Indianapolis Monumental Marathon – Pace Report
Just a month before the race, I hadn’t even planned on running it. It was a marathon, for one, and I had not trained to race a marathon, but more restrictively, I had my surgery coming up at the end of October and so running a marathon wasn’t just out of the question, it wasn’t even a consideration for a question. Best case scenario post-surgery, I may have been able to take enough pain medications to see the runners I coach finish that morning. When my surgery was delayed, however, my schedule opened and I felt that drive to fill my days with as much excitement as I could while waiting, and it just so happened that my old coach was the pace organizer for the marathon. He was struggling to fill the quicker pacing duties and the seed was planted. I wasn’t sure I could commit to the task initially, but as race day got closer, and my long runs proved encouraging, I sent him an email and told him I’d run the 3:10 group in, confident I could overcome the obstacles of the marathon distance at 7:14 pace. But as I continued training, gauging the feel of 7:14 pace, I quickly discovered that running at this tempo felt overly restrictive and my body wanted to let loose with every step. And hey, if I’m going to run a marathon, I should just go ahead and push the envelope. I quickly emailed my old coach again and told him I was confident enough in my abilities to roll the 3:00 flat group in, but it turned out that both his 3:05 pacers dropped, leaving the 18 to 34 year old age group going for Boston Qualifiers unfulfilled. After a bit of arm twisting, I convinced him to give me the 3:05 position, leaving the 3:10 for someone else and deleting the 3:00 pace group, which was fine for the race. I didn’t fully grasp it at first, but a 3:05 finish is really crucial for a lot of runners as it is the biggest age group trying to qualify for the Boston marathon, which put a significant amount of pressure on me to fulfill the pacing role as best I could. Seeing as I had never paced a group before and, technically, had not run a road marathon in a race setting since 2010, there were a lot of unknowns I needed to psychologically prepare for before race day. But hey, YOLO, right?
I entered the start corral holding the red 3:05 flag at the top of a long wooden dowel, hoisted well above all the gathering runners as a signal to those trying to finish anywhere around this time. Some runners use the flag as a target, others as an anchor, and still others as a warning to get moving and stay ahead of the group. Immediately a handful of runners found their way around my spot in the first corral, introducing themselves, asking pace questions, or just calming nerves with friendly discussion. I assured them we would keep a steady pace and to allow me just a few miles to get in the rhythm of a 7:03 cadence. Admittedly, as this was my first pacing duty, I wasn’t sure what anyone expected of me beyond an expectation of consistent running pace. I knew my ultimate role was to metronome us to the finish and nothing more, but I also know some runners want or need discussion, distractions, encouragement, and other forms of support, and yet other runners want nothing but silence and the room to go inward and focus on their efforts. I decided I’d let the runners convey their comfort levels during the race and respond to each individually. The minutes ticked away, the standard pre-race rituals commenced, and we were ready to go. I took a few quick glances around and estimated about 10 to 15 runners were hanging around my hoisted flag as the race countdown began.
With an abrupt beginning that caught many elites off guard, we slowly moved towards the start banner and crossed the first timing mat at pace, myself hitting the start on the Garmin I borrowed from my girlfriend wrapping my left wrist for moment to moment pacing, and then the start on the timex wrapping my right wrist to calculate overall pacing at each mile. I was prepared.
We moved easily into the course and I tried to measure the freshness I always feel at the beginning of a goal race – reminding myself to run not how I feel at the start, but how I WILL FEEL at the end – against the runners passing me on the left and right as they pushed into the course, settling into their own paces and testing their training against the distance that would slowly wear them down. I let them go despite the competitive urge to match strides or second guess the incredibly slow effort we were rolling. If there is anything I’ve learned from my years of running, however, is the undeniable value of energy conservation and reigning in the fire that consumes one at the start of a race for saving it to burn to the finish. I kept this in mind as we ran towards the first mile marker.
We hit the first mile clock and where a wave of embarrassment and concern initially hit me when I saw how much slower we ran than the necessary 7:03 pace, I recalculated the 15 seconds it took us to to actually cross the start mat and realized we were dead on. 1 down. 25.2 to go.
