“It’s the Final Count Down”
It was 6 a.m. when my iPhone alarm went off on the morning of March 24, 2013 in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was our big day. In a couple of hours some of the women of our running group, “Women Running the World”, would be participating in our first half-marathon and longest run yet, 13.1 miles/21 kilometers. We had all been checking the weather apps the days before, hoping the forecast would miraculously change but when I opened the window curtain, it was as they had predicted, snow was falling and the temperature was 28° (-2.2°C) feeling like 15 °Fahrenheit (-9°C). We had trained in weather like this in London so I felt ready. The night before I had texted my husband to share that the Kenyan runners had arrived at the hotel. They were there to complete the whole marathon as a qualifying event for other competitions. That morning I texted my husband the weather conditions and he texted back, “Just think of the great advantage the weather gives you over the Kenyans! You have trained for this weather!” I decided what layers of clothing to wear and I placed my clothes and accessories neatly on my bed. At 7 a.m. I went to see our head coach so that she could tape my injured/recovering leg with kinesiology tape. I was excited but not anxious. I felt like an astronaut preparing for a mission, taking all the systematic steps before take off. At 7:15 a.m. I went down to have breakfast. We had been instructed to eat what we had normally been eating on previous long runs and not to try different things. So for me it was a fruit smoothie with white bread and peanut butter.
Then it was time to make the final preparations. I wore compression sleeves on both legs to help support my calf muscles. I pinned my running number, # 5082, to my shirt. I attached the electronic chip that would track my running time to my sneaker. I wore two layers of running pants, a long sleeve shirt, a fleece, gloves, a very light down jacket that would eventually end up around my waist, a running waist pack with gels and my iPhone. I strapped on my Garmin Forerunner 610 watch. I loaded all my pockets with tissues. And for good luck I wore the Third Eye bracelet that my Turkish girlfriend had given me last year and a necklace I had bought myself which showed a runner on one side and the number 13.1 on the other. I did my normal exercises and stretch routine along with some breathing exercises. It was show time.
“It’s the Eye of the Tiger”
At 9:00 a.m. we met for a group picture in the hotel lobby. We were quite the group, over 70 women with cute light pink Nike caps, all proud members of our running group “Women Running the World”.
The energy level was palpable. Some of the women were nervous and others were excited. Some just wanted to get it over with, while others were taking it in stride. We hugged and gave each other support. A few of us went outside to start doing warm up routines. There were thousands of people. The race had an estimated attendance of about 3000 people. Then the moment of truth arrived when our leader headed out of our hotel to the front of the starting gate and we followed her like little ducks with pink caps. The excitement was swelling up inside of me. We took our positions in the coral. The more experienced runners of the group went closer to the starting point and the beginner runners stood further back. One of my friends dressed like Rocky Balboa provided light-hearted entertainment as she waved her fists in the air accompanied by our background Rocky music vocals. Another girlfriend was setting fashion trends with her layered garbage bag look (garbage bags for warmth). Their plans were to shed these layers of extra clothes and plastic along the path. This clothing is later collected and donated.
We were in our pre-designated groups. I chose to stay with my usual group with the plan to fall back if my leg started acting up. Then we heard a count down in Slovak and the race started at 10:00 a.m. At first there was no perceptible movement in the crowd as the front racers took off, and then suddenly before I knew it I arrived at the gate. There I was crossing the blue carpets where the electronic chips in your sneakers are read and I found myself letting out a huge cheer of excitement. I later found out that one of my friends tripped on that same blue rug and fell flat on her face. We laughed about it later, but at that moment she could not believe this had happened. She thought that she had gotten up by herself but later learned that actually two men had whisked her off the ground and propped her back up. She went on to have a remarkable run. As she later said in her own words, “She hit the ground running!”
I remember reviewing the map of the route thinking I would have a fair idea of where I was going. It really did not help because what looked to be so simple on paper was very different in reality. The route started out by the Danube River in front of our hotel next to a Eurovea shopping center.
Soon after we found ourselves running along Communist era construction apartment buildings which were not very pretty. The view improved as we ran into the old town. Although the view improved, the cobblestone streets were dreadful especially going up hill. The snow thankfully was not sticking and eventually tapered off. As in all races there were water stations. The cups were kind of big and drinking water while running proved to be more difficult than I anticipated. I probably splashed more water on my face than I actually swallowed. But that was good enough. We then flung our cups off to side like the professionals. Yeah!
