Never before has a race left such a mark on my body. I can’t wear running shoes because of the huge, grotesque blister that formed on one of my toes, despite them being the same shoes I have worn for all my training runs. I’m afraid to wear sandals because people will undoubtedly be grossed out by that huge, grotesque blister.
I didn’t notice it during the race, in fact not until I took my shoes off and changed my clothes, but I must have subconsciously changed my running stride to compensate because the whole left side of my body feels like it doesn’t work. The twinges start in my hip and travel down to my knee and my foot. As I traipsed through Marseille today in search of the Swiss embassy and my work permit, I swear I could hear a clicking in my knee.
That’s in addition, of course, to the dull ache and fatigue that is ever-present in both my legs – quads, hamstrings, calves, the little muscles around the knees.
I have never chafed from my sports bra before, but the top of my ribcage is raw on both sides, as is one shoulder from a strap. No shirt is comfortable.
And with my fat thighs, I know better than to ever wear running shorts on a long run. I had worn spandex shorts instead, so there were no seams to rub back and forth until they make the skin bleed. But for the first time ever, even these gave me minor chafing on one leg. Another raw spot.
I’m sunburned and that night my contact lenses were plastered to my eyes; I had to dig repeatedly to get them out. Lack of oxygen going in and out for too many minutes I guess.
Commensurate to its aftereffects, running a marathon takes a bit more preparation than many athletic endeavors. This relates not just to the months and weeks leading up to the big day, when you ought to be putting in the miles, fast on some days and slow on others. It also applied to the weekend of the race itself. You have to eat right, get enough sleep, show up on time, and have a plan for eating and drinking during the race.
Preparing for my first marathon was challenging in any number of ways. There was a brief period where I was really optimistic about how my training was going – I loved running and was putting in more miles than I ever had in my life! It was exciting. I didn’t stop loving training, but as my masters project got more and more out of control, I had less and less time to run. I thought that 68-mile week was a jumping-off point. In fact, I never returned to that mileage again. Nor, for the most part, did I complete the tempo runs and threshold workouts I had penciled into my datebook.
Spurred on by my friend Lynn (thank you, thank you, thank you Lynn!), I tried hard to be more serious in the last ten days before the marathon. I did two good workouts and not much volume besides that, and I made sure to go to bed early. But still, I did not feel good. In fact, my legs felt heavy and sluggish, and running felt worse than ever. My pace was slowing down, too.
Then, the weekend was upon me. I woke up early on Saturday to catch the train to Bordeaux, where I rented a car. I drove to the race site to pick up my number and do a quick fifteen-minute jog. It felt terrible, and seeing all these marathon enthusiasts made me feel decidedly fat. I had no doubt that it was a great venue and location and could be a lot of fun, but I felt like everything I had done up to this point had been wrong. I had done the wrong things at the wrong time, and it was going to be a disaster.
Plus, there was the specter of running a marathon completely unsupported. The other people I saw picking up their numbers had girlfriends or husbands to help them out, who would walk or bike from point to point on the course to cheer them on and hand them food and sports drink.
I’ve done a lot of minimally-supported ski racing, but I think this might was only the first or second race I went to completely alone, not knowing a soul. Plus, I speak French, but not that well and not when people talk fast. It was disorienting and a little scary. As I picked up my number, a roving race organizer with a microphone wandered over and started interviewing me about why I had picked this marathon and what time I was shooting for. I bumbled my way through in French, struggling to even answer the questions in my head – what time was I shooting for? I had told myself only to finish under four hours, but now that seemed hard to imagine.
The organizer took my uncertain answer as an indication that I hadn’t understood the question, so I had to repeat myself. I hope to finish under four hours. J’espère.
That first day it took me forever to fall asleep at night, thinking about what was to come. (Also, there were weird noises in my hotel, sort of like a gun, or some construction nailgun… even now, I have no idea what they were, but I spent about 45 minutes planning how I could escape out the window onto the roof if needed.)
Then race morning rolled around and everything was magic again.
* * *
There’s something about a race that still gets to me after all these years. I guess that means that I’m definitely not done with sports yet, not done being an athlete even though I’m technically not one – I’m a student, a worker, an adult. I really have no business doing well in races. But competing so infrequently means that when it does happen these days, it’s like the excitement and adrenaline and atmosphere flips a switch in my brain and my whole worldview changes.
