No, not the New York Marathon. That one was cancelled. Remember? But I didn’t want my training to go to waste. So I signed up for the 9 1/2th Potomac River Run Marathon, a tiny race that no one has ever heard of.
The marathon was set for November 18, so Soren and I drove down to DC on the 17th and met up with friends for a big pasta dinner. The next morning I woke up at 5:30 am and choked down an enormous bowl of oatmeal. Carb loading is the one benefit of marathoning, but I can assure you no one wants oatmeal at 5:30 am. As I was getting ready, I somehow managed to fling one sock into the toilet. Drying the sock made us late, and Soren and I arrived at the start in Carderock, Maryland, mere minutes before the race was set to start.
I barely had time to toss my fleece at Soren and join the small pack at the start line. I was wearing roughly what I had planned to wear for the New York marathon, including a shirt with my name displayed in big black letters across my chest. That may fly in New York where cheering crowds line the streets, but Maryland marathoners opt for more discrete attire. I was the only Potomac River Runner in the pack wearing my name. I felt like a complete idiot. Somewhere in the distance, the Star Spangled Banner began to play. The race director yelled for silence. Then we were off.
I picked this race, in part, because it follows the C&O Canal, a waterway that I wrote about in 2010.
Running alongside the Potomac River, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal wends its way from Washington, D.C., to the Appalachian Mountains in Western Maryland. In the late 1800s, this 184-mile manmade waterway served as a conduit for freight boats carrying heavy loads of coal, lumber, and grain. Today it’s the centerpiece of a 19,000-acre national park.
I’d written the story without having ever set eyes on the place, and I pictured a bucolic scene — a pretty little stream alongside a packed dirt road lined with mossy trees. Mostly I was right. The path is pretty. As the sun broke through the morning fog, the reds and golds of the fall foliage positively glowed.
What I didn’t realize when I signed up for the marathon was that the course is a tortuous out-and-back and out-and-back, meaning I ran that same stretch of dirt road four times.
The first out-and-back I admired the scenery and cheered for the runners who had already reached the turnaround. The second out-and-back I kept my head down, cursing the pebbly path for being uneven, the trees for all looking the same, and virtual coach Hal Higdon for failing to prepare me for the torture that is long-distance running. Mostly I cursed myself for having the idiot idea to run a marathon. Even Soren got an earful when he failed to produce the Chocolate Dipped Coconut Luna Bar I’d been fantasizing about. I grudgingly took Nutz Over Chocolate, but I hated every bite. See how unhappy my face is? I’m saying, “This is NOT the right one!”
On the upside, the trail was blessedly flat. And the weather couldn’t have been better — a balmy 50 degrees.
Still, by the time I hit the final four miles, I was wrecked. The route was devoid of mile markers or landmarks so I had no idea how many miles were left. My slow running became interspersed with long stretches of fast walking. Somewhere around mile 24, I began to sob uncontrollably. It was dark days, my friends. Dark indeed.
Finally I saw a friendly face, a Team in Training coach who had been cheering for me earlier in the race. “You’re about 15 seconds from being able to see the finish line,” he said. Such beautiful words. I sped up, crossed the finish line, grabbed my medal, and burst into tears. Notice a trend?
We were neck and neck for most of the race, but he pulled away at the end and finished a full 15 minutes ahead of me. And then he waited around so he could give me my medal. How sweet is that?
Eventually I hobbled to the car and we headed back to Soren’s dad’s apartment so I could shower and recuperate. A couple of hours later I was feeling well enough to stuff my face with Bolivian food. (There are so many Bolivians in Arlington, some people call it Little Cochabamba). We went to Tutto Bene, a Bolivian restaurant that masquerades as an Italian restaurant. Salteñas!!
After dinner, Soren and I drove back to Brooklyn. Then he pried me from the car and helped me hobble up the stairs. It took me a week to recover, but I’m already thinking about a second marathon. I still want to race New York City. The marathon organizers haven’t yet decided how to handle the cancellation. At this point, I think it’s safe to assume the race won’t be rescheduled, but no one knows if this year’s participants will get guaranteed entry to next year’s race. I hope so. ‘Cause next year I’ll be in it to win it. And by ‘win it’ I mean not cry.
Thank you to everyone who donated and sent encouraging emails. Thanks to my DC friends to came out on Saturday to help me carbo load, and a huge thanks to the awesome people who showed up on Sunday to see me race (especially Henry and Charlotte, who made a really a cool sign). You rock.
Of course, the biggest thank you of all goes to this guy. He may not accompany me on my early morning runs (or afternoon runs, or evening runs), but he is an amazing one-man support team nonetheless.