As of last year, only 1% of the U.S. population had run a marathon. On Sunday, September 11th, I became a part of that 1%.
It’s funny to think how I got to this point. Truth be told, I’m not really sure. I was never a runner. And then, one day, I just decided I wanted to be. I began running just two miles, increasing my distance until I was running half marathons. (Read more about my running journey here.) I was falling in love with the longer distance, but I still wasn’t sure if I was crazy enough to do a full marathon. I mean, 4+ hours of running?! WHY? HOW?
But then again, why not? I had already accomplished something I never thought I could. Maybe I could do this, too…
So, I signed up before I could change my mind. My original plan was to run the Pittsburgh marathon in May, but that came to a halt when I had my surgery. So I shifted my plans for a couple months later and set my sights on Erie, close to my hometown.
I was familiar with the course of the Erie marathon, as it’s held at Presque Isle State Park. I had run the Presque Isle half marathon in July of last year with my boyfriend- his first half marathon. It was a flat, easy course- just one loop around the park. (For the marathon, obviously, it is two loops.) Looking back, my surgery causing me to change from Pittsburgh to Erie was all a blessing in disguise. Let’s be honest- the marathon distance is challenging enough without adding in all the hills! I was really grateful I was doing this flat loop instead of Pittsburgh’s killer course.
Don’t get me wrong, I still had my doubts. I knew this was going to suck. No matter how confident I feel in my training, or how much I understand that the race will go just fine, I always get pre-race jitters, every time. My long runs throughout marathon training had been extremely painful and discouragingly slow. I wasn’t worried my pace, or coming in under a certain time, or about anything else but just finishing. Still, my stomach was in knots that morning. I put body glide (a godsend) everywhere, under the straps of my sports bra, between my thighs, on the backs of my ankles, and quickly got dressed. I arrived when the park opened up around 5:30 AM. (Props to JJ for getting up so early on his one day off!) It was still pitch black when we parked. I started the walk to the porta potties, flashlight in hand. I’d go pee about 7 more times before the 7 AM start. Chalk it up to nerves or a weak bladder, or maybe both. While in line, I saw my friend Debra (pictured below), who was looking to beat her time to qualify for the Boston marathon.
Her, her boyfriend Frank, JJ, and I stood together as she said the most heartfelt prayer, just minutes before the gun went off. We said our goodbyes to the boys and headed to get lined up. Already, I could feel something much bigger washing over me. I was overcome with emotion. Pull it together. You can cry when it’s over, I told myself. Or during.
And then, before I could process it, I was off. I slipped into an easy 9:30 min./mile pace. I’d made a mental note to start out slow, as the energy and adrenaline from being part of a race and surrounded by other runners tends to make you start out too fast. I wanted to finish strong. Plus, let’s be real- I was gonna be out here for a while.
Around mile two, the sun began to show off. I could see the soft pink colors coming through as the clouds parted above the lake. The peaceful sounds of the waves coming into shore, the rhythmic pitter-patter of feet on asphalt… this was my happy place. It was indescribable.
Up in front of me, I saw a group of three women, probably in their 50s. They were keeping a solid pace, decked out in the brightest matching outfits. Dang, I thought. That’s remarkable. They were double my age and kicking ass! That’s #goals right there. After running alongside them, I joked, “I’ll just stick with you guys.” They smiled and said,”Feel free! We’re shooting for a 9:50 pace.”
Although I could very easily run a 9:50, all my long training runs had been so much slower. With the chest pain I was sure to encounter like I had before (thanks to my pacemaker) and the wall I was sure to hit around mile 18, I was certain I’d have to drop back after some time, and I told them so. But at least I could run with them for the time being.
“Coach” Barb, Sue, Tina, and Cheryl were from Rochester, NY. They were wives and mothers, teachers and longtime runners. And they were downright inspiring. Kind. And fun! The miles quickly passed as we talked about our different journeys with running, my surgery, who was cheering them on, and what we would treat ourselves to after this was all over.
Since the race was two loops around the park, I was able to see JJ at mile 6.5. He ran out to me with a bottle of water, asking if I needed anything. The women assured him I was in good hands.
Before I knew it, we had run a half marathon! With the steady flow of conversation, the miles flew by! It was a beautiful run- the crippling heat and humidity that we had been plagued with all summer disappeared to leave us comfortable at around 65 degrees with a cool breeze. We honestly lucked out with such great conditions. JJ met me again as I passed the halfway mark, with a gel in hand. I wasn’t a fan of them and, I’m ashamed to admit, had not used them during my training runs- although I had every intention to. The consistency made me gag. But I knew that I needed the energy, even if I felt good now. It was a strawberry kiwi carb BOOM, already torn open for me. I took it in small doses. It was surprisingly not that bad, I’d maybe even say it was good!
Soon we passed mile 15, then 16, and 17. They had water stations with Gu brew, and vanilla bean Gu gels. I made sure to keep hydrated, although between you and I, I’d had to pee since mile 4. Keep it together, bladder. Barb offered me a salt tablet, which helped. I checked my Garmin watch- it was almost 10 AM. I’d have to keep an eye out for my parents, sister-in-law, and niece, who were coming to watch me finish. As soon as I spoke those words out loud to the girls, I heard a familiar voice shout my name. There they were! They had driven past, and pulled off to the side up ahead around mile 19.5. My dad came out and ran beside me for a minute or two, which was a sweet moment. I was sure he was going to get kicked off the course, but he didn’t. JJ was on my other side with a vanilla bean gel in hand, already opened for me. (Yes, he is officially the best.)
