(Note: this may be the longest post I've ever written. Might want to grab a snack and a comfy seat. Settle in, friend.)
The marathon is over. I did it. I really, really did it. I touched 26.2 miles and didn't die.
You may notice that I didn't post anything in the blog last week? That was a deliberate choice on my part. It may sound counter-intuitive since writing what's in my head is usually a healthy outlet, but this time, there was too much fear in public postings. I didn't want to sound over-confident and I didn't want to sound scared. Quite honestly, I had trouble even identifying what was going through my head (or heart) so it was just easier to skim Pinterest and find inspirational quotes to post.
This is because last Monday, Brian, Ye Who Never Misses a Day of Work (seriously - he once spent a night throwing up and then at 8am, put his suit on and went to court for a full day of work) got sick. The plague that afflicted Scotty hit Dada on Veteran's Day. I knew it was bad when we came home after the park and found Brian in bed, under the covers, with the TV off. Oh boy, I thought. This is it. Brian's sick, it's going to hit me next, and then this whole race is just one giant mess.
Somehow, my immune system held on. Lots of Clorox combined with a downstairs quarantine helped matters, and by Thursday, I declared the Outbreak 100% contained. At that point, however, I had resigned myself to the inevitable. So I got sick. Fine. I'll take a day of rest, puke my guts out, get an IV to rehydrate, and we will move on with things. Sometimes things just happen.
This mindset is a serious departure from my usual thinking. I like to think all of this running has put me in a quasi-Zen state, but in reality, it's the reading, not the running, that helped. After a quick reread of "Born to Run" this week, the story of Emil Zapotek, a Czech runner in the 1950s who went on to win Olympic gold in the 5,000m, 10,000m, and marathon, really got to me. Author Chris McDougall likens the Czech running team to the Zimbabwean bobsled team: "they had no tradition, no coaching, no native talent, and no chance of winning." But instead of being discouraged by this, being counted out was actually liberating. No expectations meant there is nothing to lose. After a week of twisting my hands and trying to contain my anxiety, it was on Thursday night when I finally got it. I'm a fairly new runner. I'm a mom, a wife, a former therapist, and a volunteer. I'm not running to break the tape, I'm not running to qualify for Boston. I'm just running to finish. Yes, in the weeks and months after the race, it's natural to be defined by your finishing time, but this was my first full. If I had a sh*tty, time, guess what? It'll just be easier to PR on my second go-around.
My friend Chelsea put the final nail in my coffin of disquietude. She recently completed the Nike Women's San Fran race in October with a PR and a big smile. She told me in her first two fulls, she was nearly beside herself with panic, almost to the point of making herself sick. For her third, she made a conscious decision to relax. She sang out loud to her music, high-fived spectators, and let herself have fun. This kind of advice goes against my Type-A-choke-it-til-it-doesn't-move approach to life, but seeing her big smile and positive outlook made me think she's on to something. She later said she, too, is Type-A by nature, but she was able to shelve her natural tendencies for race day.
That said, I designed the next few days for optimal repose. I enjoyed a quiet Friday night and slept well. I woke up with a massive headache on Saturday but willed myself to ignore it. Miraculously, Sunday found me with no headache and the awareness of being well-rested. Things were lining up in my favor. As I got dressed and we set off to pick up Reinier, I thought to myself, "I'm going to do this. I really am. And I'm going to enjoy doing it."
A big part of my calm attitude came as a result of something I like to call, "The Reinier Effect." See, back in August, he asked me if I was running with anyone. I said no. I'm not a big run-with-others gal (too much to negotiate). He then offered to run with me if I'd like. I was so stupefied by his offer it took me a solid two weeks to get back to him. Running with a coach - is that cheating? (Now that I've finished, I can tell you definitively -- NO!) Was he really willing to hang out with me for four-plus hours? What would we talk about?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized this was a gift. Not only would the companionship be welcome on those lonely later miles, but I would have the full breathe of his experience at my fingertips. If I ran into trouble, I had an insurance policy to get me through it.
