In case you missed it, the previous post talks about the training process for getting to the starting line of the marathon yesterday… check it out if you’re interested in what it takes to become a marathoner.
For some reason, I had reservations going into the marathon. Even though I’d been doing a long distance run every single Saturday (that my knee allowed) since May 2010, I didn’t feel ready. My body felt tired, my muscles felt tired, and my mind felt tired. I definitely see now why 6 month marathon training programs aren’t recommended… I think I was just physically and mentally tired. Typically on race day after your tapering period, you’re supposed to feel fully energized and ready to run! I didn’t… the day before I was tired and lethargic. I went to the Qwest Field stadium on Friday afternoon to pick up my race packet… there were so many vendors there selling race shirts, runners gu, and other paraphenalia… I was pretty overwhelmed!
Seeing this definitely made me feel nervous!
I got a good night’s sleep that night and got up early to take the runners bus from downtown to the starting line south of Seattle in a town called Tukwila. I triple checked that I had clothes to wear after the marathon in case I was all cold and sweaty, a banana to eat before the race, chapstick, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses… you name it, I had it! Or so I thought.
I walked the 3/4 mile downtown at 4:45am and got on one of the runner’s buses. It was starting to fill up, and all of a sudden from nowhere, I realized that I didn’t have the timing chip on my shoe… it was still sitting at home on my counter. That was a problem. It meant that the people who had signed up to get text messages throughout the race on my progress wouldn’t get any texts, since the texts are triggered by that timing chip crossing mats at various points in the race. It also meant that I wouldn’t have an “official” final time… i.e. the race organizers wouldn’t even know that I had finished.
I quickly jumped off the bus. Walking back and forth between your home and the bus stop when you know you have to run 26 miles in a short couple of hours is not a good way to spend your morning. But I didn’t have a choice. Fortunately, the buses ran until 6am, so I’d be able to catch another one. I walked home quickly, grabbed my timing chip, attached it to my shoe, and walked quickly back downtown. Mike scolded me about this later, because he thinks this quick walking might have started irritating my IT band… I don’t know.
The bus to Tukwila took about 15 or 20 minutes. Once again, I didn’t feel rested, recharged, and ready to go… I felt tired. Once in Tukwila, I was overwhelmed by how many people there were… it was crazy! I have never seen so many port a potties in my life! There were literally hundreds and hundreds… all lined up around the stadium. And there were 27,000 runners all standing in line to try and use them. I grabbed a spot in line. After hitting the port a potty, the only other thing I had to do was drop off my gear bag with the UPS trucks there… they would transport it to the finish line so that I would have clothes to change into after the marathon. Then I ate my small “second breakfast” of a banana. Then I was ready to run! Because there were so many people running, the race had a “waved” start, which basically meant we were all assigned to corrals based on our projected finish times and they started the fastest runners off first, all the way down to the slowest runners. That way all the runners would be able to run at their own pace without trying to navigate around slower runners in front of them. I was in corral 13. They started the first corral right on time at 7am. Then every two minutes they released another corral, and I found myself slowly advancing towards the starting line. “Ok… now “lucky” number 13!” the race announcer said. “Five, four, three, two, one… GO!” The race horn sounded, and we were off. I was trying to pace myself at a 9min/mile pace, which was the pace I wanted to maintain for the entire race. I knew it was very important to avoid going out too fast and running out of energy a long way from the finish line! I wasn’t familiar with the course at all… I knew that we’d head north into Seattle and at mile 9 we’d split from the half marathoners. They’d take a left and follow the four mile course to the finish line at Qwest Field, and the marathoners would take a left and head a mile and a half out onto the Lake Washington bridge, circle back over the bridge, head up into the north Seattle/Fremont area, and then come south to the finish line at Qwest Field. The first 3 miles flew by… when I reached the 5k mark, I couldn’t believe it. The one thing that bothered me is that my right hip flexor (the muscle that works when you lift your leg straight out in front of you was starting to hurt. I knew that it was a bad sign to be feeling pain so early in the race. One marathon quote I read is “If you are feeling it at mile 10, you’re in trouble. If you’re feeling it at mile 20, you’re normal. If you’re not feeling it by mile 26, you’re not normal.” Well, I was feeling it long before mile 10. My lungs and my muscles felt great, though… I just had that nagging hip flexor pain. I kept running. At mile 9, I looked up and realized we had left Tukwila far behind and we were in Seattle. All the blue-bibbed half marathoners headed to the left towards Qwest Field and the finish line. All the yellow-bibbed marathoners headed to the right and started down the mile and a half trek to the end of Lake Washington