Monday, April 28, 2014

First Marathon Race Report: in which I discover my Inner Commandant

Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon: April 27, 2014

I’ve had a couple of hours of sleep, and it’ll have to do. I wasn’t expecting much anyway. I’ve been a weird/wired mix of a little kid waiting for Christmas and a dental patient waiting for the drill for days now. I’m hopped up on carbs and equal measures of fear and excitement. I’m so ready for this—and so not! What the hell am I doing here? Eight months ago, when I started Couch25K, I could barely run to the end of my road. What makes me think I can suddenly run a marathon? I chow down distractedly on a handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans and a banana and swallow a mug of hotel coffee. That should do it!

We’re getting on the DRC Party Bus and headed downtown to check our race bags and line up. Everyone’s
anxiously watching phone apps for news of the weather. This is “Tornado Alley,” after all, and there’s a big storm brewing. There are porta-potties everywhere when we get near the starting line, and I need all of them! I lose my DRC friends somewhere between the bag check and the loos but figure I’ll find them again at the race. I don’t. From this point on, I’m pretty much on my own.

The race has been postponed… and postponed… and postponed again. I’m wet and hungry and depressed and tired. We had all fine-tuned our nutrition and our repeated visits to the porta-potties for an exact 6:30 start. Runners obsess about such things—what goes in, what comes out, and when. No one here cares about getting wet, but there is a dangerous storm system overhead. The race directors have to make a tough call to ensure our safety, and things are looking dicey out there.

More than 26,000 runners are huddled in doorways, parking garages, and buildings across the city in varying degrees of optimism and despair, waiting for more news. I find myself in the hall of a local Methodist church that opened its doors and started serving pancakes and coffee. I can’t be bothered to stand in line, and someone in the street gave me a cinnamon roll anyway. I don’t much like sugary pastries, but I’m grateful for the carbs because I’m still hoping to be able to run, and my breakfast has long since drained away with much of my energy and hope. . . I share half of my roll with some guy who can’t stop staring at it: he gives half of that to the guy next to him—the girl opposite me splits a sausage and gives half to me. It’s a modern day loaves and fishes scenario in this church, but this crowd just wants to run.

Eventually, I wander into the sanctuary. There are hundreds of runners filling the pews, and some of them may well be praying. Behind the cross on the altar, a big screen is blaring out Fox News weather reports. Could life get any weirder? They are talking about the possible need to cancel. 8:00am was the last window of opportunity, they say. The city roads need to open again at 1:30pm, and lots of the marathoners won’t make it round by then. Plus, the day’s going to get very hot and humid. If the storm doesn’t get us, the traffic or heat will. I am about to lose it. All the planning, all the work, all these runners with nowhere to run…

And then suddenly the race is back on. They’ve pushed the window just a little further out, and we’re pouring out of churches and parking garages back onto the course. I think someone is singing the Star-Spangled Banner. The mood is wild; we’re elated. I line up near some firemen, and I realize I’m crying. This is really happening. We’re going to run… I’M going to run…

The press of people is huge, but there isn’t any rudeness or shoving that I can tell. The patience and grace of these people is helping me get a grip. I catch the eye of someone I think I might know, smile through my tears… And we’re off!

Holy crap, this is happening!!!

Crowds are cheering, feet are pounding, and everything’s moving very fast. It’s so easy to get caught up in the wave of speed, but I have 26.2 long miles ahead of me, and I need to hang onto some drive for the hours ahead. I need discipline like I’ve never needed it before. I check my watch religiously, every few seconds, to make sure I’m not getting carried away. It’s a rookie mistake to take off like a rat from a trap on the adrenaline high. I read on a running website recently that in those first few miles you should feel like you’re “just poking along.” That phrase is resonating with me now. That’s what I’m doing. It’s effort, but it’s far from all-out effort. All that training at differing speeds has given me a real feel for what might work, and I’m hanging onto it tight in the face of a killer desire to just take off as fast as I can move.

I run the first mile in 11:07 minutes, according to my Garmin, and then I reassess. Right now, this pace seems nicely doable. I’ll stick with it for a while. I run miles 2 through 4, from Bricktown through the State Capitol Complex, at 11:08, 11:01, and 11:09. I’ve decided the Garmin is the boss of me for the duration of the race. I read an article recently which suggested our bodies lie about what they can do and shut down early to protect themselves. We’ll be having none of that malarkey here today! Whenever I see my pace fall off, I tell my body she can never get these minutes back if she loses them. So, step it up!

