The lit wall of the Alamo stood so compelling under bulky clouds I could not stop taking pictures. No matter how much I adjusted the settings, the darkness was too dense for a memorable shot, but I still caught a glimpse of Texas regalia. I wondered later if we owed the gun moment to these gentlemen, with their old-fashioned rifles.
Then the light waxed, and so did the crowds. Thousands converged on the spot, red numbers for the marathon, blue for the half. I kept clicking away until my boyfriend urged me to get in line, and I reluctantly handed the camera back to him. The clouds thinned, the anthem rang, and the guns went off in big Texas style. It took me minutes to reach the mat.
The morning was hot and humid, and we were all sweat-soaked in less than one mile, I could see it on our shirts. A woman in electric lime green was holding a sign. I looked up expecting a name or a cause, but it said “4:45,” and I realized she was a pacer. I never noticed one before in any of my races. If I hung out with her group, I would finish in 4h 45 minutes, not my best time, but worth a try. It took me very little to realize that keeping up with her strained me, so I let go. I fell behind.
This incident, so early in the race, was a bad sign. It meant I would probably not be able to finish under five hours. But I hadn’t set any time goals, and kept on at my own pace. We passed through uptown San Antonio – high towers, temorary shade, picturesque shops, Tex-Mex restaurants, streets lined with clapping bystanders, a marvelous thing of red brick and green rails called “The Book Building.”
At the turn of a street, a woman in a black evening gown and high-heels was waving next to a rough sign that said “runners fan.” You had to love her.
Runners wore on their backs pictures of loved ones. A stocky man was carrying the Marine Corps Veteran flag. I saw girls running in pink and girls running in fatigue colors. Certified by the purple and red ribbons fluttering from her hat, a woman beyond a certain age proclaimed she could do anything she wanted to do, even run marathons.
So we ran. We ran by the Concepcion Mission, its faraway walls a reminder of centuries past. We ran into the open space of Mission Park, along the San Antonio River, as peaceful as in the time before we enclosed it within alleys and bridges. We ran past scores of brown markers pointing left and right to the San Juan Mission, the San Jose Mission, the Espada Mission, and back, and again, and all of them at once, although we barely saw the missions themselves. Sometimes a cloud passed over the face of the sun, sometimes the wind picked up for a brief reprieve. But on the whole we ran through a big open-air sauna.
Team in Training had a powerful presence in this race. Mile 12 was theirs – the most exuberant aid station I have ever seen, the cheering, the clapping, the enthusiasm, the readiness unbelievable. The song they played went “we love the way you move,” you had to love it again.
The halfway point amounted to a beep in the middle of nowhere. The turnaround point came later, at the Espada mission, I saw the bell tower atop of trees. And then we were mired in the exposed stretch of Mission Park again. Somewhere there I shook hands with Marathon Maniac #408, who had run a 50K the day before. Here’s a man who makes good use of his weekends. Compared to him I am tame.
The mile or more around 17 and 18 was the hardest. No matter how much I summoned myself forward, it was a wearisome inching ahead, step by step, breath by breath. My face was burning, my legs were limp. Then I came upon station 12 again, this time around it was station 20. They held up a sign “What wall?”
There was no wall. I cannot say I sailed past them, it was more like crawling. But then, something inexplicable happened. The last six miles shortened into nothingness. They went by so quickly I did not have time to register it. I do not mean to say it was easy. My own breath approximated a pitiful whine, the alarm sign of running out. The next thing I knew was getting nauseous at mile 22 – I knew I was losing electrolytes. After the sweat dried off at the finish in the air-conditioned Alamodome a fine layer of salt covered all of my skin.
But somehow time went by in a hurry, even skipped forward. Since Victoria, where my boyfriend waited two hours in the pouring rain, I carry the cell phone with me. We talked after I reached mile 23, to postpone my estimated time of arrival once more. I snapped the phone shut, I ran a few more steps, and there was mile 24. Where did the distance in between go?
Next thing I know I reach the last aid station, positioned right between the Goodyear shop where we had replaced my tire and the Italian restaurant where we had pasta the day before. And they say, “at the corner over there it’s 25.5 miles, you have roughly a half mile to go.”
What happened to all those miles? What diminished mile 24? Where did mile 25 go?
All I know is I stayed with it.
All along, I stayed with it, mile by mile, minute by minute. Time subjectively flies by faster when you live in the moment, but to have the last six miles of a marathon dwindle away is uncanny, akin to a mystical experience.
I sprinted on the last stretch. I do not know if it makes sense to sprint at the end of 5.5 hour marathon. There is nothing to gain. But my soles lifted from the ground by themselves, and I sprinted. My boyfriend was annoyed they did not announce I was coming, while they seemed to mention everyone else. No one handed me a medal – for a few moments I stood lost and useless beyond the finish mat. I had to ask for one and felt awkward. Then I was dizzy again, for a few moments.
Not that any of that matters. I conquered more than a medal in this race.
My boyfriend asked me the day before if it would be all worthwhile. The aggravation, the expense, the rest of our lives put on hold, everything for the sake of this one race, even if I would not make good time. Yes, I said, they are all worthwhile, each and every marathon.
That was even before I set foot on the beautiful start line at the Alamo at dawn. That was even before my mind shortened the last six mile to a mere few steps. This was my longest run - 5 h 32 min 59 sec, and every minute of it was worthwhile. I will always remember the Alamo.