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My half-marathon experience
June 13, 2014 - Andy Flynn
This week: 390 lbs.
Last week: 395 lbs.
Start (Dec. 17): 470 lbs.
Total lost: 80 lbs.
When I took my first rest during the June 8 Lake Placid Half-Marathon — at 10.5 miles sitting in full sun in 80-degree heat on a guiderail at the corner of Route 73 and the River Road — I was seconds away from being hauled off in an ambulance.
My expected happy moment at the finish line was drifting away with each breath, as the heat nearly made me pass out from exhaustion.
“Are you all right?” my walking parters, twin brother Steve Flynn and childhood friend Dan Roy, asked me.
“No,” I replied, holding on to a road sign for stability, seeing a state trooper at the corner keeping a close eye on me. “I’m about to pass out.”
All I could think of at that moment, in addition to needing some help, were the countless people who were expecting me to finish.
“I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” I told Steve.
“This isn’t about them, “ he replied. “It’s about you.”
Steve traveled from Colorado to walk with me, and Dan came from Tupper Lake. My aunt and uncle visited from Long Island that weekend, and they were at the finish line waiting with dozens of other supporters, including my wife and mother. I couldn’t bare disappointing them. But at that moment, it was out of my control. The heat was going to get me.
Other spectators at the corner were apparently watching me suffer as I had my eyes closed, trying desperately not to succumb to the heat. Dan asked if I wanted some ice, which he still had in a paper cup from an aid station.
“Yes,” I said, taking a cube in my mouth.
Then a woman asked if I wanted ice water. Looking up, I saw a tall, clear plastic cup filled with ice water, and I readily said, “Yes! Thank you.” I took a drink. I’m not sure who — maybe the woman, maybe my brother — but someone poured ice water over my head. I took another drink. More water over my head. I drank more. Then we moved to the shade, and I sat on a rock, drinking more water and pouring some over my head. As it ran down my body, it soaked my shirt, cooling me off. Within 10 minutes, I was no longer in danger of passing out.
The rock was near a car owned by the woman who gave me ice water. She was watching the race with her husband, cheering on their daughter, who was running the marathon. Her name is Margaret Rishel, of Queensbury, and I consider her my guardian angel of the half-marathon.
“Thanks for saving my life,” I told Margaret as we left to finish the race. Technically, she may not have saved my life, I but that’s how I felt at the time. Without her help, I certainly would not have finished the half-marathon, and I’m eternally grateful.
Even before the heat incident, while we were walking on the River Road heading back to Route 73 after the turnaround, Steve reflected on the supportive atmosphere of the Lake Placid Marathon & Half. Not having participated in this type of endurance race before, he was pleasantly surprised by the community feeling of the event, with many people cheering each other on as they passed.
“Keep it up,” they’d say. “You can do it. You’re doing great. You’re awesome.”
We heard a lot of these words of encouragement, mainly because we were walking in the back of the half-marathon pack. Runners instinctively know when other racers need motivation, so their cheers are as involuntary as a heart beat.
The concept behind the Lake Placid Diet experiment is to find out how the Lake Placid region can help me get healthy. Exploring the local resources and support networks available to everyone, by the end of one year, I hope to have answered the question, “How can Lake Placid help me lose weight?”
The Lake Placid Diet is a community approach to weight loss. On Dec. 17, 2013, I was 470 pounds. On the morning of the half-marathon, I weighed in at 389 pounds, a difference of 81 pounds in less than six months. Clearly, something is working. The resources and support — on top of hard work and sheer determination — are helping me make healthy lifestyle changes so I can achieve my weight-loss goals.
My half-marathon experience is a clear example of what the Lake Placid Diet can do for anyone who needs to make similar changes in their lives. Without the support of an entire community, I could not have finished the race on Sunday. It began before the event and continued non-stop from the start on Main Street to the finish line at the Olympic Speedskating Oval. My guess is there are hundreds of other racers who feel the same way.
After more than five months of training, I was jealous of Dan’s approach to the half-marathon experience. The extent of his training was limited to putting on a pair of shorts, his everyday red sneakers, an extra-large Lake Placid Marathon & Half T-shirt and stretching his legs. Weight lifting and softball keep him in fairly good shape for a man of 46. He didn’t even have breakfast before the race.
