“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.
Including yesterday, I have completed 4 half-marathons, a full marathon, and countless 10K and 5K runs. I have participated in the Seattle Rock n Roll series every year it’s been held. You would think this would be old hat and that I would just stroll out to the start line like I was going out to get the mail.
Okay, even I don’t really think I will be quite that nonchalant, but it continues to surprise me how anxious and excited I get before every race. This year the start was literally in my back yard – just a few blocks from my home in Seattle Center. And this is my 3rd season with Team in Training, so I pretty much know the pre- and post-race drill with that group as well. I almost skipped out on the inspiration dinner and victory party figuring I had already “been there, done that.”
Yet, come Friday night (after the inspiration dinner), as I was laying out my gear and pinning my bib to my race shirt, I found the butterflies were starting to flit around inside of me. I didn’t settle down to sleep until almost midnight and my eyes flew open at 5am. As I walked over to the starting corrals with my friends, I could feel the palpable pulse of nervous energy in the air that seems to be present at every race. It was clear I was not the only one feeling a sense of anticipation.
Why the nerves? Even though I know from experience that my legs can carry me the distance, every race is unique and the possible hurdles are numerous. Am I hydrated enough? Did I bring enough food to fuel me? Will old injuries flare back up, or new ones present themselves mid-race? Will I be fast enough? Every runner, from the back of the pack to the winner, has a couple of numbers in their head at the start line. There is the finishing time you expect you will do based on your training, there is the time you would be happy with, and there is your dream fantasy PR (Personal Record); plus there is the slight fear of a dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish).
Ironically, I think it is exactly this guaranteed unexpectedness that keeps me coming back. You never really know exactly how all your training and the events of the day are going to come together for the finished product. Generally speaking, I like my life to be well-ordered and within my control. (Ask any of my friends – I don’t even like surprise parties.) However, I think it’s important to welcome a little uncertainty into our lives. Because, really, we can’t control everything and sometimes we all need a little reminder of that fact. Plus, once the start gun goes off, it’s not like these things are pure torture – the races are fun and I enjoy running them. They are always filled with unexpected pleasant surprises, too. This race, I was thankful for the small gifts, like finding a porta-potty with a small line, and for bigger gifts like getting an exhilarating second wind at Mile 9. Hearing a few of my TNT teammates scream out my name at Mile 12.75 and give me high-fives as I ran by gave me a shot of energy that practically catapulted me to the end.
Every time I cross the finish line, it represents the fears I have conquered, the obstacles I have overcome, and the pure joy of running with tens of thousands of other crazy people who love the sport nearly as much as I do. In spite of any doubts or misgivings I had on the other side of the start line, all I can think about at the finish line is how much I want to recapture the experience I just had. So, it will be no surprise to anyone, least of all myself, when I sign up again next year for another round of pre-race butterflies.
You might think we are given the amount of time we spend dealing with our various aches, pains, and overuse injuries. This season I’m dealing with a flare up of plantar fasciitis that I originally struggled with many years ago walking the 3-day walk for breast cancer. P-F wont kill you, but it sure makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. (And getting out of bed has been hard enough as it is lately with the return of stupid daylight savings time.)
What causes P-F? Well, running for long periods of time on hard surfaces (check). Also being overweight (check…). I find that one particularly frustrating. I am running so I can be less overweight and this thing I’m doing to be healthier is actually negatively impacted by being overweight. I have no one to blame for the weight problem but myself, but it still feels slightly unfair now that I’m trying to do better. I am doing any manner of the things recommended for treating plantar fasciitis except the one thing that would probably help the most – stopping running. I don’t think runners so much like pain, but we sure do love running and we’re willing to put up with a lot of discomfort in order to keep going. I am happy to report that some of my measures are starting to show results (so you can stop worrying now, parental-type readers), but it’s likely to be an issue I’ll have to attend to throughout the season.
