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Yesterday I ran my second marathon in Richmond, VA. I ran my first in Pittsburgh, PA this past year in May after a Christmas Party agreement with my cousin’s husband, Luke last year. After we recovered a bit from Pittsburgh we talked about doing the Marine Corps, here in DC but it filled too quickly so I pitched the idea of running Richmond because it’s still pretty close and is supposed to be a nice time and a good course.

With Joanna gone in Maine for a few months, I thought that I would have plenty of time to train and would get tons and tons of miles in. While I did have a good deal of time I also took on a freelance editing project and work got really crazy. On top of this I ended up visiting in Maine more than I anticipated. A wonderful thing, but the traveling did leave me more tired than I anticipated from time to time. I also ended up being sick on and off for two weeks or so before the marathon. That said, as the marathon came closer, I kept reminding myself that I was averaging about 5 more miles per week in training than I had for the last marathon, was running faster, had been doing more controlled training, like speedwork and tempo runs and was feeling better during and after my long runs. As Luke and I walked out of the hotel to position ourselves at the start I remember talking about how we were each nervous but ultimately, it was like any other weekend – we were heading out for a long one.

My family was coming from around the Morgantown area and were kind enough to offer to pick me up and take me back – I had planned on taking the train as the thought of driving after the marathon sounded completely miserable. So they arrived just after noon on Friday. We had an easy drive down to Richmond, stopping on the way for lunch where we ate carbs, carbs, carbs. We hit the expo and picked up our race packets. Luke got a headband to cover his ears in the cold and I introduced him to BodyGlide. I’m not sure how he has survived running this long without it.

We checked in to our hotel, the Comfort Inn on the north western part of Richmond. It was a bit of a lackluster pit whose advertised internet didn’t work. But it was cheap and we booked it just a few weeks before marathon time. Finding dinner the night before proved to be a complete and unanticipated fiasco. It never occurred to me that we should book a reservation but we found no wait under an hour at any of the restaurants we tried in Carytown so we gave up and hit the chain restaurants just outside of the city. At that point it was a relief just to find a place to relax and I played word games with their son as Luke and my cousin worked out the logistics of the next day.

I was nervous, but I didn’t feel as overwhelmed or anxious as I had before Pittsburgh, maybe because it wasn’t a complete unknown. We went back to the hotel. I got my things together, talked to Joanna on the phone, took a shower and went to bed about midnight.

The next morning I ate a spare bagel Luke had brought with honey and almond butter (I found these great packages where a nut butter and a sweetener is combined in a little packet. Really convenient.) I had a little bit of coffee, and some gatorade. I met up with everyone and we headed out to the car to drive to the start. My cousin, Sherea and Perry were going to try to meet us at a couple of points during the marathon but really, most of the city was blocked off in some way from the marathon. Figuring that out was going to be a real trick for them and as we got further downtown we were noting streets that were open and where they were in relation to the marathon course.

It was freezing when we got to the start. Both Luke and I were wearing top layers. I planned to chuck mine at some point along with the cheapie gloves that I was wearing. Luke was planning to give his shirt to Sherea at mile 3. Instead of stand in line at the porta-potties Sherea located a Starbucks inside the Marriott on the same block as the starting line so she and Perry got beverages while Luke and I stood in line with a bunch of other runners inside the nice warm hotel once, and then again. I will say that the entire marathon, for being as large as it was, wasn’t a hectic experience. We didn’t head outside to line up, maybe 10 minutes before the marathon start, finding plenty of room around the midway point for our respective corrals. I ended up ditching my sweatshirt just before the gun went off and we headed off and were able to cross the actual start pretty quickly.

