Imagine if you were waiting to get a ticket for a movie and suddenly everyone in the line started jogging in unison toward the ticket counter. Now multiply that line times 50, dress them all in spandex, and have this mass of people -- including yourself -- running along the Glenn Highway toward the Chugach Mountains. In the pouring rain.
This was the start of my first marathon.
I knew something was wrong in the beginning. Perhaps I had expected the sun to show up for my big day, or for "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor to blast from the heavens as I started the 26.2-mile race.
The race began on time, at exactly 8 a.m.
I didn't expect the massive silence of so many people running determinedly in unison. Rhythmic pounding of heels and forefeet striking pavement thrummed up through my own heels. The crowd parted to avoid enormous puddles that were continuously fed by the pouring rain. Then we reconvened to continue on, in a resolute mass, as we heard cars careen through puddles on the highway nearby.
It all sounded so normal. Wasn't a marathon supposed to be a holy occasion? Shouldn't things be different and more, well, marathon-y? I had run many races before. I don't know why this anticlimactic start came as such a surprise.
As recently as a year ago, when asked, I would say, "I will never do a marathon." I'd heard enough trusted sources say they'd tried it, and while they were proud of the life experience, 26.2 was not a fun distance.
Then it slowly dawned on me that as a runner, this distance was in my reach. I started to think of it as something I could work up to. In fact, once I'd set my mind to the goal of running my first marathon, I found online plans that promised a steady progression toward checking the marathon off my list.
That was my first mistake: thinking that by following all of the rules, the marathon itself would be a breeze. Perhaps I imagined myself with arms outstretched, the word GLORY running over and over for 26.2 miles on the marquee in my brain, and not too much sweat -- just enough to provide a healthy sheen, something to highlight my healthy, broad smile as I beamed across the finish line.
By mile 13 (read: halfway) of the race I was tired -- tired and very sweaty. I wasn't yet exhausted. My legs weren't in pain. But I was breathing shallowly, in a way that told me my steam was running out. I wondered why I felt this way.
Then I recalled passing someone at mile 1.5, who, for some reason, had decided to bathe in Axe cologne before the race. I also passed someone whose T-shirt had a quote that bothered me. I passed someone else because, what the hey, why not? I realized then that I'd made a classic rookie mistake of going out too fast. I'd always thought, nope, not me, I won't do that.
But the cologne. I couldn't bear the thought of running behind an Axe-y breeze for 26.2 miles.
By mile 15, the throng of people had mostly parted. We were all in our own race now. Some people walked, then sprinted, then walked, then sprinted. Some paused to take pictures. Others, like me, just kept steadily hitting the pavement. Pound, pound, pound, splash.
This is, I thought, a lot of running. It felt like a normal long run, but more grueling, and with a lot more pressure to finish. I had finished every one of my training runs, but none of those had been called a marathon. I knew this was a unique event, something my friends, families, and co-workers treated as a staged, slightly insane birthday. And although it was my party, I could not really stop running if I wanted to. I was committed.
It occurred to me, around mile 21, that after I finished these final miles I would say that I'd run a marathon. This thought almost delighted me, except I noticed new, fresh-feeling pain along my inner thighs, something muscular that threatened to seize up at any moment.
Instead of thinking about my legs, I focused my mind on forming my face into a grimace-y smile for the spectators. I thanked them for being there, in the rain, along the trail. My gratitude and emotions were running so high I almost burst into tears when Taylor Swift sang through my ear buds, for me and me alone, "It's miserable and magical, oh ye-e-eah." She was, of course, singing about feelin' 22 (years old), but in that moment the song was clearly about me running my first marathon. I wanted to ask her where the magic was, exactly, because it felt more like a leg cramp.
At the end, and thankfully there was an end, T-shirt lady caught up with me. That was okay because luckily, cologne man never did. I crossed the finish line. It was an arbitrary threshold, the marathon, but I had chosen it as a life benchmark, and I had gone ahead and completed that distance. I was done, but also just beginning to process what the race meant to me. I processed first by sitting down on the wet Delaney Park Strip lawn; then in a bathtub; then at the Spenard Roadhouse with a mountain of Tater Tots and a margarita.
If not the glorious run that felt like an explosion of butterflies and sun-dappled mountains that I'd half-expected and trained for, what was the marathon for me, in the end? The race I experienced was a much different race than I trained for. It was so much more normal; it was so much more painful.
Some days later, I know now what will happen and how this will settle in my memory. Eventually this will be, simply, my first marathon. It will be the experience I smile back on, thinking about how silly I was and how broken down I must have been to nearly burst into tears -- over Taylor Swift! I'll forget about most of the pain, and find myself intrigued by training for yet another race. I'll try it all over again. I'll be better next time.
Or, at least that's the story I'll tell myself to get to the starting line.
Ali Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.