I used to be obese. That didn’t stop me from being active. In fact, I walked three marathons while tipping the scales between 200 and 269 pounds. But during that third marathon, I broke my ankle, and that was it. I decided no more marathons until I got to a healthy weight.
Well, that took a decade, and during that decade, I developed an autoimmune disorder that manifests itself in random ways ranging from inconvenient nuisances to flat-out pain. But, I had promised my daughter that I would do a marathon with her, so we compromised and walked a half marathon – 13.1 miles to celebrate her 13+1 birthday. I liked this distance, and so did she, so we continued to walk, and eventually run half marathons as my weight dropped. The rest of the family joined us, too, for a few half marathons. We completed more than a dozen half marathons in 4 years. Frankly, I was happy enough to be a half marathon girl. The challenge is still there, but the training and recovery are manageable.
But Tory was not going to let me forget my promise.
So when Runner’s World announced that they would be at the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct 28, 2012, we signed up. She was excited. I was mortified. She didn’t know what it feels like to give up your weekends for weeks on end. I did. She didn’t know what 20-mile training days feel like. I did. And I was perfectly happy having my long training days max out at 11.
But we were committed, and who doesn’t want to train with Bart Yasso?
We had four months between registration and the start of training, so we agonized daily over which plan to run. We finally settled on the break 5 hours plan. It fit our lifestyles but had challenges to keep it interesting. We also happen to be members of arguably the single most supportive running club out there, so we had plenty of support and inspiration to get us through training.
Over the course of four months, we trained in 90 degree heat and 40 degree wind. We ran in thick humidity and drenching rain. We did all of our long runs together, except on my anniversary, when I ran on a cruise ship treadmill and she ran to a first place age group finish in a local half marathon. We dealt with injuries but held them at bay. And we got stronger than ever as runners.
All that training and preparation led up to race weekend, finally, and we found ourselves headed toward the east coast at the same time as Hurricane Sandy. Between flights, at the expo, in the hotel, and at restaurants, we, like 27000 other runners, found ourselves glued to our weather apps. When race day itself finally arrived, Sandy granted us a reprieve. We arrived at the runner shuttle stop in time to be on one of the first busses, and we boarded under cloudy, but dry, skies.
At the runner’s village, we got to wait out our two hours until the start in the Runners World Challenge VIP tent, getting last minute tips and pep talks from Amby Burfoot, Bart Yasso, and RW editor in chief, David Willey. RW Challenge coach and cheerleader Jen Van Allen was there to assure us all that whatever we were feeling was completely normal. That was a good thing, because I was excited, tired, confident but worried, proud, anxious, apprehensive…. and had a headache. Normal.
When the time finally came to walk to the start line, we followed the masses of people down toward the Arlington National Cemetery. We arrived in time for the opening ceremony, which seemed to be in high definition. Being in the presence of Marines in respectful silence during the prayer, crisp attention during the national anthem, and complete decorum during the playing of Gangnam Style, made me proud.
The start cannon sounded, and where I was, of course, nothing happened. But eleven minutes later, we crossed the start line, and off we went. For my biggest race ever, I was impressed that we were only eleven minutes back. We took off running smooth and slow, feeling good, following our plan. Before mile 2, I spotted my husband, Devin, in the crowd, and ran to him for a good luck kiss. We took the early hills in stride, and soon enough, 10K had passed. Yes, we were going a bit too fast through Georgetown, but it felt so good. We saw Devin again here, and then spent the rest of the race looking for him, but weren’t so lucky again until the finish line.
After leaving Georgetown, we ran smooth and steady past the monuments, until the crowds thinned along the banks of the river. Tory needed a bathroom break, which, coupled with my two stops to adjust my shoe laces, cost us a good ten minutes. By the time we got back into the pack, we were surrounded by runners of a slower pace, and it was hard to get back into a groove. But we pushed on as we passed by signs honoring fallen soldiers… how do you complain in the face of that?
Along the way, I kept hearing “Go Navy!” from the crowd, and I would glance around to see who the sailor was. It took me several miles to realize that they were referring to my Navy hat. Yes, I was an Air Force girl, wearing a Navy hat, in a Marine Corps race. With that in mind, I decided to fall back on my military training and sing jodies – left, left, left right left. I sang to myself, but envisioned leading the whole pack in a rousing sing-along like back in my training days. For the sake of my daughter, it never happened.
Eventually we reached the Smithsonian, and then the Capitol. Here the pack thinned a bit, so running was comfortable again, except that my feet were really hurting. I had trained in cushy socks, but switched to thin socks for the race due to the threat of rain. Not only that, my IT band was tight and irritated, but the thought of bending to stretch was laughable. No matter, really. We were running with the United States Capitol in the background, and photographers were positioned every few yards to capture That Perfect Shot. I distracted myself by trying really hard, in vain, to channel that super photogenic guy from Pinterest.
About that same time, we reached mile 16. I had been waiting for 16. I announced with much excitement that we were down to single digits! Only single digits left to run! Tory said, “No, not quite.” My marathon math had failed me, and I was mad. Ten is quite clearly double digits. It was then that I noticed the “Never Again” sign looming large in front of one of the museums. Fitting. Quite fitting.
The next four miles were a struggle for me. My whole focus was Beat the Bridge. Even though my pace was more than adequate to keep me from being disqualified by not reaching the bridge by the course time limit, I was intensely focused on beating that bridge. I was hurting, but keeping good form. There were uplifting moments, for sure. My favorite? The guy who announced in the middle of a bunch of runners silently plodding along, “Welp, guess I’m not gonna win it this year.” I laughed so hard, I nearly had to stop. But the rest of the time, I was just getting by.
