The merit of all things lies in their difficulty. Including virtual marathons.

Minutes after screaming “I did it!” and charging across the finish line of my first marathon, exuberance gave way to exhaustion. Then confusion: Where was I supposed to meet my wife and sons?

Aimlessly wandering the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, I watched a fellow finisher reunite with his family. He handed them his medal; they handed him a fresh shirt. He laughed and pulled it on. The back read:

The sentiment bewildered me.

I was 44 when I ran my first mile, 47 on this glorious afternoon. Although I once held my own batting against Nolan Ryan, this feat — running the Twin Cities Marathon — was the greatest physical achievement of my life. I couldn’t imagine doing this again. It wasn’t just the 4 hours, 54.23 seconds I needed to get from start to finish; it was the 16 weeks of training that prepared me to run that far for that long.

Over the next few days, the message on that shirt became a route for my thoughts. Having proven that I could run a marathon, I wondered whether I could become someone who has run “marathons.”

So I signed up to run the San Francisco Marathon in July 2019; a hip injury forced me to withdraw a month before the race. Recovered, I snagged a spot in the Chicago Marathon for October 2020. Then the pandemic wiped out that race.

That left my marathon scoreboard looking like this:

  • Finished: 1.

The only way to balance the ledger would be running a virtual marathon.

Early in the pandemic, I ran a virtual race that felt somewhere between pointless and unsatisfying. The idea of running 26.2 miles in Dallas and claiming it as the Chicago Marathon seemed ridiculous.

Still, driving home from my weekly long runs around White Rock Lake, I couldn’t shake the idea of creating my own marathon. I eyeballed routes. Yet every time I started stitching together the miles, I kept coming back to the bigger barrier: How could I convince myself that 16 weeks of training would be worth running an event that lacked the thrill of being among thousands of runners, the fun of a cheering crowd waving funny/inspirational signs, and the comfort of having aid stations every few miles?

Some of the signs my family waved during my first marathon.

To get motivated, I needed a purpose beyond the plurality of “marathons.”

The first thing that sparked some intrigue was tying a possible race to my upcoming birthday — my 50th. Seeing that the milestone fell on a Monday, I saw potential in the idea of running the day before.

Then came the words that put everything in motion, the phrase that became my rallying cry: “Today 26.2, Tomorrow 50.”

Silly? Gimmicky?

Absolutely. And, exactly what I needed.

***

Here’s the thing about training for a marathon during a pandemic: It’s hard to miss a workout.

No crosstown appointments. No business trips. No excuses.

Of the 48 runs on my training plan, I did 47, skipping one when the hip pain flared.

Running was the easy part, though. I enjoyed my two mid-week outings and my weekend long run, especially when witnessing the sunrise over White Rock Lake. Plus, as someone who rarely left the house because of the pandemic, every time I got out for a run was a treat.

A beautiful Saturday sunrise in August at White Rock Lake.

The real challenge was on Mondays and Wednesdays. Cross-training days: 12 miles on the stationary bike, then an hour lifting weights. I considered those activities like wearing a mask and social distancing; I didn’t necessarily enjoy them, but I accepted their importance. While I didn’t track these sessions — no prison-style notches on the wall, although I did consider it — it’s safe to say I did 30 of the 32, especially if you give extra credit for the occasional Friday workout.

So as the big day approached, I knew my body was ready. The question was, without the fanfare of a real event, could I muster the adrenalin?

***

The afternoon before, we plotted logistics.

My wife, Lori, and I did a reconnaissance mission to the two spots where she’d meet me to replenish my supply of snacks and drinks. I set a third rendezvous spot with friends who lived a block from the route. (Many folks offered to run a few miles or cheer me on, but I didn’t want to burden anyone by asking them to commit to anything. The uncertainty also meant a pleasant surprise whenever a friendly face appeared.)

The night before, I reviewed the “homework” I’d done for my first marathon.

Back then, my driving question was whether I’d finish. I steeled myself by reading all sorts of books: how-tos, memoirs, narratives about great races, motivational sports psychology, even novels based on runners. I typed up the best insights and kept them in a folder.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much of the material seemed apropos this time, too. Like the reminder that problems are inevitable — so when something goes wrong, laugh it off.

Another tip was to visualize every turn on the route.

The path went from my house to the trail where I run on weekdays to other trails that delivered me to White Rock. A loop of the lake and a return home came out to smidge over 26.2 miles. (The GPS art resembles a saxophone.)

Thanks to Map My Route for helping me plot this.

***

The morning of, I went outside to get the newspaper and was greeted by clear skies, no wind and 48 degrees.

I also was greeted by chalk on the sidewalk that read, “We love you” … “Go Dad” … “26.2” … “Good luck!”

The good vibes screeched to a stop in the final moments before setting off.

