By Jamey Kitchens
People say your first marathon is always the hardest. I'd have to disagree.
My first marathon only involved diarrhea, severe sunburn, back spasms and a pinched nerve in my neck so painful I walked around for a week with my head cocked to the side like some lanky, curious dog. My second 26.2-miler I managed a separated shoulder, a mild concussion, and a broken left femur compound-style. On my third marathon I met my first ex-wife. But, back to the first one.
San Diego is a beautiful city, it really is, but the fact that the San Diego. Marathon actually takes place in Carlsbad is a blessing from God Almighty. The day was one of those perfect Southern California days you see on picture postcards: Clear skies, palm trees and the Pacific Ocean, rolling hills, lush vegetation, and people so damn nice and supportive you almost wanna’ slap 'em. If I could run my first marathon all over again, I'd make sure it was in San Diego.
Not having the courage to run it myself, I recruited my buddy Andrew to run
it with me. Turned out his brother had just finished the Boston Marathon,
so, as the younger of the two, he had something to prove. Ten minutes before start time, Andrew asked, "You think we should hit the Port-o-Potties? I'd hate to have to pee within the first mile." The three cups of coffee and pint of Gatorade pressing on my bladder seemed to agree with him, so off we went. Good thing too. As soon as I locked that plastic door I felt an unfortunate "rumble in the Bronx." Must've been nerves. Two quick minutes later I stepped out into the sun feeling like a million bucks, and ready to take on the course. The race began on a stretch of road adjacent to the ocean, and there were a dozen wetsuit-clad surfers catching waves on the smooth left-to-rights breaking 100 yards away.
"Look at that," Andrew said, pointing at the waves. "Dolphins."
I looked off to my left, and sure enough, two Bottlenose dolphins were gliding side-by-side on the face of a wave, mere feet in front of a guy cruising on a longboard. Bobbing their snouts up and down to keep up with the break, they seemed to be having as much fun as the other surfers. I almost forgot I still had 25-plus miles to go.
I'd been fighting a sinus infection a week before the race, so I'd paid a visit to my doctor to get it worked out. I didn't want to try to finish a marathon sick. I knew the race would be hard enough even if I was healthy.
"What's your best time?" he asked, holding a tongue depressor, looking into my mouth.
"Ih hye hurh uh." Hard to manage consonants with a piece of wood in your mouth.
He took it out, and I said, "It's my first one. Most I did while training was 18 miles."
"I wouldn't worry," he replied. "If you can run ten miles okay, the other
16 isn't that big a deal."
I remembered this exchange as I grabbed a pack of Goo and a cup of water at the ten- mile marker and hoped he knew what he was talking about. Up the road I spied a few friends that had driven down from Los Angeles to cheer me and Andrew on.
The sun was beginning to warm everything up, and the t-shirt I was wearing felt like an old wool quilt draped over my back, so I pulled it over my head and tossed it to my pals.
"Make sure I get that back!" I panted. "It's not a souvenir!" Sixteen miles to go without any sunscreen. It was a decision I'd regret later that night, lying face-down on my hotel bed, my back slathered in aloe vera.
Either Andrew found a sixth gear around mile 16, or I was starting to slow, it was hard to tell. But at mile 18 I was feeling good, plugging away, drawing near a long, slightly uphill stretch that ended at a turnaround. The LA crew had found me again, and I even hammed it up a bit for a few "action" photos and some conversation.
"You look great!" Becki exclaimed.
"You're my friend (pant pant), Becki. (Pant pant). And you're a horrible liar."
"How do you feel?" Mike asked.
"I feel like I've just run 18 miles (pant pant)," I shot back. "But not bad, considering!"
Three miles later I was panting like crazy, my feet were numb, my head was swimming, and I was seriously trying to understand what the hell I was doing. It's commonly called, "Hitting the Wall," but it felt more like I'd hit the wall and was standing in front of a firing squad. I hung my head and just kept plugging. I figured if I could just keep my feet moving forward I'd either finish the race eventually or die trying. At that moment, death seemed likely.
Should I quit? I thought. The thought had probably crossed countless minds before me, and I'm sure some of them had quit. It was an option, but I just didn't know if I could live with myself if I did. Yeah, it was just a race. Nothing invested but an entry fee and a few months of training. But there was more to it than that. I'd promised I would see the whole thing through, all 26.2 miles, and while running 21 consecutive miles was something to feel good about, I just didn't know how I'd feel if I stopped.
What I did know was that most of the miles were behind me. I'd pushed and plodded and humped 21 miles so far, and if I could do that, maybe I could manage a few more. My legs were still moving, so I just looked at my feet and let them do their thing.
A few sluggish steps later I could hear music wafting toward me from a couple lounging in plastic Adirondack chairs ten yards ahead. As I grew closer they clapped and shouted out words of encouragement. I managed a smile. A weak one, sure, but it was a smile. Their kind words weren't what brought it on, though. It was the song. One of my favorites from the latest Son Volt album. Looking to my right and widening my smile at the couple, I chuckled to myself, held my head up high and suddenly everything felt better at that song, and those words:
From different levels, just pieces together. Never had a fall that didn't burn with laughter
Livin’ it down. Just enough time to revel...
Four miles ‘till the finish and the shot in the arm that song gave me was just about to subside. I knew I was close, but now I had back spasms adding to the pain throbbing in my legs and feet. I stopped a few times and bent over to grab my ankles and stretch. It eased the hurt in my lower back, but then I noticed my legs starting to tighten. Good trade, I thought. But I could finish the race with a little back pain; I'd never get across that line with fence posts for legs. And just then I got another welcome anodyne. It came from another runner slogging steadily past me. I looked up as he passed, but I couldn't see his face. It was lost in the glare of the sun.
"It's only a 5K now," he said.
Only a 5K now...And he was right. I was just past mile 23. Only a 5K.. 3.1 measly miles. I could run a 5K in my sleep. I could run a 5K underwater. I could run a 5K on the moon. I could run a 5K with both legs tied behind my back. I popped up and broke into a run, a quick run, much quicker than I'd been running before. And then I ran faster. I passed my mysterious cheerleader with a rush, shot him a look over my right shoulder, and nodded "Thanks. That was just what I needed." When I checked my time later for that last 3 miles, I'd somehow managed three consecutive seven- minute miles to the finish.
Coming up on the finish line, I was surprised at the noise. There seemed to be a thousand people hanging out, waiting for every last runner to cross. I'd taken nearly 6 tiresome hours to finish my first marathon, but still, onlookers and fellow racers had stuck around to clap and cheer and scream for every last one of us. I've never used this word before, but it was heartwarming, and it made me feel like they were all there for me. Thirty yards before the finish line, I spotted the loudest of the crowd, all my friends who'd driven down for support. Andrew was there—he'd finished 30 minutes before me—and he looked pale and spent, but happy. I knew how he felt.
I crossed the line, grabbed my "Finisher" medal, and set off to meet up with my crew.
Mike handed me a can of Guinness. "Thought you might need this. 'Carb replenishment.” I cracked it open, took a long pull from it, and strode off to have my ceremonial picture taken atop a makeshift podium by a marathon photographer. Looking at that picture now, I remember how hard that day was, how taxing, and how painful. I can see it in my posture, in my feeble legs, and I can see it on my weary, sweaty face. But I also remember feeling proud, or the closest thing to pride I'd ever remembered feeling in my life. It felt good, and it feels good, remembering that day.
I also remember that particular Guinness being the best pint of beer I'd ever had in my life.