Monday, November 11, 2013

Mondays in Love: For the First Time!

When and where was your first time? Mine was in Detroit in October of 2009. Maybe for some of you it was much longer ago. Maybe you're a marathon virgin (of course this is about running! Geez people!). There is nothing else on earth like your first marathon finish line. I really do think it changes a person. Today I am very pleased to bring you into the world of a first time marathoner, to give you a glimpse of the experience or take you back to your first marathon memories.

Let me introduce our first time marathoner, Jessica. Jess and I go way back (1998!!) to West Virginia. We met at Spruce Knob when we were both Scholars in the (now defunct) West Virginia Scholars Academy--an experience as formative and awesome as it is difficult to explain. We spent a month writing 75+ page autobiographical theses and learning about the socioeconomic landscape of WV. This involved a lot of hiking, camping, spelunking, writing and eating amazing food. It was an experience that changed my life, forever, and that holds a special place in both our hearts.
at the 2011 annual reunion at Spruce

Some basic stats: 
  • Jess ran the Columbus Marathon on October 20. Her goal time was: finish, but from her training runs she anticipated something around a 5:15. Actual time: 5:15:40.
  • Previous running resume: the Parkersburg Half in 2011 (2:51:44), 2012 (2:47:23) and 2013 (2:32:45) and the Columbus Half (put on in conjunction with the marathon) in 2011 (2:37:42)
I had originally planned to shorten this post, but I want to let Jessica give her experience fully and in her own words. So much of this interview rang true for me, and it took me right back to that first 26.2 training cycle and race. I honestly got a little choked up reading it. Enjoy!

How did you pick your race? Location, the course itself, date?
I picked the Columbus Marathon because I live here, and thought it would be the easiest to start with - no travel, hotels, etc.  Also, being familiar with the city, made me feel a little more confident, and it was easy to order my family and friends around to be at certain rally points to cheer for me.  Finally, the course is relatively flat, so I thought that would help, and October would be cooler, so I liked that as well.    

How long did you train? 
I started "training" in one way or another at the beginning of the year.  I had wanted to run a marathon last year, but life threw a wrench in that plan and it didn't happen.  So when I decided to do it this year, I knew there were a few things I wanted to do.

First, I wanted to drop about 20 extra pounds or so that I was carrying around.  I figured the extra weight would be hard on my joints.  So from January through June, I watched my calories and lost about 15 of the pounds.  I really wasn't running too often (maybe one or twice a week for a few miles) and was just doing some light indoor exercising (yoga, aerobics-like workout videos, etc.). After June, I stopped monitoring my exact calorie intake, but ended up losing about another 10 pounds from June through October, mostly because of the increased physical activity.

Second, I wanted to incorporate strength training into my routine.  In previous years when I trained, I just followed a beginner or intermediate schedule I found online that just has you running your average pace four times a week and then resting or cross-training the other three days.  Even though it would say to run the short ones at a slightly faster pace and the long runs at a slow, comfortable pace, my goal was always just to get the miles in anyway I could.  And I always used CT days as rest days.  But I really wanted to do as much as I could to make the task easier on my body.  So I hired a personal trainer in July.  I worked out with him about once a week and he gave me "homework" training sessions to do on my other CT days.  I was sore a lot, but I could really tell a difference in how I felt physically by the end.  I really feel like it helped a lot.

What was your training like? 
When I actually started the running training, I found a beginner schedule online.  As with years before, I really wasn't too cognizant of the different recommended paces.  I just tried to get the miles in.  Towards the end, I did try to push myself more on the short runs with the pace, but it wasn't something I focused on.  So I didn't do any speedwork.

I trained mostly alone.  Occasionally I would do a short run with friends or family, but the majority of them ran at a slower pace than I did, so I really felt like I was doing it more for them than for me.  Also, I found that on the few occasions when I was scheduled to do a long run, but someone wanted to accompany me for the first few miles, running at a much slower pace than I wanted to actually hurt my performance for the rest of the long run after my partners would drop off.

I did go running once a few weeks before the marathon with a friend who runs at a faster pace than I do.  What I realized was that I could definitely keep up with her pretty easily and that I probably needed to try to push my own pace in future training years.  I think I'm probably capable of a lot more, but I just haven't figured out how to do that alone.  I might try to find some pace groups or something in future years, but my problem has always been that I have an extremely irregular schedule and it's hard to keep any sort of plan or schedule with other people.

