I joke with fellow marathoners that every year I learn something new about my chosen sport, and how I’m really getting sick and tired of always having to learn some big lesson on race day. Well, this year was no exception, and what I learned was "how not to run a travel marathon."
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. One final big round of thanks is necessary to everyone who donated; thanks to everyone’s generosity, Team Mangia Mangia (myself, Julie, and Tod) hit our group fundraising goal and even a little extra. A grand total of $8482 has gone to help the Whitman-Walker Clinic here in DC, and I can’t think of a better way to enter the winter holiday season.
As for the marathon… first the good stuff. Florence was absolutely gorgeous, just as beautiful as I remembered from visiting the city back in 1999. This meant that I ran on the most beautiful course I’ve ever experienced in a race, easily. The race starts at the Piazza de Michelangelo, high above the city and across the Arno River. This lets you really see just how far the city stretches around you, and it’s hard to keep your excitement level from rising. (Getting there we had to take a shuttle bus, which could only be described as a game of "how many people can we really fit into one of these?" But even pressed up against the doors so tightly that if one of them opened I’d have gone flying out of the vehicle, it was still pulse-poundingly fun.)
I started the race with four other people; Tod, Susan, Dana, and Sara. We unfortunately lost Sara pretty quickly due to a potty break, but the rest of us stuck together through almost 15 miles. (I say almost 15 miles because there were only mile markers every five miles. Otherwise it was kilometer markers, and performing all the multiplication of fractions while running a marathon? Not very easy.) It was a lovely first half and then some, running by people hanging out of their windows and cheering, winding through tiny alleys and streets, and moving along the Arno River itself for a while before finally crossing into the main part of Florence.
Eventually our group split in two, though. Tod and Dana were having a great marathon and started pulling ahead. Or perhaps it was that Susan and I were not having a great marathon and started falling behind? Susan and I stuck together until about mile 20, though. By that point, I was certainly not feeling well. I was really tired—having forgotten to bring Benadryl or some other sleep aid, thanks to jet lag I’d only gotten two hours of sleep the night before—and I could feel myself cramping up and dehydrating. We’d been all promised cloudy skies and cool temperatures of 50 degrees, which is perfect marathon weather. Instead it was in the 70s and a clear sunny sky waiting for us. Still, getting to run by things like the Duomo helped lift my spirits a bit, especially since AIDS Marathon had a big cheering station that actually got me a little choked up by that point. (Perhaps the best proof at all that I was really tired.)
Finally I told Susan to go on ahead, and began to try and push myself as best I could through the last six miles. It’s never easy for me to end up by myself in a marathon, but it was the right decision for both of us. I was starting to drag her back, and I knew if I took some walk breaks a little quicker I could rally a bit. That’s not to say that the end of the course was easy. By this point we were in a park that seemed to stretch on forever, and at one point just as I was thinking (as one occasionally does at the end of a marathon), "Maybe it’s time to just pack it in," the person right next to me began to repeatedly and noisily vomit. Ugh. Still, if that’s not inspiration to keep running, I don’t know what is.
Actually, I do know what good running inspiration is. The United States 1st Battalion (Airborne) 503rd Infantry had a lot of members running the marathon as well, and somewhere around mile 23 I was starting to think, "Maybe I should just walk the next mile." Right then I came across a large cheering section from the 503rd, who started going crazy at the site of another American, calling out my name and telling me how great I was doing. I sucked in my breath, bit my lip, and began running again to even more cheering from them. It’s funny, I occasionally get major self-defeating thoughts towards the end of a marathon, but every time they do something happens to keep me going. I must say that a well-placed cheering section is much better than a vomiting runner. (Interestingly enough, it was around this point that I actually caught up with Susan, and we played leapfrog for most of the rest of the marathon. She finally finished first, just under a minute ahead of me.)
Finally I could see the end of the marathon… or so I thought. There’s nothing like running as fast as one can to discover that no, you’re seeing a different part of the course and still have about half a mile to go. And then you see the real finish line… wait, no, that’s just some random arch over the course and the actual finish is an additional 500 feet ahead of you. Italians are tricky, what can I say? But the race was over, and while my bombing out in the last third of the marathon meant I didn’t get my hoped-for sub-4:30 finish time, I still got a new personal record of 4:46:48. It was a hard day, and that was a real victory for me.
That said, I now know how to run a travel marathon. Bring a sleep aid, get there a little earlier if there’s a time zone change, and perhaps bring a deck of cards and just play them all day Saturday to conserve every last ounce of strength for the race on Sunday because you will need it.
In some ways this was a tough season for me; having to sit the first month out due to injury, juggling both helping train other runners in addition to myself, participating in my first travel marathon, and my first year not training with Julie (whom I trained with for the past five years). All things considered, I think I beat the odds and learned a lot about what to do for next year. And as for next year? Well, wait and see!