My First Marathon

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Short version: All went well and I finished my first marathon in 4 hours, 22 minutes and 54 seconds.

Long version:
After several months training, I found myself stuck in traffic with the start time to my first marathon looming. My brother was dropping me off close to the starting line, but the streets of San Diego can't really handle the influx of over 20,000 runners (and their families) converging to a single spot - even at 6am on a Sunday. In what essentially seemed like a grid lock, I followed the example of other frantic runners, jumped out of the car, and made the remaining trek (uphill!) to join the masses of people taking their positions at their starting locations (based on projected finish time). Having initially estimated a 4:50 finish, I joined the crowd at my designated "corral" towards the back - just a couple minutes to spare before the official start!

The enthusiastic sea of people moved slowly at first - it took almost 8 minutes to reach the official start line - but soon we were on a slow but steady rhythmic pace going around Balboa park. Maneuvering past (clueless?) walkers and slower runners was a challenge, as the labyrinth of bodies did not allow a lot of empty space along the first few miles. As we slowly descended towards the harbor area, I continued my progress through the crowds, picking the best openings between people to squeeze a few positions forward. As miles wore on, people found their pace, the crowd thinned and spaced apart, and I was feeling great.

6 miles (10km) came quickly as I was distracted by the event's reoccurring entertainment: bands played different types of music every mile and cheerleaders pom-poned us on with "you can do it!" chants. Drag cheerleaders with voluptuous paddings provided comical relief, as we started our slow ascent next to the San Diego Zoo.

I was a little concerned that I might be starting off too fast - I had passed the 4:30 finish time pace runner at around mile 4 - but my mile times were not that different from my training runs, so I pressed on. The though that my training runs were a lot shorter did not really 'click' as I continued passing other runners on this uphill part of the course. The thought of reaching the top and coasting down the other side spurred me on past miles 9 and 10. I let gravity help me on the downhill and used my long legs to swiftly pass my companions at the fastest pace I could manage without crashing into someone.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I noticed a larger group running clustered together ahead. As I approached, I saw it was the 4:15 pace runner and his entourage. The cautionary thoughts of going too fast gave way to tempting visions of shattering all expectations and crossing the line in under 4 hours - impossible for me, yes, but my oxygen deprived brain was not taking any other suggestions. I slowly passed the pack as the pace runner shouted we were 80 seconds fast at mile 12. Newly invigorated by the siren song of possibility, I kept my pace steadily higher than the group and slowly drifted ahead from them.

Crossing the half-marathon mark in my personal best time of 2:02:42 did not trigger the thought of slowing down, instead, it just motivated me to push on harder - two times 2 hours = 4 hours, right?

The first signs that started to dispel my fantasy began around mile 16. The generous cloud cover that had been keeping the temperature in check around 60 F (about 15 C), now had patches of blue intermittently. The long straight road ahead of me with the bobbing heads of runners was also not very encouraging, specially looking ahead at how far the bridge going over the 5 highway still was. The miles seemed to roll by more slowly and my body started whispering how good it would be to take a short walk, "just to catch my breath"...

I had to listen to my body at the next water station and walked for a bit trying to calculate my salt/sodium levels, if I was drinking too much or too little water, etc... I was snapped back to reality around mile 17 when I heard the 4:15 pacer encouraging his troop on as he passed me. Oh no, I had to stay ahead of them!! I marched on stubbornly at a slightly faster pace and was reaching the next water station when I hit IT.

The WALL - the infamous part of the race when your glycogen reserves have mostly been depleted and your body decides it doesn't like you anymore... Hitting the wall was both physical and emotional - specially when I saw the 4:15 pack blowing past me! I tried to relax and motivate myself out of the slump. I took a horribly sweet tasting 'goo' that was offered (I had used it in training), licked a packet of salt off my fist (where was the tequila?), drank some water and started once again, a little slower, but focusing on reaching mile 20 where my brother was waiting to join me through the last 6 miles.

The next couple miles were grueling as the morning cloud cover had burned off and the sun now shone brightly in the blue sky. The heat, small hills (they seemed like hills, I swear!) and bridges combined to bring my pace down. I was no longer passing the people around me, but instead would set my target on a runner up ahead, try to pass that person and then walk a bit. Try to reach my target again, rinse, and repeat...

My brother located me at our arranged spot, which happened to have a band playing some heavy metal - sorry Kristian! With his cheerful, fresh, and energetic youth, he tried to push me along. After some initial naive "we're going uphill" not-so-helpful comments (when I hadn't even realized we were going uphill), his presence proved to be a great morale booster. My body wasn't really buying into it though and complained by giving me an uncomfortable side-stitch. So we just trudged on as best as possible.

Around mile 22, I gave it another strong push that had my brother zig-zaging behind me as I passed runners in several states of forward motion. I showed down when I got to a point where the course doubled back - it was slightly demoralizing knowing you would have to come back that same way soon - would anyone notice if I just cut across? But I kept going forward...

Going under overpasses became my main motivation at this point as I tried to get out from under the blasted sun. Upon reaching the shade, I would immediately drop to walking again, trying to soak in the coolness of the breeze, which seemed to stop as soon as I stepped back into the sun. If I saw an opportunity for shade up ahead, I would push hard until I got to it, relaxing my pace the few moments I was in it. The heat seemed to be affecting others as well, as many around me looked more like zombies trying to reach some unknown goal, all in various stages of "humanness". The sight of a passed out runner being helped by medics did not inspire me either...

Mile 25 was met with cheers from the spectators - "Almost there!" Encouraged by the proximity, I kept thinking "Only 2 more miles!" Again my body was not fooled, so I tried a different approach. At the end of road we were on, the course made a sharp left, so I tried to convince myself that the end would be shortly around the corner. I'm not sure when/where we passed mile 26 (part of the convincing?) but the crowds on the sidelines were thickening, so we had to be close, right?

Upon making the left turn at the end of the road, the course entered the naval base, which was lined with tough looking marines on either side. As I passed, I heard a firm "Sir, do you have a number?" behind me and knew my brother had been "captured". On I went, increasing my pace in anticipation, running what was probably the longest mile I have ever run!

The dirt track twisted through an endless maze of lefts and rights with the cheering crowds pushing us on, all the moment I was expecting to see the finish around the next corner. I caught sight of a structure with all the sponsor logos - it looked like the finish line - it wasn't. I tried to increase my speed but my lungs were on fire, my legs two moving pieces of lead, heavy, unresponsive. One last turn and I finally see "FINISH". I step over the finish mat and in an anti-climatic drained dazed, smile.

Post-mortem:
This would not have been possible without everyone's support, specially Denise (and Maya) who endured the several months of training when I was out running, providing unending encouragement (and she started running as well!).

Setting what seems like a impossible goal, working towards it and then accomplishing it helps motivate me to accomplish other seemingly impossible things. But first let me recover... :)

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