Last marathon Luke totally went out too fast and bonked a bit at the end so my good pace is his reserve pace so we ran where I felt like I was making a little effort and used my Garmin to reign in our pace around a 10 minute mile from miles 1-4. It was nice to hang out, chat and actually get a little running time in together. It’s funny that we do running events together but haven’t actually run together until this marathon! Somewhere around mile 1, we were still downtown and on a straightaway before me I see a man with a mike, a small speaker and a huge sign that starts with the word, “repent” – no good ever comes after that word, especially on a sign. I quickly scanned the sign and sure enough partway down I saw the word, “homosexuals.” There’s nothing like being condemned to hell within the first 10 minutes of a race. I couldn’t help myself, as we passed the man, I leaped in the air, hands waiving and yelled, “I’m gay! I’m gay!” a second later we heard, “and God loves gay people, too…” I apologized for my outburst but Luke seemed to think it was pretty funny. Around 2.5 miles I ditched my gloves. As we approached the first turn at mile 3 we began to look for Sherea and Perry but didn’t see them so Luke ended up stashing his shirt at the corner of a building, hoping that it would still be there if we came back to look for it post-race.

At mile 4 Luke and I split up because I decided to hit the bathrooms. I grabbed some water at the stop and as I waited in the port-a-potty line there was a guy in front of me with very cool green stripy arm warmers. He was also drinking water and as he turned towards me I noticed that his bib said, “moose”. Being a little over-excited from the initial race endorphin rush, I slapped him on the arm a few times and pointed to my own bib which said, “m00se”. He was very gracious about it and only spilled a little on himself. I got back on the road and had a few sports beans. The back pocket of my knickers was loaded with various energy things and it looked like I had a weird tumor growing out of my back so unloading the oddly shaped things first seemed like a good idea.

Though I was warm from running and I could tell that the temperature was rising, I noticed that my hands were absolutely freezing. This has happened to me a few times recently, that my hands get so cold during a run that by the end I can barely move them. I really wanted those gloves back. It was getting difficult to even change songs on my MP3 player. So, around mile 6 I started scanning the ground for abandoned gloves.

I found a really cute pink striped pair but spotted the mate too late to make a grab. I was still keeping up a great pace for me, about a 10 minute mile, but I was missing pacing myself off of someone for whom the pace seemed effortless. As I was thinking about this I noticed a younger fellow in red shorts and a white top. We seemed to be running at about the same pace. So without thinking I just kind of tried to keep up with him for a while. It wasn’t hard, and didn’t require me to push myself too much but it was just nice to have a focal point for the run. I could keep running and pretty much know that I was on target in terms of pace without looking at my watch all the time. I kept this up until I stopped to make a pit stop around mile 12.

As I ran over the Huguenot Bridge at mile 7 I spotted a black pair of gloves almost identical to the ones I had tossed previously. I thankfully put them on my freezing hands as I took in the view from the bridge.  We were entering the more rural part of the run along the James River. It was simply gorgeous. There were some houses but for the most part they were off to our right with the river on the left and a gorgeous canopy of autumn leaves above us. This was probably my favorite part of the whole run. It was funny how serene it felt even surrounded by all those other runners.

This was also about the point in the race where the crowd support got kind of funny. Richmond is hailed as the friendliest marathon course. So far I hadn’t seen it, but I didn’t really have much to compare it too besides Pittsburgh. Except for a mile or two here or there, the Pittsburgh course felt like a party the whole way, despite the lousy weather. The support over the course of the Richmond Marathon wasn’t as constant but it did have it’s quirks. After we left the riverside, we ran though a more residential area, passing a woman standing at the edge of her lawn with a noisemaker a huge bowl filled with pretzels held out the the runners. Lawn or even living room furniture filled with spectators was a common sight as was people out on their stoop or leaning out of a window shouting support. At one point I high-fived a little girl in footie pajamas still wearing a bit of breakfast on her cheeks. I remain awed by the support one finds when running a marathon not only from fellow runners but from the spectators. Before we took off Luke and I were discussing the way running in a marathon felt, how you could have this little rockstar experience that one might not get in any other context. It is hard to explain, but it is crazy to spend a few hours with people holding signs, screaming, telling you that you can do it, and you’ve got this, and you look great, passing you food and beverages and cops stopping traffic for you. Really, it’s just wild.

Remember those abandoned gloves? Without thinking, from mile 7 until about 12 I proceeded to take those gloves of unknown origins and wipe my entire face with them. Those gloves were on the ground and probably had been run over by a few hundred runners. Long distance running, as a general rule, is pretty gross. Around mile 10 I took a Gu gel which in retrospect was a mistake. I think the gel really screwed with my stomach for the next 10 miles forcing bathroom stops at miles 12, 14, and 16. I didn’t feel completely terrible, but I didn’t feel great either which sucked after the first 10 miles, which were pretty great. As I waited in line for the port-a-john at mile 12 I tucked my gloves into my bra, then realized it had warmed up and I really didn’t need them any more so back to the ground they went.

