I AM A MARATHONER

Fair warning: this is probably going to end up getting crazy long and out of control and weirdly emotional for a race recap, because on Sunday, October 13, I became a marathoner. I RAN A MARATHON!!! THIS IS SUCH A WILD SENTENCE THAT I KIND OF NEVER THOUGHT I’D BE ABLE TO STATE AS FACT. OKAY, ALREADY YELLING IN ALL CAPS, TOLD YOU THIS WOULD GET WEIRD.

I feel changed by this experience. Which I know is a cliché, and which I keep wanting to backtrack on because it is so cliché, but whatever because it’s true. It feels like a damn surrounding the sport of running has opened up as a direct result of completing this distance, and I feel so excited about exploring all the possibilities.

Whew, already getting emotional. Buckle up, because here comes my first marathon race recap!

Let me begin with the basics:

Who: Me! But also, I was running as “St. Jude Hero” (meaning as a fundraiser for St. Judes Children’s Research Hospitals). So that great organization, too!
What: The Chicago Marathon
Where: Chicago, IL, starting and finishing in Grant Park but following a course that took runners through 29 different neighborhoods in Chicago
When: Sunday, October 13. The elite runners crossed the finish line at 7:30 AM; I was in wave 3 and we took off around 8:35 AM. I crossed the start line at 8:47 AM, if we want to get super detailed here.
Why: honestly, because my friend (Amanda, another badass marathoner) texted me randomly at some point in November 2018 and told me she was thinking about registering; we ended up missing the lottery deadline, but she found a way we could participate as fundraisers, as long as we raised enough money for a cause of our choice. I said I would do it if she did, so we both signed up. But beyond that, the marathon distance feels like a goal that I’ve had but half-joked about for a long time now, starting back in college.

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Here’s where it all began (Amanda and I call each other Meg for silly reasons dating back to high school. ALSO I’m so eloquent when I’m excited.)

I’m going to backtrack a tiny bit to the day before the marathon, when I flew into Chicago from NYC. We attended a meetup organized by Kelly Roberts, and runner and blogger who we both follow. I am so glad we attended, and I feel like that whole get-together had a huge impact on my race the following day. They served breakfast and we sat with strangers who were also running the marathon. A couple of the women at our table had run a marathon before, so I got to really pick their brains and reassure myself that I’d probably survive.

Breakfast was followed by a guided meditation; the woman who led it had us choose four words that we wanted to resonate with us, either when we crossed the finish line or when we felt like we hit a wall during the race. She then led us through an exercise where we repeated the words as we touched each finger to our thumbs one at a time. I’m probably not describing this as accurately as I could be, but my words (in order of pointer finger to pinky) were: proud, happy, grateful, strong.

After the meditation session ended, Kelly got up and spoke about scary goals, and “caring the most.” The gist was that when we set terrifying or challenging goals for ourselves, it’s so much easier to act like you don’t really care, rather than throwing yourself 110% at the goals only to fail; the disappointment feels that much sharper if you were honest with yourself about how much the goal mattered all along. She made a case for not shrugging off your most challenging goals, but rather embracing them fully and caring about them as much as you possibly can. It might lead to more disappointment, but it also might be the thing that pushes you to achieve them.

She finished her speech with some advice she had gotten from her coach, about choosing some “wins” throughout the race to focus on. The wins could be anything, from time- or effort-based achievements to factors that are somewhat out of your control (i.e. one of my “wins” was definitely the perfect weather we had on race day).

