The marathon: From crazy to crying to smiling again

It starts with a crazy idea. The idea that you should run 26.2 miles consecutively. Then it gets crazier as you commit to 16 weeks of consistent training, running up to 50 or more miles a week.

Once you get passed that – and maybe a couple injuries or sore spots, a run or too that goes far less than well and the realization that running is anything but cheap when you add in new shoes every 350 miles, energy gels, rollers, race fees etc. – then comes race day.

The day before is all jitters. I find myself carrying a water bottle with me everywhere and then constantly in the bathroom. Dinner is a stressful affair as you try not to eat too much as to cause stomach aches, bloating and GI problems that don’t need description here, but also not too little because remember, 26.2 MILES TOMORROW!!

Bedtime looks like it did in elementary schools, 9 p.m. at the latest. You lay out your clothes – the pair of shorts that NEVER cause chafing, a trustworthy quick dry shirt, a sports bra you hope isn’t too old, a couple of extra layers for the cold and socks. Don’t forget the socks.

Before I get in bed I make at least two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wrap them in a paper towel and place them at my bedside – because remember, YOU’RE RUNNING 26.2 MILES TOMORROW!!! Every time I wake up, I take a bite.

I don’t know many runners who have ever heard their alarm go off on race morning. In the quiet, when everyone else is still sleeping something jolts you awake. It’s race day! Stress about if you remembered to pack mole skin for any growing blisters, stress about if you’ll have enough time to go to the bathroom properly, stress about if you picked out the right outfit…all the stress creeps in as you put on the clothes, the socks, the shoes, stuff extra energy gels into your pockets and grab a water bottle for the road.

The pre-race festivities – aka endless lines at the port-o-potties and pseudo-health professionals trying to convince you now is the time to try their brand new top of the line electrolyte solution – cloud out the fact that you are about to run for MULTIPLE HOURS (unless of course you’re Eliud Kipchoge). You start talking to other runners, taking in all the weird rituals people have and feeling at home. Here at last are the other crazy people who wake up every Saturday morning to run in the dark for hours.

Waiting in the corrals derails any dynamic warmup goals you once aspired toward. I find myself dancing around, bumping into runners who look for more serious than I feel and wondering how in the world did I end up here. The speeches go in one year and out the other, nothing but the gun (or weak sounding horn as is now more common) catches my attention.

Your feet start moving as hundreds of other feet start moving around you. All the feet are shuffling, resisting the urge to run until it’s no longer possible to hold back, knowing that once you start running you won’t stop for 26.2 miles.

The first few miles are a blur. Crowds and fans and creative signs. Friends and family cheering. Other runners trying to make conversation. Pace groups forming. I always feel surprised at how fast I can run without any effort during these miles and then regret it when I finally wake up somewhere around mile 7 or 8.

At this point my first negative thoughts start to creep in.

At mile 10 you realize double digits means nothing, it’s still early in the race.

At mile 13 it hits you that if you’d chosen to run the half marathon you’d be done.

At mile 15 you start hurting. This past marathon my knee REALLY started hurting. It hurt so bad for the first time ever in a marathon I walked. I walked and considered dropping out.

I walked and cried and a woman on the side of the road called to me, “853, you’re okay, it’s okay.”

“Its my knee,” I sobbed at her. She just sort of stared and nodded. I started shuffling.

For two full miles – until I reached the turn around – I thought about dropping out. I’ll do it when I get to mile 16, I told myself. Then at least I’ll only have had 10 miles left. I’ll do it when I get to a police officer and ask for a ride back. And then I ran right passed four police officers without saying anything. I’ll do it when I get to the turn around, I told myself. But, at the turn around there was nobody to ask for help. Nobody to take me back and – best of all – no pain.

As I made the turn, and saw hundreds of other runners coming behind me and hundreds more in front, I started working again. I started trying again. I knew I’d lost time I knew I couldn’t meet my goal anymore but I could meet a goal. I set a new goal. I was going to finish in under four hours, or maybe I was just going to finish.

I picked runners to stay with for a few minutes, half a mile, a full mile. I worked my way up yearning to see the 20 mile mark. I have no idea what I think about during a marathon – honestly it seems like a number consumes your mind.

18, 18, 18, 18…19, 19, 19, 19…20…20 at last. 20 is just six more miles. The last mile doesn’t count. Right? That’s how that works, right? Mile 25 is basically the end because mile 26 is just a sprint. So I really only have 5 miles left. Oh here we are, mile 21. Four miles, well five, but four until mile 25.

That mantra of numbers and reasoning why that number isn’t as bad as it sounds goes on and on and on. For hours. The time flies by. I take an energy gel or gummy every 35 minutes and it seems like as soon as I finish one it’s time for another. Water stations just keep coming to the point that I feel like I don’t want to drink anymore. Inevitably, at some point I miss a mile marker.

This time it was 22.

Mile 21 was long. During some races it’s mile 11 or 14. There’s always one mile that somehow vanishes making the one before it seem endless and your doubts begin to creep back in.

When I reach mile 23 – surprised that it isn’t 22 – I realize a 5k is nothing. A 5k used to feel like SO MUCH. In high school I’d dread those 3.1 mile races, but now after 23 miles of running…more than 3 hours…it feels like nothing.

The entire time I’m thinking to myself push, push, push, you want this. Remember. You want to go fast, you want to beat your time.

Passing the 25 mile marker is something magical. You’re in a lot of pain, you’re really tired, you wanted to drop out more than an hour earlier, but somehow you get a burst of speed. Each runner in front of you looks like an obstacle you have to get passed and each fan a savior. And when that fan is your fiance? It really gives you an extra boost.

I always have a lot of energy at the end. If it’s because I’m a better sprinter than a distance runner or because I conserve too much during the race I never know. My annoyed runner brain always thinks it’s the latter, my happy finisher brain always goes with the former. But one things for sure I bring out the cheers at the end as I sprint by people, smiling, huffing and puffing and nearly launch myself over the finish line. Amazed to be done, pained at what I didn’t do out on the course, but somehow always thinking about the fact that I can sign up for another one.

Sign up for another chance to push myself through the marathon – because honestly, nothing else is quite like it.

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