July 3, 2008
When Mike Wither applied to study abroad in Rome, Italy, at the beginning of this summer, he says he was just looking for a fun adventure. An economics major, he had just completed his sophomore year at Loyola Marymount University and had been a member of the men's varsity crew team. When he left Los Angeles for a five-week course in Rome, he was planning to explore the country and hopefully come back with a few stories. What he would come back with is an amazing tale of impulse, determination, and competition that saw him add his name to the list of qualifiers for the Boston Marathon.
On May 17, while many of his LMU classmates were enjoying the first week of a long summer, Mike boarded the plane from LAX to Rome, where he would be ensconced from May 18 until June 20. He would be taking classes in introductory Italian and Economics of Baroque Art while using free time on weekends to travel around the country. He was two weeks into his stay in Rome when he hatched an idea.
Friday, May 30 - Nine Days to Race Day
"I was sitting around with some friends on a Friday night and thought `It would be cool to do a marathon or a triathlon while I'm in Italy,'" he says. "I went on the internet that night and found a marathon that was taking place the following Saturday outside of Venice. I told my friends that I wanted to do it but they all told me I was crazy. It was eight days and a six-hour train ride away. They told me to sleep on the decision so I didn't sign up that night. Deep down, I knew I was going to do it but I thought I'd wait in order to please my friends."
Mike had only ever entered one major race before, finishing the L.A. Triathlon in the summer of 2007. He had last run competitively on his seventh grade track team. As a freshman at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, he had discovered rowing and fell in love with it. When it came time to choose a college, Mike was looking for three things: great weather, a Jesuit education, and a varsity crew team. His guidance counselor gave him a catalog of Jesuit universities and he immediately turned to the California page. There he found LMU and after visiting for a week and talking to the crew coaches, he knew this was the place for him.
Saturday, May 31 - Eight Days to Race Day
After taking a night to think about his decision, Mike awoke on Saturday ready to sign up for the race he had found the night before, the Night Marathon in Jesolo. Before he could do so, he faced a few issues. For starters, he was on his way to Florence for the weekend with his class, which would be a problem considering that the race's registration deadline was that day.
"The entire train ride to Florence, everyone kept telling me that I couldn't do it, that I was nuts for even thinking I could," he says. "That only seemed to motivate me, so when we got off the train, I went straight to an internet café and submitted my application."
The race a week away, Mike now had to figure out logistics. How would he get to Jesolo? Where would he stay? How does someone who has never run a marathon before train for one that was in a week?
Mike decided he would tackle lodging first. "In Italy, you book hotel rooms by emailing the hotels directly and hoping they reply and have vacancies," Mike explains. "Right after signing up for the race at the internet café, I found a listing of six hotels that are located near the finish line so I emailed them all and logged off." The wait would begin.
Training would be a different matter. Mike had one week to get his body ready for the beating and torture that most other marathoners spend months preparing for. He decided to get right to it while he was in Florence and go for a test run to see how far he could go.
Athletic and lean, the six-foot Wither was still in shape from LMU's spring crew season but admits he has a runner's build and not a rower's body. "Rowing is about building more bulk, especially in the upper body," he says. "Crew races are only six minutes long so the training is designed for short distances. Too much running affects your muscle mass. If I were to go out and train for a marathon in the middle of rowing season, it would set back my rowing conditioning considerably."
Midway through his first training run, Mike felt something was wrong. While the cobblestone streets of Florence are beautiful and historic, they are not particularly ideal for running. Trying to run on an uneven surface while dodging Italian drivers is hard enough but things got worse as Mike mis-stepped as he planted his foot and felt a strain on his left knee. Unsure how badly he had injured himself, he cut short the run and headed back to the hotel.
"After hurting my knee, I decided to call off the training for the rest of the week to allow it to heal," Mike says. "I figured I would stay off my leg as much as possible and assess the situation later in the week. Even if I couldn't run the race, I was still planning on traveling to Jesolo to check out the region."
Monday, June 2 - Six Days to Race Day
Back in Rome on Monday, Mike recruited some classmates to join him on his trip. His friend, Sarah Gogin, decided she would come along and run the half marathon that was scheduled for the same day. Sarah had not formally signed up for the race but planned on accompanying Mike and providing him with support. Two other females joined their party, although neither would be running.