Here are the other “wins” I set for myself on race day:

  • Finish the marathon
  • Break 5 hours
  • But actually… to stick with my scarier goal of breaking 4 hours and 30 minutes
  • No walking/easing up on pace until mile 17, at the earliest
  • Take it all in if/when I crossed the finish line (people talk about finishing marathons as a blur, but I wanted to be super present as I finished, and remember exactly how I felt crossing the finish line)
  • Keep in mind that what I was doing was a huge privilege. I set this one for myself in case I hit a wall or felt “over it” at any point; I wanted to remember that it was a privilege that I had the means and the health to participate in a marathon
  • And to have fun/not take it too seriously/try to think of it as just another long run, because ultimately, that’s what it was… kind of 🙂

I left the meetup feeling so happy that we had gone. There were majority women in attendance, seemingly from all different places and levels of experience, and it was very cool to be surrounded by that energy. Plus, love a free second breakfast. But my takeaways from the event seriously came in handy during the marathon. I checked in on my four words at least a few times during the race, taking the time to connect each of my fingers to my thumb and think about the corresponding word and whether it was resonating with me in those moments. I felt like I was embodying all four words, which gave me a huge and necessary confidence boost at a few different points throughout the race. “Strong” got a little shaky toward the end, but I truly never stopped feeling proud, happy, or grateful, which I’m counting as a huge win.

Okay I rambled about that for way too long! It was just super helpful, and if you don’t already follow Kelly Roberts, you should start.

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Hanging around the Nike booth at the expo

We finished the rest of the day with packet pickup and a brief exploration of the overwhelming race expo, followed by a very late lunch and then a very early pasta dinner with family. I slept pretty poorly on Friday night, so the night before the race I ended up getting decent sleep. We woke up at 5 AM and took our time getting ready. I ate peanut butter toast and a banana in the morning, and my stomach was feeling good and calm.

I will say that the whole morning before the race, I kept waiting for it to hit me that I was about to run a marathon. I don’t think it actually ever did, even when we were in our starting corrals waiting to go. That’s not to say I wasn’t feeling the nervousness and excitement, but the fact that I was about to run 26.2 miles never really hit me. This may be because it was my first, so since the distance was uncharted and I didn’t know what to expect, I mentally couldn’t bridge that gap? Or something? Anyway, that was wild.

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Me and Amanda waiting to start (we made these cheesy-ass bead bracelets the night before. I wore four of them with inspirational words/phrases. I don’t think I ever looked at them during the race, but they comforted me and I had so much fun making them the night before)

We crossed the finish line and mile 1 absolutely flew. My watch seemed to indicate that mile 2 also flew, but alas, it was just my GPS screwing up and jumping ahead by a half mile for no reason. That was a frustrating thing to realize I was having technical difficulties right away, but at the same time it took some of the pressure off and allowed me to run the entire race more based on feeling than my mile splits. I kept the watch going, because I wanted to use the timer as a reference later in the race. It ended up dying around mile 24 or so, but by then I was on autopilot and didn’t need to be checking my time anyway. So all things considered, the weird watch malfunctions served me pretty well.

Amanda had a whole crew of family in town watching her, and my mom and dad came too. I saw my parents at four different points on the course (during mile 2, then again during mile 12, mile 18 (ish, I think), and finally around mile 25. More on that later. I feel like every time I saw my parents or Amanda’s cheering section (not kidding, she had like 14 people there, what a star) I got such a happy burst of energy. And that was always carried along by the constant stream of stranger’s support.

The amazing course support (and the fact that it’s such a blissfully flat route) was something I heard about a lot leading up to the race, and something that I was so excited to experience. It made such a huge different to my running. During my training, I pretty much listened to music from start to finish on my long runs (and every run, actually). During the marathon, I listened to maybe 3.5 songs, total. I just never wanted to block out any of the cheers from observers, and I am so grateful to every single human who came out to watch. I really can’t express what a huge difference that kind of support makes.

ANYWAY (I’m jumping all around here, sorry): mile 1 flew by, mile 2 was a bit distracted trying to figure out what was wrong with my watch, then mile 3 – 14 felt really great. I know that’s a large section of the run, but I really don’t have any details to add except that I felt great. Amanda and I were chatting with each other, I didn’t need to listen to music, I laughed at some clever signs, I saw my parents twice; it just all felt amazing.

