Going the Distance: My First Marathon

13.1 is only “half crazy,” and I can’t do anything halfway. I’m going full crazy.

So, I was never what you might call “athletically inclined” as a child.

I played outside a lot, but I didn’t “play sports.” I actively avoided anything that might have been construed as team-oriented or competitive. My idea of a marathon was how many dungeons of Zelda I could get through before my thumbs started hurting. I also grew up with a body shape that reflected how I spent my pubescent years seated in a dark room, bathing in the glow of cathode ray tubes and shoving snacks into my gaping maw.

As a teenager, I never felt compelled to lose weight in order to get a boyfriend, fit into trendy clothes, or wear a bikini. However, I remember at some point during high school I found out that type 2 diabetes and colon cancer run in my family, and I decided that it might be a good idea for diseases to not be the only thing running in my family.

At the time, putting on my Nikes and hitting the pavement was the easiest and least expensive way to shed my extra weight, and did not involve joining a team, going to a gym, or even speaking to another human being at all. After a long day of sensory overload and forced social interaction at school, I relished the time I could spend completely alone on a run. Since then, running has helped keep unwanted weight from coming back, in addition to keeping my blood pressure and cholesterol at comfortable levels. It’s also a great excuse to spend an hour alone to recharge.

Last year, a friend convinced me to run a half marathon with her. It was the first time I ever actually had to put myself on some kind of training plan, as opposed to just aimlessly running laps around my neighborhood. Initially I thought that the half marathon would be something I did just to check off my bucket list, and then never think about doing again… Much to my own surprise, I ended up liking it so much that in the months that followed, I ran two more: a small local half, and the Rock & Roll half in Savannah, GA.

Once I figured out how to breathe and set my cadence, those long runs stopped being painful and started feeling more like meditation. I discovered that I really like running long distances, but a full marathon still felt intimidating. I knew that once I plunked down some money it would motivate me to get out of my comfort zone again, so I signed up for the Rock & Roll marathon in New Orleans. I thought that since I could do 13.1, 26.2 probably wouldn’t be too difficult.

…Right?

I gave myself 16 weeks to train, since I didn’t want to try to do too much too fast.

When I signed up, I wasn’t really sure how to estimate what my finishing time would be, so I put my goal as 4hr:30m.  I thought training for a marathon would leave me feeling like a gazelle, effortlessly bouncing across the savanna. Instead I was more like a hobbit on the way to Mordor: sweating, shoveling snacks in my face, and trying to push my stumpy legs “just one more mile.”

The first time I felt that sucker punch of total glycogen depletion, I slogged home feeling like my legs were made of Jello and my feet were cinderblocks. About the most I would ever do is choke down an energy gel at the midpoint of a half marathon, but as my weekly long run was climbing to upwards of 4 hours, that strategy wasn’t working anymore. Eating food while running seemed to go against all the conventional wisdom I’d come to understand about fitness, but once I started doing it, I felt my endurance increase dramatically.

I was pretty confident in my ability to physically run the miles, but less confident in my chances of maintaining a pace I could brag about. I was not going to be able to do the full marathon at my half marathon pace, but I decided that I wouldn’t stress out too much about it, since it was my first time trying to run 26.2. I didn’t want to push myself too hard and burn out early in the race — or worse, hurt myself. As long as I finished, I’d consider it a success.

If you ever have doubts that your non-runner spouse loves you, see what they say when you ask them to travel 550 miles, then get up at o-dark-thirty on a weekend, wait around for you to finish a marathon… and you don’t even know how long it’s going to take. (Some gentle cajoling with promises of daiquiris doesn’t hurt.)

Preparing for the actual race was probably the easiest part: I used to live in New Orleans, so I wasn’t at all worried about the terrain or weather. During the week leading up to the race, I rested and did yoga. Devon and I drove over the day before, arriving early enough so I could pick up my bib, then I carb-loaded with eggplant parmesan and went to bed early. I awoke at 4:30 am and had my usual race day breakfast of a plant-based energy bar and coffee before heading to the starting line.

