Everyone remembers their first time at anything.
First time on a plane, first time on a roller coaster and yes, that first time, too. The anxiety leading up to those moments can make you wet your pants or throw up.
It's no different for runners and triathletes. I remember the first 5K, marathon and triathlon I ever joined. Standing at the starting line of each one, I was a bag of nerves, but was just good at hiding it. It didn't matter that I had spent months preparing for a race. Nothing prepares you for pre-race jitters. Nothing.
My very first marathon was the Subic International Marathon or SIM. The year I joined was the first (and last) time the marathon would be held on the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX). The reason I chose that race was because of the course, plus the gun start was at 4PM. This meant most of the run would be at night, not under the scorching sun.
I began my training program 6 months before the race. Prior to Subic, I had only done several 21km races and had never gone beyond 25 kilometers in training. The distance was alien to me and I wanted to approach it with caution. I enlisted the help of running coach Ige Lopez to get me into shape. We ran three times a week and as the months went by, I felt stronger and faster.
Race weekend came all too soon.
Because the gun start wasn't until 4pm on a Saturday, I had the whole day to overthink the race. Dozens of questions filled my head: What if it rained? Did I bring enough nutrition? Should I drink some more? This is when mind games start to take over. I was sharing a house with my coach, his fiancé and another of his students who, like me, were marathon virgins. We killed time watching TV or swapping stories over the dinner table in our rented weekend home.
The SIM was a point-to-point race from the Floridablanca exit on SCTEX to Remy Field inside SBMA. At 2:30 pm, we squeezed into a van for the drive to the starting line 42 kilometers away. We got to the start with around 45 minutes to spare, which we spent chatting with other friends at the starting line or watching Kenyans do their warm-up routines (which wasn't much, they just stood there watching the crowd).
With a few minutes to go, more butterflies gathered in my stomach. This was it! No turning back. My friends and I gathered in a small circle for a quick prayer and words of encouragement from Coach. Truth be told, it did little to quell the storm brewing in my stomach. Again, thoughts of the worst things that could happen ran through my head. I silenced them by taking a leak in the nearest bush I could find.
With little fanfare, the starting gun cracked and we were off.
The sun was out and it was a bit humid but the rhythmic pounding of feet on the pavement was a welcome distraction from the heat. I wanted to take 42 photos during the race, 1 for each kilometer that I ran. Between this and my scheduled nutrition intake, I had a lot to keep myself busy on the run. But as darkness fell at the halfway point, I knew that taking photos was the least of my worries.
Except for the well-lit exits every 10 kilometers or so, the SCTEX is pitch black. We were running blindly. I was glad I thought of packing a headlamp at the last minute. I could at least see 15 feet in front of me and keep a decent pace. After a while, however, I began to hear footsteps behind me. I had a group running behind me just so they could see where we were going. This was the first oversight of the organizer. They failed to make the run route safe for all participants by not installing lights along the highway. There wasn't even an announcement to all that headlamps were required or at least recommended.
After the 21k mark at Dinalupihan, I also noticed that water at the aid stations had become scarce. Even the stations were few and far between. There weren't any ambulances to be seen or even medics at that. This wasn't good for runners doing a full marathon in the dark! True enough, it wasn't long before I began to see a few runners sitting by the side of the road, asking other runners for water or food. A few in our group handed them salt capsules or gels and water to wash it down. It was worrying, to say the least. We had more than 15 kilometers to go and there were no water stations or medics on the road!
I was already in survival mode as I walked up the last stretch of SCTEX to the Subic Tollgate. By this time, we had to share the road with cars coming out of Subic. This was where I hit my wall. Three hours in and less than 10 kilometers before the finish line, my progress was reduced to a walk. I would attempt to run but after a few steps, cramps would travel up my legs and remind me that my body was more comfortable walking. By this time, I had run out of water and still didn't come across any aid stations on the way. I began to think of anything just to make it to the finish line--food, ice cold beer, the training I had put in. I didn't wake up at 4:30 am three times a week for 6 months just to drop out of a race!
Before I knew it, I was on the last stretch to the finish line. As I shuffled along Rizal Avenue, I heard someone shout out my name. In my semi-delirious state, I saw Jaymie Pizarro, The Bull Runner, waving from an SUV going in the opposite direction. That was all that I needed to wake me up from my zombie shuffle. I collected myself and started jogging, then running, then smiling as I made it across the finish line in 4 hours 21 minutes, 21 minutes more than my target time.
The first thing I did as I crossed the line was head straight for the hydration tent, where I downed 2 bottles of water in record time. After a few more minutes, I made my way back to the finish chute to wait for my friends and housemates. We exchanged high fives as they crossed, and agreed to celebrate our milestone with a trip to the McDonald's truck parked a few meters away.
Sitting in the middle of the track, we devoured our cheeseburgers, fries and Cokes. We swapped war stories and laughed about our mishaps along the dark SCTEX.
Did I enjoy the race? Definitely! It wasn't the ideal race but a few last minute additions to my race kit probably saved my race, specifically my headlamp. It's difficult to describe how I felt because I was in a spiral of all sorts of emotions--elation, joy, relief and disbelief. It is said that less than 0.5% of the total population of the United States have run a marathon. I imagine the worldwide figure to be around the same. We had just become part of an exclusive brotherhood.
I went home with more "first time" lessons that I continue to share with other athletes thinking about taking the plunge into a new sport.
Train, train, train. There are no shortcuts to a good race. You get out of it what you put in. Nothing more.
Prepare for the worst. By having a back-up plan or just being ready for all sorts of conditions, you won't panic (as much) if they do happen. I didn't expect to run in total darkness and the lack of aid stations on the course threw our race plans out the window.
When the going gets tough, think positive. Establish small goals to get you through the race. As I battled my cramps, I just thought I was lucky enough to be moving and not balled up in pain on the pavement. I kept in mind that each step forward, whether it was a run or walk, was a step closer to the finish line.
Race with a group. Gather some friends and make an event out of the race. Having a support group makes the training more bearable and the race more enjoyable.
Choose your race well. You want your first race to be one that you will remember. Not for how difficult or hellish it was but because it was one that you enjoyed. Do your research and scour the internet for reviews by bloggers, online communities or running publications. Choose a beginner-friendly course.
Celebrate! As soon as you cross the finish line have a beer or two , find the greasiest burger you could find, don't forget the fries. Heck, you just ran a marathon. You deserve it!
This was the last time that a marathon would be staged on the SCTEX. The Subic International Marathon is now organized by a new group and takes place within the confines of the SBMA. I haven't joined it since because the main reason I signed up was the chance to run on the SCTEX. With a few improvements to the safety precautions along the race course, I'm sure the organizers can put together a kick-ass race. When that happens, I'm signing up for sure!
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.
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