I would love to tell you that running our first full marathon was easy. I would love to say that when we reached mile 25 we knew we were going to finish. I would even love to say the weather was perfect. But, I can’t say any of that. What I can say is that we finished. I can say that it was a battle and more than once we wanted to quit fighting. I can also say I now understand what Hal Higdon once said, “The difference between the mile and the marathon is the difference between burning your fingers with a match and being slowly roasted over hot coals.” Unfortunately, we didn’t know we should have taken the “slowly roasted over hot coals” part so literally.
As with any race, we began checking the weather a week before. Ideal temperatures would have been similar to last year’s – overcast and in the low 60’s. Unfortunately, the weather called for highs in the 80’s with clouds generously scattered throughout. As the race grew closer the forecast only got worse. It went from ‘mostly cloudy’ to ‘partly cloudy.’ By race day clouds weren’t expected at all.
Rachel had mentioned possibly postponing the race if the forecast called for high temperatures and no clouds. But, like with all the races before, we always seemed to get lucky when it came to the weather and it was hard for us to consider not running our first full marathon.
The heat is a formidable challenge. It is never to be taken for granted. We knew that if it were hot and sunny the chances of us finishing would diminish greatly. We also knew that there could possibly come a time when we would have to make a decision between running fast and focusing on our health. We told each other that if it was sunny and hot at the fork in the road for the half-marathon and marathon then we would just do the half. We really had no idea what was in store.
We awoke to overcast skies and fog. It seemed as though God had heard our prayers and given us nice race weather, or at least manageable weather. However, when we stepped outside the humidity engrossed our bodies like a hot blanket. It was also difficult to see in front of us because the fog was so thick you could cut it with a knife. It made the drive to the shuttle site problematic because we could only see about 20 yards in front of us.
When we arrived at the starting line it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement. Thousands of runners scurried across the streets wearing smiles and full of energy. It was the place where the hours of training and the hard work started to come into fruition and the goal that we worked so hard to accomplish was about to be realized. We were never really nervous, just ready to get started.
The fog began to lift and to our joy the clouds draped over the sky, shielding the rising sun. We had decided to start in corral 3 knowing full well that any later start could put us in jeopardy. Starting in corral 14 (our original assigned corral) would have likely led to us running in much warmer temperatures as the heat intensified during the later morning hours. We heard someone say at the starting line that the humidity was at 97%, which is difficult for any runner. This should have been a red flag to both of us to take it very slow in the beginning. However, because the clouds added the perfect disguise for what was to come, we figured we would be just fine.
We waited anxiously at the starting, eager to get moving. We knew that over 4 hours of running were in store. As we waited they handed out salt packets encouraging everyone to use them since the temperatures were expected to be so grueling. We obliged and both Rachel and I swallowed a packet. We also ate some chomps about 15 minutes before we started running.
The race announcer provided cautionary words to all the runners, “Do not, I repeat, do not try and PR on this course today! The weather is expected to be unusually warm. Please do not try and set a PR and take it slow and enjoy your run.” Our ears went up after hearing this. Rachel and I both looked at each other, but we knew we weren’t trying to get a PR. After all, it was our first full marathon so anything would be a PR. Plus, we had both agreed that we would take it easy and do our best to enjoy it. We had enjoyed all of our half-marathons and figured it would be the same type of experience, just a longer run.
I just want to say, a marathon is a hell, and I mean a hell of a lot longer than a half marathon. We would find that out the hard way. Even though we had trained and gotten up to 21 miles, it would prove to be the mind, and not the body, that would keep us moving. Before we knew it the race had started and we were running.
The First 9 Miles
As we started running people were passing us left and right. This was expected since we started in an earlier corral, which proved to be the best decision we would make during the whole marathon. Well, on second thought, the second best decision. It was extremely humid during the first few miles. I kept telling Rachel that the heat was unbearable. However, the lack of sun was a lifesaver.
At about mile 4 or 5 we ran into fellow blogger and friend, Brittny (www.marathonsweetheart.com) who was running in her fourth marathon. She agreed that the weather was ridiculous and already difficult, but she provided us with the much needed motivation to keep going. We got to run with her for about ½ a mile before pulling ahead. We were running slightly under 10 minutes a mile for the first probably 7 miles, doing our best to make the most of the cloudy skies. Our hope was that the clouds would remain for the duration of our run.
Rachel seemed extremely comfortable during the first half of the run. She didn’t seem fazed by the heat. I was already getting complications with my feet and left knee. I was afraid at one point that my runner’s knee was resurfacing. I started to have pain about the 8th mile, when it tightened, but I kept going, hoping it would subside. It would later prove to be the least of my worries.
The clouds were already starting to disperse and the sun, doing its best impersonation of a full moon, was faintly starting to poke through. We immediately started to worry that the temperature would rise quickly, but we figured the clouds would linger for at least half of the full marathon, if not more. We were wrong – very wrong! These are very strong words of caution, Never Assume!
10th to 17th Mile
As we made our way through the streets of San Antonio, sucking down the second of many GU Gel Paks, the sun began to really make its presence known. It rose in such a way that its ominous presence was impossible to miss. It seemed as though, in one breath, God blew the clouds away and the sun screamed out, “Good morning runners! Welcome to Hell!!!” In a matter of seconds there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a bright shade of blue and had this been any other day we would have said the weather was absolutely perfect. Unfortunately, we had a marathon to run and we weren’t even halfway done.
We approached the cutoff for the marathon and half-marathon and we knew it was our opportunity to forego the full, but the sun wasn’t beating down on us yet (pay attention to the word yet) and so we felt inspired to keep running. Plus, we had a lot of people counting on us, including Rachel’s mom (Brenda) who is suffering with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). We were running to raise money for the MDA in Dallas which provides services to those suffering with ALS and is helping to find a cure. It would prove to be what kept us going in the later miles.
At this point we were fully committed to completing the full marathon, or at least attempting. The stress of it all, compounded by fear, began to mount as we began to pull further away from the Alamodome (the finish line). As the half-marathoners were already making their way to the finish line – a route Rachel and I had run the year before – we were running out towards the San Antonio Missions and well away from finishing. Looking back and seeing the San Antonio Tower of the Americas growing smaller immediately began to play tricks with my mind. However, it wasn’t until we saw the 13.1 mile marker that we both realized what we had just gotten ourselves into. Another half-marathon had just begun.
We had made it through the first half (13.1 miles) in 2:12.27. We were still feeling comfortable, but the heat was beginning to take its toll. Somehow our legs were holding up and our minds were still focused on finishing. The sun was well above us at this point and I kept saying to Rachel, “We need clouds! It’s way too hot!” We began to slow our pace a bit, realizing that it would be difficult to maintain our pace if there was a possibility the sun was going to be out for the rest of the race. We had no idea it would be hitting us for all of it.
Unfortunately, with this race there were minimal trees or shade of any kind. We were running toward the outskirts of San Antonio where there would be no tall buildings to shield us. I had hope that once we reached the missions there would be trees lining the roads that would provide at least partial shade. However, I was wrong.
The sun would not relent and we literally began to feel like we were roasting. We were being pounded by the heat – hit, slapped, punched – but we kept running. “One foot in front of the other,” Rachel kept saying. And that’s what we kept doing.
At about mile 14 I stopped for a quick pee break. Hey, sometimes you just have to go. I had held it from the start and hoped it would just subside because I did not want to stop. I immediately tightened up in the port-o-potty and the heat contained inside it was unbearable. I felt dizzy and for a second believed I might pass out. But, I sprung out of there re-energized and determined to keep running. To our surprise, Brittny was just ahead of us. We wanted to catch up to her, but knew we shouldn’t exert ourselves, so we inched slowly forward. The sight of her made us motivated to keep going so we could run with her. I believe she reenergized us and when we caught her I told her, “We are so glad to see you. It helped keep us moving.” We got to talk to her for about a mile and it was nice to have a familiar face with us. She explained to us that it was important to keep our necks cool, because if it they got too hot it could cause problems. She advised us to take advantage of running through areas where water was being sprayed and use the sponges they handed out. Her words of advice proved to be extremely important. We then pulled ahead of her and continued running at a comfortable pace. But, the sun was becoming even more intense and the lack of shade was becoming increasingly problematic.
