Two months ago, when I got snowed/iced out of running the half marathon I had trained for, I started looking at some spring training goals to get me through the rest of the winter. There are a number of reliably well-designed half marathons in the Pacific Northwest in April; it is one of the few months of the year here where you are more or less guaranteed mild weather conditions. I reached out to a good friend who is also an avid runner and walker and we started looking at some possibilities for a spring race. We went back and forth on schedules, pros and cons of different areas, and finally settled on Whidbey Island Marathon. Marathon, not Half-Marathon. Initially, the plan was to devise a run-walk interval approach, attempting to finish before the 6-hour cut-off. We found on a long run a few weeks before the race, however, that breaking up running with long periods of walking (for example, running three miles and walking one) expended energy in such a way that it really damaged overall stamina and energy. So we regrouped, aiming to frontload at least 16 miles of running followed by some combination of running and walking. To be honest, on marathon morning as we shuttled in the early dawn to Pass Lake, I still wasn’t quite sure how I was going to tackle the course. I had some plans sketched out, but I was also improvising.
The first mile of the marathon took us across Deception Pass Bridge. If you haven’t been to Western Washington before and you ever end up here, rent a car, drive up the freeway to Burlington, and take Highway 20 through to Whidbey Island. You will not be disappointed. This bridge to the island is incredible, and the promise of this experience was enough to push us over the line to sign up for the full marathon rather than the half. It was a magical way to start, but it was also challenging in that the big ticket view was over and done with at the beginning of the race, and now more than 25 miles stretched out ahead of us. I felt slightly overwhelmed, even in the first three miles, as I came to terms with what I was doing. The night before, I enjoyed a warm, cozy, bed all to myself in an Airbnb with all of the amenities. I took a good long look at the slick road ahead, including all those hills, and dug in for a good long ride.
I struggle to think of a single flat mile. Most of the race could be described as “rolling hills” although there were some larger hills every 2 miles or so that forced us to walk some brief intervals from the get-go. I think the hills, in some way, helped us achieve a run/walk balance that was more natural and forgiving within the broader context of a 26 mile run. At first, I focused on getting to the 10K mark, because I knew that would be about a quarter of the way in, and I would feel much warmer than I did at the beginning. Miles 6-13 were relatively uneventful. I kept up with Nuun, and either ate a bit of trail mix or some electrolyte slop about every hour. When we got to the half marathon mark, it was both thrilling and punishing; halfway there, but also… time to run another 13.1 miles. At this point, I found it helpful to start thinking about meeting smaller goals to keep myself going. The first objective I focused on was getting to the 16 mile marker. My friend and I had recently run 16 miles together, so I knew we could get there and might feel better if we experienced passing the mile marker. After a brief hail storm at 16, I started thinking about 18. If we could get to 18, that would only leave 8 miles, or a medium-length run on any normal day of the week.
Several minutes later, we reached the 18 mile marker. At this point, we were needing different things to complete the race. I was already fixated on seeing mile 20, because I wanted to get down to a 10K or less of running remaining. My friend’s IT band was irritated and she very smartly decided to ramp up her ratio of walking. My legs and hips were feeling very tired, but I was more concerned about the peripheral “wall” sensations I was starting to feel… the slow creep of hopelessness, cold extremities, and the overwhelming exhaustion of being spent. I was worried that if I did not keep running, I would not keep moving. So, we parted ways, I put in my earbud for the first time on the run, turned up some Doobie Brothers, and decided to run as much as I could to the finish.
When I passed Mile 20, I thought I would be home free, but the marathon had other plans to make me work harder for my relief. A huge hill before the Mile 21 marker nearly caused me to sit on the shoulder and start crying. Feeling alone and discouraged, I started thinking about all the other people who were in my heart and what they would want me to do. I took out my phone and sent my best friend, now living across the country, a picture of the hill. I reflected on the feelings of love I have, for her, for my family, for my friend a mile or so behind me on the course. I started to imagine the love I had for the other runners on the course, these other strangers who set aside their lives, their jobs, their kids and families this weekend to pile into a musty shuttle and run from one county to another. I thought about the volunteers, high school track athletes, probably, or scouts with their parents huddled in camping chairs in the rain and cold from before the light of dawn until well after lunch. So many people around me were making the choice to give something of themselves that day, and losing myself in that meditation, I felt compelled to match their generosity and finish. It seemed that I unlocked something through this introspection, as the course itself curved gently downhill for most of the final 4 miles, and I was able to run the rest with very little disturbance or struggle.
When I saw the finish line and the 4:45 pacer, I was overwhelmed with relief and also so incredibly proud of myself. Six years ago, I fought with every last cell of my body to get across the finish line in more than five and a half hours. On Sunday, I was able to run and finish a marathon in 4:44. I hold this as evidence of a few things. My running practice has become a much deeper part of my life in the past six years. I initially ran a marathon in 2013 as a type of capstone experience for my new (and probably temporary) running hobby. I had no idea that running would become such a central theme in my story. I also have learned, proven, and internalized that I can do hard things. From raising children to writing and defending a dissertation, I’ve strengthened my capacity for grit. I have more effective mental tools to support my persistence. The last thing is a little out there, but 4:44 has a lot of significance in my family as that is the time when we received a phone call from the hospital, many years ago, that my grandmother was hit by a car. Whether it is the trickery of my frontal lobe (most likely) or indeed a message from the spiritual realm (a stretch, perhaps), I certainly formed a new and positive association with this number, and I think my Nana would be delighted to know it.
Overall, Whidbey Island Marathon provided me with challenge, catharsis, and realization. The course was absolutely beautiful, and I found the quiet and low-frills/no-crowds environment of the race to be exactly what I needed to turn inward and do heart work simultaneously with foot work. Something tells me it won’t be six years before I run another marathon.