As many of you (3 or 4 of you) may know, I’ve had a ghastly ongoing battle with the stupid marathon for the past nearly 2 years. Back in February of 2013, I decided I was going to run my next-to-last marathon. I was all super-confident that I could BQ (sub-4), and I was vaguely confident that Cheryl might do the same in her first marathon. As we all know, I had a spectacular blowup around mile 19, and Cheryl cruised on into a BQ-12 or whatever.
So then I was pretty much over-the-top that I just HAD to BQ, particularly after the events at the 2013 Boston Marathon. What followed was a full year of Are You Fucking Kidding Me? First, I took a wrong turn around mile 18 at the Ann Arbor Marathon in June. This was followed by acquiring a hip injury a mere 4 weeks before a marathon in South Dakota in August. My shot at a 2014 BQ was over, but I still wanted to run one last marathon. I really didn’t want to end marathoning with a sucky marathon as my final Marion Memory. So, I barreled on into Country Music Marathon (ick) training feeling pretty good. Naturally, I sustained a foot injury about 3 weeks before the event and had to drop to the half.
Honestly, the marathon has never been all that good to me. But this was ridiculous.
I was on the verge of saying Uncle (whatever that really means) when Cheryl mentioned that she wanted to run a marathon for her 50th birthday in November. Cripes. Being the agreeable person that she is, Cheryl researched marathons and made sure there was a half option for woebegone flailing old me. She finally settled on the Canyon City Marathon, a race 2 days after her 50th. Cheryl was all, “There’s a half, too. I really don’t mind if you do the half. Seriously.” But then I read the description of the full, looked at the spectacular pictures, and thought, “Hmmm…”
One of the pictures that initiated the “hmmmm….”:
A marathon that goes from 5748 feet to 614 feet? Hello.
So, I went back into somewhat tentative marathon training once my foot healed. I was hesitant and wary. To be more specific, I was afraid. Truly afraid of the marathon for the first time in 26 marathon attempts. Sure, the marathon has annoyed me, pissed me off, amused me, made me seriously nervous, and even bored me. But it had never really scared me. Yes, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and thought, “Run 26.2 miles? WHAT?” and had a brief panic attack, but this was different. I was now doubting that I could finish the distance ever again without trauma, injury, or something inane happening. Still, I wanted to run one last marathon. I wanted it to be memorable in a good way.
Somehow, I convinced myself during this training cycle that my time in this marathon was going to be irrelevant. I was only doing it to put a cap on marathoning and celebrate Cheryl’s 50th. If it took me 6 hours, who cared? I was ONLY DOING IT TO HAVE FUN.
Aside from the fact that there’s just something inherently wrong about talking about running 26.2 miles for “fun,” we all know that a number, a certain time, a goal is in every runner’s mind when training for a race. I pushed that number as far back as I could and just ran. For the first time, I didn’t follow any kind of specific plan. I ran fewer miles than I usually would in a marathon buildup. I gave myself a break from any kind of major speed work, only doing occasional speed with the cross country team I help coach in the fall. I did a few long tempo runs and wondered, ultra-briefly, what marathon pace would even be for me. I did a final long run without a watch. I tapered with astoundingly little angst.
Then I observed the San Gabriel Mountains as we flew into L.A. and had a colon clutch:
Yes, we’d be running down from those monstrous mountains, but still. I recalled a recent thread at RunningAhead about downhill races and how several Elitist Pricks know-it-alls had suffered more pain than they had ever experienced in any race due to quad horrors. “If it’s too steep, your quads will feel like they’re exploding near the end,” one person had cheerily written. “Prepare to be unpleasantly surprised,” another had merrily chimed in. “Downhill can really suck.”
But I packed up the negative thoughts into tidy and miniscule shrink-wrapped pellets and deposited them once again in the very back of my brain. FUN. GOING TO HAVE FUN, DAMN IT.
The morning before the marathon, Cheryl and I drove the course from downtown Azusa to the very top of the mountain. I know this is not a great idea 24 hours before a race, but somehow it made both of us feel better. I was gratified to note that there was no way I could, say, make a wrong turn at mile 19 since there was only one road. We saw that there were, in fact, some substantial uphills between miles 13-17. That would give our quads a break, right? The morning was cloudy and foggy, so we couldn’t really grasp a visual of how high we were, but our ears were just about popping out of our heads, so I sensed we were getting up there.
At the top, we parked outside of the Crystal Lake Café where the race would begin. Inside the little cabin café, a little man named Adam informed us that he had bought a million (or maybe 400) bagels and he was hyper-curious to know whether the 800 runners would buy that many bagels before the start and whether he should charge $2.50 for them. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there was no way in hell that I could eat a fucking bagel right before the start of a marathon or that you’d have to pay me to pay for a bagel at a race. He seemed like a nice man though, so we just nodded and smiled, bought some Fritos, and drove back down the mountain.
And then it was race day.
We had to get up at 3 a.m. to catch the buses up to the start which wasn’t all that painful since I had been a Clock Nazi since we had arrived in CA, insisting that we stay on Nashville time so that the 3 a.m. alarm would feel like 5 a.m. (our normal wake-up time). Every couple of hours for the past two days, I had announced what time it should feel like to us. Poor Cheryl. Anyway, it worked, because we both felt pretty rested. In keeping with convincing myself that I wasn’t nervous, I had actually slept most of the night. Unheard of.
