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Monday, May 31, 2010

They don't call it a marathon for nothing.

First: This post is dedicated to four extraordinary people- Sandi, Matt, Ange and Emilie ( With you, all things are possible.

Second: This post itself is like a marathon (or to quote Emilie "an endurance event for your eyeballs.") If I stuck with it, so can you.

Let me start by saying I lost my voice late Friday night and by Saturday morning what remained was a squeaky version of my voice, punctuated with periods of silence when no sound passed my lips when my brain had intended for words to emerge. Seems some irritation and phlegm had moved into my throat making if difficult for sound to get out. While I can say I did actually feel fine, I was in an active state of denial about how these unwanted visitors had moved into my lungs and did not seem interested in immediate (i.e. pre-marathon) evacuation.

Regardless, childless and ready 30 minutes ahead of schedule, we drove to marathon city. Sandi did so many really wonderful things for me (like buying me a BEAUTIFUL tanzanite and diamond ring to celebrate my marathon) and writing with shoe polish again on the van. It made me happy the whole way.

Once in Burlington all the runners, plus spouses, significant others and cheerleaders (thanks Matt, Ange and Hannah)-15 in all-ate a super yummy meal at Flatbread, walked around town and down to the starting line so we could visualize it and then back to our hotels with a plan for the morning and hopeful for sleep. I was buzzing with excitement, very light on the nerves and slept a solid 8 hours.

I got everything ready to go before bed. I went over the course again and jotted down the hills and the miles of each of the four loops so I could write them on my arm in the morning with the intention of keeping perspective and staying on top of my mental race.

It was Emilie's brilliant idea (and labor) to put our names on shirts. More on that later.
Fully charged ipod strapped to my arm, Camelbak at the ready, my trusty peanut butter and banana sandwich to try to swallow in bits with my excited belly, sneakers laced I was ready to go meet my girls and head to the start.

Emilie and I talk a little strategy in the hotel lobby.

Here we are ready to go. From the left: Susan, Emilie, Jen, Amy, Christine, and me. The shirts (lucky green) were Christine's brilliant idea. Turns out is was really handy for our cheerleaders to spot us in the crowd this way.
Naturally, about 3,600 other runners had the same idea. Thankfully there were a LOT of porta-potties. Hundreds of nervous runners = hundreds of nervous pee-ers.

Honestly, I couldn't have felt better in my head or my body as I waited to get in the starting line.
I was literally about to come unglued with excitement and anticipation. I had spent so long visualizing this moment, this victorious moment of running- not walking like the other marathons I have done- but being out there with REAL RUNNERS, among them, one of them. I had no choice but to put my arms in the air as this glorious feeling surged through me. (Plus they were blaring inspiring music and the whole thing gave me this over-the-top feeling of joy.)

The first 3 plus miles were all through town on spectator-lined streets-people shouting, waving flags, slinging cowbells. I saw a man dressed in nothing but a speedo (banana hammock style) playing the accordion, a male cross-dresser decked out in patriot garb,

drummers, little kids with hands stuck out for high fives, and an energy and intensity that could light up the eastern seaboard.

Now, being who I am, somewhat of an extrovert, I really thrive in these situations. Understand, people were shouting my name "GO SUZANNE!" over and over again (you get the idea of the name on the shirt?) and I felt like a friggin' rockstar. It felt like mainlining enthusiasm. What a rush.

As I have remarked many times, distance running is incredibly mental- sometimes so that I think the mental muscles need more training than the physical ones. There are many, many things I have learned to do to combat mental demons that can interfere with running success: breaking down long runs into several short runs, running with friends, relaxing and calming myself down when I think about how far I'm actually running. For the week before the race, I very consciously reduced my stress level, slept more, ate well, hydrated, worked less, packed early, essentially spent a week mentally preparing for Sunday. I intentionally skipped the Expo Saturday in favor of a short nap. I was stacking the cards in my favor, filling up my tank, improving my odds of a great run.

I reminded myself over and over that I would need at least 6-8 miles to warm-up and feel capable of running a marathon and that I should under no circumstance panic if I felt out of sync with my body. Knowing that I take this long to get going, to "hit my stride" when Emilie asked me if I could commit to running the first 9 miles with her until she was to meet Sam (he was to run 9-15 with her) it made natural sense. What a great way to warm into the race. A race plan. I'm a girl who loves a good plan.

I run because it is so completely gratifying and redemptive to me. But I also run with my friends because I have come to deeply cherish the bonds we have made. Having previously been a very independent, solo runner, running with others was initially something I had no interest in, but realized through this training how much lighter the load is when you share it.

