I’ll not go too far back in time with how I got into running, but suffice to say, I started this training season still not feeling like a “real” runner, despite having completed a few half marathons in 2012, and having trained for one in 2011 that, unfortunately, was cancelled before I could run it. Anyway, how I got from Saturday, September 1, 2012 to Sunday, February 17, 2013 has become one of the most joyful, memorable, challenging, fulfilling times in my life thus far. Joining Rogue to train for my first full marathon was the best decision ever, and the people I’ve met and formed what I consider lifelong bonds made it so much more than *just* a training group.
The entire season of training was going so well, and I was experiencing so much improvement since starting Day One that I could totally envision slamming the marathon, with a pace time well below my time trail estimate from the beginning of the season. My hard-earned confidence took a hit, though, when I noticed a nagging stiffness in my knee at the end of a regular ol’ 10-miler on Brushy Creek Trails, the week before the Rogue 30K. I was excited to pace in James and Jordan’s 4:25 group at the 30K to see what it would be like, because at that time it was my intention to run with them–or as close to them as possible–for the marathon. In hindsight, I should’ve just laid low and taken my time, considering that whole week my knee had been bothering me. But the competitive side got the best of me, and I pushed it too far. I think it was a combination of an unusually busy week–not sleeping enough (mainly), not paying attention to nutrition/hydration–and not giving an 18.6 miler the respect it deserved. I figured I’d run 20, 22’s with no problems…18.6 “seemed” like no big deal on a mostly flat course. It was a training run, right?!
In the days leading up to race day, I felt an objective “curiosity” about what the marathon experience would be like, rather than fearing it or getting psyched out about it. And then Sunday arrived…and the butterflies started…and all of a sudden we were crossing the start line and THIS WAS HAPPENING!!!! It was hard to go slower than I wanted, but I was way too worried about ruining my whole race in the first 6 miles. So I repeatedly reminded myself to go “slow and easy’ as long as possible. My two friends–sole sisters!–were right there and so strong. My plan was to stay with them as long as possible and then just do my best if we got separated. But I really wanted to stick together…because they felt stronger than I with the pacing. These ladies, above all, would be able to execute that 6 step plan.
Everything was going great until we got to the turn off 35th Street, and that’s when my mind got weak. We weren’t even to the “Great Northern Mental Madness” yet and I was faltering, feeling like I wanted to slow down or even walk. Those middle miles are largely a blur for me, but they nearly took me down. Today–the day after–I keep thinking of the Rocky analogy, and during that stretch it really felt like a beat down. Peeling yourself off the mat, trying to stay upright, staggering, and holding onto the ropes. I experienced nausea, light-headedness, full leg spasms in both legs…I just wanted to get to mile 20, where it was supposed to get easier, according to the race tactic notes. Except it didn’t get easier, and by then I was alone…one friend had already blazed off in an armor of focus I couldn’t even imagine at that point; the other friend strapped with pain, whom I’d never, ever seen struggle before. Even then, she bore down and managed to keep grinding it out. I don’t even remember how I kept putting one foot in front of the other, but I did.
I kept holding out for Duval…surely Duval will be better. Duval is supposed to be the “Promised Land”…..except it wasn’t. All the downhill grace we were “supposed” to get was met with a head wind that felt like it was pushing me back every trudging step I took….running that was probably slower than some people were walking. I was struggling in a way I did not anticipate on that stretch. But here’s what happened: the bystanders and volunteers called me by name and told me I was strong and handed me orange slices (I accepted as distraction) and made eye contact with me, handing me water, high fiving me. I remember thinking at the time how weak one of my high fives was and just half-chuckled in spite of myself, wondering if that contact imparted to that person how beaten I felt. And even though I didn’t feel the least bit strong, I kept going, gritting my teeth (which are sore today), bearing it, willing myself to remember that “this is what you came for,” my mantra from ultramarathoning great, Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run. At mile 23 it started feeling like it was going to be okay..still gonna be hard, but it’s gonna be okay. I had no idea what my time might be, and at that point, I didn’t care. I was stripped down to the bare bones of “just” finishing.
The hill on San Jacinto seemed three times steeper the second time around, and of course all the race photographers were in the middle of the lanes at every block..I can’t wait to see those pics and get a good laugh at myself, trying to smile (read: grimace) and not show how completely crushed I felt. I crested the hill, took the downhill at 11th and even then couldn’t get the lead out…I kept whispering to myself the words from the tactic notes, “let gravity do the work”…even then! Could. Not. Speed. Up. And then I got to the turn, the last turn for the remaining .2, and out of some place I can’t describe, I cut loose with my strides as hard and as fast as I could, and managed to finish “strong.” It was probably only 5 or 10 seconds, but it made my whole race. That, and being able to stay with my girls for as long as we did…because I really thought I’d be out there alone a whole lot more than it turned out I was. I will never forget their being with me, and going through that together. Meeting one after crossing the finish line and standing together while we waited for our third, the HUGE smiles we all had upon meeting again……was amazing. The entire experience from start to finish was “brutiful,” a term coined by blogger Glennon Doyle. Brutal….absolutely; but equally beautiful. We’re already talking about coming back for next year 😉