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Runner. Nerd. Relentless reader and documentary watcher. Beer, vodka, and wine lover. Marathoner. Studier. Music Snob. Traveler. Chocolate lab owner.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I. AM. A. MARATHONER.

As it turns out, I'm a better marathon drinker than marathon runner.  You're not surprised?  Neither am I.  I've been drinking for a lot longer than I've been running.  I don't judge you for not being able to chase tequila with an Irish Car Bomb in 3 seconds flat after your 12th beer before noon, so don't judge me for finishing in a time that's twice what is required to qualify for Boston.  Neither of those things are exactly true, but they're also not far off.
This is where my snark ends.  This was an exceptionally emotional day for me.  It's only been three days, but I'm not yet at the point where I could sit down and tell you face-to-face what it was like.  I cried when I crossed the finish line (well, it was slightly before, as will be evidenced by my ugly-cry-face finish line photo), I cried sitting on the floor of my hotel room talking to my friends, I cried  when partying on Beale Street and asked about it later, I very nearly cried in BB Kings when talking to Dave.

Props to Dave, by the way, for the very encouraging and wise words, a couple high fives, and a congratulatory hug. It means a lot coming from such a great runner.   I wish you many happy miles, my friend.
I have heard only two questions from everyone I've spoken to since I have been done.  First, I hear "what was your time?"  I don't mind to tell people my time, but this run was about so much more than time for me.  I've never been a fast runner, so it's never been about speed, but that's even more true of my first marathon.  The second question I hear is "how was your marathon?"  Like I said, I can't even sit down and talk about it, so I have no good way to answer that question either.  I hate to feel like I'm disappointing everyone with those answers.  I'll try and rectify that now.  This is a really long post, but 26.2 miles is a really long way, and it deserves all the attention I can give it.

First of all, let me just say thank you to each and every one of you.  In all seriousness, I couldn't have done it without you.  I have spent the last four months training for this marathon.  That means for four months I have turned down happy hours, dinner plans, and weekend plans in lieu of hill repeats, tempo runs, and long runs.  I have annoyed everyone by having the words "marathon training" in heavy rotation in my vocabulary.  I've had to disappoint friends and family by saying,  "I can't, I have a race tomorrow," or turn in early to be in bed for my Saturday long runs.  I even started a running blog that I make you all read.  I'm sorry for that, too.

I became annoyed as people started to say, "did you run your marathon yet?" "oh, you're still training for a marathon?"  "you just ran a race yesterday, what do you mean your marathon hasn't came yet?  What's the difference?"  At the time, it felt as if no one cared enough to pay attention to what I was actually doing.  In reality, there was a lot about what I was doing that the people closest to me didn't grasp.  I get that now.  I have a close family, and a strong and supportive group of friends, but my greatest support was coming from people I had never met.  That's understandable, there are so many things that you just don't comprehend if you aren't a runner.  I don't hang out with many runners, so I heavily relied on the online running community.  These were the people that taught me to listen to my body, how to stretch my Achilles, the importance of taper, and reminded me that every run was more "hay in my barn."  As a relatively new runner, these were the people I looked up to, was inspired by, and sought advice from.

With that being said, I was overwhelmed when support started pouring in from everywhere last week.  All the friends and family that I didn't think understood what this meant, suddenly made it very clear that they understood just how big of a deal it was.  I thought my phone was going to overheat I had so many calls, texts, emails, tweets, and FB posts coming in.  I still haven't caught up on all the thank yous that I owe.

As a back of the pack runner, it can get lonely, but because of all of you, I never felt lonely.  I thought of the friends I've had to spend less time with because of training, who, when it came time, still said, "hey Ash, give 'em hell tomorrow.  I'm so proud of you."  I had almost a hundred people, many of whom I had never heard from before, tell me to "feed the f*cking dog."  I thought of them, too.  I thought of the experienced runners that I look up to and trust, reminding me to start out slow and to trust my training.  As lonely as it can seem out there, no one truly runs alone, so I thank you all for being there with me.

