I wake up before the alarm at 4 am, nervous. The unjudging softness of Zubu and Kiho calms and distracts. Oatmeal and coffee with soy milk. It’s still dark when I leave the apartment and bike to the shuttle. I arrive just as my coworker Dan, also an aspiring first-timer, joins the line, a happy surprise. We chat to quell our nerves and my queasiness as the yellow bus hauls us like schoolchildren along the interstate to Frenchtown.
Chill air, predawn, last minute Port-a-Potties, stretching and milling about. Chaotic, jittery energy like a crowd before the band comes onstage. The national anthem pipes in, so I put my hands together and close my eyes and pray instead: May peace prevail on earth. We herd behind the starting line, the countdown, a cannon boom, fireworks. 1200 humans wearing paper numbers applaud, shout in gladness and lurch into motion.
The first daylight breathes into the atmosphere. We are on a plain, mountains rippling on every horizon, cloaked in morning mist, crossing railroad tracks toward the old factory. Quiet except for footfalls as runners fan out in a lengthening snake, absorbed in movement. May peace prevail on earth repeats and repeats. The sky and land are open and clear, with plenty of space to echo it.
I take this gently, gently, because I want to avoid the crippling stab of pain that cut off my last run three weeks ago. I haven’t run more than a handful of miles a week since. It was far too early to taper. Yesterday the PT guy raised his eyebrows and said my run ought to be “interesting,” but that I could safely run the last miles at a seven out of ten on the pain scale if I had to. “But if it’s not fun… just hop a ride, y’know?” The guy at the Y said he figured I’d hit a wall at mile 20 or so. But what do they know? As little as I do. Still, now that I am moving, the nerves are gone. The questions are still there–will I do it? what will happen?–but it is one step at a time and the questions are satisfied with each tiny yes.
I visualize the early air as a cold pack for fragile knees. I remind myself to enjoy no-pain while it lasts. I run lightly, unhurriedly, past the five-hour pacer and the 4:45 pacer. I promise not to pass the 4:30 pacer too soon, if ever. I decide to be wholly positive. The day dawns beautiful, sun dripping down the mountains, coloring the rocks and trees, and it is precious to be alive and flowing. I feel taken care of by the warming dome of world.
Three, four, five miles and still barely a twinge. Six, seven– one quarter done already! I imagine my physical state as a percentage: 98% pain free. 97%. 98% again. Gratitude. Disbelief. J. has the Reillys praying for my legs. I prayed only for a spiritual experience, a learning experience, a peace experience, not results. The sun shines full now, and we pass aid stations of shouting volunteers holding paper cups of water and energy drink. I start popping energy gummies every mile, though I am not depleted yet. Cloying sweetness in my teeth, a personal IV drip of preventative fuel.
At mile nine we turn toward low mountains, cross the powerful, broad Clark Fork for the first time, birds diving below the bridge, and head for shade and the race’s one hill. A slow climb, and I steel myself, realizing that the only fear remaining is of not getting up and over this hill without my illiotibial band snapping into disharmony. Stay on the flat surface, one step at a time, use those big quads, those hamstrings, those arms. No pounding. 13.3 miles and the climb begins. Et voila, it is nothing! Up like a ski lift. A cowboy on a horse welcomes us to Montana, tipping his ten-gallon hat with pride. I begin passing people. A swarm of encouragers in Viking hats and togas bellows us onward. Loners park their cars and their dogs by the course and watch us roll by. Couples watch from lawn chairs in driveways as if we were television. I smile and clap and cheer the people clapping and cheering us. When I pass a boombox, I run dancing, to thank people for the tunes.
In no time we are at the plateau, the river sparkling below. The sun’s heat brings salt from skins. Descending, we join the half-marathoners at mile 16. 98%. Still amazed, grateful, strong. A man in a tuxedo plays beautiful music on a grand piano he has pulled to the edge of the course, alongside the singing river. I nearly cry from music and sun and trees and being a drop in a mighty stream of runners. “Bravo!” I shout. “Brava!” he replies.
We cross the one-lane bridge. Now comes the long flat stretch before town. Natural beauty gives way to blander neighborhoods. I use the length to pass and persevere. My toes twinge, then subside. Can it be? 18, 19, now farther than I have ever run. 97, 96, 98%. We cross Reserve Street and the streets are full of people. Nearly to the final five miles. I am sick of gummies, it is getting hot, and Mile 22 seems unusually long, but all this passes. Time is telescoping. We turn away from the finish line for a final loop south, extra blocks tacked on to round out the mileage, but nothing but positivity is in my body. I run through sprinklers, put my hands in the air. People shout that I look happy for being this far in, steady, springy. I pass some people limping, walking, belabored. They are so close. They must make it…
At Mile 24 I call J. on the cell phone I’ve been carrying, still running, and tell him I’ll see him at 4th and Higgins in twenty minutes. Can’t wait. At Mile 25 I find energy yet unspent, and decide to sprint. Running hard, the joy of throwing caution to the wind, letting everything go, we’re so close. My knees hurt, and I let them. I pass up drinks and quit the gummies, vowing never to consume one again.
Am I ready to be done? Yes… but how did this happen so fast, so easily? No time for reflection: here is the final turn, and J. on the corner. “I love you, J.!” I shout. He shouts back, and tears squeeze from my eyes as I round the turn and sprint over the bridge. The arch of balloons in view. May peace prevail on earth! One last push and the magnetic tag around my shoelace beeps over the finish line. 4 hours, 31 minutes. A woman puts a medal around my neck and I stumble to the photo booth, then to the shade tent. Food sounds unappealing, but I slurp on a triangle of watermelon. The crush of stinky, exultant runners, crowds and lines, swallows me up. I am dazed, stretching, bug-eyed from lack of sleep, exultant, disbelieving, proud, grateful, glad.
There was no wall to hit, no significant pain to overcome. It was pure joy. I was tired, so at times it seemed unreal, condensed. The emotions are slow to absorb. Did I really just do that, run 26.2 miles without stopping? At last I make my way back to the bike parked by the shuttle ages ago, coast home and fall into a chair, kiss my love, put my feet up and ice my knees. It’s done and it was all wonderful, and I will never do it again.