If you had talked to me in the few weeks prior to the marathon, I probably would’ve told you something along the lines of: “I just can’t wait for it to be over.” The weekend before the race, I was to the point of not being sure I wanted to even go through with it. Jared and I registered for the race back in January, shortly after our second half-marathon. We printed out a Hal Higdon training schedule with high hopes of never missing a single training run. By the end of January, I had resigned from my job. Despite dozens of applications and interviews for job openings in Phoenix, the most promising lead came in February for a position in San Diego and by March, I had jumped into an intensive 4 weeks of job training with 6 hour trips to-and-from Phoenix as Jared finished out his job and started looking for a new job to join me in San Diego. In hindsight, I’m not sure how we managed to keep up with 50% of our training plan thanks to all the travel, job changes, moving madness, and all the other complications, stressors and madness that goes along with relocation. Our training was erratic, and although the race helped us maintain a commitment to running, it felt half-hearted and less enjoyable than usual.
Fast-forward to Friday, May 29th: Jared finished out his second day at his second new job for the year and I squirmed my way through my workday. My dad, who seldom has the opportunity to travel for work, had a rare opportunity for a job in LA, hopped on a last minute flight (on the last open seat!), rented a car and made the two hour trip to San Diego to cheer us on for our first ever marathon. A gloomy, drizzly, Saturday was spent running errands. We made our way through some of the 20,000 expected runners at the Race Expo downtown, bought technical running shirts and Gu energy gels, tried samples and finally, started getting excited about the race. We picked up groceries, watched hockey (Go Penguins!), ate an early dinner, lined up our gear and went to bed by 9pm. Jared fell asleep promptly, but my mind was already running that marathon and I tossed and turned until well after 1am.
On Sunday, May 31st, our alarms went off at 4am and we were headed for the starting line by 5:15am. Getting to the starting line of a race is a feat in and of itself when there are 20,000 runners (not to mention all the volunteers, spectators, and the inevitable poor sap or two who needed to get to the San Diego airport). For this reason, we were immeasurably grateful to have my dad in town, because he was able to navigate through the stop-and-go traffic and swarms of impatient drivers in order to drop us off at the intersection of Sixth & Nutmeg, but not before hopping out of the car to give each of us a “good luck, you-can-do-it, I’m proud of you!” hug (he didn’t need to say any of those things, I knew what he meant). Jared and I made a beeline for the port-o-potties and waited behind several dozen runners to take one last tinkle before lining up for the start. The gun went off at 6:25am for the bicyclers and 6:30am for the first wave of runners. We inched our way across the start line a little after 6:36, the crowd spread out quickly and we were running.
The first several miles flew by as we watched thousands of runners flooding the streets of San Diego. There were countless runners dressed like Elvis, a guy running with a 5-foot tall inflatable monkey strapped to his back, and a girl running in her underwear–her whole butt hanging out. There was an old man running in shower sandals. We pointed out jerseys that read “My 1st marathon” and “My 7th.” There was a couple running in memory of their young son, pictured on the backs of their t-shirts and a girl running for her father who had passed away a mere 2 months ago. Jared and I kept looking at each other and saying: “We’re actually doing this!” It was early in the race that an episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ came to my mind in which Marshall has been training to run the New York City Marathon, but breaks his toe at the last minute and is crushed about not being able to participate because he has been training so hard. Barney belittles his disappointment, insisting that running a marathon is easy, even without training. He says: “Step 1: You start running. There is not Step 2.” And so Marshall bets Barney that he cannot complete the marathon, Barney accepts and completes the marathon the next day, quite easily. It’s a funny show and an especially funny episode and that quote stuck in my mind: You start running. There is no Step 2. And so we kept running.
At the 10k (6.2 mile) marker, I started looking for my dad although we’d discussed seeing him around Mile 8. The spectators were amazing. There was a whole row of burly, bearded men skimpily clad in women’s clothes, with stuffed bras, bright blonde wigs and pom-poms. We saw spectators dressed as Darth Vader & Chewy, as well as an 80 year old Superman. There was a knee-high toddler holding a sign that read: “Run, Nana, Run!” Jared was counting dogs that he saw along the sidelines and I was trying to read each and every sign the spectators waved. I got choked up as we passed by a middle-aged man holding a sign for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training runners, which read: “Thank You, From a 17 Year Leukemia Survivor.” Another memorable sign read: “Nothing hurts worse than not finishing,” which I reflected on a lot throughout the race as I relished the grateful fact that I didn’t feel an inkling of pain anywhere in my body. I was right to start looking for my dad early, because we ended up spotting him at Mile 7. It was so exciting and such a good boost to see a fan of our own, because we were about to head north out of the city, which accounted for the largest, longest hill of the race.
Shortly after Mile 8, I was feeling tired, there weren’t any spectators to cheer us along this stretch of highway and I was feeling overwhelmed at the realization that I didn’t need to start looking for my dad for another 10 miles. It was a gloomy, gray morning and it was misting just enough that I was squinting and mildly annoyed, but it triggered the memory of a quote my mom forwarded to me several weeks ago: “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about dancing in the rain.” It’s a powerful quote to reflect on while running a marathon, but I had my first Gu shot and got my bounce back as I marveled at the fact that we were running a marathon! On a highway! In San Diego!
