Yesterday, the doorbell rang half a dozen times, and each time the “ding dong!” sound went off, I chirpily bounced down the stairs to greet the FedEx/UPS deliveryman. I was even able to haul three cases of wine upstairs without grimacing or letting loose a bunch of #$%! (for those who have not sworn in the presence of an empty apartment, I highly recommend doing so – it’s fairly therapeutic).
Flash back to 72 hours ago. Sunday morning. The day of the California International Marathon. After sleeping for less than four hours (lots of tossing and turning prior to dozing off), and scoffing down more peanut butter I would care to eat until my next marathon, I boarded the yellow school in front of our hotel lobby that would be taking us to the starting line.
The cool kids sitting in the back of the school bus
Outside, the conditions seemed fair – all week long, Weather.com had become me and my teammates’ top 10 most visited site on our Internet browers. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. As if hitting the refresh button over and over again was going to make the sun come out despite cloudy skies and showers all week long. And because the weatherman never lies, surely enough, by 6 a.m. the rain came drizzling down. Tap tap tap. The dozen of us sitting on the school bus could all hear the splash splash echoes coming down from the bus’ rooftop. Preparing ourselves for a very wet few hours ahead, we got out our garbage bags and started cutting holes. 45 minutes later, we had arrived at our race venue. This was it. There was no turning back now.
Waiting on the bus for as long as we could to stall from the rain, we made jokes, listened to music, and rubbed petroleum jelly all over ourselves (as my college roommate once proclaimed, “I chafed in the only spot where I did not cover up – my butt!). Until the inevitable came: time to get off the bus.
Stepping off the bus felt like being hit with a typhoon. Growing-up in Hong Kong, we did not have snow days. Instead, we had rainy, tropical cyclone (monsoon) seasons. Come every spring, we’d miss a couple of days to school because of these monstrous storms. One might ask, it’s just rain, why couldn’t you go to school? As Hong Kong is surrounded (and built on!) hills, landslides occur frequently during the rainy season. Soil and rock erosion, combined with narrow, windy roads do not make for very safe driving conditions. Not to mention the WIND. People pass away from getting knocked down by neon signs on the city streets! The rating scale for the tropical cyclones goes, #1, 3, 8, and 10.
#1 – Baby storm. Everyone continues on with their day.
#3 – Okay, so it is kind of gusting out there. You should probably try to stay indoors.
#8 – It is MANDATORY that schools and offices are shut-down. Wind is howlinggggg.
#10 – All hell is let loose. Party inside with your neighbors!
My warm-up parameters
It was like typhoon #6.5 had arrived. Water gushing down the asphalted road. The rain coming down sideways, slapping the body with force. But conditions were not hazardous enough that we were willing to put aside the months of training to forgo the one day we had all been waiting for. The realization sank in, that, “I was going to have RUN for THREE ENTIRE HOURS. 180 MINUTES. IN THESE TORRENTIAL CONDITIONS. YIKES.” A glance at the throng of the blue/yellow/white garbage bag coated individuals standing in line for the Portal-Potties had me running inside the gas station, where the line was even LONGER. By then, it was 6:35 a.m., so I had no choice but to duck outside and join the shivering, drenched crowd. For the first time in my life, there were comforting thoughts about being inside a Porta-Potty. Putting all thoughts of staying dry aside, I pulled my cap down to ensure it fit my head snugly, and dashed off to drop off my bag. I ran inside a coffee shop inside the strip mall for shelter and drank some warm water to avoid getting hypothermic. My “warm-up” consisted of a three minute jog around the gas station and squeezing my way through the startling line crowds to find the three hour group pace leader.
“5-4-3-2-1!” The timer went off. The race had begun.
