My first marathon
By Limarie Cabrera
November 20, 2011
I'm going to be blunt here. As a runner, I truly utterly suck. When I first started this endeavor a year ago, I had fantasies about qualifying for Boston. By the time I got to the starting line yesterday morning, my only wish was to finish the damned thing without throwing up.
I woke up at 2AM the morning of the race. I went to bed at 8PM the night before, so the unanticipated early wakeup time wasn't so bad, but I closed my eyes for the next two hours and ardently wished for some extra shuteye. That was not to be. By 4AM I had cancelled the hotel wakeup call and had turned off the alarm on my cell phone. I had to be on the course by 6AM, and it was only a ten minute walk from my hotel to the starting line, so getting there wasn't the issue - it was the eating.
Two months ago I ran in an eighteen mile race which quickly turned into an acquaintance session with all the chemical toilets on the course. It was by far the most horrendous run (in more ways than one) I have had ever experienced. One of the many rookie mistakes was that I ate something untested just an hour before the race. So for this race, I made sure I ate something that I knew wouldn't sent my stomach into a frenzy, and I ate it three hours before the start so it had plenty of time to digest.
I removed the night brace from my foot. I recently developed a case of plantar fascitis and I was getting increasingly concerned. I spent an hour on my feet the day before and my right foot was making it quite clear it was not happy at all. Just thinking about it really freaked me out-I knew of two people who had to quit running because of this. I knew from experience that painkillers also irritated my stomach (thanks to the 18 miler), so unlike many runners who could pop four Advil before the run, I knew that for me, this was going to be an option of last resort.
But anxiety be damned, I was going to start the marathon no matter what. I went downstairs, and any fears I had about walking Ben Franklin Parkway in the dark quickly dissipated. The sidewalks were bustling with people determined to get to the starting line. The start area was a hive of activity. They even offered yoga (I hope NYC Marathon does this next year)! I had some time to spare, so I climbed up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and watched the morning begin to unfurl. It was a phenomenal sight.
But I had to go to the bathroom. I still had a half hour before the race began, so I thought I would have plenty of time. Twenty-five minutes later, I was STILL waiting on line. They hadn't ordered enough porta-potties for all the runners (There were at least 200 runners still waiting for the loo.), and you could feel the anxiety rising. My heart rate monitor was displaying 90 bpm. I'm normally 70 standing up.
I knew I had 26.2 miles of running ahead of me, so the last thing I wanted to do was sprint to my corral, but that's what I did. I got there just as they finished singing "The Star Spangled Banner." And then... we waited.
And waited. I wasn't accustomed to this. In most other races I've run, the starting gun goes off latest five minutes after the scheduled start. Since I'm in the slowpoke corral, this usually means I get to cross the start line five minutes after the gun goes off. It took us a half hour to cross the start.
And now we’re off…
I had to dodge the walkers for the first mile. They lumped the walkers and the slow runners together in the corral, and it was truly a disastrous mix. I had to laugh - I was afraid of going too fast at the start and failing to conserve my energy. I now realized that THAT was the absolutely last thing to worry about. I broke my own rule about bobbing and weaving between people (but I made sure that I didn't knock somebody over in the process) and did what I had to do.
Matthew and Chris were waiting for me at miles 1, 6, and 13, and it was great to see them for so many reasons. The sight of Matthew jumping up and down on the sidewalk was enough to add an extra spring to my step. Some of the signs and t-shirts also made me smile. "You mean this isn't a 2.62 mile race?" "Your feet hurt so much because you've been kicking #$#%$." "Put on your happy pace!"
Other people cheered us along the course. Every one of us had our first name printed on our bib, so sometimes people would yell out "Hey [Common first name of runner]! Way to go!" I had no expectations that that would happen for me. Usually, people would glance at my bib right after they cheered somebody by his/her first name and just give a generic cheer. I still appreciated it all the same. But imagine my delight on mile 12, when somebody actually tried to pronounce my name and got it right on the first try!
And I needed it, because by mile 12, things were beginning to really hurt. When I took up running, various people had warned me that despite my cycling experience, I was still going to have a hard time with it. My cardiovascular capacity may have been raring to go, but my muscular/skeletal systems were going to have to play catch up. Some people actually advised me to wait another year before attempting to do the marathon. And at age 40, I was no spring chicken.
I was also afraid of the time limit. I knew that if I didn't make it to the halfway point in three hours and thirty minutes, I was going to be shunted to the half marathon finish. Because it took me thirty minutes to even cross the start, it meant that I only had actually three hours to get there. For most experienced runners, this would be a piece of cake. However, for ME, it was another case entirely. I needed to conserve energy for the next half, but if I didn't run fast enough, there wasn't going to be a next half. I made a deal with myself- if I made the cutoff, I was going to run the full course, as uncomfortable as the prospect was.
So when that guy at mile 12 called out my name, I took it as a positive sign that things were going in my direction. I also calmed myself down when I looked at the clock and realized that I was on pace. And when I saw Matthew and Chris at mile 13, I knew that I had made it, and I didn't even have to rush.
Chris handed me a banana. "You want to do this?"
I looked at the course. The finish line for the half was only a couple hundred yards away. The arrow pointing for the full pointed in the other direction.
"Yes." And there was no pain at that moment, just determination.
The second half…
People told me that when I crossed the finish line, I would be filled with a sense of accomplishment that would I would remember for the rest of my life. But in my case, that didn't happen. What DID happen at mile 13 was this overwhelming sense of gratitude that almost made me cry.
