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Invisible Tag: An OC Marathon Race Reflection

I ran the 20th Anniversary of the Hoag OC Marathon this past Sunday morning, and before I get any further, no, ‘Hoag’ is not short for ‘hoagie.’ Yes, I was also disappointed… You can take the girl out of South Jersey, but you can’t take the South Jersey out of the girl.


All jokes aside, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the experience – as one is wont to do after any big accomplishment in life. It was my fourth marathon and the marathon in which I wanted to dismantle a mental roadblock I had been carrying regarding my potential finish time: could I run this race in under four hours? My three previous marathons resulted in two 4:45+ marathon finishes (my first two races in Barcelona, Spain and Wexford, Ireland) and a 4:30 finish in Chicago. Although I still believe the most important result in a marathon is to show up and finish healthy, I couldn’t help but wonder if, having now completed the 26.2 mile journey three other times, I couldn’t finish just a little bit faster.


The biggest question I’ve wrestled with in my post-race reflection process, though, is “where and how do I begin?” A marathon doesn’t begin at the 5:30 AM start time on the morning of the race or even at the 3:30 AM wakeup when you can no longer pretend to sleep, waiting for the impending 26.2 mile run like a child trying to sneak a peek at Santa Claus. No, the marathon is not a one-day affair; it begins months in advance of a single day.


Months of behind-the-scenes preparation go into the effort that culminates in a single test of 26.2 miles (and all those glorious celebration photos runners love to show off).

Months of early mornings, sore muscles, deep sleep, and carbo-loading.

Months of wondering if you’re preparing enough for race day.

Months of figuring out how to fuel/eat/hydrate while running for hours on end without any potential bathroom mishaps.

Months of trying to avoid injuries or setbacks.

Months of battling self-doubt and some (probably not totally unwarranted) fear.

Months of anticipation and anxiety and, most importantly, excitement.

a woman standing on a pre-race podium
Saturday at the Race Expo

The marathon doesn’t begin with an announcement over a loudspeaker; it begins with a quiet inner-voice encouraging you to challenge yourself, guiding you toward a journey to see just how much you are capable of and how much more you can give of yourself to your goal.

I mentioned before that I had finished three marathons prior to Sunday’s race. This was helpful because I had a clear-enough understanding of what to expect on race day, but, of course, every race is different. Barcelona, Spain had about 12,000 runners participate and was a great foreign city experience; Wexford, Ireland was a small local marathon where the scenery was beautiful, but the cows just about outnumbered the runners (~200 participants); and Chicago was 40,000+ people running, thousands of Chicagoans and tourists supporting and cheering along the city streets, and elite marathoners setting records by the time I got to the halfway mark (lol).


I include the above information because although I had a reasonable understanding of race day morning, I did not anticipate the unforetold road closures, traffic congestion for drop-off, or lack of organization at the starting corrals. It’s a miracle I was able to use one of the port-o-potties (VIP for avoiding aforementioned potential bathroom mishaps), but, given the scene when I arrived, unsurprising that I didn’t really get to warm-up or stretch (especially if I wanted a chance at fighting my way through an ocean of runners to a pacing group).


a woman sitting and pointing at text
Found my name on the wall!

Having decided to do my best, wing it, and try to catch up to a pace group, I took a few precious seconds to do some deep breathing in order to settle my nerves. Feeling grounded, I hit the start button on my watch as I crossed the threshold, heading off into the dark morning to face the 26.2 miles ahead with the other crazy/amazing people participating in this insane/awesome endeavor.


The first half of the OC Marathon was absolutely beautiful. When I replay the marathon in my head, the most vivid image I can picture is running towards the coast at sunrise and seeing the ocean on the horizon. Once we all made it to the coastline, we got several miles of picturesque running past cool blue waters and perfectly positioned sailboats. It was as if the Hoag OC Marathon organizers were selling the commercialized image of what it means to experience runners’ high. Well done, organizers. Good on you.


Based on that first 13.1 miles, it does not surprise me that there were 9500 people who ran the half marathon. Having run the back 13.1, it does not surprise me that there were only 2800 people who ran the full.


If the first half of the marathon was a coastal sensory utopia, then the second half was suburban sensory deprivation. Don’t get me wrong; the neighborhoods are clean and the homes are gorgeous, but I spend enough time scrolling through Zillow that the back 13.1 felt more like a punishment for doing the full instead of a reward for doing the half.

a map of the Hoag OC Marathon route

But, feeling it necessary to do my homework beforehand, I sat down with my boyfriend on Saturday night and strategized where I would need to see him for general cheering and moral support. Taking into account everything I’d heard about the front half of the race being so gorgeous, we decided that after he dropped me off for the 5:30 AM start, I wouldn’t need to see him (or one of the 5 amazing motivational signs he made for me) until miles 10, 16, 20, 23, and 26.2. This strategy worked, and thank goodness it did. He was awesome and there when I needed him (with hilarious signs).


