Three days after running the Boston Marathon last year I talked my good friend Hari into running the Borax Death Valley Marathon with me. I’ve never liked crowds, so silly me for running Boston, right? It’s no secret that I love the desert, and I guess I was looking for something completely different from my other marathon experiences, so I settled on Death Valley. Besides, how badass would it be to say I had run a marathon in Death Valley–and survived?
The three days before leaving for Death Valley were snow days, which is pretty much unheard of here in Dallas. We had to get up at 2am to catch a 6:30am flight to Las Vegas, and hit the road by 3am, which meant almost no sleep the night before. Hari drove down from Allen on icy roads to pick us up, but it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be. Had a spat with Michael after he didn’t pack the night before (like I told him to) and then tried to cram all his stuff in my already full bag. He retaliated by not bringing the cameras, so it was a very quiet drive to the airport. Poor Hari. The icy roads outside were nothing compared to the chill inside the car. It was freezing cold in the airport terminal, too, so we were all glad when we were finally able to board the plane. The extremely empty flight left at 6:35am, and I enjoyed the great scenery from the window. Even though we were tired and grumpy, catching a 6:30am flight turned out to be a great idea. There was no wait whatsoever at baggage claim or picking up the rental car.
Leaving Vegas, we missed our exit because of construction and had to backtrack 20 miles to our turnoff. We decided to stop at Target for snacks for the trip. The temperature was very chilly, in the low 50’s, and despite this I decided I’m still not a Vegas fan. It all seems so fake and surreal and somehow sad. The scenery, however, driving to Death Valley was exactly what I love most: desolate, dry, stark, and dramatic.
When we arrived, we were surprised to find an unmanned park entrance—and a machine that took our $20 entrance fee. We passed Zabriskie Point and the sign for Badwater Basin, and I thought of both the film and the ultramarathon. Our rooms weren’t ready at Furnace Creek, so we went to the Forty-Niner Café and carbo-loaded (veggie wraps with Portobello mushrooms), then drove the marathon route. Hari and I quickly realized it was going to be a challenging course for us, with lots of rolling hills and an uphill climb most of the second half. At least the 13 mile turn-around was at the base of a huge hill that we wouldn’t have to run up. We were grateful for that. I told Hari we would have to run conservatively to save our energy.
We got our room keys, unpacked, and rested in our rooms, and I realized I forgot my magic Teva flip flops for after the race (I swear they cure plantars and all other foot ailments). I would really regret not having those flip flops after the race. Afterwards, we had dinner in the saloon (pizza) and wondered aloud where all the runners were. Except for a large table of California runners, there was no evidence of an impending race. Exhausted from the long day, I made fun of Hari’s “murse” (man purse) and he retaliated by telling me to always wear contacts and calling my glasses “lasers.” After receiving a text from a teacher friend that the next day was another snow day in Dallas, I finally fell asleep.
I slept great but woke up with a desert dry air induced headache. We met Hari for a huge carbo-loading breakfast of whole-grain blueberry pancakes and decided to spend the day doing some light sightseeing in the park. We drove over to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, and walked out to the water basin. We all enjoyed looking up at the sign on the side of the mountain showing sea level: 282 ft above our heads. The weather could not have been better, with temperatures in the low 60’s and snow on the tops of the mountains above Badwater. Hari and I were awed by the fact that the Badwater Ultramarathon starts where we were standing. For those who don’t know, the Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135 mile race that starts at Badwater Basin (-282 ft.) and finishes on Mt. Whitney (8,300 ft). Oh, and it’s run in the middle of July. Race organizers consider it to be “the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.” We resolved to come out and spectate one day (NOT RUN!).
We drove to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and hiked a part of Mosaic Canyon, where we were visited by two ravens. We also watched a coyote nonchalantly walk through the motel grounds at Stovepipe Wells, then had lunch in the saloon there (yummy fresh salads with avocado, corn, and black beans). I made everyone stop off for a short walk along Salt Creek on the way back to look for pupfish (found only in Death Valley–we saw exactly one), and noticed tape on the road marking the miles, the first evidence that our race would be taking place the next day. I started to feel very antsy and energetic.
We rested in our rooms until 5:30 (couldn’t sleep) and had dinner at the Forty-Niner again. I have to be bluntly honest and say that I had the absolute worst spaghetti I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Hari had the special bowtie dish, which was better but swimming in oil. Except for our prerace dinner, everything else we had eaten in the park had been great.
Hari went back to his room and Michael and I took a short drive down the road to get away from the lights to look at the stars. I used the Google Sky app on my phone to locate the planets and constellations. The milky way shone bright overhead and we saw a few shooting stars. There is nothing I love more than stargazing and looking into the wonder and mystery of the universe. We went back to our room and I laid everything out for the race. I got another text from Dallas and was incredulous that they were having their fifth snow day in a row. I was asleep by 8:48pm, nervous but excited, and happy to have seen the desert stars.
I woke up at 5am, ate two small blueberry muffins, and drank way too much water before the start. I felt nervous and unsure about how warm to dress. Even though it was very chilly outside, I knew it wouldn’t last. I met Hari at 6:30 and we walked over to get our bibs at the saloon, and we were both very surprised that there were no timing chips. After sitting around in our cabin until 7:45, we finally walked over to hear the race announcements.
About 200 people lined up on Hwy 190 at the start line. The race director gave a nice shout out to those coming from other countries, including Texas, so we felt honored to be included. We sang America the Beautiful and the young American girl next to me said she didn’t know the words. There was definitely a different vibe at this race. People didn’t seem to be overly friendly and chatty like at most marathon starts. It’s not that they weren’t unfriendly, they were mostly just aloof. We realized that most of the Californians we had met on the trip seemed to be that way.
Since there was no chip timing and the marathoners would start first, Hari and I made sure we were fairly close to the front. We could both feel the downhill as we started and knew it would make the finish that much more grueling. No matter how many marathons I’ve run (this was number six) and lessons learned, I always start out too fast. Hari said we were “galloping,” but it was hard to run conservatively on a downhill start. There was one good, steep hill around mile 2, but the course settled into some long, slow, gradually rolling hills . I noticed a woman who looked my age just ahead of me, so I made it a point to pass her a few miles in. I realized there seemed to be many more men than women running this race. Later I found out there were 142 male and only 30 female marathoners.
