Have you ever seen the sand mandalas made by Buddhist monks? Those intricate, colorful, geometric works of art, created so methodically over days or weeks. The process is as painstaking as it is lyrical. The beauty appears long before the pattern’s full breadth emerges. It’s the process, the ritual, the careful consideration of every breath and movement.
And then, one day, when it is completed, it is dismantled. Stirred up, poured away into nothingness. In moments, that which took so long to create is subsequently destroyed.
The marathon is like that. The marathon is preparation. It is careful, drawn out planning and ritual and routine. It is an agony and an ecstasy over weeks or months of training. And it is all for one day. One moment. A handful of small hours where the canvas can be fully seen. Where the beautiful destruction occurs. A dismantling of all that careful work – whether in the form of a successful, miraculous, magical race with perfect (or near perfect) execution; or a crumbling, a pure-grit, pure-guts experience that can never really be put into words, especially to those who have never experienced it.
Within hours, days, weeks, the memories fade. The sharpness of the pain recedes. It dulls. Did it really happen? Was I really hurting that much? Couldn’t I have run a little faster?
Did I really give it my all?
So, friends, I am here to tell you that I did. I gave everything I had that day.
A few things coalesced that may or may not have led to the crumbling, the destruction. In the end, I think it was just…one of those days. A day that the pieces didn’t click. A day that my legs just weren’t with me; were not in sync with my brain, or those months of training. But perhaps my mind was off kilter from a few of these other things.
First, the week before the race, in Vegas visiting my brother, his wonderful wife, and their darling son – our sweet nephew – I got sick. It wasn’t a bad cold. I had a cough, but my energy was good. It was productive and didn’t sound good, but I slept well and hydrated above and beyond. I made the decision, in consultation with my coach and my gut, to skip my last long run in favor of letting my body rest and try to kick the bug. By Tuesday, I was back on track with my taper week runs: 7 miles that evening with 2 at marathon pace (nailed), and Thursday I ran 3 miles on the treadmill with 5x striders. That run didn’t feel as amazing, but didn’t feel bad either. Just felt…like the taper. I had some aches and tightnesses, but wrote them off to the taper. Perhaps the body wracking cough (that had dried out but was still present) was wearing out my muscles a bit. I could sometimes feel it in my hip flexors. But then again, the taper does strange things to the mind.
But I slept. I hydrated. I ate well. Very, very well. We left work early on Friday afternoon and drove the 3.5 hours down to Albany, a sleepy southern town, and cozied up in our enormous king sweet at the host hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, nestled by the river and directly across the street from a statue of Albany’s native son, Ray Charles. Shannon and I soaked up the river’s presence; we still miss Pittsburgh, and the running water so close by gave us a jolt of our old home on a beautiful, early spring weekend.
We went to iHOP and got treated by the manager to extra pancakes (for no other reason that that he knew we were there for the race) – I stuck to my usual pre-race meal that has yet to let me down. I never felt underfueled, or like I was nutritionally bonking; that wasn’t the issue.
Race morning dawned clear and cool, but with no wind or bite. 41* and calm. I stepped outside in a hoodie and sweatpants and sandals, feeling the air. I changed race outfits three times; the third time was when I discovered I had grabbed the wrong running skirt: I had mistakenly packed the one with the torn inseam (which I got chafing from when I had no choice but to run the Michelob ULTRA half-marathon in it back in October). I panicked. But I swallowed it – I switched back into my crop singlet and into the capris I had packed.
I had my standard breakfast and one that had worked well in training for sustained energy: 2/3 cup oats with some brown sugar, cooked in water, and a banana with peanut butter.
Chrissy came upstairs and asked how I was feeling and told me not to be nervous, not to pressure myself; that I had done the work and this was my moment and I should enjoy it. I grinned. Her enthusiasm was infectious. But the nerves lingered. My mental game was off – sickness, wardrobe malfunction… Some things were clicking and others were not.
We went downstairs, but I ran back up one more time to grab my arm warmers (another mistake – they were not needed). I got a photo with a lovely teammate, Regina, and we wished each other well, bubbling with pre-race excitement and nerves.
In the weeks leading up to the race and at packet pickup the day before, I kept running into the 3:35 pacer, who used to live and coach in Athens. Chrissy swore by his pacing abilities – said he was a metronome (he was: he paced to a perfect 3:35:00 finish). He couldn’t get my name right, but that’s okay. I showed him my pacing plan when we found him again outside the expo the day before, and he said his would be pretty much that at least through mile 12; when I was supposed to pick it up, he would need to stay conservative. I after all was targeting a 3:32:30 – a time that would very likely get me *into* Boston (maybe. possibly). He had to run 3:35 and let his runners decide their fates. I told him I’d line up nearby for sure, and perhaps I’d stick with through mile 12 if our paces did indeed match. Even 12 miles of company is better than none.
