The 800 meter sign sat on the right side of the marked course, at the base of a hill. It was like many hills before it on this day, only this hill had the Texas State Capitol building sitting at the crest. My quads burned to the point of numbness and I couldn’t remember the last mile where I could feel the bottoms of my feet (the pain receptors turned off at mile 20, I think). By that distance—about 25.8 miles—it hurt too much to walk, so I jogged, or rather grinded up to the top of that hill. At the crest, I was faced with another hill, only this on had a “400 meters to go” sign.
And this sign compelled me to consider where and when I began at the start line, when it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 93 percent humidity. Or maybe the start of this race, my first-ever marathon, was back in DC where, thanks to the “polar vortex,” I ran in 20 degrees Fahrenheit for most Saturdays in December and January. But now I was here in Austin, Texas, where I had never been before in more ways than one. I stood among marathoners and half-marathoners in my pace pack, which was tucked in among thousands of other runners. The air was already on me, to the point where I shed my warm-up pants and shirt right after the first porta-potty visit. My armwarmers were also rolled down below my elbows, because the body heat from thousands of amped runners saturated everything around me. Even the noise and fog felt warm. It was an unusual feeling for me to have in February. The air forced me, in a good way, to stick to the plan and take two electrolyte pills, which would be the first two of many that would come after—two every 45 minutes to be precise. Like the hills about to greet me throughout the course, they would be familiar friends by the time I was through with 26.2 miles.
Then the gun. Then waiting. Then the inevitable, nervous forward-lurch of the crowd until the runners in front of me broke into a jog, then a run across the timing mat with its constant beeping. It would be inspiring if it weren’t such an annoying, clinical sound. With my armwarmers already shed, and my skin already beading with sweat after a few hundred meters, I could barely look at the other racers whose acclimation to the balmy temperatures allowed them to opt for long sleeves, and even pants, for this adventure. While pondering the fashion choices of my fellow racers, I realized I ran mile 1 in about 9:44. This was no 13.1, so that was way too fast for me to sustain at this distance and in this humidity, and I dialed it back down. By mile 10 I had drank about 3 times more water than I had in any of my long training runs during the cold, dry mid-Atlantic winter. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of cramping or discomfort. If there was anything that would’ve presented a physical challenge—aside from running the course itself—it was the ability to stay ahead of hydration and electrolytes.
As the half-marathoners broke off the course at mile 12 to their finish line, the air opened up and I felt like I could breathe a little better in all of the space ahead of me. This was about the halfway point, and I told myself that if I could make it this far, I could make it all the way through. “Just” another 13.1 is what I said. But it became more than that. Part way through mile 17, my quads began to talk back to me and that’s when things started to get hard. Really hard—like, “oh this is why marathons are hard and why people who don’t run marathons told me I was crazy.” But after that, something unexpected happened. Throughout the training process, I thought I would look to myself for that extra dose of badass and recall experiences running through below-freezing wind chills and on a track that was more often than not covered with ice and snow. Instead, I was surprised to learn that my own perceived hardcore-ness took a back seat to the people whose hardcore-ness had helped get me to that mile, on that course, on that day. They were the runners who came out with me every Thursday and Saturday to endure the miserable, endless winter, who had as many badass points in the bag as I did, if not more, and who were apparently overusing the “refresh” button on the race’s runner tracking site as I ran because I was in Austin and they were still in snow-covered DC.
Then I got happy, and the way I saw and heard things changed. I was still in a sweatbox of hurt for those last 6 miles or so, but the encouragement from the crowd and volunteers became amplified, as did my mood and appreciation for where I was at that moment. I remember now the volunteer handing out water who was dressed in a full-on “Storm Trooper” costume, and the choir and pastor singing for us on the lawn of their church. I also remember things that represent all that’s good and bad about running, including the runner on mile 21 cramping up in such a state of agony that a cop intervened to coach him through it, and the people whose reaction to those last miles ranged from walking with heads down to running on nothing but willpower. And finally there was sight of the Texas State Capitol building, the beacon to the finish line, on the top of the last hill I would ever run in my first marathon. –Holly D.