As you know I’m coming off a weekend of extreme highs and lows with the Beast. I felt good after it but this week has put me back down into the dumps. I didn’t finish it and often, runners experience what’s known as “Post-race Depression” It’s akin to having a baby or getting married where you get all jazzed up for the big event, it comes and goes and then, well.. nothing. Life resumes. I had this after my first marathon, after my first 50 and now, after my first attempt at 100. I had been crabby and edgy for the better part of the week. I wasn’t even that optimistic about this race until I got to ATL, arrived at the marathon expo and looked at all the apprehensive, excited, tired, happy and just plain terrified faces mulling about. It’s a very quick and easy way to take one’s mind off whatever is bothering you as you suddenly realize that you are not alone in your thoughts.
This expo was in the hotel which also served as the start line for the race. As pacers, the group is assigned specific times to man the booth at the expo, often answering questions and helping people choose their goal times. I was on from 6-9pm but by the time my shift started, there were very few people coming. Most had come earlier in the day, eager to get home and try to spend the evening relaxing. Nevertheless, I had several eager runners approach and chat as well as a number who came back when they were told the 4 hour pace leader wasn’t there yet. My favorite was a woman who came down from her room with a piece of paper in hand. She was sent down by her roommate who was running with a list of questions for me. The woman patiently wrote down the answers to the questions and even filled out her friend’s bib with her name and “4:00” on it. I had to chuckle – it was like the roommate running was a celebrity and this was her personal assistant. I had another gentleman, well into his 60s, sign up, Warren. He said “How many men do you think are running this race over 60?” I said I figured not too many which made him brighten up when I added that no matter what his pace, he’d might get an age group award. There was Robin, an experienced Ironman competitor who wanted to qualify for Boston and at 45, she needed 4 hours. I told her she was only doing part of her “normal” full race, that it would be easy for her – she still looked incredibly nervous. I mean, an Ironman! My god those freak me out… Then there was Caroline who was British (with a gorgeous accent) from Florida, attempting her 6th try to get into Boston. I assured her that we would do it together. After a while of this, it’s easy to see how you can suddenly feel a renewed sense of self-worth. I started my shift sullen, I finished it smiling.
The next morning, we all met in the lobby at 6:15 dressed in our new outfits supplied by runningskirts.com. This would normally not be anything out of the ordinary except for the fact that the men also were donned in running skirts. If you’ve never seen 5 grown men in very short tight lycra running skirts, you’ve missed out. Male runners tend to have nice legs and this crew was no exception, however, there is something just goofy in seeing a cheetah or a plaid print skirt set atop of two muscular hairy stems. The plaid wasn’t so bad – it looked almost akin to a kilt but the cheetah print that several opted for was just, well, bizarre. One of the runners in my pace group commented that they looked “ridiculous”. I thought it was rather humorous myself but to each his own I suppose.
As the miles ticked off, I learned a little about most of them. Caroline, as I had previously mentioned, was really going to make this THE day – she had done everything right, carbo-loaded and was feeling good. Robin was in her zone and decided to stay ahead of me, with an occasional comment on a story I was telling. She had done her last Ironman in just under 11 hours and was hopeful that work would pay off in this race. Warren would occasionally get up beside me, grunt a bit, then fall back. His daughter was an art teacher who graduated from Hollins college, a small all-girls school located in my hometown as listed on my bio. Brett was a lawyer and this was his second marathon and he wanted to break 4 hours the first time but just missed it. This was retribution. Pauline was a single mother with a teenage son and with 4 hours, she could make it to Boston, but she admitted that she couldn’t afford to go. And how could I forget Randy, who was 44 yesterday and for his 44th birthday, he wanted to break 4 hours? 4 was his lucky number, he said.
In those 4 hours, we talked about ourselves, our families, our lives and jobs and most of all, our passion for this sport. I don’t think I can put into words how attached you get to these individuals, each with their own lives and goals. I never leave a race less enlightened than I came. I truly enjoy the minutes I spend with everyone that I come into contact with and to know that several of them did it only serves to put meaning into my race. I’ve done my fair share of marathons and I’ve achieved (almost) every running goal I’ve ever had. Sure, new PRs are nice and I hope to finish a 100 miler soon, but as the years and races go by, I’ve learned to care less about the moment and more about the impact. Yesterday was no different.
