On the Run: I did it!

So how was the marathon? It’s a question I’ve heard at least a hundred times since Saturday, but one I’ve rarely answered the same way twice.

“How was the marathon?”

It’s a question I’ve heard at least a hundred times since Saturday’s Richmond Marathon, but one I’ve rarely answered the same way twice.

Last time we met here, I was about to go out and attempt to run my first marathon. Only three weeks after I had injured myself while training, it was, by all accounts, a foolhardy thing to do. Of course, if you’ve ever read anything else I’ve written, you know that “foolhardy” should be my middle name–or at least be tattooed in Old English on the inside of my bottom lip.

So I arrived at the starting line early to see off the runners of the other two sister races (an 8k and a half marathon), then lined up with all of the other nuts who would attempt to do a thing like run 26.2 miles in a row.

It was cold. Like, down around freezing. Many paced near the starting line to avoid hypothermia, I did it to work out the nerves surrounding the fact that I was about to try something I had no business doing. I mean, my training had been completely derailed, and here I stood, like I was ready, even though there was no way I could be.

“You don’t have to finish, you just have to start” I told myself over and over, as I searched the faces around me for fellow Nervous Nancys. There were some obviously apprehensive faces, but most looked determined, more than anything. I decided to be determined, too. I mean, I was already out there, I might as well try to call on all of the training I had done and make an honest effort.

I stood at the back of the pack, not wanting to get crushed when the starting buzzer went off, and waited. When it sounded, I casually lumbered out of the gate (my injured foot felt fine, by the way, I’m just naturally a lumberer) and down Broad street. I slowly ran the first couple of miles, refusing to turn around, fearing I was in last place. When I turned the first corner, I couldn’t help but notice that, save for a few walkers, some who easily passed me (told you, lumberer), I was.

“No matter,” I told myself, “I’m out here, which is more than I could have imagined a week or two ago.”

My body felt pretty good and, thanks to the wonderful people who lined the race course to cheer, my spirits were high. I passed miles 3-10 with no problem, chatting with fellow runners, volunteers, and police officers who were manning the route. That’s the beauty of running so slowly, there’s plenty of time to visit before you pass someone.

I saw my friends Patience and Maggi who surprised me along the route with hugs and cheers. I felt like a million bucks, but more importantly, I felt loved.

I ran through some scenic parts of our fair city: down Monument, up Grove, across River, then across the actual river on the Huguenot Bridge. I chugged right along, feeling strong. I was even passing a few people.

At one point, I’d been following a man who was maybe in his late 60’s for a few miles. It was just him and I, no one in front or back of us as far as I could see.

“Excuse me,” I said, “You wouldn’t happen to know where the next bathroom stop is, would you?”

He said that he’d brought a map, and could I hold on a second while he took it out and looked.

“You’re nice,” I said, relieved that I’d soon be, well, relieving.

“No, you’re nice,” he said, and I thought for a second that he was making fun of me. But he continued, saying that he’d been listening to me behind him for the last few miles, and noticed how I’d interacted with spectators and volunteers.

“I didn’t want to turn around and say so, but I can tell you are a very nice person. You might be the nicest person I’ve never met.” I smiled and thanked him, as I just happen to see a facility.

“I’ve gotta stop, now. Have a good run.” And he was on his way.

Miles 11, 12, and 13 were a tiny bit tougher, but because they were run on more challenging terrain through a section with many hills and few spectators. I noticed everybody struggled just a bit here. I made it to the halfway point, and my friend Jen ran up out of nowhere with a giant pink sign that said “Speed is not all that inpires…GO JEN 7315”. We hugged, and I said “I made it halfway!” then “Gotta run!” Up popped Patience again, this time armed with a camera, to capture my glory. A stranger handed me a tiny shot glass of orange juice and vodka and I celebrated with a swig.

I crossed back into the city, and someone on the sidelines yelled “TEN MORE MILES!” “TEN MILES?” I yelled back “I CAN RUN TEN MILES IN MY SLEEP!” All systems were go with my body. I was getting tired, but I wasn’t terribly concerned. I had run 16 miles, of course I was feeling it.

I ran down Main to Boulevard and started to cross the bridge over the train tracks, which I was promised by a volunteer to be the last steep incline of the course, when it hit me. I should say “they hit me.” Leg cramps. Big, ugly knots in my calves that felt like someone had lit my lower legs on fire. At mile 20, for the first time, I started to doubt my abilities.

