When I got off of the AT, I didn’t go back to the Boston area where I’d been living. Instead, I returned to my hometown in central Massachusetts.
Sitting on the train to Boston (the first stop on my way to the marathon), I realized that my hometown was still a relatively quiet place, and that my parents house, nestled in the woods as it was, had given me a place to slowly return to civilization. Boston with all of its bright lights, crowds, and city noise was going to be more like bowling into a wall of civilization. Returning to Boston was also returning for a visit to a place that I’d called home. It was a place where I’d felt completely comfortable just 5 months before, but now it felt foreign and strange. I wasn’t a stranger in a strange land, I was a stranger in my home land.
When my friend told me that she was going to meet me at the train station to cross the city with me, I had thought that she was being ridiculous. Boston was my town, I wouldn’t have any trouble crossing it. She was right though, having a friend with me as I crossed the city helped me feel a little more connected to this place that I loved, but didn’t quite fit into anymore.
As I crossed Boston I was struck by the diversity of the city and the fact that Boston is still a melting pot where you can meet and talk to people from all over the world. I’d definitely missed that while I was on the trail. The Appalachian Mountains and the small towns bordering them didn’t sport much diversity and they certainly don’t have an international flair. I kept thinking about the movie, “I see dead people”, and how a movie about the trail could be titled, “I see white people.” According to the national park service in their “Use and Users Of the Appalachian Trail” guide for 2000, 97% of thru-hikers are white (the next biggest group is Asian at 1.4%). My hometown isn’t too much better when it comes to diversity. According to city-data.com, 93% of it’s population is white (3.6% is Hispanic). In the city of Cambridge where I was sitting and reflecting about all of this 61% of the population is white, 17% is Asian, and 11% is black, and in Boston itself 46% of the population is white, 23% is black, and 18% is Latino. I love the Appalachian mountains, but I’m not sure I could settle down someplace where there is so little diversity and where you only see white people.
The next day I flew into DC to spend some time with friends there before the Marathon. Sitting on the metro I was reminded that it’s not just Boston, but cities in general that have more diverse populations (DC is 50% black, 35% white, and 9.5% Hispanic). I wondered if running as a sport, and if the Marine Corps Marathon in particular, would have a more diverse crowd than thru-hiking. Before I had a chance to get too lost in my thoughts about issues of sports, race, socio-economic status, and privilege, I was swept up in the marathon madness and the preparation for the race.
The first race related thing we had to do was pick up our bib-numbers. We got off of the train and joined the crowd as it oozed out of the metro and towards the bib pickup line. The bib pickup line snaked out of the building, zig-zagged across the lawn, and disappeared down the road to the left. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, and giggled as we started walking down the road in search of the end of the line. It all just seemed ridiculous, there were so many people standing there in that line, and it was only a very small fraction of the 30,000 people signed up to run the race in the morning. This was definitely a far cry from the solitary existence I’d been living for the last 5 months. I wondered if by the time the race was over I’d be completely used to being around people again, even if I wasn’t used to the rest of societies amenities.
We followed the line down the block (about the length of a football field) and around the corner searching for its end, but there was none in sight. I asked somebody where the end was, and they pointed to the center of a field undulating with masses of people and said, “somewhere in there.” The line had run out of road to follow and had coiled up into a mess of loops and folds in the middle of the field. Perhaps Halloween was influencing my thoughts, but it reminded me of the way the small intestine coils up within the cramped confines of our bellies. Within the field and somewhere in that mass of humanity was the end of the line, and we needed to find it.
I started cutting through the field asking people where the end was, but nobody was sure. After trying to find the end of the line for 5 or 10 minutes without success, I tried a new strategy. I started asking people how long they’d been in line, and figured the people that had been in line for the least amount of time would lead me to the end of the line. The first people I asked had been in the line for 30 minutes, but eventually I found the people that had only been in line for three minutes, and finally, after an additional five minutes of searching, I found the end of the line and got into it. I once again marveled at how ridiculous this whole thing was. Somehow I’d expected something associated with the US Marines to be more organized. At least the line was moving quickly, and after an hour and a half we had or numbers and our bibs.