I didn’t feel sluggish that morning. I felt excited and above all curious. I returned to the finish line where I had picked up my number; the field that they had been haying the day before, carting off huge round bales on a flatbed trailer behind a tractor, had been marked off into a parking area. Somehow, that made me feel at home. I dressed, stashed some gummies in a pouch secured by Velcro and one pack down my sports bra (I’d eat those first), and joined the procession of runners who were walking the 1500 meters from one chateau to the next for the start.
And what a start it was. I immediately knew I had done a good job picking my first marathon. We lined up many-deep on the narrow dirt driveway to the chateau, about halfway down. The whole thing must have been almost half a mile long, and was lined with plane trees on either side. Overhead, from wires strung between the two rows of trees, the flags of the various countries represented in the race were fluttering in the breeze. It felt epic and somehow honorable, even though it was just a silly running race.
I put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack to start so I wouldn’t get too carried away. We set off, very slowly at first as the pack gained momentum and people began passing and working their way to the front. I just relaxed, slowly moving just a bit faster. I had no idea what pace to go. I just pretended I was out on an easy run, and went that pace. The only time I checked my watch was at 10 k. It said 51:30. That seemed fast, but I felt fine. If anything, I felt like I could go faster. I decided to hold to my original plan of ignoring my watch from that point out.
I had been yo-yoing with two men in bright green running shirts, and so I fell in behind them. We ran together for the next seven or eight kilometers; sometimes they would go almost too fast for me, but other times, usually right after a feed station (of which there were, thankfully for the solo runners like me, many, almost every three or four kilometers), they would slow down and I would take the lead. Finally, they talked to me. I almost didn’t realize it at first because it was still in French.
“How many times have you done something like this?” one of them asked.
“This if my first marathon,” I said.
“Wow,” they both said.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
“Well, you have a very good pace,” the first one said, skeptical and obviously surprised I was going so fast.
“I’m a cross country skier,” I replied. “I’ve done some ski marathons before, but that’s different.”
Yes, it’s different, they agreed.
“We’re running at about 3:40 pace,” the second one said, still incredulous. “If you keep running with us, that’s where you’ll finish. 3:40.”
Gosh, that seemed fast. Okay.
* * *
By the time we reached the halfway point, one of the green shirt men was getting tired. He actually didn’t even notice the sign that said “21 kilometers,” and then told his buddy that he had to slow down. I stayed with them at first. We had also passed the point where the “duo” runners, who each run 20 kilometers and then the last two together, tagged off. So a few fast, fresh runners were flying by us.
Some of the duo runners were going a reasonable pace, though. It was hard to remember, since they had just started and I had already run so far, but they were still running a half marathon, which is pretty darn long and requires good pacing. Without really noticing it, I left the green shirted men behind and fell in with a few of the new duo runners, again all men in middle age. The pace felt fine, but we were passing people. That’s always a great motivator and boost.
For the next 20 kilometers, I ran entirely with one tall man with tall compression socks. Eventually we started talking a little bit. He was as surprised as the others had been that this was my first marathon, and offered me lots of valuable tips. At one point he said to “garder un peu” because the last part of the course was hilly and I would need it later (he was right). At another point he told me I should come back and do the Marathon de Medoc, because there was more wine and more chateaux.
More than anything, he was a great leader. He’d give hand signals when the course turned or there was a pothole in the road. With ten kilometers to go, he said, “this is where it gets difficult.” And, exactly as I knew it would, it sure did. Sometimes I would fall off the pace and he would look back and motion with his hands or say, “allez!” Get up here!
Up until this point, I had eaten a gummy every seven kilometers. A college teammate had once used that strategy with gels in a ski marathon (by that calculation, moving much slower on foot, I should have been eating more in all likelihood). But when the 35 kilometer mark rolled around, I could barely force myself to put anything in my mouth. I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want anything. I felt sick. I forced myself to eat half of one, knowing that I needed any extra energy I could get, but it almost made me throw up. I tossed the rest on the side of the road (bad etiquette) in disgust.
We were still passing people – maybe even passing more than we had before – but he was getting tired too. I could hear that his breathing was even more labored than mine. Sometimes I’d get a fresh wind and take over the lead, feeling like I was finally doing something helpful for the tall guy who had made it so easy to simply follow his pace and his footsteps. It had taken a lot of thinking out of the act of running, and I was incredibly grateful.