So there we were, on the least favorable part of the course, an out and back on a divided highway (closed to traffic) where you had the inspiring but somewhat irritating phenomenon of having the top runners running toward you at lightning speed. There was one guy who was, incredibly (and aggravatingly!) running essentially barefoot with just some leather pieces slung on the bottom of his feet to protect them from the pavement. Oh, and he was wearing a sarong just to make matters worse.

Emilie was wrestling with her mental demons as I was trying to encourage her, pace my speed to match hers and stay with her, not annoy her with too much cheery talk, and ward off my own aforementioned doubts that creep in about mile 6 (this is hard...why are you doing this? it almost time to cross the finish line in a blaze of glory?) It was clear looking at her that she was going into a dark place and needed me. Or needed someone and I was closest and had made the promise to stick with her and there I was stuck to her like glue when really she was wishing she had someone helpful who would keep her from going in the mental hole she was heading into- like a professional runner instead of a 26.2 virgin like myself.

Then, just as she seemed to be turning the corner and we were climbing the annoying long, sunny, steamy hill at mile 8, I felt that something was wrong. I reached down and patted my bum (no, not to spank myself) and with a feeling of serious dread realized my continuous glucose monitoring sensor had come loose. As in not attached. As in, no longer working. As in my life line cut off.

Oh, #$^*.

I don't really know how to describe what this was like for me. I guess it would be like someone leaving you in a room full of hundreds of doors, only one of which worked, turning off the lights and telling you to find your way out. Maybe if someone were to lose their contacts and glasses?Panic. Desperation. Fear. I would no longer be able to track my highly-volatile-while-running blood sugar when I needed it most, during the second part of this, the longest run of my life when I had no idea what to expect my body to do. This sensor was the one thing I truly relied on to allow me to run long distance as a Type I diabetic.

I played it cool, told Emilie and Christine it was no that big a deal, all the while praying my insides would take the cue and calm down. Emilie said: "I'm yours. Whatever you need for the rest of this race, I will do it for you."

And this is why you run with your friends.

Confident I would manage (and knowing that Sandi had my glucose meter in her backpack) I left Emilie with Sam and mile 9 to try to find my own, natural pace. I rounded the corner and my heart swelled to see my pit crew (Sandi, Ange and Matt) snapping pictures and ringing cow bells and proclaiming my awesomeness. I relaxed about the sensor. I would be ok.

Christine, cutting up the pavement.

Amy, mile 9, looking strong and happy.

Sam, running 6 miles with his girl.

My crew:
Ange, and her signs that actually made runners stop to photograph them.

And the one her kids helped her make...

Matt, photographer extraordinaire.

And, of course, Sandi who said, "I've had to learn to be a cheerleader for this." You did a stellar job, baby.
I am not joking when I say that the entire time I ran, the three of them bustled from spot to spot on the course to see me, cheer for me, photograph and inspire me. I am also not joking one single bit when I say I really don't think I would have finished the race if it hadn't been for them.

I'm not entirely sure what happened to me at about mile 10. What I do know is that I never hit my running stride. My body never got in sync with running during the race. I have had a handful of bad runs over the 18 week training, but never on a long run have I never hit my stride. I knew it might take a while, but it never occurred to me that it wouldn't happen. But it didn't. Despite my excitement, my physical and mental preparation, I think there were a lot of factors working against me that day. I had an initially high blood sugar spike that my sensor detected early in the race that I treated with insulin because I was nervous the stress of the marathon might make me have some sort of critically high blood sugar incident if I continued to drink gatorade and eat gu. In actuality I think my sensor was in the process of falling out and the reading was incorrect so taking insulin was the wrong move and I ended up with low blood sugar which makes me feel like I am running without gas. I tried to eat to accomodate and fell behind so I ended up nursing a low blood sugar for miles, all the while trying to find my stride, not panic, and feeling like I was running on fumes.

In addition, my lungs were too preoccupied with the phlegm in them to properly oxygenate my body and I think this augmented the feeling of having no steam. I struggled with the breathing the whole way.

Did I mention I was also attempting the impossible trying to keep my mental race going strong despite my body failing?

At mile 13.1 I wanted to cry that I was only halfway. By then I was running alone, something that normally doesn't bother me but filled me with a self-imposed wanting to catch my friends ahead of me because that is what I do when my body kicks in. I speed up, I lengthen my legs. I felt like I was in a cage I couldn't get out of.

This race, this run, looked nothing like any other run I had ever had. This was to be my moment, to run faster and stronger because there were crowds, there was adrenline. In all of my runs, I could always calculate almost to the minute the time I would return, so consistent was my pace. What I didn't know was that poor Sandi was getting to each spectator cheering spot with an estimate of my arrival time there, based on my normal pace, but I was falling further and further behind, inciting more panic in her as it took me longer and longer to get to each mark.

