Nikki never got a marathon entry.
After looking at a map and strategizing how we might hook up (she’d decided to run rogue – she simply came too far and trained too long and hard to not run. And, we were in this together), we decided to try our luck getting her through with me at the regular starting line-up. I was in the last corral, after all, which just fed out in to the open street. “Just stay near the middle,” I said. So you get lost in the crowd.
It was 8:30 a.m. and Old Town Square was all hullabaloo with pre-race action. We were excited but also a little nervous about our deception. Would we get away with it?
I want you to know that in most cases, we would not be advocates for marathon crashing. It’s unfair to use services and resources and amenities paid for by registered runners. But these circumstances were pretty exceptional. It wasn’t like Nikki wasn’t willing to pay; heck, she was willing to pay more than ticket price for a legitimate number. And she wasn’t going to take a medal, or anything like that.
So there we stood huddled with the other runners in corral “K,” a remote corral at the end of a long, long, long snaking line. Corral K was for the slowest runners, and we huddled there among the grannies, extremely pregnant ladies, and a three-legged tortoise. Suddenly, speakers blasted out Smetana’s “Ma Vlast,” the Czech national anthem, and with a flurry of commotion we trotted forward. And stopped. And trotted forward again. And stopped. And forward. And stopped. Until, finally, the start line was in sight and we were off to a slow trot!
It felt a little harrowing crossing the start line. Would anyone notice that Nikki didn’t have a number? What would happen?
The first stretch of the race, from Old Town Square to Manesov Bridge, was lined with marathon security and police. Suddenly, every television camera, every photographer, every person on a walkie-talkie, seemed like they could be scanning for bib numbers and communicating with each other about potential violators.
The day was chilly. It was about 45 degrees in the morning, which allowed Nikki to wear a sweatshirt, which gave her the ruse of the possibility that her bib was affixed to her shirt under her sweatshirt.
We carried on with our run, trying more or less to keep Nikki somewhat obscured of anyone on the sidelines, and continually suspicious of anyone with a camera or walkie talkie. This was actually pretty stressful. At any moment, we thought, the gig could be up.
But we kept going. Over the cobblestones. Yeah, cobblestones were everywhere, which my tendonitis-afflicted ankle thought was super neat! Except when I say super neat, what I mean is the exact opposite.
So then, we’re not too far into the race yet, say maybe about 3 miles, and suddenly we hear the sound of a motorcycle engine creeping up behind us. You understand that all of the roads were closed to vehicle traffic. The only reason a motorcycle could be on the course if it was in some official marathon capacity. And, it was trailing us. We both kind of held out breaths, waiting for it to catch up with us, hoping it would pass us. Nikki sped up a bit, as if she were trying to keep ahead of the motorcycle. But she wouldn’t be able to outrun a motorcycle forever. Our scheme was about to be thwarted. There was almost no doubt in my mind that we were screwed.
Except the motorcycle finally scooted past us, without incident. Nikki slowed down again so I could catch up with her. We were bundles of stress.
And then there were more cobblestones. We ran down this long long path into what seemed like a suburb and then turned to head back towards the center of the city, including through a scary tunnel that was immediately followed by an uphill climb which led to… cobblestones.
I just was to interject something. 26.2 miles covers a lot of terrain. You really don’t have any idea how much terrain until you are on the ground, running it. Every stretch of distance seemed to go on forever.
We were pretty far in the back of the pack. It wasn’t that long before we started to recognize a core group of other sloggers and a sort of end-of-the-pack camaraderie developed among some of us. We reached a point where we realized that it was highly unlikely that anyone was going to call-out Nikki. The volunteers were mostly high school-aged kids who really couldn’t give a shit. This loosened us up a bit.
Something cool that they did for the marathon runners, is that they lined the course with live bands, who played a variety of everything from jazz and ambient synth to Metallica covers and everything in-between. So, the stress of being collared gone, the pleasure of live music, and beautiful city of Prague. “We’re just on a fun run,” I told Nikki (also trying to convince myself of this).
We were approaching mile 14 or so, just about half-way, and I have to tell you: one look at Nikki and you could see that this run was anything but fun. I was feeling this, too. My feet hurt, my knees hurt, my hamstrings hurt, my hip flexors hurt. I trod on, trying to institute some mind over matter. Because that is what you have to do. As long as you have average human physical capabilities, your body will do what you tell it to. It’s convincing your mind of this that is the trouble. Your mind (or at least my mind) has a hard time believing that. Nikki was having a hard time believing it. And anyway, who wants their mind to tell their body to “keep going” when it is in so much pain and the road ahead seems interminable.
