6AM, 34 degrees, 27,600 runners, 26.2 miles, 4 hrs 12 mins, 2 black toenails, and the 3628 marathoners behind me
Three or four years ago, my physical fitness was limited to roundtrip walks between the bar and my apartment with occasional divergent excursions to seemingly adventurous locales. For a while, in the shower, when the gas hadn’t been cut off and the water was warm—or when I wasn’t singing to hear it bounce around the courtyard through the window that always stayed open—I would engage in a series of stretches and tell myself it was better than nothing. I’ve often been satisfied with better than nothing.
One time, completely sober, I ran up the hill at New Street from Cherry and got about halfway around the block before I gave out, walked home and smoked another cigarette. A couple weeks later, I smoked a whole pack after dental surgery because it hurt, and that gave me an abscessed tooth, which hurt way more. So I gurgled salt water, washed down hydrocodone with whiskey drinks and chased the pain with cigarettes then went out again. On a Thursday or Friday morning, you might find me asleep on the couch or floor at work from the night before. My lunches usually involved beef sticks, gas station hot dogs, orange Powerade, donut sticks or—unless I was lucky, and—Zebra cakes.
In other words, to be successful last weekend, I didn’t need to finish the marathon fast; I just needed to finish the marathon alive.
At 6 o’clock in the morning, as the temperature dipped just north of freezing, Heather and I jogged through the logjam of idle cars on I-15 with a few other runners who, like us, were worried about missing the start. We pushed through the crowd on the sidewalk outside Mandalay Bay and looked for a way in.
There were 27,600 runners in the half-marathon and marathon whose starts were combined in a rolling wave released by corrals, each one holding 1,000 people. Heather was in Corral Five, which we found quickly. It meant she was expected to finish relatively quickly. And because I’d forgotten to enter my estimated finish time, I was relegated to Corral Twenty-Five, six blocks and 20,000 people away. By the time I reached the 17th Corral, the race had already started, though it’d be almost 40 minutes before I’d get to take off. Still, I cut in line for fear of missing the race. Inside, with the collective hum of that much humanity, I instantly started smiling.
Even when I caught a whiff of the stone-faced homeless man standing next to me, I was smiling. Smiling but moving away so I could breathe, since that’s a function vital to successful running. Off and on, I saw him in the crowd, like a stoic, politically correct variation of Where’s Waldo?
Fireworks continued to go off overhead as the sun slowly rose behind the massive start line rigging. I plugged my headphones in and fired up my iPod. Five hours of music in a random mix. The first song was Ice Cube, “Today Was a Good Day.” When we finally got to run, Roly-Bots were playing in my ears but were drowned out by a Blues Brothers cover band who urged us to throw up our hands and “Shout! A little bit louder now…”
To my right and left, I saw, for the first time, showgirls and white tigers. Men parachuted down above the strip. There were running Elvi and discarded jackets, headbands and gloves everywhere. Before we even reached the first mile marker, people broke trot and lined up at the Porta-Potties. Heather was already several miles ahead of me.
The Wednesday before this, I couldn’t even walk. My right Achilles tendon felt like it might rip off my heel with the next step. I read online how, if it didn’t rupture first, it could come right off and roll the calf up into a little ball. Between the pain and a growing fear of detaching tendons, I worried I wouldn’t get to put my months of training to use, that I’d have to walk or watch from the sidelines. We looked for braces, wrapped it in Ace bandages, and massaged it with Blue Goo and Icy Hot. The morning of the marathon, we found the KT Tape samples in our goodie bags and applied just two pieces of tape to my foot, as their website instructed. The one part of my body that did not hurt during the marathon was my Achilles tendon.
Believe it or not, the first ten miles were a breeze. I found pacers in the crowd, named them in my head—Ms. Fat Booty, Mr. Grey Head, Little Asian Lady—and then, when it was time, I passed them. I made mental notes of things I wanted to share later: the guy holding a sign that read “Go Ass Monkey!”; the two middle-aged women who ran side-by-side so their matching fleece tops could spell out “Best Friends”; the tiny, elderly Japanese couple in blue karate guis; the seven-foot tall guy; the tattooed bikers in leather vests; men veering wildly from the race to pee behind buildings, palm trees and giant decorative rocks; the plump and pimpled parking lot attendant who grinned and waved with genuine cheer from his seated post outside the seedy motel in old downtown Las Vegas where bad gamblers inevitably hole up.
