Things started out great. Better than I could hope for. My lucky marathon snacks arrived in time, I had minimal blistering left from training, and amazingly, I actually managed to get some sleep the night before. The weather was even cooperating for a clear, sunny race forecast.
The first half went by in the blur of flow. I found that space of happy simplicity where everything seemed like it would be easy and amazing forever. Legs were solid and showed few signs of fatigue, lungs were taxed but holding just fine. Race hydration seemed optimal and nothing hurt. Things carried on this way until about mile 17.
Between two little breaths, everything changed. The short version is I found myself doubled over in a honey bucket on the side of the highway dry heaving and learning another first hand lesson that the distance from on-top-of-the-world-elated to complete and total rock bottom upchuck session is usually only a nuance.
Keeping meticulous tabs on the fragile state of my stomach after that, I imagined quitting. I very nearly did. I pictured how good it would feel to hop in a car, sit down, let my stomach stop spinning, maybe eat a saltine.
If I could have stopped thinking about the months spent training, the literal blood, sweat, tears, and foregone waffles, I’m sure I would have quit. Months of being actually almost disciplined for a change all came down to right then and stomach issue or not, I had to keep moving.
That wasn’t the hardest part. That came when I realized my gut acrobatics would most certainly cost me the PR I’d been so sure of not 5 minutes before. In my head, I’d already lost.
And then things took a turn for the worse.
My head space got weird (er). Self-doubt showed up and settled in so comfortably I couldn’t imagine life without it. Was there ever a time things didn’t hurt? Who even remembers? As is apparently typical for me on long runs, I started experiencing the entire range of emotional responses I’m capable of.
Usually I like this about running – its ability to reduce us to our most base components. Breathing, pumping, feeling, sweating, moving forward. How simple. When everything else is all complexity, that there is only this one rule – keep moving – seems like a relief in itself.
There’s an almost maniacal clarity that surfaces when it’s just my head against the road. After the physical self is removed from the equation – it will be in pain anyway – it’s up to your head to find a way to convince itself you can keep going. Nothing like a marathon to impress how much of running is really mental. I didn’t struggle with this nearly as much during my first marathon, but I also managed to not puke then, either.
I thought I might be doing ok at mile 19 or so. Maybe I could do it. I managed to get myself into this trudgey sort of pace that seemed to be sparing most of my gut ache. I faced down a long stretch of familiar road with almost no shade and what little resolve I had left started to crumble. Already feeling beat up by unseasonal heat, staring down a highway glaring with heat waves was all it took to slow to a lurching walk. The kiss of death. I tell myself I can go as slow as I need to, but under no circumstances do I walk. Until now.
Then there’s this ambush of loneliness. Maybe I can blame this on the fuzzy-headed thing, but I’ve never felt so alone, so abruptly. Among plenty of other runners, on a course that hardly ever wanted for encouraging spectators, for all my head cared I might have been in the middle of nowhere. Self-pity maybe – definitely – had a hand in this, too.
I got my phone from my belt to call it in and officially quit when I scanned the text message that saved the race for me. My brother was on the course on his bike, and must be close.
It started as just make it to your brother. That seemed manageable, if only because it meant I’d see a familiar face. That was more than enough motivation for me to start picking up my feet again.
Finally spotting him, all sorts of stuff collapsed in on me at once. I made a promise not to thank him anymore, but the reality is, I’d have given up if he hadn’t shown up.
I originally wrote a bunch of junk about running as a microcosm of life –we start and finish races alone, but it doesn’t matter if what’s in the middle brings us closer to our own humanity. There’s maybe something to that but the bigger point is I’d be exactly nowhere, and I’d have put down my very first DNF (Did Not Finish) in a race, without the great people who were there along the way to support and send me good vibes when I needed them most.
I didn’t get the Portland Marathon I wanted. I got a giant, resounding reminder that people really are the best. I’ll take that over a PR every single day.
Thanks for being so cool.