My mom was dropping me off in downtown Richmond for the marathon, and it reminded me of all the mornings when I was a kid that she had the same thing.
Most days pass by, one after the other, with little memory to differentiate them, blurring together. Days and weeks and months become one blob. Fleeting moments will come, acting as waypoints on the journey.
And then, there comes a day. A cold, sunny morning when you’re walking through downtown, past crowds of other runners, in the same boat as you. Those months of training, of sacrifice, brought together from disparate places and climes–all to stand in line, shivering and waiting your turn to dash into the port-a-potty. Yep, few things say ritual like that pre-run pee. No matter the color, gender, ability, age, that run before the run is as communal a moment a runner knows.
And so is the wait. Being a slow runner, I’m almost always in the back, meaning a long wait to the start. A couple of weeks before, it took nearly an hour for me to get the line for a half-marathon. With 15,000 runners, it’s to be expected. In Richmond, though, the wait was only 10 minutes–manageable and easy, with only 4,500 for the full marathon.
I was standing next to this guy also running his first marathon. And I admired his courage—his longest run was nine miles. The fact that he was a smoker didn’t help matters–he even had some smokes on him. (I checked–he did finish).
There was an advantage for me in running in a city I had spent time in–familiar with the landmarks, the people. It lent a measure of comfort in an endeavor that was anything but. And in the journey, I saw some areas of the city I never thought to go to, or ever had a desire to see. Like Lee’s Revenge. It’s a big hill in the West End, near the Country Club of Virginia. Back in the early years of the marathon, runners had to climb up it. And no, I’d rather not imagine trying to pray my way up it. It was a late-race feature, I think, which made it all the more daunting. This time, the challenge was different–take it easy going down the hill, to leave the quads in one piece with 19 miles left.
This will sound like I’m shilling, but I’ll roll the dice. The Richmond course is really beautiful–the Monument Avenue stretch, the Hugenot Bridge, the stretch along the James, heading under the Pope Avenue arch. The beauty of the course somewhat eases the pain of the pounding.
What I remember about the journey that day wasn’t just the pain. Yes, I had to stop several times after 20 miles to stretch my calves. But there was also the woman who stopped to pet every dog along the road. (I lost sight of her around mile 5). There was the older man who cheered me on at mile 4. And at mile 14. And then at mile 24. I’m trying not to tear up at that, but it meant a lot, especially at 24. I was almost there, starting to feel like, ok, I think I can do this. This stretch on Brook Road is long, and mentally tough. And on the side of the road, there he was, yelling out my name. It was a great lift.
Just down the road, I made the turn into Virginia Union, and that’s where it started. I can do this. I can finish damn thing. 400 miles, countless hours, craploads of doubt and fear, a lot of early mornings. Making the turn onto and down Grace, my thought was–I don’t remember any of these inclines when I was at VCU. They sucked now, as I had to walk more than I would have liked to. But I kept chugging along, until I got to the corner leading to 5th Street, where Penny Lane Pub is. Making the turn, you hit the final straight for the finish. It’s still a good ways off, but I felt, I did it. This is mine.
You have to be careful on the finish for Richmond. It’s a pretty decent downhill, and you have to manage your speed so as to not blow out your quads. Or eat pavement, like one runner did earlier in the day. After 10 minutes of gathering his wits, he did finish.
And so did I. A steady trot downhill, not too fast. This hurt enough, no need to hurt more. When you come into the finish chute, you hear people, but you hear crowd noise, you don’t hear specifics.
Unless your mom and dad are there, calling out your name.
They weren’t there for those early runs and all the quiet moments of uncertainty. All I asked of them was to be there at the finish. And, they were. I wanted them to share this with me, and I’m grateful they did. Most of the races I run are solo endeavors–I show up and skitter off without a cast or crew. There’s no wife or girlfriend there to share in a sweaty hug, and I’m good with that. But this one, I needed someone to be there. Not just for the ride back. But because for this one moment, I didn’t want it to happen alone. I had done most of it solo. I have a friend in Princeton who paced me for the first part of 15 and 16 milers. My best friend gave me moral support. I had inspiration from the friend who got me into running in the first place.
I have pictures of me with mom and dad after crossing the finish. They will mean a lot to me for a long time to come.
So will the memory of being sore for three days. My god, I’ve never been so physically wrung out in my life. Getting into and out of a car was its own production. And the next time I do this, I’ll walk up the stairs backwards.
Next time…It took me three months to decide that yes, I want to run another marathon. It won’t be this year, though. The time commitment is intimidating. The physical toll is tough, as it the mental toll. But…I’ve done this before. I made it through the fires, and a different person came out the other side. If and when I decide to give this another shot, experience teaches me that I can do this. And do pretty much anything.
The week after the marathon, I went on a date, my first in months. It went pretty well, and we dated a few more times before it sadly ended. It didn’t take very long to recover from that and continue with life, with living. There were times after the long runs, where I would be lying on the floor, or on a porch, and wondering why I was doing this to myself, and being grateful to have made it. But by the middle of next day, I was fine. I gave myself the chance to rest, recover and reflect on what I had done. The marathon showed me how to be resilient, to forgive myself, to be easy with myself. I can survive much, and I have to remember that, no matter what endeavor is next.
Instead of walking to the start of the local 5K in a steady steady, cold rain, I drove. Lazy, I know. This course isn’t easy–downhill first mile, then uphill for at least a quarter-mile to a third. I’m slogging along, nearing the track where the finish is, and thought–how in the absolute hell did I ever make it throw a marathon?
I got the hell out of my damn way, that’s how.