When I first sat down to write this, it had been about 33 hours since I finished my first (and last) marathon, and I still couldn’t quite believe it. If it weren’t for my body screaming at me with every movement, I wouldn’t have believed it at all, the feeling was so surreal. But the arrested sleep, and the desire to sleep more than normal, as well as the fact that, for the following two days, it took triple the usual time to ascend and descend the stairs due to all the pain – all of those things assured me that I had, in fact, run 26.2 miles. In giving you the race recap, I’ll be as concise and as interesting as possible, but bear with me. I RAN these dang miles; the least you can do is read about them.
The morning of race day was very cold, which was an abrupt switch from the temperate weather Kansas City had been enjoying, and I was underprepared. I knew what I wanted to wear, but what I wanted to wear did not match what the outdoor elements required. I’ve always trained and run races in warm or hot weather, so I don’t actually own any cold-weather-running clothes. And I like it that way. It gives me an excuse to take a six-month break from running.
I took no pre-race pictures, but I solved the unequal clothing-to-weather ratio problem by wearing tights under my running skirt and a thermal-underwear long-sleeve shirt under my favorite running tank. The long-sleeved shirt was the only thing I owned that I could stand the thought of getting rid of if I got too hot along the course. I’ve been looking for an excuse to get rid of it for months.
Once at the starting line, I stood in the crowd alone. I had a friend running the half, and we had driven down to the start together, but we split up when he had an issue with gear check and I didn’t trust him to be finished in time for the gun to go off. Plus, we wanted to start near different pace groups anyway, so it worked better to split up. But that meant I was all by myself for about 15 minutes waiting for the race to start. I stood there looking around me at all sorts of people, some with other people, and some alone. I – perhaps for the first time, perhaps not – experienced that awful sensation of “alone in a crowd.” I felt pretty invisible.
I was so far back – because of my estimated pace – that I never even heard any announcements or the gun going off. All I knew was that one minute we were standing there, and the next we were shuffling forward. It was pretty crowded for a while, and I had trouble finding a comfortable pace because I had to dodge all those who immediately started walking. I also had to rein in my urge to fall in step with some who came from behind me and took up a faster pace than I wanted to do. In the beginning of a very long run, it’s always hard to find the exact perfect pace. Too much, and you will run out of gas long before the finish. Too little, and it’s difficult to convince yourself a) that you even can go that slow, or b) that you’re actually doing something more strenuous than speed-walking.
Eventually, though, I found what worked for me, and I cruised around people who started walking even before the first hill, and I relaxed and let people who wanted to pass me, pass me. I kept to the inside corners as much as I could to maximize foot-on-pavement time, and overall I was feeling pretty good. Somewhere around mile 2 I ditched my shirt. I did it right after the first aid station so I could just extend my walk break a little while I adjusted. I did remove both layers of my clothing and was down to just my sports bra in 30-something-degree weather for a few short seconds. It was cold, and putting on just a tank top after removing my long sleeves didn’t do much to alleviate the cold, but overall I thought I felt better, and I assumed I’d warm up, especially since the ascent up to mile 3 was the Liberty Memorial Hill (a.k.a. the worst hill of the entire race; yes, nice that we get it out of the way early).
I was still feeling good on that hill. I had to dodge even more people who began walking, and not only was I still going; I hadn’t slowed my pace down yet at all. I got to the top and felt a little wheezy but kept moving. Shortly after that hill is another steep one that goes up the road that passes behind the dog park and beside the Federal Reserve building, behind the museum and Liberty Memorial. That one is extremely steep but not long, so I managed it fine too. The only hiccup came when one of the traffic cops shouted a dumb question to the runners: “Is this the marathon course?”, and one runner behind me shouted back an even dumber answer: “No, it’s just the half marathon.” I turned and yelled, “It’s both until mile 7 or so,” and then kept going.
When I crested the top of that hill, I felt really good zipping down the other side, and was totally confused by the fact that people were still walking on the downhill (um, hello, that’s the easy part). I continued on, keeping to my strategy of staying as much on the inside corners as possible, which is actually a really difficult strategy that requires you crossing the street a lot. While I was busy focusing on zigging and zagging, I missed the mile 4 marker, and my shoe came untied. We were heading south on Main Street by this time, so the crowd was able to widen up considerably, but overall most runners kept to the right side of the two lanes of the road, leaving the other two lanes totally empty. When I noticed my loose shoelace, I was in about the middle of the pack laterally. Heading over to the empty part of the road as opposed to the sidewalk (trafficked with bicycles, pedestrians, dogs, and other types of onlookers) seemed like the least crowded, most convenient option.
