My First Marathon: A Painful Recap

26 Nov

If I learned anything from this first marathon, it’s that my expectations on every count were completely wrong.

I knew the race would be challenging both mentally and physically. I knew that running on a fractured foot would be painful, to say the least. I knew that running by myself without a friend to commiserate with or a rocking playlist would be difficult. But somehow, I envisioned joining a pace group, settling in for the run, finding someone to laugh with, encouraging each other on at each mile marker and finally, arriving at the finish line completely spent. I even thought I might cry at the finish line. Y’know, the whole “first marathon” “fractured foot” “Rocky steps” glory of it all. Ha! Crying assumes you have any energy and water left in your system to cry with. That was not the case.

Here is how it actually went down:

I was woefully unprepared physically. Aside from the fractured foot, there was a lot of lingering stress from an incredibly long week of work and a 3 hour exam. I was severely sleep-deprived (2-3 hours a night for the week leading up to the marathon, 2 hours each the last two nights before the race). I had a horrible migraine and sinus cold that was creeping towards the hacking cough/losing voice stage. I couldn’t take cold meds as they dehydrated me.

The only things I had going for me were: I had done my training, I think I drank 9 large bottles of Powerade Zero in the two days leading up to the race, I managed 3 7-minute miles on the treadmill the day before, I had invested time and money into this race, and I’m incredibly stubborn. Which is basically the main qualifier for most runners.

5 AM – stagger into the bathroom on the morning of the race. Think “Why? Is it too late to preserve my pride AND skip this race?” (Yes.) Then “how bad can a run on no sleep actually be? It will all be over in a few hours and then I can sleep” (Answer: it can be bad, and sleep? You won’t sleep more than 4-5 hours for another 6 days!)

5:30 AM – friend confirm he is not running the half marathon, he is overworked and didn’t sleep the night before. Sounds familiar. I feel 2% sad he won’t be there, 2% sad I can’t just quit and 96% – nothing – because I’m too tired.  A single tear does fall as I pull my hair back in the bathroom mirror and try to convince (i.e. lie) to myself that this race will be fun.

6:00 AM – walk the mile to the starting line along with hordes of other runners.  I manage 3 bites of a banana and 2 tsps of peanut butter.  I feel 2% alarmed that I can’t eat anymore, 2% unconcerned because this is generally how my long runs go and 96% – nothing – because I’m too tired.

6:15 – 7:00 AM – by far the most stressful 45 minutes of the entire race.  Waiting in the never-ending bathroom lines is always horrible.  You know that you can’t drink anymore which inevitably makes your body crave water, you know that you’ll have to pee again (it’s totally a psychological thing) as soon as you pee but there won’t be time and you have anxiety about getting to the start line.  I really wanted a good luck hug from a friend but was too stressed and tired to go thru the whole “where are you, wait there, no, don’t move” rigamarole so I checked my bag and my phone and headed to the corral.

7-7:17 AM – the goal had been to run a 3:30-3:45 marathon.  Obviously that wasn’t happening with my fracture. So I left my special-fast-corral and moved back…and back…and back.  I had debated between the 4:00 pace group and the 4:15 pace group and I’m glad I chose the 4:15s.  Not sleeping really does a number on your body.  And here is where I learned the difference between the 3-hours and the 4-hour marathoners.  The 3-hours don’t chat because they are stressing about a certain goal time.  The 4-hours don’t chat because they are stressing about finishing the marathon.  Either way, no one chats.  I felt awful, wanted a sleeping bag and a stroller to crawl into, yet the guys next to me in the corral asked me how I could be so “perky and excited” about what awaited us.  Just to give you an idea how unperky they were, I was about as perky as the average American on Tax Day.

7:17 AM – Mayor Nutter shook my hand.  Yes, you read that correctly.  He also thanked our corral for being the “nicest” one he’d ever seen.  This because we insisted on a round of applause and cheers for all of the volunteers before we officially started.  It’s always comforting to know you aren’t the fast corral or even the brave corral, just the nice one.

7:17 AM – 11 something – And so it began.  We started off fast.  Well, not fast.  But fast for people who need 3 miles to ease into their pace.  We came out in 8:20s which had us all a bit alarmed.  Mile 1 arrived fast but there was no sign of my parents.  Which was okay as I was worried that them seeing me breathing heavy at mile 1.1 might not be very encouraging.  Or make for good photos.

I ran most of the first 11 miles with another guy, my age, clad in black UnderArmour.  No joke, I have forgotten his name.  And his number.  Everything but his UA running gear (this happens when you are running – honing in on details, focusing on something so as to not think about what you’re actually doing, forgetting about the rest).  We commiserated but mostly we were a silent team.  We saw the Liberty Bell and Paul Revere’s grave, and fountains and squares and gorgeous cobblestone roads and a marching band and a number of male runners peeing under a bridge and tons of silly race signs that said things like “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon” and “Run faster! I’m bored already.”

At mile 6, I saw my Dad holding a sign.  I did my best to get their attention but it was a narrow street and I couldn’t stop without risking a stampede.  I felt better having seen someone I knew.  Especially because we had The Runner to contend with.  Most runners are gracious and encouraging.  This Runner was a jerk.  He’d say things like “Hey!  4:15s.  You guys must be running the half-marathon, right?  Wow – 4+ hours for a half, you probably should have stayed home.”  And yes.  Most of us were running the marathon and yes, he was running the half, and yes, he was going our speed.

