At about mile 11.5. I look refreshed and thrilled. In my brain my thoughts at the moment went like this: "blerrrrgggggg"
So I ran the MCDONALDS half marathon on Saturday. I feel like I need to capitalize the word MCDONALDS anytime I use it, because that's how much I love the irony of the creator of Big Macs sponsoring a physical fitness event. For posterity I thought I'd do a little recap. Also because I'm pretty sure aliens have entire programs of study devoted to the eternal mystery of why humans run in circles en masse, and this blog could be a useful addition to that syllabus.
On Friday I ate a ton of carbs (as one does) and drank so much regular water and coconut water that my pee was Olympic gold medal levels of clear and colorless. Let's just say I knew I wasn't going to win the race, but I could sure kick some major butt when it comes to hydration (sadly they do not list hydration winners in the paper). I got up at 5:30 in the morning on Saturday, shoved a banana and a Nutrigrain bar down my nervous throat and focused all my energy on, well, how do I put this delicately, "letting the contents of my colon get to their finish line." (Okay that somehow sounds way grosser than just saying poop).
If you know me you will be shocked I am talking about the p-word. I don't like to talk about it. I will NEVER do it in close proximity to anyone. That's why I don't do that in public restrooms. EVER. But I'm becoming a nurse and it's shocking how much feces has become a routine part of life. It just shows up and everyone who works in medicine shrugs and says what's the big deal. And I want to document the lesser known parts of the long distance running experience, and believe me, this is one of them. You do not want to run 13.1 miles with certain things unresolved, if you know what I mean.
I once had to go into a Starbucks half way through a ten mile training run, pretend to buy a fruit and nut bar (okay I legitimately bought it, only I had to throw it away immediately because I didn't want to run with it for the next five miles), just so I could use their (single occupancy) restroom. I really did not want to do this during the race. Sure there were porta potties, but the humiliation of that experience alone (picture crowds of people around the porta potties, and having to do that while a crowd of people basically cheers you on outside) would have prevented me from crossing the finish line. So even though it was early, even though I hadn't had my fiber, I drank half a cup of very strong coffee on the morning of the race, and made absolutely darn sure that issue was taken care of before I started running.
I deeply apologize if the preceding few paragraphs offended, but if you're not a runner, you need to understand how deeply intertwined distance running and the digestive system are. That is why runners avoid high fiber foods like the plague in the days before a race. So it was only fair for me to speak of such things, as unladylike as they are to discuss on the interweb, to give an accurate picture of what a race entails.
But moving on to other matters. I got a ride to within about 6 (uphill) blocks of the starting line at Broad Street in front of the Library of Virginia. I passed lots of people wearing trash bags and realized that for every mystery of running I unlock, another one presents itself. I walked through the Capitol grounds and craned my head around for a Spielberg sighting. Sadly I was once again disapointed by the utter lack of Spielberg in my life.
Finally I found my wave by the little sign with the letter H bobbing in the air. And then I stood in 30 something degree weather with very little clothing on and became instantly jealous of all those people in their cozy garbage bags. I was shocked by the number of people around me. It's always jarring to see lots of runners gathered together, and realize just how many people in this world are clinically insane. You want to know how clinically insane we are? Two years ago thirteen miles would have been unthinkable for me as a distance that I could run in one go, because at the time I was so out of shape I could not even run a mile. A year ago a 10k seemed like a giant task.
But here I was about to run 13 miles, and every time I saw a marathon runner arrive on the scene (their start time was about half an hour after hours), I felt a twinge of shame. Those were the "real" runners. Our race was like the kid's table of the day. Those were runners. I was just a jogger, soft "j."And that's just crazy talk. Because I was about to run THIRTEEN miles. Once upon a time my brain would have exploded at the thought of that. But runners are insane, and as soon as we run one previously unthinkable distance our brain shifts to even further, more punishing mileage.
I was kind of expecting a big dramatic start for each wave, maybe with a gun shot off. But honestly over the noise of the crowd and music none of us were sure when exactly we started. People kind of just shrugged and then began to run.
The first stretch of the race, all the way up Broad to the Boulevard flew by. It flew by so fast that I got to the 2 mile marker and felt like it should say .2 miles. I felt great as we turned down Boulevard, great as we ran past the Diamond, great as we ran down a little cul-de-sac on North Side, great down Hermitage. This wasn't just easy, easier than my training runs. This was fun, capital F, exclamation point. Fun!
Here's the thing. Even if you hate running, you would probably enjoy a race, at least the first few miles of one. It's really hard not to. Because let's lay it out there. Humans are narcissists. So who is not going to love doing an activity while other people cheer for you? It is shocking how great that feels. And so many people come out for races. I am a terrible person, because in the past I never did this. But literal hordes of people do this. They come out with their kids and their dogs. They bundle up at 8am in freezing weather with signs and noise makers. They shout and they clap and they hold their hands out for high fives.
