"I ran a marathon." I must have said that to myself a hundred times Sunday night. I let each sweet syllable spill off my tongue over and over again - it was delicious.
Four months ago if you told me that I would finish a marathon, I would have laughed in your face. Sure, me and all my baby fat. Sure.
Well, I took the first step, registered with Canada Fit - which I think is an AWESOME running organization and met our organizers Leanne and Bob. Bob asked us to come up with our goals for the season. My goal was clear - I knew why I was there. "I want to lose the 11 lbs. That's it." I really didn't care whether I ran a marathon or not. Actually I preferred to lose the weight WITHOUT having to go to the physical expense of running a marathon - but I wanted to lose the baby fat and, try as I might, it wasn't coming off any other way. So, being a woman noted for exploring extremes, I went extreme. I did a 5 km pace run to see which group I would fall into - red - slowest - dead last. How depressing is that?
I trained diligently for four months in what was probably the lousiest summer weather I can remember. I ran every Saturday morning with my running group and consistently came in last or almost last. I decided to do something about my speed - or lack of. I hired a trainer and started lifting weights two days a week. I kept the running and weight lifting schedule up for the entire summer - save a week and a half break at the cottage.
And then, almost without notice, September arrived. My coaches informed me that I was ready to run the big race. Hmmm. Not sure about that! That's crazy! Forget it! Not me! No way! I never told anyone I had no intention of doing it. It was inevitable in everyone else's mind - not mine.
And then, my running partner, Anna, injured her foot - she was out - just 2 weeks before the marathon. I couldn't believe it! I knew how much she wanted this - marathon first, baby next. I thought "That's it! I can't do it - not without her!" I kept hoping Anna would get better but it never happened.
It took a few days, but I started to come around. I thought about what I had invested this past summer - the weight training, the carbo loading, the scheduled runs, the speed training, the hill training. This marathon training had taken on a life of its own - and here I was, near the end - about to shoot it dead. That was stupid. So, I registered - 3 days before the race. This ended up being a good thing because the anxiety I experienced for 3 days was draining. If I had to endure that any longer, I would have most likely had no energy left for the race!
The day came soon enough. September 26th. I decided I would come to the early bird start at 6:15 am, which meant I had to get up at 4:00 am. So, I did - got dressed, ate breakfast, took inventory of my necessities about a thousand times, waited for my fellow running mate, Aggie, to pick me up.
We drove down together. Aggie was excited, but calm - I marveled at her casual, stoic approach. I just felt sick. It was still cold out. "I HATE running in the cold." I told her. "- even if it is a little cold." I had three layers of clothing on. I was famous for overdressing for my runs - and this marathon day would be no exception.
We arrived at our meeting place at Metro Hall and chatted with the other Canada Fit runners. We were all anxious to start. Five minutes before the gun, we made our way to the start line - a red balloon haloed structure with two separate openings. It was an awkward, tacky thing that Martha would no doubt have ordered down. I made a mental note to join the race decorating committee next year. "Remember" my running mate, Diane said. At the finish you will come through the opening on the right side - right side for marathoners, left side for half marathoners."
So the start would be the finish.
I remembered my sister's words: "If you can get to the start, you can get to the finish." I laughed at the irony - those words were metaphoric when she uttered them to me just the day before, yet they were completely literal as I stared at the start line.
My coaches Helen and Richard analyzed my dress. Richard often joked with me about my penchant for overdress. I had two layers of clothes, Richard knew I got cold easily - "well, ok, keep your jacket on. Just give it to the Canada Fit folks at the 10 km water station." "No." Helen said. "Take my gloves, give me your jacket." So I did - I was down to 2 layers with mittens. I would stay that way the rest of the race.
Diane looked at me and yelled with glee "Look at you! It's your first marathon! Look at how excited you are! Look at you smiling!" It was then I realized I WAS excited! I couldn't believe I was here!
Then I started to cry. And I don't mean little attractive, Julia Roberts, where's the camera, crying. I was red-faced, puff-nosed and had to hide my blotchy face. I moved away from my running group. I couldn't possibly let them see me like this.
The gun went off.
I moved forward. "No turning back now!" I thought. We ran down Wellington in the dark, with streetlights on, cameras flashing and floodlights in the sky. I felt like I was in the middle of a Batman movie! We turned onto Bay Street and then west onto Lakeshore. As I ran down Lakeshore, that song came into my head "Just Me and My Thoughts" - how true. I had long lost my running group - I had no idea where they were. I was going to have to run this race all alone.
