The night before the 2020 Austin Marathon and Half Marathon. A hotel room packed with 17 runners.
“Who have trained for more than 200km the last 3 months?” I asked.
Nobody raised their hands. The room was silent.
I was ready for this. Ever since our successful 3M Half Marathon experience in 2019, we knew we could do something bigger. Indeed, about 23 PREP students signed up for the Capitol 10K last April, only to be told that the race was cancelled due to a thunderstorm. To rise above our disappoint, we must torture ourselves with something grander. A bigger project.
How about the Austin Marathon?
In 2016 I ran the Austin Marathon as a first timer. Endurance sports was nothing new for me since I hiked many 30mile days on long distance trails. I thought I was “somewhat prepared”, yet my right knee stopped cooperating after mile 14. The last 3 miles was half walking, half limping, and 100% grimacing. The week after the race, I visited both a massage therapist and some physical therapists. Not a marvelous experience.
This year, our run was imbued with a deeper meaning. The coronavirus outbreak in China inflicted death, isolation, and fear for those in China, while mistrust and implicit discrimination creeped past national borders to affect us in the US. We wanted to do something to bring love, light and hope into this dark time. On our Pray for Wuhan talent show, we used music, dancing and art to raise funds and spread a supportive message. This time, we want to dedicate our run to Wuhan, to show people that China’s youth are still moving forward, with their energy, enthusiasm and empathy.
Back to the hotel room. Because nobody trained systematically before the race, I told students that we should all pursue a viable strategy. That is: to start slow, to embrace walking, and to run with the goal of negative split (running the 2nd half faster than the 1st).
They nodded with suspicion. It seemed that they were crafting a more realistic plan in their head — to finish, hopefully without much pain.
Next morning, the startline on Congress Ave. gathered 20000+ people from 35 countries and 50 states. In the midst of all their colored nylon outfits were our black and white “Run for Wuhan” shirts.
We have 11 half marathon runners (Joshua, Timmy, Frank, Kevin Shu, Flora, Jim, Michael, Paul, Lily, Renee, Wilson) and 6 marathon runners (Gloria, Jacky, David, Lupin, Ed and I).
Besides Ed and me, none had run their respective distance before.
The previous night, those students hardly slept. Many watched movies or ate their breakfast too early. I don’t think anybody went to #2 before the race.
Yet in the morning, all of them showed up on time, with their running belts, buffs, shorts, GPS watches charged and ready to go. Excitement filled the hotel lobby.
Priscilla helped to book a hotel that’s 7min walk from the startline. However, when we arrived at the front of the correls, and got ready to start at 7AM, the gun was never fired. We waited for roughly 40min, killing time with jokes, photo shoot, and Michael’s comments on how much he wanted to go to the bathroom.
At 7:40am, we finally heard the national anthem. It’s time to go!
The crowd started moving slowly. Then we all darted off underneath the startline arch. The race has officially started for all of us!
We can do this!
I signed up for the race in order to pace David 100% of the way. I trained with David and Lupin many times before, and they were veterans from the 3M Half Marathon. David plays soccer at Brentwood, and Lupin is a pretty good endurance runner.
The three of us decided to stick together from the start, moving slower than the others.
Ed, Gloria and Jacky formed the first pack of PREP marathoners. Between us, half marathon students set off in small groups with different paces. I was only hoping that they could remember to slow down and listen to their body. But for now, David and I needed to figure out our own rhythm.
The marathon went through all 4 of Austin’s districts, in the order of South – West – North and East Austin. We crossed the Congress bridge and was in SoCo for the first 4 miles.
It started to drizzle. Humidity built up. Sun was behind the clouds.
After a bathroom break, David, Lupin and I experimented with a slower pace. We walked on all uphills (there were a lot) and did 12min/mi pace on most flat and downhills. After the big U-turn to get on South 1st Street, we started identifying passerby cars. Bands were playing. A Catholic Private School on the way lost to Brentwood. Blah blah blah. The conversation was going quite well and we were in a high mood.
I was enthusiastically tracking all the other runners on my phone:
“Oh my, Ed is going so fast. He is not going to run the whole way.”
“Geez, Timmy is flying! He’s already reached mile 8!”
“Frank was with Timmy…Wait, he stopped around mile 9.3, but Timmy kept on going. What happened?”
“Paul was much slower than expected, his pace was on par with Lily and Wilson. They must be together.”
“Gloria and Jacky are running together, and are slightly behind Ed.”
“Gloria left Jacky.”
“Jacky caught up with Gloria.”
“Kevin was so consistent.”
Around mile 8 on Lake Austin Blvd., I checked again and saw that Timmy just finished the half marathon! And his pace was pretty consistent through the race. He must have pushed the entire way, through this humid condition and rolling race course. It was not easy, and I was surely surprised. Good job Timmy!
However, we started becoming worried about Frank.
