In 2013, I had a goal to run my fourth marathon in four hours. I had just completed the Walt Disney World Marathon in January and then the Rock n Roll USA Marathon in March. Because I was unemployed and I needed something else to do besides the punishing process of searching for a job, I signed up to run the Air Force Marathon in Dayton, Ohio in September 2013.
Eight weeks of training passed and I was really making excellent progress towards my goal to finish my fourth in four. It was then that a good friend of mine announced that her wedding would be on the same day as the marathon and that the wedding would take place in Leesburg, Virginia. There’d be no way I could do both, so I had to give up the Air Force Marathon. Fortunately, the Baltimore Marathon was two weeks later, so I tacked on an extra two weeks of training and decided that I would run that race instead. But the longer I went without a job, the harder it got to keep my savings intact to pay rent, the bleaker my outlook to register for and run the race. After accepting a job back in my home state of Nebraska, running the Baltimore Marathon was taken off the table.
Keeping a solid running schedule after a huge move was tough. For three weeks, I was commuting two hours a day from a friend’s house to work and back until I got my own place in town. Once I found a place, I wasted a lot of time driving to new and unfamiliar trails and sometimes getting lost on them. I wanted to run the Des Moines Half-Marathon and Indianapolis Half-Marathon, but moving into and furnishing a new apartment is expensive and time-consuming. At my sister’s suggestion, I registered for the Pilgrim Pacer Half-Marathon in Shawnee, Kansas. It was a perfect suggestion– we drove down together after work, talking about life and work and our newest love interests while taking frequent breaks to jam out a 90’s song or stop for McDonald’s ice cream cones. The half-marathon was a super tough one. My first 9 miles, I was churning out a stunning pace, but the back half of the race was almost all uphill, including the last half mile’s slow progression up a winding hill that killed my time with a 12:00 pace and landed me a finishing time of 2:02. My sister was there to cheer me on during the race and to comfort me when I was livid to be back under the 2-hour ceiling. She got me Wheat Thins and a vanilla Muscle Milk when I almost fainted in the shower and we stopped at Culver’s for butter burgers and root beer floats. It was a great way to end my 2013 racing season.
But I realized wanted more– I’d had a hell of a year and I wanted my fourth marathon in 2013. So I did the math and realized, given that the half-marathon I had just run and the training I had been doing for it, I was in a good place to log some longer mileage runs before the Run for the Ranch Marathon in Springfield, Missouri, set to take place just two days after Christmas. After a quick MapQuest search that told me Springfield was a 5-hour drive, I registered for the marathon– my fourth marathon was going to happen.
Training during a holiday season is incredibly hard. Training in Nebraska in the cold months is even harder. Nebraska winds are heaviest in the evening when I am most accustomed to running and frankly at my best to run. Once or twice, a fresh blanket of late fall snow or ice would make running too dangerous to be out on the trails, relegating me to the treadmill in the gym where the heat was always cranked up way to high to be safe. Two of my longest runs occurred when wind chills were predicted to be below zero. On my 18-miler, the first 9 miles, I was cozy, but when I turned around, the wind gave me a 3-hour chill from all the sweat that accumlated under my layers. And I was the only one out there with no way to get home if I needed to ditch. I could feel myself burning out from the pressures of crash-training. It was a far cry from my original goal to finish my fourth marathon in four hours. But I was determined as hell that this was going to happen.
The night before the race, I went to bed around 8PM after carbing up on mac and cheese and packing a bag with my race clothes and clothes to change into afterwards. My plan was to wake up at 3AM and make the 5-hour drive to Springfield, arriving at 8AM for packet pickup and allowing for plenty of time in case something happened that delayed me, and well before the 10AM start time. It was crazy but I rationalized that I had woken up at 2AM for the Goofy Challenge just under a year earlier, so I could handle this just fine. Plus, given that the race was only 2 days after Christmas, money for a hotel room felt like an unnecessary expense. I decided I would just be hardcore and about it.
After creating about a dozen alarms on my iPhone, I decided to check the map for drive times, just to make sure that I was waking up in plenty of time, and thank God I did. It was with utter shock and surprise that I discovered the drive time to Springfield, Missouri from Lincoln, Nebraska was not the 5 hours I had thought it to be when I registered— the shortest route was 6 hours and 34 minutes. As someone who loves travel and meticulously plans trip logistics, I was completely DUMBFOUNDED. How on earth did I make such a huge mistake like this!?! Driving five hours to run a marathon on the same day was crazy– driving nearly seven hours to run a marathon on the same day was PSYCHOTIC. Hardcore, sure. Crazy as hell? Absolutely.
My first thought was to ditch the race. How could I possibly accomplish this?!?! And why would I want to!?! By the time I got there and started running, I’d have been awake for almost nine hours. And then I’d have to run for 4-5 hours straight before getting back in the car to drive almost seven hours home again. WHAT. The. WHAT.
