My marathon quest involved a lot of company, which I very much appreciated, but on the day itself I had to run my own race. This is how I managed it.
My marathon training "partnah", Liz, talked me into doing my first half marathon three years ago, and I enjoyed it. So then, bit by bit, she got me to commit to doing our first marathon together. Being a social gal, Liz gathered old and new friends into our training, and we did all our long runs in a group, sometimes tagging onto Team in Training's group runs.
On a cold morning in Folsom, 26.2 miles from downtown Sacramento, there were five of us: Liz, Tom and Ellen and Tom's friend. Tom had seen "March of the Penguins" the night before and suggested we put our arms round each other in a penguin huddle to keep warm. It was a sweet start. We were breathing one another's warm air and I stopped shivering.
Then we were off, running together. I knew my finish time would be faster than the others' but thought I would probably do eleven-minute-mile pace with them for at least 6 miles as I had in training. But on the first uphill I found myself about 50 yards ahead and realized I wasn't going to add miles onto a marathon by looping back to them. I was on my own.
There was frost on the fields we passed but the sun was coming up. I worried about running too fast but by listening to the times called out at mile markers I soon realized I was doing about 10 minute mile pace. I walked for a minute at every mile and as people passed me I reminded myself I had to run my own race, not get carried away. After a while I noticed I was keeping up with many runners anyway. I talked with a group of women also doing their first marathon. Then they stopped at some portaloos. I was glad I didn't need to stop and stand in line like them. I ran on.
I was keeping steady with a guy in an orange T-shirt and I used him as my pacer. At mile 5 I shed my gloves, at mile 6 my extra T-shirt. The sun was shining through the trees. We passed horse fields - a smell to wake you up! - woodlands and ranch houses with large lots and barking dogs. I'd heard the first 13 miles of the course were rolling hills and was pleased to find the hills pretty mild compared to what I'd trained on. At mile 8 I took some Gu and plotted out the next Gu intervals: 14 and 20.
At mile 13 I inwardly celebrated the half way point. We were running through a more suburban landscape by then, with homeowners sitting out on their driveways. There were kids, handwritten signs, aid stations with water and Gu20. About then I saw someone I recognized from my training: Dave a 6 foot 6 seven-minute miler. I sprinted to catch him and say hi and he told me he'd been waiting half an hour for his friend. That explained why he was way back in the pack with me. But not for long. He bounded off. I'd lost Mr. Orange T-shirt and continued alone, focused on the next mile marker and the Gu I planned to take.
When I spotted some portaloos without a line I wondered if I should stop because I might need a pee later on when the opportunity wasn't so good. I was letting this thought worry me for a while as I ran past, until I realized it was a complete distraction because right then I didn't need a pee. We ran down a hill and round a corner into a nice coffee shop area but I didn't let the sight of people enjoying a leisurely breakfast distract me further!
After a relay change-over point I saw a teenage boy and girl running off ahead of me. Pretty soon they were kissing as they ran. Then I saw a man at the side of the road tenderly embracing his runner wife. I thought of some song lyrics "lend me some sugar, I AM your neighbor" and considered the list of people who could be sending me some long-distance love: my husband, my son if he wasn't playing a computer game, my brothers in England (I figured out it was about tea time there), my runner friends Laura and Delores who had promised to think of me at 10 and 11am. There was a long list more but I'm afraid that's as far as I got. The running focus took over. I looked up ahead for every tall orange or blue flag mile marker and calculated whether to take a walk break before or after, trying always to walk on the uphills. The scenery was pretty dull: malls and brand new houses, some of them mini-mansions.
Then there was Mile 20, the boundary to a new world I'd never entered because my longest training run had been 20 miles. I saw the brick patterned banners that marked the mythical "wall" and I'd planned to touch them to prove symbolically that the wall wasn't solid for me, but that would have meant taking an unnecessary step to the side and I already had the feeling that I shouldn't waste a single step. The front of my thighs had a tightness I'd never felt before.
I had thought in advance about speeding up for the last six miles. Now I was pretty sure I was running as fast as I'd be able to. I was feeling achy, but not out of gas so I decided just to abandon the walk breaks in case that saved me any minutes. The first mile marker without a walk went past. I knew the next one would be near the bridge over the river, marking the entry to downtown Sacramento. I was kind of hoping that would have a triumphal, near-the-finish feeling, but no such luck. Four more miles still seemed like a long way to go. I realized my legs were hurting, and my feet too.
I tried to create some mental distractions. I managed a thought about the books I'd been reading for book club, then that idea flickered out. I remembered how Liz and I had proposed having our kids write riddles or jokes down so we could take them out of our pockets at hard times. I tried to think of some of the hundreds of riddles and bad jokes my son has told me in the past nine years I couldn't recall a single one.
I began thinking "this hurts" and with another part of my brain "of course it hurts, it's a marathon, it's supposed to hurt." This repeated itself in my head monotonously, while my eyes searched for the next mile marker. I tried to find a way out of it by mentally rolling the thought up and throwing it away. At last, another consecutive thought occurred - a memory of kidpower class and how my son learnt to take insults and put them in the trashcan formed by placing his hand on his waist. I did that with my complaints. Freed from them, I became aware that my legs and arms were continuing to move automatically. I felt grateful for that. And amazed.
The scenery was getting worse. Underpasses and downtown streets shaded by tall buildings. At three miles to go I encouraged myself: only half an hour. At two miles to go: only one more mile marker. I remember one person calling out "the worst is behind you" which was just not true in any sense! Some dude standing in the road- probably a running coach - called out to me "relax your shoulders" which was very helpful of him. I did, and it eased the pain and got more air into my chest, though it didn't enable me to go any faster. I don't recall any times being called out at any of the last mile markers, nor did I care. I knew I wasn't slowing down that much because I was passing people. Some were passing me, too, but not many.
Mostly I was just fixated on the finish. A lot of people were walking which appalled me. Why weren't they running? I had such a strong imperative to reach the finish line I just couldn't think why they would walk. For the last mile I tried to superimpose a Berkeley Marina training run onto the Sacramento streets and imagine myself facing just a few more turns round the bayshore. After all, what I could actually see was runners who'd finished, walking away to their cars or hotels and that was pretty dispiriting. There was no razzmatazz, no inspiration from the crowds. Up ahead I could see the flashing lights of fire engines and hoped that was the finish. To the left were the trees of the Capitol Plaza and when someone called out "only 5 minutes left to go" I decided to believe him and picked up speed. I scuttled on down to the fire trucks, only to find I had to turn the corner, and another corner till finally I saw the blissful words: "Women's Finish." I heard the commentator call my name out, spared one millisecond of brain power for the idea of smiling for the camera, saw my finish time: 4 hours 25 minutes and aimed my legs for the brown chip-timer mats. I was done!
I took a few wobbly legged steps. I was out of the strange zone of focus, back in the ordinary world where I wished I had some company to celebrate with. I had to wait half an hour for Ellen, Liz and Tom. I could see Liz looking just as grim as I must have. She was almost oblivious to me in fact, until she came through the barriers with her silver cape and medal. We all met up at the Team in Training tent and Tom's friend took a photo. I had run my own race. I was really glad to stop. And it was great to be with my fellow penguins again. We waddled back to the hotel - waddling was the only way we could move.