It was still dark with a pre-dawn temperature in the mid-40’s when Jennifer and I arrived at the high school parking lot where the shuttle buses would take us to the starting points of our races – the marathon
for me, and the half marathon for her. I was starting to get a bit antsy about the whole thing, and was looking foward to a few minutes of calm with Jennifer so she could remind me that this was supposed to be a fun experience, and that it would all be over with by lunchtime in any event.
It was not to be. No sooner had we gotten out of our car than the glare of bus headlights lit up the parking lot and the dozens of runners who had been lurking in the shadows started moving lemming-like toward the shuttles. We joined the herd.
“Quick, turn around!” Jennifer said, and snapped a photo.
We had just overheard the guy in the white jacket on the right of the picture telling someone that this would be his third marathon in the last month and a half, and that he was hoping to qualify for Boston. Feeling more than a bit out of my league, I was sorely tempted to follow Jennifer on board one of the half marathon buses, but a quick hug and kiss later, we went our separate ways. Wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into, I stepped on board the marathon bus, and off we went.
We arrived at the marathon start about 20 minutes later. My nerves had settled considerably during the ride. While I had been able to tell by the conversations around me that there were some very accomplished marathoners on board, I was glad to hear a couple of them admit to being newbies like I was. The most comforting thing that I heard was from an older guy across the aisle, who said that his goal for the day was to “finish the marathon, drink six beers at the post-race party and not throw up.” Good to know that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have my sights set on Hopkinton.
We got off the bus around 6:15 a.m., in advance of the 7:20 a.m. scheduled starting time. Nothing to do but wait – people-watch as runners stepped off of the other shuttle buses, stretch a bit, try to stay loose and warm, and take advantage of the long row of port-a-johns that spread across one side of the parking lot adjoining the starting line. I stepped inside one and quickly exited after being greeted by the powerful stench of fresh vomit. Guess I wasn’t the only one who had some pre-race jitters.
I checked my watch frequently as I waited for the hour to pass. I said a quick prayer for Jennifer at 7:00 a.m., the starting time for the half-marathon. A few minutes later, I joined the crowd that was migrating over to the starting line. We self-segregated into corrals based on our anticipated race pace. My usual training pace for long runs is between 9 and 10 minutes per mile, but my marathon strategy was to try to stay closer to 11, at least for the first half. I wanted to run a negative split – run the second 13 faster than the first 13. Based on everything I had read about running marathons, this seemed to be the best strategy for avoiding the common error of going out too fast and running out of gas. Running slower than usual sounds simple enough, but it is actually difficult – particularly when you are full of race-day adrenaline. I found a spot near the back of the 10-12 minute/mile corrral and reminded myself for the umpteenth time that I needed to keep my pace in check.
Finally, after someone sang the National Anthem, offered a prayer for a morning of good competition and fellowship, and gave some last minute runner instructions that were unintelligible through the public address system, the horn sounded and we were off. “One foot in front of the other and don’t you dare stop” was one of the last things that my 14-year-old daughter had told me. That admonition was ringing in my ears as I took my first steps.
The first 7 miles were unremarkable, pleasant actually. Much of this first stretch had us winding our way through Sound-side neighborhoods, where the true OBX’ers live. Many of the houses had boats in the yard or driveway, but it was clear that most of these folks were locals and not vacationers – we ran past one guy who was butchering a deer in his front yard. I enjoyed the scenery and the ample crowd support, but I tried to pay close attention to the task at hand. I was having a hard time keeping my intended pace; while I felt like I was doing little more than shuffling along, I was staying a lot closer to a 10 minute pace than the 11 that I had targeted.
Before I knew it, we were out of the neighborhoods and facing one of the major landmarks of the race – the Wright Brothers Memorial. As we circled around the huge granite monument, I noted the stiff breeze that had attracted the Wright Brothers to the Outer Banks in the first place. We had been shielded from the wind for much of the time that we had been running through the wooded neighborhoods, but I realized that it was going to be a factor for much of the rest of the race, and hoped that it would stay at our backs. I knew from running the half-marathon in 2006, though, that while we would have the benefit of a tailwind for a good portion, we would also face some cross-wind and headwind stretches.
Around mile 9, we entered what would be my favorite part of the race – the Nag’s Head Nature Preserve. This was a 2 mile stretch through a forest on a winding and hilly dirt road. While the terrain and surface elicited grumbles and groans from some of my fellow runners, I loved it, and had even been looking forward to it. Things got even better (as far as I was concerned, anyway) at mile 12, when the course veered off of the dirt road onto a single track trail with a substantial uphill climb. As I chugged uphill, I was no longer worried about sticking close to an 11 minute mile pace – I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t go over it.
