"The trick is, there is no trick.
You eat fire by eating fire."
(from the book The Electric Woman by Tessa Fontaine)
I planned on having these words drawn somewhere on me—my forearm? My calf? I wasn't sure yet—in henna for my running of the San Francisco Marathon. Except, my friend who does henna tattoos is taking a break, and I didn't trust anyone else to give me a long-lasting, beautiful tattoo like she did.
Even without the henna tattoo, that was my motto as I trained for the marathon. This is because I knew there wasn't a trick. I knew I would have to commit to every single run I could show up for when I was feeling healthy, and that I would have to commit to full-throttled rest when I wasn't. Because I was in the convalescent stage of whopping cough through most of my training (with two weeks in the paroxysmal stage before that), I had days when I felt OK and days when I felt awful. I never felt like my normal, healthy self, but at least after the paroxysmal stage (which was literally the most horrible illness I have ever experienced in my life) I had good days.
I definitely couldn't skip any runs on good days. I had no room for fudging. And I had no energy for anything else other than cardio training. To make it through the race, I just had to eat fire.
During my last few weeks of training, though, I started to realize that my motto was a little bit negative. It compared running—something I love to do—with something painful. Dramatic and intriguing, yes, but ultimately painful. By then I was also gripped by insecurity. I didn't have time to do a 20-miler and a taper, so after reading a lot of different sources, I decided to skip the 20-miler and taper. And then my motto became "trust the taper."
I told myself this as I walked, just a little bit nervous, toward the starting line near the Ferry Building in the Embarcadero. The Bay Bridge was all lit up in the darkness and the streets were crowded with runners. Trust the taper, I whispered to myself as I wandered until I found the trucks for the bag drop, and while I took off my sweats and sweatshirt, while I settled everything in its correct place (12 Cliff Bloks, two packages of Gu, and a chapstick in my left pocket, my cell phone in my right with the headphones threaded through correctly, my sunglasses on top of my headband, my number—4949—pinned so it hopefully wouldn't catch the breeze). Trust the taper while I found my corral (E) and listened to the countdown for the earlier corrals go. Then it was my turn to move toward the start line.
I took a deep breath (but not too deep, because that leads to coughing still!), and whispered it again: Trust the taper. By this I meant: I had run enough long runs, even without the 20-miler. I had my race plan firmly in my mind: run ten minutes, walk for three, keep my pace slow. I had rested during my taper, and made sure to drink more than enough water and eat plenty of veggies and get plenty of sleep. Trust the taper.
The starting bell sounded—in San Francisco, they ring trolley bells. I adjusted everything again before I got to the starting line, started my Strava, started my music ("Shake it Out" by Florence + The Machine was my first song), started my watch. Trust the taper I thought once more just as I crossed the line.
But you'll probably have to eat some fire along the way.
San Francisco is the first big-city race I've run. I did run a race in Brooklyn last fall, but it had only something like 600 runners. This was my first race in a big city with more than 25,000 runners. I wasn't sure what to expect; I thought at least the first mile would be slow going among a crowd. But right off the bat I felt OK; surrounded by other runners, yes, but not really crowded. I could move at a pace just slightly slower than what I had planned on running.
It was still dark when we started, but just on the edge of sunrise, and there were enough street lights that it didn’t feel really dark. I was able to get into a comfortable groove right off the bat. I'd also made sure that my playlist had a song and then a metronome track, song then a metronome, right at the beginning so I could get my cadence right. (Usually I have two songs and then a metronome; the metronome track is 1:15 with 80 beats per minute.) In fact, I felt so comfortable my body was like, "come on! We can go faster than this!" but I politely refused. I tried that on my 12-mile run a few weeks ago, pushing hard at first, and I totally hit the wall on that run. I did not want to hit the wall in this race, because I knew I'd be cutting it close to the 6-hour time cut-off anyway, and the miles you do on the wall are far slower than the speed you do when you're pushing hard at first. It's not worth the trade off in minutes.
