The Marathon that Wouldn't End

The Marathon that Would Never End

When it comes to asking for help…I simply won’t do it. Actually, that’s not completely true. I will ask for help, but only as a last resort, after I’ve exhausted every single option first. Maybe it’s a guy thing? Regardless, it explains why it was so difficult for me when I had to ask Carol for help.

Carol and I were running buddies. At the time, we were in the same running club and always managed to run together during the weekly interval training. Over time we became friends and would even do long runs together on the weekends. I was in training for my first marathon in Boulder, Colorado and was grateful to have someone to train with like Carol. She had run numerous marathons and triathlons already and ended up being a great resource on everything from my diet to the amount of miles I needed to get in each week.

And then I made a costly miscalculation.

Although I was in the best shape of my life, I failed to take into account that Boulder has an elevation of 5,430 feet and includes mountains with steep grades going both up and down. My training was limited to running distance but not hills, let alone mountains. I was not as prepared as I thought.

The Boulder Marathon

I’ll never forget that day. Although sunny, the winds were blowing anywhere from 20 to 50-mph and directly into the faces of the 400+ marathoners. I remember starting out in the middle of the pack before slowly slipping farther and farther back. Between fighting the winds and the ascending roads, I was quickly out of my element with no end in sight.

And then the breakdown began. By the 13-mile mark (the half-way point), my body, particularly my legs, started to give out. The lactic acid build-up in my thighs made every movement so painful that walking was the only way I could still move in a forward direction without coming to a complete stop. I panicked, not knowing what to do. What’s worse, I came alone to the marathon. There was no Carol, no support team, let alone anyone to run with for encouragement. Another miscalculation?

But things only got worse. So much so that I could no longer walk as I approached the 20-mile mark and literally had to be scraped up and thrown into the back of the race official’s truck. And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, they drove us (there were four other immobilized runners in the back with me) down the remaining six miles of the actual course, as if we were in a parade, except that no one was waving to us.

But wait, there’s more.

As we drove past the finish line, we were all awarded with our very own “participation” medallion. You know, like those green ribbons they give to all the kids just for participating in the basketball tournament. Same thing. What’s funny is that to this day I still don’t know what to do with it given the disheartening outcome.

Days Later

I couldn’t walk. Okay, maybe a bit of an exaggeration. I could walk but not without a lot of pain. But even the pain wasn’t able to cover up the incredible disappointment I had about not finishing the marathon. It felt like I had just tossed three months of training down the drain and all I had to show for it was a lame participation medallion.

And then, on the fourth day after my aborted attempt, the idea of all ideas came to me while I was getting a leg massage at the club. I grabbed my cell and dialed Carol.

“You’re going to do what!” she yelled. “You’re absolutely crazy!”

“You’re going to do what!” she yelled. “You’re crazy!”

Carol wasn’t buying my logic. I tried again. “It is no different than doing a long run just before a marathon,” I pleaded.

“You can barely walk. That’s not the same!”

It was Thursday, the fifth day after my failed marathon attempt. I wasn’t in pain anymore and had become obsessed with my latest idea. I was going to run the Pueblo marathon on Saturday. I know…crazy, right? Nevertheless, I was convinced that I could do another marathon, as long as it was on a flat course. Plus, I just couldn’t let three months of training go down the drain without a completed marathon. I just couldn’t.

“But I’m going to need your help,” I added.

“You definitely need help,” she joked.

I smiled. “Funny…I’m serious however. I need you to come with me to Pueblo.”

“I’m not running a marathon,” Carol shot back.

“I know Carol. What I need is for you to run the last six miles with me. Will you do that?”

I could tell by her tone of voice that she was going to say yes.

“I actually think that is a very good idea, especially considering your condition,” she mused. “Okay, I’ll go with you.”

I knew in that instance that enrolling Carol as my support team was not only the right thing to do but something I should have done the week before. Why do I always learn things the hard way? I thought to myself as I hung up the phone.

Little did I know what lied ahead…


The sun was just coming up from the east. It was 6 am and a cool 45-degrees outside. Carol wanted to run the first two miles with me before taking off for a leisurely breakfast. She was enjoying the whole experience.

“I’ll plan to meet you at the 20-mile mark in about three hours, okay?” she said as she trailed off from the course.

I nodded, quietly wondering if I could run the next eighteen miles in three hours. Clearly my confidence wasn’t where it needed to be.

There was only 150 runners in this marathon; a far cry from the 400+ in Boulder the week before. In one sense, it was nice to have so much room between runners. In another sense, I could literally run for a mile or two and not see a single person. It was kind of eerie. Negative thoughts began passing through my head. What if I get into trouble? Will anyone be able to find me? And then a more disturbing thought, I have no way to contact Carol should something happen!

Marathons have a way of playing mind games with you, especially if you are in any kind of pain. And, as self-fulfilling prophecies go, by the time I hit the 13-mile mark, the lactic acid build-up in my calves and thighs came back with a vengeance. The pain was excruciating. Panic came over me as the course moved through a dense forest. No! Not again!

By mile-14, I was once again diminished to walking, while wondering what was worse…the intense pain in my legs or the intense disappointment I was feeling. It was like I was forced to watch the same bad movie two weeks in a row, unable to change the channel. I couldn’t even muster the energy to look up and acknowledge the remaining few runners in the race as they passed me by. Not only was I in last place by this point, but in serious jeopardy of not finishing the marathon…again!

