Sunday, October 18, 2009

First Marathon

It was time. After all the pain and the joy of training it was time to run my first marathon. I awoke the morning of the race before the alarm clock in my hotel room went off. I had barely slept 3 or 4 hours the night before—I was incredibly nervous. Not an anxious nervous but the kind of nervous where millions of different scenarios fly through your head and you can’t silence them no matter how hard you try. But I was awake for good now. And, surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous at all. I gathered the food that I would eat for breakfast, grabbed my Mp3 player and laid on the floor. I ate and listened to music with my eyes closed, focusing on the task ahead. It’s a good thing that I took this time to mentally prepare for the upcoming pain because there was a lot of it. Much more than I ever anticipated.

About an hour later I walked down the hallway of the hotel to help my mom carry her things from her room. I passed another runner in the hallway and he spotted the timing device wish I had already installed around the laces of my shoes, “good luck” he offered. “You too.” I returned. The three of us, my wife, my mom, and I loaded the car and made our way to the race. We sat in the car in the parking lot and watched other runners prepare themselves. They stretched and flailed their arms about. They ate and hydrated and put on and took off layers of clothing. I drank plenty of fluids and ate some energy goo (it was absolutely disgusting but I was getting used to it). I put on my heart rate monitor and taped my nipples (this causes my wife to chuckle every time). Finally, about 15 minutes before race was to begin we made our way to the starting chute. I took off my sweatshirt and pants and handed them to my wife. I said goodbye to my mom and my wife gave me her regular inspirational one-liner, “Run like the wind.”

I stood in the crowded chute freezing. Temperatures were in the 30’s but I had learned by now that being cold in the beginning of the race was much better than being too hot in the end. The other runners made small-talk with each other and wished each other good luck. I stood in silence keeping myself calm and promising myself that I would finish no matter what. Finally the gun went off and we all walked quickly to the starting line waiting for enough space to develop to allow us to assume our usual running form.

The first few miles of the race were a struggle. I was incredibly cold and having a tough time pacing myself. I would look down at my Garmin and realize that I was running a 7:30 pace . Much faster than the 9:00-9:30 that I wanted to be running. I slowed myself down only to find myself running faster again a few minutes later. My knee started to hurt sometime in the 2nd mile—that wasn’t a good sign. The course passed a bank around the 1 hour mark and the sign revealed that the temperature had now climbed to 40 degrees; it was still freezing.

I stopped at every water station and drank as much Gatorade and water as I could. I tried not to drink too much. I was terrified of over-hydrating more than under-hydrating. At mile 7 they handed out goo. I got a strawberry-banana flavor and it was horrendous. At the next water station I drank just to get the taste out of my mouth. My pace had slowed now, I was running almost exactly what I wanted to finish at my goal of 4 hours. But, my legs were burning. Both knees and one ankle sent shockwaves of pain through my entire body with every step. When I finally reached the 13.1 mile marker I asked myself, “can I do twice of what I just did?” In reality, I wasn’t sure. I was in nowhere as good of shape as I was at the finish of my last half marathon. Running another 13.1 miles seemed nearly impossible. Little did I know that the struggle had yet to begin.

Things deteriorated rapidly. The sun was out now but the temperature had quickly soared past the comfortable range and was now around 80 degrees (nearly 20 degrees hotter than the average for that time of year). I drank as much as I absolutely could without vomiting but it still wasn’t enough. I was lightheaded and tired. My legs felt like lead weights—lead weights of pain. I fought to maintain even a 12:00 pace. Finishing in 4 hours was out of the question. I shifted my mental focus to merely crossing the finish line—even that would require all that I had.
As the miles increased the course veered out of downtown and into neighborhoods. People sat in the street in front of their houses watching the runners. Some awesome spectators setup their own water stands in between official water stations. I grabbed a cup from such a stand. I looked inside before I drank and there was dirt floating in the water (at least I hoped it was dirt). I didn’t care. I was dying. I chugged away. As we turned onto another residential street the air filled with the smell of cooking bacon. Someone was making breakfast. I thought about stopping. Ending the race. Putting an end to the pain and knocking on doors until I found the house producing the aroma and begging them for some bacon. God I wanted some bacon.

Every time I entered an aid station I would slow to a walk to get my fluids and drink them. Beginning to run after walking caused much more pain than maintaining a running pace. I stopped slowing to a walk at the stations and grabbed fluid on the run. I spilled the cold liquids all over myself but it was a welcome relief in the 80 degree heat. I battled on like this for about 10 miles. Fighting the pain. Fighting the light-headedness and the heat. Fighting the incredible, incredible urge to walk. I couldn’t walk. It wasn’t part of who I was. There was no way I was going to walk. But then, around mile 24.5, so close to the finish, that’s exactly what I did. I gave it everything I had but I just could not, any longer, put one foot in front of the other rapidly enough to be considered running.

Of course, so close to the finish line, many more spectators lined the streets cheering on the runners. It was humiliating to have to walk now—after running 24.5 miles of a 26.2 mile race. A runner with whom I had been playing leap frog all race passed me as I walked. He slowed and put his hand on my back, “C’mon man…almost there.” He urged me to run. I tried but couldn’t. I had nothing.

The heat was beating down on me. I pulled up my sleeves and tugged on the front of my shirt to cause some airflow. I cringed in pain with every step wondering if I was going to crumble on the pavement or if I was going to make it another few feet. I made it a few more feet. And then a few more. A few more. Even though the finish was still about .75 miles away I could now see it through gaps in the buildings. “Fuck this” I thought, “I’m not walking across the finish line.” I leaned forward and picked up my knees trying to force my legs to start running again. They screamed and my eyes welled up from the pain. I started hobbling. The hobble turned into a choppy run. That was all I was capable of at this point but it was good enough for me. I choppily approached the finish line and saw my wife taking pictures. My mom cheered and gave me a high five as I passed. My in-laws had driven up to surprise me and they cheered as I crossed the finish line.

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