I’m padding up a fairly long, straight, and in this case rather bleak section of North Boulevard, at mile 19, when my sister Ginny rides up on her bike. She’s been looking for me, not only to determine if I am still in fact kicking, but to give me encouragement. After a hearty dose of the latter, she pedals off with a cheery, “see you at the finish line!” and I’m left once again to ponder my fate and look forward to the aid station at Bryant Park, at mile 21.
This is the 34th annual Richmond Marathon, and yes in a moment of weakness I committed to it a few months earlier. It would be son Ian’s first marathon, and I thought I could show him the ropes, as it were. I remember remarking nonchalantly to family and friends, “Oh yeah, I’ve run the Richmond – several times, in fact.” Then I did some figuring and realized that the last time I ran that marathon was in 1987. Oh boy. I have in fact participated in several other marathons since then, but you get my drift. I’m not really the Ethiopian distance runner of my dreams.
Self-billed as “America’s Friendliest Marathon”, the Richmond race seems to fit this description well. Besides a veritable army of cheerful volunteers handing out water at 18 different aid stations, the local populace is out in force. Amazingly, there is little of the entire 26.2 mile course which is not lined with enthusiastic spectators.
There are bona fide parties, with live bands or DJ’s at frequent intervals. People are yelling encouragement, holding up comical signs, even jumping up and down. And they aren’t just on the lookout for their own friends and family out on the race course; they are there for me, too. This year, upon registering for the marathon, one had the option of including a nickname to be printed in bold letters on the number bib. This enables the spectators to yell out your name as you slog by.
Earlier in the race I came upon a reveler on the sidelines dressed in a kind of fantasy animal costume, performing a strange dance, accompanied by weird sounds from a boom box. I think he was trying to encourage us runners along. Pointing to the dancer, I joked to the bloke jogging beside me, “I’d rather be doing this than that!” har har. I was still fairly lucid, and self-assured, at that point.
I think I’ve high-fived a couple hundred spectators by now. The little kids are the best. They eagerly slap my hand as I hold it out as I pass. As my mind – not to mention my entire body – slowly goes numb, seeing friends and family along the way is a big boost. I even stop and chat now and then, until I realize further along how hazardous that could be. Once I stop, it may well be impossible to get this body moving again.
At some point Ian passes me. He had been pacing himself wisely, and now gallops past me strong and happy. He is soon out of sight, but it gives me a smile and a lift. After all, “that’s my boy.”
Mile 21.5. The course now takes us down Brook Road, headed straight for downtown and the finish line. My brother-in-law Billy had told me earlier, “When you can see the tall buildings of downtown above the trees, you’ve got it made.”
I can’t see them yet. Persevering, I plod on. I move in a kind of suspended animation, in the midst of a straggled-out line of runners, hardly “racers” anymore, occasionally passing, or being passed by, a fellow traveler on this strange trip. All the while I’m pleasantly distracted by the ever present din from the sidelines.
At 23 miles a full gospel band is belting out the lyrics, “ I ain’t tired…I ain’t tired…I’m runnin’ for Jesus… Runnin’ for Jesus…” Three more miles to go. Now I am thinking exactly what I thought at this point in the other marathons I have done: “No way will I ever do this again. This is nuts!”
It’s now several hours after the finish. It was all a weird dream; a hallucination, right? There was my family, and pizza, and bananas, and cookies. No, it was real, they assure me, and my aching legs confirm this. I completed the 34th Suntrust Richmond Marathon and did ok, with a time of three hours and twenty-seven minutes. I know in a matter of a few days – ok maybe weeks – the memories and recollections of the misery will dim, and I’ll probably start training for another one.
That is, after I’m able to stop walking like Frankenstein.