A letter to my first time marathoners

Congratulations! Your hard work and dedicated training have gotten you to race week! It’s almost time to put on your bib, step into Grant Park, and race your way through this beautiful city. It is one of the most exciting times to be in Chicago, whether you’re a marathon runner or just a Chicagoan ready to cheer the runners on.

If it’s your first time running a marathon though, this week can also be a little bit nerve wrecking as you prepare for a day you have only dreamed of up until now.

Two years ago I was in that same boat, mentally preparing for what was sure to be the biggest accomplishment of my life thus far. You see, I signed up for the 2015 marathon with only one 5K under my belt that I had to walk half of. I was an athlete my whole life, but only participated in water sports (swimming and water polo) or short distance sprinting sports (think basketball and softball), and in my adult life stuck to things like yoga and weight lifting. Running is its own beast that requires a different type of stamina that I just did not have.

Rewind to Chicago Marathon weekend in 2014: I was with my best friend Laura at the expo to join her for her packet pickup. She’s a runner, with 12 marathons under her belt (this weekend will secure her 13th) and a 50 mile ultra-marathon among tons of shorter distance races as well. I also found her running inspiring and terrifying. I mean how can someone run that much?

As I found myself walking around the expo with her I felt inspired. The running community felt so strong, so dedicated, so something that I wanted to be a part of. While we were in line for her to get a photo with the Nike #RunChicago wall I turned to her and said “next year I’m running the marathon.” She was equal parts shocked, surprised, and excited and I was all three, too. I don’t know that either of us believed I was serious, I mean we both knew I couldn’t even run a mile.

But in March of 2015 I reached out to the Organization for Autism Research (OAR) and inquired about running the marathon on their behalf. Next thing I knew I was not only signed up, but running in support of an amazing charity.

I retroactively signed up for a 5k, 10k, 10 miler, half marathon, and 20 miler and began mapping out a training plan. Luckily I had Laura to give me advice and tips as I prepared.

After an amazing 20 mile training run I thought I had the marathon in the bag, but on race day my plans to run an entire marathon came to an end when I found myself needing to walk at the 18 mile mark. I was disappointed, defeated, but, in the end, I was still a marathon finisher and I have the medals to prove it.

It took me almost four months to be able to run again. The thought of it made me sick and every time I tried to go for a run I ended up in tears on the running path. I had to face the fact that I had some post-marathon depression from the disappointment of not running the whole thing, and it took me a long time to overcome it.

Once I did I told myself this year (2016) would be different and I would finish running. I signed up with OAR again and set out my next training plan. I was more experienced, more knowledgeable, and more determined than ever. My races all ended with fantastic PRs (over a half hour on a half marathon and almost 45 minutes on my 20 miler). There was no way I could fail this time.

Race day came and I was off to a great start (for me). At the half marathon marker I was on pace to PR by over an hour and felt fantastic at that pace. But then right around mile 14 something in my right leg felt off. I tried to push through it but by mile 16 I was ghost white (think about 10 shades lighter than I am, and I am pale as can be) and could barely bend my right leg. My dad saw me coming and was so concerned by my appearance that he wanted me to stop. But I wasn’t going down without a fight.

I sent a text to my boyfriend who was patiently waiting for me in Pilsen and told him I couldn’t keep running but that I wasn’t stopping. He met me around the 18 mile marker where I could not longer continue running. I was completely unable to bend my leg due to what seemed to be a horribly strained muscle, and running was out of the cards. But I told him that I wasn’t going to stop until I crossed the finish line.

My boyfriend was so worried that he wouldn’t let me walk alone, so he spent the next 8.2 miles walking next to me just in case I fainted and he had to catch me (luckily that didn’t happen) and insisted that if I had to finish I at least stop at a medical tent to make sure it wasn’t anything too serious.

I agreed and stopped at the first medical tent we saw, but refused to end my race day there. My dad met us for the last two miles and they walked by my side until the course no longer permitted them to be by my side. I crossed the finish line and got my medal, but was in tears over not finishing how I’d wanted to. My final time came in even slower than the previous year, and I did not finish running like I’d set out to.

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Post-Chicago Marathon in 2016

For a few days the thought of not reaching my goal consumed me. I could barely get out of bed (and neither could my poor boyfriend who walked over 8 miles in Converse – don’t ever try that, your feet will hate you for it) and just sat there thinking about how I failed.

