We're standing in the dark. All 20,000 of us, ready to run the Nike for Women marathon. It's 6:30 AM and we're packed into San Francisco's Union Square, hugged by high rises. The group is so large it squirrels out into the surrounding streets and women in everything from sport's bras and spandex shorts to mittens and softshells wait nervously for the countdown. I, too, am nervous. But it's okay. The jitters keep the morning chill away. A woman, I'm not sure who, takes the microphone from the obviously-caffeinated DJ and sings the national anthem to a hushed crowd and, also, to a sleeping city. Onlookers from their apartments above Union Square open their windows to listen.
There's something so significant about this moment. We're approximately 19,000 women (the race is 5% male), all bonded together by the challenge before us. We all have goals--whether to tackle a certain race time or simply make it across the finish--and we're here to accomplish them. My goal is to run a sub-four-hour marathon so I link up with the 3-hour 50-minute pace group. The peppy, blond pacer, Carolyn, 35, from Pennsylvania, is quick to make me feel welcome. "Are you running with us?" she asks as soon as I step up. I tell her yes, and proceed to nervously jabber about how this is my first marathon. I realize staying with her group will be a challenge as I haven't sustained an 8:47 pace for more than, oh, 11 miles during my training. The other women in the group are vets--a 45-year-old triathlete with four full marathons under her belt, a shorter, stockier girl name Brittany who's knocking off her seventh.
The countdown begins and soon we're off, making our way towards the start line with roughly 200 runners in front of us. It takes us two minutes to reach the start line and another 12 to complete our first mile. Elbows, feet, hair, people are everywhere. Every time our pacer breaks through a clump of traffic our group manages to sift through too, trailing her like baby ducklings.
For the first seven miles, the women chit chat while keeping the pace. We talk about age and when you start to feel your body slow down, about how we're faster than we were in college, and about why we run. The consensus: to eat [that's a topic for another essay]. The moms in the group say they run to steal "me" time, to find peace. I'm 26 and wonder if I'll run once I have kids. Part of my reasoning for running this race was to cross "marathon" off of my life list before having kids. But seeing these women, twenty years older than me, race at this pace makes me wild with jealousy and ambition to be able to do the same when I'm their age.
We're skirting the edge of the city. Mist hugs the tops of the wheat-colored hills across the bay, sailboats drift lazily in the grey of the morning, a few spectators dot the sidewalks in dark coats with their hoods up, sipping coffee and watching for their friends and family to run by.
We crest the highest point of the hilly marathon after encouragement from our pacer ("Lean into the hill, shorten your steps, pump your arms!") and descend towards a white-cap ridden ocean. The trees to my right remind me of Dr. Seuss tales, with long, thin trunks and leaves only at a giraffe's reach. And I realize how foreign all of this is to me--the race, the location, the people, the number of miles I'm ticking off. I've always been a three-mile jogger, and now, here I am, about to cross mile nine and smiling at the thought of choosing the full marathon and not the half.
It isn't until mile 18 that it hits me: I can't keep up with my group. We've been pacing faster than 8:47 to make up time from our slow, congested start and, now, my legs and mind are starting to pull me away from the pack. At first, Carolyn's little green sign that read 3:50 bounces just a few feet ahead. But as I come over the hill and take in the lake I now have to run around, the distance between us grows. On the other side of the road, the first of the finishers head towards their final two miles. A girl with brown hair, who's obviously been pacing somewhere in the 6-minute range, gives me a thumbs up. I imagine it giving me a push, but my legs don't feel the same way.
A guy on the sideline tries to encourage me by saying I still look "fresh." I laugh, but my body doesn't. My mind starts tussling with my legs, which now feel like shock-less concrete blocks. My body tells me to give in to a slower pace and take whatever time I end up with. For the better part of five miles, I become schizophrenic. Walk, take a nap, part of me whines. Just keep going, the other part argues. My thoughts drift over the last six months. Shauna, one of my training partners and a marathon vet, never let me get lazy on hills. A friend's mantra during her Ironman triathlons now seems apt: "It's swim, bike, run, not swim, bike, walk." I think about the Boston Marathons I cheered on during college and the elite runners who'd initially sparked my interest in taking on this feat.
At mile 22, my competitive side starts to win. I think about the better part of a year I put into training for this race and how I'm not ready to throw all of those hours away. I think about the mornings I woke up at 5 AM to simulate the morning of the race so my body could get used to digesting a full breakfast and then running. By mile 24, soaking wet from frigid rain, I am commited again.
I always pictured the finish with me wrapped in one of those silver space blankets surrounded by friends and family. In my fantasy, I'm crying and it's as dramatic as if I'm the winner. In real life, I cross the finish line and am immediately thrown into what feels like a conveyor belt of things being handed to me: Gatorade, chocolate milk, bagels soaked from rain, commemorative t-shirts, and finisher's necklaces. I am crying, but the only people to share that with are the volunteers holding recovery drinks. They seem about as disengaged from the feats being accomplished here as children during a history lesson.
One woman handing out hot pink t-shirts hugs me and tells me not to cry. Why not? I think. I just put myself through hell, after months and months of preparation, to see if my body could push itself to achieve a difficult time. And I did it. I'm damn proud. And in pain.
I hobble towards the meeting place I'd mapped out with my friends beforehand, but they're not there. What feels like hypothermia clings to my body and my lips turn blue so I find my ride and head back to my hotel.
It isn't until later, when I'm limping through the LAX airport on a layover back to New Mexico, my home, that I smile to myself and touch my finisher's necklace. I did this for me. I ran a sub-four-hour marathon because I was determined to push myself--not for the friends who might see me at the end--and that, the ability to take on something that seems nearly impossible, is something I get to carry around for the rest of my life.
Now that I'm finished, I'm constantly getting asked if I'll run another one. I'm going back and forth on my decision. But, now that my limp has gone away, I can feel my competitive side starting to take the lead.