We hustled out to the start line and I took my pre-race Gu and a final sip of water. My watch and phone had unsynced again so I had to re-pair the bluetooth, trying to do this quickly so I could start the LiveTrack and put my phone away for good. Chrissy, Krystina, and James had finished their warm up. I got hugs and fist-bumps, a far-off wave from James as I had already lined up. Shannon and I kissed. Our ritual; our good luck charm, always.
I scooted up close to the 3:35 group, got a wave from the pacer. “You ready?” I nodded. I laughed inwardly at his running skirt and red and white polka dotted compression socks. Eye catching; good for pacing.
Few announcements besides, “Marathoners turn right, half-marathoners turn left.” Over and over. No anthem. No warning.
BOOM. The cannon fired, and we began to move.
Even with the nearly immediate split, things were still slow going for the first quarter mile or so. I just tried not to trip, and focused on my breathing and relaxing into the race, knowing I would find my pace soon enough. I was to run 8:20s for the first two miles, 8:15s through mile 5, then click into 8:10s through mile 12. One mile at a time.
We turned right and crossed the bridge (flat) over the river and made another right onto the Albany State University campus. It was foggy and cool. But I could tell I would be peeling off my throwaway gloves and earband within a few miles. My exposed core felt fine even in the cool air. I should have started chillier, but it was still okay. Even though I was in fleece lined capris instead of the breezy skirt I had planned, I was mostly fine.
I hung off the back of the pace group and searched for the pace. I was going a few seconds fast but felt okay, trying to relax more and save everything I had for later. But even though it didn’t feel hard – it still felt relatively easy – I noted inwardly (quiet, brain) that it didn’t feel as effortless and crawling as the first miles of Chickamauga, where I was hitting the brakes and coasting and gliding and savoring it all those first couple miles. I was searching and wandering and looking for it. You’ll relax into it. It’ll click in. Sometimes it takes a good few miles to find that happy place.
When that first mile clicked off too fast, I consciously backed off, knowing I really did want to pace this right. I let the pace group go.
I let the pace group go.
We wound about the campus, and eventually ended up on a main road I recalled driving in on, and back towards the bridge and across it, soon joining back up with the half-course, with most of the half runners long gone, some walkers remaining for us to pass. We passed the second water stop, around mile 4, and as I tossed my cup, I realized I hadn’t taken a gel as planned. I shrugged this off; my stomach was still pretty full from breakfast, and mile 6 seemed like a better idea. I peeled off the gloves (and slid my hands out of the thumbholes of the arm warmers), and within a mile, the earband followed.
8:13, 8:17, 8:14, 8:10
The pace group was still within visual reach and maybe 20 seconds ahead of me. I fantasized about the later miles when I would reel them in and then pass them, waving at the pacer and saying goodbye for the rest of the race. Sayonara.
But it was a struggle. Chickamauga felt almost effortless for a large portion of the race. This one was all focus. If my mind drifted for a second, so did my pace. It didn’t hurt and didn’t feel hard per se, not yet, but something just wasn’t sliding into place.
Perhaps it was a psych-out, but I think all marathoners know the feeling that can creep in as early as those first few miles. Today is not my day.
I focused. I redirected my thinking. I thought about my posture, corrected my arm carriage. I focused on my breathing and how it fit with my cadence; the fact that it was still very controlled. I tried to let go of the fact that the pace group was still drawing farther off. I reassured myself that they were still well within striking distance, and strike I would. Run your race. Be Desi. Be patient. Stick to the plan.
I took a gel at mile 6 and chased it at a water station. The volunteers were fabulous – I called out for water each time and they were all there for me, water vs. gatorade, and held the cups well for an easy grab. Pinch, pour, pinch, pour, toss.
The courses separated again, and the marathon entered a long, lonely stretch. So much of the course was exposed, and there was not a cloud in the sky. In truth it was a beautiful day. But the sun is merciless to the marathoner. I wished I had contacts and could run in good running sunglasses; I couldn’t pull down the brim of my hat low enough; that low, early spring, morning sun. The angle of it – right in my eyes.
8:12, 8:10, 8:09, 8:06
I was still running strong. My form was good. My breathing was great. I was fueled. But it was work. I kept my mind engaged. I saw the pacer dart into a port-o-potty, having passed off the sign briefly, and dart back out and catch up. I half-chuckled. I took my second gel around 9.5, before the mile 10 water station.
