Sunday, April 22, 2007

Not too bad (Boston Marathon 2007)

For five years, I’ve tried to break the four hour mark in the Boston Marathon. For five years, I’ve failed. Each time that I’ve fallen short of my goal, I’ve been upset, but I’ve tried to tell myself that in the grand scheme of things, it’s not all that bad. After all, I’ve qualified for and run the oldest and grandest marathon in the world – five times in a row! All things being equal, a four hour plus marathon at Boston is really not all that bad.

But the reality is that it’s bugged me. And bugged me. And bugged me. So, just a few weeks after the 2006 Boston Marathon – at which time, I had declared that it was time to take a year or two off from Boston, and then reconsider my goals again in the future – I decide that I need to go for it again in 2007. I figure that I’ve been carrying the four hour monkey for a long time, and I’d like to get it off my shoulders. And so the entry goes on the calendar, and my credit card gets charged, and – finally – I make my travel arrangements.

The travel arrangements almost keep me home this year. Mick has come with me to every Boston, and I’ve grown spoiled by seeing him near the 16-mile marker, not to mention having him chauffeur me to the start in Hopkinton every year. But this year, he’s deep into a political contest, and months before the race it hits me that I cannot even think about asking him to accompany me to Beantown. With no idea about where to stay there on my own, I email my Taper Madness friend Shelagh, since I know she’s going to Boston again this year. Where will you stay? Shelagh tells me that she and a couple of her running friends from Victoria are sharing an apartment on Beacon Hill, and then – to my eternal surprise and delight – invites me to stay with them. Travel problem solved, in a most delightful way.

But the travel challenge really doesn’t go away completely. Late in the game, I end up with a business trip to New Jersey the week before the marathon. At first, I think this won’t be too bad, but when I get lost leaving Newark Airport after midnight Wednesday night, I think I might have been wrong. I get lost another time or too before I finally get to my room at the Marriott in Somerset, NJ, so it’s after 2 a.m. when I start to unpack. But when I fall into the wonderful bed with fresh, fancy linens, including a down comforter, just before dozing off at the insane hour, I think that this isn’t too bad at all.

My colleagues at work warn me that the drive from Piscataway, NJ, to JFK Airport might be horrible, so I leave early Friday afternoon. As it turns out, the drive is not bad at all. My flight is delayed, but I take the chance to sleep on the plane. I find one of my roommates for the long weekend – Cindy – waiting for me at baggage claim at Boston’s Logan Airport, and we talk like old friends while we wait for Shelagh and Joan to arrive. Their flight is late, too, so my delay is not so bad.

Our little apartment on Beacon Hill is up three flights of stairs! I stare at my suitcase (I do not pack light!) and wonder how the hell I’ll get up all those stairs, but in the end, it’s not such a bad climb. It’s the Friday night before the Boston Marathon, and I have an apartment on Beacon Hill, and a bottle of red wine to share with my Canadian friends. I’m starting to think that this is not a bad way to start a weekend.

Shelagh and I stay up WAY too late and talk about our Taper Madness friends, and we laugh and giggle and tell stories into the wee hours of Saturday morning. We’re acting more like teenagers at a slumber party than 50 year old women! Still, when the phone wakes us on Saturday morning, I don’t feel too bad at all. We make our way over to the expo, and pick up race gear, and then some. What happens to the rest of Saturday and Sunday? It disappears in a flash. I’ve been worried about spending all this time with people I’ve never met before. But in just moments, strangers turn into friends, and a brunch turns into the party-of-the-century. I break training in many ways – for the first time ever, I run the day before a marathon (the Freedom Run on Sunday morning), and I have red wine both Saturday and Sunday nights. I think that if this is the way to screw up your chances of a sub-four race, I’ll take it. Having this much fun cannot be all bad.

It rains on Sunday, all day long, and it rains Sunday night, all night long. It’s one thing to wake up repeatedly the night before a marathon; it’s another thing entirely to wake up repeatedly the night before a marathon to the sounds of a raging nor’easter outside. When it finally comes time to get up on Monday morning, the weather is still raging. It’s a relief to turn on the inside lights in the apartment so that – until the sky brightens some time later – we can’t see the rainfall outside.