Perhaps I should pause at this point and say I was kind of hoping I would find an inner serenity out on the course, a runners’ version of Zen enlightenment, an inner Dalai Llama, if you will. I was waiting for the appearance of this sweet fuzzy encourager who would say inspiring things like some of the posters held up by the crowds: “You are so awesome!” “You’ve got this!” “You’re an inspiration!” It turns out, what I have is a harsh task master who takes no prisoners and snorts at failure, who has much more in keeping with those other posters out on the road: “If it was easy, everyone would do it, so suck it up!” and “One in every 100 runners poops their pants. Are you that one?” Oh dear… Out on the course this day, I have discovered my inner Commandant, and this is a character not to be messed with! It tells my body whenever she starts to whimper, “You are a machine! Your job is just to do this, so DO IT! DO IT TILL IT’S DONE!”

Somewhere around those miles where I’m settling in with my inner Bossy Boots and my body is giving up the
reins, I see a DRC sign and yell out. My friend Jennifer comes running after me, holding up her other sign which reads, “GO SCARLETT. THE BRITISH ARE COMING!” I am so happy to see a face I recognize, and I kick it up a notch. C’mon, body, move it!!!

Mile 5, I run at 10:59, and this is where I admit that all that wise counsel that I should let go of my time goals for my first marathon has fallen on interested but decidedly ambivalent ears. I got injured in the last few weeks, and though I’m getting back on form thanks to excellent physiotherapy, I’m not where I was, so I’m not looking for a 4:40 finish anymore--but I do have a secret need to beat the five hour clock. If I can stick close either side to the 11-minute mile mark, I can probably manage it even with a visit to the loo! I need to time it right though. In the first few miles, there are long lines at every porta-potty stop. There’s no way I’m standing in a line watching the seconds tick away. I decide to wait till the Half Marathoners peel away on a separate route, little knowing that’s not till around mile 10.

Miles 6, 7, 8, and 9, I run in tightly disciplined splits: 11:03, 11:04, 11:05, 11:03. It looks like calm assurance—who would know there is a war going on inside? From time to time, my body mentions that her feet are sore, and wet, and that she’s not sure I’m doing the math right, that maybe we should slow it down. I tell her it’s well known bodies tell lies. I tell her she’s a machine, that sometime this will all be over, but now is not that time; she’ll be sorry if she doesn’t give it everything she has!

We hit the infamous Gorilla Hill around mile 7: it’s steep and seemingly endless. I power up, armed with the insider knowledge from my friend Jennifer that at the top will be people dressed like bananas. What she didn’t warn me was the banana-people are handing out actual bananas to runners, who are chowing down and trampling the skins! Who orchestrates a road for marathoners that’s covered in banana peel? I pick my way through, laughing at the craziness, and run on.

I thought I’d be settling in and listening to my music by this time, almost two hours into the race and with another three to go, but I’m not. The internal argument is taking all my concentration. When the Half Marathoners peel off and the crowd of runners thins significantly, I spend a precious minute and twenty seconds (Hell, yes, I counted—runners love data!) in a smelly loo. It costs me dearly. Mile 10 registers 12:23 on the Garmin. My inner Commandant is not amused!

Mile 11, I’m back to 11:10, but it’s rough going. I’ve been chewing the healthy nutty-datey snacks I’m lugging round with me because I’ve been warned that by the time I realize I need energy, it’ll be too late. It’s getting harder to chew, and I’m starting to worry my body’s right after all; I picked a too aggressive pace. The race delay means we’re running right through the heat of the day. The sun’s beating down, and the air is thick with humidity; the medical tents at regular intervals along the route are keeping busy. My body mentions she might need to sit down in one. My inner Commandant ignores her. That body is such a liar!

Mile 12 and 13, I’m heading towards the lake at 11:25 and 11:38. Dammit, I’m slowing down. My feet feel like lead, and I have a sudden certainty that the store sold me mismatched shoes—the right one is definitely too small. I love water. If only I can get to the lake, there’ll be a breeze… But damn, if you’ve ever read the Pilgrim’s Progress, you’ve heard of the Slough of Despond, and that’s what that lake is to me today--and to many others. This is the only place the route loops, so you can see runners slogging back from where you’re going. It feels pointless and like you’re heading the wrong way only to turn around. I’ve always hated U-turns, and this one is the absolute worst. The air coming off the water is hard, and hot, and thick with humidity and misery. I’m overheated and overwrought and not even halfway home. Mile 14 is the turn at the lake, and I somehow beat my way back to 11:22, but by mile 15 I’m in trouble. My right leg has cramped, and it feels like I’m running on a stump. I’ve been warned, just on the bus coming down here, that stopping to uncramp is a mistake. If I try it, I’ll never get moving again. I can see a medical tent and some helpful looking people. I lurch past them at a halting 12:11, aware I have a couple of hours more of this with no hope of relief. I’m distraught, but I’m in it for the long haul. Doggedness is my superpower.

