It was my first marathon. Eight months before I planned on running a half marathon. I told my best friend who promptly called me a pussy and said he was running the San Francisco Marathon at the end of july. I looked at a calendar, it fit. I had enough time to train. It seemed like a good fit. Me and my best friend of 24 years a week after my birthday in THE city running shoulder to shoulder across the golden gate, our loving girlfriends waiting for us at the finish line with sourdough bread and anchor steam and ghiradeli chocolate.
I took the bus to the start finish line with Patrick. Patrick was from San Diego. It was odd to have met another Southern California resident all the way up in the Bay, even though Patrick was quite stereotypically from Ireland, we bonded. It was 5:45 in the morning. I hadn’t slept a wink or had time to make it to the 24 hour subway because I was trying to squeeze out 30 minutes of sleep, so my stomach was empty. Exceptionally empty as the oily spaghetti with meatballs raced through me.
It was not what I would consider a good morning to be awake, and the fact that I had a marathon to run wasn’t making it any less stressful. The one highlight of the morning was the $7 cash I found between the bus stop and the porta-potty line. My wave was due to start in five minutes and the line was 20 people long and I hadn’t even checked my gear and about a month before my best friend dropped out of the race so I was alone in a huge crowd of strangers.
I ate my first of two clif bars I was planning on eating along the way as part of my practiced, tried and true solid nutrition race plan: ¼ of a Clif every thirty minutes. Of course I needed them both for breakfast or I’d risk bonking almost immediately but I held off on the second one until after starting twenty five minutes late.
When I signed up, I wasn’t really sure how to train or anything so I figured my marathon time would be my 10k time (min/mile) but extended to 26.2 miles. This sounds obviously flawed in logic but I ran a 10k so early in my training that I figured there was no way I could run slower, especially after 12 additional weeks of training. Then I ran a half marathon in 2:02 after straining my Achilles tendon in mile 3, so I figured that it’d be the case and signed up with an estimated time of 3:56 which put me in a wave of 4:00 and under, but as I said: with the bathroom lines and the snooze button and the gear check confusion (which I realize I haven’t written about but it’s fairly self explanatory when you realize this was my first large scale race and I hadn’t a clue how it worked), I started two and a half waves late with the 5:00 and under group.
At this point I still hadn’t been humbled so I was just annoyed that I was running with all these slow people. The way I was dashing to and fro in and out of the crowd, you’d think I was running on a really rocky / rooted out technical trail and not the smooth embarcadero of San Francisco. My goal was to catch the 4:30 group by mile 22 which would put me on track to finish in well under 4:00 with their head start. Those plans went out the window at the first hill. I hit it hard and in three steps realized that I had gone out to fast and slammed on the brakes.
It was my first marathon and halfway up the hill my new goal was not finishing in under 4:00, it was finishing and enjoying the experience. I started to look around and enjoy the city views and the mad throng of idiots punishing their bodies for bragging rights and personal accomplishment. I began alternating between “my grandfather would be so proud if he were still alive. He would never believe this” while fighting tears and “that’s stupid. Your grandfather did not flee Europe so you could run around in San Francisco. If he were here he’d be miffed at your strange goals and marvel at your seeming abundance of free time” while laughing.
This bizarre emotional reaction went from mile 4 until mile 26.21 when I was in the bottle neck waiting for a banana and a medal. I fought it the entire race but I hadn’t the energy to fight it anymore at the end so I let go and as it turns out, I didn’t end up crying. Maybe my body was conserving fluids, I do not know why no tears came out but I dry-sobbed for three or four counts and then when I realized I was crying without crying I started laughing again. At myself. This was bizarre.
I still can’t explain it. I am an extremely level person. I only cry at the end of Rudy and this one movie with Michael Keaton where he has cancer and there’s a circus (haven’t seen it for years). I also get emotional when watching the ironman coverage on NBC. Those stories are so good. Maybe it was a little bit of that grand accomplishment mixed with years of repressed emotion that I used to bury under French fries and soda and beer and cigarettes finally pushing through. I will never know. It also could have been a hormonal reaction as a response to the chemical buildup, excitement and slow release. I wont know until I run my next marathon tear free.
That was my entire race. Because I consumed my intended race foods, I had to take gels which I never had before. I probably over ate and over hydrated to overcompensate which probably had me running heavy and slowed me down but I was doing pretty well until golden gate park. After bobbing and weaving and shucking and jiving across the bridge and back we descended into the park for something like 90 miles of rolling hills.
It couldn’t have come soon enough. Whereas we were all sharing 1 lane in and out on the bridge, we got the whole road to ourselves for the rest of the race. This was pleasing as now I could spit to the side without nailing unsuspecting and undeserving compatriots (first, I am a spitter as I generate a lot of phlegm thanks to an all star set of mucus producing organs (thanks to the ulcerative colitis and permanent seasonal allergies) and second, I apologize to the Frenchman whose shin I spat on. I clearly didn’t see you, sir. It was an honest mistake and I should know better.).
My pace was fine, I suppose. It was consistent until about mile 19 when I started feeling soreness in my shin. I had never felt it before. It was on the lower outer shin in a little dense pack of muscles that hug the bone tightly. I stopped at an aid station to rub it for awhile, the pain went away and I kept going, until mile 21 when the same thing happened. I stopped and rubbed again but it didn’t go away. I tried to stretch it out but didn’t know any stretches for that muscle so I just said “fuck it,” and ran off in pain.
And sure enough in mile 22, climbing a hill in or near Haight Ashbury I felt a twinge like a guitar string snapped in the sore spot. I tried to run through it but couldn’t hang. I pulled off to the side of the road, right in front of the UCSB bull (I have no idea), and took inventory. I was 4.1 miles out. I hurt bad. I couldn’t run on it. I’m done.
Then those dumb emotions swept back in and I was overcome by a will to finish. I may or may not have chanted “Rudy” over and over in my mind. I had more than enough time to walk and still officially finish if it came to that. I limped to the top of the hill and tried a couple strides on the flats up top. No dice. It only hurt when I pushed off so I figured I could get away with landing on my heel and lifting with my hip and knee, neutralizing my ankle – which infuriated whatever was wrong – and allowing me to make respectable time until the adrenaline kicked in and let me run through the pain, which was right about mile 24.
On the way in I passed a group offering beer, which I thought was rude because it’s a diuretic so I ignored them, a group offering vodka which I thought was more rude because they were more off putting than the first group, and a guy in a full length fur lined trenchcoat and top hat standing near a tug that was attached to a giant spiked pinecone. He was just standing there, arms crossed, staring at the runners with his insane piece of art along the side of the road. We made eye contact. I peed a little.
All in all, I finished in 4:32:50 or something very near to that. I’d look but I’m quite lazy. Considering the lack of sleep and a proper breakfast, as well as the over consumption of water, sports drinks and gels, the injury and elevation changes, I have good hope that I’ll be shattering this PR in my next effort. Of course I shouldn’t post that, but if karma is real, then just typing it will be my undoing and deleting it now would be futile, so instead I’ll double down and say I’ll break 4 hours in my next marathon effort. It’s well within my reach and that’s what I’m talkin about.
I still look at my finisher’s medal every day with pride and a sense of profound accomplishment, and as soon as I run my next marathon I’ll even leave it out so it can be used as a coaster. That’s my real goal, anyway: to collect enough marathon medals to fully stock my home with coasters that are stupid expensive all things considered, but worth every penny.