Monday, October 5, 2015

When it's not about you...

I signed up to pace the Maine Marathon for personal, selfish reasons. Most of time, someone will sign up to "pace" a marathon to help others achieve their goal time. There's no doubt that the choice to take on these endeavors consequently takes away from time with friends and loved ones. Why we do what we do is still a bit beyond me but that is not what this is about...

I signed up to pace the 3h 55m group. Running a marathon at that pace was well within my comfort zone.  I was selfishly using this race as a training run for the Ghost Train 100 Mile Run coming up in a few weeks. My intention behind signing up was simply to have a supported long run with aid stations, where I don't have to plan gas-station-stops for food, or break into local port-a-pottys along the way. I thought I was just going to show up, run at an easy pace, and then go home.

I quickly realized that this race was not about me though; things began to change for me mentally just as soon as the cannon fired to start the 26.2-mile brigade. I held my orange 3:55 sign high, waiting in my corral. People began to nervously gather around the goofy looking, bearded, bandanna, guy with an Orange Mud double quiver back pack. The 3:55 group was sure to bring a wide variety of people my way. Breaking 4hrs in a marathon is a big goal for runners of all kinds of backgrounds.

The first few miles of a marathon are always interesting.

For this marathon, everyone seemed to be feeling good, it was a perfect day weather-wise, and the pre-race jitters hadn't really shaken out yet. From what I could tell, I had a pretty good group forming around me. 

Everyone made typical running small talk as the group got to know each other. I made a pretty solid effort to be on the receiving end of all conversation. I normally don't talk a ton about what I am up to (these self-centered, written, race-sermons aside), but today I made it even more of a point to get to know everyone in my group. There was a woman who was also training for an ultra in a few months, to another gal running her 98th marathon, to a couple first timers; there were two younger friends running together as a "reunion marathon", a couple of people who had said they had just quit smoking, and generally people of all different shapes, sizes, and ages.

Admittedly, my favorite of the crew was a guy who I would not actually come to see until the very finish. He was a heavy breathing man running directly behind me who would occasionally kick my foot or flatten my shoe under my heal. He never apologized. He never even spoke a word for that matter. He didn't laugh at all or offer any small talk. No one else in the group paid him any mind, and from what I could tell, he didn't care about that either.

This guy was on a mission. From the very beginning, I could tell that this man was digging into the depths of his soul to keep pace with my stupid, orange, laminated sign. I know this pain and this drive very well. He was on the fringe of his ability. Anything faster would have been too much for him, but- anything slower would probably allowed him to talk and chat a little bit. At this pace though, the numbers on the sign might-as-well be giving him the middle finger and taunting him the whole time.

I never found out what his motivation was but I guess I didn't need to know that either. I had been in his shoes and know exactly what kind of suffering he was willingly putting himself through to keep pace. My heart melts for people who subject themselves to a test of this sort.

The whole group kept it together well; we laughed and joked about pretty much anything along the way but about every 9minutes things would get ridiculously serious. The intention of the race would refocus synchronously as all the running-watches would chime off the mile semi-simultaneously.

It was this check-in that kept me super motivated throughout the race. This is when everyone made it clear that they were counting on me to get them to the finish on time. I don't quite know how to put in to words how important everyone tacitly made it known that we were on pace; that they were counting on me. This damn paper sign just kept getting heavier.

One woman even said to me around mile five as I shifted my stride to the middle of the road, "You can't move too much like that because I will get too nervous if I am far away from you."

Everyone here had been training for months. Sacrificing personal time, putting themselves through vigorous training, and pushing their bodies through tough workouts, they unknowingly put their faith in some chump who signed up last week, and only a few hours prior, just though he was going to show up, finish, and go home.

It was amazing the amount of trust they placed in me, a complete stranger, with a stupid smile on his face, corny running jokes, holding a dumb sign, to make (or break) their race. 

Strava data HERE! The miles clicked off quickly. For the first ten, according to my watch, we were right at 8:55 pace per mile. A 3:55 marathon is equal to 8:57 pace per mile. I had told the group that I was planning on "banking" some time until I could figure out if the course was running long or short or whatever.

Everyone else was wearing a watch as well, which proved to be an added bit of difficulty. A couple grumblings like, "We are at an 8:50 pace why are we going so fast?"

But I had assured them to place their trust in me and assured them, "This is what I get paid the big bucks for." (Listen to me bullshit... they had no reason to trust me and even more so that this was my first time pacing any sort of a race... but I kept that part to myself... "ActAsIF is the name of the blog after all, alright? Back off.).

There was a race clock at the half way point and I started to get really nervous as we approached it. Though I thought we were banking time, I was also running the turns pretty wide and weaving a bit for optimal placement. I was running on pace but the small amounts of extra running side-to-side on the course made it so I was running longer than the measured 26.2-miles. Marathons are measured 26.2-miles if you run the exact shortest distance possible on the streets. I completely overlooked this fact as I paced the group. 
So, as the clock ticked 1:57:24 as we crossed 13.1-miles, I told the group we were right on pace and exactly where we needed to be. 1:57:24, times two, equals... well, you do the math.

The miles got longer and longer perceptively, but the crew was still doing well. I think a few dropped off but I tried to offer some encouragement through the marathon-doldrums of miles 16-21. The talking and chitter-chatter turned into grumblings and eventually to silence.

Around mile 21 is when the silence turns to swears and curses.

I started to pass people on the course who were up ahead for most of the race, but now they were unwillingly slowing down. They looked at the stupid numbers on my sign and said things likes, 

"Shit! Not you!"

"Ahhhh WTF are you doing here?" 

And the classic, all encompassing, softly but meaningfully spoken, "Goddamnit."

I knew they were not talking to me personally, but I tried my best at a humorous response, maybe to lift their spirits, 

"C'mon I am not that ugly am I?"

"But we barely even know each other!"

However, and I know this all too well, all humor is out the window at this point of a marathon victim in this mental space. My outside efforts and vocal encouragement to pick people up and motivate them along the way to, "Just keep up with me for four more miles! I'll get you there." weren't nearly enough. A drop in the ocean of hurt. Most people who heard me tried to put in that extra boost, but in the last four miles of a marathon, the motivation must come internally. Nothing can really snap someone out of it but themselves

I still had a skeleton crew with me, but more and more I felt the pain of the people that I passed. I started to actually think that I should slow down and run with them at their pace, as if me carrying the 3:55 sign meant that I was in charge of the official clock. I was the impersonation of some hellish suffering people not only willingly were putting themselves through, but paid money to suffer through as well.

We got closer and closer to the finish line and I was nailing the time/pacing pretty on point.

It was uplifting in the final 100-feet or so everyone yelled,

"Great pacing!"

"Well done pacer!" 

They could see the 3:54:30 tick off the clock as I approached at a constant pace.

I smiled an unenthusiastic smile.


I didn't yell that. I was too busy trying to curb the wave of emotion washing over me. You know that feeling in your chest and face right before you get that, "Aw-shit-I'm-about-to-start-crying-in-pubic?"

I chatted with a bunch of people in my group afterwards. This was so awesome and motivating. The man who was outwardly busting his ass ended up falling off my 3:55-train in the last few miles, however, he crossed the finish line a couple minutes after me. He nailed is ultimate goal of a sub-4hr marathon.

The people in my group kept thanking me, but they truly don't know how much I appreciated every step I got the honor of sharing with them. I was all smiles the whole way home. Doing this really warmed my heart in a way I could have never imagined.