Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Starting Line = The Finishing Line

My Marathon Revisited (2009 Vancouver Marathon)

I just finished my first marathon! Everyone's asking "How'd it go?!" so here's the answer in a couple of versions. (I wrote this as 'my' marathon story, but since it was fundamentally a team effort, I found it impossible to consistently write about it from an "I" rather than a "we" perspective.)

The Short Version
It was a challenge, for sure. It really is "all that." It was hard, and fun, and painful in ways that I didn't expect, particularly given my remarkably injury-free training period. But Emily and I finished it --sans medical intervention!-- and in a respectable time. We met two of our goals of (1) finishing, and (2) finishing in under 4.5 hours. I had a great first half (finishing the half marathon distance in 2:01) but a more difficult second half that left me running through a degree of pain I hadn't ever had to run through before. Emily and I finished together in 4:28:16, and by the end of the day, we were already strategizing about our next marathon. I am incredibly proud of us, and am so grateful for all the words of support and encouragement that we received leading up to the race. And of course, I'm ever so grateful to Wayne for several months of post-long-run breakfasts and his willingness to take on the role of ground support for us this past weekend. Thank you all for helping us get to our goal!

The Nitty Gritty
It was a challenge, for sure. It was hard. (Shocking, I know.) It was fun. ("It was fun?!" my left leg chimes in, incredulously. "Yes," I remind my left leg, "while you were screaming, other parts of me were having fun.") It was harder than I expected, but in a different way than I expected. See, Emily and I have had a blessedly injury-free training period. For four months, we managed to ward off injuries that had plagued us both off and on over the past several years. For those who don't know or don't remember, I essentially broke my butt a while back -- an overuse injury likely due to too much running -- before finally switching to a running + cycling regimen that ultimately helped me (and what Wayne dubbed "my broken butt") to heal. I had been butt-injury free for a good long chunk of time before we began training. In fact, I ran the Seattle Half Marathon in 2007 and 2008, staying butt-injury free and setting personal records both times-- before even thinking about the possibility of marathon training.

So our training went remarkably well. Even the 16-, 18- and 20-milers. They were long, and exhausting, and hard -- but I finished them whole and healthy -- with mostly only the expected muscle fatigue and general tiredness at the end. But with stretching and icing, and all that good training stuff, by the next day, the whole body felt good. I did start getting some nagging heel pain at the end of the 20-miler, but did my best to figure out the cause, do the necessary stretching, and nip that in the bud.

So marathon weekend finally arrives. The forecast called for likely rain on marathon morning, and we could hear the pouring down rain outside our hotel room window Saturday night. We were thus pleasantly surprised to arrive at the start line Sunday morning under completely clear blue skies. Relief! We had trained in the rain (our 18-miler was a miserable 3 hours in pouring, cold rain, and my shoe-saturated 13-miler in so-flat-the-water-has-nowhere-to-go Missouri was 2 hours of pouring rain plus puddles), so we were ready for it if necessary. Still, we were glad not to have to run the race in it.

A Strong First Half
We started well, knowing the dangers of starting off too quickly, and carefully kept ourselves in our intended pace range. I don't have much of a story for the first half, since it all went pretty much as expected, though I learned later that Emily's story started at about mile 3 -- more on that later. My sore heel, which fortunately doesn't hurt as much while I run as after I run, was sore at first, but stopped being an issue once I got warmed up. At about mile 7, though, it started talking to me again. It certainly wasn't painful enough that I couldn't run on it, but enough that I knew I would have to mentally manage it for the next 19 miles. I didn't mention it to Em at this point because I didn't want to give any negative energy a voice in our race. As it turns out, apparently neither did she.

Wayne was waiting for us at about mile 10, cheering us on with a sign that said "Go Stace and Emily, Go!" From here we made our way into Stanley Park, where we saw our first runner calling someone for medical help, minutes before we were passed by an ambulance that was likely carrying her. Bummer. In the park, we hit the 13.1 mile mark having kept a relatively consistent pace -- mostly between 9:10-9:30 min/mile -- which was pretty much on target. Maybe a little fast, but not too far off. Our running pace during our training runs (without walking breaks) has generally ranged 9:15-9:45 min/mile, so we were thinking a 9:30/mi. average would be a good ambitious goal (behind primary goal #1: Finish the marathon and goal #2: finish in under 4.5 hours). By my watch, we finished the half-marathon in 2:01. We didn't expect to keep up that pace for the second half, but were pleased to have had such a strong first half!

