living in the now

Still rambling about running. Sometimes other things.

I am a marathoner

I can now say what many people never say in their lives - I am a marathoner. Even if I never do one again, I am a marathoner. Yesterday was truly an unbelievable experience. From the start to the numbness near the end, I took it all in. The weather before the race was nice and cool. It wasn't as cold as I thought it would be, but cold enough to start with gloves and a thin long-sleeve shirt underneath my Livestrong shirt. I planned to toss those aside when I would see my wife and family and my friend Jon at the party zones creatively set up by the Richmond Sports Backers. After I walked around a bit with everybody, I said my goodbyes and then did a little more walking around, just amazed at the thousands of people getting ready to do this. Then, fortunately, I saw a familiar face -- I knew my old friend Travis (in the photo below), who I used to play basketball with, was running, but I hadn't gotten in touch with him. But among the sea of people, there he was along with a guy he had been training with. Their goal times were between 4-4:30, so it was perfect to run this race with them.

The start of the race was odd -- it just started. The speakers weren't loud enough where we were to hear the national anthem or the gun to start the race. We were suddenly walking forward. No one was pushing or in a rush, but as soon as we hit the start line, the running began. It was nice having someone to run with -- we were basically chatting about old times in Bedford and catching up on other things in life. We hit the first mile in 9:15. Everything felt great -- the weather was still good and no one around us was running too hard or too slow it seemed. We hit the next two miles just under 9 minutes and kept getting that strong urge to pee. I knew I would have to at some point, but I was hoping to wait until closer to half way. But this couldn't wait.

About half way between mile 3 and 4 I sped up to get to the port-a-potties and hope that I'd time it out where Travis and his friend would go by as I finished. It was perfect, although I ended up peeing next to the port-a-potty along with about half a dozen other guys. After a quick mile of 8:33 thanks to having to pee, we maintained a good pace by hitting the next miles at 9:16 and 9 minutes. Between miles 6 and 7 were downhill and clocked in at 8:42. I managed to take off my gloves, stuff them in my pocket, then take off the long-sleeved shirt without missing a beat. I then held onto my gloves and shirt until I spotted my group at the party zone. I had an easy hand-off of my clothes to Jon. And to my surprise, my group had made some signs -- I should have never mentioned running like a gazelle last week.

The next mile made its way up a small hill to the Huguenot Bridge -- the first uphill of the race and everyone stopped talking until we were crossing the bridge. It was the first chance to see the James River, and on an overcast, slightly foggy morning, it was a very awesome view. After crossing the bridge, the course went down Riverside Drive to run alongside the mighty James. It was like running on a back country road -- so nice and peaceful, and the miles were just going by so quickly it seemed. Miles 8, 9 and 10 were: 9:15, 8:58, 9:20. It was a comfortable pace -- basically about the same as my training pace on normal runs.

After we hit the double digits and strolled through a neighborhood and got to Forest Hill Avenue, I was wishing I had my gloves back. My hands were cold. The sun came out oh so briefly somewhere along there, but the weather, overall, was still good. When we hit the double digits, I was hoping my family made it to the next party zone at mile 12.9 so I could exchange hats. Even though I wasn't sweating all that much, getting something drier on my head was going to be welcome. Miles 11 and 12 were in 9:04 and 9:15.

In previous races I've done, I rarely pay attention to the crowds, but not for this race. Everyone seemed more genuine in their support for this event. This wasn't a race -- it was an experience, and I think for many spectators it was an experience, too, rather than usual clapping and shouting "Go runners!" So, as I was in awe of the spectators, I saw my group at the next party zone from at least 50 yards away. I stopped briefly to make sure the exchange went easily. To my surprise my sister, brother-in-law and dad had made it to this stop as well. I hit mile 13 in 9:22, and hit the half-way point just under 2 hours chip time.

