Because I had a serious (though unfounded, it turned out) concern that I would not make the timing cut off at the halfway point, and because I had a semi-serious desire to, you know, actually run the full marathon, I had instructed Libby and Seth not to meet me there but to be beyond that point a half mile or so. If I needed to stop and change my socks or vomit or eat all of the cached candy bars at once, I would have the leisure to do so since I would be past the sweeping point. Since they would be in downtown St. Louis while I ground out the first half of the marathon, Libby had said she intended to do some sight seeing and hoped she could be in place to meet me when I passed through again.
The half mile after the cut-off point was blessedly downhill, so I could take my eyes from the ground before my feet and scan the (dwindling) crowd for the faces of my support crew. And I didn’t see them. I was carrying my phone, and I had the tracking function turned on so they could see where I was, and the damned thing had been pinging regularly throughout the morning (because my adorable grandson, Kenneth, was in Prague that day, checking out all of the European playgrounds and sending adorable photos of himself). So if Libby’s plans changed (say, she found something better to do than provide ground support for me), she could let me know.
But then, far ahead (far because it was part of the way up a hill), I saw them. They had once again separated themselves from the crowd so I could spot them. It was time to shed the throwaway jacket, laden as it was with sweat and my ill will, and as I handed it to Seth, he instantly said, “Can I burn this?” I immediately felt 400 pounds lighter. Then Libby extended me my choice of candy bars: another Twix or a Snickers. I chose both and began with the Twix. As I said before, I had GU packets pinned to the waistband of my shorts — eight packets so I could swallow one every three miles or so. I really think they work, at least for me. But after I’d eaten that first Twix after mile 7, I could tell the difference the sugar in the candy bar offered over the GU. The candy bar was a bigger jolt (though I understand a quicker let down too). I had another 13.1 miles to struggle through, and I wanted that jolt.
I didn’t linger long with Libby and Seth, though they did manage to take some photos of my decrepit self and post them on social media, and I faced the hill ahead of me with resignation (and, by this point, two candy wrappers in my hand). Without the jacket, I felt measurably better. I’ll never be a sleek runner, but I felt that way for a while. And I was resigned to conquering the second half no matter how tired I felt or how much walking I had to do to manage it.
When I had driven this route the day before, I remembered it being a seemingly endless straight line out to Forest Park (and then back later). I hate straight-line running over long distance. It demoralizes me. I can see how far I must go and how little progress I am making and how much I regret ever signing up for whatever the stupid run is and how much I hate the world and myself in particular. But something was different this time. For one thing, I was keeping pace with a man about my age who thought my name was Tom. (By this point, I had to look at the name on my bib to be sure what my actual name was. See above.) Also, I was allowing myself to walk as much as I needed because my body had decided to finally reveal what part was going to fail me during this marathon. Portland was the knees. Kansas City was the hips. And St. Louis would be the quadriceps, the muscles at the front of my thighs, the largest muscles on my body. They were beginning to burn and stab with every step. But they were only beginning to do so. There was still half of a marathon left for the pain to evolve and grow more robust and unforgiving and memorable. I had been doing exercises to strengthen my hips and knees, but I hadn’t considered my quads might betray me. (I suppose they would think it was the other way around.) My regular training runs would have seemed sufficient exercise for them, and since they hadn’t raised this complaint in the two prior marathons, they completely surprised me. Jerks!
So this gave me something to take my mind off of the tedium on the long straight line ahead of me: pain! Pain will do that. Pain is a great distraction. Fortunately, in the tiny pocket of my skimpy running shorts I was also carrying a hefty supply of Vitamin I (ibuprofen), and I had been dosing myself with it moderately already. I suspect it was helping me along (though better training was probably better for my body than a megadose of medicine in a body stressed and likely dehydrated).
I think I must have zoned out along here because I found myself nearly to Forest Park far sooner than I had expected. Where was the university I was to have passed? At one point, I had noted during the drive through, a single block contained the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and . . . Ikea. I realized I had passed them only in retrospect. I didn’t remember them at the time. I had been trading places with the man who thought my name was Tom. I would run past him as he walked. He would run past me as I walked. I would see him far ahead; I would leave him far behind. It gave me something to think about, and I guess it was another diversion.
