At Great Length
By Liz Murray Garrigan
NOVEMBER 3, 1997: A marathon has to be the only time in civilized society when it's perfectly acceptable for a guy to stop in front of the Pentagon, pull down his shorts, and pee. Or for women to crouch down and relieve themselves in front of hundreds of spectators.
It's all part of the marathon culture, a not-so-secret society of your next-door neighbors and office colleagues, who, once they're away from home and running 26.2 miles, will sink to previously unimaginable behavior.
Everyone at last weekend's 22nd annual Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., started off with the best intentions. Before the race, the lines for the portable potties stretched to a good 150 yards, requiring a 35-minute wait (for both women and men). But once Secretary of State Madeleine Albright started the race, that kind of wait wasn't an option.
About half of the 18,500 runners who showed up in D.C. Sunday were first-time marathoners like me--just as unsure, just as nervous, and just as wet and cold as I was. I was there because of a challenge from my college housemate, Ann. She had just turned 30 and was reeling a little from the experience. (She had gotten a navel piercing, and I thought that would pretty much be the end of her mid-life jitters. I was wrong.) Talking on the phone one night in late August, we were trying to arrange a camping trip.
"How 'bout the weekend of Oct. 25?" I asked naively.
"Oh no, Lizzy, the marathon's that weekend," Ann said.
"What marathon?" I asked, rolling my eyes.
"In D.C. You should come."
We were only nine or 10 weeks away from the race--not nearly enough time, according to any training book, to get ready for a marathon. Most runners train for at least six months, and some, like Oprah Winfrey, who ran the Marine Corps in 1994, allow up to a year to get ready. I told Ann I'd get back to her.
All my runner friends discouraged me. I could always register for the Marine Corps next year, they said, or train for a marathon in the spring.
I considered their advice, and then I dialed up Ann. "Why don't I fly to Chapel Hill? We can drive to D.C. together," I said. I was not inclined to pass up a challenge, especially from a woman with a navel ring.
The race day morning started at 5:30. We dressed, slathering gobs of Vaseline everywhere skin rubs against skin to create painful chafing. We attached our race numbers to our T-shirts. I stuffed my waist pouch with the keys to the apartment where we were staying, $20, a Metro subway pass, 10 tablets of ibuprofen, and four packages of Gu, a thick paste runners consume for quick carbohydrates. The idea was for each of us to have two of them, one at mile 10 and another at mile 20.
We walked out into the cold D.C. morning and made our way five blocks to the Dupont Circle Metro stop, heading for Arlington Cemetery, the starting point of the race. After what seemed like hours and hours of waiting in the cold, the gun finally went off at 8:47, 17 minutes late.
The pace was really slow at first. Almost seven minutes later, my left foot crossed the starting line, and the electronic transponder, provided by the marathon organizers and attached to my shoe, registered me as having begun the race.
The rain had started to fall, and we were pretty well drenched, but hundreds of people stood along the road and on bridges cheering us on. We made our way around Pentagon City, then, at mile seven, we crossed back to Arlington and headed toward Georgetown.
I still hadn't warmed up. I was dripping wet, envying the runners with the foresight to cover their torsoes with garbage bags. By mile nine, Ann was nowhere in sight. I had already sucked down some Gu and swallowed three ibuprofen.
As we came into Georgetown, some guy on top of a building was blaring the theme song from Rocky. We all cheered, raising our gloved hands in the air. If the spectators weren't playing music to get us going, they were holding up signs to make us smile. "Don't Worry. Your Shirt Smells Fine," one said. Then there were "Be the Bunny," "Take the Pain," and "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger."
The next 10 miles, past the Kennedy Center, up Constitution Avenue, and beyond the Washington Monument, are pretty much a blur. My neck started to bleed from the chafing, staining my white sweatshirt. I tossed it off at mile 19 and was down to just shorts and a T-shirt. People held out gobs of Ben-Gay, so I took it and slathered it on my tight leg muscles.
I soon learned that it's true what they say--the race really doesn't start until mile 20. By that time, freezing and demoralized, I was almost in tears. I hung with an older man who said he had run 235 marathons, two or more in every state, plus the Marine Corps. He showed me how to conserve energy and save my knees by trying to stay as low to the ground as possible.
At mile 23, I shouted to the bystanders that I had $20 for anyone with a dry shirt. I got a free garbage bag instead. Finally, I hit mile marker 25. The crowd grew more dense, and I began to see the Iwo Jima monument, the ending point of the race. To reach it, I had to make it up a hill, and, finally, through a mud pit. My foot crossed the line, and the chip registered my time, which was slower than that of Vice President Al Gore and--no joke--a guy with a prosthetic leg. My hands were too cold to feel, so a handsome marine knelt down to remove the chip from my shoe. Another leaned down to hang a medal around my neck.
I fought my way through the crowds toward the Metro, taking a shortcut up a muddy hill and through a thicket of bushes. At the escalator, hundreds of people were shoving to get on.
The Metro is usually stuffy, even in cool months, but on this day it was freezing. A woman noticed my blue lips and put her coat across my legs. When I finally reached Dupont Circle, I didn't think I could walk the five blocks back to the apartment. I tried to hail a cab, but I wasn't alone. When a cab stopped, a guy cut in front of me and leaped into the backseat.
"I'll pay your fare if you just let me go five blocks," I pleaded.
"I gotta get to work," the guy said.
"Look, I just ran a marathon. I'm freezing, and I can't walk very well." He shook his head and the cabbie waved me away.
Feeling like a refugee, I shouted an obscenity at him and slammed the door.
But I kept moving until I rounded the corner of 16th and Q Street and walked into the apartment building. Inside the apartment, I stripped down and got in the shower.
I'll remember that shower forever. As I stood under the liquid heat, I understood why the original marathoner died.
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