Rounding the corner on Spring Mountain past Mel Torme Way, at the split where the half-marathoners stayed straight and the marathoners headed into the boonies, “Just to Get By” (Talib Kweli) gave way to Floco’s “Me vs. My Ego,” and I picked up steam, climbing the first real hill of the race and wondering how long this second wind would last. I thought about Tagg, wondered if I’d wander up on him at some point, and wished I’d put his Rock KC mix on my iPod. Or the remix he did with Floco. This was just past mile 11 or 12, and I came up on a clump of people. For no reason other than instinct, I turned my head to the left and there was Tagg.
Up another hill and he wanted to make small talk. He’d seen Lady A earlier on. He’d stopped twice to pee already. After partying the Friday night before, he spent all day Saturday re-hydrating. Perhaps too much. At the next water station he slowed down to get his drink on but I was afraid to stop. I thought I wouldn’t start again and I wanted to go as far as I could before I did. I missed my mouth and spilled Cytomax on myself then turned to wave.
I hit my stride. I was on a roll. I had the eye of the tiger. I was the eye of the tiger. I felt so good I poked the tiger in the eye and then I gave it Lasik.
Around the 15th mile, it occurred to me I might see Heather because the course became two lanes that trafficked in opposite directions. For the next three miles, I entertained myself by searching for her and noting the deficiencies in the women who looked like her from a distance. They were all a great disappointment.
In my peripheral vision, I saw a woman jumping up and down and waving her arms like I was an airplane and she was the last person on Gillian’s Island. It was Heather’s mom, Pam, the Tasmanian Devil of Niceness. Her husband Larry stood next to her obscured by his camera with the giant gray lens. Excited to finally recognize some friendly faces in the sea of cheering people, I beamed like I’d just finished the race then went back to looking for Heather.
But the course diverged away from the leaders and soon everyone on the other side of the road, running the opposite direction, looked more and more like me, like a person who wanted to give this marathon a try whereas before they all looked like runners. Like Heather does. There’d be no mid-marathon, mid-road high five today. I abandoned my recognizance mission and began trying to remember where I was and what I was doing when I was 26.2 years old.
That was November 2004. I would’ve been in Bulgaria, I think, breaking up with my girlfriend. I’d been back in Macon about two years by then. Aside from her and my family, I had two actual friends in Macon: Chris Hood and Courtney Wilson. A lot has changed in the last five years.
I’d given myself permission to stop after mile 18, if I wanted to, because I’d run 18 consecutive miles in training so I knew I could go that far. When I got that far in the marathon, I no longer had to pee and I felt strong enough so I kept going, telling myself that I could stop at mile 20 since that’s where you’re supposed to “hit The Wall.”
Except I hit the wall around mile 19 instead. Without any damn warning, I completely forgot what I was doing. I kept running out of habit but could not for the life of me remember what I was even thinking 30 seconds earlier. I felt like I didn’t know anything. Had someone asked my name, I wouldn’t have even known to point at my Road ID bracelet. It was a feeling beyond tired. A few yards ahead, there laid a table covered in packets of GU, a goo-like substance that reportedly replenishes goodies like carbohydrates and stuff. I grabbed a pack called ROCTANE, which for all its supposedly manly buff and bluster was Blueberry Pomegranate flavored. It tasted like a Blueberry and a Pomegranate took a poop in my mouth.
But it worked. Almost instantly I felt better. By the time I reached mile 20, I decided not to stop at all. As goofy as it might sound, I thought about everyone I love and how much they are going through. My Dad can’t walk or talk anymore, and may never again. My brother will be in Iraqi until next July. My grandfather has Alzheimer’s and my Mammaw bares the brunt of it. Moms holds us all together, missing her son and her father but never breaking. My sister is a social worker for Hospice Care and comes down here every other weekend or so to help attend to our family’s various needs, like giving my Uncle Danny a break from being Dad’s primary caregiver. I even came up on a man wearing a shirt dedicating this race to a 24-year-old who died less than a month before.
