Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Race Report: Raleigh Rock 'n' Roll Marathon

Before I delve into the narcissistic recollection of my second marathon, I will start this blog entry by recognizing that two of my fellow runners died while attempting to complete the Raleigh Rock 'n' Roll Marathon on Sunday, April 13, 2014. Both were competing in the half marathon, both were men in their 30s. I wish I could say that I am surprised; that I didn't think to myself, "Man, it is really hot and this course is really hard. I hope that no one dies today." But I did think that, somewhere around mile 18 as I struggled and watched almost everyone around me struggling too. I was horrified to learn that my thought was prophetic. While I remain thankful that both Teresa and I finished the race on our feet and ok, my thoughts are with the families of those runners.


To say that I was an anxious mess in the days and weeks leading up to my second marathon is an understatement. I felt woefully under-prepared, my SI joint continued to wreak havoc on me, and my left foot (the previously-broken one) started to bother me so much in the week leading up to the race that I was convinced that the foot was going to break mid-race. So convinced, in fact, that I got my crutches out of the attic and asked Husband to put them in the backseat of my car when I wasn't looking so that I would know they were there but would never have to lay eyes on them. I also made a panicked phone call to BFF Steve on Friday, who talked me off the ledge and told me to just run the race. I'm pretty sure that he thinks I am 100% certifiable now.

Add to this list of grievances the weather forecast - a low of 58, high of 81, under sunny skies. Sounds like a picture perfect spring Sunday if you're going to sit on a porch and sip tea or maybe take a nice leisurely hike, but not if you're going to run a marathon. Especially if you're going to run a marathon after having trained in the polar vortex for the past 4 months and therefore have no conditioning for running in warm weather.

Then there were the myriad smaller worries: T had strained a muscle in her quad and was really concerned she wouldn't be able to finish the full; the entire East Coast was under siege from the Pollen Vortex; we'd heard that the course was really hilly and difficult; and this was the inaugural Rock 'n' Roll event in Raleigh, which of course can lead to all kinds of shenanigans.

Thanks to all of these factors, I already knew that Raleigh was not going to be PR for me - and that was fine. Truly, all I wanted to do was finish under my own power and without the need of medical attention for heat exhaustion or broken limbs.

We arrived in Raleigh on Saturday afternoon around 2:30 pm and parked at our hotel, which also happened to be attached to the convention center where the race expo was taking place. Staying at the host hotel was, without a doubt, the smartest thing we did this past weekend. Not only did it make packet pick up painless (for once), we were able to basically roll out of bed on Sunday morning and be at the start after a 5 minute walk, then go straight through the finish area and get back to our room almost instantaneously after the race.

Greeting in our hotel lobby

Despite a lot of scary language and rules posted about switching corrals on the Rock 'n' Roll website, I was able to switch to T's corral (she was in 4, I was in 7) without a hint of hassle. Half of the expo was taken over by the Brooks set up, the other half hosted far fewer exhibitors that I expected. Personally, I hate expos and usually spend as little time at them as possible, but T likes to window shop so I think she was disappointed. We did end up purchasing Flip Belts, which are hands down the best race belt ever invented. If you don't have one, get one now. It does NOT bounce at all and you really do forget that you were wearing it.

We also tried on Hokas, which I still say are absolutely ridiculous. To each his own, I suppose.

After the expo we went about getting drunk on carbs at Caffe Luna, a local restaurant that was within walking distance of our hotel. I ate what seemed like an entire loaf of white bread and a very nicely prepared linguine with pesto and chicken. Full of food, we decided to meander a bit through downtown Raleigh as we made our way back to the hotel. Once we arrived we laid out our gear for the morning, set the alarms on both of our phones, and went to bed.

