Queue intro music. Sound up? Good.
The marathon started with a story. The Greek military messenger Pheidippides, the legend goes, ran about 25 miles from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. with the news of a victory the Greek army had defeated the Persians. “Rejoice, we have won!” he proclaimed to the assembly. Then he collapsed and died.
There are other, more plausible versions of this story, but this ending lends a little more thrill to the race. And it reminds us that there is more to a marathon (or any distance) than the start and the finish. Something happens along the way. The shape of that happening is up to the runner.
On Oct. 16, I ran the Baystate Marathon in Lowell, MA with a specific goal in mind: a 3:38:00 finish, both a PR (personal best) and a BQ (Boston Qualifier) for spring 2024.
I wish I’d had a Go-Pro on to capture the key moments of this story, but for this race my payload was four GU packets, sunglasses, my trusty Timex watch, and a water bottle for washing down the GUs.
Imagine, then, the start line. It’s chilly, below 50 degrees, but perfectly clear. I’ve just tossed my sweatshirt to my husband, Bill, after finding him and our one-year-old, Paul, at the last minute after a nervous warmup jog. I’m penned into a start corral with hundreds of other bodies dressed in running gear. There’s music blasting and an announcer telling us “two more minutes!” My teeth are chattering and I alternate between deep, calming breaths and a compulsive jumping up and down. Still, I want to run. I can’t wait. I sing along with the national anthem.
Then it’s go time. I repeat that to myself: go time, go time. Mantras are helpful. I start my Timex as I cross the start line.
Adrenaline is real. I scoot through the first three miles at around 8 minutes per mile, when my average goal is 8:15 to 8:20, but it feels as though I am jogging.
Behind me, two men are chatting about training runs. They’ve both run to and around Fresh Pond, the 2.5 mile path where I did most of my training runs. I tune into their conversation not because they can tell me anything new about Fresh Pond but because the number one foe in the first half of a marathon is not your body – it’s your head. Listening to these guys natter on about running (they seemed quite knowledgeable) delays the boredom and negative self-talk my own mind has programmed for Miles 1 through 10.
They pass me somewhere in Mile 3. Not a problem: I am, after all, going too fast.
“What pace are we going?” one said to the other. I see now that they look pretty fit, like this will be easy for them.
“If we keep this up, we’ll finish in 3:30.”
And off they go. I’m a bit envious of their 3:30 but I have my own race to run. I didn’t know, at that point, that I would see them again.
Mile 4 is my fastest, 7:53, and it’s uphill. The peaceful, easy feeling stays with me. It’s like being on a train. I entertain myself with stopwatch beeps every mile and water stations every two miles and GU services every six; I imagine myself walking to the café car on the Baystate Express.
Outside my head, the sun is getting higher, runners less vocal than the Two Experts trot along beside or in front of or behind me. I draft off a large guy wearing a “50<4” t-shirt until about Mile 8, pondering the challenges associated with running a marathon in every state under 4 hours. A woman I recognize from a training run paces off my left elbow. A fit-looking woman with flying pigs on her purple shorts runs by me and slowly vanishes in the long line of runners ahead on the straightaway along the Merrimack River.
At Mile 8, there’s a bridge with a baby on the far side – Paul sitting on Bill’s shoulders. I high five them.
At Mile 13.1, I’m running a decent half marathon pace. At Mile 14, my left-side shadow runs by me and heads off into the land of faster runners. That’s okay. I’m still ahead of schedule – but I’m not riding in the observatory car anymore. I’m starting to feel it.
A thin woman with outsized footfalls passes. The 50<4 guy drops behind. More GU, more water, more sun. The trick to a marathon, I am realizing, is holding out in that comfort zone as long as you can because the physical reality, like a train robber, will eventually catch you.
Mile 16, Mile 17, Mile 18, GU. I’m feeling gravity, wind resistance, my muscles running out of glycogen to burn as fuel. The real villain in the story of most marathons is not a train robber clambering up from the last car or a specific rival runner or even the terrain/elements/course. It’s your own body.
Which is where your head – so jumpy during the easy miles – can come in handy.
The day before the marathon, I took Paul to the race expo to pick up my number. Held in a college gym, the Baystate Marathon expo was tiny compared to the conference center events put on my major marathons. I browsed the running shop sale rack, bought a few GUs, and let Paul play on the shiny basketball court floor. “Not much here,” I told him, and we headed back to the car.
