lessons learned from 26 marathons: pt. 1 (2007-2009)

lessons learned from 26 marathons: pt. 1 (2007-2009)

Because marathons are immense distances to cover, training for them and subsequently racing them gives us all many “learning opportunities,” if we dare to listen. The past week has been a whirlwind of awesome marathon activity for many of my friends – we’re talking solid PRs, some great BQs, and of course, the mother of them all, the Boston Marathon – and all the aforementioned, along with the minor detail that I’m running a marathon in a week’s time, got me thinking that I should stroll down memory lane for a minute and see what stands out to me as “lessons learned” from the 26 marathons I’ve run. This will amount to a dissertation, so I’ll break it up over a few posts to save your eyesight (and to give me some more time to dig up some artifacts).

we're goin old school for these races. I have about five years' worth of running logs that look more or less like this. (and naturally, the page I find to photograph details a run wherein I got the runs. naturally).
we’re goin old school for these races. I have about five years’ worth of running logs that look more or less like this. (and naturally, the page I find to photograph details a run wherein I got the runs. naturally).

In chronological order:

2007 – 2 marathons

LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon: there’s no time like your first. ’07 was “the hot year,” which made finishing my first attempt at the distance even better more memorable. Going into my first marathon, I felt prepared and ready, thanks to some solid training and coaching all year long from Team in Training, but the marathon is a beast and demands respect, the type that you can only really give it after experiencing it (if that makes any sense). A few things (among many) that I remember about this race include accidentally clipping a girl’s heels on Broadway, after the northern-most turn-around; wondering if it was normal to hear so many ambulance sirens on the west side (I’m thinking it was along Wentworth); and swearing that from then on, in every marathon/any distance run that I’d run, I would always wear sunglasses. My takeaways: there’s no time like your first, so just enjoy it as much as you can; sunglasses FTW; be extremely mindful of runners who are only a stride or two ahead of you; and no, even on the west side of Chicago on a sunny October day, hearing a ton of ambulance sirens during a marathon is not normal. 4:24:41

Traci-and-her-mom.jpg
I’ve talked a lot on the blog about how/why I started with TNT. I also convinced Traci, a college gal pal, that running a marathon was a good life choice. 🙂 We did it as an effort to honor our moms (hers, above; mine was in Ohio) and all the shit they had endured bc of their respective cancers/strokes. [this pic is actually from Chicago ’08. details…]
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so.hot.outside. at my first go of this marathon thing. pretty impressive angry face, eh?

 

Charlotte Thunder Road Marathon (NC): I registered for my second marathon before finishing my first, in part because my Team in Training coach from Chicago was on a 50-state quest and was going to knock NC off his list, and I wanted to tag along for what would surely be a fun weekend with a bunch of TNT runners and coaches. Between Chicago and NC (in December), I maintained fitness, got married in Mexico (and ran about 16 miles on a treadmill, kill me now), and come race day, ran a substantially better race and one that I think was more indicative of my ability at the time than Chicago was. The only things I really remember about this course include running through some subdivisions still being built; a motorist being pissed as fuck at the police, who were blocking traffic lanes to protect the runners; and having a perfect chocolate ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles after the race. Takeaway: weather on marathon morning 1000% matters; it can make or break your run. Thank cops and volunteers relentlessly during your race because they’re keeping your ass safe, hydrated, nourished (and so on). Don’t think that you’re too serious a runner that you can’t enjoy treats. 3:52:37

2008 – 6 marathons (dear lord)

