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Illinois Marathon race report (long)

OakLeaf2012-07-17 16:13:24 +0000 #1

Closer to dread. I knew I was undertrained. I told myself I’d been experimenting with a lighter training load and more recovery given my age, but the truth was that I’d been struggling with motivation for months. The neck injury from my fall in March wasn’t getting any better; that discomfort blended with the mystery aches and pains I always get during a taper. I’d done several long runs and longer speed workouts without aggravating my neck, but a race is different. What if my arm or face went completely numb during the race? Would I have the sense to take a DNF? (Probably not.)

Then there was the weather. The forecast called for a strong chance of rain. Small variations could make an enormous difference. Would it be warmer, so that a light, cooling rain would be welcome; or cold and miserable? Would it rain just enough that I’d need less water for sweat, or enough to soak my shoes? I checked the hourly weather graph incessantly, and packed enough clothes for any three races (provided each of them was in different weather conditions). My entire collection of CW-X legwear – tights in three different weights, and shorts. One sleeveless wool base layer and three long-sleeved ones in various weights. Two choices of arm warmers. Convertible gloves and a knit cap. Two spare pairs of dry socks. Enough Body Glide to lube a tractor.

We drove the course the day before the race. Much of it was on concrete roads of 1960s vintage, rock-hard and riddled with seams and holes. I couldn’t risk another fall that might aggravate my injury. The course had been described as flat – which it was, with less than 600 feet of total elevation gain – but it wasn’t flat like the Columbus marathon is flat. It was more like climbing the same 20 feet 25 times, plus a long (though not steep) climb at mile 24 that we’d been warned about. From the car, it was hard to see the shallow descents. It looked more like the whole race was uphill. The last hill wound around some turns; I thought that 24 miles into a race, it would seem to go on forever.

I hadn’t yet decided what to write on my nasal strip, but that settled it. I wanted to keep the focuses of gratitude and joy from my first two marathons, but also to add something specific to this race, and there it was. As I laid out my things, I wrote: ALL DOWNHILL.

Race day

As soon as I woke up I checked the weather report. Yay! The rain had blown through overnight and would be past by start time. Overcast conditions meant the temperature would hold steady throughout the race. Before I hugged Keith and went to my corral, I psyched myself up – mostly with a litany of things that would not go wrong. “Nothing will chafe. Nothing will cramp. Nothing will blister. Nothing will fall (especially me). Nothing I need will be inaccessible. I can do this.” And in a nod to the literally dozens of Priuses we’d seen and wondered at the day before, I added, “Priuses will not distract me. I will draw power from their batteries. Their drivers will wonder what depleted the charge.” I made a show of reaching my hand toward the four Priuses in the parking lot nearby (sparing our own), drawing energy from them like the salt monsters in that Star Trek episode. That spur-of-the-moment whimsical thought would prove to be far, far more valuable than I’d expected.

The gun went off. I warmed up quickly and shed my throwaway sweatshirt, to find that I’d dressed perfectly. But the starting line adrenaline wore off fast, too. It was already feeling like work within five miles. And where were all the Priuses? In the past 24 hours, not 30 seconds had gone by that we were outside and didn’t see one. Now, none – not in driveways, not in parking lots, not on side streets. I calmed myself with the thought that I could draw power from anything. Gas station – full tanks, huge source of power. Conventional cars – 12-volt batteries, sips of power. And breath, ancient yogic source of power. I visualized a green battery indicator along my sternum. With each big inhale through my nose, the indicator rose to full.

Much of why I’d chosen this race was the advertised crowd support, and it didn’t disappoint. I don’t think 100 feet went by that there weren’t at least a couple of spectators cheering, holding signs, ringing cowbells, blowing vuvuzelas. Most places the crowd was denser. The course was mostly residential, and nearly every house had a family out front – little kids offering high-fives, bottles of water, hard candy; adults of all ages bundled up and making a party of it. It was easy to keep a grin on my face. My husband and I had arranged a corner where he’d be cheering me on – late in the race, where the course made a figure-8 loop, so I’d pass him around mile 18 and again around mile 23. Anything more would be a bonus, and as it turned out, he was able to yell for me at two more points earlier in the race. Thanks, sweetheart. The entertainment was fun, too – more boom boxes than live entertainment, but still motivating. The Deadhead music station, with a skeleton in a lawn chair wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt. The water stop where all the volunteers were dressed as pirates. The Navy ROTC (seriously? Navy, in Champaign, IL? Anchors aweigh, my boys – really, really far away) ringing a huge ship’s bell around mile 12, resonating through the streets, audible long before and long after I reached them. The Elvis impersonator, singing “Suspicious Minds” as I passed.