One thing I really loved about this race was that I could divide it into sections. Somehow it feels easier to run * *-mile-ish sections than 26.2 miles. The first section was one of my favorites. We ran right along the water for most of it, with the city on the left and the wharves on the right. Kendell and I had walked along part of this section, so I had a sense of how long it was. Plus, it felt like a little pocket of support from him every time I ran past a place where we had walked together. I ran the first two miles with my white long sleeve on, and then I felt warm enough to take it off and tie it around my waist. (Racing tip: put the sleeves UNDER your bib, and then tie them in a double knot that's slightly off to the side. The bib on top of the sleeves helps to keep them from shifting, and if you tie it in a double knot you don't have to keep fussing and retying.)
As we got closer to the bridge, the view to the right got prettier; fewer buildings and more beach. At one point, I glanced over and saw a girl squatting in the bushes, clearly having a severe brush with the dreaded Runner's Belly, and I tried to send her some positive vibes!
The bridge came into view. I loved this section, too. It was another part that Kendell and I had walked, so I knew to expect some uphill and a short out-and-back section. That bridge! It's really one of the biggest reasons I picked this marathon. I love bridges, whether I'm hiking or wandering a city; I'm not sure I can explain why, except for the idea that you're moving on something suspended in air maybe. I could see the bridge for about a mile, I think; we ran almost underneath it and then turned around to weave back up the road to the start of the bridge.
During this section I had to decide how dedicated I would really be to my walk-10/run-3 plan. In normal running circumstances, I never walk up a hill. A hill is always a thing I put my heart in to; I know it's strange but pushing hard up a hill brings me a very specific sort of running happiness. It makes me feel strong because I am confident I can get to the top without walking. The first big hill of the course, the Fort Mason hill, was pretty steep and I took it slow, but I ran it all because I came upon it while I was in a stretch of running. But just as I turned to go up the hill toward the Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion, I got to the start of a 3-minute walking stretch. My usual runner self was like, "COME ON. You don't walk on hills! You pass runners on hills!" But the memory of hitting the wall guided me, and my logical side said "nope, stick to the plan."
So I walked the hill. I savored the view, which was a path lined with trees and flowers and more bridge.
The second section was the bridge, an out-and-back run. One of my Skirt Sports running friends had told me that I would want an extra layer for running across the bridge, which felt like the second section. Once I got up on top, I discovered she was right: it was so windy and cold! I slipped my long sleeve back on once I'd gone about half a mile across. It was foggy, as I had expected, but still clear enough that I could look across to Alcatraz. When we'd visited Alcatraz a few days before, I had looked across at the bridge and thought about running the race. So even though we hadn't stood on the bridge together, that was another little burst of time-with-Kendell energy, looking at the island.
I had read some race reviews that said they found the bridge section to be boring, because with the fog it's almost like you're just running on a socked-in road. I really loved the bridge section, though. I liked looking up and seeing the cables disappear into the fog, and the way the support columns gradually revealed themselves. Plus it just holds that pull for me: to run across a bridge. I was playing leap-frog with a girl who was running in a knee brace; I kept passing her and then she'd catch up to me when I walked. I really wanted to strike up a conversation but we never ran together, just passed and repassed, so the last time I passed her—when I was almost at the Marin County side of the bridge—I said "great job!" but I'm not sure she heard me.
Off the bridge, there was a water stop and a row of porta-potties. Trust it to me to end up in the one without toilet paper, which was pretty gross, but I was fast and at least there was hand sanitizer. (This was my only bathroom stop.) The course curved around a parking lot to a water station, and they were already starting to clear away the tables, which made me panic a little bit. Another thing I'd read about this race is that they tend to close the water stations down before the last runners come through, and I worried that if they were already closing this one I must already be pretty close to being the last runner. After the water table, we ran down a pebbly path (I thought of all of my trail running friends in this little section), under and around the bridge and then back up to the roadway. Before I got to the bridge I passed a man with his shoe off, and his friends were helping him put a bandaid on, which made me remember I'd forgotten to bring my blister tape and to worry, for a little bit, about blisters. But I decided I'd deal with it if I got any, and kept going.
