I once read a quote, maybe you’ve seen it, about how life is short, and running makes it seem longer.
You might think a marathon would feel like an eternity (at my agonizingly slow pace especially). Brace yourselves, but I’m not kidding when I say it was over too quickly (if you can call 5 hrs and 10 minutes “quickly”). It’s hard to describe the sensation of having done it, and it’s not often I find myself lost for ways to explain things. (I’ll do my best and start at the beginning)
Running My First Marathon:
Nerves reached an all time high as the day before the race rolled around. Without being able to take refuge in a run to quell my bouncy knees, I settled in to the prospect of hitting the long, unbroken stretch of highway towards my hometown Friday afternoon. With good weather and anxious spirits, we passed the time mulling over how the next morning would go, what I’d need to eat in the next several hours (and what options were readily adjacent to the interstate ), and remembering, in a panic, the crucial race-day items left behind. A steak sandwich in the Tri-Cities passed for dinner, and a pit stop for a tick collar and various sundries meant we’d be able to relax once we arrived. In theory at least. In short order, my OCD alter-ego arrived on the scene, and I’d laid out everything I’d need to prep for the next morning:
- running pants: check
- running jacket: check
- sports bra: check
- running shirt: check
- toe socks: check
- blister tape: check
- sunblock: check
- body glide: check
- headband: check
I moved on to setting out supplies to take with me:
- race number
- running shoes
- 2 packs of Sharkies sport chews (crucial)
- 4 packs of Sport Beans
- 2 emergency packs of goo
- water belt
- sport fuel powder
- water bottle
- extra body glide
- 2 bananas
- squishy flip-flops (also crucial; I like the Teva ones)
Once I was satisfied I had everything I’d need, it was time to start winding down for an early to bed evening. Under the covers by 10:15ish, I tried to feel sleepy reading the latest issue of National Geographic. With a 4:15 AM alarm to look forward to, I thumbed through pages restlessly. While I don’t remember falling asleep that night, I do distinctly remember being awake before my alarm went off the next morning. An unexpectedly calm awakening in the still-quiet house, barely visible in pre-dawn grey, I got up to push the button on the coffee and made my oatmeal on tiptoe. With eating and caffeinating out of the way I’d be free to, somewhat leisurely, gear up and stretch a bit before heading to the 7am start line.
The evenness of the calm I had woken to was fully dispelled by the time we reached the parking lot. Race volunteers directed traffic, runners warmed up along crowded sidewalks, and the floodgates of adrenaline opened. After the requisite wait in line for the port-o-lets, the count down to start had already begun. I filled my pockets with Sharkies and Sport Beans, and was off, plugging headphones in as I hurried to the pack of runners gathered behind the timing mat. Cheers erupted as the gun report echoed across the street and feet surged across the line. The enchantment of race-day energy permeated the pack of us: we were off! The first steps in a marathon had been logged.
With sun still low on the horizon, Selkirks misty in the distance, and the dewy, hallmark aromas of morning, the promise of nice weather was easy to anticipate. Mile 3 settled us into our route along the river, and gradually, as paces shook out and rhythms took hold, I found myself mostly alone on the Centennial Trail, near what I hoped was close to the middle of the pack. Knowing there would be water and aid stations every two miles didn’t do much, initially, to persuade me that I wouldn’t somehow get lost (an inexplicable phobia I harbored going into the race…what if I took a wrong turn out here alone in the middle-of-nowhere North Idaho? I’ve seen that movie, and it doesn’t end well for me!)
I slowed down to water at the second aid station, feeling the welcome rush of limbs awakening and lungs ecstatic with crisp mountain air. I met some friends along the way, close to me in age and pace, we back-and-forthed for a while, until bathroom breaks and aid stations landed me once again, alone on the trail. In the quiet out there, the river white capping peacefully and the metronomic patter of my soles were the only sounds. I made a promise to myself to ration my use of iPod. I didn’t need it yet, but didn’t doubt I would in later miles.
Around mile 9 or 10 I watched an eagle snatch its breakfast from the river, right in front of me. I congratulated myself on an excellent choice in courses, and, reminded of food, snacked down a few more Sharkies. Footstep by methodical footstep, the miles ticked past, blurring into each other, I fully lost count. Coming around a bend closer into town, I was elated to see friendly faces (and one furry one) who had come to cheer me on, it was only then I realized the end was achievable. I had already managed to make it to mile 20. My sister was among the support crew, “you’re not even sweating! push it!” With only 6.2 miles left, I thought, this was advice I could take. My approach had been to maintain a good pace, but to keep something in the tank as much as I could, not knowing how much the course would punish out of me.
