Well, I am not a three-time marathoner. Turns out that 22 mile long run I ran in the pouring rain on Mother’s Day morning was the closest I would get to running a marathon. I have been conspicuously absent from Instagram or my Facebook page since Marathon Sunday, because I had nothing to share. No finish line, no post-race celebrations, no shiny medal.
The forecast for the race was hot. It was looking that way for at least a week in advance and RunVermont, the organization that puts on the Vermont City Marathon, had sent out a heat advisory with advice on running in the heat. On Friday I headed to the expo and it was stiflingly hot and humid that afternoon. There was a lot of mention of hydration and conservative running, but no change from the 8am start time.
Originally I’d hoped I would run somewhere around 4:30 (which would have been my A goal) and 4:45. A couple of days before the race, Angela reached out to me to see if I would meet up with her coaching client, Cindy, who was running it as well and was also concerned about the heat. Cindy and I got in touch and it seemed like we might be paced perfectly to run together. Sadly, we missed each other at the start, but honestly, running alone or running with someone, there was very little that could have been made good about this race.
The morning of the race, I ate some salt as well as my usual pre-race breakfast, knowing I would be sweating like crazy. I was actually more concerned about drinking too much water – hyponatremia – than becoming dehydrated. I took my handheld water bottle I’d trained with, to use in addition to the rest stops and I decided to throw caution to the wind on the whole not-doing-anything-new rule of racing and planned to take a sip of sports drink at every stop as well as water. I deliberately didn’t even check the forecast the morning of the race. I already knew it was hot out and I didn’t want to psych myself out by knowing the temperature.
The first mile was tough right off the bat, since we were running toward the sun. At 8am it was already beating down and when finally we made a turn south, there were audible groans of relief from runners. We hadn’t even hit mile one. The first five miles I thought I paced very well. I ran by feel, wearing my watch but deliberately not looking at it and looking away from the clocks at the mile markers. Now I look back at my splits and those first 5 miles were almost dead-on for a 4:30 finish. Then it all went to hell. And it literally felt like hell.
By this stage, we were running on the Burlington Beltline, which is an out and back section of the course on a wide stretch of road with no shade and no respite. Watching runners come back up the other side of the road towards us, still in direct sunlight, knowing that’s what I had to look forward to, was a mental killer. Another mental and physical blow was dealt when the aid station between mile 6 and 7 had run out of water. I am so thankful I had my handheld water bottle, because I’m not sure I would have made it without it. Shortly after that aid station debacle, I realized half the runners were walking. There are two bridges over this stretch of road and in the tiny piece of shade under each, small groups of runners were standing, obviously trying to get some shade before attempting the next stretch. I overheard one relay runner on his phone as he walked, telling his second leg runner he wasn’t going to make it to the hand off. At mile 8 I saw the first of many ambulances coming to someone’s aid.
At mile 9, we were back in the city and this is where the spectators made the race somewhat bearable again. So many people had set up sprinklers to shower the course, or were standing on their curbs hosing us down; offering ice and oranges and ice pops. I was walking short stretches whenever there was no shade by this point and took anything the thoughtful spectators were offering. By mile 11 I had totally given up on any chance of a decent time for me and just wanted to finish. Watching the half marathon relay runners peel off at 13.1 and the fresh group of second leg runners join us was awful. Just before mile 15 and the Battery Street hill I had trained so hard for, I began chatting with a woman named Marcy and we ran together for a while. We ended up walking that hill, the hill that I ran so many times during training, the one part of the course I thought would be the toughest, but one I’d trained to overcome. It wasn’t my day. I saw only three people actually running the hill. It was clear it was not anyone’s day.
The next few miles are a blur to me. It was walk-run intervals, feeling thankful for every spray of water, for every spectator, volunteer and the other runners for making it bearable. At mile 19, we were stopped at an aid station and were told by the volunteers that there was a hold on the course. The volunteers didn’t really know what was happening and it was obvious they weren’t sure if they were meant to stop us for good, so we all just kept going. At mile 20, we heard they weren’t timing the race anymore. I didn’t care, by this stage. I was just determined to finish it, knowing I had run conservatively and smartly and that I could finish. During a walk break, I wrote this on Facebook:
About half a mile later, news trickled down that it was over. The bike path was blocked off. No one was being allowed through. We would all be shuttled to the finish on buses. Mile 20.5. Less than a 10K run from the finish. I cried and cried as I went on, still sticking to my walk-run method. I rounded a corner with a group of runners and we were all corralled into a parking lot. Onto buses we piled and the stories started. “This was my first marathon and I didn’t make it.” “I’m running 50 marathons in 50 states and I need to find a marathon in Vermont this week to make it happen.” “This was my bucket list goal after kicking cancer.” Everyone understood – we had just run through 20 miles of the worst conditions I think most of us had experienced in a race. The right decision was made by the organizers. It didn’t make it any easier to accept in the moment, though.
Getting off the bus at the finish meant listening and watching as the runners who were further along the course actually crossed the finish line. The announcer was calling their names, saying, “Congratulations, marathoners! You made it 26.2 miles and you should be proud!” The crowd in the park by the lake was a mix of happy finishers with medals around their necks, trading war stories of the course and the dejected non-finishers, those of us who got off yellow buses and walked around looking for our loved ones. It sucked. I felt like a failure. I saw the woman I ran with for a couple of miles and she had the medal around her neck. I immediately started thinking, ‘Could I have gone on? Could I have slipped past that bus stop and made it to the bike path? Am I a failure? If I had trained harder, would I have been one of those finishers?’
Did I fail? Not from my effort. But it’s hard to swallow months of training, of negotiating baby naps and feeding schedules and have it all come down to riding on a yellow school bus to watch others cross the line.
And just to rub salt in the wound, this is the opening page for the VCM website right now, congratulating the finishers of the Vermont City Marathon 2016:
Why was the race shut down?
The organizers issued a black flag after readings from Wet Bulb Globe Temperature devices at three locations on the course came back with a score of over 92, a number which means outside activity is too dangerous.
I have actually failed to mention this, since I’ve been so caught up in my training for the marathon, but I am running the Covered Bridges Half Marathon this Sunday, raising money for the charity David’s House. I have no idea how I will run, since I didn’t specifically train for a half, but I am hoping for cooler temperatures and a little bit of redemption crossing a finish line.
Thanks to all of you who texted, messaged, called and commented with your kind words! You made sharing what seemed like a failure at the time a more bearable experience.