Now that I've let you all know how much I appreciate you, I'll tell you what my race was like.

As expected, I was very nervous on Friday.  My running friends all said basically the same thing: they would be concerned if I wasn't.  You're supposed to be nervous before you run a marathon, especially if it's your first.  My non-running friends were all confused as to why.  They are not used to seeing me nervous, and I wasn't quite sure what to say, but the best answer I could give was that I was nervous because I had no idea what was going to happen out there.  I didn't know what it would be like to run 26.2 miles, and I was nervous that I might be dealt a blow that I wasn't prepared for.  I had a great fear of the unknown.

Friday night, Jenn and I attended the Heroes dinner with Sam and Chris and his wife.  It was great to see Sam again.  He's taken interest in my training, and helped me quite a bit along the way.  That dude is a superhero.  If he can run 61 marathons in a year, surely I can finish one.  It was also great to meet Chris.  He and I have been in touch for the past couple of months, and I was looking forward to meeting up with him in Memphis as well. 
Sam!

I was not looking forward to going to sleep that night.  I didn't like the fact that I was going to wake up on marathon day.  I eased my jitters with a glass of Shiraz, visited with my other friends in the hotel, and finally convinced myself to go to bed.   After tossing around for an hour trying to tune out the snores of my roommate, Imanaged to procure some earplugs, take a few deep breaths, and I finally sleep.

As expected, I didn't sleep well that night.  Everyone told me to make sure I slept well the week before, because nobody sleeps well the night before their first marathon.  I had two crazy dreams: in the first one I was actually running the marathon, and I woke up at 12:30 soaking in sweat.  I went to the bathroom to wash my face and take a couple deep breaths before going back to bed.  I fell back asleep only to dream that I was trying to run but I wasn't moving, and jolted awake again at 2:00. 
The weather was not what I had hoped it would be.  It was 57 degrees with humidity around 80% and 24 mph winds. It was not terrible, but I was hoping for a cool, calm, cloudy morning.  After checking my bag, we met up with my friends, and then attempted to find Sam in his corral.  I would have liked to see him for one last hug and a snarky comment.  We weren't able to find him, and unfortunately, I turned my phone off early, so it wasn't until after the race that I saw that Sam had attempted to find me, too.

The night before I made the decision not to run with my friends because I thought they would be faster than me.  I decided that I would stick near the 5:15 pace group.  The two pacers were very cool, and if I grow up to be an old man, I hope to be just like them.  A 12-minute mile is significantly slower than my normal pace, but my plan all day was to play it safe.  For all I knew I would get to mile 22 barely making a 15 minute mile.  As it was my first marathon, I had no idea what to expect, or what my body was capable of.


My pacers.
We started out running 11 minute miles, which still felt slow to me, but I stuck with the pacers anyway.  Typically, around mile 4 or 5, I start to feel really good.  That's when I get in my zone and hit my stride.  To the non-runners, this is what is referred to as a "runners high."  For all the runners, you know what I'm talking about.  It's that place where all of a sudden the miles come easily, your breath is steady, and your legs are flowing smoothly.  It's the same amount of work as always but it feels effortless.  Usually, this feeling lasts for anywhere from 3-7 miles until it starts to become work again.  There was not a single mile of that run that felt like I was in the zone.  Every single step took dedicated, conscious effort from a physical and mental standpoint.  The best I can say I felt all day was "just OK."  For what it's worth, it was a very off day.  Had this been a training run, I would have cut it off far earlier than mile 10.

I prepared myself for weeks for mile 12 when the marathoners took a left turn and headed off on their own.  I was afraid I would mentally crumble to see our numbers dwindle so significantly before the halfway mark.  To my surprise, as soon as we split off I felt a great sense of comradeship and pride with the few people that remained.  I formed a sudden relationship with the few that decided to hang a left and carry on for 14 more miles.  I had found it slightly unnerving to be surrounded by all the half-marathoners, a lone blue bib bobbing in a sea of green ones.  In a way, it felt good knowing that everyone out there was in for the same thing I was. 

