Alexander thought he had a bad day. Obviously, he never ran a marathon.
To be fair, it didn't start out that way. It started out rather pleasantly (despite the fact it was at 3:30 in the morning). I'd had a successful and uneventful pre-race routine the day before, including the travel, packet pick-up and final carbo-loading meal. I'd managed to get a good four hours of sleep, which is all one could really hope for on the night before a big race. The alarm clock sounded right on time, giving me a full 90 minutes of careful and meticulous pre-race prep. When I stepped out the door of the hotel, I was greeted with perfect weather and the buzzing excitement from hundreds of other runners making their way toward the loading buses. The ride to the starting line was calm and comfortable and despite having to wait more than an hour before the race started, the time was spent in enjoyable conversation with fellow runners. Yes, admittedly, the day started out perfectly well.
Even a full two hours into the race, the day was still going as well as I could have hoped. My body felt strong, my legs felt fresh and it was a glorious day to be alive and running. I had painstakingly created a custom-made pace bracelet, laminated and circled around my wrist, designed to help me stay on track with my negative split strategy of running a sub 4:20 marathon. The GPS on my arm did its duty of keeping my pace in check as several times I had to reign myself in upon seeing the numbers where they shouldn't have been. Twelve miles into the race, I was right on track, even down to the second on some of the splits. I could practically feel the conserved energy in my body ready to explode, sending me soaring through the second half of the race and across the finish line in a personal best time.
That's when the day turned terrible.
Somewhere between miles 12 and 13, not in a single grand moment of time but rather gradually and almost unnoticeably, my legs locked up. The grief that had been plaguing my ITB's for the last six weeks, despite my religious efforts in babying them day after day, became the bane of my marathon existence. While my mind and body were ready to change gears halfway into the race to finish it off, my legs conspired together and simply wouldn't carry me. I spent much of the next six miles fighting it. At times, I was successful (I climbed the only sustained incline of the race at mile 14 without walking once). Other times, I failed miserably. As each mile passed, I continued comparing my watch with my pace bracelet, helplessly watching myself fall further and further behind.
That's when the day turned horrible.
To add insult to injury, around mile 16, my toes caught on fire. At first, I thought it was due to blisters, but as I continued plodding along, I realized it was pressure building up underneath my toenails from all the downhill running. I could feel them turning a deeper shade of purple with every step I took and the only thing I could do to alleviate the pain was to forge ahead and pray for flat or uphill stretches of the course. I don't think I've ever relished running uphill more in my life.
That's when the day turned no good.
I'd been watching the weather forecast all week leading up to the race and every day it was the same: HOT. Hottest day of the year hot. I'd been running in temperatures in the 30's and 40's (just barely reaching the 50's and 60's within the last couple of weeks), yet the temperature I was faced with on race day was in the low 80's. I knew there was nothing I could do about it other than to dress appropriately, stay as well-hydrated as I could and just deal with it. To be honest, though, as the time went on and the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, I didn't feel especially mired down by the heat. I'm certain it played a part in negatively affecting my performance-- probably even more so than I'm giving it credit-- but I can't say it was the overwhelming factor in my downfall. Unfortunately, I had other much more miserable factors with which to contend.
That's when the day turned very bad.
At mile 18, I had fallen so far behind my planned pace that I knew not only would I not get the personal record I'd been shooting for, but I would likely finish slower than I'd ever finished before. The course at this point had taken its most downhill turn and what was supposed to have worked in my favor the last 10K became my brutal enemy. Knowing my time was now pointless, I made the decision to spare myself some of the needless agony and started walking. Not just for a couple of minutes, but for a couple of miles. The course continued its agonizing descent and while the scenery around me was the most breathtaking the race would have to offer (including towering mountain walls and a thundering waterfall), I was oblivious to it. My mind was focused only on taking the necessary steps that would bring me closer to the finish line. My youngest sister (the same one who ran Salt Lake City with me last month) had come out to support me and joined me on the course for several of the miles, including the "walk of death" stretch. She did everything she could to help keep my mind off the pain, including telling bad jokes and funny stories. I tried my best to maintain some kind of positive conversation with her, but the discouragement was getting to me and my mind was just a puddle of wet noodles to go along with my legs. Still, without her there with me during those few desperate miles, I'm not certain I would have kept going. (Thank you, Kim... you're the best! I'll never forget the cucumber joke.)
After two miles of walking, I was finally approaching the last 5K of the race. I'd told myself at that point I would pick up into a run again-- or rather, a jog-- until the finish line. Once I did, I've never wanted to quit so badly. I passed up the final two aid stations because I knew if I stopped running to drink, I wouldn't start back up again. A policeman on a bike rode past me and my eyes instantly zoned in on the gun in his holster. I think if I'd had the energy to say anything, I would have begged him to just put me down then and there. All that conserved energy I'd stored the first half of the race was used in managing the pain the second half and I was running only on fumes. I'm still not sure how I made it through the last three miles, other than being deliriously determined to finish. There was NO way I wasn't going to finish.
Finally, mercifully, the last stretch of the race appeared before me. Lining both sides of the street were spectators, yelling and cheering for every runner that passed, including myself. I regret not having the energy to turn and smile at them or wave a hello, but in my mind I thanked them profusely as it was their encouragement that carried me the last 385 yards.
During the last six miles, when my goal time had slipped so easily away from me, I'd made a new resolution to at least finish under five hours. FIVE HOURS!... the thought was so discouraging to me, but it was all I had left to cling to and so I did just that. It meant not stopping to walk the last three miles and pushing myself even just a little bit harder the final mile. I kept an eye on my watch during the final stretch and knowing it was possible, I kept pushing. Everything was a blur around me, the sights and sounds all a foggy haze. But as I approached the finish line I clearly heard my name called out by the announcer and I knew I'd done it... finishing in 4:59:14.
Once I was done, I couldn't hold back my tears and had to find a secluded spot to sit down and try to gain some composure. I'd endured so much hard work and brutal preparation only to have such a disappointing outcome. I remember thinking if this had happened during my first marathon, there never would have been a second. I threw myself a pity party for several minutes, then took a deep breath, stood up on my wobbly legs and held up my head. Around my neck, I was wearing the exact same beautiful medal that the first place finisher was wearing around his. And in a way, I had more reason to be proud of my finish than if I had accomplished my original goal. I may not have conquered my third marathon. But I conquered myself and there's just nothing than can be considered a failure about that.
What a wonderful terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day it was!
(In an effort to get my report posted sooner, I'm doing it sans the pictures and videos that were taken that day. I'll edit this as soon as I have them, so check back if you're so inclined. One of the brightest spots of this race was the dozen or so signs my family made and held on the course to entertain the runners as they passed. They proved to be very popular, so I'll be sure to give my wonderfully supportive family their due kudos!)
Monday, May 19, 2008
Alexander thought he had a bad day. Obviously, he never ran a marathon.