This could quite possibly be the long post to beat all other long posts, and I have only one excuse — 26.2 miles is a long way!
Let’s start with race day. First because I’ve kind of already recapped our arrival in Virginia Beach…but also because there’s a little something (involving a different sport, a certain madness, and an upset) that happened on Saturday night that no one in our household really wants to talk about just yet. Insert pouty face here. 😦
So. Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny, and I got out my real-life pouty face when confronted with a complete lack of clouds and a 6:30am temperature of 54 degrees. “But…but…it was supposed to be cloudy!” I whined. Husband the Super Fan assured me that 54 degrees was still twenty degrees colder than the start of the Kentucky Derby Marathon last year (so true) and that a 10-15 mph breeze would help keep things feeling cool even as temperatures approached the 70-degree mark (also true, in theory). Scott then went over the plan for where he was going to cheer for us and document our journey. I seem to remember the numbers 2, 3, 12, and 25 being tossed around.
At around 7:30, we headed for the starting line. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of people congregated in our hotel lobby. “Uh, what? They’re acting like it’s cold outside,” we scoffed as we walked out of the hotel to discover the intriguing weather phenomenon of Virginia Beach for ourselves — the oceanfront block apparently always feels 10-15 degrees colder than the actual temperature. It’s air conditioning a la Mother Nature. So…54 degrees felt more like 40 with a cool breeze. Needless to say, my mood automatically improved.
We continued our walk to the starting line, passing the Bob the Leprechaun (the starter) on our way to a spot between the 3:50 and 4:00 pacers. This wasn’t precisely our goal time, but in our experiences the official pacers are a bit irregular so we figured we were close enough to that happy place between “getting trampled” and “getting to trample.”
Then we waited…and waited. Scott gave me a hug and headed down the road to station himself at the two mile mark. I spent long enough staring silently at the ground for ME to notice and comment that I must be nervous. I smiled, but (for once) couldn’t manage a verbal response. I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to do this. It was my goal, sure. A two-year quest, absolutely. I wanted it to be over with, duh. But running 26.2 miles? No matter how bad you want it, it’s still insane.
Finally, the countdown began. The wheelchair athletes started on their journey, followed by the rest of the field three minutes later. It’s funny — this marathon was over twice the size of the Kentucky one, but because the half marathonners (all 7,000 of them) started an hour before us it seemed much smaller. There was barely any uncomfortable shuffling and bumping into others before finally finding a bubble of personal running space and getting up to speed.
Miles 1-9: Happy Happy Fun Time
With the feeling of a human stampede over quickly, ME and I settled into our pace with relative ease. Then, we spent most of the first nine miles trying to conserve energy while cramming all the “fun” you could possibly imagine associated with a marathon. When we saw Scott, we grinned for the camera.
We took “mental pictures” of our own to capture some of the more memorable moments of the race (1. police officers riding horses, 2. someone wearing “our” Dunder Mifflin shirt, 3. TNT spectators in banana costumes, 4. Soldiers stationed at Camp Pendleton lined up offering free high fives and chanting cadences, 5. Virginia Beach’s “no extraneous punctuation” I mean, “no cussing” signs). We figured that a time of grim determination and scowls was coming, so we figured we might as well enjoy what we could while we could.
The majority of our mental efforts during these first nine miles, however, went towards keeping our pace from dipping below the comfort zone. With a cool breeze, a mostly flat/downhill course, and what seemed like thousands of people passing us, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all and accidentally run something that started with (cough) an “8” instead of a “9.” In the first nine miles, we only had one of those — it was on the 95% downhill Mile 2, was completely my fault, and was immediately corrected.
From a race organization standpoint, I have two semi-minor complaints. First, there were a couple of mile markers (miles 6 and 15, I believe) that were long. We went through Mile 6 at 9:40 when our average up to that point was 9:10. “What the? I don’t think we slowed down…did we slow down?” No, I don’t think so. “Ok, then. Let’s stay right here and see what the next mile is.” We calmly, rationally maintained the reputedly 9:40 pace for the next mile. Our split for Mile 7 was 9:42, sure…but that included a brief water walking break. I rest my case. The mile marker ’twas off.
My other complaint (and this is such a standard one that I feel silly even typing it) is that the water stations seemed to be randomly placed. I know, I know. Complaining about water stations…how cliche. But you see, there was no intuitive, impossible-to-forget-even-when-your-brain-is-mush “every 2 miles” system. Sometimes the stations would be two miles apart, but sometimes less or even (excrutiatingly) more. Sometimes they’d fall right at a mile mark, sometime they wouldn’t. Maybe I should have spent more time analyzing the map, but the sporadic placement made it hard for me to stick to my plan of eating a couple of Shot Bloks right before the station, grabbing a glass of water,and downing it quickly.
All in all, though, those first 9 miles were the happiest this runner has yet to experience during a marathon. Unfortunately, things were about to change.