My preparations for the day were a little more complicated. At age 44, I’m not the person I was 12 years earlier when I finished the VIC Marathon, walking 26.2 miles on the Paul Smiths VIC trail system in 13 hours as part of a fundraiser. I weighed 370 pounds at the time and trained for five months before the May 19 event. That finish gave me the confidence to try the Lake Placid Half-Marathon this year, but there were still a lot of hurdles to clear before I could cross the finish line.
The dream of completing the half-marathon began when I launched the Lake Placid Diet in December. I wanted to work toward a goal that would keep me active. As I learned during the VIC Marathon experience, training for the half-marathon would keep me on an exercise program and help me lose weight. And finishing the half-marathon would give me confidence to lose more weight during the rest of the year.
At 470 pounds, my first challenge was to lose enough weight to safely walk the half-marathon without dying of a heart attack. After a couple of months, I acquired my doctor’s written consent to continue training, as my publisher was worried that I would push my body too hard. The medical checkup, including a heart stress test, showed that I was healthy enough to pursue my goal.
Blood work came back great, except for elevated levels of uric acid, but this was no surprise since I’d already informed my doctor that I have a history of gout, which affects my left foot every 18 months or so. An acute attack is painful and can last up to two weeks. Watching my diet and keeping stress levels down would hopefully keep my gout in check.
Training my overweight body to walk 13.1 miles was another challenge. I found a 14-week beginner training schedule at www.marathonwalking.com that required me to start walking 3 miles on short days and 4 miles on the first long day. By I was in no shape to walk 3 miles, so I began training for my training program.
In the ice, snow, wind and sub-zero temperatures, I began walking at the North Elba Showgrounds in December on a 0.6-mile loop. I could barely walk 20 yards before I had to stop and rest. I’d walk another 20 yards, stop and repeat until I had finished the loop. Within a couple weeks, I was ready to tackle a mile, so I invited my friend Paul Varga, of WSLP-FM, to join me as I walked my first mile at the showgrounds. I only had to stop twice.
By the middle of winter, I was getting sick of walking outside, especially without any socks. I’m so large, I can’t put my socks on by myself, so I built a sock machine to get them on. With warmer feet, I began walking in the Olympic Center, around the 1980 Rink, and by the time I knew it, I was walking 2 and then 3 miles. By early March, I graduated to the outdoors and began training around Mirror Lake.
I wanted to train on the half-marathon course, so I figured out the mileage for my walking loops: 3.5, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 and 12 miles. And they all finished with that last walk up McLenathan Avenue to the finish line at the Oval. I spent a few weeks training in Saranac Lake, walking Route 86 from my house toward Harrietstown Hill — for a change of scenery and to train on going up and down hills. That last leg up Harrietstown Hill on the 10-mile walk is 1.8 miles, much shorter than any hill on the half-marathon course. It helped me build the strength I needed.
On May 18, three weeks before the event, I walked 12 miles on the half-marathon course in exactly 6 hours. I proved to myself that I was in shape to finish 13.1 miles, but I wasn’t walking fast enough to finish in less than 6 hours, the course limit. So I started working on my speed.
If I walked an average of 2.3 mph, I’d finish in 5:40. I finally got my average up to 2.5 mph on my 8-mile walk on May 25. That would have meant a 5:15 finish. When I walked the Biggest Loser 5K in Plattsburgh on June 1, I averaged a little more than 3 mph. I was clearly getting faster.
On the back of my smartphone, which I carried in my pocket during the half-marathon, I wrote down split times for each mile based on 2.3 mph and 2.5 mph. Using a stopwatch app, which I set at the start line, I was able to check my splits at every mile. To my surprise, we were way ahead of the 2.5 mph splits, walking just shy of 3 mph for the first 3 miles. By mile 7, we were 20 minutes ahead of the 2.5 mph pace.
When I hit the wall at mile 10, I knew all my training had paid off. The time advantage I’d built up gave me a cushion when I had the heat incident at the corner of Route 73 and the River Road. It’s what helped me complete the half-marathon in 5:52:32. I placed 1004 out of 1005 participants. Steve was listed as No. 1003 with the same time, and Dan was No. 1005 (5:52:33), even though all three of us crossed the finish line together. I guess Dan should have had breakfast that morning.
Working through the challenges
Here is a list of other challenges I had to overcome in order to complete the Lake Placid Half-Marathon on June 8.
