Two fat flies spin wacky spirals around my head and torso, like tiny sharks circling their prey. House flies vomit and poop when they land on you, but they don’t bite, and I have worse things to worry about, so I leave them to their fun. I’ve reached mile 20 of the Jack & Jill’s Downhill Marathon. I’m feeling really rotten with six sure to be excruciating miles to go, so everything is bugging me. A pony-tailed young woman in navy shorts and a matching blue and white tank invades my personal space as she speeds by, continues for a couple of minutes, then walks. As soon as I catch her, she starts running again. I just want her to go away and leave me to my pain. In 1987, when I ran my first 26.2 miler, the Emerald City Marathon in Seattle, I gave in to the walk/run method during the final two miles. Not only did I feel guilty every time I stopped to walk, the gap between my walk breaks and returns to running lengthened over every interval, which is why I ran a second marathon in the first place. About mile 22, I pass a nearly dead man walking in his thirties who gives me the thumbs up sign, then returns to running, “I’m going to try to keep up with you,” (just trying to put one foot in front of the other here), “Except you’re going too fast,” (trying to ignore him in an energy-saving strategy), “My watch isn’t matching the mile markers.” (mine’s matching). Finally, he fades, which is when I hear, for the first and only time, the lie that well-meaning spectators feel compelled to tell, “You’re almost there!” Argh!
In May, my 19-year-old son and I complete the Cinco De Mayo Half Marathon at his request. He then announces that his training plan calls for him to complete a marathon in July. For 28 years, since the 1990 Goodwill Games Marathon in Seattle, I have kept a promise to myself to “never run a marathon again…ever.” But any mother runner worth her salt knows that she must support an offspring’s running efforts. The plan includes four days of running per week, with five once-a-week long runs during the final two months of 15, 16, 14, 18, 20, 12 and 8 miles. My marathon training consists of a couple of six-mile trail runs each week, a handful of tempo runs, and these long runs.
During race week, organizers assign us to the first shuttle bus to the start–at 4:00 am. Killing time at our hotel the night before, we learn that about 500,000 persons in the US complete a marathon each year, 0.5% in a lifetime. The next morning, we’re up at 2:00 am, at Tollgate Park by 3:45, headed to the start at 4:00 and at our destination by 4:45 for the 6:30 start. Without a cloud in the sky, it’s cool outside. We can see the just beyond full moon, a smattering of stars, and the outlines of mountains as the time nears sunrise. Racers eat, stretch, text, chat, take selfies, pin on race bibs, apply sunscreen, and wait in the Porta Potty lines, which is where a chatty, braggy woman informs me that she’s signed up for “five of the World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York City)” this year and hopes to qualify for Boston today by completing the course in 4:06. In the past three years, Boston Qualifying cut off times have varied from 2 minutes and 9 seconds to 3 minutes 23 seconds faster than qualifying standard times, “Achieving one’s qualifying standard does not guarantee entry into the event, but simply the opportunity to submit for registration.” The Boston Athletic Association lists Jack & Jill’s as one of the top 25 Boston qualifying races.
About 6:15, 600 participants drop extra gear, apply temporary Boston Qualifying pace tattoos to forearms, don headlamps, and assemble behind the start line. Pacers in fluorescent yellow hold slim wooden sticks with times atop. My goals are to run 10 minutes/mile or better, not walk, and be mindful. I’ll be listening to songs by artists like Avril Lavigne and Cardi B, my daughter’s playlist and her contribution to the day. Right on time, the race official sends us off in waves along the Iron Horse Trail and the 2.25 mi long, 104-year-old Snoqualmie Tunnel, which the pamphlet promises will be the “coolest part of the race.” Inside, it’s 54 degrees, but holds the highest potential danger for falls. Hundreds of headlamped racers’ voices and steps echo as we pass through the damp, nearly pitch black tunnel. Water drips down from above as we avoid occasional puddle-filled potholes that dot the left and right thirds. Passing is tricky, so I go slow. The light at the end of the tunnel appears long before the exit. Just outside, a banner indicates three miles. We toss our headlamps on top of an already overflowing bin and continue.
I pay attention to the wildflowers (foxglove in white, lilac, cotton candy pink and every shade in between, yarrow, daisies), mostly evergreen trees, trestles, rock climbers, mountains, streams, and rocky hillsides and try not to let the bikers calling out and ringing warning bells get me down. We share the trail with its dust, rocks, and ruts reluctantly. I stay to the right, debate whether to follow the pack that moves left to gain a bit of shade from the trees or save energy by remaining in the sun a little longer. Organizers boast a downhill course, which is true, but 2,000 feet of descent in 26.2 miles calculates out to a one percent grade, which mostly feels flat. I’m grateful for the few sections of trail entirely shaded and surrounded by trees on what turns out to be the hottest day of the year so far. And I wonder how my son is doing, somewhere behind me.
Four hours and fifteen minutes and over 40,000 strides later, I cross the finish line, stop my watch, accept my medal, a bottle of water, a cold wet cloth, and hobble to a dusty patch of grass, where I sit and wait, debate whether or not to vomit. Finally, the announcer calls out my son’s name–twice. The only two Garretts in the race, both age 19, finish within a second of one another. Best moment of the day: being present to see my son accomplish this goal. We agree that it will be the last one we’ll run…ever.