When I started this journey towards running my first marathon, qualifying for Boston seemed like an utter impossibility. But last weekend, as I stood at the starting line for the New Jersey Marathon, just six months after running my first marathon, I thought that that was the day. I was going to qualify for Boston.
I wore an extra layer, with some throwaway workout pants and a long-sleeved shirt. We were right on the lovely ocean promenade, though, and as the sun rose the warmth was welcoming and calming. I sat quietly, not talking to anyone around me, just sitting and thinking. A few nights earlier, I had a marathon dream. Usually, my marathon dreams are rooted in anxiety, where I’ll stop to use a porta-potty along the course, and when I emerge everyone is gone. Or, for one reason or another, my ride to the start of the race never shows up and I have to run there. But this dream was different. In this dream, everything went absolutely right. The weather was lovely. My legs felt strong. Every step felt effortless. And when I crossed the finish line, my watch read 3:39:19. BQ! I went over the details of that dream again and again as I sat watching the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.
I put on my headphones to drown out the obligatory Bruce Springsteen songs being played over the loudspeakers (though, admittedly the first song ready to go on my NJ Marathon playlist was Born to Run). I went over everything. I had hydrated thoroughly the days before. I had carbed like crazy. I had properly fueled that morning. I had worked so hard in the weeks prior. I still had the specter of Austin in my head, but I was confident going into this race that I was going to beat my old PR.
As more and more people started to drift into the starting area, I stood up and stripped off the extra layers. It was beyond warm enough at this point. I wandered ahead a bit and stood around, listening to announcements and finding myself suddenly so nervous that I feared I might vomit BEFORE the race started. It felt like the butterflies in my stomach were hopped up on Four Loko. My throat was dry and my palms were sweaty. All the familiar pre-vomituitous feelings. Just when I thought I might legitimately have to hurl into the ocean before we even started, I saw a familiar face approach. Running friend and soon-to-be RTB teammate Neal saw me in the crowd, put up his hand for a high-five and said confidently, “You’ve got this.” We exchanged some nervous small talk and rolled our eyes at each other as Springsteen song after Springsteen song came over the speakers.
After the national anthem and a few final announcements (and the blaring of Born to Run over the speakers), the starting gun went off. Neal looked back and said, “Have the best race you possibly can!” “You too!” I smiled back as we both took off. The start of the race wasn’t nearly as crowded as I had anticipated. I was expecting about a 9:00 first mile, but instead I cruised along. I hit the first mile much faster than I really should have. The crowd support was still pretty nice in those first few miles, and I told myself that I wasn’t going to pay attention to my watch until I hit 5K, which I was supposed to hit at 26:10. Shortly before that marker, the Beatles song Slow Down came on my iPod. I probably should have listened. I was about a minute ahead of schedule. I tried to will myself to slow down and take it easy, but I realized --- I felt GREAT. I felt strong. The usual tightness in my shins that I get at the start of my runs never showed up. I thought maybe I could just run what felt comfortable, keep this pace going and if I could do that, I would absolutely beat my goal time.
And so cruise along I did. Maybe that dream was coming true after all, I wondered. Maybe this would be the race where everything goes right! At the end of the first hour of running, I ate a package of Honey Stinger chews which are totally my new favorite running snack. I started picturing Jeremy, Josh, Elyssa and Eissa waiting at the finish line, and what I would yell when I went past them. I found myself daydreaming of running Boston. “Stop it,” I told myself, “Just focus on the race you’re running right now.”
1st half splits: 8:18, 8:08, 8:15, 8:10, 8:09, 8:09, 8:12, 8:05, 8:05, 7:56, 8:00, 8:02, 8:05.
Shortly before hitting the 13.1 mark, I pulled out my iPod and got it ready for the official halfway point. Because this was, after all, the NJ Marathon, I had a song reay for this moment. Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer. As I crossed the halfway point, I was belting out, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, we’re halfway theee-eeere, OHHHHHH!!!!” The good news is, I wasn’t the only one. At this point, I was also about 3-4 minutes ahead of schedule. I tried, again, to will myself to back off, slow down, save some of it for the end. But I felt so good. I just kept moving along. This felt comfortable.
