I’m wearing sweatpants as I write this – the first pair of sweatpants I’ve owned in 20 years – and I love them. I bought them last week after running a half-marathon, where I placed 11th in the women’s 30-39 year-old division. It’s the first half-marathon in which I’ve competed in four years, and the first time I’ve run as a woman. That’s a lot of firsts. Perhaps I should explain.
According to Dante Alighieri, the 14th century Italian poet, the ninth circle of Hell isn’t a fiery pit. Rather, it’s an ice-bound body of water, formed by Satan’s tears and kept frozen by the beating of his wings. Last Sunday, I learned the frostbitten ninth circle is located in Port Orchard, Washington, where the race was held. I had never before run in such cold and wet conditions. My chilled suffering is my own fault, however, as the ninth circle of hell – the deepest part of the Inferno – is reserved for those who have committed the sin of treachery, which is appropriate as I had lied about my identity to enter the event.
The main reason I haven’t run in an organized long-distance race for several years is because the entry fees have gotten out of hand. As I’ve gotten involved with a running group this year, there is more pressure to enter events, but I hold firm. I am cheap, above all, and told my fellow runners I would be happy to run if they pay my entry fee. Unfortunately, they called my bluff last week, when one of the group decided not to run in the late December event and asked if anyone wanted to take her place. How could I refuse? I didn’t have to pay to run, and I could get a free ride to and from the event. It seemed like a good deal, but I learned that just because something is free doesn’t mean there isn’t a price to pay. In fact, I learned nine things during the event; one for each circle of Hell:
1. If a half-marathon begins with a false start, you should drop out. That’s right: they false started the race. A few seconds after the announcer counted down to zero and the mass began running, air horns were sounded and everyone was asked to return to the start. Apparently, there was a glitch with the chip timing system. Once we were officially underway, the cold rain was coming down steadily and threatened to turn to snow. We should have just gone home before it got ugly.
2. If you’re told it’s important to stay outside of the white lines, you’re in trouble. The announcer repeatedly explained the importance of staying on the shoulder of the roads on which we would be running. He didn’t mention that a lot of the roads didn’t have a shoulder to speak of, and those that did were canted to a degree that it felt like running along a steep hillside. Aside from a few traffic cones, there was nothing separating us from the vehicles traveling on the same road. As the course progressed, and became more water-logged, we were forced to move further into the center of the street to avoid the increasingly large, deep, and frigid pools of water accumulating at the roadside. This created more near-miss opportunities with car and truck traffic.
3. The Internet is filled with lies. From the event website, I offer this quote,“The Half Marathon is a PR-type course with a negative elevation gain and almost all of it as FLAT as you’ll find.“ While I’m not going to conduct a survey to discover if the course elevation was mathematically negative, I’m certain that “flat” doesn’t mean what the race organizers think it means. From the beginning, we encountered slow rising stretches, and upon reaching the halfway point, we were faced with long, steep, uphill climbs. I suppose they would argue they said “almost all of it” is flat, but I still consider it fraud, which will gain them entry into Dante’s eighth circle of Hell.
4. Graupel is a thing. When we were checking the weather conditions online before the event, Jennifer hoped aloud that we wouldn’t be faced with graupel, a weather condition in which super-cooled raindrops combine with snowflakes forming a delightful hail-like substance. We laughed about it while sitting in the car before the start, but Sally and I didn’t find it so damn funny during the second half of the race when our faces were being stung by icy droplets.
5. There is a limit to the efficacy of Body Glide. Once I had gotten used to the feeling of graupel on my face, I noticed another delightful sensation happening on my chest. I had applied a liberal dose of Body Glide to prevent chafing, but after eight miles of cold air keeping my nipples firmly erect combined with the incessant rain that penetrated all three layers of clothing, I was painfully aware of every shift of fabric across my skin. In keeping with the Inferno metaphor, it felt like wearing a cilice (Google it) to induce pain as a symbol of repentance. I was certainly repenting my participation in this race.
6. While I was entered as a woman, I can’t claim to have learned anything about running like a girl. However, it was reported to me that one of my female teammates said it was so cold, she feared her vagina froze. While I can neither confirm nor deny that report, it seems plausible given the suffering I endured.
7. The race organizers may be cheaper than I am. After finishing the race, I visited the refreshment tent and found meager offerings: bananas, bagels, and corn chips. All I wanted was cocoa or coffee, but the only liquid available was cold water. Even salsa to go with the corn chips, with the promise of a bit of chile pepper-induced heat, would have been nice, but no. Prisoners eat better than this. Even the medals we received for finishing the race were disappointing. It took us a while to figure out the strangely shaped and oddly designed awards were a visual pun: we ran a half-marathon, so we received a half-medal. The few hardy souls who completed the full marathon received the full-size medal that clearly displayed the race logo, but us halfers received a strange, jagged edge hunk of metal that gave the appearance of having been purchased at a great discount. Half medals for half marathoners may have seemed clever to the organizers, but to those of us who finished the run in such hellish conditions, we felt deserving of full medals and were annoyed at the symbolic miserliness of the event planners. The fourth circle of Hell is reserved for greedy souls, which seems appropriate for the organizers who didn’t appear to have spent the entry fees on any race amenities.
8. I need sweat pants. After the race, our group drove to a restaurant to find warm food and liquor. We had driven 40 miles before stopping – hoping to get as far away from the race as possible – when we pulled into the parking lot. The long drive ensured our tired muscles were maximally stiff when we attempted to exit the vehicle. My friends were each wrapped in a blanket, and we all limped slowly towards the restaurant, looking like a cross between extras in an episode of The Walking Dead and residents of a senior housing facility on field trip day. As we sat in the restaurant, my legs wouldn’t stop trembling. Michelle generously shared her woobie – a military-issued blanket made of two layers of nylon surrounding a polyester lining – to cover my bare legs. Shivering under the woobie, I realized I needed to buy some sweat pants.
9. I appreciate my running friends. I have spent the last year getting used to the idea of running with others on a regular basis. I joined the group as a way to re-energize my running habit, but as a long-time lone runner, it’s been a transition. I’m still getting used to all the socializing and “cheering each other on” stuff, but after last Sunday’s half-marathon, I am grateful for my teammates. After all, Jennifer, Kate, Megan, Michelle, Sally and I have been through Hell together.
P.S., Thanks, Jill, for letting me run like a girl. Next time, please skip out on a summer run. Thanks.