Running the Towpath
By Jimmy Sawczuk
Published · 15 min. read
Me running the Towpath Marathon in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

I woke up at 5 AM on October 9, and hit snooze once before realizing there was no way I was falling back asleep. I’d counted on some nerves. But as my parents, sister and I drove from my childhood home in Perry to the starting line in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I was able to stay calm and collected, telling myself I had a job to do but that I knew how to do it.

We got to the parking lot on time, around 6:30 AM. All three running events – the marathon, the half marathon, and the 10K – started at 8 AM. But there were also three walking events of the same distances, of which the longer two started an hour earlier at 7 AM. This meant everyone needed to be in the parking lot by then so they could close the sparse roads around the start line.

I thought that ninety minutes between us arriving at the parking lot and the race starting would drag on interminably. But after what seemed like just a few minutes I got out of the car to find a bathroom and start getting ready to run. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who needed a bathroom break before the race started, and the line for the handful of Porta-potties was long. Veteran marathon runners would have expected this, and in retrospect, I probably should have planned accordingly. But oh well, lesson learned.

By the time I got out of the bathroom there were only a few minutes left before the start, so I hurriedly grabbed what I needed: a couple packages of Gatorade energy chews, my running gloves and my iPod. Finally, I slowly pulled off my warm up shirt, which was something I’d been dreading since stepping out of the car – it was about 45 degrees outside.

We were parked about a quarter mile from the starting line, so I broke into a jog to make sure I was behind the starting line in time. This had the added benefit of warming me up pretty quickly. As I approached, I heard the emcee announce that we’d be getting started in about five minutes.

My dad had made spaghetti for dinner the night before. It was excellent, as always, but it rumbled slightly in my stomach as I joined the other runners waiting behind the starting line, trying to stay warm. The rumble was caused by either the cold, the excitement or some last minute nerves, but by that point it probably didn’t matter which.

This all started over the summer, when I resolved that enough was enough, I was going to finally run a marathon. After my initial research, my first choice was the Columbus Marathon, scheduled for October 16. But somehow I found the Towpath Marathon, scheduled a week earlier, and the more I read about it, the more intrigued I became. Both the Columbus Marathon and the Towpath Marathon were in Ohio, and I’m always happy to visit Ohio, even more so in October when the weather is usually phenomenal. As I weighed the two choices in my head, I kept imagining how cool it’d be to experience Cuyahoga Valley National Park by running through it. The Towpath Marathon was also cheaper and logistically simpler, since I’d be able to stay at my parents’ house rather than having to book a hotel room. Even the timing for the Towpath Marathon worked out a little better: I had already made plans to be in Ohio the prior weekend to run a hometown charity 5K with my family, so I could save a trip back and forth if I stayed in Ohio for the week between the 5K and the marathon.

In the last scorching hot week of July, I started training, using a McMillan Running plan customized and provided by Strava Premium, which averaged a little more than 35 miles a week in a variety of easy runs, long runs and interval runs. It was challenging, but I didn’t find it overwhelming, and it was nice to be sticking to a plan rather than trying to think up something on my own.

I’m not a new runner, but I can still remember vividly the days of feeling like 10 miles was an insurmountable distance, much less 26.2. Like most training plans that prepare you for a marathon, the plan I chose didn’t include any runs of the full race distance. So I knew that if I finished the race, I’d have run for longer than I’d ever run before. My longest training run, which I completed four weekends before the race, was a 21.5 mile jog, which took me from my apartment in Forest Acres, through the Shandon and Five Points neighborhoods and into downtown Columbia, then into Columbia Canal and Riverfont park, all the way to the end of the trail, then back. It took me a little over three hours, plus a bathroom break. Since the race was only four weeks away, this long run was really my last chance to push myself before I needed to start conserving energy for the race.

I had told myself – and anyone unfortunate enough to ask me “how’s your marathon training going?” – if this run went well, if I got back from running at least 20 miles and felt like I had just enough left to make it the full distance, I’d sign up for my first marathon. And when I got back to my apartment, I felt tired, dehydrated and sore. But I was also pleased that I didn’t feel totally wasted. I took this as a good sign that I could have made it another five miles or so if I wanted to.