Just as he had said, about four kilometers from the finish, the course went up a big hill. Note: it wasn’t really that big. Maybe like the stretch of Highbridge Road from the mailboxes to my house. But the whole course had been more or less flat, and this seemed really hard. I struggled and fell far enough behind that my leader stopped looking back.
At the top of the hill, though, after a chateau and a feed station, I looked up down the road and saw undeniable woman shorts and woman hair. My competitive instincts kicked in. I must catch her. I thought of that last ski race I did in Sweden, where I didn’t realize I was in second place and had let someone get away. I doubted I was in second place, but I certainly wasn’t going to give up. I found it in me somehow to pick up the pace and, in the process of reeling her in, found my friend again.
But as I passed the woman, she looked me right in the face and I got nervous that she wasn’t going to give up easily. I had to drop her like it was serious. So I kept pushing even though it was incredibly hard and incredibly painful. I didn’t want to walk, but I wanted to slow down. I reminded myself: beat her. She’s right there, beat her. And, that guy – you’ve been running with him for almost 20 kilometers, you can run with him for another fifteen minutes for sure. Just stop being a wuss and do it.
Going up the last big hill, a little over two kilometers from the finish – about the size of the one before – I saw another woman. She was obviously flagging. I passed her.
At this point, I was just counting down the meters. Your mind practically shuts off. The last 20 minutes of the race are compressed in a strange way – they took forever, but I can also barely remember them happening. I passed the 40 kilometer mark. Then the 41 kilometer mark, where the first-leg duo members were waiting for their partners and cheering for everyone else. “Allez la fille!” some of them shouted. I grimaced. It was another hill.
Finally I could see the chateau where I knew the finish lay. I’ve heard that it’s rude or unsportsmanlike to kick it in at the end of a citizen’s race, but I tried to empty all the remaining energy out of my body. It wasn’t hard to do. People were cheering so I had a little extra adrenaline to spare. After I crossed the finish line and had my timing chip removed, I was handed a congratulatory bottle of wine and sat down in the grass.
It was over.
* * *
It had been so fun, even the hard part. And it kept being fun. After managing to choke down a small piece of a sandwich and immediately draining three bottles of water, I wandered over to the results board and saw my time: 3:30:00. I laughed to myself that it was so exact; someone trying for a goal time of three and a half hours could never have run it right on the dot. A funny coincidence.
But more than that, I was amazed I had negative-splitted the race, run a decent time considering all of my misgivings about my training and preparation, and managed to be the sixth women across the line.
(For an actual marathoner, that’s not a very fast time. But based on my training record this spring, that should have been definitely impossible to put together 26 eight-minute miles, and I’m really, really happy to have run that fast. I have no business doing so, and I think it was due less to my training than to the many years of practice I have digging deep. I probably wasn’t in any less pain than anyone else, the difference was simply that I kept pushing the pace at the end anyway.)
After changing my clothes, wiping the sweat off my body, and discovering my disgusting blister, I headed for the big tent where the organizers were serving up a meal for racers. It had cost I think ten Euros on the registration form. This turned out to be a good investment: I finally had my appetite back and chowed down on the tabouli, bread and cheese and salami, a huge, dripping, delicious steak, and some of the better “frites” I’ve had in France. For dessert, a slice of apple galette, and there was a glass of sweet Sauternes wine to go along with the whole thing. Only in France is this a post-marathon meal and only at a marathon does it cost so little.
Looking back, it was an amazing experience. It went better than I really ever could have hoped. I didn’t die in the last six miles; I never walked; I never wanted to quit. That’s all sort of incredible. I really had my head in the game the whole time, which is the most important thing to me at this point. Sometimes I can space out or give up, but I didn’t do either of those things. And mostly, it was fun!
Given my bad training record, it’s easy to imagine how much faster I could be if I took this seriously. But I don’t want to. I think it was so fun because it was an adventure, one where I was just out to see what happened. Chasing times would make it too stressful. Maybe I’ll do another one sometime, but it will be hard to compete with the atmosphere in Sauternes, and I know I’ll never be a career marathoner. Just an occasional tourist.