How I did it: Wow, what an experience. A path filled with struggle and self doubt, but ultimately emotional, fantastic, and
The last three weeks prior to the marathon, those after my longest training run of 22 miles, were full of worry. I had stuck carefully to my training plan, following it faithfully with minor alterations that were carefully thought out. However, after that longest training run, my old problem with tendonitis flared up. Previous experience has told me not to mess around with it - the last time I did I ended up in a boot and crutches for 6 weeks and couldn't run for about 3 months. This time, as soon as it appeared I immediately headed for acupuncture and physical therapy. I talked to many experienced marathoners about what to do and followed their advice. They felt that since I had two 20+ mile runs under my belt that I would be okay if I eased up, and that it would be advisable to do that, hope for healing, and hopefully be able to race. I backed way off on my remaining scheduled runs and cut the two remaining long runs of 12 and 8 miles down to 6 and 4, since each time I started feeling some pain. The second week I did no other running, just cross training. The final week before the marathon I did two 3.5 mile runs without pain to keep my legs loose, but that was it. I felt as though this kind of drastic cutback was my only hope, and hoped it would pay off and I would feel good enough to run on race day. I had many moments of doubt and worry during that final week, but ultimately decided that my best option was to stay as positive as I could and proceed as if there was nothing to worry about. If, during the marathon I felt significant pain, I could either choose to walk or completely stop, depending on severity.
I also spent a lot of time in the last two weeks researching race strategy and reading marathon tips. I read that the biggest mistake most people make is going out too fast. One pundit suggested running the first five miles at 15 seconds slower that goal pace, then the middle 15 at 5 seconds faster to make up for it, then finishing out the last 6.2 at goal pace. He said that making that deliberate choice to start slowly would help you. I read the Portland Marathon web site, especially the pace team page. There were interviews with each pace team member each were asked for suggestions. Many of the suggestions resonated with me, and I thought of them often during the marathon. For example: don't go out too fast (again!), make a choice to relax and stay loose, during dark moments, concentrate on your form to help you endure and make it ultimately easier on your body, trust the pace team to get you there, etc. I had previously thought I would attempt to follow the previously mentioned pundit's advice, but at the marathon expo I talked to the pace team and looked at the pace bands they would use. The pace bands adjusted pace to maintain a constant perceived effort. For example, the team would slow on the uphills and slightly increase speed on the downhills. That strategy made much sense to me, as it is how I naturally run during training. My only decision then was to decide which pace team to run with. The realistic pace team of 5 hours? Or the faster than even dreamed of but maybe possible 4:40? There was no pace team in between. I spoke to the guys at the expo, told them my half marathon time, told them about my injury shortened training schedule (they said, you are well-rested!) and told them what the race predictor calculators said, etc. One of them asked me - "Do you want to have fun?" and of course I said "YES!" and expected him to say well just relax and enjoy your first marathon and go for 5 hours. Instead he said, well go for the 4:40 then, and see if you can do it. You can always slow down. Deep down, I think that is what I had hoped he would say, because I agreed. So at that moment I decided to go with the 4:40 pace team option, even though it scared me a little. I was afraid that I would fall back and disappoint them, or that they would be militant, or that I wouldn't be able to run my own race. But the pace band looked like I could run that speed without any problems. Little did I know how hard that pace would turn out to be over 26.2 miles!
That night I had everything ready. My clothes were laid out (nothing I hadn't worn before!) and my trusty water belt was full of the race's drink, which I had researched ahead of time and practiced with. My belt also had some of the "beans" I had often run with, along with some gummy bears that I knew they would be handing out on the race course instead of gels, a couple of bandaids, and a small packet of chafe cream, which I would end up gratefully applying in the restroom. I had done a couple of long runs practicing with the course gummy bears and they didn't upset my stomach. I showered and taped up my ankles like my physical therapist had taught me, and tried to go to bed early-ish, without freaking out too much about it since prior experience had told me that it is always difficult to sleep before a big event and that was okay. My husband was having some back issues of his own and I was trying to give him some sympathy without distracting myself too much from my goal. I tried to stay calm. I think I finally fell asleep by 11:30, not too late!
