“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
The marathon started and ended at Crown Center in downtown Kansas City. Crown Center is a hotel and urban shopping mall complex that is also the headquarters for Hallmark Cards. We got down there about an hour and a half before the official start time and drove around various still-empty parking lots, trying to decide the best one for giving my wife access to non-blocked off streets so she could drive to various points on the course to cheer.
We marched our way through the pre-dawn darkness toward the mall and comparative indoor warmth as the minutes ticked away. There were a few dozen people gathered in the food court as we claimed a table. I chose to use the bathroom, which is always prudent, and then returned to the table to watch people gather. I saw some faces I knew, and it turned out there were many people I knew who were running the half marathon that morning, a few more running the full. Time dragged as I thought about and then resisted getting myself a bagel. With about a half hour before gun time, I thought I would use the bathroom one last time. The line was easily 200 people long, so I went up to the next floor where the line for the men’s room was only about 50 people long. And I waited. From there, I had about a ten-minute walk to the starting area, and I had decided to leave the line if I had to so I could be there on time. As it turned out, I was done and on my way with 14 minutes left. (The line was longer then than when I had arrived. And the line for the women’s restroom was even longer.) I found my wife and we headed out into the morning chill to merge with the mass of humanity (nearly 9,000 I later learned), she on the sidelines and me in the corral.
I was not especially cold since I had my throwaway jacket on. I got this thing at the thrift store for a few bucks more than a year ago. The idea is that you wear such a thing to keep warm as you’re standing around at the start, then as you get going and warm up, you take it off and throw it to the curb where it is collected and donated to the thrift store, whereupon you could very easily buy it again. I have not been able to successfully throw away my throwaway. The few times I have worn it to races, I’ve always shed it just as I’m coming up to my wife or someone else in my support crew, and the jacket comes home with me again to wait for the next chilly run.
There seemed to be a false start; I heard the second countdown (the first was for the wheelchair racers), but the crowd did not move. I was not near the front, but I could see the course beyond the starting arch, and there were no runners on it. I don’t supposed they were giving more time to the people waiting to use the bathroom. Time passed and then something must have changed, for the herd began moving forward. I turned on my new running watch, but it took longer to find a satellite than I expected — I’ve heard this can be the case in areas with tall buildings — and I hadn’t engaged it until almost a block after I had crossed the starting mats. I could have worried that this would give me a shorter distance than the actual course distance, but I had a race to run and didn’t give it a bother.
The first mile of the course took us into downtown proper, looping around the Sprint Center, a glossy, space-age arena that someone described as a giant baked potato. This mile was a gentle uphill, which meant when we made the turn we had a gentle downhill of about a mile. I was doing fine, running at a reasonable pace that would not burn up my energy too soon (since I had a full marathon distance to manage). My first goal of the morning was to get to the split where the half marathoners go one way (toward the finish) and we full marathoners go another (toward miles of away-from-the-finish). I had little doubt I would reach the split within the time required; if I didn’t, I would be shunted to the half-marathon course rather than be allowed to run the full. But I wanted to stay on task and get there, so while I measured my pace, I also pushed myself to keep going.
That gentle downhill ended at the base of Hospital Hill. This is a long, relatively steep hill that passes between Crown Center and Children’s Mercy Hospital (where my wife and I had volunteered for more than ten years). There is even a half marathon in town that is named for this hill. I was determined to run up the hill. And so I did. My body began asking me what I thought I was doing at this point, but it wasn’t screaming so much as acting surprised at the demands on it. I hushed it, knowing there would be a relief at the top as we ran down a corresponding hill, losing all of the elevation gain we had made, before facing the second big hill of the morning.
I got up Hospital Hill without much trouble, made the turn, and then applied the brakes so I wouldn’t be pelting down the hill on the other side too fast. Not only is running downhill fast a prescription for falling (at least for a less-than-nimble runner like myself), but it deceptively eats up a lot of energy. You think gravity is doing all of the work, but it ain’t. At this point, I passed my wife’s car. The lot had filled in the time since we had left it there, and she was hemmed in by runners on the course, but I hoped that when she was ready to drive away, the pack passing the area would have thinned enuf for her to squeeze by (which is allowed as long as you don’t interfere with the runners). She wasn’t there, of course, because she was waiting for me at mile three, atop the next hill.
