It wasn’t until mile 20 of my first marathon that I was over running. And I don’t mean done for that day I mean I really felt deep in my bones that if I never ran another day in my life I would be ok. Surprisingly the thing that got me to the edge didn’t directly have to do with the extreme physical exhaustion (that set in after the triggering event) or the mental thought that I still had a 10k to run ( that also came after the trigger). No, the marble that started the domino effect was my head phones tickling my underarm.
Allow me to explain my weird underarm sensitivity. First to clarify when I say underarm I don’t mean arm pits, that’s ticklish on most people. What I mean is the triceps area or as I call mine the bat wing. As long as I can remember I have hated light touch on this area. I noticed it first in the bathtub as a kid. If my underarm wasn’t fully submersed or above water and water was lightly on in it I would get this tickle feeling in my arm that led to this agitated felling everywhere and eventually an itching sensation in my mouth. To relate to this sensation in my mouth imagine the most obnoxious itching that you can’t scratch: A sunburn peeling on the back of your thighs while sitting in class, a bug bite on the top of your foot while sitting in a suit and tie in a business meeting.
I can’t say that it’s so extreme that normal shirt sleeves bother it but I have on more than one occasion had a phantom hair on a sleeve or those annoying hanger hooks that have caused me discomfort. The good thing about this underarm area is it’s not touched very often. Unless you are me and have this weird sensitivity. Since undergrad I have worked with children with disabilities and this is an area that is often pinched. My cat enjoys sitting in the crook on arm with her butt towards my face and tail lightly wagging with happiness on my underarm (she especially loves this in the middle of the night or very early in the morning). I of course being me have also made the mistake of telling friends and boyfriends, mostly looking to find that magical moment of “OMG! Me too!” but alas I get told I’m weird and they have to try it out “Is you mouth itching yet?” Usually this is followed by “I’m pretty sure that doesn’t make physical sense”
So alas here I am after three years of serious running (including at least six half marathons by this point) and six months of intense marathon training (many times working 8 hours and leaving right from work to run 10 miles on the streets of DC) competing in my first full marathon. When the tickle strikes. I have been running slowly to keep my pace on a hot may day, only walking through a few water stops to take breaks and make sure I keep hydrated. I have been listening to my iPod Shuffle which is clipped on my running tank top. My head phone cord has been fine all 20 miles but now is suddenly tickling my underarm just right to cause my already dry mouth to itch. I move the cord and switch the position of my Shuffle. All is fine and the tickle has resolved, when it happens again.
At this point I am pissed. Why is this suddenly a problem? I go to move the cord, swearing a little and all is well again. I’m doing my slow run and almost to the 20.5 mile water stop when my elbow catches my cord and jerks my ear bud out of my ear during the middle of the 4th round of hearing “Lets get it started”. I stop running and shout a very loud “Fuck”. The good news is at mile 20.5 of a marathon there is a large gap between runners, I could see people a bit head of me and knew there were people behind me but no one is next to me to hear the start of my tantrum. I walk a little, put my ear bud back in, move my Shuffle and wipe my face on my shirt before taking a very deep breath and start running again, longing for the water station.
Right as I spot the water station, the headphones lightly touch my underarm which starts an itch in my mouth which causes my elbow to catch the cord and jerk the earbud out of my ear. “God Fucking Damnit” I yell stopping and fixing the problem. Surely people have heard me as I get cheers and side glances through the water station. My strategy up until this point has been start walking at first table of a station and start running after the last garbage can. However this time I walk a little farther.
Why the hell did I ever think I could do this? Who thinks this is a fun activity? I have been running for over four hours and I still had more than an hour left. And that’s if I could run it, if I walked it I’m looking at more than two hours. Worse is I know somewhere behind me, no idea how far behind me, is the car that picks up stragglers who won’t finish the course in the allotted time. I don’t want to start running and experience the underarm tickle and pulling my ear bud which has made me upset. At that moment I could not handle that disappointment. I am covered from head to toe in sweat, the sun is in all its glory and getting hotter as the day goes on. My foot is cramping on and off to the point where I curl my toes to assure myself I still can. My legs, shoulders and arms all ache. I am somewhere near the 21 mile marker meaning I still have a little over 5 miles to go. Every part of me wants to sit on the curb and cry. I feel tired, hot, disappointed and if I’m honest a little angry at my headphones still. “At least I tried” I find myself thinking, tears welling in my eyes.
It may be no surprise that there are not many spectators on mile 21 of a marathon course. No little kids to give high fives to, no creative signs like “Worst parade ever” or “Make this hill your bitch”. Essentially no external motivation to keep going, you have to dig deep and find it in your soul. “Fuck this noise I say outloud” I wrap my headphone cords around the strap of my sports bra (earbuds and all) and start jogging slowly. There is no way I am going to be defeated by a race. I have never given up on a goal and this is certainly not going to be a first. Wasn’t it I who worked my way through grad school despite having to take on multiple jobs and retake a couple practicals? Didn’t I train hard through winter and rain in order to run my first half marathon only two year earlier? And hadn’t I somehow gotten through the death of my father and my mother’s unhealthy response? I was Amy and I could get through another measly 5 miles. Instead of thinking about how much I had left I thought of how far I’d already come, both in life and in this race.
“Run when you can, walk if you must, crawl if you have to” started repeating in my head as I slowly started running and anticipating that next glorious water stop and walk break. I finally came to the last water stop and started to see school kids running their hearts out the last mile of the course. Cleveland has this great program where kids run 25 miles during the school year and finish their marathon on the course. It was so awesome to see these kids, most in oversized shirts running with fresh energy and excitement, laughing and yelling to one another. I tried to pick up my pace but then decided I’d rather finish then die so kept with my turtle pace. I can only imagine how gross I looked as I crossed the finish line and grabbed my popsicle, water and banana. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry. As I walked around looking for my friends, I may have cried a little more when finally after 5 hours and 20 minutes I got to sit down in the grass. I had met another goal. A goal which only 1% of the population has done. What next???