I reminded the runners around me that we would still settle into a rhythm over the next two miles as we maneuvered through the downtown area in perfectly chilly air temperatures and under the shadowed gaze of our city’s humble skyscrapers, which annoyingly started playing games with the GPS signal to my Garmin, bouncing the pace readings between 6:40 and 7:30, neither of which were accurate. I ignored the watch and fought back the anxiety until I knew we would be out of the downtown area and the satellite signal would become more reliable. Our group was sizable and comfortable as we ran past the second mile clock, hanging just under pace by about 5 seconds. As is hoped for at this point, everything was very relaxed, so much so that conversation started between runners and myself. I tend to be a silent runner, not wanting to expend even the slightest bit of wasted energy, but I was confident in my abilities for the day and was wearing a new hat so to speak. One runner in particular asked me a number of questions and I shared some stories about races or little bits about the parts of downtown we were running through, but this proved too difficult for my liking as the runner was two stepping me, staying just a couple strides ahead, testing my resolve to stay on pace while trying to get closer for comfortable conversation. At some point I had to trail off the conversation and let him go at his own pace so I could keep everyone else on task.
We passed the 3 mile clock, then 4, and each time we sat just 5 to 10 seconds under the overall pace, a completely acceptable time for staying within a range that was not too fast or slow for anyone going for a 3:05 finish goal. Each clock we ran by gave me a boost of confidence that I was able to maintain this pace without getting out of control, that I could confine my intensity and competitive urges, or just not let the distractions around me pull from my task of bringing these runners home. I had a job to do and I was taking it very seriously. It seemed everyone else in the group was running relaxed and calm, but I distinctly remember the quickened footfalls and even quicker breathing of one runner in particular running clearly out of their comfort range, whether for a full marathon or half. I wanted to offer some helpful suggestions in backing off, but left that battle to fight themselves. Expectedly, that labored breathing dissipated soon thereafter.
We continued on through the miles leaving the city, rolling past 10k, then 7 miles, after which each I called out our overall time pacing, still holding around 10 seconds under goal. I was surprised how exciting this was becoming despite running a pace that had never threatened my past fitness, checking my watch against each mile clock we passed, my confidence surging with each readout that barely fluctuated more than a few seconds in either direction.
As a group we were like one body of runner, precise in our movements. There was an odd sense of power to all this, knowing I was controlling the efforts of these runners around me, with the potential to increase or decrease their cadence on command, effectively ruining their race with the slightest change in effort, and yet my job was to do neither, but simply run a concrete pace and never waiver from it, to be a visual and carry each one as far as they could possibly go at this effort, without thinking about their own abilities past the moment they were currently in. I’m not sure what a proper comparison would be for how I felt, but Laura likes to say I was a mama duck and all my baby ducks were following my lead. It’s an amusing analogy, but doesn’t exactly fit the intensity of the experience or the individual drives of each athlete.
Somewhere around 7 1/2 miles the half marathon course did an abrupt about face from the full and a few from our group separated, one of the runners thanking me for bringing him to that point. I exchanged a compliment and ran on, satisfied to have at least accomplished one successful pacing portion for the day, though this race had yet to even start, the inevitable fatigue of the marathon distance waiting much deeper in. I still didn’t know what was to come, but remained hovering between a necessary calm and focused intensity, like pulling a rope taught, but not too much, only enough to keep the necessary tension, as if I held it for myself to walk above. Or for the runners all around me to walk, knowing that if I let it go or pulled too tight, they would tumble off the side into disaster.
Our group moved ahead and I remained feeling strong in every way. I could carry on conversation if needed, but refrained from excess unless calling out our pacing at the mile clocks. We passed the eighth and ninth mile, now getting encouragement from the spectators lining aid stations and neighborhoods, families and kids still waking from their slumber, trying to find an excitement that would match the efforts of the runners. It was our fortune to be in the 3:05 group, essentially the first group to go by the spectators with a visual reference for our speed and mass. We became “The 3:05 group”.
“Yeah 3:05 pace! Good work!”
“Boston Qualifiers! Go 3:05!”
Our individual goals – mine to pace us in, and the runners around me to hit PR’s, qualify for Boston, or just run a successful race strategy – had become a little less individual and more a group identity. We weren’t just runners, we were THE 3:05. We were a team. And we received personalized encouragement from the people lining the course. It feels good to have a name, especially when the distance and effort conspire to take everything else away from you. There was a compulsion to stay with the 3:05 group once you had been identified, lest you fall away and lose the privilege and support of being “one of us”. The crowds continued to reaffirm the identity of our effort.
Up to this point our group was finding it’s comfort level, not just in our pacing, but placement and routine. We adjusted to the scattering at aid stations, to grabbing cups of water that splashed over the top and down our legs, to the fluctuation in pace that inevitably takes place when we break apart in those moments before regathering and falling back into rhythm. Personally, I had to make my own adjustments, whether letting runners get in front of me for the liquids, or holding back when I surged ahead to give them room. Pacing so many other runners also held other challenges I needed to assess and from which to adapt. I like to race alone, with enough space around me to feel uninhibited and free to adjust. Pacing, however, involves not only staying with other runners, but adapting to their need to be with you. What I learned during this experience is that some don’t just want to be WITH pacers, they want to be ON pacers. I quickly understood that although this finishing time might be expectedly unproblematic for myself, others would be holding on by a thread and feared the inevitable backsliding that can come with losing those around you. Admittedly, this threw me out of my comfort level. There were times I had one runner on either side of me, moving in perfect sandwiched syncopation at 7:03 pace, sometimes and continuously bumping my arm with the slightest tip of their torso, and despite our movement towards slower runners directly in front of us, I had nowhere in which to maneuver around the human obstacle. As you can imagine, this causes problems for staying on pace. As this congestion continued to threaten our pacing when moving towards fatiguing runners, I made the decision to give the course to the runners, literally jumping over the strides of a runner just in front of me and another just to the back in order to make it to the side of the course, right along the cones, sometimes completely outside the cones. I kept the 3:05 flag held high and let them take the course so that no one was inadvertently tripped up. This didn’t actually prevent some of the runners from latching onto my new placement like loosely applied velcro, but it was enough to give me the breathing room to avoid race ruining collisions and allow me to psychologically relax through the effort. After all, we were just passing halfway.
We ticked by the 13.1 mile clock, 20 seconds under overall pacing, feeling completely fluid and composed, just where you want to be in a marathon. Our group was still sizable, though I didn’t turn around to assess the actual number of runners following my lead. Some runners positioned ahead started to come back to us at mile 14 and 15, the effort beginning to erode their sense of pace and strength. More than a few caught sight of our red pacing flag hanging above them, calling out our 3:05 finishing time, and snapped them back into consciousness like visual smelling salts, their pace immediately quickening as they tried to put space between us. Others fell into our group and used our efforts to ease their own. The more the merrier.
At this point I noticed the casual atmosphere during the first half had shifted, the conversation cut short, almost to a halt, the breathing of those around me just a little more labored, footfalls repeating over themselves at a heightened cadence to remain in our seeming gravitational pull. I felt less a naive confidence from those around me and more a sense of composure and strength, whether fighting off the mounting fatigue or preparing for what the more experienced knew was coming.
Pushing into a portion of the course that was marked by short, but noticeable rises and descents in elevation, I concentrated in estimating my efforts to keep pace. The Garmin reading wavered in 5 second increments, intermittently slowing into 7:15 pace and confusingly dropping towards 6:45 too. I doubted the accuracy and held to the median, trying my best to keep the readings between 7:05 and 7:00 and despite each incline, the mile clocks read a flat line of tempo, our overall finishing pace holding at 30 seconds under 3:05. We were on. So on.
The race, however, had yet to start. Every experienced marathoner will only partially joke, “The first 20 miles is a warmup. The race starts with 10k to go.” Our group had seemed to have thinned out leading into the Butler College campus, the conversation now drifting to inadvertent bumping apologies and other quickened small talk or “thank you’s” to volunteers and cheering spectators. And then the first signs of faltering began.
I stayed just inside or outside the cones running the middle of the street, keeping the group congestion to a minimum, but a crash became inevitable. I didn’t see how it went down, but a break in the relative silence caught everyone off guard, a cone flipping to the side as a runner stepped right into it, tripping forward and catching himself in a forward roll as the runners around him darted left and right. I turned around to see him rolling back up to his feet and starting forward again, calling back, “Are you all right?!” but he was already composing himself and falling back in with the group. The other runners checked on him verbally and he confirmed all was good, staying right with the group, taking stock physically, and narrowly avoiding a race ending crash. A couple runners joked back and forth with him about adrenaline boosts and keeping things interesting, but we were all good and still rolling forward right on pace.
Everything, despite the trip up, still seemed stable, but looks are deceiving. The marathon distance does not forgive. If you have issues, whether physical or mental, weaknesses, also physical or mental, the marathon distance will bring them out of you. And it is at this point, around mile 18, most start to feel these said weaknesses. I wish I could say I was stronger than the marathon, but right then I noticed a dull pain on the outside of my right knee, which was a familiar, worrisome pain. It was the dull sensation that built into a run stopping “injury” during my benefit ultra run months back. It wasn’t the IT band issue I could manage in my left knee. No, that issue never even developed…this one was worse. I don’t belabor the difficulties I’ve had to manage from the effects of surgery and chemotherapy, but one of the worst for running might have been causing this concern deep into the distance. The neuropathy induced effects of my chemotherapy treatments have left the fronts of my feet relatively numb, causing me to instinctually search for proprioception and altering the way my feet land, putting stresses on my legs in ways I’m not used to. If there’s any injustice or unfairness in my cancer treatment as a runner (spoiler alert: there’s not), it’s the permanent damage to the area of my body I use most when running…my feet. Aware of this mechanical issue, I try to consciously run off my toes despite the lack of feeling, but longer distances wear on my resolve to do so, and in this is my own sort of personalized marathon obstacle. Refocusing again, I adjusted to the dull worrisome pain and tried correcting my feet to land flat and roll towards the big toes and not flex off the side, hoping to take the unnatural stress off the side of my leg. I went through a little bit of anxiety in the effort, formulating contingency plans if it grew out of control, hoped for the best, but ultimately calmed down and just let the pain sit there, convincing myself that our controlled pace would keep the pain growth neutral or slow enough to not become an issue before the finish. Whatever was to come, in the moment I needed to just keep running us on pace.
This deep into the run we had become completely separated from any runners lingering around us organically. If you were with our group at this point, you were solidly trying to run 3:05. Primarily men, I caught notice of a few women running with us, the shadow of a pony tail bouncing right next to me. I knew a 3:05 finish for them was possibly relatively more impressive than some of the others in our group and hoped they would stay with us as we continued through the 18 mile marker, 30 seconds ahead of overall pace yet again.
I was doing my job and feeling confident about it, while also preparing for the effort to come as the tension in the group continued to rise, like a tightening screw, ever so slowly. Just then a runner in the pack asked for our pacing. I repeated our 30 second margin and He called back,
“You’re doing great man. This is textbook pacing.”
Having never attempted this before, and for such an important effort for all the runners, I was bolstered in his confidence. In a moment of poor wording, I tried to respond with encouragement of my own.
“Thanks. We’re almost there.”
I tried to say this with a seriousness, not meaning “almost to the finish”, but actually, “almost to 20 miles, almost to the start of our race.”
As an experienced runner, I assure you, there is little we like hearing less than “You’re almost there”, when we absolutely aren’t almost there. If we’re 800 meters from the finish, THEN you can say “you’re almost there”. Until then, find something more appropriately encouraging. I had made an embarrassing amateur mistake and only hoped they knew what I meant or notched it up to marathon induced glycogen depletion. Whatever I meant, they knew what the score was.