And it's the greatest. It makes you want to run to the moon. It's just fun. It's fun to run past the water and powerade tables and see all those people there volunteering and holding out cups with smiles and words of encouragement. And so between the crowds and the gorgeous (if a little chilly) day, I was great.
And then we got to Bryan Park, a place I now refer to as the land of hills. Oh were there hills. I think I counted 5. And the thing is we were running in a loop so there was no corresponding downhill. It was just uphill followed up more uphill. And even though I didn't know it at the time, each hill was sucking my energy. I've never trained with hills, because my sports doctor told me specifically not to, because I get overuse injuries in my hip flexors, and hills strain hip flexors. When I was running the hills in the park I still felt great. In fact I felt a little cocky if truth be told. Some people had slowed down to walk at that point, and I passed a guy with a wave A bib walking (I was wave H), and I wanted to go "muhaha."
So we left the park, I fueled up with Powerade (thank you Powerade, I have never been so indebted to a sports drink) and a few "sips" of a gel. And then when we got to Brook Road that's when the pain set in. It wasn't injury pain which is localized and specific. This was the all over, general pain of running too damn long. This is when your knees say, "okay that was a fun little jaunt, but we're tired now so stop", and then you don't stop so your hips chime in, "hey LADY, stop running, a lion isn't chasing you" and you keep going and so all of these body parts look at each other mutinously and then unleash their fury with pain, so much pain.
I wanted to walk. And I did whenever I stopped for water or Powerade (there were stations about every 2 miles), but I only let myself walk for as long as it took to take those two or three sips of water. Not because I was this warrior runner, but because quite simply I knew that if I stopped to walk I would not start running again. The stretch on Brook Road lasted probably about a mile and a half but it felt like forever. It was never going to end. We would just keep on running down Brook Road until we were in Canada, or Mexico.
And that's when the random, disconnected thoughts drift in. I thought about how weird it was to be able to litter with impunity during a race. You get handed a cup by this kind volunteer, you take a sip, and then you hurl it back at their feet. It's very strange, especially when you're tired and start splashing neon blue Powerade all down your front.
Weird things happened on this stretch of the run. I don't know if people did it on purpose, but some of the things on this stretch perfectly coincided with the point in the race where I felt the most crazy. There was a beer table for example with volunteers holding out cups of beer (I love beer, but there is a time and a place people). There was a "Wonderland" with people dressed up on either the side of the road as giant rabbits and decks of cards. I have yet to confirm this "Wonderland" with another racer, so it is entirely possible I hallucinated it.
But fever dreams and all I kept going. We reached Lombardy and one more filthy hill (I could not help but mutter "HILL!" under my breath when I saw it, as if it was my arch nemesis and this was our final face off), and then once we got to Broad and I saw my family gathered there cheering, I knew I was going to finish this thing.
It didn't mean the pain went away. Oh no. I could no longer distinguish the pain from my legs. They were one in the same. I can't really describe it other to say that it felt like tiny midgets were running next to me hitting my joints with baseball bats and broken glass bottles.
And this is when the cheering people aren't just a nice ego boost. They're your life blood. I can not explain how helpful it was every time I heard, "you're almost there, keep going." And I heard it again and again. Spectators shouted it. Runners who had already finished shouted it. And so I kept running, because I believed them.
Also side note, my iPod shuffled picked like the perfect song for this moment, "Holding Out for a Hero" from Footloose, from the scene with the tractor chicken race. That is just like the most perfect, cheesiest, inspirational, 80s dance music song that could have possibly played.
Another side note. I don't understand how people run races without music. My iPod was the MVP of that race. My Half Marathon playlist deserves its own medal for helping me get to the finish line.
I got to Cary Street and could see the finish line. I wanted to sprint, but reminded myself that sprinting at the end of a distance run leads to very bad things. We were also going downhill, and because my legs were so tired I could barely control myself. I think sheer luck prevented me from falling down and rolling down the hill, log style, to the finish (although if that happened I bet I would have made the front page of the Times Dispatch, winner schminner).
And then it was all over. Someone was handing me a medal, and then in the next moment I had a bottle of water, bottle of Powerade, and a giant bagel to tear into.
My legs have never hurt worse in my life. I napped for two hours later that afternoon and slept for 11 hours Saturday night. Sunday my legs were so sore I could barely move.
And it was all worth it. So about that marathon...
One additional thing: there were two quotes that kept popping up in my brain throughout the race I'd like to share:
-One I read in some article about how Andre Agassi's famous fitness coach, Gil Reyes, used to say to him, "trust your legs." My legs stopped trusting me at about mile 10, but I trusted them. And they didn't let me down.
-Two is embarrassingly enough from a Nike commercial or ad. I don't remember it exactly but it's something like, "strong is what happens when you've used up all your weak." I like that. I think it applies equally well to life as it does to running.