Unfortunately we weren’t done with the crazy lines yet, we had to wait in yet another line to get into the expo to get our race shirts. That line turned out to be shorter, and in about 30 minutes we got into the expo and got our shirts. My brothers and I had hoped to purchase official marathon jackets at the expo, but while we’d been standing in those long lines, all of the official marathon gear had sold out. It was a frustrating start to the marathon weekend, but at least we had everything we needed and could take the rest of the day to relax with friends and family.
As I went to bed that evening I thought back to Katahdin eve and compared it to how I was feeling now, on marathon eve. I was excited and nervous about running the marathon the next morning, but I hadn’t put in the months and years of training that most people do, or that I had for Katahdin. I hoped that I would finish the marathon, but I wasn’t confident that
I would, I’d never done anything like this before. The night before Katahdin I was prepared to do it, had trained for it, was confident I could do it, but was nervous that some unforeseen something would spoil the thing that I’d worked so hard for. This felt more like the night before a final exam that I hadn’t studied for, where I wasn’t prepared for it, but thought that I would probably do ok on it anyway because I was good at taking tests. Even though I was nervous about jumping into the middle of 30,000 people and trying to run my first marathon, I was excited that I was going to be doing it with my brothers, and that we were going to have friends and family supporting us all of the way.
I woke up at 5 am on the morning of the race and got ready to go. It felt a lot like getting up early and preparing for a 20+ mile hike on the trail. This might be because I was defaulting to my normal hiking strategies. Every morning on the trail I had slathered my feet with my anti-chaffing stick, put on my hiking socks, my hiking shirt, and my hiking hat, and got ready to go. It felt somewhat comforting to go through those exact same motions as I prepared for the marathon. When I was done with that, I put on my brand new running pants and my brand new running shoes. I was a little nervous about the running shoes since I’d never run in them before, but I hoped that running would be like hiking and I could get away with it. I’d gotten away with breaking in new hiking shoes with 20+ mile days and a full pack on the trail and walked away without blisters, so it at least seemed possible that my feet might survive a marathon in new shoes.
As we made our way in darkness to the runners village, I wished that I’d had more time to train and had taken the running shoes out for at least a trial run. On the plus side though, I knew that I didn’t have to hike or run the next day or even the day after. I had lots of experience walking through the pain of mega-blisters, so I was confident that I’d be able to run through similar pain if I had to, especially if it was just going to be for one day.
After walking about three miles we arrived at the runners village, which was nothing more than a couple of lit tents, a few hundred porta-potties, and the drop off trucks for runner’s belongings. We had worried about the crowds so we were there early, and we were cold… Very cold… We had nothing to do for the next hour and a half except stand in the massive lines for the porta-potties, wait for the race to start, and try to stay warm. We huddled like penguins around the tents as we tried to get warm, allowing ourselves to take comfort in the delusion that light meant warmth. Eventually the sky pinkened and the sun started to come up. With 30,000 of our new closest friends we began the long process of making our way to the starting line.
As we walked, people talked with the strangers next to them about other marathons they’d run, about their training regiments, and about the times they were hoping to get in this marathon. I listened quietly to the babble around me and didn’t contribute much since I hadn’t run any marathons before, and my longest training run was 4 miles, nothing like the longest training runs of 17 or 18 miles that people were lamenting about and feared were so woefully inadequate. I felt a bit out of place, but my brothers were there with me and we reassured each other that we would make it, that we could push through and finish the marathon even though we hadn’t trained as much as we’d hoped.
I had no idea what sort of pace I was going to be able to sustain for a marathon, so I lined up with my brother in the corral for the 5:30-6:00 completion time and with the 5:30 pacer. I figured if I stayed with them I should at least be able to finish the marathon, and a 12:30 minute/mile seemed like something I could do (at least at the beginning of the race). I thought that I could probably do 10 minute miles at least for a while, but I didn’t want to slow people down if I couldn’t sustain that pace. It felt somehow more socially responsible to put myself at the back of the pack where hopefully I wouldn’t negatively impact the race for anybody that had poured their hearts and souls into training for it for the past few months.
