The question I keep hearing is, “What was the hardest part?”. The answer I imagine they expect is some long diatribe about the monumental hill at mile 18, or perhaps even the 16 weeks of intense training leading up to last Saturday, my first marathon. I’m sure the last thing people expect to hear is me quip, “The first 10 minutes after I crossed the finish line.”
But that’s skipping over all the best parts, so, let me back up a bit and start at the beginning.
I had truly put the race out of my mind in the days leading up to the marathon. I didn’t want to psych myself out, and I didn’t want to stress about things I couldn’t control. Which is why, when I finally checked the weather report the night before, I was thrown for a bit of a loop. All week long, the weather had been perfect with highs of 65 and lows in the 50s. So why, oh why was it expected to be 45 degrees at the start with 16-20 mph winds? Worse, according to the report, the temps would barely rise 3 degrees by the time I finished the course. Might I remind you that I am a California girl (born and bred!) and have not adapted to the cold particularly well. Suddenly the tank top and shorts I’d been planning to wear seemed like a very bad idea indeed.
Because I was to have 3 bibs pinned to my shirt (race bib, pace bib and a cute little ditty that read “FULL”), I knew that I had to make my decision on race attire before getting to the start line. That’s right, never put it past me to do a quick change in the corral two minutes before the start. I opted for a long-sleeved tee and shorts which I layered with yoga pants and a hoodie right up until the gun. I then dropped trou right in the middle of Russell Street and handed the bundle off to my husband.
I lined up with the 4:30 pace group as it seemed like a reasonable goal, though I really didn’t have any big expectations for my time. More than anything, I just wanted to enjoy myself, or at least not be entirely miserable for 26 miles. To be honest, the only reason I even grabbed one of those lime green pace bibs at the expo was so that I could have my name on my shirt. I was hoping for some personal encouragement from the sidelines and thought having my name out there was the way to go. Unfortunately, I think that trick must only work if it’s on the front of your shirt—I only had two shout-outs from people reading the name off my back.
When the gun went off, the herd headed north to Druid Park. It’s an uphill climb to get to the park, which is aptly nicknamed Druid Hills. I heard a lot of complaints about those first few miles, but I was feeling great. In fact, around mile three I pulled ahead of the 4:30 pace group and never saw them again.
Somewhere inside the park, I had my first taste of disaster. The race committee had placed sporadic cones down the center of the road, which was where I was running in an effort to save my ankles. I could see the crowds part around the cones up ahead, so it was pretty easy to maneuver around them every quarter mile or so—that is, until it wasn’t. The girl running ahead of me apparently didn’t see the cone around the four mile marker and dodged it at the last minute. I was right on her heels which left me with no choice but to hurdle the blasted thing while simultaneously struggling to stay upright. The applause that followed was for my graceful dancer-like moves, I’m sure.
I really have no recollection of anything between miles 4 and 9. Is that crazy? All I know is that we looped around and started heading back to the harbor. At mile 9 I saw Kirk and Uncle Paul who was gearing up for the half marathon start. I got high-fives from them both and continued on around the harbor and onward to Federal Hill where I had my second near death experience.
You’ll remember that I mentioned the wind was pretty intense. During some parts of the course it was a non-issue, as the tall buildings and trees kept the breezes at bay. When we rounded the turn past Federal Hill, however, the bay was on our left side and the winds were whipping. Spectators were lining the streets with handmade signs, pom-poms, and musical instruments and it felt more like a parade than a race. Just when I was getting into the groove with a high school band playing a catchy beat, the wind caught one of the poster boards and hurled it across the street at me like a giant Frisbee. The sign was on heavy-duty, quarter inch thick backing and it hit me right in the sternum while flying parallel to the ground. Stunned, I caught then board and quickly recovered without slowing pace. I held the sign up above my head as I ran, and got my second round of applause in less than a half hour. After a half a block or so, one of the spectators ran onto the course and took the sign from me, which was probably a good thing as it wasn’t exactly aerodynamic.
Another mile or so and we turned around, heading back the way we came on the out and back leg of the course. As I passed Kirk again at mile 13, I was totally in the zone and he had to shout my name to get my attention. I shouted back to him asking if he could run, while pointing to my lips. He was confused at first thinking I wanted a kiss, but quickly caught on. He ran alongside the course until he found a break in the crowd and by the time he caught up to me he had the Chapstick out, uncapped and everything. My hero.
It was a little surreal to pass the half marathon point and keep going. Just 5 moths ago, I ran the Maryland Half Marathon and was dying by the time I reached the finish. Imagine my surprise to cross the halfway point at 2:08:31, besting my previous PR of 2:11:15 and feeling great! I was a little worried at that point that I had started out too fast, but just reminded myself that I wasn’t running the race to set any records. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, and hopefully have a good experience in the process. If that meant slowing down and taking those last few miles as slowly as I needed to, so be it.
It was in between the harbor and Patterson Park that I heard a commotion behind me and turned around to see what the deal was. Turns out all the excitement was over some guy running in a Dunkin Donuts coffee cup costume. I laughed because I’d actually heard talk of him on the radio the day before and the broadcasters were wondering on-air who, in their right mind, would run in such a costume. They were cracking jokes about how badly it would smell when he was done and making dares for others to try it on after the race. I told the costume-clad runner as much and he laughed, a little bummed that he had missed the segment. We ended up running in the same vicinity for the remaining 10 miles, but I didn’t get close enough to take a whiff.
