09 May 2011

This is Not the End, This is Not the Beginning (Race Report for the Shakespeare Marathon)

The marathon is over. My minimum goal was survival. That met, I hoped to finish somewhere around the 4 hour mark. Suffice it to say, I did not finish in 4 hours.


I finished in 3 hours, 37 minutes, and 15 seconds!

Let's rewind...I arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday afternoon. After catching a bite to eat at McKechnie's Cafe, I headed to Henley Street to take the tour of Shakespeare's birthplace. It was a bit awkward walking round this tiny Tudor home carrying my huge duffel race bag, but I enjoyed the visit. I always find it interesting to see how the curators interpret these sites. Having worked at Historic St. Mary's City and gone through the Museum Studies curriculum, I am well-versed in the meticulous planning that goes into site interpretation and exhibit planning. Still, it amuses me when Tudor-era homes, especially smaller ones such as the Shakespeare house, are portrayed as being light and airy. With 5-6 inhabitants living and working (John Shakespeare's glove workshop was located in the home) in that relatively confined space, it would have been anything but. Still, it is easier to promote a nostalgic view of the past as opposed to one that is grimmer and smellier, albeit more accurate.

Shakespeare's birthplace
Historic buildings in the town center
River Avon
Afterward, I checked in to my B&B, located a convenient 5 minutes walk from the town center, and went off to get my hair cut. The prices in London for a standard cut are so high that I have spent the past six months defiantly holding out until I returned to Maryland. However, with the weather getting warmer, it was simply too much to bear and so I caved. Unfortunately, 'take 3 inches off' to me apparently wasn't the same for the hairdresser. The result isn't bad, but not certainly not what I had anticipated. My hair looks nice when it's straightened. Too bad that it is naturally curly and so, once left to its own devices, it immediately bunches up into Shirley Temple-esque ringlets. I feel like a poodle.
It looks good now, but just wait 5 minutes
After a carbo-loading dinner of insalata di pasta at Carluccio's, I spent an hour walking in the countryside along the River Avon. It was pleasant, especially since at some points I was the only person around. It made for a nice change after the hustle and bustle that has dominated by life in London this past year.
I find nothing more enjoyable than walking in the countryside. I guess my aunt was right - I'm just a country girl at heart.
River Avon
The next morning it was off to Anne Hathaway's house, where Shakespeare courted her prior to their marriage. Lovely.

Next stop was the Holy Trinity Church, burial spot of Shakespeare.

Holy Trinity
That night, I met up with Francesca from my cross country team, who was running the marathon (also her first) with her boyfriend's brother. We ate one final carbo-loaded (ugh) dinner at Pizza Express. Not having had pizza in about 2 years, it was marvelous. But perhaps not the wisest pre-race decision I have made. Still, the company was lovely and it helped to set some of my fears at ease regarding the next day.

Race day dawned bright and (not-so) early. Since the race started at 9:30, I was able to have a bit of a lie-in, which was unusual since I am used to heading off to 7AM race starts. It was a nice change. Baggage check was at the finish across the river and before I knew it, it was time to make my way to the start. Marathoners and half marathoners lined up together on Bridge Street and I soon found myself in the middle of 3000 runners. The anticipation was almost palpable as the countdown to the start began. Next thing I knew, the firing gun went off and, 2 minutes later, I was crossing the start mat. First thought? '26.2 miles. Let's rock and roll.' (I think some of the cheesiest things some times.)

Mile 1 around the town center was a bit frustrating as the narrow streets meant that runners were crowded together and there was minimal passing space. To add to my frustration, I began to get a cramp in my side about a half mile in, which is never a particularly welcoming sign when one has 26 miles left to run. Thankfully, by the time the field had thinned some, about mile 3, it had subsided. As we left Stratford-upon-Avon behind and headed towards the 'undulating' landscape of the countryside, I managed to get my pace (and nerves) under control. The scenery was beautiful, although the appearance of some rather prolonged hills was a bit unwelcome, especially since those of us running the full marathon would encounter this part of the course again on the second lap. The nastiest hill came at mile 7 of the first lap. It wasn't terribly steep, but it felt like it went on forever. And it was a bit disheartening to know that however difficult it felt at that point, it would be soo much worse when we came to it again at mile 18. 

I had to stop at mile 15 to use the loo (once again, pizza was not the best idea for a pre-race dinner), but carried on steadily until mile 20. It was at that point that things began to get a bit shaky. Physically, I knew that I could carry on for the remaining 6.2 miles. Psychologically, my mind was like 'Hold up. The furthest you've ever run is 20 miles. Stop now.' As I passed the 20-mile marker, I entered into the mysterious zone that is 'the 6.2' - a realm of the unknown where anything can happen. At 'anything' did. At mile 23, I hit the infamous 'wall'. One second things were going just swell and the next...well...they were most definitely not going at all. My vision blurred and my legs came to a halt after I grabbed a cup at the water station. I downed the water, but was unable to get my body to take another step. It felt as if someone were physically holding me down, and my mind began to panic with the realization that perhaps I had reached my limit.

