After months of training followed by 3 weeks of marathon taper, the books said I was ready for my first marathon - a beginner's marathon. I wasn't so sure myself. For one thing, my training program included a few extra weeks of training in order to account for injury or boredom. As a result, I had completed my longest run (23 miles) 7 weeks before the marathon, when it should have been run 3 weeks before. I did complete an 18-mile and a 17-mile long run after that, but every long run after the 23 miler seemed like a ride through hell - I was rapidly plummeting from peak performance. Besides, I was assailed by self-doubt. At races, I am inclined to get carried away by the crowd. Did I have the patience to pace myself throughout the race and the endurance to carry me through the last few miles?
To save myself from impending disappointment, I made some goal adjustments. I had not timed a single run of mine, and had no clue what my race pace should be. So, instead of randomly aiming for a race under 4 hours, I would try to find my ideal pace within the first few miles of the race and just aim to complete...not exactly a winning attitude, but a judicious one for a first-time marathoner.
On Friday, DH and I left at 4:15 pm, on the 430 mile drive to Erie. It was raining all the way. DH was exhausted after a sleep study kept him awake the previous night, but he generously undertook most of the driving. I only pitched in for about 2 hours, when he could barely keep his eyes open. In spite of the traffic congestion on Route 80 and coffee and dinner stops, we made good time and reached the ramshackle El Patio motel at 1 am. The noise from the neighboring bar was deafening, but luckily, we got a room far away from the bar (pretty basic, but clean) so we slept tight. At least, DH did. I have a mortal fear of bed bugs at cheap motels, so I stayed up half the night, imaginary bed bugs crawling all over me.
We slept in till 12 pm and when we woke up, it was still raining. We had lunch at Appleby's. In order to load up on carbs, I ordered a pale, unappetizing Chicken Broccoli Alfredo pasta bowl but compensated with a delicious maple butter blondie dessert. DH had french onion soup and a dry Oriental chicken salad. We packed up more than we ate. We did a bit of shopping, then made our way to the Rotary Pavilion in Presque Isle State Park. I picked up my race packet (bib, chip and grey T-shirt (this is the coolest race T-shirt I have ever gotten, and the only one I will ever wear)). The expo was small, just 3 little tents with running gear, shoes and knickknacks. I was disappointed that the race drink was not gatorade, but GU2O, which I had not heard of, much less tasted. I had heard horror stories of runners who crumbled, due to downing untested sports drinks during the race. I sampled the mysterious GU2O, which tasted like medicine. I had no choice, though...I did not want to carry a fuel belt weighted down with water and sports drink...carrying my weight through 26.2 miles was going to be challenging enough.
There was a flurry of activity in the "kitchen", where volunteers under the direction of celebrated Runner's World recipe award-winner, Linda were preparing the much-advertised pre-race pasta dinner (which I had not signed up for). The pasta dinner was a choice between spaghetti and penne, included onions, tomatoes, red and green peppers, cucumber and radishes, a choice of ceci beans, olives and croutons, with meat sauce, marinara and olive oil; and for dessert, there was a choice between banana cake, carrot cake, white cake, chocolate cake and German chocolate cake. I thought about the bland remains of my pasta lunch waiting in the car and could not muster any enthusiasm for another dose of pasta, notwithstanding the afore-mentioned choices.
I had planned a little shake-out jog on Saturday, but this was canceled due to rain, DH's lack of enthusiasm and my lack of motivation. We wandered into the local farmers' market, buying fruit. I spent the rest of the evening watching TV, eating all the leftovers I could lay my hands on and lazing in bed. Then, despite being stuffed with pasta and fruit, we drove around town foraging for food. You can't have too much dinner before a marathon. Besides, when else was I going to be able to gorge so guiltlessly? Spotting an Indian restaurant, I brightened; and a plate of lamb biryani, curd rice and onion bhaji later, I had the most thorough and enjoyable massage, courtesy the love of my life, and retired to bed, a contented woman.
I woke up at 4:30 am on Sunday morning. It was dark outside, and very windy, but the rain had stopped. I dressed, reluctantly crammed a slice of bread and peanut butter, OJ and a banana down my throat (I was not going down due to lack of food, that was for sure).
At 6 am, it was still dark when we drove to Presque Isle State Park. About a mile into the park, we joined a long line of cars, being directed to different parking lots by volunteers waving fluorescent wands. After parking, we made our way to the Rotary Pavilion, which was the starting point. I joined another longer line...this one leading to the porta potty. At any race, this is the one thing there can never be enough of! Even at the last minute before a race, there is a line outside every porta potty on the scene. I am sure there are at least a dozen runners at every race that miss the start due to potty needs. There was an ummm...potty incident at this point, which I shall spare you the details of. Suffice it to say, OJ is a definite no-no, the morning of the race. Trust me!
We successfully made it to the start, and by this time, I had my bib pinned to my singlet, timing chip attached to my shoe, big toes taped with gauze to avoid blisters. I had stretched and jogged a bit and was impatient to take off. The weather was pleasant, a gentle breeze making for a perfect start. At 7:05 am, after the national anthem was played, a horn blared the start of the marathon and half-marathon and about 1000 runners took off. I felt a little thrill go through me. This was the culmination of 2 wonderful, sometimes painful, years of running.
I struggled to find my rhythm the first few miles into the race. Everyone seemed to be passing me and it took all my self-control to avoid racing after them. I consoled myself that there was a whole mob of people behind me.
