Since this is my final column of 2014, I thought I would take a look back at… something. (Because that’s what people do at the end of the year.) But a look back at my year of running didn’t seem particularly interesting (and a bit too much like a “Best of Me” column). What did seem interesting was the notion of looking backwards. More specifically, looking at a marathon backwards. And, no, not the course, but the experience. Below is the result, an account of a fictional marathon… in reverse.
I wouldn’t go straight to cozy, but I was warm. I secured the Mylar blanket around my shoulders. Actually, I had to use my teeth. My hands were full with bagels and bananas and mini jugs of chocolate milk. I shoved a Gatorade under my arm as I walked through the crowd, engulfed by throngs of individuals similarly draped in shiny silver cloaks, necks adorned with starter’s medals, arms full with carbohydrates and electrolytes. We were like superheroes at a Bacchanalian feast—or at least a giant, outdoor, continental breakfast—regaled and feasted.
“Wha… Wait! I wasn’t done with those!”
A woman in a bright orange shirt snatched the bagels from my left hand, knocking the Gatorade to the ground in the process.
“Congratulations!” she said. And then she took the banana.
I took two more steps. A man, dressed in the same electric orange shirt (a “volunteer,” I soon learned) bolted from behind a long folding table piled high with chocolate milk.
“Congratulations!” he exclaimed as he grabbed my last jug and added it to his collection.
I didn’t have time to pursue the matter further. The race was about to start. I threaded my way through the crowd, searching for the start line. The sea of volunteers swelled as I drew closer to the start. One jumped in front of me. She meant business. From her left arm dangled at least two dozen starter’s medals identical to the one I was wearing. She was all smiles and praise as she reached her arms around my neck and confiscated my prized possession.
“Congratulations!” she said, the admiration apparent in her eyes. Then she whipped the Mylar blanket off my shoulders like a magician’s tablecloth.
I looked around. A handful of runners around me—also suddenly empty-handed and deprived of their Mylar blankets—were having their medals removed with profuse commendation.
“From Little Rock, Arkansas… Bucky Walters!”
The announcement boomed across a scratchy PA system, despite a direct assault from a rival set of jumbo speakers blasting Outkast.
A man, presumably Bucky, sprinted across the start line and disappeared. Bucky’s departure represented the percolating egression of runners down the course. A name, and then someone would take off down the course. Another name, another runner bolting across the start line. Sometimes two runners would grasp each other’s hands, raise them in the air, and cross the start together. Others pumped their fists. Still others took two steps, stopped, posed for a picture, and then started running again. Within seconds, I heard my name announced.
I started running.
For the first one hundred yards, I felt weightless. I sprinted. I skipped. I laughed. After a few minutes, however, I settled into my pace. One mile down. Two miles. And then, it happened.
I hit the wall.
I had heard about marathoners hitting “the wall.” They said it sneaks up on you and knocks you to the ground when you least expect it. They said it is inevitable. They were right.
I was three miles into the race, as indicated by the mile marker countdown, which read “Mile 23.” I looked at my watch. I had been running for over twenty-one minutes. This is when the wall hits, I told myself. Your body is depleted.
People were starting to fade by this point. Dehydrated. Exhausted. Many were walking. One man, who had been running with me stride for stride, pulled over to the curb and started stretching. His hamstring had cramped up badly at mile two. A grimace of pain slashed across his face.
“C’mon!” I called to him. “You’ve already come this far!”
He shook his head. “Keep going. You’re looking strong!”
I kept running. My lungs burned. My legs went numb. My quads turned to jelly. Everything hurt. But I was determined.
They say the hardest part of a marathon is the first six miles. The first six miles are what test your training and your determination. The last twenty should be easy and relaxed. But the first six. You just have to survive the first six.
Finally, I broke through the wall. My legs felt lighter. I was able to catch my breath. After six miles, I was in the groove. This must be the legendary runner’s high! I thought as I cruised down the course. Through the city. Into a quaint neighborhood. A college campus. A park. The mile markers counted down.
I remembered that the final ten miles were all about pacing. “If anything, err on the side of being too slow,” someone had told me. I slowed my pace by ten seconds per mile. I could talk comfortably—which was a good thing, since other participants, who had been sparse and spread out at the beginning of the race, were now starting to crowd together. Everyone was chatty and happy and predicting finish times. I skipped the final water stations. They were too crowded.
The course became impossibly congested. I found myself running in a dense mass of humanity. Runners bottlenecked at every turn; running the tangents became especially hazardous, if not impossible. But I didn’t want to waste energy dodging in and out of fellow runners. I still had a mile left.
Finally, I crossed the finish line, where I—and the thousands of other runners who finished at the exact same time—were immediately herded into corrals according to the pace we just ran, a process that was well organized but (at least, I thought) somewhat excessive. The pace groups were conveniently marked, and it didn’t take long for everyone to find the appropriate corral. Then we sang the National Anthem.
The song must have been moving in more ways than one, because afterwards there was an immediate rush for the porta-johns. Literally everyone had to go to the bathroom. The lines for the porta-johns stretched across the lawns flanking the course. Some people exited the porta-john only to immediately arrive themselves back at the end of the line for a second go (pun intended).
After using the bathroom twice, I headed back to my car, where I applied a healthy layer of RunGuard. It had been a great race. I couldn’t believe I had actually run a marathon. I’ll never forget seeing the “Mile 1” marker near the end of the race.
A sticker! I thought. That’s what I need! A sticker to commemorate my accomplishment! The first thing to do post-race would be to get myself a “0.0” sticker and slap it on the back of my SUV. Because I had done it. I had made it to mile zero.
And, besides, they took our starter’s medals at the beginning of the race.
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.