Tuesday, June 21, 2005

100 years of marathon; or, the longest entry ever

I am writing this entry from the comfort of my couch, from whose loving embrace I vow never to leave. That way lies movement, and with movement comes pain. I’m really not down with whoever invented the act of standing up. The guy who invented sitting, though, we can still party. And whoever put those handicapped stalls (with bars for hoisting! And a higher toilet!) in public bathrooms—if you’re ever in DC, give me a call. I owe you a drink.

Aren’t you glad I share such details with you?

Actually, I’m starting to feel better. Saturday and Sunday were spent giving Anchorage my best impression of Igorenstein (Frankengor?). My back kept me lurching, while my completely-dead quads remained unable to support me if I bent my knees. It was a pretty sight, I’ll tell you.

But it was hard-earned pain. And I was definitely not the only one walking that way, around the city, and on the plane home.

So, are you ready to hear about my marathon in excruciating detail? Too bad, because I’m ready to tell y’all ALL about it.

Chapter One: In which our heroine finds a fly in her salad, eats a big plate of pasta despite not being hungry, and brings a banana back to the hotel for the next morning.

The pasta party. Conveniently scheduled for 4 pm, which is my usual dinner time, since I’m eighty-five and a connoisseur of the early-bird special in all forms. Or, you know, not. Plus, I’d had a late lunch, because I’m smart like that.

Because I like finding things to stress about, I grumped about the fact that the penne was not whole wheat, which is the carb choice I prefer. I get that some people don’t like the taste, but it’s such a better energy source. Don’t you think they could have offered both options at the party?

Anyway, after making fun of me all day for my obsessively planning how I was going to lay everything out that night for the next morning, my sister got to listen to the experts (our coaches, a Runner’s World columnist, all the other runners) lecture us to obsessively lay everything out that night for the next morning. Ha!

So after dinner and a brief meeting, we headed back to the hotel, where I (say it with me) obsessively laid everything out for the next morning. Heh.

Then, sleep.

Chapter Two: In which our heroine wakes up at the crack of dawn (which is remarkably hard to differentiate from the dead of night when it’s light out twenty-four hours a day), lies in bed until the alarm goes off at 5:15 am, and dresses for the marathon.

After checking the forecast at least every other day for 10 days, I learned that the national weather service has no freaking clue. The predictions ranged from sunny and 67°F to rainy and 55°F, and everything in between. And it changed hourly. (Okay, so sometimes I checked more than every other day.) But on the day of, the cold and rainy predictions prevailed, and we opened our curtains to the darkest we’d seen since arriving in Alaska. It was in the high 50s, and I think it warmed up a bit before the start, and the rain was just a sprinkle at that point. I was wearing a Tyvek jacked (one girl was selling them as a fundraiser, and I figured I could ditch it once I started to warm up).

I ate my peanut butter granola bar and banana, and headed down to the lobby, where everybody was milling around, taking pictures, and eating breakfast. I felt pretty relaxed, all things considered, and was excited to get started.

Chapter Three: In which our heroine takes the bus to the start, uses the portapotty, mills around, enjoys the Top 40 music playing over the loudspeakers, mills around some more, heads to the start, eats a gel (it having been over an hour since breakfast already), and generally mills around.

Hmm. That pretty much covers it, actually. (Note the absence of a warm-up jog and stretching. You think our coach might have suggested that instead of talking us out of it?)

Chapter Four: In which our heroine tempts fate, explores hubris, and invites irony as she flies through the early miles.

The gun went off promptly at 8 am, and it only took a few seconds to cross the start line. I’m not good at being patient in the slow shuffle of the starting crowd, and so LadyFab and I soon began to weave around people. By the end of the first mile (11 minutes), we had pretty much gotten to a speed we were comfortable with, so it wasn’t too bad. Everywhere you looked there was Team in Training purple. It was actually kind of nice, and all the singlets showed the name of people’s home chapter. I saw a lot of Texans (from three separate chapters, I think), but there were runners from all over.

LadyFab and I had both agreed that we wanted to run hard during this race, to push ourselves and each other to have the best race we could. Normally the first few miles of a long run feel like they take forever, but in the excitement of the morning, and maybe also because of the cool weather, that morning they flew by. Plus we were running pretty fast—we hit the second mile marker in just over 9:30. Definitely faster than we’d intended, so we tried to pull back a bit, but we felt absolutely fantastic.

We were both wearing water belts with gatorade, so we passed through the first aid station at mile 2, though I pulled off my Tyvek jacket and left it there.

These first several miles were along a highway. There weren’t many spectators, but drivers were honking and yelling as they drove by. All of the first 14 miles were net uphill, but, with a few notable exceptions, the slope was very gradual. We averaged about 10 min/mile—slower when the hills got steeper—still a little fast, but within reason, we thought. Our training pace was typically 10:20-11 min/mile, especially by the end of training, and we felt that we could keep up a faster pace on race day. We grabbed some water and walked through the second aid station around the fourth mile, and quickly got on the move again.

Somewhere in this point (mile five maybe?) we hit the trail. It was more rugged than I’d expected—more mud than gravel, and fairly narrow and windy, but it was gorgeous. Lush green trees (and with the intense months of sunlight and a lot of rain, the vegetation in Alaska was simply giant) on both sides of the trail and snowy peaks in the distance. There were still a lot of runners, but we didn’t feel crowded, and there were very few spectators. It felt like just another training run (with a little more pressure), and we were having a great time.

Somewhere around mile seven, after a gel and another water stop, I noted that we were going pretty fast. “Maybe we should slow down,” said I.

“Yeah, probably,” LadyFab agreed.

But when the next mile marker appeared, we were still at the 10 min/mile pace.

“Hmm… I don’t feel like we’re running a crazy pace, even if it is fast.”
“I agree. I feel great.”
“I just don’t want to regret this in 10 miles.”
“Me neither.”
“But we have plenty of time to slow down at that point, and it’ll be all downhill. Plus, we’re too stubborn to let a little pain stop us.” That was me. And LadyFab agreed.

Shall we take a moment to fully absorb the innocence and stupidity in that statement?

In my defense, in the past few months, I’ve run through knee pain and back pain, and at the moment we had that conversation, my back had already tightened up, and I had the beginnings of a stitch in my side, but neither bothered me very much. They hurt if I thought about it, but I figured I’d worry about the pain when the race was over.

Perhaps, though, I should have taken note of those signals from my body, and slowed down.

Chapter Five: In which our heroine encounters family, conquers hills, and perseveres through the middle miles.

Mile 9 was the first designated spectator spot, and my sister and LadyFab’s family were all there, in orange rain hats, smiling and cheering. I had given my sister a pile of emergency supplies, and she anxiously asked me if I needed anything, but I still had plenty of gels and Gatorade in my belt. We were anxious to keep moving, so we planned to see them again around mile 17.

Off through the water stop, with a brief stop at the PortaPotties, and we were on our way.

The hills really started to pick up at this point, and all of a sudden, my stomach lurched, and I really needed to make another bathroom stop. This hadn’t ever happened to me during a training run, but luckily there was a lone Portapotty at the next mile marker (mile 11, the top of a hill) so I darted inside.

Afterwards, I felt better. At the next aid station, I took another gel (I was aiming for one every 5 miles or so), and I still felt pretty confident. We were almost through the uphill portion of the course, I’d faced some unexpected obstacles, but pushed through, and we were making much better time than I’d ever expected.

Miles 12 and 13 had the worst hills we’d seen, and I started to get winded on some of them, but I knew they were ending soon. We kept walking through the aid stations, and I walked on one of the hills when I felt out of breath.

Our memory of the elevation chart showed the trail turning downhill right at mile 14, which turned out not to be the case. But by mile 15, the trail had leveled out and then started to go downhill, and then the trail ended, and we were back on paved roads.