I was shivering, my teeth chattering, when the Howitzer finally went off in the distance to signal that the race had begun. The crowd in front of me didn’t move. It was at least five minutes after the Howitzer went off before we slowly started inching forward, and another 15 minutes of walking before we reached the starting line. At last we were off!
My brother and I wove through the crowds side by side for the first mile and then the second mile. We were constantly avoiding people that were walking and avoiding the piles of clothing that runners had taken off as they warmed up and just thrown down in the road. On more than one occasion I was tempted to pick up a pair of gloves in the street because my hands were still really cold. Sometime around mile 3 I dodged to the right around some walkers and my brother dodged to the left and I lost him in the crowd. From then on I was lost in the crowds, lost in my thoughts, lost in my body, and lost in my marathon.
It felt good to be running, and it was exciting to be running with so many other people. Weaving around the other people on the course felt a little bit like weaving through the trees on the trail, though the people didn’t do nearly as good a job of staying still. While the road was wide I could do a reasonable job of maintaining my pace while avoiding other people. I was having a great time!
At the beginning of the race I’d turned on runtastic so that the folks from home could follow my progress. At the one mile mark and the two mile mark, runtastic and the mile markers on the course were fairly synchronized and in agreement about how far I’d run. As the roads narrowed and the crowds thickened I was forced to zig-zag back and forth across the road to avoid the walkers while still making forward progress. Runtastic counted those zig-zags as part of my total mileage and soon it was announcing the mile markers well before those marked on the course (by the end of the marathon my zigzagging had added more than 2 miles to my overall distance, mostly in the first half of the race). The crowds became more frustrating than exciting at times, especially when you were walled in by walkers and all you wanted to do was run. I wished that there was a general racing rule that said that if you were going to walk you should shift to the righthand side of the course so that faster people could go by you without posing any danger to you or to themselves. It seems like it would be an easy thing to establish in running culture and would ease a lot of the frustration that many people were struggling with.
As I made my way down the race course and through the crowds of runners, I looked at the sea of humanity surging around me and the chilling phrase, “I see white people,” came back to haunt me. Almost all of the runners I saw around me were white. It seemed that there was a little bit more diversity than there had been on the Appalachian Trail, but not much. Even though I haven’t been able to find statistics specifically about the Marine Corps Marathon, I did find an article about Race and Marathons that cited a national survey that suggested that 90% of marathoners are white, 5.1% are Hispanic, 3.9% are Asian, and 1.6% are black. Thinking about this as I ran through our nations capital I was reminded that even though our country has been making progress when it comes to issues of race, gender, and equality, we still have a long way to go.
In this race, I too had a long way to go. I breezed past the 4 mile mark, and was still feeling good. I laughed a little bit at myself because here I was, at mile five of a marathon, and this was the furthest I’d run in at least five years. Miles 6, 7, 8, and 9 all breezed by and I was still feeling great! I kept smiling, but wondered if I could actually keep this pace up for the entire marathon.
Somewhere around mile 10 the balls of my feet started hurting. It reminded me of the way my feet had hurt after 20+ miles of hiking over rocky trail when I wasn’t used to it. Even though every step hurt, I kept running. I had less than 20 miles to go, this reassured me. I also knew that I could hike through this kind of pain, and was confident I could run through it. The pain meant, however, that my running was no longer as effortless as it had been, and the miles stopped breezing by quite as quickly. I had made it so far already that I was determined to run and not walk at all until I finished the first half of the marathon. Surely I could push myself that far, and then I’d allow myself to walk for a few minutes in the hopes that it would alleviate some of the pain.
The scenery was incredible, and there were people cheering me on the whole way. There was one sign in particular that made me smile, it said “blisters are Braille for awesome.” One of the friends on the course cheering me on was blind, and my first thought was that I should show him the sign because he’d appreciate it, though I quickly realized that that would be silly since he wouldn’t be able to see it… I’d have to remember to tell him about it later.