Then, as quickly as the trail had come upon us, it was over, and we found ourselves on asphalt once again as we hit the halfway point. I ran over to the aid station at the half-marathon marker and told the medical workers about a runner that I had passed about a quarter mile back who was having some trouble, and then evaluated my own situation as I washed down some Carb-Boom gel (I recommend the Double Espresso flavor!) with some water from the bottle that I carried in my waist pack. As enjoyable as the trail section had been, it (and the 9 miles that had preceded it) had taken a toll. I was starting to feel some fatigue, and had a painful twinge in my left glute that I was hoping wouldn’t progress into anything worse. I reminded myself that I was halfway done, my time was where it needed to be, and I was feeling fairly strong on the whole. I also took some comfort in the fact that I was now running in Jennifer’s footsteps, as the half-marathon course is the second half of the marathon course. Knowing that she had already been there, and would be waiting for me at the finish, gave me a welcome spark as I headed into the second 13.1.
The next seven miles were almost trance-like. One foot in front of the other. The course alternated between stretches of a closed-off lane of divided highway and vacation house neighborhoods. All asphalt, and mostly flat. My feet were starting to hurt from the pounding, and the twinge in my butt was starting to run down the back of my leg. I thought that I would be all right as long as I could stay in a straight line, but if I stumbled or had to make a sharp cut, I was afraid the twinge would explode into a full-blown pull. As much as I had enjoyed the stretch of trail running, and as much as my feet were starting to hurt from the pounding on the asphalt, I was grateful that the road was now smooth and flat enough that I could get into a machine-like rhythym and just keep chugging along.
Sixteen miles. Seventeen. I was staying at around a 10:30 pace, but the miles actually seemed to be going a bit faster now. This was not what I had expected. Eighteen. Nineteen. Oh my gosh, I’m almost at twenty. THE 20. There’s the mile marker. Big crowd at this aid station. And there it goes. Twenty miles down. Only a 10K left. I’m going to make it. I’m actually going to do this.
At that point, I nearly got choked up with emotion, and had to force myself to focus. While I was now confident that I was going to finish, and knew that I was on pace for finishing in goal time, I knew as well that I still had the hardest 6.2 miles of the race ahead of me. I tried to get back into the machine-like rythym that had gotten me through the last 6 miles. It was harder now. I was still chugging along, still passing people, but I could sense that the “low fuel” light in the dashboard was getting ready to flash on. Just in time for The Bridge.
The hill on the Washington Baum bridge that connects Nags Head and Manteo really isn’t all that big, as hills go. But, the placement could not be worse. Mile 23 is right at the top. Many more were walking than running at this point. I was determined not to be one of them. I kept going, and finally crested the top. It would have been a great feeling, but all I could think was that I had three more miles left to go and very little gas left in the tank.
I got off the bridge, and finally made the right-hand turn toward downtown Manteo. This was a long, straight, flat stretch. At this point I would have loved some curves, or turns, maybe even a small hill or two – anything to break up the monotony. One foot in front of the other. I was sparked by the sight of a marathon runner who had already finished, draped in a mylar blanket and walking in our direction, looking for a friend or relative to run in. That meant that the finish was near!
Then, I saw the best sight I saw all day, apart from the finish line itself. Jennifer! She had finished her race and backtracked to find me. She looked great. She asked me how I was doing. She knew better. “Can’t talk!” She laughed and cheered. What a lift that gave me!
I kept on going. Up ahead in the distance I saw the brown sign for the Festival Park turnoff. I knew that once I reached that sign, I would be mere hundreds of yards from the finish. What a long stretch that was.
And then, just like that, I was done. I crossed the line and my throat and lungs locked up and I wheezed a little bit. I hadn’t wheezed after running in 30 years, but I think it was emotion as much as anything.
I finished the marathon in 4:32:20. Going into it I didn’t think there was any way in the world that I was going to beat 4:30, and I honestly would have been happy with anything south of 5 hours.
I ran a negative split – not by much, but I did. The strategy worked.
I ran injury-free. Well, injury-free except for a blackened toenail which I’m going to lose. But that’s more a trophy than an injury!
What a day. What an experience. What a wonderful person to share it with.
There will be more.