High as Hope on the North Shore

Grandma’s Marathon 2018 – 2:53:19

It’s sort of a travesty that I have lived in Minnesota my whole life and have spent a total of about 3 hours of it inside the city of Duluth. I had never been there before last weekend, and raced (pun intended) home after Grandma’s Marathon so I could get back and (ostensibly) study for finals. It really is a shame given how awesome the whole area is. The ocean-sized Lake Superior, the docks, the Glensheen museum, the old-school buildings. I would have loved to soak it all up last weekend. Hell, I would even have enjoyed soaking it up just a little bit during the race. Alas, that would not be the case. I was feeling it. Hard. In the last 1/3 of this race I had experienced a feeling that I had my first taste of at the TC 1 mile last month:

Is this stupid shit over yet?

I sometimes struggle with the idea of ‘racing.’ On the most concrete, objective level, you’re paying money to do something you could, in theory, do if you just had a mapped out route or a GPS watch. But the experience is something unlike any other. And you invariably run faster with people, and with a crowd cheering you on. You could never hope to run your best marathon, 20k, 5 mile, ultra, whatever, without the support of other runners and spectators. And if those other runners happen to be your teammates? Forget about it.

It was self-inflicted suffering. I ran the first half of that race comfortably uncomfortable. I had enough in the tank to bring down the pace a little. Not 20 seconds/mile. From about mile 14 or 15 I began struggling with that wonderful balance between holding back enough to have some in the tank and not leaving too much in knowing I could have gone a little faster. I’m usually adept at finding that sweet spot. Even in training. Perhaps not having raced this distance in almost 4 years means I lost some of that feel. Or maybe because it was a new course and I couldn’t anticipate the turns, ups, and downs like I can every block of the Twin Cities Marathon. Either way, mile 20 brought that sort of ugly feeling of how the hell can I possibly do this for 6 more miles?

Eric (right) and I were together for the first half of this race. It’s indescribably helpful to have a someone to help you with pacing through a race this long. I have run this distance (and then some) by myself before. It’s not as fun. When you can’t share that space with someone who’s also struggling you get lonely, and fast.

When I get tired I find a lot of idiosyncratic ways of making myself keep going. I repeat a handful of mantras that I’ve picked up from inspirational movies and ones I have made on my own. I’ll run with my eyes closed, or I’ll look up in the sky and remind myself how truly thankful I am that I’m able to just fucking move my body at all. Perhaps stranger than all is that I will cheer people on that I pass, or that pass me. I don’t know where it comes from. I must have said ‘great job!’ or ‘lookin’ good!’ to at least 50 people I passed during the second half of that race. And to a handful that passed me when I really started wobbling toward the end. I’m a competitive person for sure, and I hate to lose, and I hate getting passed. But it just doesn’t manifest outwardly (usually, I do have some pretty bad road rage) as confrontational. It’s much more playful. It’s a way of respecting others and pushing them to be stronger so that they may reciprocate the act if I start to fail or falter. That’s the beautiful thing about running and racing in the middle of the pack. First place is taken, so everything else is just for time. If you can use other people to make yourself better and faster, to get across the line in less time, then why not make yourself and others around you better? I know, it’s weird. But when it helps me ‘embrace the suck’ of the last half of a race I had no business running as fast as I was, I’ll take it.

On the straightaway near the end I was fortunate enough to have people near me who were struggling but also moving just enough faster than me so I could use them as motivation to try and catch up. My face was clearly not happy about this decision, but if I’m honest my face hasn’t never done much for me in the past anyway. There is some evidence that says smiling helps you run faster…I liked to think I’m smiling on the inside.

I wasn’t really sure how close I was to snagging a PR last weekend. I had a quick pit stop early in the race and it screwed with the mileage/time enough on my watch to where I was too tired or lazy to figure out what I needed for splits. By mile 20, I really was just trying not to drop my pace. One of the mantras that I cycle through when I’m doing hill repeats or intervals is ‘To slow down is to quit.’ It has a sort of two-fold objective. To me it’s a reminder that you gotta save just a little each rep so that you have just enough to hammer the last rounds. And it’s a reminder that when those last reps finally come, you better be willing to bust ass to maintain or even pick up the pace. It took on a much more literal meaning last weekend. I knew that if I backed off at all I was going to open up myself to slowing down more and more until really I’d find myself walking in a right angle straight off the course and on a walk of shame to the shuttle back to Two Harbors. It’s a testament to my overly binary thinking. A black-and-white mentality that often doesn’t make a lick of sense. But if it means I could hold a sub 6:30 min/mile pace for the second half of a marathon, again, I’ll take it.

No, I’m not trying to flash the camera. The photographer needed my bib number to show. Though I felt good enough to let loose and take my shirt off. Thankfully my smile has emigrated from the inside-out. But not before a good hearty cry just before this picture was taken. That metal was as heavy as my soul was light. I can’t say the same about my poor legs. I don’t think I’ll ever not overstride at the end of a race.

I semi-collapsed into the arms of a volunteer as I crossed the finish-line. I felt (and acted like) people do when they wake up from anesthesia. I wasn’t really making any sense, but I was very thankful. I must have looked as bad as I felt cause they wouldn’t let me walk by myself for what felt like minutes. Maybe I’m exaggerating. I felt exaggerated. I do know that after being self-released by those friendly course marshals, having proved I could walk and stand, I was acutely aware of three things.

  1. I was happy
  2. I was fucking hungry (I do not eat and do not drink hardly at all during these races) and
  3. I had an overwhelming need to cry.

I used to pride myself on silencing that pervasive emotion. My immature, naïve self, attributed that act to weakness, or at least an action that I was somehow superior to. I don’t cry, I would say to myself. Hell, I used to literally brag to other people about how few times I had cried in my life. I was (am) good at committing in nonsensical behaviors like this. But I like to think I have matured a little. So I took the appropriate actions that are natural reactions to the above feelings.

  1. I smiled (and honestly did for the first half)
  2. I ate. A teammate of mine promised me there would be peanut butter and bagels at the finish. After inhaling two apples, about a pound of strawberries, potato chips, and a bottle of water, I found those damn bagels. And made (and inhaled) the best peanut butter-banana-bagel sandwich of all time, willfully forgetting I had dropped that peeled banana on the gravel immediately before incorporating it into my sandwich. Sweat, hair, and all. Oh – right –

And 3. I found a spot on the rail next to where the above photo was taken, and bawled.

With all of the strange sobbing noises, mucus emptying, tear flowing events that it entails. Now, it didn’t last long. I fought like hell to forget everyone around me, yet social pressure ultimately prevailed and I cut my catharsis a little short. But for 15 seconds I was as vulnerable as a child. And I rather anticipated it. I haven’t run this race in almost 4 years, and that’s all due to the stuff I’ve mentioned at length. There was a time I thought I’d be permanently succumbed to my eating disorder and that I’d never be able to run again. I certainly didn’t think I’d qualify for the Boston Marathon again, at least not on my initial return to the distance that saw my introduction to this sport. Much like the events of the first week of this year, my tears at the finish were not of sadness, but of overwhelming joy, pride, and hope. No, I didn’t snag a PR. I’m probably a little ways from being in as good of shape as I was when I ran that fast all those years ago. But this time around I’m on the upswing. I’m not spiraling downward, right on the precipice of losing any semblance of control as I was 4 years ago. So I can build on this race and keep improving. And certainly not just physically. I can assure you that I’ll be even more successful at crying should that need arise at my first attempt to break 2:50 this fall. A mental, hell, even spiritual PR, if you will.

And I’ll be damned if I don’t find another peanut butter-banana-bagel sandwich.