Thursday, October 28, 2010

My First Marathon

I had reached Mile 26 of the Des Moines Marathon and the volunteer said the finish line was just four blocks ahead. It still looked far away, but I just needed my legs to carry me a little further.

I turned off my iPod. The last song playing was Whitney Houston’s “One Moment In Time.” That song had been my theme for the Hy-Vee Triathlon earlier this year. “Give me one moment in time, when I’m more than I thought I could be…” I didn’t get to finish that race due to the weather and it was my biggest disappointment of the season. It seemed only fitting that the song would be playing before my biggest triumph. I had come full circle.

My friend and fellow MWXer, Brita, had made the trip to support me. She had biked to different spots on the course to cheer me on. Now she was on the sideline, with a throng of cheering people, giving me that last push to the finish line.

I had traveled to Des Moines the day before, full of nervous energy. I went to the expo and heard the course talk, making sure I made note of the medical tents. As I was walking through I saw Jeff Galloway—Olympian, coach, author, running god. He was going to be speaking at the dinner that night, but there he was at the Mizuno booth. I had purchased his book that spring, followed his training plan and spent many nights lying in bed, using my highlighter to mark his words of wisdom. I walked up and extended my hand. “I just wanted to meet you,” I said, gushing like a teenager. He asked me about my training plan and gave me advice on recovery. “You can do this,” he told me.

That night I went to the spaghetti dinner, clutching my Jeff Galloway book. Afterwards I went up to get his autograph. I was officially a Jeff Galloway stalker. Meeting him HAD to be a good sign.

That night I packed my fuel belt and my Spibelt (one can never have too many belts) with packets of Gu, Clif Bloks and cut-up pieces of a Snickers Marathon bar. Apparently I thought I was climbing Mt. Everest and would run out of food. As is my ritual, I wrote inspirational words on my arms. My left arm was “Relax” and my right was “No Quit.” I then drew a turtle on my forearm to signify that the race does not always go to the quick, but to those that keep on running. I was the tortoise.

The next morning I was at the race site early. I was freaking out and veteran marathoner Julie Johnston tried to talk me down. I remembered the words she had sent me. “Don’t over think it. Let your body do what it is trained to do.” Brita found me and she seemed to have a calming effect on me. Knowing I would have a friend waiting for me out on the course made a huge difference.

Before I knew it, the race had started. It didn’t take me long to shed the sweatpants, long-sleeved shirt and gloves I had purchased at Goodwill (all for five bucks!). The first hill was at mile 3 and for the next five miles there seemed to be endless hills, one after another. My hill training with the CVRA running club had prepared me, but it was still challenging.

Surprisingly, I was relaxed and having fun. I ran a nice, steady pace (helped by Brita yelling to me “You look strong!”). I had called club member Laura Grief earlier that week (she had just done her first marathon in Chicago) and she had told me to have fun. “You will never again be a first-time marathoner,” she told me. “Just enjoy the experience.”

I had been running with or near the 5:30 pace group. I got to know people along the course, including Gary who had traveled from Virginia for the race and an older gentleman who was doing his 64th marathon!

At mile 12 I ran the track at Drake University, the site of the Drake Relays. Some of the greatest runners had run on this track. They had a video camera so I could see myself on the jumbotron.

I started to find my groove. I was doing my best running and I felt good. I left the pace group behind. I was passing people and just enjoying the day. At mile 15, as I ran the tree-lined path in the park, I looked up at the sunny sky, the leaves falling from the trees, and all I could do was smile. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt such joy.

Somewhere between miles 17 and 18, though, things changed. My heart started to race and I had to stop. I didn’t think I was pushing the pace. My legs felt good, but my heart was saying to slow down. It was the first time I had struggled during the race so I looked at my arm that said, “relax” and took a deep breath. “You’re fine,” I said. “Don’t panic.”

The 5:30 pace group caught up to me so I decided to just run with them. I would run when they ran and walked when they walked. I enjoyed being part of the group and not being the “lone wolf” on the course. Around mile 20, though, I started to fall back. I was feeling fatigue.

By mile 21 I was in pain. My IT band was on fire and I felt like someone was sticking a knife in the side of my knee. My quads were very tight. Brita rode up next to me on her bike and she could see I was struggling. She told me it was gut-check time and I pounded my fist against my chest—signifying it was “all heart” from here on out. I knew this point in the race would come. I kept looking at the “no quit” written on my other arm. “There’s no quit in you,” I said, as if my body was a separate entity.

I seemed to go on autopilot. I could still see the pace group in the distance. I had wanted to finish under 5:30 so I felt some disappointment, but I also realized: “I’m doing it! I’m running a marathon!”

Some volunteers offered me ibuprofen, but I waved them off. The pain was part of the marathon and I wanted to experience it all. I wanted to earn this…like I was undergoing some type of initiation. Down the road some more volunteers offered me Biofreeze pain reliever. “I love pain!” I yelled. Apparently I was now delusional.

At mile 24 Brita gave me my final pep talk and said she would see me at the finish line. I was on my own now. Those last two miles seemed incredibly long. I was really hurting, but this race wasn’t going to break me.

I ran the final four blocks, saw the cheering crowd, heard people yelling, “You did it!” I waved, pumped my fist, and threw my arms in the air. I was going to enjoy my moment! As I crossed the finish line they announced my name and they said it correctly! That never happens in a race. A volunteer held open the finisher’s medal and said, “Get in here!” and I charged like a bull through the loop of the ribbon.

Laura was there at the sideline and I gave her a hug. I didn’t want to leave the finish line area. Finishing a marathon was the most incredible feeling in the world! I just wanted to hang on to that feeling as long as possible!!

Brita came up to me and it was more hugs. Having someone out on the course to support me meant so much. I could feel the tears in my eyes. I was emotionally overcome by the whole experience. Everything I had been through that season, all the hard work, all the pain and sacrifice, was flooding over me. I knew what Laura meant about being a first-time marathoner and how I knew I would never feel this again.

I finished in 5:32, just off my goal. I wouldn’t be going to Boston any time soon, but I had finished. Running a marathon takes many hours of training, but it also takes a strong will and an indomitable spirit. When I needed it, I had shown the mental toughness to go to the end. I felt proud, happy, relieved. Time for ice cream!