Admittedly, that quick moment of positivity and hope quickly faded as I ran into the lonely stretch of road, the pack now out of reach, and the exertion of the previous effort beginning to weigh on me more and more. I knew, right then, today was not the day. What I didn’t know, was how bad the second half of the race might be. I ran down the long straightaway of concrete with a string of other fallen runners in front of me and another string coming up behind, getting periodically passed by those that ran more conservatively in the first half. I went through fluid station after fluid station finding myself increasingly disgusted at the thought of swallowing anymore preciously necessary, but repulsively sweet, gatorade. All I wanted was water, but needed sodium as the temperatures climbed in unison with the miles.
I tried to continue pushing down the road, holding somewhere in 5:30 miles, hoping I was still running faster at this point than I was last year, but it was hard to hold to this thought when runner after runner passed by me like I was standing still. Then getting continously frustrated I saw a shadow hanging too close off the back of mine….I was being drafted. The wind was mild, but we were running into it never the less, and with my slowing pace the runner suddenly clipped the back of my foot, throwing off my rhythm. It was a minor offense that did nothing to my race, but it was delivered without even an apology and didn’t help my frustrated state. Then, another indicator of the conditions of the day, I passed my first dropped runner. His face was glowing red and he dejectedly walked along the sidewalk towards the next pick up point. He was the first I saw for the day, but wasn’t going to be the last. With my pace slowing more and more I started to wonder when Poray might come up behind me and pass by, but at the time he was more conscious of the heat limitations than I was and made the calculated decision to drop out after halfway, saving his body for another attempt down the line.
Making the turn at the furthest point West of the course I started the continuously lonely trek back into town, continuing to wait for a physical resurgence that became increasingly difficult to imagine as my body weakened more and more. I didn’t try to make any legitimate attempts to run faster until I felt my body would handle it and it was a good decision as I suddenly passed Chad Ware, an elite Chicago runner, who had stopped in front of me and walked directly into the Med Tent. The heat was beginning to pick off the ambitious runners one by one. I wasn’t necessarily consoled by his dropping out, but I was becoming more and more aware that my struggle was not exactly of my own making, of arrogantly reaching past my abilities, but rather an unavoidable circumstance that had little to do with my fitness and more to do with acclimation.
Still, I had too many miles to go to focus on all this. I had to just keep knocking out the miles and hope something turned around, that my body would recover, that I would get that second wind. In the moment though, I was merely aware that my legs felt weak, my heart rate too high and I had a loooong ways to go in this condition. I honestly wasn’t convinced I was going to make it like this. Then soon thereafter I heard my coach’s voice from the sidewalk as I ran back towards the city. “What’s it going to be today Scott?” My ambitions still far above my physical state at this point, I took the tone in his voice more to say tauntingly, “Are you going to race today or just have yourself a little jog?”, when what I discovered later was that he was really asking me, “Do you want to keep going in this mess or drop out and save yourself for another time?” In all honesty, if I had understood him correctly in the moment, that would have been the final nail. I’m convinced I would have stopped running…and that might not have been the worst idea. He was looking out for my longevity, keeping me from destroying my body too much during an attempt that was getting worse and worse. Stubborn headed as I am, I decided to keep going. Specifically, my response to his questioning was, “I don’t know yet.” Meaning, I’m still waiting for things to turn around.
Oddly enough, although I felt like total hell, I still wasn’t in terrible shape in the race. Jesse was less than a minute ahead of me and I was still holding to 5:30 minute miles, though it felt like I was going 6:00 per mile. Unfortunately, as I went through a couple more miles I found myself continuously running alone. Every once in awhile I would pass another runner who had fallen off pace or get passed by a stronger competitor, but most of the time I was in this effort alone. No one whose pace I could hang on to. After awhile this got real old. I desperately tried to ignore the number of miles laying ahead of me and in hindsight it does seem like I’ve completely forgotten most of miles 16 – 20. I only remember a couple points along the way where I felt so uninspired with my speed and the distance left that I made concerted efforts to start pushing again. There were a couple times where stronger runners passed me and I decided to see if speeding up might help, might snap me out of my fatigued comfort zone. Surprisingly, when a runner passed, I found the strength to go with them and was able to summon energy in my legs that I didn’t think I had. I felt light and strong, but then the inevitable would happen and my heart rate would begin climbing, my breath labored and noisy and I would feel my body working hard, too hard to bring me back down to a more manageable pace. This was so frustrating, for normally it wasn’t my heart rate that was the problem, it was my legs. They would get heavy and tired from the beating, but this time it was the opposite, which really meant one thing. The heat. I know how my body reacts in differing conditions and when it gets hot, things get ugly. It doesn’t matter that my legs have more strength in them. It doesn’t matter that I have more will to run fast and long. As soon as I start to make the attempt it’s like I can’t get in enough oxygen or my body starts to work too hard to keep my core temperature down and everything cascades at once until I ease up. And this is what happened again and again as I tried desperately to kick start my systems.
