My first year participating in the AIDS Marathon program was an exciting one. I’d never run more than what I was forced to do in gym class, and that was over a decade earlier. Each week I pushed through a little more distance, discovered the joys of shin splints and how to avoid them, and made some great friends in the process. Finally, twenty-four weeks later, my co-worker, running partner, and great friend Julie and I drove up to Baltimore to participate in the inaugural Baltimore Marathon. I’d planned on running it with her as well as with Emily, Madelyn, and Pam, three other women in my training group.
Julie and I headed up to Baltimore early the day before (we had hotel rooms so we didn’t have to drive up the morning of), so we could have lunch with her friend Andrea. I’d met Andrea before and like her a lot, so this sounded like a good idea to me. Andrea greeted us with helium balloons saying "Good Luck!" which was the perfect way to start the day. After getting horribly lost trying to find our hotel (it is very easy to get to driving from the south; very, very difficult to get to driving from the north) we finally checked in—and ran into Jeanie and Joanie, a pair of sisters who also ran in our pace group. We walked up to PSI Net Stadium and picked up our packets. The Baltimore Marathon had assigned the numbers alphabetically (except for the first 200, which were for the big-name runners), which meant that Julie got to look all snazzy and cool with #401. Meanwhile, I was a lowly #3950.
We also picked up and tested our ChampionChips that afternoon. A ChampionChip is a little device that you attach to your shoe. When you run across the starting line, it scans the ChampionChip and records what time you actually started the marathon. Since most people will have started the race after it began (in huge races like the Marine Corps Marathon, it can take fifteen or twenty minutes to get across the starting line!), this gives you a much more accurate time. At the Baltimore Marathon, your ChampionChip also got scanned at the halfway point (13.1 miles) as well as the finish; other marathons often have places like the 15K and 30K points scan the ChampionChip.
We hung around PSI Net Stadium for a bit to check out the big Running Expo set up there, decided we didn’t need anything, and headed back just in time for Emily and Pam to arrive. After they got all of their stuff, it was time for dinner, which meant carbohydrates. We ended up eating at the Uno’s at the Inner Harbor, sitting out on a patio overlooking the water. It was really pretty, and unfortunately, also really cold after about ten minutes. (The breeze coming directly off the water is quite cold!) We were really happy when our food arrived simply because it was warm.
Then it was back to the hotel (after many twists and turns—remember what I said about how difficult it is to drive to the hotel from a northern direction?) as Emily and Pam decorated their singlets for the marathon. Julie and I had put iron-on letters onto our singlets; our names were on the front, and on the back we put "Oh Baby!" on Julie’s and "Hot Damn!" on mine. We figured this might help the spectators find the right words to cheer us on. Susan, Julie’s sister, arrived soon afterwards and we all headed off to bed to toss and turn in anticipation of the morning.
Before we knew it, morning had arrived. We headed over to the stadium and hung around the AIDS Marathon hospitality tent trying to find our other friends. We finally headed to the starting line, wondering what had happened to Madelyn—she finally showed up maybe ten minutes before we started, having been caught in traffic. A group of friends (Karon, Jeff, Steve, and Britt) also appeared suddenly, each holding up a sign with a letter on it to spell out "GREG". It was a great sight to see, and it really cheered me up. Suddenly the crowd started moving forward… and we were off! Pretty soon, our group solidified into me, Julie, Emily, and Madelyn.
The first couple of miles went through the Inner Harbor and Fells Point areas, which I’m pretty familiar with. We really had to hold ourselves back at first to keep from running too fast and burn out. We paced ourselves pretty well, though, about halfway through the third mile our path suddenly headed north, away from the water, and into new territory… almost all of it uphill.
I’m not joking about the uphill part; we’d heard that the Baltimore Marathon was an extremely hilly course, but we had no idea just how bad it really was. It makes me feel better, several days later, to see a lot of comments from experienced runners about what a very hilly and difficult course the Baltimore Marathon was. All I knew at the time was that about 3 1/2 miles into the run, we started going up, and up, and up, and up. Our speed slowed down dramatically, and I know we were all feeling the strain. I shudder to think how the one guy we saw who was jump-roping the whole marathon was doing. It was also around mile 4 that I pulled a muscle or something in my lower left calf. It hurt more and more as we continued on; perhaps not the smartest thing to do, but I’d made it this far, I wasn’t going to give up now! My doctor has diagnosed it as tendonitis (guess what still hurts a lot, days later?) and has told me not to run up so many hills in the future.
The course brought us through a lot of residential neighborhoods that I’d never seen before. This was good in terms of crowd support—a lot of people used this as an opportunity to hang out and cheer on the runners. Unfortunately, it also meant that visually things got really boring, and quickly. As a result, it was the little things that stood out; at mile 7, for instance, there was a big arch of balloons over the street, which was a nice little touch. Voortman Cookies was the sponsor of mile 7 and was handing out sugar wafer cookies there, which was also one of the only places that the marathon had thought to put out food.
Food wasn’t the only thing in short supply on the run. They’d promised Gatorade throughout the course, but after mile 4 it vanished; all the faster runners drank it and left none for us slowpokes. The only water stop that seemed to be able to ration it out well was at mile 21, which was also manned by the Army. I’m sure there’s a connection there. Unfortunately for me, in an effort to reduce weight and the cramped conditions of my waist pack, I’d gotten rid of my little container of Gatorade so I could replenish electrolytes and sodium later on. Argh.
The other thing that kept us going early on were friends and family. Emily’s husband, family, and friends, as well as Julie’s sister Susan, showed up around the 5 1/2 mile mark to cheer us on (and to take my jacket, which I’d tied around my waist some 4 miles earlier and was contemplating just throwing away, since I’d only paid $9 for it). A couple of miles later, Julie’s parents showed up. Julie’s mother should rent herself out as a professional cheerer—I’ve never seen anyone else put so much energy into it! Madelyn’s family showed up before too long afterwards, which was fun to see.
Unfortunately, the hills got to Madelyn around mile 12, and she dropped back to a slightly slower pace. So, at this point it was just three of us. We kept climbing farther and farther up the mountain… oops, I mean, the hills of Baltimore. In retrospect, one really funny thing around this time period is that people kept swearing that the last hill was the one we were seeing. We’d hit the peak of the hill, turn a corner, and oops, there’s another hill. I guess they were trying to be encouraging, but we were nearing the point where we wanted to turn around and yell at people who kept telling us about these mythical "final hills" that never appeared.
Around mile 18, though, things did finally level off, aside from one final horrific hill a mile or two later. It was right after mile 21 that a couple of nice things happened, though. First, we finally found the lake in Druid Hill Park, which we’d all written up as being non-existent. (No one could remember where on the map it was located, but were all convinced we should have seen it by then.) Even better, my friend Cris showed up to cheer us on. He’d parked his car around mile 23 and then walked almost a mile and a half backwards along the trail to find us. Now that he was that far in, he ended up keeping up with us for that mile and a half back to his car. His company definitely helped keep us going, and we all really appreciated his good spirits.
Soon after he left, Emily needed to slow down; she’d hurt her back earlier in the week, and the sun beating down on us wasn’t helping matters. For a change, though, my aching calf/ankle wasn’t giving me many problems, so I decided I was going to keep going at the pace we’d been moving at. Julie initially stayed with Emily, but soon decided that she needed to keep trucking along as well, and caught up with me within half a mile.
Finally we found the downhill stretch—all three miles of it—and picked up our pace a bit in an effort to see if we could finish before the 7 hour mark. Our AIDS Marathon program rep, Yael, showed up about a mile later to cheer us on, as well as some other runners from our site who would be running the Marine Corps Marathon a week later. It really made a big difference, and with the emotional boost, we pushed on as hard as we could. We could see the stadium off in the distance, and got excited as it got closer, and closer, and closer…
…and then suddenly we had to run AWAY from the stadium. I don’t know who put that part into the course, but I’d like to have a little talk with them. Talk about discouraging! Suddenly all our steam vanished, and we limped along the last stretch. We finally circled the stadium itself, rounded a corner, and there it was. The finish line. Julie and I sprinted towards the finish line, all energy suddenly back. I grabbed Julie’s hand and we charged across the line with our hands triumphantly raised in the air. My final chip time was 6:65:16. Ok, it’s really 7:05:16. I’m sure if the course had been a bit flatter our speed would have easily been under seven hours, but now I have a good future goal.
Was it worth it? Definitely. Will I do this again? Well, not the Baltimore Marathon unless they seriously rethink the course. On the other hand, I hear the Myrtle Beach Marathon down in South Carolina is nice and flat. And there’s always the goal of getting fast enough to do the Marine Corps Marathon next year…
Thanks have to go out to all my great sponsors, as well as Yael and Jen, coaches extraordinaire. A couple people, though, deserve extra-special thanks. Once they finally got used to the idea ("I promise I won’t exert myself so hard I have a heart attack and die"), my family has been incredibly supportive. My friends Steve and Britt Conley have been lifelines throughout this whole process, keeping my spirits up when I found myself wondering why I had ever agreed to do this. Finally, Chad Jones (whose progress I watched last year when he did this) has been my unofficial coach and mentor, looking out for me ever step of the way. There’s no way I could have done this without any of these people. Believe me when I say thank you from the bottom of my heart, all of you.
Me, I’m going to enjoy being able to sleep in on Saturday mornings for the first time in quite a while.