The End of the Beginning

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At mile 23 the pain was so bad in my left knee, I thought I wouldn’t be able to finish. The three miles between me and the finish line seemed impossible. As I looked towards the town on the hill, I had a choice: either ask the water station attendants to call for help, or to press on towards the finish line.

Race day dawned with a cool and cloudy sky. It had been pouring rain in Füssen for two solid days, so the cessation was a relief. I hadn’t been able to sleep much the night before the race, with thoughts churning like a flooded river in my mind.

I had already made a couple of mistakes: getting glutened by a latte at McDonalds on Friday, and walking for five hours in the freezing rain of Munich on Saturday. I had not gone on a run since Wednesday, which didn’t help to calm my jitters. To be honest, I didn’t like that I had to help search for the girls’ hairbrush on race day morning, when I should’ve spent more time taping my knees, which proved to be a huge mistake a few hours later.

Huddled in the mass of runners, I was relieved when the gun sounded, and the racers moved off. I had planned on keeping the guy with the 4:00 balloon in my sight. He was the pacer, keeping his pack at a clip that would get them to the finish line in 4 hours. I thought if I could keep him in sight for as long as possible, I could then drop back to the guy with the 4:30 balloon or the guy with the 5:00 balloon later.

After my solitary runs through the German countryside, it was strange and uncomfortable being in a pack of runners. We were barely on the outskirts of town when runners began peeling off to pee in the bushes at a park; it wasn’t the first time that day I would think men had it easier than women.

At mile three, we left town behind and were approaching the first lake of the day. There was a nice downhill slope and a soft path around the lake. I kept thinking, “When will the marathon start?” It seemed like an easy jog in the park, though I was running between an 8:30 and 9:00 minute mile, which had been rarely seen or sustained in training. But it felt easy.

Then we hit the first patch of water.

It was just a small puddle, easily avoided by moving to the side. But the second one was not a puddle, it was a washout. The entire path was covered with a four foot long swath of water, where the lake was overflowing. Runners began bottle-necking at the mini-pond.

In an effort to keep shoes dry, the runners were tip-toeing through it. But as I watched, their feet sank into the water up to the ankles. Balloon man was getting far ahead, and my feet were going to be soaked. It was unavoidable. So I took the plunge. I splashed right through the middle of the puddle. It wasn’t the first time I heard German curse words that day.

The good news is that my particular combination of shoes & socks fit so well, they didn’t leave blisters. In fact, in all my months of training, the only blisters I’ve gotten had been from my fins at swim class. Nikes & Addidas had given me blisters in the past, but the Mizunos, never.

The bad news is that the shoes were like sponges and never entirely dried out. And that wasn’t the only puddle. Every low place on the trail was covered with water.

Around mile 5, an old man struck up a conversation with me. This guy had been all over the world running marathons. He told me to run as fast as I could at the beginning. I’m thankful I heeded his advice. When he was done chatting, he said “so long,” then left me in the dust. I want to be that fast when I’m 60-something.

Around mile 7, a real restroom appeared from nowhere. I was so happy to see it, though it did cut a few minutes off my time, which is when the phrase, “Men are so lucky” popped into my head again.

I was back on the road again, but I’d lost sight of the 4:00 balloon man. Darn! But I kept running hard and before I knew it, we were all the way around the lake. The lovely incline I had run down at the beginning was now a hill to climb back up. Grr! I looked at my arm.

Before the race, a friend of mine, and veteran marathoner, said I should write 43 things to pray about on my arm—one thing for each kilometer. As my arm wasn’t long enough for such a script, I opted for 26 things, one for each mile. I could look at my gps watch to see what mile I was on (as I totally lost track), then I could look at my tattooed list. It helped me to focus and keep my mind off the trials of the trail.

I’m not sure what happened after the lake. I simply ran. I don’t know where I was or what I was doing, but my body was moving. I prayed for the people on my arm list, and when my pace slowed, I sped up. For me, running slowly and running quickly seemed to take up the same amount of energy. I never felt winded or as if I couldn’t catch my breath.

For a while, I was in an awesome, gliding groove where I seemed to float along the ground. Then I looked at my watch. I was running an 8:15 mile. “That’s too fast!” I thought, thereby breaking the spell. To my dismay, I never quite got the magic back.

In defense of the Garmin, I have to say, the watch was useful. It told me when my pace was too slow, which made me pick it up again.

I don’t remember what mile it was, but I was suddenly running alongside another lake—a bigger lake. Heaven help me! There was a cow pasture to the right, and the cows were angry at us for disturbing the peace.