Around the halfway point I ran for a bit behind a woman who had a sign on her back saying that she was running in honor of her late husband who had died earlier this year. It was a sobering way to think about running as a solitary experience, even in the sea of runners. I saw her several times over second half of the race.

I hadn’t really poured over the course map the way I had for Pittsburgh. According to what I had read, something happened around mile 15, a hill or something. I knew whatever it was, it was coming and I was trying to prepare myself for it. Despite the stomach issues, I really wasn’t feeling too bad, but kept having weird thoughts about quitting, which was strange for me because that rarely happens. As I approached the marker for mile 15 I saw a long bridge stretch out to my left and I got excited because I love running bridges, then I realized that this was the dreaded thing. I couldn’t figure out why just looking at it so I made the turn with just a little pang of dread but still, looked forward to running the bridge. I got a “lookin’ good” from a cute cop as I hit the overpass. I allowed myself to think that she actually meant it just for the ego boost. Then I saw a sign that said, “Make the Lee Bridge Your Bitch.” It seemed like a good plan of attack. The view of the James River from the Lee Bridge was just extraordinary. This was a nice distraction until about ¾ of the way across the bridge when I realized that the problem was the bloody headwind. It felt like you were fighting for every step as the end of the bridge got closer, but then just like that it was over.

My stomach felt the worst miles 16 though 19. I was afraid that it was just going to get worse but as I ran on to mile 20 there was a drastic improvement. Somewhere in here I was offered pretzels, I don’t think it was from the designated junk food stop at mile 16 (where I had a gummy bear and tossed the rest of them. I don’t know how anyone eats a gummy bear while running). Again, a testament to how disgusting running is – the woman offering the pretzels, God bless her, had a hand full suspended over a bowl and deposited them directly into my hands after we made eye contact. Brilliant, because I didn’t even slow down. Disgusting because, well it was. I think double dipping amongst a group of marathoners wouldn’t even be an offense. Eating and running is something that I’ve been afraid of as I’m clumsy and figured that the focus required to chew and run would automatically result in my tripping right into a ditch, but I happily munched on 6 or 7 pretzels over the next few miles. I finally saw my cousin and her son at mile 19 which was a welcome sight and gave me a nice boost as I approached the last 6.2 miles.

Mile 20 always seems kind of scary because you’re tired, and maybe a little bored and you know that “the wall” is supposed to come and flatten you and grind you into the pavement. I made my last pit stop here and as I left decided that I should check out the local NPR station on the radio because I was bored with my music. A little clicking around revealed only a classical music station and no fun weekend NPR shows which was a disappointment, so back to the music. The beginning of mile 22 was a glorious festival of people and snacks. First the usual water and Powerade stop, then no kidding, a homemade sign showing pretzels and beer. As I was offered a cup I said, “beer?” to the nice lady and she nodded as I said “brilliant!” as I trotted off. Part of me wondered if this was a good idea. Theoretically I knew it was not, however as I gazed into the fizzy head atop my little dixie cup of light beer swill (yum!) I said what the hell and took a sip. It was good. I felt good. It was awesome.

As I approached mile 23 I saw what looked like someone stretching in the middle of the street off in the distance. I thought to myself, come on man, you’re going to do that, right there? You can’t move off to the side? As I got closer I saw a man crouched down with his right leg stretched out at an angle in front of him. In typical me fashion I was still a little annoyed even though there was plenty of room to get around him. I waited for him to switch legs and stretch out the other. A few more steps and I saw that his left leg was fitted with a running prosthetic. I don’t know how many times I have to prove to myself what an asshole I am. Running for me has always been a quantifiable way to know that I was improving at something. Distance running especially is a chance to see how I can push myself, to literally see how far I can go. Here was another reminder that there are other ways of pushing myself, to not be so quick to judge and quick to annoyance. Sometimes, yes you do just have to stretch right there in the middle of the street and everyone else will just have to get out of the way. As I passed I sped up and felt the full weight of my body on each foot as it touched the ground, grateful for each step. I cried right through to the water stop at mile 23.

