Sarah Porter's NYC Marathon: Pros, cons of 26.2 miles

Hockinson’s Porter reflects on professional marathon debut

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(Editor’s note: Sarah Porter of Hockinson made her professional marathon debut at the ING New York City Marathon on Sunday. The 22-year-old placed 22nd in the elite women’s race with a time of 2 hours, 44 minutes, 25 seconds. She was the sixth American woman finisher. This is an adaptation, edited for length, of a “note” originally published on Porter’s Facebook page upon her return to her training base in Blowing Rock, N.C.)

photoSarah Porter

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I’ve always been irritated by the type of runner who constantly claims to be at a level higher than their performance indicates. As an athlete, I am good as the performances I am able to bring to the road, track or trail. With that in mind, I am now a 2:44 marathoner.

It saddens me to even type those numbers, but that is, to date, my best and most serious attempt at 26.2 (miles).

As you read this, you may be rolling your eyes, tsk-tsking my bitterness at a marathon time that is still good enough to get me to the Olympic trials. Perhaps you’ve never broken 5 hours, or perhaps you’ve ran faster than I have.

Regardless, haven’t you ever fallen short of your own expectations? Have you ever given everything you had only to find out that it simply wasn’t enough? Fortunately, the marathon is unique from other road races in its inevitable compilation of both good and bad moments for everyone who attempts it.

After the race I decided to sit down and scratch out a “pros and cons” list regarding my experience. My finishing time was the first “con” I wrote down — but then I realized that 2:44 was just the tip of the iceberg, and that there was so much more below the surface, so many challenges, so much strength, and through it all, the indomitable will of the human spirit. I’d like to share this list with you.

Cons

• Both races I’ve been invited to by the wonderful people of the New York Road Runners have been lackluster performances. (Note: Porter ran the New York Mini 10-km/6.2-mile race in June, her first trip to the city). I desperately want to prove to these people and myself that I belong in fields with the most elite women in the world. I want to feel like I deserve everything they have so generously given me.

• I was very frustrated with the interruption in my fluid intake schedule.

At the first elite fluid station, I grabbed my bottle only to find that my energy gel had been ripped off of the side where I had taped it. At the second station, three miles later, my entire bottle was missing.

At the third station, almost 10 miles into the race, again, no bottle, so I simply grabbed one of the bottles that had been left behind and swallowed someone’s bizarre orange concoction in a squeezable bag. I’m still not exactly sure what it was...

• I never thought I would run about 22 miles of the New York City Marathon completely alone. For some reason I imagined that I would be surrounded by bodies running my pace the way you see it in pictures, or in movies. This was not the case. For the vast majority of the race I was about 2 minutes behind the girl in front of me and about 2 minutes ahead of the woman behind me.

• I don’t know what went wrong. I went out on pace, was just slightly off at the half when my quads seized up to the point that every step of the last ten miles was met with screaming resistance from several of the most important running muscles in my body. I felt my pace slowing with every step in the latter half of the race and felt powerless to do anything about it.

I counted my steps to 600, telling myself that I would feel good by the time I reached that number... only I didn’t. I focused on my upper body, telling myself that if I pumped my arms fast enough than my legs would follow... only they didn’t. 5:55 became 6:00, became 6:20, became 6:50.

I watched it happen as though I was watching someone else fight this battle, feeling sorry for them. 

Pros

• Several points of distress that I feared pre-race never came to fruition. My stomach felt terrific for the full duration of the race with the exception of a side stitch that lasted about 2 miles.

• The people of New York City are an incredibly supportive group of people, apart from the few smart-asses sporting signs like, “This is the WORST parade I’ve ever seen!” as the marathoners pass.

The sight of one little girl holding a sign that read “You inspire me” was honestly what got me through those 2 miles of side-stitching.

The brash vulgarity that many people expect of New Yorkers surfaced in the best way possible during the first 14 miles in Brooklyn, where I lost track of how many times I heard F-bombs dropped in the form of enthusiastic spectation.

• Like an unlikely green bud that finds its way through inches of concrete to uncurl its leaves for the sun’s warmth, I somehow found a way to finish.

It’s interesting how well the human body knows its task. I honestly don’t know if I could have ran another hundred yards. I made it to the finish line, somehow, then wobbled to my knees with both hands on the pavement.

Someone scooped me up, and wrapped me in one of the finishing “blankets” that always make me feel like a baked potato wrapped in tin foil. Someone else draped a finishing medal around my neck and thrust a Gatorade bottle into my hand. I stared dazedly at a blurry face that was speaking to me. It was Pete (Note: Porter’s coach, Pete Rea), telling me good job and that the most important thing is that I finished.

• About 10 minutes after I finished, Pete lifted me into a chair and I looked him right in the eyes and told him I want to run another marathon. Immediately after the worst agony I’d ever endured I told him it was worth it, and that I want to try again.

I want to run it smarter, faster, and with a little more experience. The fact that I could say that to him at that moment means infinitely more than if I called him now, 24 hours later and said the same thing, because I was still in the physical and emotional havoc of the race.

• The emotional journey I took during those final few miles taught me a little bit about myself.

I remember my mom telling me that one mental tactic she used to keep her mind off the pain of a marathon was to pray for someone different each mile. So I prayed. I prayed for my family, I prayed for my fiancé and at one point I locked eyes with a stranger on the sidewalk and prayed for him. The last two miles, however, I simply prayed that I would make it without my legs buckling beneath me, that God would grant me the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other when I had no fight left in me. I think I might find it a lot harder to finish a marathon if I didn’t believe in God.

Right now I am sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home to the simple golden autumn days at ZAP (Note: Porter’s team facility in North Carolina) that pass by like pearls slipping slowly from a broken string. I miss Michael (Note: Porter’s fiancé, fellow ZAP runner Michael Crouch), and I’m so grateful for the seclusion and beauty of Blowing Rock after a week in New York. I simply don’t have enough energy to live in a city. To end the adventure with a 26-mile race wraps up what was quite possibly, the most delightfully exhaustive week of my life.

My cup runneth over, and I’ve reached the conclusion that “the wall” does not exist to stop a runner in his or her tracks. The wall exists so that we may learn how to climb it, each in our own way.

Without struggle, there would be no triumph, for as the Olympic Creed states, “The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”

Enjoy every step,

Sarah