Chapter Six: In which our heroine would say that she began to crash and burn, had she not stricken both words from her vocabulary.

This was about when the first twinges of leg cramps appeared in my calves. Despite a couple slower miles from the ugly hills and my second bathroom break, we were still flying through the miles. My legs never cramped up during a training run, so I wasn’t sure what to do. I drank some Gatorade, grabbed an orange slice at the aid station, and tried not to worry about it.

I was getting tired at this point, and I was really looking forward to seeing my sister at mile seventeen. A couple of times the cramps pulled me out of a run, but I would soon start running again, and kept up with LadyFab.

Mile seventeen came and went, and no family. The aid station a half-mile later came and went (a Mardi Gras theme), and no family. I had really been counting on seeing them and I was pretty disappointed that they weren’t there. I knew they were probably further along somewhere, but I was getting tired, and my feet kept clenching with the cramps, and I was starting to get worried.

I started to walk, and LadyFab kept going. My legs kept spasm-ing and buckling under me, and I didn’t know how to make it stop. A TNT mentor (meaning she had run at least one marathon with TNT before) stopped and gave me a salt packet, and counseled me to keep hydrated and just keep moving. She suggested walking on my toes for a minute, but that was even worse, and my legs were so tender that I felt like I couldn’t stretch them.

I was still walking painfully, and Lynn-the-St.-Louis-coach ran up next to me. She was incredibly cheery (a sharp contrast to my near tears self) and she said that she saw me coming down the hill and she thought she’d see if she had anything in her bag of tricks that could help. But I told her that I had been drinking, had eaten orange slices and salt packet recently, and that stretching didn’t seem to help, so she just smiled and wished me luck.

Soon after, I finally saw my sister and LadyFab’s family. My sister started walking with me, and she helped me restock. I grabbed a gel for later, and we refilled my water bottles with the extra Gatorade that I had left with her. I had wanted to take a picture of her and LadyFab’s family specatating, because they were so cute with their orange hats, and TNT shirts, drenched from the rain. I wanted to tell my sister how glad I was that she was out there cheering me on, and supporting me. But by the time I got there, I was shaken and in pain, and all I ended up doing was snapping that I didn’t care that Gatorade was getting poured all over her backpack.

LadyFab was well out of sight at this point, so I grabbed my iPod (stashed for just such an emergency) and started running again. I put on my favorite running playlist and started to feel better running with the familiar tunes.

The cramps were still there, though, and between miles 18 and 20, I had to walk a fair bit. I think I averaged about 13 min/mile at that point. Sometimes I could run for a few minutes before my legs buckled, but sometimes it was just a few seconds.

During one particularly bad period, the pink-spiky-haired Canadian coach walked with me for a bit. He didn’t have any answers either, but he encouraged me to keep going, and he assured me that he would look out for me further along on the course. I started running again.

I hit mile 20 at 3:40, almost exactly when I finished the 20-mile training run. But it had been a very different three-hours-forty-minutes. When I finished that run, in addition to the elation of a really great run, I remember calculating that if I did that on race day, I would almost certainly be able to run the marathon in under 5 hours. But on marathon day, I pretty much already knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Somewhere around there I noticed that my quads had pretty much died. The cramps were still painful, but even when they abated enough to let me run, I couldn’t manage to go very fast.

This is when I started thinking about the bloggers who had persevered through tough races recently, about the fun races I ran with Tim, my personal pace-rabbit (in a good way), and about how I had still raised a lot of money for a really good cause, and how my time didn’t really matter. I was crying with frustration and pain, but I just had to keep going.

Truthfully, I never really wanted to stop. I wanted my legs to stop hurting, I wanted the finish line to be closer, but I didn’t want to stop. I’m not sure anything could have made me stop at that point. Early in the race, LadyFab and I chatted with a TNT-er from Philly who had run the Dublin marathon the previous year on a broken foot (a shoe issue—his foot broke during the run). He finished though. I doubt my cramps were half as painful as that, but still, I can understand what kept him going.