bridge. I sorely envied the half marathoners, particularly since the pain in my hip flexor seemed to have stabilized, but was still present. The run out onto the bridge felt really long… a mile and a half out to the end, and then you ran around the orange construction cones and ran the mile and a half back. As I was running out along the bridge I saw all of the faster runners already running back along the bridge on the other side of the road, which was slightly demotivating. However, when I turned around and started running back along the bridge, I could see all of the marathoners who were still behind me, and that made me feel better. I think every runner is afraid of being the very last runner! As I was running back along the bridge, the hip flexor pain radiated downwards, and I felt the familiar twinge in my right knee. Hmm. At mile 11. This wasn’t good. I had enough experience with IT band pain to know if it got really bad, I would barely be able to walk, let alone run. One caveat I need to insert in here: I have had a lot of experience with IT band pain… I got it for the first time back in college. I knew that running on it wasn’t going to seriously damage my knee… it would just make it more inflamed and potentially take longer to heal, but I wasn’t running on a broken leg or pulled tendon or anything like that where continuing to run on it could cause long-term damage to my body. I definitely do NOT recommend continuing to run if you’re experiencing pain you’re not familiar with or pain that you suspect could lead to long-term damage of your body’s bones, muscles, or tissues. In this case with the IT band, I just knew what I was dealing with. Anyway… caveat over. So there were still 15.2 miles left. When I finished running the out-and-back onto the Lake Washington bridge, we immediately entered a long, dark underground tunnel. It seemed so huge and cavernous without any cars in it, and I didn’t have any idea how long it was. The runners’ footsteps sounded very echo-y in the tunnel. The runners had also spread out enough by this time that there was more room between runners. I talked to myself in that tunnel… it seemed like a good place to think. It was essentially alternating prayers that my knee wouldn’t prove too much of a problem and repeating commands to myself. You have to do this. You have been training for way too long to stop now. You’re almost halfway there. Just run slowly on your knee… it might not get better, but it shouldn’t get worse.
When I exited the tunnel around mile 13 and passed the half marathon point, I felt a little better. Somehow the tunnel had proved restorative. I passed Qwest Field… I could look down from the bridge over the highway I was on and I could see the finish line… so near, and yet so far. I still had to run to north Seattle and back before I could cross the finish line. The course veered north on a highway that led straight to Fremont, with some fun uphills and downhills on the way (I use the word “fun” in a very loose sense here.) 🙂 I continued to run, taking only small walking breaks going through the water stations. I was getting physically nautious taking runner’s Gu for energy and electrolytes every three miles, but the last thing I wanted was for my body to be depleted of electrolytes because then my muscles would seize up and cramp, and I wouldn’t be able to force them to run if I wanted to. By mile 15 my knee was starting to genuinely hurt. It had been gradually getting worse over the four miles since it first starting hurting at mile 11. I told myself I only had about ten miles left. Then I crossed the 16 mile marker. Ok… now I really only had ten miles left. Since mile 11, I had been seeing my pace get slower because of my knee. I had been running a pretty solid 9min/mile pace prior to that, but running gingerly on my knee was not helping my speed goals. At this point, though, as much as I wanted that sub 4hr marathon, I knew if I pushed my knee too hard I might just not be able to finish at all. So I ran onward, as fast as I was able to and tried not to think about how my pace was slowing. By mile 18 I was hitting a wall. There was a pretty steep hill I had to climb, I was STILL heading north which meant I wasn’t even headed back towards the finish line yet, I was so sick of eating Gu that my stomach turned at the thought of it, but I swallowed half a pack anyway because my muscles needed it… and I was just getting tired. The sad part is that I wasn’t out of breath and my muscles weren’t tired. But I was mentally tired. I’d been fighting to continue to run for seven miles through the knee pain, and it was getting mentally difficult. I had a slight misstep and landed on my knee a little harder than usual. I caught my breath and slowed to a walk. I had to. My knee was not letting me run. That started a trend that continued for the final eight miles of the race. I would take brief 20-second walk breaks just to give my knee a little relief, and then I’d run again for as long as I could… and then repeat the process. Those last eight miles were slow. And hard. And I had to do a lot of praying and talking to myself. I prayed that God would give me the strength to finish despite my knee. And I talked to myself over and over. Ok… you are going to do this. You’re finally actually heading back into Seattle. You are going to finish this even if you have to walk most of the way and hobble across the finish line. You can do this… your muscles aren’t tired. Your lungs aren’t tired. Only your knee hurts… focus on the weather, the scenery, the other runners.