Eventually, it culminated in a very awkward (read: me) exchange after Hill Day one morning. "So, yeah, that offer to run the.." (nervous cough) "...marathon..." (very long, uncomfortable pause) "...with me? Does it, uh, still stand?" Unbelievably, he said yes and I suddenly had an emotional sherpa to make the journey with.
It was his 40th marathon and my first. Needless to say, I did everything he did (or told me to do). Upon arriving at the Start Village, he immediately found a secluded corner near the fence and popped a squat. There would be no unnecessary walking or standing. Ah, smart. When friends texted us that they were nearby, they came to us. I sat there, eating my banana, chatting pleasantly away about everything but running. We had had our final sit-down the day before and he patiently answered all of my questions. Today was about relaxing. And then eventually, running. But first, we chill.
When our corral took off, I felt almost no worry. I was ready - three months of training, diet changes, weight loss and my favorite South African next to me made me feel like a total bad-ass. The first five miles were easy. Reinier told me to pull it back a little and I listened. We laughed, talked, and enjoyed the sights and other runners. We worried the guy in front of us dripping with sweat at mile 3 was probably on the verge of a heart attack. I pointed out a runner wearing nothing but a pink sports bra and a rainbow-colored tutu, declaring that would likely be my outfit at the next hill day. Reinier responded, "Me too."
A little after mile 5, I got a slight cramp in my front left foot but remained silent. I didn't want to tell him about it, deciding instead to embrace the pain and run through it. It worked. By mile 8, it had mostly subsided. Mile 8.78 was a flash by the Morelli House, headquarters to Junior League of Las Vegas, and as I nudged Reinier to show it to him, I saw this huge group of people standing in the driveway, screaming and holding signs. Signs that had...my name on it? I looked closer and saw Jen, Stesha, Michelle, Kerry, Sonnya and Nancy jumping up and down. I was so surprised (and touched!) I jumped in the air, screaming and waving back at them. Amazing! AMAZING! Ah, the gift of good friends!
That jolt of excitement carried me through mile 10 when out of the crowd bounded a familiar little blond...Courtney! She and Jason had finished the half of the half (6.4 miles) an hour earlier, and there she was, jumping up and down in her hot pink pants. She immediately joined the pack and ran with us through the Fremont canopy. "You look fresh as a daisy!" Reinier told her. "I just drank a beer and had a slice of pizza!" she responded happily. Oh, Courtney. She knows how to do these race-things right.
After the excitement of Fremont, we began the slow climb to the "Outer Banks" - the part of the course that takes you far from the neon and energy of the Strip into North Las Vegas. The climb was more substantial than I had given it credit -- by mile 13, that nasty little foot cramp was back with a vengeance. My brain was also slowing considerably and I couldn't discern if it was my shoe that was causing the pain or actually a muscle in my body. The fog of runner's brain is annoying, to say the least.
I knew if I could just make it up MLK and back down to Carey Ave, I'd be rewarded with Scotty and Brian at mile 16.5 (and the promise of a poster or two). When we hit the turnaround and I didn't see them, I felt my chest tighten. I had given Reinier my phone (he now had become an actual sherpa, not just an emotional one) and had no way to check in. Was Scotty okay? Did something happen? I told Reinier my concerns and no sooner were the words out of my mouth did he suddenly yell, "Scotty! Over here!!"
In all of his 44 inches of glory, there stood my son. The only thought that flashed through my head in that moment was, "He is the most beautiful child I've ever seen." He jumped up and down, along with Brian, waving not one but TWO posters (sweet!). He yelled what we practiced, "Go Mom! Run faster!" I gave him a quick pat on the head and soon we were headed into the longest part of the race.
At mile 18, Reinier told me, "This is it. If you want a time between 4:15 and 4:20, we need to push it. If you are okay with 4:20 or 4:30, we can keep this pace." Unfortunately, this was also about the time my left calf decided to seize up in a ball of agony. Have you ever had a Charlie horse? One that jolts you upright because the pain is so acute? Yup, that's essentially what my leg did. I had given up on any feeling in my toes three miles ago. I knew something was bleeding in my shoe but didn't care to look yet. This cramp, though...it was wicked. And unrelenting. I told Reinier to keep our current pace.