Back up on the bridge going the other way, I thought..."hmmm, wait a second. It felt like I was running uphill in the other direction. Can this bridge be uphill both ways?" My stats say it was uphill on the way over and downhill on the way back...but it felt like uphill both ways! Usually one side of the road traffic is closed during the race, so runners get to run on the road instead of the sidewalk. That changed this year (I think the city decided it wasn't safe?), so we were on the sidewalk. I think I liked that better, as running on the sidewalk felt like being closer to the water. Also, I know not everyone loves an out-and-back section in a race, but I always love a bit of it, because it helps calm my nerves to know there are still people behind me. Even when I was almost to the end of the second part of the bridge, there were runners just starting onto it the other way, so at least I knew at that moment I would probably be able to finish before the 6-hour time cut-off.
Off the bridge started section three. We ran through some wooded areas and along the shore (I think this is the Presidio?). It was such a beautiful section, with up and down rollers. I was a little bit frustrated because I finally saw a course photographer—and just as I approached her she stopped shooting to readjust her camera. (I was hoping for some awesome course photos. I would've been happy to pay for them, too, but alas, none of them were very good.) I was feeling really calm and strong on this section, just happy to be running and not feeling any pain or tiredness yet. I took my long sleeve off about a mile after the bridge and was happy at my choice of layers instead of just wearing a long sleeve. It was barely 50 degrees, I think, perfect for a tank.
One thing I really appreciated about this course was that there was no shortage of water stops. I alternated: water, then water and a Blok, then water, then the Nuun beverage they had. I was taking a risk with that, because I had only tried Nuun one other time (at the 13er I ran in June), but it was perfect for me. I felt like it refreshed me but never made me feel like I was blasted with sugar like Gatorade does (even when I'm not running Gatorade nauseates me). At one of the water stops, I asked for a Kleenex because I was dying to blow my nose (running+sniffing is not pleasant). They were out but the medical staff tore open a package of gauze. Scratchy, but effective!
At another stop, they were passing out Stroop waffles, another thing I had never tried. At that point I was feeling actual hunger, like my stomach was growling, but the thought of my Gu was just gross. In general I am not a fan of gels, because oh, that texture. I don't like yogurt or pudding or soft bananas either. But I DO like caramel, and so the Gu I always get is the espresso flavor. It actually doesn't taste much like coffee, more like salted caramel, so my mind gets tricked at the flavor and my gag reflex doesn't trigger. But for whatever reason, I on this race I just couldn't stand the idea of any Gu (even though I had two in my pocket).
I carried the waffle for almost two miles, wondering if I should try it. Then it started to bug me and I almost threw it away, but that felt wasteful, and my stomach was still growling. I stuck it in my pocket (YAY for Skirt Sports pockets! At this point I had I think 8 blocks, two Gus, the chapstick, and the waffle all in the same pocket!) and thought about it until the next water table. Again—this was a risk, and breaks what is perhaps THE cardinal rule of racing: NEVER TRY SOMETHING NEW ON RACE DAY.
But my stomach kept growling. So, I decided to try it. I took two bites just before the water table, washed it down with plain water, and hoped for the best. And...it was perfect! I didn't feel hungry any more, but I also didn't get nauseated.
By this point, I was out of the Presidio, running through some up-and-down rollers. We took a left turn, and there was the fourth section, Golden Gate Park. One of the truths about running is that all of your runs will help your future runs, quite often in ways you don't plan or expect, and this proved true for this section. I didn't know what to expect, but in my head we would run through small, narrow, gravel paths through the middle of the park. In reality, we were on a road that goes sort-of around the park. This reminded me so much of the race I did in Brooklyn last fall, which went around Prospect Park. The terrain was different—much hillier in San Francisco—and the vegetation, but the feel was the same. So even though I was starting to get tired by this point, I also felt a sense of confidence: even though I hadn't run around this specific park, I knew I would be fine because I'd run around Prospect Park. I really enjoyed this section, except for the part where the first half marathoners split off to their finish line. For a little while I felt like I wasn't on the right part of the road, and I kept looking for the other runners who had worn their blue full-marathon race shirts to calm myself that I was, in fact, going the right way. I think it also just felt weird at that point, because it felt like all of a sudden there were almost no other runners running around me. (I hadn't realized how many half-marathoners were around me up to that point.) I panicked a little bit but then I got to another water stop and made sure I was on the right course. (And blew my nose again!)