This whole time I had not gotten caught up in my time or trying to figure everything out with finishing at a certain time. My #1 goal was to finish and somewhere in the 4 hour range would be all the better. But it was the half-way point when I started hitting distances in a race that I hadn't done before (that 30k just doesn't count in my books), I realized what an experience this was turning into. This wasn't like a 5k or the half marathon where I was worried about goal times -- this was becoming a life-changing day, on top of the already life-changing training. That all being said, at halfway, I briefly thought that if I kept that pace I'd be under 4 hours, but I pushed those thoughts aside knowing that this wasn't a race against time.

After a 9:14 mile to mile 14, I began to pull away from Travis. Conversations had pretty much stopped anyway, as the mental part of the marathon started to take over. At mile 14, I grabbed two Clif gels that were being handed out. I chewed one (I really don't like Clif gels, but they seem to work the best) and put the other in my pocket that I took a few miles later. Up to this point I had taken two PowerBar gels at mile 2, and somewhere around mile 8 or 9. Plus I had taken an Advil at the same time of the second gel.

I did mile 15 in 9:30 when the weather started to change. Coming across the bridge back into the city, the wind was in my face. Wind? That wasn't in the forecast, but sure enough that wind kept going and going and wasn't in our backs for the rest of the race. It was always coming from the side or directly in our face. Between miles 15 and 16 seemed so long. Was this bridge ever going to end!! It was a great view -- the James to the left, the city skyline to the right. The sun was trying to poke through again, making for some cool rays of sunshine. But along the never-ending bridge, there were no spectators, just cars whizzing by, with a few occasionally honking their horns. Surprisingly when I hit mile 16, I was just under 9:30 for the mile. That was the longest 9-plus minutes of running I had ever done.

The next few miles were nice because I was in familiar territory running by VCU and my office. As I hit mile 19, I could tell I was slowing, but everything seemed to be in check. (Mile 17-19 were 9:37, 9:46, 9:49.) My feet were hurting just a bit, but nothing major. And just before mile 20 was a hill -- I dreaded that hill. It was at this point I began to see people stopping to stretch, or just flat out walk up the hill. I had come that far that I was not going to walk until the next water stop. I hit mile 20 in 10:30, then slowly walked through the water stop. Even though I had gotten lots of water or Powerade at every stop, and I was feeling great as far as thirst went, I took this water stop for all it was worth. Two cups of water and a cup of Powerade to go, please. I walked about another 100 yards taking every drop of fluid in those cups. About 10 other people were doing the same thing. And this is the point that everybody talks about -- after mile 20.

Every block or so, at least one person was stretching or rubbing their legs. It was at this point, the numbness started in my legs. Nothing hurt really, except my feet just a bit. It was at this point when I started thinking about everything in my life, looking for things to push me the final few miles. My feet were hurting -- my grandmother who passed away earlier this year always complained about her feet. Was this her way to keep me going? That's what I thought.

With the walk break for the water, I hit mile 21 in 11:14. I thought it would be 15 minutes. I wasn't looking at my watch except at the mile markers. I didn't want to know my pace at this point. I felt like I was pushing myself, except I hit mile 22 in 10:18. I hadn't ran a training run that slow since I was running the hills in Lynchburg. But I kept running, not looking too hard at the people stretching. I didn't want my mind to force my legs into a cramp. I don't remember if it was mile 22 or 23, but I walked through another water stop, grabbing two cups of water and a Powerade. I also kept cursing the wind. Miles 23 and 24 were in 10:19 and 10:17.

Less than a 5k to go, I was telling myself. I've ran plenty of 5ks, I can push myself through this. I had all kinds of thoughts running through my head. I thought a lot about my late Uncle John and wondered what he would've thought of this. It was kind of eerie, but a single ray of sunshine was poking through the clouds when I was thinking about him. It was proving the point to me that running a marathon for the first time wasn't about what the final time was, but about this experience of putting your body through something amazing. It's just so hard to describe.

