“This isn’t bad at all,” Heather D. says from the front seat of her gray Kia. From the backseat, Dan and I agree. Heather’s boyfriend, Brian, is driving. He doesn’t say anything.
“I’m not crazy about the rocky road,” I said. “Remember that training run at Carol’s when I could barely lift my feet over those stones? This could get ugly at the 24th mile.”
“Yeah, but it was really hot that day, remember? And those stones were a lot bigger than this,” Heather says.
“True,” I say.
After the first several miles, I’m bored with the scenery. I turn on the Kindle in my lap and try to read on the sly. I don’t want to appear uninterested, but the marathon course is as boring as running around Presque Isle. Worse even. There is no bay or beach or people. Just trees and a narrow, hard packed dirt road that winds on forever. We go up and down, but it’s hardly perceptible in the car.
I don’t have much trouble sleeping. I never do. But it seems a shallow sleep that night. As though I’m always on the edge of waking. On alert. The slightest noise wakes me. Like the scratching of the nails of whatever creature is in the attic of this old cabin in the pines. It’s skittering around up there. It freaked me out the night before. I thought it was in our room. I was ready to sleep in the car until Dan convinced me the critter was definitely was in the ceiling.
I turn over, feeling a twinge in my left calf/knee. I massage it for a few seconds, trying to figure out where the dull pain is coming from, and I say another silent prayer:
Just don’t let me hurt myself here. Don’t let some tendon rupture or anything “pop.” Not here. Not in these the backwoods of Pennsylvania on that desolate course. Not when I’m almost done with this.
I hear Heather get up to shower at 3:45 a.m. She knocks on our door a half hour later.
“Just want to make sure you guys are up. It’s after 4,” she says quietly.
“Shit! Dan, I thought you set the alarm for 4,” I say. “We are supposed to leave in 15 minutes.”
We scramble to get ready and toast a couple bagels.
In the car, on our way to the high school to catch the shuttle bus, I say, “Sorry, Heather, this isn’t like us to be so last minute.”
“OK. Actually it is,” I confess. “We rush to every race start line. This is totally us.”
The shuttle bus fills with marathoners quickly and we leave for the start line. It’s a good 15 minutes before we reach the dirt road. The bus (unlike Heather’s Kia) accelerates loudly several times to get up the twisty road, and it’s the first time I realize the course may be more hilly than we thought.
As we bounce along, I look at the forest that the road cuts through. The sides of the road are a steep incline. Guardrails are non existent. One swerve and we’re all dead. I envision us rolling down the side of the mountain. A jumble of tumbling marathoners, thrown together like clothes in a dryer. I wonder if I’d end up on top. Would being lighter help? I worry about where we’ll go if we pass another bus. The road doesn’t seem wide enough for two. But, apparently, it is.
The bus deposits us next to a row of eight portable toilets. We don’t see many runners, a picnic pavilion, a start line or any race officials. Clearly, this is not exactly the start of the race.
Heather cocks and ear and says, “I hear music up that way.”
We walk until we find the D.J. and the start line and all the other runners.
It starts sprinkling.
Forty minutes later, with five minutes until start time, it’s flat out raining.
“This sucks,” Dan says.
“Yeah, but nothing we can do about it,” I say. “Good luck.”
Heather, Mark and I start together. I’m glad I wore a hat. It’s not a pouring rain, but it’s steady and soaking.
We start a little too fast, but everyone does. We’ll settle down after the first mile. I’m feeling good. Confident. I can do this.
Until we get to mile 3 and I realize the Kia’s quiet motor fooled me.
The course is full of grinders. The worst kind of hill. The kind that go on & on, increasing gradually forever. The kind you don’t realize you’re running until you can’t breathe. Vampire hills, stealing all your energy and confidence.
I can’t do this, I think, as I try to keep up my side of the conversation with Mark and Heather.
In my head I am only thinking of myself.
I should turn around right now. I could fake an injury. I can’t do this. Oh, my God, how am I going to do this for 26 miles?
Some people start walking already. Heather is having none of that. Not this early in the race.
“We have to save our walking for the end,” she had warned me several times in the weeks leading up to the race. “We should hold off walking for as long as possible.”
So we trudge along, the pace dragging. But, we don’t stop running.
Relentless forward progression. My mantra for this race.
The course levels out after 3/4 of a mile or so.
We resume our conversation and 9:30 pace.
The hill that I know will break me is at the 14th mile. It’s the second of two turn-arounds at the midway point where we had to run a couple of dog legs that were clearly necessary to get the mileage.
As we run down and down and down to the 2nd turn-around, I say, “You guys, we’ve been running downhill for like a mile now. This is going to suck when we turn around.”
