One Step At a Time

Today, January 31, 2011, I ran 26.2 miles.  At one time.  Most people call that a marathon.  I call it insanity.

As I was running, I had quite a few thoughts running through my blonde little head (it did take me 5:33:15, which is a great amount of time alone to think).  I thought I would describe how I felt while running and some of the things I saw:

First, a map of where I ran. Every single time I look at this it makes me want to crawl in a box, be put in my closet and hide forever.  I don’t even drive 26.2 miles a week, let alone RUN that far.

Mile 1-4:

We were running through “The Heights”. I use this term loosely, because it was THE GHETTO. My friend Jack (we started and ended the race together, although I didn’t see him from mile 2- mile 24.5) said it best when he stated: “I’m not afraid of the rain or the heat, I’m afraid we’re going to get shot in the first 4 miles.”  There were Elvis impersonators, families sitting on the roofs of their dilapidated homes, cheering and eating fried chicken.  I was offered at least 2 buckets of chicken during the first 20 minutes of running. It was lightly misting in the first 2 miles, nothing too intense for a first time marathoner.  Also, did any of you know that it’s really  hilly in the Heights? I didn’t, and wasn’t prepared for this. By mile 3 it was raining so hard I had to take off my sunglasses (which had been shielding my eyes from the rain, not blocking the sun), because I couldn’t see out of them anymore. The spectators were awesome over here (they were truly fantastic everywhere), and we passed two schools that had tons of kids out there cheering for us.  It made me happy that people were involving their children in their community.  Very neat. And I’m proud to say I didn’t walk a single step of any of these miles.

Mile 5-9: 

The spectators were best here. Loud and out of control, just how I like my adoring fans. By this time the rain was pelting, the roads were slippery, and I saw many people start to walk, but BOTH sides of the road were loaded with screaming fans.  Many had water, Gatorade, orange slices, and candy. My mom had told me she was between mile 8 and mile 9 (she had Sadie of course, who was really upset by the time I got to her because she did not enjoy being in the rain). I found a pace team from Luke’s Locker that I had been keeping up with and they were paced to finish at 4:45. I ran with them all the way through mile 5- mile 9. Two of my favorite race moments happened over here, as well as 2 of my favorite signs.

The first favorite moment was when I saw my mom and Sadie.  Sadie was pissed, but my mom was smiling, taking my photo, and she had apple slices for me (I was starving because I hadn’t eaten since 4:30 am). It meant so much to me that she would come watch me in the pouring rain, and drive in to watch something that could essentially be contrived as boring (watching people run for hours on end isn’t my idea of Sunday Funday).  The other favorite moment (and my favorite moment of the entire race [after running across the finish line, of course]), was at mile 9, when I heard my name, looked up and saw Megan (my running partner, co-worker and best friend) as she was turning around at the Half Marathon loop, she ran across the median, gave me a hug and kiss, asked me if I was okay (because I have been really really sick), and a high-five. It was great encouragement, because at that point the crowd was thinning out and I was starting to hit the first of 2 walls. As she ran the other way, I got tears in my eyes (not sure if it was because I was cramping or because it meant so much to me ), it was one of those great moments that I’ll never forget.

Because there were so many spectators, I obviously read their signs for encouragement.  My two favorite ones were along this stretch of race (I wanted to take a photo with my phone, but the rain was so heavy, I was afraid it would ruin my phone and I would left music-less and without my GPS.  The first one was on a sopping wet piece of gangly cardboard in orange marker and read:

WORST 
PARADE 
EVER 
Maybe it’s because I was tired, but this made me laugh out loud, for a good 30 seconds.
The second sign that really cracked me up was at the end of mile 9 after I had crossed 59 and was heading into the Museum District (my hood), when I was about ready to quit and turn and just do the 1/2 marathon.  It was a lone man, about 35 years old, holding a drenched white piece of poster board and in black scribbled hand writing it said:
Oh, you thought
they said
“Rum”?

Clearly you can see why I was amused.  Because I like booze. And hadn’t been drinking to prepare for the race (good choice, by the way).
As I neared the end of this stretch, I was exhausted, and was really tempted to call my mom, have her pick me up and take me home, and quit the whole she-bang. Of course I didn’t do that, and ran all the way to mile 9.5.
Mile 10-15: 