I glanced behind me once to see how far over I needed to go then slipped to the outer edge of the crowd and bent down to tie my shoe. Shortly after I bent down, a guy running all by himself in that outside lane, at least three tall-man’s arms’-lengths’ worth away from the nearest pack member, shouted at me, “Well, I guess I could jump over you” in a sarcastic tone as he ran by. My instinct was to apologize, and I did, but as I watched him gain distance in front of me, I realized he was the one being rude, and I got a little indignant about the whole thing. I mean, I specifically pulled a significant distance away from the pack so I could tie my shoe, and you’re going to get mad at me because you’re not running within race parameters? Yeah. Okay, buddy.
Coming up on mile 6, I was still feeling good physically, although a little forlorn emotionally, considering none of the sideline cheerers or signs thus far had been specifically for me. I knew going into it that this would be the case, but it was still hard not to get a little resentful about the fact that I’d done all this work, trained for so many months, and everybody but me had friends and supporters on the side cheering for them, and I had no one. I, again, felt invisible. As we rounded a corner in Westport to head down to the plaza, I suddenly heard “AUDRA” from the sidewalk. I looked over, and there was a familiar face! A smiling friend! He wasn’t there to see me specifically; I knew that. He possibly didn’t even know I was running that day, but he was there, and he saw me. And that felt good. That fueled me into another burst of downhill energy, and I realized I was still feeling pretty good.
Down on the plaza, on 47th Street, I crossed the street to give a spectator a high-five. She was bundled up in a coat and gloves, and as I reached out to slap her hand, she said to me, “Wow. You’re making me cold just looking at you!” I smiled and kept going but looked down at my goosebump-covered arms and realized that I couldn’t actually feel my fingers. I could move them, but I could not feel them moving. And I thought that yeah, it actually was kinda cold, come to think of it, and maybe I shouldn’t have ditched my shirt so early. But there was nothing I could do about it, so I just kept going.
Between miles 7 and 8, we split from the half marathoners, and I cried. Not for the first time. Off and on over those first few miles, I teared up a lot. When I crested the first – and nastiest – hill; when I saw the face of my friend on the corner; when I reached the checkpoint for 6.2 miles (10k); when I wondered if my fingers were going to get any more frozen than they already were, and if my limited dexterity would impede my taking water and Gatorade from the volunteers’ hands at the aid stations. But crying when the half marathoners split off was rather more significant. I felt like I was losing a huge group of friends I would never see again. Even though I hadn’t spoken to a single one of them. Silly as it sounds, though, it was a loss because, after that, the crowd thinned out a lot, and not only was I now running this race by myself, I was doing it literally alone. Even the sideline cheerers had disappeared.
On my way to mile 9, the first, second, third, and fourth place runners passed us going back the other way. They were on mile 20 already. Although, now that I think about it, I realize that the only reason I call them the first, second, third, and fourth place runners is that they were the first and last way-ahead-of-me-on-the-course runners I saw. But I suppose there could’ve been runners in front of them even, who had passed that marker while I was still doing even earlier miles. That seems preposterous, but I guess I don’t know. I was hovering at that time around the 5:15 pace group, and the pace leader, when those runners passed us going the other way, said, “They are on about a 6:20” pace, and everyone huddled around him in his group oohed and aahed like we were on a safari or one of those city bus tours and he was the tour guide. It was a little bizarre, and I was happy when they pulled away from me.
I knew they were a group I couldn’t stay with anyway. If I kept to my half-marathon pace for the entire marathon, I would’ve finished around 5:20 at the earliest, so 5:15 was a pipe dream, and I had never intended to be in front of them or finish with them or anything. My running strategy during races is to ignore all pace groups except to take them in when I pass them or they pass me as purely informational. So the information I took in here was that I had stayed ahead of the 5:15 pace group through 9 miles. That meant two things to me: 1) I was doing well; 2) I was slowing down. I didn’t let it faze me. I just kept moving.
Around this time was when I began to realize that I had no real concept of where the course was supposed to go. I have done the half portion of the Kansas City Marathon twice, so I know that course well. I had looked at the marathon course map enough to know generally where it went. I knew which road I’d be on for most of the going-south part, and I knew which road I’d be on that would bring me back north. But there were several twisty-turnies that I didn’t look at closely. Between miles 10 and 11, I noticed that the runners were much sparser. There were much fewer in front of me than there had been. There were still several behind me, but they were way back.
