Monday, December 10, 2007

Las Vegas Marathon - 12/2/2007

Scriptures say that you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. That was never truer for me than it was the morning of December 2nd this week. That morning I finished my first marathon.

A year ago I set myself a pretty lofty goal. I wanted to run the Vegas Half Marathon to celebrate turning 30 years old. I started running on January 1st with the Couch to 5K program in order to accomplish that goal. Along the way I ran a number of 5K’s and also a 10K in May. I quickly realized that based on my mileage at that point that I could run a FULL marathon in Vegas to celebrate turning 30 and not the half. So I bit the bullet and registered for the full marathon. I was mostly excited but had some fear when actually pushing that button. But then I was committed (or maybe needed to be committed) and the training began.

Then the best laid plans went awry. Two weeks before the race I was to do my 20 mile run. All the “experts” recommend running at least one 20 miler before trying the marathon. In an effort to avoid the steep Knoxville hills I decided to try this one on the treadmill. So I picked a Sunday afternoon so I could entertain myself with good Packers football and got onto the treadmill. I ended up developing a blister on one foot and it caused me to strike my foot differently on the treadmill which started to make my ankle sore. So at mile 12 I decided to call it quits. I figured it was better to have a long run of 18 miles with good ankles before the marathon than to have bad ankles and a long run of 20 miles.

Now we’re a week out. I had plans on doing my 12 mile taper run down in Florida as we were visiting my parents that weekend for Thanksgiving, my birthday, and the Redskins game. Unfortunately my body again did not cooperate. I developed a cold and opted out of running since I figured resting up and getting myself well was the best thing to do.

I kept an eye on my sniffles each day and I was not getting better before we had to leave. There was a moment in time when I did consider dropping out of the race beforehand. But I have just enough stubbornness in me to make myself still try. I threw out my original goal of finishing in 5 hours and decided that whatever time it took would be fine since I would likely have to do some walking. I had developed quite a chest cold before the race and so my lungs were just not working at top capacity.

So that takes us to Vegas. I went to the race expo with Mom and we met my friend Korie and her daughter Aspen . Korie and I are on the same running team on and we had never met before in person but we hit it off immediately. We picked up our race numbers and browsed the various vendors. We agreed to meet the next morning at 4:30AM (gasp) so we’d have enough time to eat, digest, and get to the start line before the 6AM start.

After that the carbo loading began. I loaded my plate with French toast and pastries at breakfast, had a bagel for a light lunch, and a big plate of pasta for dinner. Then it was off to bed by 9PM after getting all my race gear set up in the bathroom for the next morning. I eventually fell asleep after my coughing fits and nerves kept me awake.

The alarm went off at 4AM and I got myself ready and Greg and I left for the Excalibur to meet Korie and Susan (another Rookie Runner who was running the half). We all walked to the start line together and then had to leave Greg at the “runners only beyond this point” mark. He wished me luck and on we went. Korie, Susan, and I lined up towards the back of the pack so that we wouldn’t be passed by too many other runners. It was pretty crowded since there were 17,000 other runners out there running either the full or half (same start line).

We saw the fireworks going off ahead and Elvis music playing (Viva Las Vegas). We knew the race had begun. It took soooooo long to cross the start line. Thank goodness for timing chips or we’d have no idea how long it truly took us to run the marathon. When the start line was in site we heard an announcement on the loudspeaker saying “Congratulations, we’ve set a new record …. Longest time to get all runners to the start line.” It had been 15 minutes and we were just getting to the start line. But we eventually got there and off we went. It was so cool running up the strip. I’ve walked it many a time on different trips out there but it’s an entirely new experience to have the road to yourself, and many drunken spectators (those who had not yet been to bed) cheering us on.

We found Blue Man Group performing at mile 3. It was pretty cool to see up close like that. But unfortunately when you’re running you only get to see them for like a minute max. There were a bunch of runners who were standing there just watching them perform. I was tempted but I knew I still had 23 miles to go and I couldn’t stop yet.

One unique feature of the Vegas race is they have a “run-through” wedding chapel at mile 5. A pastor marries people and then finishes the race himself after all the couples have been pronounced. There were stands set up for family and friends to witness the blessed event and photographers to capture it. They were even passing out wedding cake at the next water stop. We saw a number of couples tie the knot or renew their vows. It was pretty cool. They say that marriage is like a marathon anyway (you know … as opposed to a sprint) so it was pretty cool to see them get married and run the marathon together.

We said goodbye to the half marathoners (and perhaps our sanity) around mile 6 when the course split. Half marathoners to the left, full marathoners straight. That’s when there became a lot more room on the road since so many of the runners were doing the half. Korie and I joked with some of the other marathoners that the half runners were only half crazy. But it all settled to the fact that now we were committed. We were on the marathon course. There was no backing down now.

At this point we were off the Strip and heading towards Fremont Street . I was pretty excited because I’d never seen Fremont Street . We were thinking it would be all lit up for the marathon. That was probably one of the more disappointing parts of the race. We didn’t run through it and no lights were on. But I must say, the homeless people that were in that area made great spectators. They cheered us on with much enthusiasm.