At 5:30 I crawled out of bed and ate my usual pre-run breakfast of cereal with milk, which I had ready in the hotel refrigerator. I tried to use the bathroom with limited success, which worried me somewhat, but I figured I could go at the race, since it was a wave start and I would have time. We walked to the start and got there about 45 minutes before the gun. My husband stood in line for the bag check and I stood in line for the port-o-potties. While waiting in line, I saw a woman, Janis, that I had met just 3 weeks previously at a bike event. We had ridden together in the group and had a great time, and I had forgotten she would be in Portland. We agreed to meet with the 4:40 pace team after I showed her the pace band and she decided it was do-able for her, though she felt poorly trained for this marathon. She thought she could start with the group, and see how it went. I was thrilled to have a running buddy, especially since my other runner friends were in different waves. We both waited in the restroom line, but it was moving incredibly slowly and suddenly the gun went off for the first wave. Our wave started moving ahead, and we bailed out of line and took off after them, figuring we could use the restroom on the run, even though it would add time. I had no idea where my husband was, but decided to proceed. As we walked toward the start, there he was, waving!
The weather had turned out to be unseasonably warm, close to 60 degrees at the start. I had a thrift store sweatshirt on top of my running clothes that I could wear and toss, but decided to throw it to my husband instead, since it was so warm. I introduced myself to the pace team and we headed off! Our adrenaline was pumping so hard that we went out ahead of the pace team. Both of us felt as though we were running incredibly slowly, but my Garmin said otherwise. We slowed and forced ourselves to crawl along with the pace team for about 3 miles, then slowly started to creep ahead of them with the idea that we could eventually stop to use the restroom and hopefully not lose too much time. At about mile 4 I watched as a fellow runner chased down a woman who had unwittingly dropped her new iPhone as she ran. I trotted over to the man, who had probably expended unplanned effort to do a good deed. I put my hand on his shoulder and when he looked at me, said "runners are good people!' to which he gave me a big sheepish grin.
The first 4 miles the lines for the port-os were incredibly long. Both of us were badly feeling the need to use the bathroom; not able to settle in to the run. Finally at mile 5.5 we found a not-too-long line and jumped in. I believe it took me about 2-3 minutes, but it was a very good decision to stop since by that point I knew where I might eventually need chafe cream! When I came out of the restroom I didn't see my friend and took off, looking around for the pace team, and not seeing them. After about another 2 miles, I came to a part of the course where there was an out-and-back section, with faster runners coming back toward us. We cheered wildly for the leaders as they ran past, then probably 200 yards before the turnaround, I saw my pace group coming back toward me. Up until that point I had been unsure if they were ahead of me or behind me - now I knew. I needed to catch up. I had apparently been slowly catching them, so I forced myself to be patient and slowly caught up to them and ran behind the leaders for a mile or so before feeling claustrophobic in the group and again slowly pulling slightly out in front. After another mile or so I looked ahead and saw Janis! Her blond curls were unmistakeable and we were on a downhill! I sped up happily and just before catching her, watched as she grabbed her knee and slowed to a walk. I came up beside her and asked if she was okay. She said she just had a twitch and was able to begin running again. We trotted along, passed the halfway mark, and slowly pulling further ahead of the pace group. At about mile 15, the route began the long hill up to the St. John's bridge. At about mile 16, the hill became brutal. Janis slowly dropped back behind me toward the pace group. We waved, and I figured she would tuck in with them - that was not the case; sadly I would not see her again, though she did finish successfully.