But I was still nervous. Something nagged at the back of my mind that my body’s breaking point probably laid somewhere in the distance between that day’s 21.5 miles and a marathon’s 26.2. I worried that I’d get a little past 21.5 and my body would just shut down entirely. I waited a couple days, but eventually I came to the same conclusion that got me started on this whole thing anyway: you’ll never know until you try. Then I signed up for the Towpath Marathon, on October 9, in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The marathon and 10K runners ran together for about a half mile from the starting line before splitting up and heading in different directions on the towpath. Because of the crowd in front of me, it took me about forty seconds to cross the starting line, and for that opening half mile the course was packed: a huge crowd of people, on a narrow two-lane road, running two different races with very different pacing strategies. I saw and waved to my family just after I crossed the starting line, then weaved through the traffic until I found a nice gap in the traffic at my pace.

The crowd at the starting line was small but enthusiastic, and another smaller crowd had gathered near a small intersection next to the defunct train depot that marked our entrance point onto the towpath. But once we got on the trail, we were mostly alone, except for the volunteers and the occasional park ranger. My iPod Shuffle bounced around in my pocket, just in case I needed a distraction. But as we started down the trail and made our way into the forest, my soundtrack was the babbling Cuyahoga River, the chirping birds waking up for the day, the rustling leaves – most of them just starting to get their fall colors – and the galloping of a few hundred pairs of shoes hitting the trail.

As the first few miles rolled by, I tried to be intentional about enjoying the moment, enjoying the fact that after all the training, traveling and preparing, I was finally here. I kept reminding myself: this is it, you’re doing it, this is actually the marathon!

The Golden Gate Bridge in the fog

This view was the reward for one of my exploration runs.

I’ve been running consistently for about five years. At first I did it just to stay in shape and lose a little weight, or at least maintain my weight without having to diet. But over the years, running has become more than just a means to an end for me; it’s become fundamental to who I am. I started out as someone who runs; today, I’m a runner.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to visit a several new cities, all over the world, including one of the biggest world capitals and one of the smallest. My favorite thing to do when visiting a new city, preferably as quickly as possible after I arrive, is go out for a run. Not only does it loosen you up after hours of stressful traveling, runners never look like tourists, so you can explore without the feeling of everyone’s eyes on you.

Most of the runs I remember most vividly were exploration runs: an early evening four mile jog through the farmland and village around the Dzong of Punakha, Bhutan; an early morning jaunt over the Brooklyn Bridge then back across the Manhattan; an eight mile run from the Twin Peaks neighborhood in San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge and back.

The fact that I’m moving faster than if I were just walking the same distance doesn’t seem to diminish my memory. Maybe the exercise sharpens my senses and I just notice things more. Or maybe it’s just that running itself is, at its core, exploration. And isn’t exploration a fundamental part of what makes us human?

I had broken up the marathon mentally into four legs, not including the first part before we actually got onto the towpath. We’d start at a defunct train depot and head about 8.5 miles south (1), then 8.5 miles back to the depot (2), then 4.5 miles out going north (3), then 4.5 more back to the depot and the finish (4). As I got to the turnaround at the end of the first leg, I was feeling okay but my stomach was churning. I used a Porta-potty just after the turnaround, but it didn’t help as much as I hoped. But there was nothing to do but keep on running, so I continued onward.

A few miles later I was just shy of the halfway point at 13.1 miles. I wasn’t feeling any better. My stomach was still churning and cramping and I knew another bathroom visit was imminent. It felt like the pain was sapping energy from my legs. I was doubting if I’d find the willpower to continue past the depot – it would eventually be the finish, but for now would only mean I had 9 miles left.

I started to pass a man running in a fluorescent T-shirt. As I passed the man on his left, he said, “good job, you’re looking great!”

“Thank you, you too!” I replied. I wished, not for the first time, that I had a personality a little more like this guy, someone who’s able to be so encouraging to everyone on the road.

“You’re looking strong! How are you feeling?” he continued.

“Not great,” I told him. “My stomach is bothering me.”

He reiterated that I was looking strong, and so I asked him how many marathons he had run and we got to talking for a bit. He told me his name was Rob, that this was his fourth marathon, and that his goal time was the same as mine (4:00:00). He reminded me that running a marathon is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard, but if you’ve trained properly and don’t injure yourself you can do it. I told him thanks, and expressed that it was nice to have a break from the silence for a little bit.

We only ran together for about a half mile, but he really did improve my outlook. For some reason, validation from another runner as I was running really seemed to help. Shortly after the halfway point we hit an aid station and split up, and I found a bathroom. After this break I felt a lot better, and I settled back in for the last few miles till the depot.

Some friends and I before my first race, the Get to the Green 5K in 2013.

Of the more than 5,000 miles I’ve logged over the last four years, I’ve run the vast majority alone. I like people, but over the years I’ve recognized my natural introversion and so most of the time I relish the solitude that running brings me.

