Birth of a Funatical Runner, Part 2 – My First Marathon

While the seeds of my running career may have been planted in 1984 after the Summer Olympics, it took 22 years for anything to start sprouting from them. During that time, I occasionally would watch a marathon on television. I remember seeing Grete Waitz, the phenomenal women’s marathoner from Norway, win the New York City Marathon in the mid-80s. She made running look so effortless.

Despite the inspiration of Grete and Joan Benoit, I never jumped into the running craze. Then my friend, Marnie, told me she was diagnosed with an incurable form of lymphoma. I watched her life change from what she expected to something very different. I wanted to help her but there was little I could do. In 2006 I received a flyer in the mail from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society about their Team in Training (TNT) program. I knew this was the best way to show support for the battle that Marnie was fighting. When I told Marnie that I was going to run a marathon for her, she was flattered but insisted that it would be sufficient if I just gave them some money and left the running part out. It would have been much easier to write a check and stop there but I knew so many people who loved Marnie like I did and would be willing to contribute.

I remember going to the recruitment meeting and listening to the coaches talk about the TNT program. I still wasn’t sure that I could run 26.2 miles – walk maybe, but running? I was all set to be a walker then I talked to Rebecca, one of the running mentors. Rebecca guaranteed me that I could do this. She explained that I could use the run/walk method – where you run for so many minutes and then walk for one. Something about her convinced me to run. I figured if it got too bad, I could always switch to the walk team. I signed up to run the Country Music Marathon in Nashville, TN.

Our kick off was in November but our first group training run was not scheduled until mid-December. I decided to get a head start on training and started running on Thanksgiving Day. My goal that day was only two miles. I started out running two minutes and walking for one. My husband came along with me on his bike, coaching me just like Burgess Meredith, Sylvester Stallone’s trainer in the movie “Rocky” minus the cigar. I was stunned by how difficult running was. I couldn’t even run for one minute! As I struggled up a hill, my husband kept yelling “You can do it, Rocky!” I was out of breath and barely completed my first two mile run. This was a real eye opener on how out of shape I was and how much training I had ahead of me. Because I did not want to end up dead like the first marathon runner, I got serious about my training.

I ran up and down the street in front of our house. I wanted to be close to home if I got injured, had to go to the bathroom, or got too tired to finish. One of the neighbors had watched me and asked if I got bored going back and forth on the same quarter mile stretch of road (no, I didn’t). I remember running with my eyes closed. I am not sure why I did that. Perhaps I went so slow that closing my eyes prevented me from seeing how little distance I had covered (or maybe I was multitasking and taking a nap). Fortunately for me, the street is straight with no parked cars to run into.

On New Year’s Eve, I entered a 5K with my friend, Steph, a natural athlete who had been running for years. She gave me great advice – double knot my shoe laces so they didn’t come untied as I ran. My husband came to cheer me on. He took a photo of Steph and me as we crossed the finish line. Steph had a big smile on her face and looked like she could run for hours; me, I looked like I had been beaten up and left for dead.

I found a video of the race course on the Country Music Marathon race web site. I watched it several times. Instead of calming my fears, it made me more apprehensive. I decided that the best way to prepare for the marathon was to treat the course like it was my enemy. I needed to know everything about my enemy to beat it. I printed off the course map and after each long run, I would highlight the distance that we had covered. I could see that I was going to be able to run this race. I finished each training run visualizing crossing the finish line.

Race weekend was full of new experiences and sights. At the start area, they had more port-a-potties than I had ever seen in my life. John Bingham, the speaker at the pasta dinner the night before the race, had told us to get in line for the port-a-potties as soon as we got off the bus, and when we were finished, get back in line. Great advice for nervous runners!

There were lots of first time marathoners in my corral at the start. We all had the same look on our faces – what have we gotten ourselves into? When the race started, it reminded me of the scene from “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy is in the house up in the tornado, watching all the different characters go by. I was in the middle of this cyclone of runners of all shapes and sizes, including a woman wearing a running blade prosthesis and others in costumes. It was almost surreal.

Since this was my first race, I didn’t know how races worked. I was surprised by the number of runners littering – cups at water stops, wrappers from nutrition bars, etc. I had a wrapper from my Sport Beans that I had been carrying for a couple miles. I didn’t want to throw it down on the ground as other runners were doing. Instead I handed it to a spectator who called out my name (it was on my shirt). They probably dropped it on the ground after I went by. I saw runners (mostly guys) heading off into the bushes whether there were port-a-potties or not. Nobody seemed alarmed by this.

