On Becoming a Father and Winning a Marathon

How I became a father and won my first marathon less than 60 hours later

I’d imagined what it would be like to win a marathon for more than a decade, but I never dreamed it would happen the way it did—that I’d recently become a father or that I’d have for the most part given up on running the race at all, until my wife, in labor and on the way to the hospital just a few days before said, “I still see you running this marathon on Sunday.”

The wild and perhaps unrealistic idea of winning a marathon entered my mind sometime shortly after I finished my first one—the 2006 Chicago Marathon—in 3:18, a time that wouldn’t win any marathon. I was 24 at the time and new to running, having spent my undergrad years competing as a cyclist. I trained outside year-round, even through the Chicago winters when most runners migrated inside. After finishing Chicago, I wondered just how much I could improve. At one point, I even charted the yearly benchmarks I needed to hit the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifying time of 2:19. This goal seems laughable now, but I share to make the point that winning a marathon was a dream I dared myself to consider.

Left: This shot, taken in 2007 shows the goals I’d set for myself and written on index cards. If I could run under 2:19 at a pace of 5:18 per mile, it would’ve gotten me into the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Right: Running on Green Church Road in Mammoth Lakes, California, during another 3,000-plus-mile year in 2009.

More than a decade later, in late 2016, I’d run 25 marathons with a personal best of 2:46:09. I was both proud of and flummoxed by my time–I’d run 2:46 on four occasions, and the rapid improvement I’d once seen had slowed. (I was grinding out 3,000–4,000 miles, usually with 10–12 weeks over 100 miles a year.) Doing all of this to take a mere 12 seconds off of my personal best made me question my sanity. I’d been driven by simply getting faster, but now that was starting to seem out of reach. I resolved to change up my strategy in 2017 to see if I could make bigger gains.

I decided to take a short break from the marathon and enjoy the amazing trails in Oregon, while also focusing on building strength on the hills, something I’d avoided while training for flatter courses. My plan was to run a few trail ultras with one of my Nike co-workers in the spring and early summer. I would return to the roads in time for a 12- to 16-week cycle preparing for the Chicago Marathon in October for my 26th, and hopefully fastest, marathon.

As with many resolutions, this one didn’t even make it through January. One Saturday morning I was preparing for a long run in Forest Park with some friends when my wife Betsy told me the amazing news: We were expecting! We soon learned we were having a son, due Oct. 4—four days before the Chicago Marathon.

Only an idiot would run a marathon four days after becoming a father.

Betsy McDowell, the hero of this story. The look on her face says she knew something was up–she’s pregnant in this photo and didn’t know it yet.

I went forward with my spring and summer races but scrapped plans for a fall marathon. Once August arrived, fatherhood would be fast approaching. I told myself repeatedly that I’d run just when I want and not stress about any formal training. I knew I was lying.

The thing is, marathoning for me is an addiction. Just when I think I’ve kicked it, it comes back. By early September I’d talked myself into doing one more marathon before the baby arrived. I hated to go a calendar year without a fast marathon (somehow two 50K races didn’t seem to count in my book … runner’s logic!), and I also thought it might be wise to get a few more long runs in while I had the time.

Running strong en route to a 12th-place finish at the 2017 Peterson Ridge Rumble 20-Miler in Sisters, Oregon. Photo: Paul Nelson.

I registered for the Boring Marathon (the name comes from the town it starts and finishes in, Boring, Oregon) for three reasons. First, it was nearby, about 7 miles from my house which was crucial since I knew I’d want to be close to home at this late stage in the pregnancy. Second, it was three weeks before the due date, meaning I’d be done and recovered enough to feel fresh for parenting the best that I could. Third, I thought I’d have a chance to win given that the previous winning times were significantly slower than my best.

While I typically find the most joy out of running a fast time at a major race, I’ve also really enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond now and then. I’ve won about a dozen small 5Ks and 10Ks over the years, and these experiences have helped to build my confidence which can easily get deflated when I’m constantly comparing myself to my incredibly talented co-workers and friends.

The Boring Marathon was only two-and-a-half weeks away. I decided it might be fun to hire my friend Dan Kittaka as a coach. I chose him because he’s great at framing things with a positive attitude, knew my running abilities/habits well and I was sure he wouldn’t laugh at me when I asked, “Given that I haven’t done any training, what do you think I could do with these remaining 18 days before the race to get my best possible result?”

He laughed at me.

Then he formed a plan, and I followed it with precision. There wouldn’t be a traditional marathon taper since there wasn’t significant mileage to taper from. We squeezed in three semi-long runs and two tempo workouts along with a few bits of recovery and short speed. While I was far from personal best fitness, I began to feel much fitter than I had over the previous few months.

