So much about the March 25 Oakland Marathon went right in spite of an inauspicious week leading up to it.
A cramping and soreness in my left calf flared up the previous Sunday, exactly a week before the race. I stopped my planned 13-mile run a mere two miles into it, walked home glumly and felt haunted by my old calf injury.
Three days later, I did the dumbest pre-race thing: I went into San Francisco to attend a fundraiser at the top of Nob Hill, and I deliberately parked a long way away for a brisk, hilly walk. But I was wearing too-tight dressy flats that caused a half-dozen pea-sized blisters to erupt on the tops and sides of my toes. I spent the next three days slathering them with Aquaphor, wrapping them in Band-Aids, painting them with Second Skin and cursing myself.
Finally, rain drenched the city the night before the race. Morgan, who was registered to do the half marathon, declared he wouldn’t do the event in such weather, so I’d be on my own rather than meeting up with him afterward. I called him some names, and we went to bed mad at each other.
By morning, however, the sky cleared and the wind disappeared. The temperature settled into a comfortable cool. My legs felt fresh and cooperative, and my feet were good to go. I felt the potential to have a great race at a great event. Not a PR, but close to perfect.
The start line was a “Hella Love Oakland” feel-good fest. Having been dismayed by the Occupy Oakland protests that trashed the downtown and gave Oakland’s reputation another black eye just three months ago, I was so happy to see runners and spectators “occupy” the park near the starting line by Lake Merritt with such an upbeat spirit. I put my hand over my heart and belted out the national anthem. After so many trail races, it felt good to line up and take off through the heart of a city in an urban road marathon again.
I knew I was off to a good start when a half-mile in, I heard Alphonzo Jackson, my old coach, belt out from the sidelines, “Go get ‘em Sarah!” Alphonzo is like a good luck charm to me. Two of my favorite checkout clerks at Piedmont Grocery cheered for me around Mile 3. I took a cup of water and words of encouragement from Bev of Transports at the Rockridge aid station around Mile 6. I was feeling GREAT and running around a 7:10 pace.
I ran the two-mile hill up to Lake Temescal and Montclair without problem. Piece of cake. I run that hill all the time, on the tail end of 25-mile training runs that take me from Piedmont to North Berkeley and all around Tilden Park and back. That hill was barely a speed bump. Yeah, I was feeling cocky. I was still keeping the 3:10 pace group in site. I saw my running friend and neighbor Jamie Saunders at the Lake Temescal water stop, and then more friends and neighbors through Montclair. I felt like a rock star. Can you spell h-u-b-r-i-s?
I bombed down the big downhill of Lincoln Boulevard, crossed the half-marathon point around 1:35, and then … and then … it started to sink in that I was only at the halfway point. This part of the course rambles through side streets where the crowd support dwindles to the occasional big-hearted, big-bodied soul standing on her front porch and beating a spoon against a pot.
I couldn’t wait to get to the straightaway of International Boulevard lined with taquerias and beauty supply stores. As soon as I reached that boulevard, I tried to pick up the pace—and my legs talked back with warning twitches. Both my quads and calves sent little electrical signals that are the precursors of full-blown spasms. I started to feel a bit lonely and isolated, because at this point no one was running around me. I had International Boulevard to myself, and cops stopped traffic at intersections just for me. “Thank you, OPD!” I said to every cop at every crossing, but I mostly got a poker face in return and frustrated looks from drivers behind the wheels. Like an angel, an older, larger, down-on-her-luck-looking African American woman on the sidewalk called out, “I’m praying for you, sister,” and I called back, “I need it. Back atcha!”
My legs at this point had stiffened and aged about twenty years. My splits slowed to around 8 minutes per mile. I thought I took in enough GU gel and Gatorade, but something was off with my body chemistry.
