I seem to have a love/hate affair with marathons. I love most of the training, especially the long runs with my running group, but usually hate the actual race. I’ve only had one really good marathon where everything fell into place (weather, pace, health, BQ finish time), but I can’t really say that there’s ever been one single marathon I’ve ever truly enjoyed. I used to think this was some type of major character flaw in my running psyche. Now I know that it just means I don’t always love running marathons.
(I’m still holding out hope that this will one day change.)
Last Sunday I ran the Route 66 Half Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Since July I had trained for the full marathon, but nagging ankle tendonitis and piriformis syndrome made me decide a few weeks out to switch to the half marathon distance rather than cause a more serious injury. Making the decision to switch to a shorter distance caused a lot of anguish and made me feel like I was letting both myself and all the friends I trained with down. Also, training through the hottest summer on record in Texas was miserable, and the marathon was supposed to be the payoff for all those miles of torture.
Once the decision was made, however, everything in me relaxed. I was more than trained for a half, and my only goals were to run the 13.1 miles with my marathon friends, and to make it to the finish line uninjured. My unspoken, true goal, however, was to enjoy a race again, even if it wasn’t the marathon.
All goals were accomplished.
The Friday afternoon before the race, Michael and I loaded up the car with luggage, video camera equipment, ourselves, and the dogs. Yes, the dogs. We don’t travel lightly. The four and a half hour drive north was uneventful, and I even got to see a beautiful starry sky just outside of Tulsa. Our room at the Holiday Inn was surprisingly modern and comfy and, best of all, pet friendly. I could have done without the room being right next to the elevator, but we spent so little time in the room it was never a huge issue.
Our first morning there we reloaded up the car with all the camera equipment so we could film the marathon course, and Bill arrived just as we were leaving for the expo. The expo was tiny and we didn’t spend much time there, but Heather arrived just as we were leaving, so we waited around to see if she wanted to drive the course with us. Poor Heather was having a slew of bad luck getting to the start line. She had contracted strep throat the week before the race, and on the drive up to Tulsa her husband caught some type of stomach bug and, after having throwing up violently on the side of freeway, had to get a room in Norman because he was too sick to continue. At the expo, Heather’s bib couldn’t be located, so she had to be given a new bib and chip.
Bill decided he wanted to drive the course with us, but Heather wanted to see some family and get some rest. Armed with course map, GPS, video cameras, dogs, and Bill we set out to see exactly what the course was like. The official marathon description had said the course was “relatively flat,” but I’ve noticed almost all marathon course descriptions say something similar.
We knew there were going to be hills, but we had no idea there were going to be that many hills. Except for a six mile stretch along the river, the course is pretty much long, rolling hills–and they don’t let up, all the way to the finish line. We always try to incorporate hills into our long runs, and do a pretty intense hill repeat run called “Crazy 8’s,” but the Tulsa hills were long, nothing like what we have here in Dallas. Also, the sheer number of hills were unlike anything I had ever encountered in a race, which isn’t saying much since I’ve only run six marathons.
Bill wasn’t happy at the sight of all those hills, but kept a positive outlook nevertheless. I was secretly happy that I wouldn’t have to run all those hills the next day, but a part of me also felt disappointed that I wouldn’t be facing the challenge. Even though I complain about them, I generally like hilly courses. Mostly, though, I thought about Heather and how tough this course would be for her since she had been sick all week, and also knowing that we hadn’t really done enough hill work to do our best on this tough course. I also thought about Liz, who was attempting to finish her first marathon after being carried off the course halfway through three years ago in her first attempt, and coming back stronger than ever after surgery and a long recovery. This is not the course I would want to run on for my first full marathon. I also wondered if Don would be able to run the sub four hour marathon he felt was within reach.
At dinner that night, everyone wanted to know about the course, and they quickly caught on when I hesitated. Hari covered his ears and made it clear he didn’t want to know anything about the course. I told Heather and Liz to run the first half conservatively, because the second half had more hills than the first.
Of course we had all been checking the weather forecast obsessively the week before the race, and the forecast didn’t change all week. It called for a very warm, windy Saturday, with temps in the 70’s, with a cold front blowing in Saturday night and the winds diminishing before the race start, and temperatures in the mid 50’s. We were all keeping our fingers crossed that the winds would die down and the temperatures would drop before the race, because Saturday was incredibly windy and warm.
We all came back to the hotel and Michael set up the video equipment to interview everyone about tomorrow’s race. Everyone relaxed and stretched in the hallway as they waited, and then it was time for bed. (When we got home, and Michael tried to download the video, he discovered the memory card had somehow been corrupted. He’s working on saving the data. When he does, I’ll post the video. Fingers crossed.)
