On Sunday, May 8, 2016 I ran my first full marathon race (26.2 miles/42.2 KM). It has taken me some time to process this event. It didn’t seem real at the time but with some distance (sorry) it seems to make a little more sense.
Here are thoughts and memories about that experience that I wanted to share. My experience might not apply to everyone but writing it down helps me understand the past and plan for the future, if nothing else.
My target race was the 2016 Fredericton Marathon. As you’ll see below, the course is composed of two loops if you run the full marathon:
I had planned to run this full marathon in 2015 but I opted to defer to 2016 because of some issues and conflicts that were happening back then. I was doubly eager to complete this race after having to abort my training and racing plans last year. After a close brush with hypothermia and assorted annoyances, I was, as they say, overdue and, by gum, that deferral was going to happen despite a hectic work and life schedule.
To prepare for the marathon I started by using Hal Higdon’s Novice 2 training plan. The schedule called for 4 days per week of running, plus cross-training, over 18 weeks. As I’ve detailed elsewhere in this blog, I did a lot of indoor running on a local new indoor running track. It’s actually more of an indoor walking track but the outer line is intended for runners to use. I did manage a few outdoor LSD runs on the weekends and two of my longest runs were done outside.
I tried to stick to the Novice 2 plan but a bout of illness around week 7 and some other challenges derailed me for about three weeks. My four weekly runs shrunk to one run (barely) per week and the idea of cross-training was jettisoned like garbage from a cruise ship. Nonetheless I kept at it and if I wasn’t completely faithful to some of the runs, I did my best to do the LSD (Long Slow Distance) runs on the schedule, making sure I worked my way up to my 20 mile run.
And then, after a taper period, race weekend approached. Here’s what happened on the day of the race, starting with a chronology before I deviate into bullet points.
Getting ready to race
4:00 AM: Woke up without alarm assistance. Fortunately I managed to get about 10 hours of sleep… over a two day period. I was up insanely late on Friday night for work reasons (hooray for work reasons that allow you to watch a Captain America movie while you are waiting to receive an E-mail, boo for the lack of sleep) but got something closer to 7 hours sleep the following night. My body woke up at 4 AM and it didn’t seem to care how much sleep I had gotten.
Got up and ate breakfast (two whole grain bagels with peanut butter), then ate 25% of another breakfast (one banana) and then I was done. My gear was mostly packed and ready to go the night before, so I got dressed (while using generous amounts of Body Glide), grabbed my gear and headed out the door.
5:20 AM: On the road to Fredericton! I drove through a rain shower on the way but the rain stopped by the time I got to Fredericton. I drank one bottle of Gatorade during the drive. Things were off to a good start.
6:30 AM: Arrived, picked up my race kit, went back to my car to pin on the bib and chill out for a bit. At some point I set my cellphone down on the backseat. (SPOILER: didn’t find it again until after the race! No selfies!) Put on superhero inspired rings to remind me of life, will, flight and hope.
7:00 AM: Back to the race site. Spent an hour milling around, seeing some old friends, meeting some new ones. I regularly participate in a weekly Twitter chat called #RunAtCan and as I run more races I get to meet some of these people, today was no exception. Finally got to meet one of my Twitter friends from Dartmouth, NS, who was also running her first full marathon. I also hung out with a few members of my local running club, another of whom was running her first marathon. Drank some water. All the normal things you do before a race.
Walked a bit to stretch my legs, including some light jogging. Put my windbreaker jacket in a plastic bag and stashed it in their holding area. (SPOILER: I forgot to pick it up after the marathon! Nice knowing you, jacket! It had an awful zipper that would catch fabric and bind anyway.)
7:45 AM: Started forming up with the other runners near the finish line, only the full and half marathon runners lined up – the 5K and 10K runners would start about 10 minutes later. Chatted with a variety of folks. Started my GPS watch early so it was ready to go. The race organizers announced that in addition to their normal charity donations, $500 would also be donated to support the people of Fort McMurray, Alberta, a small Canadian city devastated by enormous wildfires. Also realized that I didn’t have my cellphone on me… (see earlier spoiler.) There would be people on the course if there was a medical emergency so no great loss. But no photos either.
8:00 AM: Starting horn! I was near the back of the pack and I just started walking. I was contemplating walking the entire first mile but as soon as I crossed the start line I found myself starting to jog. The race was on!
The race is on, run for life
Now, observations along the way (and a switch to present tense):
- Within the first 3 miles, I see a couple of familiar faces who are traffic wardens for the race. We say hello, it’s a good thing.
- During the first hour it’s hard for me to believe that I’m running a marathon: a full marathon. So far it just feels like a normal run, although I’m surrounded by other people for a change. The temperature is around 10C and there’s no rain, but the air is humid and some parts of the course are windy. I run at or near my planned target pace of a 6.2 min/KM (or 10 minutes/mile).
