They say the first cut is the deepest; I got to learn that first hand yesterday during my first marathon experience.
I so wish I could have had the amazing cherry-on-top experience that I was looking forward to after months of training in the sweltering heat, but instead, my experience was very different from what I was expecting. But that’s what makes life interesting.
If you’re not interested in reading the full re-cap below, I’ll give you the short story. The weather on race day was uncharacteristically hot, and the alert status (see below) went from “low” to “moderate” to “high”. My watch refused to turn on the morning of the race (of course, it turned on the night before without problems…) and I spent the better half of the race seriously considering getting my first DNF.
In the last two weeks leading up to the marathon, my nerves at the unknown began to consume me. The last week leading up to Chicago, I barely slept and I had a horrible sleep on both Friday and Saturday night. Despite trying to take it easy on Saturday night, I just felt extremely anxious and nervous. I kept trying to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal – it was just like any other run I had done except a little harder, and a little faster. It would have been nice if I possessed more logic and common sense.
By Sunday, I was up at 5:30am and went about my morning routines. I ate my breakfast, got dressed and headed out the door with an hour to spare. When I got to the start line, I picked a spot in the open corral and took a seat on the curb. I was already getting nervous about how warm it was that early in the morning, and I sat down on a curb to calm myself down and sync my watch. Except when I tried turning on my Garmin, it refused to turn on. Are you kidding me, I thought.
Garmin, I shake my fist at you!
I tried again. And again. The stubborn screen remained blank. It was the last thing I wanted to deal with on race day. I was already getting anxious about the rising temperature, and I was fine with forgoing my pace/time goals for the most part, but I really wanted to keep track of my breaks and when to take my gels. I tried to reason to myself that I would be okay, and that I just had to listen to my body and take every km (or mile) one by one. The guy sitting beside me on the curb tried to help me out by telling me that there were about 24 water stations so I reasoned that I would sync my breaks with the aid/water stations. I felt extremely uncomfortable going outside my comfort zone and changing my strategy last minute – especially or a distance that I had never run before, but I tried to tell myself that everything would work itself out. I planned to use the mile markers as a guide to take my gels (at mile 5, 10, 15, 20).
Not even a few minutes into the race, however, I knew it was going to be a tough run. I started off slowly, telling myself that I could always reassess how I felt after I hit the halfway point and decide whether I wanted to speed up or not. The first 10k or so went relatively smoothly. I knew I could have gone faster, and that’s exactly how I wanted to feel. I was so focused on pacing myself that I barely noticed the first few kms and mile markers (those confused me as well, since I was always so used to seeing km markers only) go by and forgot to take my gels as planned. Several times I would mistake km markers for mile markers… and let me tell you – mistaking 16k for 16 miles is NOT a good way to regain any confidence whatsoever.
By the time I hit the 15k or so, I really started to feel weighted down by the sun. Our only break was when we ran under trees, bridges, and through shaded areas. Let’s just say that the city did not live up to its windy city nickname that day. I started asking myself whether I would do the right thing if my body started rebelling against me and if the weather continued getting worse. I tried to put the negative thoughts aside.
When I finally hit the the halfway point, I was fully ready to give up. At points, I had slowed down to a snail’s pace. The sun was defiantly beating down on us, and at one point, I heard an announcement that the weather alert status has been raised to from “low” to “moderate”. We were told to slow down and drink water. I had to make a decision – how badly did I really want to push myself to finish the run, and at what cost? For the first time during the entire “process”, I began to ask myself if it was really worth it.
“Life is the greatest endurance race, if you quit at the first sign of difficulty, then you do not go the distance or finish the race.”
(source: Kenneth Tenebrow, Chicago Marathon Official Program)
In my heart, I knew that I was going to be disappointed in myself if I gave into my desire to quit at that point. Since my watch was broken anyway, I forced myself to throw all time goals I had out the window and to focus on getting through the second half of the race in one piece. This may seem like a simple sacrifice to make in the grand scheme of things, but it felt like the ultimate sacrifice at the time (note that when you’re hot, exhausted and have been running in the heat for a couple of hours already, common sense doesn’t exist).
By the time I hit 23k, I was stopping at every aid station, taking one cup of gatorade, and two cups of water – one for diluting the gatorade with and the other for pouring over myself. I had to fight back tears of frustration as I continued to melt in the heat. For the rest of the race, I had to choke down my gels and do everything in my power to not cough it up immediately after. I’m not sure Gu will ever taste the same.