I dutifully followed the two girls and guy who were most closely in front of me, and keeping my eye on them helped me navigate several turns I wasn’t sure about. After a particularly confusing turn, I started to wonder what I would do if I lost sight of the people in front of me. I was between miles 11 and 12 by this time, and I was afraid to slow down at the aid station in case the runners in front of me pulled ahead too much. I reached deep down, found some unused energy, and kept what felt like a rigorous and grueling pace in order to keep them in sight. Before I reached mile 12, however, I happened to glance down at one of the intersections where I needed to turn, and I noticed for the first time that the pavement I was pounding had white spray-paint arrows that pointed the way at each turn. AHA! What a discovery! Had these been there the entire time? I had no idea. But they were there now, and that was what mattered. Direction. Guidance. Assurance that I wouldn’t get lost. I could relax my pace. So I did, and I soon lost the runners I’d been keeping tabs on.
I spent all of miles 12 and 13 in the rich neighborhood. One house I passed had a full-on carnival going in their enormous front yard. There were games, food and drink, people milling about, having a great time. There was even – I kid you not – a bouncy house. Most people who were out on their lawns while the runners went by cheered for us and encouraged us. Not the people at this party. They barely even acknowledged that we were there. As I ran by, I imagined the tweet I would compose if I were able. I would’ve attached a picture of the scene accompanied by the following hashtag: #RichPeopleBeingRichPeople. I kept going.
By the time I reached mile 13, the course had taken so many turns that I was legitimately lost, despite the fact that I was no more than two miles from my own house, and only a few blocks from some of my own training routes. One thing I knew, though. The numbered street I looked up at said 54th Street, which was confusing because I knew I had already gone as far as 58th, and I knew I had to get to 75th before I could turn back north again. So how had I gotten all the way back to 54th? I must have looked fatigued as I passed a particular course volunteer because he called out to me, “There are 4 miles of downhill coming up!” I replied, “That sounds wonderful because all I can see in front of me is uphill.” Then he backpedaled: “Well, yes. You have to make it to 75th before the downhills will start.” Thanks, dude. Thanks for letting me know I still had to go twenty more blocks before I could have a glimmer of a downhill. If I could’ve spared the energy, I would’ve smacked him.
Once I reached mile 14, I was squarely on one of my regular training routes and feeling tired but pretty good overall. Except for the nagging feeling of how close to my own house I was, and how much closer I would get before this was all over, and how far away from my house the finish line was. At one point I crossed my street, and some race volunteers called out to encourage me. I yelled, “THIS IS THE STREET I LIVE ON! I WANT TO GO HOME!” They laughed. They thought I was joking. I guess I was, a little bit. Shortly after that I saw one of my favorite signs from the day: YOU ROCK. YOU TRAINED LONGER THAN KIM KARDASHIAN’S MARRIAGE.
That’s right, I DID train longer than her marriage, I told myself, even though I have no idea how long her marriage lasted. At mile 15, I began to touch the mile markers as I passed them because my head was feeling swimmy, and I wasn’t sure if I could trust that they were real. Things were starting to feel difficult at that point. I tried to console myself with the assurance that the number of miles I had left to go was fewer than the number I’d already gone, but the only thing that kept flashing in my head, without permission, was, ELEVEN MORE MILES. ELEVEN. ELEVEN. YOU HAVE TO RUN ELEVEN MORE. They sure aren’t kidding when they say running is as much a mental sport as physical. Mile 16 brought an important turn. I didn’t have to go any farther south. Any movement past that point would be movement toward the finish line rather than away from it. It also brought a long stretch of sunshine, which I welcomed, but there was surprisingly little warmth.
And then. There was an another aid station. And then: Mile 17. I have no idea where mile 17 began, but it never ended. I have no clue what happened to me during mile 17, but I wanted to die. I did not feel like my body could take one more step. My hamstrings were screaming at me, and burning – the same way they did right after I crossed the finish line of my first-ever half marathon. Except when it happened then, I was able to sit down and stretch. When it happened on mile 17, I had to tell myself – and my hamstrings – to keep it together for another 9 miles. My entire body protested, and I finally realized that I hadn’t yet allowed myself any walk breaks. During the summer I had trained in intervals of 7 minutes. I ran for 7 minutes, and I walked for 1. Over and over and over until the last mile was complete. It was the only bearable way to go past what had previously been my absolute distance limit of 13 miles. The only way I could conceive of getting in 15-, 17-, and 20-mile training runs was to do them in intervals. So when I realized during mile 17 that, except for the brief and brisk breaks at aid stations, I hadn’t walked yet at all, I decided I could damn well take a break. I slowed down to a walk and breathed deeply. I looked around me. Still plenty of runners back there, although now I was about to be passed by quite a few of them, including the 5:30 pace group, which I never saw again. I told myself it was okay. I took in my surroundings. I saw a guy in front of me take a picture of himself and realized I too could do that now. I took my phone out of its running sleeve, ignored all the text, Twitter, and Facebook notifications, and opened up the camera. I tried to look happy, but I felt miserable, and I think the picture shows it. It was the only mid-race picture I took. I put my phone away and sat down to stretch. I contemplated the meaning of life and the point of running and came up with no meaning or point for either. I asked Jesus where the hell he’d been all day and reminded him that he had an open invitation to join me on this run any time he felt like he could spare a minute or two. I thought about the guy who had promised the “4 miles of downhill” and looked ahead, realizing I was past the 75th Street mark where he said it would all change, but all I could see was the road sloping upward yet again. I said out loud, “I feel like I’ve been lied to.” At some point during mile 17 – I have no idea when – I found the courage to discard all the despair and start running again. That was most certainly the longest mile of the course. I would not at all be surprised to learn they made a mistake and crammed two miles into mile 17.
