Thursday, June 23, 2011

Marathon #1 - Austin, Texas

1) Austin

    I ran my first marathon in Austin on February 15, 2009. My finishing time was 4:09:12. I had hoped to finish in under 4 hours, but there was not a trace of disappointment as I crossed that Finish Line.

   I was 34 years old, and I'd just started running about eight and a half months earlier. Prior to that I'd been about thirty pounds overweight. And I'd spent most of my adolescence and adult years as a heavy drinker, smoker, and consumer of fast food. I'd been working to change my habits and improve my health for several years, but I didn't really turn that corner until I started running.

   I trained in Chicago, and a lot of that training took place in the winter. I mixed in outdoor running (when the footing seemed reliable and the temperature was tolerable) with treadmill running. I joined a gym for the first time in my life, and I started doing a little bit of lifting. But for the most part I just ran.

   Every mile that I ran in preparation for that race seemed to put more distance in between me and a life that I had been trying to shed for years, while bringing me closer to the life that I wanted to live. More specifically, the running and the training were helping me to become the person that I wanted to be. As I made improvements in my physical health, I could also see improvements in my mental and emotional health. The confidence and the clarity of thought that I found while running began to carry over into other aspects of my life.

   There was something simple and straight forward about running and about training for that marathon. The responsibility was all mine. Friends and family could be supportive, but nobody could run for me. Either I did it or I didn't. The formula was simple as well. The more I ran, the more effort I put in, the stronger I got. And the goal was clearly defined. Marathons have a Starting Line and a Finish Line, and no shortcuts are available.

   When the morning of the race finally arrived, I was reasonably confident. My friend dropped me off downtown in the predawn darkness, and I walked among the thousands of other runners. The energy and the anticipation built up as the start time got closer, until finally the gun sounded and we were off.

   I was grinning like the village idiot as I took those first steps. The sheer joy of what I was doing was nearly overwhelming at that point. But as we climbed the first of what would be many hills, the giddy feeling burned off and the calming rhythm and flow of the run took over.

   Within a few miles, I found a 3:50 pace group and I settled in near them. I spent most of the morning running just behind or ahead of that group. Occasionally I'd run alongside of them and pick up on some pieces of their conversation. But for the most part I ran alone.

   As we ran through the Austin neighborhood of Westlake, the hills began to extract their toll. By the time I reached the halfway mark, I knew that my legs were more sore than they should be at that point. I'd used the incline feature on the treadmill as I trained, but I now know in hindsight that I had not prepared properly for such a hilly course. But I was out there, and there was nothing to be done but to keep running.

   Which I did until about the 18 mile mark. That was a lonely stretch of road in a residential section of north Austin. Most of the hills were behind me at that point, but they had done their damage. As I slowed with soreness and fatigue, I watched that pace group disappear ahead of me. And as I looked around, I saw that there were no other runners or spectators within 50 yards of me. I had eight miles to go, and for the first time I started to feel pangs of anxiety and doubt.

   When I came to a water station, I let myself walk long enough to drink a couple of cups. Shortly after that, we turned south and started to make our way toward the finish. I think that that was the first time I recognized a tall woman that had been part of the pace group that I'd been trailing earlier in the race. I took a little solace in the knowledge that I wasn't the only one struggling and falling behind, and between that and the fact that we were now running directly toward the finish line, I was able to gather a small charge and get some fluidity back to my movement.

   I was now stopping to walk at every water station, but I kept moving forward and the small doubts about finishing that had started to creep in up north had disappeared. The only question was time. I knew that 4:00 was slipping away, and I knew that I could live with that. But I still wanted to finish with best time that I could muster.

   Around the 23 mile mark, I saw the tall woman again. She was walking in a bit of a daze, and receiving pats on the back and words of encouragement from a group of girls that had come over to her from the water station that they were volunteering at. She didn't look good, but this was uncharted territory for me, so I really didn't know what to make of the situation. And then, perhaps a mile later, I watched her run right by me at a pretty healthy gait.

   I knew that the race finished just south of the capitol building, and so when I turned onto Guadalupe and found myself staring at the north side of that building, the reality of finishing the race began to seep in. But my initial excitement at that sight was tempered for a moment. As I got closer to the massive building that I needed to run around, I saw the tall woman for the last time. She was on the ground and she had two paramedics tending to her. She was conscious, and they were helping her stretch rather than taking her off of the course, so I was still hopeful that she might get up and finish. I'd never exchanged a single word with her, but I felt like we'd run that race together and I wanted her to make it. We had less than a half mile to go, and the idea that she would get so close and come up short was heartbreaking. I jogged by her, and I never saw her again. I hope that she was able to get up and find that Finish Line.

   My thoughts quickly came back to my own race as I rounded the capitol. And when I made my final turn onto Congress Ave., and I saw that Finish Line, every bit of pain and fatigue that I'd been feeling for the previous two hours disappeared. I broke into an all out sprint on that final stretch. And as soon as I crossed that line I nearly collapsed.

   I was totally spent. I remember somebody putting a medal on me, and I think somebody else handed me a banana and a bottle of Gatorade. And then I just walked slowly and painfully forward. It must have taken 15 minutes for me to walk the few blocks to the meeting point that I'd arranged with my friend.

   When I got there, I sprawled out on the sidewalk and closed my eyes. I'd never known the beautiful emptiness that comes from that level of exhaustion. I could feel every muscle in my body, and every breath that filled my lungs. I had no more effort to give, and nothing to give it to. I'd never felt more free in my life.

   I recovered surprisingly fast. Within an hour or so, I was able to walk at a respectable pace. I showered and changed. And then I went out to celebrate with some friends. We sat on the patio of a Mexican restaurant that I'd gone to often when I lived in Austin. I devoured the biggest plate of Tex-Mex that I could find and I washed it down with several margaritas. I was feeling wonderful, and I was in no hurry for that to end.

   I spent a couple more days in Austin, and then I flew home to Chicago. I couldn't have been happier with the experience that I'd just had. But before the week was out, I was starting to look forward. I knew that I could build on top of what I'd just done. I knew that I could still do better. That I could still choose to climb a lot higher. The Chicago Marathon was just over seven months away, and I was ready to get back to work.

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