AT&T Austin (TX) Marathon: This was another quick turn-around (from December to February), and I recall visiting my family in Ohio in the winter and going to my high school track to run repeats of some sort through probably six-eight inches of unplowed snow. At the time, I wondered if what I was doing was excessive or dumb, but I was so beholden to my training schedule – probably some incarnation of what I had used from TNT for Chicago (and consequently, Charlotte) – that I felt it totally necessary. I wanted to do well in Austin, so come hell or high water, I was out there training in the grips of winter (and rarely on a treadmill. It’s not a pride thing; it’s a “I-don’t-like-the-way-they-make-my-body-feel” thing). The trip was a lot of fun because my parents also flew down to meet me and to stay with my brother and his gf at the time in Austin. I recall the race being hilly, compared to what I was used to from living in the north shore; the neat fireworks that started the race; and finishing the race completely exhilarated that I had somehow just notched my first BQ (a 3:37, back when the standard was 3:40) when I wasn’t going for it. I had read about Boston and its qualification standards (when I had read virtually every book about running from the Lake Forest library), and I quickly relegated myself to being able to qualify when I was in my 50s+. Doing so at my third marathon (my second in favorable running weather) was a huge – fucking enormous – surprise to me. After the race, my fam and I had some type of steak dinner, and it was that night – Valentine’s Day ish– that I decided to go vegetarian once and for all. I had been reading a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh at the time, and I think all his ruminations, combined with the surely torrential flood of endocannibinoids that were coursing through my body post-PR and BQ, just sealed the deal for me. Takeaway: don’t ever sell yourself short when it comes to your goals. That sounds like a shitty fitspo thing you’d find on Pinterest, but seriously. None of us know what we’re capable of, where our ceiling is, so it doesn’t make sense to limit ourselves. (Easier said than done, I acknowledge). Also, sometimes you might make choices post-runs that you find questionable later in life, but at the same time, you might not. Thusly, don’t eat meat. 🙂 3:37:52, PR (which would stand until 2012)

#longlivethenewspaper (avid reader here). Very cool to see my name in Austin's paper after a big PR/BQ! I still have it.
#longlivethenewspaper (avid reader here). Very cool to see my name in Austin’s paper after a big PR/BQ! I still have it.

 

Nashville’s Country Music Marathon: I was back with TNT and helping out as a fundraising mentor for Nashville, still living in the north shore at the time, and every weekend, our group would go out to Busse Woods or Waterfall Glen (in the dead of winter…) and usually end up running laps around office park buildings (the 3com building, if you’re playing along at home) or on the main driveway at WFG near Argonne. If you live in Chicago and want to mentally callous yourself all winter, go run laps around an office park or up and down the driveway at WFG for 12, 16, or 20 milers. Our participants rarely came out for our group runs– only the staff and we volunteers, all of whom were obligated to be there – but we continued to put in the effort and mileage week in and week out. Race day in Nashville met us with an unmatched thunder- and lightning storm, which might have even delayed the start, if I recall correctly. I don’t remember a ton about the course, save that they served Accelerade, which was akin to drinking sawdust (I imagine) and that there was a group of nuns serving “holy water” at an unofficial aid station. I ran nearly all of the race with TNT mentor buddy Mike, and though I had just come off a BQ and PR two months prior, for some reason I wanted to go for it again. Both of us blew up around mile 23, and much to our surprise, the 3:40 pacer who went out like hell early on finished juuuust before us, in a dead sprint to the finish. It was shortly before (or maybe after?) this race that I bought my blog domain … and proceeded to do nothing with it for a year-plus. Takeaway: consistency in training matters. Show up, even when you don’t want to. On race day, run your own race. Pacers are human and therefore can (and probably will) make a mistake or two. Even when you wonder why the hell you’re doing this mid-training, when it feels like you’re spinning your wheels (or literally running around an office building, wanting to gouge your eyes out and/or cut off your legs), keep the thing, the thing, and just do the thing. Make sure you know prior to race day what you’ll be drinking on course, and try it out ahead of time, if you can. If you’re a runner; blog. It lends itself nicely to it. 3:44:57

Madison (Wisco) Marathon: Another tight turn-around (from April to May) and again, for some reason I was set on trying to BQ again; maybe I was trying to BQ-streak or something. In retrospect, I can’t recall why I wanted to do this or thought it was a good idea. Fortunately, the weather was agreeable, and I remember seeing wild turkeys on the course, which just made my day for some reason. This was a quick weekend trip with C and my inlaws, and we had a blast pre- and post-race because Madison is just such a weird-ass city, kinda like Austin. I had GI distress for basically the entire run, though – if memory serves, I think I had to shit from the halfway point onward but didn’t want to blow my BQ attempt – so as soon as I finished – literally seconds after crossing over the finishing line – I beelined it to a porta-potty. I was extremely lucky. Throughout the race, my half-consumed gu managed to go upside down on my butt pocket, so another participant warned me that it looked like I had shit myself. In retrospect, at least I’d have a “cover” in the event that my GI system blew up before I made it to safety. Takeaway: GI distress sucks. If you’re going to go halfsies on your gels mid-race, bag ’em up to save yourself some potential embarrassment and sticky everything. 3:39:21

running away from C and my in-laws in Madison
running away from C and my in-laws in Madison