We ran into the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, rounding a wide turn into a screaming group of spectators we had yet to visualize. The excitement and intensity filled me with an enthusiasm I was really enjoying, anticipating a Wellsely College like reception to propel our 3:05 group forward, only to be met with approximately 8 teenage girls in superhero costumes, somehow amplifying their voices to sound like a wall of noise. I caught myself verbalizing aloud, “Wow!”, in their excitement and volume as other runners drifted in their direction to exchange a line of appreciative high fives. I don’t know who those girls were, but they were doing cheering RIGHT. Someone give them an award.
That excitement couldn’t have come at a better time as we ran out of the IMA grounds, down an extended decline that wrapped around an off-ramp and into a stretch of isolated, slowly curving road that harbored not a single spectator. We were left to our own devices and the warning signs beating into us through our weighted footfalls and the sounds of our now audible breathing, heading right into the start of the true marathon effort at 20 miles. It was on this stretch we passed the first casualty of the day, an elite woman runner, who either blew up in the effort or was cut short by an unexpected injury, being tended to by a few cyclists. She was the first, but not the last victim of the day we would pass.
We ran by mile 20, now 45 seconds under overall pacing, still right on for the full 26.2 miles, the gain probably enabled by the ease of the last downhill cruise. I tried not to make an abrupt change in effort, but let my mind relax in hopes of an intuitive adjustment back to a subtly less tense stride. We continued on the long stretch of isolated course, the heat of the sun coming down on us without a break of shade. I began to feel the small tensions mounting, compelling me to strip off my thin glove liners in the heat and tuck them into the back of my shorts, instantly feeling a sense of relief and lightness as the air cooled my fingers. I had taken a few cups of liquid through the aid stations, a couple with gatorade instead of just water, but had yet to consume the concentrated sugars I brought for the ride. Taking a precautionary measure, I slowly pulled a GU packet from my waist pocket, hoping the caffeine would keep me mentally alert if the glucose had no noticeable effect, but the struggle of getting the thick sugars down without water proved too annoying for the effort we were exerting at the time and I abandoned the effort soon thereafter.
At this point it wasn’t that anyone was fighting a heart rate too high for comfort or form was crumbling under repeated impact, but the rope was now pulled tight enough from just the time spent moving forward that any extra effort or break in rhythm did not go unnoticed. These were the beginnings of the “tractor pull” effort of the marathon distance, where the closer you get to the finish, the effort seems to grow exponentially, threatening to kill your engine with the final line to cross still in sight. This is where the struggle truly begins.
We turned past mile 21, a full 45 seconds under finishing pace and pointed ourselves back towards the downtown push, now running through tree lined streets with spectators helping us eat up the distance with more 3:05 specific encouragement. Our group remained a sizable 8 to 10 runners, and the further we pushed on en masse, the more runners we found coming back to us, unable to sustain their expectations or overshooting their pace too early. We, however, felt like a machine without speed controls. When turned on, our gears rolled into each other without speeding up or slowing down, just stuck in perpetual motion. At times I would hear the sound of our footfalls all coming down in unison, despite our variations in stride length, like troops caught in lockstep, before those variations broke our rhythm back into the sound of a herd of pounding horses. We stayed together, a couple runners sticking to my side in what I perceived to be a gesture of desperate anxiety, while others stayed just off to the side in their comfort zones.
Running through mile 22, the recognition of “just 4 miles left” filled that emptying well of effort with a flood of encouragement and anticipation, and yet, also a significant portion of worry. This is where the race can come to a screeching halt, the wheels falling off, the fear of losing every gain made in the previous 22 miles so close to the finish. The weight of the marathon was upon us and the struggle was building. I sensed our group was thinning and the threat of race ruining fatigue was written on the backs of every solitary runner we moved towards and swallowed in our consistency, spitting out the back of machine of perpetual motion. The strength and intelligence of our pacing, however, became apparent with each of these runners we passed. The necessity of the controlled, measured effort was obvious, compelling everyone to stay together as we came up on mile 23, a mere 5k from the finish, and yet an incredibly, seemingly impossibly far 5k from the finish. Some clung desperately to our group, slowing drifting off the back, and yet, no one dared make a push ahead.