At this point, I was still in sight of my pacers, and although I didn't feel good, I was doing fine.  I decided to stop at the aid station at 13.1 to use the bathroom, take another Gu, and prepare myself mentally that I was only halfway done.  I set off up the hill as the sun started to come out.  I prayed to the running Gods that they would send the sun back behind the clouds.  I hate the sun.  It makes me very cranky.  Not only was it going to make it significantly warmer, running in the sun typically gives me a headache.  I also happen to be a vampire.

Just before mile 14 I was dealt the blow I was so nervous about.  Prior to this, I was still keeping near an 11-minute pace, and I wasn't having trouble maintaining it.  Like I said, I didn't feel great, but I did feel like I had several more miles in me.  My legs felt fine and mentally I was hanging in there.

I can't tell you if it came on gradually or if it was sudden, but I realized that my chest was starting to feel pretty tight.  If this was happening at mile 14, I had no idea how I was going to feel in 12 miles.  I kept my pace up hoping it was a fluke, and it started getting tighter still.  I decided to back off a little bit and see if that helped.  Not only did that not help, but my chest continued to clench tighter with every step.

The more my chest tightened up the more I told myself that everyone hits a wall, and maybe this is mine.  Usually, in my long runs I hit my wall between miles 16-18, and it's more of a mental block.  I  just reach the point where I say, "geez, woman, you're still doing this?  Aren't you bored yet?"  My biggest struggle to keep going isn't because I'm not physically capable of it, but because I'm bored as hell.  When you run my pace, it takes a really long time to cover that distance, and no matter how much Nelly I listen to, sometimes I don't want to do it anymore.  Regardless, I had never felt like this in a run of any distance, especially this early.  I remembered my friend Deb, who described the wall as different for everyone, but said your only choice is to just "keep going."  I thought of this repeatedly.  Just. Keep. Going. 

It didn't take long before I reached the point where I didn't even feel like my chest was expanding with my breath.  No matter how hard I tried to breathe, it felt like the air wasn't making it past my throat.  At one point, I remember thinking, "what if I die out here?"  To which I responded, "well then you f*cking die out here, but you better die closer to the finish line than you are now.  Just. Keep. Going."  Then, out of nowhere, I just stopped moving.  I don't know what happened, but I suddnely realized that I was just standing there.  I asked myself how long I had been still, and I didn't know the answer.  I'm sure it was only for a split second, but it felt like I had woken up to find myself motionless in the middle of the street.  My body had made the decision not to move without even consulting me.

I realize that most of you reading this don't know me personally, but those that do know there are three things I'm hardly capable of: fear, worry, and tears.  It's very rare for me to experience any emotion that resembles fear, I've often wondered if it's a problem that I so seldom worry, and I don't know what it takes to make me cry, but it's usually a lot.  It was at this point that I started to do all three.  I don't recall ever being so terrified of anything in my life.  I don't know if I was scared for my health, scared of the unknown, or scared of how much distance remained between me and the finish line.  As my eyes started to well up, not only did my chest get tighter, but my throat started to swell as well.  I stopped, and said, "whatever you do, don't cry, that's making this worse.  You don't have to run, but you have to keep moving."  The more scared I became, the more I wanted to cry, which in turn made increased my worrying. 
I didn't know what was wrong, but I knew that I couldn't fix it.  While I struggled through it, I occasionally stopped, put my hands on my knees, and fought to get oxygen into lungs that felt like they had folded up on themselves.  I was nearly delirious at this point.  How in the world was I going to do this for 12 more miles if this feeling didn't go away?
I have no idea how I made it past this.  I felt this way until just after mile 17.  I don't remember what those miles looked like, my eyes were focused right at my shoes.  Every runner that passed asked if I was OK, to which I just nodded silently and waved them by.  Volunteers at the aid station asked me if I needed help.  In a matter of 3 miles I got passed by the next 2 pace groups.  If the pain I was experiencing wasn't already cracking my spirit, being passed completely crumbled it.