Around mile 22, I saw a guy ahead of me who was in the same state I was. He was obviously a good runner, but he was clearly suffering from some kind of injury too and had to keep slowing to take walk breaks. If he could do it, I could do it. My new goal, rather than finishing in under 4 hrs became to keep him in sight for the rest of the race, because he was inspirational. He was struggling like I was, but he was pushing through.
At mile 24 I almost cried. Two full miles left… and I was mentally spent. I’d repeated all kinds of motivational phrases to myself, sent up all kinds of prayers and I was just exhausted trying to keep going. That last two miles was really rough.
I did manage to run the entire final half mile… there were people just lining the streets and with all the cheering they were doing, they gave me enough energy to continue running to the end. About 200 yards from the finish line I heard a “Good job Karen!”. I turned my head, and there was Mike! I managed a wave and a smile while he snapped pictures with his camera.
And then… I was crossing the finish mat and entering the finishing area. And it was all over. I had completed my first marathon in 4 hrs, 22 min, and 14 sec. I immediately slowed to a walk. One of the race volunteers handed me a big finishers medal and a bottled water. I kept limping aimlessly out to the food area and ate two orange slices immediately. SO refreshing! And SO good compared to runners Gu! 🙂 I was so grateful to God that I had finished. And that I was no longer running and could just walk. 🙂 I grabbed two bags of pretzels and left the finisher’s area to go find Mike. We met up and he snapped some post-race pictures of me.
As much as my knee hurt, I didn’t feel like it would be a good idea for me to just stop moving completely and take a bus home, so instead we walked the couple miles home and just went really slowly. Mike was so patient with me and assured me that I had done a good job just finishing given my knee. He also had to listen to me walk through every step of the race process and reasons why my knee might have started hurting even though it felt great during the months leading up to my training. Kudos to a very patient Mike!
Initially on crossing the finish line I felt a mixture of relief that I could finally stop running and of disappointment that six solid months of training had left me with such a miserable race experience. My lungs weren’t tired… I hadn’t been breathless one second of the race. My fastest mile during the race was about an 8:45min/mile pace, and that was definitely within my comfort zone. My muscles all felt great… I’d done enough long training runs over the past six months that my muscles felt great. I have friends who’ve done marathons and have been unable to walk the next day because their muscles are in so much pain. All of my muscles felt fine when I woke up this morning. I’m hobbling around, but that’s because my knee is still inflamed, not because of muscle pain. So I definitely didn’t feel like I had physically maxed myself out, which was my goal. I felt like instead I spent six months training to have a miserable race experience, an inflamed knee, and a race time that was worse than what I knew I was capable of.
Some questions you might be asking (if you’re actually still interested after this really long running monologue):
Are you going to run another one?
So many runners talk about catching the “marathon bug” in which you run a marathon, love the experience, and want to keep running more. I may run another marathon in the future (I still want that sub 4hr marathon that I know I’m capable of), but I’m not in any hurry. I want to completely cut back my distance running for at least six months, and do short runs that will allow me time to also focus on yoga and weight training. I feel like one of the reasons my knee acted up in the race is because I hadn’t been doing much strength training as part of my marathon training, so the tendons and ligaments surrounding my knee joint just weren’t strong enough to keep my IT band aligned enough to avoid inflammation. Bottom line: For now, I’ll be taking a couple weeks off to let my IT band fully heal, and then I’ll be running shorter distances a couple times a week and also do regular weight training and yoga.
So are you really disappointed?
Initially, yes. Totally. In retrospect… not really. Marathoners I know always talking about marathoning being a mental sport. At the end of the race, you’ve passed your physical limits and your mental energy is the only thing keeping you going. I also keep hearing that around mile 21 you hit a mental “wall”, where it’s all you can do to keep going. I really hit a wall around mile 15 when my knee pain got bad. I feel like I learned much more about testing my mental limits during this race than if I had been able to run my normal race pace and finish under four hours… and that was really what this marathon was about. I also feel like I recognized how much God was helping me during the race… and I feel like that’s really good for me. It’s too easy for me to just figure I can do things on my own… and I felt like that race was pretty tough to do on my own!
I’m going to leave you with a couple marathon quotes I read prior to running my marathon and find inspirational and true.
Mary R. Wittenberg, president, New York Road Runners Club: A marathoner is a marathoner regardless of time. Virtually everyone who tries the marathon has put in training over months, and it is that exercise and that commitment, physical and mental, that gives meaning to the medal, not just the day’s effort, be it fast or slow. It’s all in conquering the challenge.
Hal Higdon, running writer and coach: The difference between the mile and the marathon is the difference between burning your fingers with a match and being slowly roasted over hot coals.