We passed by a couple of the missions and, to be honest, we didn’t even notice them. We were so worried about staying upright that the scenery became completely obsolete. There were also bands playing every now and then (of course, because it was the rock n roll marathon) but even they were somehow drowned out by the sun.
I remember mile 16 and a group of cheerleaders along the way screaming out, “just 10 miles to go!” I also remember turning to Rachel and saying, “Really, just 10!?! Oh my God, we’re almost done babies!” Then I remember Rachel saying, “It’s just like our training runs, just two big loops around and that’s all.” I was excited and then everything after that became a blur. We were running well, but the heat offered no reprieve. The water stations seemed further apart. We were getting low with the water and Cytomax in our belts as well. Every now and then we were pouring water on our necks or heads to stay cool. We also ate another Gel pak. I was growing weary and when I looked up to see the Alamodome miles and miles away, I had no idea how we would be able to run back in the heat of the sun. We would be basically running back the way we came. We saw the elite runners going the opposite direction before we arrived to the missions and even they looked weary. We heard some had even stopped running. It was obvious that there would really be no shade for the rest of the run.
Many runners around us were stopping. The heat was becoming way too much. Runners were cramping up, throwing up, and just plain quitting. We were 17 miles into the run and the sun was winning. Somehow we were still running, but I began to really feel the sun’s effects. We knew we were properly hydrated. We were drinking Cytomax, eating GU Paks and salt and spreading everything out evenly. But, even that couldn’t help us with the sun.
We crossed the 18th mile marker and even realizing we just had 8 miles to go wasn’t enough to keep our heads up. We were beat up. Our legs weren’t tired – sore – yes – hurting- yes –blistered – yes – but not tired. They just kept moving.
We began running uphill and the sun was to our backs. I had told Rachel that I thought once the sun was behind us it would be more bearable, but it wasn’t. It was actually worse. You could actually almost feel the heat strengthen. My neck was hot and I desperately tried throwing water on it to keep myself cool. In recollection, I should have put my shirt back on in order to shade my back from the sun and keep it moist. But, I am not sure that would have even helped.
Suddenly, everything began to get fuzzy and an important decision loomed. Should we stop running and walk, or should we just plain stop. I told Rachel I was starting to get really tired. It had hit me like a ton of bricks – perhaps the wall, but likely the heat. My body screamed out, I can keep going. But, my mind said, “Be smart. Is this worth dying for?” I immediately turned to Rachel and said, “I’m getting tired. I will have to walk soon. I’m getting dizzy.” She turned quickly and said, “You want to stop now?” I barked back, “No, not now! No, we have to keep running!” After saying it a knot formed in my throat and I nearly threw up. The people before us became blurry. Within seconds we were walking. I had made the decision to walk in order to preserve that last bit of energy I had. I kept saying to Rachel, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to walk. I’m sorry. I know we can keep going.” She responded, “Are you kidding. It’s hot. Everyone is stopping. It’s hot out here.” Caught in a daze and nearly delirious from the sun, I said what no marathoner ever wants to say, “I can’t finish. I can’t make it. There’s no way I can keep going.” I didn’t know what had happened. The sun was baking us, and apparently it was baking my mind. Usually I kept Rachel going. But, here was the love my life, my fiancé, my future wife saying, “We can make it together. We can do this one step at a time.” There we were, together. My angel beside me, smiling, pushing me forward, telling me everything was going to be ok. Her face lit underneath her cap like a beacon of hope. I knew if I followed her, if I just kept moving that maybe, just maybe finishing was possible. “No apologies,” she said, “Let’s just do what we can.” So, we kept walking quickly. I don’t know how, but we kept moving.
Seconds later Brittny came running by and screamed out, “Do it for Brenda! (Rachel’s Mom)” I told Rachel that I didn’t want to let anyone down and that I wanted to finish the race if we could. I thought about all the donations we received (www.joinmda.org/runforals/raulrach) and about how last year at this time her mom could still walk and now she couldn’t even stand and barely talk. I thought about the gift of life and how nothing is impossible if you just set your mind to it.
Never push yourself too far. If you feel what I felt…stop. The sun is no joke and heat exhaustion is extremely dangerous. It was important for me to let my body cool down and return to a good temperature to move forward. There’s a difference between your body and your mind shutting down. At this point I knew it wasn’t just my mind, but my body wanting to stop and so I walked. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made. I really don’t want to think about what could have happened if I didn’t allow myself to slow down, regain my energy and focus. I am lucky I had Rachel there to ensure I didn’t push too much.
When we reached the 19th mile I was still desperately trying to come down from the heat. It was still to our backs. My mind felt like it could possibly run, but my body was screaming for shade. At this point I just wanted to cool down. Luckily, and by the grace of God, mile 19 had a cooling station (buses with air condition)!! We had no idea it was the last cooling station before the end. We had seen them a few miles before and heard someone say they had bottles of cold Gatorade inside them. I nearly told Rachel that we should keep going when we reached the mile 19 one, but we decided to stop. It was next to a medic station and I thought that if the cooling station didn’t help I would have them check me out before continuing. We went in quickly, not wanting to slow our pace. The air condition, although not extremely cold, was welcoming. The instant shade cooled my body almost instantly. The dizziness disappeared. We drank Gatorade and filled our own water bottles with the rest that we didn’t drink. It really seemed to energize us and after being in there for two minutes or less we were out walking again. I thank God for this station, because I believe it saved our run. We had no idea it was the last cooling station and I will always praise God for helping us decide to start walking before this station. Our original plan was not to walk until mile 21 or 22.
Miles 19 to 22
Once we stepped out of the cooling station we immediately began a quick walk. We drank more Gatorade and were off. I passed the medic station and noticed it was full of people, but I walked by it feeling as though my body could keep going. My mind said, “We can do this,” and my body said, “Sure, I guess we can.” Luckily, a bridge was over us at this point and we knew it was the perfect time to start running. I don’t know how we started running again, but we did. I remember feeling nauseous after we started, but it was because I was full of Gatorade. I let out a loud burp and suddenly felt better (I said excuse me). The burp was unexpected but made me feel much better.
We actually ran at a really great pace from then on. Shortly after we started running we encountered some hills, which were unexpected. We were able to make it up them, although we noticed lots of people stopping. Many were cramping up or quitting the race entirely. As I said, the sun was no joke.
We ran for the next two miles, doing our best to stay upright. At this point Rachel began to get tired from the heat as well. I remember her saying, “There’s just no reprieve!” We also talked to a few runners along the way. We talked to this one girl who described the run as “Stupid hot.” I remember saying, “That is the best way to put it.” She was just as tired as us, but she kept going and so did we.
We also talked to another girl who was running her first marathon as well. We were saying that we knew this wasn’t what a first marathon was supposed to be like. She had run the San Antonio Rock n Roll Half Marathon the year before like us and loved it. “The weather,” she said, “was perfect last year.” We heartedly agreed and reminisced for two seconds. We told her we had to walk for a little less than mile and she said, “Are you kidding, so did I. I think everyone has had to. So many people have already dropped out.” Within a minute she started walking and we never saw her again. After that another girl was running behind us telling someone else that she had run lots of marathons but none as hard as this. She said the weather was just too hot and every single time she started to pick up her speed she started throwing up. We were happy we hadn’t gotten to that point! Before we knew it we had pulled ahead and never saw her again either.
Miles 23 to 24
I remember seeing the 23 mile marker knowing we were almost done. A 5K was nothing to us, at least we thought. I told Rachel that we could actually finish the marathon in 4 hours and 35 minutes if we ran a 10 minute mile the rest of the way. But, we both knew that with the sun beating us down it was likely impossible. It was a nice thought. At mile 23 we knew it was time to walk again and regain our energy in order to finish strong. At this point we thought we would finish at maybe a 12 – 15 minute mile for the whole race. We had no idea how fast we had been going.
There comes a point in a marathon when even the crowd becomes obsolete. You can hear them screaming, but it doesn’t mean anything. You hear things like, just 3 miles to go, but it sounds like 10. That feeling you get in a half marathon, where you know you got it and push yourself to go faster at the end, becomes an afterthought.