His traveling party established, Mike lined up train tickets for the four of them. The Night Marathon is unique in that it starts at 8:30 p.m. so the group decided to save on hotel costs and get a good night's sleep the night before the big race by catching an early morning train Saturday from Rome to Jesolo, a six-hour ride. Mike also checked his email to see if any of the hotels had written him back. Five of the six hotels he had emailed replied that they were full - this was going to be a packed marathon.
Tuesday, June 3 - Five Days to Race Day
Success! The sixth and final hotel that Mike had emailed in Jesolo responded that they had a few rooms left but he needed to reply quickly to secure one. Not knowing anything more than the fact that the hotel had beds and was in Jesolo, Mike wrote back to reserve the room.
Wednesday, June 4 - Three Days to Race Day
The logistics were beginning to fall into place. Mike had his train tickets and hotel room booked but still was not sure about the status of his knee. He emailed his parents back in Ohio to tell them of his predicament and seek their advice.
"I still wasn't sure how my knee would be once I started running on it, let alone five, ten, or 20 miles in," Mike says. "Everyone in Rome was telling me that all the signs were telling me not to do it but I still thought I could. My dad has always offered me guidance and I respect his advice so I wanted to get his input. He wrote me back and told me I should base my decision on how I felt. If I felt fine and thought I could do it, then I should do it. That was all I needed to hear."
Thursday, June 5 - Two Days to Race Day
On Thursday morning, Mike woke up and decided to test his knee. He didn't know how far he would, or even could, run but he was determined to find out.
"I started running and, while my knee still hurt, it was much better than earlier in the week and I knew that I'd be able to at least run a little bit," he said. "I figured I would go to the race and start it, hopefully get through the half marathon, and then see how my knee felt. If it felt ok, I would keep on going, if it was unbearable, I would stop at half."
Friday, June 6 - One Day to Race Day
Mike knew the value of a good night's sleep, which is one of the reasons he decided to stay in Rome Friday night. He did the usual marathoner's carbo-load dinner, which was quite easy in Italy, the land of endless pasta, and lay down to sleep. The next day would be a long one.
Saturday, June 7 - Race Day
At 6 a.m., Mike, Sarah, and their two traveling companions boarded the train at Rome's Central Station for the six-hour, 355-mile ride to Jesolo. Mike tried to sleep as much as he could but the combination of excitement, wonder, and adventure, along with the multitude of young international travelers, meant that it would be nothing more than an intermittent sleep.
The train pulled into Jesolo around noon, eight hours before race time. The quartet found their hotel and decided to explore this wondrous town that was so new to them. Located roughly 30 km (19 miles) northeast of Venice, Jesolo is a picturesque seaside resort on the Gulf of Venice. Home to the longest beach in Europe at 15 km, the town is known for its sand and ocean sports, as well as its energetic nightlife.
Jesolo is unique in that the town is closed off from motor traffic between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. to allow pedestrians the freedom to wander between the restaurants, nightclubs, and shops without the threat of cars or buses. The racecourse would wind through the narrow streets of the town, meaning there would be plenty of spectators along the route.
With race time boring down on him, Mike needed sustenance as he wasn't sure when he would be able to eat again. Hungry from their travels, the group found lunch at a local café and made a new discovery in the sandwiches served there, a specialty of the Jesolo region. Mike can't pinpoint exactly why he fell in love with these sandwiches - consisting of lunchmeats, mushrooms, and a "special sauce" on a doughy white bread - but he did. In fact, he loved them so much, he ate three at lunch alone. Not your typical runner's pre-marathon meal, although he did find some room in his stomach later for the staple of three bananas, a couple apples, and a Clif Bar that he had brought with him from the states.
Returning to their hotel near the finish line, Mike and Sarah readied themselves for the night at hand. "The race started at 8:30 so we planned to take the shuttle buses provided by the hotel that ran from the finish line to the start line. It was only 10 km from the hotel to the starting line so we thought if we left at 7:30, we would get there in enough time to stretch and warm up."
As crazy as his week had already been, Mike's adventure would only be getting more bizarre. When he and Sarah got to the finish line, they discovered that the last shuttle bus had left at 7 p.m. and there were no taxis.
