When I stepped up to the starting line of the Baltimore Marathon, I wasn’t thinking about much. The crowd buzzed around me with excitement and the National Anthem boomed from the large speakers up front. I knew roughly what pace I was supposed to run out at, and that was about it.
What I did know, confidently, was that I had 500 miles of training in my legs and that I was going to trust it. The marathon takes an entirely different effort than the half-marathon, 10K or 5K — it’s not a distance that could be defeated with a week of training and some extra mental strength on the day of. My podiatrist scoffed at me when I told him about my plan to run a marathon in 4 months with very little base mileage. He told me (rather condescendingly given that he was a seasoned marathoner himself) that I needed 3 solid months of base building (20 miles a week) and 3 more months of marathon training (up to 50 or 60 miles a week).
Of course, I didn’t listen to the doctor and started my training cycle with a bum ankle and a strong desire to prove him wrong. The majority of my training I did right here in Baltimore and with the Hopkins Running Club. For one, I could simulate the same hills and the humidity that the race often offers, but also I wanted to get to know the city more intimately.
Like most students, I don’t get too many opportunities to get out into the city during the school year, and when I do, I stick to the usual neighborhoods like Fells Point, Inner Harbor, Mount Vernon and Hampden. So, the hour-long morning runs for the past four months have been my excuse to explore neighborhoods that I otherwise wouldn’t visit.
Some mornings, we go East through Waverly to Lake Montebello. During others, we go West through Hampden to Druid Hills and the Cylburn Arboretum. And on longer runs, we go up North past the Towson town center to Lake Roland. We rarely go down South into the city to avoid the high concentration of traffic lights and the much busier roads, though we do have a route that takes us down to Fort McHenry.
However, nothing truly prepares you for the marathon. I did my 20-mile runs and took my gels and hydration faithfully, but what I didn’t practice for was the weather. The first 8 miles were perfect: a light drizzle cooled the day to an ideal racing temperature — right around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The crowd around the Maryland Zoo and Homewood Campus injected a lot of energy and I even made a friend, a high school counselor from Annapolis, around mile 2, whom I ran with and held a conversation with until mile 22.
Everything went downhill when it started pouring at mile 9 around Federal Hill. A strong headwind and piercing raindrops hit us hard — it killed the conversation as our quads tightened up and our shoes soaked through. The rain subsided after a few miles, but the cold and frozen muscles took longer.
Running helped to warm us up, but what really pulled us back into the race were the friends and family in the crowd. My teammates from the running club found me around the halfway mark and gave me all the encouragement and support. I felt like a celebrity and ran my fastest mile afterward (which wasn’t a good decision). My new friend was surprised by his parents, wife and two young daughters at Patterson Park, along with woo’s and aww’s from the crowd. He was emotional from the surprise and certainly received a big boost to finish the race.
I could only dream of a moment like that, but my friends gave me just as big of a push when I made my way back up to 33rd Street and Homewood Campus. Even though I was cramping as I ran up to them, the split second of a high-five drove me through perhaps the hardest four miles of my life, all the way to the finish.
Baltimore wasn’t the best choice for my first marathon — it’s hilly, has unpredictable weather and has some rough surfaces on parts of the course. But I wasn’t looking for a Boston Marathon qualifying time; I wasn’t fast enough anyway. Instead, I wanted a special experience that would last me a lifetime and one that I could look back and smile upon. For those purposes, I couldn’t have asked for a better race and a better place to run it.