Those few miles I existed at a near standstill.  I don't know how I was even moving.  At some points I wasn't moving, I was just standing there doubled over, attempting to force air into my chest.  I started taking solace in the aid stations as I saw the cups scattered across the ground.  It was comforting to know that one of those cups was Sam's, one was Chris's, and Jo and Mary had dropped their cups on this ground, too.  I found it strangely comforting knowing that their cups would be waiting for me at the next aid station.  Crazy?  Yes, but at that point I was taking whatever I could get, and that was all I had.

I can't be sure what happened, or why, but I do have a theory.  I know most runners swear by coffee before they run, but these are the people that drink 2 cups of coffee with their breakfast each morning.  I'm not one of those people.  I might have 3 lattes a week, and that's just because I like the taste.  That morning I decided to have about 1/4 of a cup just to wake me up enough to keep going.  Not only had I not slept well the past two nights, but I'm not usually a morning runner, and our roommate had decided to get up at 5, a full hour earlier than I was planning.  I woke up on Saturday draaaaggggging.
I'm up early, I haven't slept in 2 days, and I'm eating a banana. I hate all these things.  I'm pissed.
I can't tell you how many times I have been told to change nothing on race day, but I made the critical mistake of thinking that this wouldn't make a difference.  Let me tell you, when they say not to change anything, they mean absolutely NOTHING.  I did carry my own Gu with me, but for sake of simplicity, I just went ahead and took the ones they gave me.  The ones they gave me were 2X caffeine every time.  Again, it didn't even occur to me that this might be a problem.  I just choked 'em down and kept on.

Once I got back to my hotel room I did the math, and I had the equivalent of 2 cups of coffee.  For most people, this isn't a lot, but I may as well have had an entire pot.  One cup of coffee with food in my stomach is enough to make me bug eyed, bouncy and send my insides fluttering.  Two cups of coffee on an empty stomach while running is enough to damn near kill me, apparently.

By some great miracle, I started feeling a lot better just after mile 17.  It must have been the swig of beer I shared with some kind folks in their front yard.  My legs had still felt fine through this whole thing, they were never the problem, so I knew they would carry me to the end.  When the volunteers at aid station 18 asked how I was doing, I smiled and told them I was living the dream.  I didn't mean it, but the fact that I was able to smile was a good sign.  I can't quite say I was happy, but I was as close to happy as I was going to get that day.  I loved that I had single digit miles left to go, and I focused on my run one aid station at a time.

I wasn't moving quite as fast as I was before, but at least I was running.  I walked through the aid stations and for about 1/10 of a mile after each one to finish my drink, but once I was done I told myself to just run to the next aid station, and that worked pretty well for me.  I can't quite say that these miles started to fly by, but comparatively, they weren't so bad.  I could still feel the tinge in my chest, but it had loosened up enough to allow me to breathe, and my heart rate dropped significantly.

I never had any time goal in mind, so I was really not concerned about how long it was going to take me.  Any time I saw a runner in front of me stop running, or saw anyone that looked distressed, I stopped and talked to them.  At this point, who cares?  When miles 14-17 took me at least 20 minutes each, what's a couple more minutes to help a  new friend?  I'm sure that all some of them needed was to have someone next to them.  While I may not be the greatest runner, I am really good at talking to strangers.  It's one of my favorite activities, actually.  So I decided to use it the last few miles of the race.  That's how the rest of the race went for me.  Running from aid station to aid station, cherishing the comfort of the cups on the ground, and stopping every now and then to chat for a couple minutes before carrying on.  It didn't help my time, but even if I had ran my best I wouldn't have had a "good" time.  It was of no concern to me at that point.  In other words, I had decided to "feed the f*cking dog."

I had several people tell me the last 6 miles are the worst.  I think they specifically are referring to the last mile.  That's the mile where you can't think of anything to say to yourself other than, "WHERE THE HELL IS THE FINISH LINE? I'm so over this."  As I was closing in on 26 a lady ran alongside me long enough to say, "you're in the top 1% of the nation by even finishing.  I'm so proud of you."  I don't know who she was, but I've never loved a stranger more.  The finish line was up an on-ramp (yes, by some cruel joke, I had to go up at mile 26) and inside the stadium.  Two men at the bottom of the ramp said, "26 is right at the top!  You really are almost there!" to which I responded, "I fucking love you."  I had suddenly found two people I loved more than the last one.