My wife has adapted well to my needs to meticulously follow a plan for nearly everything (for example, I once took our microwave to a hotel the night before a marathon so that I could prepare my pre-race oatmeal following my normal routine). She’s a wonderful supporter and sacrifices so much in order for me to get my running fix. This pregnancy was a chance for me to return the favor. I’d studied and prepared for how the labor would unfold. Her water would break. She’d rest while I loaded the car with our bags. We’d time her contractions and wait until they were five minutes apart, then we’d make the short drive to the hospital.

Our son was not onboard with the plan.

Thursday evening, three nights before the race we found ourselves racing rush hour traffic while Betsy withered in pain. Betsy had called me on my way home from work to let me know her water had broken and that it was time to go to the hospital immediately. Once home I ran inside to get our bags while she urged me to hurry up. By the time we’d been able to time contractions they were already less than three minutes apart. I fumbled with my phone to let the hospital know to expect us. While we were on our way to the hospital, and between contractions, she blurted out:

“In my mind, I still see you running this marathon on Sunday.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, and I was way too chicken to admit that I’d packed my racing kit in the car at the last second just in case this was a false alarm (despite the obvious signs!) .

Clyde Coltrane McDowell was born on September 14, 2017. He was healthy. He was beautiful. He was early.

Betsy and Clyde just a few minutes after his arrival. Photo: 

After a few sleepless nights in the hospital, we received the green light to go home. We’d talked about this experience with numerous friends and they all agreed how scary the drive home could be. Yet, here we were, driving in the opposite direction of home to packet pickup before it closed. Betsy had continued to suggest I do so if I had any desire to race, and I wanted to keep my options open. We made it home with Clyde and my race bib in hand.

As 5:00am rolled around Sunday morning, Betsy and I had managed to keep Clyde fed and happy (as far as we could tell). We even managed to squeeze a few minutes of sleeping in now and then. My alarm rang and I knew I needed to get moving if I was going to race. I asked if she was still comfortable with the idea and she didn’t hesitate.

It was dark as I toed the line of the 2017 Boring Marathon. Nothing about the moment felt real. Normally in these last few moments before a race I’m full of fear and anxiety because I know how difficult and painful the experience will be if I execute my plan, and I know it’s even harder if I don’t. It sure didn’t feel like I was about to run twenty-six miles.

I’ll say it again. Only an idiot would run a marathon (less than) four days after becoming a father.

After the first 200 meters of the race I found that there was no one in front of or around me. The out-and-back course profile is almost all downhill in the first half, which of course meant the later half all went up. Coach had told me not to run any faster than 6:35 pace in the first 16 miles or else I might pay a heavy price. I slowed until another runner passed me and I latched on. We went through the first mile and I looked down to my watch to check the pace.

6:35. I’d stayed within the plan. This was a good omen.

By the 5K mark I assessed that the runner I’d waited on would be my only competition. I looked him up and down trying to gauge how he was feeling. He matched every slowdown or acceleration I made and I got the impression he wanted to stay in the lead. I knew there was no way to tell for sure, but it seemed he was working harder than me. I was content to run in the 6:35 to 7-minute range that we fluctuated between. With no specific time goal, I just wanted to win.

Osmin follows closely behind me near mile 16. Photo: Millie Layman.

By 10K we’d become friends. His name was Osmin and this was his first marathon. “I’ve only been doing this for a year. I’m very green,” he told me. He asked if I’d ever run one before and I sheepishly answered with a simple “yes.” His lack of experience made him a wildcard, but I noticed that he wasn’t taking any fluids whatsoever despite my suggestion that he take advantage of the aid stations. That made me confident I’d pull away when it mattered most.

Around the 16-mile mark, Osmin had fallen back, but I was running scared with visions of the rapidly closing third-place runner closing the gap. By mile 20 my form began to decay and pace began to slow. I was grateful I hadn’t gone out any faster. I tried to keep my eyes pointed straight ahead but I did everything I could to be aware of a runner approaching quickly from behind.

With 1 mile to go and no one in sight, it began to feel real. I was going to win a marathon. As the finish line tape approached I wrestled with what to do. Raising my arms victoriously over my head felt funny given that my time was much slower than my capabilities. But, the last 72 hours had taught me how amazing it is to simply be alive. I wanted to celebrate. I thought of the many soccer players I’d seen celebrate scoring a goal by tucking the ball under their shirt and sucking their thumb. Even though I’d always thought they looked silly, I couldn’t help myself. I pushed one fist into the inside of my singlet to simulate a belly and popped my other thumb in my mouth as I crossed the line forever changed.

This isn’t the finish line photo the author ever dreamed of having. He didn’t look like an elite runner. His arms aren’t triumphantly raised above my head with a huge crowd of fans cheering. This photo is way better than that. Photo: Christopher Chapelle.

 

Dan McDowell

Dan McDowell is a 2:46 marathoner who spends most of his time discussing jazz, running and Portland Timbers Soccer. He works for Nike as a Social Media Specialist.