An Unexpected Marathon, Part 2

Blog, Sue Cloutier

That Saturday night in Cincinnati, I was questioning my sanity in registering for a marathon the day before the race. I didn’t pack my best running clothes. I didn’t bring enough gels, or my handheld bottle. I hadn’t had enough sleep on the bus rides from Maine to Ohio. I had been walking around all weekend, and hadn’t rested enough. I hadn’t been carb loading properly. I wasn’t prepared for the hills. Surely, this was a huge mistake. My tendency to want to jump into races at the last minute had finally gotten the better of me.

But Sunday morning I woke up happy and excited. I was going to run a marathon today! I hadn’t run in four or five days now, and I was really looking forward to getting out there in the sunshine, running with Meagan, and enjoying every minute of my terrible decision. I was pumped.

The race was to start at 6:30, and we got there right around 6am. Meagan and her husband Marshall seemed a little grumpy with each other over the navigation and parking, but I was buzzing inside. We met up with Meagan’s running group from North Carolina that were also doing the races for a quick group photo, then headed to our corral. The organization of this race was practically flawless, and as a result, there were perfectly spaced porta-potties along the corrals, and we were able to get in one minutes before the start of the race.

We lined up near our 2:15/4:30 pacers, and started in the fifth wave of runners. There were so many people running that I wondered if we would get slowed down by all the runners ahead of us, but since they were all running roughly about the same pace, it worked out fine. In the first couple of miles, I decided that even though I could see the pacers and their pink balloons just ahead of us, I would feel a lot better if I could be closer to them. I didn’t want to have to think about my pacing at all. I just wanted to run behind the pacer and follow him. I told Meagan, and we gradually moved in closer.

The first mile took us over a bridge into Kentucky which we had crossed the day before in the 10k race. We ran some of the same course through Newport and Covington, then crossed another bridge back into Cincinnati. The pace felt aggressive early. To meet a 4:30 time goal, I needed to average 10:17 per mile, but the first few miles were about 10:00, or even just below 10. I was starting to worry a little, but I felt good, and decided to put all my trust in the pacers. I was going for 4:30 or bust, apparently. But the hills still loomed ahead.

I lost Meagan a couple of times at the water stops. There were so many people on the course that it was tricky to get to the table, get your water or Gatorade, then get back to your pacer on the course. I wondered if I would have to decide between keeping up with the pacers or not losing my friend. Meagan assured me, once she caught up to me again, that I shouldn’t worry about her. I had a marathon to run, and she would be fine for the half.

The pacers, Bob and Brian, warned us about the upcoming hills. They told us that we had banked some time in the first few miles, and we would ease off the pace quite a bit to get up the hills. They were both experienced “streakers”, meaning they had run the Flying Pig Marathon every year for the past 19 years. They clearly knew the course, and knew how to navigate the terrain. It was up to me whether I was properly trained to complete the distance in the time I wanted. If I was, they would get me there. All I had to do was remember to fuel and hydrate consistently, and stay with them.

I stuck to Bob like glue. I was on his heels as we headed up the first of the big hills around mile 4 or 5. I was so grateful when he slowed down to about 10:30-10:40 pace. I focused on little steps, and deep breathing, and keeping up with my fueling. By the time we got to the scenic overlook on Mt. Adams, around mile 8 or so, I realized that I was fine. I never got out of breath, and the worst of the hills was behind me. I soaked up the beautiful vista with the morning sun shining on the Ohio river and the skyline of Cincinnati. It was glorious.

There was some more hill climbing to come in the next mile, but the pacing was perfect and I practically floated along. Meagan found me again, and said goodbye as she left with the half marathoners to continue on their separate route. I yelled to her, “Give it everything! Don’t chicken out!”

Instantly I regretted saying that as she turned away. Was that too harsh? Did I piss her off? What a way to leave your friend, Sue. I hoped that if she was pissed at me, she would use it to fuel her running. I really just wanted her to do well in her half marathon. I chided myself, “You told Meagan not to chicken out. You better not either.”