At mile 8, a cute young woman came skipping up, seemingly high as a kite, laughing and carrying on and jumping around. Her name was Cassie. I will never forget her because she taught me a lesson. She had talked to me the night before at the table and I convinced her that as her second marathon, she should go conservatively. Her first was a few months prior and she ran a 4:24. She had been training and doing speed-work so we agreed that she would start with the 4:15 group and if she felt good, to move up to my group around mile 10 or so. If she still felt good around 23, then she could go ahead and ratchet it up a notch. So it’s no surprise that at mile 8 when I heard her approaching, I was instantly nervous. It’s my inner “pacer mom” and when I see people that wired up that early, I worry. Most marathoners will hit a wonderfully high point from about 8-13 or so. The blood is pumping, the adrenaline is high and life is GOOD. REALLY good. Then reality hits. They start crashing and by 19 they feel like death. I know – I’ve been there. And I’ve seen it happen a lot. So as Cassie was swinging her arms and yelling at every single spectator and clapping, I kept warning her. “Cassie, save some of that!” “Cassie, slow it down a bit” I didn’t want her enthusiasm to get the better of her. I managed to convince her to carry my sign for a bit. She loved it. She loved it so much that around 18 I happened to look up and notice that she was a good quarter mile ahead of me. Oh shit. I can’t ask her to slow down and bring me back my sign. I looked at my pace group and said you all stay steady, I have to go get that damn sign. So I sprinted up to her. She looked at me, handed it over, laughed and said “Emily, I feel so good. I know it’s only 19 but can I go ahead??” She looked so excited and intense and at that moment, I could see the focus and determination in her eyes. This woman was on fire. YES! YES, go! You look great I said. And with that, she did. Never would I have thought she would’ve lasted that long but sometimes the will is stronger than the skill.
I ran back to my group like a prairie dog trying to heard up the cattle. This was good because I could assess once again, where everyone was at. Robin was great, smile plastered onto her face, Warren had slid back a bit and was sweating. He was working HARD but he was quietly moving forward, still plodding along, one foot in front of the other. Randy was smiling and leaning forward, his form having fallen off miles before but he was happy. It was his birthday! Brett was waiting for me and moved over so I could fall back in next to him. But I was missing two. Oh no, my ladies. My Boston ladies. Pauline and Caroline. They were back just far enough that I could make them out but I couldn’t see them being able to surge ahead. This is the one downside to being a group pacer. You can’t sacrifice the group for a single individual. I wanted to run back. To round those two up, rally them, help them channel their inner Kenyans but I couldn’t. I still had about 11 or 12 to tend to plus a promise in my contract to hold my pace as best as I could. I had to let them go.
Around 24 I started pushing people ahead of me – I let Robin go, I pushed Randy on and Brett finally agreed to leave my side at 25 as I chanted you can do it! You can do it! Go Go GO! I was doing great on time and hit 26 just right. I had to sprint in the last .2 miles, though. I had a bit of a slow SNAFU (SLOFU?) due to the jump up onto the sidewalk to wrap around the final bend. It’s a big step up onto a sidewalk curb and the tip of my shoe caught it just right. I didn’t go down but my recovery took a few seconds to come, steadying myself back up and wincing as I pulled hard at a hamstring. OUCH. It was already a bit tender from the previous weekend but I wasn’t expecting what amounted to a donkey kick in the back of my thigh right then. I saw the finish line and ran it in. I ended up a few seconds over which is never a good thing, although I was thankful to have pushed my runners ahead of me. I crossed and was greeted by 9 or 10 familiar faces and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I’ve never had so many sweaty hugs nor have I had a line of people waiting to talk to me, thanking me for my help. It was MAGICAL. I stayed longer than I had planned and enjoyed hearing their stories, meeting their significant others and toasting (with a water bottle) to their successes.
I made a number of new friends yesterday and I had a wonderful experience. I feel as if the ability to run and help other people when they’re running is a gift and there’s a great saying that goes “Never apologize for the gifts you’re given. Only apologize for not using them.” To my runners in the group, I’m glad that I was able to help you out. In return, you gave me back something too. In the end, we all got a gift.