The sun was not up yet when our alarms went off at 6 am. The race was scheduled to start at 7 and thanks to our proximity to basically everything race-related, we were able to sleep later than on typical race mornings. After applying copious amounts of Glide and sunscreen, we left the room at 6:45 am and were trying to figure out how to get into our corral around 6:50 am when we heard the announcement that the race start would be delayed by 10 minutes. Fine by us, as we were having trouble locating a gap in the stanchions ringing the start area. We eventually gave up and found that we were both small enough to fit through bars of the stanchions, so we slipped through into the general area of corral 4 and began to curse at our Garmins, which absolutely refused to connect to satellites.

At that point, I looked at T and said, "Um... so... we are running a marathon today." Much like the start of the Richmond Marathon, it all felt very surreal to me.

Realizing we had taken no photos to this point, I insisted on snapping this quick "What the f*ck are we doing?" selfie about 3 minutes before the National Anthem and start of the race. My Garmin also finally caught the satellite just seconds before our corral started, but T's remained on the fritz.

I won't bore you with a mile by mile recount. The first few miles were rather scenic, mainly in downtown Raleigh. The temperature was ok, there was shade from buildings and trees, and it was (relatively) flat. Taking the c'est la vie attitude, I was full of jokes (Wait, what? You mean a marathon is more than a mile? I was lied to!), thanked every policeman I saw, and cheered crazily as we passed bands at every mile (the Shawn University Pep Band was amazing and I wish they could've put them on a truck and followed me through the whole marathon).

And then, as we climbed one of the first hills, T got really quiet. I know that this is a bad sign; typically we are both chatter boxes when we are running, but if T goes quiet, there is something wrong. I asked if it was her thigh, she said no. I asked if it was her foot (she has plantar faciitis), again she said no. Just that she didn't feel right and wasn't sure she was going to be able to do this. We spend the next two or three miles debating back and forth over what to do. She wanted me to go ahead; I refused, saying that I wasn't running for time I was running for fun and that I'd rather stay with her. Then around mile 7 she told me she felt cold. I reached out to touch her arm and it was freezing. At that point, I got really scared. It was warm out by now and we had been running hills - she should have been burning up like the rest of us. She basically begged me to go on without her but again, I refused. There was no way I was going to leave her behind in her state. We agreed that we would stop at the next med station at Mile 8, which we did.

I put my arm around her and took her into the med tent saying, "She's cold to the touch - there's something wrong!" The doctors sat her down, asked her name, where she was (all questions answered within seconds), gave her fruit juice (and me a water, which I polished off), agreed that she was unusually cold (but didn't seem too worried about it), and took her pulse. All seemed normal, and the doctor said that the cold was probably just sweat evaporating in the shade. I wasn't entirely buying it, but having a medical professional give the blessing for her to continue seemed to be the mental boost that was needed.

We set off together again, but less than 2 miles later, T was telling me to just go. Even though it killed me to do it, at this point I knew that she was ok and that my presence was really just hurting her mentally, so I went ahead right around mile 10.

For me, now I had to deal with the fact that I was going to have to run the next 16.2 miles by myself. With no headphones, no running buddies - nothing to distract me in what I knew was going to be an extremely challenging course. My Garmin was also useless at this point; somewhere along the way I had paused it (I don't know why) and forgot to restart for almost half a mile, meaning it was off. Knowing that it was off, I didn't want to look at it any more.

It really was just me, myself, and I.

But the thing was, I still felt fine. I'm not sure what happens to me on race day, but once I've crossed that start line, all of the piles of anxiety that plague me in the lead up to race day just melt away. I feel invincible, strong, and relaxed. Even happy. (I know, it's crazy.) Despite the heat and the hills, my breathing was regular and controlled. My body felt fine too. What hip? What foot? I was floating.

I knew I wasn't going to sub-4. That knowledge was freeing. The prospect of a PR was shot and because of that, all I needed to do was concentrate on keeping myself moving, hydrated, and not hurt. My plan was to walk through every water stop, being sure to drink an entire cup of Gatorade and to try to have some fun. Talk to people, make friends, offer encouragement, sing and dance along to DJs and bands.

