Yeah, marathons are hard. I mean, I figured it would be hard, but this was really hard! Even at my slow pace, things hurt. There are depths to your knees you never knew existed, and they hurt.
Here are some tips from a "seasoned" marathoner (if by "seasoned" you mean "doused with Gatorade from a clumsy grab during a water stop at mile 25"):
1. DON'T do the math. Do NOT pass mile marker 8 or 9 or 10 and think to yourself, "only 18, 17, 16 miles to go." This is not an encouraging line of thought. Equally, don't get to mile 20 and think, "only an hour to go." This is “demoralizing” the same way the Grand Canyon is "deep."
2. DON'T look at the runners around you. They resemble the latter half of the Bataan Death March and so do you.
3. DON'T look at the person cheering on the sidelines who is also wearing a marathon runner's bib. Yes, they've already finished and look rested and ready to kick your ass a second time. Acknowledging this will only make you want to hurt them, and you can't raise your leg high enough to nail them in the nards. Save your energy.
4. DO listen to the cheering of the crowds. Even though it may be a mercy cheer, and you know their cries of, "you're doing great, you look strong, you're going to finish this" are optimistic in the extreme, sideline support gives a better energy boost than a bucket of Gu and a trough of Gatorade.
5. DO cheer for the Kenyans as they whoosh blurrily past you. They are a testament to what the human body is capable of, even if it's not your human body.
So, yeah, I finished. It took me 4 hours, 55 minutes and some number of seconds, most of which hurt. But I finished, and even 3 days later, I periodically find myself with an “I finished a marathon” grin that is 50% proud, 40% stunned and only 10% smug.
So here’s how it happened:
On Friday, I drove over to Toasty’s place, and we left from there. We had a fabulous meal at Burger King (2 veggie burgers, a shared fries and small salad—did you say you wanted details?) somewhere south of the border, then crossed into Canada. We were staying at the seedy but reasonably priced Bosman’s Hotel (politeness is extra) in downtown Vancouver, and we rolled in around 9.30 pm.
Toasty had—of course—brought his laptop, so I was able to check in with the Runners World forums. (I’ve been spending way too much time following threads on this forum. Lots of newbies like me and more experienced runners providing much-needed advice, support, stories and laughs.) Many of us were doing our first marys (runners’ slang for “marathons”—I’m entitled to use it now, only not too often), so there was a lot of chatter, and I wanted to hear what everyone else was going through.
Saturday was rainy and cool. We got up and trotted over to the Expo to pick up my bib and info. packet. Toasty bought me a very cool Vancouver Marathon shirt which I will wear until it falls off my body at which point I will make it into decorative handkerchiefs, doilies, lawn ornaments, whatever. I got myself a cool little bauble that very subtly says ***I RAN A MARATHON ONCE!!!*** We ate free pudding and some ghastly tofu-berry thing, got our Power Bars, picked up a lot of literature which was promptly recycled, took some pictures and headed back out again.
One funny thing was looking at the list of people registered: somewhere around 3500 people were scheduled to run the full mary. Something like 5 times that number were running the half. In fact, when we first got there to pick up my bib number, there was a huge line. Then Toasty realized we were standing in the half-mary line. The full had no line at all. That was when the first ice-butterfly took up residence in my stomach: what did all those people know that I didn’t?
We had arranged to meet a good friend of mine who lives in Vancouver, but that wasn’t until 2 pm., so we had some time. We parked ourselves in a nearby Starbucks (you can take the people out of Seattle, but…) and looked through the goody bag for awhile. I stupidly studied the course map again. This is “stupid” because (a) you can’t possibly get lost unless you’re so slow that they’ve picked up the traffic cones and the volunteers have all decamped for the night, and (b) it invites swarms of ice-butterflies to come tango on your intestines.
We spent the day with my friend, even to the point of carbo-loading on some Italian food for supper. Then it was back to the room for a last look at the Runners World forums. I laid out all the stuff I’d need on the bed: shoes with inserts, “lucky” (ie. non-blister-causing) socks, shinsplint wraps (2), shorts, shirt, cap, sunscreen, sunglasses, Gu packets (3), blah blah blah. I spent less time getting ready for my high school prom. By now, the ice-butterflies were performing aerial stunts in my tummy, like tiny, frozen Blue Angels. We were in bed by 10.
Bosman’s Hotel cleverly saves on costs by short-sheeting every bed, so that presented some sleeping challenges, and I was already pretty challenged. I got some sleep that night, but not much. Worst of all, I dreamed that the race was over, and I was excitedly telling my parents all about it. They asked, “How was the bridge?” (The Burrard Bridge is the highest point on the run, and you have to cross it TWICE, thank you.) It was at that point that I realized I hadn’t run it yet, and I woke myself up. Evil evil evil subconscious.
I had set 3 alarms, so it was quite the chorus that woke us up at 5.30 on Sunday morning. We got ready, I stuffed down a bagel with peanut butter and a cold coffee drink. We got to the start line with plenty of time to spare, so I did my stretching thing, and Toasty did his amazingly supportive boyfriend thing (lots of “you can do this, you’re trained, you’re ready, you can do this”). Start lines are always a mixed blessing. It’s fun to be mixed in at the nexus of all the buzzing energy that swirls around big events. There’s a lot of chatter between total strangers (usually of the, “can you believe we paid to do this?” variety), a lot of shivering with nerves and cold, a lot of pictures being taken and shouts of last-minute advice and encouragement from the sidelines. The half started 30 minutes before us, so there were just the 4000 or so full-mary runners, plus a nice-sized crowd of spectators. There were many garbled announcements, I found my pace bunny (the person who runs at the pace you’d like to keep—heroes, every last one of them), I handed off all the clothes I could part with to Toasty, the gun went and we were off.
