Hey there! Where was I? Oh yes, that’s right! I was at mile 13 of the Richmond Marathon, thinking about how there are much, much easier ways to find out that 78 degrees is actually a lot hotter than it sounds.
(You can find part one here.)
At the halfway point of the race it was already glaringly obvious that the morning wasn’t going the way I thought it would. I expected it would be hard, I just didn’t think it would be hard this early. I’m no mathematician, but if you start to tank at mile 11 of a 26-mile race, that means you have a really, really long way to run feeling terrible.
That’s the best way to sum up what was going on in my mind. I was trying to figure out how I was going to complete the distance to the finish line feeling as terrible as I did. I already felt like I couldn’t make it another step, and I knew I had more than two hours of running left.
But mostly? It all felt surreal. I had done SO MUCH WORK solely to ensure that this did not happen. I went to bed early, experimented with gels and hydration, and ran over 800 miles in training so this would not happen. But it was happening. And there was nothing I could do about it but keep running.
Mile 15 takes us to the Lee Bridge, a famously difficult mile of the Richmond Marathon because it’s exposed and windy. I was actually looking forward to this mile because I hoped against hope that maybe the wind would give us some relief from the heat.
We got to the bridge, and there was no wind. I’d heard stories of gusts over this bridge so strong that runners have been knocked off their feet. But on a day when I was desperate for the mere flutter of a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere over the Pacific, the air was completely still.
Instead of a breeze, we found MTT coach Elliott Rose. Elliott is not a breeze, but he IS a joy, an inspiration, and just a great guy who we ran many training miles with. He saw us, locked eyes with us, and told us he was going to get us across the bridge.
I assumed he meant he was going to put us in a wagon of ice and pull us across the bridge, but! Alas! He meant he was going to be our hype squad and run with us.
Elliott told us what we already knew, but needed to be reminded: it was an extremely hot day. Almost everyone was having a tough time. Stay hydrated, take sodium, and finish this dang race that you trained so hard for.
Starting with Elliott at mile 15, we were never unsupported again, not for one step of the race.
I’m going to pause for a moment and sit with the enormity of that. For an entire 12 miles, not even including the miles Joanna ran with us, Cabell and I weren’t alone. Counting Joanna’s miles, we ran 19 miles of a 26 mile race alongside friends. Add on to that the many, many friends and family who lined the course to cheer for us. It’s a huge deal that I find hard to put into words. Running is a famously boring, individual, isolating sport. Perhaps that’s why it means so much to run surrounded by the scaffolding of so many people.
Below: One of Cabell’s co-workers jumped into the race at mile 20-something to give us some encouragement.
Cabell and I crossed the bridge, and just as Elliott turned back to continue ferrying runners, we saw Pete waiting for us on his bike.
PETE!!! We’re so happy to see you! Pete! Give us your bike! Put me on the handlebars! Or at least tell me it’s going to get easier.
Allow me to introduce Pete — Pete is a seasoned marathoner who we did a good portion of our training with before he got sidelined with injury. Pete had told us he’d be waiting at mile 16, but we had absolutely no idea how badly we’d need him. Pete had committed to essentially crewing us on the back half of the race. There was a time I imagined crewing would look mostly like hanging out! Chatting! Making us laugh! Aaaaahhahah! How innocent I was back then!
Instead, the best way I can describe Pete’s role was that of a doula. I never had a doula, so this was what I imagine having one would be like. He was constant and steady when everything felt impossible and out of control. He reminded us of the things we needed to do to be successful and cross the finish line, and also safe and not hit the pavement. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were many, many times I was glad Pete was there because if I collapsed, I knew someone was there to help me. Take a drink of water, take in some fuel, some salt. Pete told us to dump cups of water on our heads to help stay cool and when to cross the street to find shade. Pete told us, calmly and confidently, at least 1 million times, to keep our eyes up and keep going.
Pete did NOT tell us it was going to get easier. But he DID tell us that we could do it. Eyes up, one foot in front of the other. Keep moving forward.
It’s a good thing we saw Pete when we did, because around mile 16 I glanced at my watch, and for some reason I thought I was at mile 18. When I saw that I was only at mile 16 I had my first real mental blow. I had to mentally add two miles back to the race, and even though two miles hadn’t actually been added to the race, good luck explaining that to me.
Right as I was starting to panic with the reality that mile 18 became mile 16, Tom texted Cabell to tell her he’d be waiting at mile 18. This gave me a desperate jolt of energy and I picked up my pace just a bit.