They said encouraging words and then they were gone. I relucatantly began to take the gel. It was definitely not as great as the last one, and I struggled to get it down. I chased with water at the next stop. I still felt much better than I had anticipated at this point, but I was beginning to feel it. Sweat poured from every part of me. My face and body felt drenched in sweat and sticky Gu brew and gel residue. The tag on the inside of my shorts was rubbing against my lower back, and even though I’d used glide, my sports bra was rubbing against my right underarm. I knew I would have a bad chafing mark once this was done. Yet, we had made it past mile 18, with no “wall” to be found!
That is, until we reached mile 21. It came out of nowhere. I had been feeling hydrated, had energy from the gels, my legs were sore but still feeling strong, until that moment. I knew this was every bit (if not more) mental than it was physical. I tried to repeat the mantras in my head. My mind is an athlete. Finish strong. Your mind will give up before your body ever will. You can do this. Keep going. One foot in front of another. But with every step I took, I just felt that much weaker. That much closer to wanting to quit. I hadn’t walked once this whole time, maybe I could just take a break…but I didn’t. Tina and Sue kept running, and so did I. We were at mile 22. SO. CLOSE.
We began doing our dedication miles. I thought of Debra, who had no doubt finished by now. I hope she got her BQ. I thought of her strength and her faith, her gentle yet fierce nature, her prayer that morning. I thought of all the times she answered my endless running questions and was always patient and willing to help. I thought of how thankful I was that we went from coworkers to close friends. I looked up to her in every way.
“I need to slow down,” I said to Tina. “You guys keep going. I just need to slow down a little.” She nodded breathlessly in agreement. “Me too.”
I hated myself for it, but I also reminded myself I was not worried about time. And, I already was doing so much better than I could have hoped for! I stopped focusing on my pace and tried to switch my brain back over to dedication miles.
I thought of this day- September 11th. How I run because I know not everyone can, or ever will again. How if people can survive such terrible and awful things, I could no doubt finish this race before me.
I thought of my body- not the strongest, or thinnest, but certainly capable. Healthy and powerful in its own right. How I hated the recovery period after my surgery when I couldn’t run, and how I promised I wouldn’t take this ability for granted again. How I loved what it does for my body and to my mind.
I thought of JJ- how immensely he cared for me and supported me through this entire ordeal. How blessed I was to have met someone who shows me love in the purest, most selfless ways, and teaches me how to love in the same manner. He changed his work schedule, got up at 4 AM on his only day off, and was my mobile fueling station, running back and forth with supplies I needed. I thought of how hard he works in all aspects of his life, how thoroughly he supports me, how much we both cherish our relationship. How good it was to be this happy.
I thought of my parents- how lucky I was to get two of the most loving, good-hearted people to learn from, parents who so strongly believe in me, allow me to chase my dreams, and are there for me to see me through whether I reach those goals or fail miserably. Who may not understand or agree with every word or action, but still love me. Who have so graciously put my needs or selfish wants first ahead of their own, every single time. And who would do it all over again. Who are the best examples of unconditional love.
And then I couldn’t focus on any of it. I was at mile 23. I wasn’t running, I was surviving. I had barely a 5k left to run. I could do it. This was it. Almost there. Almost home. My senses were in overdrive, I think they just shut off. I couldn’t feel anything. Not my legs, not whether or not I still had to pee, what I was hearing, nothing. There were other runners that had slowed to a walk, some whizzed by, but I wasn’t really paying attention. All I could think about was to keep going, to keep the momentum, to put one foot in front of the other until I was done. I felt like a zombie.
When we were in the heart of mile 25, rounding the corner to the final leg of the race, I parted ways with Sue and Tina. Sometime in the past couple years, JJ started to be the one to drive me across that finish line in a sprint. I knew I would hear his voice boom through the crowd, and I was right. I exhaled sharply and propeled myself forward with every last ounce of energy I still had. My legs weren’t jello, they were nothing. I couldn’t feel the grinding in my kneecaps. I wasn’t floating, though. I was pounding the pavement, breaking past a group of twenty-something guys, pumping my arms which were already stiff and sore and so tired, until I cruised across that finish line and had to remember how to make myself stop and walk again. And to breathe, to be back in reality.
I’d dreamed of this moment a million times ever since I set this goal. It was my first marathon…I figured that I would be so overcome with emotion, so moved to tears, that I’d break down and cry. But I didn’t. I just smiled, caught my breath, and collected my medal, a banana, and two chocolate milks, and tried to process the fact that it was over.
JJ came over to me, tackling me in the biggest hug, and took the load of post-race treats from my hands.My parents, sister-in-law, and niece came just seconds after, congratulating me and full of smiles. I saw Barb, Sue, and Tina and got pictures with them. I told my family the same thing I had told them on the course. I would not have made it through without them. And I knew that it was true. I probably still would have finished, but surely not as strongly and as quickly as I did today. They kept my mind at ease, my feet steady, my body moving. I only prayed that this group of women understood that, and that although they were strangers, knew just how much I was indebted to them. Not only that, but how happy I was to have met and befriended them.
Even a week later, I’m still processing the fact that I am a marathoner. Those 4 hours and 25 minutes passed so quickly, believe it or not, that I wish I could go back and make myself realize I was in them. As I stuff my face with chocolate cake for the sixth night in a row, I try to formulate what those 26.2 miles have taught me. Endurance. Strength. Patience. Pain. Joy. Humility. Gratefulness. Confidence. Pride. Survival. Discipline. I think I’m still learning. I crossed this item off my bucket list, but something tells me that my education is far from over…