At mile 16 the marathon and the half marathon courses merged. The race committee kept the runners separate for a couple blocks to ease the adjustment, but there was still a bit of a slow down as there was also a water stop tossed into the mix. Nearly all the runners had to slow down to a walk for at least a few steps before things started moving again. This is the 3rd time I’ve run in the Baltimore Running Festival (my first race ever, a 5k in 2008 and the half marathon in 2009) and this has been a bottleneck every year. Luckily, I’m a far cry from scoring any prize money, so I wasn’t too ruffled about it.
Miles 18-20 were uphill, and 20-21 were around Lake Montebello making it as windy as all get out. My times suffered these few miles, but I wasn’t hurting or particularly tired, I just couldn’t seem to get moving. I turned my iPod on somewhere during these few miles, and while it didn’t really get me going any faster, it took my mind off my Garmin. I was relieved when we exited the race loop and got onto 33rd street safely below the canopy of trees. After the race, I read that even the elite runners had a hard time in the stretch between 18 and 21 which made me feel a little better about my slowdown. Apparently, the Baltimore Marathon is often compared to Boston in terms of it’s hills, especially those between miles 16-20 which is where Boston has their Heartbreak Hill.
Again, I don’t remember much of what happened between miles 20 and 24. I know the crowds were intense and people-watching really helped pass the time. Spectators were dressed up in bear costumes, and dancing in the streets and on the tops of cars. Gummy bears paved the streets and runners juggled as they ran the course. Baltimore is full of crazies on a regular day, add 22,000 runners to the mix and there isn’t a greater excuse for a party.
When I hit mile 24 we crossed over the Howard Street bridge and I knew it was all downhill from there. As an aside, the hills didn’t bother me at all throughout the course. In fact, there were times I didn’t even realize I was climbing until someone would yell out, “You’re almost to the top!” and I would look around to see what they were referring to. I’m really glad I don’t get bent out of shape over hills because it’s the little things like that they can really mess with my head.
Miles 25 and 26 flew by. Not only were we running downhill, but the wind was finally at our backs. Those were some of my fastest miles. My family was at the finish line, but I missed them because I was looking for cameras (the official race photographer didn’t even catch me at the finish—go figure). Regardless, I crossed the finish line with my arms thrust above my head in a victory V and a huge grin on my face.
And then I had an emotional meltdown.
There was a bit of a bottleneck at the finish (apparently it was even worse earlier which explains why they stopped unwrapping the medals and were simply handing them out still sealed in plastic). In a daze, I grabbed a water and a heat sheet and chose to bypass the line for food that seemed to not only have no end, but wasn’t moving either. I managed to exit Celebration Village through a side gate and avoid most of the knot of runners, but that also meant that I unknowingly bypassed my family who was waiting for me at the exit.
I bee-lined it for the Johnny Unitas statue where Kirk and I have always met up in previous years, but he wasn’t there. Thinking back on these few moments, I can’t recall what was going through my head, but I do know that I was pushing through the crowd, walking in circles around the statue … and moaning.
The adrenaline had left my system, my legs were on fire, and all I wanted to do was collapse into a hug—something that was not happening. After a few minutes of circling (and moaning) some sweet, kind-hearted soul took pity on me. I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard the words, “Is there someone you’d like to call?” and a phone was passed into my line of sight. I’m not even sure I ever even looked up into her face, but I do know I mumbled thank you over and over as the tears finally started to fall. To the kind woman who’s iPhone is now covered in my sweat—Thank you. I’m so sorry I was such a nut-case. Thank you for realizing something was not right, and not just thinking I was some loon escaped from the crazy bin.
Kirk was actually looking for me just on the other side of the street and was understandably concerned over my rapid decline. He’d seen me cross the finish line positively elated ten minutes before and yet here I was, barely able to walk, let alone speak. He dug through my bag of essentials (including a camera sans batteries, doh!) that he’d been wonderful enough to tote around all morning and tore open a pack of fruit snacks, thrust them in my face and said, “Eat”. When those were gone he moved on to Wheat Thins and then supervised as I downed a bottle of water. He called my mom who was still looking for me by the official exit that I never emerged from, and by the time she made it over to us, I was feeling ten times better.
I’ve never experienced a mood swing like that before and it was more than a little scary. It’s amazing how physically drained you can be without even realizing it. The adrenaline in my system completely masked any indicators that I was running on fumes (I took in over 600 calories and plenty of fluids on the run) and I felt amazing during that final stretch but I guess the emotional gauntlet of completing a marathon was enough to do me in.
The Baltimore Running Festival is one of the fastest growing races in the country which I think has presented a challenge—more so this year than in previous years. Every report I’ve read has said that Celebration Village was a zoo, that the lines for food were insane and that the finish line was crowded with runners trying to get through the corrals. These are all things that could be solved by making the finish area bigger and there’s plenty of room for that, so I have no doubt it will be better next year.
I really enjoy running in the festival. Parking is always easy and the crowd support is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The support on the course couldn’t have been better either. There were water and fuel stops every 1.5 to 2 miles, making me feel silly for even bring my hydration belt (I could have done without the bruises on my hips it caused too). The signage was great, the route was varied, and I truly have no complaints.
These last couple of days I’ve been resting up, stretching and foam rolling like crazy. The day after the race I could hardly walk, despite the ice bath I sat in for 15 minutes, but my quads have discovered a new friend in a rolling pin I found in the kitchen and it’s making a world of difference. I still can’t climb stairs or sit without a grimace though. And to think, I get to do this all over again in just six weeks.
I can’t wait.