I stepped up to the line of my first marathon with ice in my bra.
Not metaphorical ice, although my heart and palms were alternating between chills and heat flashes. No, I had a literal piece of ice melting beneath my clavicles.
The reason I’d stuck frozen water down my Reebok racing top was because the start line was in Los Angeles, it was 68 degrees at 10:21 a.m., and I knew there was no way I’d cross the finish before the mercury hit 80. It was, at the risk of straying into hyperbole, an athlete rotisserie.
But there was nothing anyone could do about the weather. As athletes, we could only control our own bodies and what we’d put on them, which in my case (I quietly congratulated myself), was everything I thought I would need to survive a 26.2 mile race. Ice? Check. White hat? Check. Lightweight racing flats? Check, check.
Twenty seconds before the gun went off, I realized I’d forgotten sunscreen.
It seemed this was going to be what my grandma would optimistically refer to as “an experience”. A learning experience.
Then there was a loud bang and everyone started to move.
There exist a small handful of times in life when the world seems to pause and you think, in genuine wonder: how the hell did I get here? This was one of them.
Six months ago, I had completed my first half marathon. Now I was running the Olympic Trials. The full marathon, no-holds bar. Baptism by fire.
Really, there was no way I could have adequately prepared for this particular race. Not only was it my first time running twenty-six-point-two consecutive miles, but it was also unequivocally the highest-stakes race in which I had ever competed. I was painfully conscious (and, to a certain degree, proud) of the fact that I now belonged to a small cabal of elite runners for whom this was the case.
I had been with Zap for all of two months, the bulk of which was spent at a training camp in Tallahassee for heat acclamation purposes. The idea was to finish out marathon training by adjusting to warm conditions, practicing fluid intake, and cranking out massive long runs with little distraction.
It helped a lot. By the time we landed in Los Angeles, I felt pretty confident in my abilities. Maybe, I thought, this wouldn’t be so bad.
I was naïve enough to fail to recognize my own naivety.
The first mile was slow by elite standards – everyone was being cautious. By the grace of Phidippides, I managed to avoid being dragged out too fast. My body felt light, fluid, almost surreal. I was hyper-aware of my surroundings, taking in the little details: the smell of hot concrete, a clanging cowbell sounding somewhere in the crowd, the flash and flicker of multicolored singlets around me. I wanted to finish well, but (more importantly) I was determined to take nothing for granted. As it turns out, there was ample time to process the experience.
Running means spending a lot of time in your own head. The typical long distance athlete is no stranger to introspection; in order to get through seventeen-mile runs on a regular basis, one has to become pretty comfortable with one’s own company. We tend to thrive on meditative quiet. But marathoning takes this to a whole new level.
I started an internal dialogue.
I thought of all the things I was going to eat after the race, imaginary meals that grew increasingly elaborate as the miles ticked by.
I recited Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Half a league, half a league/Half a league onward/All in the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.”
I tried to find as many rhymes as I could for “run”. Gun, fun, pun, done…by mile seven I’d run out of rhymes. There were nineteen miles to go. For the second time that morning, I felt a prickle of apprehension.
Here are some things about racing 26.2 miles that everyone fails to mention prior to the starting gun: It’s an emotional rollercoaster. You will want to cry. And laugh. And get irrationally angry at anybody who tells you to “keep going”, or that “you’re almost done”.
You will get whatever songs are being played along the course stuck in your head. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Hopefully your sideline bands play something awesome, like Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, as opposed to, say, “Dancing Queen” by ABBA.
Drinking water while running is difficult. Be prepared to get a lot of water up your nose.
Here are some things everyone warned me about, but which I largely disregarded: Tangents are your friends. Hug the curves tight and don’t let go (I didn’t).
Don’t get too excited at the half (I did).
And, at one point or another, you will hit the wall.
The infamous “wall” is perhaps the most well known cliché in the running world – the point during a race at which the body begins to shut down. It is impossible to predict when and where it will pop up, but it feels like more or less like slamming into an oncoming Mack truck armed with nothing but elbow pads. For me, the wall arose at mile nineteen. I went from gliding along with (relative) ease to shuffling, stumbling, and regretting all of the decisions that lead me to this point.
After that, suffering became a teacher.
I learned a lot.
At mile twenty, for the first time ever, I contemplated dropping out. It was there that the course looped through the start/finish line one final time, leaving another 10 kilometers remaining. They seemed insurmountable in the heat.
A voice in the back of my head told me to suck it up and keep going.
At mile twenty-two, a gust of wind knocked the hat off my head. I didn’t stop to pick it up.
At mile twenty-three, another runner came up on my left. She had a neutral water bottle in her hand, half-full, precious liquid sloshing. She looked at the bottle, looked at me, held out her hand. “Here.”
I took the bottle and downed it in two gulps. It tasted like ambrosia. I told her she was a wonderful human being, or something to that effect, and meant it.
“You got this,” she replied before promptly dropping me.
I wasn’t sure I had this, but I was grateful anyway.
Miles twenty-four and twenty-five are repressed trauma currently buried deep in my psyche.
The final mile felt like nothing I’d ever experienced. My legs were full of wet cement; I had to resist the urge to lift them manually with both hands. And they were painfully numb. In fact, my whole body was suffused with a dull, heavy ache.
I was ready to collapse as soon as I hit the twenty-six mile mark – in fact, blacking out seemed like an appealing prospect. Unfortunately, there was still two-tenths of a mile left.
The finish line seemed to inch toward me, instead of the other way around. I don’t remember how it arrived, but it did.
Afterward, my legs were a wreck. It would be days before I could effectively navigate a flight of stairs, weeks before I could run without feeling like I had lead weights strapped to my ankles; anyone who has completed a marathon knows exactly what I’m talking about.
But in that moment I knew none of this. All I had was a bottle of water and the deep conviction that I’d just become a part of something larger than myself, a road race that stretched all the way back to a tiny city in ancient Greece. From that moment forward, I was a baptized marathoner.