I was grateful that I was healthy enough to have this opportunity to prove myself. I was grateful that the organizers had set a time limit that would still allow me to run the course. I was grateful that I was so slow that I couldn't help but learn humility. I was grateful that I had a husband who still loved me despite my inclination towards the insane. I was grateful that I had a son who cheered me on the course. I was grateful for the compression tights and knee braces that allowed me to still run despite a body that was falling apart. I was grateful for the banana, the one thing, besides my carb gels, that I could eat on a run without throwing up. I was even grateful for the horror of my 18 mile race in Central Park, because without out it, I wouldn't have been enjoying this race in Philadelphia.
And I was filled with this unshakeable sense of determination that I never had before. I knew there was going to be pain, but I also knew that I was going to finish. There was just no doubt about it. I was going to get to the finish line, and nothing, not even my own mind, was going to stop me. It was just going to happen. I ended up with a silly goofy smile plastered on my face from mile 13 to 26. People must have thought I was going crazy.
The course was designed so we would have to run Kelly Drive for about 13.1 miles in both directions. So as I was just starting my half, I could see people coming in from the other side who were just about to finish. This usually demoralizes me when this happens. But I was so happy that I didn't care.
There were some other people though, who were far from smiling. One woman, named Grace, actually laid down on the road and begged her friend running in the opposite direction (and two hours ahead of her on the course) to stretch her. He obliged, but she wasn't any happier.
"There's a medical tent that has Motrin," another runner offered. But we didn't know how far off the next med tent was. And that was when I pulled out my bottle of last resort. The Advil.
"Take some," I said. And Grace looked at me as if I gave her a million dollars.
“How are you?”
My sister Ina and my friend Jarrod texted me a picture at mile 17 showing them giving me thumbs up, which made me smile even harder. Another volunteer called me out by name, which bumped up the happiness. I was positively radiant at mile 18 and started high fiving runners passing me by, which is probably why I found another volunteer riding a recumbent bicycle by my side.
"How are you?" he asked. And this wasn't a "How are you?" for the sake of making conversation. This was a "How are you because I'm afraid you're taking some sort of illegal substance" type of "How are you?"
"Great!" I replied.
"You happy with your time?" And despite my happiness, I knew it majorly sucked.
So I said "Sure!"
"Well, Einstein did say that time is relative," he replied. "Have you done any races besides this one?" I think he was trying to tell me that there was no need to delude myself with illusions of grandeur.
"Yes, and I'm not throwing up, that's all I can ask for."
"Oh," he answered. "Have a good one."
I continued running. I ran into Grace, the woman that I gave the Advil to, who was coming in from the OTHER direction, which meant that she had passed me and was now a half mile ahead of me. I was never so happy to get my ass kicked.
I got to around mile 21.5 and then saw the vehicle that I long dreaded - the sweep van, but it was coming in at the other direction, which meant it was a good three miles behind me. The sweep van was tailing the last runner, and at that moment, the very last runner was a guy named Fred who was certainly along in years. And the staff knew there would be hell to pay if they put HIM on the sweep van because his face told me that he wasn't going to listen to anybody. But they also didn't want to leave him alone because of his age. And as a result, he held back the sweep for all the others too. I couldn't help but silently cheer not only for him but for all the runners who were benefiting from his stubbornness.
I had started walking for longer stretches of time because the pain was beginning to really get at me. My longest training run was twenty miles so this was virgin territory for me. My feet ached, and I was taking more breaks to stretch out my piriformis and my IT band. I figured that I was moving so slowly anyway that it didn't matter if I upset my GI tract and brought in the Advil. I took two, and fifteen minutes later I took another two. And I didn't throw up. Granted, I was moving so slow that there was no chance of getting runner's trots at that point. So, of course, I started running again. Whoo hoo!
The promised end
At around 22.5 I ran into a guy named Robert, who was bowled over in agony. His hip was bothering him, and he was hyperventilating.
"Are you alright?" I asked him.
"Yeah," he said, but the look on his face told me otherwise. I walked with him a little bit, and then he said he was ready to run. I pointed out a white truck. "Let's run to that point."
"OK," he said. We ran to the truck. And then we walked. And for the next 3.5 miles, we pointed at objects to run to, and then walked and stretched. His hip was driving him crazy, and he had suffered a heart attack a couple years ago, so I figured that if HE could run, I certainly could. And after running 22.5 miles by myself, I had to admit that I enjoyed the company.
We saw the Philadelphia Museum of Art and started running towards it. We then stopped to stretch and happened to stop besides a volunteer. She piped up, "Just turn the corner and down the hill and you're done."
"Are you serious?" I asked.
So we started running again, and at that VERY moment I heard my name on the PA system. And then my husband's voice. And then Matthew's.
One of the benefits of being a slow runner is that by the time you get to the finish, few people are actually around. So the folks in charge had started passing the PA microphone to the people waiting for their loved ones to cross the finish line. And they just happened to pass it to Chris when I turned the corner.
"It's her first marathon. I'm so proud of her."
And that is how I finished in 6:46:49- with gratitude as the voices of the ones I loved filled the air.
Psst- Lim tells me she's made herself well acquainted with the back of the pack. Thanks, Lim, for sharing your wonderful story... congrats on finishing your first marathon. As soon as the soreness goes away, I promise you'll be hooked! :)