On the Run: Week 3

I did it! I ran a half marathon, but dang was it hard.

  • Days Until Anthem Richmond Marathon: 63
  • Miles Run: 118.91
  • Tears Shed: 20,442

Well, I did it. I ran a half marathon. And it was hard.

Now, I know a lot of you are probably thinking “Of course it was hard, it was a mother loving HALF MARATHON!”, and you are right. But remember that “lovely naiveté” that I referred to, just last week? I already miss it with the regret that some girls feel after prom night–if you know what I mean.

I shifted from my previous excitement/medal lust/butterfly tummy to full fledged terror/self-doubt/can’t hold anything down sometime around 7:00 PM the night before the Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon, when I realized that I had set my alarm for 1:00 AM and wasn’t yet asleep. I watched first the minutes, then the hours, tick by on the cable box in my bedroom and did that insomnia math of “OK, if I fall asleep right this minute, I’ll get five hours of sleep” then “OK, if I fall asleep right this minute, I’ll get four hours of sleep.” Finally, I got down to “…two and a half hours of sleep” and drifted off.

1:00 AM came early, but so did a pretty good adrenaline rush when I realized that THIS. WAS. IT. The day that I had spent six months preparing for with healthy food, lots of water, many early wake-up calls, and 490 miles pounded out on the streets of Richmond. I told myself that the energy of all of that would carry me through to victory. I strapped on my race bib, number 20442, and thought “Well, it’s now or never.”

Then, I stepped outside.

The heat and humidity I felt when leaving my apartment were like a punch in the face. I turned to my daughter, who had volunteered to help out at the race along with her best friend and my boyfriend, and teared up.

“Tell me that the beach is two hours away from here so the weather is not necessarily going to be like this there. Please tell me that, because this is a problem.” She smiled weakly, because teenagers shouldn’t be up at 1:00 AM unless they are still up at 1:00 AM, and I knew I was in trouble.

I caffeinated, heavily, while I made the middle of the night drive, eastward, and said silent prayers to Mother Nature to just let go of her heavy, damp anger for a few hours while we did this thing. By the time we got to the beach, the temperature was in the low 80’s and the humidity was near 100%.

But I forgot about the oppressive weather for just a little bit, and got caught up in the excitement of being with other runners. There’s something about finding other people who share the same insane obsession–it doesn’t make it seem less insane, necessarily, but like the insanity is somehow justified. “Oh, sure, it’s crazy, but this many crazy people can’t be wrong!” This is probably why people join cults.

I was mostly too nervous to speak to anyone else, flying totally solo after having been dropped off by my crew, but I soaked up the energy of the event. Volunteers tried to talk me into bagels and bananas, while I just hoped I could keep down the caffeine I had consumed on the ride over. Besides, all anyone was talking about was the heat, and I was trying to think of other things.

Then, the sun came up, and it was time to enter our corrals. I thanked the powers that be that had made me frowny-faced just a few days before by placing me in the last corral, because I was already sweating buckets, and we were only just lining up. “At least this way,” I thought, “I won’t have to be passed by too many people.” I talked to a few of my fellow Corral 20-ers and even tried to get a wave and some cheers going, but the street was covered in sweat and energy gels, and there were murmurs of “I don’t know, man” and “This might be harder than I thought.” The “rockin’” radio DJ-like emcee played music over the loudspeakers and laughed about how hot it was, and then very solemnly urged us to have our hydration plans in place. I wasn’t worried, as I had spent hours planning mine. The countdown started and we runners looked at each other. It was like 16,000 deer caught in the headlights.

The race began, and I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be using my iPod on this run. I had spent more than a month saving some really choice podcasts to get me through, but had sort of forgotten that part of this marathon was a local band playing every mile or so. Plus, I wanted to be in the moment–soak up the experience instead of being off in my own little world. We were suffering, but damn if we weren’t going to suffer together! I tucked the iPod away and tried, again, to connect with my fellow Corral 20-ians, who were now mixed with several other corrals. I cracked jokes, gave pep talks, sang along with the music, and fell somewhere between pink-haired cheerleader and fool. Very few were having any of what I was selling. In fact, not falling over seemed to be the highest priority on most everybody’s list.

