All Alone at the Finish…Or Not…
I’ll admit it. Leading up to my 4:15 pacing duties at the Country Music Marathon, I was a tad ambivalent. I mean, we were talking about a 9:40 pace, more than a minute a mile slower than my recent marathon pace. We were talking about a megatron deluxe jumbo marathon—not my favorite kind of event. We were talking about Garmins and utterly even splits for 26.2 miles. Again, not really my bag, baby.
Breaking news: I found out that being a pacer really wasn’t about me, and that’s the prize and the lesson of being a pacer. And I also found out that it was not easy. Not at all.
Leading up to the marathon, I got wildly divergent input from friends who had either paced or been paced.
“HA HA HA! You fool! You’ll want to kill everyone. People will be whining and disagreeing about their Garmin splits the entire way!! You’re SCREWED!!!!”
“First time pacing? You’ll love it. Everyone does.”
“Way to blow a chance at a PR, doof.”
“I don’t get the whole pacer thing. I mean, isn’t that what watches are for? What dumbass needs someone leading them the whole way?”
But this was the most encouraging response (or, at least, this was part of the response):
“By the time my brother and I got to mile 22 we were in nightmare land. We were really terribly undertrained and completely losing it. My brother is walking, period, the end. Then out of nowhere, like The Flash – here comes 5-hour-pacer-guy zooming up. He is running SO FAST! And he is GOING ON BY! I am like, c’mon! come! on! to my brother and he is like, seriously, you go – you leave me – do not fear – IWILL finish – you go do what you need to do.
“So I took off and caught up with 5-hour-guy and I am seriously completely dead here but we are leaving Shelby Park and we are almost done. 5-hour-guy has lost his entire group. All his little 5-hour-folks have been left by the wayside. But he is still going going going steady on steady on. So I gasp out – I want 5 hours! And he is like – come on then, you can do it.
“So from Shelby down scenic Davidson Drive [sarcasm deluxe] and all the way to the finish, I am hanging on with him, and Iswear he is doing these calculations and keeping us going with precision and also pleasantly distracting me from my own death by making me wonder how he can do math in his head after having run all freaking day long. I do think we picked up a couple more followers but he was totally catering to me at this point because I was the only one who actually said “I want this.” He is working in these little walks, and we just carry it on in, and by “we” I mean 5-hour-guy. He carried on, I just hung on for dear life.
“My finish time was just under 5 hours. To this day that is my marathon PR, and I will forever be indebted to 5-hour-guy for helping me reach that goal. I did hunt him down and email him or maybe messaged him on the local running board. I was all slobbery grateful and he was all, you did great! But his help was precious to me. It is still is precious to me.”
I filed this response away, thinking What a pleasant story! but not really thinking about it that much. I vaguely considered what a drag it would be to lose the entire group you’re pacing in the final miles of the marathon. I mean, shouldn’t an accurate pacer be surrounded by throngs of ecstatic followers at the finish line and lifted onto shoulders and covered in money and champagne and tears or something? Clearly, 5-hour-guy must have done something wrong earlier on.
As CMM approached, I was utterly relaxed. I experienced no tweaking, loss of zzzzs, phantom stress fractures, or unprovoked bouts of rage and helplessness. The night before, I slept so soundly that I dreamed I was shopping for bacon and Peeps with my obese next-door neighbor.
Then came marathon morning.
All decked out in my official pacer’s singlet and carrying two signs, I made my way to corral 14 feeling groovy and important. I wandered into the middle of the crowd and held up the signs: one that simply said “4:15” and a bigger one that would be tossed to the curb at the start that had all the official info on it. Then, like a slow wave, people began moving up behind me, looking at me nervously, looking at the sign, back at me, back at the sign. Then the questions:
What pace per mile will this be? Have you run this before? How many marathons have you run? Are you from here? Do you know the course? Do I have time to go to the bathroom? Should I eat a gel now? What if I need to stop to drink water? Will you run evenly or faster at first? Have you ever paced before? and even, Do you think you could tell by looking at me at mile 10 if I should just run the half instead he whole marathon?
It’s hard to describe how I felt. Most of these were first-time or maybe second-time marathoners. Some of them looked downright petrified. I tried to answer as well as I could, feeling responsible, a little overwhelmed, and somewhat unsure. Was I really qualified to do what I was about to do in 3 minutes? Should I have been more focused and stressed while preparing for this day? Shit. I set my signs down for a moment to turn on my Garmin. I noticed my hands were shaking.