Since this was an out and back course we had to run against traffic the first half, then on the same side as traffic the second half. This was probably smart, since there were times in the second half when I would have welcomed a car running me over from behind. The race director and park police kept driving past us with flashing lights, telling everyone to run on or close to the white line. No headphones were allowed.
My training for the race had been less than stellar, but my legs felt great the first half. We kept the pace around 9:05-9:07 and stopped for water every three miles. We also carried our own water packs because of the sparse water stops, and we saw many people running with camelbaks. Thankfully, the sky was hazy and the temperatures remained cool for the first half. We were still running in the desert, though, and I couldn’t believe how many people were running without hats or sunglasses.
At mile 6 we could see the huge hill at the halfway point, 7.1 miles away in the distance. Hari asked if we were going to have to run up that hill, and I assured him that was the halfway point. We were amazed we could see seven miles down the road, but that turned out to be a bad thing the second half of the race. The road felt nice and flat, with small rolling hills. We began to have delusional thoughts that the route might not be as bad as we had initially feared. At 6.5 miles the half marathoners turned around, and we thinned out. It is always a bittersweet moment in a marathon when the half marathoners split off, and you realize how much harder and longer your journey will be than theirs.
At mile 10 I felt good, and I was able to take in the beautiful scenery. I had been fascinated with Death Valley since I was a little girl, but could never talk anyone else into going with me. I couldn’t believe I was running a marathon there, entirely below sea level, and that there was snow on the mountains above me. Hari and I ran with a man from Wisconsin for awhile who left us at the water stop, and then we ran behind a young college sophomore girl who talked about her late night adventures the night before. When Hari complained about her bragging about her late night and being able to run faster than us, I reminded him that she was 20 years old.
Hari and I talked about running, literally, in the footsteps of Scott Jurek and Dean Karnazes on this stretch of the Badwater Ultramarathon route. It was really cool to know that we were running a small part of that extreme course. Right around that same time Hari tripped and almost fell, so I took it as a sign that it was time to stop putting ourselves in the same league as Jurek and Karnazes.
Michael passed us in the car around mile 10, and cheered us on. It was great to see a familiar face. At mile 11 we started to see the first fast marathoners double back and pass us. Hari and I made a point to tell the runners good job and way to go. We couldn’t believe that only about 20% of the people thanked us, or acknowledged our encouragement in any way. Most simply ignored us. This happened over and over, so we had another long discussion about how different this race was from others.
A runner passed us with a handheld radio playing music, and we thought he was pushing it on the “no headphones” rule. I rarely run with music, so running with my thoughts has never been problematic for me. Of course, my thoughts do drive me crazy those last six miles of a marathon, so maybe I should try it sometime.
There was a very nice downhill to the mile 12 water stop, then we saw Michael again just before the turn-around at mile 13.1. The turn-around was nothing more than tape on the road, and absolutely NO ONE was there to make sure that everyone ran to the official turn-around tape spot and didn’t cut corners, so to speak. We both wondered how this could possibly be a Boston qualifying race when there was no official race person standing at the turn-around.
I was starting to feel a little tired and the uphill seemed to start immediately. I stayed optimistic, put my head down, and trudged on. Hari and I both got serious at this point and didn’t say much to each other. A woman passed us from the opposite direction running in the middle of the road, and I was glad to note that she seemed my age and I was ahead of her. My competitive spirit was still strong at mile 13.7.
From a few conversations along the way it seemed that a majority of the runners in this race did a lot of trail running. I wished I lived in a place that had more trails to run on. We started passing a young man cheering us on who parked on the side of the road and played music with his car doors open. He was one of only five spectators the entire route.
I tried not to think about how many more miles there were to run, and wondered why marathons were so much harder than our long runs at home. I decided to run the rest of the race one mile at a time and not continually calculate how many miles left to the finish. I failed miserably, as always. Water stops every 3 miles was not working for me at all the second half. I kept calculating how much further to the next water stop, even though I had water in my fuel belt. Three mile water stops are simply too far apart the second half of a race, especially in Death @#*$% Valley.
We saw Michael again at miles 15, 17, and 20. At some point I started to feel some chafing on my inner thighs, and a blister somewhere, too. It was getting harder and harder to stay with Hari. He had been running like a well-oiled machine since last summer, and carried it forward into Death Valley. He finally pulled ahead around mile 19. He looked strong and just kept going, without looking back. I was happy for him and hoped he could keep the cramps away that plague him at every marathon, but I was also sad that I couldn’t keep up.
The hills became unrelenting. They weren’t big hills, but they were enough to make it challenging. It was mentally tough to see most of the race course along the edge of the hill. The long, gradual, uphill stretch was always visible just ahead for miles in the distance, and it was hard not to get discouraged. I decided to keep my head down and just follow the white line. This helped a lot.
At mile 21, I was bone tired of slogging uphill. Some of the hills were significant, and I noticed that every single runner in front of me, as far as I could see, was walking on the uphills and running the downhills. It was very hard to resist, and I started doing the same. I remembered my trail running friends telling me this is a common practice in ultras and trail runs, but probably like everyone else, I hate walking in a marathon. I resolved to get over it and just do what needed to be done.
I used the white road markers as my guides and kept telling myself, over and over, just run to the next mile marker. I saw Michael just before mile 23. I took that opportunity to stop and whine.
I ran most of the race behind a man in a Hammer Nutrition jersey, whom I started calling “Hammer” in my head. Just keep following Hammer. When he stopped and I passed him, I told him to keep running, that he had been pulling me along. We passed each other back and forth until the finish line. He said he was running Death Valley in preparation for a 50 mile race he was training for, and offered me $10 if we finished together. I passed a young man and exchanged encouragement. I saw him later that night in the restaurant and he told me it was his first marathon. Wow, Death Valley for your first marathon! How do you top that?
