So. Grab a cup of coffee (or wine), this is a long one.
There are places in this country where it is apparently quite warm in January. These places are not where I live and train in conditions that sometimes shock people. When visitors fuss about our cold, I smile, but I don’t get their discomfort.
I think our blood is different.
As it turns out, I like running when it’s 25-40 degrees. And if you read my post about my last 22-miler, you’ll remember how well that went. My body was happy, strong. I averaged 8:44 and ran mile 21 in 7:52.
As it turns out, my body is about as adaptable as a St. Bernard spending Christmas in Miami.
All day Saturday, I looked at the blue sky, the sun, the palm trees, the cactuses, and the desert and marveled at the contrast to where I live. Where I live looks like this right now:
That's my back door.
What does one do in desert? One drinks water, right? Lots and lots of water. When you think desert, do you think “Better eat some pretzels?”
A 50-degree temperature change from one 20-miler to the next makes a difference in what happens at the 20-mile mark. Things — spooky, foreign things — happened in my body, and I didn’t recognize their implications until it was too late and I was reduced to shuffling — damn that shuffling. There was no wall to break through. The only wall was behind me, and I was tied to it and forced to pull for 6 miles.
So Kevin once shared a story with me about one runner's pithy retort to the typical race report rationalizations of why a race went sour. To those weather/nutrition/injury/illness/clothing problems, he simply quipped: “So you're faster than you really are?"
I’m totally with that guy. You’re as fast as the day makes you, no excuses. You don’t get to say you’re faster than you perform because that’s not how it works.
But I’m not as fast as I really am.
I started the race with the 3:40 pace leader, John, who I’ll begrudgingly admit was from Minnesota—also not known for its 70-degree Januaries. I was glued to John. I obeyed John like he was the Boss. I ran in John’s shadow like his little sister.
John 3:40, I loved you, man.
John 3:40 got me to the half feeling solid, with something like 40 seconds in the bank. I was positive, optimistic, trying to decide if it would be inappropriate to outkick him at the finish line after he’d paced me the entire course. I was on track, step for step, positive but without hubris.
At mile 14, John looked around at his flock of women under 35 and said, “I know what this is. These are the Babes Going to Boston. That’s who I’ve got. I’m gonna get as many babes to Boston as I can.” I smiled. John was taking me to Boston.
John 3:40, I wanted to be your babe.
Needless to say, John 3:40 probably leads the most coveted group of all the pacing teams: women under 35. We followed him like skanky girls waiting backstage for Steve Tyler.
John 3:40, what I would give to be among your finish line skanks.
Around mile 16, my left calf said, “WTF? Where’s wintah? I am your leg and Jesus, it’s hot today. How ‘bout some watah?”
Oh no, I am so not pulling a Nitmos. I don't get cramps. Ever. My calves make it through just fine, always.
With almost a minute in the bank, I reasoned, “I’ve been drinking at every stop because that’s what smart people do in the desert, but more water would be fine! They’ve got plenty! Cups and cups and cups of water. It cost me $110 to run this race and with that cotton t-shirt as disappointing as it was, I should get my money’s worth in water!”
As we made our way through the teens, I drank the water. I poured the water over my head. And then I drank some more. Totally loving the water.
And yet, my right calf joined the chorus. “We’re hot, woman!” They began to tighten up, apparently not very satisfied by the water. So they convinced my feet to grow.
If you’ve ever been pregnant, you might have reached a point when all of a sudden, it occurs to you that your shoes are two sizes too small. “How did that happen?” you think. You don’t notice them swelling and then one day, you realize the fabric on your shoe is pushing on your toes from all sides and maybe your toes actually curl up because there is just no more room.
That can also happen when you run a marathon.
You can hit the nearest shoe store to size up when you’re pregnant, but Zappos don’t deliver to mile 18.
By mile 19, it occurred to me that my toes could quite possibly pull an Alien and bust through my shoes. And I would have been totally cool with that. If I’d had a knife, I’d have cut the fabric right off the top of my shoe.
At mile 20, both calves were so contracted and cramped, I felt like they were hiding from the race. “Maybe if we just get real, real tight and make two little balls, she won’t even know we’re here,” they said to each other.
Yes, my body parts talk.
My quads, hamstrings, and glutes were good to go, but everything below the knee was pissed.
Shortly after mile 20, the switch flipped. I push through a lot of walls on a long run; there is never just one. Mile 20 wasn’t a wall. It was a power outage. For the first time, I was behind John 3:40 instead of at his elbow.
And then he was gone.