The Race:

Miles 1-6 were easy. Running felt great and effortless, but I knew I was going too fast, so I tried to slow myself down by staying on the neutral ground along St. Charles Avenue. As a result, I missed hitting the 5k and 10k mats, oops. This section was the most entertaining part of the race, since the sidewalks were lined with spectators cheering and holding up signs. Some people from Randazzo’s bakery were handing out king cake, but it was not appealing at the time. The oak trees along the road provided lots of shade from the early morning sun.

Miles 7-13 were through the French Quarter. I still wasn’t pushing myself too hard, cruising along at a pace that was almost leisurely. The sun was still mostly behind clouds, but the humidity was rising as the morning dew dissipated. As we turned to run up Esplanade, I could feel the ambient temperature climbing too, so I started grabbing more water and eating some of the energy chews and dried fruit I’d stored in my belt pouch. At mile 13, we reached City Park and I drank a Five Hour Energy shot. I did the half in about 2:39.

Miles 14-18 were mostly in the shade along the west side of the park, so it was still fairly pleasant, but the sun was definitely now out with a vengeance. There were some folks handing out pretzels on Carrollton Ave. and I was glad to have some salty food for a change. I was still feeling pretty good, but around mile 17, the 4:45 pace group passed me. I tried not to get too down about it, reminding myself that I was only a few minutes off my estimated goal and still doing fine.

Miles 19-23 were along Lakeshore Drive; by now the sun was blazing full in the sky and there was no shade. Somewhere around mile 20, I felt like I had been maintaining a pretty good time despite the climbing temperatures, and then the 5:00 pace group passed me. I attempted to light a fire under my own ass, and downed the rest of my energy chews as I tried to keep up with them, to no avail. At this point all of the water stations seemed to have gone dry, but I managed to grab one or two warm Gatorades to toss down my gullet.

The last 2.2 miles were rough. At mile 24 I was starting to feel a little queasy, which I assumed was because of the direct sunlight — I felt like my skin was roasting. I thought about eating the rest of my dried fruit, but the thought of ingesting any more sugar made me want to vomit. I did a mental “systems check” to make sure nothing hurt. My quadriceps were feeling sore, and I was pretty sure I had at least one blister, but otherwise I felt okay. By this time, City Park was coming back into view and I knew the finish line was close. Then, at mile 25, my quads were suddenly ON FIRE. I didn’t want to completely stop, so I slowed to a walk to see if my muscles could relax. When I hit mile marker 26, I managed to run the last 0.2 to finish at 5:45. Only a full hour and 15 minutes slower than my goal, but at least nobody had to carry my bloated corpse across the finish line.

I collected my medal and finisher jacket, grabbed a banana, then met up with Devon, who brought me a cocktail — which honestly could have been made with Bourbon Street gutter water and it would have still tasted amazing after running a marathon.

Post Race Thoughts:

I think I will do a few things differently for my next marathon. I’d like to give myself an extra couple of weeks of training to incorporate more long runs. The longest run I finished was 20 miles, and I think I would have benefited from at least one 22 miler. And I will probably incorporate muscle-building exercise back into my routine, and work on strengthening my lower body before my next race.

This was my second Rock & Roll event, and so far I’ve noticed a common theme: no apparent effort is made to ensure that participants are actually in their proper corrals. It became wholly evident when I was passing people with higher bib numbers before even approaching the 5k mark. Another point of frustration was that it seemed like so much attention was paid to the half — plentiful water/gatorade/gel stops and entertainment during the first 13 miles — while the last 13 miles were basically almost ignored. We ran down long stretches of barren course (no music, no spectators), only to be met with understocked water stops. However, the port-a-potty situation was much better than it was at Savannah. Lack of places to pee is usually my only complaint about big race events like this. Overall though, I’ve enjoyed Rock & Roll’s events and will likely do more in the future. And they do have the most creative medals.

One of my long-term goals is to get a few more marathons under my belt, and then do this race again to (hopefully) see how much I’ve improved. I’m aiming to go back to Savannah again in November to run the full marathon this time, and I have at least one local marathon I’d like to do in 2017. My eventual goal is to start doing ultras (much to my non-running husband’s dismay). Even just as recently as a year ago, this didn’t seem remotely achievable, but now the idea of running 30 or even 50 miles is becoming less intimidating. Not less crazy, just less scary. ;)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *