Wednesday, April 8, 2009

done and done

I did it!

Someone please cue Chariots of Fire!

I really did it! I completed my first-ever marathon. 26.2 miles of cobblestones and courage (that one's for you WDers!)

And now, if you'll indulge me...a looooong, emotional post-race recap:

After a carb-filled dinner and Team in Training pre-marathon ceremony (full of encouraging words from inspiring people who've raised tens of thousands for cancer research), I went to sleep more than a little wary of what was to come the next day, but more or less calm.

It's true. I wasn't nervous. Which, OK, made me a little nervous. But really, I felt remarkably calm about the whole thing, managing to fall right to sleep, despite the jetlag and sharing the room with a team member I'd just met. For once, which is not usual for me, I was filled with trust. Trust for my coaches and trust that the training process had worked, and that I'd be able to cross the finish line the next day without crazy amounts of pain in a reasonable amount of time. I'd done the long runs. They weren't soooo bad. And now it was time to do it again.

When I woke up, instead of a surge of adrenaline, I felt sleepy, and hungry, and in need of coffee. I pulled on my gear, making the last-minute decision to stick with the same, ankle-length tights that had gotten me through my last five long runs in training. I fretted over a long-sleeve vs. short sleeve tee under my singlet, but only for a few minutes, and then went to join my friends for breakfast.

Maybe it was pre-traumatic stress syndrome (is that a syndrome?!), but at breakfast I was more excited than scared. I just wanted to get to the start line and get the show on the road. As we made our way the half-mile or so toward the Colosseum, where the race would begin, it started to hit me a little that we were really going to do this. We got to the baggage checks, handed over our post-race affairs, and tried to make last-minute bathroom runs. (No lines--Europeans prefer peeing outside to porta-potties.)

But still, no butterflies. Really all I could think about was whether my running buddy, Jen, might want to go slightly faster to make her 5-hour time goal, and that meant I'd have 42 kilometers worth of in-my-own-head time to fill. My head was filled with logistics rather than nerves.

But as the gun went off, even those planning anxieties quickly began to evaporate. Running felt good. Feet hitting the pavement felt good. Arms felt good. Clothes felt good. Even the crowds hurtling quickly past Jen and I to get to faster time blocks felt good (the race wasn't exactly as well organized as New York, and anyone who wasn't an elite runner was just coralled in all together at the start, so there was the elbowing I was expecting.)

We careened (and I say that word very purposefully because of our turtle-like gait), down avenue blocks out toward the north of the city, trying to best set our pace. We noticed the 4-hour pacers run by, then the 4 1/2, then finally the 5, and then there we were, at the back of the pack, trying our best to determine whether to try to keep up or not. Go slightly faster? Or not. I could see more purple-shirters (fellow Team in Training teammates) than Euros, but I was determined not to let any outside influences get to me.

For the first six miles, a bunch of thoughts finally, quickly, came rushing to my head as all the pre-race calmness began to subside. "Look," I started saying to myself, "The five-hour people just ran by, and Jen wants to be in that category, should I speed up? No, don't. You promised yourself you wouldn't. Does she think I'm going ridiculously slow? Is she getting mad I'm holding her back? I hate that feeling; maybe I should tell her to go ahead. But I need her. On every long run, she's been at my side, telling me when the hours have passed and eating our gels together. It's been the magic ingredient to all the great long runs I've had. The least I can do is try to keep up with her. But if I do, I might break down at the end." And on and on and on the thoughts went.

Then, a prickle than ran through my knee. And the terrain was…ugly—this part of the stretch was all highways and over-passes and post-war industrial buildings. This wasn't what I'd signed up for? And where were the crowds cheering us on, and saying our names like in New York? Every so often there'd be a meek little old lady or 50-something man squinting to make out the writing on my jersey, but before he could get it out, I'd already have flown past him. Just one real "Uh, go Meeg" was all I'd gotten so far.

It was only mile five and half and my brow was starting to furrow. Uh oh, was this going to be a...bad run?

But then something major happened. Lost in my own quickly downward-spiraling head, I didn't hear her at first, but then Jen said it again, "Want to stop and have a goo? We're almost at the one hour mark?" "Wow, really?" I replied. Usually we'd been chatting for the whole time and this marker would have come with more warning. But either way, it came, and having our first gel signified one thing to me: We'd managed to run a quarter of the way already, and soon we'd be feeling high from the just-right mix of chemicals. The worst was over.

