I take something away from every marathon that I am involved in and the 2010 Nike Women’s Marathon was no different. I was once again honored to be a coach with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. On October 15, 2010, I traveled with the Central Ohio Chapter to San Francisco. This small team became very close over the course of training and fundraising together and with a mix of TNT alumni and first timers, they were all ready to have a great time and were taking pictures before the plane even left the ground in Columbus.
On Saturday evening, more than 2000 TNT participants and their guests gathered at the Moscone Center in San Francisco for a pasta party. The TNT staff and coaches arrived early to form a “red carpet” to welcome all of the athletes. From the time the first participant walks in, the staff and coaches go wild! We are waving, cheering, clapping, ringing cow bells, whistling and making as much noise as possible until the very last person comes in the door. After more than 45 minutes of non-stop noise, everyone was sitting down, loading up on carbs from the pasta buffet while Joan Benoit-Samuelson welcomed everyone. Joan was the winner of the first women’s Olympic marathon in the 80s. It’s pretty amazing to think that it wasn’t that long ago when women weren’t even allowed to enter marathons and there we were, the night before a marathon that celebrates women in sports. There were more than 30,000 women entered in the race and only about 1,000 men!
John “The Penguin” Bingham was the master of ceremonies for the evening and has been such a great friend of Team in Training over the years. Not only does he support the cause and provides unlimited amounts of encouragement for the participants but he also openly celebrates the “back of the pack.” He is the most famous runner to have never won a race. He is a slow runner that fully supports the slower runners and walkers. He got everyone laughing and relaxed. The alumni in the room laugh at his stories because they can relate and the first timers laugh because they don’t know any better!
After the pasta party and our team had returned to the hotel for the night, we had a short meeting to go over last minute instructions and to take a few minutes to remember why we were there. Each team has a team captain that helps the participants with their fundraising. They are essentially the fundraising coach. Ann, the Nike team captain also happens to be the mother of a cancer survivor. Her son, Parker, served as inspiration for our team. He survived his battle because of the efforts of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. One of our other honored team heroes was Christa. While Christa wasn’t out in San Francisco with us, we were thinking about her. Christa was back in Columbus, preparing for the Columbus Marathon, which was the same day as the Nike Women’s Marathon. Not only is she a cancer survivor, she is also a TNT alumni!
On race morning, Sunday, October 17, 2010, I woke up at 4:00 am to go through my race morning rituals (yes, even when I coach, I go through all of the same steps as if I was actually racing) before meeting two of our walkers. The Nike race offers an early start for those needing more time to complete the race. Luckily the start line was literally right outside of our hotel and with the difference in time zones, the 4:45 am meeting time wasn’t that bad.
I walked the first 5 miles with one of the Central Ohio participants and then started to walk backwards on the course to support some of the other participants that did the early start. An hour and a half after I started, the regular start participants (including the elite runners) started to pass by. I was able to locate most of the Central Ohio participants somewhere between miles 3 and 5 but I still missed a couple because it’s hard to pick people out of the sea of purple. They all start to look alike as all 2000+ ran and walked by! As a coach, everyone in a purple TNT shirt is on our team so we are out there for everyone, not just the people from your own chapter. TNT has chapters located all over the country, including Puerto Rico and even a few chapters in Canada. That also means that I ran and walked miles 3-5 over and over as I jumped on and off the course to support my teammates.
Once the last TNT participant got to mile 5, I needed to find a way to get out in front of the runners so that I could try to see the Central Ohio participants again. Being a VERY slow runner and being on a race course that starts and finishes in different locations and doesn’t offer many opportunities to easily cut the course made this a challenge to say the least. The day before, I met with a coach from the local San Francisco chapter, who gave me some general instructions for taking a city bus and a train to get out to mile 13 of the half marathon (yes, right before the finish line), which was also about mile 16 and 24 of the full marathon. Luckily there were some police officers near mile 5 that were controlling traffic for the race so they were able to assist in getting me to the correct bus and train stops. Being from a city that loves their cars and doesn’t offer much public transportation, it was a little intimidating. It took a good ½ hour but I made it to my intended destination. I did get a few curious stares and one woman asked if I was cheating. I tend to forget that I am wearing a headband that lights up and that I’m wearing all my race gear, including a Fuel Belt and a race bib. Luckily instead of a race number, the bib said COACH, so I was able to confidently tell her that I wasn’t actually IN the race and pulling a “Rosie.”