We walked through the water stop located right after the half way point, as I needed to give that heel a break, and because I wanted to take advantage of the extra water because of the heat. Not only was it not raining, it was actually sunny and definitely warmer than it's been during any of our training runs. We were carrying our own water bottles and fuel-foods (which turned out to be a great decision for us), but took advantage of the less busy water stations to get a little extra water.

Heading into mile 14, Emily started to feel dizzy, and I later learned that she had been dealing with a flare-up of hip pain (her old nemesis that hadn't bothered her all during training season) since about mile 3. After some walking and drinking some more water, we continued the run out of the park (Em felt better once we got out of the trees), finally making our way back onto some roads packed with cheering bystanders. I'm always amazed at how the cheering of complete strangers makes it easier to run. I don't know how that works, exactly, but it does. It's a real morale boost that just adds a little spring to your step. At this point, our steps could use a little extra spring, so this was a good thing.

Wayne caught us again at about mile 17, and this time was holding a sign that said "15 km to cocktails! Emily - Run!" I hear we weren't the only runners to appreciate his sign.

As we headed up the Burrard Bridge at about mile 18, I was feeling pretty good. This was "the biggest hill" of the race that everyone had talked about, and it seemed manageable. Plus, at the top of the bridge, I realized we had well under 10 miles to go. On the way up, I turned and told Emily that compared to what we run in Seattle, this didn't seem like much of a hill. Oops. As it turned out, it wasn't much of a hill going up. But a whole new race started for me on the way down.

A Whole New Race
Heading down the other side of the bridge, my left knee started hurting. I've never had any knee problems whatsoever in my running, so this was odd. And then I realized the knee wasn't exactly hurting, so much as it felt like someone had removed all the tension from whatever muscle connects the quad to the knee, leaving me suddenly unable to control my left leg properly. At the bottom of the hill, I took a walk break because things just didn't feel right. To be honest, I panicked a little, as I'd never felt anything quite like it, and wasn't sure if it would go away like the other little nagging issues that can come and go over the course of many hours of running.

The floppy leg feeling eased up, but whatever had happened left my leg -- the knee, quad, and where the hip joins at the pelvis -- sore for the rest of the race (sore enough to distract me from my still sore right heel). So it was going to be 8 miles of running with some soreness. Ok, here we go. At 7 miles left, I reminded myself that 7 miles was less than we had run for previous weekend. Of course, the previous weekend, nothing was hurting. Turns out, that makes a difference. Also, while the very slight uphill portions of the route were really not that big of a deal in terms of "hilliness," the resulting slight downhill portions of the route would turn my leg back to jello. I was very careful on these sections, as I was afraid my leg might just give out from under me. At one point Em asked "Are we going to finish this thing in one piece?" "Yes, we will," I told her. I believed it. I just knew we were going to have to slog it out between then and the end. I stopped looking at my watch and tracking our pace after mile 18. At some point, it became completely irrelevant.

The route on the last 7-8 miles of this run was a bit of a mental mind-game as well. You cross the bridge (at about mile 18), go straight out, and then do a u-turn and come straight back, and back over the bridge (at about mile 25), after which you head downhill and then flat toward the finish. As a result, you see all the people ahead of you who have already made the U-turn, coming back down the other side of the road. This is not unusual, and can be kind of cool from a people-watching perspective, but it also mentally keeps you wondering where the U-turn is and when it's coming. And just when you think it must be coming any minute now, it doesn't. And you do that little dance in your head several times before you finally go around a bend, expecting that this for sure is part of the turnaround, only to find that it's not. Not only is there another mile or so ahead before the U-turn point, but you can now see exactly how far ahead the turn point is because the road leading to that point is uphill. Which frankly, doesn't bother me nearly as much as knowing that I have to come back down that little hill on Jello Leg.

Fortunately, Emily, who still had her own hip screaming at her, had fully gotten her mental mojo back for the second half of the race (after struggling to maintain it in the first half when she was dealing with that unexpected hip pain), so I took a drag off some of her energy as I continued to fight my increasingly painful left leg. At one point, we passed some people with a sign that said "Run with Power." "Yes, yes, yes" I said out loud, "We will." I don’t know how far the "mind over matter" thing can go with physical pain, but so long as I was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other, it certainly wasn't going to do any harm to try to make my mind tell the noncompliant parts of my body to shut the hell up. Also, we were playing leap frog with one of the wheel-chair marathoners, who would fall behind on the inclines, and pass us on the downhills. What motivation. Our legs are meant to be the strongest muscles in our bodies; his arms are not. But he was still doing it. I felt humbled.