Almost as if the city of Rome itself knew it was time to give us a break, the six-mile mark brought us back into some of the most beautiful areas of the city--the Villa Borghese, and other beautiful monuments. Now we were cruising past giant, sweeping willows and 17th-century palazzos. It was like the Italian version of Brookline in Boston--all old, moneyed beatiful mansions on either side, the perfect eye-candy for mid-race runners.

Then, something else incredible happened. We met a fellow American, and by some amazing stroke of luck, he was a talker. He was 37 and had quit his bank job in Massachusetts (my home state) and gone back to school to study Italian at UMass Amhearst. He was currently studying abroad in Sienna, and wanted to give us a rundown of all his exploits. We could barely get a word in edgewise but before we knew it, we were rounding mile 13. Just right before—and we almost missed it talking about the Red Sox—St. Peter's Basicalla and the Vatican came up right before our eyes. Since it was Sunday, a priest or bishop was out saying mass, and secretly, I began to feel a little bit blessed. We'd been running just under 2 1/2 hours, and not a phantom knee, foot or side pain was to be had. I felt good—high. We almost had to force ourselves to take a five-minute break at the water station to knead our muscles, loosen up and do a salt shot. Our friend found a nice semi-private bush to do his business and we were off again.

After more than an hour-long survey of all his partying and mid-life realizations, he found a pretty girl who'd unfortunately shot her knee to slow down and walk with, and we were left alone again, but it was all worth it. We checked in with Ramon, our head coach (how did he know to find us on the least-crowded area of the race). He told us we looked great (I was still all smiles!) and said the words that probably saved me, "You should now be running at a pace you could run all day long and not get tired." Jen and I could honestly say that we were. He ran off to find other purple-shirts, and we remarked how great we were feeling. Then Jen raised an eyebrow at me that signified a whole lot more. Maybe, just maybe, at this rate we'd come in in under five hours.

Miles 13 to 18 weren't the most fun, running basically on highways with nonexistent crowds to cheer us on. But we didn't really know what to expect, and in hindsight, that was probably what kept us going in those lackluster upper teens. Luckily, the sponge and water stations dotting each 3-kilometer marker were well-stocked and crowd-free. As always I love a good lost-in-translation moment, and seeing "liquids," "salts" and "solids"—signs that meant "water," "Gatorade" and "orange slices," was amazingly fun to remark on time after time.

Finally, we rounded the 18-mile marker uphill, which meant we were heading back into Rome. Jen and I had slowed to a silent, yet still lockstep, rhythm. I'd run a little faster ahead, then slow down, then she'd catch up, going a little faster, then slow down. It really wasn't intentional at this point. I'm pretty sure our bodies had taken over, calculating for themselves the exact best pace to run, factoring the sun, wind, incline, effort and remaining energy. We'd started hunching, and mildly musing at petty annoyances (OK, complaining—but only a little). But then we'd look at one another at every water or sponge station cautiously, like, "Does this mean we might not hit the infamous wall?"

Jen made fun of me for it, but at this point, I'd long since learned my defense mechanism of choice was distraction. Any chance I'd get, I'd strike up a conversation—with French guys, with a U.K. guy, with Scottish ladies. Even if they wouldn't engage for very long, it made getting to mile 20 possible.

And then there it was: Mile 20. I'd never run farther than this before in my life. Jen, who'd run two marathons previously, had, but not for a long time. We were entering the home stretch, and heading back into the touristy part of Rome, and all of a sudden it hit me: I knew I was going to finish strong.

Then it started. My smile. It started growing even wider than it had been all race until I was almost beaming. It's not like I'm trying to brag here—I really don't know where the grinning cue came from because at this point my brain had become as soupy as the now-familiar goo I'd grown to love, and synapses, though they may have been firing, weren't creating any new thoughts that could be uttered or acted out.

My coaches, perched strategically at 21 and 22, noticed, and their encouragment gave me a new wind. I'd say it was my second, but probably closer to third or fourth. I had taken the time to stop and stretch out one last time around 19 or so, and take another hit of salt (thanks, Lenny's), and maybe it was that, or just sheer desire to be done, but I found myself speeding up.

