May 4, 2012 § Leave a comment
All week the threat was rain, which I was almost looking forward to for its drama effect, but it turned out humidity was the meteorological obstacle in this race. When I arrived the day before, it was 90 degrees in the afternoon. It clouded over for race day but never rained so the air was thick with moisture. Besides running in soaking shirt and shorts though, it didn’t bother me. I got my drama from theatrically pouring water on my head at each water station and on my legs at the last one, like I’ve seen pros do on TV.
I did a very easy, short warm-up in a quiet road off the side of the course and then waited outside the corral, stretching and watching the pros floating back and forth and university kids doing hard, short strides. After they pushed the invited runners to the start line, I jumped in and my new friend Carl showed and we chatted about the weather and trains and taxis, which relaxed me and took my mind off the race for those normally excruciating ten minutes before the start where the weight of 4 months and hundreds of miles of training make me roll my eyes and stamp my feet.
Then the gun cracked and we were off. Just like last year, I could never find a group to run with. I would fall in with a line of runners, check my watch and then push on. Unlike last year, no one fell in behind me or clipped my heels. I just steadily passed groups, then pairs, then stragglers all the way home.
I drank water at each station and poured some on my head. It made me gasp despite the heat and always got a “wow” from the spectators. I thought of those boxing stills where sweat is flying off the face of a battered face.
Around that time I started to worry about the pace. I was sure I was on target, but doubts started to surface. I started thinking it had been a long time since I ran any sort of tempo effort longer than 10k. But I shut it out. I wound my thoughts back to my plan and the fact that I had the 1:15:30 already so anything less than this pace was nothing, wind in the trees, trains in the night. This was not the day for not getting hurt or hedging a negative split.
Logging thousands of miles has a peculiar way of making the same pace at the early stages of a long race more uncomfortable than middle-late stages. I caught this magical tailwind after 10k. I saw my split was right on. I turned south, which always makes me feel like I’m going downhill, and started to think, know, that I was going to make it. And then daydreaming, “1:13?!?.”
That fantasy was extinguished soon after turning west onto the last long straight. The part of the race that is always uncomfortable stretched out in front of me and I started to labor to hold the pace. I tried to reel in the pair 500m in front. I tried looking 10 yards in front of me. I led with my sternum. I checked my watch. I looked at the scenery. I met eyes with some spectators. Then, finally, I reached the middle school thunderdome. My favorite part of the race is the hundreds (thousands?) of school kids who line the course from 17-19k and really cheer (“Jia you!”) wholeheartedly and shout absurdities (“Come on, baby!” and “Fighting!”). I close my eyes and imagine I’m in the Olympic marathon, every year, and I’m sure it gives me an extra half minute.
I expected not to have a kick left, but based on my splits (as my dehyration-addled mind understood them anyway) I didn’t think I’d need it. But then I came up on the finish line clock and it was already ticking off seconds above 1:14. “FUCK.” I might have even said it out loud with precious breath. My eyes went wide and I knew I couldn’t make it. But then the seconds were turning over slowly. I was closing. I was going to make it! I kicked in that way that makes marathoners look hungry and chased. My legs turned over ever so slightly. I had an extra 4-5 seconds of chip time. If I could just pull that line a little closer.
Then I was on it and I had it no matter what. I pumped my fists in the air and didn’t care if it was silly. Then I stopped my watch and tried not to fall down. They gave me a necklace and it said “18.” I thought, “What?” and then, “How many African faces did I see at lunch?” and raised my eyes skyward. Last year my time wouldn’t have broken the top 30. Then I thought about my soaking shorts and shoes, the humidity. Then a very, very broad smile broke over my face, the one that turns my lips down at the corners from modesty, and I chuckled out loud and limped over to get some water.