And the race wasn’t over. I still had a good 10k to go, the point where most runners start REALLY competing when the conditions are favorable. I, however, found myself seriously worried. I passed more and more runners who walked along the course, one of them with his arms draped over the shoulders of two volunteers to carried him up the road. Things had gotten real serious and I wasn’t getting any better. I ran at what felt like recovery pace into a fluid station around mile 21 and was passed by Desiree Davila, the first american runner and my favorite female runner. There wasn’t much consolation in the act as there was nothing left in me at the moment to use her as a pacer to the finish line. And then to add insult to injury I suddenly felt my legs tightening up like it was the home stretch…not mile 21. I tried to fight it off, but I found myself looking for a spot ahead that wasn’t lined with spectators. A few more painful strides and I stepped to the side…and stopped. Not walked. Stopped. My right hamstring had tightened up and I couldn’t go any further on it. I felt the hot sun beating down on me at the side of the road and I started to stretch it, just for a few seconds. I couldn’t bear to drop out of the race, so I tenderly started up again to see if that helped and to my surprise I was able to keep going without restriction.
Maybe that quick relief sparked something in me or maybe it was the awareness that I really wasn’t that far from the finish line now, but I felt rejuvenated enough to start running without the fear that I wasn’t going to make it. I wasn’t breaking any personal records by any means, but I did find the drive to pick up the pace into mile 23 and make the turn down the final agonizingly long stretch to the finish line. Just to my left I heard a friend yelling at me as they rode their bike down the sidewalk. It was good to have them there and I tried to keep pace along the way. Then just a little farther I heard my coach push me on, “Make this a race! Pick as many off as you can, the distance will take care of itself!” I wanted to follow his advice, but not only was my breathing going erratic, but the expected pain that engulfs your legs in the end started to make itself known. Still, with such a short distance to go I looked ahead at the string of runners and used them to pull me forward. I ran without concern of failure now, my face advertising the pain inside. Slowly, but surely, I caught one runner, then another. A string ahead continued to move with as much force as me and I struggled to get any more, then suddenly I saw the turn that lead up the bridge to the finish. I rounded the corner hoping my legs had enough to stay upright and started up the hill, only to find that one of the lead women I ran with earlier had fallen off and I was gaining on the uphill. I used her as another anchor and made slow, painful ground on the uphill. We crested the top and started the refreshing decline towards the last turn and final straight away.
I took the turn with force and put in a final kick to pass her down the stretch, and at the same time finding the ability to catch one more runner as I ran towards the banner and final time clock. When I was close enough to catch a glance I looked up to see my time, 2:28 and change. I was a little taken aback as I thought I was well into the 2:30’s. I pushed through the final stretch of pavement and slowed myself to a stop past the last timing mats. The clock read 2:28:24 and my suffering was over.
I had an influx of emotions hit me as I walked away from the line. There was that sense of relief that it was all over, the pain of the effort was subsiding and the accomplishment was flooding in. Then there was the exhaustion and fatigue that consumed my body, compelling me to lay down until someone carried me away. I bent over and held to my knees, waving away medics that came to my side. I stood up and covered my face with my hands, unable to process whether I was emotionally crushed, physically broken or mentally exhausted. It might have been all of those at once, but after coming to my senses and becoming aware that I finished and survived, that sense of post-marathon euphoria took over. I walked down the long finish area with a couple other runners as we discussed our runs and how difficult it was that day, disappointed to a degree, but more excited and joyous to have it all said and done without complete failure.
Like I said, I was quite shocked that I came through at 2:28:24 considering how slow I felt through the second half of the race. Granted, I went through the half at 1:10 and change, but things got so bad after that I honestly thought I was running in the high 2:30’s. I must have been holding on a little tighter than I perceived and I’m glad I salvaged the run considering the conditions, and also came out of it significantly stronger than I was feeling last year. Two days later and although the post-marathon, car-crash-esque pain and tightness has settled in, it isn’t nearly as bad as last year. I’m able to walk with ease and should recover much quicker with less lasting injury than before.
And this race isn’t over. 2:28:24 is almost a full 2 1/2 minutes slower than my race last year, but I don’t find that reason for concern for a couple of obvious reasons. First off, considering the conditions, I don’t believe that time is indicative of my fitness. I am a stronger and faster runner at this distance, but just didn’t have the conditions to prove it. I proved it in some of my workouts leading up to this race, but as my coach assured me, “Today is not the day.” That time was not of my own making. Further, I do believe I could have run a PR that day despite the weather, but that would have involved running a much more tactical race. I however, was not running for a tactical PR. I was running for a Trials qualifier, which demanded a significant stretch of effort and a fast 1st half. I knew that if things didn’t go as I hoped, that the initial half effort was going to tax me hard, but I hoped that even if the effort was too much that I would come in around 2:21. What I didn’t count on was the difficulty of the first half coupled with the increasingly troublesome heat during the second. It was inevitable that I was going to blow up. But I went for it. I went with my heart, threw reservation to the wind and hoped the chips would fall in my favor. I don’t regret doing it, despite my less than stellar finishing time. With that effort I now have that much more experience, that much more knowledge of what the effort feels like, what happens in a pack that size and speed, and what I need to do get there and stay there next time around.
I’m not done by any means. The Trials qualifier doesn’t feel any further away from me than it did before this race and I actually feel more confident I can get there now. I know what extra I can add to my training and know what to look for in the race. This effort is far from over. I’ve got two more chances, one in the spring and one in the fall to do this. Right now, I’ll be relaxing and letting my body recover from the effort and then discussing our next move with the coach.
So no, on one hand I didn’t do anything amazing this past Sunday, but looked at in another light (preferably one behind the clouds and somewhere hovering in the 40’s) I still pulled off quite a feat that I can’t feel disappointed about. This is one more step toward my goals, one more step to another level and I feel fortunate and grateful to still be able to make the attempt. 26.2 miles down. 26.2 miles to go.