I wish that rush of adrenaline lasted, and that I ran the remaining 8 miles with renewed energy, but it evaporated as quickly as it came. Tom was waiting on his bike and when I saw him I wanted to collapse and cry. I felt like I’d failed him. He’d done so much to support me in the training, and here I was barely able to run at mile 18. Tom, of course, had nothing but encouragement and support. He offered me water, and told me that every runner on the course was melting.
(If you watch this video you will be tempted to believe you’re watching two happy runners on a pleasant morning. Don’t be deceived! Video is a liar! But you can see Pete on the right, riding his bike in a white hat.)
This might be a weird thing to say after all this complaining, but my body felt fine. I mean, it felt like my blood had been drained and my legs had been filled with lead. But I didn’t have a sudden sharp pain in my knee or unrelenting side stitches that you hear about people dealing with in races. It was just so, so, so hot.
I knew I needed to change my mindset; I KNEW this was a mind over matter situation, and I tried really, really hard to pump myself up. I kept telling myself, LOOK AT YOU! YOU ARE DOING THIS THING! This thing you’ve been terrified of for nearly three decades!?! You’re DOING it!
I took inspiration from Calum Neff who told Keira D’Amato when she was running the Houston Marathon, “This is what it feels like to break the American record.” Even though I was well over two hours past the American record, the sentiment remains — this is what it feels like to do something really hard. Marathons are hard! Do not be surprised that you are having to work for this finish line.
At one point Pete, who was trying to encourage us by telling us that a lot of people were struggling, told us that this was the second hottest race day on record. “People will be talking about this for YEARS!” he said.
That gave me a little pep — he was right! We’re participating in something historically awful! That’s way better than something that’s just everyday run-of-the-mill awful!
No matter what I tried, though, nothing really pulled me out of the hole I was in. Cabell and I weren’t really talking, she was struggling just as much as me. I’ve never really been a mentally tough runner, and the marathon really exposed that weakness.
Cabell and I had kept our plan of walking the water stops, but at mile 20 the water stops came every mile, and Cabell realized that for her stopping and starting was harder than just slogging through. I, on the other hand, still needed the walk breaks. For the first time in the race, this staggered our paces and our doulas split — Tom stuck with me and Pete went with Cabell.
Right before mile 20 I was running up a hill and Tom said something encouraging, and I suddenly became preoccupied with the idea that he didn’t believe I was really trying. I created an inner monologue in which he was saying, “Why isn’t she working harder? Why doesn’t she just run faster?”
In response to this imaginary conversation, I snapped at Tom, “MY HEART RATE IS 173!”
That showed him!
Tom is used to this sort of thing from me, and without skipping a beat he said, “Ok, you’re doing awesome. Do you need water?”
What. A. Jerk.
Tom rode alongside me and slowly but surely we ticked away the distance. This sounds easy but have you ever tried to ride a bike at the pace of your heat-exhausted, ? It’s even harder than it sounds.
Tom had a lot of free time, riding at the pace of his heat-exhausted, water-logged wife who only stops complaining in order to beg Jesus to send a teeny cloud, and somewhere along the course he remembered how much I love fanfare. That’s when he started riding his bike ahead of me and telling people on the sidelines, “My wife is coming! Her name is Amanda! Cheer for Amanda!”
Half the time people would look back at him with confused stares, but the other half of the time, a group would ERUPT with cheers for me.
I loved it, but I was too tired to respond. I couldn’t wave or high-five like I did at mile four. I was really, really struggling. I was truly concerned that I might pass out. Tom couldn’t do anything about the race conditions, but he did the one thing he knew I’d love most — he made a spectacle in my honor. It was awesome, and such a sweet gesture that writing it now is almost bringing me to tears.
Around mile 22 I ran past my family. Most of my kids still had the flu, and it took an astounding amount of logistics and magic to get all the kids taken care of and allow Tom to be on the bike AND have a cheering squad.
Starting around mile 20, spectators had been shouting that we were “almost done.” Maybe there’s a universe in which that’s true, but not the marathon universe. For me six miles is about an hour of running, and for EVERYONE, six miles is a lot of miles.
The other thing I kept hearing was “YOU’RE A MARATHONER!!!!”
Again, I get the sentiment, but I kept thinking…not yet! I was running a marathon, but I was not yet a marathoner. Plus, I genuinely didn’t think I was going to finish. I never considered quitting, but finishing seemed impossible, too.
I was drinking two cups of water, one salt packet, and one cup of Nuun at each mile. I’d never taken in that much fluid in any race or run, and I’d never before needed salt. I drank pickle juice, Coca-Cola, and dumped at least one cup of water on my head at each aid station. I’d done a decent job of sticking into my fueling plan, but at mile 20 I felt a strong wave of nausea after taking in a Gu. It felt so bad that I decided I was done with fuel. I’d rather deal with the effects of under-fueling than throwing up.