One of the things that disappointed me about this race is that I was hoping I'd find someone to talk to. I think the irregularity of my pace made this pretty difficult, but I did have a little bit of conversation when I was almost out of the park. This was a part of the course that WAS on a little windy trail and I spoke with a girl who I'd been leap-frogging with through most of the park. We talked about the beautiful day and the course, AND she said she liked my skirt! After I passed her, I was completely alone for a little bit. I came around a curve in the path and there was a group of bystanders, standing and chatting and very idly dinging their cowbells. I shouted (in a kind, not angry voice) "Hey! I need more cowbell!" and they laughed and started banging their bells and cheering me on. They even said "Go Amy!" (yay for names on bibs!) and even though I asked for encouragement, their encouragement buoyed me up! I went under a bridge and around another loop and then whoop: I was out of the park.
This fifth part started out really fun. There were a lot of people on the streets in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, and everyone was really friendly. Many of the policeman gave high fives and encouragement, and there was a section with a group cheering runners and playing loud music. When I got there it was just at the end of "YMCA" so I joined in with the arm movements. It was just so joyful! (After I passed, the song switched to "You Spin Me Round (like a record)" which is another song I love and now must add to my future running playlists so I can remember that moment.)
We passed the beautiful Painted Ladies...and then it got so dreary. Maybe this is technically part of the fifth part, but really, it was its own section. Boring, run-down buildings and almost no cheering spectators. To keep myself going I started cheering for the police officers who were directing traffic! But I really, really disliked this part. It was the only section that wasn't scenic and to have that energy drag with five-ish miles to go...gah. The only redeeming quality was that it was mostly downhill, even a few of those really-steep San Francisco hills (but not the ULTRA steep ones that I'd be afraid of running down). This ugly section flattened out into some industrial landscape, but by then I only had a few miles left and I knew I could do it.
The last mile got fun again. It met back up to the wharf area, and wove around the back of the AT&T field, and then, at last (but really sooner than I expected), I could see the finish line! I had been texting just a little bit with Kendell (I also posted some photos to my Instagram story during the race) so he would know when to come down, but I hadn't heard from him for a while so I wasn't sure if he would be there. One of the great and encouraging things he does is to try to get a photo of me crossing the finish line. I kept looking past the finish line as I ran, trying to see him, but then I realized that there were NO spectators there. They actually couldn't get down there, but then, just before I crossed, I spotted him on a bridge to my right, taking photos. It was probably good I didn't see him earlier because it gave me a lump in my throat to see him. Running+crying don't mix!
There was a guy who was walking right in front of me, but I moved around him and then put as much speed as I had left into the last .2 of the marathon. It wasn't very much, of course, but I realized that I wasn't dying. I never hit the wall. I maintained my pace (except for that one stop at the bathroom) fairly consistently. I never got nauseated. I never had to eat fire.
I thought that lump would turn into tears when I crossed the finish line, but it didn't. I felt elated! There was a small part of me that was embarrassed about my time (5:47:18) but I told it to hush. I had achieved both of my goals: to finish, and to finish before the sweep trucks. I managed to train for and run a full marathon while struggling with whooping cough! One of my Facebook running friends, who ran a different race that weekend, had joked that she was striving for her "PW," personal worst. In a sense, if you only look at times, that's also what I achieved at this race. (My other marathon time was 4:20 and I didn't walk at all except through the water tables.) But in another sense, it was also my personal best. Or, at the very least, a huge achievement. I was able to realistically alter my goals for the race, I ran it feeling calm and happy, and I finished it, despite my illness.
Every race you run teaches you something new about running, if you pay attention. And it also teaches you something about yourself. I already know I can do difficult things (and I say that not as a boast but with a deep welling of gratitude that my body will still help me do hard things), but it never hurts to prove it to yourself again. This race humbled me. I am never, of course, in the front pack, but this time I was at the back the whole way. And while I didn’t manage any conversations, I felt a deep love for the people I was running with. I know that’s weird, but it’s true: Kilt Guy, 42-k T-shirt Guy, Running Brace Girl. The couple who ran together and, when they walked, held hands. Marathons are hard for everyone, but there is something beautiful and blessed about being at the back of the pack. We persevere. We continue on, slow, yes, but steady. Not giving up despite.
And I am grateful I got to experience that.