Lesson 6: Remember to Read the Fine Print
The night before the marathon, I finally sat down with the information that had been mailed to me weeks before along with the number to pin on my shirt. I hadn't bothered to read it when it came because my friend was handling all the details. I hadn't bothered to read it when she dropped out because I didn't think I'd go. I hadn't bothered to read it when I decided again to go because—I don't know why. I was busy, ok? I was an intern on a call month, which meant that every fourth day I went to work in the morning and didn't come home again until I staggered out of the hospital in a sleep-deprived altered state the next evening. I had scheduled my day off to coincide with the day of the marathon, but that meant I was working right up until the night before.
When I did finally read the information, I found it rather confusing. Remember, I had never been in any kind of race before, and I didn't know any of the lingo, any of the routine. This was a smallish marathon, run by a charitable organization, and the logistics were clearly being handled by enthusiastic volunteers. There were pages and pages of information. Stuff about how to train, what to wear, what to eat. There was something in there about where to go if you wanted to catch the bus to the starting line, where to leave your bag of clothes, what time the race started, what time to meet the bus ... it made my fatigued head spin. So I tried to focus on the bottom line: where do I have to be, and at what time? I finally located that information. Then I went to bed.
The race didn't start at an absurdly early time, so the fact that it was an hour and a half drive wasn't too bad. I turned the radio on loud and sang along with Sarah Maclachlan and drank my coffee and cheered myself on. I arrived at the start with time to spare. It was a cool spring day. I pinned my number on my shirt, tied my car key to my shoe, tucked a couple of granola bars and a banana in the pocket of my jacket, and lined up with everyone else.
And we were off. People screamed and cheered. I felt happy and excited and proud, and not lonely at all.
My goal was simply to finish the marathon, and I knew that the best strategy for finishing was to run a negative split—that is, run the second half faster than the first half—and to do that, I needed to rein myself in for the beginning of the race, force myself to go as slowly as I could possibly stand. There were timer at each mile marker, and to begin I kept myself to a geriatric pace of 12 minute miles.
The first couple of miles went smoothly. I chatted with the folks running near me. I enjoyed the scenery—the race started in a remote area, and it was lovely.
Until. Until I started to notice an awful lot of cars going by with people leaning out of the windows and cheering people by name. Where were they going, I wondered? I trotted on for another mile or so, and it finally dawned on me. One of the things that the information packet had said was that this was a "point-to-point" race. I had thought that this was an odd thing to mention; unless they had figured out a way around the time-space continuum, of course the race was from one point to another. Weren't all races? But now it came clear to me that they meant point-to-point as opposed to a circle. That we would be starting and finishing in two different places. Two places that were, oh, 26.2 miles apart from each other. And that when I was done, I would be at Point B, and my car would be waiting for me waaay back at Point A.
That's what they'd meant by the taking of buses to the start thing. You could park at the finish and take a bus to the start if you didn't have someone to drive you. If you'd been abandoned, say, by a friend with a broken hip.
For the next mile I felt a little sick. How on earth was I going to get back to my car? It wasn't like this was a place you could cab to. This spot was probably marked on a map as Off the Beaten Path. And I'd already run five or six miles away from it.
Then I decided, fuck it. I'm here, and I am running this race, and I'm going to worry about getting back to my car when I've finished, and not until then. I ate a granola bar and kept on.
Lesson 7: Stick to Your Plan
The miles floated by. Eight, nine, ten. People stood at crossroads and clapped. I stuck to my plan. Running this slowly meant I had plenty of time for bathroom breaks (I took three) and food. I managed to clear my mind of everything and just sail on. Almost before I knew it, I had reached the halfway point, and I felt great. So I started to speed up. Each mile I went a little bit faster—11 minutes, 10 minutes, 9 minutes, 8 minutes. I passed one guy at about the 25 mile marker who muttered peevishly, "Where's the fire?" I wanted to say, "On my feets!"
And there it was: the finish line. I smiled for the photographer as I went under the banner. It had taken me four and a half hours, which meant that I averaged about 9 minute miles for the second half of the race. And I really, truly felt good. Heck, I felt like I could keep running.
Which was a good thing, because my day was far from over. There was still the little matter of my car waiting forlornly back at the starting line.
Lesson 8: Sometimes You Have to Ask for Help
I received my medal and t-shirt, and then asked the race volunteer who gave them to me, "So, is there by any chance a bus going back to the starting line?"
She stared at me as if I had just said "Is there by any chance a monkey climbing out of my ass?"
"A bus ... going back to the starting line ..." at this point I started to get very embarrassed, because clearly I was the only person in the history of running who had ever misunderstood directions. "My friend was supposed to drive me back, but she got hurt ..." I didn't lie, but I sort implied that my friend had dropped out that day, after the race started.
"Oh my god," the girl said. "No, there's no bus. Wow. You need to get back to the starting line?" You could see her tracing the 26.2 miles in her head. "Stay here," she said. "I'll see what I can do."
So I sat and waited. And waited. And got stiff. And got cold. And realized why people left bags of warm clothes at the finish.
Finally a woman appeared. "You need a ride back to the start?" she said. I repeated my pathetic half-truth.
"Well, I live sort of near there ... I can drop you off. But you'll have to wait until the end of the race."
Which is how I came to see all of the lame, halt, and old come over that finish line, as I sat and shivered, my knees tucked under my race T-shirt. Finally, finally the last person staggered across, the banners were rolled up, and I climbed into a rattly, rusty Datsun that smelled strongly of dog and drove forty-five minutes trying to make small talk with a saintly stranger who took me 15 miles out of her way. The sight of my little car sitting all alone in the vast parking lot made me shrink in embarrassment, but it was a welcome sight indeed.
At first my legs felt almost too stiff to work the clutch, but I cranked the heat and started to thaw a bit. At the main highway I found a McDonald's, where I got a cup of coffee and a fish sandwich. I ate while driving, and as I warmed up, the proud and happy realization came over me:
I had done it.