Monday, October 29, 2012

My first marathon: a tale of pain, tears, joy, and how I survived a hurricane and hugged a Marine

Three weeks ago, I was reading Dean Karnazes' book, 50/50:  Secrets I Learned While Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days.  In the chapter about first marathons, this particular passage resonated with me to the point where I had tears in my eyes as I was reading it:  " On the morning of your first marathon, the voice of doubt multiplies, becoming a full chorus.  By mile twenty this chorus is screaming so loudly, it's all you can hear.  Your sore and weary muscles beg you to stop.  You must stop.  But you don't stop.  This time, you ignore the voice of doubt, you tune out the naysayers who tell you you're not good enough, and you listen only to the passion in your heart.  This burning desire tells you to keep moving forward, to continue putting one foot boldly in front of the other, and somewhere you find the will to do so.  Courage comes in many forms.  Today you discover the courage to keep trying to not give up, no matter how dire things become.  And dire they do become.
At the twenty-five mile mark, you can barely see the course any longer-your vision falters as your mind teeters on the edge of consciousness.  And then, suddenly, the finish line looms before you like a dream.  A lump builds in your throat as you cover those final few steps.  Now you are finally able to answer back to that nagging voice with a resounding Oh, yes I can!  You burst across the finish line filled with pride, forever liberated from the prison of self-doubt and self-imposed limitations that have held you captive.  You have learned more about yourself in the past 26.2 miles than on any other single day in your life.  Even if you can't walk afterward, you have never been so free.  A marathon finish is more than just something you earn; a marathon finisher is someone you become.  As you are being helped away from the finish line, wrapped in a flimsy Mylar blanket, barely able to raise your head, you are at peace.  No future struggle, doubts, or failure can wipe away what you accomplished today.  You have done what few will ever do-what you thought you could never do-and it is the most glorious, unforgettable awakening.  You are a marathoner, and you will wear this distinction not on your lapel but in your heart of the rest of your life."  Re-reading it today, it so perfectly captures my first marathon experience.

I knew I had put in the hard work and training.  I followed Hal Higdon's intermediate 1 marathon plan to perfection.  I executed my long 18 and 20 mile training runs at paces that were comfortable, sustainable, and put me on track for easily a sub 5 hour if not a possible 4:30 finish.  I ran the best half marathon ever and finished sub-2 hours a few weeks ago.  I battled post-tibial tendonitis through the last weeks of my training, but I had it under control.  My confidence was so high until I got close to marathon day when I was panicking and totally in full doubt of the fact that I could get past 20 miles and finish.

On marathon morning, the logistics went off without a hitch.  We caught the metro to the Pentagon, checked our bags, and hung out in the runners' village huddling with thousands of other runners under a tent like refugees and trying to stay out of the wind.  There was a sense of bravery and camaraderie out there.  We were going to do this thing with a hurricane bearing down on us.  We were not going to be stopped.  Soon it was time to be off to the finish line.  Our throwaway jackets decorated by the kids were a huge hit and a good conversation starter plus they did a great job of keeping us warm.

The Brooks VIP portapotties turned out to be one of the great highlights of my day because it was one of the last chances at comfort before what turned out to be 5+ hours of suffering.  Who would have thought heated toilets and running water in sinks could make someone so happy?

 As I reached my pace group, it was time to separate from JD.  That's when the real panic set in.  I hugged him, cried a bit, then tried to get tough as I gave him a fist bump and a good luck.  The Marine chaplain gave a wonderful blessing, the Osprey helicopters did an awe inspiring fly over,

the wheelchair racers were launched, and then the Marines starting pumping out the "Warrior Song:  Hard Corps"  which I had been listening to on my ipod since I first decided to get myself into this nonsense by earning a golden ticket in the Prince William Forest in March.

This really got the crowd pumped up.  I happened to be in a corral with a bunch of young Marines who were bouncing off the walls and totally hyped up so we had a lot of energy going.  The cannon went off, and we were launched.  Time to hurry up and walk and walk and walk some more.

Finally, we crossed the start line and started moving.  I was confident that I could hold a 9:45-10 minute/mile pace for most of the race or at least through 20 miles so I moved out between the 4:15 and 4:30 pace groups.  The mass of runners as we came off of 110 and rounded the bend into Rosslyn was unbelievable.  We headed up Lee Highway for a short climb an then through some awesome crowds in Arlington.  One of the prettier parts of the run was down the GW Parkway as the leaves were falling from the trees. Everyone in the pack kind of quieted and enjoyed the fall weather before hitting the Key Bridge where there were lots of spectators with funny hurricane signs advising us that the evacuation route was the other way.  We got a brief gust of wind and some wise guy decided to yell "Is that all you've got Sandy?"  At which point, Sandy responded by hitting us with a little more wind in the face.  We turned onto Canal Road and were faced with one of the most grueling climbs of the race.  It was worse than I had anticipated it to be, but I was still moving really well and running in the 9:45 range comfortably.  We had a nice downhill into Georgetown where the party really got started.  The crowds in Georgetown were amazing.  The music was blasting, signs were posted everywhere, and people were cheering.  I was running well and having a ton of fun.  I spotted some Steelers fans with Terrible Towels and headed over for some high fives and encouragement as I ran by.  I really sucked up the energy in Georgetown because I knew I needed it for the next part of the race.

We were headed out to Haines Point which is a no man's land in the race.  It's only a few miles, but it's barren, desolate, devoid of spectators and terribly windy.  There was wind in our face out and back.  Who knows how this was even possible?  I got really emotional out there because there was a display of photos of Marines KIA in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I was having trouble holding it together emotionally.  There was also an awesome high school band and drum line out there who really helped to get us around the Point.  We crossed over the half marathon mark with the Marines yelling to us that we were halfway there.  My elation was short-lived as all hell broke lose and the suck fest that was the last half of my race began.  My quads started to cramp to the point that my legs were seizing up, and I couldn't run well.

 I stopped to stretch them out, and I thought that I might be able to continue in pretty good shape.  This was until we hit the Mall.  The 4:15 pace group faded from my view as I continued to cramp more.  I was still clinging to the fact that the 4:30 pace group hadn't passed me, and I had made it to mile 15.  Then they passed me as the pacer said "At this point you are 14 seconds ahead of Oprah."  The cramping became unbearable to the point of tears.  I pulled over to the sidewalk again, sobbing while I was stretching.  A spectator came over and offered me peanuts and pretzels and several other runners offered encouragement to get me going age.  I kept on running although you could barely call my pace running at that point, but I was determined to keep a running motion.  I still had a shot at sub-5 hours.  I moved through the Mall with Marine encouragement, thought briefly about stopping at the medical tent to see about getting some electrolytes, but was afraid they wouldn't let me return to the race so I just kept munching on my beans and stingers and shuffling along.  Somewhere along the way I was running behind a guy with a shirt that said "Embrace the Suck."  I thought to myself, if I embrace the suck anymore, we will be married.

We turned onto the 14th Street Bridge and mile 20, and it became a death march. Bodies were littering the bridge as runners were hitting the wall at left and right and pulling over to stretch.  I stopped numerous times to stretch and then resumed my shuffle run into the wind.  I met a friend and fellow runner on the Bridge, and we helped each other into Crystal City.  Her cramping was not as bad as mine, and I didn't want to ruin her race so I let her go without me as I couldn't keep up anymore. 

Crystal City should have been fun, but it was unbearable as you could see runners coming out as you were going in.  I tried to get some energy from the music as they played Flo-Rida's "Good Feeling" and my one of my favorite running songs, "Titanium", but nothing was helping.  I was not titanium, and I was not feeling good.  I was a hot mess, and the wheels were off.  I really wanted to throw in the towel, but I knew I had come too far to quit so I just kept moving.  At some point there were Munchkin donuts being handed out, but the thought of a donut made my stomach flip.

The final slog down route 110 was only a 5K, but it might as well have been a 50K.  This area is a blur as the 5 hour pace group finally caught me.  At that point, I didn't even care about a time.  I just wanted the misery to end. The Marines were doing their best to move us along and motivate us down 110, but there weren't a lot of spectators and morale was low.  One elderly gentleman who was cheering on runners must have sensed my desperation as he looked right at me said, "19245, you are almost there.  Just keep putting one foot in front of another, and you will be done soon."  That simple personal recognition of my effort had me near tears yet again.  Finally we reached the Hill, the final 0.2 mile climb to Iwo Jima.  As soon as I saw Iwo, I had tears coming from my eyes.

 I charged (or as close as I could approximate to a charge) up that hill with a huge smile on my face and tears in my eyes.  The Marines lining the right side were yelling 'Oorah!' and one of them yelled, "That's the way to finish.  That is some true joy right there."  I pumped my fists in the air, high fived every Marine I could see, and crossed the finish line in 5:14.  I was way off my time goal and a bit disappointed about that. 

My mind was willing, but my body had other plans that day.  As I moved into the chute to receive my medal, I was an emotional mess.  The Marine put the medal around my neck and said, 'Great effort, maam.  It's an honor to give you this medal."  I think I was supposed to let him salute me and then shake his hand.  Instead I gave him a huge hug and sobbed all over his cammies.  Not quite knowing what to do with me, he patted my back and sent me off for water and finisher photos.

I was so proud taking that finisher photo in front of the Marine Corps Memorial even though my legs were shaking and cramping.  I moved into the hospitality area, called JD, donned my Mission Accomplished recovery jacket, and crammed down a bunch of pretzels and crackers.  We had quite a walk to the Courthouse Metro, but it helped to loosen up our legs.

I am so glad that I chose the Marine Corps Marathon as my first marathon (notice that I said first because I'm crazy enough to be thinking about another one already).  Despite how hard it was, it was a wonderful experience, and I learned that I'm tougher mentally tougher than I ever thought I was. Today I wore my "Always earned, never given" Marine Corps Marathon shirt.  I earned that medal from day one in fighting for that golden ticket on St. Patrick's Day right up until the finish line on 10/28.   I'm looking forward to a nice zero week of rest, and then back into some easy running and some fun 5Ks in November and December before picking my longer spring races.  Stay tuned to see if I'm crazy enough to sign up for the Richmond Marathon next fall.

Last but not least I need to thank my amazing husband and supportive training partner who agreed to this crazy endeavour and pushed me all the way through training to do my best.  There were a lot of runs that I wouldn't have made it through without him.  All my love!  We are marathoners!

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