I came across another water stop and hydrated, then decided to use the facilities. I was close to mile 22, and I figured this would be my last time. I squatted to hover (a good idea when you’re at the back of a pack of 6,000 runners who have all jogged out their breakfasts)…and couldn’t get up. I don’t mean it hurt to get up, I mean I couldn’t. My squatting muscles wouldn’t allow it. I lowered myself onto the seat and sat there, contemplating. I mean, it wasn’t at all inconceivable that someday I’d die in a portable toilet, I just didn’t wake that morning thinking it would be today, you know? I wondered how long until someone would find me like that. Where was the last place someone had recognized me? Would they just assume I had bailed for one of the many bars along the route? If so, how many days after the race would those death boxes stand before being hauled away, at which time, presumably, they’d notice the body inside?

After five minutes or so, I found the strength to drag myself out of the poobooth and into the sunlight. Standing up definitely felt better, but both my lower and upper legs were now fully cramped. Cramps so severe you could see them from the outside.

I walk/shuffled another mile, placing me at 22 or so. With every step, I considered sitting down on the curb of whatever Northside street we were on–I had no idea because I was crazy with pain. At one point I passed two women on the sidewalk, one of whom said “Do you think she’s going to make it” to which the other responded “No way.” When I turned to glare at them, there was no one there. Yep, I was cuckoo.

I kept putting one foot in front of the other, at this point not even really lifting them to do so, when a man passed me running the wrong way. “Hey, crazy,” I said to myself, “No one is running the marathon backwards. Snap out of it.”

The man who was possibly a figment of my imagination ran by in the opposite direction of the sane people, then stopped, and ran back up to me.

“What’s your name?”

I tried to answer, but it was lost in a sob. I hadn’t even realized I was crying. I finally choked out “Jennifer,” and he said “Jennifer, I’m Mike. Let’s help you finish this race.”

Mike, who I was now 70% sure was a real person, walked next to me as I shuffled. Mike explained to me that he was a coach for Sports Backers’ marathon training team and asked me a few questions about what was happening with my body.

I told Mike everything, while concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.

“First of all,” he said, “no more water. You’ve flushed your system and are running on nothing. Powerade only from here on out, okay?” I nodded and shuffled.

Mike walked next to me for about a mile, which, at this point, took maybe 20 minutes. He talked to me about my training and my body and I don’t know all what. By the time he left me, I was crying for a different reason, and shuffling a tiny bit less.

I crossed back into the city and turned to the nearest runner, who was really a walker, “We’re back in the city! We’re going to make it!” She looked up. She looked doubtful.

I passed mile 24, still walking and still hunched over with cramps, and heard a voice.

“I came to finish this race with you.”

It was my friend, Liz, who had recently discovered that she is a badass runner, too (see how I included myself in that?). She had run the half marathon (her first!), earlier, and had been waiting for me at the finish line, gotten impatient, and trudged back up the final hill (down as you finished, but up if you decided to turn around and save your friend from quitting in the final two miles of her first marathon) to find me. No one could have known I was in trouble, but she did.

We walked and talked. We walked and laughed. We got to the point of the course where there was less than a half mile left, and it was all downhill. Steep.

“Do you want to run this, or do you want to tuck and roll and I’ll kick you?”

I decided to run it.

We dropped down into Brown’s Island at a slow jog and crossed the finish line. As we did, I fell apart.

I sobbed and got my picture taken. I sobbed and was awarded my finisher’s medal. I sobbed and met Patience and the man in my life, who were waiting for me in the family area. I sobbed and kept walking. I sobbed because it hurt. I sobbed because I was exhausted. I sobbed because I HAD FINISHED A MARATHON.

I learned so much from this experience, including what my struggles are and where I excel. I know what I need to work on and what isn’t as important for me. I learned my limits, which is exciting, because until you know where they are, you can’t push them.

I also learned that I am loved, deeply. I sent up the Bat-Signal to the universe and the universe came through, in spades, by putting the right people in my path to get me through. I don’t know how I called that in, but I’ve no doubt in my mind that I did. I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt that so strongly. I was held by something and, without it and those people along the way, I’m sure I would have fallen. I will ever be grateful for that.

So, how was the marathon? It was terrible. It was amazing. It was totally demoralizing. It was completely uplifting. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and I can’t wait to do it again.

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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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