The Unlikely Marathoner – Race Report

Yesterday, at 12:58 p.m., I crossed the finish line at the Chevron Houston Marathon. Looking at these words, it almost still seems unreal. But it happened. I have pictures!

My journey started way before the 26.2 miles. Three years ago, I was not a runner. At all. I went for walks in the evening somewhat frequently, and a couple of times a year, when I wanted to “get in shape”, I would add a little jog into the mix. I can still remember coming home from one of those outings and bragging to Michael, “I ran almost a mile!”

For years I had watched Michael taking on physical challenges, to push his limits, to test himself, to conquer fears and be the best he could be. After his first Ironman finish, I told him, “You really inspire me!” I said it a lot. But that “inspiration” didn’t look like anything much. I decided to step out of my comfort zone. He encouraged me, “You should sign up for the Houston Half.” I remember laughing in his face and saying, “HA! I only run if I am being chased!” I thought of that the next year, as I began training for that Houston Half Marathon. I thought of that as the two of us ran side by side through the finish line of the Houston Half Marathon.

People asked me after that when I would run the full marathon. “I have no desire to run the full! I cannot imagine running for nearly six hours. Good grief. Why would I want to do that???” Still, the thought lingered in my mind. I signed up for the lottery…and was chosen. It was a feeling I can only imagine would compare to those of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. I wasn’t sure if I should cheer or cry. I think I did a little of both.

I signed up for Katy Fit, a running club that had helped me reach my half marathon goal the year before. And I started training. I was religious in my training, in getting my homework runs done, in rolling out my muscles at night, taking my glucosomine. I was really starting to want it, to begin to believe that I really could do it. I told everyone I knew. There would be those early mornings of training, when it was dark and cold and rainy…I would think, “WHY did I tell EVERYONE I am doing this???” Some days that was my only motivator, my pride! But it worked. I ran and ran and ran, logging the miles, preparing for the big day.

Ten days before the race, I became obsessed with the weather forecast. Houston can be tricky. January in Houston is a crap shoot. Sometimes, it is just crap. Shoot. I checked three different websites daily…hourly? I would get excited when the chance of rain was lower on one site. Then it would change on another site. Michael teased me about just wanting something to worry about. He would tell me, “Just worry about  the things you can control.” It was hard. I am kind of bad at that.

Thursday morning, I woke up to a big surprise. Michael had posted affirmations all over the house – on cabinets, on doors, in the bathroom, on the mirror. “I will be strong…I will smile….I will run and enjoy the day….” I read them over and over. I was ready. I knew I was.

I enjoyed the carb-loading on Saturday morning – a great breakfast of pecan waffle, bacon, coffee…we headed to the expo where I picked up my packet and my race bib. I bought my 26.2 mile magnet for my car. We had a wonderful, exciting day! The kids were taken to my mom and dad’s house for the evening and I came home. And the nerves kicked in. Oh. my. goodness. What. have. I .done? I teased Michael, “Can we just go back to the waffle part of the day?” He whistled “The Final Countdown” while I got my stuff in order. My friend Staci called and wished me luck. Her voice and words gave me more courage.

Michael and I watched some recorded shows and I got ready for bed. I didn’t sleep great. I was so anxious. When I opened my eyes at 4:15 a.m. Michael greeted me with, “This is your day!” I gave my feet a little rub and thanked them in advance for carrying me to my glory moment. I also told them in advance I was sorry for what was about to happen to them. And I got out of the bed.

I went to the front door and looked outside. Cold. Drizzly. Dark. Started my breakfast, which was oatmeal, toast with jelly and some coffee. This would be my last meal before the big event. I hoped it would sit well on this day, as it had for many training days.

At the George R. Brown Convention Center, we looked for my Katy Fit crew. I found my half marathon friend from last year, Nan. We hugged and wished each other good luck. Then I found my marathon friends – Lori, Scott, Amanda, Leah, Carol…we would be in this together. Most of us were first-timers to the full.

Michael was great. He had lots of funny things to say, which made all of us feel more at ease. He walked with me to the starting corral. He reminded me to smile and to take it all in and to enjoy it.

The wind was blowing and the rain was picking up as the gun went off. “Welcome to the Jungle” was playing over the loudspeaker. Boy was that right. Michael waved goodbye. I blew him a kiss. And I started running.

