By ANNIE ZELM
Assistant News Editor, Sandusky Register
There's nothing like the view from the back of the pack in your first big race.
As the mass of runners inched forward at a glacial pace, I felt relieved to see more than half wearing headphones and casually chatting.
The hard-core runners who preferred to concentrate on their mile splits and the sounds of their shoes slapping the pavement were up front, of course, and took off at least five minutes before I even saw the starting line.
When we finally picked up some momentum, a feeling of euphoria washed over me. It was validating to know that through all those months of running long, slow solo miles, I had never really been alone.
I came to the annual Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon on Sunday with zero expectations, hoping only to finish.
And I was in good company.
For the first time in its 33-year history, the marathon was filled to capacity. Between the full 26.2 mile race, the half marathon and 10K, more than 16,000 runners stampeded through downtown Cleveland.
Last year, the race saw a little more than 12,000.
The marathon, once viewed as a feat for the elite, is now within the reach of anyone willing to log some hefty training miles.
A record number of 468,000 people finished marathons across the country last year alone, according to Marathonguide.com.
It's become a family event that welcomes all ages, as races like the "Grandma's Marathon" in Duluth, Minn., suggest.
Some have nicknamed the phenomenon the "Oprah Effect" after she struck up a media frenzy by running the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994.
The queen of talk shows and yo-yo dieting paved the way for dozens of other celebrity marathoners and proved anyone could be a runner if they had the determination to go the distance.
Some of the long-time running pros who took to the streets years before it was considered cool seem to take offense to the "marathon of the masses" mentality.
They think it somehow diminishes the race's integrity, making it less of an accomplishment.
A recent Runner's World ad describes the marathon this way: "Once a test of will, now a test of patience."
It's true that it's morphed into an all-day affair in which some people mosey across the finish line seven hours later. But is that such a bad thing?
It's possible to enjoy the experience and still "honor the spirit of the marathon," as the running purists demand.
I discovered that at about mile 23, when all the feel-good endorphins wore off and a battle of wills kicked in.
Until then, the miles mostly flew by, marked by scenic parks, PowerAde stations and encouraging bystanders.
Families sat on lawn chairs outside their homes, with kids blowing party horns and giving high-fives. People held up signs that made me smile, like "20 miles to a beer!" or my favorite, "Chuck Norris never ran a marathon."
Even Bert and Ernie made an appearance.
Like many of the non-competitive runners, I'd brought music to get through the long, lonely stretches when the crowd thinned out. (Thankfully, the governing body for long-distance running recently allowed that for runners who aren't out to win prize money.)
But there were plenty of sights and sounds to keep my mind occupied, and I picked up a buddy at about mile 7 -- a second-grade teacher who had run a marathon before but confessed she hadn't done much training for this one. We pushed each other to pick up the pace and shared Jelly Belly Sport Beans to keep our energy up.
By mile 20, my body began to rebel. Three miles later, it flat-out refused to function.
I'd been breathing comfortably throughout the race, but suddenly I found myself gasping for air, feeling like I had a sumo wrestler on my chest.
A medic caught me wobbling and sat me on a curb to take my pulse.
When I finally insisted I could walk, she trailed behind me on her bike and watched me like a hawk.
I was glad to have her there but even more relieved when I saw my husband, Justin.
He was the force that propelled me through months of training, the true competitor who really deserved a strong finish but had to drop out midway through the race because of an injury. No matter how much it hurt, I knew I had to gut it out so one of us could cross that finish line.
He walked with me awhile (so the medic could catch a break) and told me he was proud I'd gotten this far.
And in the final half-mile stretch, the ounce of pride I still had left somewhere rose up inside me like heartburn. I saw a cheerful pair of race walkers who looked to be a husband-and-wife team in their 60s surge past me at a steady clip while I limped on.
No way they were going to beat me.
Charging back up to a shuffle, then an all-out gallop, I crossed the finish line almost six hours after I'd started. I vowed never to do it again.
But now that I can finally walk normally again, I think I'd like another chance to redeem myself. After all, isn't that what the true spirit of the marathon is all about?