By the time I began the 6 block climb up Battery St. at mile 14, I was utterly overwhelmed.

And then I saw Sandi step over the barracade and run to me.

She ran up the whole hill with me. I think this is me trying not to cry.

We stopped to get a blood sugar and then charged the rest of the way up. I honestly don't even remember it being hard with her next to me.

She gave me a big hug at the top and said, "I will see you at mile 20." I cannot tell you how hard it was to let her walk away from me and not beg her to keep running alongside me.

Jen's husband, Micheal, tackled Battery with her as well.

Susan just charged up it.

I struggled hard between mile 15 and 20, desperate to see my pit crew again. The course weaved annoyingly in and out of residential streets, each one feeling like they were taking me away from the big left hand turn that would take me to the finish line.

High points: A hug station where a girl graciously gave sweaty runners hugs, a woman holding a sign at the top of a hill near mile 16 that said: "No more hills!", people who sprayed me down with their hoses and sprinklers, a couple that was running together who stopped and took pictures of each other, the man rubbing the woman's back when she tired and walked.

Low points: Being very nauseated from all the gu and the gatorade and fearful I might throw up and/or have some sort of medical incident that would involve the medics and a stretcher and not completing the race.

Mile 20: desperate to see my people. I launched myself into Sandi's arms and heaved a few sobs. I told them if I could pick up my pace I could still finish in under 5 hours (which had been my seemingly very attainable goal). Matt said: "Don't worry about the time. You just finish. You got this."

I don't know how they got a picture of me looking this put together. I felt like I was going to fall over. Leaving Sandi at this point and not begging them to take me home, was one of the hardest things I've ever done. "I will see you at the finish line," she said. That seemed impossibly far away.

Side note: Sandi became very alarmed at this point because I was apparently far off base in assessing my time and thinking I could get in under 5 hours. She sent her mother a text message saying: "struggling, disoriented" and her family on Beals said, "It's time to pray." And they did.

During a marathon when you start to lose your mind, you realize that people are in fact lying to you. For instance when they say, "You're almost there" or "You can do it" when you feel like tucking into the fetal position on the side of the road and the finish line is a mirage on the horizon, and you know they are purposely withholding the truth just to see how far you will go before you give up.

Now, this part of the story is not for the faint hearted....

Running at all, let alone a marathon, never seemed within the scope of my abilities. And it never had been and then, at somepoint, was within my reach to train to RUN a marathon. I had no intention of walking any of it. Not a single bit. This was a lifelong dream of mine, a pipe dream made reality. I was running a marathon. Running, not walking.

At about mile 21 I truly began to falter. At one point a medic asked me if I was okay and I quickly, but politely, shoed him away as if he was bad luck. No medics for me. I have GOT to finish this.

By mile 22.5 I was truly fearful. I had pulled off to the side after a water stop, hands on knees trying to will my body to keep running when I felt a heavy hand clamp down on my shoulder. Surprised, I turned to find Emilie at my side, the biggest sight for sore eyes you've ever seen. She might as well have been an angel sent down from above. Short of Sandi arriving in the woods next to me ready to run, being given a new, fresh pair of legs, or the finish line miraculoulsy appearing before me, I can think of no other more blessed event.

I promptly burst into tears, a flood of relief and regret and disappointment in myself, in my body, in the whole experience. I told her I was honestly feeling a little bit sorry for myself (she told me to go right ahead), that this was to the be pinnacle of all my training and hard work and here I was having the WORST run I had ever had. This was to be my shining moment, not a desperate crawl to the finish. I expected to struggle at mile 22, 23, 24, but I didn't expect to struggle from mile 10 on! She had had a very similar run to mine, having to fight for each mile and we both agreed we weren't going to be signing up for another marathon anytime soon.

I planned to stay right alongside her, the thought of leaving her again making me feel like I was jumping off a cliff without a parachute, but she said she might have to walk more and I really wanted to run, simply because I wanted to prove to myself that I could RUN a marathon.

At mile 25 and 3/4 I saw a guy who looked like I must have looked, which is to say, really, REALLY bad. We were both walking for a few steps. He told me he was struggling. I told him I wanted to run just so I could get to the finish sooner. "Can you manage to run?" I asked him. "Let's do it," he said. "I can't talk but I will run alongside you," I told him. He nodded and we ran together as two strangers sharing only the common bond of suffering and determination.

I saw flags up ahead and asked a spectator, "Is that the finish line?" She nodded and I took off, giving my guy a thumbs up and stretching my legs for the last, tiny bit of redemption I could find. I rounded the corner at the 26 mile mark and ran the longest freaking .2 miles of my life. I was hurting.

And, yet somehow there was more. I couldn't let my triumph go without feeling some of the joy...
And this is me, coming across the finish line. Mercy.

