The Houston Marathon
Sunday, January 18, 2009
First, a little background. I've never been a runner and I in no way have a slender runner's body. In high school I played football, as a lineman, and certainly never ran track. Before starting my training, one year in advance, I had never run more than three miles at one time in my entire life. The thought of even a half marathon was pretty funny to me: I own a car, so why would I want to do that...
But over the summer of 2008, my focused marathon training began. I had been running since February, but hadn't decided to run the actual Marathon until around April. Before then I'd planned to try and run the half marathon, and even that seemed like a crazy goal at the time. But three months later I ran 13 miles one Sunday, which is nearly a half marathon. So the next week I signed up to run the full 26.2.
Fundamentally, it was no different than when I started working out two years earlier. Push myself as far as I can every time I worked out. Go a little farther, a little faster every time I run. And so I pushed, and I hurt, and I ran for the next several months. On my Sunday long runs I pushed up to 14 miles, 16 miles, 18 miles and then - a month and a half before the marathon - 21 miles in four hours.
As for the marathon itself, it had been looming large over me for weeks if not months by this point. It was at times the only thing on my mind, a monolithic singular thought that I couldn't shake out of my head. Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?!?!
So, I wake up at 4 a.m. the morning of the marathon. The gun goes off at 7 a.m. I better get a bunch of calories in me! I make some tea and then whip up two pancakes and probably a whole cup of syrup. I would guess about a 2000 calorie breakfast, following a carbo-loading lunch and dinner the day before. I drive downtown and am parked, sitting nervously in my car, at 5:30 a.m. What the hell am I doing? I start walking to the George R. Brown convention center, my stomach in a knot as it dawns on me that I really have to try and do this now. Up until this moment it had been this goal ahead of me but it wasn't tactile, just a thing in the future which had no real form to wrap my mind around. Now as I'm walking downtown, with lots of people heading in the same direction, jogging around in the dark, it starts becoming VERY real!
When I got to the Center, where everyone was to gather before the race, my adrenalin was beginning to flow. There were so many people there, and it wasn't even 6 a.m. yet! The combined total of the full and half marathon was 18,000 runners, and another 5,000-plus for the 5k. Bunch of crazy people! I felt very alone in a sea of people all looking much more prepared than I felt. So I waited, my anticipation growing as 7a.m. neared. I could feel my heartbeat getting faster as the time drew nearer and the reality of having to actually run this thing soaked in. Twenty minutes out I started walking to the start line with thousands of people in tow.
Outside there was a chill in the air, with the temp a little above 50 degrees. I wore a long sleeve spandex running shirt with an armless official Marathon shirt on top, with my numbered bib was pinned on the front. I stood in a mass of people packed together along the three-lane road downtown. Have you ever stood in a crowd of 8,500 people? It's a lot of people, I'll tell you! You could tell that everyone was nervous, though. And before I knew it the gun went off.
It took a couple minutes to actually cross the start line; it was like being in rush hour traffic, except without the benefit of lanes. Think about getting everyone you know together and having them all stand shoulder to shoulder with you in the street in front of your house. All of you start running at the same time. Now multiply that by 1000! It was quite the experience, being in a literal sea of humanity running in unison down the road. As we left downtown Houston people stretched out in front and behind me as far as I could see. At one point, while running across an over pass crossing over I-10, I'll bet I was looking out over 15,000 people running as the full and half marathon merged together. WOW! I can't even begin to tell you how that felt! Words escape me in describing it successfully.
So, on I ran, and ran. What a beautiful day to run. When we started it was about 52 degrees and it rose up to around 70 by the finish, with not a single cloud in the sky. I say this in retrospect but honestly I was oblivious at the time, except for two occasions when it crossed my mind for a couple seconds that I might get sunburned. I had never considered this in my planning. I can't say I enjoyed the weather, because I was so focused on the task at hand: running, running, running, running to the finish.