At this time, I caught up with an Italian man in a red shirt. He had gray hair and was loud, boisterous and totally annoying. Actually, he wasn’t so annoying, but his camera crew was. He had two teams on motorcycles kicking up rocks and making a horrible buzzing racket as they maneuvered to get the best shots of this guy running.

I didn’t want to drop back, nor could I overtake him. We were at the same pace. When the dirt bike slowed alongside us, I gave them a glare, which didn’t seem to do any good. I finally lost the guy by walking through a water station, which he passed without stopping. So, somewhere in Italy, there is probably a video clip of me glaring, while this man, whoever he was, victoriously accomplished a marathon.

I had moments of spiritual clarity during the run. Some of the things I had on my list to pray for, it turns out, weren’t so important to me. I realized the only place I wanted to be, my only want and desire, was to be in God’s will: whether it means difficulty or ease; popularity or obscurity.

The miles blurred together. Soon I was at the opposite end of the lake thinking there’s no way I could make it all the way around it. I didn’t have to. The trail veered to the right, taking us through a forest.

Things got weird in the forest. I kept thinking I was running in circles—that I’d passed the same landmarks several times. I could still see runners ahead of me. But when I lost them around curves, I got a little paranoid. My pace suffered. Soon, I was running only to make it to the next water station, where a cup of Coke and some apple slices rejuvenated my mind.

I only remember bits of the run, and I’m not even sure if it’s in the right order. But at one point, I remember crossing a highway (with police blocking traffic), and I was looking up at Neuschwanstein castle. There was a long, straight stretch of pavement that seemed to get longer and longer as the sun beat down. It wasn’t hot outside, but I longed for the crazy path of the woods again. When running a marathon, shade is your friend.

Soon, I was in the woods again. I remember seeing the halfway mark and realizing I’d run the first half in two hours. It made my half marathon at Rothenburg seem like something cute I’d done as a child—like an old ballet recital.

This part of the woods seemed to go on forever. There were little dips in the trail and puddles, though not nearly as bad as the first trail. A guy who ran like a duck zipped right past me and didn’t even look back. He had big, bulgy muscles on the insides of his ankles. Good for him, I thought.

At mile 18, I was weary. My shoes felt like lead weights. But the thought that kept me going was that at mile 20, I would call Mike and tell him I was 6 miles away. He would get the kids ready and work his way to the finish line.

I walked at mile 20 and got out my phone. As I was calling, I looked to my left. A kid in his 20s, tall and skinny, was also on his phone. It must be a popular time to alert your cheer team. Soon, we were both off running. I’d lost sight of the big pack, so I followed the kid for miles, it seemed. I just stared at his shoes. They were Nike “Free” shoes, which are supposed to be like running barefoot. I kept wondering how they were feeling on him and if he liked them. That’s when he took a tumble on some loose gravel.

I asked if he was okay. He said yes, brushed himself off, and then kept running. I kept with his pace all through the woods until he began to slow down. So, I passed him, and then he was trailing me. That’s when weird thoughts went through my head. Such as, he and I were actually tribal hunters, chasing deer through the woods. I was gliding along again, and when my pace slowed, I would speed up, because I knew he was following me. We were a team, of sorts, and we had to catch the deer. It helped me, and regardless of what he was thinking, it helped him too.

Funny thing is that the only words I spoke to him were when he fell down. The rest of the time it was silent pacing and following, or walking through the water stations.

When we emerged from the woods in Schwangau, the scene was surreal. I was tossed out of my tribal hunting scenario and plopped right into a bustling city overrun with tourists. Polizi were stopping giant busses to let us pass. Japanese were snapping pictures of us. People at the bus station were staring unhappily. We ran by the stau of cars, waiting to get to the parking lot of Neuschwanstein. We ran through a section of woods.

Suddenly, we were beside the road leading to Füssen. The end was in sight! The old city drew closer and closer, but our route was taking us around the back side of it. It was an illusion: a mirage, which grew bigger, yet it was never quite reachable.

By this time, my knee began to hurt. The slight pain I’d felt at mile 21 was now like someone bashing my knee with a sledgehammer. When I stopped to walk, I nearly fell down. It took some painful effort, and a little hobbling, to get moving again. My pace had slowed to a 12 minute mile. Dang.

At the last water station, slamming down a Coke, I had to make my choice: quit or press on.

But in all honesty, there was no choice to make. I had not trained for months and endured 23 miles in order to be brought into Füssen on a stretcher. I could imagine the disappointment of my children, who were happily waiting for me at the finish line.

Because my knee didn’t hurt so much when I ran, I pushed it for all I was worth. It reminded me of the stage in labor, when everything hurts, but pushing makes it hurt less.