I made it to mile 11 and was still feeling pretty good, and seeing my friends there gave me an additional boost. They had signs cheering both Jocelyn and Patches on. It was great to have their support and to know that they were supporting both the old me and the new me, and that they understood that I hadn’t sorted all of that out yet. Before I knew it I was at mile 12 and I was hungry! It was definitely time for a snack, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to eat any of the food I had. What to do, what to do? Right before mile 13 they had a goo and water station. I was irritated that it came right before the half marathon point, and not after, but I slowed down to get a goo and some water anyway. Fully refueled, I cruised through the half marathon point with an official time of 2 hours and 22 minutes at a pace of 10:50 minute miles. I was, at that point, well ahead of both the 5:30 and the 5:00 pacer and doing much better than I’d anticipated.
I kept jogging through miles 14 and 15, but my pace was definitely slowing. I was having tons of fun absorbing all of the energy of the crowds and runners and excercising my body, but there was no doubt that I was hurting. My feet still hurt like heck, and the combination of goo and Gatorade had made me nauseous without managing to diminish my hunger, but I kept jogging and kept smiling. I was glad that I’d long since learned how to compartmentalize the pain so that it didn’t keep me from having fun and enjoying myself at the same time.
By mile 17, I’d added a little bit of walking into the mix, hoping it would alleviate the nausea and foot pain, but every time I got to a new mile marker I’d start running again and keep going until I couldn’t run anymore. My quads and calves started to feel tight and I occasionally joined the people attempting to stretch a little by the sidelines. The course was going through the national mall and the awesomeness of being there with all of those people drowned out most of the pain in my body and kept me moving and smiling.
At around mile 19, my pesky knee started to be a real problem. The aching in my feet had been going on so long that I’d pretty much tuned it out, and I was able to jog through all of the rest of it, but the shooting pain in my right knee was definitely a problem. I stopped and readjusted my knee braces, but it didn’t seem to matter, my right knee was not happy. I limped along to mile 20, still jogging more than walking, and was still way ahead of the 14 minute mile pace required to beat the cutoff at the bridge at 20 miles. From this point forward I knew that I’d be able to finish the marathon even if I slowed to a walk for the rest of the way. I wanted to run as much of the marathon as I could though.
I slowed to a walk to take a quick break, but when I went to switch back to a jog my knee collapsed under me… That wasn’t good. I went back to a brisk walk and my knee was fine. After a half mile I tried to jog again, but my knee wasn’t having any of that nonsense. I thought about my poor knee and what I’d put it, and the rest of my body, through in the last few months. As long as I kept walking, I was going to make my goal for the day, to finish the marathon. I hadn’t trained properly for this marathon and was extremely grateful that my body performed as well as it had and that I’d run more that 13 straight miles, and that I was in good enough shape that I’d enjoyed the entire marathon so far. I didn’t want that to change, and even though I might have been able to force my knee to run, I decided to quit while I was ahead and to do what I was used to doing… Walk.
I walked from there to mile 25, enjoying the weather, the scenery, the people, and smiling all the way. I still wanted to finish strong, so I tried to start running again at mile 25 so that I could run the final mile of the race. Despite having walked the last few miles, my right knee absolutely was not willing to run anymore. I jogged maybe 10 steps before going back to a walk. At 26.0 miles I once again tried to jog, there was only 0.2 miles left, surely I could push through and get my knee to do that? No, my knee was not playing that game. I walked up the final hill until the finish line came into sight… I had an idea! I was going to trick my knee. I wasn’t going to try to jog or run the last 100 yards, I was going to do what I’ve been doing at the end of races since high school, I was going to sprint it!
Believe it or not, the rouse worked. I went straight from a walk to a sprint and I felt great. My knee didn’t make even a hint of protest, my legs hit their full stride and I felt like I was moving the way I should be moving, like the wind. I loved running. I love that moment when my body, my mind, and my heart are all in tune, working together to push and pull me forward, towards my goals, and towards whatever lies on the other side of those goals. Maybe running could fill some of the void that leaving the trail had created.
My brothers and I had all run the Marine Corps Marathon and finished it. We met up at the end, the metals hung around our necks, and beamed. We were walking stiffly and nursing our various injuries, but we’d done it, and we were extremely happy.
I finished the marathon with an official time of 5 hours and 33 minutes, just behind the 5:30 pacer that I’d started the marathon with. My feet and body had done everything I asked of them and more, they had earned a break, so I was going to take them to the sunny beaches of Florida for a vacation before I devised their next torment.