So...I did it. I finished.
Here's the glass-half-empty version: No one wants to have the absolute worst long run of the entire training cycle take place on race day. And that's exactly what happened to me. Glass-half-full version: I finished the race. I posted a solid mid-pack time- 60% of the racers finished after I did- and I learned a lot.
And here's the long version:
After all of the chaos leading up to the race, things started to fall in place on Saturday. My coach said he'd drive me to the race. My aunt and uncle would get me home. My sister agreed to babysit. My neighbor (an all-around wonderful person AND runner) offered back-up for every single one of these things.
I started feeling extremely anxious before bed on Saturday, but I managed to sleep fairly well. I got up, marveled at how little I needed for a running-only race (no helmet, goggles, bike, 3 pairs of shoes?), got ready, ate, whispered good-bye to my sleepy sister, and got to the carpool place on time.
We got downtown in plenty of time, stretched, and jogged around for about a mile. (No, I would not have DREAMED of jogging, even at a slow pace, before a race if my coach hadn't been there.) I felt great. My legs were fresh, my stomach wasn't revolting against me, and the weather was PERFECT. This was going to be a beautiful race. Ah, the naive idealism of a first-timer.
My coach wished me luck, reminded me not to go out too fast and to watch my form at the end when I got tired. I headed back to my corral to wait for the start. It was here that I made my first mistake. I don't remember what I told the Team that my estimated finish time was but I definitely ended up in a slower corral. As we edged toward the starting line (Corral 16 started about 25 minutes after the first group), I started to get really hungry. I had eaten about 3 1/2 hours before, so this might indeed have been actual hunger, but I chalked it up to nerves and ignored it. When our group got close to the announcer, he commented that now he was seeing the corrals where "running knew no body type." Brilliant. Thanks for the encouragement.
For the first mile, LOTS of people were walking already. The walk-run phenomena is firmly entrenched in distance running. It works well for many people, but I'm not one of them, and I find pacing around walk-runners very difficult. There were some supporters along the way, and it was interesting to see the different groups. Some dressed up and had funny signs ("This is a lot of work for a free banana," "You are NOT almost there"), while others shouted encouragement and tried to high-five people, and then there was Team Daphne. They looked exceptionally displeased to be there. I imagine when she finally went past that they shouted something like, "It's your fault we had to get up early on a Sunday morning! Run by yourself next time!" The pastor of First Baptist had the encouragement thing down and his voice really carried. I could have used a recorded loop of him for the rest of the race.
We passed the Alamo at mile one. Mile one. Why the race is arranged so that the most inspiring view comes at mile one I can't begin to fathom. For the next couple of miles, I stuck pretty close to a 10 minute pace. I finally realized that if I didn't kick it into gear and leave the group I was running around behind, I was going to just meander all the way to the finish. But I found that easier said than done. I'm not a big group person, and 25,000 runners certainly meets my definition of a big group. The distraction was killing me, but I did manage to break free and I passed the 4:40 full marathon pacer (no idea if they were on pace or not) and left that group behind.
Miles 5 to 8 were hilly. Ordinarily, I think I could have managed that without a problem, but, again, the runners around me were wildly inconsistent with their paces. Some- many- were walking up the hills, and I found myself starting to do the same. I had to fight the urge constantly. I started to pick it up again on the downhills around the 7.5 mile mark, but right at the 8 mile point, I started to feel really chilled. I realized I was shivering and covered in goosebumps. Those around me were sweating freely, so it wasn't a change in the weather. I had been drinking along the way, but I started to wonder if I needed electrolytes. I decided to make a bathroom stop, but after waiting in line for a full minute without the line moving at all, I abandoned that idea and went to go get some Gatorade at the aid station.
Except there was no Gatorade at mile 8. Or mile 9. Or mile 10. I was definitely starting to come apart at that point. At mile 11, I finally found Gatorade. It tasted like the absolute best stuff on earth- I think it was mixed double-strength. My shivering stopped and the numbness I had had went away as well. I saw a friend and neighbor volunteering and she shouted encouragement. But speed, unfortunately, didn't return. The full marathoners split off just after that, and suddenly, everything became deadly silent. We were running along an ugly stretch of road by the railroad tracks (a lot of the course was actually very un-picturesque) and everyone stopped talking. There were no bands, no spectators. (Side note: There weren't really very many bands along the route. And some were playing slow music. A couple were good, others were off-key, but did get points for substituting runner lyrics.) We all just shuffled along toward the finish.
When we finally got to the finish line, I sprinted and passed about 25 people. Not because I thought it would make a difference to my time. Not because I needed to beat those people. Just because I needed to be DONE. And Gatorade. I really needed to find Gatorade. (I never, ever, ever drink Gatorade. But I definitely needed it.) People kept handing me stuff- a medal, water, chips (didn't take those), chocolate milk, containers of peaches (didn't take those either) and all I kept asking was, "Where is the Gatorade?" I finally located it, couldn't figure out how to get it open- how many seals does one bottle need?- and went in search of a blanket or something because I was shivering in earnest now. They had mylar blankets further down the chute and since my arms were full of all my "stuff" (I have no idea why the race coordinators didn't think to offer some sort of bag or trick-or-treat bucket to put all that junk in), the volunteer had to wrap the thing around me.
I shuffled over to the Team in Training tent to wait for my cousin to finish the full marathon. I had a text from my aunt saying he was exactly on pace. The Team in Training volunteer offered me a taco- NO, thank you- and even his sweatshirt. I sipped my Gatorade and tried to figure out what had happened.
I finished in 2:25. That's...not bad, but not what I trained for, either. I should have been able to finish in 2:10 to 2:15. My splits- every single one of them- were slower than anything I had done in training, even on a bad day.
I made my way back over to the finishing chute to watch the other runners shuffle around trying to manage their handfuls of "stuff." I found it hilarious that, when a runner would drop a bag of chips, he would look down at the ground in despair as if he had just dropped them into a 100 foot ravine instead of right on top of his shoes. Reaching down that far just wasn't possible for people who had poured all of their effort into racing. One man- quite the gentleman- reached down to grab a chip bag for an older lady. He got stuck about halfway back up and sort of swayed back and forth for a moment before sloooooowly rising. He should have gotten a medal just for that.
My cousin finished in 4:02- crushing his previous PR- and looked great at the end.
I got delivered back to my van and continued to ponder my race as I drove home. About 5 minutes from my house, it finally hit me: The Zone. That was the problem. I never went into The Zone.
Usually, when I run, the first mile is really tough. I feel awkward, off-pace, and it takes all of my willpower to keep going. Then, it gradually starts to feel a little smoother. Around the 2.5 mile point, I find my pace, and by mile 4, I'm in The Zone. At mile 6, I feel like I can run forever. Miles 4 to 10 are where I post my fastest times, and there are times where I forget I'm running. I was prepared to have to push through the last 5K of the race, but I wasn't prepared to have every...single...mile...feel like the first mile. I'm a solitary runner and I just couldn't find my pace with all of the people around (I've never done a big race before), and I didn't have the mental toughness to push myself through. I now know why so many run with headphones. Listening to music is the only way I can even imagine that I could have shut out all of the people around me.
But...I did it! And, yes, I'll probably be stupid enough to do it again. Because I have to try the headphone thing. And bring my own electrolytes. And start in a faster corral. And...
Thank you again to all of the people who supported me in this! You're the best.