Monday, May 4, 2015

Marathon

Two whole weeks after the fact, and I finally feel like I have settled down enough to begin wrapping up this whole marathon thing with a final blog post. Hobbling out of my apartment the day after the race, having woken up early due to the aching pains radiating up and down my legs, I walked with Daniel to meet my parents for a large and lovely breakfast at Ball Square Cafe. I spotted a significant number of other runners sporting their purple and orange 2015 celebration jacket, although I noticed that few were walking as funny as me. By late afternoon, after sitting inert in the car for 6 and half hours on the drive down to PA, my parents had to practically pry me out of the backseat. I have to say, only three days later did I begin to experience a (slight) reduction in the full-blown rigor mortis that had rendered me completely unable to go up or down the stairs without hoisting myself up the railing with my arms. I take it as an indicator that I probably could not have pushed myself any harder, although it is also somewhat shameful validation of my pre-race notion that no, my body was not nearly as ready as it was last year. The paralyzation of my quadriceps has once again brought to mind a mythological device of yore, the so-called Airlin Berlift, initially merely product of Carl's bungled attempt at saying "Berlin Airlift" during the drive to Thanksgiving dinner back in November. But we liked the sound of it, and the name inspired an imaginary 1950's-era piece of hydraulic machinery, a sort of personal elevator-seat that could support one's weight while slowly changing height, ideally to enable a Mrs. Cleaver-type housewife in pumps and a frilly apron to steadily insert a runny pumpkin pie into the oven without sloshing the uncooked filling. This sort of nonsense was perpetuated by the plain fact that my mother and I could have used such a device earlier that Thanksgiving Day.

However, given the nature of most appliances from the '50s, the Airlin Berlift would probably have cost a fortune, been solid chrome and weighed 600 lbs, taken up half the kitchen, moved painfully slowly, and yet broken down frequently during delicate baking maneuvers (with potentially catastrophic consequences). Upon observing my inability to raise myself up from the car seat, Daniel suggested we launch a special Airlin Berlift attachment seat, made specially to hoist crippled runners into a standing position. Only $2000 extra! (note: does not include the forklift you'd need to transport the Airlin Berlift to the driveway). 

Anyways, I digress. I'll begin on the morning of April 20th, when  when my alarm went off at 6am. I'd had trouble sleeping for several days due to nerves, and felt rather crappy, but I nonetheless got on my uniform, tied my ribbons, choked down the driest peanut butter bagel known to man, and headed downtown to meet my team on the Boston Common. We were all shaking in the damp morning cold, and unbeknownst to us, it was not destined to get any warmer. A Samaritans staff member wrote messages on my calves (the only skin that I let show in such cold), and we got on the bus to Hopkinton soon thereafter. Our school bus, apparently, was the slowest of the fleet, and it took us nearly an hour going about 45 mph on route 90 to get to the Athlete's Village, and probably 25 BAA buses passed us on the way. Not that any of us were anxious to sit around in the developing rain, but I had mistakenly decided to chug my liter of water on the bus after deciding that I didn't want to be drinking much more once I got there. So, by the time we arrived, I had to pee so badly that I died a little when I saw the snaking line for toilet in the wall of port-a-potties that surrounded the compound. As I stood in the rain, doing a pee/cold dance in place, I checked out the "Athlete's Village" with a certain amount of skepticism. A large tent pitched in a muddy school sports field under which people sat huddled under trash bags and surrounded by garbage, discarded clothing, and foil blankets, the Athlete's Village was more inspiring of a refugee camp than I had anticipated. As my wave was ushered to the start line nearly a mile away, the rain began in earnest and many of us realized that our thrift store jackets, which we had intended to pitch before the start, were the only things keeping us from becoming hypothermic. So, clad in dirty sweaters, pilly fleeces, and over-sized hoodies, we exited the village towards the start line before veering off from the pack of people into a cul-de-sac of port-a-potties right near the start line. It was getting windy. Mounds of discarded clothing were being collected by volunteers into trash bags and then dug through furiously by us in a desperate search for gloves, hats, and other warmer items. Opting out of putting someone's dirty socks on my hands as some of my teammates opted to do, I made the best "sleeve gloves" I could manage and was swept up in the crowd moving to the start line.

The first two or three miles of the race were so choked with people that it was slow going. I located my teammate Davia in the crowd, a relief as we had lost track of her in the Athlete's Village during the post-bus-ride port-a-potty dash. She and Jimmy and I remained close to one another for several miles, while it began to rain in earnest. The road was narrow and wooded, and immediately upon passing the start line, the roadside was littered with peeing guys. The crowd was thick, but I did my best to dodge puddles for at least the first 6 miles, and Jimmy stayed not far from me for most of it. It was miserably cold, but after 3 miles or so I decided to throw away my mom-fleece, a powder blue number made by Columbia that I found at the Goodwill in Central Square. Runners were so densely packed that we were nearly doing 11 minute miles, but by Framingham it began to spread out. I scanned the sides for Uncle Dan and Aunt Julie and cousins Celia and Sonia, but it was a long stretch of town and I was unsure of their exact location. I did end up running into them towards the back end of town, and ran over to exchange hugs. I was sort of amazed they could tolerate standing around in such weather, but vastly appreciated the gesture.