About a 1/2 mile later, ole Righty did the same thing. This time, however, instead of just the calf muscle cramping, it decided to take the whole leg with it. Thigh, hamstring, calf. You name it, it cramped. I began panting with exhaustion. "Is this normal?" I asked him, convinced I had somehow done something wrong. Not enough protein? Too much water? Was this a build-up of lactic acid that my body couldn't process?
Nope, he reassured me. This is just general fatigue. Welcome to the real race, that devilish 20 miles plus. And then, in a stroke of pure coaching genius, he pointed out several runners around us who were experiencing the same thing. "That lady in front of us? Oh, she's hurting. See that guy? Totally cramping." I looked around and saw my fellows runners hobbling along with really unusual gaits, trying to minimize the pain while maximizing the pace. And because Reinier is Reinier, he even did a quick sample poll for my benefit. "Excuse me!" he called to a runner in a white shirt limping by. "Are you cramping right now?" The guy turned around, totally friendly, and kind of laughed. "Oh god yes!" he exclaimed. "All part of the process!" I looked at Reinier with a newfound sense of admiration and appreciation. Thanks for normalizing it for me, dude. (We later joked that guy was a plant. He wasn't.)
Speaking of appreciation, while I'm slogging out these miles, it should be known that Reinier had maybe 3 Gu's to my 6? He was barely sweating and his breathing never sounded strained. He looked like he could keep running for hours. Mind you, he and his wife Kerry are in the throes of newborn sleep deprivation with a 4-week old at home. How this man could physically do this, with such little perceived effort, is truly a feat to watch. He was slapping hands with spectators, saying hello to everyone on the course, and made sure to pay special attention to all of the police and fire fighters out there. Awesome display of true sportsmanship and athletics.
Mile 21. Mile 21.2. Mile 21.2. Mile 22.35. In what he later called "Garmin Tourettes," I checked my watch constantly during what I perceived to be the longest mile. How in God's name are we still on Mile 22? Why? In addition to my leg cramping, my left IT band (which had never given me a lick of problems in the past) chose to shoot pain directly into my hip, like a hot poker. Wtf, legs? You guys are usually my strong ones. It's the toes and tummy that are my problem children. But my most trusted body parts decided it was their turn to unleash a little hell, and man, they made quite a statement.
That is, until Fremont. Hearing Chelsea's voice in my head ("have fun!") and watching Reinier's example, I high-fived a few spectators, despite feeling as though the process of raising my arm was enough to cripple me. The last guy I high-fived clearly did not anticipate my weakened condition and hit my hand so hard my whole arm flew back. A muscle in my neck popped and I tucked my arm in, like a broken wing. Holy sh*tballs, things were getting scary. How many more miles?
Speaking of scary, let's talk about that whole mind-body connection. I hear from a lot of people that they have to push themselves to keep running, despite what their brain is telling them. I thought I had this under control; anytime that nagging voice crept in, I silenced it quickly. Even in the worst of training runs, I chose to never walk. Mentally, I consider myself strong. Physically, however...and tonight? That voice was having a field day by mile 23. It wasn't just telling me to walk - it was SCREAMING at me to walk. I would feel so much better if I could just walk...just a little...for just a few minutes...
Again, Chris McDougall's words came rushing into my head. "The brain is always scheming to reduce costs, get more for less, store energy and have it ready for an emergency...the loudest voice in your ear is your ancient survival instinct urging you to relax." My brain had kicked into survival mode times ten -- it was demanding I stop. And I was just about to give in when...
...the awesome guy the matching shirt to my left had another plan. "What's your mantra?" he demanded. "Uh...um..." I racked my brain, switching gears from fears of dying to what I had written earlier that week. "Strong, brave, ready!" I yelled to him. "Good!" he shouted back. "No fear, no doubt. You are strong, brave and ready, girl! Go! Let's catch the girl ahead of us! I see the finish line!"
