Early Thanksgiving morning, about 5 a.m. I got up and put on my running clothes. A timing chip was attached to my left shoe. I was headed to Turner Field to attempt the Atlanta Marathon, my first marathon and the fulfillment of a dream I’d had for many years.
Working for me were determination, several months of training and the well-wishes of my friends and family. On the other side were the course itself, one of the toughest marathon courses in Atlanta, and the fact that my longest training run of twenty miles had been almost a month previous.
So I really had no idea how this thing was going to play out. For all I knew I’d hit the wall and still be out there Friday morning, shuffling down the sidewalk and muttering about sports drinks.
That didn’t happen. I felt great through the first ten miles, down Piedmont Avenue from Turner Field all the way to the intersection with Peachtree Street, which I turned north onto. I was only feeling a little tired when I got to the turnaround on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, which was just before the halfway point. Here’s where my optimism began to outweigh my fears: several veterans had told me if I made it to the turnaround I’d definitely finish. I was starting to believe them.
Right after the turnaround I reached the halfway point. The electronic pad here detected my chip at 2:23. Remember that time; it’ll be important later.
Back down Peachtree. Atlanta Marathon isn’t a true out-and-back, because it never turns back onto Piedmont and instead goes straight down Peachtree back to the stadium.
Fortunately, this means it’s mostly level or downhill from the turnaround to mile 20. Unfortunately, this also means the last 6.2 miles are mostly uphill.
And by Mile 21, I was in agony. I’ve run dozens of 10k races and four half-marathons in the past, and I’ve never hurt like this before. So I started reciting my mantra:
Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!
It’s my favorite cinematic example of mind over matter, and it usually keeps me going. It worked again in this case.
On through Midtown, past the Fox Theater, then up to Five Points. I made the short but awful climb up Capitol Avenue, then turned back onto Hank Aaron Drive. The Olympic Rings were in sight!
I crossed the I-20 overpass and saw the chute to the finish line. Several of my hasher friends were there, cheering me in and yelling “Beer Near!” I forgot the pain as my mental state revved up into euphoria.
Seconds later I bounded across the finish line and there was a blur of activity around me. I was handed my finisher medal, a race volunteer cut the chip off my shoe, someone else wrapped a disposable reflective-material space blanket around my shoulders, and my friend JoAnna ran into my embrace. There were tears in my eyes.
“I’m a marathoner, JoAnna!” I screamed.
“Yes, you’re one of us now!” she replied, laughing. No matter how long I live I’ll look back on this as one of the greatest moments in my life…right up there with earning my Navy commission, or getting my first laugh with my standup act.
My time was 4:46. Frank Shorter has nothing to worry about, sure, but check it out: I stayed exactly on pace in the back half! How cool is that?
Now, three days later, I’m still in a lot of pain. My left foot is badly blistered. My leg muscles, ankles, knees and hips are all sore. I expected that; what surprises me is that my shoulders, neck and the base of my spine all hurt too. I did some damage to myself, no question.
But the injuries will heal and the pain will subside. What won’t change, what can’t change now, is: I’m a marathoner!