Reaching the bridge and realizing we were safe – we had beat the bridge – was a relief. After a moment of celebration (unrecognizable to the sparse spectators, since I did absolutely nothing differently), I reached for my Gu, only to discover I had lost one. Being as tired as I was, plus wind burnt and dehydrated, this was devastating to me. My spirits were low. I saw Ray, the flag carrying legend of the Marine Corps Marathon, and my spirits were momentarily lifted, but then they sunk to a lower low. Why were there no spectators? Why was the bridge so long? Where was the water? Where was the mile marker? Were the miles getting longer?
I tried to think of the mantras I had relied on in the past, and even the back-up mantras I had come up with after Coach Jen said having alternates was a good idea. You know, in case you didn’t believe your mantra. Well, what happens when you don’t believe your back up, either? I told Tory to go ahead, because I would have been fine to walk the rest of the way, but she refused. We did take an extended walk break, but this was when I realized it hurt less to run than it did to walk. Left, left, left right left.
Reaching Crystal City was a blessing. Yes, a blessing. There was water, and I took my fair share plus the fair share meant for several people behind me. I soaked in the cheers of the spectators. I considered crossing the street to take a pretzel from a random stranger, but decided to save the steps. I plodded along painfully, finding it somewhat rude that the start/finish shuttle stop was coming up on the left. I wondered if runners ever caught the shuttle to the finish festival, got their beer, and didn’t worry about the medal. Unlikely. How do you cover 23 miles and not finish the 5K?
We rounded another corner, and Tory said hey, there is water ahead. Yay. Then she said, “…and I need to use that porta potty.” Now she was talkin’! I said yes, yes, you use that potty, and I silently hoped there was a very long line, so I could wait, without running. As she headed off, I heard something like “blah blah Tylenol.” I stopped dead in my tracks and asked the lady in scrubs if she really had Tylenol. She said she did, and just for letting her mark my bib, I could have one. I thought wow, you can do whatever you want to my bib if I can have a Tylenol. It wasn’t until later that I realized most likely, the Tylenol would have no effect whatsoever until after I was finished, but in that moment, I felt like she was giving me some fantastic serum that was going to propel me, Lance Armstrong style, to the finish pain-free.
Tory and I joined back up just outside the porta potty (no lines, by the way), and headed to the finish. We were in mile 24 for what seemed like 17 years. I asked a Marine where the next mile marker was, and he and I were able to carry on an entire conversation since I was moving so slowly. Unfortunately, I have no idea what he said.
But then, there it was. Twenty Five. Only 15 minutes to go, max. Then Twenty Six. This is when we decided to pick it up and push a bit. Huh. It felt better. It actually felt really good. Even when we turned the corner and saw that the finish line was at the top of a mountain just shorter than Everest, it felt good. That was an exhilarating climb! All that pain was gone! Ok, not really. But I was overcome in that moment. Tory was gone (because she decided to sprint over the line), and that was fine, because I was crying. What? We predicted she would be the one crying. But no, it was me. Only I didn’t just cry. I sobbed. I crossed the finish line and then sobbed my way up the hill, shaking hands, taking high fives, soaking in every bit of my victory. And then suddenly, there I was, with “My Marine.” The race director had told us at the Runner’s World Strategy Session that we would each have our Marine, the Lieutenant that would present our medal with a salute, that this would be a special moment, and that we could hug our Marine. He was right. Lt. Gardiner seemed so genuinely proud of me, I will likely never forget him. He probably won’t forget me, either, since I sobbed all over his crisply pressed uniform.
I pulled myself together long enough to assess that no, despite my expectations to the contrary, I did not need Medical, and that yes, I did want a finisher picture. Then we found Devin, and I hugged him over the fence, and sobbed all the more while Tory assured him that no, I really didn’t need Medical.
The best way to sum it up would be to say, predictably, that this was the race of a lifetime. They say if you will do only one marathon, make it Marine Corps, and I now understand why. But even though my report is all about me and my experience, there was so much more going on at The People’s Marathon that most people might never even know.
There were the blind runners, led by teams of blind guides, who ran fast races. There was the runner with a prosthetic leg, pushing on around mile 21. There was the wheelchair competitor who was at a dead stop on the bridge, shivering, but not giving up. And then there were my other Runner’s World Challenge team mates, so many, I didn’t even know them all. Jen, our coach and cheerleader who finished her 40th marathon. Scott, a fellow 100-lb loser, who nailed a BQ on his birthday. Andrea, another 100-lb loser who finished her marathon. Irene, who finished her 98th marathon. Charles Morrison, who ran his 40th marathon – his second with a pace maker. The challengers who came back from injuries or setbacks and finished anyway. The first timers from across the country. All of us gathered from across the globe with one goal.
Yes, despite my focus, I find myself reminded that it’s not all about me. It’s about the heart of the runner. Yes, I fulfilled my promise to Tory. And my physical limitations may prevent me from running this distance again, but in this sport, no one believes you when you say “never,” so I won’t say never. And though I wasn’t all positive through this process – truly I was somewhat negative from before I ever registered – Tory was and is very positive. Her attitude was the opposite of mine and her race reflected that. I am sure she will run many more marathons, and I am one proud mom.