I was trying to go faster, but I hit mile 25 in 10:40. What!?!? I was pushing myself, but I just wasn't going faster. By this time, the numbing had spread to my arms and hands and I was freezing. Between miles 23 and 25, I was running with arms to the side, moving them up and down and squeezing my hands trying to get rid of this numbing feeling. It was like someone else was inside me doing the running, but it was my mind carrying the body along. You hear how much running is a mental thing -- the final 6 miles of a marathon is 90 percent mental.

When I hit mile 25, I knew it was a little more than a mile, with much of it downhill. "It's all downhill from here," is what the spectators were saying. It's easy for them to say. But as I rounded the final turn, I started seeing people who had already finished and they were showing their support for us who were finishing an hour after them. So truly the marathon does end! The final mile they kept saying ... I can run faster for the final mile can't I? Sure, I was flying, or so I thought, going down that hill. Mile 26 was 11:04. At this point, I knew I had less than a lap around a track and I wasn't going to stop now. The last .2 miles, I managed an 8:13 pace, so yes, finally, my body was doing what my mind asked it to do.

At mile 25, I knew I wanted to beat 4:15. Finishing within 15 minutes of my ideal time would be great after 26.2 miles. I managed to have a chip time of just under 4:13. As I cross the finish line, there was no standard arms-in-the-air celebration. I think I tried, but seriously, my arms were numb from the race and the coldness. After I crossed, I just stopped for about 30 seconds and thought, I did it. I really did it. I thought maybe I'd cry, but I just didn't have the energy to. On my first step after stopping, I was like, I can walk! I got a Mylar blanket, which immediately helped the cold feeling. I got the chip snapped off my foot -- I couldn't even lift my right leg to help out the guy cutting them off.

I grabbed my finisher's medal, and looked back for a second -- I really did it, I kept thinking. After getting the medal, I opted to skip the photo op with the SunTrust logos all over the place. I wanted to talk ... or at least see a familiar face. It had been a couple of hours of silence, except for a few comments with other runners along the way. I quickly saw my wife and my dad and they asked how it was. I didn't have an answer. I was hungry ... and cold.

The unfriendliest part of America's Friendliest Marathon is after the race. You have to walk downhill to get some food. I got a slice of pizza, a banana and a Powerade, then walked back up the hill. I warmed up briefly in the host hotel lobby, and I was ready to go home. I still didn't know what to say about my experience. I briefly looked for Travis afterward, and for fellow blogger Jason, but it was just too cold and windy to stick around. I think most people around there felt the same way.

So, while I could still walk reasonably well, I took a shower while my wife ordered pizza for my mom and stepdad and Jon (and me). I came downstairs and rolled The Stick over my legs. I began telling a few stories about my experience, but it was still hard to put into words. More than 24 hours later, it's still hard to come up with the proper words as to what it meant to me and what it was like. The physical parts are easy -- I can barely walk. I slept downstairs just because I didn't want to walk down them early this morning. My elbows are actually sore -- after running for 4 hours, I guess it makes sense. I actually am less sore than I thought I would be, but it's still not pleasant. Last night I would sleep for a couple hours, wake up, physically pick my legs up and put them in a different position and repeat 2 hours later.

But as far as what this does to me mentally ... it'll take a while to put into words. I want to again thank everyone for their support these past few months, and for coming out yesterday. It means so much to me.

So, now what? At one point this summer, I swore off training for a marathon again. But that was when it was 90 degrees and had a horrible long run. Training is the hard part -- the experience of the marathon is priceless. It's a time commitment that I don't have right now or next summer. I miss my weekends, and I have a house that I'd like to spend time on next summer. I really like half marathons from a racing standpoint, and that's what I'm focusing on next in March. Like I said last year at this time, any decision on a marathon is going to have to wait.

I'll take this PR and this experience for all its worth. If I never do another one, I have absolutely no regrets on what has happened in the past few months and yesterday. If I could do yesterday all over again, I wouldn't change a thing (except for keeping my gloves). I can't ask for anything better than this feeling I have right now. I am a marathoner.