As I rounded the corner I heard someone screaming like a maniac.  It was Jenn, who had been waiting at the finish line for me all day.  My first thought was, "wow, she sounds legitimately insane right now, " and my second was, "where is she?"  She was right in front of me and I could not focus on her.  She ran me in, and jumped out just as I approached the finish line.  Right under the finish line a soldier gave me my blanket and my medal and then Jenn gave me a huge hug.  I allowed myself to collapse on her shoulder and start sobbing.
I JUST RAN A MARATHON?!?!
After a few seconds of crying, I smiled as I realized, "I just ran a marathon!!!"  She asked me how I felt, to which I responded, "fine, actually.  I'm just glad to be done."  She was very surprised at how good I looked and felt, and so was I.  I got my pictures taken, went right up the stairs (yes, after you finish, you have to walk a flight of stairs to get out), called Jamie and cursed at him for making running sound so much more fun than it is.  I called my sister to let her know I was done, but that I didn't have it in me to call everyone else, and asked her to relay the message.  I needed two hands for beer and pizza.  I was out the door and on my way within 15 minutes.
Jamie was on the other end of that phone call, being cursed at.  He took it well.
I would rather have two beers and one slice of pizza, but oh well :-)
On the one hand, it kills me that I felt so good when I was done.  My legs had a lot more to give. While it makes me very happy with my training, I hate to think what I would have been capable of had I not the experience I did for those few miles.  The first thing I said was, "I'm never doing that again," but I couldn't live with myself without trying to rectify what I consider to be lost miles.  My first half was slower than I normally run a half, which was my plan, but my second half was a full hour and 20 minutes longer than the first half.  AN HOUR AND 20 MINUTES.  That's just unreasonable, and I'm certain that without that fluke I can do much better.

This may sound strange, but around mile 24 I started getting scared to finish.  I didn't want to reach the finish line. I can't even imagine hell being worse than what I had experienced, and I was scared that once I crossed to the other side, it wouldn't be worth it.  I didn't want to get there for fear that I tortured myself for nothing.  Parts of it were the worst things I have ever experienced.  I don't even remember some of the battles I went through.  Mentally and physically, it was the most difficult thing I have ever done.  I had some very dark and scary thoughts.  The same way you recover from a broken heart, it's part of the body's defense mechanism to protect you from remembering such feelings.  It would be too painful.

Despite it all, it was absolutely worth it once I crossed the finish line.  I was not the same person I was 26.2 miles ago, because, forever, I can say that I AM A MARATHONER.
Goodbye, Memphis.  Thanks for everything.
If you guys don't have a Jenn, you need to get one.  It says something to have someone cry for you when you just ran your first marathon. 
My friend and co-worker ran her first half!

I made the Twitter world angry, because I still had flexibility the day after the race.

We stopped by the Popeye statue on the way home, and of course, I had to climb it.  It would be very typical of me to run 26.2 miles without injury but break an ankle climbing a Popeye statue.

17 comments:

  1. Congrats marathoner! And holy man am I jealous of that stretch you did the day after. The day after my marathon I could barely sit down on the toilet, nevermind do THE SPLITS! LOL

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  2. Terrific post! As a fellow back of the pack marathoner, I echo your thoughts, especially the part about mile 26. Well done!