I could always see Hari far ahead in the distance–I mean, I could see his neon green compression socks. I also saw the moment he stopped running and I knew his arch nemesis, cramps, had paid a visit. Eventually I caught up to him and we proceeded together. We passed the road sign exit to Beatty, NV—30 miles—and joked that we should add on some extra miles for fun.
Even though I was exhausted, I was still enjoying myself. I wasn’t beating myself up over having to take walk breaks on some of the uphills, and finishing was never an issue. It was starting to get very warm, and the other racers became very encouraging. Twice we had to stop to help Hari stretch his calves.
Finally, blissfully, there was that fantastic hill around mile 2, only this time it was a steep downhill. It felt great to let it rip, and I felt like I was flying. It reminded me of the St. George Marathon and qualifying for Boston. It was the best feeling in the world.
It didn’t last long. At the bottom of the hill we started the long uphill to the finish. Hari was in a lot of pain and had to stop and stretch his calves less than half a mile from the finish. We were so close. I told him to keep moving, that we were almost done. All I wanted to do was finish the race and be done, and it was killing me to stop with the finish line in sight. Hari walked a little more and I took off, finishing less than two minutes ahead of him, and feeling guilty for not waiting on him.
I finished in 4:18:27. Not my best time, but not bad considering I had walked some–and it was Death Valley, after all, so I felt entitled to extra badass bonus points for the location. It felt incredible to be done. I got my medal and yelled encouragement to Hari as he crossed the finish line. We took pictures with Hammer, who had finished a few minutes earlier than me and got to keep his $10 bet, and picked up our t-shirts (well, Hari did, but I was told they had run out of all the small sizes–at yet another race!!!!!).
We hobbled to our cabin, sat in the rocking chairs outside, and drank a celebratory beer. My feet missed my magic Teva flip flops, and I realized that I had The Worst Chafing Ever. Ugh. I rested, but didn’t sleep, then we all headed over the saloon for the awards ceremony. I had won 2nd place in my age division! In a marathon!
We got dinner from the Forty-Niner and ate it in the saloon, and I had a nice conversation with a man from Utah while waiting for our food. He told me about the Top of Utah marathon, his favorite race (slightly downhill), and told me I would enjoy it. Earlier, I had overheard this same man tell the waitress that last night’s spaghetti was the best spaghetti he’d ever eaten, that it was hard to find good spaghetti, and since my spaghetti from the same restaurant had been so awful, I have to assume that spaghetti in Utah is like Mexican Food in Kansas.
Since I had forgotten my magic Teva flip flops I had to wear my boots to dinner, and because of the terrible chafing I had to wear a skirt. I looked kind of stylish, but only I knew the real reason why. (Full disclosure: I was in so much pain from the chafing that I bought some Desitin in the gift shop. I took a lot of ribbing from the guys, but it worked.)
I was asleep by 9:00pm.
Three months later, I have to say that the Death Valley Marathon was one of my favorites. I loved the small size, the desert setting, running in a national park, and the challenges of the course. It was tough at the time, but it was an awesome event. Running with a dear friend like Hari made it all the more memorable. Most of all, I will always cherish the little red ribbon I got in the mail for placing 2nd in my age group–a marathon feat that will surely never again occur in this lifetime!
Age Division: 2/5
High temp: 85
Low temp: 54
Wind: 17 kph
(All photos courtesy of Hari, Michael, and Hari’s camera)
The Weather Gods sometimes like to torture us runners, and nowhere is this more evident than in Oklahoma City. I’ve been reading about the experiences of several friends at this past weekend’s Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon and the cold, windy, stormy weather conditions, and it brings back memories of my own challenge there in 2009. In fact, OKC 2009 holds top ranking as the Worst Marathon Ever for me–in particular because of the wind.
Oklahoma is where I was born. My parents are from a little town in the southeastern corner called Broken Bow, but I was born in the next town over because it wasn’t big enough to have its own hospital. I was brought home on a cold, icy night in early March, so maybe bad weather just naturally goes along with Big Moments in my life. It certainly seemed to follow me on my first two marathons.
The fact that I live in north Texas means accepting that the weather can be dramatic at times, if not downright dangerous. There’s nothing to break the wind out here on the prairie, and summers mean blazing hot temps and high humidity. Sometimes the wind can seem unrelenting, and can blow for days and days on end. I tend to do most of my running along the perimeter of White Rock Lake in the center of Dallas, which means there is usually a headwind side and a tailwind side. People who run with me know that running into a strong headwind is my least favorite thing to do–especially in the winter–and may cause me to grow quite grumpy (which, as those who run with me know, is a huge understatement).
Rewind to December 2008, my first marathon. Training for the White Rock Marathon went well, and even though it was my first, I went into the marathon thinking I might be able to pull off a finish time just under four hours. On race morning, however, the Weather Gods decided to give us a very warm, humid day, with winds gusting to 30 mph. This, coupled with the usual rookie mistake of going out too fast, spelled disaster for me. A large part of the course is along White Rock Lake (hence the name of the race), and at mile 13 we headed straight into the wind. It was like pushing against a brick wall. At mile 16 I was so beaten down I could not have told you my name, and by mile 19, at the start of the hills, I was toast. I finished in 4:16:22, humbled by the wind and happy to be finished. My more experienced marathoner friends felt bad that the weather had been so tough for my first marathon, but I shrugged my shoulders and started thinking about the next one. I wanted more, and I knew I could do better.
I decided to try a spring marathon. The 2009 spring training season was extremely cold and windy. It seemed as if every week the weather would be nice and mild until Saturday morning, when we would wake up at an insanely early hour only to be met with cold, extremely windy weather. At least it was good training, we told ourselves, and we knew we would be ready for anything in Oklahoma City.