Looking back, I blame this on inadequate fueling. In my training, I was never able to tolerate the energy gels. (My digestive system, finicky at best, seems to be of the mind that running and eating are two activities that are not to be combined.) I had achieved some success with caffeinated sports jelly beans, but these turned out not to be enough when it came to the actual race. They provided short bursts of energy, but by mile 23 could no longer keep me going. When some people hit the wall, they fear that they will not finish the race. I can't say that I experienced this problem as I knew that I would finish the remaining 3.2 miles even if I had to drag myself along. Still, it took no small amount of pep-talking (and, failing that, cursing) to myself in order to pick up the pace once again. The last 6.2 miles of the race were along the historic tramway path known as the Greenway. It was flat and scenic, but felt like it stretched on forever. With few landmarks to go by, I kept myself motivated by setting attainable interim goals. 'Just get to the next water station or mile marker' became my immediate task. If I felt like I was crashing again when I reached my goal, I would walk for a few seconds before picking the pace up again.

Words cannot express how relieved I was to come to the familiar stretch that I knew marked the remaining half mile. It was the precise path that I had walked after dinner on Friday evening and it was seeing the River Avon that made me fully realize that I had done it. I was going to finish my first marathon. Equally cheering was the fact that as I came to the 26-mile marker, I was cheered on by Francesca, who had finished some ten minutes earlier in a amazingly fast 3:27. This provided me with the last spurt of motivation that I needed and I sprinted (although it can't have been that fast considering how I felt at the time) to the finish. I was crying as the official placed my medal over my neck, partly out of a mixture of pain and relief, and partly because I was in shock at my time. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would do so well. Never.

Afterward, I collapsed on the ground for a while, nursing the bottle of water and banana that I received upon finishing. After I had managed to convince myself that it would not kill me to get up and walk around, I joined Francesca, her boyfriend's brother, and his parents for lunch at a cafe in the town center. Then Francesca and I hopped on the train back to London where it took me roughly an hour (ok...this is a bit of an overstatement, but it felt like it) to hobble my way down the street to where I live.

The one thing I was looking forward to when I came back to London was getting some sleep. I was extremely sore and the idea of passing out for 8 hours seemed particularly appealing. Moreover, I hoped that having run a marathon would have thoroughly exhausted me to the point where I would drift off to sleep (as opposed to enduring my typical insomniac routine of laying in bed for hours before falling asleep). 'You're going to sleep like a log!' everyone told me. No go. Despite getting into bed around 11:30, it took me until nearly 2 to finally fall asleep because my leg muscles never seemed to have gotten the message that the race was over. I woke up at 6:30am and was unable to fall back asleep. I can't say that I felt completely rested...mostly since it felt like my upper body had been hit by a truck. My legs, somewhat surprisingly, felt ok.

Will I ever run another marathon? Had you asked me yesterday as I lay on the ground clutching my aching calves, I would have said no. But now...I am not so sure. I am considering the NCR Trail Marathon in November. It is held in Maryland, which means that my family would be able to come out to support me (if they feel so inclined). (My poor mother is probably at home reading this and going 'WHAT!?!') Still, I reserve the right to change my mind. Who is to say how I will feel in a month or two? After all, the marathon is like a relationship. Marathon training is similar to the dating period - most of the time (say 85% or so) it is enjoyable, 10% of the time it is neutral, and 5% of the time is rather unpleasant. The marathon itself is like the breakup - a painful experience where you feel like you are walking through hell and back. Immediately afterward, you swear never to do it again. But as time passes, the mind forgets the pain, nostalgia sets in, and you begin to consider trying it again.

Ok...so who wants to sign up for an ultra-marathon with me? Badwater here I come! (I kid, Mum! I kid!)

For your viewing pleasure: This is in no way indicative of my marathon experience, but it is absolutely hilarious.

The Final Countdown (in the style of Europe): 

2...exams left to sit
8...days left before I move back to MD
29...days until I sit the Foreign Service Test (for the 2nd time) at CCBC (I am hoping that Catonsville will be a friendlier test site than Howard Univ. was. I arrived at the test a bloody mess after being shoved down an escalator and completely freaked out the examiner. Hoping not to repeat this situation.)
40...articles left to read in preparation for exams
3500...miles left to traverse before I arrive at home
countless...pre-exam freak outs left to be had

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