The waterfront district came into view and I welcomed the sight, because this is my turf now—this is where Morgan and I opened an office and spend our days. I ran down 2nd Street and tried not to feel too bummed when a strong woman runner, whom I’d been passing back and forth throughout the race, passed me for good and opened up an insurmountable gap. I felt better when I saw my husband’s barber, Mr. Charles Blade, and his all-African American posse belting out soul tunes. How funny life is, that Morgan opened a business here and goes to that cool cat to get his hair cut. Yes, life is good and I could suffer through this sufferfest. Just don’t give up.
Another mile later, I passed by the Kinetic Arts circus center on 7th Street where my daughter Colly at that very moment was inside getting ready for a performance. I contemplated how the years have passed and now I have a 14-year-old, and she would be coping with nerves and fatigue while preparing for a Cirque du Soleil-style matinee performance a few hundred yards from where I was struggling at Mile 19. I sent her telepathic love and pressed on.
Originally I planned to wipe the mental slate clean at Mile 20 and run the last 6.2 like a 10K. But at Mile 20, I felt like a Southwest jet ready to rip apart and crash land from metal fatigue. I swear my legs, hips and back could be diagnosed as arthritic. I thought of Ken Michal’s mantra “All Day.” I told myself, “Just don’t give up.” I scolded, “Jesus fucking Christ at least break 3:20.”
I’ve run around Lake Merritt over the past 15 years oh, maybe 500 times. This might have been the hardest yet. My body was stiffening and refusing me, in spite of all the coaxing and another Gu.
What kept me going? The crowd support deserves a lot of credit. Signs like “Pain is temporary, pride is forever” really helped me out. So did the shouts of encouragement from familiar Piedmont faces by the lake.
The county courthouse came into sight and I knew I had only about a mile to go. I pushed hard and made peace with the fact I was going to miss my goal of sub-3:15. I rounded the corner by the lake and headed for the final stretch when out of nowhere came the best gift, Eileen White.
Eileen is a running buddy from more than a decade ago. She is a naturally gifted runner who kicks my butt. We used to run track together, and I have a vision imprinted on my frontal cortex of her backside running on the track. I imagine myself running behind her and being pulled along, trying to catch up. In that final half mile of the marathon, I saw her pass me as she ran the half marathon, and I felt an ability to dig deep and tap an extra energy reserve.
“Eileen! Go!” I called out as she passed me, and I hitched my wagon to her behind. It was just like the old days, me trying to close the gap behind her on the track. What a gift to approach the finish with that kind of friend! No wonder I had a big smile on my face.
So, I crossed in 3:17:39, not what I hoped for, but not bad either. I kept going. I pushed hard when I felt like hell.
I hobbled to the finish to look for Morgan finishing the half marathon, and then my body felt invaded by body snatchers. As I sat on the curb to watch the finishers, a triple whammy of calf, abdomen and foot cramps literally made me scream out and writhe on my back while lying by the gutter. I have never experienced such cramping problems and hope never to again.
Morgan crossed the half marathon in under two hours, and we met up with my niece who had brought our son Kyle to the finish. Morgan looked great and had a big smile on his face. We waited for the award ceremony and got the best surprise: by fluke of prize giving, I earned the master’s trophy. I was 5th overall and 2nd in my age group, but since the first woman in the 40+ age group took a top-3 prize and they don’t give double prizes to the top three finishers, I got the special master’s trophy. I was so happy!
The Oakland Marathon—my 40th marathon or ultra—reminded me that marathons are hard no matter what. It took everything I had to give. It reminded me why I’m proud to call Oakland home. For all that and more, I’m happy, grateful and congratulating myself—and hoping to come back next year to subtract several minutes off my finishing time.
Special thanks and congratulations to: Christine Chapon for organizing all those volunteers, Jennifer Smith Ray and Mark Tanaka for successfully leading their pace groups, Penny Macphail for pushing me along and finishing first female master, Eileen White and Debra Cramer for their age group wins in the half marathon, Anna Gunn for her top master’s finish in the half, Elisa Goody for finishing the full, Len Goldman for his 5K age group win and his Thursday track workouts, Alphonzo Jackson and Lisa Felder for all their support along the course, and Morgan and my family for being at the finish with me.