The walk to the buses on Monday morning is wet and miserable. The wait in line for the buses at Boston Common is interminable – almost an hour, and steadily falling rain. But we find a kind gentleman from LA who shares his umbrella, and we’ve wrapped ourselves in every bit of plastic available in the little apartment, so when we get on the bus and strip off a few wet layers, it turns out that none of us has gotten completely soaked. It’s a forty-five minute ride to Hopkinton, just the perfect amount of time to get dried out and warmed up.

At Hopkinton, we’re dispensed from our bus back into more rain, but it’s not so bad. We have gear to protect us, and the temperature is really not all that bad – low 50s, which is quite a bit warmer than the forecast. As happens every year, there is utter chaos getting out of Athlete’s Village and down to the second wave corrals in the center of town. Because we’re jogging along, it’s almost impossible to notice that the rain abates just before the gun goes off. As I discard my fleece blanket at the start line, I have a faint glimmer that maybe this race won’t be so bad.

I’ve barely made it to my corral before the gun sounds, and then we start moving. It’s chaotic and nerve-wracking, but so much better than standing around, waiting, in either heat or rain. I look down, and notice a bright copper penny, face up, in the asphalt below my feet. I bend down to pick it up, but realize that it’s embedded in the asphalt. I think it’s a good omen for all of us runners today. Not a bad way to start a run.

And now we’re running, and I know that I want this to be a good day. I’ve had too many disappointments on this course, a course that I’ve come to know just well enough, and that I love. Can I just will my legs into a good day? I instinctively head over to the right hand side of the course, where there are tons of kids standing behind the barricades (even in the rain), and I try to high-five every single one of them, even with my soggy gloves. I think about the fact that after reading last year’s race report, my friend Ellen said, “maybe if you didn’t do all of that high-fiving, you’d hit the sub-four”, and I think she might be right. But what would be the purpose of a Boston where you didn’t do this? I high-five everyone I can. It’s not raining, and it’s cloudy and cool, and it’s all glorious. How bad can this be?

It’s all Boston from here, Boston as I’ve come to know and love. Down the first mile in Hopkinton, wearing a garbage bag to keep the heat in. Watching for the mile markers on the right hand side of the road, also painted dead center in the road (ya gotta love a race course where the mile markers are permanently painted on the road surface). Fans lining the roads, as if it hadn’t rained throughout the morning, as if they didn’t have the choice of being home in nice dry, cozy homes, instead they’re handing out orange slices early in the day. Signs! Signs everywhere. Hopkinton, then Ashland, then Framingham. Along the commuter rail tracks, through the commercial districts of these little towns that wouldn’t be known at all if not for this crazy annual 26.2 mile event that brings in people from all over the world and brings out locals in all kinds of crazy weather.

I hit the split button on my watch at the first mile, and only later realize that, at 9:08, it’s the slowest first mile I’ve ever run at Boston. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t realize this at the time. As I run, I think, “not too bad”. I know it’s the next 5 or 6 miles that will set up the day, and as I hit that same lap button every mile, I continue to think, “not too bad”. The splits get better – 8:49 and 8:51 and 8:46 - and I’m feeling okay – not stellar, as my right calf is hurting some, and my legs feel a little stiff – but all in all, I start to have hopes that today might be a pretty good day.

It starts raining again around mile 5, and continues to come down past mile 8, and then it tapers off again. My splits slow down just a tad, but I keep thinking that I don’t feel too bad. My legs are a bit stiff, but my gimpy right calf isn’t acting up too badly. I think about my marathon friend Michele as we run through her hometown of Natick. The wind hits us as we run past the lake, but it’s not too bad. The roads are wet, but there only a few potholes and very few spots of flooding. I’m amazed at all of the people out cheering us on.

I go through the ten mile mark in 1:29:59, just a second better than a 9 minute pace. I’d like to be a bit faster on this first half, but I figure that this isn’t too bad. I might just have a chance at a sub-4 today. No matter what, I’m smiling all the way.

Because the wind is howling, out of the ENE, the sound of the Wellesley women screaming reaches us a full mile before we get to that campus. It’s always a pick-me-up, and this year does not disappoint. I smile as I trot on by. Who could run through this noise tunnel and not be jazzed? I know that the tough miles are looming.

For some reason, these middle miles are always the toughest for me at Boston, and I work to keep my pace up through the halfway point. There’s a 9:12 that concerns me in mile 11, but then an 8:55 and 8:58, so I’m feeling pretty good as I pass through the half-way point in 1:58:04, just a tad over a 9 minute per mile pace.

The clouds are lifting, and it looks like we might have clear weather all the way to the finish, but it’s getting colder. The wind is picking up, and while it isn’t consistent, it either gusts in a swirl or hits us head-on in the face. I’m wearing shorts and a long-sleeve throwaway shirt over a singlet, fully expecting to ditch the shirt early in the race. But it’s been cool enough that I’ve not yet thrown away the throwaway shirt. Around mile 15, I start to feel a bit too warm, so I pull it off, and tie it around my waist. The cool wind spooks me just enough that I think I might need it again later.

Pushing through miles 15 and 16, I focus on mentally getting through the 16 mile point. Normally, this is where I see Mick, and I’ve been worried that it will feel extra empty today. But instead of spending energy scanning the crowd for his smiling face, I send him a mental kiss, and then I’m across the bridge over I-95 and starting the first serious climb of the day. Given the rain and cold and wind, I figure that Mick picked the right year to miss Boston.

I’m cold. Seems silly that I just took off that shirt, and now I’m cold. Freezing, even. A woman running near me asks, “Are you cold?” and I answer “no”. What the hell am I thinking? Macho me. Stupid me. Too stubborn to immediately put my shirt back on, I run on, thinking that I’ll generate some heat going up the hills. But it’s a weird day, and I can’t shake the cold going uphill. Even though it’s up and up, I watch my heart rate drop, precisely at a point in the course where I should be working to keep it low.

These hills are where people start to show the effects of the pounding, and today is no different. People walking, people stopping, people weaving. But on the side of the road, the faithful fans! So I do what I always do here, and run close to the left hand side of the road, and smile at people who cheer as I run by. One volunteer, a big man in rain gear, chants, “You’re making mom proud” over and over as I go by. I hope that he’s right.

Then finally, there it is: the 21 mile marker, the gold sign standing in vivid contrast against the backdrop of the huge gothic church of Boston College at the top of Heartbreak Hill. It’s my sign to turn it on. And so I do, but only after putting the long-sleeved shirt back on.

These next miles are deceptively tough, but I’m getting to know the lay of the land here well enough to know what to expect, so today it’s easier to deal with. I make it through the stretch where the T runs right next to the roadway on the left-hand side, and then down the nice downhill stretch to Cleveland Circle. I’m smiling all the time now, since I’m starting to believe that this is the day I’m going to get that 4 hour monkey off my back. The people behind the barriers see me coming with my mile-wide grin, and they all shove out their hands for high-fives. How can I not do this? Even if it might slow me down a smidge, I draw energy from each and every hand that I slap. People smile back, and I know this is why they come out – to have a role in someone’s good day.

And I finally allow myself to believe: this is going to be a good day. It’s not an easy day, not one of those effortless days where the miles just seem to fly by, but it’s definitely a good one. So I smile. And I high-five everyone along the route. And I run.

These are the fastest miles of my day – something that makes me proud: 8:40, 8:48, another 8:40, and then for mile 24, 8:34. Later I’ll figure out that this is my fastest ever mile at Boston, and I’ll be extremely pleased. Not all that fast in the grand scheme of things, but after all those mile of pounding, down and up, up and down, it’s a very good thing. Now there’s the Citgo sign, and now there’s the one mile to go sign, and now there’s the little dip under Mass Ave that was new last year, and now – finally! – that turn that I love so much, the right-hander onto Hereford. Hereford looks like a mountain today – when did they make the uphill here so steep? – but then there are people smiling at me and sticking out their hands, so I high-five yet more people, and now I’m making the last left-hander onto Boylston.

This stretch is pure joy, knowing that I have the sub-four in the bag, and yet needing to force it in, as hard as I can go. It’s pure pain, too, since you can see the finish line down there, but it seems so far away yet, and not getting any closer. The 26 mile marker is the only one that I miss all day, but it doesn’t matter, what matters is that I cross the finish line just as I hear an announcer call out my name, and I punch my watch and read 3:57:25. Four hour monkey? Back there somewhere on the course. Yee-haw!

