My day begins at 5:00 am, and I awake with a start, the repetitious and unrelenting buzz of my alarm clock ringing in my ears. I drag myself out of bed and look out the window into the still dark morning. I am glad to see it isn't raining, and the sky is clear and filled with stars. My clothes are neatly spread out over my desk chair, prepared the night before, my bag is filled with carbohydrate GU and a change of clothes, and a Gatorade is by the door. I slowly dress in the dark, trying to calm down and remember everything I will need for the day.
I brush my teeth and am startled by the reflection I see in the mirror. My left arm is covered in Sharpie marker. I look down and remember writing the split times of all twenty-six miles on my forearm to guide me to my goal of four hours. I need to run nine- minute miles for the entire race to meet my goal, and it has been my experience over the years that, no matter how good I am at math, I find it impossible to count after running ten or so miles. I know my complete, if crude, listing will come in handy during the long run ahead.
As I eat my ritual breakfast of grits, peanut butter toast, and a banana, my mind races with nervous thoughts of failure, collapse, and broken legs. What if I can't finish? What if all my training was for nothing, and I trip in mile two and have to stop? What if I have to, fear of all fears, go to the bathroom during the race? That will throw off my pace and my time. I try to stop all the nervous chatter in my brain, but it is impossible. I drive to the start hoping for the best, hoping I haven't forgotten anything, and, above all, hoping I can find a parking space.
By 6:00 am, the streets surrounding Balboa Park are filled with thousands of runners of all shapes and sizes, and I marvel at the motivation that inspired 21,000 people from all fifty states and 25 countries to converge here today to run an incredible 26.2 miles. I mean, the motivation of the elite runners is easy to see and put your hands on: cars and huge cash prizes. But what has brought all the rest of us here today? Maybe we are all just crazy, but I'd like to think we have hit upon something greater than material prizes and public recognition. With memories of Coach Paul's inspiring speech last night still ringing in my ears, I hear him say, "You don't have to be asleep to have a dream," and I believe we all have discovered our own personal glory by achieving our own personal goals. We'll see if I still feel as good about myself at the end of the race as I do right now.
I am jolted out of my reverie as a runner plows into me on his way to the starting line, a water bottle clutched in his hand, and hear a perfunctory "Sorry" over his shoulder. Three Elvises in white, bejeweled running tights run by as I warm up and stretch, and suddenly I remember this is the Rock 'N' Roll Marathon, a fun event, so why am I so nervous? My stomach churns in knots of anticipation as I walk with my friends Carol and Dave to the starting line. I check my back pocket to make sure I have my GUs, and I take a final chug from my water bottle.
The nervous energy of the runners waiting at the start is intoxicating, and I glance around anxiously at my competition and realize . . . wait a second; these people are not really my competition in the true sense of the word. They are my back up, my support system. We aren't here to beat each other. We are here to help each other to the finish, and, though they are complete strangers now, in the final miles of the race, these are the people who will say things like, "You can do it!!" and "Don't give up now!" A smile and nod of support from a stranger in mile 22 can be the impetus that carries me to the finish line. I look around and wonder which of these people I will be hugging at the finish line as if we are long lost friends.
These are the things I think about and do to take my mind off the reality of the impending gunshot that will propel us forward into the unknown of the longest, most challenging foot race most of us will ever attempt in our lives. I look at my watch, and it's 6:42 am, three minutes to go. The air is a perfect 62 degrees, with just a whisper of wind rustling the leaves in the trees, and I am nervous and ready, jumping up and down and stretching my legs in anticipation.
The announcer gives the final countdown, fires the gun, and we are off. Dave, Carol, and I decided long ago during our training together that we would start the race together but then split up to go our own paces, so we set off at a conservative pace, knowing we needed to pace ourselves for the long race ahead. The energy of the runners and the spectators carries us through the first few miles, and we are careful not to start off too fast, on advice from Coach Paul. He told us last week that he had seen many runners in years past get caught up in the excitement of the race, run too fast at first, and then die with miles to go, reminiscent of the old tale about the tortoise and the hare. I don't mind being the tortoise. I like the tortoise. I run on and try to channel the tortoise. The streets are lined with people cheering us on, and we laugh and chat and run. The congestion of runners at the beginning helps us to start off slowly, and we hit the first mile marker at 9:34 minutes. We speed up a little, despite Coach Paul's warning, to reach our nine minute goal, and we hope the enormous pack of runners will spread out and let us through.
We run down University Avenue through Hillcrest, and men dressed as cheerleaders encourage us to "GO! You can do it!," and then we run on to downtown where homeless people are out in droves, yelling and cheering us on. Different bands at each mile entertain us, and by mile six, some runners have stopped to dance at the bandstands. Miles seven and eight carry us up beautiful, scenic Highway 163, and as we near the Washington Street bridge, I look up and see my name in enormous, silver glitter letters, hovering above the crowds and shining from the sky. I begin to wave in the direction of my name, hoping to attract the attention of the people responsible for creating these beautiful letters. I wave my arms above my head, with no response from above, and just as I am about to run under the bridge, I hear, "Amy Neal!!! There she is!!" Within seconds, a crowd of people on the bridge start waving and yelling my name, my friends come to cheer me on. It means the world to me that they are here, and I know from their yells and cheers that their support will elevate my spirit and my mind and carry me through for many more miles.
