Let me begin by making something clear: I am not an elite marathoner. Shalane Flanagan is an elite marathoner. Desiree Linden is an elite marathoner. Me? I’m sub-elite at best, and even saying that, I cannot help but think of at least ten women whom I know on a first-name-basis, who live within a few miles of me, and who could kick my ass at a footrace of literally any distance tomorrow morning.
However, according the Hartford Marathon's standards, I was “elite” enough for them. And if they wanted to give me free entry into a race I was already intending to run, I certainly wasn't going to say no.
Of course, as I was applying for “elite” status, I quickly discovered that the race had an even higher tier than elite, which they called “New England’s Finest.” If you, as a woman, ran a 2:55 marathon or better and lived in New England or New York, you could apply to receive travel reimbursement of up to $150, a free hotel room, and the opportunity to win considerably more prize money than the rest of the elites. (Take, for example, first place: the NEF runner would receive $6,000, while the regular elite could only earn $1,000.*)
|I think this is the finish. But I'm honestly not sure.|
What I did get as part of the elite program was access to a tented area beside the finish line where I and the other NEF/elites could put our gear. The morning of the race, my friend and wonderful weekend host A___ and my fiancé R___ escorted me to that tent, which turned out to be not so much a clean, heated haven, as I had envisioned, but instead consisted of two rows of folding chairs and a folding table laden with safety pins, a case of water, and a box of bananas, all set up atop some already-soggy grass. (But hey, we had a tent, which was a lot nicer than standing out in the rain!)
After quick hugs and mutual wishes of “good luck,” A___ and R___ departed, leaving me feeling incredibly out of place as I hunched over my folding chair and watched all of the svelte runners arrive, looking like they knew exactly what they were doing and wearing matching warmup kits to boot. I, meanwhile, was wearing men’s sweatpants from Marshall’s and a free jacket I got at a race in Massachusetts last year. (I had meant for them to be my throwaway clothes, but apparently a volunteer was assigned to collect the NEF/elite runners’ warmup clothes at the starting line and take them back to the tent for us. Who knew?) Just as I checked my watch for the twelve-hundredth time and decided that 7:02am seemed like the perfect time to start tucking gel packets into my shorts, a woman in the next row of folding chairs made eye contact with me and smiled. After we exchanged a few pleasantries (yes, the weather was a little gloomy, and the grass beneath these chairs was awfully soggy, but hey, at least we wouldn’t be too hot!), she asked what I was going to do to warm up and would I mind the company? This was her first marathon, so “she didn’t know what marathoners did to warm up.” I invited her along on my one-mile warm-up jog, and as we trotted away, she asked what time I was hoping to run. I said anything under 2:55 would be a success. When I returned the question, she said she was hoping to OTQ (which is short for "Olympic Trials Qualify," meaning running under 2:45:00). Hmm, I thought. That’s a bit ambitious for a first marathon. But when she followed that up by saying she had recently run a 1:16 half marathon, my skepticism vanished.**
After finishing our jog, we parted ways. I had been told we’d be “escorted” to the starting line, but as I started seeing more and more runners leave the tent on their own, I decided that I must have been misinformed and jogged out toward the throngs of runners. When I finally found the starting line, I simultaneously ran into C___, a friend of a friend whom I’d met once before on a run in Connecticut. We hugged, at which point she said that since it was her first marathon, she just wanted to break three hours. (Just!) Then she inevitably asked what I wanted to run, and when I told her I was aiming for 2:55, she declared, “Perfect! We can run together, then.”
As the gun went off, my competitive brain got hostile. She’s totally crashing my marathon. Now I’m going to feel like I have to stick with her, instead of running my own race. What if she goes out too hard? What if she feels good? What if I feel good? I tried to reason with myself that if she started throwing down 6:15s in the first half, I’d just let her go and try not to let it bother me. On the other hand, if I felt good and she was flagging, I could leave her at mile 20. She’d better be flagging, warned the competitive voice. It’s her first marathon. You aren’t going to get beat by a first-timer are you?
Within the first few miles, all the OTQ women were long gone. Sure, there were a few men around, but otherwise it was frankly just me and C___. She seemed fine, and I seemed fine, and so we carried on, with her informing me at every mile marker exactly how fast her watch said we were running. (She was using the GPS auto-lap, while I was manually lapping my watch, so her announcements came earlier and earlier as the miles clicked away—exactly the reason I'd chosen not to use auto-lap.) We ran on a narrow park path and up along a highway. We ran beneath a bridge underpass where her family was screaming her name, and through a downtown stretch where R___ was screaming mine. On the uphills, she forged ahead, and on the downhills I sped past, but for the most part we ran stride for stride, taking turns going ahead of one another at water stops. (That is, except at three water stops where there were “elite runner” water tables. At those, she grabbed her pre-placed water bottle, and I ran straight past to grab a regular Dixie cup from a volunteer. Nothing new on race day, right?)