Boston has a long finish area, where it feels like you walk for miles and miles after you’ve run for miles and miles, and this year it is no different. No different, of course, except for the fact that I’m smiling wildly and wanting to shout it out to anyone who might be within earshot. Sub-four at Boston!

It takes awhile before I start to find people I know – my Canadian friends have run close to me all day, some in front of me, some behind; although I haven’t seen a single one out on the course, I start to find them soon after picking up my warm clothes. We’ll hook up with the rest of the Canadian contingent, and then head back to our apartment for quick showers and then out for a big celebratory dinner. We’ll laugh about our three flights of stairs that don’t seem quite as bad as we had feared. We’ll talk about how the rain ended just as we started to run, making the weather not nearly as bad as we had feared. In fact, when the day is done, it will seem that – given the weather warnings and the rainy start and all of the rest of it - none of it has been all that bad. Not too bad at all.

Hotlanta (aka Georgia Marathon 2007)

Sometimes, the best things in life end up being the unexpected. That’s my experience at the Inaugural Georgia Marathon, on March 25th, in Atlanta.

Sure, I’ve been to Atlanta before. Well, if you count making connections at Atlanta’s busy Hartfield Airport. Or driving through downtown Atlanta in the wee hours of the night on my way to (or was it from?) Florida for spring break when I was in college. Or maybe marching through the iconic Southern city in the multiple times that I’ve seen “Gone With the Wind” and “Driving Miss Daisy”.

Well, then, I guess maybe not. It seems a good thing, then, that my membership in the 50 States Marathon Club requires that I make a pass through Georgia. And even better yet when my friend Michele alerts me to that fact that ING is sponsoring a new 26.2 mile jaunt through her town in March of this year. In the marathoning community, we know that running an inaugural marathon has its risks; I’ve felt this pain in the old Mile High City Marathon and at the inaugural Tecumseh Trail Marathon in Indiana. Snafus are more than likely. But a couple of facts help me ignore the risks of the newness of this race. One is that ING is the sponsor, and they sponsor many big city marathons, including New York, Miami, and Amsterdam. They must know what they’re doing, right? And the other fact is simply this: when Michele makes the announcement, many of my Taper Madness buddies immediately sign up to do the race. How could I not join them?

So on race day, I find myself on the MARTA train with Michele (my hostess for the weekend, and from here on out “1L”) and Michelle (my fellow boarder at 1L’s house in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, “2Ls”). We have a wee bit of stress as we worry about the train getting us to the start on time, but our worries are for naught. We reach the Underground station with enough time to cycle through bathroom lines before checking gear in the UPS trucks. We run into a few more TM friends (Lori and Autumn) who are frantically making their way to the port-a-potties for their final pre-race stop, and then we all wish each other good luck as we head off for our respective places for the race start.

It’s still dark for this 7 a.m. race start, but the bad news is that it’s already warm – I watch as the huge Coca-Cola sign changes the temperature from 65F to 68F in the minutes while I wait for the race to start. It feels weird to be suddenly alone, in a huge crowd of people. 1L has gone off to find her neighbor and training partner Sally, and 2Ls has gone to find the 6 hour pace group. As for me, I have no idea what to expect from the day. My training cycle has been weird – influenced in a bad (slow) way by far too much snow on the ground this winter – and I don’t really feel prepared for a marathon. Last fall, I ran 4 marathons between the end of September and the first part of December, and it all started to feel routine. Now, with 3 ½ months between races, it all feels new and foreign again. What’s ahead?

Helicopters circle overhead, and it’s impossible to hear the speakers, but I have a sense that the race has started. There’s a small amount of movement from where I’m standing, way, way back in the crowd. Finally, after walking several blocks, it seems that we’re running across the start line. But wait. It says “Finish”. Huh? I know that the race will end back here, but I’m confused – is there a separate start? In a panic, I start my watch, only to realize, a few moments later, that there is actually a separate start line. I frantically stop my watch and hit reset, just before I finally cross the true start line. Whew. So much energy and panic, and the race is barely underway.

The scenery in the first few miles could be anytown, anywhere, anymarathon: people, wall to wall people. For an inaugural event, this puppy is huge: 15,000 people in the combined half-marathon and marathon, and we’ve all just started together. I don’t really mind, at first, that it’s this crowded – it all adds to the excitement of the start. But shortly into the run, as I have to weave around walkers and people proudly wearing t-shirts with slogans like “I know I’m slow but I don’t care” printed on the back, I get a bit annoyed. I’m happy to share the race course with these people – God bless you for getting out here to run – but if you’re going to walk in the first couple of miles, next time could you please line up at the back???

Around the two mile mark, it’s getting light out, and we make a major left-hand turn, running just past the Martin Luther King Center and the church where MLK preached back in the early days of the civil rights movement. Pretty cool stuff, but the cool stuff I’m looking for is the water offered up at the first aid station here. Now I’m on familiar turf, since 1L took me on a tour of the race course yesterday, and I’m starting to recognize landmarks. We run right past the MLK birthplace, but I have to admit that today I miss it entirely. Good thing I caught a glimpse yesterday.

The road remains crowded, and I’m looking forward to the point, around 3 ½ miles, where the half marathoners split off and we full marathoners will have the entire road to ourselves. Just before the two race courses split, there’s a second aid station. It’s a bad sign that I’m already looking forward to more liquids this early in the race, but it’s quite warm for a marathon. The really, really bad news is that just as I run up to the aid station, I see the last two cups for water disappear, and hear volunteers say that they are out of cups. Out of water this early in the race? Unbelievable. But there’s nothing to be done except to keep running and look forward to lots of liquids at the next aid station.

We split from the half marathoners, and finally have a bit of room on the road. We’ve just run through the Atlanta areas of Inman Park and Little Five Points, and I’m feeling okay. My right calf/Achilles tendon have been bothering me from the start, but they’re starting to go numb, so I’m okay. My splits are slower than for any of my marathons last fall, but given the hills and heat, that’s not unexpected. I’m just running and starting to enjoy the scenery.

As 1L pointed out yesterday, we’re running through some really beautiful areas in Atlanta. Old neighborhoods, re-gentrified and nicely kept. Everything is in bloom – dogwoods and azaleas and cherry trees – and there are pockets of people out cheering us on.

As I run, I try to remember the course map, trying to picture the biggest climbs. At what point in the race do they come? Since this course is mostly a loop, there is no net elevation change, but there are lots of ups and downs along the way. 1L ran much of the course a few weeks ago with her training friends, and declared the course to be much harder than Boston. I was a bit skeptical of this diagnosis until we drove the thing yesterday, and I was convinced that she was right. The only saving grace, I think, is that the first half has more downhill than the second half. I hope that I can use this fact to help to establish a faster pace out of the chute, and then try to maintain that on the way back to the barn.

As my splits reveal, the strategy does not work, but I won’t know that until later in the day.

The one thing I remember clearly from the maps is that the first big climb of the day starts around mile 6, and goes on for about a mile and a half. Just around the six mile marker, there is a sign announcing an upcoming aid station. Since I didn’t get water at the second aid station, I’m really looking forward to this one, and I swallow a gel. The only problem is: there is no aid station. After running for a while past the sign, I start to talk to people around me. Isn’t there an aid station here? Everyone agrees that they also saw the sign, but no water appears. The temperature is climbing. I’m getting thirsty. This is starting to seem like a really, really bad idea.

We run through some lovely areas, and then along a divided roadway. The climb is done, and finally – finally! – there’s another aid station at mile 8. I want to stop and drink several glasses of water, but instead I just grab a couple of cups, trying to have some sympathy for the back-of-the-packers yet to come. We pass Agnes Scott College – a beautiful campus – and then turn into the town of Decatur.

Our bibs today have our names pre-printed on them, and so far I haven’t heard the fans along the roadside take advantage of this fact. But as we turn into Decatur, there is a nice gathering of fans all cheering insanely loudly. The Decatur High School cheerleading squad is lined up on the left hand side of the road, in uniform, and the first cheerleader looks squarely at my bib. She turns to her squad, and as I run by, they post up a cheer “Go Judy Go Judy Go Judy!” What a rush! And then it seems a huge number of people stick out there hands, just so I can high-five them as I run by. There are moments in every marathon that stand out, the things you’ll remember months later, maybe years later, after all the pain is gone, after you’ve recovered and run several more races, after you’ve forgotten much of the race course itself. These are the reasons that we get out of bed at insanely early hours on Saturday and Sunday. As the cheerleaders chant my name, and my hand slaps the hands of who-knows-how-many spectators, I think that this is one of those moments. This moment alone might make my day.

On through the town of Decatur, and past several huge churches with pastors in full robes standing at the open doors. We no longer have the full road, and we’re running in a single coned-off lane. It’s a bit crowded in that lane, but worse yet, the road is slanted. The roadways here all seem to be crowned – probably to funnel off rain – and that’s bad news for anyone who is forced to run mile after mile after mile on a single side of the road, because it puts undue pressure on one leg. I try to run as much toward the center of the road as possible; that means I often run outside of the cones, and I keep my eyes out for cops and race officials who might disqualify me. I see lots of other people doing the same thing. I’m worried about how this is going to affect my gimpy right leg. But I’m more worried about the lack of electrolyte replacements – there has been none of the advertised Powerade on the course – and think briefly that I’ll head into a convenience store if I see one, just to buy a bottle of Gatorade – but there are so many people cheering in little sections now that I never see a store.

The temperature is continuing to rise, and we continue to run. Atlanta is a beautiful city, and this course takes us through many beautiful areas. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the thing from ever being boring. Soon, we are making yet another turn and heading through a small part of the Emory University campus, where there is an aid station. Finally, the aid stations are coming fairly frequently, and this is by far the best – spread out, lots of volunteers, and the volunteers seem to have experience. The only unfortunate thing – other than the sharp up and downhills through the campus – is that the aid station is set up right on top of a mile marker; it’s the only split that I miss today.

The next several miles are by far the prettiest of the course, through the Druid Hills, past the Driving Miss Daisy house (which, by the way, I never really see). These are mansions of the antebellum style that I associate with the south, with lots of huge overgrown trees and shrubs. Up LullwaterRoad, then down Oakdale Road – more of the same, huge old beautiful homes. What surprises me most is the support offered by the residents. Everywhere now, there are pockets of people out cheering, and there are even a few little bands out playing for us.

Along Oakdale Road, I run with a woman for awhile who introduces herself as an Atlanta native. It’s a nice distraction to have someone to talk with, and we weather the hills here together. But I’m watching my heart rate, and it’s quite out of control, here at the halfway point; at one point, I utter a sentence to the woman, and then think that I’m going to pass out because I can’t catch my breath. In fact, for a moment I think I’m going to have a heart attack, but I concentrate on breathing, and the moment passes. Better not to talk anymore. My running partner utters another sentence or two, but then she bids me farewell with a “I’m slowing down” utterance, and I’m on my own again.

The heat is taking its toll. The hills are taking their toll. And it’s only the halfway point.

At the halfway point, I hit another split on my watch. 2:05. Not bad, I think. Because of the heat and the beating my legs are taking from the hils, I expect my second half to be slower. Still, I think that maybe I can turn in a 4:15 for the day, and I’d be very happy with that. So I try to hang on, but my initially slow speed is slowing even more, and I’m feeling the effects of dehydration. My right calf, which had gone silent many miles back, now makes itself known again by starting to cramp badly. I run through the cramp, but the cramp moves into my right foot. Uh-oh, I think; this could be a really long day if I have to walk the rest of the race.

But I seem to be able to run through the cramp, and I take another electrolyte replacement tab when I reach the next aid station. I really need some Gatorade, but there is none on the course. I’ve taken a couple of gels at this point, but decide that my stomach is going sour too quickly, and I decide to hold off on taking more. Besides, the thought of swallowing another gel in this heat pretty much turns my stomach. So on I run.

Next up: a funky little out and back route on Freedom Parkway, just past the Carter Center. This might be a nice stretch of roadway, except for the fact that it’s all completely exposed to the cruel sun. I start looking across the parkway for familiar faces, but don’t see anyone. There’s one odd brief moment of respite from the sun, when we run under a concrete shelter that seems to make no practical sense, but as long as I’m not in that sun, I’ll take it.

I don’t spot any other Tapers until the turnaround point at mile 19, where I see Deeter standing on the grass in the median, taking photos. We greet each other. “How are you doing?” asks Deeter, and I reply that I’m doing okay. What a colossal lie. When he responds after I pose the same question back to him, it’s with “I’ve been better.” Ah, at least one of us is telling the truth.

