My Adventures as a Half-Marathon Spectathlete

It’s Thursday night and I finally have a few minutes to sit down and write about this past weekend’s amazing trip to St. Louis! Let’s just say I am not one of those bloggers who can update every day even while traveling. Props to you, daily bloggers.

Anyway, did you know I was in St. Louis last weekend? Well, I was. The gateway city! The jumping off point for explorers setting out on the Oregon trail! I had driven through St. Louis a few times before (on my own Oregon trail, so to speak — cross-country road trips are both a family tradition and something I’ve done alone before and I love doing it), but had never spent any real time there before.

This trip was all about racing. My friend B. had spent spring semester training for her very first half marathon race and was signed up to compete in the Go! St. Louis Marathon and Half. We have run several races together (5K and 10K distance) and she has accompanied me to both of my half marathons as well as my full marathon, where she cheered me on at the finish, took pictures, carried my stuff, and was over all a super race sherpa. Nowadays, we are both experts in the racing and spectating scene, but this was the first time where I was playing the role of sherpa and spectathlete instead of racing for myself. But more on that in a minute.

The weekend started out with a night in Atlanta at the home of our friend D., who graciously offered us a place to sleep before our early-morning flight and also took care of Egon the Dog while we were gone. (Thanks, D!) On Saturday morning, we were up early and off on our short flight to Missouri.

This was the first time I have flown since before I began my big weight loss effort and SWEET FANCY MOSES, what a sigh of relief I breathed when I realized how easily and comfortably I could fit in the seat, move around, cross my legs, and everything. I will never complain about flying coach again — for me it felt like first class! Well, I mean, except for the fact that first class flyers get free champagne and whatnot. But I digress.

Anyway, we got to STL so early that we had the whole day to explore the city, eat, relax, nap, and, of course, carbo load for the next morning’s race. Although I wasn’t racing 13.1 miles myself, I (rightly) predicted that my role as a spectathlete would be challenging enough to warrant eating as if I were racing. Hey, I am allowed a few indulgences every now and then, especially when I am visiting a city that boasts an actual vegan bakery!

Manifesto [99/365] Sweet Art

We visited Sweet Art on the recommendation of B’s local friends and it was well worth it. They offer vegan cupcakes and brownies as well as vegan/vegetarian lunches and so on. If you are ever in St. Louis you should most definitely give the brownies a try. Amazing. And you’ll have to trust me because I ate that sucker with not a single thought of documenting it photographically.

Our pre-race day in the city was lovely and we both caught up on sleep — then, on race morning, it was GAME ON. We were up early once again, B. was suited up and ready to run, and we took the city’s MetroLink train in to the race start. It was packed shoulder to shoulder with runners, so we knew we were in the right place.

Early Morning Scene

As the sun came up, with the famous Gateway Arch in the background, over 17,000 runners made their way into the starting corrals, ready to race either 13.1 or 26.2 miles on a very warm April morning. At the moment I took this picture, it had already reached 70 degrees before the streetlights had even turned off for the day.

Pre-Race

I waited around with B. while she got prepared to take off on her 13.1 mile adventure, snapped a pre-race photo, walked her to her starting corral, and then fought my way through the crowds to try to find a place near the starting line to watch the runners take off.

I was crammed into a crowd of folks behind a chain link fence about 10 yards past the start line, which was a perfect spot to observe the elite runners jogging and doing pick-ups prior to start-time. It was funny to hear the older ladies around me try to figure out what they were doing as they each sprinted out about 50 yards and then walked back to the start over and over again. Even though I knew what they were doing in their warmups, I had never been at this kind of vantage point at a race before and found it fun to watch.

Once the Marines displayed the flag and the national anthem was sung, I watched as the fastest, wiriest runners came up to toe the line. There was no denying that these athletes at the front of the group had come to compete. They were chatty at first, working out their pre-race energy with some leg swings and knee bends and whatnot, but as the start approached, I saw tension and determination in each and every face at the line. Even my heart was racing there on the sidelines.

[100/365] Go!

It took about 15-20 minutes after the start before I finally saw B. cross the line. I missed snapping her photo there because I wasn’t quite ready, so I focused on working my way over to mile six, my next spectating vantage point.

By the time I got there, it was about 25 minutes after the starting gun and the race leaders were about to pass by — just moments after I had left the start line! Yes, these elites are running at a 5:00 mile pace. No big deal.

Stride for Stride

I hung around until the crowds came through, carrying B. among them. I cheered and screamed, snapped photos, and collected the sweaty headband that had been driving her crazy for the past six miles. See, spectating is an important job, y’all. I am here for your headband disposal needs!

Mile Six

After leaving mile six, I was off to the finish line. I got there in time to catch everyone who finished between about 1:35-2:35. Yes, I spent an hour watching runners cross the line and I never got bored once. In fact, this was one of the most interesting, intense, and inspiring sporting experiences I have ever had.