The course took us to the Liberty Memorial, which sits on a promontory that overlooks the city. I had run up here two years before, though by a different route, when I did the Kansas City Half Marathon. I doubted I could do it then, yet I did, so I believed I could do it again. Plus I had that cut-off time I had to make. So I trudged up the hill and got to the flat promenade at the top, eyes peeled for my wife. By this time I could feel the sweat rising on my skin, and though the sun hadn’t risen high enuf to reach us poor runners except in occasional patches, I thought it was time to throw away my throwaway. I suspected I would be chilly for a while without it, but if I shed it then, I could hand it off to my wife (assuming she was there). Otherwise, if I wanted to give it to her later, I would have another four miles of its close friendship. I spotted her across the promenade, and she spotted me soon after. Our first meeting of the morning. I began peeling off my jacket and immediately felt the chill of the morning on my sweaty skin and skimpy, plastic clothes. I was dressed then the same as I would have been for an August run.
My wife had a bag of supplies for me if I needed them: lip balm, Vaseline, cortisone cream, vitamin I, candy bars, an extra shirt, an extra hat, a running jacket, more safety pins, more small bandaids for personal places, and so on. As I ran up to her, throwing my throwaway to the curb in a dramatic way, she asked if I needed anything, but I didn’t and told her I was feeling strong and doing well. (Which was true despite those two wicked hills in the first three miles of the course.) I saw a lot of runners wearing green bibs (mine was orange) who were standing around, walking around, chatting with their squads, and otherwise not running, and I wondered at first why this was the case. Then I realized that they had participated in the 5K, which would have reached its 3.1 mile distance there atop the promontory. Good for them. They faced the same two wicked hills as the rest of us and earned their bragging rights. But their departure also thinned the pack some, which is always good.
So, onward. The first thing I faced after leaving the Liberty Memorial was . . . another hill. I knew this was coming, and I was determined to run it, so I did. All the while I was passing people and being passed by people. It was much too early in the race to gauge my endurance based on my placement among the other runners so I just focused on myself. Soon after this hill, we were on gritty Main Street, running past tattoo parlors, vaping parlors, empty store fronts, bars, old buildings converted to warehouses, run down apartment buildings, and all sorts of sights that don’t make the list of touristy things in town. We were only on Main for a mile, and I suspect they took us along here solely so they could make the turn onto Westport Road and lead us into the oldest part of Kansas City. Westport Road is actually a stretch of the Santa Fe Trail. It’s a funky part of town, with some of the oldest standing buildings in the city. When I had run the half marathon two years before, it was along here that I first felt the twinges in my knees that were to bedevil me through the second half. I was mindful of this and was pleased to discover that my knees were doing just fine, as was the rest of me.
The route through Westport was only a mile with a gentle downhill followed by a gentle uphill, then we turned south for a nice, long downhill stretch leading into the Plaza area of Kansas City, the swanky shopping and dining district and the second place where I expected to find my wife. It happens that as we wove through and around the Plaza, we were covering much of the same course as the Plaza 10K I had run a few weeks before. I had done well then, so I felt confident going over this same ground again.
Two things happened at this point. I did see my wife, just where we had planned (again, no need for supplies from the goody bag, though someone did take a picture of us “running” together). And I turned over my running odometer to 1,000 miles for the year. I didn’t take note of it at the time, but it was another goal achieved.
And the next goal lay about a half mile ahead. The cut off for the half marathon/full marathon split was waiting for me. I had been running continuously, and feeling pretty strong all the while, but my body was begging for a break. I had to get through the cut off before I would consider that, so I pressed on. And there it was. Most of the runners were drifting to the left side of the road then because most of the runners were doing the half marathon. Suddenly I had all of the space I needed to weave around cracks and manhole covers and such. And I had a comparatively empty road ahead of me. While that was helpful, it was also a little unnerving. I felt more on my own then than I had before. When I ran the Portland Marathon last year, I had my son with me, and he kept me buoyed. Here I was solo, relying on my own mental resources to keep going, knowing I had a long way to go it alone.
It turned out I had reached the cut off with plenty of time. My plan to run continuously in order to reach it had worked. (Keep in mind I am not a fast runner. This was a serious challenge for me.)
All that remained then was to run the remaining nineteen or so miles!