My First Marathon – Finishing is Everything

Making your way into this crowd is a choice you make…

What got me started…

It was early September, 2009 in Irving Texas when I showed up at the entrance of our hotel in my running shoes ready to join a colleague on a morning run before meetings that day.  It was less than 1.5 miles later I was asking myself what the hell I was doing out here, but yet bold enough not to be the first to ask how far we are going to run.  I would be stretching it to say I ran 3 miles that day, and I would be stretching it even more to say it was a good morning run – in fact, it sucked!  Well, more accurately, I sucked!

I probably could have forgotten about that morning, but I made the second mistake a couple days later at home of putting myself on a scale and seeing the left most digit click up to a “2”.  Okay, so not much past 200, but a two-oh-anything was a holy cow to me!  That was it I thought, running is something I have always been able to do and it’s a good workout. So every other morning or almost every other morning I started running just a little at a time. Pretty casual, no pressure.  Well, except a couple of colleagues who would ask, “how was your run this morning?”

Then it got more serious…

On September 21st I used this little application for my iPhone called Runkeeper and discovered it would track my run and upload it to a web site showing all kinds of cool stuff about my run.  As a bit of a gadget head this was the coolest thing and somedays I felt like I was running just to see this thing work.

What really made it serious is when I found out I could publish the results on my Facebook page. From Sep 21st through all of October I ran 19 times, the longest run I did was 3.31 miles. Then one of my dear colleagues would respond to my post, “Time to push it some more.”  On November 1st I ran 4.11 miles! Ha!  On the 3rd 4 again, on the 5th I ran 5.42 miles!  “Wow!”, I thought “I ran over 5 miles.” From that point I ran almost every other day in November, December, and into January averaging about 4 miles each run. Then in mid January I pushed it to 6 miles, then 7 miles. On January 31st I hit a new milestone of 10 miles – never would I have bet on running 10 miles only a few months earlier. By the way, it hurt!  Make no mistake, 10 miles is a long run!

By now I was experiencing the side benefits of running. On January 23rd, after logging about 150 miles of running, I bought another gadget.  My new scale would connect to my wireless network in my house and would log my weight, lean mass, BMI, etc. onto a web page for me… behold I was already down into the 180’s!  Although somehow weight was becoming less important than running itself. The addiction to running was taking shape as February runs crept up in distance and another 10 miler ensued. Then March hit and on my third time running a 10 miler I decided not to stop – instead I went to 13.1 miles. A half marathon distance! Wow!  It hurt again – I used an ice bath this time, maybe that hurt even more.

The scary part is that by now many people I know that run are telling me about different race events, and now all I could think about is that I want to run in a race!  The first one was the Shamrock Shuffle in Chicago on March 21st. The only problem – its sold out.  Literally a day before the race I find a neighbor through Craigslist that can’t make it and he sells me his bib for the race. Better yet it’s a bib in the “B” corral – which means running with an average pace of 8 minutes per mile. [Sidebar: you learn that based on qualifying times you get privileged start preferences in some races.] That morning I drove down with a dozen other friends from my kids swim teams – this was going to be blast, it was snowing on our way down to the city and was forecast for mid 30’s weather.  I just finished running through the winter!  I love it!  I’ll never forget when one friend asked me what time I was shooting for and I casually said 8 minutes. Did I just say that?  Well, okay so I felt good later when I finished that race with a 7:47 pace!  Now this was getting cool!  To top off the month of running I ran another half marathon distance in training and signed up to run the Wisconsin half marathon on May 1st and then I signed up for the Chicago Marathon on October 10th. This is getting serious now!

What not to do…

Funny enough as I was preparing to run the half-marathon I was already ahead of myself on the Chicago Marathon. Learning about starting corrals had me thinking I need to qualify for one of the corrals (as opposed to being in the “open” corral). This meant running a qualifying time in Wisconsin.  My mistake in training was running too fast, too soon.  Through March I was training between 8:30 and 9:00 minute paces, which added up to being in a doctor for a pulled soleus muscle (the core part of your calf muscle) and even after treatments it was still hurting. “We’ll get you ready for that race”, I remember her saying. Let me tell you – I ran that whole half-marathon in pain.  I finished it in under two hours (a 1:58) which was my best time so far – but it hurt! From that race until May 28th I didn’t run at all. Nothing but recovery. Why?  Because I knew that starting in June I had to begin official training to run a full marathon and I knew the best answer was to let it recover.

One other note, in July I ran my first 5K race in Grayslake. By this time I was thinking I could rip this one up so I set a goal of running it in 21 minutes – next learning experience: don’t change your routine, ever!  I finished this race with a great time of 22:42 (a 7:26 pace), but I left some on the breakfast table because for some reason I decide to have a bowl of cereal that morning. I was feeling ill in the second mile and even though I pushed through it there was a lesson that day. I never eat before a morning run, other than a GU pack (http://www.guenergy.com/), water, or maybe some Gatorade.