When I finished the second hour, I ate another bag of chews, the last one I had with me, because I hadn’t figured out a way to carry anymore on my person. I also realized that at this point, Elyssa and Eissa would be done with the half-marathon. I hoped they had the race they wanted, too.
Miles 14-18: 7:59, 8:04, 8:14, 8:04, 8:13 (getting a little inconsistent?)
At mile 18, I decided to shake out my arms a little bit. I tried to make a fist with both hands, but realized I couldn’t. My fingers were too swollen. I’d also stopped sweating. Knowing this meant I was dehydrated, I grabbed a Gatorade and two cups of water at the next aid station. I also ate a Gu, just to get some more calories and energy going. I still felt really good, though, so I kept going…
Miles 19-23: 8:23, 8:31, 8:42, 8:41, 8:58.
Obviously, I was slowing down a lot. I was taking longer at the aid stations, grabbing two cups of water whenever I could, but I still wasn’t sweating and my fingers were starting to resemble sausages. The goal time was still definitely within my grasp, though. As we got closer to those last few miles, we were running parallel to the ocean. I looked over my right shoulder, at the beautiful view and smiled at how lovely it all looked and thinking about how I’d be running right next to it as I crossed the finish line. And then I turned my head forward again. Everyone in front of me seemed to be running with a twin. Holy shit, I was seeing double. My field of vision started to narrow and my body started to tingle. If I didn’t stop right at that second, I was going to pass out. I moved over to the side of the road and started walking. I told myself I would only walk for a minute. When I felt like I could again, I tried to run, but once again thought I might pass out after a few steps… so I walked. I think, in all, it may have only been about a minute and a half. And the whole time, I was thinking to myself that if only I could pick it up right now, if only my legs would listen to my heart, I could just go and get that BQ time! But they wouldn’t listen. I had hit The Wall and it was hitting back hard.
All of a sudden, I felt a hand on my back. A girl, about my age, had run up behind me and started literally pushing me forward. I looked at her, puzzled, and she smiled at me and said, “Honey, we can’t stop now. We’re too close.” “Okay,” I whimpered back. And I started running again, with everything I had. It wasn’t much. But it was all I had left.
Mile 24 took me 9:19. Mile 25 was 8:55.
As I returned to the ocean promenade, I started looking for my crew. I saw them, with about half a mile to go until the finish line. Jeremy spotted me and started jumping up and down. The 3:40 pace group had apparently just gone by about a minute earlier. They all thought that I just might make it. I saw them and smiled and started shaking my head, trying to let them know that it wasn’t going to happen today. I wanted to yell, but I felt like I could barely breathe.
With the finish line less than 400 meters ahead of me, I looked at my watch. 3:39:54…55…56…57…58…59…. There it goes. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch. 3:41:26. So close. My legs started to wobble. I walked up to the large, sturdy-looking military man that was standing just a few feet beyond the finish and leaned my whole body on him. “Are you alright? What do you need?” he asked. “I just need some water,” I whimpered back. A volunteer immediately ran over and handed me two water bottles. I guzzled them both down. “Do you need a medic?” The military guy asked me. “No. I’ll be alright. Thank you.”
After collecting ourselves, finding Neal and comparing some stories, we headed back to our hotel for showers and to get food. We had a nice time, relaxing and stretching and getting ready for the drive back home.
After Elyssa dropped me & Jeremy off at home, the post-race euphoria wore off and disappointment set in. For 23 miles, that goal was absolutely in my hands. I kept second guessing myself, rethinking decisions along the way, getting angry for starting out too fast, cursing at myself for walking. Stupidly, I actually started to cry.
At the end of it all, though, I shouldn’t be anything but proud of what I accomplished that day. Really, I'm very proud of what I accomplished. In just about six months, I took 9 minutes off of my marathon time. I finished in a time that I thought was impossible a year ago. I ran at a consistent (and pretty fast) pace for a good portion of the race. The next marathon I’ll run is back where it started, New York City on November 6th. By then, the Boston Athletic Association will have officially changed the qualifying times for the Boston Marathon, which means I will have to run better than a 3:35 to qualify. After the NJ Marathon, I no longer think that time sounds so impossible.