The morning of reckoning has come. The screenings, fawning over elite runners, and single-handedly stimulating the economy with running gear purchase – over. The only thing left to do was run the race.
My duties as unofficial pacer for my friend Cody had me a slightly anxious given my well-documented episodes of cramping in 4 of 5 marathons I’ve run, but still confident that I could bring him in around the coveted 4:30 (10:18 pace) time he was seeking (his previous PR = 5:00). He’s taken training a little more seriously this go round as evident by a couple of half-marathons in the low-2 hour marks.
After a fretful night of sleep, we finally awoke around 5am tired but eager to get running. A cup of coffee, a trip to the bathroom, an improvised breakfast of a stolen dinner roll from the pasta buffet the night before (I’d completely forgot about breakfast) and I was good to go. I was wavering on the arm warmers a bit but ditched them at the last minute before proceeding to the start. This turned out to be the right call.
Since our predicted time was 4:30, we would be starting out with the 2nd wave which left at 7:10am, about 10 minutes after the 1st and the elites. Using my trash bag + Gatorade bottle trick for the last time, Cody and I set off somewhere between the official 4:15 and 4:30 pace groups, telling him before we hit the starting mat that “there was no way we’re gonna let the 4:30 group pass us”.
The first few miles involved a small bit of chaos from dodging walkers in the center of the road (seriously people) to dealing with a broken water bottle strap on Cody’s fuel belt. I felt obligated to be there for him as much as possible, so I assisted carrying the bottle of Cytomax for awhile when he wasn’t drinking from it.
The pacing plan was this: anticipating slower splits and warmer temps for the 2nd part of the race (mid-70s), we would "bank" some time in the 1st half to hopefully still meet our time goal. With the exception of mile 1, we started hitting splits right at or slightly below 10 min/mi for the majority of the initial miles. Since I had on a 4:30 pace tag on my back, I got several questions from marathoners asking me “if I was on pace”. I told them confidently we were right on the money.
Mile 1 - 10:43
Mile 2 - 9:51
Mile 3 - 10:03
Mile 4 - 10:02
Mile 5 - 9:47
Mile 6 - 9:35
Around the 7-8 mile mark, a familiar looking woman sidled up next to us to say ‘hi’. She was a woman who had attended a screening and purchased the DVD/soundtrack of the movie the previous day at the expo. She told us again how much the movie meant to her (she had lost her father as well) and told us she was listening to the soundtrack as she ran. Awesome.
Mile 7 - 9:43
Mile 8 - 9:47
Around miles 8-13, I saw that 2 minutes had grown into about 3 ½ minutes in the "bank". I didn’t keep Cody apprised of the mile splits, rather I told him we were right on pace with some time to spare, but told him to let me stress about it. There were times I actually had to pull him back a bit when he was running out in front. Otherwise, we ran well with a little extra to use later. And boy, we’d sure need it.
Mile 9 - 9:58
Mile 10 - 9:48
Mile 11 - 10:27 (walk break through aid station)
Mile 12 - 9:46
Mile 13 - 10:19
I remember my legs feeling rather prematurely achy around miles 9-12 and this had me mildly concerned. But I silently pressed on, knowing this was a very manageable pace for me and putting all negative thoughts on the backburner.
We hit the half-marathon mark at 2:11:XX but admonished him to not think of this as the halfway point. I’ve always broken the marathon down like this: 1st half – 20 miles, 2nd half – the final 10K/6.2 miles.
Throughout the marathon, I made sure he kept hydrating and taking his shot bloks, and kept asking for assessment reports to the point of annoyance. He was clicking off the miles pretty well until about mile 14-15, when we hit a fairly steep incline on a bridge and he asked if we could take a walking break. Knowing we were still good on time, I said we’d walk the way up and then commence running down the other side of it. He was still doing relatively well, but the sun was steadily rising in the sky, as were the temperatures.
Mile 14 - 9:54
Mile 15 - 10:35
Mile 16 - 10:25
The crowd support all along this race was just fantastic. Since our names were printed largely on our bibs, we were getting tons of “Go Billy!” and “Atta boy Cody!” from virtually start to finish. I know they kept me in energized and smiling and were simply the best part about the course by far.
Around mile 17, Cody was definitely feeling it. I first noticed it when my normally loquacious friend (that's putting it mildly) started saying less and less as we ran on. Then he vocalized that he was hurting and doubt started to creep in. This is when we would be tested – I as a pacer, and Cody as a runner.
(It was also when my old Garmin 301 decided to act up again so remaining splits remain unreliable and thus, undocumented.)
I thought about all the tricks in the book starting with telling Cody to dedicate each of the remaining 8 miles at the 18 mark to someone different. He seemed reluctant to play along but some people came to mind so we did that for the next couple of miles. When that stopped working, I told him to visualize an invisible rope pulling him along when I was out in front. I told him that the pain that he’s feeling now is nothing compared to the ordeal his father underwent after he was diagnosed with the brain tumor. When times got really tough, I pinned a now scrunched up picture of his dad to the back of my visor so he’d visualize why he was doing what he was doing. Really, ANYthing to keep him putting one foot in front of the other.
We took another walking break between miles 21-22. He told me he was really trying and sounded apologetic that he might let me down. I told him not to worry so about the pace but silently wondered if we would in fact, hit the sub-4:30 goal at this point. I kept checking the splits up to this point and we were now running in the high 10 minute paces and slowly losing time. The 3 ½ minutes in the "bank" was shrinking with each passing mile.
Somewhere around miles 23-24, the 4:30 pace group came up behind us almost out of nowhere. Remembering what we swore to each other at the start, Cody started to pick it back up again as I let out a small sigh of relief. We were back on track.
Meanwhile, I was enjoying myself immensely from about mile 20 on. The "runner's high" as it were, hit me and would proceed to carry me through the finish. I was smiling, conversing with the crowd and just really got to enjoy the marathon again. Legs, while tight - were showing no signs of cramping. And a 'hot spot' at the bottom of my right foot was virtually painless during the remaining miles. Add to it all, I actually had my first beer during the course of a marathon a little before mile 25 - a first!
But I still had a job to do. I came to Houston to bring Cody across the line in under 4:30 and I was going to be damned if I didn't give it my all as a pacer to convince Cody to give it his all. By mile 25, I turned to Cody and said, "look - you know I don't ask much from you but for the last mile or so, I really want you to dig deep and give me everything you have". We were still on pace and so close. He started to pick it up again.
The finish is one long chute down a street that probably runs about half a mile in length. With the finish line now in sight, we picked it up some more, took in the energy of the crowd to bring us home strong and...success! Unofficial chip time for Cody = 4:28:42!
I was very ecstatic. There is something truly magical in setting an ambitious goal and meeting it, and it's just as gratifying to be that person who pushed and paced another runner in accomplishing said goal. Especially considering the bleak moments we faced and the obstacles we overcame in the latter miles. I was very proud of Cody for gutting it out.
Hmm...I could definitely see myself doing this again.
*Edit to add - video of finish: