Steamtown Marathon Diary: The Big Day

Eating healthy. Going to bed early. Waking up before sunrise. Getting my mind focused. Preparing for potentially adverse weather conditions. Reminding myself that I was ready, that I’d done all the work. All of that and, still, I could not quell my nerves. Still, I lay awake in bed, tossing and turning, my heart beating fast with anticipation. I awoke at approximately 2:45 in the morning, after a paltry four hours of sleep. I did not fall back asleep, instead continuing to toss and turn all night, my every thought fixated on the pain that was to come. It was a vicious cycle. I couldn’t sleep because I was nervous and then I couldn’t sleep because I was so worried about not being able to sleep.

I finally gave up around 5:40 in the morning and rose from my bed, already entertaining defeatist thoughts that my marathon had been ruined because I couldn’t get my nerves under control. Despite that, I had an odd calm about me. I told myself that because of the lack of sleep, now I just had to run that much harder.

Boarding the buses before the sun had risen, I rode with a former teammate of mine and it was nice to catch up on things. It put my mind at ease, at least to a slight degree. I was struck by the efficiency with which the marathon volunteers worked and everything was so well organized. With the race itself approaching, my nerves still wouldn’t calm down. I donned my racing gear and made my way over to the starting line, mentally steeling myself for a race I was far from sure I would even finish.

I’d heard enough horror stories about runners who had gone out too fast on Steamtown’s course and paid for it later. The first mile, in particularly, as a nastily steep downhill. I kept consciously trying to hold back my first mile but still ended up doing a 6:14. Following that, I did manage to hold myself back and hovered around 6:25 miles until about eight miles into the race.

I had been running with a pack of runners who were all looking for times around the 2:50 barrier. I’d been planning on shooting for a 2:45 but given my lack of sleep, I revised it to 2:50. Or, you know, just finishing would’ve been nice too. Around mile 9, I broke away from the pack I’d been running with and ran alone for a few miles. The adrenaline had taken over and body had held up so far. I thought maybe I could handle this after all.

From mile nine to the half-marathon mark, I averaged around 6:20 pace. A very nice runner named who I’d met at my half-marathon back in September caught up to me around mile 12 and we then ran together for roughly the next ten miles. I’d say we worked together but it felt more like he was dragging me along at times. My half-marathon time was around 1:24, so unless I went massively negative splits, 2:45 was out of the question but going under 2:50 was still very much a possibility.

My running partner and I stayed very consistent, averaging low 6:20s until mile 21. With four 20 milers under my belt in training, I figured I’d make it to 20. But around just mile 16, I started feeling fatigued. Nonetheless, I kept pace and with each mile that went by, the finish line came closer and closer. Mile 21 was a bit fast at 6:17 and after that, my exhaustion really hit me so I told my running partner to just go ahead. I managed to average 6:25 for miles 22 and 23 but once I hit the uphills, my pace was just shot. I hit the wall.

I could barely gather up the energy to make the tough ascent up Electric St., Steamtown’s version of Heartbreak Hill. My breathing was ragged and my legs felt so heavy. On top of that, my vision seemed a bit blurred. I was truly struggling. I was in a whole lot of pain and I wanted nothing more than for the race to just end. I kept looking behind me, hoping no one was close. But I kept reminding myself of my promise. That, despite my lack of sleep, I would give every ounce of energy that I did have.

It honestly felt like I blacked out at certain points in the last few miles. There are a few sections I don’t even remember running. I was more exhausted than I’d ever been in a race (by far), but once I reached the downhill homestretch I dipped into what little energy reserves I had left and crossed the finish line in a time of 2:48:28. Finally stopping for the first time in nearly three hours, I staggered a bit and the volunteers asked if I was okay. I said I was fine, my pride being too great to accept the idea I might need help.

Following the race, huge amounts of pain seemed to surge into my calves and especially my quads, making it a huge ordeal just to walk around. I could hardly focus on anything. The marathon offered free massages, which I gladly accepted, but even that hardly seemed to help my inability to walk. It’s Wednesday now, three days after the race, and I can still barely make it down my own stairs.

It’s taken a few days for the reality to set in. On the hand hand, I’m angry with myself. Furious even. That I got so needlessly worked up and ran a marathon off four hours of sleep. On the other hand, I’m proud of myself for pushing through and still managing to go under 2:50. I certainly kept true to my promise. I did give almost every ounce of energy I had available. I just wish I’d had more to give. Nonetheless, finishing my very first marathon in under 2:50 is no small feat and aside from my last few miles, my pace was remarkably consistent.

There are a lot of things to take away from my first marathon, some good, some bad. But no matter what, I’ll remember it as an accomplishment, and a major one at that. I proved to myself that I still have that grit, that fight inside me, to push through even huge amounts of fatigue. That said, I’d obviously like to have more energy for my next marathon. I don’t have much time to decide whether to do Boston or not, as registration closes soon, but I know for sure I’ll do Steamtown again. Even though it’s three days after the race and my quads still hurt so bad I can’t walk down my stairs.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my journey to completing my first marathon, and I apologize if this entry was a bit on the long side, but I couldn’t help it. Now comes time for a few weeks off before I lace up the shoes again and prepare for harsh winter running. If you’re interested, here are the complete results for Steamtown. Congrats to everyone who ran the race, and I’ll see you again next year.

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