Spangdahlem lt shares first-time marathon experience

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Kathleen Polesnak
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office
The first time I saw the Mediterranean Sea, I had been running for about 20 miles. I laboriously climbed a small hill and just over the peak of cement I could see palm trees dotting the vast carpet of sand and the slate gray sky blanketing the waves. I couldn't help but smile even though my quads and knees were literally on their last legs.

"Only about 10 more kilometers to go," I conceded.

The sites, sounds and smells of Barcelona filled me as I trotted through the city streets with about 9,000 others March 1 for Marató Barcelona - the Barcelona Marathon.

A runner's carnival
It was a celebratory atmosphere even before the race began. Everyone clapped and cheered while approaching the starting line, smiling as though they already had medals around their necks. We were a mob of thousands vying for the same destination - through the archway over the starting line - and to my surprise, no one pushed, shoved or cussed.

Armed with my iPod, sunglasses and gel packs, I set out, telling myself it was just like every other long run I had done - except for the thousands of fellow runners, cityscape, crowds and music.

OK, so this wasn't like any other run.

People lined the streets cheering for runners with everything from bull horns to costumes to musical instruments. Barcelona residents leaned over their wrought-iron balconies to watch the colorful herd migrate through the city. Children stuck their hands out for high-fives while activists thrust arm bands that read "Save Tibet" into the hands of passersby. Runners themselves donned costumes, including grass skirts and national flags as capes.

The only thing missing was a ferris wheel and some popcorn.

Anatomy of a race
Marathons take patience. You can't rush training or the race itself.

I signed up to run the marathon in November along with 2nd Lt. Emily Robota, 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit assistant officer in charge. In December, she found out she wouldn't be able to run the marathon because of a pending temporary duty assignment and possible deployment, so I had to go it alone.

I debated for a while whether I was up for it, and reluctantly pressed on in early January with more intense training. Ever since I started running around age 11, distance has been my strong point more so than speed, so my marathon goal was simply to finish.

Thanks to the Eifel area's hills and valleys, I did most of my training on inclines, which made Barcelona's flat terrain feel relatively easy. I broke the race into five kilometer stretches - about three miles -to help me mentally digest the distance rather than swallowing 26.2 miles whole.

When I hit the halfway point, I could feel my legs start to protest. The last three miles felt like an odyssey - every time I saw something resembling an archway or heard a booming voice through a microphone, I was sure the finish line was 100 meters away, only to realize I had another mile or two to go.

Wanted: cheerleaders
Around mile nine, I saw Lieutenant Robota.

"Emily!" I shouted, as she pulled out the camera and snapped a photo of me running toward her.

She wasn't able to train for the race because of her TDY, but she was there as my moral support and travel buddy. It was her 24th birthday that day, so I dedicated the first 24 miles to her and said the 2.2 miles after that were "just because I can."

I was grateful to have a friend there to witness and celebrate my accomplishment.
Strangers also showed support.

While I stood in the crowd waiting to approach the starting line, I spoke with an American woman named Nancy. Barcelona was her fifth marathon.

"Wow, I hope I can say that one day," I said.

We chatted until the race began, wished each other luck and took off. Around mile 13, runners were passing each other on opposite sides of the street. I spotted Nancy with her light yellow T-shirt and blonde ponytail and started waving my hands like I was on a desert island flagging down aircraft.


"Kate! How are you?"


This short conversation in any other context would be meaningless, but 13 miles into a marathon, it was a dose of much-needed energy and encouragement.

The newest marathon vet
Completing my first marathon was humbling and gratifying. It was humbling because the miles were honest and unyielding on my body and the people around me - old, young, fast, slow, short, tall, you name it - gave it everything they had. It was gratifying because the months I spent preparing for the event paid off the moment I stepped off the starting line, and twice over when I crossed the finish line.

I read a few days after the race that a 27-year-old Irish native died of a heart attack around mile 21. Colin Dunne was an avid athlete and I can only hope he died doing something he loved.

He certainly wasn't alone. Runners take care of each other.

Along the way, I saw at least two people fall down, and each time, others immediately stopped and picked them up. Our names were printed on bibs pinned to our backs, and you could hear people saying, "Good job. Keep going Maria (or Bob or Juan, etc.)" in various languages as they passed.

A marathon is an individual event, but you share the experience with other marathon veterans, no matter their time or place.

I will always remember Barcelona for my first marathon and glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea, but it also serves as a starting line to the other races and life goals I plan to pursue.