So that's exactly what I did. If someone was walking and I passed them, I touched their elbow or shoulder and told them they could do it. I chatted with a gentleman named Brad, who had just turned 50 and was running his first marathon. I told him the best advice anyone gave me before my first marathon, which was to take it one mile at a time and not worry about what's ahead. This photo was snapped just before I met up with Brad. I was still feeling great.

When the DJ stationed on the impossibly long, steep hill at mile I-don't-even-know-what played Nelly's "It's Getting Hot in Herre" I sang along, fist pumped, and run-danced my way up the hill, earning a few looks of confusion from runners coming back down the other side. Next up was Queen's "We Will Rock You" complete with lots of air guitar moves from me as I crested that hill. That move got me some smiles and laughs from spectators and runners around me.

After that hill we went into the "rural" section of the race, which was quite pretty. The course doubled back on itself, and I was noticing that the runners coming back toward me didn't look so festive anymore. Soon I found out why; that whole mile or two was a slight decline (not noticeable) that suddenly became a VERY noticeable incline on the way back. This was the first time that I wanted to stop and walk, but I knew it would be useless. The incline was long and walking part of it wasn't going to help me out that much. I also knew that up ahead was that glorious downhill where the "Hot In Herre" DJ was stationed. That was my reward for hanging tough. As I crossed the half marathon mark, I couldn't help but carry on my tradition of belting out the chorus of Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer."

I also got a boost when I spotted T among the runners after the turnaround. I was so very relieved to see her. She was running, she looked happy - she was going to be all right.

And then everything kind of crashed. I don't think that "hitting the wall" is what happened. It was more like "hitting the hill to end all hills" at mile 18. As I came around the corner and came face to face with the imposing edifice of what may as well have been Mount Kilamanjaro, I suddenly felt extremely tired. But I knew that one way or the other, I was going to have to go up that hill, so kept running. Then, as everyone around me slowed to a walk (and I mean everyone), I decided that I was going to walk to.

This wasn't a PR race. There was no use in torturing myself. So I didn't. I walked to the top of the hill, chatting for a minute with another runner (who was doing the same). We cursed the hills and both agreed that the entire course had been insanely difficult. At the crest, I broke into a run again.

Just after mile 20, I decided to stop at a portie potty stationed next to a med tent. I didn't really have to go (only kinda had to go), but figured that since I obviously wasn't running for time anymore, there was no point in denying myself a bathroom break.

This was the most surreal and odd moment of the marathon for me. I found myself in a portie potty, on the side of some state highway outside of Raleigh on a Sunday morning, giving my body parts a pep talk.

"Listen here, SI joint. We've made it 20 miles and we only have 10k left. You are going to hold up. Same for you, foot. Don't get any ideas about breaking now. We've come too far and I am determined to finish this damn race!"

Yes, I actually said that. Out loud.

After my portie pottie pep talk, I stopped by the med tent and asked the volunteers for ice. The man looked at me and said, "Do you want it in a bag?" I said, "No, just pour it down my shirt." He looked incredulous. "Are you sure you don't want a bag?" Then I pulled the front of my top out a bit and instructed him again: "Just pour it right here, man!" So he poured the scoop of ice into the built in bra of my top, which pretty much felt like heaven. I thanked him and set off running again, now with a nice little icy percussive sound accompanying my every stride as the ice jostled against my chest.

As I rambled along with my ice jangling, I came across two girls dressed in North Carolina blue shorts and white tops. One was absolutely hysterical and the other was trying to comfort her. I immediately stopped to make sure the hysterical girl was ok. It was obvious that she had just completely hit the mental wall. Not even thinking about how weird it probably appeared, I pulled a handful of ice out of my top and instructed the friend to try to cool down hysterical girl by putting ice on her neck. Hysterical girl was interchangebly thanking me profusely and telling me to running. When I was convinced that she was truly just hitting a mental wall and wasn't in physical danger, I kept going.