But then it hit me – I didn’t fail. I finished not one, but two marathons (not matter how I crossed the finish line) and learned so much about my determination and perseverance. And that (and my four medals – two from the Chicago Marathon and two from OAR) is something no one can ever take from me.

So why did I tell you this long story? To say that I’ve been through it too. I’ve had my ups and downs, had my share of running mishaps and running successes, and have made the mistakes that you don’t have to. And while I might not be running again this year (and I have more FOMO than I ever imagined), I hope my lessons can help you cross the finish line.

So it’s almost race day. Now what?

1) Don’t start changing up your routine
So many people think that on marathon morning they need to do something crazy and special. But if you start changing up the routine that you’re comfortable with you may actually be hurting yourself in the process. For example, I know some people who have changed up their breakfast on race day. While you want to make sure you have enough fuel to keep you going, you also don’t want to start trying to eat foods your body isn’t used to having before a run, or you may get the runs. And no one wants to be that guy or girl who spends their race day in a port-a-potty, or even worse that person whose photo comes out after race day with some not so pretty stuff running down their leg. So while you may eat three bananas instead of two, maybe don’t try out a new protein pancake recipe on race day morning.

Do you usually get to the start line early to stretch? Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to do that. Are you someone who has a favorite pump up playlist? Listen to it. Do whatever you’ve done throughout your training to get yourself ready so that you’re prepared not only physically, but also mentally.

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Waiting at the start with Colleen at the Chicago Marathon in 2016

2) Make a plan for race day (but don’t work yourself up if it doesn’t go perfectly)
There is nothing more stressful than waking up on marathon morning than not knowing what you’re doing that day. Make sure to plan the day or two prior for what time you need to arrive (lines for gear check and entry may be long, so give yourself some extra time too), how you plan to get there, where you can park if you’re driving, where you’re meeting any friends or family after the race, and if you have friends who plan to cheer for you then ask where they plan to be if you want to look for them. That way you don’t have to worry about all of these things and stress yourself out the morning of.

3) Body Glide and Vaseline are your friends
Chaffing is a real struggle. No one wants bloody nipples or blistered toes. Don’t forget to body glide everywhere you need to, and I always recommend some Vaseline on your toes.

4) Give yourself time to enjoy the expo
Make sure you give yourself enough time to walk around and see all the vendors. The expo is so amazing. The energy from the vendors is great, there are so many great products to look at, the marathon gear is amazing – I mean the expo is what inspired me to run a marathon in the first place. There is nothing worse than sprinting there an hour before they close only to grab your bib and shirt and not get to see anything else. I recommend allotting 3 or so hours to make sure you can get the full experience.

5) Pack your bag the night before
There is nothing worse than showing up for a race and realizing you forgot something at home, especially if that something is your race bib. To make sure you don’t forget something in a rush that morning make sure to pack your bag the night before. Lay out everything to make sure it’s all there and then put it in your bag. Bib, running belt, shot blocks (or other foods), water, headphones, phone, etc. Make sure it’s all there. And make sure to pack some flip-flops so you can get your running shoes off after you finish the race. Trust me, your feet will thank you.

6) No matter what happens on race day, you have accomplished so much and have so much to be proud of
If you take nothing else away from this post, then please walk away remembering this: the day of does not define you. Your hard work, your training, your dedication, your fundraising (if you did this for charity) – these are all things that have led you to that very moment when you run the streets of Chicago, and no matter what the outcome on race day is no one can take these things from you. If you don’t finish, finish slower than anticipated, have to walk, get injured or anything else that may happen day of, you have still accomplished so much.

The biggest reason I shared my story is so that you can learn from my misery and defeat. I wish someone had told me this sooner and reminded me of what I had done sooner so that I could have spared myself the agony of not running for four months. The embarrassment I felt when thinking of my race time. These were emotions that I could have been spared from had I realized that my race time or need to walk did not define me.

I had already done what so few people could say they had: I completed a marathon. In fact, only 0.5% of people in the U.S. have ever run a marathon (source: http://www.statisticbrain.com/marathon-running-statistics/). And you, my friends, are about to join that percentage. So celebrate no matter what happens that day. Eat a giant meal after because you deserve it. And get excited, because you are about to join that small but mighty percentage of people who have run a marathon.

Are you running the Chicago Marathon on Sunday? What’s your motivation to cross the finish line? Mine was supporting OAR.

 

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