Shit, I’m just running. If they can handle all that, I can handle this.
When I slowed, I looked for people to pass, singling out folks in costumes since it would be especially embarrassing to get beat by someone in a purple wig. I knocked them off, one by one. A pair of women dressed like flappers in cheap silver strands of plastic. The Justice League: Batman and Robin (revenge for getting passed by them in the Halloween half-marathon in Atlanta), Superman and Wonder Woman. Two or three Elvi. A caveman shilling for GEICO. When I ran out of costumes, I looked for other low-hanging fruit. Chicks in Rainbow Brite striped stockings. A teenager in blue jeans. Some crazy dude running barefooted.
On the edge of the road, next to an ambulance, wearing a shirt that said MEDICAL, a balding middle-age Asian man held out his hand, offering an open container of Vaseline.
The last hill was a bridge that stretched up and over the Interstate. This was mile 23 or 24. Late, late, late in the race. The muscle on top of my right thigh started jumping and I wondered what it might do next, watching it like it could start singing and dancing.
“Hello, my baby! Hello, my darlin’! Hello, my ragtime gal…”
At the start of this hill, a man stood on a black box. Music played on his personal PA system. He wore a Dr. Seuss hat from some recent county fair and danced back and forth as he cheered. I made eye contact and the expression he retuned spoke something like a defiant “What?” that eased quickly into insecurity.
Maybe it was just me.
The last mile of the marathon sucked. It wrapped around the back entrance of Mandalay Bay along non-descript employee parking decks and service entrances. Plus, I was really, really friggin’ tired. Still, I picked up the pace some, though I wanted to have enough leftover to sprint when I saw the finish line. I kept it cautious. I didn’t want to tear or pull anything this close to finishing. Later that evening, Heather and I would find out that a man, age 32, collapsed either 40 feet or 40 yards from the finish line of the half-marathon. He died that evening in the hospital.
On that last stretch, I went kind of deaf. I heard the music on my iPod and I heard the announcer make a comment about the number of shirts I was wearing and how one was a cotton shirt. I heard people cheering and clapping and yelling. But there was nothing going on in my head. It was completely silent, perhaps for the first time in my life. I’d already gotten teary-eyed and mushy a couple miles earlier when I realized I was about to finish the marathon, that I was not just finishing it but that I was going to go the whole way without stopping, and that it would be nearly impossible for me to doubt myself from this point forward. So when I crossed the finish line, when it was all said and done, I didn’t feel anything.
Especially my feet.
I wandered over to the tables of bananas, bagels, water and nutritional bars and such, grabbing what I wanted as I wanted. The world was still on mute—sounds coming in but largely unheard, no inner monologue… or dialogue. From one gate to another, I followed the people in front of me, like cattle. I took a picture with a Vegas showgirl just because everyone ahead of me had. The photographer told me to move in closer to her but my feet didn’t budge and I nearly went from leaning to falling.
In this haze, Heather found me. She shouted something and something else and maybe another thing before my brain came back from vacation. Even when I thought I knew what was going on, I was confused because she was dressed like Inspector Gadget. Apparently, she’d gotten cold waiting for me so Larry kindly gave her his beige overcoat. Everyone else was wrapped in aluminum foil shawls. A creepy looking guy, who may have been the Vaseline man’s brother, offered to wrap me in one, but I declined.
“You got a 4-12!” She yelled again. She was extremely happy. I had no idea what she meant. Eventually, I did. Four hours and twelve minutes. I was floored. Though barely faster than average, I thought it took me a lot longer. I’d guessed my time was just shy of five hours, which I still would’ve been pleased with since I never stopped and hadn’t died or succumb to injury, all of which seemed like plausible outcomes.
Of course Heather finished a full 20 minutes faster, but I’ll let her tell her own story. (She’s also good at Scrabble.)
There’s more, I’m sure. A moral and other observations, but we’re 2600 words down the road now, so I’m going to stop.
In summary, it was one of the top ten transformative experiences of my life. Just above the night I had my picture taken with a monkey and saw Weird Al Yankovic perform at the Tennessee State Fair, and just a few notches below meeting Heather.
I got to say, it was a good day.