After fourteen blasts from the airhorn, we were off. I chatted with some guy about the massive 30,000+ crowd, the weather (perfect at the start), my shoes, landmarks on Broadway, and God knows what else as I obsessively looked at my watch on my right arm, my Garmin on my left, the splits written on my left arm (OMG. Yes, really) because the print on the pace band was waaaay too small for my elderly eyes to read, all the while holding the 4:15 sign up with my right hand. A fleeting moment of panic rushed over me as I soundly reasoned that if I couldn’t read a pace band, I shouldn’t be pacing. Logic sucks in marathons.
I figured if I could just get through the first five miles on pace, everything would be all right. I tried to appear carefree and breezy, pointing out some drunks near Tootsies, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the naked people statue near Music Row, and so on. Miracle of miracles, 5 miles rolled by within 4 seconds of perfection. I decided to calm down and have fun—an unexplored experience for me in a marathon.
For the next 10 miles ar so, I nearly felt guilty for having such a lovely time. I waved at everyone who yelled, “Hey! 4:15 group!!” I high-fived, jabbered incessantly to anyone running near me, tour guided, and noted when the possibility of nuns standing along the course was arriving (one nun and a priest this year. A tad disappointing, but better than none. None. Get it???). Around mile 12 I even saw my old nemesis, JK, who passed by going in the opposite direction, about 3 miles ahead of me.
“You’ll never catch me carrying that sign!” he bellowed.
“JK!!” I bellowed back and quickly flipped him off for old times’ sake.
Yes, things were downright jolly for a while. Cheryl jumped in around mile 13 and helped me carry the sign, the group was still pretty much together, and the split for the half was dead on. WHAT A GREAT DAY!
Then came mile 16. I noted that my Garmin’s distance was off from the mile markers by maybe 2/10 of a mile, and I had been going by my Garmin (fuck Garmins!!). Terror and panic. I figured if I picked up the pace just a little bit for the next 4 miles, everything would even out. Better to pick it up now than in the final six. Unfortunately, it was also at this point that the group had begun to drag a bit. The day had started out really cool with a beautiful, cloudless sunrise. But by 10:00, the sun was relentless, and the temps were climbing.
By mile 20, I was a dehydrated calculator on 2 feet with a sign. Division signs and impossible mathematical equations wherein I had to subtract .23 from the overall distance on my hideous Garmin blasted through my slowly desiccating brain. At some point, it dully occurred to me to just look at my watch or the time from this point on. Hello. Duh.
One by one, nearly the entire group fell back in the final few miles. Three ambulances zipped by. Medical tents were busy. I saw several people doubled over, cramping up. One of the pacers had dropped, overcome by the sudden dry heat and wind. Still, one young woman hung on with me, though I barely recall our conversation. Perhaps she said this was her first marathon. Or second? I know she wanted to go under 4:15. Then she fell behind, and Cheryl ran with her a while. Most of mile 25 was uphill (cursed course change!) and into a terribly insulting wind. I handed Cheryl the sign, since, by that point, I kept hitting people in the head with it every time there was a big gust. Nice.
“Downhill to the finish! All downhill from here!”
And, for once, the crowd was right. I looked behind me and couldn’t see the woman, the very last member of the group to keep on pace. Was she just around the corner? At the 26-mile marker, I looked at my watch. A little over 2 and a half minutes to make it in under 4:15. And downhill. It was all going to be all right. I could even slow down a bit and enjoy the finish. When I came through the finish line chute, there was no one around me. Finish time, 4:14:21. But within 20 seconds, the young woman rounded the corner and blasted across the line in just under 4:15!
Hugs. Tears. Relief. I could not have been happier if the entire freaking group had made it in. It had been a pretty rough last 10 miles, and this stranger, who I’ll never see again, had kept the sign in sight and met her goal. She’ll never forget it, and neither will I. What a day.
Some time later, Cheryl and I sat on the bumper of her car drinking beer in the parking lot and watching the last of the marathoners (and even half marathoners) struggle in. Just across from us, a gaggle of moderately overweight runners sat on the asphalt eating McDonalds stuff. One lit up a cigarette as she played with her cell phone.
“You know,” I said to Cheryl. “I think I can finally and definitively say that I’m done with marathons.”
“It was that bad today?” she asked.
“No, just the opposite. It was that good. It seems like it would be the perfect way to end the chapter on marathoning.”
And so it is.