I ran the Marine Corps Marathon three weeks ago, but I have to admit I've been thinking about this post for months. Training for and running a marathon is unlike anything else I've ever done. I can't even wrap my brain around what I learned from the months of training, the mental preparation, and the actual race. I just know that what I gained from the marathon experience is the sum of multiple parts, not just the time I spent out on the course.
1. The decision to run a marathon did not come easily. I considered it for a long time. I researched different marathons, trying to find the best ones for first time marathoners, the ones with the fewest hills, and races with tremendous crowd support. The MCM was the perfect fit.
2. Having a training plan is important... REALLY important. I chose to go with Hal Higdon's Advanced training plan. Nope, I'm not an advanced runner, but I wanted a program that included speed work. None of the beginner or intermediate plans included speed work. I really wanted to bring my pace time down, and after doing a lot of research, discovered that speed work is the key to lowering pace times. So I went with the advanced training plan and stuck to it up until almost the very end of the training cycle.
3. Switching or altering the training plan is ok. With about a month to go in my training, I felt really worn down - mentally and physically. It makes perfect sense since this was the exact time that summer break ended and it was time to head back to work. Combined with the sense that I was over-training, my new back-to-school schedule forced me to rethink my training plan. For a few days I deliberated with myself about the pros and cons of changing my training in the weeks leading up to race day. Ultimately, I decided to make some modifications. I cut back on my number of runs per week by adding an additional rest day. I worried that I wouldn't be prepared for the race, but I knew that if I didn't make a change, I would end up injured.
4. Your body will tell you when enough is enough. Listen! I really think I bit off more than I was ready to chew by choosing the training plan I did. Running 6 days a week was fine in the beginning of the training cycle. My body was fresh and my schedule was clear. But 3 months in, I could tell my legs were tired and I wasn't noticing improvements in my paces or times. Overtraining seemed like such a counterintuitive concept for someone who likes to be fully prepared for every situation. In fact, however, cutting back on my training was just what my body needed. I started to feel stronger, my times improved, and I actually enjoyed running again.
5. Guilt is part of the training process. I was able to do most of my training while the rest of my family was asleep. I figured that I wouldn't miss out on being with them and they wouldn't miss me if I ran before everyone woke up or after they were tucked in for the night. Funny thing though... returning from early morning runs, I would find my kids awake and think nothing of it, until Sidni told me one morning that she didn't like to wake up without me there. It's great to be loved, but boy did she make me feel bad for taking time (that I thought was essentially meaningless) away from the family.
6. Running has a way of tearing you completely down only to build you up greater than you ever knew you could be. I can't tell you how many times I felt defeated on a training run. Either my pace wasn't what I wanted it to be, my legs were tired and heavy, I wasn't getting as much training in as I wanted... you name it. But then there were the days when everything clicked and I felt I could run for days. Not that I ever WANT to run for days!
7. Social media is empowering. I used FB and IG to keep myself accountable during my training. I'm a solo runner. I'm not part of a running club, nor do I have a runner partner or coach. It's up to me, myself, and I to follow through on my training.
Posting to social media not only kept my
training on track, but it kept me honest. I didn't just post the good stuff. There were a lot of posts that weren't so flattering or positive. But these were the posts that generated the most feedback from others. And essentially, this solo runner recognized that I had support from some of the most unlikely people and that I wasn't on this journey by myself.
8. Social media is deflating. I like social media and am not ashamed to say that I am a heavy user of FB and IG. I started following a lot of female runners. My training was bolstered by seeing other busy working moms getting out there and proving that "nasty women" are strong. Sometimes, though, it was/is frustrating to see other runners posting their times and paces and realizing that I'm not yet capable of running that fast. Now... being a librarian who teaches kids ALL DAY LONG to question everything they read online, I know, that I don't have the whole backstory of the runners I follow. I don't know how long these women have been running or how old they are. I don't know who has coaches, running clubs, etc. There's a lot I don't know. So comparison isn't even realistic. But in the thick of training, sometimes logic goes right out the window!
9. Nobody will understand why you want to run a marathon besides other marathoners. As a matter of fact, most people think you're crazy. That's ok. I was one of those people before I got picked in the Marine Corps Lottery!
10. I didn't realize how much I wanted to successfully complete a marathon until I was registered for one. I never had any desire to run 26.2 miles. When I saw that the MCM was being held on October 30, I knew that I had to give it a shot. Not only would it be my first marathon, but also it was the 2nd anniversary of my mom's passing. I don't believe in coincidence so I figured running a marathon was meant to be. I entered the MCM lottery, thinking there was no way I was going to be picked. I never win anything! Wouldn't you know that the day the MCM announced the lottery picks, I received an early email saying I was in! Watching social media, there were a lot of people refreshing their email late into the evening, just waiting for their invite to run to show up in their inbox, and many more who never received the email at all.
11. I have never been more nervous for anything in my life compared to the nerves I felt in the week leading up to the MCM. I lacked focus and the ability to concentrate on everything else going on in my life. All I could think about was how on earth I was going to survive 26.2 miles. And what was even more difficult was the fact that I was the only one who really cared. Sure, I had more well-wishers than I could hope for, received words of encouragement from THE BEST PEOPLE, and felt the confidence that others had in me. But nobody truly understood how important this race was for me... on so many different levels.
12. Self-imposed pressure and anxiety have a funny way of manifesting themselves. My shoulders were literally in knots. No matter what I did, I couldn't alleviate the physical tension I felt in my muscles. The much needed sleep I was hoping to get before the eve of the race was illusive. My mind kept rewinding back through the months of training, wondering if I had done enough. Wondering if I had prepared enough. Wondering if I was cut out to join the small percentage of the human population who can call themselves marathoners. I knew I was being irrational, but it didn't matter. My body reflected the enormous amount of anxiety that I was causing myself.
13. Race day morning - all the anxiety was gone. I don't know what happened because I didn't sleep very well - ok, not at all - the night before the race. But when the alarm went off at 4:30, I was ready. I wasn't nervous. I was pumped! I followed my pre-race plan and headed out the door knowing that in a few hours I could call myself a marathoner. I had no doubt.
14. No matter how many porta-potties a race promotes, THERE ARE NEVER ENOUGH! The day of the MCM was warmer than normal. Runners even received email notifications from MCM advising us to be vigilant with our hydration and to slow down our pace. Having learned what I felt like running while dehydrated during the RnR Philly 1/2 one month earlier, I was extra cautious and drank A LOT of water with NUUN prior to the fire of the howitzer. I also stood in line for porta-potties for most of the hour and a half while in runners village. I basically waited in line, took my turn, then went to the back of another line and waited again. Maybe I didn't need to drink so much water, but I definitely wasn't dehydrated while running, and once I got on the course, I never needed another porta-potty!
15. Altering the race plan is ok! I went into the race with a preconceived finish time, and as a result, paces I wanted to hit each mile. I planned to start conservatively since I knew that I would be racing with 30,000 other people. I figured that I would be boxed in for much of mile one, so I was ok with running a much slower first mile than normal. My thinking wasn't completely wrong... I was boxed in for mile one, and mile two, and mile three, and mile four! I've run in
other big races where the course opened up fairly quickly after the start. MCM is not one of those courses! There were several out and back turn-arounds that made it difficult to get into a smooth rhythm. I also didn't anticipate the hills at the start of the course. Despite a slow start, I did finally manage to get into a good pace, but I knew that my goal time wasn't going to be possible. So I changed my goal time. And even though I missed the new goal by 5 minutes, I still feel really good about my ability to recover from a slow start.
16. The idea that training for a marathon is the real marathon, the race itself is just a final 26.2 mile run IS A LIE! So, this Jedi mind trick might work for some people, but for me, the real marathon was the 26.2 miles I ran through the streets of Virginia and Washington D.C. I really wanted to RACE the MCM, not just enjoy a leisurely stroll past screaming fans and famous monuments. Seriously... I didn't put in months of training to casually jog or walk The People's Marathon!
17. While I'm on the topic, I was amazed at the number of people walking the course. I'm trying really hard to not be judgmental. I mean, I don't know the circumstances for why people walked. For some, I'm sure it just wasn't their day. Others, I'm guessing didn't train enough to be fully prepared for 26.2. Perhaps others viewed completing the course, no matter the means, as what truly mattered. We all have personal goals that really aren't the business of anyone else. My goal was to RUN a marathon. And that's just what I did. Yes, I walked through the last 3 aid stations so I could really hydrate and fuel properly... Maybe others looked at me and had the same thought about me. Who knows. All I DO know is that the marathon isn't something to take lightly.
18. I like BIG races and I cannot lie! The crowd support at the MCM was unbelievable. Sure, there were stretches where nobody was lining the course, but they were few and far between. From little pop-up bands, to homemade signs, to the shouts of encouragement from perfect strangers... What an amazing experience!
19. The Marines. I can't even begin to describe how amazing the Marine support was during the entire MCM weekend. The first hive five walking into the expo was the kick off to many shows of support from the dedicated men and woman who fight for this country. Not only were there Marines at every step of the way, shouting to keep moving and never give up, but also there were so many inspiring members of the armed forces running in the race. Each time I came up on a runner with a prosthetic or an armed forces emblem, I couldn't help but push a little harder. What an inspiration.
