Once A Runner, Now A Marathoner
Alex Chalphin reflects on finishing his first marathon in 3:43
It is easy to lose faith in humanity every now and then, living in the DC metro area. We’re bombarded with negative images and stories, from our own lives and the media, that exemplify corruption, greed and violence.
All too rare are celebrations of human strength, generosity and joy that we know exist, but sometimes can’t see through the blinding malevolence of the evening news or the rush hour commute. This weekend was one of the greatest, most refreshing demonstrations of the intrinsic human capacity for good I have ever experienced.
It was also a ton of fun.
I woke up the morning of the race at 5:30 a.m., threw on my running clothes (including a bright purple Team In Training uniform I had been told to write my name on) and grabbed my race bag. For breakfast, I downed a bottle of water, a bagel and half a power bar, the remains of which I tucked carefully in the small pocket of my running shorts.
At 6 a.m. I woke up my friend who had driven with me to Vienna from school, and drove to the West Falls Church metro station. There, we were greeted by dozens and soon hundreds, and then thousands of other racers and spectators making their way to the start.
There was a surprisingly long walk from the metro to the start line. By the time I handed my bag to my friend and entered the corrals, there was no way to get anywhere closer than the 4:30 marker.
Even when the howitzer went off, signifying the beginning of the race, it took another 20 minutes just to get the line. Just before crossing the line I heard a familiar voice scream “IS THAT ALEX?” from behind me. I turned to see 10 of my best friends from college (one of whom was in a wheel chair, days out of knee surgery), screaming their heads off with signs in their hands. I smiled, gave them a wave and crossed the line. The smile stayed on my face for a full mile and returned sporadically for the next 26.
It was during that first mile that the gravity and scale of the event I was participating in finally struck me. Thirty thousand competitors entered the race. There were people for as far as the eye could see, and then thousands more. Each one had trained, driven themselves to the limits of their natural ability. Despite the competitive nature of the event, there was no shoving, no rudeness or spite. Every collision was followed by an apology.
As I passed runner after runner trying to catch up to my 8 minute per mile goal pace, I saw dozens of charities, costumes, and groups commemorating passed friends, relatives or comrades. I realized that not only were there tens of thousands of participants, but more than 100,000 spectators; people who had braved the small hours and the cold to support someone special to them. It was a true testament to the best aspects of the human condition.
As the mile markers rolled by and we crossed the river, the course cleared. The scenery was gorgeous and the weather warmed to a perfect 70 degrees. There were enough water stops, and the cliff shots given out on the course were, contrary to their reputation, pretty tasty. I ate my first gel at mile 13 and at 16 I had the remains of my power bar.
Every few miles my friends and parents would pop up waving signs and yelling encouragement. Even without this amazing troupe of cheerleaders there is no way anyone could have lacked for support on the course; everyone seemed to be screaming my name. While it may seem trivial if such exclamations end with your name or not, I can say from experience that it makes all the difference in the world. It’s hard not to smile and add a spring to your stride with thousands of people yelling themselves hoarse just for you every step of 26.2 miles. Even better were the Team In Training mentors and coaches, who lined the course and jumped in every time they saw one of the neon yellow visors that had been distributed to the team that morning. They asked questions, gave advice and scrounged food and water.
At mile 20 I had another gel and one of my friends tossed me a bottle of water. When I passed the 21st mile marker I started getting nervous; my farthest run during training was 20 miles. More and more people were dropping out. My legs were tender and sore and my knees were throbbing. I started wondering if I could make it.
As I rounded the 25th mile marker there was an old man with a huge beard telling every runner “Only five miles and 100 push-ups left”. I smiled for the rest of the race.
I passed my friends at the base of the hill before the finish line. My watch read 3:37. I put on a final burst of speed and came in at 3:39, just inside my 3:30-3:40 goal window. I made my way to the Team in Training tent to sign out and stole one of the donuts meant for the volunteers, instead of the health food set out for the racers. I (very slowly) made my way to the family meeting location where I ate twenty grapes as promised to one donator who knew I didn’t like grapes. I was officially done with my race obligations.
Today I can call myself a marathoner. While immediately after the finish I was unsure if I would run again, I now believe there are many more races in my future. The journey has been unlike anything else I have ever experienced, and certainly not what I expected. Team In Training promises a life changing event, and they assuredly delivered. I recommend the experience to anyone healthy enough to run. Go Team!