Nevertheless, We Persisted

“If you divert over to the other block, you will be able to finish the marathon and get your medals. No one will know the difference.” That was the message delivered to us somewhere after Mile 19 this past Saturday at the Fargo Marathon. My running partner, Duana, and I shared a knowing look with each other, but we needed a moment to sort out the options that had just been made available to us before making our decision official. We could accept the diversion, cut something along the lines of 1.5 miles from the race, but maintain course support (water stops, mileage signs, volunteers directing us at corners and turns, and traffic support from local police at intersections). Or, we could take the paper map in the volunteer’s hand, move to the sidewalk and guide ourselves to the finish without any support or signage in an unfamiliar city as they were starting to erase the course in front of us. We would get in the requisite 26.2 miles, but there wasn’t a guarantee that there would be a finish line when we got to the end. There wasn’t really any decision to make. We took the diversion. We heard one last “no one will even know” as we turned right instead of going forward and Duana found her voice and said what we were both thinking, “but we will know.”

However, I was surprised to find that I was not nearly as upset as I thought I might have been at this situation. We had gotten off our pacing, (or more accurately, I had gotten us off our pacing) many miles back. It wasn’t really any surprise when the volunteer jumped out of her jeep to tell us we were starting to ‘time out.’ I had been fearing for some distance that we would be swept off the course and delivered to the end via this same jeep, so the option to continue on under our own volition was the far lesser evil of the possible bad outcomes we were facing. I did have a few moments when I thought Duana would be disappointed and mad/sad that I had lost our collective mojo and she told me she was worried that I would be emotionally bereft that we were cut short, but once we settled that neither of us was going to have a break down or try to break-up our friendship over what we were in agreement was the right decision, we commenced marching forward. Maybe it helped that both of us have successfully completed 26.2 miles in the past, or maybe we were just too tired to think of anything other than the rest of the race in front of us.

So, what happened?  There was no big drama, no weather issues (in fact, it was perfect cool and overcast running conditions), no race-related injury; not even a huge marathon-style bonk – just a gradual loss of momentum that finally took over the pace we needed to sustain to finish within the allotted time limit. There are a thousand tiny little things that go into the success or failure of any endurance race, but I can point to two main challenges that grew over the miles and literally and figuratively slowed us down.

From the moment we started the race, we were in last place. I am used to being at the back of the pack and those other slowbees are ‘my people,’ but none of them showed up to this race. There was a woman in a white shirt who was within eyesight for most of the race until she dropped out and another gal walking on crutches who was just ahead of her until she dropped or was pulled, but otherwise it was very lonely back there at the end. I was not mentally prepared to be in a class by ourselves, all by ourselves. There were two volunteers (a mother and daughter) who took turns tailing us on bicycles and/or in the aforementioned jeep, and occasionally a motorcycle police officer (we learned later the husband/father to the volunteers), but we were often on the course all by ourselves. At one point our bike escort peeled off for a quick bio break and directed us to follow the bike path into the woods and she would catch up. There was no one around us, we couldn’t even see girl-with-crutches or white-shirt-girl and started to wonder if we were lost. Finally, we spotted an empty runner’s gel on the ground and were relieved to see a clue that we were still on the race course. All along the way, bands that were playing for the front of the race were packing up or gone. We saw empty lawn chairs where locals had been greeting racers. At this point, we were still easily maintaining our pace, but being alone in what is normally energetic and full of people can definitely mess with your head.  At least it messed with mine and I started asking myself why there was no one else in this race in our pace group. You need all the energy you can muster to focus on what you are doing, so that mental distraction was the opposite of helpful.

