“Head in the Game, Hayes. Head in the Game.”
Janie’s Houston Marathon Race Report
There’s a context for every marathon, and here is mine:
am moving to Africa in eight weeks. Yesterday was my last day of work in a job I have held for three years. Last night was an exhausting night of hugs, drinks, a happy hour and a late dinner. Now it’s Saturday afternoon and I am cruising to Houston, eating a 3 Musketeers bar; it’s finally sinking in that I am running a marathon tomorrow. I eat the chocolate off the nougat all the way down to the bottom and realize I forgot to bring running shorts to wear.
Get your head in the game, Hayes, I think. Head in the game.
This marathon seemed a really good idea 4 months ago. My plan was to run a personal record and a sub-3:30 marathon before I moved off the continent. It might be my last chance to run a marathon for a while, I figured, and I had set my PR of 3:39 back in 1998. I hadn’t trained for a road marathon since then, and I knew that the reasons included my fear of speed work and, more generally, the special pain of a marathon. So I decided to face the music. 12 weeks ago I gritted my teeth, solicited Steve Sisson to help me with a plan, and committed. It would be my last athletic hurrah. No doubt, I would have my head in the game.
In a Houston hotel in the afternoon, I crash into bed, only to be awakened by a phone call from some friends who are in town to run the marathon. They want to go drinking. In an unusual display of self-control, I weasel out. Instead, my husband Jimmy and I make our way to the expo. I pick up my packet and buy some throw-away gloves for the morning, vanilla GUs, and running shorts to wear in the race. Jimmy doesn’t think they are attractive, but fashion is a secondary concern at this point.
We have dinner with friends at an Italian restaurant, where I manage to preach my gospel about how women can pee standing up anytime, anywhere, to 4 wide-eyed, blond-haired Houston female runners. There is a demonstration of the pelvic tilt outside, and then we head back to the hotel.
Get your head in the game, I am still thinking. Head in the game.
Race morning I get up and leave while Jimmy is still in bed. We are staying at the half-marathon point of the course so that he can meet me and pace me for the second half of the marathon. I am late, as usual, but as I head out of the parking garage, the attendant wants to talk:
“You going to the marathon?”
“How fast you gonna run it?”
“I’m trying for 3 and a half hours.”
“Damn, girl! You gonna win?”
“What time is the woman who wins gonna get?”
“About 2 and a half hours.”
“Whoa. You’re WAY off. Like an hour behind.”
The gate starts to rise. Thanks, buddy, for the reminder.
I pull out and find the hip-hop station. Head in the game, Hayes, I remind myself. Head in the game.
At the marathon start, the excitement swirls around in the air. Number, check. Chip, check. GUs, check. Painkillers, check. I’m admitted into the front corral of runners, all of who are looking for finish times below 3:40. I find my friends Bob and Ryan, who are also aiming for 3:30, and the 3:30 pace group. I am talking and laughing with them, so I hardly notice when the race gun goes off and we jog across the start line.
The race has started, and I still don’t know if my head is in the game.
During the first mile, we cross an overpass. To our right, the sun bleeds through the cirrus clouds in this striated pattern of oranges, golds and grays. It is spectacular. Everyone looks, and then we start bumping and tripping over each other. We lose the pace group for a second.
Head in the game, Hayes. Head in the game.
After years of running with rambunctious, testosterone-infected boys, I know the importance of insisting on a solid, steady pace. Someone’s got to quell the inevitable erratic (read: way too fast) pace setting that comes when a group of well-rested boys run together. So I crown myself the pace Nazi for our little group. I call out the pace every mile and insist “Slow it down, boys” or “Pick it up a little.” They make fun of me, but I know they’ll love me for it later.
We go through miles 1, 2 and 3: 8:13, 8:00: 7:53. Click, click, click. I realize that I can’t joke around and concentrate on the pace at the same time, so I pipe down. I remember that this marathon, this 3:30, is important to me, even if I can’t yet remember why.
Miles 4 and 5: 7:52, 8:00.
