The marathon has seemed mythic to me for many years. Over the course of five years, many 5ks, a few 10ks and a few half marathons it became a reality. I've always enjoyed a good challenge and nothing says "challenge" like "I'm going to get up and run the farthest I've ever run in my life today." Running a marathon also involves a lot of waiting around; as in waiting to see the start. If you run a slower pace like me, you are always towards the back waiting for the thousands of people in front of you to start. It takes me close to twenty minutes to reach the start. At the start there is music, tons of spectators, and the media. I start running; finally. All the months of training, running in the snow and waking up at 6 AM has come down to this.
Mile 1 I feel good. I know that the first two miles are critical. Going out too fast is one of the worst mistakes you can make. I look at my Garmin watch. I'm too fast. I need to slow down. I slow down and people are flying past me. "It's ok, " I tell myself, "I'll see them again later in the race."
Mile 2 After two miles I settle into a comfortable pace. I feel good. I'm ready to do this race.
Miles 3-5 The miles between 3 and 5 have three bridges. When driving the bridges, the incline isn't noticeable, but on foot it is noticeable. I've been training on the bridges, so they don't even phase me. I feel like I'm flying over the bridges. The North Side is one of my favorite parts of the course. The Animal Rescue League is there, the Abundant Life Church Choir is amazing, the spectators are great. I run along the right side of the road to give and get high fives. This is awesome.
MIle 6 I take my first energy gel. There is a water stop and I want to take this gel before I get to the West End Bridge. The last thing I need is the wind to pick up on the bridge while I'm fueling. Plus I need to turn my head to the left to see the city from the bridge. The view is one of the best of the city.
Miles 8-9 Mile 9 is in my head. My co-worker is waiting for me there. I see her and shout out her name. We are so excited to see each other. I see her and it gives me a boost and I pick up the pace. It carries me the whole way down Carson Street.
Mile 10 The signs for the splits for the half and full marathon are coming into view. The half is to the left, the full is to the right. I feel a great sense of pride as I stay to the right. It starts to sink in. I'm running my first marathon. I'm wearing a green bib. (Green bibs are only given to the full marathon runners.) We loop around the block and I take another gel. Now it's on to the Birmingham Bridge.
Mile 11 It's about to get serious. Crossing the bridge I look to my left (to the half marathon). There are hundreds of people over there. My side has a few. What am I doing on this side? I should be over there (with the half). I don't belong on this side. Concrete barrier separates us now. A bit of panic sets in. There is no turning back now.
After crossing the bridge, the toughest part of the course is coming up. It's the hill in Oakland. It's the hill everyone talks about. There was even an article written in the paper about it, and now it's time to face it. I decide to start out running the hill as I notice others are walking. As I climb the hill I glance at my Garmin watch. I'm running a mile 2 minutes slower than my goal pace. At this pace, I might as well walk the hill. There's no need to waste my energy on this hill. I'm not even halfway.
Mile 13.1 I've hit the halfway point. I feel good, but not great. Halfway.......only halfway. I have to block it out of my mind.
Mile 14 Walnut Street in Shadyside brings pros and cons. The pros include a large crowd to cheer us on. The con includes my weakness: Coffee Tree Roasters. I see it. I smell it. I see people sitting on the sidewalk drinking coffee. I want to be drinking a latte on the sidewalk. Fourteen miles is enough to deserve a latte, right? As I leave Shadyside I hear a girl yell, "Your long runs are paying off girl." This makes me feel better. There will be lattes at the end of the race.
Mile 15 Maybe it was my long ponytail, or maybe it was my all pink outfit that made two girls (approximately age 10) to yell, "It's a girl! It's a girl!". I can't help but grin ear to ear. They are so excited to see me. I give them high fives. It's moments like this that make me love running.