The weather that April in OKC was almost identical to White Rock’s, with even stronger winds gusting to 45 mph and the temps in the low 70’s at the start. The entire spring training had been cold and we weren’t acclimated to the heat and humidity yet. Those of us who had run White Rock in December felt jinxed. Looking out the hotel window that morning at the flag waving wildly in the wind, I felt disheartened and strongly annoyed. I couldn’t believe it was going to be a repeat performance of marathon #1.
I decided to make the best of it and soldier through. The first half of the race wasn’t too bad with the wind at our backs, but the high humidity seemed to sap the energy out of my legs. When I reached the lake just after the halfway point and made a sharp left, it was like coming to a standstill. My legs were moving but I wasn’t going anywhere! I must have had quite a scowl on my face because a volunteer ran over to me at one point and asked if I was okay, and if I was “going to make it.” I looked at him as if he were crazy and yelled out, “Of course I’m going to make it!” and took off. It was just what I needed to get me around the lake.
There is a long stretch of gradual incline before the finish line at OKC that was like a death march that day. The wind was full-on in our faces, pushing us back, and it never stopped. I remember gusts so strong that I would lose my footing, and the wind blowing dirt from a construction site against my legs felt like needles against my skin. The worst part was that almost everyone was walking at this point, which is my own personal achilles heel. It’s always tough for me to put the blinders on and ignore those walking around me, especially the last few miles of a marathon. My brain starts screaming why are you running, they’re not! and I start debating the merits of walking vs. running. On this day my mind won, and I finally broke down and cried. I didn’t want to walk, but I did.
One of the best things about OKC is the long finish chute, and I felt like I had earned the screams of onlookers as I crossed the finish line. I had not enjoyed my second marathon, and wondered if I would ever try another one. My friends assured me there would be good marathons in my future (they were right), but my first two seemed a steep price to pay for the privilege of a good race.
There’s no getting around it: marathons are tough. But that’s why we run them. Good weather or bad, calm skies or strong winds, we take a deep breath and get the job done. So congratulations to all those who battled the elements and won in Oklahoma City this past weekend, and here’s to the good stories that will come out of the struggle.
Sprinting to the finish line had taken everything out of me, and I suddenly felt completely and totally exhausted. I was still walking, but I can’t say the same for all of the runners who crossed with me. Many crossed the finish line only to collapse on the ground. Some simply stopped and bent over, overcome with pain and emotion. I kept walking, but I had tears in my eyes.
I didn’t know if Michael and Dominique had made it to the finish line or not, so I followed the rest of the runners as we were tended to by the volunteers. I have never been congratulated and fussed over so much by any other set of volunteers after a race. We were immediately offered water—as many bottles as we wanted—and then given space blankets. Next, another person put a little piece of tape at the neck of the blankets to keep them closed, and then a volunteer passed out little black lunch bags that had chips, an orange, and a granola bar inside. We kept walking, and I wondered if I would ever receive a medal. Finally, we made our way to a table where the medals were given out. I noticed that every single volunteer made a huge deal out of placing the medal carefully over each runner’s head and congratulating them. I loved all the personal attention, and thought of all the races I’ve run where someone wordlessly hands you a medal at the finish and doesn’t even put it around your neck.
Next, I needed to find the bus with my bag so I could find Michael and Dominique. Like everything else about this marathon, finding my bag was easy and very organized. I walked to the end of the bus line and realized I had made it all the way back to Arlington St., one mile from the finish line and one block from the hotel. It was too much. I sat down in the middle of the street, wondering if I would be able to get back up. I have never felt such complete and utter exhaustion. I took off my Nike Free’s and socks ( I love you Free’s and Injinjii socks!!!!) and assessed the damage: one small blister on my left big toe.
I called Michael and left a message: “Please come and get me. I can’t make it back to the hotel by myself.” I left the same message for Dom. Come to find out, I really had beat them to the finish line. I threw on my Teva flip flops just as Michael and my daughter walked up, and we made the slow walk back to the hotel. I was very, very tired.
There was a long line of runners and family members in the elevator line at the hotel, but it didn’t matter. As long as I didn’t have to run, I was happy. I saw Will in the lobby and was shocked to hear that he had finished less than two minutes ahead of me. We both qualified at St. George with almost the same time, and we both finished Boston with almost the same results—and I hadn’t seen him once the entire day.
Up in the room, I lay down on the floor for the longest time and didn’t move. Dominique drew a hot bath for me and I spent thirty minutes soaking and thinking about the race. We discussed dinner, even though I had no appetite, and Michael and Dominique decided to go out for a beer so I could take a nap. I have never felt so tired in my life as I did after Boston.
I rested but couldn’t sleep. Steve called to tell me he and his family were downstairs in McCormick’s and Schmick’s, but I was too tired to even go down and meet them. I was amazed to hear that he had also struggled and finished two minutes ahead of me. Just like Will, how could we have missed each other the entire day?
Michael made a reservation at McCormick and Schmick’s for dinner, thinking we could finally get clam chowder, but I ordered lobster bisque and a Caesar salad instead. I had no appetite—which usually happens to me after a marathon—and my head was so congested I couldn’t taste a thing anyway. I ordered a celebratory beer but couldn’t enjoy it because of how I felt. After all the fuss the night before, none of us ordered clam chowder.
Back in the room, I was too tired to do anything but watch TV from bed. Michael and Dominique were both tired as well, and I don’t remember falling asleep. The next day I cried when I said goodbye to my daughter, then Michael and I caught our flight back to Dallas. I wore my Boston jacket for the first time, proud to be a new member of the club. I felt worse than I did the day before, and the descent into Dallas felt like sharp needles were being stuck into the sinus cavity above my left eye. It was all I could do not to cry.
Two days later I went to the doctor. Prognosis: sinus infection and bronchitis. Armed with penicillin, two different asthma inhalers, Nasonex, and a prescription for cortisone, I spent the next two days home from school, resting, writing, and reflecting on this incredible adventure.
Cresting Heartbreak Hill was the best feeling in the world. I surged down the hill towards Boston College and stopped for water. The ground was so slippery with littered cups that I almost fell down. Knowing I had made it over Heartbreak gave me a burst of energy and I took off, passing runner after runner, amazed that I was still able to pull off an 8:45 pace so late in the race. It didn’t last, and it wasn’t long before I was back to playing mind games with myself. Mostly, though, it was one big pity party, and I was the guest of honor.
