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.