Every race I have run – with honest effort – has included at least a few moments of agony. Whether in the final sprint to the finish of the high school mile, or while climbing a particularly grueling hill, or in the last miles of a marathon after I’ve hit my wall, indeed, some agony is to be expected. After all, running hard hurts.
Likewise, every race I have run has also included a few moments of feeling strong and smooth, or that clichéd runner’s high, or yes, sometimes even glory. Indeed, a great race, for me, anyway, includes both joyful moments and those that test us physically and, especially, mentally. Without the agony, I know I’m not trying my hardest, and the joy is a reminder of why I put my running shoes on in the first place.
Today, I ran the Vilnius Marathon in Lithuania. And today was different. There was no smoothness, and definitely no runner’s high. There were moments when things were tolerable, at best, and those were fleeting. For the most part, the race, which I somehow managed to finish, was pure agony, from the moment I started.
I had decided to run the Vilnius Marathon last May, when my name was drawn from a raffle at the Riga Marathon for a free race entry. Since I’d wanted to run a fall marathon anyway, and at only 3.5 hours from Riga, Vilnius seemed like a great choice. I’d heard great things about the city and M. and I thought it would be a nice time to get out of town and visit.
Although I’d prepared for the race over the summer, my training wasn’t as consistent as it typically is for a marathon. I’d gotten in a few long runs, and I always included a weekly interval workout, but my mileage was lower overall and I hadn’t been adding in other workouts, like elliptical training or strength training, as I often do. Once I started my new teaching job, finding time for longer runs during the week was more challenging, and the tiredness that comes with any new job settled in. I contemplated switching to the half marathon, but I had set a goal at the beginning of the year to run two marathons in two countries in 2015. Knowing that the likelihood of running another marathon before the end of the year was low, I decided to stick with the full marathon in Vilnius. I hoped that my years of long-distance running, including a strong race in Riga in May, and muscle memory would help make up for some of the miles that I’d missed.
And then I got sick.
As can be expected when working in a school, where avoiding germs is impossible, I came down with my first cold in a long while last Monday, six days before the race. I tried to flush it out with fluids and get as much rest as I could, but it stuck around through the week and left me feeling fatigued and weak. By race morning, I felt better, but still not wholly myself. I packed tissues in my running shorts. It wasn’t the first time I’ve had to do that.
Before the Race
We arrived in Vilnius yesterday afternoon. The drive through the countryside in both Latvia and Lithuania was beautiful. Vilnius is smaller than Riga, but equally charming, in a different way, with its narrow, cobblestoned streets, beautiful cathedral and churches, and hills. Ah, yes, the hills. Another element I knew I wouldn’t be prepared for, having trained in flat Riga, but I’ll get to that.
After we arrived and checked into our hotel, a cute, boutique of a place with an old-fashioned feel to it, we walked to the center of town to explore a bit and to pick up my race packet. We passed a succession of outdoor cafes, shops, and restaurants on one of Vilnius’ pedestrian-zoned streets, full of people out enjoying the cool autumn afternoon. There were grannies selling their hand-knitted mittens and doilies; artists selling their paintings; families with young children; and hipsters playing their guitars on the sidewalks. It was a nice scene.
After packet pick-up, M. hiked up the hill to Gediminas’ Tower, the last remaining part of the Upper Castle in Vilnius, dating back to the 15th century. He wanted to get a panoramic view of the city. I, wanting to preserve my legs for the race, waited at the bottom with Frieda.
We enjoyed a wonderful Italian dinner at Trattoria da Flavio, a darling little restaurant nestled in a quiet street near our hotel. Flavio himself, a Milan native, explained to us his cooking philosophy, which includes locally-sourced ingredients of the highest quality. We took him up on several of his recommendations, including a saffron risotto and a panna cotta topped with red currants.
Upon arriving back to our hotel, our bellies full and ready for a good rest, we discovered that the adjacent restaurant, whose main dining area happened to be directly beneath our room, was hosting quite the stag party, complete with horrible karaoke and music loud enough to make our walls vibrate. This went on until close to midnight, when it was finally quiet and we were able to sleep.
On race morning, I woke up feeling mildly better and ready to run, even though I knew it would be more slowly than usual. One of the great features of the Vilnius Marathon is the 9:00 am start, which allows for sleeping in a bit later than usual for a marathon. We got ourselves ready, I ate a banana, and then we headed down to Cathedral Square for the start.
A few minutes before the start, I met up with another Foreign Service Officer with whom I had communicated a bit through my Facebook running group. She lives in Vilnius and was running the half marathon (and, oddly enough, we learned, is from the same small town in the United States where M. grew up). We took a quick photo together and then headed to the starting line.
The starting area was full of excited runners, most of whom were running the half marathon. The weather couldn’t have been better for a race, with cool-but-not-cold temperatures, partial cloud cover, and no wind. We listened to the Lithuanian national anthem, and I glanced to my left to notice the man standing next to me with tears in his eyes. Seeing him reminded me of how I often feel when I hear the Star Spangled Banner.
A few seconds passed, and we were off! I had no firm time goal in mind for today; I just wanted to enjoy the run and the scenery. The marathon course involved running two identical 13.1-mile loops. I figured that if I missed any of the sights on the first loop, I could see them on the second one.