I hit the first wall. The rain wasn’t letting up, my hamstrings were cramping, and I was still really congested.  Thank goodness my mom purchased THIS inhaler for me, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to breathe the entire race.  Once I hit Main Street, that runs along the edge of Rice and the Medical center, I lost it.  I didn’t care if there were hot doctors watching. I could not run (I power walked and jogged when I could). The puddles were bad here (keep in mind my Vibrams are lacking in traction), and there was some spilled gravel that I could feel with every single step. There was a marching band at mile 10.5 that got me to run for a about a quarter of a mile, but I was dying.  If any of the bars had been open in the Village, I would have stopped. I ate these Energy Beans (I don’t know if they really work, they taste the exact same to me as a regular Jelly Belly) while running down university right before I crossed Kirby, and that gave me a little pick me up.  Once you cross Kirby, the spectators picked up again. . .AND HOW! From mile 12.5 to 13.25 both sides of the street was lined with American flags, and tons and tons of families with small children that live in West U. I probably saw 15 kids with lemonade stands, or passing out oranges and candy.  As you ran past West U Elementary, the crowds were unreal. There were dancers, singers, and a giant sign that said “Bolivia” (I think I missed this reference, in my deep runners concentration). It was neat to see the West U community come out with their kiddos, and a great neighborhood atmosphere. I was still struggling, but managed to run for about 6 minutes, and then walk for 3 along the mile 12.5 to mile 13.25 stretch.  I saw a sign around mile 12.5 that read “only 5.3 miles to go (if you take the most direct route)“. This was defeating and humorous all at the same time.
When I approached 14 there were Blues Brothers impersonators, and I had my first “break down”.  I was about to pass my favorite cookie bakery in Houston, and I guess I had that on my mind, because I saw a man passing out what looked like Chips Ahoy! Chewy Chocolate cookies straight out of the packaging. I cut across to the west side of the street like a maniac, and screamed at the man “OH MY GOSH I NEED A COOKIE!“.  Turns out he was holding a bag of Jolly Ranchers (blue bag, like the cookies, so you could how I was confused). I apologized and asked him if he had any cookies.  He looked at me like I was nuts (I was- the rain was starting to really wear on my enthusiasm and sanity). By mile 15, I had hit a wall again. The worst wall.
Mile 16-20:

Once I crossed under 6-10  on Weslayan, I was having to stop and stretch every half mile or so. By mile 16 my calves, hamstrings, and left shoulder were hurting. Not little pain you can push through, but throbbing pain that makes you wonder if your legs are on the verge of falling right off. I took so long, that my mom texted me the following (she and Sadie had moved over to my church [St. Martin’s {fun fact: my membership teacher and the Rector Dr. Levenson gave the opening prayer for the entire marathon this morning}] on Sage and Woodway).  She later told me that she hadn’t seen me, I had slowed from my 9 minute miles from the first half, and she saw an ambulance speed by and then pull into the St. Martin’s parking lot, so she had thought I had gotten hurt or kicked the bucket:

About that time, I received a couple of other texts from friends, asking me where I was, which made me want to kick it up a notch, but I just couldn’t move. The worst stretch of the entire race was down Post Oak and then up Tanglewood.  Around mile 16.5 I heard someone yelling my name from behind me. I turned around and it was my sorority sister Trisha (who I met through our alum group in Houston).  She was trucking along, and encouraged me to do so as well.  I kicked it into second gear, and ran with her for about half a mile, but had to stop for my 3rd port-o-let break, as the Jelly Beans and apples had finally hit my stomach. Here’s a fun little tidbit about these outdoor potties: I don’t have a sense of smell, but I walked into it and almost barfed- the air was thick, humid, and you could just tell that hundreds of sweaty people had been in there. I held my breath and was finished with my business in less than 30 seconds (thankfully I had a tissue, because it was completely out of toilet paper). I also stopped outside the port-o-johns, and stretched, which really helped. I knew my mom was worried, so I tried to get my rear into gear, but moving my body was like pulling dead animal through the mud, it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t going to happen fast.  The rain was finally letting up at this point, so once I hit Woodway, I started a rapid jog again. I saw my mom and Sadie standing in front of my beautiful church (where she gave me blood orange slices [I ate the entire thing] and asked if I was alright), and I also saw some people in my Young Adults Bible study group passing out oranges, and some of my friends from the adult choir, so that was a nice pick-me-up. By the time I hit the Omni Hotel, the cramps were getting worse again, so I power walked from mile 19.5 to mile 20 (basically the 6-10 loop at Memorial [I found it funny that I don’t drive outside “the loop” except for church, board meetings, and to go to the airport, yet I spent over an hour running the streets of the Galleria area]). I started running with the 5:15 pace group again at mile 20, but over all, this stretch had me wanting to quit 5 or 6 times.
Mile 21-24:
I knew I was down the home stretch, and had run this course twice this season when I did the Houston Half and the HMSA Classical 25k, so I was confident in my abilities to run this on tired legs. And here is my only complaint about the spectators the entire race: between mile 21 to mile 23, I had no less than 5 people that I didn’t know say to me “Avery, you’re almost there, it’s right around the corner”. Guess what? I’ve never run more than 18.7 miles in my life, and these last 6 miles are not going to go quickly. Thankfully, I was with a group of about 8 people pacing at 5:15, which was perfect, because I stop and stretch every three quarters of a mile and still be able to catch back up with them.  The pace leader of the group was a man named Arlen who had completed 33 consecutive Houston Marathons, and had been in attendance for every marathon since it’s inception (he was 66 years old and a bad ass). I knew that Casey Jo and Sarah (along with other people from Protiviti) were at mile 24.5, and that they would have mimosas and beer (obviously, these are my best girl friends we’re talking about), and would be a great source of encouragement. CJ was kind enough to snap the following photos of me coming at them:
See if you can spot me. . .
Here I am with Sarah, who joined me.
I felt really terrible, after CJ smacked my butt, and everyone with their company cheered for me (thanks y’all, I felt so special!), and offered me beers (I declined, that’s how they knew I was really hurting), Sarah offered to run with me as far as I wanted her to.  I thanked her, put my headphones back on, and kept pounding the pavement.  about one eighth of a mile into our jog together, she said “do you want me to stop and leave you alone.” My face must have said it all, because I thanked her and she dropped off. About that time, my friend from Tech (Jack), who I started the race with had caught up to me, and we started to run at a pretty fast pace, up and down the hills of Allen Parkway (if you’re a Houstonian, you don’t realize how hilly that stretch of road is until you’re running it). This was a fun stretch, and I kept a great pace, and had a nice time.
Mile 25:
Jack and I were booking it. We kept up conversation, but were pacing around a 9 minute mile. At this point it hurt just as much to walk as it did to run, so we ran. There weren’t many spectators along this, except near Eleanor Tinsley Park, where there seemed to be an entire Indian Reservation. The quiet was almost helpful, as I was really trying to focus on making it to the finish line.
Mile 26- 26.2:
I got a cramp around mile 25.75 and started to walk.  Jack turned around and told me I could do it, but I couldn’t.  It felt like someone was taking a sledgehammer to my hamstring, and making my muscle spasm (I could see it flinching with every step I took). So I walked from mile 25.75 to mile 26. It was then I saw the curve where you run into the home stretch and the finish line, could hear the crowds cheering, and could hear the announcer calling peoples names. I put my rear into my highest gear, and literally sprinted the last two-tenths of a mile.  I counted 8 people that I passed down the last stretch, and the photos that my mom took definitely prove that- my strides were tremendously long, and my face is pained. I crossed the finish line and felt one of the most amazing senses of accomplishment that I have ever felt.  When I walked across the finish line to get my photo taken, a woman said to me “did you see all those people you passed? That was amazing!”  After my last burst of energy, I finished only about 5 seconds after Jack,  which is a good indicator of how fast I hauled it. I didn’t think that my mom was going to be at the finish (my sense of time was warped), so I was excited to know that she saw me finish.
Post-Race: I could hardly move.  Before the race they weighed me in at 137.6, and immediately after I finished they weighed me in 134.9, which the medic told me was the perfect amount to lose, and that I had been hydrating and eating properly (although I was STARVING). This is where the post-race process really got to me- if you want food, you have to give them your ticket and then wind through this maze of gates to get to where there are 5 different food stations.  The only thing I wanted was a big slice of greasy pizza.  That was not to be.  They handed me a banana, some crackers, and then the hot food arrived.  It was everything to make a breakfast burrito, but my station had run out of potatoes and tortillas. I asked if I could go to a different line and get a tortilla and a scoop of potatoes, and they firmly told me not to get out of line. I asked if they could get me a tortilla to at least go with my sausage and egg, and she said no (there was only one person in my line behind me!).  I also grabbed a yogurt, picked up my finisher shirt, and beer mug (yes please!) and then walked out to the reunion area.  Apparently that area was too full, and they wouldn’t let my mom in, but I had to eat, because I was on the verge of passing out.  I sat smack in the middle of the floor (where I’m sure a port-o-let had been sitting not 4 hours earlier), and ate with my yogurt spoon my eggs and sausage.  About 30 seconds after I wolfed it down, I realized I couldn’t get back up.  I found a nice lady to throw away my trash, and then asked a woman if her husband could help me stand up because I was shaking so badly.  At that point I called my mom, told her to meet me at an appointed spot outside, and we headed to her car.  Apparently I didn’t smell like roses, because I took my shoes off and mom drove all the way home with the windows down (although I know she secretly liked my sweaty stench). Once back to my building, my mom forced me to shower (I just wanted to lay on the floor and sleep), and then I napped for two uncomfortable hours.
This day has reminded me to be thankful for a myriad of things (including, but not limited to): my amazing mom who drove in to see me and put up with my wet dog who I so dearly wanted to watch me (clearly Sadie had no clue what was going on), my amazing friends, the kindness of strangers who encouraged me/gave me food/water/Gatorade/etc., my health, the beautiful (although rainy today) City of Houston which I saw in a completely different way, and of course the mental and physical health to complete 5+ hours of grueling exercise.  I will say that without a doubt running a marathon is significantly more difficult for me than doing triathlons (I completed 5 triathlons in 2010), but I loved the feeling of being on the road with no one but yourself to push you to your physical and mental limits. I’m the least athletic person I know, and if I can run a marathon, anyone can. It’s really not so bad if you just take it like everything else in life. . .one step at a time.
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