Yesterday, October 21, was the Detroit Half Marathon. For four months every running step I took and weight I lifted and bead of sweat that ran into my eyes was meant to prepare me for this race, the biggest and longest of my life thus far. There was nothing more I could do; the moment was upon me.
I had not the best night of sleep before the race. I was restless, waking frequently, and when I was asleep I had fitful dreams about everything that could go wrong during the race. I forgot to put my number on my shirt. I forgot to put my timing chip on my shoe so even though I ran the race it wasn't recorded. I got lost on the course. I woke up at 3:30 am (because the dog threw up on the floor) and then laid there for another half hour until the alarm went off at 4:00 and it was officially Time To Get Up. I had all my clothes laid out, the Garmin was charged, and I had already mixed a fresh batch of Gatorade for my CamelBak. At 5:00 we were in Ann Arbor to meet with the rest of the group: Erik, Elizabeth, Greg, and Andrew. By 6:00 we were parked downtown. Already there were throngs of people streaming toward the start area. The Port-A-Potties were alongside the marathon start corrals on the west side of Washington Blvd. I had to leave John behind as we crossed into an area that was marked "runners only." It felt like we were saying goodbye at an airport. I wouldn't see him again for three hours. Elizabeth and I got into line for the toilets. It was already 6:40. I was starting to get butterflies in my stomach. We made our way to the other side of the boulevard to the half marathon start corrals. I was in corral "S," estimated finish time of 2:30.
National anthems were sung, the mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, said a few words, as did the celebrity guest of the day, new marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie. The gun went off for the wheelchair and hand cycle division. The crowd was both restless and excited; our start was less than five minutes away. When the gun went off for the start of the marathon, the crowd pressed forward briefly but was almost immediately stopped. Slowly people started moving, then stopping, then moving again as the ones in front fanned out. Finally, my corralmates approached the official starting line. All I could hear was the earsplitting shriek of the timing chip recording devices being triggered hundreds of times as the crowd surged over the timing mats. We were off!
It was slow going at first down the length of Washington Blvd. There were spectators lining both sides of the road, hollering, waving signs, ringing bells, banging cheer sticks together. I turned onto Michigan Ave and was almost brought to a halt by the crowd slowing down to squeeze around a police car that was parked right in the middle of the road. Um, hello? Was that really necessary? Bad, bad idea!
Finally, I was able to settle back, open up my stride, and start running as the crowd spread out across the entire width of Michigan Ave. Almost immediately I knew I should have placed myself in a faster start corral. I was passing so many people. I just had to find a line through the throng and follow it.
The early miles of the race pre-bridge were the best. We passed old Tiger Stadium at Michigan and Trumbull, possibly the last time that will ever happen as the historic stadium is on the block for demolition in 2008. We turned down Rosa Parks, then west on Bagley, then a goofy detour near Mexicantown because of road construction. Somewhere along this stretch the road had a small incline (it might have been the overpass for I-75) and from my vantage point at the bottom of the hill it was quite a sight-- thousands of people spanning the road as far as I could see. We got back on track on Vernor, and passed through an area redolent of frying tortillas. We turned south on Grand Blvd and headed for the bridge. The sun was starting to rise and as I approached the bridge from the west, I could see the silhouettes of thousands of runners on the bridge span. That image-- of the sun rising behind the field of runners-- is something I will never forget.
Then I was on the long uphill grade of the bridge. At this point, halfway between mile 3 and 4, I was still feeling pretty fresh. It was a good thing, too, because the bridge grade went on for what felt like FOREVER. The border control people were all standing around cheering, and I overheard some guy near me say, "I bet this is something more interesting than usual for those guys."
The view from the crest of the bridge was fantastic. Even better was the fact that it was the apex of the climb and then I had a nice long cruise downgrade to mile 5. We were in Canada! We made our way to Riverside Dr and ran north along the Windsor waterfront for a couple of miles. I still felt good and energetic. I was just cruising along at a nice steady clip. I passed the 7 mile marker and knew I was more than halfway done. I checked the Garmin every so often to see what my heart rate and pace were. I ate a pack of Gu, drank some water, and marveled that I hadn't felt the slightest urge to go to the bathroom. We took a couple of turns and then we were on the approach to the tunnel. I could hear the shouts and whistles echoing backward out of the tunnel as I neared the entrance. I crossed the timing mat at Mile 8 for the Underwater Mile and then I was inside the tunnel. It was wall to wall runners, just a river of people streaming down the grade. People were yelling, hooting, shouting, whistling. The noise was incredible. The air got very hot and stuffy. Somewhere ahead of me was a bunch of military people running in a pack doing army-style marching chants. I reached the bottom of the tunnel grade and started the long climb back to the surface. It was hard going. I bore down and felt my heart rate escalate (indeed, my max heart rate, 163 bpm, happened during this mile). For the first time I really felt stressed. I could feel my face getting hotter and hotter and the sweat started pouring down. When was this going to be over? Finally I saw the gleam of sunlight off the tunnel tiles up ahead. When I heard the shriek of the chip timing devices at Mile 9 I knew I was almost there. (My Underwater Mile time was 8:53.) The cool breeze that hit me as I exited the tunnel was the best feeling ever. All around me people were expressing their relief at getting out of the tunnel. I heard a chorus of "Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhs!"
The race was drawing to a close. We wound around past the Cobo Center and Joe Louis Arena, then onto West Lafayette and back onto Rosa Parks. This was at mile 11 and I was starting to hurt. I never felt like "I can't take another step," it was more like, "okay, I'm ready for this to be over now." I still had a bit left in the old energy tank but my reserves were draining fast. I forced myself to eat a final pack of Gu somewhere around mile 10 and I think that helped me a little. We turned back onto Michigan Ave heading east and I knew the end was near. I passed the Mile 12 sign. Only one more mile. Just put the feet one in front of the other. A race worker separated the field into half marathoners and marathoners as the field neared the race split. I thought, "I can't even imagine having to run twice as far." I turned north onto Washington Blvd. "Oh," I thought, "here's the starting line! I was here, like, two hours ago!"
So close. So close to the finish. People on the sidewalk were yelling, "It's just around the corner! Go! Go!" I made the turn south onto Woodward and saw the finish line banner in the distance. Oh shit I'm almost there jesus my hips hurt I can't even feel my legs any more just run run run run my god listen to all the screaming where's John is he here somewhere faster faster just pick your feet up and run run run you're almost there almost almost ALMOST....AAAAH!
I couldn't help it; as I crossed the finish line I lifted my arms into the air and threw my head back. It was over. I stabbed at the Garmin to stop it but didn't even look at it. I was too wasted at the moment to think about anything but staying upright and moving forward. I took a finisher's medal from a race worker and dropped it around my neck. I had done it-- finished a half marathon. 13.1 miles. I had just run 13.1 miles. I stumbled onward, taking the timing chip off my shoe, getting a bag with some food in it, making my way over to the family reunion area where I found John.
Somewhere along the way I finally looked at the Garmin. I had completed the race in 2:07:40 (official chip time: 2:07:39) with an average pace of 9:44/mile (official chip-timed average pace: 9:45/mile). I had hoped to average 10:00/mile and finish in 2:10, so I was right on target. I finished 124th out of 408 in my age group and 2,080th overall out of 4,721 half marathon runners.
Before the race, making final preparations and clothing choices:
Post-race, very rumpled, sweaty, tired, and sitting in Cadillac Square Park and attempting to peel an orange:
The triumphant finishers of the 2007 Detroit Half Marathon, Greg, Andrew, Erik, Elizabeth, and myself:
As soon as I had recovered, the first thing I thought was "I can't wait to do this again next year!"