It’s a clear, cool, sunny day in October. I am in Hartford CT, as ready as I am ever going to be for my first official marathon. I stand in line to pee one more time, although I know damn right well this will not be the last, and pray that there are lots of chances to go again on the route. I also pray that there will not be lines like this one, which is ridiculously long. I notice there are tons of people not dressed to run but waiting to go and I wish that there were separate bathrooms for the runners. I am nervous. Not nervous about the race, but about reaching the start line on time. I have just a few minutes left before the race begins and my support team, Bill, stands steadfast and strong beside me, knowing just how itchy I am to run.
I carry a water bottle in my right hand. It’s the kind of bottle that has a strap so that my hand does not have to do any actual work while I run. I am dressed in my favorite capri running bottoms and a soft, comfy long sleeved tech shirt. On my feet I wear the oldest sneakers I own—Nike Free 3. The pair I was planning to wear became saturated on my final long training run and changed shape so much that they are unfit for running. These sneakers are worn on the bottom to the point where I can almost see my socks through the soles under the balls of my feet, and my toes poke out of the tops like tiny, sharp gophers in a prairie. They fit, though, and I feel great. I could do this barefoot. I think.
I finally pee and we hustle over to the starting line. I am so late that I am at the very end of the runners waiting for the start gun. I don’t care at all; in fact I am happy to be at the end. That means I will be able to pass lots of other runners at the beginning, which always pumps me up, even though it’s not really a competitive feeling. It’s more of a personal challenge. I don’t care who wins or how I place. I just want to finish. And finish running. 26.2 miles is a long distance to run. I am prepared. Bill takes a couple of pre-race photos and I smile for him, and for me. This is it.
The race begins and I find my pace early on. The route takes us through the city for a few miles, then out into the suburbs. I run easy, listening to my favorite playlist. As I cross the bridge that leaves the city and leads to the bulk of the distance, I see Bill. He is leaning precariously over the rail of the bridge, phone in hand, ready to capture the image of me on this day where one of my dreams is coming true. I work my way over from the middle of the street so that I am almost close enough to touch his hand as I run past. I can feel the smile spread over my face as I see his; he takes the photo as I run by him and then I am on my own. Through the race, I periodically think of him, and how he must have hustled to reach the bridge from the start line to watch me run by.
About seven or eight miles in, a man runs up beside me and asks if he might join me for a while. He tells me I have been his pacer for the past couple of miles, and that he chose me because I am the only runner in sight who is not breathing heavily or panting. His name is Brian. I smile and agree to the company, as he is smiling sweetly and seems to be at my level of fitness. We talk and talk while we run, and I learn that he is married, has three children, and loves to run as much as I do. I learn that this is his first marathon, too. He asks how I know how to pace myself, and I tell him that it is easy to keep going if you run at a pace where it is easy to talk. And so we do.
We run over the tracker that proves we have completed the 15 mile marker distance, and loop around for the last part of the race. We drink at some of the stops; we pee at others. Some little girl hands me a banana and my gratitude is immense—I cannot stomach gels or GU packs, or any of that special race food that is handed out freely during long races. I hold the banana for a couple of miles, then eat the whole thing, tossing the skin into a wooded area we pass. My new running friend Brian is getting tired, and I encourage him to keep going. We both know that running with someone else can be salvation if the running gets tough. I remind him that if we slow our pace a bit, we will still be able to finish in four hours, which is a pretty good time to finish.
Then, at mile 20, something happens to me. I feel a sharp muscle spasm in my low back on the left, and my IT band on the right squeezes up tight. My right knee feels like it is going to collapse.
“Brian. I have to stop and stretch. You go ahead. I’ll catch up with you.”
“Are you kidding? I’ll stop and stretch, too. I’ll wait for you.”
“You don’t have to. I’m okay. I want you to finish.”
I know he sees the pain on my face, the wincing as I try to run again.
“I am going to finish. With you. You got me through all of the parts that were hard for me. Now I am going to get you through this.”
I feel tears spring to my eyes, knowing this stranger who has become my friend while running a marathon means exactly what he says. So I allow it. I stop and stretch every quarter-mile or so. The pain in my back is excruciating, making me sick to my stomach. Because there is someone with me, I am able to keep going. We pass the candy station that is just a couple of miles from the finish line. I cannot imagine eating candy at this point; Brian, too , passes on the stop and we run on, steady and slow.
I can hear the finish line crowd and music, see the gate we will run through, my heart soars and at last, we cross the finish. I turn and hug my new friend, feeling a gratitude that makes my heart swell with a love that exists only among those who experience this kind of camaraderie. And then Bill is beside me, gathering me into his arms, congratulating me, hugging me, and Brian’s family is there, his children grinning proudly at their dad, whisking him off for photos and congratulations. A volunteer hands me a Mylar blanket which I take and them shed immediately as the pain in my back intensifies. Someone else hands me a bag with snacks and a medal for finishing. Bill helps me to the side and off the finish line area and I try to bend over to remove my sneakers. I cannot, so he kneels down to help me. We walk—or Bill walks and I hobble—past the food tents and drink tents and trinkets—directly to the massage tent. I am afraid someone is going to stuff me into an ambulance, but I hobble directly to the front of the line.
“How long is the wait to see someone? I have a terrible muscle spasm and I don’t think I can wait long.”
The woman behind the make-shift desk looks at me for a few seconds, assessing me.
“Come in right now. Come in, honey.”
And then I am in a chair with an icepack on my back. Bill paces around outside the tent. I know he is worried, but he will have to wait. Soon, someone comes to get me and brings me to a massage table. The masseuse is a young man, and as he listens to me telling him what is wrong, I can sense apprehension in his approach. I allow him to work on my back for a little while, and soon realize there will be nothing he can do to help me today. I wince as I roll off the table and stagger to my feet.
“Thank you. Thank you so much. I am sure this will feel better soon.”
I exit the tent and find Bill, who is still pacing around. The concern on his face makes me glad I am not near a mirror.
We head back to the hotel, me gingerly putting one foot in front of the other, leaning heavily on Bill’s arm. At some point, he wraps his arm right around me and I rest as much of my weight on him as I can without actually letting him carry me. We take breaks from walking and I stretch a bit. I am grateful for the longish walk back to the hotel, knowing that if I stop moving, my muscles will seize up even more and I will be defeated by my own body after making my goal.
A couple of hours later, after a long hot shower, four or five ibuprofen and more stretching, I find myself at a table in a restaurant, eating house special miso soup with mushrooms and rolls of vegan sushi. Plates of vegetables and noodles crowd the table in the corner and I eat and eat and eat until my belly is full. We walk together back to the car and I fall into the front seat, spent from the run, the dinner, the excitement and the success. I did it!