My worst mistake was that I went out way too fast. In training, I typically ran about a 12-minute per mile pace. Well, the first half of the marathon, I got caught up in the excitement and ran about 8 minutes per mile. I paid for it the second half when I bonked; I ran the second half about 18 minutes per mile.

The last three miles of the race were particularly tough but I finished. I remember how everything from my waist down hurt but I was happier than I had ever been. I was no longer a spectator; I was part of the action. I was a runner.

All the finishers received a medal, no matter how long it took them to finish the race. I complained to my husband that they did not give me a laurel wreath to wear like Grete at the end of the NYC Marathon. He fixed that – he met me at the airport with my own laurel wreath!

My laurel wreath and first marathon medal

My laurel wreath and first marathon medal

Completing the marathon convinced me to sign up to run a half marathon four months later. I enjoyed the half marathon as much as the full marathon, although I was not in nearly as much pain afterwards.

A couple weeks after I completed the half marathon, I told my husband I wanted to run five full marathons and 10 half marathons before I turned 55, a little over five years away. He knew when I set a goal for myself, I would put all my effort into it. There was plenty of time to do them. It would be a piece of cake. Or so I thought.

Birth of A Funatical Runner, Part 1 – 1984 Summer Olympics

I didn’t start out a runner in high school or college like many people I know. The seeds of my running career were planted in 1984, the year that Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics.

The 1984 Summer Olympics were pretty amazing. It was the first time in history that the Games were not sponsored by the government. Peter Ueberroth was put in charge of making everything happen but without funding from the US Government. Ueberroth ran things like a business and assembled a board of entrepreneurs and other business people. Through corporate sponsorships, private funding, and a huge price tag for the television rights, they came up with more than enough money for the Games. Ueberroth did such a good job managing things that he was named Time’s Man of the Year.

The opening ceremonies for the 1984 Summer Olympics were something that only Hollywood could pull off. The opening ceremonies were held in the LA Coliseum. There were cards on all of the seats. At one point, everyone was directed to pull out their card and hold it up. The effect was to create the flags of all nations competing in the Games. It was an impressive sight. The other incredible moment was when 84 grand pianos were rolled out with 84 male pianists dressed in light blue tuxes who played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” It gave me goosebumps. To this day, when I hear that song, I see all those pianos. John Williams composed “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” for the Games and they played it during the opening ceremonies – incredible music that was perfect for the event. Let the Games begin!

My oldest sister was living in Los Angeles at the time. They needed a lot of volunteers to help run things so she volunteered. Her assignment was to be a course marshall for both the Women’s and Men’s Marathons – a job that involved keeping spectators from wandering out onto the course during the races. I lived in Pittsburgh, PA and did not see her often. My husband and I decided we would watch the marathon events on television in the off chance we might see her in action as a course marshall.

This was the first time that the Summer Olympics included a Women’s Marathon. The race was held on the first weekend of the Games (the Men’s race was held on the second weekend). Joan Benoit (now Samuelson) was one of three runners representing the US – a spot she won 17 days after knee surgery. Going into the 1984 Games, Joanie held the world record for women in the marathon – 2:22:43 at the 1983 Boston Marathon. I liked her when I saw her because Joanie is short like me – a mere 5’2”.

The runners lined up, the gun went off, and 50 women marathoners were off to the history books. While it might not seem like there is much strategy to running a marathon, there is. Nobody wants to lead the pack early on because your legs might not be able to carry you the distance. Runners trade the lead position from time to time during the race. This race was a bit different. Perhaps the women were not acclimated to the hot, muggy Los Angeles weather but 14 minutes into the race, Joanie got tired of the slow pace and pulled ahead of the pack. Remarkably, she stayed there for the remainder of the race.

I remember the camera being focused on Joanie, the other runners visible well behind her. She was wearing an oversized painters hat (not some fancy runner’s cap) and the right shoulder of her singlet had fallen down her arm. For the rest of the race, I kept wanting to reach through the television and pull it up for her. I was mesmerized by this woman, running through the LA heat and beating what I understood were some of the greatest women runners at the time. When she came into the Coliseum, the crowd went wild. It was clear that she was going to win as she ran a final lap around the track to the finish line wearing a smile 26.2 miles wide. She finished with a time of 2:24:52.