Miles 10-14: Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot
After touring Camp Pendleton and crossing over the bridge that was the lone hill on the course, we headed out to the boardwalk. On the one hand, this was really neat — we had stumbled upon the 4-hour pace group, and spectators get more excited when they see the time goal. “Way to go, 4 hours!” “Yayyyyyyyyy!!!” The 4-hour pacer was a pretty funny guy, too, so we got to enjoy some humor without having to come up with the jokes ourselves. And, of course, the whole running beside the ocean thing was quite picturesque.
However, this also marked the beginning of a long, long stretch with the wind at our backs, the temperature rising, and the sun shining down in full force. Suddenly, what had seemed like a lovely springtime run felt uncomfortably, worrisomely warm. After a brief consultation, we dropped the 4-hour pace group at Mile 11 to avoid temptation and made another water stop. I felt pretty good, but I began to worry about how long it was going to be until the breeze became our friend again.
At Mile 12, we passed our hotel and saw Scott taking pictures from the second level of the parking garage. I expected to see him at 12, so it was no surprise. He managed to shock us a bit later, however, when he passed us riding a Mountain Bike. Husband, where’d you get that bike? “I don’t know…” he said mischieviously as he rode ahead. Said ME, “Does he really not know?” Ha, he’s messing with us. I think. I’m sure he rented it and didn’t steal it from some kid…um, I think. (Sidenote: He did rent it…and then rode the rest of the course with us. What a guy!)
At Mile 13, I made a bathroom stop and took heart in the fact that I apparently had excess water despite the whole running and sweating thing. Hip-hip-hooray for extraordinary hydration!
Miles 15-18: Where Megan Loses Her Mind
Oh, Mile 15. This is when brainpower begins its decline. In Kentucky, I lost the ability to recall what mile I was actually on. (I missed a split, so the watch said “14 laps” but was really “15.”) In Virginia Beach, I saw a 10:30 mile and COMPLETELY FREAKED OUT. Remember the calm, rational person who 9 miles ago could calmly say, “perhaps the mile marker is off. Let’s see if the next mile evens things out”? Well, she doesn’t live here no more. I saw the 10:30 on my watch, thought, “I don’t want to be this slow,” and left ME in my completely bonkers dust. The next mile, I saw 7:42 and mentally broke VB’s “no cussing” rule. $*#@!!! Of course, now I know that that mile was short, but at the time I began to panic: You idiot! What are you doing? Augh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Scott saw me at this juncture, and gave me the encouraging news that I was doing awesome and was catching the 4-hour pace group. “I’m an idiot. Thought I ran a 10:30. The marker was off. I’m stupid,” was the somewhat babbling and unexpected response he got in return.
Now, you may be thinking that there is a simple solution to this problem: SLOW DOWN. You’re right, of course. That is the solution. But somehow, this thought never occurred to my running-addled brain as I proceeded to retake the 4-hour pace group over the next three miles. I can’t really explain it, but once my legs got away from me it was like I had no choice but to follow. The miles were in the high 8s/low 9s, and I was terrified of the consequences to come but powerless to do much about it.
Miles 19-22: The Puke Threshold
And then…I found it. It’s a feeling I remember all too well from past half marathon attempts…suddenly, I was at the dreaded PUKE THRESHOLD. The settling of the bowling ball in my gut and the realization that any sudden or extreme movement would push me over the edge finally managed to clear the haze of marathon-induced insanity. At the next water station, I forced myself to walk. I felt like I needed a clean break from the craziness and wanted to see if a stroll would make the feeling subside. It didn’t. Instead, I noticed that only small sips, small steps, and shallow breathing were allowed.
Now, I had a dilemma. It was past time to eat another Shot Blok, but the mere thought of anything with taste nearly pushed me past the threshold. Ugh. I quietly sipped my water, willing the feeling to pass and contemplating if I was somehow overhydrated. It would be nice if the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach could be explained away so easily…but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was no longer sweating. That’s one thing ruled out.
Scott came up beside me and asked if I was ok. I told him that it was going to be slow going from here on out, because I felt pretty sick and wasn’t sure how much I could run but that I would DEFINITELY finish. He let me know that ME was starting to struggle a bit as well, but that she’d probably catch me and be able to help me keep going. He spent the rest of those miserable miles riding back and forth between us, offering encouraging words and even riding ahead to the water station for ME when she began to despair. Oh, and putting my parents on speaker phone to cheer for me. He’s awesome.
At the next water station, I became worried enough about electrolytes that I grabbed a cup of Gatorade instead of water. I had trained with Powerade in a few long runs to prepare for this very possibility — where I needed calories but couldn’t bring myself to eat a Shot Blok — and in the training runs it worked out well. I walked again, taking miniscule sips and becoming irrationally angry. With myself, with the marathon, with the weather, even with my faithful fan. It wasn’t pretty.
