“Run, Grandpa, Run!!!”
As I had been running, I had been eating my GU every three miles. I had eight packs of GU pinned to the inside of the waistband of my shorts, and they were easy to tear free and suck empty while still on the run. (And unlike apparently everyone else, I held on to my empty GU packs until I reached the trash boxes at the water stations.) I also got both Gatorade and water at every water station, which were about two miles apart. I was trying to run smart, controlling the variables I could.
Once I made it through the cut off and knew I could stay on the full marathon course, the pressure to perform eased. We were running along Brush Creek at this point and would cross it on a bridge not far ahead. On the other side of the river I could see the runners ahead of me, going west as I was going east. When I got to that point I wanted to look back across the river and get a sense of how many (if any) runners were behind me. A third, unspoken goal of my run was not to be the last runner in. That happened to me on the first 10K I had run, and while a finish is a finish, it’s disappointing to get to the after party and find half of the vendors and other booths closed up.
After I had crossed Brush Creek and was headed west, I did get a few glimpses of the runners behind me. The pack was significantly thinned then, and in the gaps between the buildings and the trees, I would see one or two runners (who were sometimes walking), so I didn’t really get a good sense about whether there were many people behind me or just a few.
Several things happened in the next mile. I decided to take my first walking break. I knew I was making good time (for my ability and for meeting the absolute maximum allowed on the course), and I also knew that I needed to conserve my energy for the remaining 18 or so miles ahead of me and my legs. I didn’t walk for long, and it wasn’t too long after I’d begun running again that the lead marathon runner was coming my way, with his police motorcycle escort. I had about 18 miles still to go. He had six. And he didn’t look like he was breaking a sweat! I cheered him, but he was focused. Soon after this the course crossed Brush Creek again, and I saw my wife again. I had run about two miles since I’d last seen her, but since it was an out-and-back stretch, she only had to walk about two blocks to be waiting for me. Also with her was my son-in-law’s sister, Chelsea. I hadn’t known she was running the marathon, and she had only learned I was the day before when she was chatting with my daughter (her sister-in-law, if you’re following along). Since I was running again, I didn’t stop to visit but waived away the goody bag and trotted ahead. Chelsea stayed to chat with my wife for a while, but I knew she would catch up with me and eventually pass me since she trains better and she is, of course, nearly half my age. In less than a half mile, she did catch up with me, and we trotted along together for a while, exchanging small talk. I told her not to slow down for me, but she assured me she was running at her normal pace.
We were still running along Brush Creek, and I could look across it to see the runners ahead of me since this was another out-and-back stretch. With the loss of the half marathoners, and with all of us being back-of-the-pack runners, we were strung out. I could see a few runners across the river and through the trees, and I expected to see about the same when I was over there and looked back at where I had been. Somewhere in here, I took another walking break, which allowed Chelsea to get ahead of me. I knew I couldn’t keep pace with her for the rest of the marathon (we weren’t even half way yet), so I didn’t feel bad about being left behind, so to speak. But when I started running again, I would soon catch up with her. Perhaps I was pushing my pace too much because I had to do a lot of walking in this stretch. Then I would catch up with Chelsea. Then walk again. When we were across Brush Creek and I looked at where I had been, I didn’t see very many runners at all. Sure, they could be spread out miles and miles behind, but I began to wonder if it might be possible that I would be the last runner in. All along, people were passing me. Not a lot, and not frequently. But certainly dozens were now that I was on the full course. How many did that leave behind me?
I didn’t need to worry about that, however, because I was coming upon the third big hill of the course. Since the pack was thinned and I had pretty much the whole road to myself (except for the Mercedes SUV of one of the residents in the mansions we were running beside who apparently could at no other time of the day drive right down the middle of our course) I decided to try a hill tactic I thought might work. I started zigzagging up the hill. While this adds a little more distance to the run, it actually makes the hill before you less steep. Or at least it feels that way, and so much of running is mental. I managed to catch up with Chelsea again, which I would repeat a few more times before she got ahead and stayed ahead. But the hill was wearing me down, despite my tactic (which I think did help). My body was no longer dismayed but was actually alarmed at the sustained demand on it. I was feeling seriously fatigued and though I tried not to, all I could think about was how much road there was ahead of me. Somewhere along here (after Chelsea was long gone) I crossed the 13.1 distance; I was half way done. This was not heartening. I was dead on my feet, and I still had to do again what I had just done.
Fortunately, the hill climbing was behind me (at least for the next eight miles). What I faced for a long while was more or less flat ground, with some rises and falls but no difficult elevation gains. Even so, I had miles to go, and I knew I had to walk some if I was going to run some. Actually, I wasn’t very sure I could run at all by this point. This may have been a fueling problem, but I don’t think it was. Rather, I was in pain, and it was getting worse. My knees were starting to give me the same pain they had on the Portland Marathon. Fortunately, this had come much later in the route than before, but the pain was there. My hips were also very angry with me. I’m pretty sure that was a muscle problem rather than a bone-in-joint problem. When I walked, I would take very long strides, and this helped ease the pain. I hurt in places I didn’t even know were places. I was beginning to consider the possibility that I would be the last runner in. Because of the walking interspersed with running, my pace had plummeted. And if I continued in this way for the next dozen or so miles, everyone would pass me.
There wasn’t anything else I could do. I ran for as long as I could, trying to convince myself I was nothing more than a pair of legs, feeling the pull and release of the muscles and trying not to feel anything else. And I would concentrate on the three feet before my two feet, doing no more than covering that distance before I tried to consider the next three feet. It helped some, but walking helped as well. I think by this point I was walking as much distance as I was running. I wasn’t happy about this, but it was the best I could manage.
Part of the course at this point was what I had run twice before in the Rock the Parkway half marathons I had completed. Those were good runs, which disheartened me since here I was on that same stretch of road and doing miserably. But not long after this the course reached its farthest point from the start/finish, the Waldo section of Kansas City. A turn on 75th Street marked my return run. This helped a little. I was more than half way, and I was running toward the finish. I had a mere ten miles to go.
I had packed six ibuprofen in the tiny pocket of my skimpy running shorts, intending to take no more than four of them and save the last two for any suffering runner I happened upon. By the turnaround point on 75th Street, I was dry swallowing my fifth and sixth pills, trotting eagerly toward the water station not far ahead to wash them down. (I had taken three ibuprofen before the run, so my total at this point was nine pills — don’t tell my doctor son!)
While there were a few hiccups at the water stations — generally people stopping to chat and standing right in the way — my passage through them was mostly good. They were usually staffed by teenagers who, I suppose, were on the local cross country teams or otherwise getting community service hours. Even at the back of the pack, many, many hours after the first runners had bolted past them, these kids had smiling faces and encouraging words, and hands outstretched with cups of Gatorade and water.
And, they had plenty of cups of Gatorade and water on the tables behind them. They looked like they were ready for hundreds of runners still to come. I didn’t turn around to look, fearful that I would see no one behind me, meaning they were too far back for me to see or that there was no one behind me. The fact that the water stations were still fully staffed and fully provisioned suggested to me I wasn’t in last place. That helped push away for a while the certainty that I was going to come in last.
I still hurt though. I ran as much as I could and walked as much as I needed. At this point I was on the course of the Trolley Run I’ve done three times. The entire Trolley Run course is covered by just a part of the marathon. Fortunately, this was a downhill run of four miles. I was grateful for that. It allowed me to cover more distance at a run, even with the pain. I was probably a bit delirious by this point. I passed a woman on her right and warned her I was about to pass her on her left. I got it wrong and managed to apologize as I pushed on. (Note: I passed someone at this point.) I also had to be careful when I reached into my shorts for a pack of GU that I didn’t grab the wrong dangling thing and try to tear it free.
At the bottom of this four-mile downhill I once again came to Brush Creek and ran east along the same bit of pavement I had run more than ten miles before. I was eating up the miles, much of it at a run, and when I got to mile 20, I ruefully noted that I only had to run a 10K to be finished.
I crossed Brush Creek for the fourth and last time that morning and wove my way into the Hyde Park neighborhood of Kansas City. Resplendent old homes, green parks, children and adults at play. All lost on me as I fought the agony and the pain to keep going. Ahead, and not very far, was the last serious hill of the course. Mile 23 marked the start of it. At mile 23 you can tell yourself you only have three miles left to go, a mere 5K, and look how much mileage you’ve already got behind you! But throw in a hill at this point, a mile-long hill, and such encouraging thoughts dissolve instantly. I was trudging up this hill, running as much of it as I could, when something truly encouraging did happen.
My wife was waiting for me! I hadn’t seen her since about mile 9, a dozen miles before, nearly a half marathon before. And there she was. I stopped running and walked, and she stepped in beside me. And I ate one of the candy bars she carried in the goody bag. It was awful. The chocolate had gone frosty white. I could barely taste it. But it, and seeing my wife, the sweetness, were what I needed. My wife had a bit of a drive to get back to the start area and then get from the parking lot — whichever was available — to the finish arch. She feared (foolishly) that I would get there before she did and was eager to get on her way. So we parted, and I started running again. I managed to run more distance than I expected, despite the ongoing pain in my hips and knees, and I prudently walked where I needed to.
Beginning at mile 24, on The Paseo, we had a long straightaway on mostly flat ground, resulting a mile later in a mile stretch going downhill. It was a gift for us weary runners. At the bottom of that hill, in the 18th and Vine Jazz District, we turned left on a flat street for the final mile in. This happened to be part of the Rock the Crossroads 5K I had run two summers before (miserably hot), and I mixed my running with walking, hoping to conserve whatever energy was left in me so that I could run up to and across the finish line like an actual runner.
From about mile 14, I have been exchanging places with another runner. I would catch up with and pass him, then I would walk and he would pass me. It went on this way the entire remaining distance. As I made the last turn and faced the quarter mile left to the finish arch (so impossibly far ahead) I saw this man once again. He was also impossibly far ahead, and I had no illusions that I would pass him. I merely put my head down and ran as well as I could through the pain. But when I looked up, I found I was right behind the man. If we kept our paces, I would pass him in the last twenty feet and finish ahead of him. I would not be the last runner in after all.
He must have had a similar thought because when he realized I was beside him, he dug deep and “shot” ahead. I had nothing left, and I needed every ounce of it just to finish at all. So he beat me, and I consoled myself with the charitable notion that I had given him a reason to run harder and not come in last.
I ran across the mats and under the finish arch then turned off my watch. Transitioning from running to walking had been a painful and uncertain, stumbling business for the last 15 miles, and now that I was finally finished, I think I just about gave up altogether. One of the attendants in the finish chute hurried over to me and asked if I needed help, needed an arm to lean on, or anything like that. All I needed at that point was chocolate milk. And my wife. I took the medal — they actually hung it around my neck, which was nice and fully earned. Then I wrapped myself in the foil blanket they provided because it was breezy. My wife hurried up to me at this point and we found a break in the fencing of the finish chute to head over to the after party area. Given the time it took me to finish, the crowds had dispersed. I collected the little ticket that gave my official time. We asked where the chocolate milk was. It turned out to be near where we had been in the chute, impossibly far away, but somehow I managed to stagger over there and drink four cartons. As I stood there, the crew was already packing away the food and other treats on the table before me. I realize they can’t stick around all day, but I paid as much as every other runner who competed that day, and I was a little miffed that I was barely getting leftovers.
But I had just finished my second marathon. It wasn’t the brilliant performance I had dreamed of, it wasn’t even very good, but despite the walking, my average pace was decent enuf, and I knew the pain would go away. Eventually. (I still believe that.) Plus, I had beat my Portland time by more than 25 minutes. So I got a PR. And despite what I assured myself from about mile 10 onward, I was already thinking about the next marathon I would run and how I could do better. (Start training now!)
It turned out, when I looked up the official numbers online later, that there were 156 other runners behind me on the full marathon course. Given that coming in last in my age group many times and last overall one time, this is something I feel proud of.
So the medal hangs on my wall beside the one I got in Portland last year and beside three empty hooks. I need to fill those three hooks and then fill all five of them one more time.
But first, rest.