My longest scheduled runs were 14, 16, 18, and 20 miles.  I substituted a half marathon for the 14 mile run.  The goal was to finish that half in under 2:30.  The two weeks before the race, I had extended family members visiting and had been traveling a lot, which meant my running, eating, and sleeping suffered.  I didn't make that goal, and I was upset about it, because it was totally possible, but I just couldn't pull it off that day.  Then the 16 and 18 mile runs did not go well at all.  I ran the first few miles of the 16 mile run with someone else, and I felt more tired than normal and ended up walking a lot.  I also hadn't planned well for hydration and found myself looking for water off my course.  Plus I wasn't in a good place in my head that day due to some stress at work.  So that was also a set back.  The 18 mile run I tried to do a day earlier than originally planned and it also went pretty horribly.  Around mile 12 I started having severe stomach and intestinal distress.  I gave up at mile 16 after walking probably three of the last four miles.  Again, pretty disappointing and it made me fear I wouldn't be able to do it.

So the 20 mile run felt like a make-or-break moment to me.  I tried not to put too much pressure on myself, but it was important to me to do well.  I was doing well and around mile 11.5, I realized that if I pushed my pace for mile 12, I could finish 13.1 in under 2:30.  I had a bit of an internal debate about whether that was a good idea - what if I ran out of steam at the end because of doing a big push in the middle?  I decided to do it, and I think it helped with my confidence a bit.  The last seven miles went pretty well.  My legs cramped up a bit, but I finished in under four hours, which was my goal.  I also didn't feel totally wiped out at the end, so that was good.  I was happy with that run and felt like I would be fine for the marathon.

What were your thoughts in the days before the race?
I was really trying to focus on myself and what I thought was best for me physically and mentally.  I know in theory that that is something to strive for all the time, but I frequently ignore my needs for others, as many women do.  I was very concerned about my stomach.  I didn't want to eat something that would make me sick or upset my body, so I only ate where I wanted, when I wanted, etc.  I told my family and others that I couldn't do things they wanted me to.  It was a little intimidating to think that I was going to run 6 more miles on the day of the marathon than I had ever run at once in my life.  My 20 mile run had gone well, so that helped, but I was worried about the unknown that might come up in the last 6 miles.  Also, as with most runners, I was obsessed with checking the weather.  While I really hate running in high heat and humidity, I am also not a fan of running in really cold weather.  It looked like it would be in the mid-30s when the race started, and end up maybe getting to 50 degrees.  I was worried about being cold.  Plus, my nose always runs when I run in the cold and then I can't breathe through my nose and I just struggle a bit more.

Also, I was worried about psyching myself out of doing well.  One thing running has helped me with is to keep my over-thinking tendencies in check.  But that doesn't mean I don't still obsess about things too much sometimes.  Unfortunately for me, my family, who wanted to come and cheer me on, actually is somewhat detrimental to my mental health at times.  I was worried about whether they would distract me or take something away from the experience.  But I had some friends who really believed in me and I just kept in mind that I was really prepared for it and I would be fine.

How did you feel at the start line? 
The start line was a little crazy.  There were 20,000 runners registered and many thousands more spectators.  I decided not to have any of my family or supporters come to the start line to cheer me on.  I figured that I was sufficiently motivated to get myself across the start line.  :)  So, that meant I had to drive myself downtown and park and get to the start area.  The parking area was about a mile from the start line, but unlike the previous time I ran in Columbus in 2011, traffic was absolutely insane this time.  The race was supposed to start at 7:30am, but they said the corrals were only open from 6-7.  I figured that was their scare tactic to get people there early, but I was afraid they may not let me in if I was late with all the increased security this year.  I didn't get parked until 7:15, so I ran the mile to the start line, which actually ended up being a nice warm-up, but it was stressful.  I couldn't really get in my corral and just ended up in the very back of the 20,000 runner pack.  All of the rushing around and the time-crunch meant that I didn't have time to get nervous or really over-think things too much.  

Tell me about the 26.2 miles. What were the highlights and lowlights? What went well? What went wrong? 
I didn't get across the start line until about 25 minutes after the first gun.  So I was a little worried about my scheduled rally point meet-ups with my family and friends because my ETA for those places was going to be way off.  After the first two miles of dodging people and random clothing strewn about the course, I settled in.  The first 6 miles were really congested and I would sometimes get bumped or have to maneuver around others, so that was commanding most of my attention rather than my run or my pace.

This was the first race I remember where I felt like there were tons of spectators along the first part of the course.  Also, they put your name on your bib, and people would yell out your name as they cheered for you.  At first I was confused until I realized my name was on the bib, and then I just thought it was absolutely awesome.  So much support from total strangers was really amazing and I think I fed off of it.  I usually listen to music when I run, but I couldn't even hear it over all the cheering!