I had another 6 miles before seeing Carolyn and her family, and I settled into a sort of mindless state. It was raining on and off, and I was already soaked, so I stopped bothering to dodge puddles. Around mile 8, I could feel my calves tightening as they had been doing lately. The roadside crowds began to intensify as we approached Natick, as did the headwind, and I distracted my mind from my contracting calves by reading the motivational signs that spectators waved. My favorite was "Pain is just the French word for bread." By the time I reached Carolyn and her family at the bottom of their street, I had to admit that I was feeling rather tired, and I still had 15 miles to go. But seeing them gave me a boost, so I carried on and looked forward to my next familiar faces, the Samaritans staff at mile 17. As I approached Wellesley, I could see a police officer shepherding back a flock of screaming girls that were nearly breaking down the barrier. Many were sporting red lipstick and brandishing signs advertising free kisses, and I couldn't help but smile at the entire scene. One co-ed with dark curls tapped her cheek as I ran by, so I stopped for a quick "la bise" but was instead delivered a full smack on the mouth. Wellesley was choked with spectators, and I was beginning to need it. I could feel my body almost slipping away, and kept catching myself running with a struggle face. Not good.

Soon after hitting mile 16, I became uncomfortably aware that it was becoming almost impossible for me to do my normal mid-foot strike--my legs almost felt like they would wobble out from under me. I found myself heel striking instead, a way that I haven't run for nearly 2 years now, but I practically had no choice. I had never hit "The Wall" before, ever. Not in training this year, not even in last year's 21 miler. But the sudden and unmistakable transformation of the surrounding air into thick molasses was enough to tip me off. I suddenly got much colder as well. I repeatedly breathed onto my wet hands that had stiffened into curled claws inside my sleeve-gloves. All I could think of by this time was reaching Daniel and my parents at Heartbreak hill, where I knew they had gloves waiting for me. I had been steadily eating a gel every 30 or 40 minutes, but at this point I was uncertain that I could command my fingers to undo the tiny pocket zipper, so I was relieved to see the Clif gel station up ahead, also because I knew I would find Samaritans shortly after. As I sucked the fruity goop, I heard Steve Mongeau yelling my name and I ran over, practically begging one of them to warm my hands with theirs. A woman standing with the Samaritans staff saved me by handing me her gloves, but my fingers had lost all dexterity and I was completely unable to put them on. Steve jammed them over my frozen hands, offered words of encouragement, and sent me onward.

By the time I turned onto Commonwealth Avenue by the Newton firehouse, I really felt myself beginning to lose it. It was tiredness like I had never experienced--usually when I get tired on a run, I just take a big breath, perhaps slow my pace for a few strides, and then settle back into the rhythm of my music. This tiredness was not in my heart or lungs, but in my body, and my mind was receiving so many alarm calls from my legs that I couldn't focus on my music whatsoever. I had lost all form, stiffly heel-striking up the first Newton hill, which looked about twice as huge as I remembered. My memory the next few miles has burred into patchy pictures of scenes from the roadside. I would glance wearily into every medical tent I passed, feeling the pull of a comfy seat and warm broth. But I continued forward, each step jarring my rigid body. On the third hill, I pulled up next to another runner and the two of us exchanged a woeful look. He asked how I was doing. Struggling, I said. He was as well, and explained that he usually hits the wall around this time, but he seemed much more accepting of the situation than I was.

By the time I passed Heartbreak Running Company and saw Heartbreak Hill rise up in front of me, I focused on the cross streets, looking for Hobart Street halfway up. That was where my family would be, and suddenly I could see them waving a huge sign and cheering for me as I approached and then collapsed my body onto the guard rail to rest. I felt absolutely terrible, but they encouraged me to drink water and eat another gel (with a double shot of caffeine--at this point, I had probably
consumed the equivalent of 4 cups of coffee). I think I scared my mother by looking so utterly wasted, but after a minute or two flopped over the fence, I was ready get this thing out of my system. Six more miles.

Usually, my favorite part of the course from training is the point right after the peak of Heartbreak Hill, right when you pass Boston College and the skyline of Boston opens up ahead like a first glimpse of the Promised Land. I had been anticipating this moment, but what I hadn't brought into my calculations was that my training runs were exclusively done on the parallel carriage road, and in this particular area the carriage road topped the higher side of the hill while the main road actually stays significantly lower down. So my view remained elusive, and as I headed down past BC, things deteriorated a bit more as the wind from the reservoir ripped down Comm Ave and threatened to push me back to Hopkinton. Making the turn onto Beacon Street at Cleveland Circle, I was aware of huge crowds screaming encouragement, but it was hard to focus on anything other than fighting the urge to stop. Passing those who were walking was the hardest, as it took every ounce of will power to not slow down and join them.

I knew based on my pace that I was just at the cusp of possibly getting under 4 hours, something that I believe would have been easy for me last year, but all bets were off this time around. I had crossed the start line at exactly 11:20, and although I was too tired to check the time on my iPod, I could sense that I would probably have to maintain pace perfectly to just barely make it. Still, the urge to walk was insane, and two or three times I found myself walk-hobbling for 10 or so seconds without having even made the conscious decision to stop running. In my mind, I tried to channel Nathaniel's strength, imagining his awesomely powerful legs taking over for mine. On several different occasions I heard my name, and looked up to see Sam and Molly, Lucas Braun, Donald from CFS, and finally my physical therapist in Coolidge Corner, who gave me a huge cheer of encouragement. I passed many runners who looked absolutely beat, and I occasionally mustered the strength to pat their shoulder and urge them forward. Before long, I could see Mt. Kenmore (the overpass that crosses 90) looming up ahead, seeming so intimidating that I fell to a walk even before tackling the actual hill. Yet I ran the thing itself, through the jam-packed Kenmore Square, and was straining my eyes for the turn onto Hereford when I realized with horror that they were routing us onto the underpass beneath Mass Ave, which meant going uphill on the other side. Two of the toes on my left foot were aching badly, probably because my crooked big toe is unable to fully perform its duties, so I hobbled up from beneath the bridge with my toes awkwardly curled in my shoe in an effort to relieve the pressure. Turning right on Hereford, I checked my iPod and saw that it was 3:17pm--I had three minutes to make it under 4 hours. Left on Boylston St., and I could see the finish line up ahead. It seemed to recess almost like a mirage, and although a post-race viewing of the finish line cam revealed many runners around me, I felt completely alone in the broad avenue. I passed the Public Library, quickly raked the grandstand for my parents, and then stepped across the line. It took me 4 hours and 34 seconds. Not exactly what I'd always hoped for, but I did my best with what I had at the time.

I had always imagined the race would be a hugely emotional experience, mainly based on how the 21-miler was for me last year. Running for me is usually such a high, and with that high comes the potential for rather rapid mood swings, as I experienced during the longest run last year when my mind went crazy thinking about the race, how meaningful it was to me, Nathaniel, etc. But instead, this time my body was in such physical agony during the race itself that I couldn't think about anything except not collapsing into a pile of broken runner parts. Shuffling away from the finish, perhaps in an attempt to convince my body to regain its trust in me, I resolved to never, ever do something like that again (although, ask me now or even just a day later, and you may hear something different). My parents came running from the finish line security area, as they had intended to watch me finish from the grandstands but had gotten caught up in lengthy bag checks, but a fence separated us. I ended up hobbling several blocks down Boylston Street while well-trained volunteers put my medal around my neck, handed me food, undid wrappers for me, and stuffed an emergency blanket over my head as intense shivering began to overtake me. I was coaxed onto a heated bus for a bit to warm up (turns out that many runners had hypothermia this year), then finally met my parents and Daniel in the family area and the three of us headed to the Samaritans after-party, where Carl joined shortly after.
 

And now, two weeks later, I just have to say how grateful I am to all those who supported me by writing encouraging emails, donating to Samaritans, buying my cards, wishing me luck, or keeping me in their thoughts. Training for the marathon these past two seasons has given me a lot of courage, and I am truly going to miss the sense of purpose that filled my life because of it. I feel like I have gained so much from this whole endeavor, and I have trouble finding words that accurately describe how touched I am by the outpouring of love that I received along the way. Unfortunately I will not be doing much running in the weeks to come, as my do-whatever-it-takes-to-finish-even-if-it-includes-changing-my-footstrike approach to the final ten miles of the race resulted in a stress fracture in my left foot, something that has been recently diagnosed after two weeks of tenderness. But, given my injury last year, it almost seems seasonally appropriate to wear an air boot in the springtime, so it seems I am just keeping with the tradition. If anyone wants to buy the patents for the Airlin Berlift and sent a prototype my way, I could definitely use it to help me get around (as long as I make sure to leave two or three hours early). I am already counting down the days until I can get running again in a month or two, but until then you can probably find me with my feet up and enjoying the fact that it is 75 degrees and I don't have to be up and running by 8am on Saturday in the blistering cold. I could never have done it without your help!

2 comments:

  1. Way to go Caroline! I have been following your blog all the way from Costa Rica. This year's race was very difficult - the weather was brutal. Congrats on such a courageous race and entertaining blog. I hope you keep it going and do another marathon!!

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    1. Thanks, Mario! So pleased to hear that you have been following my blog from afar...how exciting =)

      If I ever feel confident doing the training again and run another marathon, I will certainly reactivate the blog. In the meantime, who knows...I may post some non-running stuff.

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