24 October 2017

Detroit International Marathon

A week ago, I did a thing. I ran a marathon in not-so-ideal conditions, and I now feel simultaneously beat-up and strong as hell. I needed to write all this down so I don't forgot how painful and incredible and amazing it was.

Here's how it all happened:

December 2016: Started seriously considering a marathon; immediately felt like a poser for even thinking about it. It's not that running is new to me ... I've done a few half-marathons, and tons of smaller races, and a couple years ago I ran 1200 miles in 12 months ... it's just that the idea of a full marathon, like 26.2 actual miles all at once, seemed better left to "real" athletes. I didn't know if I could pull it off, and I felt afraid to try because I was afraid to fail. I gave the rational side of my brain some time to talk me out of it.

January 1, 2017: Online race registration for the Detroit International Marathon opened at 12:01 a.m. on New Year's. Sitting on the floor of my in-laws' living room in Maryland, my judgment clouded by a a week of holiday vacationing and relaxing with family, and having just watched the ball drop with a glass of wine in my hand and a tin of peanut brittle in my lap, I impulsively registered, real quick-like, before I could chicken out. Felt a little bewildered after hitting the "Submit" button. What just happened?

February through October 2017: Trained. Trained some more. And then some more. Everywhere I went, all year long, my schedule orbited around running. When I went to Chicago with Jay to see Hamilton, I ran along the lakeshore trail. On a trip up north to visit colleges with Joe, I ran in Houghton and Sault Ste. Marie. When Maria and I did a little wine-tasting tour, I ran in Port Huron. Running, running, so much running. I followed a first-time-marathoner training plan which required three moderate runs a week, a long run each weekend, and cross-training in between. I was lucky enough not to get sick or injured the whole time.

About a month before race day, I actually ran a full 26-mile training run in 4 hours and 39 minutes, and I didn't die. My right knee was pretty stiff and sore but I found I could coax it into behaving with the help of a compression brace. Felt like a granny running with that thing on, but whatev.

Day before the race: Since the Detroit Marathon is an international event (the course crosses over into Ontario via the Ambassador Bridge, and then back to Detroit through the tunnel), they make you show up at Cobo Hall the day before and display your passport to prove you're worthy to cross the border. All this happens at a big expo where there are tons of booths designed to get you to spend money on stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Running shoes, sports bras, wicking socks, compression shorts, earbuds, anti-chafe products, nutrition supplements, jewelry that says 26.2, hairbands, energy gels, protein powder.... it's all there. I bought a special shirt (nicer than the one they give you with your race packet) that says Detroit 26.2. Felt a little dorky buying it because I hadn't earned it yet. What was I going to do with it if I couldn't finish tomorrow?

Then I picked up my bib number and went home to pray for good weather. The forecast was not looking good; thunderstorms likely. The race managers sent an email that night explaining that if there is lightning within 7 miles of the race, everything gets called off. As in, the race is over. Not rescheduled. Cancelled. The idea of this bothered me a lot. After 9+ months of training, what if the whole thing got cancelled and I had done all this preparation for nothing?

Oh and also: Sorry for oversharing, but in a cruel and unusual twist of fate, my period started the day before the fricking marathon. Meaning that the one day I would need to run for the equivalent of half a workday, I could expect a low-grade headache, intermittent abdominal cramping, and my limbs to feel like cement. Come on.

Race day, 5:30 a.m.: It was still dark when I got to downtown Detroit. I drove alone, and my family would follow later to meet me at the finish. The city was gridlocked with race traffic. I sat in a traffic jam for about half an hour as I waited to get into my designated parking structure. I felt a little dazed, like none of this was really happening. I parked and spent some time wandering around Fort Street with thousands of other runners.

Under the glare of streetlights in the pre-dawn air, I faked a confident smile and nervously took a selfie. In the back of my mind I knew the smile and cute hair would soon dissolve into a grim, sweaty mass of discomfort.

People were pretty amped up. There was no rain yet, and it was a toasty 68 degrees. Which felt pretty good while standing there in the starting gate, but once the race started, the air would feel much warmer than anyone wanted. Temperature was predicted to get into the high 70s by mid-race.

Miles 0-4: The race started officially at 7 a.m., but they release runners in waves, and I was in Wave K (translation: the slow people), so I didn't actually cross the start line till about 7:17 a.m. While I waited in the corral, I sucked on a Honey Stinger (energy gel), because I hadn't managed to choke down much food beforehand. As I waited for my wave to step up to the starting line, I tried not to think about the recent Las Vegas shooting and how I was currently standing in a sea of people packed in like sardines within a fenced area, surrounded by very tall buildings with who-knows-who watching from the upper floors. I distracted myself by thinking about my period cramps instead. I'm resourceful like that.

When it was finally time to run, there was a lot of whooping and cheering and suddenly we were moving. Everything felt fun and festive and easy for those first few miles, but VERY crowded. I regretted that I hadn't started with an earlier (faster) wave of runners, because man, these people were slogging! I decided to just chill about that, since my goal of the day was just to finish, and not to achieve any particular time (although secretly I did hope that I could finish in under five hours).