At mile 12, I see them again and yell, "I love you! I have the greatest friends in the entire world!!" At this point I am feeling great, like I can run forever, completely giddy with a runner's high. I am stopping at every water stop and eating a GU every forty-five minutes. I feel invincible and renewed. I am keeping track of my mile splits from the list on my arm, and I am right on schedule and feeling good. Only fourteen more miles to go-- no problem. I cross the line for the half marathon at 1:57, and I am on top of the world.
At mile 16, I am feeling so energized and fast that I do a spin when I run by my friends, showing off a little and rejoicing at my energy and strength. This spin is not a good idea. A sharp pain shoots up my right leg post-spin, and I regret doing it, but it is too late. It seemed like such a good idea in the excitement of the moment. I swallow the two Advil tablets I have in my pocket and run on.
At mile 20, I start to break down. I am right on target with my pace, crossing the 20 mile marker at exactly three hours. The invincibility, however, of mile 12 gives way to pain and fear in mile 20. My left shin is aching, and my legs are beginning to burn. I can feel and hear my feet slapping against the pavement, and I begin to wonder if I will be able to finish this race at all. I no longer care about my time, I tell myself. I just want to live through this experience. I take a deep breath and run on.
My body continues to break down as the miles roll by. I want to stop, I want to cry, but I do neither. I run on. My thighs are burning, as if a swarm of killer bees has come to nest there. Dave and Carol are long gone . . . Carol dropped behind in mile 16 and Dave forged ahead in mile 18. I am left alone with my thoughts and my legs on fire, and I wonder why I am in this stupid race in the first place. What am I trying to prove anyway? That I'm fast? No. That I can run with the Kenyans? Certainly not. Why am I doing this to myself? Maybe my friends and family are right after all -- I am insane and a masochist. I recall a book on marathoning by Richard Harteis that I read, in which he claims that some degree of masochism is a prerequisite for trying to run a marathon in the same way that, "at a very deep subliminal level, a thin thread of sadism must run through the psyche of a surgeon." This is probably true, so I wonder why my psyche prefers receiving pain rather than inflicting it, but then I decide not to follow that line of thought too deeply at this stage in the marathon. My friends are nowhere in sight, and I am all alone. I will find out later that they are, at this very moment, drinking Bloody Marys at a beachside bar, toasting to their crazy friend Amy who is, like an idiot, running a marathon. The glory of ten miles ago is gone, and I am struggling to hold on and to survive, but somehow I run on.
The miles slowly tick by, and as I approach mile 23, I realize that none of the miles of training matters anymore. This race isn't about physical endurance. It is about mental strength and discovering what I'm made of. I want to stop, but I can't. I've worked too hard for this to stop now, and I feel as though my spiritual self is surging as my physical self is breaking down. My brain yells at my legs to "GO!!! Twenty more minutes, and this will all be over." I know that I am running this marathon not to prove anything to anyone, but to prove to myself that if I can do this, I can do anything. I wipe the sweat from my forehead, concentrate on my breathing, and run on.
Will I pass or fail this mental test to which I have voluntarily subjected myself? With each passing step, the finish line seems hopelessly far away, and my will to go on is diminishing. I must dig deep inside myself to find the strength to go on, and thoughts of "You can do this! Do not give up! You're not a quitter!" fill my brain, and I concentrate on taking this one step at a time. I cannot think about the miles to go, I must only think of putting one foot in front of the other. I concentrate on the road and give myself small goals to get me through: "Concentrate on running to that next signpost." "Try to close in on that guy ahead of you." "Throw a hook into his back and reel him in." I recall the words of Coach Paul in my ears, "You're wonderful" and "You make a difference in my life." His words inspire me to run on.
I round the corner and see the marker for Mile 26. Tears spring to my eyes as I realize I am only 385 yards from the finish line. I hear the roar of the crowd, and I pick up my knees a little. I smile as someone on the sidelines yells to me, "You're almost there!" and I wipe, once again, the sweat from my forehead. My legs, at this point, are completely numb, and I have to look down every couple seconds to assure myself that they are still moving. I enter the final stretch, and I will myself to speed up. I can't. I slowly move along, one step at a time, the impossible holy grail of a finish line finally within my sight. I watch as the clock ticks to four hours, and I realize my goal is out of reach, yet still I run on.
I hear my name from the bleachers to my right and look up to see my friends waving to me and smiling. I try to lift my arm to wave, but it falls down by my side, a far cry from my cocky and enthusiastic spin of ten miles ago. I run on to the finish, tears in my eyes. The clock ticks to 4:01, and my foot crosses the finish line. My knees give out, and I buckle. Someone grabs my arm and lifts me up. "Are you OK?" I hear. I nod my head to no one in particular, and I walk through the chute. A smiling woman, with words
of congratulations, drapes a medal over my head and takes my picture. Tears threaten to flow down my face, but I hold them in. I realize in this moment that not only am I OK, I am more OK than I have ever been before.
I did it.