I have a bad habit of wanting to be done with a run just before I hit my target distance. It’s like my body knows how far I need to go and really doesn’t want to go a single step farther and just to ensure that this doesn’t happen wants to stop just a mile or two before I’m done. This was mile 24. I kept flipping songs, looking for the right one and telling myself just two miles, you can do two miles without even trying. This is so easy, just keep going. At mile 25 I picked it up and “In for the Kill” by la Roux came on around mile 25.5. I booked it right into mile 26 and hit repeat. There is a short sharp downhill at the start of mile 26 which I actually think kind of sucked because the grade felt severe on my tired quads. The descent was short though and there was the finish line right in front of me. I surprised myself by running even faster, tired though I was, and was running about an 8 minute a mile pace as I crossed the finish. I hope to learn to maintain that kind of speed through the whole race in the future.

My official time was 4:51:06. It was better than my first by about 22 minutes, but not as good as I had secretly hoped. It was sub-5 hours and that was a time I could live with. I am happy that I learned to eat and run and to know how good a little beer can taste on the race course. I think I need to ditch the Gu for good and find something else that works for me, the bathroom stops are killing me and I’m far to slow to absorb them. Overall it was a fun and quirky race but I don’t think I feel the need to make it a repeat event, but thanks Richmond for a great race!

Today’s run was a fucking revelation. It was the prize for every step I’ve slogged through, every hour on the treadmill, every run I didn’t feel up for and did it anyway. For the past two weeks or so I’ve been cutting my miles back, in order to give myself a little rest before the big push during the 26.2 miles of the marathon. This is usually referred to as tapering in the running world. Very often when someone tells you they’re tapering, this is quickly followed by a reference to “taper madness”. After weeks of training, and ideally peaking your mileage towards the end of of your training cycle, squeezing miles in around your already busy schedule and then going out for 3-4 hours on the weekends all of a sudden, you’re not doing that. You have weird blocks of free time and you’re supposed to be resting those muscles a bit. This free time increases as the specter of the marathon comes closer.

This is not a formula conducive to maintaining one’s sanity. You begin to wish you had a hobby. One of course, which you’d probably have to drop during your next training cycle, so… you see the problem. For me with this free time, inevitably I end up reading more which is nice. However, I also seem to veer towards reading books about running, which makes me want to run, which I’m not supposed to do. This pisses me off and just fuels the fire of my already shit mood. For anyone who has had to deal with me on any kind of personal level for the past two week, allow me to offer my apologies now. Clearly all the blame lies on the taper.

With the Richmond marathon just a week away I realized on Friday that my running plan for this week probably had me logging too many miles. At the last minute I had to rethink my training for the weekend which lead me to shorten my last long run and skip another run entirely. This also didn’t make me feel particularly good. I was planning to do my long run on Saturday but was feeling kind of tired, so I pushed it off until today. Today’s run confirmed that this was the best decision. It took me about a mile and a half to warm up but once I did I found myself running faster than I typically do. I’m a slow runner. I enjoy the distance and try not to beat myself up for logging 12 minute miles. But today, I watched my Garmin report my time and I was shocked when I saw numbers that indicated I was running miles in the 9 or even 8 minute range. I maintained this for about 4.5 miles of my 6.5 mile run. For me this is race pace – like short race pace for a 5k or 10k. While I don’t expect to be able to run the entire marathon like this, it does make me feel confident that can pull down a better time than my lackluster 5:13 at Pittsburgh this past May.

I felt like a million bucks this morning, dodging strollers, and racing through intersections just before the light turned. It felt better, really than any monetary figure I can pin on it because I was running. This was no jog, no training run, no run just to get those miles logged. It was a beautiful thing.

So, I believe in the taper. I believe that sometimes you need to feel like you’re going backwards in order to make progress. I believe that I will rock the house during the Richmond marathon, because really, when you’re running you’re biggest challenger is yourself. Oh, and I also believe in getting new running socks a week prior to the race! So, I’m ready Richmond! See you next weekend!

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