Race report: I ran a marathon in the Bahamas and all I got was this lousy PR
How does one find themselves at the starting line of a marathon in downtown Nassau? Well, if you are us, it’s because you got a Groupon for a discounted marathon entry fee several months earlier, you looked at each other and you said, “That sounds like fun!” The few dollars we saved on the entry fee quickly disappeared for things like plane tickets and lodging, and in my case, a passport that reflected my married name, but it didn’t matter because, hey, we were going to the Bahamas!
There were other reasons why we chose this one as well. I liked the fact that it was scheduled in January, which meant I might get a chance at completing a full marathon training cycle without being interrupted by seasonal spring allergies. The course seemed reasonably flat, and if the weather was anything like Florida, there was a solid chance we’d have good temperatures on race day. So we signed up, and I began training with the stated goal of not just besting my Big Sur International Marathon finishing time of 4:18, but breaking that elusive four-hour mark.
I could write a lot about my personal experience of the Bahamas, but because this is a blog post and not a novel, I’ll refrain. I liked it there very much, although it reminded me in many ways of a British-tinted Florida. Neither Brian nor myself is all that into doing the standard tourist thing, so we rented an adorable little guest cottage from a couple who lives in Coral Harbor (and by the way, I highly recommend this if you ever go – here’s the Trip Advisor link) and spent most of our time driving around and checking out the sights. I ate a lot of conch and drank a lot of Kalik and read “Life” by Keith Richards. It was pretty great, and by the time the day of the marathon dawned, I was all rested and ready to go.
I noticed an interesting thing about the night before the marathon. The nights before both of my prior marathons, I had laid awake in my bed, basically watching the digital readout count down to my wake-up call because I was so beset with anxiety over the upcoming race. Will I make my goal, can I do it, how am I going to survive those hills, how much am I going to hurt, will I lose toenails, did I choose the right clothes, is my ipod fully charged, is my Garmin fully charged, etc. etc. But on Saturday night, I turned off my Kindle, switched off the lamp, rolled over and fell into the hardest of sleeps. I figured out why I wasn’t feeling so wretchedly anxious when I read a blog post written by Sweaty Kid, about breaking forty minutes in the 10K:
I didn’t have to do any of those things yesterday, and the reason why not is that I did them already simply by training through this winter. The race was the reward. All I had to do was execute the plan and enjoy myself. My big PRs in the 10K and the marathon in the past few months have been the products of consistency, preparation, preventative injury management, and good luck in that I managed to stay healthy. There were no shortcuts. No surprises. No risks.
And I also thought about something I’d heard Frank Shorter say, about how he race to “find out.” He did the training, and then he raced to find out if he could do whatever it was he wanted to do.
I had trained to the best of my ability. I’d ramped up the mileage. I did my training runs with specific purposes, at paces I’d planned out before I’d even left the house. I’d become best friends with foam rollers and massage sticks. I pulled back on the reckless, purpose-free miles, cut back on the heavy leg days and pretty much stopped doing much of anything but running. I’d done what I could. The marathon was going to be my present to myself for all that hard work. No need to put any more pressure on myself.
And what a present it was going to be! The course runs through downtown Nassau, with a quick spur over to Paradise Island, and then heads west along the northern coast of New Providence. We drove the course, and I was delighted to see that the vast majority of the course was just insanely, stupidly beautiful, with those famous turquoise waters rolling out as far as the eye could see.
My only concern was the weather. The forecast had called for temperatures reaching into the high 70s, which is not exactly the kind of weather suitable for running a marathon, but we were bolstered by the fact that it also said to expect scattered showers that morning. We figured scattered showers could balance out some of that heat.
At 6 a.m. we lined up on West Bay Street in front of Junkanoo Beach and waited for the gun to go off. This wasn’t exactly a huge race, which is to be expected, seeing as though it was only the fourth year for the race and that the majority of the people who do run the race come from other countries. Several hundred people were in the starting corral, but less than two hundred of them were signed up for the marathon. Someone sang the Bahamian national anthem, a reverend who had organized a group to run the half-marathon offered a prayer, and then we were off.
