The White River Marathon for Kenya is a beautiful, mostly flat course. For the half it is an out and back. For the full it is a double out and back. This could be looked at as a downside but if you know any other runners in the region you get to see them multiple times through the race and shout encouragement back and forth. Even if you don’t know anyone it is a great atmosphere and many will encourage you on anyway. It caps at 700 participants, so you don’t get lost in the crowd, but you are rarely completely alone either. I ran my first half there last year and was happy to return for my first full.
Race morning rolled around chilly but not overly cold. Like all cliche runners I know who use Facebook or Instagram I had laid out all my gear in a flat runner pose the night before. I got up early, showered, and dressed before waking up Natalie and the kids to go the race. The plan was to get there in time for a group photo with the running group and pick up my timing chip before the race. As I was moving around my left calf tightened up. It had done it once before, 2 nights before. It was very odd, right on the edge of concerning. I hoped it would stretch out.
We were almost to the race when I realized my bib was sitting on the counter in our room, 15 minutes drive back. We messaged ahead to get someone else to pick up the chip and turned around. We made it back with just a few minutes to spare to get the chip put on my shoe and bib pinned on and then get in line for the race. It wasn’t the smoothest way to start a race, especially my first marathon, but I shook it off and let myself get lost in the excitement of the crowd.
The course starts with a quick 200 foot decent over the first 3/4 mile. It is easy to get carried away, so I had to hold it in on the down hill. Shortly after that I caught up and fell in with my friend and coach, Shannon. This was her first marathon back from an injury, and we had discussed an easy pace with a 10/2 minute run/walk interval. I wasn’t sure if I would like it or not, but I had missed a lot of critical training and wanted to run smart. We did this for the first 20 miles and it went really well. My calf was still tight for about the first 8, but it didn’t get worse so I kept going. Eventually it loosened up. Miles 10-13 were a beautiful thing. We dropped the walking and kept a solid 9:30 to the turnaround for the half. I felt like I could hold that pace all day. Shannon felt good, except she was concerned about some tightness that felt similar to what she experience last March just before her injury. She gave me advice for the rest of the race and dropped out at the half finish.
I was low on water and hadn’t fueled in an hour. I tried to get a refill at the next aid station but they only had Gatorade. I’ve never done well with it, so I passed. I fueled and kept going.
I was very happy with my fuel. It was a homemade gel with chia seeds, agave syrup, and an assortment of fruit juices. It went down easy, didn’t seem to cause a bad sugar spike, but gave quick and sustained energy.
From that point on, things got shaky. I had trouble keeping a steady pace. The plan was to start from a 10 minute base and cut 15 seconds off each mile for a while. The first couple miles weren’t quite 15. Once I got back into a rhythm I began to feel good, didn’t watch too closely, and had a 9:19. That was mile 17. From that point on everything was new territory to me. And that’s when things started to get interesting.
There’s a game my junior-high aged brother-in-laws play where one kid lays on his belly on the ground and another kid picks up the willing victim by his hands. He is held up while completely relaxing, head hanging between his shoulders. Then he is slowly set down. Somehow as he is let down there is a sensation of his head passing below the rest of his body, and even through the ground. Yes, I let them do this to me once.
Imagine, if you will, that this sensation was going on in your heels. As I landed mid-foot and let my heel down it felt as if my heel passed below level, below the ground, without ever touching. Not good. I slowed to a walk. The world got unsteady. There was a jon. I made my way to it and grabbed on, desperately willing my head to keep from spinning madly. I stepped in. It was set on a hill, propped up by an unsteady rock. It was like moving from the teacup ride to the tilt-a-whirl. The “wall” was not playing nice.
Back on the road I fueled and walked for a couple minutes. About then a friend passed going the other direction. He asked if I was ok. I said I was OK, emphasizing the “OK” hoping he would see the desperation in my eyes and tell me to pack it up and call it a day. He didn’t. I kept walking and the gel started to do its thing. My head leveled out and I picked up pace again. The next 2 miles were good, but I was tired. At the final turn-around I texted Natalie that I had an hour to go and put on Pandora on my phone, choosing a Dubstep station on of my coworkers had created. It got me through the next two and a half miles. I was almost dancing, but I tried to hold it in, sticking to the plan.
And then the bottom fell out. I began to physically hurt. My feet were heavy. My quads were sore. My ankles began to ache. About mile 22 I began to have mood swings. I never want to run again. I can do it. I’m done, why am I out here? I refilled my bottle and fueled one last time. That little break and the gel got me through that mile. After that was just barely over a 5k remaining. My watch was reading about a quarter of a mile longer than the course markings, which was extremely disheartening at the point in the race. So I waited a quarter mile and tried to psych myself up. I only had a 5k left. A 30 minute 5k should have been a walk in the park, right?
The road banked hard and the crown was severely steep. I could feel my ankles pronating and it hurt. Bad. My right thigh was in pain. I walked three times in the last 2.5 miles. Each time running again became harder. I felt like I had cinder-blocks for feet and was wading through concrete. 11 minute pace and then 12. The 26 mile mark. I was there. I looked at the time. 4:28. Could I beat 4:30? I pushed again. 10:30. Pain, fatigue. Survival. I rounded the last corner. I could see the timer. 4:29:15. I could feel each second pound in my core. Every footstep felt like lead. Closer. 29:20. More steps. Everything but the timer and the finish was forgotten. 25. I was in the chute. 31. I was done. I stopped, they wanted to cut off my chip.
My legs didn’twant to hold me up. The volunteers stuffed a water in my hand and dropped a medal over my neck. I stumbled to Shannon and Amber. “I can’t stand.” I mumbled, and before Shannon could panic too much about me passing out again, “I’m weak. My legs. No strength.” And my friends held me up.
I could not have run this race without the support and aid of my running group friends and my family. Plain and simple. Through the training, the setbacks, and the race. There were many sacrifices made, and much help was given. True to fashion, they were there to hold me up at the end.
This marathon was the hardest thing I’ve ever purposely put myself through. I could not have begun to imagine the challenge it would be. Now I have some things to work through. I don’t think I have any injuries. But there are definitely some tweaks, aches, and pains. Tuesday’s recovery run will be very revealing.
It was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I can’t wait to try again with more consistent training and hopefully fewer setbacks. Mostly I hope to carry what I’ve learned about disciple, perseverance, and friendship through to the rest of my life.