“Hey, we’re doing great! We’re right on pace!” the woman next to me said. I laughed; the gun had gone off, but we weren’t even past the start line yet. There were a lot of jokes going around; the pack near the 3:35 pacer was nervous. It was a big pack; lots of women in their thirties were here trying to qualify for Boston.
For some reason I’d decided to throw up my hands and go for it. This was what I wanted. This was what I worked so hard all summer. What’s more, I believed in myself and my ability to do this, while at the same time allowing myself the room to fall off the back if necessary. I mean…a half an hour PR is a lot; I could fall back pretty far and still run a better time than the 4:10 I ran three years ago. So damn the consequences! why not at least try?
*spoiler alert: I now know the answer to that question.
The pacer–for the 8:12 group, mind–went out with a first mile under 8 minutes. AUGH! I was even hanging pretty far in the back of the group and still came in under 8 minutes! I knew it was too much. I peeled back farther, letting them go. I tried to concentrate on slowing down, drastically reducing my pace and coming in for an 8:30 second mile. Much better, but I should have backed off even more.
See, I’m currently in a situation where I’m trying to hoard a lot of money, so I took this job that had me working on my feet fourteen hours a day like a maniac the whole week before the marathon and the whole week after. There was very little sleep. There was high stress. There was no stretching, no laying with my feet elevated, no extra day to sight-see and explore beautiful Corning before the race. Here’s a good marathon tip: do not take a job like that the week before a marathon, or the week after.
I saw my mom at mile 4 while weaving through a cute little town full of spectators. I was finally right on track with my pace band. I felt great! Now all I have to do is maintain, I thought, and I can make it. This is often my half marathon philosophy. I’m good at maintaining a steady pace, even when my mind is daunted by the amount of mileage before me, but as the miles ticked off and I was still ahead of even a 3:35 schedule…I began to get nervous. Twenty-six is a lot more than thirteen. And when I saw my mom again at mile 8…well…the smile on my face had faded to a worried grimace.
But somehow, for some reason, I held on. The mountains were glorious, blanketed in candy-corn colored foliage with steam rising everywhere from the rain the night before. It was so humid, but I held on. Someone ran by me (hi, Leanne!) and said “Hey, do you have a blog? I read your blog!” and that was awesome, and somewhere along the way I saw a sign that said “Go Cinnamon!” And I shouted “Hey, that’s me!!” and got some great cheers! Having fans was amazing!
Soon after that there was a long, straight downhill and I could see the 3:35 group was still within reach; about a half mile ahead of me. I felt a stitch coming on though and backed off. 3:40 is somewhere behind me; I can catch them when they pass, I thought. And if I still don’t feel good, 3:45 is okay!
I tried to eat, but found that the Honey Stinger Waffles I loved on my long runs tasted dry and gross today. Luckily at the next aid station there were kids handing out Gu Chomps and I suffered through some of those instead. At the halfway mark I checked my watch – 1:47! – and two things occurred to me:
1. I was doing great! Right on track!
2. I could not keep this up for another half marathon.
This wasn’t just a mental block, my body was done and I knew it. If there had been a turnoff to finish with the half marathoners I would have turned off, but Wineglass is an A to B course, and the half course had only just begun. I hit the mile 14 mark still going strong, but then it happened.
It was like a record player got unplugged. One minute I was fine and the next…everything…slowed….way….wayyyyy….dowwwwwnnnnnn…..
The 3:40 group passed me. I was feeling worse and worse, and my vision was spotty, hazing in and out. I tried to force another Gu Chomp in, but it nauseated me and I just spat it out. My legs were cramping, and my stomach felt raw. I saw the mile 16 marker go by and as the 3:45 group went by I tried to push, to pick up my pace and stay with them, but it was like a tortoise trying to keep up with an antelope.
And then it felt like my heart deflated. I was crushed, disappointed and hopeless, and as the anxiety attack set in the tears started flowing hard and fast. The loud sobs choked my already strained lungs and I was done. Other runners were staring. Though I was trying as hard as I could I wasn’t running anymore, it felt like I was crawling. I had ten more miles of this. Ten more miles of hell, and my dream of a super PR had slipped away.
Then Jeff W., a tall fella in a bright yellow shirt, caught up with me. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
I blubbered something like, “I was supposed to be way up there…” and pointed ahead feebly.
My brain wasn’t working, and I can’t remember Jeff’s exact words, but there was a really great pep talk in there. I remember he told me not to think like that. I remember he said his goal was 3:40, and he was happy with where we were in the pack (for the record he finished just 7 minutes off that goal). He asked if this was my first. “Second,” I choked. “Well then just by having finished one you’re one of 2% of the population,” he said, and something clicked in my head and I was able to forgive myself.
