Two (2) weeks into the new year and we're talking marathons already. Disney was last weekend. Houston is this weekend. And a lot of us are gearing up for 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials in Orlando at the beginning of February.
In Nina’s words, without further ado:
To say the marathon was less than ideal is an understatement. This was the kind of race that made me question whether or not I was going to pass out on the course or, what I hoped for, at the second I crossed the finish line.
I heard stories before: legs locking one–hundred meters from the end, heat exhaustion kicking in with the finish sign in sight, fellow runners having to step in to carry their fatigued peer from the finish line straight to the medical tent. And for more than a fleeting moment, I thought this might become a reality for me, a new narrative to add to the marathon horror genre.
That feeling did not last the entire twenty–six point two. I felt amazing easing into my pace, dialed in by mile five. I felt so strong I zipped past the fourth mile marker without even debating whether or not it was gel time. I shot a gel right before the cannon blew for the start (yes, a cannon sounded the start of the race lol). I thought I could hold off for a bit. The gel before the start was a game time decision acted on mostly due to pre–race jitters and needing to do something with my hands.
The night before the race, or whole day before honestly, I suffered from a headache, nausea, could not stomach a sweet sauce pizza from Angelo’s the One and Only, my favorite childhood pizza spot. Unheard of. I was already out of sorts, feeling like a shadow of myself, nothing fully feeling tangible or enjoyable. I could not muster up the energy to think logically and troubleshoot. So, impulsivity it was. A gel, I guess? Right before the start? Sure.
My boyfriend Sam accompanied me to Scranton, Pennsylvania. He planned to meet me not at the spectating points due to antiquated, boomer–friendly written directions; he would have preferred a pin he could follow in his smartphone’s map app. He tracked me on a live tracker link from my watch instead, and stopped wherever he could find a parking spot, despite most of the main roads being blocked off for the race.
At mile eight, after I saw my mom at an open spectating point in Carbondale, I decided it was time for fuel. Even though I felt like I could keep going without it. I had eighteen miles to go, and I knew the gel’s extra carbs would benefit me later when I wanted to pick up the pace.
Two miles later I saw Sam, at the end of a short trail section. The course was absolutely beautiful. Not even halfway through the course at this point, I had already been on main roads, town centers, trails, all lined with trees and colorful fall foliage. A nice escape from the expanse of concrete slabs in Philadelphia.
Sam had a Maurten bottle ready for me to sip on while he jogged alongside telling me he might not see me again until the finish. At the time, I did not think this would be a problem. I felt strong, was running conservatively on the downhills, more conservatively than I even thought I could what with race day adrenaline pumping through my veins. I thought the drink mix was unnecessary. I had seven remaining gels stored in my pockets for refuel. We kissed and parted.
Mile thirteen I reached for another gel, ready to pick up the pace gradually. This time when I pulled the tab to rip open the packet, the rip stopped short. Just the corner was torn but not enough for me to slurp any of its contents out. Great. My fingers were too numb to cram the gel back into my compressive tights pocket. So I held it pressed against my phone, trading off phone and gel in each hand until one got too tired.
I clung onto the gel waiting until either my fingers would thaw enough for me to get the packet open, until the next aid station where I could ask for assistance with prying open the gel, or until my teeth would cooperate enough for me to puncture the package. But instead I got annoyed with numbly grasping a gel (I had to keep looking down at my hand to make sure the gel was still there). I tossed the wrapper in the next trash bin I passed. In a park with tennis courts.
I tried again for fuel at mile fifteen with the same results. Just a torn corner. No gel. Then the legitimate fear kicked in. The initial plan was to increase the pace a little each mile following the halfway point. But the paces only got slower from there. Annoying. Turns out the first couple miles were the fastest paced. Not only was I scared of not only finishing with a bad time, though. I was scared, not even knowing if my body would allow me to finish. I knew mentally I would push through. But the body has limits. Uncontrollable limits. The anxiety surfaced, the negative thoughts triggered.
Still, I trudged along telling myself I am more than halfway done. I need to honor the time and training I put into this day right here. I forced a smile, convincing myself the smile would make the pressure on my quads vanish and give me some miraculous jolt of energy to eventually catch up to my ideal race pace. If it works for Kipchoge…
Right before mile eighteen I ran into a familiar face, or rather a familiar face ran into me. She was also running the marathon, ran with a run group I run with consistently back in Philly. She asked me how I was doing. Trying to stay positive and avoid negative talk escaping my mouth in any capacity, I told her I am doing well. But I could not help mentioning my gels were giving me trouble. She kindly handed me one of her gels from a brand I never tried. I thanked her and then she carried on along the leaf–coated trail. I did not see her again for the rest of the race.
