The Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon 2013 Part 2: Race Day!
The alarm went off at 4:30 AM.
Any other day I would have been at least a little groggy at the early-morning wake up call. However, due to a mixture of excitement over it being race day and being refreshed from sleeping for 8.5 hours (thanks melatonin pill!), I jumped out of bed and woke up a not quite as energetic, but still excited, Nick. We put on our race clothes, pinned on our numbers, and each grabbed our gluten free race fuel of choice: paydays. Seeing as there was a chance of mid-morning rain and we were hoping to finish in 4 hours (so around 10:30 AM), I put my cell phone in a plastic Ziplock bag, packed my fanny pack and we headed to the car.
We made our way down to Paul Brown stadium, parked, and followed a herd of people to the race line. As we walked we met a runner in his 50’s named Roger. He was a more seasoned marathoner with many races under his belt, and we talked about some of his races. The worst, he said, was running a marathon one year in 38-degree pouring rain, where no matter what runners did everyone was cold and miserable. Considering it was in the mid-40s that morning and misting already, some part of me hoped that a similar situation wouldn’t develop. I was so high on race-morning-itus, though, the rest of me really didn’t care.
Eventually Roger split off and we walked on through the sea of people to our corral (C), and headed to the front with the other 4-hour-hopeful runners. We stood around for what seemed like forever, watching the masses of people file into the various race corrals. We saw the Tarahumara run by, ironically enough, in running shoes, and after hearing the national anthem and having a moment of silence for Boston (which had occurred only two weeks prior), the cannon was shot, Sweet Caroline started blaring on the starting line speakers, and we were off!
The beginning of the race consisted of trying to stick with Nick through what could be best described as a sea of bobbing heads. My stomach was having some nervous gas issues, but once it sorted itself out everything seemed to be going just fine. We squiggled shortly through downtown before catching the beautiful golden sunrise peeking through the clouds as we crossed the first bridge into Kentucky. I was surprised by the number of people who were out that early to cheer us on in the cold, wet conditions. As we neared the end of the bridge, I noticed a familiar face out of the corner of my eye. It was one of Nick’s friends who was running the half, holding a much better pace than us. As he trotted off we both decided that we were feeling good enough to break away from the 4 hour pace group, and began a hunt for the 3:50 group.
Down through Newport we ran, passing cheerleaders, bands and groups of people with cowbells. Because you know what every marathon needs? More cowbell. Obviously.
Slowly but surely we sneaked up on the 3:50 pace group, and finally caught them as we passed the 5k mark over the second bridge back into Ohio. So we settled in and were about as happy as two corgis on a treadmill.
We trotted along and I began to chat with our little 10ish runner pace group. The two leaders were extremely nice and had obviously had at least 2 pots of coffee each before the race started. Their energy was complemented by the fact that the female leader was wearing a bedazzled American flag hat and a bright pink tutu. I was also impressed as the male leader was going to be holding a stick with balloons and a “3:50” sign on it for the entire race. Also in our pace group was this zoned-out girl with bright red hair and really loud headphones who kept running into me, a guy from Chile and a few others who weren’t quite as talkative. The whole group cheered as we entered Ohio, and we banked to the left, running past my arch nemesis the bread factory, and then rounded a big right turn that took us straight into downtown.
Coming into downtown, I realized why people say the Flying Pig has some of the best crowd support of any marathon. The sidewalks were filled with smiling people sporting some pretty hilarious signs. Every now and then a group in the crowd would recognize a runner and shout out to them, causing much of the crowd (including the runners) to also cheer that person on. It was such a positive environment to be in. We continued through the center of noisy downtown and then began the long uphill climb into Eden Park. Our pace group slowed a little while our leaders reminded everyone to eat.
How could I forget? FOOD! I pulled out my payday and took a bite, but almost instantly regretted it. My stomach was apparently still not on board with this whole marathon thing, and was having none of it.
Considering something like this had never even come close to happening in training, I thought it might be nerves, and took a deep breath before going in for another bite (during training I always took two). Even just bringing the deliciously nutty bar to my mouth caused me to dry heave a couple times, so I gave up for the time being hoping I wouldn’t regret it too much later.
Up the hill we went into Eden Park which was full of beautiful May flowers and abundant with crowd support. Nick and I found ourselves talking with a runner in our group who had become less silent as the race went on. We started out joking around, and when the conversation turned to running we learned that we were talking to Dan Aerni, whose son, John had actually won the Flying Pig Marathon overall in 2003. What’s more, not only was John the first Cincinnatian to win the Pig, but that race in 2003 had been his first marathon ever.
Because you know, whatever.
Dan chuckled as he told us his son’s win inspired him to run because “well, he had to get that talent from someone”. I also found out that he had run the Kentucky Derby Marathon in Louisville, which was really cool because I grew up in Louisville. The conversation went on and Nick and I had a great time chatting with Dan and his running buddy all the way through Eden park.
As we approached O’Bryonville things started getting pretty familiar, as the next 18 miles was the section Nick and I had run during training. We ran past our friends who own Kitchen 452 (not gluten free but I’m sure it’s incredible) and gave out some high-fives. My payday still didn’t seem too appetizing, so I just kept drinking water and otherwise felt great. The rest of the pace group had quieted down considerably (except for our awesomely energetic pace leaders, loved those guys), and Dan and his friend were pushing the pace. So we followed them a few seconds ahead of the pace group for a bit and continued chatting into Hyde Park
Something I’ve noticed with every long run is once I get to right around mile 10.5, anything wrong in the world disappears, my mind temporarily forgets about pain, and I become euphoric. I get a normal happy runner’s high around mile 4, but whatever happens at mile 10 is a whole other ball game. The only way I can describe how I truly felt for these four miles is through song. This song.
We trotted into Hyde Park square, and the crowd was slightly louder and slightly more numerous than the Eden Park crowd. I tried to get on TV by running behind a news person, and was still pumped up despite not having eaten much food. Running felt like nothing. We hit the halfway mark in under 2 hours, chilling about 3-4 seconds ahead of our pace group. With about a 10 minute cushion to slow down during the second half of the race (which was mostly downhill anyway), we felt awesome about getting our 4 hour goal. We wished Dan and his friend well as they picked up the pace again, since we didn’t feel the need to go any faster.
Mile 15 brought us into what might be one of my favorite parts of the entire marathon. This part of the race takes runners directly into the heart of Mariemont, turns them around and then runs them back out. Coming into the city, I could hear the screams and cheers of the crowd which was energizing, and our pace leaders yelled to everyone, “Soak it up! You’ll need it!”. As we turned into the main square, the cheers became a roar. The sheer number of people who had shown up to cheer us on caused them to spill out into the street, and we had to run single file simply to fit through. I was absolutely thrilled with the joy and pure energy of the experience while people patted us on the back as we ran by. I will never forget that magical mile 15.
This brings us to miles 16 and 17. The miles where my body started to remember that I was running a marathon, and all I had eaten so far that day was a measly bite of payday.
At first it wasn’t quite so bad. Being so close to mile 18, which by many is infamously known as “The Wall”, I was expecting to start feeling fatigued at this point. But with each step the fatigue seemed to amplify. Suddenly it was becoming a stretch to try and keep up with the pace group, let alone hang out in front of them. I slowly watched them drift in front of us, using all the mental power I had to keep pace. Unfortunately, there’s a steep hill at mile 17 that nobody really mentions, and when my vision slightly dimmed I panicked, pulled back, and watched the group trot off.
I told Nick how I was feeling and he seemed a bit worried but still positive. He had also been having some stomach trouble early in the race, but he had still been able to remain properly fueled. I told him to go ahead without me since he clearly wasn’t having any trouble, but he insisted on sticking with me and cheering me on. I love him so much.
I tried to eat again but couldn’t, so, figuring I could use the sugar, I started getting Gatorade at every fuel station. This ended up turning into a game of who-will-give-me-a-full-cup. For future reference: the children won. Always go for Gatorade from children!
While the Flying Pig Marathon is considered to have some of the best course support, this is simply not true for miles 17.5 through 19. This part of the course is down Columbia Parkway (a highway), so there was almost nobody there. The race had really thinned out, so Nick and I ran pretty much alone for a bit. As we passed through a tropically themed water station, I grabbed some Gatorade and sipped at it, realizing I wasn’t quite “with it” and wondering why on earth this ever sounded like a good idea.
Considering how much Gatorade I had consumed at this point (and at some stations, I took water and Gatorade) I figured there was no way I could be dehydrated, but that’s the best way to describe how I felt. Our pace had slowed quite a bit, but Nick and I talked, trying to get our minds off of the distance. A we went through mile 20 passing Lunken airport, the crowd support picked back up again, and a larger group of runners slowly caught up to us. As they approached I heard them talking and noticed the coolest phenomenon I’ve yet to see in a race: most of the people were just complementing each other. Soon there was a woman next to me, complimenting my arms, so I told her she had nice hair. It was pretty clear everyone was at least a bit loopy at this point, but I smiled, realizing the more I was thinking about what to compliment not only was I not focusing on how badly I felt, but cheering others on just felt good. So on we went, a big group of loopy runners, throwing out compliments here and there. It was pretty cool.
