After months of training, it’s finally Marathon Day for Jess. Will her body cooperate for 26 miles to the finish line?
At my last physiotherapy session I talked with my physiotherapist (PT) about the marathon and what my goal was. “I just want to finish it,” I told her. She understood, being a runner herself, that there was no way I wasn’t going to at least give it a try. We did one last little bit of work on my leg and hip, and she taped me up and got me ready the best she could. A little pep talk and a reminder to stand up straight, suck in my stomach and squeeze my butt. That ended up being my mantra as I ran.
The kids and I headed for Vancouver on Friday afternoon. We spent the day with my family and my dad took us all out to dinner. It felt like a celebration and, in a way, it was. With kids and life and a ferry ride between us I don’t get to see my family as often as I would like. With seven kids between us all when we all get together it always feels like a party.
When we got home from dinner, we sat down and discussed the plans for the morning. What was I going to do? I had said in many places that I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, though in my heart I never gave up hope, and my silly head was playing miracle videos of me crossing the finish line in under four hours. Stupid head. I decided that at the four mile mark I would decide if I was going to attempt the whole thing. My family had their first stop around the seven mile mark so they would know if I wasn’t there by 9 am I was done. Why four miles? The fourth mile is always the hardest for me. The first two miles are for warming up and shaking out any cobwebs; the third mile is where I know if any aches and pains are getting worse or dissipating; and the fourth mile is where my cardio catches up and syncs with my legs. When I start mile five I usually feel amazing.
My brother picked me up at 5:45 in the morning and we had a great time driving downtown. My brother has been running for 25 years. He’s done dozens of marathons and half-marathons. He’s fast and smart and almost always injury free. He gave me lots of good advice and I realized how much I’ve missed him all these years and how happy I am that running has given us something to come back together for.
When we got to the Expo area we parted ways so that we could both go through our little rituals. I lined up for the Porta-Potties right away. The line was so long that when I finished I drank my bottle of water and lined up again. Fastest hour ever. As soon as I got out the second time I went to the start line and placed myself at the 4:15 pace bunny.
The first four miles were a blur. We wound our way around parts of Vancouver I didn’t recognize at all. I actually had no idea where we were. I just concentrated on my body and my form. Stand up straight, suck in your stomach, relax your shoulders and neck, squeeze your butt. Everything I could do to engage my core and take as much of the burden as possible off my hip flexor. Things felt okay. As I approached the 5k timing mat I glanced down at my watch and saw I was going at a nice pace, around 27 minutes. For the next few minutes, as I approached four mile mark, I did an inventory of my body: I was running without a limp as far as I could tell and my pain was about a three to four out of 10. Cardiovascular-wise everything felt fine. I knew I was more than fit enough to do this. Onwards.
As I passed the 10k mat (58ish minutes) I started looking around for familiar faces. We were passing through the Downtown Eastside and it was a strange dichotomy; running past prostitutes, homeless people and other people in generally poor circumstances made me feel very privileged to be running through their neighbourhoods. There were very few spectators along this part of the route. As I came into Gastown I saw my family on the side of the road. I veered over towards them and told them it was going well and I would see them at our next planned meeting place. As I ran away I felt bad that I hadn’t stopped and kissed them all, but I was at that point where I couldn’t stop. It was time to just keep moving. As we went into Stanley Park I started feeling a little fatigued and the pain was inching up slightly. I decided to go for the half-way mark and reassess then. I kept going over in my head what I really wanted. I wanted to finish, but I didn’t want to cause some major injury that would sideline me for months. I wanted to finish.
The park was very difficult for me. There were almost no spectators and the pack had spread out enough that I was pretty much on my own. As I went through a water station I was discouraged and angry to see they were out of cups. I scanned the ground to see if I could find a discarded one, but there were none. One of the volunteers just poured water in my mouth. (I had decided not to wear my fuel belt because it is big and clunky and I knew there were lots of water stations on the course.) I hit the half-way mark at 1:58ish and decided to keep going because even if I did stop, there was no way anybody would be able to come and get me. We went through the second water station in the park and again it was empty. I started to panic and said, “You mean there is no water for the rest of the course?” I kept going, but I felt my chest fill up with emotion to the point where I had to stop and grab it and force myself to calm down so I could breathe. I’ve never had that feeling before. I spent the next mile or so alternately weeping and feeling hopeless.
As we turned the corner out of the park, there was a Saucony cheer team and one of the volunteers saw me and shouted out my name and then ran along with me for a bit, encouraging me and telling me I could do it. It was all I needed. A short while later I saw my family again. It was around mile 16. I headed straight for them, pulled out my ear buds and hugged them all, fighting back more tears. I told them I was struggling a bit, but was pretty sure I could finish. I also told them about the water and they pointed just up the road and said, “There is water right there! Go, Babe!” As I ran away from them I got that same filled-up heavy feeling in my chest and I had to stop again for a moment to hold my chest and let the emotion out. More tears. I walked through the water station and had two cups of water and a cup of Gatorade. Then, I did something I’ve never done in a race — I used the washroom.
I headed back out and right away I saw my oldest daughter, my sister and my mom. It was around 18 miles. They were all crying. I gave my daughter a huge hug, told them all I felt good and I’d see them at the finish line. As I ran away I looked back and saw my daughter running after me, waving. Nothing can describe the huge emotions I was feeling at that point, all magnified by exhaustion and pain.
The next and last part of the run was an “out and back” over the Burrard Street Bridge. In the middle of the bridge I got a cramp in my side and stopped for a moment to stretch – it was at exactly that moment that the elite runners passed on the other side of the bridge on their home stretch. Inspiring and amazing. I cheered for them all. The woman who was in first place had the most joyous smile on her face; it perked me up to get going again. Shortly after that stop on the bridge everything started hurting more and more. By mile 19 I was having to stop and walk every few minutes. I tried stretching, I tried changing my stride, I even tried a limping run. It just kept getting worse. The pain was becoming intense with both the impact and the lifting of my right leg. As I passed the 30k mat I started arguing with myself about what to do. Stop, keep trying to run or walk the rest of the way? At mile 20 I knew there was only 10k to go. I calculated how long it would take me to walk that far. As I was limping along, the 4:15 pace bunny went past and then the 4:30. I was discouraged and angry. I was so close. At 20.76 miles and three hours and 27 minutes I spotted some volunteers and walked off the course.
I asked them for a phone and they didn’t have one. A man close by saw what was happening and handed me his. I had tears streaming down my face as I dialed the number. I couldn’t even speak for a moment and then managed to say where I was. I sat alone for a few moments on a street corner a block away from the sounds of the race and had a big cry. I thought about all the people I was letting down, all the time I had dedicated to this, how close I had come. It was a hard few moments. And then my family came and swooped me away.
Photo courtesy Jess Howard
Parts of this article were previously published May 5, 2011 on http://www.hopebomb.com