2 years ago, I ran this same race. It was my first marathon and to my surprise, I finished in 4 hours and 8 minutes which was a lot better than I expected. Yesterday I ran the marathon for the 2nd time and the experience was totally different! Going into the race my overall goal was to just beat my previous time. I felt like with my lack of training, which was my fault, that the goal was reachable but I knew it would be tough. I even went as far as putting the pressure on myself with the mindset that if I didn't beat the time, the race would be a failure. On the other hand, I had to keep reminding myself that the main reason I signed up for this race was to use it as a training run to prepare for my New York marathon in November, but still knowing that my competitive side would kick in.
So here I was, standing at the start line at 5:00 AM. I drank some water and started to stretch. I kept trying to tell myself to stick to my 8:30 per mile average pace and I should do great. Utilize the aid stations and be smart. The race starts and what do I do? Run a 7:44 mile. I knew right then and there that it was a bad idea to try and keep that up because I was already sweating pretty good and I'd hit the wall way too early and suffer. I told myself to slow down and I did, but not as much as I should because my 2nd mile was 7:57. It was at this point that I was running next to an older man and we started talking. This was his first time in Key West and he wanted any tips on the course. He also told me that he was running a marathon in all 50 states and ran some of the big ones like Big Sur and Boston. The conversation with him was helping because I got my 3rd mile down to 8:15. I knew I had to drop off his pace to keep up with my plan, so I wished him well on his race and slowed down some more to a 8:28 4th mile.
The heat and humidity were tough but only getting worse. I overheard someone saying that the feel like was around 90 degrees. It made sense with the rate that I was sweating. It made me nervous because as much as I sweat, I knew it could get dangerous once the sun came out. I made sure to get some Gatorade to drink and water to dump on my head at every aid station. Plain and simple; stay hydrated and stay cool. Mile 5 was 8:47 and mile 6 was 9:01. It was weird because I was not feeling very good and actually started to think about quitting. I couldn't believe that I was even thinking this way and even this early into the race. I knew the next 20 miles were going to be horrible physically and mentally if I didn't start distracting myself from my thoughts.
Mile 7 was 8:55 and mile 8 was 9:27. I now started seeing some of the half marathon race leaders hitting their turn around point and it only made it worse for me mentally. Thankfully it gave me the chance to joke with some of the volunteers about wishing I signed up for the half and not the full. One lady even joked with me and said "I'll see you on the way back". That distracted me a little and I kept on pushing. Mile 9 was 9:23 and mile 10 was 9:52. With my time creeping to around 10 minutes and still 16 miles to go, I figured my goal was not going to be reached. I was feeling overheated and slightly dehydrated. My legs were also starting to feel fatigued from the lack on long distance running during my training. Then things started to change a little for the better. I hit the much needed aid station and if I'm correct, it's where I got my ice cold sponge. This cooled me down drastically made me feel refreshed. I doubled up on my Gatorade to try and get ahead of the sweat. I started catching some of the runners who had passed me earlier and I was feeling good. Mile 11 was 9:41.
I was somewhere around this point that there were volunteers giving out Starburst candy and I gladly took one. I never had a piece of Starburst taste so good but I'm sure it was because of the circumstances. I grabbed a gel at the next aid station while continuing to drink more Gatorade. I also started to take 2 cups of water; 1 to dump on my head and the other to pour on my sponge to use in between aid stations. Mile 12 was 9:18, mile 13 was 9:19 and mile 14 was 9:14. My times were staying strong and consistent and I was feeling a lot better. I knew the turn around was coming up soon and this was the part I was nervous about because you have the sun at your back the entire way, but that's why I realized that the sun was still being blocked by the clouds. I remember thinking to myself that the sun was blocked but the humidity still made it hotter than the first time I did the race with no clouds.