20. For me, the best part of the entire race weekend was receiving my medal from a female Marine. When I came across the finish line and into the medal shoots, I wish I could have seen my face when I realized that a brave woman was going to place my medal around my neck. I try to be a strong female role model, but nothing can compare to the courage and bravery demonstrated by the incomparable women of the armed forces.
21. Even after reading about and seeing pictures of The Blue Mile, I wasn't prepared for the emotional intensity of this portion of the race. Running along the Potomac, flanked on both sides of the course by portraits of fallen Marines, followed by surviving family members proudly saluting our efforts with American flags... I can't even. My plan for The Blue Mile was to turn off my music and fully engage with the images and emotion of this single mile. I wanted to show my respect to the fallen and to their family members. Here's where fate stepped in. Just as I reached the start of The Blue Mile, I heard the muted strains of "Hallelujah" performed by Pentatonix. I was amazed (but I really shouldn't have been) at the impeccable timing of my race list of music. Despite being on shuffle, THIS song just happened to play during The Blue Mile? Like I said earlier, I don't believe in coincidences. Listening to the mournful lyrics and taking in all the images of fallen Marines was overwhelming. Then I reached the loved ones of those fallen. Part of the tradition of The Blue Mile is that when a runner, who is wearing blue, passes by the American flags, those flags are raised just a little bitter higher. My American Cancer Society DetermiNation singlet is blue. With the lift of each flag, I was overcome with emotion. Here I was, doing the very thing I didn't really believe I would ever be able to do. I was running because my mom is no longer here to run. I was running to show cancer that it won't take anything else from me. I was running to show my kids that they can do anything if they work hard enough. I was running for me.
22. Seeing my family on the National Mall was one of the best parts of the marathon. No matter how much crowd support there is at a race, the anticipation of seeing my family is what motivates me to keep moving forward. I didn't plan out where I would see my family during the race, but I had a strong feeling they would make their way to the National Mall. I was right. I got to stop and get much needed hugs from my kids as I approached the Capital. Heading back towards the Washington Monument, I was able to see them again. My husband told me to keep going, that I didn't have too much farther. While not exactly true (I still had 10 miles left), I knew he was right in that I just had to keep pushing. I was a little disappointed that I didn't see my family anywhere else during the race, not even at the finish. But when we finally did manage to reunite, I learned that they tried several times to catch me, but missed me by a few minutes each time. Just knowing that they made the effort was enough!
23. The last six miles of the race were H.A.R.D! I anticipated the struggle of the last 10k, but didn't fully grasp how difficult the end of a marathon can be. By the time I hit mile 20, I just wanted to be finished. I didn't hit "THE WALL" as I had read many people do. I was just tired of running. My legs really hurt and i was struggling to force the negative thoughts from my head.
24. Miles 22-24 were the most difficult miles of the entire race. Despite running in Pentagon City, with a lot of crowd support, I just wasn't enjoying the race anymore. I think part of the issue was that leading into Pentagon City, the race looped around a Pentagon parking lot. It's not very exciting. Mentally, I was ready to checkout. By the time you hit miles 22-24, you can start to "see" the finish line, but it's still too far away to get excited. Luckily, I used the Modigo app so I had several cheers of support from people who wanted to wish me well, but couldn't actually attend the race. This app really was a race saver. At my lowest point, I heard the motivating words of my friends in my headphones. I knew that I could keep going because I had people who truly believed in me.
25. With 2 miles to go, I knew I was going to become a marathoner. I also knew that I wanted to finish strong. Despite the severe pain in my legs, I decided I needed to push through to the finish line. I had heard about "the hill" in the last .2 of the race and how it can be a race killer. While many runners around me were walking, I dug deep to find the last bits of energy and
willed my legs to move as fast as possible. When I reached the hill, I was in full finish mode. There was no way I was going to walk that hill only to find the finish line after the turn. The crowds were amazing. I didn't expect grandstands of cheering people. I didn't expect the tremendous atmosphere of support and enthusiasm. Funny how all of the excitement mitigated the crippling pain in my legs. I crossed the finish line feeling an extreme sense of relief. What a strange response to completing my first marathon, but that's the word that best describes how I felt. I was relieved that I achieved my goal. All the months of preparation had paid off. And all I felt was relief.
26. Running a marathon is life changing. This might sound like hyperbole, but for me, it's the truth. From day one of training to crossing the finish line, the benefits of this experience far exceed any pitfalls I encountered along the way. Nothing about training for or running a marathon is easy. It truly is a measure of one's perseverance, willingness to dream big, and physical preparation. Earning the title of marathoner brings me such personal pride. I have a renewed sense of being able to face life head on, no matter how great the challenge.
26.2. I've caught the bug... Before running Marine Corps, I thought it would be the only marathon I ever ran. While running Marine Corps, I vowed I would never run another marathon. When I crossed the finish line of Marine Corps, I started contemplating my next 26.2.