“Four miles to go. You can do it. It’s only 16 times around the track – an easy morning jog. Run hard and finish strong. You can do it!” I yelled to myself, trying to convince my blurring mind that the pain was almost over. I had hit the wall; head on I crashed right into it, plowed through and now was working under damage control.
Two and a half-hours ago the race started. The goal: 3 hours 10 minutes. I knew it would be close. My training runs predicted around 3 hours but they didn’t factor the suffering pace of the last 4 miles. Typical weekly training runs ended at 22 and 23 miles, leaving me tired but not dead after about 2:30 – 2:40. Now at mile 22, I felt I was dying, dying a slow death taking place over the next 4 miles.
“Slow down. Pace yourself.” I reminded myself after someone yelled 5 minutes and 25 seconds at the 1st mile checkpoint. The race had just started a few minutes ago. Adrenaline ran high. My shoes barely touched the pavement as the pack started to thin. A helicopter hovered above recording the race. The police motorcades rode on our left. Supporters flanked the sidewalks, offering encouragement as we passed. My overwhelming excitement relaxed and I felt for my pace.
“5:45!” the pace was yelled at the 2nd mile checkpoint. “This is crazy” I laughed to myself. No way could I keep this pace but no one seemed to be slowing. I knew the key to finishing meant a good but sustainable pace of 7 minutes and 15 seconds per mile. My current pace meant burning out after only a few miles. I needed to slow down but wanted to give myself a cushion at the end so I began to ease and not chase.
Three months of training went into this race. Early morning runs, alone and in the dark, mile after mile. Fifty miles a week – more running than I have ever done brought me to this stage. Runs when I didn’t feel fresh as I dragged myself out the door and down the road. Runs that beat me up, a couple times left me peeing blood. Runs where I cramped and couldn’t finish. Runs that took hours and took me from one side of town to the other and then back again. Runs that I knew would matter in the end and that somehow, some time would make the difference on marathon day.
My first marathon left me so sore in my legs that I knew that I needed to prepare better for the last few miles. So this time I trained more and trained harder. And I felt ready.
But there are some things that you just can’t prepare yourself for, like needing to use the bathroom in the middle of a marathon when time is of the essence. Just in case, I had already gone twice before leaving for the race. Bathroom lines are long at the start of the race sometimes you’ll wait 30 minutes. Breakfast meant an energy bar and small Starbucks. We ate dinner at 3:00 PM the day before. I hadn’t taken any chances. But starting at about the 6th mile, my stomach began to churn. At the 8th mile I started to have cramps and I started to debate whether or not to stop. So for the next 2 miles I debated: give up a few minutes and use the bathroom or risk losing time due to cramping. At the 10th mile, I spotted a port-a-potty and decided for a quick pit stop. A few minutes later I was back on the road, but must have lost a hundred or so positions. I didn’t want to push and make up for the loss, so I settled in to a pace and started looking ahead to the halfway point where Nicole and her parents waited.
The morning started at 5:15 AM, when I crawled out of bed and started to get ready. Twenty minutes later everybody else started getting ready. We were on the road at 6:00 AM and headed to the starting line. It seemed everybody wanted to park near the start, so the closest parking we found was about ½ mile from the start. The dark cold air woke us up as we walked, making our way to the start. As we neared the starting area, the excitement grew.
Ten minutes before the start I located my pace team of about a half dozen other runners needing to finish under 3:10. Their approach was running 7:15 miles, no faster and no slower. I felt this left me no room for error or any cushion at the end. I decided better to run a little faster upfront and allow myself some minutes at the end. This meant running without the pace team but I memorized the faces and knew I couldn’t let them pass me.
I passed mile 13 with Nicole waving her big green sign, Olga banging the cowbell and Richard holding the camera. The sight was emotional for me and their support gave me a much-needed lift. The smile lasted only a minute as the last 13 miles loomed ahead.
Fast forward through the boring miles to around mile 20. At mile 20 I started to tire and my legs began to burn. With still 6 miles to go I started to doubt my approach of running faster at the start. As I slowed it seemed like some runners got faster as they pushed on by me. I passed a few runners but more passed me. To finish just the next mile was now the goal. The mind games began, just run to the next mile marker was the game. As I passed the marker, I repeated the game.
Mile 22 introduced me to the wall. My legs burned and they seemed to tighten with each stride. I had to take a break so I walked about 100 yards. I looked at my watch and realized I had about 38 minutes left to qualify. If I ran this mile strong, then I should easily be able to do the last 3 miles at 10 minutes each.
The final 3 miles are the joy of pain. The joy is when you cross the finish line, the pain is every second up to the line. You want to run, you want to move faster. You’ve trained so hard for these last few miles but your body just wants to stop. I felt restrained by some invisible force. The mind was strong but the body weak. It had enough. So I compromised. Each mile marker was rewarded with a 1-minute walk and some water, then back to running: a simple but refreshing reward. My sluggish pace frustrated me, barely moving but running as hard as I could.
As I headed down the home stretch, along the park and the state capitol, I knew it was going to be close. I didn’t want it to be so close, I wanted to sprint the last mile, but everything was running on empty. So with ½ mile to go, the pace leader came up from behind me and yelled “If you want to finish in 3:10 then come on!” I couldn’t let them pass me.
I picked up my stride and told myself there was no stopping until we crossed. Their pace was strong and I could barely hang on. As we turned the final corner, I caught the face of Olga then I spotted the finish line and the clock. I knew I was going to make it. As I reached the finish, Richard stood at the left and Nicole met me on the other side. 3:09:54 of pure exhausting excitement.
Nicole and me at the finish. So good to be done!