I looked at my watch. The three-hour timeframe Carol proposed had already passed. Here she was waiting for me at mile-20 and I have no way to tell her that I’m only at mile-17 and walking at a snail’s pace. The temperature was now over 90-degrees as the course moved out from under the trees to the open desert. And to top it off, there was no shade in sight, let alone any runners…or race officials…or even a race truck to scrape up incapacitated runners…nothing. At this point, whatever pride I had left from the last marathon was long gone. This was now about survival…and that meant I had to get to mile-20. There was no other way to end this nightmare.

Slowly…methodically, I put one leg in front of the other and kept moving. Walking had never become so difficult. As mile-19 came and went, I could feel my hopes start to rise. Surely I can make it one more mile.

And then, off in the far distance, I could see it; the 20-mile mark was within reach. Finally, I could put an end to this marathon obsession of mine for the last time…and ironically at the same 20-mile mark that did me in the previous week.

As I approached, I noticed an ambulance was parked alongside the left side of road, obviously waiting for the last runner to either pass by or hop in the back. And there on the right side, with a big smile on her face, was Carol, looking at me as if I had just come back from the dead. What a welcome sight!

Before I could open my mouth Carol gives me a big hug and helps me over to a shaded area where we sit down. My emotions are overflowing as I lament about my aches and pains and the physical toll the last seven miles had taken on me. My legs were aching so much that I had to rock back and forth in an attempt to distract myself from the pain.

“What do you want to do?” asked Carol, very concerned.

“I can’t go on. This whole thing was a bad idea,” I cried out.

Carol squeezes my arm. “We don’t have to do anything right now, let’s just sit here for a while.”

“I blew it.,” I said, shaking my head. “You told me I was crazy and I ignored you. I’m sorry.”

Another 20-minutes passed by. Just then the ambulance pulls out and takes off down the road. Carol and I look at each other…and immediately start laughing.

“Now I’m really screwed,” I joked, still laughing at my predicament.

Carol gets up and looks over at me. “Hey, why don’t we just walk a little together,” as she points towards mile-21. “We can quit at any time…but the car is in that direction anyway.”

Feeling a little better, I agree, “As long as we have to go that way anyway, why not.”

The 20th mile of the Pueblo marathon will always go down as a turning point for me. Had Carol not been there, I would have given up on my dream and taken a ride in the ambulance back to my car. Why not! It would have been essentially the same thing I did the previous week. But Carol was there, and here we were walking towards mile-21, chatting away as good friends do, one step after the other.

When we came up to the 21-mile mark, my legs were pounding so bad that I was forced to sit down again. “Where did you park the car?” I asked, while rocking back and forth in pain.

She looked at me apologetically, “Near the finish line. But don’t worry; we can catch a ride over there.”

We sat for twenty more minutes.

“Do you want to try walking again?” she asked.

By now the pulsating sensation had gone down. “Sure. We have to go that way anyway,” I said, wondering if we’d ever reach the 22-mile mark on foot.

We trudged on for what seemed like the longest time.

“At this rate, I don’t think we’re going to ever see mile-22,” I complained, wondering how we were going to ‘catch a ride’ as Carol suggested.

“Over there!” points Carol.

I look up and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the mile-23 marker!

“No way!” I exclaim. “Where did mile-22 go?”

Carol looks at me with a smile and says, “Greg, we can do this!”

“Do what?”

“We can finish this marathon,” she says.

Because I had already dismissed any possibility of finishing this marathon, I resisted.
“Carol, let’s just get out of here. I’m done with this.”

“That fine,” she said. “I just thought that since we are so close that maybe…”

“Maybe what?”

“Greg, since mile-20 we’ve already walked over three miles. Do you realize in three more miles we’ll be at the finish line?”

 Then, out of nowhere, a smile reemerged on my face. “Do you think we can? I mean, do you think I can?”

“We’re doing it now.” she says.

I perked up. A long lost skip appeared in my step. I started to imagine the finish line instead of the car as my final destination. And get this…I started to jog!

The adrenaline that pulled me through all those months of marathon training took over. We passed through mile-24 and then mile-25. Five hours had passed since the start of the race and here we were merging onto Main Street in downtown Pueblo in a full-out run for the finish line. City workers are cheering us (while picking up the cones behind us). Cars are honking. Runners who finished hours earlier are passing us in the opposite direction, giving us high fives.

“We are going to do this,” I scream.

“I told you,” shouted Carol as she pulled out and watched me cross the finish line. 

And guess what?

I got the same exact participation medallion that I got the week before when I had to be scrapped up on mile-20. And yes, I now have them both out for all to see.


Greg Giesen is the manager of people development at the University of Denver as well as a professional speaker, management coach, facilitator of the award winning program, Leading From Within, and author of, Mondays At 3: A Story for Managers Learning to Lead. Go to for more information.




Greg Giesen is the manager of people development at the University of Denver as well as a professional speaker, management coach, facilitator of the award winning program, Leading From Within, and author of, Mondays At 3: A Story for Managers Learning to Lead. Go to for more information.