As we approached the 10 mile marker I could hear a DJ in the distance playing 80’s music. At first it was Prince. Then Michael Jackson and then as we were just getting to that water stop I heard Bon Jovi “Livin on a Prayer”. I started singing along with it while we ran (I still had some breath left at that point). I had to add some words to the chorus though to make it appropriate to our situation. “Whoa ….. we’re not quite halfway there.” Then Korie and I joked about how that song had no place being at mile 10. It needed to be played at mile 13. We still had a whole 5K to run to get to halfway there. Mile 10 also got us into the main uphill portion of the course (slow and steady incline for about 5 miles)

Between miles 10 and 11 we spotted a male runner who apparently couldn’t wait (or didn’t want to) for the next porta potty (they had them ever half mile or so … most with no lines). He was relieving himself right on the road in his Gatorade cup. I guess what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

We were expecting to see Korie’s boss around the halfway point and were talking about no matter how bad we felt at that point (still didn’t really feel bad) that we’d have to run past him. We walked some to save our energy (and help my breathing). All of a sudden we hear “Korie”, turn, and she sees her boss. BUSTED! He was on the course early and saw us walking. Ha! She was so embarrassed. So we started running again so he could see that she was running.

Now the miles were really starting to blend together and we just kept going along. Running and walking, walking and running. We broke it up by chatting with some of the other runners. We congratulated a number of the wedding couples who were running. There was one woman who was dressed as a bride but had no groom with her. She and her husband had renewed their vows since it was their 25th wedding anniversary. It turns out he’s a 3 hour marathoner so he had to wait for her at mile 5, they renewed their vows and he took off to finish his race. She’s a back of the pack runner like us so he said she could take control of their credit cards and buy whatever she wanted for finishing the race. Now that’s a nice anniversary present! She said she was spending those 20-some miles figuring out what she was going to buy when it was all over.

When we got to mile marker 17 I looked at Korie and said that we less than double digit miles left from here on out. We both were quite relieved with that. Slowly but surely we were getting there. Although I was starting to have more difficulty breathing.

My longest run prior to the race was 18 miles so I was looking forward to that mile marker with some dread and much anticipation. Ever step beyond that point was new to me. Around that point (I honestly can’t remember what mile marker it was) there was a guy holding a sign saying “Wave if you want a prayer”. I remember wondering if I waved both hands if I would get a double prayer. I remembered the scripture I mentioned earlier and of course waved my hands. I could use all the help I could get.

The race organizers had put up an archway that looked like a wall at mile 20 for us to run through. When we realized what it was we both laughed and planned to punch the wall and show it who was boss. That would be the only way we would “hit” the wall this time out. Right about this time we were forced to get over to the sidewalks because the streets were reopening. We also had to start stopping at red lights. The streets were no longer ours. The water stations were getting packed up (although some wonderful volunteers stayed behind with the water they had to pass out … these wonderful people are definitely angels). There was a woman who had run the half marathon out there handing out water. She kept repeating that she could only run half and that we were her heroes. I’ll be honest, that made my eyes well up.

These last few miles were really rough. My breathing kept getting worse and worse. For the first time in my life I think I really know what Greg goes through on a daily basis. With his asthma, breathing is oftentimes difficult for him. I can now say from experience that not being able to breathe is just awful. Korie was a God-send. She stayed when me and wouldn’t leave even though I know I was slowing her way down. We passed this last part of the race by focusing on finishing, our “bling”, and the Snickers bar waiting for me at the finish line (the littlest things keep you going in situations like that). We also chatted with some of the other runners in our area. One was an older man who looked like he’d done this before. Korie asked him how many marathons he’s run and he said about 75. WOW! 75 marathons? We both realized that we’d have to do that 74 more times just to catch up with him. That is such an amazing accomplishment.

Finally we saw Frank Sinatra Blvd which was the road leading us back to the Mandalay Bay . We literally were in the home stretch. A few more miles to go and it would all be over. The street sweepers passed us again and this time blew a ton of dust and sand up. I saw what was happening and turned my head and covered my mouth with my hand. My breathing was bad enough as it was. I didn’t need to add dirt and sand to my lungs as well.

Eventually I looked up and saw a figure sitting under an overpass. The shape looked remarkably familiar. Then it clicked … holy cow! That was my darling Greg! Was he real or just a mirage put there by my exhausted mind? My legs wanted to sprint ahead and hug him tight, but my lungs wouldn’t let me. Eventually we got there and I saw that he was real. He had gotten worried when I kept not showing up at the finish line and so he started walking backwards along the course in an attempt to find me. He walked the last mile and half or so with us to the Mandalay Bay parking lot. From there we decided to try and run the last half mile or so. We started to run and again my lungs said “No Way!” so we walked for a bit again.

There were two ladies standing at what use to be the 26 mile marker (had long since been packed up and gone) saying “You have now reached mile 26 ladies. You will finish. It’s just around the corner.” We still couldn’t see the finish line but couldn’t wait. It would be an awesome sight. Dad was standing on a grassy area a little ways up (I’d say around 26.1 miles). We waved and kept moving as quickly as we could.

And then …. WE SAW IT! That glorious finish line. It really did exist. Our exhaustion and body aches seemed to melt away. Even my lungs kicked it into high gear and we took off for the finish line. Our arms raised high and smiles on our faces. My official time was 6:38:27. That was much slower than my original marathon goal, but I’m very much ok with that. I finished it. I earned the same finisher’s medal as those who finished hours ahead of me.

Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect I’m really struck by how much of my marathon experience mimics day to day life. There are days (miles) that come easy and ones that are struggles just to get through. Days (miles) when we think we’re nuts just for wanting to keep going. There are days (miles) when people are cheering you one (like at the beginning and end of the marathon) and days (miles) when you can’t see another soul cheering for you. Some days (miles) you feel well and some feel like hell. In a marathon you’ll find new levels of pain you never knew existed and that will also happen in life. And in the end, no matter how long it may take you … you’ll get to that finish line. And in my beliefs that finish line is heaven. And as good as it felt for me to cross the marathon finish line. I can’t even imagine how awesome that finish line will feel.

I started with it, but I’ll end with it too. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me! I know this because left of my own devices there is no way I could have finished that race on my own.

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