The courses for the marathon and half marathon were laid out to take us through various much-loved parts of the city. I hoped that all of this scenery wouldn’t be wasted on me as I stared doggedly at the ground before my feet. The first mile took us (slightly uphill) into the downtown area. We ran among the tall buildings and turned around, heading back close to the start but on a blessedly nice down hill mile. I felt good, and Todd kept up the chatter. Somewhere along the first quarter mile, my wife and two of my boys had supposedly been cheering and waving posters. I never saw them, and they reported that they never saw me either. But the pack of 12,000 runners was still dense at that point so that made sense.
After leaving downtown, we made a slight jog through the Crossroads artsy district and then to the base of the Liberty Memorial. This was only one block west of where we had started, and it was one of the places where I told my wife she could easily get to in time to see me stumble past. I looked for her among the crowds on the sidelines but didn’t see her. Our course was to take us up to the top of the Memorial, and that was the second likely place I thought she could reach in time to see me. (This would only be a few blocks — and one monster hill — for her, but I would have been out for three miles by then, so we thought we could synchronize that meet up.)
Did I mention a monster hill? The Liberty Memorial is atop a very prominent hill in Kansas City, and the course would take us up that hill and then loop us around the Memorial itself before sending us south. I had made the mistake (or perhaps not) of driving the course of the half marathon many months before, so I knew the hill I was going to face at mile 2.5. It looked horrible. A half mile of constant up. Constant, unrelenting up. When I say I had been dreading this run since January, what I had mostly been dreading was this hill. And many running friends I talked to had said that this was the point that nearly defeated them in past runs. Some confessed to walking up this hill. Many confessed to thinking of quitting on this hill. I was determined to see what I could do with it, and when I turned the corner at the base and started up, I resigned myself to whatever would happen.
Todd, of course, just kept up the chatter. I listened. Chimed in when I could. But otherwise, I just concentrated on throwing one foot in front of the other and sucking in as much air as I could. My method for hills is mostly to just stare at the few feet before me, keeping my head down so I can’t see how much hill is still to be run. And that’s what I did this time. I didn’t feel as though I was moving very fast at all, but I was passing many people who had chosen to walk up this horrible hill. It was tough, and I was breathing hard as I kept at it. But then Todd said that we were rounding the curve that meant we had made it to the top. And we were. I had just conquered my worst fear on the whole run, and I felt pretty good, like I still had enuf in me to run ten more miles.
At the top we had a nice, flat run to the Memorial where we would turn again and run farther south (with another long hill to surmount). Somewhere up here I hoped to spot my wife and two boys. They spotted me first, and I only saw them because I recognized their voices as they cheered me.
But when I looked up, I met an unexpected sight.
There stood my daughter, who had flown in from New York to surprise me. And there she was at the top of the monstrous hill. I ran over and gave her a hug, babbling something about what a great surprise that was. But I didn’t want to linger; I had another ten miles to go. She waved me on and I rejoined Todd, who I don’t think knew anything about this surprise, but I’ll always wonder.
We faced another long hill soon after this, but then we had a few miles of comparatively flat running, with some downhill stretches. The course took us down Main Street (kinda grungy) and into the Westport area. Westport is pretty much the oldest part of Kansas City, and for a good while we were running down the route of the Santa Fe Trail. Todd and I talked about this and that as we ran. I could tell that far from him pushing my pace, I was holding him back. He would get ahead of me, sometimes by as much as twenty feet, before he slowed and waited for me. By about mile 5 I knew what a good fortune it was to have him as my wingman. His chatter kept my mind off of my aches and pains and anxieties and doubts and nightmare visions of the miles yet to run. I’d had my doubts about running with another person, but by this point I saw that it was the best way to go about such a distance.
And at about mile 6 the little wobbliness in my left knee began to worry me. Early in my running life this knee had felt a little loose, as though I needed to get in there with a screw driver to tighten it up a bit. That went away, but running up those hills seemed to aggravate it, and around mile 6 I began to worry that it was going to be a problem (with more than half of the distance still to go). But I kept quiet about it, and just then the course turned and gave us a very much welcomed downhill stretch as we approached the upscale Plaza shopping district. By this point the pack had spread out, and I wasn’t dodging around other runners and walkers to keep moving. That made the going easier, and the downhill was giving my knee a break. Still, I had my worries.
At around mile 7, as we were cruising along the glamorous mile through the Plaza, I told Todd that I was going to have to walk a little to give my knee a rest. I decided to walk after we reached mile 8. (I had picked this point because in my earlier 13.1 training run I had managed to go 7.73 miles before taking a break, so I wanted to do better this time.) Todd was supportive of whatever I wanted, even though it would drag down his finish time even more.
Mile 8 brought us into the Hyde Park neighborhood full of tree-lined streets and gracious old homes. We ran past the mile marker and the water station (still no Bud Light!) and then I tried walking. Oddly, my legs had seemed to have forgotten how to do that. I had about twenty feet of near stumbling as I shifted from running mode to walking mode. It would have been great to have run the entire half marathon, but it would have also been unrealistic for me. I had entertained dreamy thoughts of running the distance, and maybe I could have if my knee hadn’t gone wonky, but I decided that a little prudence was called for.