Running through Brookline into the center of Boston was like coming out of a fog. I was aware of every footfall, every yell from the crowd, and for the first time I realized how much my legs and feet hurt. I looked around and could tell I wasn’t alone in my pain. One older gentleman was leaning sideways as he ran, and I almost asked if he was okay but figured as long as he was still moving forward he would make it in. One young girl who had written “This is my first marathon!” on the back of her t-shirt was visibly struggling, and the girl running with her tried her best to convince her that she could do this, she was almost done, just a little bit further.
Even though I only had five miles left to run, it felt like a million. I continually set small goals for myself: just make it to that sign, now make it to the red light, now pass that woman in the orange t-shirt, and so on. I saw someone being carried away on a stretcher, and could tell it was a female runner in a white cap. I was glad it wasn’t me. I passed a woman running on a prosthetic leg, and felt inspired to keep going. If she could do it, so could I.
The course slowly made its way downhill, but it was not flat. There were numerous small inclines that made me grumble. Some of the downhill portions were actually quite steep, but I was so miserable I couldn’t even enjoy the downhill running. It didn’t seem to make the running any easier. Where’s Waldo, a girl in costume who had stayed near me most of the race, finally pulled away, as did Minnie Mouse.
The course eventually made a wide turn that took us past Fenway Park and alongside the Green Line, and I was in familiar territory. This was where we had gone the other night in our search for the elusive clam chowder. The crowds were so loud and thick, it was almost overwhelming. People hung out of building windows, and the edges of the course were lined with thousands and thousands of outstretched hands. I slapped some, ignored others, and trudged on. I told myself, over and over, that I was never going to run another marathon.
Finally I could see it: The Citgo sign, mile 25. If I could just make it to the sign it meant I only had one more mile to run, and then this agony would be over. That sign was how the Rocky Mountains must have looked to the pioneers heading west, deceptively close, but farther away than it seemed. I became aware of some chafing on my inner thighs, and it really hurt. Why the heck was I chafing there?
I wished I had written my name on my shirt or bib. The entire run I had heard other people’s names being called out for encouragement, but I was glad of my anonymity. I was feeling so poorly, I didn’t want to be noticed or seen. I think, on some level, I didn’t even feel worthy of running the Boston Marathon because I knew I wasn’t having my best day. Now, running the last few miles to the finish line, I would’ve liked hearing my name yelled out.
Mile 25! I pulled it together one more time only to see yet another hill, an underpass. It wasn’t too tough, and I liked the break from the crowds. More running, then I could see the course making a sharp right that I didn’t expect. I looked to see what street we were turning on—maybe it was Boylston!—but was confused to see it was Hereford. Hereford? Did something happen? Did they have to change the course? Where was Boylston? I checked my Garmin to make sure I hadn’t misread the mileage. Just keep going. Of course, like a sick joke, Hereford was another very slight uphill. There was a left turn just ahead, though, and this time there was no doubt about it: Boylston Street and the finish line, just ahead.
That final half mile run to the Boston Marathon finish line is something I will remember on my deathbed. I felt like a champion, and knew how stupid I had been to feel unworthy of being there. I had fought and conquered, and I was going to cross that finish line leaving nothing on the course. As the crowds cheered me on, I gave it all I had, passing runner after runner, and sprinted to the finish at an 8:28 pace. Something I will never forget is hearing “Angela Turnage, Dallas, TX” as I crossed the finish.
Even though I missed a PR by a long shot, and instead finished at “only” 4:32:25, I was happy. I had run the Boston Marathon—sick!—and finished strong.
Making it to Heartbreak Hill was a fantastic feeling. I could hear the crowd in the distance, and the steady beat of a drum calling the runners. We made a slight turn and the hill became visible. Others had told me the hill “wasn’t that bad,” and I could tell it wasn’t as daunting as the first Newton Hill had been, but because of the way the hill disappeared into the trees and you couldn’t see the top, it was impressive enough. I stopped at the bottom of the hill and looked up, seeing for the first time the sight that I had only imagined these past six months.
I was snapped out of my awe by a male voice yelling, “Hey, Pretty in Pink! Get moving! You can do it!” I smiled and nodded, gave a wave, and took off up the hill. A loud cheer went out from the side of the hill, and I understood for the first time that day why so many people came out to cheer us on. I think they realized we runners were all doing something they couldn’t, and they didn’t want us to fail. It gave them hope that one day they might need to push themselves to their own limits, and seeing us do it let them know that they could do it as well.
Other than crossing the finish line, Heartbreak Hill was my favorite part of the race. The hill is very pretty, in a neighborhood lined with homes and families, and the trees seem to bend over the road ahead. For some reason I really connected with the crowd at Heartbreak, and I used their support to help me up. Everyone was struggling at this point, but it was inspiring to see so many runners who refused to give up. There was a lot of heart on Heartbreak Hill, from both spectators and runners.
I started looking for Michael and Dominique on the sides, and was irritated to think they might have decided to wait at the top—where I didn’t need them as much. Thankfully, they were somewhere in the middle, and I finally saw Michael’s bright yellow jacket and my daughter jumping up and down, screaming my name. I made a beeline for them, oblivious to anyone else around me, and hugged them both.
It would’ve been so easy to break down crying, and I think I did shed a few tears. I told Michael I didn’t know if I was going to make it. Dominique kept telling me how proud she was of me, that I was doing great, that I was amazing, but I could tell Michael knew how much I was struggling.
Michael suggested we keep walking up the hill as we talked, and he grabbed a cup of water for me. He was concerned when I told him I wasn’t able to urinate, but I told him I thought I would be okay and wouldn’t put myself in any danger.
