Last weekend I ran in my first marathon. If you had asked me one year ago if I’d ever consider running a marathon, I would have laughed hysterically and reached for the remote control. I’ve never been a good runner, and have certainly never been able to run long distances. When I was in the Army, on my physical fitness test I could always max out the pushups and situps without much difficulty, but my run never climbed much higher than a 70 or so. (My fastest two-mile remains 14:19, and that was 10 years ago.)
I’m not really sure why I decided to do a marathon. There are probably all sorts of subconscious reasons related to my 35th birthday and health and vanity and so on, but my conscious brain has never been interested in that kind of thing. Nor was it a bucket-list situation. (I don’t believe in such lists.) My family and I had just returned from a great trip to Walt Disney World, and while googling around when we got home, I noticed that Disney held a marathon, and that its roster was nearly filled, and there was a link to a training schedule, and that the following week was the start week to go from slug to runner. Anyway in the heat of the moment, I signed up for it.
(Six months later, as it would turn out, on marathon day, I had monster deadlines that weekend and had to skip the WDW marathon. Instead, I ran the following week in the Louisiana Marathon, which is held ten minutes from my house. A recurring theme of my running experience has involved fortuitous timing.)
So anyway I signed up and immediately felt good, because it’s nice to have a long-term goal. I bought an iPod nano or whatever they’re called, and used the integrated Nike+ pedometer on every run from that first day through the last day of training. So I have lots of interesting data.
My first run was on July 8, 2013, in which I clocked a 10:31 per mile on a two-mile run. I remember how little I enjoyed the experience, and how immediately terrifying the thought of running a marathon became. As I would do throughout the process, I reminded myself that it was a long-term goal, and that the stranger on the Internet who came up with the training program couldn’t possibly be lying, because everyone knows that it’s illegal to lie on the Internet.
A few things about my running. The only time I really had (or have) available to run is around 5 a.m., so that’s when I’m usually out there. When I started, it was really hot. Now it’s really cold. I pretty much wore the same thing every day. My old Army PT shorts and a t-shirt. After the first week I bought a new pair of shoes, one size up. (My toes needed a little more room lest my nails would fall off, which sounds pretty awful.) Sometimes I listen to music; sometimes I listen to audiobooks. (I’m still running, thus the tense shift.) At some point I invested in a set of Inspire Pro Yurbuds earphones, which are apparently designed to handle copious amounts of sweat. (My previous set of standard-issue iPod earphones couldn’t handle the sweat, and shorted out midway through a run.) I tried running while holding my iPod, but that was a nightmare. I purchased a cheap-but-reliable armband to wear, and that’s proven pretty great. (Also, the pedometer works perfectly with it, which was a concern.) When it’s really cold outside, I wear a winter cap that I got in Afghanistan, and a soft fleece jacket/sweatshirt thing. I have no idea what common objects around me are called.
I held to one rule: that under no circumstance would I skip a run. Except for two days last month when I had a terrible chest cold of the worst sort, I held to that rule. (So I guess there was a circumstance after all. I was afraid that the cold would get really awful and I’d lose two weeks of training, so it was a trade-off.) I ran in rain. I ran when it was way too hot. I ran when it was way too cold. When we traveled, I ran on hotel treadmills or along mountain roads.
I should clarify here that we’re not talking fast runs. According to Nike+, my average time over the course of 130 runs totaling 682 miles was 10:25. I should also note that the pedometer in the iPod nano is really bad at sprints. There were times when I’d hit an 8 minute pace and have to run an extra half-kilometer just to get credit for running my prescribed number of miles for the day. This was frustrating as the iPod has this great cheerleader feature in which one athlete or another congratulates you whenever you set a new personal time, speed, or distance record. I was robbed of many “I’m [someone who plays some sport]. Congratulations — that was your fastest run yet.”