When I first got to the line, I somehow accidentally wound up in a medical volunteer area. Before I figured it out and was asked to move, I had a really intimate view of runners crossing the finish line. I saw dozens of super-fit, super-fast 1:35 half marathon finishers cross the line. One young guy powered across looking so strong and determined, and then I watched as he struggled to tear off his sweaty shirt, then bent over and squeezed his quads, looking back up with a wide-eyed expression of exhaustion and confusion. I knew he had left everything he had out on the race course and was completely wrung out at the end.

During the hour that I continued to watch and cheer for finishers, I saw people sprint, dance, jog, cruise, limp, stagger, and be carried across that line. Four runners I saw were in a state of collapse or near collapse. I watched as one young girl stood in the middle of the road with her arms around a volunteer’s neck, legs buckling. Two medical team members came and supported her, one on each side, and walked her across the line as her noodle-legs and cement-feet dragged underneath her. It took maybe two or three minutes for them to cover 15-20 yards. The crowd was screaming, SCREAMING her across the line. Once she crossed, we all fell silent and watched as the medical team laid her gently on the ground and tended to her. I had goosebumps and tears at the same time. Shit was intense, you know?

It was really, really hot out that day — for April in St. Louis. B.’s local friends told us it had been chilly and cold during all the weeks leading up to the race. Local runners were probably training in tights and long sleeves or they were inside on treadmills. They probably had no chance to get at all acclimated to running in the heat. Writing just from my own experience, it takes several runs out in the heat when the weather first warms up to get used to hotter temperatures. These runners just weren’t ready to be out there in the surprising heat that day. B. had no trouble with the weather — training in the hills and heat of Alabama sucks sometimes, but when it comes to racing, it has its advantages for sure.

Watching so many runners struggling at the finish due to heat exhaustion, I was a little worried for my friend out there on the course. I hoped she would take it easy, especially as it was her first race. She had told me to expect her in with a finish time of around 2:45. She really wanted to finish in under 3:00, she said. Imagine my surprise when I saw her FLYING up to the finish at just past 2:30!

Finish Line in Sight

Holy crap! She blew her predicted time away, and finished so strong, even passing girls around her in the last few yards. Amazing. Afterward, she told me that while miles 7-9 had been really tough, miles 10-13 were some of the best miles of the race! As someone who always blows it up too fast, I need to learn her secret to finishing strong.

I so, so enjoyed the chance to be there at the finish, cheering and taking pictures for my friend. Racing is usually all about me. I’m so focused on my own experience, my own training, my own race. Spectating at this race gave me the chance to really see it with others in mind. Mostly my attention was on my friend and my concern was with her experience, but in watching the other runners I got a first-time chance to see the unique experience each runner has as he or she competes. Watching the strides and behaviors and expressions that varied from runner to runner as I saw hundreds of competitors cross the finish line of their race, I was blown away. Inspired and moved.

Half-Marathon Finisher!

After a super-succesful race, we of course had to celebrate! First, some lounging, stretching, and rehydrating in the park, then a leisurely lunch and refueling mission. We found a cozy, relaxing sidewalk cafe serving absolutely gigantic glasses of wine and spent most of the afternoon there, reveling in the post-race excitement. After a fancy sushi dinner and a too-brief night of sleep, we were up at the crack of dawn to head back to the south.

Sidewalk Cafe Wine

A whirlwind weekend and a surprisingly incredible experience as a first-time marathon spectathlete. Big thanks to B. for making me a part of her race weekend! I’m now more inspired than ever to choose my next race event.

6 thoughts on “My Adventures as a Half-Marathon Spectathlete

  1. B April 15, 2011 / 12:32 am

    Yay! What a great write-up of our weekend! My write-up will be “what she said.” Your pictures are amazing, and your blog post brings back all the good memories we made. I’ll definitely book this post and return to it whenever I’m feeling down–a definite mood-booster for sure!

    Thanks for being a great race sherpa!!! Now we will have to find a long race to run together for a change.

  2. Kate April 15, 2011 / 6:37 am

    Yes!! Fall half marathons are calling my name!

  3. Chrissy (The New Me) April 15, 2011 / 9:06 am

    What a great recap! First of all, congratulations to B – that is a huge accomplishment and it sounds like you ran a killer race!

    Secondly, these photos are fantastic. The one with the arch in the background and the one of the elites at the start line both give me chills. I haven’t yet had the chance to spectate a race but I’m looking forward to the chance – especially the finish line. šŸ™‚

    • Kate April 23, 2011 / 6:56 pm

      Thanks! It was a really great time. I highly recommend spectating whenever you get the chance. It was fun in and of itself, but it also got me extra motivated to get out there and train/race.

  4. Rose-Anne April 18, 2011 / 12:38 pm

    I’ve got chills reading this post, Kate. What an amazing experience! Congrats to B on a well-run race. It’s true, isn’t it, that if we run our race to the best of our ability, we leave it all on the course. Being able to see people doing that (because you’re not focused on your own race) is inspiring, to say the least.

    • Kate April 23, 2011 / 6:56 pm

      Agreed!

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