Monday, November 24, 2008

The Big Run

26.2 miles.
42 Kilometers
More than 46,000 steps
6,000 calories

Any way you break it down, it was a huge event for me. I thought it was going to be incredibly hard, and it turned out to be even harder than I imagined. But it was a great experience, and, although it hasn't all processed yet, I think I'd do it again (I'm not committing to anything bigger than a 5k for a while. Actually, I'll commit to a pizza if anyone offers).

This all started long before the predawn drive to Philly, the idea really harks back to my high school cross-country days, before an accident derailed my running and life got in the way. I toyed with the idea when I was in my mid-20s, and even thought about trying it for my 26th birthday, but divorce and its attendant craziness kept me from dedicating the time and training I would have needed.

I finally got down to it this year, when I realized my blood pressure and weight were too high, and I looked in the mirror and didn't quite recognize myself anymore. It was time to, in the words of the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom "just do it." I started the serious training about six months ago. By race day I still wasn't anywhere near the shape I wanted to be in, but it would have to do.

My day started about 3 a.m. with a warm shower and my less glamorous preparations, which involved some strategic manscaping as well as the application of medical tape and generous amounts of Vaseline, all to limit the potential for chafing. My friend Katie (who I cannot thank enough, it really makes a difference to have someone there for you), drove me down in the wee hours. I lined up at the start about half an hour before sunrise and stripped off my sweats. My running outfit consisted of lycra shorts (again, an anti-chafing measure), a sleeveless shirt, bandanna and gloves, as well as my Addidas running shoes. It was well below freezing by then but the excitement and the heat of the crowd kept off the cold.

After an hour of waiting and endless repetitions of the Rocky theme, my group was off. I started out easy, and tried not to let my enthusiasm make me run too fast and wear myself out. By the time I reached the first water stop, at around 2 miles, I was feeling pretty good and warmed up. Over the next few miles I started to get into a good groove, and was on pace for about 10 minutes a mile. I made a point of walking through the water stops, both to give my legs a short break and to take time to get all the Gatorade in my mouth instead of on my shirt.

By mile 9 or so, I was starting to feel it. I was getting a blister on my left foot, and the course hit its biggest hill. At this point I started to walk the steepest parts. I also made my first "pit stop" in some friendly bushes.

By the time we approached the halfway mark, and the half-marathon runners got to finish, I was feeling pretty beat. Fortunately, Katie was there cheering, and I got a boost from seeing a familiar face.

At this point I was letting myself walk a minute for every mile. I knew it was slowing me down in the short run, but it was helping a lot in keeping my legs moving. But by mile 15 I was starting to have serious trouble. The blister on my left foot broke around then, I think, although it was more chafing than a blister. The tendonitis in my right leg flared up a bit, but faded into the general haze, and, after a quick self-assessment, I decided it was going to be ok.

At mile 17 or so I hit the wall.

I thought I was tired before that, really. I was exhausted, I was beat. I was ready to die rather than run any further. But got worse. It was the tired beyond tired. It didn't come on suddenly, I think, it's just that at some point I realized my body was not going to put out anymore no matter how stubborn I was. I kept going anyway, but I had to walk more frequently, and it was just hell.

Somebody was holding out candy. I was never so excited to have a Twizzler than I was then.

The second half of the race was an out-and-back run to Manayunk, and the whole way, while I was headed out six miles to the turnaround, the faster runners were passing us going the other way. When I started the loop, it was the superfast people, but as I got further along the people started to look more and more like me. There were some hills on that route, a couple of them highway on-ramps. As I struggled up one of them a girl headed the other way shouted out, "come on, mind over body, body over hill." It helped.

At mile 19, one mile before the turnaround, there was a bunch out on the side of the road handing out cups of beer. A lot of runners declined, but I figured it couldn't hurt, and how could I tell my marathon story and say "and I said no-thank-you to the beer?"

Mile 20 was the turn around. There was loud music. I got excited and picked up the pace a bit, even though I headed up a bit of hill.

The next five miles were all about mind games, I'd make deals with myself that if I would run to that road sign ahead, I'd walk for two minutes, and so on. I ran, I walked, I ran, I walked. By this point my quads were screaming at me, and my biceps and forearms were cramping up. I got a second, larger blister on my left foot (for some reason, my right was ok, I think my left is slightly smaller and moved more in the shoe) but didn't really care. At about mile 23 I used the porta-john and it hurt to pee. I was drinking one cup of water and one of Gatorade at each rest stop by this point. I could see the road crews cleaning up the outbound course as I headed in, even though there were a handful of runners and walkers out there. There was a seven hour cutoff for the race, and I realized I was passing the tail of the whole thing, and was at least an hour and a half ahead of those poor folks.

I walked almost all of mile 25, to save something for the end.

I told myself I was going to run the last 1.2 miles. There was nothing to save my strength for, so I went for it. It hurt. Instead of getting easier as I got towards the finish, it got even harder. It seemed to take so long to get there... time was slowing down, it felt like. I saw my brother, Carmella and Katie at the end, gave a few high fives and "sprinted" over the finish. That was it, I was fried.
It took me about five and a half hours to finish, slower than I would have liked, but it was a bit out of my control.

I was exhausted beyond description, in pain, borderline delirious and felt incredibly alive. It's really hard to describe, but I was just in another world at that point, and incredibly happy through the pain. Also, I wanted a pretzel.

It was an incredible journey, and today I'm basking in the post-race glow, which consists of equal parts satisfaction and agonizing muscle pain. I wouldn't say I recommend it to everyone, but there are a few people out there who would love this.

It is a life-changing experience, I'm not sure how, but the person who crossed that finish line is not the same person who started the run. It'll take me a few days to process this, right now my body is still a little haywire and my emotions are a little wobbly.

But there's something solid I can take away from this. No matter what I look like, how much money I have, how popular or successful or good at my job I may or may not be. No matter what else I fail or succeed at for a million complex reasons I'll have this. For one day there was only one question that mattered: can I finish?

I could, I did. I'm a marathoner.

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