It’s 4:30 a.m. Sunday when I hear my alarm go off next to my bed. Not that I really needed it. I hardly slept all night. In just two short hours, I will compete in my first marathon, and for the 1,000th time in the past three months, the thought crosses my mind that perhaps this was not the best idea I ever had.
As I pace anxiously in the kitchen, waiting for my pre-game bagel to toast, I reflect on how I got here.
Six months ago, I was sitting on an examination table in Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital looking at an X-ray of a fractured left ankle I incurred in a fall. I was turning 30 years old that month, my life felt more than a bit stagnant, the panic of growing older was beginning to elbow its way into my psyche, and now I had a broken foot to boot. So I took the only logical step I could think of at the time — I registered for the first-ever Santa Barbara International Marathon.
The doctor told me that the recovery time for my broken ankle would be eight weeks. So five weeks later, I took off my air cast and hopped on the treadmill for my first training jog. At 6 feet tall and 207 pounds, I was a far cry from the fighting trim of my early to mid-20s, and my ankle was still very tender. Needless to say, it was going to be a long road to haul — literally.
For months I trained without seeing any discernible results, and my resolve to finish what I had started wavered badly more than once. But I tried to keep in mind the words of a favorite author of mine, Anne Lamott, who said, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.” So in the dark I continued to show up, and waited for dawn to come.
It is now Dec. 6 — race day — and I jump on the scale one last time before heading out the door. It reads 187.5.
My mom and my good friend Julie Degraw are waiting for me downstairs to drive me to the starting line in Goleta. They have flown here from Bend, Ore., and Chicago, respectively, to support me today, and I feel my heart swell with gratitude as I walk out the door to face the 26.2-mile course.
The staging area is electric with nervous energy when we arrive, and I hear over the public-address system that there are more than 3,100 entrants.
I take a few pictures with my mom, stretch out a little and say a quiet prayer to God, Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, Zeus, Joseph Smith, L. Ron Hubbard, Oprah and anyone else I can think of who might be able to help me get through this unscathed.
I began my training with the modest goal of finishing in less than a week, but as I line up on the starting line, I think about how cool it would be if I could actually finish in less than four hours. The thought puts a hopeful smile on my face. But it is short-lived, because for some reason the story of Philippides pops into my head. Philippides was the Athenian soldier who in 490 B.C. ran 26 miles from the city of Marathon to Athens to announce the victory of the Athenian army over the Persian forces. When he reached Athens, he gasped, “Nenikikamen” — “we have won” — his heart burst and he died on the spot.
Well, at least it’s not raining.
The starter pistol cracks as the speakers blare “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2, which seems to me to be quite an apropos song for the start of a marathon. After all, Bono consummately seems to be talking about the suffering masses, and I can only imagine this excited lot will be in that category soon enough! I wave once more to my mom and launch headlong into the unknown.
Mile 4: I am clipping along at a pretty good pace, and I feel great so far. I am being careful to resist the urge to shift into a higher gear too early, for fear I will burn out before the end. Nevertheless, one couldn’t ask for a more crisp, gorgeous day on which to go for a leisurely jaunt, and I am taking in the beautiful Goleta landscape with every step. Even my ankle, which usually starts out a bit sore, seems untrammeled today, and I feel like I could run through a brick wall. I avert my gaze from the picturesque mountain view long enough to read the back of the runner’s shirt directly in front of me, which reads, “Why couldn’t Philippides have died at mile 20?” I laugh to myself, but feel a faint twinge in the back of my mind that by the end, that question may seem more prescient than I realize.
Mile 9: We have completed the first loop of the race and are crossing the starting line again. Somehow, I have worked my way up in the crowd to position myself right behind the 3:30 pacer, and I still feel reasonably fresh. I am listening to the upbeat Broadway showtune “Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked on my iPod, like any masculine, heterosexual athlete in his 30s would, and the mellifluous pipes of Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth are keeping me cruising right along. I pass my old friend John Rose in a crowd of supporters and give him an enthusiastic fist pump, and for the first time, I begin to think that I may just finish this race far sooner than I had anticipated.
Mile 13: There is an ancient Greek saying that goes, “Those whom the Gods would destroy they first make proud.” As I cross the halfway point of the race, I’m beginning to realize the veracity of that statement. My hubris of a few miles back has been smashed, and I am cursing myself for believing that I could keep up for 26.2 miles with the 3:30 pacer, who probably has some gazelle DNA and runs these things just to get out of the house for a few hours. My breathing is starting to get ragged, my legs are tiring, my left ankle aches and it feels like a midget is running backwards in front of me, stabbing my hip flexors with a switchblade. Even though I have completed the first half in 1:45, I am fading fast. I probably should have started with a half-marathon.