I got to the first hydration stop and promptly snorted a dixie cup full of water up my nose,high fiving myself mentally, excited that I had gone through this rite of passage. I chugged along, slow running among legions and legions of walkers, sometimes passing them, sometimes just keeping pace, and asked the universe to send some trees or clouds or something to break up the oppressive heat, which had now climbed into the 90’s without a break in humidity.

Like a man dressed in tatters, crawling the desert, I looked for the next water stop as a local band with an adorable girl singer played “Beat It”. I could see far, far ahead, the flat elevation of this course being both a blessing and a curse because, boy, did things look closer than they actually were, but no cluster of parched looking people, anywhere. Holy cow, where was this thing? Hadn’t it been miles since the last one? Then, I saw it. The tables, a few volunteers, but no cluster of runners. As I got closer, I noticed that the tables were empty, and the volunteers were not handing out cups of delicious, refreshing agua but apologizing. Apparently, they had run out of cups. They had a few pitchers of water and offered to pour it into our hands, if we’d cup them.

I was dumbfounded. How the heck does this happen? Sure, I wasn’t near the front of the pack, but there were, I found out later, more than a thousand people behind me. There wasn’t water for us? I soldiered on.

By the time I got to the next station, I was, shall we say, cranky. They, too, were out of water but had some sports drink. Since my well-crafted hydration plan was a complete loss at this point, I gulped down two cups of the warm, yellow liquid, just happy to be snatched from the clutches of certain death for a while. A local country band played a song called “Collards From A Can”, and I cursed the day my mother birthed me.

This particular race runs along the beach, but then takes runners out to the country and through a military base, of which I didn’t get the name because, you know, I was busy outrunning death. The route to and from the base is heavily wooded and, on a day like that, thick with insects. I run so slowly that the bugs had no problem landing on me and hitching a ride. There was no breeze to be had, and I sure wasn’t creating one. I swatted as I ran, working up even more of a sweat, convincing myself that I had invented some kind of crazy crossfit workout (I have no idea what crossfit is, but in my mind it looks like the thing I just described). There was swatting, there was running, there was grumbling.

Then, I saw the halfway mark. And I almost gave up.

You gotta be kidding me! This is halfway? This thing is only halfway over? I turned to the girl who had been slow jogging next to me for the last twenty minutes, and she looked straight at me and said “Don’t.” So I didn’t.

Even though more than one of the hydration stations was dry, I ended up needing to relieve myself during the run anyway. As I stood in line for the much talked about race course portapotties, another rite of passage, I jogged in place. I was the only one. A man turned to me, irritated, and suggested I might take this opportunity for a little break. I told him that if I stopped, I’d never get started again. He shook his head and made a big motion of turning up his mp3 player.

Then something happened. It wasn’t magical, or anything, but I just got determined. I mean, this whole experience has been about determination, and I just decided I wasn’t going to give up all that I’d worked for quite so easily. I got to the 10 mile mark and remembered how effortlessly I’d turned out ten miles back home, and how three miles, the remaining distance, was a walk in the park for me. I turned up the juice and started passing people, encouraging them along the way, noticing and complementing their running attire, telling them they were close to home, promising that the beach was just around the corner and so was that supercool medal. I told myself that this was like giving birth and the baby was almost here and coming whether I liked it or not so I’d better get with the program. I did crazy poses for the official photo guys, I gave high fives to those who would accept them.

I finished the race one minute and forty-two seconds off of my predicted time and eleven minutes off of my secretly hoped-for time. Neither mattered much, because it all counted as my personal best. That’s the beauty of a first race: it’s a record for you. I crossed that finish line having called up the reserves and pulling out the stops, and placed 9,395 out of 10,958 runners.

I learned so much from my experience. Like I said, I’ll miss that naiveté, but now I know that I have both reserves and stops to be called up and pulled out. I also know that I should run with my own water bottle and wear a hat or visor because yikes sunburned cheeks. I’ve shed some tears about the fact that this wasn’t the gloriously triumphant experience that I had built it up to be, but I’ve also toughened up a little, having learned the score.

Am I glad I ran this race? Yes. Am I glad I ran this race in another city where you all couldn’t see me go through it? Darn straight. But I’ll see all of you here, at the Richmond Marathon in November, and on the streets of RVA until then. Oh, and if we do run into each other out there, please high five me. This girl could really use some high fives.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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