Having been content to ride it easy, meditate on the landscape, zone out, knowing the finish was almost in sight changed things. It was time to remember this was a race. I felt good. My feet felt decent, my legs were fatigued, sure, but warmed up and ready, my lungs were poised to punch it, and punch it I did. My competitive side peaked with a strange conundrum: I wanted to speed up, but I didn’t want it to be over, I was having fun, there was something big happening. The competitive side won, and I stepped on the gas. With a somewhat self-satisfied grin, I roadkilled runners who had smoked me early on. (tortoise > hare, bitches!) All the time still wary of the wall. I thought I should have hit it already. I volunteered at the Portland Marathon and saw runners at this very point in the race, witnessed, and unconsciously memorized, the look of sheer, blood-crusted defeat in their eyes at this obstacle. It was coming for me, even as I pushed up a hill around mile 22, I knew it. It had to. My only hope was making it to the finish line before it could get to me. Mile 23 came and went and as I entered 24, I knew my blistered toes were taking a brutal beating. Through stinging, burning, blistering, I wasn’t done, my toes screamed for me to stop, but I was so close.
Things got a little blurry from that point. Hearing after that my support crew had shown up again, somewhere before the finish, I wasn’t convinced, I don’t remember it. The final test was entering Riverfront Park. Less than a mile to the finish, and whether because my body knew I was close, or because I just couldn’t hack it one more step, I had to walk. Instantly, the surge of pain to my toes became agonizing. Caked in salty white sweat and starting to chafe, I felt done. I wanted so badly to be. It was, without doubt, the longest, most arduous 3/4 of a mile I’ve ever run.
My amazing sister jogged across a grassy knoll in her Chacos, cheering me on, jogging beside me. I was so close. More friendly faces appeared along the race route, and I was so grateful to see them. I ran on what seemed like shards of glass until the finish line appeared. It was still over too quickly. The buzzer beeped loudly as I, bedraggled in total exhaustion, crossed the mat. My feet stalled out, I heard my name over the load speaker. Someone put a hulking medal around my neck. Just like that, it was all over. Five hours of running had passed and I’d hardly noticed until the last 45 minutes. A little bit like life, eh?
Here’s what I learned: It’s the journey. You hear this all the time, at least I seem to, and so maybe it gets diluted. Don’t let it. It’s the crazy, amazing ride. And it will be over before you know it. Where did it all go? You’ll wonder. Let it go to 26 mile runs (that yes, somehow, make it seem longer, sometimes), to loving like crazy because you can, to cartwheeling, to writing things down, to telling people how much they mean the ever-loving world to you, to seeing new things, and seeing old things from new perspectives, to smiling, to midnight sandcastle building beach trips, to listening hard to what people say, and as much to what they don’t, and to spring skiing when you should be at work, to acknowledging the moments, big and small, happy and sad. It’s the ride, friends. And thank you all, for making mine so incredibly awesome so far.
(If you are still reading, I should give you a medal. I guess since it was a marathon, here’s my proportionally mammoth post 🙂 )
There are a few things I know will never feel as good as they did that day. Taking off my shoes, for a start. Putting my mangled up feet in the cool grass. Sitting down. Drinking Alaskan Amber.
With the initial damage assessment done on my feet, and the determination made that I could make it to the beer garden, I still needed a minute. I leaned against a table and just let my feet rest in the grass a moment after the horror of peeling off my socks had passed. Slipping gingerly into my flip-flops, I realized I was absolutely famished. Sitting in the cool grass, stretching in the shade of a tree with my beer, life was surreal, blurry, blissful. I finished.
Before I knew it, I was in a long-anticipated shower and realized instantly why I shouldn’t have been looking forward to it. Everything that had hurt, mildly, was exacerbated by the hot water which I had hoped would feel so relaxing. I ended up with a pretty fierce set of cuts and scrapes from bands and chaffing (street cred, right?) I carry them proudly, if painfully. At the end, feeling so ecstatic to have achieved it, I relinquished my eyes to well-earned nap punctuated by dreams of running, and maybe, one day, another marathon. It felt good. It still feels good, even in the wobble of my knees and the weariness in my legs.
It was worth every step.