The big day

This is Part Two of marathon drama. Read the set-up here!

On Saturday my parents came from Kansas City to pick me up for the race. I waffled on the issue of whether or not I would run until it was too late to cancel the hotel room, so I figured we might as well have a good time in St. Louis while waiting for Wolverine’s healing factor to kick in at the last minute. Also, how could I let down these tiny faces?

After checking into the hotel and picking up my race packet, I was pleased to note my bib number: 1312. One thing I’m helpless to change about myself is my enslavement to a laundry list of arbitrary superstitions. There are far too many to list here, but most important are the numbers: evens are good, odds are evil. “12” is as lucky as it gets: I was born on 12/12, and the number has come up again and again for me in situations requiring good fortune, to the extent that I have a homemade tattoo on my ankle of the roman numeral XII. “13” is simply vile, but as my mom noted, the bib number STARTS WITH “13” (and the bad luck of getting injured), and ENDS WITH “12,” self-evidently the numerical symbol of personal triumph. Good call, mom!

MCCCXII

As I went to sleep on Saturday night, I was still in a lot of pain, which only added to my general anxiety. Chief among my neuroses: inexplicable terror that I would crap my pants while on the course. I don’t know how this particular fear rose to such prominence in my catalog of running nightmares, but at some point it overtook “razor-wire decapitation” to become my number-one source of concern. I woke at 3:00 a.m. to ensure I had plenty of time to obviate any potential crises. Then I sat in the bathroom for an hour, muttering “Evacuate all personnel” in the Star Trek computer voice — probably the nerdiest thing I’ve ever said aloud that wasn’t in Klingon. Mission. Complete. Computer off.

Shifty at 4 a.m.

After nearly three hours of nervously shifting about and wishing more people woke in the middle of the night to play their Facebook Scrabble turns, my mom and I walked to the start of the race. It was still dark outside, but the temperature was already in the mid-fifties. As I lined up with the growing crowd, it occurred to me for the first time that signing up for a marathon when you’ve never even run a 5k might be a questionable order of operations. Why didn’t I experiment with the idea of running a 10k or a half-marathon first? And why didn’t I look at the course before the race? Everyone around me was GPSing their heart rate while discussing the projected topography of this year’s route. I felt woefully unprepared, except in terms of my race-day threads — brand-new gifts from the greatest mom around. Smartwool socks, shorts with a zippered pocket at the back for my inhaler, and some manner of “performance” top billed to be the latest in “moisture transport.” If all else failed, I could at least transport all my moisture onto the faces of my enemies.

Find the Goofus in this line-up of Gallants.

Then, without audible fanfare, we were off. It took a good five minutes to actually start moving, and another two or three to start jogging. I’d barely walked since incurring the wrath of the soccer gods, so running initially felt like a second language that I hadn’t spoken in awhile. It was easy to keep moving, though, swept up in the energy of the sportswear-clad throng. If one could but harness our collective wicking power, the ebbs and flows of the Earth’s tides might be altered.

Runnin' at the ol' Arch

Cheering spectators lined the roads, and I heard a lot of people screaming my name. “Damn, this Caitlin dude has a lot of friends,” was my spiteful reaction for a shamefully long amount of time until I realized that people were reading the names off the bibs and cheering for runners they didn’t know. It took me two hours to realize that people were cheering for ME, at which point I entered a corridor of enthusiastic high-fivers. Cheers, good people of St. Louis!

This was only my second visit to the Gateway City, so I’m not actually sure about our precise course. I do know that we ran past a bag-piping gentleman, through the Anheuser-Busch factory, then mysteriously back to where we started at around mile 6. I saw the aforementioned greatest mom in the crowd and gave her a thumbs-up that I was going to keep running. I think she thought I might split off early if the going got too tough, which was never really a consideration once these Smartwool-encased feet hit the pavement.

My chest hurt a lot at first, then faded into a dull ache so long as I kept my breathing really shallow. Without the excitement of the crowd and the other runners, I might have thought about it more, but after awhile it just became one more challenge. Another uphill. Another degree on the heat index. I noticed that others seemed to be up against a lot worse. From the first mile on, people walked up the hills, peeled off to bolt for the toilets, or stopped to stretch a cramped muscle. Sometimes they caught up later, sometimes I never saw them again. My goal was to only stop if absolutely necessary, in case it was too hard to get going again.