It took about 2 minutes for me to cross the start line, and I was trying desperately to get keep thoughts like “26.2 miles to go” out of my head. It’s a daunting distance, no matter if you’ve trained for it or not. In my usual way, I had nerved and worried myself into a nauseated tummy that I would haul around with me for the next 14 miles. Boo.
At the half-mary mark I was running my 2nd or 3rd best half-mary pace, so that made me feel good. I was still keeping up with my bunny (I’d lose him at mile 15 or so), and nothing but my stomach was hurting. When I saw the 14-mile mark, finally everything shifted into place. I felt good enough to know that I was probably going to finish. My stomach finally settled down, I relaxed and started to enjoy the experience. Yay!
One cool thing about Vancouver is they print your first name on your bib, so all along the course I was hearing cries of, “Go, Raggs! You look great, Raggs; keep it up!” (OK, confession time: Raggedy Angst is not my real name.) It’s amazing how good it feels to have someone shout encouragement at you by name. There was really good crowd support nearly the whole course. The loneliest time was through Stanley Park where more than once I felt like the bikers and non-racing joggers regarded us as interlopers in “their” park. I still hadn’t eaten anything as I was worried that the nausea dragon would raise its ugly head again, but I did partake of water and/or Gatorade at nearly every water station. And at stations 7 (mile 13.5) and 9 (mile 17), I had stashed some Starbucks Double Shots. I was only able to take a couple of gulps of those, but I think the caffeine helped.
As I was running at a non-competitive pace (boy, was I), I was able to have conversations with some of the people around me, and that was fun. There were other newbs out there, and we did check-ins to monitor how we were doing: “anything hurt?” “Nothing unusual. You?” “Not yet!” Our discussions were, of necessity, pretty brief, ending with “Good luck! We’re going to do this thing!” before one of us ran on ahead.
After the first crossing of the Bridge, which really wasn’t bad, there’s a loooooooong out-and-back stretch. If you’ve done runs like this, you’ll know how crappy those are: for something like 2 miles, I got to watch people coming back as I was going out. I couldn’t see the turn-around point ahead of me, which is incredibly frustrating. This was by far my least favorite part of the race, despite finally choking down a Gu at mile 21, and having my very Irish name shouted at me by a very Irish volunteer at a water stop. But once you get back and cross the Bridge again, you hit the magical 25-mile marker. On the Vancouver course, once you reach the top of the Burrard Bridge the 2nd time, it’s all downhill to the finish line. I almost choked up when I saw that sign: 1.2 to go.
The last part of the race is awesome. You get to run through town where there are tons of spectators, all of them shouting “Almost there!” –and you finally get to believe them. At .2 miles after the 25-mile marker, there’s a “1 mile to go” sign (thank you, bloody Queen Victoria). In my head, that’s where I started to sprint. My body declined to participate, saying it was more interested in just staying assembled in the right order, but in my head, it was the music from Chariots of Fire from there to the end. That “finish” sign was like winning the lottery. OK, I’d rather win the lottery, but it was still pretty damn cool.
As I approached the finish, my name came over the loudspeaker. They try to get in a little information about everyone, which is just fantastic. It makes you feel like you’ve won the Olympics or something. I crossed the line, got my medal (I almost hugged that woman, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the first or the last), and heard my name from above me. Toasty was there; he’d gotten several pictures, and despite a nearly 5 hour wait, was as excited and thrilled as I was.
Then I got stuck in an airlock.
OK, it was only for a couple of minutes, but we didn’t know what was going on or why or how long it’d last. Toasty figured out later that it was because the stadium has an inflatable roof; they have to shut the doors periodically to keep the sky from falling down. My legs have never hurt that badly. I just wanted to keep moving, but I couldn’t, as we were a bit crammed into the airlock space. Toasty, a shower and my reclaimed life were on the other side—that part was a bit eternal, but it at least saved me from the emotional meltdown that had been threatening for the past few weeks.
Toasty got me a massage, which was nothing short of miraculous. This woman worked on my legs for about 30 minutes, and once she was done, I could actually stand and walk pretty reasonably. The deep muscle pain from the finish was gone. I showered in the locker room, changed into my “finisher” t-shirt and some sweat pants, then rejoined Toasty for what he thought was a prolonged celebratory hug but was actually me needing him to prop me upright.
Then we drove home. And stopped every hour or so, so that I could get out and hobble around a bit. I called several people to bore them with my mile-by-mile replay. I slept. We ate some more Burger King.
In the movie The Spirit of the Marathon, one guy says something like, when you cross the finish line, you’re changed forever. I don’t know if that’s true, being only 3 days from the finish line, which is a far cry from “forever” unless I get hit by a bus this afternoon, but the marathon is an interesting study in introspection. Marathon training made me self-absorbed to a level I would rather not repeat, but it also did teach me some things about myself. In athletic stuff, I’ve always erred on the side of quitting. It was nice, for once, to take on this genuinely hard thing and see it through, literally, to the finish line.