The bus ride was a laffy daffy jovial affair with everyone chattering and laughing like insane people. It was pretty much pitch black for 50 minutes of the hour-long drive, as the ancient school bus dragged and sputtered straight uphill. Then, just as we were approaching the final switchbacks to the top, the sky lit up and there we were, above the clouds!
The sea of clouds with mountain peaks pushing through seemed to go on forever. The bus got quiet, and everyone kind of looked at each other and then out the windows and then back at each other with goofy amazement grins. And I thought, we get to run through this! Cheryl squeezed my hand and said, “Oh wow!” And I, in typical pithy fashion said, “You can say that again.” And I think she did.
A marathon, to me, is something like a book. You take your chances on whether or not it will draw you in, whether or not it will be good, whether or not you will finish it focused or scattered or at all. In this marathon, I was drawn in by sentence one. In the first few miles, the sun rose up over the clouds turning everything purple and gold and gauzy. There was that kind of muted hush that high places have with just a distant whistling of wind somewhere further up. I was barely aware that I was running. As a sheer rock face lit up with sunlight, a man ran by me and touched me lightly on the shoulder and just said, “Look!” I smiled and nodded. In any other marathon situation where a stranger touched me on purpose, they’d be in danger of pulling back a bloody stump. Not today. It was wonderful.
And the wonderful went on for miles. I had never run so far so downhill, and it was a uniquely unusual sensation. I was vaguely aware that I was probably running too fast, but I didn’t feel like I was putting forth any exertion. I forced myself to slow down at least a dozen times in the first 10 miles, and every now and then I would get this euphoric (and just a little unsettling) feeling that I was being zipped along by something other than myself. It’s hard to explain. At many points, I could see for miles down the switchbacking road, and it was as if all I had to do was roll effortlessly down there.
We ran down into clouds that, as if on a timer, magically parted in a dozen or more spots to allow brilliant shafts of light through. Waterfalls splashed now and then. Purple wildflowers hung out of the rocks. A cool breeze blew at my back. This was a marathon?
Well, yes. Around mile 15, we switched to rolling uphills for quite a while. Or it at least seemed like quite a while. I noted with some alarm that my quads felt weird. They didn’t exactly hurt or feel tired. They just felt noticeably there. Kind of block-like and even a bit numb. Numb but so very much there. I tried, fairly successfully, ignoring this until about mile 20 when we headed downhill again. This time it was not nearly as steep, but I instantly found myself wishing for an uphill. I’m certain that this is the only time I’ve wished for an uphill after mile 20 in a marathon. My quads had now become brickish and moody. They were clearly pissed that I’d been having such a blast at their expense.
But mile 23 was coming up and as much as I had insisted that I didn’t care about my time (FUN, DAMN IT), I desperately wanted to break 4 hours one last time. Up until mile 20, it had looked like I definitely would. But now I was running with concrete quads. I had Tin Man legs. A tremendous blister had formed on my right foot. I was practically bouncing on it. By mile 24, I sort of couldn’t get a normal gait going, but I could still make it under 4 hours if I didn’t walk, right? Where the FUCK was the 25-mile-marker? I felt like I was going to throw up. I hated everyone. Stupid mountain. Stupid wildflowers. Tick tock, tick tock.
I moved along in a completely idiotic mime of running form. My watch mocked me. If I slowed down even a fraction of one iota more, I wouldn’t break 4, and yet I felt as though my entire lower body was beginning to solidify into a salt pillar or something. Only by mentally convincing myself that this had been a fabulous marathon and that I was going to finish happily no matter what and never NEVER EVER have to do this again, was I able to keep on at my wretched, but at least consistently wretched, pace. And then there it was: Mile 26. I looked at my watch and realized I would go under 4 even if I slowed down. Which, of course, gave me enough adrenaline to dash through the finishing chute like a lunatic, waving at everyone in supreme cheese ball fashion, and throwing my arms up in the air as I crossed the line.
3:58:20. My final marathon. A final BQ that I will not (NO!) use.
Even better, there was Cheryl sprawled out on the astro turf stretch mats (or whatever) at the finish cheering. She had run a PR (3:44) and a BQ too. We were fucking awesome.
The next day, we couldn’t walk. I mean, eventually we could, but it was not pretty. There was absolutely no chance of bending over or squatting. Going to the bathroom was an adventure in learning how to fall against a wall and slide. We drove to Santa Monica and staggered along the beach for a mile or so. At one point, I accidentally dropped the car keys on the ground, and Cheryl and I just stood there staring at them helplessly.
“Are you going to pick those up?” Cheryl finally asked.
I did some sort of bizarre half-lean, fell over on my side, and grabbed the keys. Cheryl couldn’t really lean over far enough to help me up, so I kind of flailed around in the sand on my elbows until I could grab her hand and teeter forward while cursing. Several children building sand castles stopped what they were doing to walk over and observe us.
Ah, the marathon. It’s been good times, but it’s time to bid that asshole of a race distance a fond farewell. Really, this time. I mean it. Seriously. Shut up.