The beginning of the Houston Marathon is a big hill. As my group started out up the hill, the rain started pouring. Sheets of cold rain pounded us, soaking our clothes, our shoes and socks. I stepped into a puddle, drenching my left food in cold water. My pants became heavy. And it was cold. “Oh well, at least we don’t have to worry about the weather any more. It is what it is”, I said. Inside I was terrified. I had training runs in the rain. But never this long of a run. What if it rained like this the whole time? “I don’t think I can do this for six hours”, I thought to myself.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to. The rain let up and after about an hour or so, stopped completely. The plan was for Michael to meet up with us on his bike around mile 9. At that point, the halfers would have turned around and we would be able to see each other better. He had filled his backpack with a general store for runners – gatorade, chews, Stinger waffles, salt pills, Tums, Advil, jelly beans, flat Coke, and MORE. Before I saw him, we had stopped for a quick visit to the porta potty. I had used a wet wipe from my belt to wash my hands, and somehow in that process, my three Hammer Gels had fallen out of my belt. This was significantly awful, because I had trained with Hammer Gel and knew the effect it had on my body, particularly, my digestive system. The cardinal rule of long-distance running is, don’t EVER try anything different on race day. Now, what would I do?

My friends offered me things from their own stash. I turned them down. “I will see Michael just ahead. I will wait for him.” Another mile came and went. The clock was screaming at me, “It’s PAST TIME to take in nutrition!” I needed it every 45 minutes. It had turned into an hour. A medical tent was ahead. I yelled to them, “Do you have Hammer Gel?” They did not, but handed me a Stinger Gel. I had tried it once before with good results, so I took it. Around that time, we saw Michael.

“Hey sexy girlfriend!” he said as he approached on his bike. I did not feel sexy at ALL, but appreciated the smile that his greeting brought. “I hope you are talking to me”, I answered teasingly. I told him about the gel and he handed me two from his backpack. I knew I would be OK. I started to feel better, but the whole experience had shaken me quite a bit.

We were approaching mile 13 at this point. People started yelling and cheering to us, “You are halfway there!” I know they meant it encouragingly, but my friends and I agreed, it sounded more like a curse. My legs were telling me, “HALF?????” Most people talk about “hitting the wall” around mile 20. For me it was mile 13. This was when my mental fortitude was tested. I began to think I had made a mistake. The fear began to creep up again, as it had in the beginning. A mother pushing her older child in a wheelchair came alongside me. This mother was running the marathon with her handicapped child. I was humbled. I was embarrassed for doubting myself. My completely healthy self. I spoke some words of encouragement. And I kept going.

I passed a man who had written on his jacket dates that he had served in the Army, dates that he had battled with PTSD, dates marking various health crises that he had faced – heart attack, cancer…here he was, running beside me. I told him what an inspiration he was to me. I thanked him for his service. And I kept going.

Mile after mile we ran. We ran in silence for much of the way. Our training runs had been filled with jokes and frivolity. This day felt different. We just ran, side by side. Every mile, Michael would pop up on his bike. “You are looking strong, Melanie”, he would encourage. I started to feel strong. We passed mile 17 and I began to really gain momentum. We were in the single digits then, and I knew it was possible.

I saw one of our Katy Fit friends, Stephanie, who had trained with us until injury took her out. She came and stood in the cold rain to cheer us on, in the race that she was meant to run as well. I saw my friend Margaret, whose children had made me a poster. I saw my mother, Julia and Zeke, who had stood outside for an hour in the cold waiting to see me for a quick moment. I saw my friend Jennie, her husband Mitch and son Alex. They cheered for me like I was Lance Armstrong. I felt stronger with every familiar face. And Michael. Michael was always there.

At mile 19, my legs were really cramping. Michael gave me a salt pill, which really helped. Mile 20. 21. 22. We were getting closer. My legs were not hurting worse. Once they got to a certain level of hurt, they just hurt the same anyway. Mile 23 I took some jelly beans. Unsure of how they would do in my stomach, I decided just to chew the sugar out of them and spit them out. I had about three handfuls of those. I had some flat Coke. The sugar really helped.

My friend Lori and I were running side by side when we turned the corner onto Allen Parkway. We both got teary as we turned the corner facing the buildings of downtown. “WE ARE DOING THIS!” I said to her. “Yes, we are, girl!” she answered.

Michael took several of my water pods from my belt and told me he would see me at the finish.

And Lori, her husband Scott and I began our last half mile.

Determined not to be doing an ugly cry at the finish line, I wiped away a couple of tears before I got there. It was really a surreal moment for me. After all, I had said just three years before, “I am not a runner!” I tried to make the finish line last as long as possible. I gave high-fives to people in the crowd, lining the way. I waved at my family. I smiled. I loved it.

As they put that medal around my neck, it was the perfect ending to an amazing day. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. And it was totally worth it.

Will I do it again? Well, I have learned to never say never. As of today, I think I will stick with halves. But we will see.

I was excited to share my news with my students today at school. Feeling quite proud of myself, I said to one fifth grader, “I ran the Houston Marathon yesterday!” “Did you win?” he asked. “Well, no, but I never quit!” I answered. “Oh, well, maybe you will win next year”, he answered.

I thought about my finish time of 5:58 and laughed to myself. I thought about telling him it wasn’t about winning, it was about trying and never giving up. Instead I just answered, “Maybe!”

Kids will keep you humble. :-)

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