I had once vowed to never run another marathon after a series of disappointing finishes. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s often the things that I vow not to do that wind tenacious tendrils of curiosity in me.
This year I agreed to run a marathon with a friend. The adventurous and wild Moab Trail Marathon in Utah seemed to be a great way to break my “never run a marathon again” shell. However, my friend hadn’t trained AND I was daunted by the combo of running at elevation + running over 3,000 feet of elevation gain during the 26.2 miles. So given the opportunity, I suggested we just run the half. It was amazing and I am so happy I did it!
Because I had done all of the training to run a marathon, I decided I shouldn’t let all of that training go to waste. I set my sights, plus a bunch of money for a late entry, on the California International Marathon.
A marathon run experience is a combination of both physical and mental preparedness plus the way things unfold on that day.
As for my preparations, I had many ups and downs mainly due to an emotional major life change. Some runs were celebratory and amazing. Many of my long runs were emotionally charged with grief. On one 10 mile run, my whole body was so heavy and tired with emotion, I dragged myself through the process, ending the run early with a series of short run and walk bursts. A couple of weeks before the marathon and the week right after the Moab half, I was supposed to do a 20 mile run. A gathering the day before the long run stirred up a lot of strong emotions. At mile 14, I had to stop. My chest was tight. I couldn’t breathe. I knew it was not a health concern, but rather an emotional intensity that drained all of the energy out of me. I walked for a mile, ran for another, and then at mile 16 threw in the towel and called a Lyft.
Based on those runs, I had gained a level of uncertainty around whether I would actually be able to or really even desire to finish the 26.2 miles on the day of the race. I worried that my mental preparedness was a little flimsy.
In order to strengthen that mental game, the week before CIM, I listened to Deena Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run, a book I had read as soon as it was released in the spring. Her words of commitment and love for racing re-invigorated me and helped me to remember why I was doing this in the first place…adventure!
Taking the advice of one coach, I decided to use this marathon as an opportunity to practice giving myself permission to do what was right for me. I gave myself permission to not finish. I gave myself permission to finish hard if that felt good. I gave myself permission to be really present to the experience and myself.
While I worried about all of these things in the days leading up to the marathon, the morning of the 26. 2 mile race, I let go. This would be a day of putting one foot in front of the other, plain and simple. My run coach had suggested not wearing a watch! I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, so I wore it. I was prepared with a playlist, a bar and some Clif Blocks, my own water, and the knowledge that whatever would happen would happen.
I started in the faster group in the 40 degree and slowly climbing cool morning air…not what I had intended…but it was fine. Sometime during the first mile I decided I’d keep timing my run using my watch but would keep my pace hidden by only looking at my heart rate, keeping that under 150 beats per minute for as much of the run as possible.
The first miles went smoothly. CIM’s course is a net downhill with a little bit of elevation gain throughout the course…fewer feet of elevation gain that are normal for my training runs. That said, the way the roads looked, it seemed more like rolling hills. While others around me groaned as they crested a hill and saw the next one up ahead, I reminded myself that those were tiny! I just kept my eye on my heart rate.
At about mile 10, I could feel all of the muscles of my body tiring, reminding me of the work they were doing. I started really looking forward to seeing my aunt, uncle and second cousin at mile 13.5 and my husband and kids at mile 15. I knew their encouragement and presence would be huge boosters to me.
On one of the hills past 10 miles, an enthusiastic 6’4″ man clad in a red Speedo (in 50 degree weather!!) came running down the hill cheering on the runners as they made their way up. The lady next to me heartily laughed, and the gentleman proceeded to join us as we made our way up the hill. He loudly proclaimed how amazing and strong we were. Laughter is a great motivator, so I rode the wave of enjoyment for a while.
When I saw my aunt’s curly hair and big smile at mile 13.5, I ran over to her and the rest of the family and said hello. We took a pic and exchanged a few words…precious moments. Depending on your perspective, precious moments gained or lost. On this run, it was precious time to spend with them acknowledging that they had made the extra effort!
I made the effort to keep running from mile 13.5 to mile 15 where I found my kids and husband waiting for me. I wanted my kids to really enjoy being part of the experience so I took photos with and hugged them before heading back onto the course.
The next 11.2 miles were going to be tough. No one was there to run with me on the course. It is often the case that a running mate or friend will accompany you and help you stay motivated to run in the last few miles by being alongside you, and in the past, I have always had someone there. This time, I would be finishing alone. I put my head down, turned on some music and ran 6 more miles with a few walking pit stops.
It was in these miles that I really focused on staying motivated. I remembered a few important things about myself. I am strong. I can do hard things. I love my people. The inspiration of other’s drives and passions gives me energy to do the best I can. I am enough.
At mile 21, the balls of my feet started burning with each foot strike. I reminisced on the many conversations I’d had at the local running store, A Runner’s Mind, about the thinness of the soles in my Saucony Liberty’s. I had tried another pair of shoes that rubbed a blister between my pinky and fourth toe, and then just hadn’t made finding new shoes a priority. Unfortunately, it was the burning forefoot that did me in. I experimented with heel striking to take the burden off of the ball of my foot. That got hard after a while. I walked. That was a great relief! I tossed around the idea of how I would tackle the rest of the run.
I was no longer worried about finishing. I knew that was a done deal. The question was how much would I walk. I pushed myself to run as much as I could to the 40k line. The fact that other people were tracking my run and seeing my splits each 5k was a huge motivation to stay moving quickly!
I hit that spot and walked. I saw my kids and husband at mile 24.5 and ran, then walked with them for a bit. I walked for longer than I needed to. I ran. I walked again. I passed the same people over and over again as I cycled through my walks and runs. I gave myself permission to take care of my feet this way. I saw the corner where I would turn toward the finish line. I ran. I ran to the finish, and as I crossed the line, I raised my hands. Tears filled my eyes. I had done what I wasn’t so sure I could do. And in the second shortest amount of time ever.
It wasn’t my dream finish. It was my “give myself permission” finish. And it was good enough.
A marathon is a REALLY long way! It is hard to believe that it is possible to run that far in such a short amount of time. I am proud to have done it again, to have followed my curiosity and allowed it to play out despite difficult emotional times. Now that I know I can do it, I want to do it again. And so it goes.