The course neared a turn into the long, drawn out stretch into downtown and towards the final turns to the finish, where the carnage of the distance was strewing out ahead of us. I called out to the group,
“One small incline over this bridge and then we roll all the way in!”, a seriousness and command in my voice I hoped would serve as a motivation to keep at it.
All conversation was over. Every breath was saved. Every stride measured.
Pushing down the straight away of Meridian street we could see the skyscrapers of the city center off in the distance, imperceptibly growing bigger with each step. The half marathoners intersected with us on the left side of the road and we passed by their back of the pack pace on the right, receiving encouragement when they saw us coming,
“Wow! 3:05 pace! Amazing!”
The same cheers from the spectators on the sidewalk compelled us closer with each step, the hardness of the asphalt reverberating through the cushions protecting our feet and jarring into quads talking back louder and louder. Runners were strung out ahead of us in broken lines of code, fighting their solitary battles to keep moving forward as we steadily and measuredly moved past them in unison. I looked back to see our group had broken into about 6 runners and I knew the pain was building, because I was feeling it myself.
I called out to anyone who could hear me, “Dig deep if you’re feeling the pain! Find someone close and stick with them!” trying to keep our group together into the last two miles.
Runners in front of us struggling to keep the pace they held this far were jolted into effort as they saw our small pack and the bright red 3:05 flag moving up on them. Some found the drive to push ahead while others were swallowed by our consistency and dropped off the back. The tension was now palatable, our group held on thinner and thinner threads, runners dropping all around us. We came up behind a woman, who pulled back abruptly, limping to the side and crying out about a lack of salt and a run stopping cramp. Her cry of disappointment was painful to hear, but we were on auto-pilot, unable to offer even the smallest gesture of sympathy in our concentration.
With each step I felt the wear on the soles of my feet, the building pain around the deadened nerves, and the almost screaming in my quads compel me to launch into a finish push, but had to remain reserved, turning over without a response to the call of intensity growing in my mind. My competitive drive wanted to let loose to the finish, but my responsibility to my pacing role kept me turning over steadily, swallowing up runner after runner after runner.
Looking just ahead I noticed a familiar singlet of my old team, the runner unmistakably struggling to make it in, having given in to the cascading of pace. We were moving smooth and knew this wasn’t going to change.
I yelled ahead, “PBT! Come with us! PBT! We’re going 3:05! Come with us!”, and saw him step into rhythm to be carried further towards the finish, wherever that may lie.
I checked my watch one last time at the 25 mile marker and hazily calculated a 30 second margin, encouraging the 5 or 6 runners still holding steady as we made the remaining turns to the finish. This was our final stretch. I could tell they were itching to let go as they started making small gaps on me as I tried to remain within pace. I debated going with them if I could be of final assistance, but decided to keep it on pace lest someone make a final move to get back with me if they had fallen off in the last two miles. It was hard not to go with their desperate, adrenaline fueled surge, but I kept it steady as best I could. As Laura put it, I let my ducks leave the nest and fly away!
We ran towards a line of spectators growing louder and increasingly populated with each turn towards the finish, when I suddenly caught cheers not only for the 3:05 group, but for me specifically. I did my best to acknowledge the support, while holding concentration to the finish, knowing I had executed my responsibility to it’s fullest. I heard my name called out again towards the last turn, rounded the corner and saw marathon president, good friend, and old teammate, Jon Little, leaning over the barrier,
“Yeah Spitz! That’s what I’m talking about! Are you on pace?!”
I yelled back through the turn. “I got ‘em!”
I won’t lie, the pain in my legs caught me off guard. I knew I could run the marathon distance and I knew I could maintain this pace, though I kept a reserved concern and respect for the ravages of the distance, but I honestly didn’t expect to feel this degree of wear fatigue in my muscles. And you know what, it kinda felt great. I hadn’t run an honest road marathon race since 2010, the potentials abbreviated by the cancer diagnosis during training for another go at the Olympic Trials in 2013, and so this pain was an acknowledgement of both my abilities and efforts. I was feeling not so much a pain as I was feeling accomplishment, effort, new boundaries, passion…my life.
