The Starting Line

January 17, 2017

"Never again."


That's what I mumbled to myself sitting crumpled on the floor of my dorm room shower. 


I couldn't stand up, I couldn't stop shaking and I couldn't remember why the hell I thought running a half marathon was a good idea in the first place.


Six months into my freshman year of college, though, I crossed my first finish line. And that day, I guaranteed it would be my last finish line.


I never would have done it on my own, but my roommate at the time, Nate Skotak, pledged to run the half-marathon with me. Sometime around early October --after essentially two months of living together-- Nate and I said we'd run a half marathon together as freshmen, and then as seniors, we'd run the full marathon together. 


The moment I crossed the finish line, though, those thoughts were dashed. 


It's not that I didn't think I could run 26.2 miles, it's that after 13.1 miles, I knew I couldn't run 26.2 miles.


The idea to race was crazy, but that was Nate and me.


While the rest of the students on our floor were planning out what movie to watch in the lounge on Friday night, we were planning out how to smuggle a 30-rack of Rolling Rock on the light rail from Phoenix to Tempe. (We used suitcases. Never got caught.)


Before signing up for the half marathon, I had never considered myself a runner. A football player in high school, I devoted every waking moment of my high school athletic career to playing a sport where you never need to run more than 100 yards at a time. 


There's almost no carryover between football and distance running. In fact, the next football player who gives up the sport to become a successful distance runner will be the first. But there is one critical similarity between the two disciplines: Competition. 


And I craved it. 


Thirteen months before race day, I separated my shoulder in the second quarter of a quarterfinal playoff game, ending my football career and simultaneously offering me my first glimpse of heartbreak.


As a slow, undersized running back, I earned playing time because I mastered the art of not being an athletic liability on the field. You can count on one hand the number of 10-plus yard runs I rattled off my senior year, but I started 11 games because I understood play concepts, never fumbled, and probably also for the obvious intimidation factor of putting a 5-foot-7 freckled kid in the backfield. 


I also just ran until I couldn't run anymore. Which is why, in a weird, twisted way, distance running kind of makes sense.


With my shoulder still out of commission, and my days of playing organized sports behind me, I went for it. For 13.1 miles, I was back on the playing field --in this case the city streets of Tempe, Arizona-- and for the first time, I learned it's a lot easier to run when you have five hulking linemen to protect you. 


For the first 48 hours after I finished the race, the next finish line I thought I was going to see was the finish line of life, but as you can tell, 13.1 miles grueling miles didn't end me.


Fast forward to August of 2015, nearly three years after Nate and I made our initial pledge, and we were faced with a decision. Fulfill our freshman prophecy, or keep our time on the streets of Tempe, Arizona confined to one street--Mill Avenue. 


By this point in our lives, Nate and I were much better decision makers. Still roommates, we no longer needed suitcases to smuggle beer, we could openly wheel kegs into our apartment complex. (ASU is No. 1 in innovation for a reason). 


Aided by the commitment of our good friend, Jake Garcia, to run with us, Nate and I decided to go for 26.2. 


Even though almost three years had passed since I couldn't pick myself up from my dorm room shower, I wasn't going to let Jake replace me as Nate's running partner. I knew what 26.2 miles would do to my body, but I also maintained my burning desire to compete. 


During the training process, I laid out a list of goals for myself: 1) Finish 2) Don't die 3) Make this the only marathon you ever run. Pretty simple.


But then, my 20-mile training run happened.


Regardless of what marathon training regimen you try, somewhere along the line, you're going to have to run 20 miles.  This is the run that makes or breaks you. And it made me.


On a crisp winter morning in San Francisco over winter break, I ran 20 miles at a 6:30 pace, a run that completely redefined my perspective as a runner. 


Upon arriving home, I raced to the computer to perform a quick Google search. 


"Boston Marathon Qualifying Times."


It was on. 


For men between the ages of 18 and 35, the Boston qualifying standard is three hours and five minutes. 


I looked at my phone again, memorizing my 20-mile pace, and quickly began running the numbers. Immediately, I readjusted my goals.


1) Finish 2) Don't die 3) Make this the only marathon you ever run 4) Unless you qualify for Boston...


A month after my 20-mile training run, I toed the starting line and the rest was history.


After 26.2 miles, I crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 12 seconds, all but guaranteeing my entry into the 2017 Boston Marathon.


The sick, empty, disturbing feelings I had after 13.1 miles my freshman year of college were amplified, but incredibly, the joy of accomplishment overwhelmed the pain. 


Three years after collapsing on the finish line at the base of Mill Avenue (amazingly the only time I've ever collapsed on Mill), I sprinted past a clock reading 2:58:12 with a sense of pride that burns strong even today.


With Boston now on the horizon, the finish line resting at the 26.2 mile mark of the Arizona Rock N' Roll marathon had transformed. That finish line was now the starting line to the next chapter of my life.


 January 2013--A post-race photo from the Arizona Rock N' Roll Half Marathon with Nate Skotak (right). The day that convinced me to never run again. 

January 2016: A post-race photo from the Arizona Rock N' Roll Marathon with Jake Garcia (left) and Nate Skotak (center). Boston on my mind. 


Over the next 90 days, Kerry Crowley will be documenting his road to the 2017 Boston Marathon with an assortment of first-person essays.
















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