While Joanie blew everyone away with her performance, there was another incredible runner that day who I will never forget. About 15 minutes after Joanie crossed the finish line, Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, a runner from Switzerland, entered the stadium. She was suffering from heat exhaustion and every step she took looked like it would literally be her last. She was hunched over and staggering. Medical personnel came to her but she waved them off – if they had touched her, she would have been disqualified. Instead they walked along side her as she made the last lap around the track. It took her almost 6 minutes to finish. She collapsed into the arms of waiting medics when she crossed the line. Fortunately for Gabriele, she recovered but she is still a vivid reminder of the dangers of running in the heat.

The 1984 Games were also marked by the famous collision between Zola Budd, an 18-year old barefoot runner representing the UK, and the US favorite Mary Decker-Slaney in the final of the 3000 meter race. The collision caused Mary to fall, wiping out her dream of an Olympic medal. The crowd booed Zola for the rest of the race. Zola dropped back well out of medal contention. It was later determined the collision was not Zola’s fault. I think about that collision every time I am in a close pack of runners in a race. I don’t want to be Zola or Mary.

After the 1984 Games were over, my husband and I decided that maybe we would take up running. We put on our tennis shoes (no, we didn’t have running shoes) and headed to the track at a nearby high school. After about two laps around the track, I was hot and bored. I didn’t understand how anyone could enjoy this running stuff and vowed never to do that again. My husband who had not run since college pulled his hamstring. He quit too. That was the start and end of my running career. At least, I thought so at the time.

(And in case you are wondering, I never did catch a glimpse of my sister along the course.)

Runners can get Hat Tricks too!

CIMG1372
Last fall I received an email from Runners World magazine announcing their inaugural Heartbreak Hill Half and Running Festival in Boston. They have been holding a similar running festival in late October in Bethlehem, PA for a few years. There are seminars, a pasta dinner with editors from Runners World, and races for everyone including kids and dogs.

Runners can choose from a 5K, 10K and half marathon. If you run both the 5K and 10K, they call it the Five and Dime. Running all three races is called the Hat Trick. The Boston festival was going to have the same format with the added attraction of running the famous Heartbreak Hill from the Boston Marathon course.

For me there was no way I was going to pass up this running festival. First, it was an inaugural event. There is only ONE inaugural event for anything and I wanted to be there. Next, it had those funny names – Five and Dime, and Hat Trick. Funatical runners like myself – runners who race to have a good time – are suckers for races with amusing names. Last, two of the races included Heartbreak Hill, the famous hill on the Boston Marathon course. The Boston Marathon is the only major marathon in the world that you have to qualify for. Even if I live as long as Harriette Thompson, the 91 year old marathon runner, I will never qualify for the Boston Marathon. This was my only chance to run on part of the most famous marathon course in the world, even if it was on the Heartbreak Hill. I had plenty of time to train for races in June so I hit the Register button.

The one thing about marathons is that there are typically many months between the time you register and when you toe the start line. Lots can happen in between. And unfortunately for me, it did. I suffered a concussion in an auto accident in February. For six weeks, per my doctor’s orders, I didn’t run a step. I started training again in late April with a personal running coach, Jenny Hadfield, but my training was not where it normally would be for a multi-race event like this.

When I arrived in Boston for race weekend on Friday and went to pick up my race bib at Boston College, I started to get a feel for the Newton hills. I was intimidated. I sent an email to my running coach with the subject line “Having a panic attack” (I figured that would get her attention) and asked her if I was ready for this Hat Trick thing. She replied “Absolutely” and gave me a strategy for the three races. With her reassurance, I looked forward to the next two days of running.

On Saturday I got through the 5K with no trouble. An hour later the 10K started. The 10K course was more hilly but I followed Coach Jenny’s advice – follow my body more than my watch; run down the hills where gravity would help with the work and walk up hills where I needed to. After finishing both races, I was surprised that my pace was nearly identical for the two races. Five and Dime done!

Before the start of the race on Sunday, I was still nervous. Then the horn sounded and we were off. I may have thought that I was not prepared for this race but the other runners that I saw as I ran put me in my place.

In the first mile I came up behind a man wearing a shirt that said “Colon Cancer 2009, Brain Cancer 2013, Tough to Kill, Harder to Stop”. He was doing pretty well and we ended up running a good bit of the race together. About a mile later, I came up behind a man wearing a shirt that said “Life Begins at 70”. I had seen him before the start lathering himself in something that smelled like BenGay or Tiger Balm. You could smell him from 20 feet away. When I got along side of him, I asked if he had started running when he was 70. He said he had – and now he was 76! I kept going and around Mile 4 I saw an attractive young woman with her blonde pony tail bouncing as she ran. She was running with a prosthetic leg. She had a big smile on her face too. Watching these three runners made me think. I really didn’t have a reason for a panic attack. These runners were facing more challenges than me and probably didn’t have a coach to email for reassurance.