If you’re familiar with the course map, you know that mile 2.5 until mile 13.5 (give or take) is basically one big out and back, heading north then turning around to head back south at mile 8. I was worried this would be a tough/boring start to the race, but there were tons of turns and it did not feel like a boring straight out and back at all. We turned around near the Boystown neighborhood and that was like a huge party on the streets (at one section there were two stages set up across the street from each other, blaring music, and featuring three drag queens each, dancing and singing and being amazing). The music was great, the energy was great.

I decided not to bring a water bottle with me, because there were aid stations with water and Gatorade pretty much once a mile. In the beginning, I made it a point to grab water at every other aid station whether I was feeling thirsty or not. I tried to stick with a few Blok energy chews every 45 minutes, and for the most part that was doable and kept me feeling good throughout the race. Around mile 20, I switched to grabbing water at every aid station instead of every other. By the end of the marathon, I had much improved my drinking-water-from-a-flimsy-paper-cup-while-running-wihtout-getting-it-all-over-my-face technique. It was never super smooth, but I was proud of myself for not walking.

Every time I took in water, I would take a deep breath after to settle everything and make sure I wasn’t going to get the hiccups (I felt like was taking in some weird air bubbles while trying to simultaneously run and drink). These ended up being great check-in moments, and I kept finding that I was feeling great. I don’t want to sound like a broken record or braggy, but I honestly felt great almost the entire race. Of course it was difficult, and my legs were hurting toward the end, but I couldn’t stop smiling and aerobically I felt like I was thriving.

Jumping around again, sorry. Amanda and I split up at some point during mile 14. I thought I’d want to listen to music the second I was alone, but I kept wanting to take in the audience energy so I held off putting my headphones in until maybe mile 17? Then, once I did put on my headphones, I kept pausing the music to listen to whatever random drumline or speaker setup I was passing at the time, so I gave up on the music after 3 songs and I have no regrets.

I gave my mom a hug when I saw my parents around mile 18 (sorry if your coat still smells, mom <3) and that gave me the energy boost I needed to get to mile 20. I checked in on my time at that point, and it showed 3:18, which was four minutes faster than my 20-mile training run. That felt great, and I think around there is when I realized that I could really push for my goal and most likely break 4:30. Heading into mile 20 was wild because it was totally uncharted territory and I had no idea what to expect. I’d gotten to that point in the race without hitting a wall, miraculously, so in the way back of my mind, I think I was waiting for the wall to show up, but still just taking in the crowd energy, enjoying how steady my breathing felt, and listening to my body. My legs were definitely feeling it, but nothing hurt in an injured way which I was (and am) extremely grateful for.

Around this point in the race, I heard a lot of “only __  miles left!” cheers. I get why this should be helpful in theory because we’d come so far, but five, three, even two miles sounds like a lot after running 20. I think hearing some of those cheers nearly got into my head, but ultimately I was fine. I can’t remember exactly when this was, but I took a few walking steps to drink water at one of the aid stations, and my legs felt like they just had to keep moving. They were a little like Jell-O for those initial few walking steps, but it truly felt like walking was more difficult than running at that point. So I walked once in the early 20 miles for a few steps, then again to drink water later (maybe around mile 24); otherwise I ran the entire time. I am so beyond proud of myself for that.

W O W, I am dragging this recap out for so long, I am so sorry (but I did warn you). Let me just tell you about mile 25. I was in disbelief at this point because I knew I was going to finish, I still somehow felt great, and my watch had died by then but I was pretty positive I was on track to break 4:30. Just before the last mile, there’s a huge cheer section where people are smashed together, many rows deep, just screaming their hearts out for runners in the final stretch. I knew my parents were going to try to make it to that section, but they weren’t sure they’d be able to walk there in time. I was scanning the crowd looking for them but couldn’t find them. I tried not to be disappointed, and I honestly wasn’t because there were so many humans screaming so loud.

