Ron Marinucci - November, 2018 Column: A First Half Marathon

Ron Marinucci - November, 2018 Column: A First Half Marathon

I don’t know if I would call myself a historian. I’m an avid student of history, but an expert? I read a lot of it, write a lot about it, and have been teaching it for forty-eight years. History is important for us to know. We should remember the past, the bad so we learn from mistakes and avoid repeating them and the good so we can relish the excitement and benefits.

For runners this can be true on personal levels. I’m not sure, but I’d guess many of us no longer look at our running, especially our races, with the same levels of enthusiasm we once did. Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps those tenth, hundredth, even thousandth races don’t generate the excitement our first ones provided. I suppose that’s natural, as we fall into comfort levels. But it’s good to be reminded of our first races of various distances and the joys (and maybe disappointments) and lessons they brought.

One of my yoga instructors, Pete Lopez, ran his first half marathon on October 21 in Grand Rapids. His excitement, coupled with the trepidations of doubt, of that--his training, the approach of race day, the race itself, and its aftermath (and excitement)--can be a nostalgic and fun reminder to even veteran runners.

Lopez has always been athletic. Growing up, the 34-year old certified physical therapist was involved in many sports. “In high school I played baseball primarily,” he said. “But I did a little of everything—soccer, basketball, football, and boxing.” He began to run “for distance,” he called it, when he trained for his first triathlon.

But it wasn’t all quite that simple. Before explaining his running, he suggested, “I have to take a step back. I have to do a little bit of history.”

In his “early 20s,” he suffered an L5-S1 disc herniation. “I went to see a back specialist,” he recalled without much fondness. The specialist offered a gloomy prognosis. “He said that I should get used to taking pain medications and that I would probably never play sports again pain-free without surgery.” That was not acceptable; it was the wrong thing to tell Lopez.

“Being the person I am, I said to myself, ‘Watch me!’” He worked hard with about six months of physical therapy. “I can say I am now able to do more, without surgery, than I was in my 20s. Since then [the dour prognosis] I have completed three triathlons, the Tough Mudder, and numerous 5Ks.”

Then he decided on his “next adventure,” a first half marathon. “The big motivation for this run [distance] was one of my good buddies at STS Active, Marty Agents.” They’d been training together for more than three years. Lopez chuckled, “Since I talked him into doing a triathlon, he talked me into the half! We had been talking about doing a half for the last two years. I decided that this is the year to tackle the longest run I have ever done!”

He “tried” to follow Hal Higdon’s Novice Training Program for the half marathon. Higdon’s plan is a twelve-week buildup for first-time half marathoners, with gradual long distance runs starting at three miles and culminating with ten miles. Fast running is not important. All training should be done at a “conversational pace;” if runners can’t easily chat on their runs, they are going too fast. There’s room for cross-training such as weight lifting and walking, juggling training schedules, and plenty of rest. The plan doesn’t include any speed work or hill training. A brief taper leads to the race.

Lopez went into this with what he called “simple” goals. “I want to run the whole race and to finish in under two hours.” But there were some snags along the way. Although Higdon’s plan did not call for hills, Lopez did some training at Kensington Metropark. The eight-mile loop course there included plenty of hills, some of them long grinders.

The hot, humid summer made some of the long runs, well, loooong! On one particular day that was a steam bath, with both temperatures and humidity sky high, Lopez was smart enough to turn a scheduled eight-mile run into a six-miler, knowing there was still time to climb the distance ladder.
He also “struggled with IT [ilio-tibial] band issues. They caused some knee pain on longer runs,” he noted. “But I was able to push through it by doing some self-PT [physical therapy] and strength training.”

On the mental side, he said, “I find it very helpful to listen to motivational books to push you through those days that your legs feel like you’re running in sand.”

Finally, it came, “Race Day!” He recounted, “The morning was brisk, in the high 30s and it was going to heat up into the mid 40s.” In the past, he’s “struggled with cold-induced asthma, so I was a little concerned the night before that it was going to be really cold,” triggering breathing problems. “But thanks to little wind and few hills, I didn’t have any issues with my asthma.”

He was very excited to “hit both of my goals, but unfortunately my left knee paid the price.” The ITB acted up and was very sore for several days afterward.
Like many of the urban marathons and half marathons, Grand Rapids attracts crowds lining the course, cheering on the participants. Lopez said, “I was moved by how supportive the crowd was. There were even people there in wheel chairs, in all their winter gear, encouraging us to keep going. These words of encouragement really motivated me to push myself!”

After about three miles of running together, his buddy Marty Agent suggested that Lopez run on ahead. So off he went. He remembers, with about two miles to go, “one of the pacers looked back at me and said, ‘You made it this far. Don’t have any regrets about the end of the race. Time to push!” A couple of days after the race, Lopez shook his head and admitted with a smile, “I suddenly found another gear I didn’t know I had!”

Later, he was very enthused about his first half marathon. “I was able to meet all of my goals I set for myself. I was very pleased with my time!” In fact, he ran negative splits, the second half about eight seconds a mile faster than the first. He finished in the top third of all runners.

“Besides having a lot of knee pain after the race for a few days later, I have,” as the pacer instructed, “no regrets. It was an amazing experience.”

To me, the excitement and enthusiasm Lopez exhibited in training and running his first half marathon were contagious. Weekly it seemed, I inquired how his training was proceeding. And on race day evening, I searched for his finish. It was a reminder to me of how special races and racing can be.

Another thing stood out. Throughout our conversations, Lopez uttered words such as “my first half marathon,” “my next adventure,” and “the longest run I have ever done to date.” Hmmm……

Congratulations, Pete Lopez!

I was reminded last week of an upcoming race, one of my favorites. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Big Bird Runs in Roseville. I think I have run 30 of the last 31 Big Bird 10Ks. It’s a lot of fun for me. There are also a one mile and a 4K, a unique distance, as well as the usual two dozen or so raffled “big birds,” that is, turkeys.

This year, race director Tony Lipinski has added a new wrinkle. There is a high school team award. That should be welcome to those prep runners just coming off their seasons, perhaps looking for a last run to show off their and their teams’ fitness.

The Big Bird is November 11. Runners can register online at or at Or they can phone 586-445-5480. Watch for a recap of the Big Bird next month.