"You look sttttt-rrrrrrreeeesssed!" exclaims Lane, the 18-year-old daughter of my running partner, Molly, as she opens up the door to her family's hotel room. Ah, the astute--and blunt--observational skills of a teenager.
Lane, like me, is about to run the Victoria Marathon in the capital city of British Columbia; unlike me, she seems as lighthearted and relaxed as a teen headed to a Katy Perry concert. I've been fighting the urge to puke all morning, and had woken up hours before my alarm, sweating and fretting in the hotel bed next to my slumbering husband, Jack. It is almost go-time, yet I only want to run and hide. I know I am, best-case scenario, staring down slightly less than four hours of extreme effort; worst-case situation, 4+ hours of pain and disappointment.
But I'd worked very hard for nearly five months to arrive at this day, and now the task is at hand. After walking a block to the start, I duck under a bowed, ornamental tree for a final pee (at Lane's urging, I might add!). Lane and I say our good-byes before stepping into the delightfully uncrowded starting area, where I fidget with my Soleus GPS Mini and iPod Shuffle. After a very orderly countdown--"2 minutes," "90 seconds," "1 minute"--the race begins.
If adrenaline courses through my veins, it is a low-octane version. My coach's race plan has me sticking to 9:00 miles for the first half of the race, and for the first time at the start of a race, I'm not having to curb my excitement and slow my roll. Going at the 9:00 pace doesn't seem hard, yet the first miles of the race aren't a cakewalk, either. It feels like effort, neither hard nor easy. A 5 on a 1-to-10 scale of perceived exertion. I'm not in pain, I'm just not pumped. The gray marine cover and mid-50s temperature matches my mood: somber and all business.
I start wishing the more upbeat, faster-paced songs on my "Victory in Victoria" playlist would kick in. Finally, the 13th song on the playlist, "All Summer Long" by Kid Rock brings a smile to my face, as it reminds me of my high school bestie. (Long story.) Or maybe it is the gradual downhill in the second half of a figure-8 loop through bucolic Beacon Hill Park. Or possibly it is continuing to nail the 9:00 pace, even after walking to take a blueberry-pomegranate Roctane near the 8K mark. Coach Bri had told me to speed up slightly before GU breaks, resulting in less time lost while ingesting as well as helping my legs re-fire when I resume running.
Some songs by Girl Talk, Fitz & the Tantrums, and Macklemore keep my pace rolling along, although with my next GU break, near Mile 8, I lose nearly half a minute. Overall, I know I'm cutting it close running a sub-4:00 marathon to re-qualify for Boston, so 30 seconds add an unwanted burden to my load. Still, after running several flat-to-rolling miles past gorgeous early 20th-century, waterfront homes, I hit the halfway point at 1:59:01.
In our race-prep call a few days earlier, Bri had told I could either speed up slightly--just 5 to 10 seconds--at Mile 13, or I could wait until Mile 16. She told to determine when to make, "a smart but calculated pace drop." In the moment, all I can calculate: If I keep running this same pace, the margin of success might not be enough to get me back to Boston.
Yet my body doesn't like the idea of going faster. Miles 13 through 15 are the toughest: My body--and mind--long for easing up just a bit on the gas pedal, but my rationale side knows this would ruin my sub-4:00 chances. So I do what any "sssstttttrrrrreeeeesssed" mother runner would do: I increase my effort, but stop looking at my Soleus GPS. This racheted-up effort will prove either sufficient--or not. For now, I'm giving it my best. Time literally will tell if it's enough.
The inland miles from 15 to 19 aren't easy by any means, but I feel a steely resolution start to worm into my veins. Mile 18 attempts to sidetrack me with 9:25-due-to-GU'ing, but instead it fuels my fire. From this point on, I never look at my GPS again. Coach Bri had told me to spot racers to pick off, so I start doing that. Woman in striped tank and ruffled skirt: check. Guy in orange tee: done. Cluster of women in brightly colored tees and compression socks: now in my rearview mirror.
When Josh Gad from "The Book of Mormon" soundtrack tells me to "Man Up," I say the words out loud, both laughing and drawing strength from the audacious lyrics. When Macklemore and Ryan Lewis sing they "Can't Hold Us," it feels they are talking about my power. I keep repeating my newfound mantra (cribbed off a jewelry display I'd spied just the day before): "courage without fear."
While I'd love to pause on a course-side bench to take in the spectacular seaside view, I don't waver from my intention to push hard toward my sub-4-hour finish. From mile 20 on, I feel like a video game avatar, picking off runner after runner after runner. When I see Jack for the fourth time on the side of the course, he once again yells at me to catch the 4:00-pace group. I've known since the first 500 meters of the marathon that the pacer took them out too fast, so I haven't worried about them. But I speed up to ease Jack's concerns.
I start to delight at how quickly the kilometers seem to be clicking by; I realize this is the first time a marathon hasn't, in the midst of running it, seemed like a ridiculously stupid long way to run. I start taking serious advantage of every downhill, knocking out mile 20 to 21 in 8:44. Some short ascents in mile 23 slow me to 9:14, but I hammer out mile 24: It's my fastest mile of the race, in 8:39. Yet I know none of this at the time, as it's been miles since I've checked my pace. Courage without fear is fueling me.
My best running friend, Molly (who had opted for the half-marathon due to a knee problem), awaits me at mile 25. I decline the bottle of Nuun she offers me; instead I hand her the waterlogged, sweat-stained hotel washcloth I've been carrying the entire race. "Thanks," I yell, "I'm running this mile for you, Molly. Love you."
As I smile and prance a bit for race-course photographers, it occurs to me maybe I've left too much in my tank. "Stop clowning, and run faster, Sarah!" Signs declaring, "500 meters to finish," then "300 meters to finish" keep me pressing on the gas. I feel strong and elated as I cross the line in 3:56:54--my first negative split in a 26.2-mile race and my second fastest marathon out of the 11 I've run.
I've been sporting a mantle of hard-fought pride ever since.