I made it just in time to catch the half marathoners that did the regular start (the early start people had already finished by the time I got there) so I was able to run and walk in with a couple of them. I was right at the point where they turned a corner and got their first glimpse of the finish line. Some of them cry, some cheer out with joy and others groan because that tenth of a mile remaining can still seem really far after a difficult race. This usually when I yell out that I am proud of them (which I always am!) and then I jump off the course and let them have their moment as they enter the finish chute and cross the finish line.
While most of our team was now finished, there were still four Central Ohio participants that had a whole lot of race left. I saw two of them around mile 16 and they were still smiling at that point. Once I gave them some encouraging words (at least I hope they felt encouraged!), I jumped off the course again to continue to support the other TNT participants.
I have to mention that by this point, the weather went from cold and cloudy to cold, cloudy, windy and wet. It started to pour. This portion of the race is along the Great Highway, which is only about 50 yards from the Pacific Ocean. While the ocean is a beautiful thing (especially to someone from the Midwest!), it provided a backdrop for some really nasty weather. I thought I had learned my lesson after coaching this race in 2008 and was miserable for most of the race because I was not dressed appropriately (it was cold and damp that year). I brought along pants, a long sleeved shirt, gloves and a jacket this year…and I needed all of it! I wore everything that I brought with me but because of the rain and wind (and all the stopping and starting), I still ended up freezing.
Just as it started to pour is when I recognized a face. A woman was almost to mile 16 and was walking. While I didn’t know her personally, I recognized the look on her face. It was a combination of fear, desperation and the brink of tears. I jumped out with her and asked how she was doing. That was all she needed for the tears to start. Those that know me well, know that I HATE rain. So while I sort of wanted to cry from the weather, I knew that this woman needed me in that moment. She was looking for her own coach but hadn’t seen him yet. I told her that I would be her own personal coach for as long as she needed. She appeared to be physically fine and was still maintaining a good pace but emotionally, she was exhausted. I pulled out everything I could think of to distract her. I shared my story of how I got involved in TNT, I told her where I was from, I told her that I tend to cry and curse under my breath from miles 19-22 of a full marathon, I told her that I finished next to last in a triathlon over the summer but I still finished. Once she stopped crying and hyperventilating, I asked her about her story and why she was doing TNT. She started to calm down and even started to smile. I spent about 2.5 miles with her before she found another coach from her local chapter that she recognized (some of the chapters are so large that they send multiple coaches). I jumped back off the course and cut across the road, which was near mile 24. I’ve experienced situations like that before and sometimes I never see the person again and sometimes I don’t even know if they finish the race. This time around though, I happened to see this woman again in the finishers’ tent, showing off her brand new finisher’s necklace to her teammates. She had made it!
There were over 200 Team in Training coaches out on the course and being as experienced as we are, we know where people need us…such as mile 24. The course was filled with TNT coaches running and walking both towards the finish line and backwards on the course to try to find all of our participants. When our first full marathoner, John, reached mile 24, I was soaking wet and freezing. Of course you can’t let on that you are miserable, because they are at mile 24 of a full marathon!! I jumped out onto the course and did my best to keep up with John, who happens to be over a foot taller than me and a natural runner. It worked out well though. John had let me know that he would not be wearing his hearing aid during the race so he may have trouble hearing me unless he could read my lips. Well, my short legs were working double time to try to keep up with him. I was doing all I could to stay next to him and not fall behind him so I could still at least turn my heard towards him while I gave him some encouragement. He was still maintaining a pretty impressive pace (a good 3 minutes faster per mile that I normally average) so it sort of felt like he was encouraging me instead of the other way around! I also started to gasp for air (it’s probably a good thing he couldn’t hear that!) so I gave him a thumbs up as we passed the 25 mile marker and he was off to cross the finish line of his first full marathon.
