MODESTO — Getting up at a quarter to six in the morning wasn't tough. I hadn't slept much that night anyway out of nerves and excitement at the prospect of being in my first race the half-marathon portion of the Modesto Marathon.
A full marathon is 26.2 miles, so a half is 13.1. The longest walk I had done prior to this was seven miles and my longest run being five. This was going to be a big test.
I arrived at 6:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the start of the race. Downtown was packed with runners and event staff.
In the predawn darkness, I went looking for my friend with whom I was going to run, but before finding her I was astounded by the long line of porta-potties on 10th Street, across from Valley Transmission, and the even longer lines of runners waiting to use them. The constant thump of the doors closing provided a steady beat until the last few minutes before the race began.
Arriving at the start line of 10th and M streets, the mass of runners waited for the word, and at 7 a.m. sharp we were off.
Quickly leaving downtown, we ran past Graceada and then Enslen parks and on to Princeton Avenue, which we followed until Ninth Street, where we turned right and headed toward the Highway 99 overpass that loomed in the distance. Having driven up the overpass plenty of times, running up it was an entirely different experience. Your legs feel the rising height as your speed slows just a little to compensate for the increasing incline, but once at the top you speed up as you go back down the overpass.
Slipping around the back way and going under Highway 99, where I learned that lots of swallows build their mud nests under the overpass, we now were on Brink Avenue. We headed past the Modesto Junior College West Campus until Brink became North Avenue.
At this point, my legs were done about four miles in and the walking began. As I slowed, I noticed an older man, probably in his 80s, tear past me. After a long walk down this stretch of road, we turned onto Ferry Road and reached seven miles.
Turning onto Shoemake and toward Modesto again, this became the point where the half-marathon officially became agony as my legs started to stiffen up and I began to feel blisters on both my little toes which precluded running any more and there was still an additional 6.1 miles to go.
While walking down the seemingly endless Shoemake, I began to wonder how I would have done on some of the famous marches in history. At some point, would I have mentioned to Xenophon, "I've had enough of this whole walking back to Greece business. To heck with you and Greek democracy. I'm joining the Persians. While they may have a despotic form of government, at least they have an excellent mail service."
How about Mao and the "Long March?" "Sorry Mao, but these blisters on my toes are just killing me so I'm joining up with Chiang Kai-shek, but before I go, here is some advice, two words 'Cultural Revolution'; the kids will love it."
Still continuing down Shoemake, the 10th mile is reached just before the West Campus. Only 3.1 miles left. Back to Brink and now it's time to walk the Briggsmore overpass again and I've had nothing in the tank since the ninth mile.
Slowly trudging over it, some of the marathoners would run past but they always had encouraging words. After nine miles of dealing with the people on this run, I became convinced the organizers must have sent out a request that only the nicest of people were allowed to run because the runners and the workers were all extremely kind in how patient they were and generous with their time and efforts and the encouragement they offered.
Who knew Ninth Street went on for miles and miles, but it does. Just before Coldwell, I was at 12 miles. Only 1.1 to go. Passing the junior college and moving on to the giant Grange building, moving further under the Needham overpass, no more than half a mile to go. Olive Street, just one block as I can now hear music playing. I turn the corner onto N Street and there is the finish line.
With my name being announced, I cross the line in an agonizingly slow 3 hours, 51 minutes and 31 seconds. But I did it!
Next year, I'm going to run the whole half-marathon. I'll start practicing right now.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.