It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….

“I ran my first marathon in Champaign this past weekend.  Needless to say it didn’t go as planned, but it was a heck of an experience.” ~ Nathan Rau, Idiot #647, Waterloo, IL 

It was time for my first full marathon, and I was feeling great. The training had clicked. I plowed through a peak 214 mile month and back-to-back-to-back 50+ mile weeks.  Several 20 mile runs or more were mixed in there too. I even had the pleasure of pacing my wife on some of her half marathon training runs.  The three week taper at the end had me feeling completely rested and ready.

I wasn’t going to just any marathon. This one was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My Alma mater. The place I spent 7+ years getting a couple of degrees. The place I proposed to Annette.  The race with a finish line at the 50 yard line of Memorial Stadium that I had been to so many times. This is where I would go for my first 26.2 mile run.

My buddy Frank and I took Friday before off.  We had time to take a quick walk around the heart of campus after we picked up the race packets.  I hadn’t been back to campus for some time, and it was inspiring to see it all again. Frank was who got me into distance running in the first place, and we had a fantastic day getting psyched for the run. I was chomping at the bit to get the race started.

I was the only one in our crew that was doing the full. They were awesome with encouragement and support.  On race day we gave each other the big hugs and settled into our corrals. It was finally time to go.  Everything was perfect.

I had set a goal pace that I knew would be challenging.  I decided a while back that I couldn’t count on future runs always being available. Who know what life would bring, so I better give it my all on this run. It was an aggressive but realistic pace, and I could not have felt more ready.

And we’re off! It was warmer than expected, but a beautiful day.  Everything was clicking along just as I had planned.  Drink water. Eat something. Time for some electrolytes. Stay calm. Trust your training.

Then, around mile 13 something unexpected happened.  I quickly got very lightheaded – even dizzy.  No big deal. Water. Food. Slow down a bit. Have some NUUN. Stay calm. Try to stay calm… but I admit it, something felt wrong.

Around mile 15 I walked for the first time, and I had never walked in training.  I thought a good drink and some Endurolytes and a bite to eat would do it. No big deal.  Doing just fine. Got a long way to go.  Try to stay calm. Just a little bump in the road.  Panic? No.

Then, those quads and hamstrings that had been so resilient for months started having a little fit.  Cramps popping up in both legs and jumping from place to place.  Stretch it out and keep going.  Keep up with the water and supplements.  Maybe I can just walk/run this sucker home and still sneak in under my backup goal time. We can do this… right?

Unfortunately, it was getting worse. Stopped to stretch/walk once, twice, again and again and again.  I was looking around for things the right height in people’s yards to put my foot on and stretch the hamstrings.  Light poles were my friend for giving the quads a stretch.  Now it was full panic.  Am I looking at a DNF here? What in the world happened?

Around mile 19 I took off my water belt and laid down in some grass to try to stretch. I took my phone out of the arm band and checked my texts to see how Annette and Frank did in the half. Annette’s text waiting for me was:

“Pr pr pr pr I can’t stop crying, keep running”

I was sincerely so happy for her.  She worked hard getting ready for this day. I managed a smile and looked up at the sky. I actually thought about the IRC oath:

“If I ‘DNF’ it will be because I have NOTHING left to give or I’m dead.”

I responded to her text with:

“Major cramps. Struggling to finish. I am okay. Taking my time. Want to finish.”

I decided I would walk the entire remainder of the race if I had to, but I was going to finish.  Dammit, I’ll walk as long as I need to so I can try to run a little more.  No more time goals of any sort. This was about finding that finish line and completing the race.  I wasn’t dead. I got the smile back on my face and looked for kids to high 5 cheering us on.

It was humbling to see the pace groups I had passed so long ago come trotting past me seemingly without effort.  I was envious of the smart runs they had implemented that day, and it stung to see group after group go by.

Run, cramp, stretch, walk, repeat. That was my story for several miles.  Then, I got this text from Annette:

“I am going to find you and bring you in if I can. Mile?”

Me: “22.5”

Now my eyes were darting around the spectators searching for that hot pink shirt with the yellow Superman logo on it.  We used to never run together. I was faster and we just did our own thing, but lately we had run together more and more. Sometimes a 5 mile trail run, sometimes 13.1 on the road, but it was really becoming something we enjoyed doing side-by-side.  Now I was counting on seeing her.

A little shy of 25 miles I saw her with a big smile waving both hands over her head. She settled in next to my waddling gait and asked what I needed.  We walked/ran it together, and it was amazing having her there with me.  My goal was to be able to run into the stadium and across the finish line.

We broke into our final run about half a mile from the finish.   There were quite a few spectators around the stadium and she started yelling at them that she wanted to hear some noise.  As soon as they quieted down, she yelled at them for more.  We turned the corner into the tunnel and ran from the end zone to the finish line side by side.  And we were running across that line. The final burst of energy and adrenaline came out of nowhere, and it felt great.

Frank was there waiting for us and we had another round of big hugs. Without these two people I would never have started running, and here we were together – on the field, looking at the jumbotron, soaking it all in.  My kids were in the front row and we took all kinds of pictures and gave them some of the attention they had been missing while mom and dad were busy running all over God’s green earth.

Annette’s PR got kind of lost in all of my drama that day. I am so proud of her and the run she had.  She deserved to celebrate the amazing accomplishment she had on race day.

In the end, I didn’t have the run I wanted or expected.  The how’s and why’s of the race are what they are.  However, I was proud I finished, and I had one of the most special moments with Annette I have had.  Of course we have the wedding and kids being born, but this was right up there also.

I will do another marathon some day, and I hope to do better. I think I have learned a lot. Still, no matter what my final time is in future runs, it will be hard to top the 2014 Illinois Marathon as a lasting memory.

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