-Pain: In order to reduce the pain of walking 13.1 miles, I tried to lose as much weight as possible before the event, bought athletic inserts for my sneakers to cushion my feet, took over-the-counter pain medication and trained with walking sticks. I decided not to walk with the sticks on race day, as they were cumbersome and I wanted to lighten my load. The training also helped reduce the pain.
-Energy: Upon the recommendation of race co-director Brad Konkler, I use his system of consuming Power Gel throughout the day for that “slow-drop IV” effect. Coupled with water, this gave me the energy I needed to cross the finish line.
-Bathroom breaks: I’ve been training my body to take long walks without having to go to the bathroom. Since my internal hemorrhoid surgery three years ago, I’ve had control issues, so I’ve been eating plain meals with little fiber for two days before my long walks. I also learned to clear my system right before the race, and that’s where port-o-johns at the start line come in handy. Luckily, I was able to lose enough weight to fit in a regular-sized port-o-john. As a race day precaution, I placed a clean pair of underwear at the Lake Placid News office (mile 3 on the course) just in case I had an accident around Mirror Lake and needed to change. I’m glad no bathroom breaks were required on race day.
-Foot and back injuries: Two weeks before the half-marathon, I pulled a muscle on the right side of my back and had an acute attack of gout in my left foot and an ankle injury. I fought through the pain during workouts in the gym and on my long walks. Extra rest was required, and the pain had subsided by race day.
-Pressure: The self-imposed pressure of finishing the half-marathon, knowing that hundreds of people were watching and expecting me to do it, was overwhelming. I’d been building up to this moment in the media, and if I didn’t finish, I felt as though I would have let everyone down. I needed to finish for myself, for my friends, family, supporters and readers and for all the people watching in the wings who need help losing weight. I felt as though finishing the half-marathon could inspire others to start their own weight-loss journey. I wanted to show people with low self-confidence that if I can overcome all these challenges and complete this goal, they can do it as well. So I had to cross that finish line, and the only way to block out the distraction of the pressure was to focus on the task at hand. That’s where the training kicks in. “I’m just going for a walk in the park,” I told myself. When I began feeling the pressure on the race course, I’d work on technique, keeping my head up and focusing on a point ahead of me — a sign or a tree — and finding a new focus point once I got there.
-Bugs: The blackflies didn’t bother me as much as they did other runners, but the deerflies were annoying. Bug dope doesn’t work for me, so I didn’t bother with it. When I got home, I found bug bites on my legs and a lot of dead blackflies in my socks.
-Sun and heat: One thing I couldn’t prepare for was the heat on race day. Most of my training took place in winter weather, and we didn’t get warm weather this spring until May. The hottest it’s been on a long walk was 75 degrees. I decided not to put on sunblock, which was a mistake, and I paid for it with a sunburn. I drank water at every aid station after Mirror Lake, but I was obviously not drinking enough. And I didn’t feel the heat of the day until I sat down on that guiderail, when the heat came crashing down on top of me.
-The wall: Fighting through the pain after hitting the wall is a mind game, and that’s where I dig into my bag of tricks and start talking to myself. Mantras begin to come out of my mouth. “I can do this. I’m on the top of my game. It’s just another walk in the park. Slow and steady.” I daydream about crossing the finish line. I stop to rest more frequently. I welcome the pressure of finishing for all those who expect me to finish. I recall the warmth of the people who cheered me on throughout the day — at least a hundred high fives, a few fist bumps and a couple of hugs from friends and strangers. The bag of tricks gets me through the pain, discomfort and uncertainty of the wall. In addition, my two walking partners keep me focused, set a pace and help me through the rough moments. Friends and strangers offer me bottles of water. Volunteers at the aid stations — like the kind folks of the Lake Placid Outing Club on the River Road — give me water, food and a boost of confidence. Friends like Paul Varga and Robin Miller walk with me on the last hill and keep my mind off the pain. Cheers from my Fitness Revolution family at the top of the hill give me an extra jolt of adrenaline to make it the rest of the way up McLenathan and to the Oval. The sight of friends and family at the finish line, the sound of the announcer, the thought of getting a medal from Brad Konkler and the promise of drinking a shot of Irish whiskey with fitness trainer Jason McComber gives me enough energy to walk around the Oval and cross the finish line — jogging slowly and holding the hands of Steve and Dan — with a big smile.
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Andy Flynn finishes the Lake Placid Half-Marathon Sunday, June 8 with his twin brother Steve, far left, and friend Dan Roy. (Photo — Lou Reuter)