The pace leaders had changed at mile 13.1 and I hadn't yet met the new pacers, but as I climbed toward the bridge I apparently slowed more than the pace group because I heard them come up behind me. The new pacers were calling out, telling the runners what to expect, while the previous ones had been much quieter. They yelled words of encouragement all the way up the long hill, telling us how far until we crested. I hung directly behind them, enjoying the crowd's cheers for the 4:40 pace group as they saw our sign. At the end of the bridge there was a sharp downhill with a nasty sideways slope. Needing some space, I ran out in front of the group again. I started feeling amazingly good. The runner's high was in full force, and I was almost at mile 18! I started to feel a bit emotional, believing for the first time that odds were good that I would actually finish the race, and perhaps even faster than I had ever dared hope. We began a long flat section, and I tucked in and ran steadily. I had begun grabbing course gummy bears at about mile 8, having eaten my own beans prior to that. It was easy just to grab the little cup and keep rolling. I also began drinking the course Ultima, deciding that now that my belt was somewhat lighter, that I would save my own drink in case I needed it later. At mile 20 the infamous "wall" did not appear for me, maybe because I had done a 22 miler in training. I was basking in the glow of the cheering crowd, which felt amazing, reading the funny and encouraging signs and hearing the occasional stranger calling my name after reading it on my bib, making me a bit teary again. A little girl was standing by the road and offered me some freshly peeled orange slices, which I happily took and ate as I continued to run. At the next aid station I grabbed plain water instead of Ultima, and washed my sticky hands with it as I ran. At about mile 22, there was a very young boy, maybe 3, standing with two women who were reading names to him. As I came up he cheered for me! I smiled at him and thanked him and yelled that he had made my day. He beamed and jumped up and down and yelled for me some more. More almost tears. I was having a blast! Between miles 20 and 23 I must have passed 200 or more people, many of whom were walking the long slow downhill, quads burning. I had been told about this part of the course and how frustrating it was. How at that point in the race it was almost impossible to take advantage of the downhill and let loose and run because your legs would be so fatigued that you might fall. I had been told to practice running downhill at the end of my long runs. Boy, did that advice pay off. I was able to speed up for those miles. Just before mile 23 came the "beer table". Volunteers were handing out small glasses of beer to any takers. I had been advised that I might want to skip it for my first marathon, but I ultimately decided that I wanted the full race experience. I quickly chugged the ounce or two of beer, was offered a second cup, which I declined, and then took off again. Maybe this was a bad decision, maybe not! I'll never know. But up until that point, I had been able to relax and cruise along. Unfortunately, just past mile 23, the wheels came off! Mile 23 was my "wall". Suddenly, my legs were exhausted. I started checking my pace and really had to push myself to go even 15 seconds slower than my goal pace for the race. I knew that I would probably still be okay, because I had been running very slightly ahead of pace until that point, but even running at the slower pace became incredibly difficult. I was exhausted and in agony. I had been told that this dark place would come, and had expected it to come a lot sooner that it did. All along, I had been telling myself things like - "halfway done!" then "only 10 miles to go!", etc. Now, I tried to think, only a 5k left. Come on girl, even if you run 11 minute miles you only have to keep this up for another 34 minutes or so, and you can still make your goal pace! I began repeating another friend’s mantra:
“just keep moving!”.
I trudged along, legs burning, but still running. We turned and climbed a small agonizing hill to the final bridge, which had a barricade protecting the runners from traffic. About halfway across the bridge, every step agony, I was jolted when an older gentleman running next to me bumped the barrier with his foot and went down like a ton of bricks, bashing his face into the next metal pedestal on the ground. Immediately another woman and I ran toward him. We carefully rolled him off his face and discovered that he was conscious. The bridge of his nose was split open and already swelling, spewing blood. The other woman grabbed her belt and her phone and began calling for help. I looked at his bib for a number, but I was somewhat in a daze myself. I gave him some of her water, which he drank, and tried to move him out of the path of oncoming runners. I grabbed his hand and told him he was okay. He looked up at me and said, "Am I bleeding?". I looked down at his face, where the blood was pouring off the top of his nose and running down over his face and said, yes, your nose is cut open and the blood is running into your eyes. I reassured him that he was okay. At that point, another man who knew him ran up beside us and stopped by his friend. He looked at me and said, help is on the way, and nodded at me. I had a moment of doubt, a moment of guilt at the thought of leaving, but looked at his friend again, and decided to go. Probably a minute or two had passed. I nodded back and ran on, looking up ahead, and realized that as I had tended to the man, the pace group that had been behind me was suddenly many yards in front of me. My legs were somewhat rested by my pause, and I was able to begin running at a slightly faster pace and eventually, agonizingly, began to catch up. I knew that I had about 1.5 miles to go, and needed to stay with them if I was to meet my crazy, impossible goal. Slowly, slowly I pulled closer to them as my legs began to feel even worse than before. I really began to doubt my ability to keep