Now, anyone who has run a marathon will tell you about ‘The Wall.’ This is a period of time where your brain will try to convince you to stop running -- probably because you’re pushing your body beyond its limits and it’s trying to self-preserve. But ya know what? Brains are stupid and not really needed to run.. or so I tell myself in these moments of ‘The Wall.’ It usually happens somewhere between miles 18-21 for me, which is why I strategically placed my boyfriend at Miles 20 and 23. I knew I’d hit ‘The Wall’ at some point, so if it was going to be before Mile 20 I could convince myself to make it to him. If it was going to be after Mile 20, I could convince myself to last to Mile 23. It’s called STRATEGY, people. This is WAR.


I had to start battling the ‘The Wall’ and its mental demons once I got to Miles 19 and 20. Luckily my boyfriend-placement-strategy worked, and luckily I did a pretty good job of hydrating and fueling throughout the race, including dumping water on my neck to cool myself off, which helped. It’s much harder to talk yourself out of something when you’re doing everything within your power to set yourself up for success.


But since I know this is something all marathon runners experience to some degree, I admit that there was an ongoing, one-sided conversation where I had to convince myself to finish the race. The result of said conversation is that I made myself a bargain and told myself that even if I had to slow down a lot, I was just going to do my best and finish (I told you brains were stupid). If you’re picturing me having an out-loud, bargaining conversation with myself while trying to begrudgingly put one foot in front of the other, you are 100% correct in your assessment. And guess what? I heard many other runners having out-loud conversations with themselves between miles 18-21. We’re a special group, and because we all know that struggle, we are an incredibly supportive group, as well. 'Birds of a feather flock together,' but as I hate birds and love spicy faerie books, let's just say 'Like calls to Like.'


AND THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED. Between miles 20-21, as I was finishing up my bargain with myself, I was running behind a guy wearing these loose-fitting, dark running shorts. His running posture was a bit warped and kind of funny-looking because he was reaching back to adjust his shorts, which I then, of course, started staring at because I was trying to figure out why his posture was so strange. Picture a tall, lean man trying to do the Jack Sparrow run (from Pirates of the Caribbean) but if his right hand was reaching backwards towards his trousers, and you’ll understand why I couldn’t look away. It was like marathon contortion. Impressive, really.


BUT THEN I GASPED. Why did I gasp? I am so glad you asked. I gasped because, as I was staring at Knockoff Jack Sparrow, I saw poop come out of his shorts. This poor fellow runner’s posture was so strange because he was actively trying not to poop himself and was, sadly, losing the battle. I told you this is war! I felt badly for him (obviously… because I'm not a shitty person, hehe), but I then also immediately decided two things: 1. although I have never tried anything new on race day, I vow to continue that practice and never try any of the untested gels they try to hand out at water stations lest I also poo myself, and 2. I was no longer allowed to worry about my legs hurting or my feet being numb or all the other excuses my (stupid) brain wanted to make up and flaunt around for no reason because things can always be worse and at least I wasn't pooping myself with only 5 miles left. That man's unfortunate situation became a valuable life lesson for me, and wherever he is, I am thankful for him and I sincerely hope he's okay and doesn't stop running just because of a little number two accident. Forrest Gump said it best: “Shit happens.”

a woman holding a sign that says "pain is the French word for bread"
The sign Alex held up at Mile 23 (very helpful for food-motivated me).

Running the final five miles of the Hoag OC Marathon was the equivalent of a car running on fumes. I knew from my previous marathons that the final 6.2 miles are a mental game, and I’m just happy to have come out victorious. Not the most scenic or exciting final leg of a marathon I've run, I spent my final push choosing people in front of me to try to catch like a sneaky game of Tag where no one knows I’m ‘It’ or even that they are playing the game with me. This is the stretch of the race (and this blog post) where it’s important for me to acknowledge my various ‘Tag’ non-participating participants that I never actually tagged:


To Mr. Poop Shorts f.k.a. Knockoff Jack Sparrow – I’m so sorry that happened to you. I was playing Tag with you for a couple miles, but, for obvious reasons, I needed to find a new target.

To Purple Tank Top Lady – Thank you for getting me through miles 22-23. I wish I could’ve run farther with you, but I caught up and needed to find my next person to tag because I wanted to try to push as much as I could at the end. You rock! Girl power!

