Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Alison Wade
How far would you push your body to accomplish your ultimate running goal? Jeff Creighton came face to face with that question last month when he found himself lying on the ground, but in the lead of the Catalina Island Marathon with about 2 miles left to run on a 90-degree day.
On March 14, six days shy of his 52nd birthday, Creighton accomplished his “bucket list goal” of winning a marathon. He also became the oldest winner of the Catalina Island Marathon and had to push his body further than ever before to do so. He collapsed four times in the last two miles and estimates that it took him 20 minutes to cover the final mile. “I didn’t feel like I won it; I felt like I survived it,” Creighton told Runner’s World Newswire.
With less than 2 miles remaining, Creighton collapsed for the first time. He was pretty sure he was done, but one of his friends was watching the race nearby.
“He sees me on the ground and he yells out to me, ‘Jeff, get up! I don’t see anybody behind you. Come on.’ He basically said, ‘Jeff, this is yours. Just finish. You’ve got it!’” Creighton recalled.
“I pulled myself and literally, I could not run. It was bizarre. I would try and my legs just were so cramped and so discombobulated that I didn’t have any sort of fluidity in my motion. It was just trying to get one foot in front of the other,” Creighton said.
Creighton collapsed an additional time, but got up right away, thinking that if he could just make it downtown, where the spectators waited, he would be able to get to the finish. He made it to the spot he was visualizing, but then collapsed again, with about a half mile to go.
Paramedics rushed over to him and offered their help.
“I said, ‘Don’t touch me,’ because I didn’t want to get disqualified. They said, ‘Are you okay?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m going to finish.’”
The paramedics called an ambulance that had been waiting just down the street, but as soon as Creighton saw the flashing lights, he jumped to his feet, knowing that if he got in that ambulance, his race, and his chance to win, would be over.
“I said, ‘I am going to die trying. I’m just going to do whatever I can, because this is my one shot. The way I looked at it, 51 years old, a week short of my 52nd birthday, God’s opened this window for me this one time. I probably will never have this opportunity again. I’m going to crawl across that finish line if I have to,’” Creighton said.
He collapsed one more time, with about 50 yards to go, but pulled himself up and willed his body across the finish line.
It was the first opportunity Creighton ever had to break a finish tape, and it didn’t go the way he had visualized, when he imagined winning the race in training.
Jeff Creighton crosses the finish line of the 2015 Catalina Island Marathon. Photo by SCS Photoworks.
“I was so exhausted that I didn’t even go across with my hands in the air,” Creighton said. “I literally grabbed that finishing banner and just fell over the top of it. That was a 51-year old winning a marathon.”
Creighton doesn’t regret his decision to go for it that day, but says he’s also relieved that he didn’t do any permanent damage by finishing the race.
“I actually thought there was an outside chance I might die out there, or I might [have been] doing something that just really [wasn’t] good,” Creighton said. “Honestly, if I weren’t 51 and I weren’t in the lead at that point, I’m pretty sure I would have dropped. But being 51, and being in the lead, I decided just to take the risk and push as hard as I could.”
As it turned out, Creighton won the race by nearly seven minutes. He doesn’t know exactly what happened behind him, but he heard that the competitor he had been dueling with through mile 17 dropped out around mile 22, unable to continue. The man who then moved into second place reportedly stopped to stretch for an extended period of time around mile 24, which allowed Stephanie Wurtz, the top woman, to move into second overall.
Their finishing times, 3:19:37 and 3:26:33, reflect both the difficulty of the course, which has a total elevation gain of 4,310 feet, and the challenge of the hot, dry temperatures.
Despite its difficulty, Creighton says it’s his favorite race by far. He has a lifelong love of the island, which he could see from his bedroom window as a child. This was his fifth time running the race and he knew that if he was ever going to win a marathon, Catalina Island was the place it was most likely to happen.
“One of the things that [the course] can do is it can slow down some of the faster, younger runners just because of the terrain,” Creighton said. “It definitely is a mind-altering experience.”
Creighton did not start running until age 38, when he saw a pack of runners go by his house when he went out to collect the morning newspaper in his bathrobe. In that moment, he realized that he had let himself get out of shape, and he decided to do something about it.
He says his later start in the sport has enabled him to continue improving into his fifties.
“Everything that I’m doing is faster than I’ve done before, so I don’t know what it’s like to really be fast,” Creighton says, comparing himself to his training partners who used to be significantly faster but have since slowed down. “They know they’ve slowed down. They can see it. I can’t see it, so I don’t have that negative feedback of, ‘My gosh, I was running sub-5:00s at one point, now I’m in the 6s.’”
After a period of focused training, Creighton set his marathon PR of 2:47:24 at the 2013 Boston Marathon. He’s eyeing a sub-2:45 marathon down the road, and has considered going after that goal in Chicago in the fall. First, however, he’s letting his body and mind recover from his run at the Catalina Island Marathon.