By, Sara Hall
You know when you get off the plane and do a shake out around congested LA airport that you’re excited! I arrived in LA just itching to get to the starting line. I had a healthy respect for the marathon and knew that it can take even the least suspecting of victims, but I felt I had prepared the best I could for the challenges I might face out there (all the while knowing that the best preparation is having raced 26.2 miles before, which I lacked).
The early miles of LA are a series of steep descents and ascents. The pace was much slower than I anticipated, so the ascents were never taxing and I relished the feeling of being out there in the race I had visualized often. The crowd at times made me smile and gave me goosebumps when they roared. I smiled inside as I successfully maneuvered crowds to get my bottles, something I had watched Ryan do countless times. It was my turn, I was running a marathon, and I felt great! However, I couldn’t help noticing my quads feeling unusually heavy. I at first chocked it up to eating extra carbs the day before, which causes you to retain water. “The extra glycogen will do me good later” I thought. However, as we progressed along and they got heavier and heavier I realized this wasn’t just water weight, that my muscles were taking a beating from the downhills.
Yet at halfway, I wasn’t too alarmed. I tried to tell myself that my fitness would carry me through, and shifted my focus to my controlled breathing. When we ran downhill I didn’t need to use my quad muscles much, but on the uphill stretches when they were required to work it became harder and harder to keep up, until finally at mile 16 on a long uphill stretch I wasn’t able to stay in contact. It is a strange feeling to be trapped in your body, with your engine ready to go but two flat tires. I looked at my watch at mile 16 and thought “I’ve done 16 mile tempo runs at altitude much faster than this, and my quads never felt this way. What’s going on?!”. I had tired to intentionally prepare for the downhills in training since they are not my strength to begin with, but apparently it wasn’t sufficient. Aaron Braun had warned me that at his debut on the course “at mile 14, my quads were done” at it now it rings eerily similar.
My mind kept telling me to speed up as I noticed the pack wasn’t pulling away too much, but my quads felt like lead- and then the cramping started. Adductors, and calves at different points started also making themselves heard, likely due to dehydration from the unseasonally warm day. I was having a hard enough time keeping my typical easy run pace going on the flats, and then Miles 21-23 were severely uphill, and I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you are running in quicksand. At this point, I contemplated dropping out. It would be the smart thing to do. I was set to finish at a time embarrassingly slower than I anticipated. It would save my muscles from further damage from running through cramps. There were plenty of reasons to justify it.
But I didn’t feel peace about that, and when I prayed about what to do I felt God encouraging me to keep going. I have never dropped out of a race before, and one of my core values is if at all possible, finish what you start. Plus, I know that once you drop out once it is always an option in your mind. I have had some races that it would have been easier and saved me the humiliating black mark of a bad time on my running history. But as I finally crested the never-ending hill, I had a steely resolve that “I’ve come this far, I am finishing this thing!” The pain was relentless, my legs were like steel poles, but I pressed on.
My view of the marathon was not the same view I had experienced through Ryan’s eyes. I felt like in those final miles, I got a glimpse of what it is like from the masses’ perspective. Whereas normally I am so into competing that I rarely hear individual cheers, I was moving so slowly that each person’s encouragement made a literal difference in spurring me on. I remember the little 5 year old girl holding the “Go Sara Hall” sign and excitedly cheering, with little care for my place. I remember my mom at mile 24.5, and I thought in my head “Oh please do not be running so slow that she can keep up with me!” (sorry mom!). And I will never forget crossing the line and having them put the finisher medal around my neck.
Now usually I don’t even take the finisher’s medal at the end of the race, or if I do, I give them to my friends’ kids. As a professional, just finishing is never really an accomplishment. However, today it was, and as humiliated as I was to see the clock, crossing that line I couldn’t help but be proud. If nothing else, I was a marathoner, a title hard-fought for.
Since finishing, the race has been one of the hardest ones for me to swallow in my entire career. I had spent months in preparation where I had gained so much momentum going into this day, and now it feels like a bad dream. But there is no going back, only forward, and I know though it is a painful memory for me at this moment, 20 years from now when my professional career is finished I will look back and treasure this moment were I endured more pain and fought to not give up more than I ever had in my life. It’s these moments that build resolve in us that we carry into every challenging experience in life, running or non-running.
Part of the challenge of the marathon is not just the distance, but handling the course and weather you get on the day on top of the distance. I wasn’t prepared for all I encountered, and you’d think that after this I would never want to run another marathon, but quite the opposite has happened, I can’t wait for another opportunity! Sometimes believing in yourself means learning what you can from each poor performance, and then believing that next time with greater preparation and more experience it will be different.
“I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14