Honestly, the next 6.2 miles are very blurry except for a few things. One: I walked up all of the hills from there on out. Looking back, I probably could have pushed through it and am slightly disappointed in myself that I didn't.

Two: Green and Blue.

Let me explain.

Ever since mile 8, I had been playing jack rabbit with a blonde girl running in a green tech shirt with a camel back water tank thinger. She seemed friendly and we exchanged pleasantries/complaints whenever we passed each other. I started just calling her "Green". Sometime just after mile 20, I came across Green again and told her that this time I was going to try to keep with her. It seemed like everyone was struggling at this point and for a social runner like me, having a person to commiserate with was all that was going to get me through.

The problem with staying with Green, however, was that I was walking through water stops and she wasn't. So at mile 22's water stop I lost her.

But then I found Blue. Blue was a tall man that I ran past and did my typical touch on the elbow, "Hey, you can do this we only have 4 miles left! Come on, run with me. We can do this together." We ran a few hundred yards together and then I pulled ahead... until (another) hill. I started walked up the hill and heard from behind me, "Hey Orange, you aren't allowed to give up."

Blue and I stuck together for almost the rest of the race. His real name was Simon. We talked about the usual getting-to-know-you plesantries, we complained about the heat and the hills, we compared previous marathon war stories, and we shared our post-race gnoshing plans (beer for him, that cake for me). We walked up hills and made each other run at the crest of every one.

Then there was mile 24 - set up as a tribute to fallen military heroes. Both Simon and I were really struggling now, trying to convince each other to keep running. But as soon as we saw the row of signs, each with a photo, name, and age of soldiers that had died during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I said, "Simon, we are running through this. These guys can't run anymore, but we can. And we are. We aren't stopping. We are going to run for them."

As we ran past the signs, seeing the horrifyingly young ages of the fallen soldiers, their pictures with babies and small children, wives, or standing proudly in uniform, we both seemed to have gained new inspiration.

Then came the families. After the signs with pictures ended, families and friends of the soliders lined each side of the street, holding large American flags. The effect was overwhelming. Here were these people, all with broken hearts and hurt, standing out in a park and cheering on runners. Why were they doing it? I don't know, but I do know that I couldn't feel anything but complete awe and gratitute to all of them for everything - their sacrifice, their time, and their presence. Simon and I ran through, saying "thank you, thank you, thank you" over and over again. It seemed like a pitiful offering compared to what they were giving to us.

It seems so selfish to say now that it was the presence of those families and their strength in the face of adversity that gave me the extra oomph I needed to run the rest of that marathon. I feel guilty saying that. Running a marathon is an accomplishment, but it is nothing compared to the sacrifice of those families. NOTHING. Any pain or suffering that I had felt during those 4-odd hours was a temporary, self-imposed, selfish exercise.

It was at that point that I deteremined that I wasn't going to walk again.

Simon and I parted at the final hill. I refused to walk up it. I told him I would be waiting for him at the finish and went on my way. The end of the race took us back to downtown Raleigh, past the state house and then a right hand turn to the finish. As soon as I turned that corner and saw the finish line I started to cry.

Apparently it's something that I do at marathons.

I just couldn't believe that I had done it - again. I am convinced that no matter how many times I may run a marathon, I will always be completely overwhelmed by that first glimpse of the finish line, knowing that I just did something that is a huge achievement.

After I got a hold of myself, I smiled ear to ear for the rest of the way. I couldn't stop smiling. The race had been hard, but I had persevered. I had done it. I loved running, I loved the people cheering. As I ran down the final 100 yards to the line, I "raised the roof" trying to get the crowd going. A girl in Texas Flag shorts (I had been near her for about a mile) suddenly shot past. "Go Tex! You go girl!" I yelled.

Then it was over. Finally. Because my Garmin had been thrown off, I had no idea what my time was and the thing is, I didn't even care. I was just so proud to have finished that race.

