November in Richmond, Virginia is a great time of year for a marathon, and our city’s award-winning sports organization knows that. The day started out chilly, but nothing that a few disposable garments couldn't handle. The sun shone freely, adding to the celebratory air.
By arriving in downtown Richmond at 6 AM, parking wasn’t a problem. The James Center welcomed early arrivals for the day’s events – 8k, half marathon, and marathon runners – and I hunkered down there with some other Sports Backers Marathon Training Team (MTT) members.
That’s another thing Sports Backers does right. The race training teams not only provide an avenue for guided training and supportive coaches, they nurture camaraderie that carries over, even for an introvert like me. It was totally amazing to be able to hang out with friendly, familiar faces before a race, people I hadn’t known just a few months before. From the James Center, we stopped on the capitol steps for a group picture, sauntered towards the starting line, stopped at the port-a-johns, dropped off bags at the bag check, found our waves, and waited.
And we were off! I ran my first seven miles with familiar faces from the training team till just past the Huguenot Bridge. That first leg was energizing. I realized later that those first miles are largely up hill – after all, Virginia is largely a big east to west slope, from the ocean to the foothills to the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, the crowds, team members, and morning energy camouflaged the gradual climb.
I had two goals in this my first marathon. My ultimate goal was to beat four hours. After all, I’d run two 1:50 half marathons and my 20-mile training runs put me at the necessary pace for achieving such a goal. However, I knew that getting to race day without injury, then finishing 26.2 miles in one day, were noble goals, too.
I stayed with my pace group till the Huguenot Bridge. We parted ways at about the same time as we passed the juggler, a runner who had been juggling three balls for seven miles straight. As we wound through the Cherokee neighborhoods and along the James River, the pace group picked up and I held steady. Spectators continued to cheer along the way, to add to the day’s excitement. Every child holding out his or her hand for a high five afforded me a chance to smile and focus my attention outside of myself. Other runners provided diversions, too. One gentleman I passed, who appeared to be in his 70s, was wearing a T-shirt that said, “A marathon in 50 states,” with a note added underneath: “Two times.” I also passed two men wearing ultramarathon T-shirts, dated only the previous weekend. For them, they said, the Richmond Marathon was merely their recovery run. Soon enough, they passed me.
As I wound through the Cherokee neighborhood, I was still feeling be good. Although my initial pace crew had pulled ahead, I saw on my Garmin that my pace was still good. There were plenty of hills in the neighborhood, and I could feel them slowing me down, mile by mile. We hit Forest Hill, and I was beginning to slow down, though I still felt fairly good. When I passed the half marathon mark, I was just under two hours, so I was technically on track for a four-hour marathon. But as I neared Crossroads Coffee, where my daughter Rachel was to meet me with fresh bottles of Accelerade, I could definitely feel myself slowing down. Espresso Excel Gel perked me up, as did seeing my daughter and her friends, and I kept on going.
Sixteen miles. I was beginning to fade. I had a bit of a second wind, yet I was feeling the distance while still feeling optimistic. It was that two-mile, gradual uphill grade of Main Street to Boulevard that really began to bite. Though they say the wall comes at mile 20, the uphill and the bridge just before the Diamond presented me with my personal wall around mile 19. My calves were shouting epithets, wondering why I was putting them in such misery.
It was then that I stopped looking at my pace. I do push myself, and my finishing times on previous races reflect that, but I reached the point where pushing meant finishing.
I also gave up on a goal that I’d never before breached – not to walk during a race. After the water stops at miles 21, 22, and 23, I walked for a block or even two. At mile 24, I realized that walking felt no better than a slow jog. For the next mile, I settled into a zone and an easy, though still painful, pace. By 25, I could pick up my pace and push ahead.
I finished at 4:16. Not a bad first marathon for a 52-year-old woman.
After walking off most of the calf pain, I managed to enjoy the post-race festivities on Brown’s Island, to share congratulations with teammates, and to spend time with supportive friends. I enjoyed the fact of finishing, and didn’t berate myself for not achieving a sub-four race.
I’ve since pondered what I could do to avoid the wall and improve my time. And since answering such questions requires trying again, I’ve signed up for another marathon. The Shamrock in Virginia Beach will give me another chance, without the challenge of the hills. With the help of the Richmond Roadrunners Spring Marathon Training Group, I hope to better my time and avoid another agonizing wall.