It may have been the knowing that I wasn’t really ready, that I wasn’t properly trained, that kept me from sleeping the night before the big race. Thousands of thoughts and memories floated past like flotillas on a river between me and the far shore of dreams. I kept calm because honestly I didn’t expect to get any sleep… aside from the excavations of old buried dreams and random memories, my mind kept coming back to what I didn’t know about the marathon that next morning.
The weatherman said it would either rain, or be sunny, or partly cloudy. I was either going to be running alone, or with my dad, either way in a crowd of strangers. The idea that I was going to be running with my dad loomed large the past couple weeks. He is a faster and more experienced runner than I am, but has not completed a marathon since 2004. Periodically during the weeks I spent training we corresponded by phone or email, and he answered my questions and allayed my anxieties.
Early Saturday morning (5AM) I was organized and I ate my bananas. I kissed my aunt goodbye, got in my car and drove to Hartford. The sun came up, and I arrived at the starting line. I walked through the thousands of runners and their families, but I couldn’t find my dad. I realized how silly it was that we hadn’t coordinated a place to meet. He was nowhere to be found. I settled in amongst the 5 hours thirty minutes pacers, and the race began.
I would be running it alone. The drawbacks were that I had left my iPod in the car, because I planned to talk with my dad, or maybe the strangers I met on the road. I soon found out that the Hartford Marathon is not the New York City Marathon… at my pace, ten miles in I was completely alone out on the roads. A stray runner would pass by every few minutes, not saying a word. Compared to my training runs, the boredom was crushing. I tried to take in the scenery and enjoy with my eyes instead of my ears.
In South Windsor I ran streets I had been bussed down during field trips in elementary school, past Crystal’s driveway where I bought my first bag of pot, the old Post Office, and finally to the turnaround point, the eleventh mile. At the eleventh mile I came to the Ellsworth Gymnasium where my mom had enrolled me in “Fun and Fitness,” in lieu of pre-school, and where I made my first friends. Eliot and his dad Joseph were waiting for me there. I was so happy to see them.
Some runners experience what is known as “hitting the wall.” Around 18 or 20 miles in their body burns through all its glycogen and switches to stored fat for energy, which does not burn as smoothly, causing running to become more difficult. I did not experience anything quite like that. My wall was mental, Pink Floyd (mother did it have to be so high?) meets the Scream by Edvard Munch, and it hit early, around the halfway point. I was bored out of my skull, my sinuses ached, my stomach wouldn’t settle. I considered dropping out of the race.
The part of me that wanted to quit, the part of me that I associate with walking away from cross country in high school, with dropping out of college, with turning to drugs and alcohol instead of experiencing emotions… I left that part of me by the side of road. For the next three hours I listened to my breathing and instead of looking at the road ahead, I put my head down and focused on the ground passing by my feet. I drank water every mile, ate goo every four miles, and pushed.
By the twenty third mile the course was winding through the park where Billy Joel shot the video for “River of Dreams.” I ran out of gas and walked up and down a hill. My legs were stiffening up. The sweat on my shirt was drying into white rings. A volunteer got me to jog to the next water station, about fifty feet. On the way, she mentioned that it was two and a half miles to the finish. I instantly thought of Fresh Pond, in Cambridge, where I had started running again this past spring, on the 2.4 mile track.
I know exactly how long 2.4 miles are, and I took off. A cranky woman shouted at me as I passed, “You take the lead for now! Enjoy it… you’ll fade soon!” I said nothing back to her. I started sweating again; I was flying. I didn’t see the Connecticut river, or the other runners. I saw the golf course, and dog walkers with their labradoodles. I was back in Cambridge, going around the reservoir. Each step brought me closer not just to the finish, but to the beginning.