The Wall isn’t the worst part of a marathon. Nor are the early morning Saturday runs or the need to climb stairs afterwards. No, the worst part of running a marathon is starting a marathon.
15 minutes before beginning my first marathon, the startling line was a nervous flurry of last-second stretches, Garmin checks and marathon selfies. In what felt like an overly optimistic move, I situated myself among the 3:35 pace group. Though I’d finished all of my increasingly easy training runs at this pace, I was intimidated by my peers, most of whom are men talking about Boston. If I could stay with this group through the entire race, I’d qualify to run the Boston Marathon. If I somehow beat them by like three minutes, I’d even be able to register. Of course, as soon as the thought crossed my mind, I remember that hey, let’s just finish this first one, huh?
Between introductions, our pace leader, a smiling, friendly man in his late 20s, gave us a rundown of the course and when asked, offhandedly mentioned that this 3:35 marathon was just a training run for Chicago. Marathon PR? 2:53. NBD, though. While everyone chatted, I watched the seconds tick by on a giant clock ahead of me as if willing it to just reach 7:00:00 already.
Before I could dwell on only running 18 miles during training, I remembered the 4:20 AM wakeups, the race pace long runs in 90% humidity, the constant fantasies, and even the dumb ab exercises. I’m as ready as I can be.
For all that extended buildup, though, the start itself was just as abrupt. Watching the first wave sprint away, I gulped nervously. The countdown’s down to seconds. We inched closer, closer, closer to the start until the horn sounded.
And we were off.
For the first mile, I eavesdropped on the pace leader’s story of going out too fast and totally blowing up during the Illinois Marathon. But clearly I didn’t take the message to heart. By the second mile, as I passed an “If Trump Can Run, So Can You!” sign, I passed them too. Running through the historic buildings and cute boutiques in St. Charles, past hundreds of screaming supporters, I was carried by the wave. Only once I caught the 3:30 group did I realize that, oh snap, I’m actually running a marathon, aren’t I?
Since at least 20 miles loomed ahead, I stuck with the sizable 3:30 group for a few miles. Our chipper pace leaders guided us through a few rolling hills and shouted encouragement at every mile mark. When we left the St. Charles streets for the riverside trails, she said,” If you’ve never ran the Fox Valley trail, you’re in for a treat!”
Always down for some pretty trails, I was excited until she added nonchalantly,” We’ll be here for a few hours!”
Gulp. Regardless, I was awed both by the scenery and enormity of the moment. I was feeling loose, having fun, reminding myself that it was just a really long, fun run. During a sharp turn around mile 6, I edged in between two men and ended up in front of them. Twenty steps later, I noticed newfound silence and realized, I’ve lost all of them. And the gap was getting larger.
My sensible side considered letting them catch me in order to conserve energy and preserve an even pace. But after running four months of training runs at marathon pace or faster (AKA, way too damn fast), intentionally slowing down now, during the actual race, felt unnatural and counterproductive (besides, they’ll catch me later without my help.) Whatever pace I was running, though, it was effortless. I was beaming as I admired the lush Japanese gardens, listened to the rush of the river below, thanked the many screaming supporters and basked in the joy of just running on a brisk, beautiful, early fall morning. So I rolled with what was working for me, figuring that by building such a big cushion early, I could crash during the last 10K with minimal consequences.
8 miles passed like nothing and I took my first Salted Caramel GU. The route weaved through a private wooded trail for miles 9, 10, 11, a silent stretch that invited my first feelings of doubt because right, I’m doing 16 miles after this?! Just as quickly, though, I reminded myself that I felt great, to stay in the mile I’m in and to enjoy this amazing experience.
And aside from warning my family that,” I went out too fast; I’m totally f*****!” at mile 12, I was. Feeding off the electric atmosphere, positive and empowering energy, and the encouraging supporters at every mile, I got stronger and stronger as I hit the half marathon mark.
1:44:00. The 3:30 group remained well behind. Suddenly, Boston became a reality. Just hold on to some semblance of this pace and you’re qualifying. But for the next few miles, after turning around, I instead focused on the runners traveling the path I’ve already traveled, throwing out some “Keep it ups” and “Nice jobs” with surprising ease. Especially as a blind runner passed with his guide, I felt even more inspired to just keep slaying this damn course.
Four strong miles and another GU later, I stumbled upon my family at mile 18. Concerned as I was about the action shots they were taking, I was thrilled to see them, especially as I neared the 18-mile mark, my boundary between known and unknown, safety and danger, typical training run and real marathon territory. As I blew through the 18 mile mark, I realized that 2/3 of the way through a marathon, I’ve pulled off my best training run ever.
As I turned onto the race’s last straightaway, an isolated wooden stretch alongside the river, I remembered advice I’d heard the day before: Run the first eight miles with your mind, the second eight with your legs, the last eight with your heart.
The silence and darkness of the straightaway broke many hearts, though, as half of the runners had slowed to a walk or standstill. Between 18 and 21, I picked off as many people as I could, trying not to absorb the negativity surrounding me. “Five miles left,” I told myself at mile 21,” It’s just another workout. Just another run before work.”
Spoiler alert: not just another run before work, because I can usually move my legs when I run. Not so now. Worse, my stomach also started to rebel, making it impossible to replace my dwindling carb supply.
But knowing that I could maintain my qualifying time even with 10 minute miles, I tried not to obsess over my splits. Sure, had I maintained an 8 pace, I probably could’ve held onto my Boston registration pace. But at this point, I couldn’t even calculate the pace I need, let alone physically hold it for five miles. So I kept telling myself to run my own race, to thank the volunteers, to enjoy my only first marathon, and that the pain is what makes this worth it, what makes it matter.
Leading up to the race, anticipating this kind of pain, I’d always imagined having to fend off an emotional breakdown, but my body was way too exhausted to feel anything but apathy. Oh, and the heaviness in my hip flexors. So instead of some dramatic fight to the finish, the last 10K felt like a war of attrition. The worst of it came at mile 24 when, staggering to a stop in front of a medical test, I wondered if I’d even finish. But I remembered stumbling through my first runs during Marian Catholic cross country, when I considered even a 5K insurmountable. As I made it then, I’ll make it now, I tell myself.
Eventually, mercifully, came mile 25. 1.2 miles at a sub-9 minute pace, everything’s led up to this, you can do this.
Sufficiently motivated, I sprinted to the extent that one can after running 25 miles. After a few minutes, I glanced down at my watch. 25.60. I smiled, flipping my feet just a little faster and passing someone. 26.70. I gazed at the bridge not too far away, visualizing my imminent sprint across the finish line. Less than a half mile to go, to Boston, to glory, to finally just sitting down and getting some damn coffee. 25.8, 25.9, 26.0. At some point, I thought about bread.
I approached a woman from a faith-based team walking while her teammate yelled, “PHILLIPPIANS 4:13!” Without any idea what that says, I assumed it was motivational and acted accordingly. I passed the walking woman and realized, holy hell, I’m actually getting faster now. 26.1.
“I can see the finish line from here!” yelled a volunteer, pointing toward the other side of the rapidly approaching bridge where I started running so long ago. 26.2.
I turned onto the bridge and propelled myself through a deafening chorus of screaming onlookers, toward a finish line and a clock ticking through 3:33. Boston qualification assured, I remembered every run through the pitch black streets of Evanston, every long run through scorching humidity, every time I thought I’d never do this. And once I finally stomped on that finish line, 3 hours, 33 minutes and 11 seconds after starting, I knew it was all worth it.
Final time: 3:33:11/8:09 average. 70/770 overall, 14/330 women, 2/10 in the 20-24 age group.