I only walked about a quarter mile. I could have kept walking, of course, but I knew that I would be cheating myself if I did. Before picking up the pace, though, I did one more thing. I peeled off the throwaway shirt I had been wearing to ward off the cold. The course had been littered with shirts and hats and gloves that the runners had worn at the start, and it was time for me to toss mine too. (Also, I wanted to cross the finish line with my bib showing so they could call out my name.) The throwaway shirt was soaked. I hadn’t realized that until I took it off and wadded it for tossing. I was soaked with sweat underneath as well. But by then my engine was running hot enuf that I didn’t notice or care. And it felt as though I cast off ten pounds when I tossed that shirt to the curb. (Note: All of this cast off clothing is collected and given to shelters.)
Then we were running again. My knee was not happy, and my hip was joining the complaint, and we had about two miles of gradual uphill to deal with. I wished then that I had tucked some Advil in the tiny pouch of my skimpy running shorts, but all I had were the miles to go and Todd’s truly supportive chatter and encouragement. So I pushed on. Somewhere in here the first of the full marathoners passed. They were escorted by two police motorcycles, and they looked as fresh as they must have from the start.
The last four miles of this half marathon were the very hardest miles I have ever run. My knee was screaming at me. I had no fuel left in the tank. I was fighting with myself not to stop, not to quit, not to fall apart. I grimaced and endured. Todd noticed. His chatter pretty much ceased then and he just spoke words of encouragement, telling me I was doing well, calling out mile markers as we passed, and letting me concentrate on finding something inside me to keep going.
At mile 11 something significant happened. I reached 1,000 miles run for the year. This was the reason I had been running so little in the two weeks before this race. I wanted to hit 1,000 miles during the half marathon, preferably during the last few miles of the half marathon, as a way to ensure I did complete it. And just after I turned in 1,000 miles, something else happened.
My daughter was on the sidelines again, waving and shouting. She had come out onto the course to run with me for the last two miles. I was utterly exhausted then, stuck in a kind of tunnel vision of concentration and agony, and there she stood, looking like the sun. She ran up beside me and started her own chatter and encouragement. Of course she took photos of us running together and posted them online as we were running. She runs full marathons, and she hadn’t just run 11 miles, so I can understand how this was possible, but despite my attempts to be civil and conversational, I don’t know how coherent I was then. The long downhill to the finish was giving my knee some respite, but I could feel muscles burning down there, and somehow I understood that strengthening my knees was going to be a priority going forward.
That last quarter mile was the longest, toughest distance I have ever undertaken. I could see the finish arch, and the street was lined on both sides with people screaming encouragement. But I didn’t seem to be making any progress. My daughter left me to finish it since she wasn’t an official runner, but Todd stayed with me. “Almost there,” he’d say. “Another hundred feet.” I actually think I needed to hear this. I was so deep inside myself, calling in every favor I could just to keep moving that I’m not sure I was clear just where I was or how much farther I had to go. I saw some of my club friends on the side, shouting encouragement, but the best I could do was give a little swat of a wave and a grimace of pain. (I later learned that many more of my running friends were there, shouting my name, but I missed nearly all of them.)
And then I crossed the mats, and the race was run. I half expected to collapse. I literally feared that would happen. Or I would begin to cry with agony and joy. Those things didn’t happen. My wingman stayed at my side, though he generously let me finish ahead of him. When I got to the place where the volunteer would cut the timing chip from my shoe, I could barely lift my leg to put it on the bucket. Someone handed me a foil warm up blanket. Someone else handed me a medal. My legs were working, more or less, and I staggered forward, looking for the gallons of chocolate milk I wanted to drink.
In the end, I only got one carton of milk. I never found the bagels (though I did see some people eating them). Todd and I wandered over to the nearby park where there was entertainment and photos and massages and — most importantly — free beer and barbecue for the runners. Soon after this, my wife and kids showed up. I shivered in the cool air (remember, my plastic running clothes were soaked with sweat). I declined the free beer and barbecue. (Notice the Beer Ticket and BBQ Ticket still present on my bib above.) We took some photos, but Todd had to get home to his family and we parted. I know he and I will run together again.
Then we began the long walk to where we had parked four hours before. I found that even stepping off of a curb was difficult, and I knew there were several flights of stairs ahead of me to get to the car. My marathoning daughter was full of useful advice for this challenge, and I managed to do it all. When I sat in the car, though, my calf began to cramp and I had to do some quick stretching to prevent it from turning me into a pretzel. It acted up a bit more as we drove home, but not very much.
The muscles around my left knee were no longer on speaking terms with me, and the next day they were still pretty angry. But we’ll patch up our relationship because there are more miles to be run.
I ran the race. I finished the race. I survived the race. After I was done, when some normalcy returned to my mind, I congratulated myself on taking the challenge and running this half, but I said I wouldn’t do it again. Now, several days later, I’m already thinking about doing better next year when I run it.