Our alarms went off at 3:30am on Sunday, June 6th. It was pitch dark outside, my body was confused and our dog was even more confused as I let him outside to do his business while we got dressed. I pinned my race number on my shirt, laced and re-laced my running shoes and braided my hair in preparation for the last leg of the course, on windy Fiesta Island. We drove to Qualcomm Stadium, where we parked with roughly 30,000 other participants and took a shuttle to the Start Line on the west side of Balboa Park. We checked our gear bag with one of a couple dozen UPS trucks that would meet us at the Finish Line and hopped in line for the porta-potties. As we waited in line, a man with a megaphone, who called himself a psychologist, I believe, led us through an exercise of envisioning ourselves tied to one of the following: a hawk, a hummingbird, or a butterfly. He also encouraged us to say: “Relax shoulders,” three times, out loud, at mile 15. I think it was supposed to be some sort of hypnosis, but I picked the hummingbird and decided “Relax shoulders” would be a good mantra to add to my arsenal for the race.
The gun went off while we were still in line and we anxiously watched the massive crowd of racers inching their way to the Start Line as we continued to wait for our turn at the porta-potties. We jumped in with the crowd and made our way across the Start Line roughly 20 minutes after the initial gun, but we were off! We flew through Balboa Park to downtown San Diego, by Petco Park and by Seaport Village, which is where I had a chocolate Gu shot. We passed the Gaslamp Quarter and headed north on the 163, which is absolutely surreal. Running along a highway with 30,000 people is unlike anything else. We hit a steady incline from miles 8-11, where a gap grew between Jared and me. When I realized he was no longer on my heels, I sent him “infinite love and gratitude” and pressed on, thinking of a quote from Jennifer Van Allen of Runner’s World magazine: “If you don’t enjoy it–if you’re not willing to forage for joy in even the most painful of moments, then it is a complete and utter waste of time.” My feet throbbed, my left hip ached, and I wasn’t even to the halfway mark, but I foraged for joy and ran on, a smile stretched across my face. At mile 12, I took my second Gu shot–espresso flavored, which is one of my absolute favorites. I remembered what Dave, the security guy at my office said: “Find someone to draft off of.” I spotted a relay runner, who had just hopped in at the mile 7 transition point. She was running on fresh legs and holding a solid 9-minute pace, so I stayed 2-3 yards behind her for a mile or so and zoned out, visualizing that hummingbird guiding me along.
Usually, I have deep and profound thoughts and realizations on long runs, especially when I’m by myself, but I decided to save that for later and resorted to observing the eclectic mix of runners surrounding me, as well as the spectators lining the sidewalks. One of my favorite things about racing is the fact that runners come from all walks of life and it’s such a moving realization when we all come together for an event like this. The crowd of runners is speckled with the occasional lean and sinewy, stereotypical long-distance runner, but a large majority are ordinary folks, doing the extraordinary: marathoning dads and moms, grandmas and grandpas, showing their onlooking children and grandchildren what life’s all about–foraging for joy. There were people running to lose weight, people limping along with knee braces, people running for charity, people running to survive and thrive after cancer, people running in memory of loved ones they’ve lost, people running simply to prove to themselves they can. There was even a guy with his foot in a cast, his leg in a tripod of sorts, making his way along the half-marathon course with a crutch. Like I said, extraordinary.
I looked at my fingernails, which were painted bright purple, because the color makes me think of my 15-year-old niece, Jessie, since it’s her favorite color. She’s been battling cancer for eight years now, and I’ll never forget the day she said: “I wish I could run and play like a normal kid.” It was around that time that I hopped on a treadmill for the first time and started running. I wrote this to my family a couple days ago: “Over the years, and since I’ve lived out west, [the color purple has] evolved to simply remind me of home. It reminds me that life is a gift and a privilege. It reminds me that we’re never alone in the battles we fight. It reminds me that although things change, some things really do stay the same. It reminds me that I carry “home” with me, wherever I go. On Sunday, Jared and I will paint our nails purple for the fourth time, at our fourth marathon, and it’ll be more than a reminder of Jessie’s courage, it’ll remind me of the unrivaled support and love of my cheer squad, some 2200 miles away.” Along that stretch of road, the presence of all of the loved ones I’ve lost washed over me and I was embraced by the feeling of all the loved ones who were there with me in spirit, cheering from afar. The hummingbird never faltered; I kept running.
Heading west down Friars Road, I laughed at the posters spectators waved: “That’s not sweat. It’s your fat cells crying!” “Toenails are for sissies.” “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon!” And “Chafe now, brag forever.” A small, middle-aged, Asian man puttered along at a steady pace, wearing a 100km ultra-marathon t-shirt, which made me think: after a 62-mile race, 26.2 miles probably feels like nothing to this guy. We headed north along Morena Boulevard, where I spotted a girl in a visor, with a blond ponytail on top of her head and a white tank top that read: EVELYN across the back. At mile 17.5, I zoomed past her, glancing back to confirm that it was Evelyn from the MTV Real World/Road Rules Challenges. Jared and I had just watched her on TV the night before! We looped around and headed south along Mission Bay, where the sidewalks were much narrower than the wide roads of the 163, Friars and Morena. My pace slowed as I dodged walkers. I spotted a tiny woman who had slowed to a walk. She was wearing a black t-shirt that read: “Dear God, Please let there be someone behind me to read this.” I told her: “God’s listening! And you’re rocking this!” She gave me a thumbs-up and shuffled back into a run as I passed her.