But I was 100% committed to finishing, and because Nikki had propped me up and motivated me through so many gruelling runs and work-outs in the past, I had no choice but to be an annoyingly positive cheerleader for her. “You’ve got this! You can totally do this! You’re not going to quit, are you? You’re not a quitter, are you? Let’s sing a song! What song do you know all of the words for? Well the east coast girls are hip, I really dig the styles they wear. And the northern girls with the way they look, they knock me out when I’m up there… What’s left? 12 miles? How many times have we run 12 miles? Hey, Nikki, I was just out for a fun run – wanna go on a 12-mile fun run with me in Prague? We can start here and run way the hell far out that way and then come back and finish in Old Town Square, how does that sound? You’re a rockstar! Check you out! This is what you have been training for and you are going to finish it! You’ve totally got this! Yeah, it sucks and yeah it hurts but you’re going to do it anyway. You know why? Because you’re bad-assed. Oh yeah, you’ve totally got this! Sweet Caroline! Good times never felt so good… Hey visualize this: there is hot oil running down over all of your leg muscles, over your tendons, between your joints. Doesn’t that feel good? Light and easy, light and easy. We’re not racing anyone. You are going to do this! Is this all you got, Prague marathon? Is this all you got?”
In part, Nikki would get disheartened when we would cross paths with the groups of runners who were finishing a bend we hadn’t gotten to, yet. You know, those 3-4 hour finishers all massed together? We really were pulling up the rear, and in general, Nikki is pretty speedy, but there would be no way we’d finish this thing if we tried to run fast. We’d burn out. But for Nikki it was depressing to be so far back.
And it’s true that when we went through refreshment stations, they looked like New Orleans the day after Mardi Gras, except with less vomit. The street was strewn with thousands of discarded cups, and the volunteers would be in the process of breaking the whole station down.
But what could you do? It was what it was and we weren’t stopping.
Slog slog slog slog.
But you know what? Every single slogging step we took brought us closer to the finish. And eventually, we had ten miles left,and then, nine, and then eight…
Me: How many times have we run 8 miles? Lots of times, right? We’ve totally got this!
Nikki: Go fuck yourself.
Here’s a little back story. Back in 2006, Nikki tried to run the Chicago marathon, but she’d undertrained and the weather was really terrible and at about mile 16, she threw in the towel, which she has felt bad about ever since. Now, for me, Prague was my first ever attempt to run a marathon – I had no paste experience to build expectations around. Nikki did have a history with the marathon and it was a history where, in her opinion, she failed. So, as her body began to experience the same physical sensations that were her downfall in 2006, Nikki suffered a crisis of confidence. She was battling with the inner demons who were trying to convince her that she should quit.
But eventually, as we got closer, Nikki would offer a half-convinced “yeah, we’ve got this. Whatevs.” which eventually became a teeth-gritting steely and determined “We’ve got this.”
Man, my feet were killing me! Like, I’d heard that there were cobblestones at the beginning and end of the marathon as you ran into Old Town. That was true. But there were also cobblestones in lots of other places that no one bothered to mention. All in all, I’d say 25% of the course was on motherfucking cobblestones. They say the Prague marathon is a beautiful run but all I saw were those godforsaken cobblestones.
And also, I have to say that I am fairly convinced that it is more physically arduous to run a marathon slow than to run it fast. Because you are out there, doing it, longer. While faster runners are already drinking a pivo and massaging their calves, you are still out there, moving.
By now we were on the part of the course where we basically repeat a part that we ran in the very beginning of the race: the part that culminated with the scary tunnel and the hill, before spitting you out onto more cobblestones. Before that, we’d joined those towards the end who’d slowed to a walk. Yes, we were walking. All in all, over the course of the 26.2 miles, I’d say we walked about a mile total. But then you know what happened? Somehow, we got to the point where we only had about 5K left to go. And how many times had we run 5K? Lots and lots and lots of times. 5k? Why that was practically just a warm up, and screw it if we were going to walk a 5k. No way. No how.
Is this all you’ve got, Prague marathon? Is this all you’ve got? Well, look what I’ve got!
We ran. We ran through the tunnel and over the hill. We ran over the tram tracks and turned up Paritzka street, heading towards Old Town Square. Amazingly, there were still people hanging out on the sides of the streets, cheering on the tortoise contingent. A group of people ran and cheered as we passed, and I affected as a casual voice as I could muster, shrugged and shouted across to them, “It felt like a nice day for a jog.”
And then, there we were at Old Town Square. Nikki had mentioned before that she was not going to cross the finish line, so at this point I said to her, “You are crossing that finish line with me!”
And she did! When the volunteers were giving out medals, she just veered away while I got mine. But really, that medal is ours. We both earned it, and I don’t think either of us would have earned it without the other. Because when I was working so hard to pep up Nikki, I also had to convince myself the same things. And when I had a job to make sure Nikki finished this marathon, that meant that I had to be 100% committed to finishing myself.
After the race, we needed to sit down, so we found a nearby pub and ordered some water and a beer. The guys working at the pub saw my medal. One gestured to it. “Did you win?”
“Yeah, first place.”
Back at home, Nikki made us a little snack of bread and cheese and apple.
All I’d consumed that day was a piece of toast with jelly and three Honey Stinger Gold gel packs. After our snack, we showered and then lay down for a nap and I tell you, I have never experienced a time where laying down ever felt as exquisite as it did then. It was like everything else was worth it just to be able to experience a feeling so sublime.
Our final times were about 5 hours, 35 minutes.