Where exactly would I start? Would this new app that Lori’s counting on as my live tracker really work? Meanwhile, I was determined to launch that app, my trusty Garmin watch and my marathon playlist, all in the 60 seconds that marked exactly 7 a.m.

On your mark, get set …

The first people I passed were two walkers, a middle-aged woman and her mother. “I’m running a marathon right now!” I told them.

“What mile are you in?” the middle-aged woman said.

“The first!” I said, and we all laughed.

Then I realized that I should’ve been in mile two by now. Why hadn’t my watch buzzed, signaling the end of that first mile?

Because I forgot to start it! (Note: How you react to this offers insight into whether you’re a runner, or how obsessive of a runner you are.)

Remembering that something was bound to go wrong, I laughed again. Besides, I still had the tracker.

***

The first pleasant surprise came around mile 7. Two friends appeared, one cheering and the other fiddling with something. It was a portable speaker connected to his phone, and it soon blared, “Dancing Queen.” The duo reappeared many times, also serenading me with “Whip It,” “We Got The Beat” and “Running Down A Dream.”

A lifelong friend and his wife joined me for 2.5 miles. Soon after, Lori and one of our sons met me at the halfway point. The guys with the music were there, too, as were three people who’d seen my day-before post on the Dallas Running Club’s Facebook page. These seven folks marked my biggest crowd and loudest cheers of the day.

I passed two people I knew around mile 16. Then I reached the friends at the appointed water-refill spot at mile 18. This also was where the route veered back toward my house. And where I began to fade.

***

While training for my first marathon, I dubbed Dennis Adams my Sherpa. He babysat me through one longest-ever run after another, tolerating my whining. The next year, during the excruciating run that convinced me my hip couldn’t handle San Francisco, he popped up in the final stretch with a much-needed bottle of Gatorade.

On mile 20, he arrived again, knowing I’d need some company the rest of the way.

I also began needing walking breaks more often, with each lasting longer. Dennis managed to push me without being pushy.

In the 24th mile, I gave up my goal of finishing in a certain time. I just wanted the relief of finishing. I vowed to accept my time, no matter how slow. (After my first marathon, I made the silly mistake of lamenting my time rather than basking in the thrill of the accomplishment.)

In the 25th mile, we talked about how hard it is to run a marathon under any circumstance, and especially in this virtual setup. That reminded me of the quote posted on my office wall: “The merit of all things lies in their difficulty.”

A-ha! That is what this was all about. The challenge. The difficulty. If it was easy, it would be meaningless.

This realization hit my bloodstream with the force of a chugged energy drink. I ran the rest of the way.

***

With the finish line in sight, Dennis peeled off so I could finish alone.

I cry easily and shed plenty of tears in the final mile of my first marathon. Yet, that day, when I saw my family, pride and joy sent me across the finish line with a huge smile. This time, tears and giddiness fought to see which would emerge.

Joy won. I crossed my faux finish, then leaned against my kids’ car. Relief! I clicked stop on my Garmin and savored the scene.

Lori presented me with a medal* and I noticed the front yard covered with signs. They commemorated the marathon on one side of the lawn, the birthday on the other. My in-laws were there, plus Dennis, a former colleague who lives nearby and various neighbors who passed by.

* Once I decided to do this, I still didn’t want to tie it to a real event. So I went to virtualrunevents.com and chose something befitting 2020: “The Great Toilet Paper Chase.” That made an easy choice for the finish line.

Socially distanced celebration with Dennis.

Lori also handed me a box to open. My birthday present: A bobblehead … of me … wearing the same hat and shirt I was wearing right now.

Greatest gift ever.

***

Once I sat down to soak it all in, I had to know my time.

I ignored the Garmin because of the late start. So I opened the tracker app.

It was still going.

I clicked stop and laughed again.

A few days later, I wondered whether I could figure out my time another way.

Delving deeper into the app, I found a graph that clearly showed the moment when I stopped running. I traced that to 4:53.34. Put another way, 49 seconds faster than my last marathon. A new PR, even without the adrenalin-spiking infrastructure of a real race. A pretty nifty feat for my final day as a 49-year-old.

The obvious question is, What’s next?

Marathons are too grueling in every way. A half, though — well, I consider it the perfect race, save for its marketing problem. Calling it a “half” makes it seem less-than, which is unfair for something that requires running 13.1 miles. This defense of the event is a long way of saying that my new goal is to run more half marathons … one in every state. Seems like a fitting challenge to start in my 50s.

I told people about this for several weeks when I realized something.

I still have a paid-for spot in a future Chicago Marathon.

You know what that means?

Dad. Hubby. Writer. Reader. Slow marathoner. Recovering sportswriter. More: JaimeAron.com and JakeAndJosh.net. Also: bit.ly/OneToughOut.