I hung with the pacers through the next series of ups and downs through Cincinnati. At times, we picked up the pace quite a bit, running through one mile in around 9:30, according to my GPS watch. I tried not to freak out. Just hang with them as long as you can, and don’t chicken out. I focused on my fueling, and tried to not let myself think about the pacing or the little niggles I was having. “Don’t think, just run. Don’t think, just run.” I know that actively using your brain while running can actually use up glycogen (sugar) in your brain, which makes it difficult to focus properly later in the race. So I tried not to use my brain much at all. I listened to Bob’s stories about running the Badwater 135 mile race in the desert, and qualifying for Western States 100 Miler, and that this marathon was his 50th marathon. Bob was full of running stories, and I was so grateful not only to get to hear them, but also that he ran all of those races, put all of those miles in, and had all of this wisdom and experience that led him to be there pacing me that day. I got through the toughest part of the course barely breaking a sweat, thanks to all of Bob’s experience.

The second half of the race, although significantly easier on elevation changes, was much more challenging mentally. I was getting tired, and my body was starting to protest, but I refused to listen for long. The spectators were plentiful, and super encouraging, and I kept moving forward. “Don’t think, just run.” I kept wondering if I might fall off the pace group, but I clung to Bob’s heels. “Don’t think, just run.” I kept fueling, and when Bob offered a salt tab to another runner, I asked for one too. I usually cramp up a bit in the later miles of a marathon, and maybe this would prevent that.

I chugged along, listening to Bob and the other runners who seemed to be chatting away as if out on an easy jog with friends. As we got closer to the city, Bob and Brian reminded us that we were 2-3 minutes ahead of schedule for our 4:30 time, and if we were feeling good, we should go on ahead. I chose to stick to Bob and listen to his stories. I didn’t want to blow up at mile 20 by being too greedy about my finish time. I also didn’t want to have to think for myself. “Don’t think. Just run.”

Mile 20 came and went, and I hung in. Miles 21 and 22. I was still running somehow. Around mile 23, I grabbed some Gatorade from the aid table, and continued running, realizing that the pace group was now behind me. I didn’t want to change my pace at this point because I was afraid I would lose it, so I continued on ahead of the pacers. There was another runner from our group who was also running at that pace, so I hung with him for a bit. It was nice to not be alone in no man’s land.

The farthest I had ever run without walking in a marathon was 24 miles at Baystate last fall. I was determined to get at least that far today. I was thrilled when I passed the mile 24 marker, and then focused on getting to 25. It was getting harder to keep going, but I told myself, “Don’t think. Just run.”

The crowd support was amazingly encouraging, especially over miles 24 and 25, which seemed to be one long, slow incline. I was already getting emotional, so proud of how well I was doing, how far ahead I was of my goal time, and how grateful I was to Meagan for convincing me to do this, and to Bob and Brian for getting me so far on a tough course. I couldn’t have done it alone. I was overwhelmed with emotion – pride, gratitude, and love.

The last mile was practically transcendental. The spectators really seemed to care about about me personally, yelling that I could do this and that I was doing awesome. “Thank you so much!” I yelled back, genuinely grateful for their support. I saw the 26 mile marker in the distance, and managed to pick up the pace.

“Sue! Sue! Go, Sue!” I was elated to see Meagan off to my left, cheering for me. I waved, I think, yelled, “Hi Meagan!” and sprinted towards the “Finish Swine” finish line. I stopped my watch after crossing the timing mats, and couldn’t believe I was looking at a 4:26 finish time. I was in shock.

I did it!

Later, I caught up with Meagan and found out that she also ran a personal best in her half marathon, finishing in 2:12:53. She told me that she remembered that I told her not to chicken out, and it helped her to keep running strong. She had also been worried that I would be pissed at her for talking me into doing the full if I blew up in the second half. I laughed at that, knowing that ultimately it was my decision to run the full, and that I was truly grateful to her for encouraging me to go for it. I wouldn’t have done what I did that day if it wasn’t for her and Bob.

Ringing the PR bell

The end.

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