- I cross the former train bridge and keep heading down the course where railway tracks once ran. It does not cross my mind at all to compare myself to a train but it’s swell that the railway created a relatively flat trail that I can run on now.
- I continue toward the first turnaround point (6 or 7 miles out?) I’m feeling good but there’s a lot of pavement on this trail. I’ve been fighting blisters, callus and a corn on my right foot during training. I had coated my feet in Body Glide with the hopes of preventing blisters and so far I don’t feel any, but the balls of my feet are starting to feel a little sore.
- I see friends and other fellow runners come back from the turnaround point and pass me in the opposite direction. I wave. They all look to be in good shape. It’s inspiring (and daunting) to see the race leaders in the vanguard, they are juggernauts of speed.
- My pace is a bit faster than some nearby runners and I can’t resist the urge to pass a few of them, speeding up to about a 9 min/mile pace to pass someone, then slowing down when I have a comfortable lead. Not my best idea, in retrospect: speed bursts tend to deplete energy that isn’t easily replenished.
- I walk through each water station and have Gatorade in addition to H20. I eat a Swedish Berry candy every 3rd mile, I prefer them to sports gels.
- The return trip after the first turnaround is uneventful. Still feeling good and maintaining my goal pace. There are plenty of trees along the trail and a small river is in sight, flowing over rocks with a pleasing sound. I tell myself I’ll look forward to hearing the river again during the second half of the race. Periodically I look at my rings and remind myself of love, life, will and hope.
- I see my cousin (first cousin once removed, but close enough) and her nephew when I cross the old train bridge again and they greet me.
- Half a KM later I reach the turnoff point from the trail just as a woman with a bullhorn is encouraging me, urging me to put on some speed for the finish line. “I have another half to do!” I yell as I run past her and the finish line. It’s hard to sound sheepish with a bullhorn but she gives it a good try, blaring a sort of apology.
- The chip in my bib prompts an announcer to call out my name and hometown and the crowd cheers. Two hours and 20 minutes for the first half – good enough for me! I run a weird loop that takes me back on to the trail to start the second half of the race, having already completed a half-marathon distance.
- My feet continue to feel sore during the second half of the marathon. I maintain my pace for a few miles. I’ve run this distance a number of times in the past and I’m well within my limits – so far. I start to see the lead marathon runners again, only this time they are on the home stretch to finish the race. They still look strong. I admire them and only slightly detest them at the same time – just a bit of jealousy knowing that I’m not at their level of training and fitness. And they will finish a lot sooner than I will.
- The fatigue is starting to intensify around mile 18 and I’m slowing down. This is when I start to feel a bit light-headed as my glycogen supply is getting low. This is the distance at which I really lost my momentum in training. Around mile 19 I had started to feel nauseous during that 20 mile training run run and I don’t want to go through that again, not now. I start to take a walking break or two. I see some of my other friends coming by on their return trip, they still look pretty strong.
- I hear a yell up ahead. As I get closer I see a runner who’s stopped and massaging his leg. “Are you OK?” I ask him. “Yeah, just cramping up,” he moans, then screams some obscenities. I don’t think I see him again after that, I have to assume he’s OK. Didn’t hear anything about any fatalities during the race, probably a good sign.
- Further along there’s a wooden bridge over a creek, I’ve already crossed it twice. I see my Twitter friend from Dartmouth and she’s walking. I ask her if she’s OK. She says yes, she just feels like she’s hit the wall, but she’ll be OK. I raise my hand for a high five and we kind of clasp hands for a minute and then she continues on in her direction and I in mine.
- Tiredness and sore feet are really getting to me. Getting close to mile 20, right around the second turnaround point. I’m able to start the return leg and I’m also starting to walk even more. I’ve never run this far or long before.
- During the next three miles I break some kind of mental glue and decide I hate running, I hate this marathon, and I just want it to be over. The rings that I was using to provide focus are just cheap toys and I put them out of my mind. The lightheaded feeling continues but my stomach is OK. The sound of the river that I enjoyed earlier might as well a blaring car horn or a barking dog for all I like it now.
- I think about whether or not it’s worth it to push myself to do more running. I know that there’s a greater risk of injury once you run past 20 miles. I don’t know if it’s logic or my lazy brain that prompts me, but I take this as a cue to walk even more. Part of me knows that I’m risking my unofficial goal of finishing the marathon in less than five hours by walking but that part of me gets outvoted. I do a slow combination of walking and jogging and I keep moving.