Somewhere around mile 16, my miracle shows up. Through the fog in my head, I start to hear my name, and through my misted-up sunglasses, I see Douglas running at my side. He’s holding a book (he’s running and reading?) and has pockets full of stuff. He tells me later he had been calling a while and had real trouble getting through to me. I wasn’t very coherent apparently. He lets me know he has painkillers; do I need them? I’m confused and refuse, but he asks again. I figure out a couple of ibuprofen might be a good idea and eventually ask for four. He runs beside me till he finds a water tent when he gives me both at once. I chug them down and run on, leaving him and his book in the dust, but I hang onto the water bottle. I’m so happy to have seen him, but I know if I stop, I’ll never start again.

Someone has handed me a sachet of gu, an energy gel. I’ve never tried one. I prefer the natural gunk I’ve been hauling round unable to chew. I feel a little like I did when, in labor with my first child, I gave up on the idea of a drug-free childbirth around hour 20 and took the shot—a chemical-dependent failure. Nevertheless, I tear the top off and suck it down slowly between miles 17 (12:51) and 18 (13:12). The gu is like sugary glue and tastes like hell, but I’m starting to feel clearer. I couldn’t have swallowed it without my magical bottle of water. There have been plenty of water stops along the way, but I’m bad at drinking out of paper cups while running, and I daren’t stop. The water bottle feels miraculous as I sip and run.

My right leg is still cramped, and it occurs to me, vaguely, that it might snap off with the constant pounding. I alter my gait to try to stretch it a bit. My body, which has been moodily silent for a while, mentions that legs are not really designed for this kind of treatment. Also, it thinks its right foot is probably bleeding and has a huge lump on the side which might burst at any moment. And, of course,  that’s when the chest pain kicks in. 

Apparently, in addition to an inner Commandant, I have an inner hypochondriac. For a while, I wonder whether this tight band around me is the beginning of a heart attack—and then I realize that it’s just the bottom of my sports bra feeling too tight. I shake off the fear and remind myself it’s well known bodies lie—she was just trying to get in another medical tent, dammit! I remind her she’s just a machine, so she better keep doing what machines do.

I get someone to fill up my miraculous water bottle at the next station, and then I start work on a second gu which tastes even nastier than the last. At some point, someone hands me a big cup of something, and I take a giant swallow. Holy hell; it’s beer! Much as I want it, I throw it away. I can’t afford the dehydration or the distraction right now.

Mile 19, and something has changed. I’m still running on stumps, but I can feel an energy lift and I move through it in 11:18. And then I feel it coming back to me: hope, the thing with feathers. All this time, even at my worst, I’ve been running the data in my head, and as far as I can tell, a sub-5 marathon is still in sight. I power up a hill and kick mile 20 in 10:22. Am I making a mistake? Kicking it into gear too soon? I don’t think so... Mile 21: 11:06. Mile 22: 10:48. Mile 23: 10:55. Oh my God: I’m going to make it! I’m going to finish, and in a time that won’t make me ashamed. Mile 24: 11:13. Mile 25: 10:39. Mile 26: 10:31. And then I can see the finish. It’s slow and it’s fast all at the same time, and my vision has narrowed to a tunnel. I can’t feel my right leg anymore, but it can’t have fallen off or I’d over-balance, so keep moving, keep running, you’re almost, almost there…

As I cross the finish, still on my feet, still—miraculously—running, I’m vaguely aware that there’s a discrepancy between my Garmin and the race chip timer. It’s only in that last final burn that I realize I’m not quite going to make sub-5 officially. According to my Garmin, I’ve run 26.6 miles in five hours and one minute exactly. 

According to the chip timer, it’s 26.2 in five hours 42 seconds. At this point, it doesn't matter. Sub-5, not sub-5, who the hell cares? I ran a marathon, dammit, a MARATHON, and I left every bit of me out on the road. I slow down and start staggering, hear Douglas yelling through the fence, and make it to him in time for a hug before I collapse on a delicious pile of ice. There’s another marathon in Dallas in December: I can beat the five-hour then.


Footnote: This was a wonderfully well-organized race with awesome crowds who did everything they could to cheer on the runners, from handing out strips of fresh-cooked bacon to dancing in the streets to playing music. The water stops were fabulous. The organization was great, and the hospitality of the people of Oklahoma City was warm and welcoming. 

Dallas Runners Club, it should also be noted, is the awesomest of all the awesomes, and I feel fortunate, lucky, blessed to count myself a member of this amazing group of people. When I joined, just a few short months ago, I felt intimidated to be among "real" runners. That only lasted until the first time I got to talk to the first one of them. I'm so glad to have found this wonderful, supportive community. Thank you for being!

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations! That was a remarkable accomplishment for such a short window of prep! I look forward to your next marathon report.