As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane, coming home from Chicago the day after running my first marathon in this amazing city. I wasn’t sure how long I’d need to take after the race to write this since my mind is kind of spent, but also because I need to process what just happened. I decided that there’s too much value in capturing my thoughts when they’re still fresh, so here I am.
I ran the 2015 Chicago Marathon on behalf of St. Jude. Let me just take a moment to recognize this amazing organization. St. Jude is a children’s cancer institute that does research on treatments and cures for various forms of cancer that attack children, and also provides completely free treatment to children battling cancer. And they don’t stop there – they also provide counseling and support to the families of those kids along with free housing and food to families whose children are undergoing long-term treatment. St. Jude is an amazing place, and I was really honored and proud to run for them. I raised over $5,000, and the group of roughly 260 of us who are called “St. Jude Heroes” raised a record-breaking $455,000+ in this marathon. While the race is over, you can still donate at http://heroes.stjude.org/newbodies.
So leading up to the marathon, I trained for 170 days following a plan built just for me by a great running coach – Jason Fitzgerald at Strength Running. I had ups, and I had downs. I had injuries (though not from the running itself), and I records I would set every week, be they speed, mileage or a combination of the two. This was a huge commitment, and I’m proud of how I did the work to get there.
My goal was to break 4 hours, which means coming in just under 9 minutes for each mile. Based on my history and training, it would be tough, but achievable. As this was my first marathon, I was lucky to have the luxury of setting a personal record no matter how long it too me to finish (as long as I finished). I typically go into races with an aspirational goal and a back up goal, so my goals were 4 hours or finish. In reality, I wanted to be sure I finished in under 4:30 as my backup, but I never told anyone that. I finished in a time I’ll get to later in this piece, and got there with quite a bit of walking from miles 15 to 25. There were several moments between miles 17 and 23 when I wasn’t sure I’d finish at all. I did, however, finish, and did so by running (not walking any of) the final 1.2 miles really well – especially the final 800 meters, which I’m very proud of.
I had an injury going into the race, but it wasn’t acute anymore, and stood little chance of impacting my race. The weather was set to be warmer than I had hoped for, but not too bad (60s-70s, though not humid). It was going to be windy – hey, it’s Chicago, what do you expect? – but the buildings do a good job of shielding you along the course. It was actually a stunning weekend – absolutely gorgeous and really pleasant if a touch too hot to be ideal for a marathon.
I went into the race at a time where there is a lot of very heavy stuff going on in my life around my job situation (I start a big new job the week after the marathon – not a life change I recommend around a marathon!). That created a lot of mental stress at a time when I really needed to be free of it. I came to peace with the situation before the race, and actually wasn’t thinking about it at all as I got closer to the race, and not at all while in Chicago. However, that stress lead to short sleep at night, with very early wakings. That is the root cause of my marathon not going as I had hoped. The two nights before the race, I slept really poorly. I got into bed early, but was fully awake by 1:30am and 12:30am, respectively. That made for a physical exhaustion that is just very hard to overcome no matter how much excitement or energy chews might be around you.
I started the race pretty well. One of the top rules of marathoning is not to go out too fast, and I did a pretty good job controlling my speed. I was fast, but still within the range I wanted to be in and felt pretty good through the first 3 miles. The next 3, I had planned to speed up slightly, and was just about where I wanted to be pace-wise. After the 10K mark, though, I was starting to feel tired, and of course I still had 20 miles to go!
I had been eating the energy chews I used throughout my training, as well as drinking an electrolyte-infused water I had used in training. Even though my legs were pretty fresh and I was fueled, I was fading. I tried to stay positive and motivated, and use all the tricks in the book – pick a landmark, run to it, then pick another; count steps; count breaths; count; sing a motivating song in your head; engage the crowd; etc. I did whatever I could to keep going.
The mile markers seemed to come so slowly, but I kept running. I ran through the 13.1 mile marker and timing mat, and wasn’t too far from my goal pace, so I used that to feel better mentally. I knew the crew from St. Jude would be around mile 14 with other charity groups, so I used that to get to that mileage. I had used up my first packet of energy chews by mile 14, so I decided to take 1 cup of Gatorade at the aide station. This is another one of the top rules of marathoning – do not do something on race day you’ve never done before, especially with fueling. I haven’t had Gatorade in literally over a decade. And I don’t eat or drink things that processed and fake. But I needed something, that was the only option, and I decided not to have a lot. The cup was half full (optimism!), and I only drank half of that. I swished the rest in my mouth and spat it out – a great trick as it signals to the brain that more fuel is coming, so it should stop holding back on the physical performance even if you don’t drink the stuff. Yeah, the brain can be fooled easily.
I felt the urge to pee, so I said I’d get to 15, and hit the porta-potties if there was no line, and used that to keep me going.
As I stopped at mile 15, I got right into a porta-potty, and came out with the decision to walk through the water tables that were right there. As I stepped onto the road, I was literally almost dropped to the ground with pain in my stomach. It was like I was being stabbed. I walked through it, but it kept coming in waves. I got some water, and walked until the waves died down.
I got running again after about .2 miles of walking. My ankles hurt a ton as I got back to running, but it faded within about 15 seconds of running.
This pattern repeated itself every mile – I’d try to run to the water tables, take some water and walk a bit, and get back to running with abdominal and ankle pain hitting hard as soon as I did. I would walk somewhere between a quarter and a half a mile typically. Once, I walked longer. My intense stomach pain faded as I stayed away from the Gatorade, but I also had some cramping from all the water I was drinking…yet I was also getting totally parched within about a minute of taking my last sip of water.