Mile 15.5: My mom and Julie save the day by showing up just when I’m thinking that I won’t be able to make it. When I see them on the side of the road, I get a burst of adrenaline. I stop with them for about 30 seconds to talk politics, religion and philosophy, and by the time I begin running again, I feel revitalized. I hit a nice downhill section and feel my spirit returning to me. I think of all the hard work it took to get me here, and I know I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. A middle-aged volunteer tells me I’m cute as I pass at mile 16. Strangely, my ego likes this and I keep running.
Mile 20: I am now two full miles past the longest distance I have ever run, and the saying on the back of the runner’s shirt at mile 2 is ringing in my head like a devil driver. About six miles to go, and I see as I pass that I am at 2:53. That means that to make it in less than four hours, I have to run about an 11-minute mile pace until the end. The thought of finishing in less than four hours urges me onward, but as I search for another gear to kick it into, I find that the clutch is stuck. I simply don’t know if I have enough left to make it in time. My spirit is willing, but my body is already spent. I keep going, but I know that the hill on Cliff Drive is awaiting me in three miles.
Mile 23: I reach the bottom of the hill at Hendry’s Beach and take a moment to look up to the top. It is a half-mile climb, with an elevation increase of 170 feet. Whoever decided to position this hill at mile 23 of a marathon should be forced to push a boulder up that hill for eternity, only to have it roll to the bottom each time, like Sisyphus. I begin to trudge up the incline at a pace resembling the daily movement of a fault line. I watch a potato bug pass me and give me a dirty, smug look. Or maybe that’s just how they look in general; I’m not sure at this point. I am aware that music is playing in my iPod, but it all just sounds like white noise now. I do think it’s a little unfair that those little green people to my left get to ride unicorns up this hill. It occurs to me that those may not be real. I think I‘m hallucinating. Oh, well.
Mile 24.5: Somehow I make it to the top of the hill. I stop for a moment to collect myself for a final push. As I begin the descent down the hill alongside Shoreline Park, even the downhill terrain no longer helps much. My legs continue to move, but I feel like each step might be my last. Once again I search for another gear, only to find that neutral and first are the only ones I have left. I haven’t seen a clock in awhile, and I have no idea how much time I have to finish in a sub-four-hour time. Right now, I don’t really care, as long as I get to lie down soon.
Mile 25.3: Just as I’m about to throw in the towel and walk the rest of the way, a truly amazing thing happens: I see a large group of people to my immediate right wearing yellow shirts with “South Coast Fights ALS” written on the fronts. Hal and Fran Finney, who have been the subject of several recent Noozhawk articles, are walking at the front of the pack, less than a mile from the finish line. As I pass them, I turn and give them a thumbs-up. I remember in that moment that there are a lot of people who have had a far more difficult road to this race, and I find the inspiration in that to keep going. Thank you, Hal and Fran, for your incredible courage.
Finish line: With 200 yards left, I see my friends Brandon and Justin on the side of the road, and my heart melts that they came out to see me. Justin, a 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound former Marine, is so excited to see me that he jumps out onto the course and starts running next to me.
“What’s up, man?!” Justin yells enthusiastically. “You know, not much,” I reply with a smile.
“Did you really do this whole thing?” Justin asks. “Yeah,” I say.
“Am I allowed to be running with you right now?” he asks like a kid who has broken an adult rule. “I don’t think so,” I say, trying to breathe through the laughter.
“OK, bro!” he says, and with a pat on my back, he runs off the course.
That’s all I need. I finally find that illusive gear I have been searching for, and for the final 50 yards, I am able to finish with a strong, loping stride, despite the unbelievable pain I feel.
When I cross the finish line, I immediately scan the crowd for my mom, who I know is there somewhere. After about a minute, I find her and walk over on jelly legs to give her a hug.
“I got video of you crossing the finish line, and I got a shot of your time, too,” she says.
My heart leaps into my throat. In all the excitement, I had completely forgotten my sub-four-hour goal.
“What was my time?” I ask nervously. “Three hours, 57 minutes,” she replies.
I hang my head and tears fill my eyes. My heart swells to the point of bursting, and for a moment I fear that my fate will be that of Philippides. I hug my mom, barely able to stand, and swallow hard on the lump in my throat.
Out of 1,670 finishers, I finish 591st with an official time of 3:56:58 (9:01 pace). Even though I finish 1:32 off the winning pace, as I look into the eyes of my friends, family and supporters, I know for sure that I won this race.
Nenikikamen. Nenikikamnen. Nenikikamen.
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I look forward to never doing it again.
Thank you so much to all the volunteers, and to everyone who had anything to do with this great event. It meant more than you can possibly know.
— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.