The work continued, but I felt for a bit like whenever I accidentally sped up, over-correcting a slowdown, my legs felt better. Patience, then. Your legs want to run fast. Just a couple more miles of this and you can start to let them go. Then you’ll feel in that groove. Around mile 11, I thought I had found it, and I was floating for a little while. See? It just took until now. Sometimes that happens. Now relax and enjoy. You’ll catch them. Keep running your race. You are executing. You are doing it. It’s supposed to be hard.
But the feeling quickly passed. The sun was still beating. We wound through some lovely neighborhoods peppered with stately southern homes, but shade was brief and intermittent. A few hills rolled in and out; nothing terribly significant, especially to an Athens runner, a former Pittsburgh runner.
I recall crossing the 10-mile mat; I didn’t check my overall time, instead saying, “hello friends” and smiling inwardly, knowing things were okay, even if I wasn’t feeling as amazing as I had hoped I would at this point. I took a gel at 13. When I crossed the half-split, I checked: 1:47:39, just 10 seconds slow of intended split. I’m okay. I’m doing this.
8:11, 8:08, 8:10, 8:07, 8:07
Mile 13 was the pace turning point – it was when I was to drop 8:05s for a few miles, then throw down an 8:04 mile 16, before settling into 8:00 for the long haul. I was hitting it, or nearly, but as I approached mile 16, I thought to myself, Maybe I should just shoot for 8:00-8:05 to the end. Maybe I can close hard if I save myself a bit more like that. I’m not feeling this. It just isn’t right. At the mile 16 water station, I took two cups (expecting from examining course maps that there was a water station break until 19; this ended up not being the case), chasing down a gel. I sipped from both and dumped the remains of both over my head.
8:03, 8:10, 8:06, 8:06
I saw the pace group less and less as the course curved and I lost ground to them. They were pacing more aggressively than I was for the first half, and by the time I was to speed up to catch them… well…
The first time I saw my friends, who had finished the half, was around 18.6 (they tell me). I saw them up ahead, and they lifted me up. I smiled briefly, and then I gritted my teeth and told myself to fight. I could still do this. I felt my turnover pick up. Chrissy and James and Shannon were screaming for me. I rounded a curve up a little hill and I could still hear them yelling my name.
But just as fast as that feeling of strength and love washed over me, it slipped through my fingers. My pace plummeted and I felt like that lift had sapped a little extra from me – more than I could spare. Somewhere around here or there, I took another gel.
How do you explain the wall? How do you explain the day where things fall apart, where you just can’t hold it together? How do you put into words, it just wasn’t my day? Talking to a co-worker this week, I told her, “The wheels just fell off.” And she asked me, “What does that feel like?” I opened my mouth, and all the words I could not find stuck in my throat.
As Shannon put it to me, It’s where mind over matter…no longer matters.
I slowed down during the last 10K, especially miles 22 to 24, of Chickamauga. But looking back now with this perspective, that wasn’t a blow-up. The wheels didn’t fully come off. They wobbled. I wobbled. I reached for them and held them with the edge of my everything. But I held it together and brought it back – not completely, but enough. I was able to grip hard enough to steady the wobble, and to teeter-totter my way to finish.
But this. This was a slow implosion. This was a melting away of strength. This was lead and sand and jelly filling my legs. This was despair in my heart. This was my mind and heart screaming at my legs to run. Run. Go. Fight. You can do this. You trained for this. What about that crazy interval-filled 18 miler? What about that pace-hungry 20-miler where I could barely contain my speed? What about all those tempo runs?
8:21, 8:24, 8:44 (2:44:14 split for 20 miles, 2 minutes off pace)
Krystina and Chris (and his kids – I was too delirious, though) leap frogged with the other group so I saw loving faces quite nearly every mile through the end. I communicated to them, not my day, but they never abandoned me. They kept cheering, kept encouraging. I was going to finish no matter what. And I was not going to walk.
Every time I saw them, every time I saw my husband, I wondered if I should just cry. I wondered if I should go up to them and get high fives and hugs and kisses. If I should walk for a moment and cry and tell them I loved them and today wasn’t the day I was going to BQ, but that I would still finish. But I knew that, too, was more than I had to give. Everything I had, I channeled into forward motion. I forced my eyes up and forward when I caught sight of vomit on the sidewalk, and wondered about my own gut. I reminded myself around 22 that I needed another gel.
Somewhere around mile 22, the 3:40 pacer passed me. A cry erupted from my throat in expletive form. I tried again to up my pace. Just keep up with him. You probably still won’t PR since he likely started behind you, but maybe you could squeak in near 3:40. But I couldn’t hold on. My legs refused.
The miles ticked by in agony. Miles before, I peeled off my right arm warmer, and somewhere in the last 10K, I worked to move my pace band and watch to the other wrist so I could peel off the other, securing both to my fuel belt. Sun filled my eyes. I took at least one gatorade cup in the last 10K. I was taking many double cups and dumping water full on my head and down my back. Just keep running. Just keep moving forward.
Please, just a little faster. Then we’ll be done sooner, if nothing else. Nothing. No response. At one point, my pace readout was showing 11:xx and I though to myself, They’ll think I walked. I’m not really running this slowly. And I’m not walking. I will not walk.
8:56, 9:13, 9:25, 9:38, 9:55
My watch clicked my 25, and what seemed like ages later, I crossed the mile 25 marker. I tried to push. You can do anything for a mile. I picked up briefly, ready to gut it out to a gritty finish, but my legs once more deflated, gave up on me, stopped responding. I wanted so badly to walk. I remembered Air Force, my anger at myself for walking even in the final mile. I wouldn’t do it. Keep going. I negotiated. I thought of how many laps of a track I had left. How little that could seem – and yet here and now, felt enormous. I felt like I hadn’t seen my husband or friends in ages. I felt like the finish was never coming. I kept my death march. The course narrowed into a chute and turned past a train station and into it, throwing in a 90-degree turn that made everything inside me scream.
But mercifully, the course curved and went down, and finally, on a narrow path and chute, there was the banner. Everything you have. Right now. There was a woman in pink ahead of me with whom I had been jockeying for miles, who was also heavily suffering and had been walking on and off. We were both sprinting, silently pushing each other, driving each other to the line and across it. I don’t think I caught her in the end, but it was what I needed. I flew across the line and nearly collapsed.
9:06; 7:37 pace final sprint
Chip time: 3:43:19 (8:32 average)
Volunteers swarmed, but all I saw was Shannon. I gasped and stumbled and landed in his arms. I don’t really recall how a medal wound up around my neck, but Shannon said it happened right away. I was wrapped in a thermal sheet. He walked me to food and water and gatorade. A sob ripped from my throat. At first, it wasn’t even despair. Not yet. It was the last vestige of any strength. A primordial scream. A barbaric yawp. I sipped at the gatorade. He offered be the bagel and half banana he grabbed. Oranges, I breathed, and he walked me there and I devoured the orange third.
He walked me around, and the physical pain finally released the other pain. The one I still feel pounding at my chest. The one that has been simmering in my guts since the race first began to spiral downward. The failure.
I couldn’t do it. He walked me around, up and down along the water. I asked where everyone was, and he said they were all cheering near the finish, but were probably giving us (me) space. The physical pain would overwhelm me for a few minutes, and I’d breathe, and we’d walk, and I’d almost laugh at the absurdity of it all. Not many things are as absurd as the voluntary pain of a marathon. But then a fresh wave would hit. The crushing disappointment. I distracted myself by asking about the joys of their races.
Maybe fifteen or so minutes of walking later, and we found our crew again. Shannon got me to a chair, and they gathered around me, and told me I was amazing. As I wept into my palms, they told me that they loved me; that I was not a failure; that I did a great thing; that I would be back. I asked them about their races. All the pride and love lifted me up.
That’s the beauty of the marathon. It isn’t just your sand mandala. It’s the patterns of your friends and fellow runners. It’s the geometry of their strength lifting up yours. It’s the camaraderie and love and power of a collective that is so much greater than one runner, one race, one day. We draw the race together, we wipe the slate clean together. We start again. All that beauty is in us. It’s part of us. It’s infused in us. We wipe it clean, but it never leaves us. It’s the well we draw from. The power source.
It’s the reason we ended up in Pittsburgh, and then Athens. It’s the wonderful, amazing people who have taught us so much already, and will continue to teach us more. It’s one marathon of many.
I’m not done yet. I’m cleaning the slate, rebuilding my tools and pieces. I’m resting and living and loving. But I’ll be back soon. The marathon beat me up last Saturday, but it didn’t beat me.
Something bigger is coming. Watch this space.
For those looking for a more analytical glance, here is a screenshot of my Garmin Connect elevation:
Here is Strava:
The course is indeed flat and fast. There were some lovely parts, many of which I could not enjoy because I was having a bad day and blowing up, so please take my impressions there with that grain of salt. Note, though, that the course is largely exposed, so if you get a sunny day, that could be a factor. I’ve definitely overheated a lot worse in marathons before, and I don’t think it was really the source of my downfall, but it did get warm. And I got an early spring tan out of this race. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want more information about the race, which was incredibly well-run and organized. The half is also a well-timed tune-up for spring marathons, including Boston.