My alarm went off at 4:30 in the morning. Honestly, I slept surprisingly well that night, with the exception of a few ridiculous dreams.
I dreamt my headlamp went out even though we were running in the daytime. I dreamt I stopped for lunch and almost didn’t make the cutoff time.
Six months of training and fundraising had lead to this day, my first full marathon. It would be foolish to say that the butterflies weren’t real.
I drank my morning cup of black coffee and double checked my gear. Thankfully so because I realized one of my small water bottles had mold inside of it. I consumed a small piece of plain toast because I learned very early on in my training that bland food is key to preventing a troublesome gut. My wonderful wife, who volunteered to cheer me on through the day’s adventure, woke around 5:00. She, being the amazing person that she is, helped me at every chance that she could.
My wife and I left around 5:30 to head downtown, which was already starting to fill up from over 27,000 runners taking part in the day’s activities. We were lucky enough to have a friend of a friend who lived downtown so we had a little spot to serve as our home base for the day.
At around 7:15, with our gear checked and rechecked, my running partners and I made our way to the starting line. What awaited us was one of the most awe inspiring sights I have ever seen. An ocean of people as far as the eye could see with one purpose, to run, to toil, and to celebrate the bravery of some of the most brave young men in women in the world who were and are fighting a daily battle with cancer at St.Jude.
The wind chill was more harsh than expected, but the nerves made it quite easy to stay warm. I had some dry mouth but I couldn’t tell if it was from nerves or thirst. This was the first of many lessons to learn on the day’s journey. When in doubt, hydrate. I wasn’t sure of all of the water stops involved but I should have planned ahead. The energy permeating the never ending crowd was electric. Todd, my running partner, was next to me, and we both questioned our sanity. A few minutes passed like seconds. Suddenly, we were off.
Now, if you’ve ever trained for a marathon, you know how much time is committed to it. If you haven’t, let me give you a brief enlightenment. I started preparing for this six months ago in July. At least twice during the week I’d do some kind of workout run and then on either Saturday or Sunday would do a weekly long run. The long runs started at around seven miles and peaked at twenty one miles in October. Needless to say, I had put hundreds of miles under my feet just for this one day. And now I was here, Todd beside me, embarking on one of the greatest adventures of my life.
The electricity from the starting line made mile one a breeze. The chatter from the crowd and friendly conversation made this mile slip by with ease. I took a swig from my small water bottle and we pressed on.
This was easily the most important mile of the entire run. We entered the St.Jude campus and were instantly met with the reason we were there. The brave young ladies and gentlemen lined the streets cheering us on. Some made signs, some gave high fives, some even held signs in memory of those lost. The thought resonated in my might for the next twenty one miles. If they can fight such a battle, then running a marathon is the least I can do for them.
Shakeout time. My knees were starting to bug me but it was also time for a bathroom break and nutrition. Both Todd and myself hopped off the road and took an energy gel with a few swigs of water. Next thing we knew we were back on the trail at the bottom of a very steep hill.
I dubbed this mile “the turning point” in my mind. Essentially, this is where the half marathoners broke away from the full marathoners and the atmosphere changed significantly.
It was lonely. It was quiet. The wind kicked up as we crossed an overpass. It almost felt like running on the moon. Luckily, this was only for about a mile and once we hit the next mile marker, we were joined by more people cheering us on the sidelines.
In the weeks leading up to the marathon I was battling some pretty serious runner’s knee. This was my biggest fear going into the race. I knew it would flare up no matter how hard I tried. It was just a matter of when and how I could manage it.
Mile thirteen was when it started to rear it’s ugly head. Thankfully, and I will say this more than once, I had Todd there with me. Honestly, I don’t know how I could have finished without him.
We stretched for a bit, took some more energy gels, and walked a little while. My knees started to even out a little which made the next little stretch not so bad.
From here to mile seventeen was kind of a blur. We saw the lead runner coming back up the route, which was amazing. We were met with block parties, friendly folks giving out water, gels, chips, candy, even beer and whiskey! We had officially reached midtown.
This was one of the highlights of my journey. We were running through a park when we reached a clearing, only to see and hear my friends, a band called Everdeens, playing. Amidst their playing I heard “Go Keegan!” and “We know that guy!” ring out over the PA. The amount of love I felt from these guys made it that much easer to keep going.
By this time my knees were really starting to give me some trouble. Thank God for Todd, the smile never disappeared from the man’s face as he just kept encouraging me.
This was the beginning of the ultimate struggle. My knees had pretty much deteriorated and I was running on pure will power. We passed a group of ladies handing out pretzels and, at this point, I hadn’t had solid food since about 5:00 in the morning. I grabbed a handful of pretzels and promptly told her if I weren’t married I would get down on one knee right then and there.
Todd was right there with me. Walking when we needed to, a smile still on his face, keeping the mood alive. He could have easily left me at this point, but he stuck it out like the amazing person he is.
This was the beginning of what I can only describe as the darkness. My body and my mind were in a place that they had never been before. I was beat down, broken, hurt, and exhausted. Todd and I were at a walk run, I was zigzagging and delirious. Though I had put calories, electrolytes, and water in my body, there was just not enough to compensate.
I was nauseous, and unbelievably miserable. But Todd’s confidence was unwavering. And, as terrible as I felt, Todd and I were both in awe that we were nearing the end of our first full marathon.
We were walking for a bit when we hit this mile marker. I mustered what little courage I could in attempt to run the last mile in. At this point, with my knees, every step was a feat of willpower. We managed most of this mile before I had to pause one last time.
We could hear the screams of the crowd, the intense positivity, the sound of music from the finish line. We had .2 miles left until we were officially marathon finishers. This and the amount of overwhelming gratitude was enough to give me one last surge of effort to cross the finish line with a run.
The Finish Line:
Todd and I crossed the line together, as brothers.
It’s so funny how people who barely knew each other a few months ago have become this close through such a task. We were handed metals, emergency blankets and water. We stopped for photos and took a few with each other before we made our way to see our loved ones.
I walked to the gate to see my wife standing there. I managed to make it all the way to her before breaking down, but as soon as she embraced me I lost what little composure I had left. I was tired, dehydrated, calorie deficient, but most importantly, loved.
And that brings me to the point of all of this. This experience has taught me how powerful of a thing love can be. I was surrounded by it in the weeks leading up to the race by those nearest to me. I witnessed it in the people I knew who supported my fundraising. On race day I was a part of it, I was emboldened by it, and I was transformed by it. Love for and from those around me made someone like myself cross a marathon finish line.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned here, but the greatest lesson in all of this is one that has been stated and restated throughout human history: love is powerful. It can make people come together for a great cause. It can make people rally to help each other. It can make someone run a marathon. It can pull someone from the deepest, darkest chasm of despair. Love is powerful.