Saturday morning dawned bright and early – way too early. I woke up in a complete fog, ready to roll over and go back to sleep and just skip the darn race. Unfortunately for me, the multiple alarms I always set prevented me from doing so. Having been too exhausted to lay out my race clothes the night before, I scrambled to pull everything together and hoped that I hadn’t forgot anything. I headed out to the parking lot and jumped in my car while it was still pitch black out, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t even a West Coast race so my body clock would feel like it was a few hours later. Just as I was about to drive away, I realized that while I had brought my iPod, I had forgotten my headphones! I ducked back into the hotel to retrieve them, and then headed off to the races.
As I drove to the start, I saw traffic cones for 1/2 mile or so, and then a water station. So apparently the race went on the same road as my hotel! Though Viper had described a few highlights to watch for on the course, all I picked up on was that there was a big downhill at mile 11, a stretch on the towpath I’d heard so much about from his blog, and a nasty hill near the end called “Garman Road.” I really should get back in the habit of really studying course profiles before races. I studied the course intensely before Vermont until I knew exactly where each mile was, and then I went to the course preview at the expo to get it even further ingrained in my mind. Since then, I’ve sometimes studied and sometimes not. In Akron, I basically ran the race blind. On the one hand, that can be fun because you end up surprised by what you’ll see, and you aren’t counting down the steps/miles to certain part of the course. On the other hand, if you know what’s coming, you can pace yourself more appropriately, knowing when to go hard and when to ease up. In Vermont, I knew that there was just the one big hill at mile 15, which allowed me to power up it and give it everything I had. In Akron… well, you’ll see.
At the start, I bumped into Dane again which was fun – reminded me just how small the marathon community is 🙂 I kept looking around for Viper, but discovered that his chosen outfit (yellow shirt, black shorts) was pretty popular, and might as well have been the official uniform of guys running the race. I did run into a guy named Keith who was wearing a San Francisco Marathon shirt and commented on the SFM space blanket I was wearing to keep warm. Turns out he’s from New York City too! We tried to exchange contact info, but that was basically impossible. From now on, I’m going to start carrying business cards in my fuel belt.
The race started, and I started my iPod to Nine Days’ “Brand New Me.” Boyfriend had told me the day before just how much he loves this song, and that his favorite lyrics are “Just give me wind upon my back/Let me sail I won’t go back/Take me somewhere I don’t know/That I do not recognize.” I love that part, and I also love the main chorus: “Just give me faith and give me love/Let it fall from up above/Just give me something I don’t know/That I do not recognize/A brand new face/A brand new soul/Let me rise up from the old/And become someone you don’t know/That you will not recognize.” So perfect for running, and such a strong beat that just makes me feel all empowered! Within a minute, I had a huge grin on my face, adrenaline from my runners’ high coursing through my veins, and tears in my eyes because I was so excited to be out there that beautiful morning. My knee was currently pain-free, and I set a pretty good pace as I covered the first few miles in 8 minutes each. Though the weather was technically cool, the humidity was hitting me pretty hard – I was sweating much more than usual, and I tried to drink more water than usual to compensate.
The crowds were great as they lined the streets to cheer for us – they were pretty consistent until at least mile five or six. I was really impressed with the turnout. I still haven’t run any of the megamarathons like Boston, New York, Chicago, or Marine Corps, but Akron was like a taste of one of those. I think I’d enjoy doing a race with spectators throughout, but I’m perfectly content with the smaller more peaceful races too.
Around mile 5, I got overtaken by the 3:40 pace group. WOW! Was that really how fast I had been going? I had delusions of PRing in my mind, but was already feeling a bit tired. At mile 6, I planned to have the first of my four snacks (I like to bring four snacks of about 100 calories each – usually some combination of Gu, Sports Beans, Sharkies, and Lara Bars). When I saw a sign that said “aid / water stations ahead,” I pulled out my Sharkies to finish before I got there, so I could then have water after (Sharkies make me thirsty) and not have to hang out at the water station to eat them. However, when they said “water ahead,” what they apparently meant was a full mile ahead, after the first relay checkpoint. I know it’s kind of my own fault for not learning the course and the water station locations in advance, but come on, “water station ahead” should mean 0.1 miles ahead, not 1.0. That being my only real gripe with the race organization, however, I was pretty pleased.
Unfortunately, by mile 7, I thought I was done. The combination of not enough sleep + not eating well before + starting out way too fast caught up to me, and my body felt like it was at mile 20. I resolved myself not to walk until at least the halfway point of the race (not counting water stations), which doesn’t sound that difficult, but with how crappy I felt, it was a major challenge. The lowest point came at mile 7, where a high school band was camped out on the side of the road to play for us. However, instead of playing, this group of students (many of whom were pretty overweight, I might add) were slouched in their chairs yawning and looking pretty unhappy that it was so early. Excuse me, some of us are running 26.2 miles here, and you’re upset that you have to be awake and sitting in a chair doing nothing but watching and playing and cheering us on?! Grrr.
My musical luck took a further turn for the worse as we ran through the campus of the University of Akron. Just as we approached the 10 mile mark, the left earphone of my iPod stopped working. I fiddled around with it to see if I could the wires to reconnect, and then tried to deal with music in just one ear, but I hate the unbalanced feeling I get from doing that, so within a few minutes, I took my earphones off and stowed them in my fuel belt. Could I do 16.2 miles with no music? I was about to find out.
We ran back over the start line and headed over to the hill Viper had assured readers was a quad shredder. Right he was about the quads (the odd thing is, the next day my left quad was sore but my right calf was sore), but I actually enjoyed the long steep downhill! I tried to let myself “fall” down the hill and achieve that sense of flying that I loved in San Francisco, but I was also cognizant of the fact that my knee was destroyed after San Francisco, so I tried to simultaneously go all-out and yet take it easy. That combination doesn’t really work 🙂 At the bottom of the hill, we turned and entered the towpath.
I have no idea what the historical origins of the towpath are, but for me it was historic in that Viper had written all about running it this summer, and had originally planned his Summer Solstice Run to go up and down the length of it. It was such a beautiful place to run! Two summers ago, I did a race called the “Mule Haul 8K” in Albany that went up and down a towpath by the former Erie Canal, and this stretch reminded me a lot of that. Grassy, peaceful, pretty.
Had I not been bonking like crazy, it would have been quite pleasant. Unfortunately, I was struggling to see how I’d ever make it to the finish in a reasonable time. Walking the rest of the way was NOT an option – I had already done that in Wyoming thanks to my knee, and I told myself that I was not going to do it again unless I was injured.
I crossed the halfway point (complete with its own banner – cool!) right at 2:00. On the one hand, it was cool to think that if I could do the second half in the same time as the first, I’d PR. On the other hand, it was frustrating to think that a PR was theoretically possible, but totally not happening due to how tired I was. I continued to be really hot and sweaty, so I also continued drinking lots of water. Shortly after the halfway point, another hot and sweaty arm clapped me on the back – nope, not Viper, but another Maniac whom I had met at the expo! It was great to see a friendly face, and we ran together and chatted for a little while until the next aid station at mile 14, when he stopped for a break. I made the mistake of slowing to a walk to eat my Sports Beans and drink my water, and when I tried to run again, I felt stiff and horrible. My knee had started to ache, but not too badly yet. I recognized that it always felt terrible when trying to run after a walk break, but that it usually eased up after a few minutes, so I told myself I only had to run to mile 15 (about 2/3 of a mile away) and then I could walk again if I wanted to. That technique worked well – by mile 15, the achiness had gone away and I was good to go.
Around mile 15/16, I started chatting with the runners around me. We were all full marathoners at this point (the halves had turned off a while ago), and we had a great sense of camaraderie in our little group. I met a guy from Oklahoma who told me about some of the marathons out there, and we chatted for a bit before I pulled ahead (he later pulled ahead of me, and then I him before the finish). We compared notes on what was ahead, and I tried to gear up for the one major hill I had heard was coming at mile 17.
Approaching mile 17, I slowed to a walk to gear up for the hill and have some energy – and then it was suddenly mile 18. Where was the hill? I cautiously picked it up to a run, and never saw the hill, though I heard others talking about it at the finish. Did I accidentally run some alternate route? If so, my apologies to the race directors.
Somewhere in mile 17, we turned off the Towpath and headed through crowds near a water station and a relay exchange point. As I approached this point, I was exhausted, but still running okay, with just a bit of an ache in my right knee. All of a sudden, my knee spasmed with a cramp, and I nearly crumpled to the ground. The volunteers around me reached out to help me up, but I waved them off and tried to walk. At first I was limping so badly that I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the poor volunteer tried to convince me to go to an aid station. Drawing myself up to my full height and finding a way to walk, I looked him in the eye, and said “a month ago I went down at mile 6, and I still walked to the finish. If you think I’m quitting at mile 17 here, you’re crazier than I am.” The runners around me cheered exhaustedly, and one of the spectators yelled “That’s right – just walk it out honey!” Inspired, I pushed myself to walk faster and faster, until within a few minutes I was running again. My pace sucked, but I was going. At mile 22, the same thing happened again where my knee suddenly cramped up, but walking it out for a few minutes seemed to help, and after the race I didn’t have any pain, so hopefully it’s fine. In any case, it didn’t stop me from signing up for another race!
The last few miles were run through neighborhoods, and after the hill at Garman Road (which was short but very steep – I tried to save energy and then sprint up for a morale boost, but fell short of the top and had to walk like everyone else), we were constantly told “it’s all downhill from here.” I still felt sluggish, and decided to eat a last minute Lara Bar to perk me up for a good finish. Unfortunately, once we turned onto the road my hotel was on, I realized that there had to be some sort of uphill to the finish. Sure enough, with just a mile to go, we were met with the cruelest of sights – a nice sloping downhill, and then a horrible uphill in the distance with runners crawling up it like ants. I tried to play the “hell no” game to boost my motivation, but instead of “hell no that guy is not passing me,” I ended up saying “Hell no I am not running up this hill.” Oops 🙂
We turned off the hill and onto a nice flat ground, and we were back among the streets lined with crowds. Seeing that I had less than 1/2 mile to go, I tried to push the pace, but just couldn’t get the energy to really go any faster. I was dripping with sweat, as you can see by my wet looking hair in this lovely photo.
At a turn up ahead (0.1 to go!), there was a mercifully steep downhill that allowed me to pick up some speed going into the stadium for the big finish. However, instead of really helping, it was a little depressing for the finish – first I was flying down the downhill at record pace, and then the ground flattened out to enter the stadium, so even though I was giving it my all, I felt like I was barely moving. I attempted a sprint finish, as did the shirtless guy next to me, but he beat me by a lot. At least he wasn’t in my age group! 🙂
I eagerly shook the race director’s hand – as promised, he was waiting just over the line to shake the hand of every finisher. Just past him, Cowboy Jeff was waiting for me! The other Marathon Maniac I met along the way had finished just a few minutes ahead of me, and told Jeff to look for me. After doing so many races in foreign places, it was wonderful to see a familiar face cheering me on at the end! I claimed my medal, an orange, and a huge and totally un-raw-vegan blueberry muffin (I’ve kind of given up the raw thing, but I’m doing about 70% vegan), and Jeff and I took pictures in front of the American flag set up at the finish. I had completed Akron, and proven that my knee was not getting me down!
Distance: 26.2 miles
Overall place: 826/1585
Age group place: 22/48