And then there was the Lemon Pledgers.  Mom and daughter in yellow shirts with lemon decals.  They were running the half marathon for charity and they were having fun.  They started cheers.  They thanked our pacer (Jody, he-who-had-run-7-marathons-in-8-weeks and happily carried a dowel with balloons and our 4:15 sign on it for 26.2 miles) every mile or so. At mile 3, feeling energetic and excited they asked if they could run the full marathon with us (they could.  They did not).

Fairmount Park was pretty.  And hilly.  Well, it wasn’t hilly.  Only to those who are sick and sleepy.  And Jody, our pacer, rocked.  He said “don’t worry guys, I’ve run you a little faster so I’m giving you an extra 30 seconds to get up the hill.  It turns the corner and keeps going up so don’t look anywhere but at the feet in front of you, concentrate on your breath, we’ll be at the top soon and you can get some deep breaths on the decline.”  Ok, it wasn’t a Henry V speech but at the time it worked.  We ran.  We climbed.  We conquered.

And then.  It all fell apart.

Because running a marathon that takes you back to the finish line before sending you out into loneliness for 13 more miles is cruel and unusual punishment.  We could see the museum and the Rocky Steps ahead of us.  We could see the half marathons moving into the right “exit ramp” lane preparing to cross that Finish Line.  The crowds thickened and the cheers grew and their was loud music and then, there was the Finish Line, and, oh wait, I am turning left and the crowds are disappearing and I was really hyped up and now I am alone and it is silent and all I can hear is the slap of shoes on pavement and the labored breathing of our small ragtag band of runners.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that my mind was ready to stop at 13.1 miles.  That if it wasn’t for pride and sheer stubborn determination, I would have.  Running is 80% mental (at least) and I knew that I was hitting a wall much sooner than I would be had I felt better.

Miles 14-15 were enjoyable because I watched the elites running home.  Some of them glided, others bounced, very few looked anything but effortless.  Except that they were pouring with sweat and looked exhausted.  I’m not saying I didn’t look exhausted by the end but this was something else.  One of them, one of the first runners, fell over and started screaming with a muscle spasm.  That was not a good moment for him.  Or for us.  Hard to feel healthy and strong when a 20 year old man with 4% body fat running sub-6 minute miles is screaming in the road.

And then, I wised up and left the 4:15s behind.  It was a very hard decision and I’m surprised I didn’t burst into tears but my foot was throbbing so I stopped in a medical tent and iced it for 6 minutes until it was numb. I ended up doing this again at mile 20.  So I lost 12 minutes total and yes, my competitive side is upset about that but my rational side is grateful I played it safe.  While in the medical tent, I heard the sad news that a young guy running the half marathon had died on the finish line.  This gave me a stomach pit.  Then I wondered if it was one of my best friend’s friends who I had met the day before and my stomach pit grew.

I am ashamed to say this but in “keeping it real” I have to add that by mile 21, I’d forgotten entirely about the death.  In fact, when I re-learned of it later on that evening, I didn’t remember hearing the static-y update in the medical tent.  There’s no mental capacity during a marathon to think about other things.

Miles 15-20 weren’t too bad.  We crossed the river (again) and someone yelled my name and I saw a friend that I ran with in the Appalachians in September and that made me happy. I even grinned.  I never caught up to him but I was happy knowing someone else was seeing the same views, experiencing the same emotions, playing the same you-will-keep-going games in their head.  At mile 20, I was happy.  For some reason, I was determined to run the marathon as 2 10-milers and a 10K.  And so mile 20 was a huge deal for me.  And I’m not saying that because they handed out beer at mile 20.  I got to turn around and head back at that point and there were never sweeter words in the English language than “turning around and heading back” except for maybe “water” and “a bathroom with toilet paper.”

The only goal that I think I actually met during the marathon was: not stopping for any bathroom breaks.  I did walk a bit thru some of the water stops. I did leave my pace group behind (although luckily the 4:30s never caught up to me).  I did not smile for every part of the 26.2.  But I didn’t use the bathroom.  I’ll probably wanted that noted on my grave someday “Exceptional bladder control” or similar.

I don’t remember a lot of the run back.  There were bridges that I loved, but could not admire. There was a woman yelling “only 5K to go! Pick it up!” which was annoying because she was wearing cute shoes and clearly not a runner.  The race had thinned out and people were reading our bibs and calling us by name.  When I saw the boat houses and knew I had only a mile to go, I got excited.  I’m not sure I knew until that moment that I was actually going to finish.

I made a new goal.  Pass 100 runners. And finish with a smile. And I managed both.  I picked up the pace, I darted in and out, and I did it all while grinning.  I passed the Rocky Steps and I heard the announcer and finally, I turned a corner and there was the Finish Line.  I didn’t cry (maybe you need electrolytes in your system to do that) and I didn’t feel an emotional “I made it!’ moment like so many people swore that I would.  In fact, it felt entirely anticlimactic.

Someone gave me foil wrap.  Someone gave me a medal and water.  And then began the long walk along the Avenue of Depleted Athletes.  If I felt anything at all, it was relief at seeing my Mom standing by the bag check and knowing that I was done and that someone had witnessed me being done.

I’m not proud of my time. I’m not even proud of my choice to run injured. But I am proud that I ran, that I was already planning my next race an hour later, and that I finished with a smile.  I’m a little sad that I couldn’t finish with my 4:15 pace group.  I hope that “starting with a team” and “ending by myself” isn’t going to be a metaphor for my life.  But if it is, at least I know I’ll be smiling at the end.

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2 Responses to “My First Marathon: A Painful Recap”

  1. Meg November 26, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Where is the rest of the recap?!!??! I can only see up to 5:30am. I want to relive vicariously!

    • ezelie November 28, 2011 at 9:14 am #

      Coming soon provided the Internet behaves.

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