Now, my “ideal day race plan” had been to run 6:35-40 per mile for the first 10 miles, 6:30-35 for the next 7, 6:30s for the next 5, and anything sub-6:30 for the last 4+. However, the terrain was so uneven throughout the race and, quite frankly, I was so caught up in the fact that this girl was sticking to me like glue, that somewhere around mile 15, I abandoned that plan. My reasoning was as follows: (1) Nothing in my training indicated that I’d be able to negative split with this kind of precision. (2) If I picked up the pace significantly, C___ might not come with me, which would mean two things. First, I’d have to run the rest of the race literally by myself (because the annoying man who decided to sit on our heels starting at mile 8 was clearly not going to run beside me), and second, if my "wheels came off," I would have to watch C___ fly right past me. And call me a wimp, call me a coward, but I just did not want that to happen. Better to outkick her at the very end, I thought. After all: you know the kind of fatigue that’s coming. She doesn’t.
In fact somewhere right around where fatigue was starting to set in, we reached the second “elite” water bottle table, and C___ dropped her bottle. I saw her do it, and immediately thought Now what do I do? I could pick up my pace and try to drop her. I could simply keep going and see what she would do. Or I could slow down a little and look over my shoulder to try and encourage her to join me again.
You don’t know this girl, my competitive brain said. You don’t owe her anything.
Yeah, but if that were you, you’d want the other person to wait for you, said my rational brain. And what’s a few extra seconds? It’s not going to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of your race.
So I slowed down a beat and kept looking over my shoulder until I heard her footsteps again.
Around mile 19, we passed one of the OTQ girls. She looked absolutely miserable. “Come with us!” I tried to shout, but I was getting cold and my lips weren’t really functioning, so I doubt she heard me. And speaking of things not functioning, I spent all of miles 20 and 21 trying to get a gel out of my shorts pocket with fingers that absolutely would not cooperate. By the time we hit mile 22, my shorts were twisted, my shoulders were tired, and I had completely given up hope of getting that gel out—at which point C___ asked, “Do you want a gummy?”
See, this is why you were right to wait for her, my rational brain said as she handed over one of her shot blocks (which is basically a giant cube-shaped gummy bear). My competitive brain had absolutely no comeback to that one.
However, it had plenty to say when, a few hundred meters later, the man who had been running one step behind us the entire time finally started taking off.
Go with him! screamed my competitive brain. You can’t just let him beat you after he used you all that way!
But we were still four miles out from the finish line, and I just did not feel spry enough to match the move.
It’s okay, said my rational brain. Another time, another guy. You can go next time. This time, in this race, just hang on until 25.
And so I did. At mile 25, I saw what looked like an old man up ahead of us, near what looked like a gas station. He didn’t seem to be moving particularly quickly, and some guy C___ knew had just jumped onto the course to help her out. Neither he nor she said a word to me, so I figured all bets were off.
Time to go.
I pushed as hard as I could up the highway ramp that led back into downtown Hartford. I suffered through the downhill that came next. I tried to turn a wince into a smile when I passed by A___ and R___, all without turning my head, because I had to focus. I couldn’t let up, and I didn’t dare look back. C___ might be there, and I needed all of my energy to move forward. If I got out-kicked by the first-time marathoner who “just wanted to break three hours,” I’d never, ever forgive myself.
When the finish line finally came into sight, I couldn’t hear anything but my own footfalls, and there was nothing in front of me except that big, unforgiving clock. Suddenly it was all very real: if I didn’t push for these last 200 meters, I was going to finish with a 2:54 to my name, and damn it, I might have traveled a long way to get here, but I was better than 2:54. So I kicked as hard as my weary, beaten legs could kick.
And, as it turned out, those legs didn't let me down.
2018 Hartford Marathon Race Results
And, as it turned out, those legs didn't let me down.
2018 Hartford Marathon Race Results
27 / 1,560
5 / 635
* Not that I had any dreams of winning, the race, mind you, but prize money extended down through eighth place, and given the previous years’ finishing times, finishing somewhere in the top eight seemed possible.
** This woman went on to not only OTQ—by nearly 4 minutes, I should add—but she also won the entire race. Guess my warmup routine was sufficient....