pace. It was agony. I realized at that point that it was going to be all guts. I had to endure if I wanted to make it. I really, really wanted to be able to finish at pace, which to me meant slightly in front of the group to be sure. I pushed myself past them with less than a mile to go. There was no relaxing, no let up. I could hear the pace leaders behind me, calling out encouragement to the runners. I could hear when they were getting closer to me, and they must have been just steps behind me. I began to look for the last turn, then realized once I thought we had passed it that there was still one more. I began to look for the English gentleman, Peter, who I had met at the expo and who had told me that he would be at the final turn in the middle of the course. As I finally, agonizingly ran past him, I called to him as he had asked, but I do not believe he heard me. I did not hear the race announcers call my name, I did not hear anything. As I came up to the finish I tried very hard to lift my arms up in victory as I had been told several times to do, so as to not look horrible for the photos! I tried, but I am not sure I succeeded with anything but a weak wave and a grimace. I crossed the line, and a few seconds later stopped my watch, which read: 4:39:10. If it was to be believed, I had met my goal. I was too exhausted to celebrate. As I walked ahead, a volunteer came up to me and grabbed my arm and steadied me. She thought I might pass out, and it was not an unfounded belief, but I spoke to her and told her I was okay. I moved ahead and collected my medal in a daze, that volunteer also asked me if I was okay, and I mumbled something that must have reassured her, for she let me proceed ahead. Immediately as I walked, my right hip flexor began tightening up and I felt as though I was dragging my right leg. Others around me were also doing their version of the marathon shuffle! I stumbled ahead through the finishing chute, unable to think clearly, but somehow knowing that I needed nourishment. I came to a table full of chocolate milk! Beautiful chocolate milk! I grabbed an already opened carton, and started chugging, and began wandering around the finishing area, dazedly looking to see what else I could grab. I began to slowly revive, grabbed some oranges, which I tried to eat, but could not, grabbed some grapes, which tasted bitter after the milk, then headed back and got another carton of milk and a banana. I grabbed a cup of candy and was handed a space blanket. I started to realize that I was done! I began focusing on picking up my finishers shirt and wandered ahead, chatting with another runner about where to go. She seemed much more cognizant than I felt! We walked ahead, talking about our races, and I told her it was my first. She smiled and congratulated me. We grabbed our shirts and continued on. At this point, my arms were full of food, shirt, medals and goodies. I decided to stop and try to reorganize. All around me runners were spread out on the sidewalks, stretching and resting. I headed for the reunion area, looking for my husband. Another runner and I commented that we all looked like the walking dead and she said that she often thought that they should schedule filming of a zombie movie at the end of marathons! I thought that perhaps my husband had not made it there yet, considering I had finished earlier than expected, but suddenly there he was, smiling and taking photos. I stumbled up to him and we kissed. It was over.
Later, as we walked back to the hotel to try to quickly shower before checking out, people on the street, called congratulations to me. Other runners and I nodded at each other, thinking "we did it!", none of us knowing anything of each other or our stories, other than that we shared the experience of the 2012 Portland Marathon. One other woman even smiled at me and told me that I was almost walking normally! Later, walking back to the bag check area and to our car, the congratulations and camaraderie continued. It turned out that my finishing time was five seconds faster than my watch indicated.
A day later, the glow is fading somewhat, but still endures. Many, many friends have called, texted, or messaged me congratulations. Other friends who also raced have shared their stories. My parents called to see if I had been successful, and as I told my dad these little stories about the run, I could hear his voice becoming emotional. Both of them told me that they were proud of me, and it meant so much to me to be able to do something, even at my age, to make my parents proud. As I look back on this experience, I realize that it has only affirmed what I began to learn as I began this journey almost 4 years ago, never dreaming that I would complete a marathon, only hoping to complete a 5K. I have learned that I can do almost anything, even in what is almost certainly the second half of my life. I can achieve new goals if I set my mind to it, and endure bumps and hardships, and those bumps will only make achieving my goals sweeter in the end. I am learning through running and other physical endeavors that if I have a plan, and if I then can find a way to stick to that plan, through whatever means works for me, that I can achieve a goal if is a goal that I truly want, one that I am willing to make sacrifices for, one that I am willing to work hard to achieve. I also have learned that I must choose my goals wisely, that I must be honest with myself and recognize what it is that I really want.
I have lived through much adversity. I have been disappointed in myself and in other people at various times in my life. I know now that if something or someone truly matters to me, that I will find a way to forgive, to proceed, and to achieve. Running has helped me learn that lesson. It is the ultimate metaphor for life - you get out of it what you put into it. The things that matter in life you must give wholeheartedly to. I gave, and I ran, and because of both my hard work and my great good fortune to be able to maintain good health, I have achieved. I am blessed.
Read how I did it… 23 months ago