On November 6, 2016, I ran the Indiana First Bank Veteran’s Marathon and became a marathoner. The race didn’t go at all as I planned and I missed my time goal by nearly an hour, but somehow it turned out to be a great experience that I’ll never forget. Sit down and get a cup of coffee, because this is a long one!
About the Race
- Took place near Indiana, Pa., an hour east of Pittsburgh.
- Course is an out-and-back rails-to-trail with slight incline on the way out and downhill on the way back.
- There was a full marathon, half marathon, and relay. 88 people finished the full marathon.
- Because the race was so small, logistics were easy and not stressful. Parking was easy and right by the start line. I picked up my packet the morning of. There were plenty of porta-potties with no lines.
- Registration cost $26.20 and did not include a shirt. I opted to buy a long-sleeve shirt, which cost about $20 (I think). It’s nice and has no logos on the back.
- There was a ceremony to honor veterans before the race start and a cannon to start the race.
- The race is not chip-timed but is a Boston qualifier, so those attempting a BQ were instructed to line up at the front.
My goal time was 5:05, an 11:38 pace. My training went so well and I never had a problem hitting my paces that I felt like I could come in closer to 5:00 if I had a good day. My absolute worst case scenario was a 5:15. I can only laugh in retrospect at this!
The two days prior to the race, I had stomach problems. I’m not sure if I had a stomach bug, but my stomach was in severe pain, it hurt when I ate, and I had no appetite. Consequently, I was very cautious of what and how much I ate.
When I woke up on race morning and came into the kitchen, I saw Dave had left me a card. It was just what I needed to start the day! Luckily, my stomach felt okay.
Everything went smoothly before the race because I had prepped everything the day before. Dave and I left shortly before 7 a.m. to be there an hour before the 9 a.m. start. Because it’s a trail race, there were few spots for spectators. Dave’s plan was to be at the halfway point to see me then again at the finish line. As we were driving, the sun came up and I noted how it was not at all overcast, which the forecast had called for. From the very start of sunrise, the sun was intense. I tried not to worry because I knew the trail was shady.
When we got to the start, I picked up mine and Jamie’s bib. Jamie would meet me at the halfway point and run the rest of the race with me, so Dave would give the bib to her at the half. Then I sat in my car getting everything ready–filling up my water bottle, filling my pockets with gels, putting my hair up, and putting my headphones in. My hands were shaking! I used the porta-potty just before we started, did my warm-up exercises, drank my juice, and got in line. I was slightly panicked. My stomach was in knots, and I noticed the straps on my handheld were all wet, and I didn’t know why. Dave came over to hug me, and I told him I was scared. He said he was going to leave me to get a picture of me starting, when all of a sudden the cannon very loudly went off, causing pretty much everyone to jump! And just like that, we were off!
I’d planned to chunk up the race, and my first target was 5 miles. My plan was to run the first 5K slower, around a 12:00 pace, and be at my marathon pace at mile 3.
As soon as I started, I noticed my water bottle leaking. WTF? Sure enough, by the time I went to take my first sip, it was empty. Argh. I figured this was the surprise thing that I hadn’t accounted for in the race that everyone had warned me about and decided I would just have to rely on water stations instead. Not how I trained at all, but doable.
Also almost as soon as I started, I got hot. All that shade? All gone with all of the leaves that were no longer on the trees! It was full-on, intense sun for pretty much the whole course. Sun is my biggest weakness. I do most of my training runs before the sun comes up. I don’t even like standing in the sun. It was 48 degrees at the start, but the sun made it feel much warmer. I quickly shed my longsleeve and tied it around my waist. That helped, but my dark, full-length tights just absorbed the heat and made me really hot. The only reason I’d worn full-length tights was because I knew the trail to be shady, so the leaves being off the trees really screwed me.
I got to the first aid station at 2 miles and filled up my water bottle. I figured I could get a few sips out of it before it all leaked out. After I left I realized it wasn’t leaking anymore–I just didn’t have the cap on right! Yay, but ugh! My shaky hands were clearly not working before the race!
Once I got to mile 3, I knew that I was too hot to drop down to my 11:38 pace. I decided to stay at 12:00 pace. Also at this time, everyone else had gone ahead and I was running alone.
I didn’t have a problem keeping to my 12:00 pace, but the sun kept beating down on me, and I kept getting hotter.
My next chunk was getting to 10 miles. I kept to my 12:00 pace and was listening to music. But I was starting to have to work for my pace. The sun was relentless. The trail curved, and occasionally there would be very small sections of shade. I tried to run in the shade whenever it was there, which is likely why I ran .2 miles over. I tried to keep my thoughts positive, telling myself that I was following my plan and was on pace and doing great.