At mile 18, there was another aid station, and I realized I could feel my fingers again. The dexterity was back! I used the restroom for the first time. I had been avoiding the restrooms up to that point because they all had lines in front of them, and I know myself. I knew I would not be able to make up any lost time I used in the restroom, so I wanted to minimize that loss as much as possible. After that, I had a long stretch down Brookside that led me to mile 20, and I have no idea what happened from mile 18 to mile 20. I was totally in autopilot, just-keep-going mode. But, at mile 20, there were some spectators along the side of the road who cheered for me – the only runner in sight when I passed by them. They said I was doing great, and one of them suggested I do some jumping jacks. I glared at them, and they laughed, and I laughed, and I kept going.
After that, mile 21 appeared very quickly, and then I knew I was close to seeing my friends. They stood in the middle of mile 21, and one of them started jumping up and down as soon as she saw me, which gave me a small burst of energy. The other one held up a sign that said #TeamAudra and had the Royals crown logo on the top with my initials scripted inside instead of the KC. My hamstrings were burning again by the time I reached them, so I took the opportunity to sit on the curb and stretch some more while they lavished me with praise and encouragement. One of them decided to run to the end of the block with me, and when I looked up at the end, I was astounded to be at mile 22.
After I was alone again, I let myself have another walk break. Things were starting to feel a little hopeless. I was so beaten down and weary, and I still had to manage four more miles. It seemed impossible. I got going again and went up the last two hills, both of which were gradual slopes but long. I rounded a corner and hit mile 23 and was offered FOOD for the first time during the race. It was just pretzels – not at all an ideal race-running food – but I shoved them in my mouth anyway, and washed them down with Gatorade, chased by water. After I finished the pretzels, I had the thought, Hey. I’m gonna make this. I’m gonna finish this damn race. I only have three more miles to go! I CAN DO THREE MORE MILES! I must’ve said the last part out loud because a race volunteer shouted at me, “YEAH you can! You got this!”
A girl who had been trading places with me ahead and behind for the last few miles appeared alongside me and said, “Hey, you’re really doing great. I’ve enjoyed following your bright-orange shirt. Good luck to the finish!” And then she fell behind me again, and I used her encouragement to take a few more steps and keep going.
Then, in the middle of mile 23, my friend who had done the half appeared out of nowhere on the course, which gave me a burst of happiness and excitement to see someone I knew. He started running alongside me, and I asked if he was going to go all the way to the finish with me, and he said yes, if that was okay. I said of course it was okay, and picked up my pace a little (of course, that could’ve been due to the downhill).
I don’t remember much of mile 24 or mile 25. I was so incredibly tired. I kept asking which mile we were on, and if we’d already passed such-and-such a mile marker. I was too weary to think much beyond telling myself to keep going.
And then I saw the mile 26 marker. And, shortly after that, the finish line. I sped up a little and started to cry. Once I reached the corrals, my dad was right there taking pictures and cheering me on. And then my mom was a little ways beyond him, waving a bunch of balloons and some flowers. I started to sprint, at the same time marveling at the fact that I had energy enough left to sprint. Of course, what felt like sprinting to me probably looked like slow-mo running to everyone on the sidelines, but I didn’t care. Tons of strangers were cheering for me and shouting, “Finish strong! Good job! You did it!” and I realized that I had done it. Just before I officially crossed the line, the PA announcer said, “AUDRA MARVIN,” and I threw my arms up in the air in triumph as I stomped down on the finish mat.
It was over. I had actually done it. And I couldn’t think of a time in my life before that moment when I had felt so proud or so happy. I let them cut the chip off my shoe and hang the heavy medal around my neck, and I let my parents hug me and fawn over me, and I sat down and stretched and ate and drank and breathed deeply, and let the pride and the verbal accolades wash over me.
And that’s the story of how I officially became a marathoner.