I started out running with my assigned group and was doing really well with the injured/recovering leg. Suddenly at about the 45-minute mark I felt my calf muscle strain and I thought to myself, “Oh, no, this cannot be happening. I will complete this race”. At that point, I decided to slow my pace down, send energy to my leg and see if the muscle would recover. It seemed to feel better and I stayed at this pace for a while. But I had to emotionally let go of my group of friends as they slowly disappeared ahead of me and moved on. I would be running this race alone and I had prepared for this. Over the course of the race we were able to recognize each other because of the pink caps. There was a switchback in the initial part of the route, so we would cheer our faster runners that were on the other side and they would cheer us back. Once I restored my confidence with my leg I found myself in a comfortable place. I was happy as a clam to be running my first half-marathon. Furthermore, we had seen a bunch of guys quit after 30 minutes making us feel like the real trained professionals that we were. No messing with these ladies in pink hats! We would hear cheers in the crowd, “Go Pinky”. We also heard a lot of Slovak cheers and applause to which I would applaud back and say thank you. Perhaps not a customary thing to do but I was so grateful to have these people standing in below freezing weather to cheer us on. Caught up in the excitement, one of our fellow runners thought she would try her Slovak language skills. Enthusiastically she cheered back at the crowds, although not really sure of what she was saying, but hoping it was proper, especially since she had cheered back at a nice group of nuns.
“It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight
Risin’ up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watchin’ us all with the eye of the tiger”
“It’s My Life”
At the 18 km point (about 11 miles) of the run we reached the Danube River. There was another switchback. First we would run on the street in front of the river and then make a U-turn to run along the pedestrian walkway by the Danube. I suddenly heard Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” being played and I got super pumped. I was on cloud nine. It seemed like the end was so close. In my head I was singing “It’s my life, It’s now or never”, and then as if though the record player needle skipped on the L.P., the song came to a screeching halt as I realized that the turnaround was quite a distance away. NO WAY!! I had to rationalize in my head that the end was near although emotionally it seemed light years away. At this point, my injured leg was feeling fine, and I thought I would try to go faster but it was so hard to muster more speed. Consistency would be the name of the game.
We finished the river segment, turned left back into the city, and finally saw signs that read, “2nd lap go left” for the full marathoners, and “Finish go right” for the half-marathoners. From somewhere or from nowhere I squeezed that last bit of energy to pull it off. I could see the final gate. As I approached I saw a bunch of our pink hat ladies in the cheering crowd yelling, “Go Ariadne”. As I looked ahead at the clock I was determined to make it to the finish line within the next 30 seconds. I took those last strides that pulled me into victory. Once I ran through the finish line it was almost difficult to stop. My legs felt like ocean waves as I slowed down. The elation and excitement overtook me. I had finished my first half-marathon. So this is why people do this, for this remarkable moment of euphoria and accomplishment. In front of me was a young lady handing me a medal. WOW I got a medal, my very own medal. I was not expecting that. And then I saw one of my lovely friends who had already finished, running towards me to give me the biggest hug in the world. A camera guy captured this moment on film. It was surreal, it was dream-like, and it was amazing to have finished the race. We hugged and yelled in celebration.
Suddenly the freezing temperature set in. At that point a group of us made our way out of that finish line area and went to join the rest of our group in the cheering section. In order to exit we had to climb the most ridiculous makeshift steps in the world to cross a bridge and then come back down. This was absolute torture at this point in time. We returned the chips that were attached to our shoes. We were shivering so much we could barely untie the laces to take the chips off. We made a quick stop into the hotel to warm up before joining the others in the stands.
Not only was it amazing to have finished the race but it was equally as thrilling to cheer on the rest of our friends. Like proud parents we swelled up with pride and joy as we cheered the rest of the ladies coming in. There were several friends who miraculously finished even with their severe injuries. Tears of joy filled our eyes as they came through high-fiving us. And then we saw the last of our group. It was our head coach holding one of our friends by her hand and leading her to the very end. And as the two of them went through the finish line, we celebrated the successful completion of the Bratislava half-marathon by our group “Women Running the World”. Our group of beginner runners had graduated to “Runners”. We had done it!
After a wonderful celebratory dinner on Sunday night we returned to London on Monday. We sadly parted ways. But we do plan to continue running together!
When I arrived at home I found a wonderful surprise. My husband had baked a double layer chocolate cake and my children had written a special congratulations letter. I was overtaken by emotion and started crying.
To my dear fellow runners who shared this journey with me I send you a big thank you and lots of love. I am so proud of what we accomplished together. To my readers and friends, I hope you can someday experience something as special as this and above all to be able to have the opportunity to share the experience with a group of remarkable people just as I did.
“It’s my life
It’s now or never
I ain’t gonna live forever
I just want to live while I’m alive
It’s my life
My heart is like an open highway
Like Frankie said
I did it my way
I just wanna live while I’m alive
It’s my life”
Lyrics: Bon Jovi “It’s My Life”