Miles 5-8: These early miles continued to fly by. I was feeling pretty good: no cramps, no rain. We ran through a bit of Windsor and then back to Detroit through the tunnel, which goes under the Detroit River. The air in the tunnel was hot as a sunspot and it felt good to gulp in some fresh air on the other side. It was also good to get out of a tightly enclosed space in which I would be trapped underwater if some lunatic disguised as a runner happened to have a bomb stuffed under his singlet. (Terrorist fears much?) Thankfully that didn't happen.

By the end of mile 8, my right knee was starting to stiffen quite a bit, but this was typical for any run of more than 7 or 8 miles. Every so often I stopped to stretch my quads and hamstrings, which helped a little. I would've given my eye teeth for a foam roller.

Miles 9-12: This section was pretty much a blur except the part where a woman behind me blacked out for a second, taking me and another runner down with her as she fell. When I hit the pavement I felt gravel grinding hard into my good knee, and it occurred to me that the injury might actually help take the focus off my other (stiff) knee. (Optimism is everything during a marathon, see.) The guy who fell next to me was fine; he hopped right back up and kept running, but the fallen woman looked very glassy-eyed, so I helped her off to the side of the road and sat down with her on someone's lawn. I think maybe she was just dehydrated, but her pallor freaked me out a little and there were no medical people in sight.

We were in a neighborhood, and a few houses ahead, I spotted a family handing out water and bananas to the runners, so I ran up to them and got the mom. (When in doubt, always find the mom.) She was super sweet and gladly followed me back to help the fallen woman, who was still sitting in the grass, and still glassy-eyed. The mom used her cellphone to call for a medic, and while we waited for help to come, we chatted for a few minutes. But then she urged me to keep running, and said she'd stay with the woman till medical people arrived.

I felt a little guilty about moving on, but I had a lot of miles yet to cover, so off I went, although not very jauntily. I had spent maybe 12 or 13 minutes stopped, and when I started back up again, my stiff knee was like "wait whaaaat?" It had cooled off plenty and wasn't having it. So I ran kind of Frankenstein-like for quite a while, but at least I was moving forward. I stopped every 20 minutes or so to stretch my hamstrings and quads. I tried not to think about the fact that I wasn't even halfway done yet.

During one of my stretch breaks I absently observed that my left knee, the one that had taken a digger when the falling woman knocked me over earlier, was really bloody and dirty. I could see some black stuff in there and I couldn't tell if it was dried blood or bits of gravel. I just didn't have the mental bandwidth to care, and it wasn't really hurting, so at the next water stop, I poured a dixie cup of water on it and hoped for the best.

Zero fun being had now.
Miles 13-18: My right knee was now super stiff. About every 10 or 15 minutes I stopped to stretch, massage, and re-wrap it.

My apologies to the city of Detroit for all the swear words.

Also, can I just say that it really messes with your head when you see the half-marathoners turn right on Fort Street to head to the finish, whereas you, oh foolish one, must turn the other direction, meaning away from the finish line, and gut out another 13-plus miles? Zero fun being had now.

Oh and have I also mentioned it was getting wicked hot out? It was around 75 degrees, humidity was around two million percent, and I was sweating buckets. I saw lots of vomiters during this stretch of the race. It wasn't unusual for runners to veer off the road and just double-over for a while, then slowly stand up and plod back into the fray, faces gray and scowling, wiping their mouths on their shirts. I devoted several moments to thanking God and the universe for my iron stomach. I might be a crier, a complainer, a fretter, an owner of a gimpy right knee, but knock on wood, I'm not a vomiter.

Stop looking at me, cruel camera person.
Miles 19-23: It started raining. Little needle-like pellets of torture. I felt like death but was hell-bent on earning the right to put a 26.2-mile sticker on my car. This part of the route went over the Belle Isle bridge and took us around the island, which I'm sure was pretty and all, but I had no appreciation. I was so over this. I finally had to pull out my headphones and put U2's "Elevation" on repeat. Desperate times.

On the way back over the Belle Isle bridge, I looked off to my left and saw the skyline of the city, knowing the finish line was somewhere out there among those tall buildings. The horizon was shrouded in angry black clouds. I mean the kind of clouds that make lightning. Lightning that cancels marathons. Oh hell to the no; I was not going to suffer through twentysomething miles just to have this whole thing get cancelled right before I reached the finish. In my delirium I actually picked up my pace a tiny bit, thinking that somehow by skittering along a little faster I might stave off the lightning.

Surprisingly, around mile 20 my knee seemed to kind of stabilize. I mean it didn't feel great, but at least it wasn't getting worse.

The maniacal grin of being almost finished.
Miles 23-24: Right after the Belle Isle bridge, the wind picked up terribly. Like gale-force wind. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but runners had to actually stop intermittently in their tracks to avoid being blown clear to the ground at times. My compression brace, now soaked with rain and sweat, was doing pretty much nothing for my knee. I considering flinging it to the curb, but it was honestly too much energy to bend over and undo it, so I left it on.