This was a dilemma for the running community– I called my sister and my friend Jen, both accomplished marathoners who were as passionate about running races as I was. Both of them understood my concerns, neither of them told me what to do, both of them helped me realize that I’d had a tough year and that I had managed to train in between everything going on and I deserved to do this race for myself, even if it wasn’t a perfect marathon. Jen said to me, “Whether you go to this race or not, you deserve to run 26.2 miles tomorrow.” She was right. And I had fought for this. But there was no way in hell I was going to get out on the sub-zero trails of Lincoln, Nebraska and run a damn marathon with no course support when Springfield, Missouri was expected to be around 45 degrees with plenty of course support and a medal. I couldn’t not go.. so the question became, how do I do this?
Laying awake in bed after getting off the phone and thinking about what to do, I decided that I had to do this race because Future Sara would regret missing this challenge to come out on top. I had been through a lot to get across that finish line. I had trained through unemployment, a breakup, a move, a new job, 100-degree DC summers and 0 below 100 windy Nebraska winters. All I needed to do now was drive seven hours…and then run 26.2 miles. Easy right?
As an almost after thought, I readjusted my alarm to 1:30AM instead of 3AM, logged into my Hotels.com account, found a cheap room in Springfield for the night, and booked the room after deciding it was enough worry off of my shoulders to do the smart thing and spend the night after the race instead of drive home…even if driving 6.5 hours to get there was crazy.
I drifted into a very shallow sleep around 11:30PM. Almost 3 hours after I went to bed.
The Longest Race Morning Ever
1:30AM came in almost the next instant. Sleep was still present in every bone in my body as I lurched out of bed and around my apartment to pack for an unplanned overnight stay, grab a quick shower to wake myself up, and make sure I had everything I needed for the race. As I was locking up my apartment, dressed in race gear, my next-door-neighbors were stumbling home drunk from the bar. Their DD gave me a strange look as I passed them on the sidewalk, as if he knew what I was doing and was judging my sheer craziness. I couldn’t blame him– even I didn’t know what the eff I was doing.
I came to learn later that the extra hour came from the fact that I had checked driving directions from my parents’ house in Bellevue, which is along Interstate 29 that heads south, and not from my apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska from where I would have to drive an hour east to connect to Interstate 29 that would take me south into Missouri. That hour-long drive was probably the hardest part of the drive to get through, even with the all-80’s weekend music-thon the local radio station had going on. Not only was the highway absolutely pitch black with literally no one on it, but I kept having to convince myself not to turn around, that it wasn’t too late, that more people would probably judge me if I went instead of took the first chance I got to turn around and go home. But I drove on, listening absent-mindedly to Duran Duran and Pat Benetar, trying not to think of how easily I could fall asleep behind the wheel.
The hardest part of the drive was not having any coffee. I didn’t have any coffee because it was freaking 2 in the damn morning and I was probably the only person on the planet interested in a cup of coffee at that moment. The only options for coffee along I-29 heading south is McDonald’s, and every McDonald’s that I passed, for hours, would have ghostly gray arches and not shiny bright ones. I considered stopping at a 24-hour gas station but talked myself out of it at the thought of anyone lurking around there with any slightly creepy intentions, probably because I was already out of smart for the day and too damn tired to fight anyone who knew it. I can’t tell you how hard it was to stay awake. I drifted into lanes of traffic more times than I could count, going at least 25 over the speed limit. Finally, after drifting into the next lane one time too many (sorry Mom), I found the first open McDonald’s. By then, it was nearly 5:30AM and I was somewhere south of Kansas City.
After coffee, the drive wasn’t as bad. I flipped through radio stations with every town I passed through, sped like I didn’t care who caught me, and munched on cherry pomegranate Pop-Tarts from Trader Joe’s. Crossing the bridge near Deep Water, Missouri, I finally saw the sun peeking over the horizon and for the first time, I felt like I could do this and that the hardest part was over. And yes, driving there would be the hardest part of my day.
I arrived in Springfield as expected– at 8AM. The town was still asleep as I drove to Missouri State University where the race would be held. After picking up my packet, I settled back in my car and tried to take a power nap for the next hour. While I did drift off to sleep once or twice, sleeping in a parking lot with increasing activity was a challenge as racers and their families started arriving. My stomach was growling from not having carbed up enough– for some reason, even though I ate 4 Pop-Tarts on my drive, I didn’t think about the fact that I had already been awake for 8 hours and that I probably should have eaten something more substantial than 4 Pop-Tarts and 3 large coffees. Also, trying to power nap was a big mistake. My body, already sleep-deprived, had been awake for the equivalent of a day at the office, so it was ready to go into a REM session, not a 26.2-mile race. There was no race day adrenaline; only exhaustion.
I just wanted this race to be done with. I had spent hours alone in the car with thoughts of “this is crazy” and “I don’t know if I can actually do this.” I was ready to stop thinking those things and just find out already.
The race was small with only a few hundred people running the marathon about double that running the half-marathon. But I got to see the medal before we left, so that was great. I had something to focus on.