The marathon is a long race. You usually run the first half relaxed – there’s almost an element of mundaneness to this portion of the race. This is good, since you want to conserve energy by staying relaxed for as long as possible. This, however, was not the case on Sunday. The rain and wind made it impossible to “zone-out.” It’s like driving on a clear, sunny day versus a rainy, stormy one. On a nice day you are paying attention to the road but can glance outside and enjoy the scenery. On a bad weather day, you have to be extremely cautious and alert of the road conditions and can only focus on what’s ahead. From the get-go, Sunday’s race required an immense amount of energy; from finding the right spot on the course to draft off other runners, to reminding myself to try to enjoy the race, there was A LOT of concentration put into the early miles.
No relaxing from the start. Teammates nowhere to be seen.
Sloshing through the puddles
Meyers and Lien: pretty in pink
Before the halfway point, my quads started to feel sore. I am not one to panic, but the fact that I was not even 50% through the race and my quads were already showing signs of weakness was disconcerting. Every few minutes, I tried to thump my fists on my quads to settle the muscle tension. I prayed to the marathon gods my quads would not give-out by mile 20.
I started to hurt after mile 21. When the three-hour group caught-up, I tucked in behind the pacer and made it past the last “uphill,” a very short bridge. By mile 22, I was thinking about how “KK’s of pain,” every 5k race, every workout I had ever done came nowhere close to the pain I was feeling at the present.
“Only half-an-hour more! Holy shit! The longest four miles of my life ahead!”
“Just like an easy run with ER and Alexa!”
“Believe in yourself!”
“You get to be a couch bum after this. You will give yourself the biggest running break after this, where pain won’t even be a word in your vocab!”
“It’s just momentarily pain. Make it to 23 and it’ll get ‘easier!’”
It’s amazing how quickly you fade. One moment, I was mentally talking myself into staying with the pack. Next thing I knew, I had swayed off to the side for a water stop and couldn’t continue on with the pack. Every runner’s nightmare was happening right before my eyes: entering no man’s land. It didn’t matter, because by this point my mind and body had entered a state of deliriousness. My body was in such agony and mind in an anguished conscience – it felt like my legs, shoulders, glutes, and back had all become one piece of Jell-o and abandoned me. I didn’t know how I would manage to continue lifting one leg in front of another for another four miles.
No man’s land. Mind and body delirious.
The sign for mile 24 came into view very slowly, and with great conviction, I was convinced I had slowed down to a nine minute pace. The surrounding trees and buildings became blurry, and any signs of getting that “final wind” at the end of the race escaped when the sign for mile 25 appeared. All I could think about was I would not be able to walk for days after this. And how I wished my teammates that had finished ahead had run back to cheer me on as they usually do in shorter races.
“Women to the left! Men to the right!” Turns out it’s easy not to follow instructions when you have completely removed yourself mentally. And that is how I found myself preparing to sprint down the final straightway, only to have the course officials yelling at me to turn around. Glad that I was still recognizable as a lady despite my “no pain, no PR” grimacing face, I retraced my steps and sprinted towards the finisher’s chute.
Eyes closed, I crossed the finish line and hugged my teammates. Three hours and one minute later, I had completed my third marathon. Instantaneous relief. Ecstatic. The idea of a long, hot shower had never felt so sweet.
Dazed and confused. Gleeful for the most part.
The funny thing about marathons and most races is that you dwell on it leading-up to the event, but when you try to replay the miles in your head post-race, it’s all a blur. Only certain bits stick-out, like so-and-so standing at mile 17 cheering for you, the obnoxious man who won’t let you pass, and the breaking point where you tell your brain to run faster but your legs won’t co-operate. The sweet moments you remember are the good company you had during all those miles leading-up to the race: Brian Johnson (of AC/DC) crooning to “Yeah yeah yeah, thunderstruck,” the stupendously transparent views of the Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean on the rare, perfect Indian summer days, and the freemasonry of your girlfriends who are as happy to see you at 6 a.m. on the corner of Page and Stanyan as they are at happy hour. Which is why the minute the race is over you forget about all the pain you just endured and cannot wait to run your next marathon.