Everything screeched to a halt. I was still running, yet everyone but the walkers streamed around me like I was a tree planted in the middle of the road.
By the time I realized that maybe I needed salt and not water, it was too late. I ate the salt packet that a medic along the course was holding out, but my calves and feet wanted a Supersize box of fries, not a dash to flavor my Roctane. I hadn't had any Cytomax because that stuff upsets my stomach and I always figure the Gu covers the electrolytes. Just an amateur, I guess.
The 3:45 guy passed me. My brain screamed bloody murder. Enough anger to push through any wall, but my power was out. I refused to walk because I knew the second I stopped to walk, my calves would call it a day and I’d never resume a running pace, no matter how slow. I didn’t even walk through the water stops.
The 3:50 guy passed me, his flag held more like a relay baton because he’d lost his entire entourage. Christ. I can’t even run it in with the poor 3:50 bachelor.
Instead of writing eulogies for my family and friends, I started to write my own.
Loving mother. Foolish runner who wanted more than anything to transcend mediocrity through marathons. Died on a long stretch of road in Phoenix. Had potential, rarely did much with it. Made a good quiche.
Miles 23 through the finish are a blur, sadly not because I was picking up the pace. Two Springsteen songs came on in a row, as if my iPod sensed my grief and wanted to make a last ditch effort with “Cadillac Ranch” to give me some pep. I sang along.
Open up your engine, let it roar. Tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur.
I just kept going, one orange cone after another. After “Cadillac Ranch” came “The Rising.” I didn’t sing.
Can’t see nothin in front of me
Can’t see nothin coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
At several points, I wished I could know my exact mileage. About 15 minutes later I remembered I had a Garmin and could find out whenever I wanted. I guess the brain needs salt, too.
Lost track of how far I've gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed
On my back's a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile of line
At mile 26, a guy in the crowd looked at me and yelled, “Four minutes to four hours!”
And that’s when I found my salt. Salty tears streaming down my face, making salty rivers in the salty crust on my face. I wouldn’t even get a five-minute PR.
All those treadmill speed workouts. Two long runs a week. Seven 20-milers. Most people agree that the Boston Marathon is around 10 minutes slower than a flat course. I cut four lousy minutes with more training than I ever would have thought possible.
I crossed the line without any pride whatsoever. I couldn’t care less about my finish line photo. I saw the long queue of runners waiting to have their picture taken with their medals on and walked right by without thinking for a second that I wanted to join them.
A medic saw me looking disoriented and took me to the medical tent. She asked how often I drank water during the race. “Every stop from mile 2.” Her eyes got wide, and she asked if I took any salt. I couldn’t remember when, but told her it was somewhere in the early 20s. “Too much water. Not enough salt. And your body isn’t used to the heat.”
I stumbled around for a little while, looking for Jessica*, who had finished well ahead of me. I had no clue how I’d find her family in the sea of people with my brain functioning on reserve battery power. I was elated when I spotted her gorgeous little red-headed boys sitting in the grass.
And that’s kind of where the race ends. I took good care of my salt deficit with some margarita love that night, but there’s no uplifting resolve at the end of this one. I entered the training wanting to see how fast I could get if I ramped up the preparation tenfold. I expected I might get close to 3:40, very confident I’d beat 3:45.
Today, of course, is supposed to be about hope and humility. And I’m not self-important enough to wallow over my silly race results while we're in the middle of history. So I’m working on the hope. But deep down in my greedy, vain little dark place, I’m tired of having to be self-deprecating. Just once, I want to be cocky and plaster that BAA unicorn on my blog.
If you've made it through this race report, you already have more endurance than I do. I just wanted to add a major thanks to all of you, particularly my pacers Kevin, Jill, Linn, Anne, Judith, Johna, and Brian. And my commenters also get special thanks for constant encouragement that must get tedious to type all the time. I know I'm a Murphy's Law marathoner and that I kind of force to you tell me to keep my chin up. And thanks for the memories, Nate. It was actually kind of fun to pretend I could be a good marathoner and train out of my league for six months.
I got home to my 26.2 Marathon Stories book from Marcy (thanks, M!) and feel the need to both pay it forward and reward anyone who is still reading this post. I also want to end this whine-fest on a more hopeful note. So if you're interested in my copy of Bart Yasso's new book, My Life On the Run, leave a comment with your suggestion for a fall marathon, and I'll put you in a drawing for it. I'll mail it to the lucky winner whose name I draw on Friday. It's a good, fun read.
*We had a blast the entire time we spent together this weekend, but we didn’t end up running the race together, which is good because it would have been the one negative experience we shared during my stay.