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  3. That's awesome ... I've never experienced a marathon in that way ... well maybe once, when it was really hot and I struggled to get to the finish. But it sure is interesting to read about a marathon like this from your perspective. Congrats on getting to the finish. Glad you enjoyed the accomplishment and aren't hung up on the time. Also glad I was able to be a part of your first marathon. Bummed that I was back in your corral when you were in mine, because yeah, you would have gotten a hug and a snarky comment. :)

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  4. Great job marathoner! and great race report as well. I am impressed you kept going given what you went through mid race, but that is what a true marathoner would do :)

    I like the fact that your race report was long - sometimes I think I am the longest race report writer..... ok, I probably still am :)

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  5. Great post. Gave me goosebumps. Maybe one day, I';ll have 26.2 in me. I had thought about asking you your time, and then I thought, "Who effing cares? She just finished a marathon!"

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  6. Ashley. Way to make me cry. I am SO SO SO proud of you. Your determination and preserverance to push through is amazing!! congrats and welcome to the club, I am so happy you're part of the amazing group. great post ragnar friend!!!

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  7. Congratulations for pushing through and finishing. Like you said in you're first line, you're a marathoner, and most people can't say that about themselves. Great recap of a difficult day.

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  8. wow. what a report. congratulations! I'm not sure that I would have had the guts to keep going after all those middle miles. I would have sat on the curb and cried. That was amazing. Can't wait to hear how the next one goes!!

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  9. So, so, so proud of you for finishing! The first goal of every marathon is just "to finish." As you found out, that ain't always easy! You fought some pretty nasty demons out there - physical and the *really* badass kind, mental. Know what? You kicked their f*cking asses! You learned a lot about yourself and a lot about marathoning. You also learned it's okay to cry. All good things. I'm really looking forward to your next adventure!

    I have to say, I didn't know you from Beelzebub before Memphis (bad comparison. He and I have been fairly close over the years). But I was pulling for you so hard. I'm very fortunate to have been able to celebrate the accomplishment with you. THANK YOU ... and GOOD LUCK!!

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  10. Thanks Ashley for a great post. I am so proud of you. What you posted here is what so many of us have experienced before. We may not be "great" runners but you know what? We are marathoners.

    You accomplished something on Saturday that was so important to you. Thank you for allowing Torie and me to be a part of your first. It was a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to seeing you do even more as a runner and getting to know you better!

    @mrhump

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  11. Great race report. Made me think about my first and second marathons, both earlier this year, both amazing and emotional experiences.
    Completing a marathon is such an amazing journey, and no matter how hard it is, its so worth it.
    Congratulations on making it through marathon number one... Once you get to number two you'll forget at least half the tough/bad stuff and get yourself across that next finish line, because you know you can, you've done it before and you'll do it again.
    Congratulations! (from twitter @ewallerscott)
    (Oh, and people who ask your time before anything else usually don't know what it takes to run 26.2 - my first two were both ridiculously slow, for different reasons, and I don't care, I know I can go faster, but I finished!)

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  12. Totally hate the fact that you could walk the next day but that tech shirt you wore for the race is so cool that I have found it in my heart to forgive you for your flexibility.

    Congratulations on completing your first marathon. Very few people have what it takes to make it to that starting line (let alone finish). I’m sure that you’ll be running more marathons but THIS one is special. THIS one is THE race that took you from “dorky-banana-eating-flexible-nurse-girlie” to “badass-marathon-running-chick-with-the-awesome-tech-shirt”.

    Well done!!

    Ron

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  13. There's a Popeye statue?! Where IS that statue!

    BTW- Congrats on your finish! I enjoy the photos in the post. It adds so much more detail to your story.

    --mark--

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  14. I absolutely LOVE your blog, and thank you for your courage to share your endeavor. This was supposed to be my first marathon, but thanks to an injury, my first won't be until The Kentucky Derby Marathon in April (feel free to come and run it!!). I just want to say, thank you for taking us with you, along your journey. Whether you realize it or not, you are a HUGE inspiration. I do apologize for the barrage of twitter message/questions the other day :)
    You are incredible, Ash!
    -Corey

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  15. Terrfic Ashley!

    Great report too. As Ron said this one was/is special and it will remain so no matter how fast you run any in the future.

    Interested to see what's next.

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  16. What an awesome race recap!

    Also, I totally hear you on the coffee thing. Last year I drank a big cup before a 10K and felt completely insane. Never again!

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