The Gatorade seemed to help, so I resumed my plodding with a slight renewal of energy. We were at the end of the “loop” at the far end of the course. Soon enough, we’d cross back over into already-traversed territory. I was looking forward to familiar landmarks and counting down to the finish.
Mile 23: $*!@
Like so many things I look forward to, Mile 23 wasn’t all that I dreamed it would be. I couldn’t see past my own misery. I eventually snapped at my faithful fan to “get away from me” because I really just wanted to suffer alone. He rode up the course a ways to give me some space.
Sometime after that, ME caught up with me. I was walking again — hoping to move forward on the course and away from the blasted Puke Threshold, but not really feeling like I was accomplishing either. She began walking with me like the good friend she is, and I explained that I was walking because I felt like “all kinds of $*#@” (oops, there goes a violation of the “no cussing” signs!) and was hoping that the feeling would eventually go away. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I knew it was too late. I staggered to the side of the road and finally passed the dreaded threshold. Repeatedly. Disgustingly. I heard, “ooh, that’s not good,” from one of the other runners as they passed. Apparently, even when I’m at my worst and nothing else remains, I have a sense of humor because this cracked me up.
After this episode, I started walking in the direction of that STUPID AND ELUSIVE FINISH LINE. I was (perhaps irrationally) relieved to be able to stop worrying about throwing up. C’mon, what’s the worst that can happen now? Throw up again? Yeah, been there, done that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a marathon to finish. ME, on the other hand, looked a little nervous. I think she was running down the symptoms of heat stroke and calculating the distance to the nearest hospital. Then, I did someting that completely baffled her: I started running again. “What are you doing?” I’m running. I was only walking because I thought it would keep me from being sick. If it’s not going to do that, then I’m going to run, dang it. Get this mess over with.
She started looking for Scott. Apparently, she decided that I’d lost my mind and she needed a more rational person to talk to…or bring us water, because the water stations had disappeared again. “Where’s Scott? We need Scott!” she said anxiously. Oh yeah, about that. I sort of told him to go away…so he did. “You did what???” Yeah, not one of my finer moments. She ran ahead of me, whether to look for Scott or be out of hearing distance of another “episode,” I’m not sure. I wouldn’t blame her either way. She was close enough to me that when she passed Scott and explained that I’d gotten sick but was still running, I could hear his response. It was:
“Don’t worry, she’s ok. She’ll finish.” Attaboy. I love the confidence.
Miles 24-25: It Will Never End
The two miles after the episode were not fun. My stomach hurt. A lot. I was hot. A lot. My legs felt like they were melting — which was bizarre, particularly because I was prepared for the cramping that dominated the Kentucky Derby Marathon. This was different. A strange, sluggish feeling where the muscles in my legs seemed to have stopped communicating with each other. I’m not sure how to describe it…it didn’t hurt, necessarily, but it was weird.
Scott stayed close by me as I plodded along. He didn’t say much, but I knew he was there and it helped. I distrusted the signs that it would all soon be over — street signs decreasing from 85th to 35th, mile markers increasing from 24 to 25, more and more spectators happily telling me that it was “almost over”…I tried to put it all out of my mind. As bad as I felt, I didn’t have any thoughts about quitting. I wanted to finish more than anything else, but the utter misery of it all warned against getting my hopes up too early. So I kept my eyes to the ground, concentrating on tiny step after tiny step. Eventually, I passed the 25-mile mark.
Mile 26: The End
Sometime in the last mile, we turned onto Atlantic Ave. Oh. My. Goodness. For a moment, I was confused — it was so much cooler that I thought somehow the hotels’ air conditioning was reaching the street. (Go easy on me…it’d been a long race!) Then, I realized it was just the VB weather phenomenon again and mourned that I’d been running a mere two blocks away from this deliciousness for so long. So close…and yet so far.
I caught ME. She was walking, and as I trudged past I told her “good job.” She joined me, and we ran the last half mile of the race together, turning onto the boardwalk where the finishing archway was a heartbreaking 7 blocks away and passing the 26-mile marker together before she pulled ahead in what she called “the slowest kick in history.” Ha. I was so far gone at this point that years of competitive running and the natural desire to “kick it in” were completely overshadowed by the fact that I had run twenty-six (it looks better in word form) miles and just had nothing left to give.
As I ran that last 400m, a strange thing happened. I smiled. When I finally let myself look up to see the finish line coming closer and closer, it was undeniable: I was going to finish a marathon. When this thought sunk in, a smile as spontaneous and uncontrollable as any I’ve ever expressed spread across my face. I tried for a few steps to stifle it…I had this fleeting notion that I’d look like a cheshire cat or the people in that really strange “Black Hole Sun” music video…but then I gave in to the moment and let the smile take over. In the last few meters, the smile gave way to tears just as spontaneous. I didn’t fight those, either. I just crossed the line, grabbed my medal, and hugged my friend before going to find my husband and ponder what comes after finishing your first marathon.