And Forest Park lay just ahead. The sky above it was dark with clouds, but they looked to be more to the north than to the west where I was headed. And if the rain fell, I still had those two trash bags tucked away. (I don’t mind the rain, but it was not a warm day, and the wind was constant. Hypothermia is a real concern for runner, even on mild days, and especially later in the run with the body’s resources are just about used up.)
There were plenty of fellow runners ahead, behind, and around me though the pack had thinned. And in the second half of the marathon, the water stations were staged at every mile. My watch was still recording the distance different from the mile flags, but somewhere along here I realized that my watch was reporting greater distance covered, so when (if) I crossed the finish line my watch wouldn’t post less than the full distance but something more (and it felt like the total distance would be about 50 miles). And now it was into Forest Park.
We entered the Park at about mile 16.5, and when we were finished fooling around in there, we left the park at about mile 22.5. So we had six miles to cover in there. Forest Park is a wonderful place. It contains the art museum, the Jewell Box, the zoo, the Cascades, the Planetarium, the Jefferson Memorial, the Grand Basin, various sculptures, a golf course, playgrounds, and gardens. Our course took us by none of that. Instead we were shunted to the wasteland, passing a few empty ball fields but otherwise only getting intimately familiar with the pavement. There were very few spectators in the park, and though the water stations were fully staffed and fully encouraging and supportive, it was a lonely six miles. I don’t know if it was someone’s perverse idea of a joke, but soon after we entered the park we were running up a short but steep-ish hill. And this was where three men with cameras were standing on ladders, taking our photos. On an uphill stretch. Since the pack was so thin, I had seen them in advance and straightened my back, painting a smile on my face. I rarely get a decent race photo, so I have no expectations about what they captured of me on that ascent. I didn’t have time to worry about that though.
Shortly after passing the photographers, when the ground leveled and the running was a bit more manageable (still . . . mile 18-ish), the 60% chance of rain fulfilled its destiny. Thunder began to rumble, and occasional bolts of lightning would arc through the sky. I think if it hadn’t been so late in the run, this might have been cause to delay or even cancel it, but with so many runners already finished . . .
I retrieved one of the trash bags from their secret location and proceeded to tear a hole in the bottom of it to slip my head through. It turns out there are good trash bags for this purpose, and then there are the kind I had. (Gathered at the center bottom rather than a straight seam across the bottom.) I managed to tear a hole more or less where it needed to be, and then I slipped it over my head. It also turns out that a thicker plastic is a better choice than the thin (inexpensive) kind I had. I managed to work it over my shoulders and down my back and front, but if I wanted to move my arms in rhythm with my legs, I would tear through the bag. So I mostly held them against my chest, no doubt running inefficiently and burning energy I couldn’t spare. About this time, the rain let up, and I wondered if I could just rip the damned trash bag off my body and run in a semi-human manner. But I decided to be prudent and wore it like a black plastic scarf, just as I had noted looked comical on the man I had seen in the first half of the race.
That rain was just a tease. Though clear thinking was not much present in my head by this time, it was prudent that I kept my black plastic scarf on. The rain returned about a mile later, and this time it was more earnest. The sky threw large, cold drops at us runners (and the steadfast volunteers on the course). Lots of large, cold drops. Unavoidable puddles grew before us. In no time at all, my shoes and socks were soaked. (Had I even had a spare pair of socks with me then, I wouldn’t have bothered changing them. There was no point.) I continued my run/walk intervals through this featureless section of the park, reminding myself how much character I was building, or something like that. The route wound up and down streets, turning back on itself several times to return us to places we had just been. Few of the people around me were actually running. I was in the cohort that would finish the marathon having walked a great deal of it, which I guess is still respectable.
But since the pack was so thin, I couldn’t rely on following runners ahead of me (since they were so far ahead of me that I couldn’t always see where they went). As a result, I made a wrong turn and was off the course. I only went about twenty feet before I realized my error and got back to where I needed to be, but I was annoyed that the course marshall who should have been at that point to prevent this kind of error had already left the station. Sure it was raining. In fact, it had started hailing briefly at this point. I was, of course, too exhausted to spin up much animosity. I’d gotten myself back on course, but I did feel abandoned.