"I knew I had to get to the start line one way or another so we found a race official who pointed us in the right direction and we started walking, hoping that we could hitch a ride or stop a bus," Mike says. "A race official pointed us in the right direction so we just took off. About a mile down the road, we flagged down a bus but it wasn't going near the race. So we started walking again, hoping the right bus would come, and thankfully, another bus arrived in five minutes. We didn't speak Italian and the bus driver didn't speak English. I had to point to my race number, and the bus driver explained the best he could that he could drop us off near the starting line but we would have to go the rest of the way on foot. We rode the bus for about 15 minutes before it dropped us off about a mile from the starting line. Looking at my watch, I knew we didn't have a lot of time, so we had to run the mile to the starting line."
By the time they reached the start line, it was 8:20. Their hopes of starting near the front of the pack were dashed as they surveyed the sea of runners in front of them. Since both the half and full marathons started from the same location at the same time, Mike and Sarah's late arrival meant that they would have to start near the back of the 2,000-person pack, roughly 50 yards behind the official starting line. Having completed their warm-up jog already just in getting to the race, they had just enough time for a quick 5-minute stretch before they heard the starting gun.
With everything Mike had been through just to get to the start of the marathon, he could be forgiven if that's where the story ended. He made it to the race, was able to run far enough before his knee became too painful, and could say that, on this occasion, a full marathon just was not in the cards.
Only, that's not what happened. Once the race got underway, Mike started running but there were so many runners in front of him that it took him two and a half minutes just to reach the starting line. For the first 40 minutes of the race, Mike had to weave in and out of the pack, unable to build up momentum and reach his proper running tempo. This might have been a blessing in disguise as it kept the strain off his knee for the first few miles while allowing him the time to digest the huge dinner he had consumed prior to the race.
Mike's original intention had been to see how far he could go before the pain in his knee took over. He was hoping to cover at least the half marathon distance and then just try to finish the full marathon if he could. Admittedly, once he got going, his competitive instincts kicked in.
"I am super-competitive so I immediately treated the marathon as a race and tried to see how fast I could go. It was frustrating at the beginning because I couldn't run my comfortable pace because of all the people. It was only after 40 minutes that I could start running my own comfortable pace and I wasn't avoiding people with every step. My competitive drive pushed me early since there were so many people I always had someone ahead of me that I could try to overtake," Mike says. "After 40 minutes, though, it began to thin out and I was going long stretches without seeing anyone in front of me."
Mike's competitive instincts to catch the runner in front of him propelled him to keep going. The residents of Jesolo also helped. They came out of their houses, lining the streets and sitting on balconies or at roadside cafés to cheer on the runners. But perhaps Mike's biggest motivation were the people who weren't in Jesolo - all those back home who had told him that he couldn't do it.
As he neared the 13-mile mark, Mike had a decision to make: does he quit at end of the half marathon and, considering how much he has been through, be satisfied with making it that far or does he keep going and try to finish what he set out to do? Mike thought about his left knee. It wasn't bothering him. He decided to keep going.
Throughout the week leading up to the marathon, Mike had taken on the mentality that the entire process would be fun. Because it was his first marathon, he wasn't stressed. He felt that whatever happened could merely be chalked up to his initiation into the running world. This was true. Even as he pushed through mile 14, when many marathoners wonder why they even took on this challenge, he was relaxed and actually starting to enjoy himself.
Still, Mike's competitiveness was rampant. As the pack began to break off and runners would disappear into the night behind him, his personal goals came back into his head. "When I first decided to run the marathon, I just wanted to finish. I had asked a friend of mine what a good marathon time was and he told me that if you finish in less than three hours, then you're considered fast. So I figured I'd try to do that," he says.
No matter that it was his first marathon and most "normal" people take well over four hours, if they finish at all. Mike glanced at his time as he passed the halfway mark. 1:24.30.
"After two hours, I hit the wall. I was in so much pain and there was nobody around me but I kept going to see if I could catch someone in front of me. The last five miles was the most intense pain I've ever felt but I still wanted to finish. I thought that if I pushed it, I could finish around 3:05 so I eased up a little to rest my body. I still managed to pass a few people but a couple also ended up passing me," he says with a slight tinge of dejection.