But seeing a familiar face then kept my spirits up. My fingers were still too cold to open the gel right then and there. I waited until the spectating point where I finally ripped it open no problem. I sucked it down in one go, which my mom captured on video when I passed her. I waved, but could not stop. I knew if I did, it would be that much harder to push through. I kept the legs moving. I needed to gain more ground and pass as many people as I could in the final eight miles.
The gel my friend gave to me never seemed to digest. I was probably at too much of a deficit for energy to register. The legs still felt flat. The quads done. All I could manage were little steps without raising the knee too much. My gait would probably pass for a speed walk over a run, or even a jog.
I prepared myself for hills I knew would be popping up within the next four or so miles. There was a gradual one along the shoulder of a town road. Which surprisingly felt better than the flat sections. The uphills took some weight off the quads.
Mile twenty. 10k to go. I did 10k tempos all the time. Might as well be a cooldown, my ‘runner math’ brain told me. This is where the people I ran with for a good chunk of the race paused for walking breaks. I would not allow myself to. It would be that much harder to get the engine sputtering onward again. No thanks. One foot in front of the other.
At mile twenty–one the first substantial hill appeared. I passed out three or four people pumping my arms to the top where a spectator assured me the “party” was. And there the party was. A DJ waited at the top of the hill with cheering spectators. Tequila shots in plastic cups with lime wedges were arranged on a table. A hydration station was right around the corner. I decided it was time to try another gel and hope that this one would be different than the prior two. But again, another ripped corner. No gel.
I pushed through mile twenty–two and there a steep hill waited. A spectator told me twenty–three miles atop the crest with a 5k remaining until the end. I powered to the top hoping there would be some kind of recovery. Please, just a moderate downhill. But not too steep for me to remember my quad pain. There had to be some kind of relief, right?
Beyond the hill there was a flat with some snaky rolling hills and my surroundings triggered a nostalgic déjà vu episdoe. I knew we were so close to downtown Scranton, a mere mile or two away from Scranton Running Co, where I bought all of my running shoes for middle school and high school. At this point I knew I would finish. Envisioned it. The corners of my eyes warmed.
There was nothing that would stop me, unless it was my body quitting. I would drop unconscious before my legs stopped moving. Which was likely, but not something I ruled as a definite. That small amount of hope: monumental.
At mile twenty–five there was another DJ tent. Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was blasting. I smiled and thought of my best friend back in Philly who I knew was tracking me on a link I sent him. The biggest Rihanna stan I know. “Word for Riri” is the motto he lives by. I thank him and that moment for being a big reason I ran through this one with what felt like ease after three–ish miles of gritting my teeth.
The twenty–sixth mile marker rested atop another steep hill. Perhaps the steepest and longest hill on the whole course. My legs were not strong in the least, but at the same time it felt right. I knew I was getting to the top of that hill with everything in me.
Right before I started the ascent, a spectator with a white beard stood in the center of the street. Strange. In a booming voice he said to me, “This is the first marathon of many.” I have no idea how he knew this was my first marathon, whether or not he was telling this to everyone, or whether or not he was not a hallucination my brain conjured up, to be honest.
The hill surprised me at how easy it was to get up, how light my legs felt even though they felt like bricks moments before. Another spectator whispered as I past the top, “You can see the finish line right there. You made it.” And then I had to choke back the rush of emotions caused by knowing for sure I made it to the other side. At the bottom of the quarter mile hill was the finish.
I was not looking at the clock when I crossed the finish line. I was just looking for my mom and Sam. I was handed a thermal blanket and a medal. I kept walking until I saw mom or Sam. Mom or Sam.
I read many Instagram posts on how the first marathon is always the easiest. Because then the goals to get a better time kick in and it becomes much more difficult to reach the newer, faster goal. But with how my first marathon went, I am almost certain it can only get better from here. For the next one, I am focused, ready to take what I learned from my first, and apply that to my second. It is reassuring to know my next one will be better and, probably, more enjoyable.
As for when the second marathon I run is, I am currently looking into Spring marathons. I had many people tell me to run the Philadelphia Marathon, a mere month after running my first marathon. While I see where they are coming from, and I myself would love to run my next marathon as soon as possible, maybe I shouldn’t. I know what I am capable of training–wise and have no doubts I can get right back to it when the time is right. And I think that time is sometime next year.
After grinding through the marathon miles, I have also found my deep appreciation for speed workouts. So maybe I will even throw in some faster races before the next marathon. 5K? 10K? Half?
I could complain forever about how my first marathon went, but despite it all, I am still proud of myself for covering the distance. No matter how disappointed I am in the result. And no matter what I have already said about my disappointment in my performance. It was a PR no matter what. My first one. And I am happy I learned so much to help me prepare myself for the next. For the next one, I am definitely snipping my gels just a little to ensure I can get them open. That is just one of the many takeaways.
As the elderly man/hallucination told me on the course, “This is your first marathon of many.” Thank you, next.
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