Soon after getting myself back on course, I caught up with a young woman who was running (and walking) at about my pace, so I fell in with her and we shared our moans about what hurt and how this was the kind of thing we do for fun! She was suffering from IT band problems, which has plagued me in my first marathon. (This was at least her fourth.) I asked her if it felt like little knives stabbing her in the knees with each step, and she said it did. Then I described what felt like my thigh muscles tearing themselves free with each step. She recognized that. Fellowship on the course. (Also, she said nothing about my trash bag scarf.)
She and I ran together and chatted about our battle scars for a mile or so before she had to stop at one of the portapotties. She told me to run on ahead and that perhaps she would catch up with me. (And she did, about fifty feet from the finish arch when she surged past me. Good for her.) I was once again on that seemingly endless stretch that lead from Forest Park to downtown. Somewhere along here I ditched my scarf, resigning myself to endure whatever was thrown at me from then on. There were perhaps three miles left in the marathon, and I was walking most of them. I’m not too happy about this. I wish it weren’t the case. I ran a few hundred feet then walked a few hundred more. I was alone here. Occasionally passed by someone, less frequently passing someone. We were all the walking wounded by then. I think I had the stamina to run more, but the pain in my quads was intense by then, despite the liberal dosing of Vitamin I. I may have been able to push myself for more distance actually run, but my heart wasn’t in it. In fact, I was more motivated to run just to get finished than to finish well.
I had thought that Libby and Seth might have met up with me along here, though even that wouldn’t have made much difference. There was one candy bar left in the cache, but I think I had overdosed on sugar. The idea of chocolate at that point made me nauseous. As it was, they hadn’t come out this far on the course. I wouldn’t see them until I approached the finish line. What I didn’t know at the time was that there had apparently been some discussion by the race officials of canceling the race for those of us still out there. They didn’t do this; they did something worse. At least the rain had stopped.
So I ran and walked on. I was looking forward to the last mile, which would be downhill, but I couldn’t get much running distance out of it since the thighs were hurting so bad. Two miles left. Then one mile left. Then I could see the last turn to make to head toward the finish arch. And here I had a surprise.
Libby’s niece, who lives in St. Louis, ran up beside me on the course, surprising me altogether and bringing some much needed cheer. She had been monitoring my posts on Facebook, so she knew I was in town and running the marathon. There was some talk of getting together afterward, but then she decided to haul herself downtown and run in with me. This was perhaps the nicest thing to happen to me along the entire course. No, it was the nicest thing!
There was a short uphill stretch before the finish arch, and I had to walk that, but then it leveled out and I started running again, trying to look somewhat alive and in control, ignoring the screaming pain in my thighs. Ahead of me a relay team crossed the finish first, so the announcer called out their many names, leaving me to finish in anonymity, which was okay but still . . .
I finished. I finished my third marathon. Not well. But I finished it. I accepted the bottle of water they handed me, then I bowed my head as someone hung my medal around my neck. Libby and Seth joined me after I left the exit chute, all smiles and congratulations. I wished I had done better, but I felt good that I had done this thing at all. And then I decided to wallow in the glory of it.
Promised to all finishers was a free beer. A free chicken sandwich. Toasted ravioli. More chocolate. A thermal blanket. And where were these things? Gone. All gone. They had packed up their tents when the rain came, when I was still ten miles out. Never mind that I had paid the same amount to participate as all of the other runners who came in ahead of me. I didn’t even want the beer or the sandwich. I just wanted to feel I earned them and could have them. And I couldn’t. (Worse, there had never even been any chocolate milk!) And here I was, utterly depleted, soaked, in skimpy plastic clothing, and they were no longer handing out the thermal blankets to protect against hypothermia. I felt cheated. Ignored. Disdained.
So I decided to just collect the print out of my (dismal) official time and put the race behind me. And where was this tent? Packed up and gone as well. A random race official told me that when the (brief) lightning began — when I was out in the open at Forest Park with soaking socks and a bag around my neck — they had shut down and left. So had all of the vendors in the athlete village. There were literally more than a hundred people still out on the course behind me, but the race officials had bugged out. More than a hundred people who had paid the same price to participate as everyone else, who had given 100% of their hearts to the effort, still out on the course. But the race officials couldn’t stick around for them.
So we left. Done with that. Not likely to ever do that particular race again.