It was somewhere around mile 11, when the half marathoners broke off and headed toward the finish, that I started thinking to myself, I am never doing this again. My body was already hurting and I still had another 15 miles to go.
Last weekend I ran my third full marathon in Hartford, CT. I picked Hartford for convenience more than anything, I didn’t know where I’d be living when I registered, but my hometown is just 20 minutes outside the city, so I knew I’d be able to stay with my parents and they’d be obligated to come out and cheer me on.
Between registration and race day my plans for a “convenient” race grew into something much more fun and exciting. My two childhood best friends wound up registering for the half marathon. Neither were crazy enough to join me for the full, but it would be nice to have a few friendly faces on the course.
My cheer squad grew too. It was my middle sister’s fall break so she was home from college. My brother happened to have a free weekend and decided to come down from Boston. My youngest sister still lives at home so she was obligated to come regardless. My parents, my most loyal fans, would also be around. It would be the first time my entire family would be able to watch me run, which was incredibly exciting.
I woke up early the morning of the marathon, put on the race outfit I’d picked out weeks ago, and made myself a cup of coffee and toast, my usual pre-run breakfast. I did my best to stay “in the zone.” My mom was nice enough to get up early and drive me to the start, the rest of the family would sleep in a little and join the fun later.
Thanks to a slow moving line at the port-a-potty, I slipped into my corral just before the starting gun went off. There was no more time for me to be nervous, I just had to do what I’d been training my body to do for months – run.
The first few miles I just tried to find my rhythm and not waste too much energy weaving through the mass of runners. By mile three, the crowd had thinned and I settled in with the 3:35 pace group. The first half cursed us with rolling hills, but I’d prepared for that. I took the uphill slow and relaxed, and let myself glide on the downhills. I’d made the mistake of taking the hills too hard in my last marathon and my quads paid for it dearly in the end. I learned that lesson the hard way, and was playing safe and smart this time around.
The first few miles were some of the more exciting of the race, weaving through the streets of downtown Hartford. My cheerleaders yelled my name and waved around homemade signs as I ran by. I fist pumped as I passed, filled with the energy of the race environment.
I let the race-day adrenaline get to me a little, and I knew I’d taken the first few miles a little too fast. I slowed a bit and focused on staying with the 3:35 pacer. My big, lofty goal was to run 3:30. So I figured I would stay with the 3:35 pacer for now and if I felt good at the half, I could pick up the pace from there.
I breezed through the first 11 miles, but as the half marathoners veered left and headed toward the finish, I could help but envy them. I felt okay now, but would I still feel okay for another 15 miles? Why would I put myself through all this pain? Is it worth it?
It was in that moment I decided that this would be my last marathon. I would do more half marathons, but this would be my last full. And if that was the case, I had to give it my all.
As I passed the half-way marker, I assessed how I was feeling. Good, but not great. I decided to stay with the 3:35 pacer. I felt challenged, but relaxed cruising along at 8:15 pace, so I stayed with the group. It was nice to run with other people. The morale was high and I fed off that energy. I chatted with a few of the guys about another race they’d done recently – a Spartan race where runners completed challenges while climbing Mount Killington in Vermont. I told them my brother had done the race, but went into it completely unprepared. He and his friends hadn’t realized it would take 8 hours and require climbing the mountain multiple times. They didn’t bring any food or water, and I’m really not sure how they survived. I joked with my new friends that this marathon would be a breeze in comparison. I wasn’t sure I really believed that, but it was nice to know we were all in this together. And at least I’d prepared for this.
We worked our way through the later miles and a few folks dropped off – some sped up ahead of the group, and others succumbed to the pain. But I stayed with it, for now.
The way the course was designed, around mile 18 or 19 we could see some of the elite runners headed toward the finish. They had about 2 miles left while we had another hour of running a head of us. I tried to be inspired by their speed instead of feeling discouraged by how far I still had to go.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of fans who came out and supported us through the later miles, including my dad who ran alongside the race course shouting words of encouragement. My sisters showed up with some signs and my brother gave me a high five so aggressive I nearly fell over. Still, I fed off the fans and their energy.
Or at least I tried to. The little water bottle I carried with me ran dry around mile 20 so I just focused on making it to the next water stop. I felt tired and dehydrated and I wanted to take another gel to boost my energy, but I knew I needed water first. It felt like forever, but eventually the water stop came and I was able to suck down some hydration and refill my bottle. It was the first water stop I’d actually slowed to a walk for and that may have been a mistake. Thanks to the brief walk break I could feel my legs cramping up. They were tired and heavy, but I had to put it out of my mind. I just had another four miles to go, I could do this.
For the next few miles I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. It wasn’t my fastest, but I kept a good pace and I was just ahead of the 3:35 pace group. That was until the final hill. It was only really a slight incline over the bridge and back into downtown Hartford. I was only a mile from the finish, but my legs had never felt heavier. I made a deal with myself I would walk for just a second, then finish strong. And that’s what I did. My dad appeared as I slowly climbed the hill, cheering as if I had a shot at winning the race. As I crossed the bridge I started running again and my dad jogged alongside me, just like he had done during my high school cross country races.
As much as I wanted to stop and walk the last mile to the finish I told myself I couldn’t do that. I thought about the 16 year old girl who hated running but joined the cross country team anyway. I thought about how badly she wanted to quit during her first practice, but she stuck with it and somehow running had changed her life for the better. It occurred to me that now, ten years later, that same girl was running a full marathon at a faster pace than she ran her best cross country races in high school. So I dug deep for her.
I sped up as I crossed over into Hartford. The remainder of the 3:35 pace group passed me during my walk break and I couldn’t quite catch them, but I kept a good pace as I headed back into the city and towards the finish. Someone yelled, “Only a quarter mile to go!” Which I knew was a lie since I couldn’t even see the finish yet. Then, it came into view. The Arch. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch marked the finish of the race. I picked up the pace and gave it everything I had to get to that finish. I crossed the line in 3:38:33. More than 10 minutes faster than my last marathon.
I was deliriously tired and everything hurt. I stumbled through the finish where I saw and thanked the 3:35 pacer for helping me get through the bulk of the race. I got my medal, mylar blanket, and a bag of goodies then found a bench where I could sit down. I reunited with my friends and loyal cheer squad somewhere in between the finish line and the beer garden. We took some time so celebrate our accomplishments and complain of our achy muscles. I vowed that this was it, this was my last marathon, I was never going to put myself through that again. I was sure I didn’t want to do 26.2 again.
Now, however, as I reflect on the race, I think I will do it again. Yes it hurt, and my legs will be sore for at least another week, but there’s something about the marathon that keeps me coming back. For one, I know that I have more to give. I want to run a race where I’m mentally strong enough to push through when it hurts and not walk up that last hill. I want to take what I learned in this race and apply it to another one and see how much faster I can go. I want to see if I can nab an elusive Boston Qualifying time. I’d just have to shave another 10 minutes off my time. I think it might be do-able?
I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m sure I’ll be back. The marathon and I still have some unfinished business.