The race course itself was actually only 3.2 miles around. Half-marathoners were expected to complete four laps of the same 3.2 mile course while full marathoners had to complete eight laps. As insane as this sounded on top of all the crazy, this actually worked to my advantage:
- First of all, the course took place through one of Springfield’s neighborhoods so at times it felt like I was out for a quick 3-mile run and not running a marathon.
- Second, telling myself that I “only had 7-6-5 more, etc. laps to run” was more uplifting than realizing I had 23-18-13-10-5 miles to go.
- Third, I got to see the same spectators over and over again, and telling myself that I couldn’t disappoint them if they saw me quit gave me an odd sense of accountability.
- Fourth, after about the third lap, I was familiar enough with the course to anticipate the downhills and uphills and adjust my pace accordingly.
- Fifth, I had fun with the mile markers that I passed: for every mile I accomplished, each time I passed the mile marker, I made a face at it as if to say, “Ha ha, I beat ya!” and for every mile marker I had yet to achieve, I blew a kiss and said to myself, “I’ll be seeing you on the next lap/soon/in 10 miles.”
Running a maze on no sleep might have just been a blessing.
Running the race itself after having only gotten about three hours of shallow sleep, being awake since 1:30AM that morning, and driving for 6.5 hours was probably one of the most truly exhausting things I have ever done in my life. I would later tell people that it felt like when you’re watching TV and you’re drifting off to sleep, but you’re sort of still concious and doing that violent head-bobbing thing but trying to stay awake but your eyes are drooping with anvils on them. That’s how I felt while I was running this marathon. When I first started running, I could feel how tired I was and it alarmed me at first, but I pushed forward slowly and steadily and fell into a comfortable pace time of 10:20, which would have pushed me into about 4:30 finish time or a PR by 8 minutes. I kept this pace up for about 10 miles. I had the 90’s radio station on Pandora and I was in a happy running place.
However, as soon as I switched over to 10 miles, I felt a mental grenade explode in my head. Okay, so I got through the first 10 miles with an impressive pace, all things considered. But what about the next 16 miles? Could I keep this up? The negativity shrapnel continued to float around in my head for the next three miles and I was starting to get slower and slower– my average pace was around 11:00. I decided to walk for a couple of minutes to calm down the panic in my heart, but the second I slowed to a walk, I realized my legs were locked in a running form and that it was incredibly painful to walk. I started running again almost immediately, but what was even more astonishing was the deep sleep I could feel nearly take me over as I closed my eyes to regroup. It was a little scary. My eyes flew open again. I couldn’t recover from that literally 3-second walk– all I could think about was what I had put myself through to get there, and it was making me nervous. All of the stress of everything I had gone through, being awake for so long on so little sleep, and now running a marathon on top of it? I knew I was going to finish this race– I had decided long ago that not finishing was NOT optional for me. But I couldn’t get over how exhausted I was, so I settled into a comfortable 12:00 average pace. Later on, I would realize that the best lesson I took away from this race was to just be present in running.
Yes, I Finished
Rounding the 8th and final lap of this marathon was probably one of the best feelings ever. I was completely and 100% worn out. I looked at my Garmin so much and realized that I could probably make it just under 5 hours if I had ran the whole thing. And I did. And it hurt like hell. I was nearly shuffling at that point, my knee was inexplicably killing me (first time I’ve had knee problems when running), and the course was pretty near empty by that point. There was an old man who tried to get me to keep pace with him, who laughed almost condescendingly when I told him how I got there and gave an unapologetic, “This is what we do!” I appreciate that he helped me fight for a sub-5 hour run, but I had fallen off the wagon of encouragement and knew there was no coming back. I just wanted to finish. He ended up beating me, and I finished at the tail end of the crowd. Most everyone had gone home by then.
Usually, cross the finish line of a marathon is a pretty emotional feeling and I was very emotional. There was no grandiose applause, barely even a DJ emcee-ing the event. It almost looked like they were packing up early and I had come in just in time. It was a small race.
My Garmin had clocked 26.2 miles in 5:00:46 but my official time was 5:04. I didn’t make it under 5 hours, but I did make it. I threw my medal around my neck, grabbed a foil blanket, and brushed my tears away while smiling broadly. For as much as I remember about the race, I don’t remember much about finishing except that I couldn’t believe I had finished and that I was happy that I didn’t let a 7-hour drive and a 1:30AM wake-up call stop me. And now I got to enjoy all the things that make running and traveling fun– a comfy hotel bed, a searing hot bath with Epsom salts, a victory dinner, an early bedtime. I did all of those things. I took my Kindle to the nearest Steak ‘n Shake, sprawled out in a big red booth, and ordered a massive egg nog milkshake and guacamole burger. I went to bed at 7PM wearing my medal, waking up only to respond to a congratulatory text message from some friends of mine who were in New York City. And I wore my medal the entire time.
So, driving 7 hours to run for 5 hours might have been the craziest and the coolest thing I have ever done, but it was the perfect way to end not only an awesome year of races for me but a tough emotional year for me. I learned that I could survive anything and I have yet to meet my limit but most importantly that the only limits there are are the ones we impose upon ourselves.