On Saturday, June 4th, I ran my first international marathon (my sixth overall) on what turned out to be a glorious, humidity-free, 60-something degree day in Stockholm. In the weeks prior, I had an increasing awareness* of a nagging left achilles and various, undiagnosed sensations in my feet. Plus, I was probably undertrained, having done only one twenty-miler. And I had some vague memories of really, really hating the late stages of marathons, which explains why I hadn’t done one in six years. This could be ugly.
The race started at noon, which I expected to be completely jarring. However, lingering jet-lag, a penchant for getting lost wandering Stockholm, the logistics of staging a 18,000 person event, and moderate temperatures made the late start-time pretty ideal. I started in the correct pace group (about 8:30 min/mile), which was good since there was no getting past the pack of Scandinavians I was trapped in. Backlogged podcasts** got me to mile 16 and then I shifted to my inspirational running playlist*** which got me home. Around mile 24, I was more than ready to be done, sure, but somehow I never hit the wall.
The home stretch: I entered the Olympic Stadium, sure that the finish line was mere steps away, as I was already past 26.2 . But we still had to circle the track, which created some sense of ceremony but also made for a race of 26.7 miles! What?! Despite that injustice of this, I ran a three-plus minute PR of 3:45. And, I guess I also inadvertently ran the longest distance of my life.
Here’s a hodgepodge of my impressions of an international marathon:
- I was saying how, although I had no real desire to run a marathon again until a Boston-qualifying time was a real possibility (i.e., this fall! Bring on age 40!), I wanted to do this one as a way of seeing this beautiful city where I’ve started to teach and visit every summer. Funny, then, how little I was focused on the scenery around me. It was more like, “find the water!” “don’t step on that person!” “focus on your music!” Marathon-survival mode rather than savoring mode.
- The cardinal rules of marathoning – don’t eat anything new or weird! Rest up a few days before! – are in direct opposition to the rules of travel and exploration – eat all the weird things! Walk around and see everything! I walked 6 miles the day before and was worried I’d blown it. I hadn’t. But the temptation was there in a way it isn’t at home.
- I don’t know if it was this race in particular or non-U.S. races, but it felt much more serious. Very few runners in costumes, no spirited bunches running for a cause, zero funny signs about pooping, loud cheering, and – mercifully – only one deafening cowbell.
- The men all peed in a communal porta-potty thingie beforehand, which cut back on lines dramatically. Could American men do such a thing outside of Foxfield? Do American porta-potty companies even make such a thing?
- Having the race marked in kilometers instead of miles was a mental challenge. Like, “Oooh, I’m at mile 21 already! Oh wait, that’s 21K…13 miles. Crap!” I had to stop looking at the markers. On the upside, I took some perverse joy in confusing the metric-minded around me when my Garmin chirped at each mile.
- Course fuel: pickles, vegetable broth, coffee, cola. Glad I brought my own Gu.
- Stockholm’s “hills” have nothing – NOTHING – on Charlottesville’s.
- The finishers’ shirt was hot pink. European men don’t mind hot pink.
- The post-race hot dog: the first I’ve had in years, and nothing could have tasted better.
- If you don’t have cell service and hope to meet up with someone after the race, in a crowd of many thousands, when you’re likely to be utterly exhausted, have a fail-safe plan. Despite a plan of-sorts, Joe and I only found each other through sheer luck.
- Look who I finally saw at the finish line.
- If I can just slightly improve on this time for the fall, the BQ should be mine, fulfilling a goal I’ve had for almost ten years. This race was great mental preparation, as it was the first marathon I enjoyed from start to finish. No wall-hitting, a perfectly even split, and full mobility for sightseeing the next day. Oh, and I even was awake and chipper for a nighttime dinner cruise afterwards, where one of the editors of German Runner’s World said, upon hearing my time, “Oh, you’re a real runner.” That’s right. A. Real. Runner.
* awareness is not the same as pain or injury, and is at least 50% psychosomatic.
** deepest gratitude to Slate’s Double X, Getting In, The Moth, and Embedded.
*** mostly selections from the Hamilton soundtrack, but with some Styx, Sara Bareilles, and Shakira peppered in.