Five o’clock in the morning is a dark hour. It is even darker if it is freezing cold and you know you are about to run a marathon that you hardly trained for. My running partner, Taylor, and I, were tense as we made our coffee, not sure of how the morning was going to play out.
Baystate Marathon takes place in Lowell, MA, an old manufacturing town about 30 miles outside of Boston. The course is flat and fast, and follows the Merrimack river. It is both industrial and scenic, and if you get lucky with a nice autumn day, the river and the foliage are utterly bucolic. Aside from the beauty of the course, the race is still 26.2 miles of road, a distance that cannot be fully understood until traversed.
That was part of the trouble with this Sunday’s race. I had previously run two marathons and understood the cruelty of the distance, the way your legs scream at you to stop running, the way your mind gets confused as to why you signed up in the first place. For this race, I expected the worst. I had skimped on my training regimen, majorly, and had not gotten in any long runs.
We lined up at the Tongas Center in Lowell, bundled in old fleeces and sweatpants, doing our best to remain calm. The race started at 8 AM, and we were off. I tried not to focus on the distance early on, and pretended like I was just running, any distance, just running forward. Taylor and I were running right around the 3 hours and 45 minute pace group, which corresponds to about an 8 minute, 35 second mile pace. The first half went smoothly, and I was enjoying the course and the company and the local spectators. The Baystate crowds are meager compared to larger scale marathons like New York or Boston, so you have to be even more prepared for self motivation to get you through the 26.2 miles.
The Baystate course is primarily a double loop, so the second half is almost identical to the first. As we began the second loop, Taylor broke off, as we had planned, to finish the race on his own. I turned on my music and concentrated on finishing. The second helping of 13 miles, though, was easier than expected. I never “hit the wall,” meaning I never felt like my body couldn’t handle the stress anymore. Yes, there was pain, especially in my calves and during the last five miles, but it was very pleasant. Though the Baystate course is mostly flat, the last two miles are a downhill jaunt to a finish, which is a sweet ending. I sprinted in the last few hundred feet, energized and exhilarated.
My time was 4 hours, 3 minutes and 11 seconds. It was not my fastest race, but it was my most enjoyable. I was not the most diligent runner in the months leading up to the race; I let other commitments and distractions get in the way, so I was overjoyed by the way my body responded to the marathon distance. This lack of training plan is not for everyone, especially first timers. It was reassuring to check in with my body’s capabilities and served as a reminder of the importance of the mental component of long distance running. A positive attitude and not putting too much pressure on the outcome can transform an anxious morning into a beautiful experience that reinforces a love for what you do.
During the first half of the race, Taylor and I were already discussing our future running plans—of more marathons, more happy runs, and an ultra-marathon next fall. For me, this was proof that I can consciously enjoy a marathon while I am running, not just in retrospect, and also that I might be a little crazy.