The bands played, but they were just noise. It was just us and the road ahead. It was us pushing through and battling. It wasn’t really us against the run anymore. It really became us against the sun – that evil evil sun. It must have been what hell feels like.
I remember we were running next to another woman at this point who was telling us how hot the sun was and how miserable the run had been. About this time an older woman in the crowd screamed out, “Come on, just keep running. It’s not so hard.” The woman running with us said, “Oh my God, she has no idea how hard this is. It’s easier to say it when you’re just watching.” I guess there comes a time in a marathon when the crowd just doesn’t make sense anymore. But, I will say, I could never make it without them. I could never make it without the high fives and the smiles. As much as it becomes unnoticed towards the end, it’s in the middle that it’s most important. I am very grateful to everyone that cheers any runner on. In the end it means so much.
Halfway through mile 23 we were running again. Time suddenly became a factor and we wanted nothing more than to finish under 5 hours. For our first marathon, in this kind of heat, with the unrelenting sun, it would be a true accomplishment. So we ran and we fought.
Mile 25 to 25.5
At this point we knew we were almost done, but we honestly still didn’t know if we could finish. I could see on Rachel’s face that she was tired. We began to walk, still fighting the sun with little to no shade. Our feet were blistered. I didn’t even know how we were still going. Every step hurt. Every part of our legs ached, but we knew that we wanted to finish and finish strong. We walked to gain energy again and allow our bodies to cool down. We poured water on our backs and head and let our bodies regain strength.
Hand In Hand To The Finish Line
We started running again a little after 25.5 miles. By this time many people had stopped and quit. There were people still pulling over to the side, nearly falling over from the heat. You would think so close to the finish it would be no problem. But, in a run like this, when the sun is beating down and you have been running for so long, your mind wants nothing more than to quit. It doesn’t care that there are people cheering. It doesn’t care that the finish line is minutes away. All it cares about is stopping. It worries not about finishing. It worries not about failing or succeeding. And thus, it is you who decides how strong you are and, putting your health at the forefront, if finishing is indeed possible. Luckily for us, it was.
We ran, not too fast, but we ran. I don’t know how, but we did. I looked down at my watch and realized we could actually finish under 4 hours and 50 minutes! Even after all we had been through, it was still possible!?! There were patches of shade toward the end that helped move us along.
We were about a ½ mile away when an ambulance appeared before us. A woman and man had succumbed to heat and fell over close to the finish line. Believe it or not, people were still stopping. I am not talking stopping to walk. I mean completely stopping. Unfortunately, this race ended with a huge hill, which is really cruel, especially on a day like this. Realizing the hill was approaching and being in full sun again at this point, Rachel and I walked to gain momentum to get up the hill and finish strong. We still didn’t know if we could finish and that was scary. Normally the end of a run was when we were overjoyed and we would throw everything aside to finish strong. But, on this day, we just wanted nothing more than to finish.
Before the second to last turn we started running, grabbing each other’s hands. We became one, feeding off each other’s strengths and casting aside our weaknesses. The crowds cheered, if there were any, because to us they were non-existent.
We made the turn and began our ascent up the hill. I was feeling weak. Rachel was feeling weak. But, we kept moving. I thought I was going to throw up from exhaustion. I was tired but I wanted to finish. She went faster. Then, she went even faster. I had no idea where the energy was coming from, but it fueled me as well. Normally I was the one going faster and faster. But, there was my future wife, the one who had picked me up when I was down, carrying me to the finish.
I remember the finish line vaguely. I remember people cheering I think, but all we were focused on was the finish line. We just wanted to cross it. We didn’t know what would happen when we did, but we didn’t care. We had to finish. Hours before I was looking at the Alamodome from miles away wondering how finishing would ever be possible. Suddenly, there we were crossing the finish line – hand in hand – together.