It was okay. It was okay that I went out too fast, and okay that I was going slow. With a smile, Jeff was off to chase down the 3:45 group ahead of us. I slipped back farther, and within a mile the 3:50 group had passed me, but I had a new resolve to finish no matter what, even if I had to crawl the last few miles.
My resolve lasted all of two miles before I decided it was too much. There were 8 miles left and I was struggling just to stay on my feet. The dark, blurry vision was back and it was time to quit. The idea of quitting brought on a new anxiety attack, with new tears and new hyperventilation, but somehow I pushed through the next aid station, grabbing another pack of Gu Chomps from a Girl Scout. Somewhere after that the hyperventilation got the best of me and I just…stopped.
I stood there on the side of the road crying like a baby, wishing for it to just be over. I felt like throwing up, but I knew there was nothing in my stomach. And then, through the haze of my tears, in the beating sunlight, a cheerful voice sang out, with a sweet Southern accent, “Are you okay, sweetie?”
I looked up, sniffling an answer, and saw a small woman with a big smile beckoning me to follow her. Through the haze I remember muttering “Yes, I can. Can do this. Can.” and pushing to keep pace with her. She was just…amazing. Her name was Melissa, she was from Atlanta. She had a friend who was somewhere behind us, but she said she wasn’t sure where and decided to stick with me. Melissa, if you’re reading this, you are the biggest rock star runner I’ve ever met!
Melissa was an absolute angel. She just took over my race and started bossing me around, making me walk through the aid stations and take water. When I slowed she pulled me ahead, and when I started hustling she told me not to overdo it. She made me say thank you to every person cheering, even when I started crying again…especialliy when I started crying again! Every time we passed a walker she’d cheer for them and encourage them to come with us. She made me drink water, water and more water, and finally around mile 22 I started feeling better…and it dawned on me. No water! I think I only drank at two aid stations the whole first half, and it was really hot out!
Christ, no water! UGH! What a rookie mistake!
As I began to feel better I joined Melissa in waving at and thanking the spectators and volunteers, and beckoning others to join us. I drank more. And more. And more. And then, around Mile 24, as I sucked down my last of four cups of water, someone said “Excuse us!” and dodged around me. It was the 4:10 pacer.
NO! I must PR. And I can. Can!
Without hesitation, I picked up the pace. I felt good now, and I knew…I just knew I could beat the 4:10 group and bust out a PR. Melissa was right on my heels and I was so excited for my second wind, and so glad she was with me. But then after a bit I looked around and she wasn’t there. But I was so close to the end. So close!
Melissa was already lost in the crowd, and there was nothing to do now but stay ahead of the 4:10 group at any cost. So off I went to claim my PR…I couldn’t feel my legs anyway, so it didn’t matter how fast I ran. At least now I was lucid. Can! I can! 2%! Two percent of two percent! I had a huge, ridiculous smile on my face because I just couldn’t believe I’d made it this far.
I powered through the 25 mile mark and that was it. It felt like it was already over; my legs were on autopilot. I saw a photographer and just couldn’t resist a jump that felt ten miles high (but the photo shows it was about six inches). As I reached the chute I saw my mom and stepdad and waved, my big smile getting bigger; I was so excited to finally see them, and I was really glad they were so close to the finish line, because I couldn’t feel my legs.
I crossed the line well ahead of the 4:10 pack and made it about fifteen feet into the chute before someone tried to have me turn. But when I tried to turn I stumbled, and then the dizziness was back, and I stopped moving. “Help me,” I said. And this man was there, looking at me, telling me I had to keep walking. “Help me,” I replied. He told me again I had to keep moving, still just staring at me. Then everything went black and down I went.
The next thing I knew I was tumbling into a wheelchair and mumbling that I didn’t need a wheelchair, I just needed help. And then there was the medical tent, and Suzanne, the wonderful woman who runs The Rosewood Inn where I stayed, was right there by my little cot; apparently she had seen me fall and busted through the very tight security to make sure I was okay!
*Side note: If you run the Wineglass Marathon or even just visit Corning, you really must try to get a room at the Rosewood Inn. Suzanne (pictured with me) really takes care of you all throughout your experience!
While they took my blood pressure I complained that my piriformis hurt a lot, which it did, but when the medics gave me a bag of ice for my aching butt I just hugged it to my chest because it felt so good. I cried some more, and stumbling through the chute on Suze’s arm Melissa caught up to us and I gave her the biggest hug I could and told her I couldn’t have made it without her, which was true. This had been the toughest experience of my life, and I was so happy it was over and I’d seen it through to the end!
And I even got a PR by one minute and fifteen seconds!