep It Simple

I am a proponent of Arthur Lydiard’s training, and to me, that means first and foremost working on the most basic needs: endurance, strength, explosive power. I figured that just getting my milage up was paramount for an overweight and out-of-shape 48-year-old with long-term goals. The fancy stuff would come next year. Anything that affected my ability to do the miles went out the window. I even discarded weight training, which I know to be extremely beneficial for marathoners (and half-marathoners) because it affected my recovery.

By late July I settled on a simple plan: one hour four days a week plus a two-hour run on Sunday. The other two days each week were for cycling, yard work, goofing off, or just plain rest. Once the academic year started I couldn’t always even complete that plan each week due to school responsibilities or just plain exhaustion. As I said, I’m 48 and out of shape.

Speedwork? I’d do strides sometimes. Hill work? I ran over ¾-mile suspension bridge once a week to prepare myself for the 2-mile Ambassador Bridge. Sustained fast running? Towards the end of the training plan, I’d do a 5K tempo at goal half-marathon pace maybe once a week or so. I did watch my pace on my Sunday long runs, making sure I started easy and gradually picked up the pace as I went. Even so, finishing that run much under 10:00 per mile was rare.

It was a hot, hot summer and the heat never seemed to end. I did just one race over the summer, a five-miler that kicked off a village’s summer fair in 85-degree heat. I ran 42:20 and decided I’d be lucky to break 2:00 in this half marathon.

And then, once or twice, it did cool off. I did that 5k tempo run three minutes faster. I found myself running an 8:40 mile in a long run without intending to go that fast. I went and looked up my fastest time since I turned 40 (1:52:47) and thought maybe, just maybe, I could beat that.

Michigan Avenue, the night before the race

Race Day

The Detroit Free Press International Marathon is a well-organized race and, despite what you might think, it is a downtown course and not just a tour of a post-industrial hellscape. But it does have a drawback in that the start is on a street not quite wide enough for the 15,000 people who toe the line. Your predicted time puts you in one of 20 corrals started in wave fashion – and I couldn’t get into my corral until the wave before it started, about 30 seconds before my wave started. Finding a pace group was out of the question. Nor did I see either of the first two mile markers. So I was running totally, completely by feel. That’s freeing on some level, but also kind of unnerving.

The race starts at 7:00 am and the sun doesn’t rise until you are on the Ambassador Bridge and on your way into the People’s Republic of Canada. You are crossing a border into a foreign country and back, and ever since 2001 that’s become kind of a big deal. CBP agents watch every runner for a race bib (you must show your passport at packet pick-up). Canadian customs? They give you a high-five and say “Welcome to Canada, eh?” A ship passing under the bridge hit its horn for us as we ran over.

Waiting for the race to start

Turns out, I was right on that masters’ PR pace – no faster, no slower. I let it rip on the mile-long downslope, settled down once I got into the city of Windsor, and kept it going. Then the tunnel. I hadn’t really prepared for that. I mean, it didn’t look that severe on the course map. And how do you practice running in a tunnel? It was a steep downhill and I let that rip too. Then back up. Yeah, that was hard. Now another tunnel under Cobo Hall? Oh. And a little neighborhood bridge over I-75? And back? My goose was cooked. The master’s PR was not happening. But even my slow struggling miles here were faster than virtually any of the miles I ran over the summer.

Lessons learned for the future? Over the winter I need to be more consistent with the mileage. I need to add in weight training and hills. And I need to shed quite a bit of weight. But I’m now capable of doing all of that because of getting all those miles in over the summer and early fall and making sure nothing kept me from doing it.

A few hours later my brother was across the finish line, and he and I did the Frankenstein walk to my wife’s car. Not five minutes later he said, “So…do you want to do Pittsburgh?”

“Shit, that’s hilly as hell, isn’t it? You betcha.”

Jesse Squire

I was second in the 1980 Olympic* long jump. (*Cub Scout Olympics, Pack 99, 9-10 age group.)