Somewhere between Capitol Hill and East Potomac Park, the character of the Marine Corps Marathon began to change. Even the spectators could sense it.
As we turned the corner of First and D Streets SE, the 14-mile mark, onlookers applauded us and shouted positive encouragement.
"You're looking good!"
"Go, Saratoga!" (An allusion to my T-shirt).
But by the time we had passed the 19-mile point and approached Hains Point, the spectator's cheers had changed to pessimistic exhortations.
"Hang in there!"
"you can do it!"
"Don't give up now!"
For the runners who had been athletes at some times in their lives, this crowd reaction was no novelty. But it was the prospect of having thousands of people cheer me to run 26 miles, 358 yards.
I was not attracted to running by any desire for spiritual uplift; my motivation was pure Walter Mittyism. I never had been a jock, never pos-jump shot to be even a third-string sessed a good enough fast ball or high school athlete. My enjoyment of sports had always been strictly vicarious. But now, for the first time in 34 years I was learning what it was like to train seriously for an athlete event.
I plotted my training schedule as meticulously as a horseman plans for the Kentucky Derby, right down to the details of my food consumption the day before the race. (Pancakes, fruit, yogurt, spaghetti, beeer). And I learned why horsemen get so apprehensive in the final days before the Derby, knowing that one minor illness or slightly misstep could undo months of preparation.
I worried every time I felt a twinge in my knee or an ache in my metatarsal. I panicked during one of my final training runs along the C&O Canal towpath when a 7-year-old bycyclist, his eyes fixed on the ground, came straight at me. I did the only thing I could. I knocked him over.
Nothing was going to stop me from starting and finishing the Marine Corps Marathon. And at the 14-mile mark, I felt that nothing could. Most of the runners around me, traveling at an 8-minute-per-mile pace, seemed to share the same sense of confidence. We had worked out the early race kinks and tightness, but had not yet begun to experience late race fatigue. As we headed down Independence Avenue, we felt as if we could go on forever.
In our high spirits we were still chatting, swapping stories and advice. ("When you start hurting," one companion advised me, "try reciting poetry. That helped get through the Boston Marathon with a blood blister.")
By the time we were approaching the 20-mile mark, I noticed vaguely that the chatter and banter had largely ceased, that most of the runners were now fighting their own private battles. I no longer had the energy to look at the scenery or the specators or even the other runners. I could only concentrate on the pavement and my stopwatch and the mile-posts.
When I reached the 20-mile sign, having maintained my eight-minute-a-mile pace, I remember the cliche that this is the point where a marathon really begins.
I would prefer to forget everything that happened in the next hour: the fatigue, the cramps, the blurred vision, the near-delirium, the near-collapse after the finish line and all the other travails that marathon romanticists say are so character-building. I would rather just remember running through Capitol Hill in the sunshine, with the people applauding and shouting, "You're looking good!"