The other challenge was nutrition. It is not unusual to feel a little nauseous during a race and that is usually my clue that I actually need more fuel or electrolytes. I was getting nauseous and occasionally a little lightheaded, but I would eat a little something or take a hit off my electrolytes and feel better. However, at the end of the race it was clear I was not keeping up with my body’s demands as I ate less in this longest of runs than I had in our shorter ‘longest training run’ a few weeks prior. To combat the nausea, we switched around our run/walk intervals and that helped for awhile, but somewhere around Mile 16, both my body and my spirit weren’t in the run anymore and we dropped to all walking. At least that resolved the nausea, but as I watched our splits get slower and slower I knew we were running into danger of exceeding the course limit. I wanted to ask our ever-present bicycle escort whether we would get swept, but I was afraid of the answer, so I just kept going with the specter of not being able to finish joining us for the journey.  If I am being honest, there was also a part of me that would not have been disappointed to just go ahead and give up, and quit the race.

Somehow, we didn’t. We pushed on at a dangerously slow pace and kept putting one foot in front of the other. When offered the diversion, we took it and kept going. I even managed to make a joke when we magically arrived at the next mile marker without having to go past the previous one that “that last mile really flew by.” Duana snorted and we continued on. At this point, she was about 20 paces ahead of me, but routinely stopping to let me catch up or at least making sure I was still tagging along. After Mile 23, it was clear that both of us were starting to feel the pain of all those accumulated miles in our hips and feet. At Mile 25, Duana’s right hip was starting to get the better of her and she picked up a small limp. She looked at me and said she had 3 words for me, “Thank ‘effing God” and I knew she was talking about the wisdom of taking the diversion. We plodded past the last band on the course singing out “you have 3/4 of a mile to go” on a repeat loop. We made our way into the Fargodome under sheer force of will. Our tailgate party/family cheered us on the last few steps where the announcer butchered our names and Brian and my friend Lee ran out to greet us. Once past the finish line, we tromped on down to the end of the stadium to collect our medals.

How far did we go?  Upon consulting our separate GPS devices and eyeballing the course map, we know it was somewhere north of 24 miles – 24.something, there was some consensus around 24.7 miles although we don’t really know for sure. Less than 26.2, in any case. Did we deserve to get medals for our not-quite-a-marathon?  I suppose that is debatable, but when I look at my medal it is a reminder to me of everything I pushed through to find my way to the finish line. Just like in life, the journey is rarely (ever?) as expected. And I am not pretending that we did the full race, so I’ll take the medal and the accompanying disclaimer that goes with it.

Other than that, how was the play, Mrs Lincoln? It was not all doom and gloom by any stretch. I became fond of our traveling family of escorts – especially when the daughter told me that she and her mom rode with the final finishers every year. It takes a special kind of kindness to choose year over year to be with those who are guaranteed to be struggling (and probably in less than stellar moods). Back around Mile 11 when things were still going well, we encountered a water stop with a DJ playing and we danced and jogged our way through, singing along to “We Built This City.” At one point where a band had closed up shop, a man ran along beside us playing music from his iPhone to make sure we had some tunes. We got high fives and well wishes from the small handful of folks who hung out along their sidelines to make sure they were there until the bitter end passed. One of my best friends, Lee, flew out to North Dakota to be there for us. Showing up for people is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Brian even tracked down a Tibetan gift shop so he could bring Nepalese prayer flags to Fargo, which he hung on the porch of our Airbnb house. Plus there is no greater (or louder, seriously) cheerleader on the course than my husband. We saw Lee and Brian numerous times throughout the race and we always heard his whoops and hollers long before we got to them. We raised more than a few bucks to fight blood cancer and honor Duana’s Pop-Pop. Not to mention the texts, emails, and Facebook posts of support and encouragement we received as well. We are both truly lucky to have such amazing friends and fans in our lives.

Plus, we had each other. I can’t begin to imagine what this day would have looked like without Duana at my side. At one point when I was having a minor pity party, I told her she would have finished the full 26.2 if I weren’t there slowing us down. Without missing a beat, she replied that she wasn’t there to run a full marathon by herself. She was there so we could do this event together and whatever happened it would be a collective effort. That by itself made the event special, even if it wasn’t quite the end we had envisioned. Also, the main reason I set out to do this crazy thing was to prove to myself that I could rebound from my broken foot. That those dark times did not define my future outlook. Maybe I didn’t get the 26.2 mile prize, but I managed months of training and 24.whatever miles on my feet on Saturday. That feels like success in my book.

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