But by the time I got to mile 8, I was a literal hot mess. I felt like I was boiling, I was working very hard, and my breath was very ragged. I knew I was putting in way more effort than I should have been this early in the race, so a few times I took a walk break to get my heart rate down. Running without walking is easier for me since it’s hard to start running again once I started walking, but I was so overheated I felt it was the best option. At mile 8, my only thought was just to get to mile 10. All the advice that Melissa had given me to dig deep and push hard when it started to get tough was what I did then. I thought of all the comments people had left on my blog. I had just re-read all the comments so was able to remember most of them. So if you left a comment, you helped me in the race! I used my mantras. I thought of the “believe” charm my running friend Joanna got me. I had a “believe” temporary tattoo on my wrist that I looked at. I thought of all the well wishes people had given me that whole week. All of this, just to get to mile 10.
By the time I got to mile 10, I realized that I could not finish. I was just too hot. And even if I could physically finish, I absolutely did not want to keep running in the intense sun. I had a back-up race planned in the event I couldn’t do this one and decided to quit at the half and do that race instead in a few weeks. The problem was, I had no idea how I was going to get to the halfway point! That’s how bad I felt. I was alone and boiling and thinking that my race was over and thinking I’d have to walk the entire remaining 5K just to get to the half.
And that’s when my angel appeared. His name was Rich, he was 76, and he was running his 57th marathon! When he heard that it was my first marathon and that I planned to quit at the halfway point, he told me to relax, take it easy, and take walk breaks with him. I stayed with him as he told me stories about all his marathons. He was the nicest guy and was pretty much the main reason I was able to get to the halfway point. A runner who’d turned around and was going back asked us if we had an extra gel. I did, so I stopped to give it to her and told Rich to go on. We were almost to the half, so he did.
I got to the halfway point in very bad shape. I was overheated, struggling, and extremely fatigued. I saw Dave taking pictures of me, and then he held up a sign. I later learned that he had made me this awesome sign, but at the time my brain just couldn’t process it. “Walk with me,” I told him. I told him I was thinking of quitting. I felt bad–he didn’t know what to say. He told me later he wasn’t sure if I was joking. We walked over to where Jamie was waiting to run with me. She was there with her parents. I told them all I was thinking of quitting, that I was too hot and in bad shape. The turnaround point was still ahead, so Jamie said we could run to there and talk it over and then once we got back we’d tell Dave and her parents whether we were continuing.
Jamie later said that she could tell I was very overheated. She said I was sweating profusely, and I was breathing very raggedly even while walking. She didn’t know if it was dangerous for me to continue if I was that hot, knowing there was no shade on the course. She asked me if I wanted to run-walk it just to finish it. She also said her parents would be at the next spectator point 7 miles down the trail and could take us to the finish if I was still feeling that bad.
I was so miserable that I really just wanted to quit. But I hated the thought of quitting my first marathon halfway through. I hated the thought of having to tell everyone who was cheering for me for me that I didn’t finish. I hated the thought of writing a blog post about not finishing. I also thought of the “26.2” charm Joanna had gotten me. I already had the necklace–I had to finish!
The problem was, I was so hot that I wasn’t sure I physically could finish. But I decided to try it. I told Jamie we’d to go the next spectator point at mile 20, and I’d see how I was doing.
The second half of the race was a slight downhill. I’d always felt the downhill and was effortlessly able to pick up the pace on my training runs. On this day, I didn’t notice the downhill at all. We started plugging away, walking for a few minutes each half-mile. After a mile or so, I told Jamie, “I don’t think this is happening for me.”
“Why not? We’re making progress,” she pointed out. So we continued.
It took a few miles, but the reduced effort on the downhill took effect. I cooled down a little and wasn’t as hot. But I was still extremely fatigued. We kept going, taking walk breaks every half mile. Jamie did her part to keep my mind off things by telling me story after story. I was mostly silent. I just couldn’t talk, not because of the effort, but because I was in a mental fog. I couldn’t think clearly. I also couldn’t remember when I’d taken my gels, so Jamie had to keep track for me. But, surprisingly, the miles were going by pretty quickly.
At one point, Jamie said she had a proposal for me. “I can tell you’ve cooled down. You’re not sweating like you were, and your breathing isn’t as ragged. I think having to walk is now all in your mind. How about when we get to mile 20, we run the rest of the way?”
