When I was not quite 11, I competed in track and field for a summer. My specialty was the 1600 meter (2 mile) race. My most triumphant race was the semi-regional qualifiers; there were three other girls in that race, and I beat them all. The second place winner was at least a lap behind me. But the memory that sticks out to this day is my running to the finish line. As I kicked it in, I remember spectators suddenly rising to their feet and cheering me on. Even as a child, I was struck by how awesome it was to have total strangers cheer for me. I felt like an Olympic runner.
That run was over sixteen years ago, and I still remember that wonderful feeling. But if you ever want to feel what it’s like to have strangers cheering you on as you run, enter any half marathon or marathon race. You’d be amazed at the volunteers sacrificing half their day to cheer and motivate you. It would be tough to run the race without them.
Yesterday was my very first marathon. I had wanted to run a marathon since I was 11, but then never did. Entering this marathon was a very big deal for me. Without going into details in a public blog, it’s safe to say that for a long time, I set limits on myself. I didn’t think I had it in me to run a marathon, among other things. But the past couple of years have really been full of self-discovery, and I realized that I could run one if I set my mind to it.
So how did it go? It was tough. It was difficult. But it was extraordinary.
My morning started early. I checked out of my hotel at 4:30 and drove to Tap’s, who was running the half-marathon. We picked up a friend of his and drove down to the stadium to take a shuttle to the race site. It was a little hairy getting down there, since there was so much traffic. The last shuttle stopped at 6, and we got on one at 5:57.
Once we were at the site, we made our way through crowds of people. At 7, I said goodbye to my friends and lined up in my corral. I listened to music on my ipod to motivate myself. I was nervous – I mean, I knew I could physically run it. But I had no idea of what would lie ahead, or what finishing a marathon would feel like.
Right before the race started, the loudspeakers started playing “Eye of the Tiger,” which I thought was hilarious and awesome.
At 7:30, the elites started running, and then corrals were let through after every minute or so. My corral was 19. When we crossed the finish line, I had a huge grin on my face. There was no turning back now.
On long runs, it always takes me awhile to warm up. I purposely took the first couple of miles slowly, because I have a bad habit of starting fast and losing steam at the end. My left quad was giving me a little pain, which made me wonder if my walking tour of NYC or jumping up and down for three hours at Philly’s Well Fargo Center was a bad idea. But I also knew that a lot of marathon running is mental – if I told myself that my legs were still tired from these activities, then that’s how I was going to feel.
I took a Gu packet for nutrition, took it easy, and did not let myself think I was tired. It worked, because by mile 7 or 8, I was cruising. I felt really strong. At mile 11, the course split into two – half-marathoners went to the left, marathoners went to the right. I felt a little emotional at that part. It really hit me – I was running a marathon.
Shortly after the split, I ran into two of my friends from my training group. I was really happy to see them. I ran with them a little bit but decided to keep going at my pace. When I ran the half with my dad in February, I knew that I was going to stick with him the whole race, so I wasn’t concerned about my time. But when you run by yourself, you have to run your own race. My goal was to break the 5 hour mark. I was expecting 4:45, but I really wanted 4:20 – 4:30. I said goodbye to my friends and continued running. I hit the half mark around 2:10, which was putting me on track for a 4:20 finish. I felt really happy with my progress, but knew better than to get too excited – a lot could happen in the second half, including hitting the dreaded wall.
I was still feeling great at mile 15, but around mile 16 or 17, things started changing. I was running slower. It was also getting hot and humid outside. The day before, a lot of people had been freaking out about the weather. “What’s the big deal?” I had said. “We trained in the hottest summer on record. I’d rather run in the heat than cold.” I was severely regretting this stance now.
A lot of people were walking. Previously, I had not stopped at all, even at water stops – I would just sip my water while jogging. Now, I stopped at the water stops to walk and sip my drink. I would continue running again, and every once in awhile, I would stop for a quick 15-30 second walk break. I didn’t walk any longer than that because I did not want to walk this marathon – I wanted to run it. I passed up one of my group’s coaches, who was doing the same thing. I figured that if I was passing up an experienced marathoner who was taking walk breaks, then it was perfectly acceptable for me to take brief ones too.
