For the marathon runner, few weeks are so humbling as those just before the big day. Gmail transforms into an archive of emails from race organizers that are hollow in their insistence that “all the hay is in the barn.” Some serve as eager countdowns of the hours, ever dwindling, to “victory day.” One event sponsor, touting a certain runner-friendly brand of parmesan cheese, assured me that “race day will be even more exciting than you imagined.” For most, the messages are cheerful assurances that the marathon will be a celebration of months of diligent training. For me, they were calling shenanigans. I was unprepared, and growing profoundly worried. The race was starting to feel less like a party, and more like a standardized test. One that I’d spent all fall pretending I wasn’t going to take.
The six months since I signed up for the race had been a case study in chaos. I landed a new job. I hurdled time zones in a series of unplanned trips. And I consistently fell prey to an entrenched lack of self-discipline, most problematically around heeding the note I taped above my alarm clock, which in reference to my goal marathon time sternly read, “2:59, get up now!” I chose to believe that the frequency of these events meant that my life was dynamic (rather than unstable). But at this point, their frequency had also led me to question my ability to achieve my goals.
I was concerned that my hay was not in fact in my barn. I was quickly redefining the normally straightforward term “victory.” And I realized I had not been imagining the race much at all, nor was I poised to produce any results that would approach qualifying as exciting.
The emails were resolute in their chipper goodwill, and they mocked me. I had signed up for the race brimming with ambition, trying to break a major threshold — three hours. Now I would have to count less on physical preparation than on an essentially baseless but still very strong desire not to fail. The barrage did have one salient message — there was nothing else that could be done. Like any standardized test, cramming rarely delivers. It was time for the taper.
With steadfast determination, I focused on the taper’s holy trinity: eat more, run a lot less, and sleep. I was bringing my A-game to all three.
Eating a diet almost entirely devoid of protein is more or less a lifestyle for me, but I ramped up the carb-loading effort in honor of the week. With an eye toward ingredients both local and seasonal, I picked up a couple of bags of candy corn at my neighborhood CVS on my way home from work. Corn syrup would do nutritional double duty as both vegetable and grain group that night.
Running less was no problem at all, even if the reduced mileage routine too closely resembled the peak of my training. Sleep was the greatest challenge — I am generally a non-sleeper, except when facing off with a snooze button — but I resolved to persevere. I relied on a trick I learned as a young runner in high school. As we prepared for our state championships, my older teammates shared a secret they called, with disarming accuracy, “the night before the night before.” It was simple: sleep well two nights before a race, and erase all the misdeeds of the previous several months: salvation in a convenient one-off, eight-hour interval. I believed fervently in the redemptive powers of the night before the night before.
I also spent the week stoically avoiding alcohol and drinking a lot of water.
My relationship with hydration is a fraught one. Shortly after I encountered the searing logic of the “night before the night before” aphorism, my track coach, a geyser of energetic authority whose commands I interpreted as though inscribed on stone tablets and posted on a mountain, gathered us just before that same championship race. “From now on,” she told us, “I want you to go home and drink two gallons of water every day.” I had not yet discovered my tone deafness for exaggeration, let alone my profound aversion to moderation. Her words echoed in my mind: “Hydration is the key to victory.”
So I arrived home from practice at 9 p.m., asked my mother for an old gallon milk jug that was waiting for its trip to the recycling facility, rinsed the old flakes of milk from inside, filled it to the brim at the kitchen sink and set it down on the table with a glass. I proceeded to spend the next hour drinking that gallon of water, and then another, until tears started to stream down my face all on their own and I had to visually connect the action of swallowing the final few drops with crossing the finish line of the very significant-seeming state of Rhode Island’s 1,500-meter run in first place. Then I bolted for the bathroom, stopped myself from vomiting, and went upstairs to do my math homework.
I didn’t win the state meet that year, but I did learn an important lesson about taking things too literally, and maybe about trying too hard.
I would not make the same mistake again. These days when I train I abstain from drinking water under the masochistic and also likely wrong theory that doing so amplifies the water’s potency during the race itself. But otherwise, generally, I aim for moderation.
Soon, the night before the night before had come and gone, and it was time to visit the race expo. If you’re ready for the race, the expo is inspiring, a final rousing send-off to the starting line. If you’re not, it serves more as a requiem for regret. But really it’s a celebration of all things running-related. Other people’s sports heroes are Michael Jordan and David Beckham, maybe Tiger Woods before he got into trouble with cocktail waitresses. Mine is Bart Yasso, inventor of my favorite Kill Me Now workout, which involves 32 laps around a track. And he would be there.
