The morning of June 7 showed promise with only a few clouds in the sky and the sun peaking over the horizon. As I looked out my hotel room window, eating half a bagel with peanut butter and jelly on it, I wondered what the day would hold.
Jason, Mom, and I would be running the Governors Cup Marathon in Helena, Montana. I felt ready and excited, filled with hope that the route would take me out to the mountains I’d come to love during my time there.
The race started at 6:30 a.m. for the marathoners. We stood shivering and stretching in the 43 degree morning until the race director announced one minute before the start. Jason gave me the traditional three good-luck kisses before heading to the front, and for the first time, I could actually see my husband up there with the front runners. He was only three rows in front of me, as there were only about 135 marathoners racing that day.
The countdown began ten…nine… eight…GO! I ran with Mom for a few moments and we laughed at how stiff our legs felt in the cold morning air. Then she said good-bye and good luck as I turned on my ipod and prepared for what I knew would be a great race.
As we ran I couldn’t help but smile. Once I started moving, I warmed up and just as I’d hoped, the route took us through a few neighborhoods and then out to long country roads surrounded by mountains and farms. I felt like dancing. I felt like singing. I felt like throwing my arms in the air and shouting “THANK YOU, LORD!”
In my excitement I ran the first two miles at a nine minute pace and so I made myself slow down a bit, knowing I couldn’t hold that pace. The miles went by fairly quickly. At mile 7 a few half-marathoners passed me and I cheered for them. At mile 11 I saw my husband doubling back and we slapped hands as I said, “Looking good, Babe.” At mile 13 I looked at my watch and it showed two hours and thirteen minutes. I was pumped. I wasn’t exactly shooting for a personal record that day, but I hoped to finish somewhere in the 4:30s or 4:40s, and I believed I could.
The turnaround was at mile 15. I was beginning to tire and my feet were beginning to hurt, but that was nothing new. I smiled as the photographer took my picture and laughed as he said, “Almost there now! You’re heading for the barn!”
And then it all fell apart. I knew it was going to be windy once I turned around because I could feel the wind at my back, but I had no idea just how windy it was going to be. As I ran the wind picked up and gusts of 25-30 mph hit me head on. I saw Mom at mile 16. She asked me how I was and I said I’d been better. She kissed me on the cheek and introduced me to her new friend, Susan. We wished each other luck and ran on.
By mile 18 I wanted to cry, and I am not a crier. I’m a teeth-gritter and more likely to get mad before I get upset. I tried to dig deep and recall all the times I’d had to fight hard to run and how I’d overcome them. I remembered the marathon in New Jersey where the coastal wind fought me the entire way and how I’d become fed up and picked up my pace, fighting right back.
But the wind was harsh and cold and nothing my mind did could change that. Birds flapped their wings only to stay in place. Horses stood with their backs to the fences and any brush or trees in their yard. Race volunteers dressed in down jackets with hoods commented on how windy it was as I ran passed. And still the wind howled and gusted and pushed against me until each mile felt like hours of grueling work.
I tried to keep my heart light. I had hoped for another Kentucky Derby, another triumphant finish and a grand finale to what had been a fantastic week out west. I recalled the words I’d said to Jason about how this race was just for fun and that it didn’t matter how well or how poorly we did. Yet as I was running I realized that I had a certain definition for “poorly” and this was not it.
I looked at the mountains around me and tried to focus on the beauty there. It made my eyes water to look into the wind and when I tried to do more than granny shuffle, the wind knocked my feet together (making for some very sore ankles afterwards). I tried to eat some gummy life-savors, which I carried in a small sandwich bag, but they made me nauseous, so I stuck to water and powerade at the aid stations.
I watched as the minutes passed on my watch and couldn’t believe I was moving so slowly. I wanted to pick it up, but everything hurt, and I was cold and beaten. The wind flew at me so hard that it swept my breath away and I constantly felt like I couldn’t get enough air.
Half-way through mile 25 (the longest mile in the world) I saw Jason. I didn’t want to look as pitiful as I felt, so I tried to keep running (granny shuffle) so that when Jason saw me, he wouldn’t think I was hurt. When I saw him I was so ready to be done and so frustrated at the state of things that all I could say was “WHERE DO I GO?” The cones lead in both directions and the volunteers hadn’t seen me yet.
“Right up that hill.” Jason said. Up the hill? I thought. You’re kidding! But he wasn’t. The last mile was filled with downtown hills after an entire course of flat country roads. He jogged with me and then we saw Julie. She’d run the 5k and she too was beginning to wonder about her sister and her mom. I told her I had changed my mind about moving to Montana. I told Jason this was the longest mile in the world. He repeated an earlier statement that everything is bigger in Montana, even the miles. I didn’t smile, for that took energy.
The finish line was FINALLY in my sites and as the announcer called my name, I wanted to hide. “Here comes Jane Reneau from Madison, Alabama. How many marathons is this for you, Jane?”
I wanted to say one. I wanted to say this was my first. I wanted to say that it was supposed to turn out differently. I looked up and said weakly, “Fifteen,” and ran under the finish banner in 5 hours and 15 minutes.
I was given a medal and the chip was taken off my shoe. Jason gave me some water and I sat down out of the wind for the first time in 5 hours. I was disappointed and embarrassed. My face stung with wind burn and my legs and hips ached so badly that even sitting didn’t relieve them.
Jason, being the wonderful husband that he is, hugged me and told me he was proud. I laughed thinking, proud of what, but it helped to hear him say it all the same.
Mom came through the finish line 19 minutes later with her friend Susan, and I was relieved to see her. The four of us headed to the car, each of us reliving the agony that was 26 miles in such strong winds.
We ate hamburgers at a local restaurant and then we said our good-byes. Jason and I were flying out of Bozeman the next day to head home, while the rest of them drove back. Jason and I talked of the race during our drive to Bozeman, and even though I was sad and disappointed, I had to admit it was all worth it. I knew I couldn’t let the marathon define the week - and what a splendid week it had been!
I also knew I couldn’t let one bad race define me as a runner. Since the Kentucky Derby Marathon in April, I’d believed I was in a different time bracket and that a bad race for me wouldn’t exceed 5 hours anymore. I was wrong and that bothered me.
Even so, there will be other races, Lord willing, and there will be time to train for them. This runner will meet the road again, and when she does, she will be ready to not only smear her time in Montana, but in Kentucky as well. There are personal records to be made, and even in my healing and recovery, I am ready to work for them.