 

Akron (Ohio) RoadRunner Marathon: The fall of ’08 was an experiment in multiple marathoning in a really short timeframe. Ed, my TNT coach from ’07 who was on his 50 state quest, would soon be finishing things up in Denver in October, and I wanted to run that with him but also still do Akron and Chicago. Akron is where my family is, so I looked forward to running on my “home turf” and to seeing my family on the sidelines. Since it was just a few weeks before Chicago, and not much longer before Denver, I took things easy and enjoyed myself. At the time, Akron was a steal of a race, too: entrants got the usual medal, food, etc. but also a Brooks running jacket (the Podium jacket, I think, with something like a $70 MSRP) and a pair of Brooks shoes. Takeaway: it’s possible to run a marathon “just for fun.” Also, sometimes smaller-town races are total gems. Seeing family mid-race is always an excellent pick-me-up. 3:55:31

I think everyone should run Akron at least once.
I think everyone should run Akron at least once. The finish line is at Canal Park stadium (I don’t know if it’s still called that, but it’s where Akron’s minor league baseball team plays), and it’s just a lot of fun.

 

Chicago: Since my inaugural race was at Chicago with TNT, I returned to it again in ’08, again as a fundraising TNT participant, and vowed for redemption. Fail, fail, fail. Another obscenely warm day meant another 4-hour-plus race, but when you run races as a fundraiser/charity runner, I think you kinda go into things with an entirely different perspective. Sure, the race matters, but really… it kinda doesn’t. While I was happy to run with TNT again at Chicago, I was beginning to think that there was some wicked voodoo thing going on that all but assured that if I ran Chicago, it’d be a toasty-ass day. I was frustrated to still not break 4 on my home course, the one that’s so well-known for PR performances, but c’est la vie. Chicago’s marathon wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so in time, I got over my resentment for randomly warm Sundays in October. It was very cool to do Chicago again with Traci (pictured in the ’07 Chicago blurb), have a bunch of her family members come down and run or spectate, and we even got our friend Stephanie to run, too! Lots of fun, weather be damned. Takeaway: October in Chicago is unpredictable. Respect the weather on race day (still). Run a race as a charity runner, and I can guarantee you that you’ll care about things differently. 4:09:07

running alongside Mike in Lincoln Park, proudly still rockin' the purple
running alongside Mike in Lincoln Park, proudly still rockin’ the purple

 

Denver: My third marathon in four weeks, and at altitude (I think?), and while I was in the throes of working full-time and being in grad school full-time, I all but guaranteed myself a tired-ass run and race. I started Denver optimistically (ha) and by 13, was flat-out strolling. Ed, there with a cadre of other runners and me, all there to celebrate his 50th state completion, eventually caught up to me, and we walked-ran the rest of the way in together, finishing side-by-side. Denver is my marathon PW, but I look at it with fond memories because the entire trip was about Ed finally finishing his 50-state quest. It was such a special memory and so very cool to be there and to be literally step-in-step with him as he realized such a huge-ass goal that had taken years to fulfill. So many other IL-based runners had come out to celebrate and/or run with him, and I was both honored and elated to be able to be there, too. Takeaway: marathons can be celebratory activities. The time on the clock matters as much as you want it to matter; this will be a recurring theme. Multiple marathoning in very short timeframes is doable, but you’ve got to have realistic expectations about how things will pan out. 4:48:34, a very memorable and special PW

steps away from finishing Ed's 50th state
steps away from finishing Ed’s 50th state

 

the 50-state finisher! actually, all but two people in this pic are 50-state finishers.
the 50-state finisher! actually, all but two people in this pic are 50-state finishers.