On last item, I mentioned GU pack.  Learn this.  Your body burns through your energy stores running faster than you realize.  Guess what happens to muscle when it is stressed to a point where is is out of fuel – it protects itself by shutting down, this is when you can cause damage.  You’ll read it over and over, “Hydrate and Feed your Body it’s necessary Carbs & Electrolytes” or you will regret it. Train and strengthen your muscles slowly – especially if you’re an old guy like me ;-).

Full Marathon Preparation…

The program of choice is from Hal Higdon (http://www.halhigdon.com/marathon/Mar00index.htm).  If you’re considering running a marathon absolutely read this or many other good training books in detail!  If you read Hal’s you will find 6 different levels, two novice, two intermediate, and two advanced. For first time marathon runners the Novice I level is the recommendation, the Intermediate is recommended for very experienced runners that want to improve time or qualify to run the Boston Marathon. Guess which program I used – yep, the Intermediate II.  Now, I don’t recommend this – I of course am a little crazy. You can read the details of the program on Hal’s web site, but rest assured that running some 625 miles in 18 weeks is not for the weary.

Now, my justification for choosing the Intermediate II program was the amount of running I was already doing. Going to the Novice levels meant cutting back on my regular runs quite a bit – and that just isn’t any challenge!  Now, somewhere in the middle of this training I found my next learning experience.  Running a lot is good, but it’s not the only thing you need to do.  As I worked up longer and longer distances – and I mean running some 8 and 10 mile runs during the week while doing 15 mile or longer runs on Sundays – your mid body needs to be stronger to control your hips and effectively the way you run. When it doesn’t other things start go wrong. In my case I blame this on why I felt strange-ness in my left leg.  I couldn’t really explain where it was coming from and I often thought, if I went to the doctor how would I describe it.  A little reading and I applied a 6 step routine to the mornings when I wasn’t running (those cross-training days are for this!)  The good news is this routine combined with the simple idea of “backing off” for a while. I had to take almost 1 week off of running in late August, skipping one of my 20 mile runs, to let my hamstring pain reside – but I did do the cross training while I wasn’t running.

In short, be smart, take it slow. My running friends said a million wise times, “listen to your body, take it up slow”.

The Big Day

Since that September 21st day in 2009 I logged 150 runs for a total of 876 miles, including two 20 mile runs, lost nearly 30 pounds and increased lean mass by about 7%. I now considered 10 miles an easy run and could comfortably do a 12 miler at an 8:30 pace. My goals for the Marathon?  When I signed up I entered 4:30 as my target pace and I always held my top goal as just simply “finishing”. Of course, I always have more competitive goals and as the race came closer I thought of my second goal – beat 4 hours. I ran 20 miles in 3:11 so how hard could it be to crank it up and do 6 more?  Now, as it got even closer I had visions of doing much better than just beating 4 hours – of course that was based on a few factors, one critical one was the temperature. I can not run in heat, especially extreme sun and heat – it just kills me!

Okay, so race day. October 10, 2010 (10-10-10). Sunscreen on, Vaseline between the toes, BodyGlide on the sensitive parts (absolute mandatory), breakfast in hand (GU pack and Gatorade) and at 6am I am out the door of my hotel in Chicago and walking through the night towards the race that would start at 7:30am. I am in the “open” corral, so I’m thinking get there early so I’m not too far back. No problem, I’m near the 8 min/mile signs – should be okay.

No concerns except one thing – the temps are scheduled to go up. I’m thinking that they shouldn’t rise too much before I finish, I hope. It’s now just after 7am and my body is saying where is the bathroom – damn!  Out of the corral to find lines to the port-o-potties 100 yards long – no way.  Secret spot, relief, back in the corral, same general spot – good.  Younger fellow next me says, “whats you pace goal today?”  I looked at him and said, “I am going to finish today, and if it goes well I am going to finish in under 4, and if it goes extremely well it will be many minutes under four, but I plan to finish.”  I’m sure he wasn’t impressed as he told me about his 22 mile 8:20 training run and his goal to finish a 3:40. Of course I was thinking, yea, I could do that – even though I’ve got 20 years on you. I said, “good luck!”

I would say that the start of the race wasn’t much different than when I ran the Shamrock. Same starting location, thousands of people, slowly making your way to the actual starting line – even though the race has started. For the record there are 45,000 people that register to run the Chicago Marathon – it’s packed!

Okay, here’s the great experience.  It’s a reasonably cool morning (60-ish degrees) and you are past the long past the start line and for miles the streets on either side are packed solid with spectators cheering, blowing horns, holding signs, and offering water. The last thing you are really thinking about is your running – you become immersed in what is going on. Keep in mind that it isn’t a 10 minute experience, it is hours!  I will also tell you that, after so much training the experience of the moment is extremely emotional and I didn’t carry anything to wipe tears!

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Good: The first part of the race just flew by, I was taking it all in, I felt great! My wife and daughter were going to be around mile 8 and I was really searching for them – it’s hard to explain how you want to see someone you know there cheering for you – they were there, to many people, never saw them. I reached the half-marathon point in a new best time of 1:55 and I was hoping to close on my 20 mile mark in about 3 hours.  I didn’t really notice but during the morning, ratings of the weather conditions were raised, with the marathon starting at “green,” rising to “yellow” or caution at 9:15 a.m. and by 11:30 a.m. raised to red, telling runners to use caution. Oh, and the great news is that my family made their way around the course and was there for me several times – that was huge!