But it wasn’t all bad.
The crowds and volunteers were incredible. When they weren’t tirelessly cheering and clapping for us as we went by, they were spraying us with their garden hoses to keep us cool and holding out their hands for us to high five (or side-five?) us. Children were cheerfully holding out bowls of candy, and adults were passing out plastic bottles of water while telling us how strong we looked. When any runner stopped to walk, the crowd’s cheers didn’t skip a single beat. The volunteers smiled at us while we wordlessly grabbed the cups out of their hands, and forgave us for not always finding the strength to thank them verbally and apologize for clumsily tossing the cups on the ground when we were done. They rushed to keep a steady flow of liquid ready for us, and they ran alongside us to make sure that all of us who wanted gatorade/water got some as we passed each aid stations. Volunteers raking the cups off the streets scrambled to move if they thought they were in our way and did so with a big smile on their face. Each neighbourhood welcomed us as we passed by with a level of enthusiasm that must have been incredibly hard to keep up as it got progressively hotter outside.
There’s no doubt that this was a world-class event with world-class spectators.
I lost count as to how many times I got choked up with emotion during the race. I thought about how disappointed I’d be if I wasn’t able to finish. I thought about what I would say to my family who were no doubt patiently waiting for me near the end of the race. I thought about how I would tell everybody who had wished me well that I wasn’t able to get through it, and I thought about where, when, and how I would decide when to call it a day and climb into a shuttle bus to be driven to the finish line.
In the midst of all my thoughts, I came across the mile 20 marker, and suddenly I knew. I knew that I was going to finish the race. I got the second wind that I so desperately needed and I reached into my last reserves to force myself to carry on. Within minutes, I passed another aid station and saw that they had raised the alert level to “high”. Shortly after I noticed that, both of my thighs started to cramp really badly. I can’t tell you how many times I sighed at everything. The pain in my thighs were paralyzing at times and I had to stop to stretch them out a couple of times, while intentionally avoiding the looks of pity I received. Despite the “high” risk alert, and the fact that all the runners around me were dragging their feet and walking more than running, I reminded myself of everything I had done to get to this point, and how lucky I was to even be able to run. That is how I pushed on.
At around mile 23, I finally saw my mom and sister waiting for me. I cannot describe how amazing it felt to see them. I don’t run with music, and I hadn’t seen any of my running friends prior to or during the race so seeing a familiar face was just the pick-me-up that that I needed and it meant the world to me. I barely mustered a greeting though as I ripped off my fuel belt and tossed it along with my Garmin at my mom before forcing myself to continue on. I was so tired that I could barely stand up straight.
Proper posture, what?
The final 3 miles were a blur. I’m not even sure I could classify whatever I was doing as “running” but I didn’t care anymore. I was so close to the end, and I was going to get there even if it took another hour in this heat. At this point, most runners were walking towards the finish line. It was hotter than ever and everybody was positively exhausted.
Slowly, but surely, I made it to and passed the mile 24, 25, and similar km markers. It felt like an eternity, but eventually I saw the Finish Line and just like that, I completed my first marathon.
For the remainder of race day and on Monday, I felt really disappointed in how everything had turned out. It felt like a punishment to be forced to endure a marathon under those conditions, especially after having been teased with cool weather for the past four weeks. I don’t need to be reminded that you can’t control or predict the weather when you sign up for a race. But that doesn’t mean you can’t wish that the stars will be aligned and that everything will go according to plan. I kept re-playing everything that happened and tried to think of ways that I could have done better, pushed myself harder.
There’s no doubt that I fell hard on Sunday. When I decided earlier this year to run Chicago, I had no idea that I was signing up to train in suffocatingly hot weather, that I would have to deal with two potentially serious injuries, or that I’d come home from each training work out too nauseous to eat and (usually) too tired to stretch. But when I signed up for the race, I made a promise to myself to do what it took to get to that finish line.
“I’m going to suggest something here that might seem strange: You should be proud of your failure. Own it, admit it, brag about it.
Why? Because the fact that you “failed” means you attempted something where you could fail. It’s pretty tough to fail at sitting on the couch, watching TV, or making sure you do whatever everyone else does.”
I promise that I have already taken what I could from my first marathon experience and will apply it in the future. There’s no question that I’m not going to stop here, and I am going to do even better next time.
I’m ready for whatever comes next. Are you?