From the beginning of the race, I felt tired and uncomfortable. I have learned in recent years, especially after having knee surgery, that I should never judge a run by the first or second mile, because it takes me a while to warm up. I plodded along, hoping, as is typically the case, that I would feel better as I settled into a comfortable pace. That moment never came, and with each mile that passed, I felt increasingly more uncomfortable. By mile six, I felt like I normally do at mile 15. My legs were heavy and stiff, and I could feel my sciatic nerves in both legs with each step, a pinching sensation that can only be described as a literal pain in the ass. I was surprised to see that my pace was holding steady at about 8:30 per mile, although I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep that up for more than a few more miles.
We ran along the city’s canal, through quiet residential neighborhoods, and up and down a few hills – none of which were terribly long or steep, but with no hill training in recent months, they felt much larger than they should have. We ran through a beautiful park, covered mostly by trees, and up and down one of the city’s main thoroughfares. I saw M. and Frieda at about mile 10, where I stopped for a few seconds to discard my snotty tissues and pick up some GU refills.
My pace slowed a bit, and I started feeling some hot spots on my feet, which is usually a telltale sign that blisters are on the horizon. I contemplated changing shoes, but with that also comes the risk of making matters worse. I kept the same shoes.
With each step, I became increasingly envious of the runners who donned red bib numbers, as they were the half marathoners nearing the end of their race. I started to think about calling it a day at the half marathon mark, and I thought of all the ways I could justify quitting my race. I felt awful, I had been sick, I hadn’t trained enough, I felt awful… I felt awful.
And then I started to think about all the reasons why I shouldn’t quit, which ranged from superficial (What would I tell people? Would I still be able to wear the race shirt? Cuz’ it’s really cute.) to everything I believe about finishing what I start (If I quit, I will always think about this day and wonder what would have happened if I had tried to continue. If I quit, I will always question whether I can overcome my own negative thoughts. If I quit, I know I will be SO disappointed in about half an hour.)
My thoughts then wandered back to last November, when I ran the JFK 50 Mile Run, and I reminded myself that in that race, at mile 16, I had felt pretty low, yet I made it through 34 more miles. I thought of my good friend N., who ran last year’s New York Marathon in a horrible headwind, and I knew that she had felt how I felt today, and she had gotten through it. And then I thought of one of my sweet new students, a 12th-grader who sent me an email on Friday to wish me good luck with the words: Although it is bad luck that you got sick BUT it doesn’t mean you still can’t do it. You can do it and you will. It is going to be okay.
Despite all of these thoughts, and knowing in my heart of hearts that I would head out for that second lap of the race, it took every ounce of strength I had to not stop running when I came through the chute at the half marathon mark… which was also ten feet away from the finish line. I saw M. and Frieda there, and I told him that my second loop could take a while (and it did), but he encouraged me and cheered for me. I had been running for just under two hours.
I tried to get it together, but by mile 14 I really had had enough. I slowed down and just tried to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I passed through the same residential neighborhood and the pretty park with the pretty trees, and up and down the long thoroughfare, which somehow felt twice as long as it had on the first loop. I was struggling to maintain a 12:00 mile by this point, and I knew the rest of the race was going to be pretty miserable. I saw M. at mile 23 and sat down for a few minutes. He made it clear that he would support me if I wanted to call it a day there, and though it was tempting, I knew I wouldn’t quit a marathon with a 5K to go, even if that meant walking to the finish.
He walked with me for a little while, and then I started my shuffle again. Through Old Vilnius, up the big hill, down the big hill, and finally to the finish line. I crossed in 4:30:28, with my second half nearly 40 minutes slower than my first. I was so happy to be done, though you wouldn’t have been able to see it from my face. All I could think about at that moment was the agony of the previous four-and-a-half hours… the pain in my legs and my back and how tired I felt.
A volunteer gave me a bottle of water and another, a medal. I found M. and Frieda, and we sat down for a while as I collected myself. Then we began the very slow walk back to our car, which was parked about a mile away (more agony!). We finally made it there, got in, and drove back to Riga.
During the drive, we had time to talk about the day and reflect on it a bit. Ten years ago, having a race day like today’s would have been crushing to me. I would have been upset about my time, and I would have felt frustrated and disappointed. I probably would have quit the race. I know, because I’ve done it before. Twice. Today, I feel proud. Really proud and really grateful, knowing that nearly 18 years after running my first marathon, and nearly eight years after having major knee surgery that I can still make it to the finish line, no matter how much I want to quit. Any day that I can finish a marathon is a great day, as far as I’m concerned, and a finish like today’s is an even sweeter victory than usual. Today wasn’t about time or performance; it was about finishing what I’d started and learning that the joy in racing sometimes comes after the race is over and the agony has faded away.
Thank you for reading!
If you are considering running the Vilnius Marathon, I highly recommend it as a very well organized event with a scenic course and friendly volunteers. It’s a small race, with most runners participating in the half marathon, so the second half of the race can feel a bit lonely, but I don’t mind that so much. The only drawback might be the two-loop course, depending on how you feel about loops.