Somehow, seeing speedy Deeter just having fun with the day and clearly not working towards any goals just kind of takes away any remaining incentive I have to try to do something with the day. It’s not going to be a PR day; it’s not going to be a sub-4 day; it’s just going to be a tough slog to the finish, so who cares? That’s the lethal thought that implants itself in my brain, and it makes the final 7 miles of the race nothing but a painful death march.

From here on out, everything cramps at various times. My right calf, my right foot, my entire left leg south of my knee. My hip flexors. Then my left knee twinges in a weird new way, and I think it might just give out entirely. I run through the cramps, all of them, but I must look odd as I do it. I’m in pain, more than ever before in a marathon. This is not a good race for on-course photos.

I still recognize a few neighborhoods and areas from the tour of the course yesterday, but I’m no longer really enjoying this tour of Atlanta…until. Until we reach the Virginia Highlands area, where the local folks out cheering are just incredible. And they have ice. ICE! God bless them, everyone! I take ice from everyone and anyone offering it, even though it means that at times I’m stuffing huge ice cubes in my mouth so that I can hold more huge ice cubes in both hands, and then bathe my entire body with ice. ICE! God’s most incredible invention.

But the ice can only do so much. The rest of the race is pain, pure pain. At some point I decide that my only remaining goal for the day is to finish in under 4:30. At the time I adopt this goal, it seems a no-brainer. But the cramping continues, and I’ve started to get light-headed, so finally at mile 23, I start walking in sections. I’ve never done this before in a race, not beyond walking through aid stations. Even in my first marathon, all those years ago, I walked only once late in the race, on a serious uphill; even then, I vowed I’d never do that again. Today, I don’t care. I’m seriously afraid of passing out, so when my head starts to spin, I start to walk.

There is far too much uphill in these last miles of the race, and I’m crawling. I play mind games: when I get to the next block, I’ll run. And then I get there, and I say, okay, the next block. It’s not a pretty sight.

Finally, as I monitor my watch, I determine that I’m going to have to pick it up in order to finish in under 4:30, so when the course finally turns a bit downhill in the last half mile, I start to run again. I manage to eke out a 4:28:36. I cross the finish line, but I don’t do the traditional Rocky pose. This is pure survival, and it doesn’t feel like I should celebrate. It’s more simple than that: I’m done. Another state crossed off. Another medal for the collection.

I’m not feeling so great about the day, but as I exit the finish area, I find 1L and Len (a Taper who very wisely stuck with just the half marathon), and then moments later, a whole passel of Tapers join us. We hobble off to the Atlanta Underground area, where the team tents are set up, and we proceed to pump fluids into our bodies, attempting to avoid further cramping, and we share stories of the misery out on the course. There is far too much truth in the adage “misery loves company”; usually there’s something sad in the truth of it, but today there’s only joy. This misery seems universal among us runners: we all experienced the same heat and dehydration and hills and lack of fluids on the course, and we all have similar stories to tell. Somehow, it’s so much easier to laugh at your own misery when you’re sharing it with someone who understands at a molecular level what you’ve just gone through.

There are several of us Tapers, just hanging around; nobody has much need to move, to go, to leave this gathering. Every once in a while somebody says, “I wonder how Michelle is doing out there?” and we all express concern, hoping that maybe she took the smart route and dropped from the marathon to the half. 2Ls, however, is a marathoner, so the smart money is that she’s still out there on the course. Finally, 1L remembers that 2Ls took her cell phone with her, and calls. She’s at the 24 mile point, walking, but going to finish!

So we all sit around a bit longer, then we stand up and complain about our aching bodies, and we limp our way back to the finish area, picking up bottles of water and pretzels for 2Ls, and whatever else we can scrounge along the way. We get there a moment too late – Michelle has her medal when we find her, but she’s still jazzed about finishing. She’s thrilled that we are all there to meet her, just absolutely thrilled. I feel like this is the best thing that I’ve done all day. In truth, this is the unexpected best thing about the day: the time spent with friends.

And so it is that I have a story to tell my friends and family in the following days, when I return home and they ask me about the Georgia Marathon. It was a train wreck, I’ll tell them. A horrible race. Heat, hills, dehydration, cramping, crawling to the finish. Ah, too bad, they’ll all say in response. I’m sorry you had a rotten time there.

And then I’ll correct them. No, not at all. I had a terrible race. But I had a fantastic time.