The first mile took us through the part of downtown Nassau that was heavily focused toward cruise ship vacationers. You know how these parts of cruise port cities are, with a ton of shops selling baskets and t-shirts and duty-free perfume and liquor. They are the same no matter where you go. It was still dark outside, but that didn’t keep groups of locals from coming out to cheer us on. They were enthusiastic about all of the runners, but whenever a Bahamian runner came through, they pretty much lost their minds. It was great.
Then we headed north to run over a pair of steep, tall bridges to Paradise Island. I was happy those bridges were in the first two miles of the marathon, because if they had come toward the end, I would have had a problem. By the time I came down the second bridge, we were just ahead of our targeted pace of nine minutes per mile. However, I was covered in a light sheen of sweat and was feeling a bit taxed. I told myself that was because I had just run over two big-ass bridges, but I can’t deny that part of me was thinking about the twenty-four miles ahead and going, “Why the hell did we sign up to do this again?”
Fortunately for my sanity, that faded in the next mile, and I was able to lock into an easy pace without too much effort. Instead of thinking about how far I had to go, I got in touch with my inner Buddhist and practiced some mindfulness. I admired the view of the water from the eastern side of the island, the huge mansions, the slightly decayed stateliness of the government buildings. We thanked the police officers for coming out and we waved at the Bahamians who had come out to spectate. One of the police officers cheered us on with a very proper “Do well!” which delighted me to no end. It’s the perfect cheer, don’t you think? He’s not saying you are looking strong or anything like that. He just wants you to do the best you can. I loved it so much.
At about mile seven we finished our loop through Nassau and headed west on West Bay Street toward the rest of the island. The course took us past Cable Beach, which is where all of the fancy resort hotels are located, then up past the Caves, which are, you know, caves, then out to the turnaround at Compass Point, shortly after mile seventeen. The course was not as flat as we’d suspected, with rolling hills that weren’t particularly steep but were probably going to feel rough by the time we reached them in the race.
The sun had started to rise while were were on our way out to Cable Beach, but it still wasn’t that high in the sky, and plus we had a bit of a sea breeze. In all I was feeling fantastic. I tried to reel it in a bit because I’ve learned that every ounce of irrational exuberance in the early miles of a marathon is paid for with a pound of pain the latter miles, but I can’t deny, I was feeling totally optimistic that I was going to pull off the sub-4:00.
Brian, on the other hand, was not having such a good time of it. He had been coming down with some kind of crud in the days leading up to the marathon, and while he wasn’t full-blown sick, it had definitely taken something out of him. We made it to mile thirteen before he had to stop to fix his sock. Then in the next mile he needed to stop to walk a bit. It was at this point that he started telling me to go on without him, that I had a chance to make my goal and that he didn’t want to hold me back.
I was having none of it. First of all, I thought that maybe if we stayed together, I could motivate him to stick with the pace and to push harder than he would be able to do on his own, but secondly, I was terrified of facing the last miles of the marathon without his experienced guidance by my side. I remembered how I felt during Big Sur, how I just wanted to lay down in the middle of the road and how he coached me through that psychological inertia to finish strong. Plus, over the past year or so, as I’ve become a faster and stronger runner, we’ve developed this symbiotic relationship where we’ve pushed and motivated each other to some fairly impressive PRs (on both of our parts). Our running relationship very much mirrors our marriage in this respect. The idea of leaving him to run the last third of a marathon alone was really unthinkable to me.
We kept going, but Brian was slowing down a lot. He didn’t seem to feel well at all. Finally, at mile seventeen, he told me to go, that he really, really wanted me to go. This time, I left. I gave his sweaty face a kiss and I ran off. I felt bad, but I also really wanted that sub-4:00.
I got back on my 9:00-mile pace and stayed pretty close to it for the next three miles, feeling great the whole way. I was kind of amazed by how good I felt, seeing as though I was approaching mile twenty and all. But I also knew that the suck was waiting for me, was anticipating the opportunity to knock the good vibes and the cockiness right out of me. What I didn’t expect was just how bad the suck would hit me.