- I reach the point on the bridge where I met my friend from Dartmouth, it seems like it was days ago. My calves are starting to feel really tight. I remember seeing other runners stop and stretch and this seems like a great idea right now. During my 20 mile training run my calves became very tight and almost cramped up on me at the end. So I stop and give each leg an easy 10 second stretch. Then it’s back on down the road. Walk, jog, walk jog, walkjog.
- I see a few other runners ahead of me. Occasionally I make an effort to catch up to them but the desire fades quickly. One of them is a guy who’s at least 15 years older than me who jogs very slowly, it seems almost impossibly slowly. Hah! He eventually pulls far ahead of me, out of sight, so he must have known something I didn’t. I don’t care. I don’t want to speed up too much and risk a quick trip to the bushes. I keep up my combination of walking and slow jogging. I drink my water and eat my Swedish Berries on schedule. I become a whiny but quiet person inside my head.
- Around mile 23 I feel a sudden burst of pain in the side of my right toe and suddenly it hurts a lot run on that foot. I stop, take my sneakers off and try to get rid of any rocks and dirt. A few pebbles come out; I lace up again and keep going. Thankfully the water stations are still open and the volunteers are still swell people, unlike me, a shambling mound of resentment, although I do my best to be polite. This means I am a bit gruff but not shouty.
- I continue on like this for the rest of the marathon, desperately wanting to finish but still stuck in walk/jog mode. The train bridge is back again for the final cross of the racce. I see my fifth hour come and go before I get to the bridge. I’m not capable of feeling disappointment now, just a vague regret.
- Finally, the last bit of trail. The bullhorn lady is still at the end of the trail, urging me on. I grimace and keep going, turning right off the trail instead of trying to collide with her (I know she means well) and heading towards the finish line. A lot of the crowd has drifted away over time, not a lot of people left. Then I see something that lifts my spirits a bit: another Twitter friend is still there. She cheered me on when I was at the halfway point and, incredibly, she’s still there. Somehow I manage a little burst of speed and trot across the finish line.
- Did I raise my arms at the finish? I honestly don’t remember, but I’m so relieved to be done that my short term memory is too busy celebrating to do its work. I have enough sense to bow a bit so someone can put my medal around my neck.
- My finish time is 5 hrs. 13 minutes and some seconds. I don’t care about that, I’m just glad to finish. Yet another Twitter friend joins in the congratulations.
- I am given food, liquids and a foil blanket, which I gratefully accept even though the temperature has risen at least 8 degrees during the marathon. When you deplete your glycogen stores your body can’t warm itself very well. Now I understand why my grandparents wore multiple layers of clothing in the summer. I silently thank whoever invented the foil blanket.
- I eat and chat with my friends. Almost everyone I know has already left, but I meet a couple from home and congratulate them. I know it’s her first marathon, maybe his too?
- After hanging around for a bit and consuming mass quantities, I go back to my car. My friends were parked over there anyway, so we all go over together (not a bad precaution for me, to be honest as my brain is still a bit fuzzy). I get back to the car and I’m feeling OK. This is when I find my phone in the backseat. At least I didn’t lose it!
- I get some Wendy’s drivethru on the way out of town and head home. And that’s my first marathon. I don’t know if I ever want to run another race but I’m also thrilled that I finished although I don’t know what that really means yet.
After I get home I discover that I had a messy blister burst on my right toe, which explains the flareup of pain around mile 23. I also have a bruise on the bottom of my right foot where my corn had been growing. And, of course, I’m stiff and sore. I relax for the rest of the day and try to get to bed at a decent hour.
I had the foresight to take the following day as a vacation day. I’m still sore and exhausted the next morning. After my family leaves for their day I lie on the couch, hoping to nap some more. A wave of melancholy washes over me. I’m filled with doubt: why did I think it was such a good idea to run a marathon? Was it worth feeling like this? And I doze off.
Fortunately, I feel better after that.
That evening is the first of the running group’s scheduled runs and I’m the leader for that day. Four of us head out. We jog a bit and then I ask for a walk break. We all walk the rest of the way. Probably for the best. A long walk feels good.
After a couple of days the worst of the stiffness and soreness is gone. During the next group run I manage to jog the whole 5K and feel pretty good. I’m not ready to give up running, not by a long shot.
Maybe it’s time to plan another race?
It took me awhile to write this post and edit it. In addition to actually running a marathon I had to finish a major work project, kind of like running two marathons at the same time. I finally finished the second marathon, so to speak and that cleared my head enough to be able to finish this post.
Whatever discomfort I felt during marathon is just a memory now. I’m happy I finished, even if I was slower than I wanted to be. I learned a lot. I still have a long term goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I don’t know if I’ll make it but I’m still game to train harder and get another step closer to that goal. And that’s what this blog is all about: keep taking another step, then another, moving forward and getting stronger and faster along the way. You don’t know where you’ll wind up but you won’t get anywhere without that next step.