We ran past the Palazza Navonna, and I saw my dear friend, Ali, cheering me on. Saw was loose, since really, my eyes were focused narrowly on the cobblestones trying desperately to find the straightest, smoothest path to follow. In a blur, I ran by a few other coaches, and the 37 km sign, and at this point, I wasn't about to translate to miles, but it seemed promising. I think I heard an announcer call me Principessa Meg, which seemed very apt at the time, and I heard police whistles urging pedestrians not to cross. I describe the sights and sounds, because now, nothing was being put into any larger context. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other. I felt like a cross between an animal and a machine.

Pump right fist as left foot touches pavement. Pump left fist as right foot touches pavement. Breathe in. Breathe out. Keep fists low. Bring shoulders down. Breathe through nose. Out through mouth. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. F***ing cobblestone. Repeat.

At this point, it was me, other purple shirts and the faster runners who'd shot their knee. They were all walking, like ghosts trying to find a way to the white light. But not me. The pride I felt that at mile 23 and 24 and 25 to be running was the last little bit of motivation I needed. As I flew past the Spanish Steps, and then the Trevi Fountain and toward the Boulevard XX Septembre, I sped up, knowing there was one, final thing that could get me through....

duh, duh, nah..duh, duh, nah...dunun nah dunnun nah dedudduh nan....yep, that's right, the Theme from Rocky.

I started wheezing/chanting/singing it as loud as I could without completely freaking out my fellow runners, and then a few steps later, there it was right before me...the Colosseum. The end.

It was now kilometer 40, and that meant only a mile and half left. As I got closer and closer, the Rocky theme had gone through about three run-throughs and it was time for something else: Yep, Gloria Gaynor.

"At first I was afraid, I was petrified, kept thinking how could I ever live without you by my side, and I spent oh-so-many nights thinking how you did me wrong and I grew STRONG, and I knew how to get along..."

And at that, I lost it. I choked up completely. They say many people start crying and huge waves of emotion hit them as they're crossing the finish line, but still, this feeling welling up took me completely by surprise. It was like finally, after a day and a half, my body, mind and heart all fell into alignment and a surge of feeling came flooding through like a shock wave.

I. Was. Going. To. Do. This.

Memories came flooding up. I thought about the past eight years living in New York. The early hard times in New York... getting laid off, and September 11, and being broke and Erik, and family hardships and everything I'd gone through. I went back even deeper, to that little girl in gym class who couldn't run the mile without getting all red-faced, and teased. I thought about how far I'd come since then with all my training, but that even still, I hadn't really believed I could do this. But I was about to prove that I could. And then a new song came to mind...


And, of course, out of no where, up pops my coach Ramon. He commends me once again on my huge smile and tells me how proud he is of me. I tell him thank you, I would have never done this without him and the team, and he tells me that I was the one coming to practice every week, and that he knows how hard I worked. And that really, all that was left now, was to figure out how I was going to cross the finish line, and of course, how I was going to misbehave at the end.

As I coasted the four minutes toward the finish, I could make out something in the distance. It read 5:01, which meant, subtracting my 7-minute start time, I could potentially cross at just about five hours. I didn't care about the exact time, so I just kept my pace (it was what had gotten me this far) took off my feul belt, and crossed the finish line just like I'd run this whole time, with a huge smile on my face, singing one of my favorite songs, "All you need is love."

To be honest, when I crossed over, it was a little anti-climatic. I'd parted from Jen and my fellow purple shirts were ahead a bit. I hobbled around in a daze, looking for anyone I could find. Then my legs began to turn into wood. And really, the rest is history. No thoughts went through my brain. I was in a state of pure, sweet euphoria. Well, OK, there was maybe one thought:

When could I do it again.

Postscript: Thank you, so, so, so much for all your kindnesses, words of encouragement, Facebook comments, donations, and most importantly, your friendship. This has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I couldn't have done it without you. So if you're reading this, and have been a supporter from the start, or even just along the way, know that your face, your words, and your thoughts came up in my head at least a few times during the race, and each step I took, I owe it to you. To be continued....

xoxo, Meg

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Your writing made me feel as if I were there. Not only are you a marathoner but you are a really, really good writer! Congratulations and love.