Bad: Some fellow experienced runners say that there are two halves to the marathon, the first 20 and the final 6.2 (an never forget the .2).  On this day, the temperature hit “yellow” long before I hit my 20 mile point. I can remember the stretch that goes west of the city (out to the United Center) and then doubles back again – lots of miles, no shade – brutal. The 20 mile point is closer into the city, more shade for a bit, more people cheering you on again, okay I hit the 20 mile marker at just under 3 hours – sore, getting warm, but feeling okay, “just keep your pace, hold your ground, hydrate”. I was calculating one hour, 6.2 miles, … hold it under a 9 min pace and you got it. Sounds good on paper.

Ugly: During the last 6.2 miles the increased heat and direct sun was draining me. I took in every water station, I even had to stop and go to the bathroom.  It was during this last 6 miles when I passed more and more people walking, it was during this time when I heard one person say to their running partner, “I have to stop, keep going and try to finish”.  Even worse is seeing what appears to be a good runner start to waver and simply collapse to the pavement, quickly carried off by medical personnel. I honestly don’t think I even realized the intensity for a while, but my body did and it was telling me one thing – “finish”. Amazingly your priorities shift and that “listen to your body” thing probably becomes the most important during this time. Finishing meant not being carried off by medical personnel, it meant not just simply stopping because you cannot go any further.

During several miles I would describe finishing as simply running from water station to water station, and then walking through the water area pouring cups of water over your head and consuming as much as you could – all while burning precious minutes off the clock. Just after mile 23 I was doing everything to keep running – no more walking said brain, shut up and walk said body (or maybe it was the other way around). It was tough, very tough.

The Big FINISH….

Up until the sign that said “1 more mile” I honestly can’t really tell you how much I ran or walked, I can’t even tell you that I was looking at the clocks much any more, but I knew I wasn’t walking the last mile. The streets were now packed again with millions of spectators cheering you on to finish, “1000 more yards!”,  “Dig deep, finish, finish!” you hear in your ears.  I saw the sign 800 meters to go, what? How far is that, I can’t even calculate it, forget it – keep going.

All I could remember at this time is that we were going to turn right off Michigan Ave onto Roosevelt Street, and then I was close.  The stretch down Roosevelt may be less than 100 yards, maybe 50 yards, but the incline that should be nothing is like a mountain at that very moment. Let me tell you, going up that hill I am not sure what part of me was not in pain. The good news is that climb ends in a left turn and the first thing you see is the giant sign ahead that says magical words on it, “FINISH”.  Still a couple hundred meters away, and I still saw several people on the side of the road, down – didn’t make it. I cannot put into words what it feels like to see that finish line and I cannot even imagine not getting to it – but that wasn’t going to be me. I planned to finish.

I crossed that 26.2 mile line as the 8986th person out of over 36,000 other runners that finished that day. It is grueling, it demands everything from you both physically and mentally, it is humbling, it is something you can’t understand unless you do it, it sets off emotions you can’t control. It doesn’t matter what time you finish in, how old you are, where you’re from or what your race is – everyone congratulates everyone and understands what they have just done. I finished in 4:03:54, it was an awesome experience, it was my first marathon, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. BTW, did I tell you that I FINISHED!

Take a Virtual Tour of the Chicago Marathon here: 

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6 Comments on “My First Marathon – Finishing is Everything

  1. I had an eerily similar experience. This was my first marathon. Trained well but I remember running by a bank somewhere after 13 and seeing 87. I thought this sucks. I had an ER visit in Madison half in spring (90 and humid) got heat exhaustion.

    At 18 in chicago I got sun spots and felt dizzy. I thought of my wife and little boy and told myself walk stupid. I walked a half mile and tried to run again sun spots back. I felt defeated but told myself if you have to walk at least walk fast. So that is what I did. I walked as fast as I could trying to run every mile or so and see if my head had cleared yet. Finally at 22 I was able to run without spots. Ran into the finish(for the most part) finished in 4:23.

    Did I mention I finished.

  2. Congrats Todd,

    I was there. My daughter, who is a senior at Loyola, also ran her first marathon and she finished about 22,000.
    Its a great accomplishment.

    All the best,
    Tom

  3. Todd,

    Just read your writeup on your running experience. Very inspirational! Really proud of you. Look forward to reading about your next race.

  4. Todd,

    Great to hear you finished. From what I saw of you on the trails, I figured that wouldn’t be a problem. And, that’s a great time for your first marathon — mine was 4:25:16. I’m sure you will continue to improve, and with good weather in the future you’ll easily break the four-hour mark.

    Now, you have to join the 50 States Marathon Club with me and run a marthon in all 50 states. (www.50Statesmarathonclub.com). I had a similar experience to yours when I started running, becoming addicted to it. I ran Chicago a few times, grew tired of it, and wanted to see what it would be like to run marathons in other states. I have 12 down now, and will have all 50 down by the time I’m 59.

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