I still had three more participants out on the course. Two of them I had missed at every other point in the race so I was anxious to see them. Ann and Gwen are both alumni and I knew they were together so I wasn’t too worried but I really wanted to see both of them. When they finally got to mile 25, they forced out some smiles but I knew they were over it. I recognized the look on their faces that they just wanted the race to be over. I started to run with them and chatted with them but they weren’t having it. They weren’t really in a chatting mood so I just did my best to keep them moving forward and tried to distract their minds from what there bodies were trying to tell them. It was helpful that a spectator on the side of the road suddenly got on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend, a TNT participant who was just about to finish. Being girls, all three of us let out a collective “awwww!” and may have teared up a little. I may have teared up because it was sweet. Ann and Gwen may have teared up because they wanted to be done but being marathoners, we kept moving forward. When we got to the 26 mile marker, I told them I was proud of them and reminded Ann to think of her son, Parker. Ann had shared with our team that she sometimes tends to think of everyone other than her son when she is involved with TNT because she doesn’t always identify herself as the mom of a cancer survivor, as if it is still surreal for her. Ann and I exchanged a hug (Yes, you can still hug while running! We are that good!) and they were off for what were probably the longest two tenths of a mile they have ever run! It was Ann’s first full marathon and it was such an honor to be a part of that moment with her!
The rain was sort of intermittent but I swear the temperatures kept dropping as I waited for our last participant. Lucky for me, our only full marathon walker was insanely fast. Lisa’s goal was to finish the full marathon in less than six hours. I’ll remind you that my full marathon PR is 6:46. That means that when I saw her back near mile 25, I had to run to keep up with her. She was all smiles, even after all those miles! I usually ask the last participant if they want me to cross the finish line with them or if they would prefer to enjoy the moment on their own. It’s usually 50/50 but Lisa didn’t mind so I dodged the puddles as we ran into the finish chute and crossed the finish line together. A challenging race full of hills, wind and rain is made worth it by the finish line, especially at Nike. There are firemen wearing tuxedos lined up at the finish line, each holding a silver platter with little blue Tiffany’s boxes. Instead of a big medal, finishers all get a Tiffany necklace. Unfortunately, coaches aren’t allowed to take a necklace so I took a photo of one of the firemen picking Lisa up to show off her brand new necklace and a new personal record.
My poor light up antennae that I wear to races that I coach have had a rough year. First the non-stop rain at the Cap City 1/2 Marathon in May and now the rain filled Nike Women's Marathon. But they still are flashing!
Despite the weather, it was a great race. All of our Central Ohio participants crossed the finish line and I felt so honored to be a part of this wonderful event and a part of our team’s Nike Marathon experience. At the end of the day, I know that I covered at least 20 miles and the next day, as we headed to the airport to make our way east, I could feel every single one of those miles. It has been a really long time since I have covered that many miles (and the first time I’ve ever run so fast. Thanks, John!), so I was pretty sore. And naturally, my first thought when I woke up sore the morning after the race was, “holy crap, what was I thinking signing up for the Goofy Challenge??”
So what did I take away from this race? Marathoners are some of the toughest athletes in the world. Sure, only one person can win and there are lost of intense sports out there but marathoners have more mental and emotional endurance than any other athlete that I can think of. I took away that TNT participants are some of the most caring individuals in the world even though I have known this for years. I took away that I am absolutely nuts for signing up for the Goofy Challenge but TNT has trained me emotionally for this race and now it’s just up to me to train for the physical aspect.