Aug 1, 2009

26.2: My Story of the San Francisco Marathon

At the finish line of the 2009 San Francisco Marathon with Babs and Elijah. Sunday, July 26, 2009

I decided to run the San Francisco Marathon, essentially on a whim. I was browsing through Facebook and saw a comment by Crystal Pierson to Bev about the San Francisco Marathon. I was looking for a new running goal, and I thought, why not? I'd also learned the value of a "Distraction Trip" at the end of a term of mission service. When I'd come back from my year as a student missionary in Chuuk back in 1995, trip J and I took to Europe helped mute the pain of leaving Chuuk and speed the recovery process. I thought a trip out to San Francisco might do the trick again (and so far, anyway, it has).

So, I registered and began training--short runs during the week and long runs on Sunday with Ken Pierson, my training partner. I continued my training when we arrived in the States, running in both Ohio and Florida. All the effort and preparation led up to this day--Sunday, July 26, 2009 and this event--a race so demanding and so grueling that it still, on occasion, kills people.

Running a marathon proved to be hard and humbling. Those two words probably best capture my experience last Sunday, and for those who want the short version, that basically covers it. For those interested in the long version, my story goes something like this:

I awoke just before 4:15 A.M. I'd requested a wake-up call but I woke up before the call, got up and hovered over the phone, waiting for it to ring so I could hang it up immediately, so as not wake Barbara and Elijah. It was dark and quiet, and I felt a zen-like calm as I dressed. I'd laid out everything carefully the night before--my running shorts, and shirt with the bib securely attached, long pants and shirt to ward off the morning chill before the run, jacket, hat, and earwarmer, my trusty Nikes with the timing chip looped in the laces. My ipod, handkerchief, and packets of Gu were already in the pockets of my shorts.

At 4:30 A.M. room service arrived with a light knock on the door, delivering the glass of milk and empty bowl I ordered the night before. At $11 that was probably the most expensive glass of milk I'd ever had--and I didn't even use it all. Into the bowl, I poured my little box of granola that had been included in my goodie bag from expo, added some milk and ate quietly on the floor by the bathroom, reading from my Bible by the bathroom light:

"Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary." Isaiah 40:31

The Starting Line
At just after five, I switched off the bathroom light and slipped out the door. Outside the sky was still dark and the weather brisk. It wasn't hard to know where to go--there was a steady stream of people clutching San Francisco Marathon sweats bags walking towards the starting line just a few blocks away. I breathed deep and kept to myself, for some reason, not feeling like striking up a conversation with my fellow runners.

The starting line was a hive of activity--runners dropping off their sweats bags which were being loaded into big moving trucks, runners hydrating at the water station, gathered about the information booth, lining up for the bathroom, and of course thousands of runners massed at the starting line. I'd arrived just in time to see the first wave start. I stood between two experienced runners--a multi-marathon veteran from Florida and a woman who since completing the full New York Marathon, ran half-marathons exclusively. I listened somewhat absently as they traded war stories. The emcee bellowed encouragements, the Rocky theme pumped from the speakers, and at 5:30 the first wave burst forward from the starting line, an endless stream of runners thundering by. The second wave started almost immediately after the first, and about ten minutes later the third wave--the one Ken and his friends were in--began. I looked fruitlessly for them amongst the sea of runners, but I couldn't spot them.

After the third wave, I left the starting area and wandered for a bit. I had time. I was in the eighth wave--the last one which would start just after 6:30 A.M. Which was a good thing because despite my best efforts to forestall this, nature was calling--insistently. I knew a pit stop early in the race when lines were long at the Portajohns would seriously affect my time (in fact, as it turned out, I don't know if I would have finished within the allotted time, if I'd had to wait in line for the bathroom). So it was better to go now, while I had the chance. However, the line to the bathrooms at the starting line literally ran around the block. I weighed joining that line against hiking back up to the hotel, and in the end opted for the hike.

By the time I walked back to the hotel, took care of business, and walked back to the starting line, it was only minutes till my wave was to start. I quickly doffed my outer clothing, stuffed it in the sweats bag, and handed it over to the race officials. Then I started moving down the line looking for an entrance to the starting line. Even here, in the last wave, the mass of competitiors seemed to stretch on without end. I finally hopped over a barrier and squeezed into the group.

As the final minutes ticked away, I did a few quick stretches--probably should have done more, but I hoped the trips to and from the hotel would count as sufficient warm-up--and set up my ipod. I still felt a preternatural calm and sort of distance from everyone around me.

At 5:42, our wave began, which at first meant nothing for me. The pack of runners was so large that on the words "go" those of us further back couldn't move for a minute or so as we waited for those in front to move out. When we finally could move, it was an anticlimactic shuffle towards the actual starting line--from there the crowd thinned out, and to the soaring strains of "Where the Streets Have No Name" on my ipod, the run of my life began.

The first mile was solid, right on pace. As the second song, "Magnificent" by U2 came to an end on my ipod, Coit tower loomed on my left and the first mile marker on my right. I felt good--eleven minutes, right where I should be. And so I continued--running solid, and steady surrounded by thousands of runners on every side. The rumble of a multitude of sneakers slapping pavement and the low hum of many voices filled the morning air. The day was dawning chilly and heavy with fog. Up ahead I could see a river of runners winding their way up the first hill towards the Golden Gate Bridge barely visible in its shroud of fog.