At about mile 24, as we approached the bridge again, I realized that this must be what people talk about when they say you have to "dig down deep" to find a way to finish this thing. I've had injuries and pain before. And that's typically when I've learned I'm supposed to back off, or slow down, or stop and rest and come back stronger another day. Listen to your body. If it hurts, don't keep going, or you could just make it worse. But on race day, that's not necessarily the rule. We were going to finish. We knew we could. Even though we were hurting we knew we would. We still had the energy. We didn't feel like we hit "the wall" that everyone talks about where you just feel exhausted and depleted. But somehow you have to mentally accept that you are going to run for six, four, two more miles (easy!) in serious pain (not easy!!). Emily got a few steps ahead of me and I looked at her and again drew off her mojo. I knew she was going to pull the strength to finish out of somewhere inside her, and by God, so was I.

We headed up the bridge again at mile 25 and got a little boost on the way up. One of the Team in Training runners was just in front of us, and one of the Team in Training coaches came running up from the sidelines to run with him a bit, and help cheer him to the finish. So we freeloaded on his motivational pep talk. "There are huge crowds at the finish line," he said, "and everyone's cheering. You're going to cross the finish line and it's going to be great!" I turned to Emily and mimicked his tone "It's going to be great!" I told her. We chuckled as we had been doing at funny little things all along.

As we hit the top of the bridge, I told Em I was going to take especially small steps on the way down-- again just wanting to make sure that leg didn't go all wonky on me. And while I might have been able to tumble down from the bridge faster than I was running down, I didn't really want to go that route. At the bottom when I hit flat ground again, I decided tried to pick up the pace to catch up with her. The leg didn't like this plan, and told me so. So I just kept steady. After a bit, I tried again, and this time was able to pick up the pace to reach her so that we could run into the chute together.

Sure enough, the crowds were really great, and we saw Wayne there on the sidelines for the third time. People were yelling "You're almost there!" of course, and one woman yelled "Enjoy the end!" "Sure, I would," I said to Em, "If I could just see the darn thing!" Again, we laughed. We knew we had to be "so close" but couldn't actually see the finish line. When it finally came into sight, I remember thinking I just had to focus on that, straight ahead. With everyone cheering, I wanted to look around, or smile back, or something, but decided I was just going to take all the energy they were giving and use it all to just focus on getting to that line.

We had been careful to smile for the cameras along the route so that our pictures would show us "enjoying the moment." I'm not sure if I remembered to smile as we crossed the line or not. And frankly, I don't much care if I did. My heart was proud and my body felt broken, but smile or no, I was unspeakably happy to have made it across the line, with Em, both in one piece -- or at the very least, both of us walking on our own power. I almost cried right then, because it felt so good to have made it, but I knew the sappy tears would quickly turn to pain tears, and I didn't want that to be the end of my race.

After grabbing all the post-race food and drink, we found Wayne, traded our running shoes for the flip-flops he'd brought for us (a tip we'd heard from another marathoner), and started heading back toward the hotel for what I had originally figured would make for a good cool down walk after the race. Of course, that was back when I expected to be able to walk at the end of the race! It was a sloooow go on my sore heel, but eventually we made it back up the street, and stopped for our long-awaited JapaDog lunch (a famous Vancouver street cart that serves hot dogs with Japanese toppings). It did not disappoint! We eventually continued on back to the hotel to shower, rest, and head out to eat some more.

This was not the race I expected it to be. I felt well prepared for it and frankly, I expected it to be an extension of our training runs -- more exhausting for sure, even painful to a point, but essentially injury free. But there are good running days and bad running days, and while it's nice when a race coincides with a good running day, that doesn't always happen. And that's ok. Because whatever else happened, we finished our first marathon!! I'm very proud of that. I'm very proud of having stuck to a training program for four months -- especially because I began to understand about six weeks ago that the training was becoming as mentally taxing as it was physically tiring. And I'm very proud to have been strong enough to run through more challenging physical stress than I'd ever done before. And whatever else happened, by the end of the day Em and I were actually sitting and strategizing where and when we should run our next marathon. In terms of a response to the question "How'd it go?" perhaps that is the most telling answer of all.

Where to Start

Perhaps one should start a blog when starting to train for one's first marathon. I was inspired to start this when reading Fraser Duff's blog of his biking adventure across the US. But when I met Fraser and his blog, I was only a few weeks away from my marathon. Too late to start blogging about my marathon training. But I'm sensing that this marathon is more of the start of something than the end of something, so I'm going to start at the end -- with some thoughts about the marathon itself.