I had my third Gu shot at mile 18, which was a flavor I’d never had before: Jet Blackberry. By now, the sun was out in full force and because the Gu shot had been in my back pocket, it was very warm. I imagined it was blackberry pie going down and smiled thinking about the fact that I was enjoying two of my favorite things at once: running and dessert. The sun was relentless, beating down on us as we ran toward Fiesta Island. Volunteers and spectators had set up sprinklers and hoses, spraying us down whether we wanted it or not. Some of the kids even had water guns filled with icy water, which made me laugh. I imagined my brother amongst the crowd, outfitted with a half dozen of the Super Soakers he used to collect as a kid, pelting unsuspecting runners. That would’ve been a riot.
Shortly after passing mile marker 20, I spotted a familiar face and elatedly ran over to give Amanda a high-five, who was all smiles as she cheered for me, waving her arms in enthusiastic encouragement. I wrote it perfectly in my Flying Pig Marathon Race Report: “I can’t say enough how essential it is to have people rooting for you in those instances.” I wasn’t expecting to have any spectators that day and seeing Amanda cheer and wave so excitedly, literally propelled me forward as though she’d given me a free mile. I smiled from ear to ear, knowing I would finish strong.
As I passed mile 21 and turned onto Fiesta Island, I realized this would be an exceptionally challenging final stretch because there were absolutely no spectators on the island. It was relentlessly sunny, windy and isolated. I stared down the long stretches of barren road, praying to spot a water station, and frantically fighting the urge to walk. A group of uniformed boy scouts were manning a water station at the campground we passed through during mile 22. It made me think of my dad and brother, who were scouts, and this station was exceptionally memorable because the cups of Cytomax and water had crushed ice in them. Absolute heaven! I downed four cups before dumping the leftover ice on my head and running on.
Miles 23 and 24 were insufferably long, deserted, boring and windy. I was running steadier than just about everyone around me, so I couldn’t find a good runner to draft off of and my feet, knees and hips were throbbing deafeningly. It was here that I decided to immerse myself in that deep, profound place that I like to explore in tough times like this. I mentally sorted through all of the motivators and mantras I could think of: “What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve.” “You can quit and they don’t care, but you will always know.” “My medal’s at the finish line.” And “Relax shoulders. Relax shoulders. Relax shoulders.” I looked at my purple fingernails and thought: “This is a privilege.” And finally, I came to a quote from Buddha: “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you.” My body and my mind desperately wanted to quit. They were begging me to ease up, but my heart said: “No way. Today is your day. You’ve been running for three years, you can handle three more miles.” Once again, I honed in on the image of that hummingbird and told myself to just keep going.
When I hit mile 25, I could see the crowd surrounding the Finish Line on the other side of Mission Bay. Looking at my Garmin, I knew I could beat my personal record of 4:14:30. I ran past the Cytomax and water at the last water station, grabbing a handful of ice cubes from one of the volunteers and clutched it in my hands, thinking: finish it before the ice melts! The ice had melted by the time I hit mile marker 26 and then I found myself running as hard as I could for the last 385 yards. I ran through the chute of spectators, who were sardined together, pressed tightly against the barrier that separated them from me, anxious and ready to cheer their finishers along the final leg. Dozens of them read my name off my race number and shouted: “Go, Megan, Go!” One woman shouted: “Go, Megan! Beat these men!” which made me smile as I dug deep and zipped by an impressively muscular, tattooed guy. I flew across that Finish Line and hit the stop button on my Garmin at 4:13:20 as tears flooded my eyes. My lungs felt like they were going to explode. My legs throbbed. My throat was closing up with emotion, but I made a bee-line for the volunteers with the medals and bent over so the girl could put the medal around my neck as she said: “Congratulations!”
Overcome with emotion, nausea and fatigue, I grabbed an ice towel from a volunteer and a bottle of water and collapsed on a curb behind the Finish Line, feebly scanning the masses for Jared’s yellow and gray smiley-faced bandana. He spotted me first and walked toward me as I staggered to my feet, throwing my arms around his neck, exclaiming: “We did it!” There are books on how “marriage is a marathon,” and in the past year, Jared and I got married and completed our first four marathons together. As I hobbled around the house yesterday, lugging around that heavy race medal on my neck, smiling from head to toe, all I could think about was my desire to make this feeling last forever. I love the whole process of marathoning: choosing the race, training, dreaming, doing. I look forward to journeying through all of life’s uphills and downhills with Jared, celebrating our victories and always, “foraging for joy in even the most painful of moments.” So I’m full-to-the-brim with joy when I say: “We did it!” because there’s so much more to come for us. And I couldn’t be more excited about all of it.