Chapter Seven: In which our heroine becomes acqainted with the Winston Churchill quotation, "If you're going through hell, keep going", then becomes more than friends, and then develops an intimate, lasting relationship with the phrase.

By mile 22, I was barely running at all. My miles had slowed down to 16 minutes each, the temperature had dropped, and the rain had picked up. I wasn’t having fun.

Then I ran into Luke, a teammate from DC, who had suffered a torn muscle a few weeks ago. His dreams of a sub-4 hour marathon evaporated, but he figured he could still run. When I saw him, he was practically dragging his bad leg behind him, but he was still cheery. His fiance (who ended up running a 3:43 time) had promised to come back and run the end with him when she’d finished, and he said he didn’t want to make her run four whole miles, so he figured he had to get as far as he could before she caught up to him.

I ran a bit and outstripped him, but he caught up a bit later. When we hit the 23 mile marker, he realized that if we did 12 minute miles we might still be able to beat 5 hours, so we both tried to run again, but my calves buckled after a few seconds, so he kept on without me.

Everybody around me was hurting pretty bad at that point (except, I suppose, for the people who were still running or race-walking, who passed us), and I started chatting with one nice woman from Anchorage. She had injured her knee somehow, and was as frustrated and lonely as I was. Again we started running, and even though she fell behind, she caught up again pretty quickly.

We could hear the announcer at the finish line, but we still had almost two miles to go, and “insult hill” to climb. I saw the Canadian coach a couple more times, but I was running each time, so he just nodded and let me pass. It felt good to know he was looking out for me.

So that’s how it ended. I shuffled up the hill, walking when the cramps kicked in, running when they left me alone for a few seconds, and made sure to save enough energy to run through the finish, at about 5:13.

Kind of anticlimactic, no? I wish I could tell you I was elated when I finally crossed the finish line, but I was just relieved. I was crying, and I’m sure my picture will be hideous, but I’m not even sure I want it. I want to feel proud that I ran a marathon, in tough conditions. I wish I felt noble and brave for finishing, and that I had learned something about myself and my determination. I wish I didn’t care that I didn’t beat 5 hours in my time.

But mostly I feel stupid. I said in my last post that “shit happens, and I can’t control that,” and that’s probably partially true. I’d never had leg cramps before, and I don’t really know why I got them on Saturday. But I could have run a smarter race, and not rushed so much in the beginning.

I wanted so much to cross the finish line with LadyFab feeling as great as we did after our 20-mile run. She ran the race I wanted to run, and I’m proud of her, but I’m jealous. Half the time, in our training runs, I was the one pushing our pace and keeping us going. I don’t know why my legs fell apart, and I want a do-over.

I know it’s ridiculous to feel this way, and part of me still remembers the non-runner from five short months ago, who has clearly lost her mind that she now somehow feels that it’s not enough to finish a marathon on her own two feet.

So I don’t think this will be my last marathon. I’m not sure when I’ll run another one, but this doesn’t feel like the end of the story of 26.2 miles vs. Naomi.

On the plus side, I seem to have truly changed my attitude towards athletics. I’m already planning to run the Virginia Beach Half Marathon in September, and the Army-Navy 10 Miler in November. Plus, I’m very intrigued by the prospect of a Triathlon. If only I could swim in a straight line…

Judah asked me if I ever expected to end up “loving to run, and running fo’ever” and the answer is no way. But I really enjoy this, and I’m really proud of it, recent evidence to the contrary.

But now it is quite late, and this is beyond long. Good night all.


Blogger Susan said...

I think that this may be one of those moments when time will put this in perspective--that this was not just one race--this was a journey of accomplishment that did change who you are. Well done. You should be proud.

7:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You really did give it everything you had. Amazing. Congrats. I can't even begin to imagine what tlose last 7 miles were like, but I know I wouldn't have finished. Besides, this might even make for a better story than if you'd finished when you'd hoped you would.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

I can absolutely relate to your race, so much so I started having flashbacks of my own first marathon a few weeks ago. I posted all the gory details at http://www.sniles.de/running/myrace.html

Hang your head high and be proud that you finished. Next time will be sweet!


7:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey i am proud of you, as a lurking reader for many months :) i got rather teary there at the end. hope movement becomes less painful soon! all the best to you.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Noames said...

Susan--how do you get to be so smart? Is this one of those things that comes with being a grown-up, or am I doomed forever?

Desh and dg--thanks. I just posted again, and I'm starting to see the good side, but it's nice to be reminded that I'm just being dumb.

Jack--I actually read your story weeks ago, and remembered it when I was running, but I didn't quite remember where I had read it. Now that I've reread it, the similarities are even more striking. Dude, what's with the cramps?!!!

But like you, I'm starting to see the positive in just having finished. And there will be a next time!

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

congratulations!! I know the ending wasn't what you hoped for but that makes the accomplishment all the more amazing, really. :-)

9:08 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Hey Naomi...man, you had me in tears with that one:-) I could *feel* your frustration and agony. But, I'm glad to see that you're ready to tackle another one...that's a great attitude to have! Congrats on making it through all the pain to finish what you started :-)

12:23 PM  
Blogger thegrayelm said...


You should be very proud of what you've accomplished! It's not just your body, but it was sheer determination. I have the utmost respect for you. I think running may be one of the most difficult sports around, not because of the physical which is tough; but the mental aspect of having to focus on running. Anyways, I hope that the strength that you discovered within yourself during this journey will serve you well in all future endeavors; including I hope keeping this blog.

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Mlle Naomi!

Congratulations! I agree with an earlier comment - the struggles you had made your accomplishment all the more amazing!

I still remember trying to drag you out of bed (and I mean that quite literally) freshman year to go running. And somehow, you turned that around and FINISHED a long-ass marathon! You may be jealous of LadyFab, but I'm jealous of you!!

Well, hope the recovery goes quickly - pamper yourself lots, and call me soon!

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are amazing. I admire your courage to put it all on the line, to leave yourself out there, and to fight your way to the finish.

I'm stunned that you never encountered cramps during your marathon training. Who trains for a marathon and never encounters cramping? You, I guess, but still, that's amazing. I guess the Cramp Gods tried to exact vengeance during race day but you fought them back too.

If you are trying to assess what happened then you might want to read up on the lactate threshold (LT) if you haven't already done so. The LT is the secret to conquering the 26.2 miles, not just surviving them. I'm pretty convinced from reading your entry that you were running above your LT, leading to the dramatic ending wherein our heroine fights her way to the finish in a most inspirational fashion.

Make no mistake about it. You ran an amazing race and you should be exultant over what you have accomplished. Yay you!

12:35 PM  
Blogger Octavius said...

Congratulations on your run (even though you don't feel so hot about it.) I almost feel the same way. But I guess that means, like you said, we'll just have to run another one to improve!!

It's too bad I didn't see you out there. For a moment I thought of screaming NAOMI at the top of my lungs at the start but just didn't happen.

I'm also very glad to hear that my Canadian coach got a couple of notable mentions. The pink hair was actually supposed to be purple. Who knew? Fun night in the hotel room night before.

Keep on runnin'!

2:06 AM  
Blogger Noames said...

You know, I wondered if that was your coach. But I don't know your name, and I thought asking if he was Somebody's coach might be unhelpfully vague. :)

Can't wait to read your full marathon report!

11:03 AM  
Blogger 21st Century Mom said...

I know I'm really, really, really late to the party here and you have probably written about this race and put it all in perspective by now but I just have to say one thing - you finished. You could have sat down and waited for a sag wagon and you didn't. You finished. That is fabulous.

Back to Africa!

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story! You should consider sharing at least portions of it on this site:

You'll inspire others.

9:32 AM  

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