I kept my eyes on the clock as I neared the finish line, runners just behind me making a surge to get under the 3:05 cut off time, and the group I had helped carry for 26.2 miles stretched out in front me, crossing the line in Boston Qualifiers, PR’s, and other individual successes. I got closer and closer, heard the announcer call out my 3:05 pacing, pulled the sign down close to my chest, and lifted a quick fist into the air as I stepped on the final timing mat, signaling to myself pride in holding 7:03 pace all the way to the finish without falter, completing the honor of assisting the ambitions of the runners I was assigned to serve.
Crossing the line and letting the wave of relief and success fill my body, I looked up to see race founder and director, Carlton Ray, greeting me with a huge smile, a strong embrace and compassionate kiss on the cheek. I met Carlton when I won the inaugural half marathon in 2008, and just after my diagnosis when I was the honorary race starter. He has always been an enthusiastic and compassionate supporter through my cancer experience and I have been so grateful for his inclusion of my presence at this race. Meeting him at the finish was an ending to the effort that carried an impact and importance I didn’t quite internalize in the moment.
I looked around and started catching eyes with the runners I had just run with to this finish, all of us pulling each other together as much as forward. We shook hands, gave hugs, thanked each other for the effort, and let the relief of accomplishment rival the smiles on our faces before going our separate ways since 26.2 miles ago. We had shared something genuinely special.
I began making my way through the finish chute, meeting Laura immediately off to the side to grab supplies, then getting my finish medal and seeing more friends working the chute. The people I started encountering around the finish area are too many to name individually without leaving someone out, but each one left me feeling increasingly grateful and humbled. I had yet to pause and gather my thoughts, understanding how important this experience had become.
I left the finish chute, composed myself with Laura, trying to get in fluids and putting on warmer clothing, then struggling to find my way back to the finish area to watch friends come in and look for the two runners, Marc McAleavey and Joseph Burns, I had coached to their first marathon, complete their own struggles and accomplishments.
And that’s when it all started to hit me, like I had outrun the impact during the race and it was just catching up, slamming into me from behind, catching me completely off guard. The enthusiasm, excitement and obvious difficulty of the runners coming into the finish was impossible to overlook. It was written on the smiles or grimaces spreading across their face, the form or falter in their stride, the cheers or struggles of effort they let escape without conscious intent. The marathon distance is no joke, no matter how you try to run it, and I had completed that, but I hadn’t just run a marathon. I had run the marathon in a race setting…despite cancer, despite the effects of chemotherapy, despite the effects of surgery, and despite the physical struggles of the marathon itself. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t RACING the marathon, it only mattered that I was a part of it, and in what is still a respectable time no matter one’s ability or current capabilities.
But even that wasn’t the impact that threatened to have me sobbing with emotion. It was the appreciation of those around me. I don’t pretend to assume people enjoyed seeing me run the race, but standing alone and remembering the cheers, excited faces and enthusiasm in their voices, I couldn’t help but recognize that people weren’t just happy to see me, they were happy FOR me…they were happy that I was running this marathon, that I was finishing, that I was completing my stated goal, that I was back in this race in one way or another. They were glad to see me out there as much as I was ecstatic to be out there. So many people, friends and strangers alike, have rooted for me ever since diagnosis and though I don’t like to make a show of my efforts or presume any sense of importance, I’ve graciously, if internally, appreciated the support from everyone beyond explanation. I can’t put words to how important it is to have everyone supporting me through the cancer experience, to hope for the best, and to then give an expression to the best outcome I can manage at this point by being out there running, for others as much as for myself.
I don’t know, maybe I’m reading into others sentiments, but watching those runners struggle to finish and the pride I was feeling for their efforts, despite knowing nothing about them individually, their struggles, their successes, I couldn’t help but feel as if others felt the same for me. I stood alone, looking down the road in anticipation of the runners I coached, feeling a mix of excitement, accomplishment, service and humility…and fought back tears of gratitude, for others, for myself, for everything.
Damn it felt good to be back, if only for these 26.2 miles, if only at this measured pacing, if only for these other runners. To experience the full depth of the marathon experience one more time…it felt so damn good.