I collected my medal and a bottle of water, then immediately went back to look for Simon. I knew he couldn't be far behind me. Then there he was. I stood, cheering and screaming for him at the top of my lungs as he finished. Sweaty high fives and hugs ensued. I insisted on getting a photo together.

I thanked him for keeping me company during those last miles. Then I told him to come run Richmond in the fall. I promised him it wasn't as hilly and much cooler.

Then my thoughts then immediately turned to T. I hadn't seen her since the turnaround and had no idea if she was still running or when she'd be crossing. Then I saw a Rock n Roll staff member standing near me and so I asked him if there was any way to find out if my friend was still on the course. I explained that we'd stopped at a med tent at mile 8 but she had continued, that I was worried about her and just wanted to know where she was. Without hesistation, he took me to the "mission control" tent with its banks of computers where a second staff member looked up T and said she was still running with an expected finish time of 11:41.

"What time is it??" I asked, having no idea at all.

It was 11:41.

I thanked them all profusely and ran back toward the finish. I didn't see T yet. The RnR staff member was hot on my heels and stood with me. Then I saw her coming - running, looking strong like T always looks. I screamed and jumped up and down (painful, but necessary) and as she crossed the finish we fell into an immediate sweaty hug. She burst into tears and I just kept saying "You did it! I knew you would do it! You did it, T!!!!"

The helpful RnR staff member made sure that T was not in need of medical attention (she wasn't) and I again thanked him profusely as we made our way to collect water and medals.

And to take a finisher photo, of course.

Though T may have her doubts, there is no doubt in MY mind that we both more than earned those medals. To be honest, I feel that this medal was earned even more fully than my Richmond Marathon medal. This race was a real test for both me and T. We both had to fight doubts, we both struggled, but we both overcame. That is the true spirit of the marathon - not the time on a clock or splits or place. Looking your fears and doubts straight in the face and saying, "You won't win today. I am stronger than this and I will do this!" is what a marathon is all about.

That is what Raleigh taught me.

It also reminded my why I love this sport so much. I had mentioned in a previous post that the intial "shiniess" of running had worn off a bit for me during the training cycle leading up to Raleigh. That shininess is back, full force.

Often, people think of running as a self-centered, individualistic sport. In many ways, it is, and that is part of why I love it. There is no one to compete against but myself, and in the end, only I can run those miles. The only obstacle to my success is me. But being on the course in Raleigh, I felt that amazing kindred spirit that exists only among long distance runners. Yes, we were all out there doing this on our own. But we were also doing this crazy thing together. Even though I ran those last 16 miles "alone", I wasn't really alone. My fellow runners inspired me, encouraged me, and got me to the end - most without saying a word. I am so grateful to be a part of this community of crazy, hardheaded, compassionate, strong people.

I am proud of what I did in Raleigh. I am not ashamed to tell you that my time was 4:14:38 - more than 15 minutes longer than my Richmond time. To me, that doesn't matter. The experience, comraderie, and lessons that Raleigh gave me are more important than a sub-4:00 time.

So here's to the Raleigh Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. It was real, Raleigh - real HILLY and real HOT, and I don't think I'll be back (at least not for a full marathon). But I am eternally thankful for what you gave to me - my second marathon and a renewed love of the run.

Oh yeah, and one really delicious post-marathon celebratory burger!

(because no marathon post is complete with a picture of food)


  1. What a great recap and what an awesome experience. Marathons are always a great story... kind of makes me want to do one... one day!
    You did great girl!

  2. Really great race report. Congrats on finishing such a difficult course.

  3. I just finished the half in Raleigh for 2nd year in a row this morning. I was googling "hilly" and this blog came up. Perhaps it's the completely bodily/physical/mental exhaustion, but I got teared up several times during this blog. Very touching. And only a runner knows the mental battle one faces when doing these long-distance runs and how much a little encouragement and support means.