All ambition went out the window as I focused on ignoring the competition and running even splits (there were no digital clocks at the mile markers, I just used my trusty watch). There were water and GU2O stations at every mile. I would focus on getting through the water stations, one at a time; while strictly adhering to the rule, if you think your starting pace feels right, it’s too fast; if you think your starting pace feels slow, you’re probably right on pace. If I had any reserves left in the last few miles, I could always accelerate and end up with negative splits (Yeah, right)!
Remembering this piece of advice helped too: After 10 miles, and even after the halfway point, resist the temptation to believe “this is your day” and it’s going to be easier than you thought. It’s a mirage.
The thoughts that flit through your mind during a training run are so different from what goes through it during a race. (http://kavi-musings.blogspot.com/2008/08/reflections-during-long-run.html). After a few agonizing miles when, despite the absence of mile markers, it became clear to me that a sub-4 hour marathon was but a fantasy, I slipped into the zone - where I functioned on auto-pilot, ignoring the miles that passed by, watching others ahead of me, listening in on conversations around me and acknowledging the occasional cheering spectator. I tried to count the runners who were clearly running partners. 2 women especially interested me. They were dressed in perfectly matched shoes, socks, white singlets and grey bike shorts. Even their running styles matched, step for step. I barely noticed Miles 7 and 8, as I was shamelessly eavesdropping on an absorbing discussion between 2 gentlemen, where they related incidents of races they had missed/narrowly missed in the past (OK, when you are running 26.2 miles, anything passes for interesting conversation!). After Mile 8, I reached for a tube of vanilla bean GU handed out by a volunteer; it tasted terrible. From 9-12 miles, the vast and beautiful Lake Erie to my right kept me occupied; and the sound of music played by spectators. Though I prefer to run without an i-pod strapped to my bicep, a lively tune on a lonely run always gives me a considerable lift.
I have heard marathoners groan and moan about a 2-loop course, because as they near the start of the more grueling second half of the race, ecstatic half-marathoners are coasting to the finish line! I was expecting feelings of resentment and agony, but when I got to the half way point and was directed away from the half-marathoners, I felt quite proud of myself for going the whole way (or at least, attempting to). DH was waiting for me at 13.1 miles, egging me on. The smiling face of a loved one cheering you on during a race can do wonders for your morale. My spirits soared and I stepped up the pace...till DH was out of view.
The crowd had thinned and I could only spot one or two runners ahead of and behind me at any point. I was glad that I could run on grass by the side of the road for at least part of the distance. I have a rule: I only pound the tarmac when I have to. At 15 miles, the thought of running for 2 more hours seemed daunting. I wished I had a running partner. I was running out of things to occupy me. I even contemplated playing tic tac toe, but it was mentally draining. At the 16-mile intersection, cars were being stopped by road marshalls to make way for the runners; as I made the U-turn, I saw DH in his black Honda Accord, waving and yelling my name. This was so unexpected, I wanted to hug him!
From miles 16 to 25, DH drove alongside me as much as he could without obstructing traffic on the one-lane road. He would drive ahead or duck into a beach when a car emerged from behind. He videotaped me, fed me a plum, an orange and chocolate GU (whew! so much better than it's vanilla bean counterpart!), and kept my spirits up. He made the most mentally and physically draining part of the course much more bearable than I could hope for. By Mile 17, my knees, back and hips were stiff as starch. I stooped occasionally to touch my toes a few times mid-stride, and felt immense, though temporary relief.
I had read and heard so much about "hitting the wall", but had never encountered it in training. I think I ran right into it at Mile 20...though I could not be sure, because I just zoned out. My legs kept running (at times, I felt I was running backwards), my mind went numb. My pace slipped considerably; at Mile 21, I noticed I had taken 11 and a half minutes to complete the mile. I tried to step up the pace, but was hurting too much. There was no way I could make up the lost time, but I could stop myself from sliding further.
I reminded myself of something else I had read:
Set two goals for your race: a realistic goal that should be achieved predictably by your training, and a dream goal that will result by great conditions, executing flawlessly, and having a banner day.
By now, I was reconciled to the fact that this would not be a dream goal day. Somewhere between dream goal and realistic goal would be nice, but that needed a lot of focus. I stretched my back and shoulders and picked up the pace a tad. The temperature was now in the low '70's and the sun beat down...though the breeze made the it tolerable. I was thankful for my afternoon and early evening training runs in the blazing heat. Several people had slowed to a walk and I was able to pass other runners - which is such a confidence-booster at this stage in the race.Volunteers on bikes rode to and fro, checking on us marathon stragglers and making sure we did not collapse. I had developed a routine at aid stations: I took both water and G2O at every station; I drank the sports drink and emptied the water over my face and legs. The sports drink grew more and more dilute, which I was thankful for - I was getting sick of it!
At Mile 25, DH drove ahead to meet me at the finish. Several spectators, marathon and half-marathon finishers cheered me on the final mile. Towards the end of Mile 26, the finish line beckoned...and not a moment too soon! I tried a valiant sprint to the finish...and settled for a sort of hop-limp instead. As I crossed the finish, the clock read 4 hours, 25 minutes. My dream goal had been 3:59; the realistic version, 4:30. I was handed my finishers' medal and crawled into the arms of my proud DH.Experienced marathon runners always stress the need to 'Respect the distance'. Though I never took marathon training lightly and tried to give it my best shot, running this distance has helped me truly appreciate the physical effort, discipline and mental toughness it takes. It has helped me understand the heights to which I can go, as well as the limits. It has been an amazing journey.
Erie Marathon at Presque Isle, Erie, PA - Sunday, September 14, 2008
Chip Time: 4:24:43
Gun (Horn?) Time: 4:25:02
Field stats: 205/409 overall
Gender stats: 50/141 women
Age Group stats: 8/20 in 30-34 age category