I went to bed that night not nervous, merely excited about running in the morning.
RACE DAY: Woke up to 47 degrees and a slight wind. Got dressed and met Hari, Bill, Heather, and Liz in the hotel hallway. Hari and Bill were almost identically dressed in matching WRRC sleeveless tanks and arm warmers. I was glad I had packed for all four seasons and remembered to bring gloves and a headband. Since the hotel was half a block from the start line, the hotel lobby was packed with runners cupping warm cups of coffee trying to escape the cold temperatures.
Going outside, it felt colder than 47, and the breeze was a little stiff as we made our way into corral B. Everyone was excited and ready to start, only we realized the start was actually only for corral A, and there was a five minute staggered start between corrals. With only 4500 runners, the staggered start seemed a little strange. Also, I heard some runners around me complaining about the fact that the 4:00 pace group was up in corral A, so if that was your goal and you were in corral B, and you wanted to run with that specific pace group, you were pretty much out of luck.
I’m usually very observant during marathons, but for some reason I don’t remember many details from this race. Maybe it was the course, maybe it was the cold, or maybe it was because I was much more relaxed than usual, but if I hadn’t driven the course twice the day before I wouldn’t be able to tell you very much about what it was like. Also, since I was going to stay with the marathoners and not push the pace, I had left my Garmin home. I must have missed the mile markers because I was never really sure of where we were on the course until we got down to the river, which meant closer to my finish line.
Hari, Bill, Heather, Liz, and I all started together and ran the first few miles as a unit. The start was nice, with confetti and loud music and the obligatory hyped up announcer, but the first hill appeared just after the first turn, and it was an almost mile long uphill. It looked imposing, but it was also early enough in the race to not really register in the brain. One of the first things I noticed as we ran the first few miles was how little crowd support there was. Undoubtedly the cold temperature had something to do with that, but even when we did encounter people there was very little clapping or yells of encouragement. Not once did I hear anyone yell out a runner’s name, which is very different from other marathons I’ve participated in.
Hari pulled away from our little group fairly early, as we knew he would, but we could usually see him just ahead of us. The first six miles took us through rolling hills of charming neighborhoods, a Catholic school with students stationed at six speed bumps with signs and warnings, and beautiful trees resplendent in fall colors of red, orange, and yellow. I told Heather to look at the trees, trying to counteract the tunnel vision we all seem to get when running long distances, and to keep us from grumbling about the hills.
We were all very quiet as we ran. I remember wondering about that, and looking back I think it was because of the hills. They weren’t terribly steep, and we were all trained enough to handle them, but there was always another one just around the next corner. The good thing for me was I knew that once we got down to the river after mile 6 it would be flat, and I reminded Heather of this as we got closer. Bill and Liz had fallen a little behind us, but we knew they were close by.
I asked Heather how she felt and she replied “terrible.” I knew she was just being grumpy. Once she asked why we were doing this, and I came up with some BS answer of “because we can, because we’re strong, because of the trees, because we’re alive . . .”
At mile 7 Heather commented on how she wished she were halfway done with her race, like me. I was surprised we were already at 7, but was also glad that the course was finally flat. We did get down to the river, but I had forgotten about the 1.5 mile detour off the river down a road that went past every fast food joint and pawn shop known to man. Every city has a road like that, and it felt like running down Garland Rd back home.
Finally we were back at the river, which in my mind meant I was close to the finish line. The faster runners passed us going the other direction on the other side of the road, and we saw Don blaze past us. He looked strong and determined to run his sub 4:00. At this point the miles seemed to stretch out like a rubber band, and it felt like we were never going to reach the turn around. My legs felt good, but I didn’t push the pace, remaining cognizant of the fact that Heather still had 13+ miles of hills ahead of her.
We saw Hari pass on the other side of the road, and finally came to the turn around. We saw Bill just behind us, and became concerned that Liz was a little farther behind. I had a feeling she was running her race plan and saving energy for the second half.
At this point, coming into the last 3.25 miles of the half, each mile felt like twice its normal length. It was flat along the river, and it was monotonous. The Arkansas River is not terribly scenic as it flows on the outskirts of Tulsa, and across the river there were a lot of plants and refineries. It was also cold, with a slight headwind, and I told Heather my legs were numb from the cold and I couldn’t feel them anymore. It felt much colder than it had at the start. Even with gloves, my fingers were freezing.
Step after step, we trudged on. The ankle tendonitis that had plagued me almost the entire training season was completely absent during the race, but the past few week’s struggle with piriformis soreness had made its appearance just after all the hills at mile 6. I felt it every single time I lifted my right leg, and there was nothing to keep me from thinking about it on this last flat stretch of the course.
