Kissing the Beehive
I was a runner, more specifically a sprinter, all throughout junior high and high school. I ran one season of cross-country and it was horribly painful for me. Even as I bemoaned those “long” 5K races, for some odd reason the marathon always intrigued me. I clearly remember thinking it was a distance I would most certainly attempt…well, “someday.”
After my final track meet as a graduating high school senior, I took a break from running. The break lasted 15 years—no races, no runs, no jogs. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I stopped running so adamantly, but that old idea of one day running a marathon certainly looked bleak.
15 years out of high school I was overweight and feeling sluggishly unhealthy. It was simple and instinctual how to fix this. Just…run.
A little over 10 months after sporadically starting to run again, I found myself in my first real race since high school—Philadelphia’s Broad Street Run. I crossed the 10 mile finish line and it marked the furthest distance I had ever run. It felt amazing and as I basked in the afterglow the following day, all I could think of was “so…now what?”
“As if you didn’t know that it would sting Kissing the beehive” —Spencer Krug, Wolf Parade
Then 6 months after that 10 miler, I did it. I’m a marathoner and I believe that’s something to be proud of. I learned a lot during those 26.2 miles—about my limits and what I was capable of—as things didn’t go exactly as planned. I thought I respected the marathon distance before I attempted it, but now I have a greater appreciation for the race and anyone who manages to cross the finish line.
The morning of the marathon I drove into Philadelphia alone in the darkness. On the way I played “Kissing the Beehive” by Wolf Parade a few times. I was in need of some inspirational music, dare I say “pump up” music, and this monster track came to my mind first. The lyric referenced above never hit me before like it did that morning—this was what I was about to experience. To get something sweet you often need to endure a sting. But how painful that sting would be, I had no idea at the time.
I will forever remember crossing the starting line and not being able to resist cracking a huge smile—I was finally doing this, finally running a marathon. My “someday” dream was coming true…now.
Early miles were spent weaving around downtown Philly and it was pretty congested, especially since the marathoners were running with the half marathoners as well. The crowds and their hilarious signs were great and kept me smiling. I was trying to keep tabs on my marathon goal pace with a homemade pace band. Every time I passed a mile marker on the street, I’d look down at my elapsed time on my GPS watch and compare it to the band—I figured this was the most accurate way to see how I was doing as GPS watches can be spotty in regards to distance traveled relative to a race course. I was falling behind a bit in the early miles (was it the crowded field?) and pushed a little to make it up, which I remember thinking is probably not a good sign. My pace this early in a marathon should almost be effortless. But I kept crusing along, anxious to get out of center city and hit the only major hills of the race out in West Philly after mile 7.
The hills here made me work but didn’t slow me down. The highlight of this section must have been the Drexel frat guys partying out on their front lawns, trying to hand out cans of horrible cheap beer (Genny Light). Thanks, but no thanks! Continuing on past the Please Touch Museum, there was a great group of oddly costumed dancers around mile 11 who were really entertaining. Some dude was dancing like a fool, wearing a diaper…God bless you, sir! I sailed past them into the halfway point at the Art Museum. Seeing signs for the half-ers instructing them to veer right to finish was kinda a mind blender—wow, I was one of the nuts who were only halfway done. However, I was right on schedule according to my pace band, in fact I was going a little faster. Now it was out to the Manayunk neighborhood and back for the second half.
Miles 13–15 were ok, but again I was feeling like I was working a little more than I should be at this point in the race. Then, between miles 15 and 16, it became abundantly clear…I was working too hard and my pace was going to start dropping.
Reviewing my pace trend, I held on essentialy until the 30K mark. Then began a clear and steady reduction in speed. I came into the Manayunk at mile 19 to see friends, family and colleagues waiting to cheer me on—which was great but unfortunately I was not feeling so good at this point. And after viewing the photos they took of me, yup, I was in bad shape.
Desperation mode started in Manayunk. I started to get very aggressive at the hydration stations, taking in as much as I could and dumping water on my head and body. I was just about shot at this point and I was really struggling to figure out how I was going to run another 10K. In any other situation, I would have absolutely stopped running…I was spent.
These miles were dark ones. They were really, really hard. I have never been that drained before, ever. My arms and head tingled and my legs felt lifeless. I had so little strength. At times I caught myself weaving back and forth, not being able to hold a straight line. Many, many people passed me…I felt pathetic. I was a poster child for first marathon pacing ignorance.