I looked at her like she was crazy. The thing was, all the fight I had, all the mental grit, the digging deep, the pushing, I’d used just to get to the halfway point. I just felt empty and fatigued. In the back of my mind, I knew that Jamie was right. I was in great shape physically. Nothing hurt or cramped. My body was handling the distance like a champ. So was my stomach. I had no appetite and didn’t want to talk about food, but I had no stomach issues of any kind. Physically, I was in great shape. But I just had no mental energy to will myself to keep running and not take those walk breaks.
I should also mention our buddy Eddie, the EMS guy. We were the last people on the course (or so we thought), and Eddie was on a quad and was making sure we were okay. He would wait for us at each mile marker and when we got there ask how we were feeling and if we needed water or anything. Then he would go ahead to the next aid station and tell them we were coming. So when we got there, the volunteers were waiting for us. They took my water bottle from me and filled it up for me and checked to see if there was anything I needed, including giving me tissues and paper towels because my nose had been running the whole race. They also gave us tons of encouragement. Basically, it was like I had my own personal support crew and was one of the main things that made this race an overall positive experience.
So there I was, in last place, having to take walk breaks, well behind my time goal. And yet somehow I didn’t mind. I told Jamie that I could see the humor of having a personal escort to bring me in. Not many people can say that!
So we get to mile 20, and Jamie’s parents are waiting for us before the aid station on a bench, ringing a cowbell. I’d worn gaiters and they were starting to bother me, so I sat on the bench and they helped take my gaiters off and hold them for me until the finish. They asked if I was finishing, and without even asking me Jamie said, “Oh, she’s finishing.” I knew she was right. There was only 6 miles left, and no way was I stopping. When we got to the aid station just ahead, the volunteers told me, “You have just two 5Ks to go!” I smiled–it was a great feeling!
And yet, I still took walk breaks. I just didn’t have the mental energy to push myself to keep running. I still felt physically good though. Nothing hurt! At one point, I stopped to take off my shoe to get a stone out (of course). I started to cramp up when I leaned down, so Jamie had to untie my shoe, take it off, shake out the stone, put it back on, and tie my shoe. But aside from that, I had no physical problems.
When we got to mile 23, Jamie asked if I could run the last 5K. I couldn’t, but I did extend my running intervals and would wait to take a walk break until three-quarters of a mile instead of a half-mile. And then it was mile 24. And then mile 25! I put on my music at mile 25 and ran the last mile at a 12:00 pace. Again, I felt good physically. My legs were a little tired, but they were worse on training runs!
Eddie and another EMS guy were waiting to direct me to the finish and then followed behind. There was Dave and Jamie’s parents cheering for us. When I crossed the finish line, the race director gave me my medal, shook my hand, and congratulated me. Eddie was just ahead, and I went up to thank him, and we hugged.
I finished in 6:03:45.
We walked over to the pavilion where there were snack bags, and Rich was waiting for me. He had been worried about me and was hoping I’d finish. We all hung around for nearly an hour. The race director came over, and I told her how despite it not being the race I planned on, it was a great experience, and how much support and kindness all the volunteers showed me. Dave gave me flowers and a balloon he’d bought while waiting for me.
I remember one of the things I worried about in training was getting hungry during the race. That didn’t happen at all, and after the race it was very difficult to eat. My stomach wasn’t upset, I just had zero appetite. I had one orange slice and a bite of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I couldn’t eat more, but drank a few bottles of water. I’d sat down, and that was a mistake because everything started cramping up. I had to stand up and keep moving back and forth. Jamie said eating a banana might help, so I forced down a banana. (I tried to nibble on a few things on the ride home but didn’t get my appetite back until much later in the evening.) I was really scared to sit in the car for an hour to drive home, and Jamie suggested I keep moving my legs. So that’s what I did–moved my legs up and down the entire drive home–and didn’t have any other cramping issues.
Another thing I’d been worried about was having to go the bathroom during a race. I’ve never had to go during a race and usually don’t even on training runs. I was drinking about half my 12-ounce water bottle between aid stations so was drinking about 6 ounces of water every 2 miles. But I never had to go. I drink a few bottles of water after the race and still didn’t have to go. After peeing just before the race start at 8:45 a.m. and then drinking all that water, do you know that I didn’t have to go until 7 p.m. that night?! Weird, but I’d much rather that happen than the opposite. Which leads me to the sign Dave made for me:
So that’s my race–not at all what I expected, with problems I’d never foreseen and problems that I thought I might have being not an issue. My race essentially ended at the halfway point, and I gutted it out to finish. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t what I wanted, but I did it. I felt happy and proud. I was a marathoner!
