By mile seven, I could think of nothing else. The race was going much better than I had expected. And, yet, my elation was tempered by one all-consuming regret: I really, really wish I hadn’t ordered whiskey…
Listen, I don’t drink. But when I do, I drink bourbon.
Call me a homer, but I love racing in St. Louis. I love this city, its running community, its historic neighborhoods, its quirky corners. I love pinning on a bib number and spotting a dozen familiar faces. I love out-and-back stretches that occasion spasms of recognition and frenetic greetings. I love impromptu post-race hugs and the rash of friends’ post-race social media posts, all with the same local backdrop. I love running down Market Street. (Yes, even with the hill.) I love seeing the Arch on the horizon.
It’s just the bee’s knees.
For some reason, Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Louis is a particularly fertile breeding ground for memories—at least, for me. Good memories. Bad memories. Memories that are a bit of both. Last year, it was the hill at mile twenty-three, a.k.a. Russell, where I left my soul and my favorite moisture-wicking Brooks Fleet Feet hat. Two years before that, it was bike escorts bringing in the lead females and having a two-wheeled herald yelling “Runner on your left!” as I made my final push for the finish line. (It was something I had never before—and haven’t since—experienced.)
I had no doubt that this year would honor the tradition—I just wasn’t sure how it would do so. This was going to be a potluck race. Not only did it fall smack dab in the middle of marathon training, but it fell smack dab in the middle of marathon training that has been anything but awesome. I didn’t know what my body would do on Sunday. I entered the race with two primary goals: 1) expect nothing and 2) run conservatively, at least, for the first half. That was it.
There was, however, a redeeming element to my casserole of uncertainty: Jake, who hadn’t raced a half marathon in six years, was coming out of retirement.
Mr. Speedy Pants would be racing.
As the final notes of the national anthem cut through the air, I told Jake not to embarrass everyone and he told me not to be slow, and we were off.
I have a habit of starting out too fast. (And by habit, I mean it happens every single race.) Terrified that I’m going to fall behind, I run the first few miles ahead of pace and am gassed before I hit the finish line. But I couldn’t do that this time. This time, I had to be smart. This time, I didn’t have a choice.
Hold back. Be smart. I told myself as the floodgates opened and thousands of runners spilled down the streets. Reel it in. Reel it in. It’s a long race.
I happened to glance to my left. The 1:30 pace group was two steps behind me. I’d run with them. If I felt good, I could pick it up. But not before mile six. For the first six miles, I had to stay hip to hip with the guy holding the sign.
As it turned out, the guy holding the sign had run a 2:50 marathon in Chicago the week before.
“And the 1:40 guy,” he said, “just did Ironman Louisville last weekend.”
“What? That’s crazy.”
“Yeah. Actually, I didn’t know I’d be pacing this group until last night. The guy who was supposed to do it got sick.”
“Oh, man. Way to take one for the team.”
“I don’t mind. But I’m running on chocolate and candy corn. I didn’t eat any sugar leading up to Chicago. I thought I was done for a while. If I had known I was going to be running with this group…” he paused, “yeah, I would have done that differently.”
“So I guess I shouldn’t have had Woodford and cupcakes last night either?” I laughed.
The guy holding the sign laughed. The guy to my right laughed. The guy behind me laughed. I laughed again.
Weren’t we hilarious?
Let me take a moment to clarify that I have about four drinks a year—tops—and only on special occasions. The occasion in question was my mom’s birthday celebration, which happened to be the night before the race. Feeling festive at dinner, I ordered Woodford Reserve on the rocks. We ate, sang “Happy Birthday,” and did some damage to a box of cupcakes. Then I called it an early night. After all, I had a race the next morning.
In retrospect, bourbon and cupcakes was probably a bad idea.
Fast forward to mile five.
“Cliff! Hey! Cliff!” I yelled. There, along Delmar, was Cliff, the honorary mayor of Forest Park.
“Hey, Amy! You look good! You look good!”
I darted to the side of the course to slap a high five, per our tradition.
“Was that the Cliff you wrote about a while back?” a member of our pace group asked as I fell back in step with the assembly.
“YES! THAT WAS CLIFF!” I said, still yelling for no reason. I was tickled pink to see one of my favorite runners of all time.
Then it was up the leviathan of a hill on Laclede. That’s when it hit me for the first time.
Bourbon. It was bourbon. And it was not pleasant.
“Hey, Lee Anna,” I said to the other female in our group, trying to ignore the stirrings of the undead, “how ‘bout we hold this pace until seven and then start cutting it down?”
“That sounds good.”
In reality, we started picking up the pace at mile six. I blame the Fleet Feet water station and the euphoric sentimentality that overtakes me whenever I recognize someone during a race.
“Chris! GAH! Chris!”
“Liz! Will you marry me?”
“Christine! I love you!”
Seeing someone at work is one thing. Seeing that person along a racecourse is another thing entirely. Mile six: 6:40.
A few seconds here. A few seconds there. We left the pace group behind us. Lee Anna and I ran side by side. For the first time ever in a half marathon, I wasn't out of gas by mile seven.
This is why you’re supposed to go out conservatively! This is what they mean by having something left in the reserve! I marveled. Why haven’t I listened to this advice before?
Ugh. Woodford Reserve.
My legs were moving faster, but the bourbon was getting worse. Every breath threatened the resurrection of the previous night’s repast. It was like a game of gastric Russian roulette. Mile nine. Mile ten. I was filled with conflicting emotions of elation and regret. The race was going much better than I had expected. But the bourbon… All I could taste, feel, and smell was bourbon.
Mile twelve: 6:33.
I really, really shouldn’t have ordered that whiskey.
As we made the turn at mile thirteen and began to climb the final hill leading to the finish line, I heard familiar voices yelling my name from the Fleet Feet tent. They were cheering me on. My friends were there cheering me on!
And I was going to thank them by throwing up. I was going to throw up in front of the Fleet Feet tent, all because I drank that stupid glass of…
But instead of throwing up, I crossed the finish line. I have never felt simultaneously so delighted and nauseated. For the first time ever, I didn't go out too fast. I actually ran negative splits. Geez, Louise, these coaches know what they're talking about.
I was thrilled.
As for Jake, well, he clocked a 1:19, negative splitting the second half of the race and clocking a 5:34 last mile.
Mr. Speedy Pants is back indeed.
Yes, Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Louis delivered yet again. I finally (finally!) learned to trust the wisdom of pacing and exercise self-control in the early miles of the race, and I finally (finally!) reaped the benefits. For the first time, when those final miles hit, I had something left in the reserve. Unfortunately, it was Woodford Reserve.
Oh, and guess who has already signed up for the 2016 Rock ‘n’ Roll St. Louis 1/2 Marathon?
So here’s to more memories.
And less bourbon.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.