Running on part of the Boston Marathon course gave me energy. These were the same streets that my running idols, like Meb Keflezighi and Joan Benoit Samuelson, have run. In my mind I was on hallowed ground. I finished the half marathon in the time that I wanted. My pace was nearly the same for all three races. In fact on Sunday, I was just a little faster. Hat Trick done!

When I was riding back to the hotel, the quote from Winnie the Pooh popped into my head:

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
A.A. Milne

I was brave enough to go to the start line three times in two days even though I was intimidated by the Newton hills and didn’t think I had enough training. I was strong enough to take on Heartbreak Hill and beat it – twice. I was smart enough to follow my coach’s race strategy and not let my fears cause me to make mistakes.

I may never run the Boston Marathon but the Heartbreak Hill Half let me experience just a little bit of one of the most prestigious marathons in the world.

P.S. If you think you would like to start running – even a 5K – check out Coach Jenny’s web site!

Observing National Running Day

It seems fitting that a blog titled “Funatical Runner” should start on National Running Day – when runners everywhere are suppose to celebrate their passion for runningI can’t say that I actually observe National Running Day but I will count the launch of my blog as my observance this year.  (You can check out ways to observe it at the web site http://www.runningday.org.)

Two news stories this week grabbed my attention because they were about runners on opposite ends of the age spectrum (a convenient lead in to National Running Day too).  First, there was an article in the Washington Post about a 10-year old boy, Rheinhardt Harrison, who recently set the world record for 10 year olds in the 10-mile distance.  He is also waiting for confirmation from the Association of Road Racing Statisticians that he set the world record in the half marathon for 10-year olds with a time of 1 hour 35 minutes and 2 seconds.  I would love to have a half marathon time like that!  Rheinhardt loves to run – mostly cross country because he thinks running around a track is boring to him (and I have to agree with him on that).  But he also enjoys all the other fun stuff that kids do, like video games. Kudos to his parents for being supportive but also knowing that Rheinhardt needs balance in his life and, importantly, rest.  I would guess that last part is difficult  – how do you keep a 10 year old from doing what comes naturally, running?

The second news item was about a 91-year old woman, Harriette Thompson, who completed her 15th Rock ’n Roll San Diego Marathon and set the US record for the fastest marathon in the women’s 90-94 age group with a time of 7 hours 7 minutes and 42 seconds.  Harriette had not been able to train much for the race – she’d been undergoing radiation treatment for a skin cancer on her leg. I don’t think anyone would call her a slacker.  If they did, I would be the first one to jump in and defend her.

In reading about Rheinhardt and Harriette, I could see similarities to my own life as a runner.  Like Harriette, I started my running career, not in grade school, but later in life, at 49.  Harriette started running when she was 76 years old.  Compared to her, I was a youngster when I laced up my first pair of running shoes.  She has completed 15 marathons in 16 years (in 7 years I have completed 8 full marathons and 18 half marathons – I have some catching up to do).  Like Harriette, I started running to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) to support a friend who was diagnosed with an incurable form of lymphoma.  Harriette lost her brother to lymphoma and has raised over $90,000 for LLS.  Harriette and I are two birds of a feather.

But I also see a similarity with Rheinhardt.  Reading about him I could see the light in his eyes when he talks about running and his goals for the future (going to the University of Oregon, THE training ground for distance runners).   Likewise, I get excited when I talk to people about my races and my goal of running a marathon on all 7 continents.  I started this blog because a lot of people want to follow my running adventures.

I often think about why I enjoy running marathons.  I realized at the Detroit Half Marathon last fall that I am addicted to the feeling of excitement when I get in my corral and wait for the start of the race, the energy of the crowd as I run through the streets of some unfamiliar city, and the joy of crossing the finish line to get a medal.

Harriette proves that none of us can say we are too old to get out there and give it a go.  When people tell me that they could never run 26.2 miles or even 1 mile, I tell them that if you want it enough, you can do it.  Heck, you don’t even need to run – walking works too.  Since I started running, more than one of my friends has walked a half marathon.  And the sense of accomplishment when they completed their races was priceless.  They got it.  They understood what Rheinhardt, Harriette, and I feel – the anticipation and excitement at the start, the energy during the race, and the joy of crossing the finish line.

Update: Reinhardt didn’t get the world record for a half-marathon run by a 10 year old.  The original race course was altered after its length was certified.  The new course was not certified.  But don’t despair.  I think we will hear more about Reinhardt in the future.