So when I left off the story, I was watching the first few start blocks line up from my dumpster refuge, and people were dancing and doing jumping jacks to the music. After one of the Greek pre-game songs, a guy came on the loudspeaker to announce to the English-speaking runners, “That song said that it is never cold in Greece because we have such warm hearts. And our hearts are all warm since we get to be here with all of you today.” As sweet as that was, I must disagree: it most definitely gets cold in Greece.
I can’t remember if I mentioned that Julie was in start block 3, but she had to leave a little earlier than I did, so when she went to line up I made my way over to block 5. Since my previous friends had been scattered in different directions, and I’d learned how easy it was to meet people, I approached a group of young people and offered to take their picture. Turns out they were all English medical interns, around the age of 25, who’d come to Greece for a vacation and decided to run on a whim, several of them with barely any training. They were so sweet and funny as only British people can be. We chatted about who knows what as the groups in front of us started the race and we inched forward. We bonded fast, though, because by the time we were at the start line and our shot was fired, we all joined hands in a line, me in the middle of the seven-ish of them, and ran triumphantly across the start, cheering and waving at the photographers. Unfortunately I lost track of them within the first mile, and ran my own race for a while. At one point, they sent us out along a road and looped us back, so that we were passing runners headed in the other direction. I took this opportunity to take another video, and right when I switched it on, who called out my name and waved to me from the other side but the couple from Miami, from the bus at 5am! It was so exciting to see them, and to catch them on video, too.
So I continued on for a while with my music and the still-very-thick crowd of runners for entertainment, still feeling a rush of adrenaline, feeling rested from my two-week taper (one week of which, in Paris, I didn’t run at all), and generally having a good time. After a while, when the crowd thinned out (I got passed quite a few times), I began to be able to identify certain people who I’d been pacing with. One was a young man who seemed American, and who I was pacing almost exactly– we ran awkwardly right next to each other for about a mile, probably, before I took out my left headphone and said, “Hey.” He looked a little surprised, but definitely recognized me, and said “Hey” back. We both laughed about having paced each other for a long time, introduced ourselves (his name is Chase), and started chatting about where we were from, what we were doing in Greece, what year we were in school, what we studied, you know, the usual. Turns out he’s a sophomore studying abroad in London and doing essentially the same thing I was: running the first marathon for his first marathon. Finding that kind of solidarity was incredible, and we were only 4 or 5 miles in at that point. The steady stream of conversation with Chase made the first half fly by; I could hardly believe it when we crossed the 20km timer and stocked up on water, Powerade, gels, and bananas at the beginning of the second half. We developed a system where he would grab one bottle of water at the fuel stations and we’d share it, because most runners snatched up a big bottle of water, took a swig or two, and tossed the bottle roadside, still nearly full. If you’ve never attended a half- or full marathon, distance runners are sloppy people; at stations like the 20km mark, the ground was an obstacle course around Powerade cups, full water bottles, smooshed bananas and chocolate chip cookies, and gel containers. All I can say is God bless the volunteers! So Chase and I decided to share and at least looked for a trash can / recycling bin (for about 15 seconds) before tossing our trash beside the road. When we first met early in the race, we weren’t sure if our paces would stay matched for the whole time, but we ended up making a fantastic team. Not only was it entertaining talking to him, but he encouraged me to push my pace after it started to hurt, and I made him hold out on breaks until the kilometer marks we’d determined in advance. (The only walk breaks we took were at kilometers 25, 30, 35, and a tiny one at 40; 42 km=26.2 miles)
Around mile 10, the hills became constant. I was feeling them when we reached the halfway mark, and all those long, steady, inclines began to wear me down. The hills lasted all the way to mile 20 or so, with barely a decline in between for relief. Chase and I still stuck together, but we put headphones in both ears and pressed on more or less without talking, except for the brief walk breaks, where we fueled up and laughed a bit about how much pain we were in but how we were making good time. He’d been listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack (I have so much respect for that) and I remember the moment he informed me the first movie was over– that meant we’d run at least 3.5 hours and we were beginning to see the light. During the whole run, I was never in too much pain to smile and wave at the spectators yelling “Bravo, bravo!”, give the photographers a thumbs up, or high-five the young kids standing along the road. I was also never too tired to remind myself that though this was hard and my body was telling me I wanted to be done, this was the moment I’d worked and waited for, for so long, this was an experience I’d treasure for the rest of my life, and that I may never see my new friends again, so I quieted the voice that was anxious for the finish line and genuinely enjoyed every second of the struggle.
Around mile 20, when the uphills turned into downhills, which allowed Chase and I to pick up our pace for a while until the impact of the downhill slope on our knees became too much, it hit me that not only was I going to finish this marathon, I was going to finish strong. I shot a picture of the first downhill just because it was such a welcome sight. There was only about an hour to go and I began to feel optimistic. I only had one really low point, mentally, at km 39, when Chase was beginning to pick up the pace and I felt close to tears from exhaustion. I wasn’t sure if I could push it any harder at that point. So I waved him ahead because he was trying to finish under 4:30– though the period of time between kms 39 and 42 felt like an eternity, he only finished 2 minutes ahead of me– but at 40, running alone, I began to see the light again, and the spectators were thickening. At 41, I turned a corner to find a long downhill street, lined with orange trees and beneath them, spectators 4 or 5 people deep, who were cheering and waving flags, and the last of my energy hit me. I ran as hard as I could coax my legs to down that hill, I must have been beaming, and I distinctly remember that Ray laMontagne’s “You Are the Best Thing” came on, which is Corinne and my song, until I could hear the music from the stadium and turned off my ipod. I ran dazedly, triumphantly, down the last stretch of track (which felt like satin after 26 miles of road) and across the finish.
(I’ll post the photos that the professional photographers took of the finish once I figure out how to make them large enough without paying for them…)
I was in such a daze that I’d forgotten how Chase and I had agreed to run up the stadium steps after the race, so apparently he was waiting for me up there, but I didn’t see him and continued walking, received my medal and tinfoil blanket, and made my way to the recovery tent.
While waiting in line for my recovery bag (water, orange juice, Powerade, some bread/carb thing, bananas), I saw Tim from way back at the start, resting on a step! I ran, no, I hobbled, over to say hi and congratulations to him, and then Chase appeared too. We hugged triumphantly– I feel like we’re best friends after enduring 20 of the 26 miles side by side. I’m positive I wouldn’t have had nearly as fun of a run without him. So the three of us sat down (sitting down was a process) and exchanged stories, whether we wanted to do another one (me: yes. Tim: no. I forget Chase’s verdict) and eventually got up (another process, and a team effort), hugged goodbye, exchanged last names so we could find each other on Facebook, and headed in our own directions. I can’t believe I didn’t take any photos with them right then and there, but alas, I didn’t.
So that’s the whole story. As I’ve said, I enjoyed every minute of the pain and the fun and the challenge. I am definitely up for another, though I know nothing will replace the experience at Athens, my first marathon, in my heart.