Then came mile 23. About halfway through the mile, my legs started feeling like jello and I noticed my muscles weren’t quite firing in sync. I came to the realization that I was probably out of energy. We lost the compliment crowd, as I slowed and slowed, apologizing to Nick the whole time since I knew he was in much better shape. Of course he’s awesome and stuck with me saying he didn’t mind. Finally I came to a walk in the drizzling rain, and a thought came to mind. The thought quickly became an obsession. I wanted to sit.
“I should sit. Right here. That would be nice.”
So I told Nick I was going to sit down.
As I started to go down, he grabbed my arm and held me back up, since sitting in the middle of the road during a marathon is probably a poor choice. He kept me talking and I came back to, realizing what I was trying to do and started walking again. I remember looking at the wet ground and deciding that after this race I was never going to run again. That’s it! I’m finished.
After about a minute I was feeling much better, and tried to jog again. Roughly 30 seconds into that jog I felt dizzy so we began alternating slow jogging with walking. I took some extra time at the mile 24 water stop (where my friend was volunteering! Thanks Lee!) taking both Gatorade and water. We continued alternating walking and jogging, with each stretch of jogging becoming longer and longer. I felt a weird calm come over me as I realized what it really means when people say they gave something their “all”. My questionably stupid determination to finish the race took over, and I eventually found myself painfully shuffling along with Nick.
The last 1.2 miles
Looking back at our race results it turns out we ran the last mile of the race at a 10:00 min/mi pace which, for how horrible I was feeling, is pretty awesome. We saw the 4 hour group pass but didn’t think much of it. At this point I just wanted to finish. As we continued along, the crowd support kept building and building and I started to be able to hear what I imagined was the finish line off in the distance. With about 3/4 of a mile to go, some guy wrapped in a space blanket with a finisher’s medal ran by us in the opposite direction, yelling “You’ll begin to remember how to run again soon!”. Yeah, right.
To my surprise, once we were in the last half mile everything bad seemed to evaporate and I really perked up. Once I saw the I-471 bridge coming up, I realized that this was actually going to happen; I was about to run a marathon. I felt my speed pick up a little. Silly body, convincing me you’re dying when you somehow, somewhere, had extra energy. Yeah, I’ll remember that for next time.
We passed between these two flying pig statues, and the crowd along the road was becoming more numerous and loud. I looked up to find the finish line finally in sight and got the biggest smile on my face. As we got closer I started whooping and yelling out of excitement. The energy in the air was incredible. I looked up and people were cheering along both sides of the road, over the edge of the overpasses before and after the finish and even out of the parking garage along the road. The roar of the crowd had become deafening and I felt myself running faster and faster. The whole experience was simply unreal. I spied a camera and did my best to make a triumphant pose.
Finally, it was time for us to cross the finish line, and Nick and I became marathoners. We finished with a chip time of 4:03:31; only 3:31 slower than our goal time of 4 hours. Considering the struggle, we considered the time a success. Contrary to my decision only a couple miles earlier, I immediately decided I wanted to do this again.
It quickly began pouring rain, so we got our medals and space blankets which, by the way, were invented by NASA, and took cover under the nearby overpass. I still felt nauseous, but grabbed a banana, fruit cup and Fritos hoping I could eat them soon.
That afternoon was the only time in my life I’ve ever single-handedly defeated a large bag of five guys fries, and I ate them in about two minutes. What’s more, this was after a large bun-less burger, plate of roasted vegetables and multiple cupcakes from Tina’s Sweet Treats. Then I slept until 7 pm, ate an entire box of quinoa pasta with an entire jar of red sauce and returned to bed. It was glorious.
I learned so many things from my first marathon, and had quite a few experiences I will never forget. Aside from proper nutrition (turns out GU is gluten free, though nobody would confirm it for me during the race), I think my biggest lesson was from the compliment crowd. They showed me how, during some of the most fatigue and worst pain of my life, that working as a group and supporting each other can get the whole group through more than they probably could alone. I’ve seen this happen before in Alaska and in group therapy, but for some reason this experience really stood out to me the most. This lesson applies to so many parts of life, too. Struggling? We all are in some way or another. Try helping out someone else and see what happens.
And that’s it. The 2013 Flying Pig Marathon was over and Nick and I were painfully triumphant. Three days later I was out running again, and within a month I found myself registering for the 2014 Kentucky Derby Marathon. Bring it on, Louisville.