To say you never know what will happen on race day is ALWAYS an understatement. Last year, my first crack at a marathon was less than ideal. Ice storm hours before the start, 27 degrees, sick at mile 11, death march at mile 20. I did finish, but it wasn't pretty. This year I was out to atone for a less than stellar marathon...and it happened. I'll cut to the chase and give you the highlight -- 38 minute PR from the last year and a battle fought at the end.
You'll have to excuse my extra long race report...so here is ample warning to skip to the bottom if you just want the finish. The alarm came early on race morning at 4 a.m. but I was eager to get started and get to the line with plenty of time to relax and take it easy. One of my best friends, Ryan, made the trip and was doing the Half Marathon as a training run (he's training for Ironman Brazil.) We both milled around at the house and got ready and hit the road. Ryan is one of the reasons I am even involved in running and triathlon, so the fact that he made the trip to do the race was quite special. After swinging by to pick up Spence (also doing the half) it was smooth sailing into downtown.
If there is one thing you may have already picked up on...I like to have a plan, I like to have a backup plan and I like to be prepared. On this morning all was well with driving, parking and timing. The temperature was a brisk 36 degrees -- perfect for the start. After bag check-in, I got separated from Spence and told him I'd meet him in the starting gate with the 4.15 pace group. We had trained together and planned on going out for the first several miles together... on other mornings getting separated may have created anxiety...not today, I felt ready and I wasn't going to let anything throw me off.
As the lead runners jolted from the starting corral, fireworks exploded behind the runners. Seeing the flashes of light in the sky with the Texas Capitol serving as a picturesque background, it gave you the feeling that this would be one of those great days. Spence hadn't found me in the midst of the 12,000 runners by the time the gun went off -- no worries -- I was toeing the line with one goal, to run MY race. The first mile took us uphill. I talked with some of the runners who appeared to be settling in with the 4.15 pacers. We were getting our legs going and all quietly anticipating how our bodies would respond. A mile into the race, I felt a tap on my shoulder, Spence had started behind me but made up the time. The early miles were uneventful...but I am always aware of how great it is to be in the presence of such dedicated people. It is quite a feeling to fill the streets of a city and be among 12,000 runners. After a big uphill, I was happy to let gravity do its work. We didn't necessarily pick up the pace, the course just made it happen. We were running ahead of the 4.15 group, but running comfortably within range.
At the five mile mark we were greeted by the cheers of our families...it's always such a great feeling to hear those cheers coming from the people who are there to support you every day of the year...not just race day. Shortly after- on cue - Spence hit the accelerator and was off. As I watched him pull away, it was a great feeling knowing that today he would be completing his first half marathon. As he left, I felt a calm sense of confidence. Running roads I have run scores of times before, I was privy to some emergency pit stops if nature called. At 6 miles, she came a calling and I ducked into some trees. A few seconds later I looked back to see the 4.15 pacers cruise by...perfect timing. After tucking in behind them, we headed out on a flat section before making the first of many climbs.
It was on this flat section that the unique nature of these races took shape. Groups of people were telling jokes, some stories, others sharing encouragement. After a great joke at mile 8 I learned from a fellow runner -- albeit unsolicited -- that birds don't have sphincters -- that's why they're always leaving their mark. Don't ask me how this came up in a conversation during a marathon. It struck me as so bizarre, not only because of the information, but because in a pack of people this seemed like totally normal conversation. Try using that nugget of information at the dinner table and check the reaction.
Miles 8 thru 13 brought on the hills...some of them substantial. After a mile of up and down all of the runners were met by priest blessing the crowd. As I ran by, I couldn't help but think that a little divine intervention would come in handy while climbing the hills. Little did I know at the time how much "intervention" I would need. At 10 miles I saw my wife, daughter and son for the second time. They were cheering loudly and gave an added boost during this difficult stretch. Despite the constant elevation change for three miles, I was still feeling good, still feeling confident.
At 13.1 I was quick to take the idea of "halfway there" out of my mind. I fell into that trap last year and paid for it dearly come mile 20. I did reset my Garmin at 13.1 because somewhere along the way I had picked up a false reading and was .5 miles ahead. At mile 13 we started what would be a gradual 4 mile uphill stretch. Right about then a guy started chatting in our group about how this was a recovery run for him....WHAT?!@# A marathon as a recovery run? Turns out he had done a 100 mile race recently and was about to start ramping up again for his next adventure. The thought of a 100 mile run was beyond comprehension...and just about then, I was feeling the first signs of wearing down. I quickly made a strategy to hang with the 4.15 pacers until mile 17, reasses and let them make a gradual escape if I needed to. Turned out it was a good plan.
As we came to 17, I knew it was time to back off the gas just a bit. The uphill course was wearing on me physically, but I still felt good mentally. Just then a woman appeared in front of me wearing a shirt that had a verse from Hebrews 12:1 that read, "run with endurance the race that is set before us." I had heard and read the verse several times before, but at this moment it took on added significance. It was just what I needed. I felt such thankfulness for God giving me the will to move forward and the health to make it happen. For the next mile and a half I watched as the 4.15 pace group edged slowly ahead. The thought of seeing my family at mile 19 brought me an added jolt of energy.
Through mile 18's water stop, I took my Excedrin Migraine tablets (for pain and the caffeine) and hoped they would kick in soon. Approaching mile 19 I was feeling such a sense of gratitude for my wife.
