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Marathon Virgin Blog: Hello, Wall. It's me, Stephanie (Part I)

Somewhere between miles 23 and 24, I sat down in the sun along Richmond Avenue and put my head in my hands. Passing runners asked if I was okay, and I nodded, but I was lying. A male voice suggested that I scoot over a few feet and rest in the shade. I liked that idea.

I used to read about “hitting the wall,” usually in the context of marathon running, when I first subscribed to Runner’s World back in high school. The concept was, of course, alien to me—at that point, my longest race was the 5K, and it’s hard to hit the wall in a 5K, especially when you’re sixteen years old and training 40+ miles a week on a state-ranked cross-country team. My high-school 5K strategy usually involved running hard for the first two miles and then relying on my guts and youth to pull me over the finish line, and often worked. I’ve had my share of bad races, but before the Buffalo Marathon last Sunday, I had never even been introduced to the wall.

I’m not dumb, normally. I know that you have to hydrate and replenish sodium and electrolytes during a long race, and I was doing so with about the same frequency as I had during my training. Of course, I started training in November, and by the time it got warm in Buffalo I was on my taper. The races I’d run to build up to the marathon distance--a 10-miler, a 22K, a 30K, and a 6-hour distance event—all took place on cloudy days with temperatures in, or well below, the 50s.

On Sunday, I flew through the water stations, grabbing single cups and drinking about half of their contents, spilling the rest all over myself. I sucked down two gel packs by mile 14 and had two tiny half-cups of Gatorade. This probably would have been sufficient if the weather had had the common decency to cooperate.

By 9:00, it was 75 degrees. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That’s great if you’re flying a kite, but not if you’re already two hours into a marathon.

I started the race with 9 minute miles, which I needed to run in order to break 4 hours, and quickly dropped down to 8:30 pace without much effort. Even after the 2 minutes it took me to cross the starting line (IMHO, for the sake of runner sanity, next year the half-marathon and full marathons starts should be staggered, please) and a bathroom break, I made it to the 30K in 2:44:13—a personal record. Yep, I was on a roll.  Too bad I had 8 miles left.

When I get the urge to walk during a race, I can usually fight it off. Chalk it up to pride. But pride wasn’t enough anymore at mile 19, or wherever it was that I gave in and started walking for 30 seconds at a time--though even with the walk breaks, I pulled off a few 9:30 miles.

My family had divided the course up: my fiancé parked near the finish line and cheered at no fewer than six different spots downtown, while my mom and fifteen-year-old brother, Thomas, drove to south Buffalo (mile 9), Linwood Avenue (mile 15) and then Delaware Park. When I reached the park for the second time after the Hertel loop, Tommy unloaded his bike from the back of the car and started following me. 

Bless that young man and his bicycle (note: I refer to the bike here as Tommy's because that's how I thought of it during the race, but he was actually riding my bike, complete with its girl-friendly, boy-unfriendy seat and a flat tire to boot.  Talk about a dedicated brother).

I asked for water, and he dug into his backpack and produced a fresh bottle. I walked and drank greedily, fully aware that drinking too much, too fast, could lead to cramping, but too thirsty to stop myself.

I didn’t cramp up, but a mile later I decided that the pain in my legs merited a one-minute stretch break. I collapsed onto a patch of grass by the sidewalk on Middlesex and stretched out as quickly as I could while Tommy retrieved more water. Once I started running again, I felt halfway decent (all things considered) until I passed the Albright Knox. I wasn’t envisioning a 3:45 finish anymore, but because of the head start I’d given myself with those fast early splits, I calculated that if I could only pull off the rest of my miles in 10 minute pace, I could squeak by in under four hours.

Then I slammed right into the once-mythical wall.

The next half-hour is a blur. My hands shook. My vision was blurry. I was dizzy. My heart was pounding, and not just I’m-running-a-marathon fast but someone-has-a-gun-to-my-head fast. And yet somehow, I wasn’t sweating. If my brain had been fully operational and I had taken the time to familiarize myself with the symptoms of dehydration, I would have known what was happening.

I stopped in the middle of the street and got down on my hands and knees. I picked up and stumbled to the curb. I sat in the shade, got up, and staggered to the next shady spot.

I knew I needed some sugar, and I had a gel pack in my pocket, but I lacked the strength to open it, and the thought of eating any of that warm goo was about as appetizing as the prospect of eating a dead bird (loss of appetite, it turns out, is another symptom of dehydration). Tommy offered me more water, but water was no longer enough. My body had figured out what my brain couldn’t: I needed electrolytes fast. I was thirsty for one thing and one thing only.

“Gatorade,” I rasped.

Tommy disappeared. I was annoyed: I wanted to ask him to go find me a walking stick. I knew there would be Gatorade again at mile 25, but I was not exactly sure I could make it that far without the aid of a tree branch or something to help me keep steady on my feet.

I took another interlude in the five or so square feet of shade under a tree, and I thought about the night before, when my fiancé told me that he was nervous about my race. “I’ll be fine,” I’d said. “I’m going to finish that thing if I have to crawl across the finish line.” I had been joking, but now it looked like crawling might be my only option.

Well, if that’s what it would take, so be it. I pushed myself off the curb and resumed walking. Well, shuffling. Like a drunk person carrying a backpack full of bricks. I wasn’t moving in a straight line, but I was moving forward, and that was what counted.

 Continued: Marathon Virgin Blog, The Wall, Part Two

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