Michael told me the hill went up just a little further, made a dip, then went up just a little more and was done. We hugged again and said our goodbyes, and I kept going. A few seconds later Michael came running up next to me and said he would run to the top with me. I wanted to cry again! When we reached the top, he told me I might make it to the finish line before they did. I scoffed and thought “yeah, right” because the finish line still seemed so far away. He veered off and was gone, and once again I was on my own. Only five more miles to the finish. I knew I would make it.
You could hear Wellesley long before you could see it. It was a long climb up to the campus, or at least it felt that way to me. It seemed like I’d never make it. I kept my head down and ran towards the noise. Several runners had told me that Wellesley was their favorite part of the entire race, and it wasn’t hard to see why. I felt like Odysseus being lured in by the Sirens, only I had left my ear wax in the hotel room.
Wellesley was a scream—literally. I had never seen so many young women (and men!) in one place, all screaming at the top of their lungs. I hadn’t expected all the signs I would see either. Most of the signs were small, like the size a beggar would hold at a red light, asking for money, only these signs were solicitations for something else. Kiss me, I’m Irish. Kiss me, I’m Asian. Kiss me, I’m Irish, Asian, American, all of the above. Kiss me, I’m smart. Kiss me, I should be studying. And there was my personal favorite, the one that spoke to me the most: RUN BITCH!
I saw several men run over and garner strength in the form of a kiss from one of the young coeds. As we ran further into town, one young man couldn’t stop gushing about how great that was, and how he wanted to run back and grab a few more kisses for the rest of the race! It was hard not to smile and feel a little lighter on our feet after Wellesley.
However, I was starting to wonder if I would even be able to finish the race. I wondered if I could walk the next 13 miles and still make it to the finish line before the cut-off. I imagined myself hobbling along the streets of Boston, the crowds long gone, asking directions to the finish line, only to find it dismantled and all the officials gone home. Would I still be able to get my medal? Would it be honorable to wear the jacket if I had walked the last 13 miles? There was no way I was going to drop out of the race, so it was a matter of pulling myself together to figure out a way to get through to the end.
The miles between Wellesley and the first Newton hill are a blur. I passed several medical tents and considered stopping in to see if they had an asthma inhaler to help with my breathing, but didn’t want to lose so much time. I decided instead to run the miles and walk every water stop, taking a few minutes to rest and recoup. This plan worked well, until I had a new concern: I was dehydrated. I knew this because I felt thirsty and my mouth was dry, even though I had been drinking plenty of water and Gatorade, but I wasn’t able to use the bathroom.
I stopped twice during this time, feeling the urge, but nothing happened either time. This was something I had never experienced before, and couldn’t figure out. It was alarming, and the only explanation I had was to blame it on the antihistamine I had taken the night before. I had had one other bad experience in the past when I took an antihistamine that dried me out, but had decided to take my chances for the race. I stopped every single mile the rest of the race and drank plenty, and it wasn’t enough.
Again I questioned whether I should stop in a medical tent, and if I was being smart to continue running, but I had a strong suspicion that if I was indeed severely dehydrated they would hook me up to an IV and make me drop out of the race. I was still standing, and that was enough to keep me out of the tent. I kept running. I dug deep and kept my head down, focusing on making it to Heartbreak Hill, mile 21, where Michael and Dominique would be waiting.
I never saw the sign for Newton, but I knew when we had hit the first of the four infamous Newton Hills. Of all the hills, I thought this one was by far the toughest. It wasn’t so steep, but it kept going up and up, comparable to Sperry hill times two. We ran over a freeway, and the smell of car exhaust was nauseating. I was proud that I made it to the top without walking.
There was a nice downhill, then hills numbers two and three. I don’t remember much about these hills, only keeping my gaze low and saying my hill mantra, over and over: just keep going, just keep going, just keep going. There is about a mile of downhill or flatness between each hill, so there was time to rest after each one. I was so out of it, and worried about the way I felt, I never even saw the mile 20 marker, which is usually a milestone for me. I knew that I had one more hill to conquer, and that my family was on that hill, and that they would help me make it to the end. Just keep going. Just keep going. Just keep going.
To already be dreading—at mile 2—all the miles ahead, was unthinkable. This was the Boston Marathon! But even though my legs were conditioned and doing what I had trained them to do, my chest and head were not on board. I felt fatigued and tired, even though my legs felt good to go. I decided to chunk the marathon into achievable goals, and my first was to concentrate on making it to mile 10. After that, it would be to make it to mile 13 at Wellesley, the halfway mark.
Clive, who was running his eighth Boston, had told me if I started to feel bad to use the spectators to help get me through. I did this off and on, but at times they were distracting. I tend to go inward and stay pretty focused when I run, and I sometimes found myself having to block out the spectators and noise around me just so I could remained focused. Maybe this was a mistake, since I wasn’t feeling well, but having to dig deep so early in the race took a lot of energy. I kept trying to convince myself the first 10 miles were feeling easy, but they weren’t.
It is difficult to describe the miles of screaming, cheering spectators. They were incredible. Entire families were camped out on the sides of the road and music was playing everywhere. A four piece bluegrass band played just outside of Hopkinton, and a gym played Rocky from huge loudspeakers. Small children stretched out their hands, either for a slap, or to offer an orange slice or a cup of water. People held signs with friends’ and loved ones’ names and words of encouragement, or with religious slogans that were runner appropriate. The alcoholic beverages were flowing freely on the sides of the road, and it was easy to tell who had gotten an early start. Since the marathon is run on Patriot’s Day each year, which is a state holiday, the entire race was one big party for those watching.
As I continued on the course, I realized it wasn’t purely downhill. There were what others might call “inclines,” but they looked like hills to me. Rolling hills. Lots of them. More than I expected. They weren’t particularly difficult, or long, or steep, and didn’t take too much out of you (those would come later), but they were still there. All in all, the first half of the course was scenic and rural, and gave you just enough challenge to keep it interesting.
My legs were still feeling strong and I wanted to stay on pace as long as I could. It was hard to block out the spectators as we ran towards the train station in Framingham at the 6.5 mile mark, and I let their enthusiasm spur me on. Michael and Dominique had discussed taking the commuter train to this spot to cheer me on, but had decided instead to wait on Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. I looked around for them anyway, hoping they might have changed their minds, but knew they hadn’t. I told myself it was okay, it was too early in the race anyway, and I would need their support much later on.
