Right around my twentieth mile, I realized how much I’d underestimated the mental challenge of my first marathon. That was the point when the twenty-mile water station, the goal I used to keep myself running along every stride of a seven-mile straight-ahead incline through all-but-abandoned forest, turned out not to exist. That was also the point at which my race pretty much fell apart.
The first half of the Yuengling Shamrock Marathon had been downright enjoyable. We lucked into a beautiful day in Virginia Beach, sunny and clear but cool enough that I only worked up a light sweat. the scenery was variable, the crowd was cheering encouragement, and after a couple of miles of adrenaline and nerves, I found a comfortable pace and settled in. My dear friend Elizabeth Corkum stayed by my side, rooting me on and offering training tips and encouragement, though my pace was almost two minutes slower per mile than her fastest.
Our eighth mile passed through Camp Pendleton, and the troops lined both sides of our path for high-fives, which made for another nice adrenaline burst. By the end of mile 13, I was feeling good about my pace and my training.
I knew from the map that the course elevated, mildly but steadily, from the ten-mile mark almost to mile twenty. From mile ten this path followed the line of the beach, and then turned through a residential district where we encountered the last returning stragglers in the half marathon, and then the marathon leaders. A few of our fellow marathoners fell to walking, but I kept on. At mile sixteen, the course followed a road through the forest, long and straight and steadily uphill. There was no crowd to cheer us on, no variation in the terrain, just trees and dry needles and pavement and the sounds of the runners around us, even more of whom were walking. Even my iPod had forsaken me, offering nothing but droning generic techno music no matter how many times I skipped to the next track.I promised myself I wouldn’t walk. Not yet. For the last couple of months of my training I had struggled with a gamy knee that seemed to aggravate faster when I alternated walking and running than when I maintained a run. On top of that, if I stopped or walked I knew I’d still be on that hill when it came time to resume running. No, I reminded myself that there was a water station at the twenty-mile mark, the same point where the course became one long downhill to the finish line, and if I kept running to that point I could take a quick break, stretch and regroup mentally for the last 6.2 charge to the finish.
Except that as I reached the twenty-mile mark, my hamstrings tightening like sun-baked leather, I saw no water station. There was only more pavement, and more trees. I’d misremembered – though on the course I was assured that the organizers had betrayed me. The goal I’d pushed myself to reach was not there. I’ve rarely in my life felt so betrayed, so crushed. I nearly cried.
The next few miles were an absolute slog. The course passed through another military base, but this time there were no troops to offer high-fives. There weren’t even spectators to cheer us on. There were empty fields, a distant view of the ocean, and the beating sun that was quickly becoming unwelcome as the day warmed. At mile twenty-one I finally found my water station, where I stopped to have a drink and regroup, but by then it was too late, my mental approach was shot.
Full credit is due to Liz for keeping me running at this point, when my legs seemed to have nothing at all left to offer and my mind was little help. For two miles or so I ran angry at almost everyone – at the sun, at the terrain, at the spectators who weren’t there to support us, and most of all at the organizers for choosing this brutal and unforgiving wasteland as the second half of the marathon instead of the first. Liz pushed me with encouragement and training tips, and responded with patience and understanding when I told her, with as much diplomacy as I could muster, that I was feeling very angry at the world and at that particular moment her advice was annoying me. Without her by my side, there’s a good chance I would have walked everything from mile 20 until about the end, and added a solid hour or more onto my time.
Sparse groups of spectators began to appear again after mile 22, and grew in number steadily as we approached the finish. I took several walking breaks over the next few miles, but kept them short – partly out my own desire for a respectable time, but mostly because of the dirty looks I got from Liz each time I slowed. By mile 24, I had regrouped mentally, and worked out a strategy. I was going to walk as much as I needed so that I’d have the strength to run the last 1.2 miles and close out the marathon strong.
Around this time, my iPod came back, too. When it finally broke from its All-Techno-All-the-Time format to favor me with a little Cee Lo Green, I literally almost cried from the relief. As I began mile 25, I found a song with a good rhythm to keep me running (Modest Mouse’s Float On) and set it to repeat until I finished.
The last 1.2 miles is mostly a blur, as my attention was fixated on summoning the strength to keep running. The crowds of spectators along both sides of the course were dense, but their energy was low. Liz and I took turns working them up, grandstanding like NBA players to squeeze every last drop of endorphin out of our dry-sponge adrenal glands. When we turned the final curve and the finish line came into sight, King Neptune poised above the inflatable archway, all I could think about was how far away it seemed. With only two tenths of a mile to go, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to maintain a run. Other runners were passing me at a sprint, deploying the race-ending burst of speed that runners call a “kick.” I focused on keeping my pace, feeling a bit out-of-body as my legs continued to pump, and mentally begged the finish line to hurry up and get closer already.
With less than a hundred yards to go, I took Liz’s hand. We smiled for the photographers who waited at the finish line, and I heard an announcer somewhere, seemingly miles away, calling my name and hers. Then the finish line was below me, and then behind me, and I’d done it. My final time was 4:17:30, which is a pretty respectable time for a marathon – faster, apparently, then P-Diddy ran his marathon, way back when he was still Puff Daddy. Way faster than Al Roker.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry a little after the finish. We walked a gauntlet of volunteers who handed us medals, hats, shirts, bananas, cookies, water, and pretzels, and I found a spot on the grass where I could lay down, discovering that even lowering myself to the ground had become quite difficult. As the emotion and the last shots of adrenaline wore off, I realized that I would never be able to leave that grassy patch.
I did eventually move, of course. Liz and I went to the official finish-line party and got our free Yuengling and stew – and as testament to just how exhausted I was, I only drank half the free beer to which I was entitled. I was emotionally overwhelmed, dazed, light-headed, and a bit nauseous. But I’d done it. From the time I stepped into the starting corral almost until I reached the finish I had doubted my ability to complete a marathon. I’d learned the hard way not to underestimate the incredible mental challenge the race presented, but thanks to a lot of training and a considerable contribution from a coach and partner, I’d done what once seemed totally impossible.