So Much Thanks
That this race was a positive experience was because of all the people who made it so. I’ve talked about Rich and Eddie and the volunteers. But how awesome is Dave? From the card he had waiting for me that morning to the sign he made me to the flowers and balloon, he was couldn’t have been more supportive. And Jamie gets a million gold stars for everything she did to help me. Neither of us like walking, and we ran-walked the entire second half. She kept up a one-sided conversation for three hours, and she shook rocks out of my shoe for me. She was awesome. Joanna’s gift of the “26.2” charm was one of the reasons I decided not to quit, and the support and comments from all of you and other friends helped me during the race. Thank you, thank you, thank you! The running community is definitely there for each other, and I’m so grateful to be a part of it!
I had a debriefing with Coach Melissa on Monday. She said it sounded like there was something else going on and wouldn’t be surprised if I got sick this week. She said even in the sun and warmer temps, I shouldn’t have been so hot and struggling that early in the race. She pointed out that my weekday workouts have been between 8-13 miles, and I never had trouble with them. She said that when the body is fighting off a virus, even if it’s just a cold, it can take a lot out of someone and performance can really suffer. And given my two prior days of stomach problems and the fact that I drank tons of water during the race and didn’t have to go the bathroom until that evening, I was likely depleted going into the race. Sure enough, I started to not feel well this past week. I very rarely get sick, even a cold, but this week I’ve definitely felt under the weather. What are the chances that I get sick for the one day I’ve been looking forward to all year?
Melissa said that I was unlucky and unfortunately had my worst run of the whole training cycle on race day. That is so typical of what usually happens with me–awesome training followed by a bad race–that I can only laugh.
She also thought that given everything that happened, I did pretty well on both the physical and mental aspects. She pointed out that once we’ve decided to quit, it’s very hard to keep going, and I did that for the whole second half of the race. Talking with her made me feel better about everything.
However, there was one big thing that bothered me–coming in last place. Melissa told me several times that place doesn’t matter, that everyone ran the same distance. She that there are small races with only elites, and someone has to finish last, even professional runners. She also said that my race was so small and that in a larger race I would not have finished last. Yeah…but it still bothered me.
After I talked to her, I checked the official race results…and saw that I hadn’t finished last! There was one person who finished after me and several people who finished only a few minutes ahead of me. Then I went onto the NYC Marathon race results. I couldn’t figure out a way to look at the overall race results, so I looked at the results for my age group. I found a woman who finished at exactly the same time I did. Her name was Jennifer too! And I saw that 422 people finished after her. That all made me feel better.
I’m writing this a week after the race and now have my next year of running goals mapped out. I’ll share that in another post because this one has already become a novel but wanted to note a few things. Even before the race, I knew I wanted to run another marathon. While training was more difficult in ways I hadn’t imagined (more on that in another post too), I enjoyed it. I really liked the longer runs, the higher mileage, and the slower paces overall. But now that I’ve run the race, I feel a burning drive to do another. I’ve witnessed how well my body can handle the distance, even after running an hour longer than I anticipated. (I’ll be doing another post on final thoughts about my training.) And now, more than ever before, I am highly confident I can hit my time goal. I feel like I really didn’t even get a shot at it–I never ran a single mile at my goal pace. And I also have learned that a marathon isn’t just about hitting a time goal but about taking what the day gives you and making the best of it. All of these lessons can only help me in another race, and I want to try again!
I’ve been toying with the idea of running my back-up race in two weeks. Melissa has advised me against it. Everyone is telling me not to. The Hanson’s plan calls for two weeks off running after a marathon, and I have no problem keeping to that. This week I’ve been really enjoying my recovery and spending more time walking my dog on these gorgeous fall days. Plus, Melissa said I should recover as hard as I trained. So if I did the back-up race, after two weeks of not running and then a taper weeks of sorts, my first significant run would be another marathon. I guess I can agree that it’s probably not a great idea and that the conditions leading into it (essentially three weeks off) would probably not set me up to run a great race. And then if I had two marathons that didn’t go well, that probably wouldn’t be good for my psyche.
So I’ll stick to my plan. I’ll get another shot at the marathon, but it won’t be until 2017. It pains me to have to wait that long, but I’m already ridiculously excited. It’s so unlikely, but somehow, even after a race that didn’t go anywhere close to how I’d planned, I think I might be hooked on the marathon distance. Here’s to another shot at the distance next year!