I saw a row of port-a-potties and decided to make a quick stop. This is very unusual for me, as I rarely have to go during a marathon, but I needed a short break. Unfortunately there were already two people in line, but I decided to stop anyway and rest. Once inside, I was annoyed because I didn’t have to go at all. False alarm. I ran back out and hit the road once again.
Just outside Natick we hit the 15K mark and the timing mats. I regretted that long stop in Framingham and hoped my splits still looked good for everyone tracking me back home. The next few miles were quiet and uneventful and the 10 mile mark came and went. Legs still felt good, the hills hadn’t taken too much effort, and I focused on making it to the halfway mark. Wellesley was next, and my only goal was to reach the wall of screaming women.
I was running the Boston Marathon! Years of dreaming about this moment, months of hard training, hours of reading about the course, and minutes of whispered prayers for a good run—and here I was, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, on my way to a finish line 26.2 miles away. With a shout and raised fists, we took off.
When I had pushed my way into the corral, I had forgotten to unzip my hoodie and was stopped by two volunteers demanding to see my bib. I was somewhat taken aback by this, and wondered how many people would actually try and bandit Boston from the start line and not somewhere further down on the course.
Before I even crossed the start line I decided to ditch the cotton hoodie. I threw it to a volunteer on the side and quickly regretted that decision when I felt several cold gusts of wind immediately afterwards. The regret was very short lived, however, once I started running and the temperature rose. I still had my gloves—which I did regret eventually ditching much later in the race. I could not complain about the weather. Except for the full onslaught of sunshine, it was in the 40’s and would only get into the low 50’s by the end of the day. Even the sun was replaced by overcast skies later in the race, and the wind was never a factor.
Crossing the start line didn’t take as long as I’d heard it would (less than eight minutes), and since I’d arrived at the corral literally seconds before the start gun went off there wasn’t much time to take in my surroundings. I was amazed at how narrow the street was for such a large number of runners. I was also surprised that we started running before we crossed the start line, thinking we would be forced to shuffle first, then run.
Everyone had told me it would be shoulder to shoulder the first two miles, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. It was very crowded, but after the first mile it wasn’t too difficult to pass the ubiquitous shufflers and four-abreast group runners. Except for a few chatty groups, most everyone seemed to be running “alone,” like myself. There was very little talking, and it would be that way the entire race. Who could talk anyway with all the noise the spectators were making?
Very soon after starting, at the top of the incline looking down the small two-lane country road, I saw the most amazing sight I have ever seen in a marathon. I can’t even describe it. It was simply the sight of thousands and thousands of runners filling up every single inch of road as far as the eye could see. The magnitude of it took my breath away.
We passed the 1 km sign and I heard a man say next to me, “Jeez, I really don’t need to know how many kilometers I’ve run. Am I going to have to see those the entire way?” My thoughts exactly! For some reason, those km signs irritated me the first half of the race. I was only focused on one thing, and that was peeling off the miles, not the kilometers!
Everyone had told me to hold myself back the first few miles because they were all downhill. For the most part this was true, but it was hard not to let go and fly down those hills. I love downhill running, and my legs felt great. Even though I was keeping around an 8:45 pace, I felt like I was holding back. However, by mile 2, I was already aware that my stamina was very low, and that even though my legs were strong and well-trained, I was fatigued from being sick.
I had taken two puffs from my asthma inhaler before I dropped off my bag, but was struggling to catch my breath. My head was still congested and wasn’t clearing, and even though I was well-hydrated, my mouth felt dry. I was definitely not in the best of health, and knew that I wasn’t going to be able to simply shake off the symptoms as I got into the run. I had been kidding myself about how bad I felt, and I knew it was going to be a tough day.
We finally arrived at the Hopkinton high school and Athlete’s Village, and I told Emi, “there’s no going back now, we’re really here.” Everyone nodded their heads in communal commiseration. Everywhere you looked, there were happy, helpful volunteers in bright yellow jackets, ready to direct the runners to the places they needed to be. With anticipation, nervousness, and excitement, Emi and I stepped off the bus.
Large white tents were set up with bagels and water, but most runners decided to stay out in the open hoping to catch a few rays of warmth from the sun. The weather was beautiful, but the wind was bitterly cold. The ground was wet but not too muddy, and most people had brought plastic trash bags to sit or lay on. One ingenious guy had even brought a blow-up air mattress like you see in swimming pools, and was comfortably fast asleep (he must have been here before).
Emi and I found a place to sit out the long wait until we got called to the starting line. There was loud music blaring from huge loudspeakers, and an announcer telling the wave one runners where their buses would be located to drop off their bags before the start. People came and went, plastic bags were abandoned and reclaimed by others, and everyone was anxious to begin.
The port-a-potty lines were getting longer and longer, so Emi decided to go one last time before her 10:00 wave one start time. Steve Johnson called from his charity center and asked where I was sitting so we could see each other before the start. We never found each other. I looked for Will, whom I knew was starting in my same corral since we qualified with almost the same time in St. George, but I never saw him either. With almost 26,000 runners coming and going, I knew we could easily not see each other the entire run.
As I waited for Emi to return, I took it all in. Though all ages were represented, most of the people around me seemed to be my age or slightly older. I wondered if this was because we were mostly second wave runners, who were the slower, older qualifiers and charity runners. The announcer kept telling which start numbers should begin making their way to the corrals, and the field slowly became less and less crowded.
Two fighter jets flew overhead and I knew the race had officially begun. I thought about the elite runners, and what a momentous feeling it must be to win the Boston Marathon. I imagined what it must feel like to be Ryan Hall, so young and talented, and how fast he would run the same course I would follow. I thought of the elite women, and wished Kara, Deena, or Paula was running Boston this year.