I was relieved to find this first hill, and all the ones that came later, suprisingly easy. I had worried that we hadn't adequately trained for the hills--imagined that this run would be the Mt. Tapochau run times twenty-six. But it turned out that I was more than ready and the hills-at least the uphills--would prove to be the least of my worries.

Feeling Good
Running across the Golden Gate Bridge at about five and a half miles was epic, as I expected, even in the foggy gloom. It was pretty cool to look up and see those massive orange arches looming overhead as we ran. As we moved across the bridge there was a constant stream of runners coming back across the bridge--two lanes of running traffic. I wondered if I might see Ken and his boys, but knew it was unlikely. Those guys were more than two hours and a half hours into the race by then and the bridge was long behind them. Coming off the bridge in the midst of mile eight we swirled around a parking lot which contained one of the water stations--I picked up a few cupfuls of Cytomax sports drink, water, and a packet of Gu--and headed right back on to the bridge to go back across.

I was surprised to find the my joints were already beginning to ache. This worried me as I'd never developed joint soreness this early during my training runs. I hadn't even broken ten miles yet. I figured it must be the cold that was aggravating them more than usual. And it was cold, at least for this Saipan boy--I was so glad I'd bought the earwarmer. Without it, I'm certain I would have gotten one of those ear ache/headaches that I always get when it's cold and windy.

We came off the bridge in the tenth mile and entered the Presidio. This was probably the longest and toughest hill, but I took it on without too much trouble, shortening my stride and slowing my pace to chug my way to the top. By this time, I was growing impatient to get to the halfway mark. My joint and muscles aches were intensifying and I needed the mental boost of knowing I was more than halfway there.

Halfway There
Just before the halfway mark, at the entrance to Golden Gate Park, I saw a familiar jean jacket, familiar dark curls, and a familiar little Fella. Babs and Elijah had come out to cheer me on. I can't tell you how excited I was to see them. Babs presence and her encouraging cheers filled me with new energy. And as for Elijah? His little face lit up in the biggest grin when he saw me. I thought about that grin for miles afterward and it helped keep me going.

Babs took this photo, and the ones that follow as I approached the 13 mile marker-halfway through the race. Despite the growing aches in my joints, I was still feeling pretty good at this point.

Running on. . .

A final wave. . .

. . .And into the crucible of the Golden Gate Park

Not long after that, I passed the halfway point. I'd slowed some but was still within the pace range I'd set for myself and that was good. It was just after 9:15 in the morning.

The Crucible
Unfortunately, it was around this time that the good times came to an end. The crowds had thinned considerably as the half marathoners finished their run (approximately 75% of the runners that day were running either the first or second half marathon). Now there were just a smattering of runners here and there in the quiet of the park. I stopped at a park restroom just before the 14 mile marker and found it difficult to begin running again. The joint pain had intensified considerably and when I paused to stretch, the mucles in my legs quivered visibly. It would turn out that the six miles within the confines of Golden Gate Park would be my crucible. As beautiful as it was was with it's towering trees, manicured gardens, chattering waterfalls, and silent ponds, the park came to be a loathsome thing to me. All I wanted was to get out of there--as long as I was in the park, the home stretch remained elusive, out of my reach. Here in the park all my grand plans and proud thoughts crumbled to dust. I was humbled. Early in the race I'd found myself passsing the 4:45 pace group. Pace groups are led by experienced runners who keep a particular pace--if you want to monitor your own pace, you can run with them and you'll likely finish within the time posted on the little sign they carry with them. At any rate, passing the 4:45 group seemed about right to me and I felt good that I never saw them again during the race--that is until I saw the 5:00 group come trotting past me after the bridge. Wait a second. . .what happened? How did they. . .? I was shocked.

My shock turned to dismay and then profound humility, as I began to be passed by others--the elderly and the heavyset, all moving smoothly past me as I hobbled along. With each passing pace group--the 5:15, the 5:30--I felt my spirits sink lower. Before I reached mile 18, the songs on my ipod that I'd allotted to the completion of that mile--the mile I'd dedicated to my mom--ran out. The songs for mile 19 (dedicated to the Saipan SDA School) began and there was no way around the facts. I'd fallen well off my pace and was offically behind. The fog had finally lifted, the sun had come out, but my heart was still overcast. My legs felt like they were sheathed in concrete, fire shot through my ankles, knees, and joints, and my muscles groaned in agony. I jogged slowly and walked often.

Mind over Matter
At last, I finally emerged from the cursed park and into the sunshine of Haight Street. Jogging slowly past the smoke shops and trippy hippie stores, I worried that I might not even finish within the allotted time. I'd later learn that when I passed the 20 mile marker I had slowed to a 13:26 pace, the slowest I'd ever run, with less than 2o seconds per mile between me and failure.