The sun started to come up and as it did, I realized I was looking at the wrong distance markers - ½ marathon instead of marathon, red instead of yellow, and, as a result, screwed up my pace considerably. 20 minutes of considerably to be exact. I was FURIOUS! I got to the 10 km mark - the friendly Canada Fit water station. I took some water, stomped my feet on the ground, pumped my arms in anger and whipped my cup aside - how could I be so stupid?! I think I stomped my feet for about 45 minutes!
It was then I realized I had a time goal. Now, for all of you trying to learn something here, 10 km into your marathon is not a good time to be setting your time goals. No - that is actually supposed to happen over time, over months - BEFORE the marathon. I was doing it on the spot in the middle of my race! And as for your first marathon, well you aren't even supposed to set a time goal. Your goal should only be to finish. That is what I was told anyways. Well, my one sister had run her first marathon in 4:09:09, and while I know she is an athlete, is 9 years younger, is built like Steffi Graf, etc., etc., I guess I just wanted to run as fast as her. And, truth be told, I would have been happy at 4:15:00, even ok with 4:30:00. Anything over would just be embarrassing in my family. But at 1:15:00 at the 10 km mark, I could have walked the route faster (actually I think the race walkers did walk faster!). I was too far off to achieve my desired finish time. The cynic in me gave up. It was over. I had lost.
And then at 1:29:00 - I saw THEM.
One of the benefits of running early in the Waterfront Marathon is, with all the turnarounds, you can see the late start runners coming up - so at 1:29:00, as I was running east on Lakeshore, the 7:30 am marathoners were approaching west. That is when I saw THEM - the Kenyan running team. I stared in wonder - and smiled.
I then looked for the Canada Fit members who chose to run the late start - they saw me - waved and smiled. I waved and smiled back. I didn't feel so alone now.
I hit the 15K mark. The race was not proceeding well for me. My legs were sore - my knees, in particular, aching. "Already!" I thought. "I am deteriorating ALREADY! How am I going to feel two or three hours from now?" I had already taken 800 mg of Advil before the race and I knew I couldn't take anymore now. I would have to wait at least another hour before I could deal with the pain.
Running down Queens Quay, I watched boat crews work to prepare their vessels for their lazy, three-hour Sunday tours. "Hmmm. That would be nice." I thought. But I didn't bring any money with me. Keep running.
I came to the Lakeshore/Queens Quay intersection and saw a most overwhelming sight. 7,000 runners going by - this was the half marathon start - and they were being serenaded by a talented reggae drum band - 20 men, forcefully thumping their leather kegs - African percussion raining deep, heart-stopping beats. I could feel the combined energy of the crowd and the music. It was incredible.
I turned onto Cherry Street, Leslie, then Commissioners where a soca band leader was swaying to the sound of the steel drums. I was not so much running as I was dancing. Down I went towards the Leslie Spit. The crowds were building and the neighborhood cheering challenge was in high gear - pom poms waving, signs flashing, people wild with animated encouragement. I was starting to have fun!
At 2:22:34 - the Kenyans passed me. Five of them moving in perfect unison. So silent were they that had I closed my eyes for just one second, I would have missed them entirely! They were things of beauty - grace united with speed, sinew bound by silence. Godly creations, perfectly built running machines. Yet, for all their athletic prowess, they seemed to me the most tranquil of creatures. Zen monks. Mystic men.
Then POOF. They were gone.
It all lasted for just a second but it is a moment I will never forget. To share the road with these elite athletes - however brief - was a tremendous honour, a dream come true. To say I was awestruck is a gross understatement. Now, I am not one for celebrity worship but this was THE moment in the race for me. These men changed my course. I was headed in a new direction. "They are running gods." I thought. "And they are here for ME! They have come to take away the defeatist - that cynical demon responsible for my lousy start.'
"Forget about it!" they seemed to tell me. "It is still a great race."
Feeling renewed - no, converted - I picked up my feet.
At 2:34:00 my sister called me on my cell. Yes! I ran with my cell phone. How else were she and the rest of my clan going to track me down? "Ring. Ring." I heard chuckling behind me. Two women laughed. One asked if she could borrow my phone later to call her husband.
I answered the phone. It was my sister, Sophie. "Hi! Where are you?" she asked. "I just passed the 23 km mark." I said. "The Kenyans just passed me!"
"That's ok." She replied. "They're supposed to pass you."
I was now well into the Tommy Thompson Conservation area and I started thinking: "Who is Tommy Thompson anyways? And why did they name a park after him? I can't believe this is a park. It looks more like a landfill." Ah, the thoughts that fill desperate, empty minds.
I needed to find someone to talk to.
So I looked behind and there were the two women, still bemused by my telephone conversation. We began to chat. They were best friends from London - grew up together and trained for this race together. No running club. They just bought the Running Room training book and did it on their own. "Amazing!" I said. "I could never do that!" They said they couldn't have done it without each other. I thought of Anna. I couldn't have done it without her.