Emi eventually returned, and I asked her if she was trying to PR today. She said yes, and she told me she never wears a Garmin. I gave her a confused look and she shrugged. Because I constantly strive to be less concerned with pace and time, but have so far failed miserably, I am in awe of Emi. We said our goodbyes and good lucks, and she rushed off. The runner from Boston on the bus had told us it was a .7 mile walk to the start line and would take about 30 minutes to get there with so many people, so she would have to hurry. After she left, I felt alone once again, even though I was still surrounded by thousands of runners.
I offered to let a woman from Florida share my plastic bag, happy for the company and conversation to fill the time, and we talked about how cold it was. This was her second time to run Boston, and the first had been two years earlier when it was even colder and wetter from a nor’easter that had blown in the day before. We discussed the agonies of training in a warm, humid state, and the joys of running races in cold locales, and if we had worn the right clothing for the race. Starting to get antsy about the long port-a-potty lines, I considered darting over to a grove of trees and bushes but noticed the area was being patrolled by National Guardsmen. I wondered if they were protecting me from terrorist activity, or protecting others from my indiscretions. We lined up for the port-a-potty one last time before the race, and I never saw my Florida friend again.
By this time it was around 10:00 and I knew Emi was starting. I wished her well in my head, and thought of Nick, Michael, Clive, and others I knew who were starting in the earlier wave. I also realized that if it was true that it would take me 30 minutes to get to the start, I better hurry. I found my drop-off bus, shoved my $7.48 Target Hello Kitty girls size XL sweat pants and St. George jacket in my bag, and joined the crowd heading to the start line.
A seemingly never-ending line of runners walked together down a long narrow road between historic wooden houses, and almost all of the homeowners stood in their front yards clapping and wishing us good luck. One nice woman told us not to worry, it would get warmer, she promised. Volunteers were collecting throw-away clothes on the sidelines, but I decided to keep my $3.48 Target motocross boys size XL hoodie on until I at least got to the start line.
A young college student from Long Island struck up a conversation with me on the walk down, and even she had run Boston the previous year. She was training to be a teacher, so I guess my “teacher look” gave me away even in my runner’s garb. She assured me that the hills weren’t really that bad on the course, and that this year she didn’t care what time she finished the race in, she just wanted to enjoy the experience. I asked her how she got to be so wise at such a young age.
We arrived at the corrals, which were bursting with runners, and she stepped off to the side to stretch. I had lost another friend and, once again, amidst thousands of runners, I felt totally alone. As I stepped into my official corral, I heard the starting gun go off. I was running in the 114th Boston Marathon.
Getting sick two days before a marathon is bad luck. Running a marathon when you’re sick is miserable. Running the Boston Marathon when you’re sick is like your worst nightmare come true.
I slept probably the best I’ve ever slept the night before a marathon, but I still woke up at 4am, one hour before the alarm was set to go off. I still had the congestion, still had the sore throat, and still had the aches and chills. I took two puffs on the asthma inhaler and hoped the antihistamine I took the night before was working. I pushed it all to the back of my mind and started mentally preparing for the race ahead of me. I envisioned myself at the start, rested and ready to go. I imagined running through Wellesley at the halfway point, still feeling great and right on pace. I saw myself making it to the Citgo sign and knowing I was one mile out from the finish. I felt myself running down the finish chute, knowing I had successfully completed the marathon everyone wants to run.
While Michael and the kids slept, I dressed in the dark and got my things together for the race. I planned on checking the yellow BAA bag that was given to us with our bibs, knowing I would need my phone and the extra clothing because of the cold. I woke everyone up, kissed my son goodbye (he had to fly back to Portland, OR and would miss the race entirely), and walked to the elevator. I felt so alone.
It was in the upper 30’s when I left the hotel, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go to catch one of the buses to the start line. All I needed to do was follow the line of runners with their yellow bags slung over their shoulders. Incredulously, a young runner from Jersey asked if this was the way to the buses. I told him it better be, or we were all going the wrong way. He was running his first Boston as well, and was just as nervous as I was.
Emi texted to say she had just left her hotel. It was 6:30am. There were quite a few different lines for the buses, so I picked one and waited for her to arrive, thinking we might miss each other completely. There were hundreds and hundreds of runners. Thankfully, she found me and we spent the next 15 minutes or so slowly creeping toward our bus. Everyone was dressed in a variety of throw-away clothes, hats, and gloves. Even though the sun was shining, it was breezy, and the wind felt arctic (at least to this Texan). There was a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the air. We even got to see Paul Revere in running shoes before we boarded the bus.
Everyone had told me that taking one of the official BAA buses to the start was the best way to go, and they were right. Everything was incredibly well organized, and all the volunteers seemed genuinely happy to be there. Barricades were lined up along the streets and it was evident something BIG was going to take place in the city that day. I tried to imagine what it would be like later in the day when I returned, an official Boston Marathon finisher.
There was a lot of lively chatter on the bus headed to Hopkinton, but the trip there seemed to take so long. I couldn’t help but think how I would have to run all that way back into the city, and how far it seemed. It was very pretty outside of Boston, and we drove past small forests and trees barely in bloom. I was somewhat familiar with the route beforehand, but wasn’t completely cognizant of the fact that 26.2 miles from Boston meant “rural.” 26.2 miles from Dallas meant “suburb,” and the two couldn’t have looked more different.
Emi and I were surrounded by repeat Boston Marathon runners. The guy sitting in front of us lived a mile from the finish line, and was running his seventh Boston. The man and wife across from us were from Ohio; he was running his sixth, she her fifth. The man in front of them was from Pebble Beach, CA and was running his eighth. He was also running Big Sur the following weekend, in what is known as “Boston to Big Sur.” He said Big Sur was the “tough one” and made a face. Overall, during the entire weekend, I met very few people who were running Boston for the first time.
After awhile, the excited talking subsided and everyone grew quiet. I tried not to think about my sore throat and stuffy head. I was sure that once I started running my head would clear and my asthma would disappear. My legs felt ready, and that was all that mattered. It wasn’t even 8:00, though, and we still had a long time until the start.