Sunday, February 24, 2008

Marathon Saga: Part IV

Shortly after mile 21, the race takes a psychologically defeating turn away from the finish line. Even though it's only for a few blocks, it is up a steady grade. To be so close to the finish line, one would expect to be making a b-line to the end, but this minor detour proved to be one of the most difficult stretches of the race.

Different people hit "the wall" at different points in a race. I've always heard about the infamous point at which the marathon becomes mentally and physically challenging, but never could really appreciate the difficulty in fighting through it. Although at this point in the race, I was still moving steadily, it was the first sign of mental struggle. Perhaps it was because I had read about this point in the race or perhaps it was here where I saw a young overweight couple sitting cross-legged in their driveway eating greasy burritos, the male wiping up the last bit of cheesy sauce on his fork, but I had a difficult time staying mentally focused. I looked behind me: still no sign of the 4:30 group.

I decided to walk for a minute, taking long strides to stretch my calves and hamstrings. I grabbed a few pretzels from a nearby child's tray, giving him a "high-five" and a wink. "Too bad he wasn't giving out chimichangas and queso," I thought, "I might have been weak enough at that point to eat a few." In fact, the thought of a Mexican food feast after the race helped me make it up the final steep grade to the turn. My internal compass now acknowledged that we were back on track toward the finish line--it was all downhill from here. I was at mile 23. The end was nearly in sight, and that's when my body began betraying me.

In mid stride, my left calf knotted up painfully, then almost as a way to compensate, my right hamstring went into spasm. As I limped to the nearest telephone pole to work it out, I saw a sign advertising "Finishing medals, $25 cash." "Good thing I didn't have my wallet with me," I thought. It was a tempting offer, but I wanted the medal AND the finisher's shirt that were already paid for and waiting for me just THREE MORE MILES DOWN THE ROAD!!

I began moving again, slowly, testing the starving muscles. "I wish I had another GU," I thought. "I sure could use one right now." My back also began to knot up. I stretched it several times on the tailgates of trucks in people's driveways. It felt like a fork was stuck in the small of my back, and I could do nothing to stop the pain. One step, then another, then another. As if they could see the anchors being dragged down the street, the supporters lining the street knew this was a difficult stretch of the race for everyone, and their cheers and encouragement were unrelenting. I ran about a quarter mile, stopped and stretched, ran another quarter mile, stopped and stretched, and repeated this pattern for a mile or so.

At mile 24, we headed down a steep grade that lead to the University of Texas campus, an area I know quite well from my time as an undergraduate there. The site of my old math building, the football stadium, and the State Capitol in the distance gave me a much needed boost. Then I saw a former Calculus student cheering on runners. As I ran by, I lifted my sunglasses and said, "Ms. Mechlar, Mr. Korpi appreciates your support." She quickly acknowledged me from 8 years previously and gave a big smile. I was no sooner passed her and at the bottom of the hill directly in front of the Longhorn football stadium, when I cramped up badly again. All my muscles in my legs were quivering. My back was killing me. I stretched for what seemed like several minutes, walking in between, determining if I could even run any more. I was 4 hours and 15 minutes into the race. To be official, I had to finish in 7 hours. At this point, I just wanted to finish the race. I thought about walking the rest of the way, knowing I could reach the finish line in 2 hours and 45 minutes even if I walked at a snails pace.

Then I saw it. It was a sign . . . LITERALLY! I was walking by the 25 mile marker sign. I was only 1.2 miles from the glorious end. I thought about how many times I've run that distance effortlessly. It was a brand new race for me, a short 1.2 mile race. A race against time. If I was to meet my goal, I had less about 12 minutes left to finish in under 4:30. And it was right then, as I was thoroughly stretching what I hoped would be one last time, that the 4:30 pace group ran right by me. I began to panic. They appeared to be moving pretty fast and effortlessly. "Could I catch them? Could I then keep up?" I wondered.

As I pondered these questions, by body unconsciously was set in motion. I was running, and running with renewed focus and determination. I was chasing a little yellow sign that was bobbing up and down about 50 yards in front of me. I didn't feel my legs to know if they were cramping, in spasm, or in pain. I was in control now. As we pulled off of San Jacinto Street to make the last one block run up 11th street before turning down the final stretch of the race on Congress Avenue, the 4:30 pace group was within spitting distance, if only my mouth wasn't so dry. As I turned onto Congress, I realized I was running on the same street on which the race started over 4 hours ago. The mile 26 marker! The scenery changed as white security fences now lined the streets. I could tell that the finish line was close. There was an official photographer to my left. The State Capital to my right, and the 4:30 group was just in front of me. I felt the cameraman's shutter click. He took a picture (see photo at top) that I knew would be the calm before the storm.
I looked far down the street. At the top of one final climb two-tenths of a mile away, I could see the giant arch with the official time that marked the end of the race. I began running as fast as I could. I was sprinting. I quickly and easily passed the 4:30 group. Fans lining the streets noticed my surge and were cheering for ME, yes ME! "Go Kevin, Go Kevin!" I was soon at the last hill, a steep climb that lead directly to the finish line. Many were walking up this hill, totally spent, trying, perhaps, to save what little they had left so that they could actually RUN across the finish line, but not me. I was passing people on my left and right, dashing up the hill like I had done so many times in my training. My heart was pounding, my head was tingling with sweat. I ran through the first series of mats that read the computer chip on my shoe that kept track of my time. I was only twenty feet from the end. It was so loud. I kept my sprint and went through the arches.
"Kevin Korpi," I heard my name over the loudspeaker "4 hours, 27 minutes, 44 seconds." Hearing my name, I knew it was official. I had run my first marathon. I pounded my fists, proud of myself, not just for finishing, but for finding the strength to push myself through the "wall" and finish in under 4:30. (Note: the time in the picture above is from the starting gun. My time did not start until I crossed the starting line almost 5 minutes later.)

My phone rang. I answered it. It was my family. I found them in the crowd. It was a very proud moment for me. I grabbed my finisher's shirt, my finisher's medal, four bananas, two bagels, a bag of Doritos, and 3 Powerade drinks and slowly made my way out of the runner's recovery area.

As I made my way to my family, I was thinking of two things: Mexican Food and my Chiropractor.


Anonymous said...

Great post! I felt like I was right there beside you. It's going to be a great week. lc

Anonymous said...

We are so proud of you and had so much watching the race! Glad you're recovering, and we can't wait until the next one.