That's when I realized what Canada Fit meant to me. I had taken for granted what these volunteers had done week after week - the planned schedules, the organized routes, the water stations, the seminars, the benchmarks, the speed training, the hill training, and most of all, the coaching. It really did take a village to train me. And all I did was show up! Here I was doing something that less than 1% of the population would ever have the privilege of doing and I all I had to do was show up!
Then came my Kodak moment. The London Ladies and I were cruising along, chitchatting as an elite runner was approaching from behind - a handsome black, dread locked gentleman with really nice biceps. Click went a camera! We giggled. How about that for a photograph! The "Official Race Photographer" had just captured three mothers, with a combined child-count of ten, running together, a world-class runner lagging behind them. I have just GOT to get that picture! Another benefit of choosing the early start.
At 2:44:31, the lead women's runner passed us. We screamed! "You go sister! You run girl!" She was my height - a bit stockier - but still a five footer. And you know what? The Kenyan pacer was my height too - and he was a guy! Here I thought I was too short to ever be a decent runner - I mean aren't serious runners waify, super tall freaks? Guess not. So, feeling more part of the club, I picked up my feet again.
I eventually left the London ladies - actually they made me go. They told me I could still meet my time goals and to just go for it. They thought I looked strong. I felt strong. My fatigue was gone. So was all my Advil.
So I left them. But they were still with me. At every turnaround, when they saw me, they would yell "Go for it! You can do it!!"
I was near the last stretch of the Tommy Thompson patch when I heard a man behind me say, with some relief "11 more to go". I couldn't believe it. It seemed just moments ago that I was ready to leave the race behind for a boat cruise! And here I was - just over an hour left and it would all be over! I felt a surge of energy - and picked up my feet again.
Coming out of the Leslie Spit, I approached the 32 km marker. I suddenly felt very tired - my legs, especially. I knew part of it was mental. I had been told many times that the last 10 km is where you begin to feel the fatigue and the last 5 km is where you feel you can't go on. I found this to be painfully true! But I knew those negative thoughts were making me even more tired so I just folded up them up and put them in a jar.
At that point I saw my husband, Dave, and my sister, Sophie - thank goodness! I needed to see them. They were screaming and taking pictures, frantically waving signs. And I thought about them. Family - they are the other ones that helped make this happen. My husband who took care of the kids while I was out chasing my dream, my children who took care of my husband while I was out chasing my dream. Everyone working together. All for me.
And then I saw Santa Claus.
He was with Rudolph. They were in the Beaches looking a little sun-stroked. Standing beside Father Christmas was a gentleman with a megaphone, doing his best Howard Cosell: "And look at Number 10-32! She's still smiling. I can't believe it! This far in the race and the lady is still smiling! Everybody give her a cheer! Number 10-32! You keep smiling!"
The crowd went wild! "Wow!" I thought. "I have fans!!" I could feel my face - I wasn't just smiling. I was grinning! People were waving at me, yelling "Go 10-32!" "Keep smiling 10-32!"
I did the 33 km turnaround -the last turnaround. My legs were really tired - my quads burning, knees throbbing. I kept my head down and just tried to run through the pain. I knew I had less than an hour to go but wondered "Can I keep it up? Would I really give up now?" Negative thoughts. Fold them up. Put them in a jar. Throw the jar out!
Then one of the volunteer bikers shouted towards me. "Still smiling 10-32! That's amazing!" I waved to him and soldiered on. Can't let the fans down now.
And then I saw my husband and sister again. Sophie was waving her sign! It said "38 km and Looking Fabulous!" Yah right. Screaming and jumping up and down, she gave me a much needed energy boost! My husband stepped onto the road for just one second to get a better picture of me. A spectator yelled at him, "Get off the road %^&*%!" I threw him a wicked gesture. The crowd went crazy! More fans! This is just too much fun!
I ran down Commissioners Street. I heard a lady laugh in disbelief "Oh my God, she's smiling!" Yup. I was dog tired, my knees were numb with pain, my back was now aching, but I was having a ball.
Onto Cherry Street and then Lakeshore - under the Gardnier. I saw a large group waving dozens of yellow signs, all with the same catchphrase "Go Runners Go!" One of the women ran right up to me, ran WITH me, her sign flashing in my face. And then, in a most wonderful, thick Jamaican accent she sang "Go Mama! Just 3 more Mama! Three more! Take your booty home Mama!" I laughed and waved to her entourage. They were bouncing, rattling, ricocheting off the sidewalks, waving their signs up and down, in and out, as if trying to generate enough current so as to blow me to the finish line.