Every other mile, water and Gatorade were being offered. I carried my water bottle with me in order to avoid the congestion of early water stops, but I still got tangled up in the commotion and had to hopscotch through the sea of discarded cups. At mile 8 or so, kind volunteers dangled vanilla Hammer gels in front of the runners. I grabbed one of those, sucked down about a quarter of it then fumbled the rest onto the ground. It was like eating the straight icing from a Toaster Strudel packet. Sorry Hammer, but I think I’ll hold out for my Gu sponsorship.

At mile 10, the half-marathoners split off to the left, and the relayers and marathoners split off to the right. It seemed like nearly three-fourths of the runners went left, totally changing the dynamic of the run. No more cheering spectators and chatty cell-phone runners — suddenly, I was surrounded by silence.

Need I remind you of my steely determination?

For some reason, when I start to experience any sort of emotion while running, my breathing gets quick and labored, which then feeds into a panicky asthma attack. This is why I had to stop listing to This American Life during long runs – too many cancer memoirs, and too many little guys defying the odds. The problem with running a marathon is you’re SURROUNDED BY TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT. The course is lousy with cancer survivors and little guys defying the odds – it’s like a 26.2-mile Trail of Happy Tears. Don’t make eye contact with me, old man running with blind daughter, I need emotional stasis to breathe! I tried to distract myself from all the tender feelings and human-interest narratives by thinking about Marvel Universe continuity. Then I mentally prepared a semiotics PowerPoint and cataloged my collection of “______ walks into a bar” jokes. Under no circumstance would I allow myself to think about tiny supportive faces peering from behind “Let’s Go Aunt Cait” signs!

We did a loop through Forest Park, then up a long hill to downtown Clayton. Many weary soldiers stopped to walk as the temperature rose above 70 degrees. “Heat” and “hills” are all pretty relative. I heard a lot of people complaining about the heat and the steepness of the course after the race, but it was actually a lot flatter than I expected, and a lot flatter than where I trained. The heat didn’t really bother me either. By the time it got hot enough to be an issue, I was having so many breathing problems that I was no longer accepting applications from external challenges.

They say you should treat Mile 20 as the marathon’s halfway point. As someone who generally resents conventional wisdom, I didn’t want to believe that all my training only prepared me to run the first HALF of the marathon. Unfortunately, in this case, ‘They’ happen to be right. Mile 20 was when the brutality ensued. My chest pain decided to assert itself, the increasing volume of the crowd began to threaten my tenuous emotional stasis, and suddenly it was nigh impossible to breathe. I stopped at mile 23 to use my inhaler, then plodded on with my head down. “I’m really going to do it,” I kept thinking, which would cue up a chorus of shallow wheezes. “No, this is stupid – who cares – Hey, I wonder if The Dazzler was ever a member of X-Factor?” I wrestled for control of my psyche for the last three miles like Jean Grey fighting the cosmic entity controlling her body in the Dark Phoenix Saga.

When I crossed the finish line, I was wheezing audibly and my chest was throbbing. Someone put a medal on me and shoved a bagel into my hand. I expected it to feel anti-climactic, so it didn’t. It felt like a big deal.

I'm kind of a big deal in America.

I sat there with my inhaler in one hand, pushing a bagel into my aching rib with the other. My body was covered in a thick white sheen, like someone had dusted me with butter and dipped me into a tray of pretzel salt. As my breathing started to even out, I realized I had shattered the family curse: I finished the race without a trip to the ER. When my mom ran her first and only marathon back in ’86, she was transported from the finish line directly to the hospital with a bad case of hypothermia. Growing up, I was instilled with a fear of hypothermia the way most kids are instilled with a fear of strangers in white vans. Hypothermia could snatch you up at any moment, whisking you away to an arctic world of babbling incoherency. It could be 60 degrees outside, and hypothermia could still capture you in icy fingers of peril.

My parents appeared, and I allowed myself to think about the “Let’s Go Aunt Cait!” signs for the first time. Then, I ate the bagel and considered which marathon I would run next. My time, 4:17, wasn’t even close to my intended goal of 4:00. Next time I could do it better. Next time I would hide in a soccer-ball repelling forcefield for the duration of my training program.

In the meantime, it’s time to take a break from running. Thanks to everyone who donated to AidsWalk (it’s not too late), and everyone who otherwise supported me. I’m feeling a little lost right now about what I should do next. Live in the dorms next year? Rally for synchronized swimming to replace conventional swimming in the triathlon? If you have any suggestions of what I should blog about next, please leave them in the comments!

Also, if you’re one of the literally hundreds of people compelled to read my accounts after innocently googling “adult goldendoodle,” please accept my sincere apologies for the paucity of doodle coverage. Here, how’s this?

It's me again!