Mile 15 was 9:23 and now my legs were feeling it because mile 16 was 10:01. My body temperature felt okay though I would have preferred to be a little cooler. My hydration felt fine but I knew I would need more fluids to stay ahead of cramping. At this point I had to start mixing in 30 seconds of walking at certain points just to conserve some energy. I remember thinking about my trail race last year where I had to walk a huge portion of the end of the race just to finish. Then I thought of my disaster at the Fort Lauderdale half marathon last year where I had a similar experience and a lot of cramping. Mile 17 was 10:05 and around this point I remember passing the volunteer with the Startburst's again who offered me more but I told her I still had one left and she joked that hers wouldn't be melted. I also was able to get another sponge at one of these aid stations so it gave me 2 sponges to stay cooler with which was definitely helping because I wasn't feeling as hot.
Mile 18 was 10:39 and mile 19 was 10:24. I was feeling better mentally knowing I was getting close to finishing but it was still getting hotter and the sponge technique that was working was starting to be less effective. Somehow I pulled out a 9:59 for mile 20 which made me think I might be over another hurdle. I figured instead of the one wall us runners hit, I was hitting multiple little hurdles. Mile 21 brought me back to reality as I dropped to a 10:52. I was able to maintain that effort though and hit 11:00 for mile 22 but realized that my times were getting slower and slower and would most likely mean a very slow finish. But that was my goal at this point; just finish and be smart.
Now I was getting really worried because the sun was finally out and there wasn't going to be anymore cloud coverage. So with the high humidity now came direct sun beaming down. Then my right thigh started cramping and locking up on me. I started limping and hoping to shake it off. I was disappointed to see this slowed me down so much that my mile 23 was a 12:34. I started thinking I would be walking the last 3 miles and told myself to walk as fast as I could if that was going to be all I could push. I was upset that I was having to walk so much but when I noticed others having to take walk breaks as well, I knew the conditions were affecting everyone.
I kept telling myself that everyone was probably going to have a slower time then they normally do and everyone was going to have to walk a little. Sure, if we compared this race to others by just looking at the numbers we would think we did horribly. But if you consider the conditions you'd realize it was okay. To still finish at the top of this race considering how I was feeling and what I was struggling with would make this a victory even though I wouldn't hit my main goal. Finally the cramp went away and I was able to move a little fast getting to a 12:27 for mile 24. I then saw a female officer volunteering and asked her if she would kindly give me some of her water for my sponge. She didn't hesitate and that made a difference because it helped me cool down a little bit, just enough to make it to the next aid station. As I did the entire race up to this point, I downed the Gatorade, dumped water on my head and soaked my 2 sponges.
The volunteer with the music right before the bridge between mile 24 and 25 gave me an energy burst and the female volunteer was there was well and yelled "I told you I'd see you on the way back". Mile 25 was 11:49 and I felt better. I didn't feel as good as I wanted but I was still feeling a lot better. I wasn't as hot, I felt hydrated, I wasn't cramping but my legs were still yelling at me for not training better for this. I was approaching the mile 26 marker when I hit the popular nurse aid station. I remember their ice cold water saving me for a strong finish in this race last time and sure enough, it worked again this time. Plus the one holding the "free beer and sex" sign made me laugh. Sure enough, mile 26 was 11:18. Seeing the last turn where the crowd always cheers you on gave me the motivation and kick and I finished the last section at a 9:50 pace. I crossed the finish line and felt proud.
I was immediately greeted by the medical staff who were making sure everyone was okay and taken care of. The provided me with a shaded seat, bags of ice for my legs, ice cold rags for my head and neck, and multiple bottles of ice cold water. They even wrapped some bags of ice to my calves. I knew I had finished 10 minutes slower than my goal but for me, with my lack of training, and the conditions, I gladly accepted the 4 hours and 18 minute finish time. As I prepared for my 1 mile walk back to the hotel I decided to look at the results just to see where I finished. To say I was shocked when I saw the results is pretty much an understatement. 18th overall and 3rd place in my age group. I could not believe it and was so excited. I've placed in a few 5K's, a 10K and even won a 17 mile trail race, but never did I imagine placing in a marathon.
In the end, this was a true mental and physical battle. I cannot thank the volunteers enough. They were very supportive and encouraging. They made sure I had enough Gatorade and that I had enough cold water for my sponges. I learned a lot of new things about myself during this race and was reminded of how far the body can go if you don't give in to the mind and it's desire to give in and quit. This is definitely one race and experience that I will never forget and will enjoy talking about for years to come.