At the top, we stop to get our picture taken at the vista. You can actually see now that it’s stopped raining, but it’s still foggy, overcast and drab. We grab water, Oreos, and a banana.
I totally have a mouthful of Oreo cookie here. The good thing about eating Oreos in a marathon? It stays with you for awhile because you’re sucking it out of your teeth for at least a 1/2 mile.
We run three-quarters of the hill before I start to walk. Heather and Mark walk, too. I know Heather doesn’t want to, but she’s committed to staying with me.
“You have to question expending this kind of energy at the 14th mile, Heather,” I gasp. “I mean, I can run this, but I don’t think it’s smart right now. We have a lot of hills to get up at the end.”
At mile 18, my quads are aching, my energy is fading fast, and I am freaking done with this shit. The only thing keeping me running at this point is Mark, who is distracting me with conversation. Also I’m fully aware that there is, literally, no way back but by foot.
We round another bend and see nothing but trees and
dirt muddy road.
“Where the hell is the water stop?” I say, clutching my Gu, like the lifeline it is. “We’ve been running forever. There has to be one up here soon, right?” I whine.
I’m losing it.
Isn’t this where I lost it in Cleveland last time? F@#$! F@#$ the 18th mile!
Mark took this. I’m not sure if it’s the 18th mile, but I’m sure this is what I looked like at that point — angry, sweaty,veins popping.
Then, the water stop. Like an oasis. I eat my Gu. I take water and Gatorade. I insist on walking to drink them, dragging my feet like an insolent child while Heather jogs in place, waiting for me.
OK, OK…let’s go. Relentless forward progression. F@#$ this. I want this over. Now.
The next few miles I run from water stop to water stop. I can’t think beyond that. I can’t think about 8 more miles. Or 6 more miles. Or 4 more miles. I can only focus on getting to the next water stop. That I can do.
Relentless forward progression.
At 24 miles, I get my second (third, fourth, fifth?) wind. We got this. You couldn’t stop me if you tried.
“No stopping us now,” I yell out, jubilantly for all the runners around us to hear. “We got this!”
At 25.5 miles we’re coming up on another grinder. A soul-crushing, enthusiasm-sucking, bastard of a hill.
“This is just mean,” I say to Mark.
We get about 1/2 way up before Mark and I start walking. Heather’s having none of that. Not this close.
“C’mon, we’re almost there,” she says “This is it. I see the 26 mile marker. It’s right up here. C’mon!” she barks.
Normally this might piss me off, but she’s right. Don’t leave anything on the field, right?
Relentless forward progression.
“Pain is temporary,” I say to Mark as I start running again. I power up to the top of the hill where I, too, can see the 26 mile marker. I hesitate, looking back. Heather wants to keep going. I feel I should wait for Mark. He’s run this whole race with us. We should finish together.
He sees me hesitating. Waiting.
“GO! Go! Go!” he yells at me with a sweeping arm wave.
So we go. We pass the 26 mile marker and come across a finisher, a young dark-haired woman with a medal around her neck, who says, “You got it! Looking good. Finish line is just over the hill.”
“Did you just say hill? Heather, did she just say hill? OH. MY. GOD. Is there another f$%^#ing hill?”
The look of horror on my face and the rising panic in my voice must’ve startled the poor finisher who was just trying to be encouraging. She backpedals. “NO, no…no…not really. I just meant around the bend, see? You can do this! You got it!”
I think: Finish strong. Finish strong. Finish strong.
I can hear the spectators. I pick up the pace. I force my tired legs and body into proper form and run on pure adrenaline.
And then we’re there. Crossing the mat under the clock at 4:32 something. And it’s over. And I can finally stop running.
Heather waits for me at the end of the finisher’s chute with a hand up for a high five. “Good job! You did it.”
I feel like crying, but it only lasts a moment and the emotional wave retreats. I’ve never been an overly emotional person. It’s just not my nature. We wait for Mark. Cheer him in. Embrace in big sweaty hug. Exchange a bunch of “thank yous” and “good jobs” and “glad that’s overs.”
Mark doesn’t hang around. He has to get back to his hotel to shower before checkout. He’s gone before we wipe the sweat off our faces and the mud off our calves. Before we start laughing again. Taking pictures. Swapping race stories with other Erie-area runners. Reliving the experience.
After about a half hour, Heather & Brian and Dan & I walk slowly back to the shuttle bus stop.
I feel weak and tired, but stronger than ever.
After every previous marathon I’ve done, I’ve said “never again.” I know better than to say that now because it’s possible. Anything is possible. But, I’d never do another marathon for me. It would have to be something I did for a good friend.
Anything is bearable with a few running friends by your side.
About Just Write
“What ends up revealing itself when free writing is that everything has meaning. That is a magnificent gift of writing. If we write from a free heart-gut place, our souls start speaking.”