Every couple miles or so were water stations with different themes: one station had a Christmas theme where all the volunteers were decked out in Christmas sweaters and costumes. I grabbed a cup of water from a man dressed up as Mrs. Claus. There was a Hawaiian-themed water station with a giant sign that read: “Aloha Runners!” which made Jared and I smile because we knew mom was there in spirit. There was the 80s-themed station with an actual DeLorean on the side of the road, which made me think of the Back to the Future movies and naturally, my favorite movie marathoner, Ryan. We saw a sign that read: “Your feet hurt cuz you’re kicking so much ASS,” and another that read, “Colleen, Those pants make you look FAST.” At Mile 16, Jared turned to me and said: “I’m having so much fun!” Around Mile 17, Jared spotted our friends Sarah and Theresa. Sarah screamed and cheered, running next to me for a few strides, which cracked us up so much we were at Mile 18 before we knew it and we spotted my dad again. We were still all smiles at this point. We wound our way through the neighborhoods of Pacific Beach, where spectators were handing out popsicles, orange slices, diced watermelon, Twizzlers, pretzels, even homemade chocolate chip cookies. Jared helped himself, saying: “I feel like I’m at Costco!” while I had my third and final Gu shot.
Mile 20 is where things get hazy. I don’t recall our surroundings, the other runners, volunteers or spectators like I do at other points in the race and in some ways, I feel like I blacked out because I don’t remember running across the two bridges towards Sea World. Jared and I had run over these bridges a handful of times in training, envisioning ourselves crossing them during the marathon and always remarking on what big hills they are. During the actual marathon, I didn’t notice these hills at all. At Mile 21, Jared’s smile was gone when he looked at me and said he needed to walk (he definitely remembers the hills that came with those bridges). At first, I begged him to keep running, saying: “I need you,” but I quickly realized this was the home stretch and whether we stayed side by side or separated ways, we were both going to finish. Nonetheless, as soon as we separated, the wheels started to fall off for me. My legs felt stiff, I was dizzy, nauseous and I was ready to be finished. In retrospect, I had probably lost too much salt–I could see it on my skin and should’ve grabbed a salt packet or two at one of the medical stations, but by this point, I couldn’t think of anything other than getting myself across that finish line so I could fall apart with a medal around my neck. I shuffled along, barely able to lift my gaze from the cement two feet in front of me and then I heard my name: “MEGAN!” And there was my hero, my dad, at Mile 25! My “gas tank” was on empty, but seeing him gave me enough push to start running again and I pressed on, running on fumes, one little, measly, monster of mile to go. It inched by in slow motion as I hobbled through the thickest crowds of cheering spectators, some of them reading my name off my race number and shouting my name: “Go Megan, you’re almost there!” “You’ve got this, Megan!” I remember how touching it was to have all of these complete strangers cheering me on, but one of the last thoughts that passed through my mind was: “I have to beat Oprah,” who famously finished the 1994 New York City Marathon in 4:29.
At last, I was stepping over the finish line, as I told myself to smile, I raised my shaking arms and looked up for the camera, my eyes filling with tears. Slowing to a walk was like getting everything I ever wanted on Christmas morning–nothing in the world could’ve made me happier at that moment. I was finished, but my only thought was to turn around and look for Jared. And so I stood as close to the finish line as the race officials would allow and scoured the oncoming finishers for Jared’s smiley face bandana and then, there he was! The last few steps of running I did that day were straight into his arms as I said, “We did it!”
The rest of the day was an incredibly surreal whirlwind of emotions. We are officially “marathoners” and at the same time that it was an unimaginable challenge, it also seemed to fly by in the blink of an eye–who knew 4 hours, 28 minutes and 33 seconds of running could “fly by the in blink of an eye?!” I waiver back and forth between: “We did it!” to “That’s it?!” I wake up in the middle of the night thinking: “Wow, I’m a marathoner!” and drive to work mourning the fact that it’s already over, fantasizing about what the next marathon will be like without all the enormous life changes and following months of truly dedicated training. A few days have passed, the physical soreness is quickly subsiding, but the feeling of pride is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced before. I can’t pinpoint ever feeling this proud of myself, of Jared, and of what we accomplished together. I’m also remarkably excited for our next marathon and the inevitable new challenges that we will face then, because looking back, I realize the challenges are a huge part of what made this race so special to us.
In September 2007, I struggled my way through the Cheetah Run 5k (3.1 miles) and later that day, I reflected on how difficult running is, writing: “Next week, I will “Race for the Cure”–for my breast cancer survivor mom, for my 12-year-old niece who’s battling cancer right now and for everyone who can’t run. Because running, like life, is a privilege, even when it’s hard.” And if it was easy, it wouldn’t be so meaningful.