(This is a fairly long post, but it was a long race, so what do you want? Get comfy and enjoy the story!)
If you were to ask ten runners to tell you the most important thing on their minds going into their first marathon, I am certain you would get ten completely different answers; the experience is so intimate, so ultimate, that it would be difficult to imagine that any two people could have the same response. Me, I would have to say it was my utter lack of expectations, the knowledge that I knew nothing about what was about to happen…and the freedom that such a lack allowed me. As I have written before, I initially approached this race with a clear goal: run 26.2 miles in four hours or less. I foolishly based this on my performance in a bare handful of shorter races, half-marathons or less, where I had achieved respectable times; but I learned along the way that the marathon is unlike anything else, in terms of the demands it makes on your body, your mind, and your spirit. Fortunately, I received this education far enough in advance to be able to accept the truth and prepare myself accordingly, and therefore be present in what was actually happening, instead of missing something that wasn’t…not everyone is so blessed!
As I said in my last post, the weekend included two races, a 5K on Saturday and the full on Sunday. I came home Saturday after the pasta luncheon with my running club, feeling warm, full and very satisfied with myself, and decided that a nap was well-deserved, and an excellent way to begin preparing for the next day. I stretched out and fell asleep almost instantly (after all, I had been up since 4:30, run three miles, and then gorged on fusili with salmon, tomato, and cheese; a crash was inevitable). I had intended to rest only an hour or so, but instead I slept nearly four hours. When I woke up, I swung my legs off the bed and tried to stand up…tried being the operative word; it felt like someone had driven very large spikes into both legs, just above the knees. I took me three tries to get to my feet…I leave it to you to imagine the degree of panic I was in! I shuffled into the living room and spent the most agonizing hour of my life on the foam roller, trying to get the massive knots to unlock and act like muscles again; in the end I succeeded, but I was an exhausted emotional wreck…“How in the world am I supposed to run tomorrow, let alone run a marathon?” Thank God for my beautiful, supportive wife! she was there with me, helping me stretch and roll, and reminding me that I had been through an awful lot the last couple of weeks, but I had also spent an entire year getting ready, and the training was going to pay off; I was going to be able to finish; there was no pressure about time, I could take all the walk breaks I needed…in other words, quit losing the race before I even started running it! That is exactly what I needed to hear, and this from someone who swears she will run only if the zombies are right behind her I am blessed beyond all belief with this woman!
To keep from psyching myself out any further, I took the radical approach of stretching out on the bed with one of my favorite books (Wizard and Glass, the fourth volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga) and pretty soon I was lost in the story, all else forgotten. Before I knew it, 11 pm had come and I laid the book aside and settled down to get a good night’s sleep; however, the combination of nerves and nap left me tossing and turning until sometime after 1 am…I knew I had a rough day coming!
The alarm went off at 4:30, I guess, but I never heard it; it wasn’t until the back-up alarm sounded at 5:00 that I drug myself out of bed. I flew through my usual pre-race morning ritual, multi-tasking as I went – have you ever tried to pin a bib on your shirt with one hand while eating oatmeal with the other? It can be done, but I would not recommend it! Gatorade and Gu are not friendly to my system, so I was wearing my Fuel Belt; I filled 3 bottles with Nuun cherry-limeade (caffeinated, thank you!) and 2 more with my own blend of chia gel and applesauce, and planned to drink water along the way to stretch my supplies. I also added a small container of mini-M&M’s and some Clif Shot Bloks – my long runs have taught me that variety is very important! I hurried to get dressed: long sleeve compression top, short sleeve tech tee over that; compression tights, shorts, knee braces; Smartwool socks (for the extra cushioning), ankle wraps (for my Achillies tendonitis) and Skechers GORun Ride 3 shoes. Add some sunglasses, throwaway gloves for the wait until start time, and my phone and armband; a light jacket, change of socks, slippers and wallet in the gear bag; and I was off!
I arrived downtown well after street closures had begun, so I ended up parking over a mile away and walking very quickly, as it was only 45 minutes until my corral closed and I still had to get into the GRB, make gear check, and get back to the corral…and already needing to pee again (that 3rd cup of coffee always gets to me ) I wasn’t the only one, there was a steady stream of folks headed in with me, but once again the Marathon Committee proved themselves capable: with 25,000 runners all going the same place, there were no lines at gear check, plenty of floor space inside to take a moment to stretch and compose myself (and chat with a dozen different friends I saw along the way, including fellow Ambassador Becca ) and still plenty of time to make my way to the start. I don’t know if all marathons are this well organized, but I am feeling spoiled by this one!