The best comparison to how I felt that I can think of is when you pull an all-nighter. If you try and stay up all night, you can drink coffee or Mountain Dew, but eventually around 5am you get to a point where you head is super fuzzy and you just feel “off.” Sure, you can go for a walk or drink another cup of Joe, but the only thing that will really fix you is sleep. In this case, I could eat gels or drink Gatorade or splash water on my face—but the only thing that would really fix me would be to stop running.
Stop…running? Am I actually considering this?
It was during these miles I began to get scared that I couldn’t go on…and I grappled with what a failure that would be. I have been training for months for this race and now I was going to have to stop and take a breather!? WTF. I thought about my friends, family and colleagues that were watching my progress—anxiously awaiting me to cross the finish. I could not stop, nor could I walk. I worked too hard for this race. I PAID for this—with money, miles, countless beads of sweat. There‘s no guarantees in life, no promise that I ever will get the opportunity to run a marathon again. So I wasn’t going to walk or take a break…I was going to run these 26.2 miles.
One moment I did feel a little bit better was when I passed a fellow runner sprawled out on the grass next to the course, with a team of medics attending to him. “Well, at least I’m doing better than THAT guy,” I lamented.
Meeting “The Wall”
The last 3 miles went from really tough to insanely tough. I did not stop or walk, but these miles show a considerable dip in pace. I met “The Wall,” for real. The odd thing during these miles was that I recall noticing aerobically, I was fine. I was breathing easy, no huffing or puffing. But my body was drained of energy and I could barely run, scrapping along by mustering just enough mental power to convince myself to keep going. I prayed for strength.
I remembering being so desperate to see new mile markers. I finally hit mile 25 and then I felt a cramping spasm in my right calf muscle. This was completely foreign to me, I knew cramps were a common marathon downfall but I had never experienced them myself during training.
“Oh…no” I panicked. “DO NOT let cramps stop you a mile from the ^*$%@=^ finish!”
I pushed on, even trying to accelerate a bit. The cramps came back a minute later, now extending throughout areas in both my legs. Again I truly felt scared, scared of cramping up a mile away from the finish and being forced to stop.
“NO. WAY.” I told myself and pushed on.
I made it to the end, completely drained in every sense, but had enough awareness to raise my limp arms as I crossed the finish line—I was a marathoner!
You think a lot about crossing the finish line of your first marathon during the long months of training. What would it feel like to conquer 26.2 miles? Would a rush of empowerment and accomplishment wash over me like nothing before? Would I explode with a celebratory scream? Would I breakdown and uncontrollably shed tears of joy?
In the end, it was pretty anticlimactic. I felt relieved to be done, extremely thankful to have made it. I was so happy I kept running and made it to the end. Other than that—I was just thirsty and hungry as hell.
“If you want to run, then run a mile. If you want to experience another life, run a marathon.” —Emil Zátopek
I flamed out. I flew too close to the sun and burned up. Although closely following my gameplan, I went out too fast, with “banking” a little time in my head (even though I knew it was a common pitfall) and I paid for it. If I had been more conservative on the front half, I probably wouldn’t have crashed so hard in those final 3 miles and would have ended up with a better time.
In retrospect, I find true beauty in my effort. Although I did my best to educate myself about the distance beforehand, I ran like a child. Blind to danger, ignorant of pitfalls. I ran with a pure heart, to do the absolute best I could do. Sure, in the end it burned me and caused me to suffer much, much more than I ever have before racing. But to run like a child again…that’s priceless.
After mile 18, I knew I was screwed. But somehow, somehow I kept running…for 8 more miles. I have never felt more drained or exhausted…but I kept running. Yes, I slowed down miserably in those last 3 miles as I fully met the power of the wall…but I sluggishly kept running. I was bent and stretched beyond my preconceived limits…but I didn’t break.
So, my time wasn’t what I hoped it would be. So what. I laid my head down that night knowing I gave it everything I thought I had and then, I gave a little more.
It’s now clear to me you can’t truly understand the marathon distance until you run 26.2 miles for yourself. There’s only so much you can do to theoretically prepare yourself. Sure you can log 20 mile training runs, you can estimate a race pace. You can tell yourself that you’re ready, that it’s just a little bit further than you’ve gone before. The reality is that the last 10K is absolutely another dimension and exploring that dimension is reserved for race day. It’s a Twilight Zone that’s quite difficult to navigate on your first attempt.
In the end I am now a marathoner, a title I’m proud to say is now permanently etched on myself for the rest of my life.