I arrived too early. Squatting for an hour in the dark under orange lights on a parking slab, staring at my shoes, and pondering the upcoming insanity was a little much. I couldn’t play calming music because my old ipod’s battery was barely going to last during the whole marathon. Also, I’m *shy* and private about my running, so talking to other runners wasn’t really a possibility. So I basically stood in the forever-long bathroom lines, twice. I finished dynamic stretching and then sucked down an espresso-flavored GU gel. I hopped the fence into my slow-poke corral and jammed my earbuds in, but the thumping starting line drowned out Newsboys from 2006.
I tried not to cry.
Next, we (10,000 other runners and I) jogged toward the start line, and were off. I forced myself to slow down because I had heard that the entire first mile was downhill, causing runners to go out too fast. A bobbing labyrinth of neon-colored, nylon-covered runners snaked out in front of me, the end disappearing where the periwinkle horizon met dark row-houses. The sun wasn’t even up yet.
We were breathing hard. It was only 60 degrees, but we were all drenched in sweat after the first two miles due to the 89% humidity. The sun played hide-and-seek behind white clapboard homes while we followed the Akron Marathon’s infamous blue line down streets of pot-holes and fresh black pavement.
The neighbors came. Little kids with grandmas, retirees in athletic wear, a confused-looking foreign family in dress clothes, cops and firemen, a woman leaning out her second-story window, someone’s grandmother dancing in her front yard with a tambourine, Neighbor Bob with a cardboard table full of vodka shots, and soccer moms with cow bells. Everyone was there.
I couldn’t wait for the first six miles to end. It was in these first few miles that I gave in to the heat and humidity. I desperately wanted to finish all 26.2 miles, so I made the most careful decision of my life. (Who am I kidding, all of my decisions are the most careful ones.) I majorly slowed down so that I wouldn’t overheat later, or develop cramps.
One of the most beautiful moments of the race was in this first six miles, when we crossed the All America Bridge for the second time. I had shaken out my nerves, I was nearing the end of my “easy” section, resigning myself to the idea of running for several more hours, and the sun was dancing through the trees below the bridge, music was pumping, and a crazy volunteer in an animal suit was cheering through a megaphone.
Taking my first on-the-road gel at mile 6 felt like a good milestone, and accomplishing another climb and downhill section around mile 9 felt good as well. I tried to ignore the fact that at mile 10 I started to feel it in my legs. It felt like I had already “worked,” as it were, which is sort of a problem since I usually try to conserve enough that I don’t feel like I’m working at least until the half-way point at mile 13. And I knew I had a big climb at mile 13.
And mile 13 couldn’t come fast enough. The race was CLOGGED for the first 13 miles. At 12.5, the half-marathoners turned left, and the 900 marathoners plus umpteenth relay-ers went right. (By the way, where were my marathon compadres? I felt totally alone in the second half, seemingly surrounded only by relay-ers in their fresh, non-sweaty pink spandex!) Sweet jazz band on Market Street, by the way.
By the time I conquered the hill at the half marathon mark and charged ahead a few more miles, I was on a roll. I *knew* I had it in the bag. Mile 16 thoughts: “Ten more miles? Easily done. Only two sets of five miles.”
My biggest complaint from this part of the marathon was that around mile 18, none of the fluid stations were cold anymore. It’s actually amusing how angry I got. I had nothing else to direct my emotions toward, so I sabotaged the dear race volunteers.
“You had one job. ONE. JOB!” I seethed, forcing down yet another swallow of warm Gatorade, as race volunteers cheered me on, next to stacks of pre-poured paper cups that were roasting in the 80 degree sun.
As far as hydration and fueling is concerned, I alternated between the provided Powerade and water, but I did wear my hydration belt because of the heat. A few of the fluid stations were spaced further apart than I was comfortable with for the weather, so I decided to play it safe and bring my own fluids just in case. I took gels at miles 6, 11, 17, and 22.
The heat was VERY noticeable during the last quarter of the race as we wound our way through shady neighborhoods, but the course spectators were amazing. Every year, practically the entire community tail-gates in their front yards, offering sweet snacks, icee pick-me-ups, marshmallows, and the occasional garden hose spray-down for heat-weary runners. I zig-zagged from side-to-side down these streets gliding under spritzing hoses.
Heading back into the downtown area, it felt strange to me that in miles 23-24, I really struggled to celebrate my accomplishment. It would have made sense to me if in that moment of the race I began to feel a rush of exhilaration, a rush of pride, but I didn’t. As I was finishing the last few miles of the race, I wrestled with why I wasn’t feeling joy. I thought it was strange, considering that I was about to complete a goal that had been 10 years in the making. (When I was a teenager, I was inspired to run a marathon upon hearing that a family friend of ours [one of the sweetest, most Godly, feminine, and soft-spoken young woman I had ever met] trained and ran a 26.2 mile race. “That’s… strong,” I thought.)
At that point, while I’d been avoiding non-race-official fluids and snack stands (at the advice of race directors), I threw all caution into the wind and started grabbing any-and-everything shoved in my face by cheerful spectators. I also demanded ice at official fluid station #17 as I jogged by.
“There was some in the water,” a volunteer said, wringing her hands, “but it melted!”
You lie! I hissed to myself, as a bag of ice was shoved in my face. I dumped a fist-full of ice into the water, shook the water, grasped the cubes again, and started shoving them down my shirt. I gulped the ice-cold water.
I rounded another bend of orange cones, and I was greeted by the familiar downtown streets and lines of traffic as roads started opening up again. A Hispanic man sat by himself in a lawnchair, under a tiny city tree, the yellow sun boiling above his bucket hat. A small cooler of ice and Gatorade sat by hit feet.
“Ice,” I hoarsely croaked.
He pointed to the cooler, and I grabbed another fist-full to stuff down my clothes. SO. HOT.
I was starting my last mile when the leg cramps started. I knew if I didn’t start walking soon, I would go down on pavement. A tiny bottle of ice cold water was shoved in my face. I greedily took it, sipping a few drops and pouring the rest on my head.
I forced myself to start walking. Where’s the blind girl? I asked myself. Only a few paces back, I had passed a vision and hearing-impaired runner. I only knew she was so, due to the sign pinned to her back. She probably ended up beating me.
Up ahead, I saw the turn into the baseball stadium, and I noticed the official race photographers. Yikes, can’t be walking now! Quickly reverted to running form and formed the biggest cheesiest smile I could manage. (Not that I wasn’t happy. I was. But I also pose for cameras.)
Hundreds of runners lined the yellow finisher shoot as I ran toward the finish line. I leaned over it in my victory stance.
My papa yelled my name above the baseball stadium din and snapped some photos with his flip phone. (Dads are awesome.)
Jogging through the finisher festival to get my medal, I found an empty patch of grass for stretching. I lay on the field, in the green grass, the warm sun warming my tired body. It felt heavenly.
The biggest question that this marathon needed to answer for me was where I stand with running. I’ve heard it said that your first marathon is defining in that people finish and say either two things, “THAT WAS AWESOME! I can’t wait to do it again sometime!” or “Never. Again. In my life.”
Before the race, I was really worried how I would respond.
And now I know.
“That was awesome! I can’t wait to do it again sometime!”
Case in point? This morning, Saturday, I got up at 6:00 and ran four miles before meeting friends for a 9:00 a.m. brunch.
The running life = the good life.