I kept to my plan, running pretty even splits, not allowing negative thoughts. All downhill, I thought each time I floated up a rise, using my breath and the energy of the trees lining the streets to draw me upward. Gratitude, I remembered, thanking volunteers out loud when I could, barely mouthing my thanks by late in the race, sometimes just reciting thanks in my head to all the people who’d helped me get there. Joy. That one was easy, with such an enthusiastic crowd. Several people wished me “Aloha” in honor of my lucky lei. The shirt I’d chosen was from last fall’s Columbus half marathon, and bore the race slogan “Commit. Train. Believe. Achieve.” The word “Achieve” is in a large font across the chest. I forgot I was even wearing it until one spectator, then another, yelled, “You’re achieving today!” Charge my battery. Charge my battery, though sometimes it felt like the indicator dropped nearly back to zero on each exhale. Charge my battery. And: There is no wall.

I never saw my husband at mile 23. He says I looked straight at him, but I wasn’t seeing a lot at that point, and he forgot to call my name. Maybe I saw him subliminally, because I didn’t really feel hurt or disappointed. I just thought that he’d decided he needed to leave to get through traffic and parking and be at the finish before I got there. It probably helped, too, that a few yards earlier, I’d passed a glove that someone had discarded in the road. It had landed with the thumb pointing up. Yeah. That’s for me.

I reached the last hill. I was so glad we’d driven the course so I knew what to expect. Breathe, charge my battery, draw upward energy from the trees, float up the hill. Next we turned briefly onto a main road, and there it was: a Prius. Zaap. Back into the campus area for the final miles. More Priuses. Zaap. Zaap. Zaap. Hearing the noise from the finish line at least a half-mile out, maybe more. Breathe. Pour it on, whatever I had left, not much of a kick, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Through the tunnel into the stadium, pretending I’m the football team. Onto the field for the finish. Done.

I breathed “Thank you” and “Pheidippi-dabba-doo,” not enough breath to shout it or to high-five the volunteer who gave me my medal. As usual I hadn’t set my watch to display total elapsed time. I scrolled through. 3:58. I was used up mentally as well as physically. That’s when I realized that at my last marathon, it wasn’t that I was too spent to cry, I wasn’t spent enough. Dazed, I just stood there and broke into sobs. Stopped just as quickly. My husband called out to me. I started sobbing again in his arms, for the space of a couple of beats. Do they still have fruit cups in Fanueil Hall? I wondered aloud – having enjoyed them 30-some years ago on my last trip. Because this time, I’m going to Boston.

redrhodie2012-07-17 16:15:23 +0000 #2
That was awesome. Everyone is going to cry reading it. I am.
indysteel2012-07-17 16:41:48 +0000 #3

Originally Posted by redrhodie

That was awesome. Everyone is going to cry reading it. I am.

Seriously; I'm all sniffly. What an emotional journey and a poignant retelling. Well done, Oak. Well done.
Pax2012-07-17 17:11:14 +0000 #4

I didn't know you were doing the run, you passed a half block from my house.
katluvr2012-07-17 17:19:33 +0000 #5
Wow, really all I can say is WOW! Another inspiring race report. freckin exciting!
OakLeaf2012-07-17 18:39:57 +0000 #6
Pax! How did I not remember you're in C/U. :mad at self: I would've loved to meet you for lunch or something. Hopefully another time.
Artista2012-07-17 19:03:10 +0000 #7
So VERY impressive to this new runner. Congrats on a run well done.
Crankin2012-07-17 18:08:01 +0000 #8
You inspired me to maybe, possibly think I can run more than 3-4 miles without dying.

Your reservation for Patriot's Day weekend and a ride to Hopkinton still stand.



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