 

2009 – 4 marathons

Boston: Oh my. First Boston. I met some wonderful people with whom I am still friends today during my first Boston training (and through what was a pretty shitty Chicago winter, if memory serves). Come race weekend, I was 100% all nerves, making me a real joy to be around in what was supposed to be a race-vacation (sorry, C). I was so focused on running a good Boston that I didn’t want to do anything all weekend long except go to the expo, go to dinner with the group, and keep my legs up. ::yawn:: God bless my husband. Come race day, I ran a pretty good race until about mile 23, when my total and utter failure to fuel properly caught up to me, making me hit the wall so hard and so dramatically that I swore I was going to fall asleep standing up (and while moving forward). Boston ’09 remains my worst bonk, and I swore to myself that I’d never, ever, put myself in that position again in a race. I was on track to requalify at Boston up until that point – something that I thought was nearly impossible – and I blew it because I had probably consumed about 200 calories (!) from when I woke up that morning through mile 23 (!!!!!!!!!) in the race. Ouch. I talked with a dietitian after the race, got some pointers, and went back to the drawing board. Also, this was my only marathon wherein I wore tights instead of shorts (but still wore a singlet… call the fashion police on me for that one). Takeaways: Boston is special; even on a bad racing day, Boston is Boston is Boston. Fueling properly is critical. Don’t wear tights with a singlet, unless you want to look like a bowling pin. Right on Hereford; left on Boylston. 3:47, the 7 minutes that broke my heart for a long time

[can you believe I can’t find a single picture from my Boston ’09?! was I so nervous that I couldn’t take one shot????]

Rockford, IL Marathon: This was another fast turn-around (about a month), and since I had family in Rockford who’d be cheering for me, it made for a very low-key, low-nerves event. I think I had something to prove to myself about my fitness after utterly blowing up at Boston, and with a new nutrition plan in place, I went into this race feeling much better about how I’d fare. Rockford remains one of the smallest marathons I’ve run (even though it had a HM and relay option, I think), and there were several points along the course where there was nobody ahead of or behind me, making me wonder if I was even in the right place. With the total absence of nerves compared to Boston, I got my “redemption,” got to see my family along the way, and had a great OA/AG placement, thanks to the small field. 😉 Takeaways: Racing redemption can mean whatever you want it to mean – going faster or racing smarter, for example. You’ve got nothing to prove to anyone, except when you feel like you owe it to yourself; in which case, go for it because no one else will care as much as you. (I mean that lovingly, though it sounds like I’m being flippant about it). Smaller races, while lacking in fanfare and (perhaps) ambiance compared to their big-city counterparts, can have a lot going for them. Try really hard not to get lost mid-course. 3:39:11

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one of the best tchotchkes I’ve ever gotten from a race. the RPS kids apparently made little motivational signs for the runners, so we all had signs in our packets. I like the “I hope you guys win!” sentiment. 🙂 this was hanging at my cubicle for years!

 

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Akron Marathon: I wanted to return to Akron because I had enjoyed myself so much there in ’08. The course was challenging (though it has since been changed to be “easier,” in the RD’s words – for shame!); I loved being able to see my folks during the race; and I will always take an excuse to go home to see my family. I took things really easy and finished the race “feeling like I could keep running,” according to my RR from the time. I remember getting rained on the last 10k of the course, once we cleared Stan Hywet Hall, and thinking that that was the most magical thing ever. (Eds. Note: I am, apparently, easily amused and amazed during endurance events. Lack of oxygen, much?). I would be running Marine Corps in a month’s time, and I finished Akron feeling untaxed and unfazed. My training had been horrible during the summer ’09, thanks to what was probably rampant overtraining – no surprise, given how much I had been racing – as well as full-time employment, full-time graduate school, and interning PT at a refugee resettlement agency up in Albany Park (which amounted to a LOT of time on the CTA traveling between Lincoln Park, the Loop, and AP)… as well as ongoing issues with my GI system that would later lead me to getting tested for a battery of fun stuff like Celiac’s, Crohns, UC, and the like. God, reading all of that again makes my head spin. I had also brilliantly decided that summer ’09 would be an excellent time to try Pfitz training for the first time, a decision that lasted all of one week, if that, before I realized I was in waaaaaaaay over my head. With all of this in mind, then, I knew going into my autumn ’09 races that they’d be less about time-on-the-clock and more about the experiences, and finishing Akron with a smile on my face and with enthusiasm to go run MCM in about a month’s time signaled a success for me – albeit a very tired and weary success. Takeaways: life totally matters when it comes to marathon training. If you’re working FT, going to school FT, interning PT, and the like, throwing marathon training into the mix might be questionable. That is to say that marathon training during and through hectic life periods might provide for a semblance of balance, but remember on race day all the balls you had to juggle to get to the starting line in one piece. Cut yourself some slack periodically. Again: you are the one, the only one, who ascribes worth to the time on the clock. 4:17:59