But I’ve also run with friends. It’s a wonderful change of pace that provides encouragement, camaraderie, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, comes with a tendency towards deep and meaningful conversations. Have you ever been hanging out with friends at someone’s house or out at a restaurant, and been frustrated that everyone is glued to their phones? When you’re running outside or on a track, you don’t have the energy or the dexterity to stare at a phone, so you either leave it at your house or in your pocket. Thus you’re almost forced to talk to whoever is running with you, and the conversation starts. As an added benefit, maintaining conversation encourages you to keep your pace “conversational”, which gets you all the health benefits of running while minimizing risk of injury or cardiovascular problems.

Two of my best friends are friends with whom I often ran while they lived in Columbia. We discussed just about everything during those runs: the lighter topics, like which Marvel movie is the best (sorry Dan, it’s still The Avengers); or some of the more serious topics, like work, politics, family or other relationships. Both of those friends have moved away now, but I’m convinced our friendships wouldn’t be as strong today if we hadn’t logged all those miles together. I’m also convinced – with proof – that when our paths cross and we get the chance to go out for another run, it’d be like no time has passed.

For most people, running tends to be a solitary endeavor. But because you usually run alone, it makes the times you run with friends that much more rewarding. It’s a break from your normal solitary training schedule. But more importantly, it’s a break from your busy and hectic life where you can slow down (figuratively) and get to know someone better.

I was a little behind schedule arriving at the depot, so I hoped my parents and sister wouldn’t be too worried. But I found them patiently waiting as I approached. They shouted encouragement and raised their phones to take pictures as I ran by. I tried to smile; I’m pretty sure it just came out as grimace.

But internally, I was smiling. Once I passed the depot and started the third leg of the race, I knew that the hard part was over: the temptation of quitting early was overcome, and I knew only a freak injury stood in my way of finishing.

As I rolled into the turnaround at the end of the third leg to begin the fourth and final leg of the race, my watch told me I had run 21.5 miles. This meant that from here on out, I’d be in uncharted territory: I had no basis or precedent for what running any more than 21.5 miles felt like. But with just over 4.5 miles to go, I pictured myself with 4.5 miles left on a 6 mile route in Columbia that I’ve run at least 200 times; 1.5 miles in, 4.5 miles to go. Simple. Better yet, the morning was still cool and there were plenty of aid stations left to ensure I wouldn’t run out of water.

With two miles left, time seemed to speed up and before I knew it I was crossing the 26 mile marker and I could see the finish area. I accelerated slightly to finish strong.

I saw my Dad first, about 500 feet from the finish line. I smile-grimaced again and saw my mom and sister right before turning the last corner before the finish line. I crossed at 3:56:47, beating my goal by just over three minutes.

My stomach had behaved for the last 12 miles or so, but after the race I was pretty queasy. I was immensely proud, but probably didn’t look like it; according to my family and sister I looked like I was cold and about to faint. Katie thought I needed some sugar and bought me some heavily sugared strawberry juice. I choked it down, and after warming up for a little bit, I felt okay to walk and we headed back towards the parking lot.

We ran into Rob, the runner I met on the course, as we were all walking towards our cars. We exchanged congratulations on finishing, and he asked me if I had caught the bug. My knees were still shaking and my stomach was still queasy. Upon considering the suggestion of running another marathon, I thought I felt my legs cramp up slightly in protest.

I replied with something along the lines of “it’s tough to imagine running another one right now, but it’s tough to imagine not running another one”. I’m a runner, after all. What am I supposed to do, stop?

Two nights later I was happy to be off my feet and sitting at my desk at home. I had been walking with a limp all day because one of my feet was still pretty sore. But there I was, with an ice pack on my foot, researching spring marathons and plotting a training schedule. With a better nutrition strategy, a more favorable training season, and the confidence of already running one marathon, I think I can knock at least a half hour off my time.

But I’m also looking forward to someone at my next race asking me how many marathons I’ve run. I’m looking forward to proudly responding, “this is my second marathon.”

Thank you to Chris Neiger for reading a draft of this post. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me during my training, to everyone who asked me how it was going. (Thanks also for listening as I probably bored you with the answer.) Thanks also to everyone who sent in congratulations and well wishes after I finished. And finally, thank you to my parents and sister for getting up well before the crack of dawn and driving an hour just to cheer me on for a few moments as I started, passed a checkpoint, and crossed the finish line. Words cannot express how blessed I am to have the friends and family that I have.