I knew he was lying (about the finish line) but I loved him for saying that. We never caught the girl in front of us but I also didn't walk, either. For the next 3.2 miles, he shouted things like, "Six super loops left!" (a measure we use at Boot Camp). "We are just running around the park right now! Six super loops, you can do it!" I managed my own "Pain is temporary" comment (pretty proud of that) to add to the growing excitement of the conversation. I could do this, I am doing this, what are those flashing lights up ahead? Is it really...???
THE FINISH LINE! The second most beautiful sight I saw that night (Scotty was first). Reinier busied himself with slapping hands of cheering people while I hooved it over the line. I raised my arms as they snapped my picture but am pretty sure I forgot to smile. I was done.
And I am DAMN proud of that time.
Words cannot describe the next 10 minutes. Reinier took the medal from the volunteer and placed it around my neck like a proud dad. I choked back tears. I almost collapsed into a heap of Kim but again, we just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Isn't that what this is all about? Walking was a blessed, blessed relief. Water tasted amazing.
We ran into more friends. There were lots of pictures. I wrapped myself in a Mylar blanket and let the emotions wash over me. Un-freaking-believable. I just ran a marathon.
When we finally broke free from the runner's finishing corral, we were met with hugs and confetti. Nancy jumped up to hug me and Scotty wrapped his little arms around my legs. There was more confetti, more hugging, and more congratulations. I've always loved the ending of "Born to Run," when the 50-mile run erupts into an all-out street party for the village of Urique, and here I was, having my own personal fiesta on Las Vegas Boulevard. This. Was. AWESOME.
Once my phone was in my hot little hand, the shock of seeing so many people's comments and congratulations was staggering. The love I felt - from California to Iowa to Indiana, all the way down to Florida - was incredible. But the best text by far was from my friend Erika; she had given birth to her baby girl 90 minutes before the race kicked off. We had been joking about this for weeks, how we were both going to have to buckle down and push through the pain. Mine lasted 4:45, hers latest 33 hours. Now that's an ultra marathon!
My final thoughts on this very, very long story: what I experienced last night (and continue to) was truly transcendental. I wish everyone could have a taste of what I had last night. It was humbling and overwhelming at the same time. Totally worth every single early bedtime and early morning, every refused glass of wine, and every fear or doubt that flickered through my mind over the miles.
If you are a casual runner logging a couple miles every week, consider signing up for a half. You are ready.
If you already have a half marathon (or several) under your belt, go for broke. You are ready.
And if you've never run a mile in your life but read through this and felt even slightly inspired, go get some running shoes and start tearing up the road. You are ready.
It's SO worth it.
Oh, one final comment (promise!): my time. 4:45 was slower than anticipated. Considering I was ready to bag it mile 23, I am incredibly happy I pushed through and really feel I left it all out there. I don't think I could have gone a second faster and that brings me a great amount of pride.
Remember my entry Timing is Everything...Or is it? If I go off of the goals I set for myself - not involving finishing time - how did I do?
A.) First and foremost, I'd like to finish without having to climb on that bus.
Ha! I didn't even see that bus!
B.) Second, I want to enjoy the experience. Reinier said your first marathon is always your favorite; I'd like to prove him right.
It was more than unbelievable. Not just the best race of my life, but one of the best events to happen in my 35 years on this planet.
C.) And finally, I want Scotty see his mom finish strong enough to pick him up at the end of the race for a much-need post-running hug.
I believe I succeeded.
(Update: official results are in! I was faster than I thought! 4:44:58! Two seconds -- I'll take it!)
(Also -- if you are inspired by all this talk of exercise AND live in Las Vegas, consider joining our little tribe, also known as Las Vegas Boot Camp. Set an early resolution this new year's and sign up for a six week course. We can run hills together and do push-ups under the stars.
Check out www.lasvegasbootcamp.net for more info!
This plug was sponsored by enthusiasm, never obligation, because if you start running, together we will make the world a better place.)