Imagine a marathon with no mile markers, scenery or crowds -- just 204 laps around an indoor track.
Not enough of a challenge? Try doing it six days in a row.
In a lot of ways, the Maple Leaf Indoor Marathon at Goshen College isn't a race so much as a convention for marathon collectors. Denis McCarthy came from St. Louis to run his 150th marathon on Feb. 23, the last day of the six-race event. Jennifer Savage of Warsaw was tackling her 99th marathon – her fourth one that week. A 10-time finisher of the local Huff 50K, she says she wanted to attempt the “six-pack” but “there's this thing called work.”
Jeff Weber of Bloomington was attempting back-to-back marathons for the first time since joining the Marathon Maniacs, an online group known as “the world's craziest running club.” He got in by running three marathons in 90 days, but this feat would take him from a one-star to four-star level.
Indoor marathons have been catching on in northern cities since the concept debuted in 2006 at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
“I've always tried to give ours a little different twist,” says Goshen College track coach Doug Yoder, who started the Maple Leaf race six years ago and has personally attempted various ultradistance stunts during the event, though he stayed on the sidelines this year.
Because the school's indoor track can only handle so many runners, Yoder added extra weekend races before expanding to this year's six-day, six-marathon option. Of the 27 runners in this race, including six “six-packers,” most came from out of state to add to their collection.
The first 50 laps or so there's a lighthearted party feel as runners catch up and compare goals to the beat of a classic rock soundtrack. Everyone's amused to learn this is my first marathon. “Why this one?” they ask. Well, it's fairly close, fits my schedule, and the way this winter's gone, running indoors seems like a plus.
Besides, I'm intrigued by the mental challenge of lap management. Because you can't read the lap-count monitor without coming to a complete stop, I'm carrying my “clicker,” a small baseball pitch counter that almost feels like part of my hand after several mega-lap training runs at the Jorgensen YMCA.
I hesitate to pass a single person; I need to go slow to have any hope of finishing. But some runners mix in short walk breaks almost from the start. The object for many collectors is simply to finish within the six-hour time limit, to limit wear and tear on their bodies for the next marathon, whenever that may be. I'm aiming for a pace of around 12 minutes a mile, hoping to finish in 5 ½ hours.
After an hour or so, as the chatter dies down, I activate my MP3 player. Soon I'm immersed in Malcolm Gladwell's “David and Goliath,” a look at the strategy and psychology of underdogs. Though I'm only competing against myself, the topic seems appropriate.
I reach the halfway point roughly on target. Absorbed in my book, I'm aware of but not obsessed by the lap count. Every time I come around I push my clicker and mentally note my position on an imaginary timeline that begins in 1809 and ends 204 “lap years” later in 2014.
Every other lap or so, I'm passed by a gazelle of a guy who appears to be in his late 20s. I've never been this close to a race leader before. He's miles ahead of me, yet I could reach out and give him a high five. Maybe that's why he sticks to an outside lane, where he can run unobstructed.
I reach 1953 in my timeline – around 18 miles, the longest of my training runs – with no real problems. But that's about to change.
Switching direction every half hour initially provided welcome relief, a way to note the passage of time. But now my knees yelp every time they try to navigate a U-turn around a pylon. A troubling sensation in my hip threatens to disrupt my gait. I vow to ignore it, and eventually it goes away.
My clicker was spot on through 100 laps, but now I notice irregularities. Does it matter, I wonder, what lane I run in as to the distance accumulated? I keep adjusting my count to match the computer, then decide to just go with what I've got until I'm told otherwise. Race officials let you know when you've got 10 laps to go.
My book is no longer riveting. All I hear is “blah blah blah,” so I yank my headphones off and toss them aside. My husband is taking pictures; I try not to grimace in his direction.
At the 4:45 mark, I think: “I'm just going to run for another 45 minutes, and then I'll be done. Or at least I'll be close.” Twice I almost burst into tears. It's unclear whether this is from frustration or elation – because now I really think I'm going to make it -- but I always try to “cheer up” when I pass the handful of spectators.
Having emerged from my audio cocoon, I pay more attention as the other runners finish. I congratulate Denis, who despite walking regularly will beat me by nearly half an hour. Would his approach have been more sensible? It seemed important that I not walk, and I haven't, except for a couple of quick water breaks. Now my right foot is howling, but who cares? I'm almost there.
I really, really want to finish before the final direction change – partly to make my goal but mostly to give my knees a break.
Yoder catches my eye: “10 laps,” he says.
“C'mon, first-timer!” Denis cheers every time I come around.
At the 5:30 mark I still have one lap to go, but Yoder takes pity on me and delays the direction change. The winner, who finished 2 ½ hours earlier, sets down his pizza and jumps up to escort me on my final lap.
“You're doing great!” he says. Though I don't realize it at the time, he's a Leo grad: Grant Stieglitz, winner of the Fort Wayne Track Club's 2012 “Spirit of Running” award. I'd say he deserves it. He peels off just before I cross the timing mat for the last time.
It's shocking how, now that I'm done, my legs don't seem to work. I try to walk, but it seems impossible to go more than even once all the way around the track.
Jeff finishes shortly after I do, having hobbled through the second half of the race. But when I ask if he thinks it was a mistake to run back-to-back marathons, he laughs.
“Actually,” he says, “I was thinking I might try a quad.”
Another Marathon Maniac finishes, then another six-packer, and finally Jennifer comes in just under the 6-hour deadline. Stieglitz escorts her as well, and she gets the loudest applause of all. Earlier it looked like she was having serious trouble. It's amazing that she pulled it together to finish on time.
She, too, has bigger plans ahead: Six marathons in eight days in June.
“There is no feeling like being on a long running adventure,” she says later. “You can clear your mind, refresh your heart and spirit, and take your body to the brink all at the same time.
“The journey is always worth it. The day that it isn't, I will stop.”
Tanya Isch Caylor, a News-Sentinel copy editor, blogs on diet and fitness at www.90in9.wordpress.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.