The weather being so nice had at least one side effect, though: there were close to 250,000 people along the route! There were marching bands, people dressed up in costumes, people sitting in their front lawn playing guitar, guys with their DJ setups blaring music, and the people. So many people out cheering you on! It's hard to describe the experience because it's really an aggregation of hundreds of little experiences along the way. I had read about how helpful crowd support was, but until I experienced it I couldn't have fathomed exactly how important it was. The bib that you wear with your number also has your first name written on it in big letters, and all along the route people would shout out your name: "Keep up the good pace, Jay!," "You're doing great Jay!," "Good job, Jay!", etc, etc... over and over. All from people I don't know, never saw before, and will never be able to thank. It's hard to describe how important this is, especially toward the end when you really, really need it because you're running on nothing but your willpower. It personalizes the message and it matters GREATLY and it's the one thing I remember most about the whole ordeal, saga, and experience: the people.
So I ran and I ran until about mile 22, when I could feel the force draining from my body. I'd had a huge breakfast packed with calories, then consumed 800 calories of sports GU along the way. GU is kind of like syrup, basically a flavored gel in a little single-serve pack, like ketchup from a fast food place. Each pack has 100 calories and I had nine of them in my pockets, of which I sucked down eight (800 calories), until an hour out from the finish, when I got kind of nauseous.
So around mile 22 I could feel the energy draining from me, but I could taste the end nearby. Even if I walked the rest of the way I would finish in less than six hours, which is the timing limit. But on I ran. The crowd around me had thinned at this point in Memorial Park, so there was only one person within 20 feet of me, rather than 50. I was starting to fall apart. After mile 24 I couldn't run more than about 200 yards without stopping to walk for 15 or 30 seconds. I felt a little like I was on autopilot because I had no control over my legs and I was mentally out of it, so drained. My legs would stop on their own without any conscious warning to me. I'd be running one second, then suddenly walking. It would then take me 15-30 seconds to psych myself up to get going again. I'd be yelling at myself, in my head, "Come on dude! Let's go, it's only two more miles you wussy!!!". I think I may even have physically slapped myself in the face a couple of times, to snap myself out of the coma I was slipping into.
One mile from the finish I entered downtown Houston again and the crowds began to thicken along the sides of the road. Thousands of people I didn't know were screaming at the top of their lungs to cheer me on and across the finish line. I've never experienced anything like that. I took a right on Rusk and had a little over half a mile, and 20,000 people, between me and my goal; that's the moment I most remember. At the same time it's a cloudy memory because of my mental state at that point. I remember all the people on the sides being a blur, as though I was driving by in a car, not able to fix on any one face. I switched between tunnel vision to the finish line ahead, blurry screaming people on the sides, and staring at the ground 10 feet ahead of me as I plodded along, trying not to stop.
It probably took five or six minutes to run that last half mile, but it seemed like hours. I was so tired I was worried that if I even got slightly off balance, I was going to go down hard, and a LOT of people were going to witness it. I would run a hundred yards or so, and then my legs would quit, but hundreds of people would start cheering me on. So I would dig deep and push off to run another 100 yards, until I was a couple hundred yards from the finish. I just kept repeating in my head, "Come on dude, you can fall in one more minute, just keep moving, don't fall now, there are too many cameras pointed at you... run, dammit, run".
So I made it, and raised my hands in victory as I crossed over the finish line. I would not have thought to do that, except I'd read repeatedly to make sure to, because they take your picture as you cross. I'd pictured it in my head so many times during training that I just did it without really thinking about it.
5 hours and 33 seconds.
I cross over the finish, stumble over to the side, and almost collapse on the ground. I put my hands on my knees and leaned over as three medical guys ran over to me, possibly expecting me to keel over, which I really, really wanted to. I told them I was okay but needed a second to gather myself up. I stood and staggered off to get in line to get my picture taken. At this point it really hadn't sunk in that I had done it. I was so tired that all I could concentrate on was standing up.
In line a couple minutes later, it hit me all at once, and a wave of emotion washed over me. I almost bust out in tears. The complete exhaustion, like I have never, ever even come close to feeling, and the completion of a goal I had been working towards for a whole year, finally achieved. It just flat overwhelmed me. It happened again when I finally found Jenny. I very nearly bust out in tears again and had to fight them off as I staggered up to her.
Thank god that's over with! Time to start thinking about next year...
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