Mile 17 I've reached Homewood. Homewood was the 2012 Runner up for the neighborhood festival, and it's easy to see why. Everyone is so excited. Children line the street eager to give high fives. There is a group of women dancing in a line along the street. Some of the runners join them. I feel my spirits lifted. I can do this. As I turn onto Frankstown Avenue I know I've reached a huge milestone mentally. I'm running back to downtown. I'm going to the finish line where I'm going to see my friends and my husband. I'm on my way.
Mile 18.5 This isn't fun anymore. I'm in pain. I'm starting to hurt. I start taking walking breaks. I notice others doing the same. As I continue towards East Liberty, I see the marathon photographers on the course. Crap! I can't be seen walking in my photos. I start running and give thumbs up as I pass the photographer. At least my ego is still going strong.
Mile 20 I've reached the second part of the race: the last six miles. This is the wall everyone talks about.
Mile 21 The downhill isn't even helping anymore. Everything hurts. My feet feel like there are darts shooting up the arches. "Looking strong, Sarah" a spectator yells. It's reassuring, but I don't feel strong. I feel weak. I'm crying on the inside, and it's working its way to the outside. My body is screaming to stop, but I can't listen to it. If I do, I will be defeated.
Mile 21.5 I have a rock in the bottom of my shoe. Or at least I think I have a rock in my shoe. At this point, I'm not sure what is reality and what is not. What I do know, is that at this point in the race, I don't have enough strength or balance to stand on one leg and check to see if there actually is a stone in my shoe. My first plan is try to dislodge the stone. I start dragging my foot along the pavement to get rid of the stone. No luck. Looks like I will have to take it out by hand. I run a little farther until I see a light pole. I steady myself, lift my foot and pull out the stone. I'm happy to see I'm not imagining things. The stone was actually there.
Mile 23 I'm happy to see the final downhill of the course. I'm using it to my advantage. I push myself downhill and check my Garmin watch. I'm finally at a pace that resembles running again.
Mile 24 I hate the marathon. This is the worst idea I've ever had and I'm never doing this again. I'm at mile 24, but I'm having serious doubts. At this point I thought I would know that I would finish for sure, but I'm still unsure. Less than two miles away feels like an eternity.
Mile 25.5 I turn the corner out of the Strip District and head back to downtown. That's when I see him. Bobby is smiling ear to ear. If I had the strength to wave, I would. I'm now smiling ear to ear. I run to give him a kiss. It's my way of saying "thank you". My friend comes out to run with me. Thank goodness. I need it. I need that final push. For the first time in a long time I feel like I'm going to be OK.
Mile 26 I feel like I'm running in a tunnel. I can see and hear all the things around me, but can't process it. As I turn onto the Boulevard of Allies I see the finish line. It's really there. It's not a mirage. I'm really here at the finish. I raise my arms over my head as I cross the finish. (Photos would show my arms only at shoulder height, although they felt overhead.)
Finish As I cross the finish, a volunteer puts a medal around my neck. I'm glad because I doubt I could lift my arms overhead. The medal feels like a huge weight around my neck. (It's actually made of steel.) I try to keep moving and not come to a complete stop. I thought I would get emotional when I finished my first marathon, but I didn't. In fact, I was totally devoid of any emotion. I was spent physically, mentally and emotionally. All I could feel was pain and irritation. For me, the emotions came later. It took a while to process the accomplishment. In fact, months after the marathon I still had to remind myself that I'm a marathoner.
Throughout the long training season of preparing for a marathon, I would often ask myself why I was going to run this far. Who in their right mind would willingly run 26.2 miles? I always enjoyed running, but this distance seemed ridiculous. The answer for me came in two parts. The first part is that running resembles life to me. Sometimes (or most of the times) running is hard and difficult and even ugly, but if you can persevere and come out on the other side you know that you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to. There is beauty in that struggle. The second part of the answer came on the day of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Suddenly everything changed in an instant, and I realized that the marathon was more than a race. It was a sign of humility, humanity and honoring those who had left us. From that moment on, the marathon had more purpose. I was no longer running just for myself. I had to run for those who could no longer run for themselves.