"Kelly! Did you win the marathon!?" he asked.
I stifled a laugh. "Not quite! I actually came in 421st."
"Oh," he said, trying to hide his disappointment. "Well, what's most important is that you finished."
And that I did.
Somehow, everything went right for me Sunday. Despite the hours I had spent making endless "what if" lists in my head:
- What if I have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the race?
- What if certain limb/muscle/tendon breaks/pulls/strains?
- What if I just bomb it?
- What if I DNF? (Ed. note: That's runner-speak for Did Not Finish)
… My concerns proved unnecessary.
The weather was perfect for most of the morning (temperatures in the 50s-60s), the course was scenic and the crowds were phenomenal. And somehow, I felt great for the majority of the race.
This was a point-to-point course, which means my friend Bill and I boarded a school bus in Scranton at 6 a.m., and after 40 minutes, we were dropped off at the Forest City high school. It would take us 26.2 miles through 14 communities to run back.
"So, basically, we have to finish," Bill said. "Your car is in Scranton."
I had been soliciting marathon advice since May, and the one thing everyone advised was to start out slow, as I have a bad habit of starting my races too quickly. I get caught up in the excitement and my naturally competitive side kicks in. But, that morning, I finally realized it didn't matter how everyone else did.
This course is deceptive, as there are some major downhills between miles two and eight. However, at the expo the day before, the panelists pleaded with us.
"You will want to race down those hills, but please don't, you need to shuffle (shorten your stride) down them. Your quads will kill you at the end if you dont."
We heard horror stories of exceptional athletes quitting near the end because their quads couldn't take it.
And there I was, at the starting line. 26.2 miles to go. As soon as the cannon went off and we started running, my anxiety disappeared.
I was running a marathon.
And I listened. I "shuffled" down the hills. I fought my inner urge to pick up my pace, though my legs were tempting me.
The spectators had great signs along the course, some of my favorites included: "Who needs toenails?" "You're stronger than you think you are," "Just keep running" and "Go big boy Bill and Little Kelly" (from Bill's mom, left, in reference to her son's 6'5" stance to my 5'4" height).
I hit the 13.1 mark in 1:48, meaning I had kept my goal to run the first half conservatively.
So, I kept up my pace, as I still felt great and was well on my way to my goal of breaking four hours. Shortly after the halfway mark, there were two miles through a gorgeous "rails-to-trails" dirt path, which was a nice change of scenery.
Passing mile 18 scared me, as I heard so many people say this is where they "hit the wall." However, I still felt strong, and when I passed mile 20 I realized I was now running farther than I had ever run before.
Then, came mile 22. Or my "hitting the wall."
I don't really know what happened. The once-cool temperatures were rising and the sun was beating down. My knees ached, my body hurt and I just didn't want to run anymore. The remaining 4.2 miles seemed really far.
There was also an increase in hills during the last six miles. Trust me, the giant hill around mile 24 was not a pleasant sight. That was the only time I walked. I saw the hill and felt defeated. I started shuffling up, only to be greeted by some familiar faces: my cheering squad.
Thanks for picking the worst hill to stand on top of. This was my absolute lowest point during the race.
But, something in me snapped. "Get your shit together, Leighton. Don't you dare wimp out now." So, after mile 24, which I ran in a sluggish 9-minute mile pace, I dropped down to an 8:30 pace.
I ignored every ache and pain and I gave it everything I had for the last mile and a half.
Finally, I saw the giant "finish" sign, and my eyes started watering.
Holy. Shit. I did it.
Hands down, the most rewarding three hours, 37 minutes and 59 seconds of my life.
I'm living proof that anyone can do this. Three years ago, I couldn't run at all. Two years ago, I maxed out at two miles. Eight months ago, I was limping around with a crack in my pelvis.
And today? Today, I'm a marathoner.
I accepted my medal with a watery smile. I had surpassed my original goal time of four hours, and had the Boston Marathon not changed their qualifying times from a 3:40 to a 3:35 for 2013, I would have qualified.
It's okay though, because I'm not done. Not even close. Maybe some day I'll qualify, maybe I won't. But I've already started researching spring marathons.
When it comes down to it, I run because it's what I love to do. But, more marathons?
I think I've created a monster.