The last ten miles were tough. I went in and out of feeling decent and feeling crappy. My legs were threatening to cramp. Lots of people were walking, which is not exactly the most encouraging thing to be seeing. Some were even off on the side of the road, overcome with the heat. I had saved the Foo Fighters for when times got tough, and that’s all I listened to for the last ten miles.
By mile 20, I told myself, “You only have an hour left! Keep going!” By mile 22, I was hurting. My running had turned into a survival shuffle. The last six miles are really a blur when I try to think about them. My dad had always told me that after mile 21 or 22, it feels like the mile markers are doubled in length. That is so true. I went back and forth between thinking, “WHERE IS THE MILE MARKER?” and “WHERE IS THE GODDAMN WATER STOP?”
Around mile 23, someone was handing out water bottles. I thanked him then and I thank him now – that water saved me. Thank you, whoever you are, for handing those out.
At mile 24, I was too exhausted to feel happy that I had 2 more miles. 2 miles is 2 miles. The 25 mile marker was missing altogether. You cannot imagine how severely depressing this was. I kept looking at my watch and thinking, Oh my God, am I running that slowly? If mile 24 is this long, do I even want to finish to 26?
As I was shuffling along, I saw the stadium that marked the finish line. This was my first clue that maybe I was on mile 25 after all. Then I heard someone yelling, “JEN!!!” I turned around and saw three people from one of my running groups. I waved to them excitedly then asked, “Where is the finish line?” “Right around the corner!” they yelled. This filled me with the motivation I needed. I waved to them and kept running.
I was about a half mile from the finish line, and it felt like eternity. I was shuffling along when I heard someone say, “Jen!” I turned around, and there was my friend Amy from yet another one of my running groups. I was happy to see her. Then I asked, “Where’s the finish line?” “I hope soon,” she said, “because I’m dying here.” “Yeah, me too,” I said.
We turned a corner. Throngs of people were along the sidelines, cheering us on. I saw the hill ahead of us, which I knew signified the finish. Then I saw the “Mile 26” marker. “Oh SHIT!” I said happily, then felt a little guilty because there was a small child in front of me. I started smiling. Then I started running faster. I learned from my dad to kick it in at the end, to give all you have for the finish. I was exhausted but like a horse drawn to water, I knew that the finish line was close.
And then, it was just how I imagined it would be. “Bridge Burning” was playing, and as I rounded the corner, the final chorus was playing, just like I had imagined. People were cheering and yelling. I had a huge smile on my face. I sped up to the finish line and threw my arms up in the air, doing the rock and roll symbol with my hands.
Whenever I had imagined finishing my marathon, I always thought I’d start crying from the sheer emotion and accomplishment – I had heard of other people crying at the end of their marathons, and even thinking about it before the race would get me teary. But I was just too fucking happy to be finished to cry. I was also in denial that I was really finished. I kept looking around to make sure I didn’t miss the real finish line. Then someone put a medal around my neck, and it felt real.
I looked at my time – 4:33. It was my dream goal time. I felt happy and proud. What I didn’t realize then is that this was actually a decent time, for both my first marathon and for the weather conditions. I finished in the 24.5% percentile for overall female, 22% percentile for my division, and 30% percentile overall, which kind of blows my mind.
If you want to know what you feel like physically after a marathon – PAIN. My leg muscles were cramping, and I moved very, very slowly to find my family. They had come to watch me finish, but the text message alerts they were receiving stopped updating them at mile 20. They were worried because they weren’t sure how I was doing – a lot can happen in those six miles, especially since people were being taken out in stretchers (and, very sadly, someone actually died after completing the half-marathon). But all that mattered to me is seeing them there and giving them a hug after the finish.
And for those of you all who want to see my shirt:
Today I feel sore but happy. I’m kind of in disbelief that it even happened. I learned a lot about myself these past six months during the training process, but the biggest thing I learned is that I absolutely adore long-distance running, and that as long as I can run, I will be a marathoner. My next one will be in February.
Holy shit, I’m a marathoner. I still can’t believe it.