To Mr. Over-Ear-Headphone-Wearer – Aren’t you hot in those headphones? Are they waterproof? Do you pour water on your head or neck to cool off, and if you do, are your headphones okay? If you don’t, how do you stay cool? Anyway, thanks for helping me for mile 23. My bafflement over your headphones really did offer a much-needed respite from the thousand other burning questions searing my (stupid) brain. I spent too much time worrying about your body temperature, though, so I needed to find a new Tag buddy. And finally –

To Mr. & Mrs. ‘Run for Those Who Can’t’ – I never actually caught up to you two, but thank you for helping me finish miles 24-26.2. I maintained a steady pace about 7 seconds behind you, and your sports bra strap and matching tank top that read “Run for Those Who Can’t” really helped remind me of how privileged I am to even be able to entertain the idea of running a marathon. It’s really easy to lose sight of that when you’re all wrapped up in battling your Doubties in ‘The Wall’ or making out-loud bargains with yourself like a crazy scammer peddling her knockoff wristwatches – not to mention witnessing an accidental number two or worrying about someone overheating from their headphones, but I digress. Mr. & Mrs. ‘Run for Those Who Can’t,’ you helped recenter me so that I could cross the finish line and remember my own ‘Why.’ That last ¼ mile felt longer than the 26 miles that came before it, but focusing on the words on your backs kept me going. From the bottom of this grateful stranger’s heart, thank you.

a man kissing a woman's cheek
Recreating our post-race finish photo from Chicago Marathon

I crossed the finish line, got my race medal, and collected every free beverage offered to me in that post-finish frenzy. And so, with three differently-packaged beverages in hand, I ventured onward into the crowd of fellow finishers and through the highly-congested, poorly-organized cattle chutes in search of the most-sought-after post-race prize of all: a banana.


I drank canned water from Monster (the energy drink) after asking them if it was, in fact, water – a question that was echoed all around me from other race finishers; I tried to drink 4 sips from a bottle of the worst-tasting Gatorade I’ve ever had in my life before deciding I’d let my boyfriend give it a go instead of just throwing it away; and I miraculously got through two whole sips of boxed chocolate milk before I ended up tossing that in the bin. I feel badly for wasting the chocolate milk. I'll remember not to take it next time - or at least remember not to drink it immediately.


As my chocolate milk fell into the garbage before me, I looked up and what did my tired eyes behold? It was the answer to my heart’s desire: a young volunteer with a sole banana standing before me, offering it up to the masses so he could recycle the box in which it sat. As I strained to reach for my precious and highly-coveted banana, my legs threatening to buckle from the stress of the 26.2 miles and the newly-added stress of the slow-moving foot traffic, a fellow finisher just ahead of me got to it first. The scene played out in slow motion before me, devastation sweeping into my soul. The volunteer made eye contact and, seeing the absolute heartbreak in my eyes over the loss of my One True Banana, informed me that there were plenty of bananas just on the other side of the slow-moving herd of post-race zombies.

a man holding a sign and woman smiling
This sign made me tear up post-race

I was presented a choice. On the one hand, I could continue on my soul-sucking near-crawl to salvation outside the poorly-planned cattle chute. On the other hand, I could backtrack, work my way through the quicksand of post-race runner zombies, and add more steps to my woebegone feet in order to secure my most precious post-race snack. As badly as I wanted a banana, my (stupid) brain would not let me part the dead sea to acquire it and, therefore, not allow me to achieve the state of post-marathon nirvana I so deeply desired. Instead I shuffled along, allowing myself to be swallowed up by the sea of strangers, hoping to be spit out on the other side of the impenetrable chain-link fence. The entire ~50 yard walk from the finish line to the exit took 20 minutes. Reader, this alone is the main reason I would not participate in this specific event again. The course was enjoyable enough and the markings were clear, but the starting line and the finish line were just a big ol’ mess.


So, if you made it this far, THANK YOU, and also, I’m sure you’re wondering: why did I even want to run another marathon? I’m so happy you asked. I believe life’s big events are an accumulation of several small decisions. Marathon-training has taught me that if I keep putting in the work, eventually I will see the results I want, so I apply this philosophy to everything I do in life. I hope the small choices and adjustments I make on a daily basis will add up to great things. (The adorable 3-year-old girl at Mile 18 shouting “Girl Power!” at every woman who ran by her feels like a pretty good reason to keep running races, too.)


And in case you were curious about my result on Sunday and the initial question I posed – could I run this race in under four hours? – The answer is: Yes, I did it! I trusted myself and my preparation, broke the four-hour mental barrier, and set a new personal record, finishing in 3:57:58.


I can do hard things. And I promise you can do hard things, too.

And yes, I did eventually get my sweet, sweet banana.

Hoag OC Marathon Reflection 2024

For those curious:

Barcelona Marathon (2019) official chip time -- 4:49:37. Wexford Marathon (2019) official chip time -- 4:49:18.

Chicago Marathon (2022) official chip time -- 4:33:46.

OC Marathon (2024) official chip time -- 3:57:58.


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