By mile 6, my head’s in the game.
7:59, 7:56, 7:51, 8:25 (potty break). Click, click, click.
At mile 11, I take communion. Outside of an old, white church, 3 priests in white robes lined with green ribbing flick holy water on runners. A sign proclaims, “Communion ahead,” so, figuring can use all the carbs I can get, I take a wafer from the priest’s hand. I cross myself and he smiles and gives a little nod. I don’t tell him I’m not Catholic.
At mile 13, we pick up Jimmy. Things are a little quieter now in the 3:30 pace group, as people start to realize the sobriety of the impending 2 hours. I am trying to relax and maintain a steady pace. Jimmy wants to talk, so I send him over to Bob and Ryan, and the three of them entertain themselves by letting out intermittent whoops and cheers as we run past groups of fans. I yell sometimes, but mostly I am trying to concentrate. I know the last 10 miles are not going to be easy.
At 17, it happens. Coming down the far side of an overpass, my right quad cramps. Brush it off, I think. Relax. I take some salt tablets and breathe deeply. 7:58, 7:55, 7:59. Head in the game, Hayes. Head in the game.
The next 5 miles get more and more painful, but I am still able to hit the pace. Thank you, marathon goal pace runs on Shoal Creek. 7:58, 7:59, 8:00. At 21, my hamstrings start to tighten up, and I get a little desperate. My self-motivating coffers have dried up. I look at Jimmy, and he starts talking.
“Good job. Good work. Hold on. Nice and steady.”
Keep talking, I gasp. Encouragement is nice.
At mile 22, he can see my form is slipping and tries a different strategy — directives:
“Pick your knees up. Play with your form. Lean forward,” he says.
I seethe. Commands, not so good. Stop telling me that, I hiss. I’ve already tried all that.
The Mile 22 marker goes by. 8:20.
Jimmy gets the idea. He starts reminding me about the season premiere of “24” and in a few hours I’ll be sitting on the couch. “I’ll even bring you a glass of wine,” he offers brightly. Somehow, this makes me feel a little better.
By this time, though, I am really in pain. It has all happened so fast – within 2 miles, but I know that this is all part of the marathon game. Still, my legs will not move. The cramps are so bad that I have one position for my body in which I can keep moving.
Mile 23: 8:20
I am getting tears in my eyes. I try to stop. Jimmy looks me straight in the eye and says firmly, “Keep running.” So I do. Or at least I am moving forward.
Mile 24: 8:35
At this point, I stop. I am sure that there is simply no way that I can keep running. I like to think of myself as tough, but inside I am crumbling. I want to lie down and go to sleep. Right here in front of this water stop.
Jimmy is stern. So are the fans. ‘Run! Run!” they yell. I try, then stop again. Jimmy makes a bargain with me: ‘Two minutes and you can walk 5 steps,” he offers.
Somehow, this works. But not in the way he planned. At two minutes, he tells me to walk, and my competitive instincts kick in. “I can make it two more minutes,” I spit out. And then two more. Finally I say, “If I can get to 25, I can run.”
Mile 25: 9:22. Shit. Why did I stop? Three times
Now I am mad. I have just over a mile to go, and I am angry. I know that I won’t meet my goal of 3:30, but that is ok. I simply need to prove to myself that I haven’t fallen apart. So I run. Stiff-legged and painfully, shuffling as fast as I possibly can.
Did I mention that I am mad ? But in the best possible way. The kind of anger that makes you determined to do something your body says you cannot do. I can see the 26-mile marker from nearly a mile away, and it is coming towards me so slowly. It is taking forever to get to me. When I pass it, I check my watch:
Mile 26: 8:30.
In two minutes, I step across the finish. 3:32: 53.
I want to cry, but I can’t. I am too relieved. I am in too much pain. I am too proud of myself. I am too weary and perplexed and sad and happy and exhausted.
I still can’t remember why I did it, why I wanted it, but right now, knowing that I did is enough. And this I do know: Finally and completely, I am sure, I finally got my head in the game.