As the finish line drew into sight, Mike was in considerable pain but the adrenaline of nearing the end propelled him across the line. He looked up at the time: three hours, two minutes, 27 seconds. "I was expecting to push it and get 3:05 so to just hang in there and get 3:02 made me happy," he says.
In fine Italian tradition, the party was just getting started at the finish line. The smell of fresh food emanated from booths that dotted the finishing area while loud music wafted from the local bars and clubs. "There were so many people at the finish line and they had all sorts of food but I was so tired that just wanted to go back to the hotel, shower and go to bed." It was nearing midnight and his body was shutting down. He found Sarah, who had finished the half marathon and had already been back to the hotel to freshen up. Together, they hobbled back to the hotel.
Mike had done it. He had finished a marathon that, nine days earlier, he had not even known existed. He had injured himself on his first training run and not exercised until two days before the race. He had ignored all of his friends telling him he was crazy and could not do it. He had traveled over 350 miles by train on the day of the race to a small Italian seaside town. He had missed his bus and had to run one-third of the way from his hotel just to get to the start line. He then ran 26.2 miles in a time faster than most marathon veterans. And this was his first marathon.
Mike's split times in and of themselves were impressive. He ran the first 10km in 41.36, averaging a 4:11 kilometer. Once the clutter from the crowded start line cleared out, he actually got faster between the 10km and half-marathon markers, lowering his minute-to-kilometer time to 3:58. Three-quarters of the way through, at the 30km split and when the pain really set in, he was averaging a 4:19 kilometer. Over the last 12 kilometers, when he decided to ease off, he was still under five minutes per kilometer.
What Mike didn't know at the time is that, amongst the massive crowd assembled when he crossed the finish line, there were only 12 other runners. He had finished 13th overall and 12th among male runners. The top 10 finishers in each gender had received cash prizes. The difference between 10th place and Mike's 12th place finish was a mere two minutes.
With all that he had accomplished, Mike's super-competitive side still left him wanting more. "If only I had started in the front of the pack with these top runners, I for sure would have been able to pass them in the beginning and hold them off for a top-10 finish," he says wistfully.
Sunday, June 8
Again, if the story ended there, it would be a fascinating one, perhaps good enough for a small independent film. But, of course, it doesn't end there. Less than 12 hours after finishing the race, Mike, Sarah, and their companions woke up and checked out of their hotel. They took a train to Venice, a city none of them had ever visited, and toured for all of Sunday. They then boarded another train that night, taking it overnight back to Rome, where they arrived at 7:30 a.m. At 11 a.m. on Monday morning, June 9, Mike settled into his seat for his first class of the week.
That week, word of what Mike had accomplished spread throughout the students in his class and housing community. The fact that Mike could hardly walk - "wobble" as he called it - for the next four days partly gave him away. Although he had proven all of his doubters wrong, he was not going to rub it in or gloat. Even he was struggling to comprehend what he had just accomplished.
One classmate asked him what his time was. Mike told him. The guy's reply, "Dude, your time qualifies you for the Boston Marathon!" So Mike looked it up. Sure enough, males aged 18-34 automatically qualify for the Boston Marathon if they complete another marathon in 3:10:00 or faster.
On June 21, Mike returned to the United States. Along with his finisher's medal, he carried with him so many memories and experiences over his five weeks in Italy that he's not even sure where the marathon ranks. "It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip," he says in what could be the biggest understatement of year.
When he got back to LMU's campus, he found his crew coach, Brooks Jones, in the fitness center. Mike told Brooks what he had done. Brooks' first reaction was "you qualified for the Boston Marathon!" He was the second person to tell Mike this. Mike shrugs. "I guess that's a big deal."
The 2009 Boston Marathon will be held on Monday, April 20 with 25,000 entrants. Even though he beat the qualifying standard, Mike will not be in the field since the race falls smack in the middle of crew season. He has decided that he doesn't want to risk throwing off his crew performances by the training it takes to prepare for a marathon.
Then again, maybe training is overrated.
Mike has said he would be interested in running another marathon in the future. He has also expressed interest in another triathlon and possibly a half-Ironman in the summer of 2009. In the meantime, he will be spending the fall 2008 semester at LMU's study abroad program in London. He doesn't consider himself impulsive but also isn't planning too far ahead in his future. After all, if he gets the urge, there's always the Berlin Marathon in September or the Amsterdam Marathon in October.