Burlington’s Main St. was silent as I strode leisurely down the hill from my dorm to the Invited Runners staging area at OnTrack Fitness. Two hours from now the street would be packed with 8000 runners and many more cheering spectators, but for now I breathed in the cool early morning air and did my best to brush aside my nervousness.
I entered the gym and walked down the stairs as I had been instructed. I was early for our 6:30am meeting time, and the only other runners in the building were a group of five men and women clad in matching pink, green and yellow Adidas uniforms. I put my bag away in a locker, and returned to the lobby to join them.
Four of the runners leaned on each other or reclined on a bench trying to prolong their sleep as long as possible. One of them sat straight and wide awake, and he greeted me with a smile.
“Where are you guys from?” I asked.
“Washington D.C….originally Ethiopia.”
“Really?” I had thought so, and was thrilled. “I lived in Addis Ababa for four months.”
It was his turn to be excited. “You did?! What were you doing there?’
“I was running with a team called Running Across Borders. Have you heard of them?”
He shook his head.
“I lived on the edge of town, in Hayat,” I offered.
The woman who had been using his thigh as a pillow had perked up.
“Ah, yes, next to Kotebe? She lives in Kotebe,” he said nodding towards the woman. She gave a half smile.
“Yes! I have friends that live there!”
“Will you go back this year?”
I shook my head, “I wish, but I haven’t been there for two years.”
Other runners had trickled into the lobby, and were attempting casual conversation. There is nothing like being put in a room with about 25 other runners who had been specifically invited to the race based on their accomplishments, when in just over an hour you would be competing against them. Many of the runners were annual participants and run races frequently in the region so they were already familiar and the atmosphere remained friendly and light-hearted.
At a quarter to seven it was time to load the shuttles to the warm-up area. Upon arrival I was issued a green sticker that granted me the greatest VIP privilege a runner could ask for-- front of line access to the bathrooms. Despite the large number of porta potties provided, lines of hundreds of runners stretched across the park. All I had to do was flash my sticker and I was next in line. I took advantage of this perk and then jogged lightly up the road to loosen up. My legs felt strong and well-rested. Once I felt warmed up, I weaved my way through the swarms of runners and their families back to the Invited Runner tent. Conversation had ceased and each runner was visibly focused on the task at hand, shaking out limbs, massaging tight muscles-- race time was clearly upon us.
I removed my warm-ups and placed them in my bag. For the first time at a marathon, I was already plenty warm in my shorts and cropped racing tank. It would be a hot race. “Early and often,” advice from my college coach for taking liquids and fuel along the marathon course would definitely be a strict rule for this race.
I positioned myself a row back from the starting line, directly behind the two women who were expected to go 1-2. Deep breath. “Don’t go out too fast, let them run ahead. Just stay relaxed. It should feel easy for the first half,” I thought to myself.
We surged forward, spreading out into the road. Spectators cheered loudly, packed along the sidewalks. I kept an eye on the two women and the Ethiopian woman who boldly took the lead just a step in front of them.
“Don’t worry about them until the second half,” I told myself. “That’s when it’ll be time to race. Right now, just focus on a steady pace.”
The clock showed 6:12 as I passed the one mile mark. My goal was to run 6:20 per mile. “Okay. A smidge too fast, but just relax, it’ll be fine,” I thought. The road sloped downhill and I shortened my stride to let the momentum pull me forward.
I reached the two mile mark in 12:20. “Okay, slow down a bit. There was some downhill, but if you keep this up it’s going to catch up to you later,” I thought.
I fell into stride with another runner.
“What’s your goal time?”
“2:50,” he responded.
We were currently on pace for under 2:46.
“Maybe he’s counting on slowing down later, but that’s not the strategy I’m aiming for,” I thought. I was hoping to find a pacing buddy. I didn’t think I’d stick with this guy.
Two men were running together just ahead. I joined them as we approached mile three. I was still under pace. “No faster!” I told myself. I tried to push away the false sense of security running at that pace, knowing that I would feel the effects by mile 20.
“What time are you aiming for?” I tried again.
“2:45-2:50,” one of the men responded.
“Ugh. That’s a big range. They just don’t want to be disappointed if they fall of of their current pace for 2:45,” I thought. “But as long as they keep this pace, I might as well tag along.”
We looped up through the center of town and the crowd roared, giving me a surge of energy.
“This is awesome!” I thought. The two men had already slowed their pace and I moved ahead. A Fleet Feet teammate yelled from the sidelines and I waved back, happy to recognize someone on the sidelines.
The course led us out of the center of town. The fog settled over the road as we ran along a road lush with foliage.
“It’s you and the road,” I thought. “Don’t lose focus.” I passed the four mile mark and saw the eight mile marker just ahead on the opposite side of the road.
“Okay, two miles out, two miles back, just focus on where you are right now,” I told myself.
As I approached the turnaround point I watched for the leaders to pass by in the other direction. When the women came into view they were still in a tight pack of three, each of them counting on the other two to set the pace. They still weren’t too far ahead of me.
“Just keep an even pace,” I thought.
I took a sharp u-turn around a cone and headed back towards the center of town. An endless stream of runners flowed in the opposite direction. As I passed by women shouted with excited encouragement.
“You’re the fourth woman!”
“Keep it up!” I yelled back, or gave a quick wave as I passed by. I was now caught in a large gap between runners, but the other women’s excitement as I passed by kept me pushing ahead.
We passed back through the center of town. My legs still felt fresh and strong and the roar of support along Church Street added extra spring to my stride.
“Go Joanna!” I heard a woman’s voice, and turned to see Eric and his parents cheering and waving. I waved back cheerfully.
“This race is so much fun!” I thought. There was so much support and I was feeling great.
I surged up the remainder of Church Street and turned the corner, catching up to a small pack of men. Our pack ebbed and flowed. As we ran cheers would grow louder as spectators spotted me and cried out,
“Let’s go F3!”
Sideways glances and the occasional surges ahead gave me the sense that the men I was running with did not appreciate these cheers. However after another mile or so we passed by the 10 mile mark in 63 minutes and they seemed to finally welcome me to the group as we all settled into an even pace together.
“Focus on keeping your stride in rhythm with theirs, it’ll be easier,” I told myself.
The course rolled and each time we sloped downhill I switched to short strides and let gravity do the work.
“You’re still under pace, no need to push it yet,” I reminded myself.
We turned onto a gravel path and the crowd of spectators grew denser. At last, the half-way mark.
I eyed the clock as I crossed the tape on the ground. Just under 1:23. Perfect.
“Go Joanna!” a friend from Albany cried.
“Joanna!” Another voice cried out. It was one of the cross country runners I coached last season.
“Hey!” I yelled back with happy surprise.
Alright. Time to really focus. “Just another half like what you’ve just run. Get to mile 22 and then go from there. For now, just keep it even.” I thought. I had heard that the last four miles on the bike path were flat and quick, so I figured that would be the time to kick it into a higher gear.
I settled in behind two men. An older man came up from behind.
“You guys aiming for 2:45? That’s what you’re on pace for?”
“I hope so,” I responded. The other responded by surging a few strides ahead.
“They pacing you?” The older man asked?
“Nope, I’m on my own. But I’ll take any help with pacing that I can get. You run this before? Is 2:45 your goal time?”
“Yes, several times. I’m getting old now, one last 2:45 would be nice, but we’ll see.”
We were running alongside Lake Champlain and I tried to enjoy the view as my mind shifted to the dreaded hill in mile 15.
“We’re almost to the hill, right?”
“Yep. We’re going to take a right, then a left, and then a right turn up the hill. Don’t worry. There are drummers at the bottom to keep you going. Don’t save anything for later,” the older man advised.
The rhythm of the drums echoed through the streets as we approached. I rounded the corner and looked to the top of the hill. Runners were strung out far ahead of me. The older man immediately fell behind.
“So much for following his own advice,” I thought. “You’re on your own. Don’t slow down, just use your arms, focus on the top of the hill.”
Supporters lined the full length of the hill ringing bells and cheering loudly. I spotted Eric and his parents as I passed by and gave a quick wave.
“It’s not that bad,” I told myself. “This is the hardest part of the course.”
I reached the top and turned the corner, passing through the park and headed into a neighborhood. All along the course, people had come out from their houses to cheer on the runners, setting up camp with lawn chairs and even the occasional table of water or orange slices to hand out as the runners passed by. I spotted my Fleet Feet teammate up ahead. “He shouldn’t be this far back,” I thought, but his stride clearly conveyed his fatigue. “Catch up to him, you guys can pace each other,” I thought. “With about 8 miles to go it would be great to have company.”
I picked up my pace and about a mile later reached his side. “Keep it up,” I said.
“Good job! he responded, “I feel awful.”
“Come on, let’s go. 2:45. We‘ve got this,” but he let me continue on ahead.
“Keep it up!”
“So much for a running buddy, you’ll just have to be tough” I thought. Runners were spread out at this point in the course and I was on my own. I could feel a hint of cramping in my quads and I tried to brush away any doubt.
“Get to mile 20. If you can just get to that point and still feel strong, you’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Or so I thought. The road was rolling as we weaved through neighborhoods and I could feel my quads continue to tighten. By mile 20 I began to worry,
“It’s just your quads, the rest of your legs are just fine. Don’t think about it, mind over matter,” I told myself. “In two more miles it’s flat and fast.”
I left the neighborhoods behind and kept my focus on the couple of runners just ahead of me. “Think about chasing them down, not about how you feel.”
At last we made a sharp left turn off of the road and onto the bike path. After passing an initial group of supporters, the wooded path grew quiet.
“One mile at a time,” I tried to resist looking at my watch, knowing that my pace had slowed.
“You’ve worked so hard for this. Make it worth it. It’s going to feel painful regardless of your pace, so don’t back off.”
I looked eagerly ahead for the next mile marker. Small crowds cheered at each marker,
“You’re the 4th woman!”
I wondered how close the next woman was behind me. “Do not slow down now. Don’t get passed in the last leg of the race,” I told myself.
By now my quads were rocks. I tried running on the dirt alongside the paved path in hopes the softer terrain might provide some relief, but it changed nothing.
Mile 25. One point two miles to go. “Just keep moving,” I thought. I felt like I was trudging.
I could hear the crowd cheering in the distance and anxiously awaited the view of the finish line. The seconds seemed like minutes. At last, I was running on the grass, the banner in the distance. “Give it everything you have left,” I told myself. I could see the seconds ticking by on the clock and knew I had missed my goal time. “You don’t know who might have a kick behind you, you can’t back off yet.”
I crossed the line and a man immediately placed a finisher’s medal and a lanyard around my neck. Two attendants braced me by the elbows.
“Do you feel alright?”One asked as he handed me a bottle of water. I nodded and immediately gulped down the entirety of the bottle. I usually love running in warm weather, but after such a frigid winter, my body is not accustomed to the heat. It definitely took its toll during this race. I looked down at my lanyard. 3rd Place. Third? How was that possible? There must have been some mistake, I had been told that I was fourth throughout the entire race. After taking a second bottle of water and a bottle of chocolate milk I hobbled my way through the crowd. When I made it to the awards tent, Eric and his parents were already there to greet me. There had been no mistake. One of the top women had dropped out of the race, I had really placed third!
I had introduced myself to Joan Benoit Samuelson the day before at a panel session at the expo. She had run today’s race as a relay and despite having just finished was at the ceremony to hand out awards. Her eyes flickered with recognition as she shook my hand and handed me my plaque. Her modesty despite her Olympic and marathon record-holding accolades, and her commitment to motivating others to run are inspiring. I thought getting to meet such an iconic figure in the history of women’s marathoning was a pretty cool award in itself.
After the ceremony I headed back to OnTrack Fitness where showers had been provided for the Invited Runners. Racing reflections were being swapped cheerfully in the locker room. It had been a tough day for everyone, primarily due to the heat. Everyone else had run this race several times before, and I was warmly welcomed and congratulated as a new participant.
“It’s a great course!” I agreed. “The rolling hills make it tough, but all the spectators and the scenery are fantastic.”
I rejoined Eric and his parents to go out for a celebratory lunch. My cramped legs screamed with exhaustion as I hobbled back up the now-busy Main St. but I was content with this evidence of a gutsy, dedicated effort. Next year I will be back, familiar with the course and prepared for my fastest time yet.