Blocking our way, though, were runners completing Jennifer’s Run 5K. I find race finish lines irresistible, so we changed course and watched several strangers sprint (or straggle) the last 25 yards to a booming soundtrack of greatest hits of the 80s and 90s. The music was so loud, I moved Paul to the far side of the field, where he got out of the stroller. We danced when “Sweet Child of Mine” came on.
Maybe they’ll play this song at the finish of my race tomorrow, I thought. Slim chance, but I determined that I’d sing it to myself in the last 200 yards. I knew it was going to be hard and I needed a plan.
At Mile 20, I am not feeling so hot. Someone has painted bricks onto the road, labeled “The Wall.” By the time I comprehend the full message, to “Bust Through” said wall, it’s too late. Here I am, I think. It just hurts from here.
Then I hear an electric guitar.
Singing out to me from a water station manned by a high school track team: Sweet Child of Mine. My next step is a leap. Then I look up and wanted to cry – there is my child, in Bill’s arms. It’s my sign that God cares about not only the universe but also about me and this particular run.
Long after I am out of earshot of the Guns -N Roses-blasting water station, I am singing as much of the song as I can remember…then rewinding to the beginning, doing a little air guitar and singing it again.
Where do we go? Where do we go now? Where do we go?
The bridge is particularly hilarious in the last five miles as I chug along in a line of runners. I’m apparently woozy enough that Axel Rose is making me laugh, but not so far gone that I can’t follow the course.
Aye-yi yi yi yi yi yi yi where do we go now?
In fact, I’m kind of laugh-crying. I am on pace to finish at or even below (!!!) my goal time. If I can keep it up.
The glam rock gets old after a while, so I start to play Who’s Feeling It? I certainly am, but what is going on in the bodies and heads of runners around me? Some runners start to pass me – after all, I’m now struggling to maintain an 8:30 pace. But maintaining that clip helps me reel in others. The woman in the flying pig shorts comes into view, then alongside me, and she’s behind. Some runners start to walk.
Including the Fresh Pond guys. Remember them? “If we keep this up, we’ll finish in 3:30.” “Huh.”
Oh, I relish running past them as they speed-walk along like retired ladies at the mall, still mansplaining marathons to each other. “Now, when you’re really going fast…” one says as I go by.
From there, I have a few more toys in the bag. One is to count to 12 over and over, in time to my footfalls, in French. Another is to read the signs along the course (“This is a long way to run for a free banana.”) Yet another is to say to myself, “let’s pretend we’re running, shall we? We don’t really have to run. These people around us are running, but we don’t have to really run – just pretend.”
This makes no sense at all and scares me a little, but I’m still on my feet and moving forward.
In the last half mile, an older woman (more power to her) charges past me, talking into a cell phone in a nasty voice, “You wanna give me some encouragement here? Huh?” A man on a bike pedals slowly behind her, filming. I don’t know what that’s all about, but the one shame in my race is that I don’t pass her back. However, it’s taking all I’ve got to keep going. Mile 26 sign, crowds, loud music, my name announced over a loudspeaker, and that baby again – I tap his hand and he smiles.
My train passenger voice is still on somewhere, telling me, okay it’s time to go fast now, why are you dawdling, look at the freaking clock. But once I’m across the finish line, someone hands me a water, someone else hands me a space blanket and a third person says, are you okay?
Yes, I am. And I have nothing left.
I wobble through the shady post-race area, strewn with tents and exhausted runners, toward the free bananas and that baby.
Epilogue: I did it. I ran a 3:37:01, faster than my goal by almost a minute. This is a story for another day, but I have a hard time setting, sticking with and meeting goals. So this one – so specific, so challenging, so achieved – does more than feel good. It tells me something about myself, something positive.
A marathon can be a metaphor for anything, Bill said. I’ve heard the same about baseball. Sport itself is a metaphor for life. And because while I was training to run this marathon, I was also preparing to start a new novel, I’ve linked the two in my mind.
I’m not alone in this impulse. Writer and teacher Julia Green calls writing her first novel “the hardest thing I’d ever done intellectually, the most challenging endurance sport ever.” And she says it not being published was the hardest thing she’s endured emotionally.
“But on the other side of that darkness,” she writes, “was Big Joy, was the recognition that I had always dreamed of writing a novel AND I DID IT.”
A marathon makes a good story because there’s a beginning with all its hopes and fears and an end with its outcome and the inevitable following drama (“We beat the Persians!” “I qualified for Boston!”) And in between there are an infinite number of details to remember and enhance and shape.