I remember getting out of a bed that wasn’t mine, at least not in real life. I padded easily around the room and looked at my wife who had just flicked the light on. “You know,” I said, shaking out each leg, “I feel pretty good. Almost like I didn’t even run the race.” Then the beeping. Then I snapped awake in our still dark bedroom. It wasn’t until I got to the bathroom and started slathering on vaseline that it hit me: I hadn’t run the race yet.
Hours later, in the pre-dawn light, our troupe of marathoners fell into the ant lines of other runners marching across the Pentagon parking lot toward the hill. We were veterans seeking PRs, first timers seeking to know the anguish and elation of the distance, and repeat offenders seeking the journey. All of us sought the finish line.
Outside a city that lends itself to vibrant sunrises, we stared across the river at the flat, gray light that had begun to filter through the clouds and silhouette the Washington Monument and Capitol dome. Sporadic gusts of wind foretold what awaited us later in the days and nights to come. But before then, there was another storm to get through.
Our group began to subtract members as we came upon each pillar marked with projected finishing times. After kissing my wife good bye and good luck, it was only Rohan and I.
We ducked into the trees for one last “bathroom” visit. “Eight minutes to the start runners!” boomed a voice from the speakers, and I took what felt like a gut shot. Rohan and I trotted up toward the start line, stopping initially at the 2:30-2:59 estimated finish time until I spied another marker that read Bibs 1-499. “Let’s go up,” I said, pointing to the 283 on my bib.
We went through a quick dynamic warmup and hopped the fence into the corral, chucking our warmups to the side.
I tried to offer last minute instructions to Rohan who would be completing his first 26.2. But as I got going, I realized I said them to reassure myself as well.
They moved us up to the start line, Rohan and I just three rows from the front. The cannon blasted and still reverberated in my chest as we took off down the highway....
We ran by the final left turn that would mark the race’s final .2 miles, a brutal climb, but one that would have to wait.
During the first two miles, Rohan and I ran side by side attacking the long and steep hill that climbed through Rosslyn. I tried to stick to my plan of disconnecting for the first 10 miles, to run the hills by effort, and not worry too much about pace. I stole a glance here and there at the watch as my breath labored some and I reminded myself that we were climbing. Once the second mile came and went, we sailed down the backside and I grabbed the reigns and pulled back on the pace, which read 6:05.
Approaching the 5K mark, Rohan and I found ourselves in a pack of four runners. The course was lined with deep yellow, red, and orange woods made all the more vibrant against the slate-colored sky. A gust of wind sent a curtain of leaves helicoptering down toward us. The four us eyed one another and laughed, enjoying the brief distraction from the task at hand.
Around mile five, the pack began to string out as we hooked a left over the Key Bridge and prepared for an out and back along the Potomac River. This would send us into the final climb of the race just prior to mile seven. We caught up to a short, fit blonde decked out in Brooks gear. “What are you guys looking to run?” she asked in a low, confident voice, almost as though she didn’t have a pulse.
“2:50ish,” I said.
“Let’s do it then,” she said. And we took off with her and two other runners.
It was here that I started willing myself to relax. Something just didn’t seem right. We clicked off the miles and the pace came steadily and easy enough, but the pre-race pit in my stomach hadn’t gone away yet. I took water at the next stop and nearly threw it back up. Relax! I commanded.
At the turnaround point, we hit the final short, steep hill and Rohan and I pulled away from our small pack. When we crested the top and began our speedy descent, I looked at Rohan, “We fucking owned that hill,” I said, finally feeling that pit in my stomach break up.
With Georgetown and mile nine in sight, we began seeing our friends flash by to take on the out portion. We exchanged cheers, waves, and high fives as they started out. Later, they would tell me independently that I looked “pissed” through that portion. “Not pissed,” I would say, “Just hurting.” I decided not to run with my sunglasses and unknowingly wore the pain in my eyes.
Mile 10 came and went and though I had been uncomfortable, I marveled at how fast those first 10 miles disappeared. Rohan and I came around behind the Lincoln Memorial. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shirt that said “1 Life to Run” on it and thought how weird that was to see someone with Rohan’s shirt on. Then it hit me and I pointed.
“Your wife!” I said. He looked over and darted across the road to her to switch out his water bottles. Two other women with her went wild cheering.
“My mom,” he said, smiling.
He was the only one. I started hurting at this point. Really hurting. I couldn’t explain it. My legs felt fine. My breathing was not more than a whisper and we were still hitting our pace. Yet, my body felt out of sync and uncomfortable.
The crowd began to disappear behind us, the cheers dissipating until it was just the sound of our footfalls and the storm raging in my head. The course took us out toward Haines Point, the graveyard of the marathon.
I wasn’t sure what to do.