Around mile 23 or 24 — neither of us can remember — Pete showed up beside me and told me that Cabell was coming up behind me. We’d been plodding on separately for a few miles, but when I heard she was nearby I suddenly felt like a mom who lost her 3-year old at Disney. I started frantically looking for her, worried that I’d miss seeing her. The problem was that I didn’t have the energy to turn my head from side to side, so I became a terrible combination of frantic to find her and panicked that I didn’t have the motor skills to find her.
Finally, Cabell entered my periphery and — I can’t remember if I actually grabbed her hand, but in my memory I grabbed her hand — we were running side by side again. I started crying because I just felt so happy; back in lock-step just like I’d always imagined. I went from feeling alone and beat down to feeling whole and beat down. Whole is a lot better.
We ran the remaining miles together. Cabell disagrees with this, but I could tell she was feeling better than me. She was chatting, and more upbeat. I wish I’d drawn energy from her, but NOPE! This story never changes! From mile 11 on there are no upturns, not even when I reunited with Cabell, not when she was making jokes about how horrible she felt, not when more friends jumped in to run with us, and not even at mile 25 when we turn onto Grace Street and the road turns into a tunnel of spectators screaming and cheering. Not even then.
As we went, we saw more and more carnage on the course. There were people in the middle of the street getting IVs, and people laying on the side of the road. I later learned that emergency services in Richmond were overwhelmed with over 300 more calls than normal on race morning.
Just before mile 26, the course turns right to the finish line, and Pete and Tom yelled a final encouragement, and Cabell and I were alone. I don’t remember what Cabell and I talked about, but in my memory we were quiet and focused on what we needed to do. One foot in front of the other. Are we really about to finish? All we had to do was will our bodies forward for the remaining .2 miles of the race.
The finish of the Richmond Marathon is the same as the half marathon; I’ve run it many, many times, and I know that “downhill finish” is pretty steep. Gravity helped us pick up the pace and with every single step I worried that my quad wouldn’t be able to hold me. If I hit the ground, there was no way I could get up and finish. These are the positive thoughts of a person about to finish their first-ever marathon.
But that didn’t happen. My quad didn’t fail me in the last .2, I didn’t combust from heat exhaustion at mile 13, and I didn’t crumble from dehydration at mile 20.
Hand in hand with Cabell, we found the last bit of energy to raise our arms in triumph and smile and we did the thing that spectators and coaches and Tom and Pete had been telling us we could do for 26.2 miles — we finished the marathon.
Photo credit: backlight photography
We were slower than we ever imagined, and was harder than any cautionary tale had warned, but we did it. 4:43.Marathoners.
We stumbled through the finish line, and Pete and Tom found us right at the end of the chute. They ushered us to a shady spot and gave us pizza and 32 oz. Gatorades and tried to talk us into eating something. After resting in the shade, Tom left to get the car and we hobbled along the sidewalk to meet him.
When I got home, I had 212 text messages, a sunburn, and even after all those cups of water and giant Gatorade, I didn’t pee until 5 p.m. More importantly, Thomas fever had a 103 fever. So I took a shower and got in bed with him. He napped on me and as far as he was concerned, the race had never happened.
For weeks (months!) after the race, I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to debrief, commiserate, complain, and mostly I wanted permission for having a bad race. You had a bad race too? Ok, then it’s fine that I had a bad race.
It’s funny because in some ways I don’t feel like I accomplished anything at all. But I also feel like I accomplished a lot. My marathon experience comes with a lot of disclaimers and explainers. When anyone asks how it went or — the million dollar question — will I do it again? My answers come with so many qualifiers. Maybe I would, but it was so hard, we had a bad experience, training was hard for my family’s schedule, maybe when the kids are older…
A few days after the race, Pete told Cabell and me that he was most impressed that we never once mentioned quitting. He thought he was going to have to convince us to not quit, but in all the walking and feet shuffling and watching the miles tick by slower and slower, we never voiced a doubt about finishing.
He was right, and I didn’t even realize it until he pointed it out. I wanted it to be over, I wanted to stop, but the idea of quitting literally never crossed my mind.
I have a hard time accepting compliments when people remark on the achievement of the race. I hedge or explain that Tom is the real runner between the two of us…But perhaps I need to change that. Perhaps the not-quitting is the achievement.
The narrative I tell myself about my running is that I’m not tough. I don’t have natural speed or extraordinary endurance. I’m not a remarkable runner; I’m just a mom who likes to run.
But perhaps that’s a compliment that I can’t shrug off — when it got really really hard, I didn’t quit. That’s something to be proud of.