In a long row of headlights inching forward through the dark, it took us more than a half hour to drive the last mile to the bus pickup area, and the bus took almost an hour to get to the start line. I suspect the driver got lost. But it worked out well, since the delay spared us too much waiting in the cold. Upon arrival most of the drivers kept their engines running for us to inhale all the exhaust fumes before engaging in this healthy endeavor. That puzzled me, but I forgot it soon enough.
A thousand or more, we converged on a narrow road in the Catalina mountains. Facing the rising sun, swaying to the music of Chariots of Fire, waiting for take-off, we stepped in place. The man in front of me wore a lovely T-shirt that recommended “Bach around the clock.” The dawn was brisk, rosy, and serene. There was no gun, just a countdown ending in an imperative GO that too place only gradually. So many of us crossed the parallel mats at the same time, the beep prolonged itself into an acute, aching sound. Then the field widened and we broke loose.
I was a glorious start. For the next six or seven miles we meandered up and down the hills of the Catalinas, negotiating the sharp turns, so marked the road was slanted not only up and down, but also left and right. My ankles started to hurt. Someone cracked a joke about us being “almost there.” The air was still frigid and I was happy about the disposable gloves I bought at the Expo.
We ran through the lonely, shabby town of Oracle. At the entrance an upright man with white hair tirelessly bid us all good morning. At the exit a little girl held up a handwritten carton sign: Oracle “heart” you.
I could not believe six miles were already over. I shed the boring, stained cotton-shirt I had worn for warmth so far. It’s funny, as soon as I stood in my Marathon Maniac shirt I felt different, as if I was a legitimate runner now. Then the course opened up into route 77 and we ran along the quiet highway into the expanse of the desert.
A couple of runners hailed me as a fellow maniac, an odd passing recognition from people unknown with whom I had something unexpected in common – the impulse to run many marathons in a short span of time. And Marathon Maniac #658 disengaged himself graciously from his party to chat for a few minutes at my side. He planned to do a 38 mile race in the high desert of New Mexico in January, an event I had already wistfully considered some time ago for a few minutes before I admitted to myself I can barely run 26 miles, never mind more.
Around mile 10 the course veered off to the left in a single loop toward Biosphere 2, a cutting-edge inter-disciplinary research center run by the University of Arizona. Through an improbable link in the relay of information I knew about Biosphere 2 back home in Eastern Europe, in the ‘80s, before the Iron Curtain fell, way before it was opened to the American public. Heading back into the mountains, this was the one uphill segment of the race, and it was eerie to run against the incline, against the sunlight, toward the memory from a score of years ago, anticipating the sight of the futuristic glass structure at every bent in the road. In the end, I did not see it – the loop turned around just in front of the gate, too far from the actual compound. But the anticipation of seeing it spurned me on throughout the uphill slant. Way back Biosphere 2 embodied a reassuring landmark for me – testimony that beyond our limited life vaster realms engaged in conquering the future. The splits reflect that. In spite of the ascent, my pace picked up during those miles.
Then we reached route 77 again, and went on and on and on. The day heated up, but a breeze kept the air cool, and outright discomfort away. I caught a tan. Perhaps because we were running outside actual city limits, spectators were few or disinterested. The volunteers made up for it, screaming their lungs out, always reacting to the Marathon Maniac shirt, always encouraging and enthusiastic.
I do not know when I became tired, the fatigue must have taken hold gradually. Breathing came easier than at home, the altitude was lower. But my legs hurt. Pain clamped around my ankles like an iron vise. I kept running since walking did not make it much better, but I must have slowed down.
Somewhere around mile 21 or 22, while slurping water after passing an aid station, I looked at my watch in an attempt to compute how fast I was, what time I was making, and I reached the disheartening conclusion that in spite of descent, dry air, pleasant temperature, and lower altitude, I would still come in way over five hours. I shook the feeling off, it did not matter, this was a good marathon. I kept running, wondering why I could not persuade myself to walk between aid stations. A policeman at a crossing asked me if I was all right. I nodded and trudged on, wondering how I looked.
As the traffic picked up on route 77 the endless roaring of engines in both directions became unnerving. Luckily the last couple of miles veered off into a residential area. On a little alley behind a strip mall a small band of what I identified as Japanese drum players provided a long needed boost. The day was hot now. The last aid station offered iced water, it tasted as good as the nectar of the gods. It was only after I passed mile 25, already approaching the finish line, when I realized that my prior computations were wrong – getting there around 12:15 pm with a 7:30 am start meant I was under five hours, not over. What was I thinking?
This was the first marathon where I heard the announcement of my name, “Marathon Maniac, from Albuquerque, NM,” and the first where in response, or by virtue of plenitude, I had the energy the raise my arms in a gesture of triumph. I did not see my boyfriend for a long time after crossing the mat, and then we ran toward each other as if we had been parted for weeks.
If I had run this marathon with any expectations, I would have probably been disappointed. Or so I thought. It was smooth, but uneventful. It was faster then most of the other ones – 4h 44 min 23 sec – but still behind Shiprock. Only later during the afternoon, while limping through the hotel room to gather pretty clothes for dinner, did I realize what had been different.
This was the first marathon where, from start to end, I maintained composure. Not once did my breathing get whiny – the threshold of exhaustion, the signal of alarm, the tell-tale sign of self-pity. I was not impressed by the pain. I was not moved by my own accomplishment. I just ran, a hard, cool, light, serene experience, free of superfluous self-absorption.
Just before we headed out the doors I slipped the medal off my neck. The dinner experience was delightful even without me showing off.
Once more, I have grown up a bit.