David, Lupin and I checked where he “disappeared” from the tracking. It was mile 9.3, but no Frank was to be found when we passed. David and Lupin started coming up with theories. Frank was kidnapped in one story and lifted into an ambulance in another. I messaged our Wechat group. Priscilla was looking for him too.
I remembered mile 9-14 to be the hardest part of my last race, and it proved the same this year. After we left Lake Austin Blvd., there’s a steep uphill into the Tarrytown neighborhood, to be followed by steep, rolling hills.
David and Lupin took their first Aleve pill a bit earlier, and were drinking electrolytes consistently. They also ate at least 1 GU gel so far. We should be ok, right?
But no. David started cramping around mile 9. This is bad news.
He had the same issue with cramping during the 3M Half Marathon, though only for the last mile. In my head, I’m afraid that this has turned into a muscle memory, a habitual hiccup, a neural response resulting from tensed muscles.
David needed to walk a bit at this point. He squatted by the road to stretch his quads. I gave him my buff so he can wrap those around his lower quads for compression. He was not in great pain (yet), but this cramp definitely interfered with his strides.
After all, we did all this walking and slow pace during the 1st part of the race in order to be faster in the 2nd half. But can David come back and finish strong?
Mile 11 saw our biggest hill of the race, a dreadful uphill on 15th street toward Moody Bank. Volunteers were cheering us (with beer) and costumes.
Not long after that we were at “THE SPLIT”. Big signs pointed half marathon runners to the right, while marathoners continued straight forward. At this point, all 3 of us barely ran 12 miles, and 14 more miles loomed before us like a ghost. And those half marathons only had 1 more mile to run. How lucky for them!
Suddenly, this quest seemed almost impossible. But I couldn’t stop because David did not. And my mission all this time was to finish the journey with him.
To our dismay, the marathon track at this point was almost empty. There was only 1 runner in sight before us. The roads were still blocked, but we felt lonelier. The clock pointed to 3h 30min. We have passed half the time of the 7h cut-off. Yet there is still more than half of the distance to be covered!
The North Austin district was a pain cave for David. Around mile 15 we began to push, but he was running on much pain. David said that the pain is roughly the same if he got slower. He used a bigger arm swing to increase speed.
Lupin left us around mile 17 to push forward. We were faster after mile 13, and both of their heart rate was stable and energy tank full.
David did not stop much, even though cramps are firing up everywhere in his leg.
I started telling him about my hero, Anish Anderson, the Endurance Queen of the long distance hiking world. I transported David to the hills of White Mountain and New Jersey, to the Appalachians and the Pacific Crest. He did not ask questions, but was listening intently. Time and distance passed fast, and we only had one more district to cover — East Austin.
This is when he decided to increase speed. He was moaning badly, with every breath, and his arm swing was so dramatic it looked like a wheel. But he managed to push to a 7min/km pace (roughly 10min/mi). We were flying for at least 4km.
It was now past 1pm, and we had 5 more miles to cover. I told him 5 miles is 8000m which is “only” 20 laps around a standard track. The sun was directly in our face. Bright lights reflect in our eyes. We were sweating profusely. It was so, so hot.
The midday air did not help much. David’s cramp is even worse now, but besides infrequent stretching when he had to literally faceplant down in order to stretch, he was pushing his limit beyond my comprehension.
“Imagine you are not you. Imagine you are flying in the air, looking down on your current self struggling. Imagine your pain is somebody else’s. ” I told David.
But the problem is, I never had that much pain to sound credible with such advice.
The last 3 miles felt like a century. I joked with David that his perspective of time and distance would be so different after this run. He would not look at 3miles or 1000m the same way. He would not look at himself the same way. You gain so much understanding of yourself. And you were in this other world, with your pain, suffering, and transcendence. Tourists and locals were enjoying lunch in East Austin, but we are battling our demons.
David asked to run the last hill and the last 300m toward the finish line. I was almost in tears when he finished. Ed received both of us and got David to the Medical crew. He got 2 packs of ice to cover his quads. Ed helped him to walk slowly back to the hotel.
Because we were the last ones to finish, we missed seeing all other PREP students crossing the finish line. Afterwards, we heard stories about pain, sweat, bad bathroom breaks, heavy legs, cramped muscles and every other gruesome by funny details about one another’s race. It is evident that they all embarked on their “Hero’s Journey”, a transformative trek where they re-discovered their inner reservoir of resilience, perseverance and faith. Many were asked about their Wuhan shirts. All finished before cut-off times. Mission accomplished.
To me, this year’s Austin Marathon was a spiritual experience. I didn’t feel like David’s pacer, but an observer to watch a boy grew into a man while pursuing this impossible conquest. Just like the David in the Bible, our David faced “Goliath” head on with a belief in something bigger than himself. He was transported to another world. His grit and willpower only dwarfed mine. I reflected how I leaned towards the easy while this 17-year-old picked the hard. And persisted. Gave his all.
David said afterwards that this run will be a guide to his future projects when he remembered how much courage and resilience he has in store. I believe so.
We will be back, Austin Marathon.