I always ran the same Four-mile course in my neighborhood. Two miles out, two miles in, for a total of 118 hours, 19 minutes. My average distance was 5.2 miles. (I don’t remember the last time I ran less than 4 miles. That’s my base run.) You might think it gets pretty boring when you’re doing a 20-mile run, and you’re so right. On the upside, I never had to worry about the accuracy of my pedometer. (I was very surprised with its accuracy; even when I do treadmill runs, it manages to keep a nearly perfect pace.) For the most part, I had to run on the road itself; there are few sidewalks in my neighborhood. One thing I learned is that every driver in Louisiana is busy text messaging, and will run you down without hesitation. Anyway, all of this burned a total of 68,528 calories.
I never really got faster, but I did build endurance. Whenever the training program prescribed an increase in the distance of my long run, I was able to keep up, though sometimes barely. At any rate, I took the attitude that if I’m out there running anyway, I might as well make it worth my time.
Marathon day was very interesting. First: I forgot to pick up my “packet” the day before. I didn’t even know what a packet was, so it never occurred to me that it might be extremely important, which it was. It contained my bib number, which apparently has some kind of RFID chip on the back to track my time at various checkpoints.) Note to new marathon runners: be sure to get your packet before the race. The website warned that I would not be able to participate if I didn’t get my packet before the close of business on the day before the race. However, there was a table set up that morning where they distributed them. I lost a couple of hours of sleep worrying about it, though.
On the morning of the race, I arrived around 6 a.m., found a parking spot, and followed a surprisingly large crowd to the starting point. (Something like 1,800 runners participated in the marathon.) Because I have nothing to compare it with, I’m not sure if the race was well-planned or not. It certainly seemed to be. There was a bag check station, where you checked your bag. There were pace runners at the starting point holding signs. Many runners wore headphones, but I went without. I’d learned from experience that after the 15 mile mark, even the slim iPod nano feels like a slab of lead strapped to your arm. I cannot imagine how some people went 26.2 miles wearing iPhones. (For what it’s worth, the first album I saw queued up on an iPhone was the soundtrack to the film Frozen. So it was nice that Disney made an appearance after all.)
About the race: Just past every mile marker of the race, there were portable toilets and volunteers offering Powerade or water. (Just like on TV, with the paper cups.) Sometimes there were trash cans, but mostly you just tossed your cup after you finished. Every so often, stations handed out energy shot blocks and gel packets. I didn’t train with them, and all the websites said never to try something new while actually running your marathon, but I figured what the hell, and went ahead and used them every so often. The gel went down easy. They have the consistency of peanut butter and come in random fruit flavors. The energy shots were basically cubic gummy bears. It’s going to sound weird, I guess, but it was a lot of fun to chew food after hours of continuous running.
There were cameras set up every six miles or so, and while everyone around me seemed to have some great Facebook pose primed for their photos, I just look tired or bewildered in mine.
I was struck by how many people turned out just to watch the marathon and support the runners. The sidewalks were occasionally very crowded with people, many of whom held signs. “You’re going to finish a marathon today!” was oddly encouraging. (My favorite signs were staggered Burma-Shave-style. “Embrace the pain tunnel,” followed by, “Because it’s coming.”)
My final time was 4:33:28, which seems to be a respectable first-race time. My average pace was 10:27 per mile, which kind of blows me away because my overall average pace throughout my training, according to Nike+, was 10:25. So I pretty much performed exactly on-target. (I guess. Maybe an experienced runner would say those numbers are wildly varied. I have no idea.)
After the race, there was a food and drink festival where runners could — you guessed it! — eat and drink.
So that’s it. I went from 0 to a marathon in just over 5 months. For what it’s worth, I’m sufficiently recovered that I can run again. I wasn’t sure if I’d lose all motivation after accomplishing the goal, but it seems I haven’t. And I really have learned to enjoy running, which I never would have believed, ever.
I’m not sure who my intended audience is with this post. Prospective runners, I guess. If you stick to it, you really can do it.