Marine Corps Marathon: About a month after Akron, my parents flew down to DC to meet-up with C and me for a little race-vacation over MCM weekend. None of us had ever been before, and with a lot of planning on my part, I think it’s safe to say that we all had a really cool and fun trip together and got to see/experience a lot of DC. I was worried about DC’s accessibility for my mom, but damn: the government sure does a good job of making sure that folks on scooters can get anywhere. We all stayed in Crystal City, actually along the course (much to my surprise), so seeing them around mile 23 was a great pick-me-up. With my sub-par training during the summer, my only goal was to go sub-4 but more than anything, just to enjoy myself and sightsee along the way. Mission accomplished. I vividly remember getting to the race start late, thanks to some transportation issues out of my control, and being in the porta-potty while the national anthem was going on. Thank god for chip timing, though I still stupidly tried to schlep myself up towards the front of the crowds so as to not get stuck behind slower-moving participants. All in all, it was an excellent family trip, with a nice little marathon thrown in for good measure. Takeaway: race-cations can be a lot of fun, even if (especially if) a breakthrough marathon performance isn’t your goal. Also, make sure you cross your Ts and dot your Is to ensure that you get to where you’re supposed to be on time, even with chip timing on your side. 3:57:13

DC with parents
this cracks me up. we had a lot of fun, though my mom is trying to convince you otherwise.

 

DC with C
cheesin

 

12 marathons down! Next up: the 2010 & 2011 installment.

6 thoughts on “lessons learned from 26 marathons: pt. 1 (2007-2009)

  1. Wow. That’s a lot of marathons for years one and two. A LOT!! My journey was different and I promised to update my “first” marathon post so I will share that soon. Maybe I will do it this weekend. I started in 1996. Not that many people did 50 states and as far as I recall, there were no marathon maniacs (no club at least). Heck, there was barely an internet. I ran a 3:55 in San Fran which I had NO business running. I had never run more than 16 miles in my life and I ran it on a dare. So there was that. Ah, 24 is a glorious age. Marathon 2 was with Team in Training in NYC 3 months later… 3:45. Took me 4 tries to get into Boston but I made it in with a big PR (Marathon 3 was 3:41.12 – when 3:40.59 got you in. Ouch) and 4 was 3:31 and change.

    OK – you got me. I will work on this. I have run 42 marathons in 20 years so it may take a while!

  2. Oh and in Boston 2001 I had a similar bonk. I ate my usual pre-marathon breakfast… the race started at 12:00. At mile 24, I was on pace for mid 3:20s. I saw a friend and told her I was not sure I could finish. She looked at me like I had two heads and said “but you are almost finished.” I was out of gas. I made it to mile 25 and it took me 13 minutes to run 1.2 miles. This included walking on Hereford and being harangued by every fan. Did they think I wanted to to be walking. I finished in 3:29. It was a PR or close. I was miserable. The next time I ran at the noon start, I ate breakfast and lunch. It helped!

      1. ah, totally understand! and yea, I was a little overzealous from the get-go. I blame my TNT 50-stater coach. 🙂

  3. What happened in marathon 1 that made you commit to always wear sunglasses? Your NC marathon made me wonder about people who live in a place that are trapped by a marathon course on all sides, who need to get through during the race. I guess nowadays with Uber you could walk beyond the outer perimeter of the race and then have a car pick you up. Since Carmel was held in plenty of suburban neighborhoods, the cops would wait for gaps in runners to let cars through. There were a couple of stray cars driving on the course, but no accidents! Loved this takeaway from the Austin Marathon when you BQ’d “None of us know what we’re capable of, where our ceiling is” – truth! Yes, sometimes it seems like we are spinning our wheels in marathon training, but even the runs that don’t feel good are callousing us for the “big event”. I can’t believe you got shoes and a jacket running Akron. That alone is worth the price of admission! I recently bought my “marathonfotos” from Boston 2013, and I think the archive is still live going back to Boston ’06, so if you want pics of your race, they are probably still out there (to buy at least). Anyway, is the fact that we think everything is amazing during marathons due to the lack of oxygen?! I ran in the rain in the LA Marathon and it made me weepy! 🙂

    1. wow, good to know about marathonfotos! I’ll have to look it up. the sunglass thing from Chicago ’07 is just because I was squinting so much the entire race and was completely annoyed. nowadays, I absolutely wear sunglasses on virtually every daytime run to block the sun or the wind (or both!).

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