The muscle soreness was already making its presence known, but I could deal with that. I did back-to-back runs in anticipation of this. I’d even done a couple of long runs the day after doing squats and deadlifts, just so I could get used to the feeling of forcing myself to go even though my legs were screaming STOP! But what I hadn’t counted on was the heat. The sun was overhead and oh my god, it was so hot. The scattered showers were nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t even partly cloudy. In fact, I didn’t even see a wisp of cirrus cloud – just a wide, flat blue expanse above me, matching the one in the ocean beside me. No sea breeze presented itself to cool me off, and somehow the sun was angled so that none of the trees cast their shade on the road.
For miles twenty through twenty-four, I faced what I later learned were 78 degree temperatures without a break in sight. The only relief came from the water stations, where the kind volunteers handed me cups of water to dump on my head. Every item of clothing on my body was soaked – even my socks – but it wasn’t enough. I was burning up. I’d force myself to run, and my legs stumbled to a walk. I mentally screamed at myself, but to no avail. I compromised with myself by walking briskly, by cutting bargains with myself: Run through this song and then you can walk for a minute. Run to that mile marker and then you can walk for thirty seconds.
The whole time, I kept glancing at my Garmin, just to make sure I could still get the sub-4:00. I hung onto my dream – the dream I had focused on so intensely, the dream that had gotten me out of bed early in the mornings for four months straight – all the way through mile twenty-three. I was just past Cable Beach when I realized that the only way I was going to make it was to run nine-minute miles for the rest of the way, and I knew the only way that was going to happen was if I knocked one of the race marshals down and stole his bike.
I let the dream go.
At some point in mile twenty-five, I looked down at my Garmin and I saw 4:01 on the read-out. I had fully expected to cry during this marathon, but I thought they would be tears of joy and relief. That those tears would be of frustration and anger never figured into my plans. I gave myself a moment to cry, and then I shook myself out of it. I mean, hello? I was in the Bahamas! There’s no crying while running in the Bahamas! And also, I still had more than a mile to go, and if I didn’t punk out, I could still set a new PR. The question was, by how much would I set this new PR.
Clouds had rolled out overhead, and I started running again. I told myself I was not going to stop running until I crossed the finish line, which was as good as jinxing myself, because less than a minute later, I was walking again. I couldn’t believe it. Less than a mile to go before I was done with this race, and I couldn’t even do that! What good was all that training if I couldn’t even finish strong!
My brain started screaming the worst kind of abuse at me: “You asshole! Run! Run, goddammit! Run! Don’t you fucking stop! Don’t you fucking stop! Go, go, go, fucking go already!”
And so I ran. I was not fast, I was not graceful. I’m sure I was heel-striking all the way. There was nothing pretty about my finish, and I know, because I’ve seen the finish line photos. But I finished. I finished in 4:08, shaving ten minutes off my previous marathon PR.
That’s pretty rad, right? I mean, to run my fastest ever marathon on a hot, sunny day, right? Now I think that’s pretty great, but at the time, I was mostly disappointed at not crossing the finish line before the four-hour mark. I knew I had done the best I could do, and the best I had in me on that day was just not good enough. But then I got my gorgeous, heavy, glittery sunburst medal, and then I met up with Brian, who finished about fourteen minutes after me, and I ate some oranges and drank a Kalik while we sat on the beach and enjoyed the view. At one point, we took off our shoes and waded into the ocean, which felt so good on our aching legs and feet, and I understood how stupid I was being. Yes, I didn’t make my goal, but so what? There will be other marathons, but how many of those will finish on beautiful Bahamian beaches? Plus, it’s not like it’s my job to run marathons. It’s just something I do for fun, and if I get so serious about it that it stops being fun, then what’s the point of even doing them in the first place?
I noticed that the results had been posted, so I gingerly made my way over and scanned the papers for my age group. What I saw nearly made me fall over in shock. There was my name, at the top of my age group. Sure enough, I had placed first in my age group. Now, granted, it was a teeny race with only 130 finishers, give or take a few, but still! I did a quick count and realized I was the seventh female overall.
My prize for coming at the top of my age group? Maybe the greatest age-group award I’ve ever gotten!
Kind of hard to stay upset with a piece of swag like that in your hands, huh?
The sub-four hour marathon is still in my future. I know I’ll get it some day soon. Sunday wasn’t my day, but even though I didn’t make that goal, I’m still proud of what I did. I gave it everything I had, and that’s all you can ask for, right? Right.