I was in pain, totally drained (try being exhausted, then dealing with a stabbing pain in your abdomen, and also knowing you have 10 miles to run still!), and starting to get worried about finishing. That wasn’t a question I had at all going into the race – I knew I’d finish even if it took 6 hours. But now I was facing enough of a tough situation that I might have to go into the medical tent and potentially stop the race.
What about all of my training? What about the kids at St. Jude who can’t just stop what they’re going through because they hurt, are tired or anything? What about all the friends and family who donated to my fundraising that were rooting for me and expecting me to finish? What about my goal and desire to feel such a profound achievement?
I let go of the 4:30 backup, but couldn’t latch on to the idea of ‘just finishing’ being good enough. I said 5 is my backup. And, honestly, that was going to be tough still. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.
I kept at it. I met a guy who was in a similar place and we chatted. I’ve come to learn that he’s a minister, which probably explains why he was so helpful for me. He didn’t say anything profound, but just had a way about himself, and I think more than anything to hear that someone else was struggling and I wasn’t a failure for being in that spot or for walking helped me so much. He had even run another marathon and did well, so it wasn’t like my newbie-ness was to blame. He reassured me, and that really did a lot to get me through. Incidentally, he finished, too, which I was so glad to see.
I did my run/walk thing until mile 24, where I ran into another St. Jude Hero I had connected with on the way to the race who was walking. We ran a bit, then slowed it down to a walk as we reached the 25 mile marker. We looked at each other, and said, “Let’s do this!” We both ran the last mile before the final two tenths (together at first, but then our paces diverged as I pulled away, so we ran our own finish).
I saw the “800 M” sign, and picked it up a bit more, and started to pick off some runners in front of me. There were a few I spotted, but then thought they were moving too fast to catch – wrong! I was doing it. I was exhausted, but the idea of stopping now or walking again when I was so close had absolutely no effect on my body.
A sign read “400 M”.
I kept going, and got faster and faster. For anyone who doesn’t know the course, there is this ramp you run up and then make a left with a final sprint through the shoot to the finish. That ramp is steep relative to the rest of the course, which is basically flat. You’re so tired at that point that it feels like climbing a mountain. I tend to do well on hills, so I just pushed and heard everyone around me complaining about it, and some slowing to a walk.
“200 M” came along with a volunteer shouting, “Just make that turn at the flag, and then you’ll be right at the finish! Don’t stop now, you can do!” He was so right. His words really fueled my body so much. I saw people in front of me, and I picked them off with a solid push – arms pumping, euphoria and adrenaline doing their thing. I didn’t have much distance to pass them, but I did it. Again I saw people I wanted to pass, but didn’t think I could. My body ignored my mind again, and I took them.
I finished strong. In light of how the prior 10 miles went, I finished really strong. And I’m proud of that.
My final time was 4:44:28. My Garmin recorded just over 27 miles covered, with the 26.2 distance of a marathon coming in 4:36 and a few seconds. Because of how tough the race was, how much I walked, and how my body felt, I was pretty down emotionally. I was so mentally drained that I was just in a stupor. I wanted to be happy about finishing, but I was so in the throws of discomfort that my disappointment was all I focused on.
I had a great, long lunch with my brother-in-law, who ran the race, too (he’s very experienced and much faster than I am), which was really helpful. Getting his perspective and support helped me through the day. I got a slightly longer night’s sleep (though still nowhere near what I need), and just had a lazy, movie-filled morning before making my way to the airport.
I talked to a lot of finishers in the airport (we were all on the same flight to Chicago, so we got to know each other, or at least recognize each other), and the overwhelming majority of folks I talked to did not have a good race. My time put me in the top 1/3 of finishers, which I wouldn’t have expected normally, so that helped with how I was feeling.
I wouldn’t be honest if I said I was just happy to have completed it, and feeling accomplishment for that without disappointment for how it went. But I am feeling better about it as time goes on, and actually writing this helped a lot. I don’t know if I’ll do another marathon – not because this turned me off from it, but more just because you never know what happens in life. I never thought I’d do one in the first place. I would like to do another one, so we’ll see what works out.
Here’s a video of me crossing the finish line. As the clock reads 4:56:24, watch me come down the right side pretty quickly (at least relative to others in the shot) as I raise my arms through the finish:
My biggest lesson from this race wasn’t about something I did or didn’t do because the majority of my performance falling short of what I wanted was out of my control from how I slept. I feel good about the work I put in with my training. No, instead my lesson is about how getting caught up in something can mean you miss the whole purpose of your experience. My being so let down with how it was going meant I didn’t really get to enjoy the race or value having finished.
I heard a podcast with the race direct of the Chicago Marathon, Carey Pinkowski, who gave some advice to first timers. He said, “Run your race.” It’s simple, and I didn’t value it when he said it. But it’s true. If you’re not an elite or paying the bills from how you raced, then don’t get caught up in anything. Run what you can run that day, try to enjoy what you’re doing and respect the amazing achievement. No matter how fast or slow you are, you are running a marathon. That’s huge. Most people don’t do this. Recognize and respect that.
So this piece has been cathartic for me, and I’m feeling the power of what I completed. It’s not about how I completed it, it’s about completing it. And I did it honestly with hard work before and during the event.
Allow yourself to be proud. Self-pride is a crucial component to enlighten.your.body.