A co-worked asked me this morning if I got snowed on while running this past Saturday. It was cold, it rained some, snowed a little, and the trail was covered in puddles. By the time I got done with my run my shoes and my legs were coated with mud. It’s the kind of weather that chills you to the bone and I’m not going to lie it’s a little bit miserable at the get-go, and maybe at the middle bit, and definitely after the end when you are standing around, but for that part where your muscles are warmed up and you aren’t cold anymore and you are running down a dirt trail through the woods, literally nothing beats it. There are two times when I love running more than just about anything else – when I’m in that zone where the world melts away, and the moment your feet step across the finish line of a race. When I close my eyes and think about the satisfaction and pure joy I will get from finishing the half-marathon in June, plantar fasciitis is the equivalent of getting a paper cut while reading your favorite book. Painful and annoying, but hardly worth throwing the book away. So, runners are not masochists and we don’t love pain. We’re much more like addicts, jonesing for our next finisher’s medal or runner’s high, and willing to stop at little to get it.
On Tuesday evenings I run with my Team in Training group around Green Lake and at this time of the year it’s still getting dark pretty early. For tonight’s practice, we ran on the “inner” loop which has no path lighting. This means we run in the dark. I have a small headlamp, but it mostly just allows me to see the time on my watch and maybe 1 foot down the trail. And my eyesight is only good for staying on the path (generally) and not falling on my face (most of the time), but otherwise I have to rely on my other senses to keep my bearings. Because of my pace (faster than walking, slower than running – I call it “slogging”) I am quickly by myself for all but the very beginning and end of the runs. Despite being a ridiculously social person, I enjoy having my running time to myself. When you run in the pitch dark, you are truly alone with your thoughts. Mostly I focus on my breath and tell myself to relax into the run. Somehow, when it’s just me and my breathing and the darkness, relaxing comes easier. Tonight I ran a negative split (meaning the second half of the run was faster than the first). Running a negative split is about holding back and starting out slow to warm up, and then easing into a more steady pace for the finish. I will confess that I have never been very good at negative splits. It’s not that I start out too fast, it’s more that I start slow, warm up slow, and then finish off slow – I’m usually all about the even split. For whatever reason, tonight, running in almost complete darkness, I was able to focus solely on my running and finally achieve the elusive negative split.
If you were to encounter me on the street, I hardly look like an endurance athlete. I’m on the brink of my 43rd birthday, short, and about 75 pounds overweight. Running is not generally the first thing one associates with middle aged women of my size. In fact, if you were to encounter me out on the trail, running looks pretty much like the last thing I should be doing. I am painfully slow (it’s not too hard to walk faster than I slog/jog), my face gets bright red, and I am generally huffing and puffing like a pack-a-day smoker. If I was being sensible I should be out walking, not pathetically attempting to do something that only barely resembles running. I have walked a half-marathon and I can extoll the many virtues of walking. The training is easier, you see more along the way, and if you have a good walking partner you save boatloads in therapy sessions. But regardless of all I have going against me and all evidence to the contrary, I can’t stop running.
There is something inside of me that simply yearns to be out running. I see other runners and it pulls strings deep within. The other day, I hopped on the bus and saw a couple out for their morning run. When I got off downtown and crossed the street, I saw them again. They had managed to run downtown in the same time it took me to ride the bus and I could see from their back-packs that they were running to work. As soon as I saw them, I didn’t think they were crazy or wonder how they did it, I just wanted to be them. I wanted to be the kind of person who runs to work.
I think the other thing skinny folks forget when they see us larger-proportioned athletes out there chugging away is that we can’t see what we look like. I don’t see the red-faced little plump girl. I only know how I feel from the inside. I hear my breathing and it reminds me I am alive. I feel the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground, and the cadence is comforting, if not mesmerizing. I feel the strength of my legs and am in awe of the distances they carry me. I feel strong, powerful, enduring. Or sometimes its more the way I feel after a particularly tough run. The running itself can be filled with aches, pains, and frustration, but when I have reached deep down into the reservoir I didn’t know existed and found a way to propel myself to the top of the hill, gone faster than before, or when my foot crosses the finish line, I feel like I am on top of the world. It’s not that elusive runner’s high, but the even more addictive drug of accomplishing your goals.
Why running? I have no idea. Does anyone really know why we have the passions we do, and does it really matter? I have friends who find themselves through art, music, cooking, or raising their families. It is just this thing I do. I have gone years without running for one reason or another and yet I always come back to it. People ask me if I am going to do triathlons. Maybe some day I’ll take on that challenge, but I mostly think why would I want to do those other two things when I could be running. One of my favorite race shirts had this on the back – “Run.” I guess I love it so much because it was such a great reminder not to over-think; just run, period. Why do I run? Because I have the soul of a runner. Period.