How I Ran This Year's Steamtown Marathon

October 16, 2014

I proved that I could push myself to my absolute limit, pile more on, and keep going anyway.

A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then, at the end, punish himself even more.- Steve Prefontaine

My dog, Rigby, is a natural runner. His body is a coiled spring, his moves are effortless, and he runs faster than I do. If I could run with his grace, I’d be going to Boston until I died at 124. Instead, I practically dented the concrete when I ran the 2014 Steamtown Marathon, something for which I had nothing short of a dearth of training.

I was attempting to run 26.2 miles based on 30 miles of running all summer. Adrenaline, Sport Beans, energy drinks, and the Lord were going to be my best friends, and I planned to call on all of them often.

On race day, I was actually awakened by my alarm at 4:30 a.m. Back in the day, I would always wake up before my alarm went off. This time, I woke with an amazing feeling of calm. I just knew that, whatever happened, I would cross that finish line. I hoped, anyway.

I wore knee-length basketball shorts and my pro-weight replica 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers Terry Bradshaw jersey. The Steelers won 4 Super Bowls in 7 years on more than just talent. They had an unmatchable grit and determination that got them the win at any cost, and I would need that reminder all day.

I got into my car, cranked up Stone Temple Pilots’ Core disc, and drove to the finish line on Courthouse Square in Downtown Scranton, where school buses would take us 26.2 miles away to the start at Forest City High School. We arrived at the high school and were greeted promptly by enthusiastic teenagers, including the cheerleading squad.

You don’t expect to see a lot of teenagers at 6:30 a.m., but these kids were at it full force: pepping us up, handing us water, and leading us where we need to go. When I picked up my race number, the lady who grabbed it saw my name and said, “Jay Sochoka, you’re back! Welcome home.” I was astonished that, after running my last Steamtown 7 years ago, she remembered my story.

I spent the hour before the race reacquainting myself with some of my running buddies and having complete strangers come up to me and wish me luck. I guess more people bought my book than I had thought. As I walked out to the starting line, I saw the vans that would be the “sag wagons” taking drop-out runners back to their cars without their finisher’s medals—a fate worse than death, as far as I am concerned.

“We will not be friends today,” I said to them out loud. I’m not sure, but I think I heard one of them chuckle at me.

The Civil War-era cannon signaled the start of the race, and we were off. It felt great to be in the start of a marathon again. Knowing full well that this was going to take a while, I lined up toward the back third of the pack. I wasn’t wearing a watch, but I felt a nice 10-minute mile pace would get me to Scranton in about 4.5 hours. I was settling in for a nice leisurely jog down a peak foliage mountain, through a few hamlets, along the Lackawanna River Corridor, back through a few more towns, and into Scranton.

I ran past the Lackawanna County Commissioner, Pat O’Malley,one of the few people to have run all 19 Steamtown Marathons. Pat used to be a total speedster but, over the years, like most of us, he had let himself go a little. Using the word stocky to describe Pat would not be too strong of a word. If I beat one person all day, I wanted it to be him.

All was going according to plan. I hitched up with a guy wearing a GPS and a heart monitor, and we were cruising 10-minute miles at 150 beats per minute. It was absolutely textbook. I thought we took the last mile a little fast, judging by my breathing. According to the watch, we didn’t. I was just working harder to maintain to same pace.

We had only just passed mile 6, and I was in trouble. I had to let the guy go and settle into a more comfortable pace, whatever it would be.

We got into Carbondale and the half-mile-long line of fans kept me moving and feeling good. A few miles past that, my backpack full of energy drinks, Sport Beans, sports liniment, ibuprofen, and toilet paper (always bring TP) was starting to take its toll. I figured that if I walked for a little bit, my back would ease up. It did, and I was able to start running again. To ease the tension in my back, however, I compensated with the muscles in my legs, and that’s when my legs started to cramp.

If I wanted to finish, I would have to walk in some spots. Just to keep moving, I would chug an energy drink, sports drink, and water, as well as chomp on sport jellies. If I were a submarine, most of my systems would have been showing red lights, except for my engine, which was barely stressing. My suspension, however, was totally shot.

I was running on what felt like 2 Atari 2600 joysticks. Even though I needed to give it everything I had, I was still having fun. I was going on Facebook and watching people root for me in my feed, which inspired me to keep moving.

I crossed the halfway point in 2:25.48. Incidentally, the race was won in 2:22.37. I was slowing down exponentially and realized I would be out here another 3 hours. The course officially closed at a total time of 6 hours.

The race was on. It was gorgeous, perfect marathon weather without a cloud in the sky. If I had to be out there all day, so be it.

The back of the pack is an amazing place. People are killing themselves just to walk and run in spots, but nobody is complaining. Like proud warriors, we were determined to see this thing through. I’d pull people into running with me for a while and then they would drop off. I would start walking for a little, and then they would pick me up and take me running with them.

When I crossed the 20-mile mark, I knew that I would finish. How much longer it would take was anybody’s guess. The miles started to melt away: 20. Keep going. 21. Keep going. I got to mile 23 and I saw a sign. It said “BEER” and had an arrow pointing up the road.

That caused me to put together the most sustained run I had since I started walking. I got to the beer stand at mile 24 and was handed a Dixie cup with about 2 oz in it. He reached for the can to pour me a refill. I just asked him for the can. He gave it to me, and I went up the hill. I absolutely drank it to kill the pain.

The notorious Scranton Hash House Harriers, better known as a drinking club with a running problem, had a Table of Temptation at mile 25 that was full of fine domestics and imports. I grabbed one and stopped cold to talk to one of my old running buddies who had finished hours ago. I finished up and closed out the last 1.2 miles. People were lined up on the sides cheering us on, jumping onto the course to try and “pull” us up the hill by running alongside us. It was emotionally overwhelming.

I came into the finishing chute and saw my wife and my son, who was reaching out to high five me. As I went over to him, I saw Pat O’Malley launch into a kick that I could not counter. The horror! I finished in 5:26.09 and accepted my finisher’s medal with the feeling of pure victory, the same as when I started my marathon quest in 2001. Whereas I used to finish in the top 200, this time, I finished in the bottom 200.

I proved that I could push myself to my absolute limit, pile more on, and keep going anyway. I will run Steamtown again, and I will be well trained for it. My wife noted that the crowd thinned out after 4 hours, to which I said, “Get a good look at it, because you are never going to see it again.”

Jay Sochoka, RPh, doesn’t quit. Ever.