The overwhelming support was one factor that contributed to the most surprising and unexpected part of the race for me - I was super-emotional most of the race!  I frequently got choked up and wanted to cry.  I think it was partly because of the awesome support, which was very touching, especially given that I didn't always get that kind of support from others.  Another part of it was because of the sponsors of the race.  It was sponsored by Nationwide Children's hospital.  Every mile had a "patient champion," and in the race packet had been a description of the kids and what illness/condition the hospital had helped to treat.  Some of these children were amazingly brave and had been through so much in their short lives.  Many of them were there at their mile marker to cheer us on.  One of them had passed away a few weeks before the race, so they had a memorial at his mile-marker.  The last reason for my emotional state was because I was so proud of myself and it was the culmination of almost 10 months of hard work.   But I hadn't been prepared for the emotions that welled-up during the run.

Mile 11 my family showed up, and I was feeling pretty good.  It had been a little chilly, but not as cold as I had feared, so I was ok.  I finished the first 13.1 in 2:24 and briefly entertained the idea of possibly finishing ahead of my estimated 5:15 time.  But, the crowd (both spectators and runners), thinned drastically after passing the half and suddenly, I felt alone for the first time in the race.  According to my Garmin, I walked a lot of mile 15, which I don't really remember doing, but I remember drinking more than I should have and feeling more tired than I wanted to feel.  There was a stretch of a few miles that went right past my alma mater (OSU) and actually through the Horseshoe (football stadium), and it was the section of the race with the fewest spectators. I'm not sure if I was spending too much time remembering good and bad things about every part of campus or what, but I was a little unfocused for those miles, plus the energy from the crowd that previously fed me was gone, so I just floundered a bit.

As I approached mile 20, which was the second rally point for my family, I was doing better.  After getting a bit of a morale boost from the family, I embarked on the unknown part of the run - miles 21-26.2!  The number of spectators picked back up and my fellow runners at that point were super friendly and collegial.  As I passed people or they passed me, we would encourage each other or joke about things.  I was tired, but still doing ok.  Until mile 23.  It was mostly downhill, but then there was a steep one block hill.  A friend of mine who lived near mile 23 had said he would try to be out to cheer for me, but I wasn't sure he would show, especially given that my start time had been so delayed and I was arriving at mile 23 right at the end of the window that I had given him.  He wasn't there and I was somewhat disappointed because I was starting to hurt physically.  My knees and hips were hurting, but my joints had never really given me too many problems before, so it was uncomfortable.  As I walked up that little hill, I thought I might have to walk the last three miles because I was in pain.  I sucked it up though, thinking that I could crawl the last three if I really had to.

As I got to mile 25, I felt better anticipating the end and maybe it was just the adrenaline, but my pain subsided a bit.  As I hit mile 26 and rounded the corner to the finish line, I wanted to cry, but I told myself I could cry when it was over.  I finished relatively strongly, and I was happy.  I didn't cry like I thought I had wanted to, but I was very proud of myself.  

My joints were still achy, but overall, I didn't feel too horrible.  I could walk normally.  I went out to eat with my family later and wore my finishers medal.  There were other runners there (not sure if they ran the half or the full), and they were walking very gingerly and looked wiped out.  I was pretty pleased that I had been well-prepared enough to not have the physical problems they were experiencing.  I was a little sore on Monday and Tuesday, but by Wednesday I was 100% back to normal.  

What did you learn about yourself in this process? 
I learned that I am stronger and more capable than I had previously thought.  I learned that I can set a goal, work hard, and achieve it in a more organized/methodical way than I had ever done before.  I learned that it's ok to do things for yourself and take care of yourself, and that that doesn't make you selfish.  I learned that I actually really like weight training because it makes me feel stronger both physically and emotionally.  I learned that people saw me as an inspiration and a role-model.  I had friends, co-workers, acquaintances tell me that they were so impressed with my accomplishment that they had signed up for a Pilates class, or a 5K, or a half-marathon and that felt wonderful.  I don't think I had ever been called an inspiration before.  I learned that I can get support from other places when I can't get it from where I want or expect to get it.  I learned that I was part of a larger community of runners and that I belonged, even if I am a slow runner.  I had sort of learned that before with halfs, but now I feel it more strongly than before.   

Do you plan to go 26.2 again? What would you do differently next time?
I do plan on doing a marathon again.  I'm not sure if I will do one next year or take a year off, just due to the sheer time commitment involved in a full training as opposed to a half.  I will definitely keep doing half-marathons - my hometown half is a definite one, with maybe one or two others next year if I decide not to do a marathon.  I would like to do a whole half without taking walking breaks as well, so that will be the goal for next year's half in Parkersburg.  Next time I also plan on trying to push myself more during training.  I will try a different, more advanced training schedule.  I will probably pay more attention to my pace during training runs.  I can't say that I will make bettering my pace during all runs my main goal with running, because it's also about running being a relaxing outlet for me, so lots of pressure wouldn't necessarily make it fun.  

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