To describe the feelings of finishing our first marathon is impossible. I know for us it was filled with relief. Honestly, it was relief that we made it alive. After seeing what we saw along the way, with runners going down everywhere and people stopping, we just felt lucky to have finished at all. The finish resembled nothing we were used to. Usually there is excitement and lots of joy, but the sun had zapped much of it. We would best describe the post-race area as a civil war battlefield. People were lying on the ground, trying to recover. People were seeking what little shade could be found. Most of the food was gone, except for bagels, fritos and apples, which I would say wasn’t enough. There were no more fruit cups, nor were there marathon bars or bananas. Most had been eaten by the half marathoners, which was understandable. But, being that there were still 2400 runners behind us it was surprising.
It took us a long time to come down after the race. I would say a good 24 hours. But, I think the heat played a huge part in that. I don’t think it hit us that we finished a full marathon until late Monday. We had gotten spoiled from our half marathon runs since they were never really as hard as we expected. I think we were waiting for that, “that wasn’t so hard” moment that never came. I think this quote from Bill Rodgers best describes our feelings afterward, “The marathon can humble you.” Humble us it did. We found out that no matter how prepared we thought we were a marathon run can throw curve balls at you. We just had to find a way to adjust. Now, I would say that we are completely humbled and extremely proud of our accomplishment. It was literally the hardest thing any of us has ever done.
This quote made both of us feel better, because we thought we weren’t normal for feeling what we felt after our first full marathon…
Rob de Castella, winner 1983 World Marathon Championships:
“If you feel bad at 10 miles, you’re in trouble. If you feel bad at 20 miles, you’re normal. If you don’t feel bad at 26 miles, you’re abnormal.”
That quote is so true. We definitely didn’t feel bad at 10 miles. At 20 miles we definitely felt bad and at 26 we became absolutely normal. We are very proud of our accomplishment and we both feel like nothing is impossible now.
We finished our run in 4:49:34. It was a pace of 11 minutes and 3 seconds a mile. We finished 1633 and 1634 out of 4040 runners in the marathon!! We don’t know how we finished as well as we did considering how hot it was!!
Here is the breakdown of our first full marathon run.
|Pace||2.9 Mi||10 Km||7.9 Mi||10 Mi||Half||17 Mile||20 Mile||ChipTime||ClockTime|
The Front Page Paper The Day After The San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon
As I said before, running in the heat is no joke. 48 people were taken to area hospitals and one man died. The man that died was only 32 years old (my age) and collapsed after finishing the half marathon. He was in perfectly good health and had run races before. The cause of death wasn’t known, but they are sure the heat played a role. I ask that you pray for him and his family.
The Cautionary Tale
I think it’s important to note that if you plan on running a marathon make sure you train correctly and listen to your body. If anything, this run proved to us that no matter how hard you train nothing can prepare you for the extreme conditions that we faced. It wasn’t just that the humidity was high, but also that the sun itself was beating on us for almost four hours of our run. Please stay hydrated and make sure you take advantage of products like the GU Gel Paks or chomps. I definitely think they helped us on our run. We also ran with the water belts we trained in, which I think were lifesavers for us. We were able to pour water on our backs when no water stations were around and drink when we were thirsty. Plus, we had chomps and gel paks in our pouches in case we missed them along the way.
Just remember to always listen to your body. I really feel that if I wouldn’t have stopped and walked something horrible could have happened. If you feel faint or anything of the sort, stop and walk, it’s ok. Put your health before your time, because it’s just not worth it. Don’t ever expect to run the same speed that you are used to if the temperature is warmer than normal. Your body reacts differently to the heat. You may be able to keep running, but just pace yourself to ensure you never overexert yourself in warm temperatures. I have never seen so many people drop out of a race, nor have I ever seen so many people stop. I just want people to know that marathon running isn’t expected to be easy so do not push yourself too hard.
Would We Run Another Full Marathon Again?
After the race both of us said we would never, ever run a marathon again. Then, 24 hours passed and our bodies began to feel normal again, sans the extreme soreness. And, I remembered a quote from the 1972 Olympic Marathon Gold Medalist, Frank Shorter who said, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” I guess our minds already forgot, because we are determined to run another marathon. We are going to beat this time, but it will have to be in much better weather. If the weather is expected to be 75 or above and no clouds, well, we will just wait for the next one. The great thing is…we can now say we are marathoners and I can scratch that off my bucket list.