I was glad for the water stop at mile 12, and suddenly Bill was right behind us, talking, and I was glad Heather would have someone else to run with when I split off. Before I knew it, it was time to cross over to the other side of the road and up the hill to the finish line. I felt so sad to leave Heather and Bill, but also glad to be finished. Just before the split, I called out to Bill and Heather to wish them luck, but they didn’t hear me, and I felt sad again. Even though I knew I had made the right decision to run “only” the half, it was still tough to see them continue on without me.
Suddenly, I heard my name called out from some spectators on the median and was surprised to see an old friend from Dallas. She was just as surprised to see me. Then I saw Michael and the dogs, which gave me an incredible burst of energy, and I gave it everything I had through the finish chute, passing everyone in my path–which felt awesomely badass!
After I grabbed a space blanket, my medal (which is the coolest medal in my collection), some Gatorade, and a bagel, with teeth chattering, I made the long walk back to Michael. IT WAS FREEZING! Thankfully I had loaded up Michael’s backpack with a bunch of throw away race clothes, including two items I couldn’t seem to get rid of: the world’s ugliest Turkey Trot t-shirt and a pair of pink Hello Kitty sweatpants I had bought in the children’s department at Target for $2.45 to wear before Boston. Despite how ridiculous the outfit looked, I couldn’t wait to put everything on and warm up. Even though I had packed for four seasons, I hadn’t brought enough for winter.
Our original plan was to wait at the finish line for the others to cross, but it was way too cold to stand around for two hours, especially when Michael had forgotten gloves and a cap.
We decided to walk to the car to warm up. As soon as we started the car we heard a radio announcer saying the temperature was 37 degrees, with a wind chill factor of 26, which meant the temperature had dropped ten degrees since the start. I’ve run in colder temps before, and was freezing at the finish, but it truly was almost perfect weather for a race.
We decided to drive over to mile 24 to cheer on the runners and possibly run someone in. Almost immediately we saw the husband of the old friend who had yelled out my name just before the finish line, and he was keeping pace with the 3:40 group. Not too far behind him, however, was Don, definitely on pace to run a sub 4:00. He looked strong and very focused, and surprised to see us. I hooted and hollered for all the runners, especially those who looked like they were struggling. I was amazed that some people could look so fresh and alert, and others looked like they would give anything to curl up in the grass. A few people looked at me like they wanted to kill me. I’ve definitely been there!
I was ecstatic to see the next runner from the group: Liz!!!!! She looked very tired, but I was impressed that she had passed Bill, Heather, and Hari to take the lead. I wondered how it had felt when she made it past mile 12, and if she shed any tears thinking of what happened three years ago. Seeing her so close to finishing her first marathon was incredibly inspiring.
A few minutes behind Liz was Hari. I’d recognize those compression socks and arm warmers anywhere! He was running with a small entourage of people I didn’t know, which made me laugh that Hari would make friends in the midst of all the agony. He looked great!
Finally, I could see Heather running towards me, and I teared up! I was so proud of her for making it through all those hills. She was as feisty as ever, telling me she was so over all the hills and hoping there weren’t any more (I couldn’t tell her there were indeed more ahead), and telling me how much she hated the course. I ran with her a little way down the hill and we talked about how anyone could train for so many hills. We hugged and said goodbye, and I knew the medal she was looking forward to would make her feel a lot better.
While we were running she told me Bill had dropped out of the race around mile 20, that he was having some IT band issues and couldn’t finish. I knew how devastated Bill must be feeling, and felt bad for him. I wished I had been there when he made that decision (though he says the curse words were flying at that point and that I definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be there).
Everyone met up at the hotel afterwards, exhausted and happy to be done. I was tired, but felt nothing like I usually do after a marathon. In fact, I felt exhilarated. Running the half was fun, and I loved being able to run in a race with everyone I had trained with without dreading all the miles ahead of me and worrying constantly about my pace and hitting a PR. The only battle wound I had was a small blood blister on a random toe, which was also a huge change from the blisters and black toenails I’ve had after past marathons.
Running “only” the half was a blast. I really loved running that day, and it was exactly what I needed. I came home looking forward to running again, and started thinking about running more halfs and less full marathons. I got out my running books and started thinking about a training plan to bring my speed back up to par. I couldn’t wait for the muscle soreness to go away so I could run again.
Running a race just for fun, with my friends, was a good reminder to me that it isn’t always about the PR, or proving how tough we are, or testing our limits. Sometimes you can go out and just run–and that’s enough.