When I signed up for a 50K all those months back, it was like, "Bah. 31 miles. I'll be in the midst of training for a summertime 50-miler. It'll be just another training run. A long run with friends." That was months ago. I had dreams of grandeur, and they were just that -- dreams. I didn't have to actually THINK about the reality of them yet. I'm not even training for a 50-miler now, since the chosen race isn't until fall. But all of a sudden I'm in a car on the way to Chicago with some of my very best friends on a Friday night because we're all running a 50K the next day. All of a sudden 50K race day was here.
So, that happened.
And run it, we did. But it was so much more than a training run or a long run with friends. It was an experience I'm going to remember every single day that I'm a runner. We were trained. We were prepared. And I couldn't be more proud of myself and my friends who ran -- literally -- by my side for over five-and-a-half hours last Saturday.
Let me start by telling you about the Chicago lakefront in March. Oh, I'm sorry. What? What I was going to say blew away in the wind. I'm not kidding. The wind was brutal. And not only was it brutal, it was like ice. Actual ice. After picking up our t-shirts and race bibs, we dashed back to the car to regain some semblance of warmth before the starting gun 15 minutes later.
This is going to be the worst day of my entire life.
I told myself that. In my head. Eleventy times. I already couldn't feel my fingers or toes. It's hard to not be melodramatic when you're pinning a race bib to your jacket with frozen fingertips and snot dribbling from your nose. Thirty-one miles suddenly feels much, much further. It took three miles before I had feeling in my phalanges again. My little, frozen phalanges.
In an absurd way, I wasn't nervous for the actual running. More than ever before, I was confident in my ability. I knew I could run 31 miles. This is the difference between racing a marathon and running a 50K. Racing vs. running. I'm stressed before a marathon. There are time goals and pressure and elite runners covering miles in a sub-5-minute pace. So many things can and do go wrong when racing a marathon. Racing is a scary word. But that's what marathons have become to me -- a race. It's a distance I've covered enough times that the pressure is ingrained in my mind -- go faster. Beat yourself. Go. Fast. Hurt. It's a thrill, sometimes. But it's a stressful thrill.
Running a 50K was an experience and feeling I could relive over and over. The race was small; under 200 people. It was laid-back. There was Coca-Cola at the aid stations. COKE. POP. SODA. Most genius idea of all time. I probably drank the equivalent of an entire can of Coke before the race ended. I had my friends. There was no pressure. No stress. We knew to keep our pace in check to conserve our energy for the later miles. It worked. We reached the 26.2-mile point in a time faster than both my first and second marathons, but I'd never felt better after covering so many miles. I was surprised by my own body and its ability to adapt to high mileage. I changed my shoes after 20 miles. We stopped briefly to refuel and hydrate every five to ten miles. When the wind blasted us from the shore, we put our heads down and powered through. When we migrated inland, where the wind stopped and the sun actually warmed us, we let out audible sighs, and were back to enjoying each others' company and the experience.
All of this. For five-and-a-half hours.
But it was so much more than that. Our friends were there to cheer us on. Family. People who emanated love and support with every ringing of cowbell and high five. They were there for us. The four of us who soldiered on with our mittens and jackets and wind-burned cheeks. I love each and every one of them. With my whole, big ol' heart.
The running, itself, was uneventful. We maintained our pace, managed the simple out-and-back route. The struggle began around mile 29, when my legs had just about had it, but were so used to the right-left-right, that they weren't giving up any time soon. The day, itself, was eventful. The race was the memorable part. The nicknames we began giving other runners as we continuously crossed paths on the out-and-back course. Shorts Guy. Boner Guy. Tutu. Dimples Guy. Face Paint Guy. THAT Guy. Yes, we're original. The laughs. The grumbles. The tally we kept for the amount of times Marty called us "bitches." The amount of times we provoked him enough to actually call us bitches. (Only three, surprisingly). The cowbell. The wind. The slight inclines that were once unnoticeable suddenly feeling like mountains come mile 30. The last quarter-mile.
Oh, the last quarter-mile.
Have you ever seen something in the distance, and it looked so close? A quarter-mile is nothing. Not a thing. Not when you've already run 31 miles. But I'll be goddamned if that quarter-mile wasn't the longest quarter-mile in the history of both quarters and miles. Our pace picked up. We were together. We kept getting faster and faster, but the finish line wasn't getting any closer. The wind worked against us, as did the fatigue in our legs. The mileage kept ticking on my Garmin. I don't know that my legs were even feeling anything anymore. The finish line was unassuming. A banner; "FINISH" printed across the front, blowing in the wind. A handful of people looking on. But goddamn it was a goldmine. And when we blasted across the small finish line, all smiles and red faces, we had done it.
31.44 miles on the Garmin.
There were hugs and smiles and the onset of waterworks. I've only cried a handful of times at the finish line of a race, and this was one of them. Rochelle embraced her parents and her husband, Marty found his old college pal, Tracey grinned with her Sour Patch Kids and an old high school friend. I looked around like a lost puppy until I gripped onto Annie and Amy, the two best cheerleaders in the world, and cried for the sake of crying. I wore my medal the rest of the day.
By Sunday night, once home from Chicago and relaxing in the glow of post-race awesome, the last lingering of soreness left my legs. Already it's like the race didn't happen. But it did. We ran. We finished. We did great. We earned it. And each one of us will do it again.