Staring at the rainfall hitting the pavement outside my hotel window on race morning, I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. “Are we really going to run in THIS?!” My father asked as I got up out of bed and prepared myself for what the day might bring. “This is pure crazy! That’s how you know we’re really crazy!” My mother and I ignored his rants as we ate our breakfast, got dressed and drove over to the marathon start at the South Lakes High School. We were mentally prepared for the task at hand or so it would seem to any outsider. We had spent 7 hours the previous day driving down to Virginia and countless many others training for this marathon. There was no way in hell we weren’t going to run or drive home without a shiny medal hanging around our necks.
When I had plan this out way back in December after our previous planned marathon was cancelled on account of weather (see Dallas Marathon 2013), I really had no idea I’d be setting a trend. In the 20+ marathons I had previously run in the past, precipitation had never been much of a factor. The most I ever had to deal with was a little heat, some humidity and maybe moderate winds. But now, as I am standing at the start line watching the droplets of rain dance in the puddles all around me, I really was wondering what exactly I had gotten myself (and parents) into.
After some pre-race photos, the singing of the national anthem and the obligatory salutations and announcements, we were finally ready to start. Both my parents, who were running their 4th marathon, were really happy, standing in the rain next to me. I tried to smile and share in their revelry and excitement, but inwardly, I was a nervous wreck, shivering at the thought of what the next 3 hours would bring.
The horn sounds. I bid my parents a good race and take off running. Since I was already close to line at the start of the race, I had to be extremely careful not to get caught up with the leaders and go out way faster than I should. I slowed down just enough to allow 3 or 4 runners to surge ahead, then gradually opened my stride, stretched out my legs and began settling down to a comfortable running pace.
I was perhaps the 6th or 7th runner when I made my way out of the staging area and onto the marathon course. Rain was coming down pretty steady at this point and visibility was poor so I really couldn’t see how many runners were in front of my immediate vicinity. I started running with the mindset of using the first couple of miles as a warmup, something I did often in training when I couldn’t figure out what pace I should run on a particular day. There were some steady climbs on paved roads in the early going and I took my time climbing them. Despite my wet socks and shoes and running with a perpetual feeling that I had mistakenly entered an episode of Survivor, I was actually feeling pretty comfortable out there, at least better than I imagined I’d feel before the race.
By the time we dipped into the inner park trails and away from the roads for miles 4, 5, 6. I had passed by about 3 runners who had passed me in the initial burst out of the gate. My average pace of about 7min/miles was about 10sec/mile slower than what I had trained for but given the sloppy roads and windy rain, I knew holding myself to any specific pace or time goal now would just lead to a massive blowup later. So I allowed my pace to drift and just ran with it. Around curves, across puddles and streams, up and over small hills and wooden bridges, down windy roads and steep descents, I kept a steady gaze at the runner in front of me who had been pacing me for the last couple of miles and just followed his lead. At some point he stopped to drink at a water station and I was on my own. I couldn’t see any more runners ahead and it was frightening. My mind naturally drifted back to the only other time I found myself running alone in a race and it wasn’t a pleasant memory. I got lost at mile 9 of a half marathon and missed out on an age group award by 10 seconds. Fortunately, just as soon as I started seriously freaking out, I looked behind and recognized a familiar face coming up towards me. It was Baker, a runner/triathlete I know well from our many encounters in Central Park races over the years. Although I was surprised to find him here, so far away from home, I was secretly glad he was there to keep me company.
By the end of mile 6, Baker and another runner who shall be referred to as “The Tall Guy” (‘cause he was over 6 feet) had caught up to me and the three of us would travel together as a pack for the next 12 miles. I don’t remember much from these middles miles but I did remember it turning windy and cold in certain areas of the course. I also remember having a brief conversation with Baker who told me that he grew up just a few blocks away from where we were running. He had come home to run in his hometown marathon which I thought was pretty cool. I also remember not caring about my pace or time anymore after I passed the halfway sign in 1:32. I just wanted to keep up with Baker and Tall guy.
We kept leapfrogging each other but staying relatively close together until mile 18 when out of a uphill stretch that dipped into another rolling section of forest trails I made a decisive move, took the lead and left them for good. I don’t particularly know why I decided that was a good time to run ahead but I did feel a bit jubilant that I had survive the rain and the wind for 18 miles and knew that I was just another hour away from finishing. I took umbrage from the fact that I had plenty of practice logging long miles in harsh conditions this past winter and plowed ahead.
I held my own for a bit but the trail became hilly and steep and the running became more difficult after the 20th mile. I was getting tired and although I hadn’t pushed my pace at all and wasn’t in any immediate danger of hitting the wall, my body and mind grew weary of the constant shifts in elevations and topography of the race course. At mile 21, my quads and hamstrings started to feel sore and achy. At mile 22, my calves joined in the party. I was still running alone at this point, well ahead of Baker and Tall Guy but too far back behind the leaders to see anyone else in front. The roads, bridges and trails were wet and the course was not as well-marked or intuitive as I would have liked. Although the many race volunteers (bless their souls) stationed throughout the course did all they could directing traffic and keeping me going about the right way, I had trouble keeping focus while keeping my legs moving at a reasonable pace. By mile 23, I was cooked. I had caught up with the back end of walkers from the half marathon (which started a half hour after us and utilized the same course) and all I wanted to do was join them. I held imaginary conversations with my brother, my late sister and my girlfriend, who was cheering me on back home and kept running grudgingly. This stretch of paved trails was full of sharp turns, steep short climbs and rapid descents and just seemed to drag on and on. I wasn’t even sure by how much my pace had slowed by this point but I knew that I just had to hold on until the next mile. I encountered more half marathon walkers. I say “good job!” and “excuse me” and shuffle on. I encounter a hill. I curse the road but dare not stop. I run up taking small slow steps. My shoes find another puddle. I curse again. I run on. I find another short hill and climb that. With each step, I wonder how much longer I can keep pushing and how much further I can run. I am tired, just so tired now. Finally, when it felt like I had not an ounce of energy left, I reach the summit of the final climb, turn a corner and find myself on the road again. I had survived.
I left out a big fist pump at mile 25 and start my kick for home. I count down the tenths of miles and thank the volunteers that were clapping for me. At mile 26, they point in the direction of the football field where the finish line was at. I got misty eyed at the thought of finishing a marathon I never thought I could. I lowered my head and thought about all the people that made this finish possible. When I raised my head again, I looked around and felt my stomach drop into an abyss. The football field I was supposed to run into was now somehow BEHIND me. I curse again. It took another few seconds for me to register that I had run off course. I turn around and run back to where I had come. By the time I make it back to front of the stadium, I see Baker running inside the football field towards the finish. I find my way to where he is and sprint the last .2 miles with all my might. It was a bit too late. I finish my race behind my NY mate in a time of 3:10:12.
After regaining my breath and getting my medal, I find Baker and congratulate him on a great race in tough conditions. In my mind, there was a high probablility that I had just lost out on an age group award with my little snaffu in the last .2 of the race. I was a little bummed, but was still pretty content that I had finished this marathon without stopping or walking at any point. I change quickly out of my race gear, grabbed a bowl of hot chili and found a corner booth near the post-race area to wait for my parents. I was still there when I heard my name being announced over the loud speaker an hour later. They were presenting awards and I, despite thinking that I may not even qualify for an age group award today, had captured 3rd place overall! Not to be outdone, mom and dad both finished about an hour later and both grabbed 1st and 2nd age group awards respectively themselves! Needless to say, it was a happy drive back to the city for the Lam fam later that day.