I wish it worked, because I was fading fast. "This is it." I thought. "I have hit the proverbial wall." I wasn't sure I could go on. The pain was there but worse, I was really thirsty. Dehydrated. I had failed to fill my water bottle up at the last station. Big mistake. I stared at the pavement just ahead. Keep going, I thought. I remembered the task analysis my coach, Richard once gave me on running: "Right…Left…Repeat."
I saw the 40 km marker. 2.2km left in the race. A little more than the Falconi Loop. I always hated the Falconi loop - this, our coaches would sometimes throw at us at the end of a run. Most people know this loop as the road around the U of T Erindale campus but our running club had affectionately named it after our esteemed Canada Fit coordinator, Bob Falconi. He loves that loop. Why? I am not sure. Anyways, the Falconi loop had to get folded up and put in a jar that, again, got tossed.
"It's almost over! I am almost there!" I thought.
Another thing you should learn here - never, ever, ever, cry during a marathon - especially near the end. You WILL hyperventilate. And that is exactly what happened to me. I pulled to a walk, calmed myself down and then started up again. I had to do this three times. "Control your emotions." I said to myself. "Keep everything under control."
I turned onto Yonge Street - I saw a very tall, elegant black man in ceremonial African garb. He stood there, hands clapping slowly, gracefully, his baritone voice gently urging me forward "10-32 - you must finish." I nodded in agreement. "Yes, oh noble one. I must finish."
Under the bridge and up the hill - I was at Front Street - and there was the Hockey Hall of Fame. "I love you Hockey Hall of Fame" I said under my breath. "I love you BCE Place. I love you golden Royal Bank tower - whatever you are called" And finally, Wellington Street! "I love you Wellington Street". A volunteer yelled to me "just 700 more!" I hope he means 700 feet! I looked up. Nope. 700 meters.
And then I heard them.
It started off small, quiet really, but quickly built to a beautiful crescendo. It was the sound of the crowd. And they were going wild. "Keep smiling 10-32! You're almost there! You are awesome!" A tall, wiry old man swept past me. I didn't realize it at the time, but he was one of the top finishers in the 70-74 age category. Seeing him made me realize this would not be the last time I ran a marathon. If I wanted to, I could do this the rest of my life!
The cheering of the crowd continued to grow. They were already pumped by several record breaking performances that came in just before me now my obvious excitement had given them something else to celebrate. People were screaming at me, waving flags, pumping their fists into the air, "10-32! You are there! You are there!" With music blasting, people screaming and calling to me, I realized this would probably be the closest I would ever come to feeling like a rock star!
I saw my sister, Vera. She was yelling at me, flashing her camera, crying tears of joy. People around her were hugging her, cheering me on. She had told these spectators my story and, I guess, that personalization suddenly made me important to them. They were invested in me and applauded me forward. I waved to them. I waved to EVERYBODY. I have to admit, as far as race finishes go, I had definitely gone Hollywood. Well at least I didn't stop to pose. But I wasn't sure I was running anymore. I had been lifted - floating across the pavement now. I felt no fatigue. I felt no pain. "I must be going to heaven!" I thought.
And there it was.
The finish line.
It's true. If you can get to the start, you CAN get to the finish.
I ran to the right side entrance, stepped across the mat and made darn sure the sensor picked up my running chip. I shot my arms in the air and whipped my head back in joy.
I did it! I finished the race! All that self-doubt, all that second-guessing, all washed away in one single moment of glory. I checked my watch - 4:34:14. I was surprised at the time. Pretty good considering my start. Later I found out that I had a negative split, that is, I ran the second half of the race faster than the first half - a lot faster - with my fastest pace occurring in the last 9 km of the race. Saved the best for last!
And the Kenyan gods? One finished second, one finished third. The rest were scattered across the top 10. But you know what I found out later? These athletes whom I marveled at, the elite men who enlightened me with their grace and beauty, these men are wretchedly poor, starving runners. They travel from race to race, take up residence in sleazy motels and barely get by on paltry prize earnings. Then they invest it back into their training. All for the love of a sport that chose THEM. Amazing.
And now, two days later, how do I feel? Well, the pain is gone but the exhilaration has not yet diminished. I am glowing inside - thankful to all those who brought me here - this wonderfully magical place that boasts satisfaction and pride. Yes, I am still smiling a glorious smile. I am smiling right now as you read this. I hope you are too.
And if you feel at all inspired to do this crazy thing - to run a marathon - I am letting you know here and now that I will be there for you - from beginning to end. We will take that journey together - all 42.2 km of it. It is not so long - a marathon - really. For you know the truth now, as I do: if you can get to the start, you most assuredly can get to the finish.