The start corrals were spacious, with dozens of porta-potties for that inevitable last minute stop. We spread ourselves out, cheered wildly when the soprano with the beautiful voice sang out the national anthem; cheered wildly again when the wheelchair athletes started their race; and cheered even more wildly when the gun went off! The elites and the fast runners in Corral A cleared much more quickly that I imagined, and I passed over the mat less than 8 minutes behind the gun. Although I have never run this course before, I have heard many others say the new layout this year provided the smoothest start they have ever seen. I can say the course never felt crowded, there was no dodging around other runners, and I spent the first three miles gawking at the beautiful sunrise and clear blue skies…and the enormous crowds of spectators lining both sides of the streets – talk about an emotional boost! After that, I settled into a nice steady pace…I wasn’t looking at my phone, choosing to run entirely by feel, but later I saw that I stayed consistently within 30 seconds either way of my 10:30/mi goal for the first 13 miles. My quads were a little sore (especially after the first real hill, a moderately long and somewhat steep overpass) but nothing like the day before, and I was feeling better and stronger than I had at this point on most of my longer training runs. I remember thinking as I passed Mile 14, “This is going pretty well; maybe 4:30 is doable after all!” …and that’s about the time the wheels began coming off – maybe that will teach me about thinking too far ahead.
I started feeling a lot of tightness in my legs, and I was running noticeably slower with the same perceived effort; at Mile 17 I decided to stop and do some stretching, to see if it would improve the situation. I was a little alarmed at how sore my upper back was when I bent over, and even more so at the considerable effort it took to get back on my feet; transitioning from walking back to running felt like pushing a car uphill! I also noticed my energy level was dropping off, and I couldn’t shake a gnawing, empty feeling in my stomach. The spectators along this portion of the course were handing out food and drinks of every description: oranges, bananas, fig newtons, cookies, chips; water, juice, coffee…you would have thought we were doing a 100-mile ultra! I took full advantage of the goodies at hand, and began doing walk/run intervals to conserve my strength and make sure I could finish – since I was afraid to look at my phone, I actually began counting strides: 300 running steps, 60 walking steps…300 running steps, 60 walking steps…and this carried me along fairly well for the next 5 miles. I noticed I kept passing the same runners during each run interval, and getting passed by them during the walk, so I felt like my plan was at least keeping me consistent, if nothing else!
At Mile 22 the pain got a lot worse, and I stopped to stretch again; this time I was down for so long that a race official came over and asked me if I was OK! I told him it was just some muscle cramping, but I was going to be fine (note: nobody believes you are “fine” when you are laying on the ground!) He stayed with me until I got up and got moving again, so I mentioned how much I appreciated the concern for runners’ well-being he demonstrated. He simply said, “That’s what we’re here for!” and moved on to help someone else. I finally got going again, but now the intervals got a little shorter…it was 200 running, 50 walking, and that got me to Mile 25, and back into downtown. I made turn off Allen Parkway and had the GRB in sight, but I was running out of gas badly by then; the intervals shrank again: run a block, walk a block, run a block, walk a block… and who in the world made city blocks so long, anyway?
I knew I was almost done, in every sense of the word, and I came very near to just giving up and walking that last .2, but pride is a fierce motivator: I realized I was wanted to run across that finish line, and nothing was going to stop me! I dug deeper than I ever have before, found that last cup of energy, and ran faster than I had at any point in the previous ten miles (but if you watch the video of me finishing, you can see me limping out of camera range as soon as I passed over the mat!) My only thought was, “Never again..never again…never again!” Then a volunteer stopped in front of me and placed that finisher medal around my neck, and suddenly my legs hurt just a little less I made it inside, claimed my shirt and beer mug, then my Double Race Challenge medal, and stumbled over to gear check to get my stuff and head to the changing area. As I sat down to change, I became afraid that might have been a terrible mistake, because I was not entirely sure I was going to ever get up again! I called my wife, who was waiting in the Reunion Arena section and told her I was inside. She said she knew, because she had seen me cross the finish line, and she was very proud of me. I wasn’t feeling terribly proud at the moment, but she helped me with my perspective…God, I love that woman!
My official finish time was 5:35:13, which is far short of what I had hoped for…but the experience was far more than I could have ever imagined! By the time we walked out and headed back to the truck, I was already thinking about next year, and what changes I needed to make in my preparations – and how that course PR is going DOWN come 2015! That makes it official: I am a runner; running is a mental sport, and we are all insane!