After waiting in line to get inside, I asked the eager looking woman who greeted me where to get my number.
“You can head to the ‘Local Competitive’ line,” she told me.
I followed her directions, feeling a bit like a fraud but also, momentarily, like a celebrity. For the next 24 hours, “Local Competitive” would be my new rallying cry.
Then I started to navigate the retail section, which was a gauntlet of free samples. I ordinarily am a free sample enthusiast, but something about the marathon tends to encourage behavior more common in locusts. A humming throng, five bodies deep in every direction, had gathered around the Poland Spring booth. I walked up to see what they were after, and discovered that everyone was, in fact, eagerly consuming little paper shots filled with water.
I stepped around them—forget scavenging, I was there to invest in a few critical resources. Before the race I like to eat my trifecta for success: a Powerbar, a banana, and a bottle of green juice. New York City now faces a major shortage of the former, which correlates to the gradual discovery that they are incompatible with the low-carb lifestyle embraced by so many here. The expo’s reserve (strawberry banana, peanut chocolate blast) was abundant, and essential. Others clearly felt the same: next to me, other runners were carefully fondling a selection of energy gels. If we were all doing it, it couldn’t be that weird. I paid for my Powerbar.
My other big splurge was $12 on special anti-chafe ointment, which I picked up mindful of my skin’s post-race tendency to look like someone ran over it with a vegetable peeler. At the checkout line, the woman scanning my ointment looked at me and smiled.
“Congratulations,” she said. “You’re a hero.”
She might as well have been reading from my Gmail inbox. I told myself that even if I had failed to train, I was crushing the taper, smiled weakly, and left. I wished I had trained for this race.
As the night before the night before melted into the even more aptly named night before, which is so obviously important as not to merit special consideration, I knew there was nothing else I could do.
I went for my last run, light and contemplative, more ceremony than anything else, and thought of the Last Supper. I dwelled on the crucifixion that awaited me the next day, long and painfully slow. And then I resolved to face it. “The hay is in the barn,” I told myself. In the early morning sunlight, so prophetic of good tidings, I almost believed it were true.
I headed back and did what I do in any high-stress, low-preparation situation: I made a list. I whipped out my Five Star notebook, which usually serves as a rather dull record of things that I do everyday, written simply for the satisfaction of crossing them off (run 10 miles, shower, cook dinner). In this case, it would be a list of things to bring to the race, which was now in 13 hours. Staring at the blank sheet of paper, I could feel the alarm mounting and I knew I needed to fill it. “Marker,” I wrote, and then felt the alarm mount more. It was mounting uncontrollably. I did want to bring a marker to write my name on myself so people would cheer for me, but surely there were more pressing priorities. I collected my thoughts and filled part of the page:
- 2 drinks
- warm top
- warm bottom
- bobby pin
- 3 elastics (braid)
- pace chart
Then I stopped. It was sobering — there was essentially nothing to bring. All I really had to get me through the race were my legs. I gathered together the reinforcements and put them in a small pile in the corner of my bedroom. Then I thought twice and added a pink polka-dotted thermos my roommate gave me for Christmas the year prior. Ready to go.
I wasn’t sure what tea to pick for the thermos so I chose the orange-colored one. I inspected the label. “Imagine the invigorating bite of a sweet orange in a market in Marrakesh and you get some sense of the taste of Tazo Wild Sweet Orange Tea,” it read. I couldn’t think of anything more different from the harsh SAT testing facility that had been supplanting the marathon in my mind than a Moroccan orange market. Maybe this was just what I needed.
I applied the chafing cream I’d picked up earlier and immediately regretted it. It felt slippery and alkaline, like Desitin, the pasty ointment I used to put on my baby brothers to treat their diaper rashes. I tried to stifle the thoughts of full circle that were percolating.
I looked at my reinforcements, from the hair elastics to the thermos, and again strove to replace skepticism with enthusiasm, confidence, and hope. I especially hoped they were enough to avoid another Mile 24 with the last few lines of The Hollow Men on mental repeat, as has befallen me at that point before, which is typically when things fall apart. (“This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper”…). T.S. Eliot would not get me this time — nor, for that matter, would Mr. Achebe. Whimper or bang, no matter what, I would finish.
What choice did I have? That’s what heroes do.
Photo by Lisa Larsson