Not only did she have some much needed nutrition (Clif Shot Blocks and gels) waiting on me...I was also reminded of the sacrifice my training has been for her. With two small children at home, she picks up the slack when I'm putting in long hours at work and then goes "above and beyond" when, after a long week, I have to take another chunk of time to put in some miles. As I started to turn a little emotional, out of nowhere, there it was -- a killer cramp at the top of my right calf. It nearly stopped me dead in my tracks. I stopped to give it a quick stretch at the curb and started what would become my reality for the next 7 miles. A few minutes later I was happy to see my wife and Happy (my son) and every happier to get some great support from Chicklet.
My 2 1/2 year old daughter has been talking about going to see daddy run and couldn't really comprehend going to "cheer him on" so she's spent the last week saying she was going to come and "Cheer Daddy up while he runs!" Her words could not have been truer. A short stop for some high fives, a hand up of Shot Blocks and Sport Beans and I was back at it. Through 19 I also saw a buddy of mine who was working a water station. All along the course the volunteers were incredible...going the extra mile not just providing water and drink, but also giving such great encouragement.
Miles 19 through 24 then went something like this...
Self: Okay, run to next street sign.
Body: What, are you kidding me?
Self: No, keep going.
Body: So what's in it for me?
Self: Shut up and keep going. Okay, good job for making it, now make it to the next stop sign.
Body: You better have a good explanation for all of this pain.
Self: I can't think of one right now. I'm too busy trying to get to the next sign.
Body: Here's another cramp to make you think about it.
It wasn't pretty but it was moving forward. I tried to slow my pace, but everytime I would get below 9.45 it would feel worse and my legs would start to cramp. So I started running as far as I could and then would walk a bit. While running I even tried, with some success to flex my foot. I found it gave me about an extra minute of running before I'd have to walk or stop on the curb for a quick 5 second stretch. Through the final miles of the course we started descending on downtown. The crowds throughout were five fold what they were last year and their encouragement was a huge help. As I neared mile 24 I remembered the last hill that stood between me and the downhill to the finish line. I just kept telling myself, if you make it to the hill running, you can walk 3/4 of the hill. My mind games worked. Through the mile 24 water station and I started to smell the finish. As I moved forward through the UT campus I noticed I had been running with the same 6 or so guys for a while. Not together because we kept running and then walking at different times. But slowly we had formed a sense of comraderie, cheering each other on. None of us ever talked to each other except for an occasional, "looking strong" or "let's take it to the finish", but at this point we didn't need words.
As I made the turn at 25 and headed south towards the Texas State Capitol, it was finally sinking in. Each foot strike seemed to feel a little lighter, each moment a little sweeter. I knew I just had to make it around the Capitol and then enjoy a short run down Congress Avenue. At 25.5 I couldn't resist the beer stop from the Hash House Harriers...I figured if I felt this bad without a cold one, 6 oz. might bring me at least a fleeting moment of pleasure. It was cold and it was good. I knew I wouldn't be able to make the final .7 miles on the run so I took one last 10 second walk break and came upon a woman who looked like she was about to drop. I walked up beside her and told her if she would run, I'd run with her for a few moments. Surprised by my offer, she obliged and we both made it around the Capitol and saw our first glimpse at our path to the finish. I told her congratulations, she waved me on and I was eager to hit the final stretch.
I exited the same Capitol gates I have passed through scores of times, either to go grab lunch or get a cup of coffee, but this exiting was like none other. Upon leaving the gates, the crowds thickened. 11th street became 10th Street. My legs wanted to stop, speed up and quit all at the same time. I always had grand illusions of picking up the pace for a sprint to the finish down Congress Avenue, but after getting to this point I knew I was fine to take it easy and enjoy the cheering. At 9th Street I heard some friends cheering and in the midst of celebration my right leg gave me a jolt back to reality. A full on seizing of every muscle in my right leg from the hip down. It left my leg useless, drawn up and I couldn't even put it down. The pain and forward motion almost threw me to the ground. At the last minute I caught myself. Not to be overdramatic...spectators lined the street 3 deep, but at that moment of pain, everything fell quiet. That cramp was just a reminder of what I was about to accomplish. A few steps later, my shuffle turned into running again. As I was heading down the street I spotted Ryan. He was cheering me on and I couldn't help but smile and feel a sense of pride. Shortly after Ryan, I spotted my wife. You would have thought she was at the Super Bowl. Camera out, jumping wildly, I had to slow down a bit just to take it all in.
After passing my family I could see the chute, I could see the finish line and for the first time in several hours, I didn't feel a thing...only profound gratefulness. I had done it. 4.27.13.
On this day, at this marathon, some people ran to qualify for Boston, others ran for a shot at the Olympic trials, hundreds succeeded. Still, thousands of others ran for much different reasons. Some were running to escape the past, others to embrace a different future...but all who finished did just that. We finished. Some athletes scoff at the idea of the everyman doing a marathon or a long distance triathlon, saying "anyone can do a marathon in 4.30 or 4.45 or 5 hours."
But the fact remains, no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter how much you weigh, to do a marathon takes disciplined training, sacrifice, the courage to open yourself up to failure, and hard work. I ran with endurance the race set out before me, God only knows where this race will take me next.
Thanks for your encouragement, your kind words, and your advice. Now let's go see what's next.