I was pretty miserable. I did however, manage to perk right up and smile like a Cheshire cat when I saw a course photographer. Because you know what? In a few more miles I'd be done.

Saw lots more vomiters. And lots of people stopping and stretching. A few cryers and moaners. One Crossfit-type guy, who looked in great shape and like he really should've been able to handle all this, stood immobile, locked in his tracks in the middle of the street, cursing up a blue streak because his legs were cramping. He was literally only able to move like three inches at a time. I will admit I enjoyed a little smirk at his expense as I ran past him and noticed the slogan on his shirt: "I Run This Body." A person running next to me LOL'd.

With all this carnage around me I felt like a whistler in the dark, grateful to be making forward progress but anticipating that some debilitating ailment might suddenly strike me too. I sent all sorts of good energy and unicorns toward my right knee, hoping beyond hope that it would carry me through these last couple miles.

By the end of mile 24, the wind was less intense. The darkest clouds had dissipated and it looked like the threat of lightning was over. I was actually going to finish this thing.

Mile 25: Most dramatic mile of the day. Just ahead of me I noticed a runner who had kind of an inconsistent gait. He started weaving around a lot, and I realized something might really be wrong. I watched him slowly gaze up into the sky, and then he staggered around in a circle and started heading the wrong direction. I ran over to him just as he started collapsing, breaking his fall and helping him to the curb. He was young, maybe late twenties, and he looked at me with these huge scared eyes, like a little kid when they're lost. I mean how could I not mom him?

With no medical evidence to back me up, I looked him in the eye and told him not to worry, it was going to be okay, as I held his head and his hand. Then I started yelling all crazy-like, "Need a medical person over here!" There were no medical people, but another runner came bounding over and helped me stretch the guy out on the sidewalk. A block or two earlier, I had seen a cop, so we decided I should run back and find the cop while the other runner stayed with the sick guy. When I spotted the cop, I wheezed out enough coherent words that he got the jist of the situation, and we jogged together back to the sick guy while the cop radioed for an ambulance. The sick guy was still woozy but was at least talking a little. When we finally heard the ambulance approaching, the cop urged me and the other runner to get back to running. "You got a race to finish, people." True. Off we went. I hope the sick guy ended up being okay. I wonder if he remembers anything that happened. I felt bad that he was so close to the finish and didn't get to the end.

Mile 26 to Finish: I could see the finish, and I was giddy. I was pouring sweat and my knee was about to fly apart, but I was going to complete a marathon. Puffed-up with self-congratulatory pride, I glanced to my right and noticed that I was being passed (and quite handily so) by a dude JUGGLING. I am not making this up. I learned later that he had juggled THE ENTIRE MARATHON. Yes. In the final moments of my race I was outrun by a juggler.

No matter. I was still about to become a legit marathoner. About 50 feet from the line, I spotted Joe, Maria, Chris, and Jay in a big crowd of spectators, and I started waving like a lunatic. I've never been so happy to see my tribe. I heard Maria yelling "THAT'S MY MOM!" and I bounded over to the edge to high-five them. I felt like Chariots of Fire but in reality I looked more like a sputtering VW bus running out of gas. I came in at 5:18, wayyy slower than my secret goal of five hours, and way WAY slower than my training-run-time of 4:39. But let the record show that during the race I was also busy channeling Mother Theresa by shoring up two fallen runners for part of that time, so hey.

So grateful for my peeps. Jay helpfully noted that when taking the picture at the left, he intentionally zoomed out enough to show my bloody knee. (He is always kind about indulging my drama.)

What I learned: When you do a big, hard, scary thing, you find out that there is so much love and support around you. Month after month during the lead-up to this race, I was amazed by the way people constantly encouraged me, asked how my training was going, kept tabs on my mileage, and poured on the love. This was especially true of friends and acquaintances who had already done marathons and knew what I was in for. Care and support came out of the woodwork at the times when I needed it most. I was also amazed that my body (and more importantly, my mind) somehow went way beyond what I thought possible.

Almost immediately after the marathon was over, people started asking: "So, are you going to do another one?" Last week my answer was nope, nope, so much nope. This week, the needle has moved a tiny bit closer to "we'll see."


Kelley said...

Wonderfully written Jeanette! It's one thing to scroll thru facebook and see your photos and a post saying that you ran a marathon, but it's entirely enlightening to read a breakdown of how it was going, what you were thinking, and how you were feeling from one section of miles to the next. It reminds me that what we see on the surface...a smiling you after the race...isn't the whole picture! You worked, bled, sweat, prayed, cursed, cramped, put others before yourself, and pushed yourself beyond what you thought was possible, and in the process you can be proud to know you also inspired others to chase a dream, or conquer a fear, or just step out beyond their comfort zone! Congratulations on a well earned medal and now you need to go put that sticker on your car window! ~Kelley Boyes :)

Timothy Wheeler said...

Much like the gift of a hike, you find out not only who you are but who the supportive people in your life are, even if they are strangers. I am so proud of you for pushing yourself.
Happy trails

Michelle Wheeler said...

A mini dachshund and her person ran ahead of me on a 6 mile run. Running is so humbling. Congratulations!