I slowly awaken to the short, stabbing tones coming from my alarm clock. After a few typical moments of disorientation, I abruptly sit up in bed, suddenly very awake. It’s just after 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday. But it’s the day of my first half-marathon. I’m kind of surprised at how excited I feel. I go bounding out of bed, to the kitchen and the coffee maker. I think twice about coffee, given I’m about to embark on a couple of hours of running. I decide on a small glass of juice instead. I change into my “kit,” eat some fruit, and I’m on my way.
Almost downtown, and so many people! All are walking toward the starting area. The starting area is nuts–about 15,000 people are here for either the half-marathon or the marathon. Everyone is smiling with a bounce in their step. So this is what these long runs are like. Full of happy people looking forward to a challenge. I weave my way through the crowd to what I think is an appropriate spot in the starting area. I can’t see the starting line, but I’m sure it’s up there somewhere.
It’s 7:00 a.m., the gun sounds, and we’re off. Well, sort of. Given the mass of people, I’m not going anywhere just yet. After a minute or so, we start walking forward. Everyone still seems so excited. Then we start jogging! And then we stop. False alarm, of sorts. Now we’re just starting any stopping … almost like being in morning commuter traffic. Finally we’re off.
The first mile or so of a crowded race is always a bit dicey. So many people packed together, some wanted to run quickly out of the blocks, some taking their time. My first mile split wasn’t very good–over 9:00, I think–but considering the crowd and navigation issues, I’m not upset about it. I start finding nice, open pockets to stretch the legs out and go, which is good. As we run down toward the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, I’m feeling good. After getting a couple of miles under foot, my pace is picking up and the legs feel strong. I’m still surprised at how excited I am about this.
The walkers start to get annoying. While I have nothing against people electing to walk, I wonder why so many felt they should start near the front. The thing about walkers is that they walk in packs; rarely is there just one person walking. And they tend to walk side-by-side so they can talk, which makes them harder to pass. Fortunately, after passing the two-mile mark I seem to have left them behind.
As we loop around and head back downtown, we hit the 5-mile mark. I’m now running farther than ever before in a race. Feeling a little tired, but think I’ll be okay. As we get downtown, there are more people packing the sides of the street to watch the runners. It’s a great pick-me-up. I find myself lengthening my stride a bit and picking up the pace, not because I feel good but because I want the crowd to think I do this all the time. There’s a couple of guys snapping official race photos. I hope I don’t look too fat.
Later, I’m over 8 miles into this thing, and we’re running by St. Louis University. It’s interesting … I’ve driven these streets hundreds of times, and I’ve never really thought about the hills. St. Louis downtown streets don’t have steep hills, but rather long, gradual, punishing inclines. My legs are starting to send me “just what are you trying to prove” messages. Then I’m past St. Louis University, running down Forest Park Parkway. Jesus, what the hell am I doing in the Central West End? And I’ve still got over 4 miles to go? Are they sure the distances are right?
Someone goes flying past me, and I wonder how anyone still has that much energy at this stage of the race. Then I notice their race number with “Relay” written above. The full marathon has a relay division, where a team runs the marathon and each team member only runs a few miles of the race. Hence the speed and energy level at this stage when those like me are clearly starting to suffer. Relay participant or not, I really don’t need to see anyone sprinting at this point. As this guy gets farther and farther away, I decide the “Relay Division” should be renamed the “Asshole Division.”
Now the course has turned around for the half-marathoners, which the marathoners continue on toward Clayton. I have a fleeting pang of sympathy for the full marathon people. Clayton hills are pretty harsh. But the ever-growing pain in my legs pulls me back into full self-absorption. My quads are on fire and my calves … I’m not sure how to describe my calves. Remember that scene in “Alien” where that gross little alien pops out of the dude’s chest? That’s kind of how each of my calves feel.
I’m over 10 miles into the race when I become conscious of the pain on the bottom of my right foot. Apparently someone managed to slip a cheese grater into my shoe, because I feel like there’s no skin left. I knew I should have bought new shoes. Stupid! I could try to hop on my left leg for a while, but I think it might fall off out of spite. I keep going. Ever more slowly.
I’ve passed the 11-mile marker and am almost up the latest hill. The hill is not particularly steep, but it might as well be Mount Kiliman-fucking-jaro. Christ, this sucks. There’s an old guy near the top of the hill. He looks like Santa Claus. He’s cheering us on, and saying we’re almost up this hill and it’s the last one. If my right foot wasn’t on fire and my calves weren’t about to explode, it would be nicer to hear. But I take some measure of relief.
I can see the 12-mile marker. All I want to do it walk for a while. Actually, that’s not true. I want to fall down and not move for a few days. All of a sudden … what the hell? Last hill my ass! Why am I running uphill again?!? If it didn’t involve running more distance–which I clearly don’t have the strength to do–I might just turn around and find that fat, white-haired prick who said the previous hill was the last one. I starting to feel like I might pass out or puke. Maybe both. Not sure in what order.
At some point I have this vague notion that I’ve crossed the finish line. I can’t feel my legs and my vision is so blurry I can’t see where I’m going. After a moment I realize my eyes are okay; the kaleidoscope view I’m getting is from the moisture on my sunglasses, though I’m not sure if the source is sweat or tears. I’m trying to get to the recovery area where there is food and water. I’ve never wanted a glass of water so badly in my life. I’m bumping into a lot of people and things.
I finally get through the recovery line, and have gathered food and bottled water. There’s one more booth. And it’s for beer. I take an 8-ounce cup of beer, feeling quite certain it will get me drunk given my level of fatigue and dehydration.
Once back to my car, I fall into it and somehow manage to get home. I park in front of my house, turn the car off, open the door, and realize I can’t move my legs. My legs are so stiff. Rigor mortis stiff. Al Gore 2000 election-persona stiff. I almost have to pick them up with my hands to move them forward to walk. I think if I do nothing but stretch for the next three days I might be able to walk by mid-week.
I collapse on the couch. My early morning enthusiasm has been replaced by just being thankful I’m still alive. Amazingly, my last thought before passing out is about signing up for a full marathon in the fall.