Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting Jon at my house the night before his debut at the Hartford Marathon, conveniently located 40 minutes from my house. This was not the first time that Jon has stayed at Chez Orange Hat, as he was a guest here a few years ago for the New Haven Road Race. And although I have hosted other runners in the past this particular visit was different: I was not registered for the race and I was not going to the race to merely be a spectator. My opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ had finally arrived, and I was going to have the honor of running Jon in for the last 6.2 miles of his race.
For four out of my six previous marathons, I have been fortunate enough to have friends run the last 6.2 miles with me, or better, run the whole 26.2 enchilada with me. The first time I had to run without a ‘pacer’ for those final miles, it was much, much harder to dig deep. When the darkness started to close in on me, it was amplified by the absence of a friend keeping step with me. Talking is not necessary at that point; there’s just something about a kindred spirit with fresh legs that can keep me focused.
My hope was to help Jon keep the darkness at bay as he reached for his goal.
For Jon’s race, the logistics of the situation worked out perfectly. I caught a ride on the bus for the relay runners, and headed out to the Mile 20 marker, which was also the Mile 14 marker, as that part of the course is an ‘out and back’ stretch.
I have only been able to be a spectator at one other marathon, so I was giddy with excitement over seeing the elites blaze through, and then watched as the various levels of runners went by. It was an interesting study to be placed at the Mile 14/Mile 20 markers. Runners were all smiles and still excited, energetic and looking strong at Mile 14. However, just across the street was a stark reminder of what lay ahead…the pale, sweaty contorted faces of tortured runners who still had six miles to go.
I caught Jon as he ran by at Mile 14. I ran up alongside him and gently tapped him on the shoulder, not wanting to startle him and break his concentration. I said ‘Jon! You look good! How are you feeling?!’ He slowly turned to me with concern in his face and replied ‘I don’t know Dianna, I just don’t know.’ I shouted something cliché but encouraging like ‘You can do it! I’ll see you soon!’ and headed back to my position at the Mile 20 mark.
I checked the time on my watch and did some quick calculations about when I might expect to see Jon again. I grew a little worried when that time passed, and the ‘pacer group’ he had been in passed by without him. Sometime later, he came running by and I jumped in beside him: me, all bubbly and excited to see him; him, not so much excitement.
I’ll be honest: he didn’t look good, despite the fact that I told him was ‘doing great,’ he was now one of those pale-faced runners. He didn’t sound good either; his voice was barely a whisper as he tried to fill me in on some of the details of his race. Plus, his breathing was off – shallow and quick. I was worried. We had some work ahead of us.
It slowly occurred to me that I was now in the enviable position of feeling fresh and energetic during the toughest part of the marathon. I took advantage of that fact by taking the time to really look around and absorb all that I was seeing and hearing. My report to you is this: it ain’t pretty.
Those last six miles are filled with quiet struggle as runners wrestled their demons. There are few smiles to be seen, and the sounds of ragged breathing, shuffling feet and the occasional whimper filled my ears (and not just from Jon!). Many of the spectators wore worried expressions. I started smiling at the spectators to help ease their minds a little and they smiled back with a look of relief on their face.
My personal struggle was with how I should interact with Jon – quiet determination or chatty distraction? I started out by playing the role of cheerleader: You look great! You can do this! Your form is still looking good! If marathons were easy, everyone would be doing them! Then I switched to sports psychologist: Dig deep and think about what inspires you. Remember a time when you felt really strong and draw on that. Just focus on moving one foot in front of the other. Then, a medical professional: Take deep breaths. Eat a gel. Drink. Finally, I just tried to be there for him – hoping he would find comfort in having a friend close by.
We ran. We walked. We stretched. We ran. He would whisper ‘driveway’ or ‘stop sign’ and when we reached that particular spot, we’d pick up the pace again. I encouraged fluids and gels. My favorite moment came at Mile 25, just as we crested the hill placed so cruelly: we were walking side by side up the hill, and Jon suddenly turns to me and says in a loud non-whispering voice: “That’s it Dianna, you’ve been slowing me down for the last 5 miles. Let’s go, already!”
With about a mile to go, we picked up the pace. We turned onto the last section of road, and I tried to run in front of him in order to block the wind for him. I heard a desperate plea from behind me: “Where is the finish line?” and recalled a similar sentiment of mine own from a year ago: “Jeanne! Where the hell is the Mile 26 mile marker?!” I knew his pain as I called back “Almost there!”
I peeled off just before last turn and watched Jon run under The Arch and towards the finish line. A quick glance at the clock through the trees and I knew he’d come in under four hours, obliterating his previous marathon times. I was so excited for him and proud of him; he had worked hard for every single one of those miles. His tank was totally empty. He truly earned that medal.
If you haven’t had a chance to do something like this for a runner-friend, you should seriously consider it. It is an incredible experience and gives you a whole new perspective on the marathon!