My marathon is less than a month away, which is hard for me to contemplate. I’ve been training since May, and now it’s three weeks from today.
The changes you see in yourself through training are amazing. Obviously, there are physical changes. I feel like I can crush concrete with the power of my thigh and hamstring muscles, and if I see a reflection of myself walking, I see muscles in my calves I didn’t even know I had. Or, as one of my running buddies mentioned yesterday, “Everyone is this group is a lot more toned than they were six months ago.”
I was expecting the physical changes, but not the emotional and mental benefits as well. There is such a camaraderie in my running group. Our group’s coach is AMAZING. These are such happy, positive people. I went from being shy and not really talking to anyone at the beginning to staying for hours after a run over lunch and coffee to hang out more with my group.
I would say any run into the double-digits, particularly after 12 miles or more, gives you a crazy rush of hormones and endorphins – it’s a “FUCK YEAH, LIFE!” kind of feeling. You start appreciating the little joys of running. I find a beauty in the rhythm as I shuffle along, breathing in the warm scent of the forest trail or feel the sun hitting my face, where nothing is more important at this moment than drawing another breath. Running simplifies everything.
And yes, the crazy mileage does make me say things now like, “It’s only 8 miles.” Before I started training, 4 miles would be my “long run,” but I don’t consider anything long now until after maybe 10 or 12 miles. Which is insane. But training has also taught me to respect any distance I am about to undertake. I had a 4.5-mile run two weeks ago that was tougher than my 18-miler. My “only 9-miler” run last weekend also proved to be challenging.
We have benchmark runs as part of our training, which means that there are water stops and food along the route to mimic a race. Our benchmark runs have been 12, 15.5, 18, and 22-milers. For these long runs, you need to bring your own fuel to keep you going in between the stops.
My favorites are the caffeinated jelly beans and Gu. Gu is exactly what it sounds like – goo that you “eat” during a run to give you energy. If you try eating any of this stuff when you’re not running, it is disgusting – it tastes like chalk. But after six or seven miles, Gu tastes like the Cheesecake Factory. I am not kidding.
The 15.5 and 18 milers have probably been the best runs of my training. The 18-miler was probably one of the best runs in my life. I finished strong and felt amazing at the end. I had never run that long before in my life, so when my coach said that we were at 17 miles, I had this stupid grin on my face because I was heading into uncharted territory.
I ran a 22-miler yesterday, and it did not start off as well as the other benchmark runs. I was tired, my legs were heavy, and I couldn’t get into a good rhythm. I’m glad I had a tough time, looking back, because now I have a better idea of what to do in the marathon when it gets rough (and I know it’s a question of “when” and not “if.”) Even in those tough runs, you have to find something that will keep you going. Yesterday, I ran by a street sign with my last name on it. I grinned widely as I ran past it, because it seemed like a message from the universe saying, “You got this. Keep going.”
Miles 8-12 were the worst, because I think I was fully understanding just how much longer I had left to run. I had fallen behind my group, and while I was not the last one in our group, I’m used to being up front. The route was through a long neighborhood that never seemed to end. I felt drained. “How am I going to keep going?” I wondered.
Two women ran by me and waved, and I exhaustedly waved back. I heard some giggles, and then a moment later, one of my friends from another running group ran next to me, saying, “Hey Jen! It’s me! I don’t think you recognized me.” This is how out of it I was – I hadn’t even recognized my friend. We chatted briefly, and she left (later, she told me I had been “booking it,” but I’d felt like a turtle with my pace.)
Seeing her had encouraged me to snap out of my funk. I pumped up “Bridge Burning,” played it three times in a row, and really felt the lyrics as I mouthed them to myself (“But tell me what’s in it for me/tell me now what’s in it for me/no one’s getting this for free.”) Any passersby would have thought I was pissed off, because I had this angry, determined look on my face as I ran. You are not quitting now, I told myself angrily. You’re tougher than this. Get your shit together, woman. I was able to get my second wind, catch up with my group, and stay at the front until the finish.
I’m not saying I had an easy time the rest of this run. The route played heavy mental games with us, which is really the main obstacle to running – physically, you know you can run the distance, but your brain doesn’t want you to. We’d be heading south, towards the finish, but then turn back north. I’d be running by 51st Street and trying not to think how our finish was at 1st Street. I’d run by familiar areas and know we were miles away from downtown. That’s just when you have to tell your brain, “Don’t let it get to you. Keep going. Keep going.”
After mile 13, if we’d take a break at a water stop, walking was starting to get painful. By mile 16, I didn’t even want to stop at traffic lights anymore because my legs would seize up when I would start running again. By mile 17, hopping up and down curbs was just pure pain. By mile 18, I thought, “I just have four miles left. Let me pass this one guy up. He is slowing me down.” I felt great for about two minutes, and then my legs were all, “HAHA! JUST KIDDING!” and started hurting.
I felt this wave of near euphoria pass over me when my coach announced, “Mile 20!” I felt something click and I thought, “LET’S GO, LAST TWO MILES. LET’S DO THIS SHIT!” I pumped up my music and was determined not to be behind. One thing I’ve learned from my dad is to finish a run strong, which is just what we did. We high-fived each other with happiness and my coach hugged me. That’s when I thought…holy shit, I just ran 22 miles. I FEEL LIKE HUGGING THE WORLD. I JUST RAN 22 MILES.
Then my legs were all…I know you did. AND DEAR GOD, WHY?
This was our last long run before the marathon. As of this week, we will officially be tapering. I’ve never run 26.2 miles before, but I’ve run 22, and you know what? I have to run “just” four more miles to make it. They may not be a fun or pain-free 4 miles, but I know I can do it.