And just a few minutes behind me, came my inspiration, my coach, my friend...

This race taught me many, many things. First and foremost, running through a bad run is way harder than running through a victorious, runner's high run, and in many ways is a bigger accomplishment to me than if I had breezed through it with some struggle at the end. Second, I had to appreciate that my body held up under the conditions it was under and become grateful that I didn't have some medical event that would have precluded me even finishing the race. Time be damned, I finished. I fought for every mile. In the end I probably only walked 1/4 of a mile of the course. I put one foot in front of the other when it felt impossible. I proved my grit to myself. I had a bad day but I did it.

I ran a marathon.
I am a marathoner.
I got to experience shades of living that were painful and dark and frightening and rich beyond belief. I had unparalleled experiences of friendship, from Matt and Ange spending their weekend to come be my support crew to Emilie saving my ass those last few miles.
A picture is worth 1,000 words.

Amy, who almost didn't make it to Burlington due to an acute case of tendonitis in her foot, crossed the finish line with a smile.

Christine, coming in and meeting her hopeful time of under 5 hours, with her husband Keith who also ran the marathon after having ruptured his achillies tendon last April. Good job Kendalls!

Susan finished first around 4 hrs 45 min with Jen right behind her. Then Christine, me, Emilie, Amy and Keith. I didn't get the 4:45 I had planned on, but somehow now 5:15 doesn't seem quite so awful either.
You might not think gettitng a medal would be a big deal. It is.

We did it. We all finished.

I cried a lot when I crossed the finish line. Actually I couldn't stop. Once I was back with her, it was hard for me to leave Sandi for the rest of the day. She was my comfort, my solace, the one I always run home to.

Back at the hotel, ice-bathed (YIKES!), showered, rested, having adopted a new perspective of my race and just what an accomplishment it was, I was ready to go celebrate and EAT.

This was waiting for me when I came home tonight. From Emilie, no less...

And these are the beautiful women who run with me. I do love them so.
I have to end with this photo. This is me. This is why I do it. I love to work hard. I love to feel the thrill of life surging through me. I wrote "limitless" on my arm because that is what I want to be. I want to set my sights and go for it. I want to defy the limits I place on myself. I want to always do more than I ever thought possible. I want to thrive in this place of going beyond.

And...didn't you see it coming? I'm already trying to figure out where my next marathon will be...Any ideas?

9 comments: said...

oh my goodness. i'm exhausted from crying. I think it is interesting that you wrote this before reading mine and we had so many of the same thoughts. you captured the day so well for me. You said so many things that I didn't write about but that I felt, and you articulated what this all meant to you/me/us in a really amazing way. I'm going to read this over and over. I knew you could do this, and you did! Love those photos of you smiling at the end. That's the runner I know and love!

Katie said...

You are all so amazing! This was absolutely wonderful to read, Suzanne...thank you so much for sharing. We were thinking about you all weekend, and couldn't wait to hear all about it. CONGRATULATIONS!

Jennifer said...

I can't stop crying...

Amy said...

Amazing story about a triumphant journey and fantastic finish. You should be SOOO proud of what you've accomplished! LOVE the last photo too :) Congratulations on conquering your first marathon!

Jeannine said...

OMG Suzanne, I can barely see to type this thru the tears!!! I am sooo proud (and jealous) of you and your triumphant accomplishment!!! I need to find something like this to wrap my head around... This kind of goal, push, strive, energy is impressive and I am so so so very proud of you and this miracle that you achieved!!!!

Jeannine said...

i am writin under jeannines name. i am so impressed with what you have done! i believe that things happen for a reason and some of the tests you have been thru in your personal life over the last few years have brought you to this place. you are strong, confident, diciplined, and in charge of Suzanne. i hope you can be an inspiration for some of us that are facing challenges in our own lives. you are one impressive ladt!
love ya,

Jeannine said...

that would be impressive lady. oops

Elizabeth said...

This is really Beth, (Emilie's Mom--with my new email address I am listed with my formal name). Like everyone else, your account of the marathon brought me to tears. I am absolutely in awe that you could do what you did as a type 1 diabetic. Our family has been close to two type 1's so I know,probably better than most, the implications of diabetes. That you were able to overcome those challenges is a testament to your strength and true grit. I am so proud of Emilie's accomplishment in the Vermont marathon and of the way you two helped each other so much, but you get the prize for the Marathoner of the Day! Lots of love and congrats!

Christine said...

What an honor it's been to be on this journey with you! I am so grateful that our paths crossed and that they've crossed in such a way that we are now bound to learn to swim in open water together :o) I look forward to sharing many more special moments, earning many more medals and planning many more outfits! Congratulations to you ~ you marathon runner ~ you!

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