By now, I was running mostly alone. The occasional runner who overtook me or vice versa was silent in their own personal struggle. The runners snapping photos and chatting on cell phones that I'd seen early in the race had long disappeared. The race organizers were packing up their gear, the traffic cops were directing us off the roads to the sidewalk; I'm pretty sure some of the aid stations had folded completely by this time. The race seemed to be dishearteningly close to the end and I seemed so far from the finish line. Still, it wasn't over yet. I was reminded of this by the scattered onlookers who continued to cheer me as I past, ringing bells and shouting, "Come on, you can do it. You're gonna make it. You're almost there!" I appreciated these thoughtful folks so much. I'm sure it was more fun and much easier to cheer the great crowds of sturdy atheletes early in the race, running steadily along. But it was the men and women like me, hobbling along at the back of the pack that needed their encouragement the most, and my hat is off to these people who stuck around to the bitter end to give us that extra boost.

Around mile 21 or so, amazingly, I began to pick up my pace. I was driven by the fear of not making that Official Finish. I couldn't stand the thought of going through all of this and then having my finish not count. There was that, and the fact that for some reason it seemed less painful to run than to walk at this point. Whenever I stopped to walk terrible cramps gripped my calves and quads--running kept the cramping at bay. "Come on man, you can do this. You can do this" I'd whisper to myself as I attempted to massage the cramps. "Come on, come on, come on," I'd chant. So I'd run again. Except for the downhills--the steep downhills were enough to make a man swear from the pain, so brutal were they on the knees. Then I had to walk.

But beyond that I ran more than walked in the final five miles. The songs continued to play, but I barely noticed them, and I found that it helped to pray for the people I'd dedicated my miles to at this point. It helped distract me from the pain. So I prayed for Virle and Amy, for "Little Sister", for "J", for my sister Dawn and her fiance Jim.

Picking up the Pace
I knew I'd make it when I caught up with the 5:45 pace group--the very last one. As long as I could at least keep them in sight, I knew I'd make it. The miles had grown unbearably long by this time. It seemed like the next mile marker would never come. Mile 24 was especially elusive--I couldn't figure out why it was taking me so long to reach it. At the last water station, one of the race volunteers shouted, "You're almost there! Just two more miles!"

Don't lie to me, I muttered to myself. I know you're trying to encourage me and all, but don't lie to me. I haven't even completed 24 miles yet!

And then a woman nearby commented to her running buddy, "There it is 25 miles. We're almost there." And sure enough, up ahead, a signpost from heaven was mile marker 25. Somehow, I'd missed the 24th marker. I had just over a mile to go. My heart swelled with relief and eagerness for this run to finally be over. I ran at a good clip--for awhile I'd been passing many of the people that had earlier passed me and that I'd thought I'd never see again. The bearded man with the topknot of long hair and furry back, the two women in the dark blue marathon training shirts, and now I passed many more. But I also walked a few paces here and there. I was worried that I'd run out of steam and collapse in heap before the finish line, if I pushed too soon. And I wanted to finish strong.

Finish Line
When I finally hit the 26 mile marker on the Embarcedero, I finally kicked on the afterburners and ran the last .2 miles strong. The finish line came into view. The smattering of supporters were cheering, the emcee was chattering his encouragement: "Folks, you'll only hear this song once in the entire race. . ." and the familiar melody of the theme from Chariots of Fire floated through the air. I didn't even care. I ran hard, my breath coming in gasps, I raised my hands and it didn't even feel like a cliche. I pumped my fist and--yes! I was across the finish. It was over.

I felt relief. I felt exhausted. But, of course, I also felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. At 5 hours, 45 minutes, and 29 seconds, I was an Official Finisher of the 2009 San Francisco Marathon. The aches and pains, the mental battle, it had all been worth it.

Done! I finished at approximately 12:27 P.M.

The Piersons and Bev stuck around to cheer me on at the finish line. Bev finished the second half marathon about an hour or so before me and Ken and Crystal finished their respective races (full and first half marathon). more than two hours earlier.

The Finish

So what comes next? I know I'll run again. At this point, I don't think I'll do another marathon just for myself--one for me was enough. But if I have the opportunity to run for a cause, or if I'm going to run with someone else whose never run one before, I'd do 26.2 again in a heartbeat. And I definitely want to run in other shorter races--half marathons and such.

What was true at the beginning of those twenty six miles, echoed in the first words of the first song on my ipod, is still true at the end: "I want to run."


Bev said...

Great post Sean! All your hardwork and dedication really paid off! Congratulations on finishing 26.2 strong. We knew you could do it!

Anonymous said...

I'm SO terribly proud if you Sean!
I love you!

Your Sister

p.s maybe the next 26.2 will be with me :)

The Beachcomber said...

Fantastic, Sean! Proud of you, man!

Mai said...

Wow, Sean! That's so awesome! Reading your post makes me truly question if I could actually complete a run that long.....I don't know how you did it alone, I would definitely need someone running the entire thing with me. I'm ultra proud of you! You did great!

Ken & Crystal Pierson said...

Congratulations Sean! You set a goal and you accomplished it...through the pain! You are now part of the less than 1% of the human race that has conquered the 26.2! My hat is off to you - SF was brutal - but you did it! KDP