The real trouble began with the hills leading into town. Fortunately, two women came up from behind, passed me, and when they got to the hill, they started yelling and cursing and shouting at it. It made me laugh. Then they called to me, “Auf gehts!” It was an encouragement. I made it up that blasted hill.

At mile 24, my sister-in-law was with me. Her breast cancer was found too late, and every moment of her day is a fight for life. I thought if she can endure nearly constant pain, and face her three children and husband every day, then I can make it through something as trivial as a marathon.

At mile 25, my aunt was with me. She has also been fighting cancer for many months now. If she can have chemo one day and get up and go to work the next, then certainly I can muscle through a little bit of knee pain.

Mile 26. Alone. Where was the finish line? I was running along a level road. My list of prayers had run out.

All I could think of was the end. But it was like a nightmare. What if I had my kilometers mixed up? What if I still had three more miles left? Was it 43 kilometers or 46? Just then, an old man on a bicycle called out to me, “Nur zwei hundert meters!” He was an angel. Only 200 hundred meters.

But I still couldn’t see the finish line. Then I went through a tunnel.

When I came out, I looked down upon the old city center of Füssen, and the giant, inflatable finish line.

My kids were waiting for me alongside the road. They were wearing their matching patch jackets, and looked like quite a team.

I took Noah and Libby’s hands, and we ran for the finish together.

A group of drummers cheered for us and banged away (members of my tribe, perhaps?), and I let out a howl myself.

As soon as I stopped running, I was leaning on Will. A buxom German lady put a medal around my neck. I had made it. Truly. I had finished the race.

“I have to put all my weight on you,” I said to William, “help me over to that bench,” which he gladly did.

William got me a Coke and a slice of watermelon. Mike approached us, snapping photos and looking kind of worried.

My kids were so proud. Katie looked at me as if I were some kind of hero. William kept hugging me and rushing off to get things for me. As for Noah & Libby, I don’t know if they realize what had happened. But they had a blast crossing the finish line with me. They felt like stars too, which they are.

They proudly boasted, “Some Japanese people took pictures of us!”

Katie added, “And we were on TV! They were interviewing some guy and we were standing behind him!”

“Was he wearing a red shirt?” I asked.

“Yep!” she replied.

“Was he speaking Italian?” I asked.

“I think so,” added Will.

Great. The camera crew strikes again. Now my kids will be on the same video with me—only I’m sure they were smiling, not scowling.

Sitting on the bench near the finish line, I began chatting with a guy from the 100 Marathon Club. He said this was his 138th marathon. He’d been in marathons all over the world. He was in such great shape, he was standing around smiling and drinking beer (not sitting like some of us). He must’ve been nearly 70 years old.

As soon as I was able, I hobbled my way to the massage tent. Some twenty-somethings stopped me on the street and asked if I’d run the marathon. I showed off my medal. They looked genuinely impressed.

Outside the massage tent, I sat in a daze, talking in my broken German with the other runners. We all agreed: the water puddles really sucked. Our shoes were still wet. I rang water out of my socks.

The funny thing I noticed, sitting there barefoot and shivering in the sun, was that all the runners had tan legs and pasty white feet. If I’d had my camera, I would’ve taken a picture.

It seems like that should be the end of my story. At mile 24 I swore I would never look at another marathon brochure. That I would just stay home and be happy and drink wine for the rest of my life. But when I finished the race, despite the pain, I knew this story was just beginning.

I want to get my knees in proper shape, so I don’t have to tape them for the next marathon.

I want to put in the effort to build muscle, so that my knees will properly align and not wear out the cartilage.

I want to be the seventy year-old woman who blasts by middle-aged housewives and college boys.

I want to keep this spirit alive inside of me: this spirit that says, “If you can run a marathon, you can do anything.”

Post Race Stats:

Final Time: 4:40

Miles: 26.5

Calories Burned: 3387

Pounds lost on race day: 5

Terrain: a crazy blur

Weather: perfect for running, partly cloudy & in the 60s.

Wildlife: all kinds, though not many my age (unless they were behind me).

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3 responses »

  1. I am laughing and crying, Keri. This is a wonderful story…and all true. I am so happy that you finished and were able to at least hobble to a bench afterwards. I am sure that your legs will be sore for many days. That nasty old lactic acid! Wow, what a way to lose 5 pounds.

    We are all proud of you and your endurance. I am sure that when you are seventy, you will be giving advice to young college boys as you pass them on the 13th mile.

    You can do anything, Keri girl, you have the strength, mentally, physically and spiritually. Your family and friends and your aunt and uncle in Oklahoma believe in you. We are here cheering you on in all your endeavors.

    Hugs and Kisses

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