I don’t know how to explain what happened next, but all I know is I looked over my left shoulder to the crowd a bit behind me, AND THERE WAS MY MOM!!! Her tiny perfect little face was visible through the crowd. They were on the left side of the course, and I was running more to the right, so I saw her through lots of runners, too. I lost it and went crazy waving and blowing kisses. I think I tried to yell “I love you!” so maybe accidentally confessed my love to a random runner. It was so, so wild; I did not hear her or my dad yell, and I don’t know what made me look over there, but it was absolutely what I needed to run hard to the end.

I crossed the finish line in 4 hours, 19 minutes, and 2 seconds.

I finished strong and I teared up toward the end, but I never actually cried. My body and mind felt very present and calm upon crossing the finish line. I kind of had these weird moments of what seemed like a sob bubbling up but it always mixed with a crazy feeling of happiness and came out sounding like a weird sob-laugh. I walked through the finishing tunnel, got my medal, got some water, a banana, and a beer. I was elated and tired and floppy and so proud of myself and everyone around me.

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Words cannot express how ready for this beer I was ❤

So that’s it! Three thousand words later, that’s pretty much everything I experienced during the marathon, give or take a million more things I’ll never be able to express. I felt so much emotion throughout the entire run, in the same way I’ve felt so much while observing the NYC Marathon in the past. It’s just an amazing thing to be a part of a huge group of people from so many different backgrounds, putting their hard work into action and being buoyed along by thousands of strangers who are there to help them celebrate achieving the goals.

I’m so happy with my training; I had some fears that I hadn’t done enough. It was probably just run of the mill taper anxieties, but I wasn’t sure. I want to attribute at least some of the good feelings to beginner’s luck, like an ignorance is bliss mentality since I hadn’t run the distance before and had no idea what I was getting into. But I think what made the absolute most difference was the incredible, constant crowd support and my own dedicated and hard work sticking to my training. I’m trying to let myself feel proud of my own work, without qualifying it in any way.

Oh I also wanted to touch on fueling quick. So I tried to have 2-3 gummies from my Blok energy chews once every 45 minutes. I ended up eating 2.5 Blok packets, total, and that felt like a good amount to me. I grabbed water at every other aid station for the first 20 or so miles, then started grabbing it at every aid station for the last 10K, so that meant water at least once a mile toward the end. I also grabbed a banana half to eat around mile 17, because they were handing them out. Last bit of fuel information: the Goose Island train was out at mile 23, cheering people on and handing out little shots of their special Twenty Six Point Two beer, brewed specially for the marathon. That was probably against my better judgement, but I took one because I was feeling good, so why not. A small bit of ice cold beer actually tasted amazing in the moment, but I did not enjoy the random couple beer burps I had right after. I luckily got water shortly after that to swish the taste out of my mouth.

Which brings me to the final portion of this race recap (finally): the fundraiser. Earlier, I mentioned that the only way I could participate was if I signed up as a fundraiser for an organization of my choosing. I chose St. Jude Children’s Research Hospitals because I’d of course heard of the organization before, and I strongly believe in their cause. I think the work that St. Jude’s does is amazing for many reasons; patients and families in their care never receive a bill for treatment. Also, the research clinic shares all research development with the greater scientific community, so all cancer treatment research benefits from donations to St. Jude.

I had to raise $1,750, which was a crazy daunting number. My friends and family came together and helped me to raise more than $1,850 for this amazing organization, and that is something I will forever and ever be grateful for. It’s also something that helped me get through this marathon. I distinctly remember a wave of tiredness hitting at mile 21, and then thinking of all the individuals who took the time to go online and donate their hard-earned money to my fundraiser, in order to allow me to even be there on Sunday, working toward my goal. What an incredible thing.

The fundraiser remains open until October 27, so if anyone did want to donate but forgot, you still have time! Follow that link and go from there, and know that I’m eternally grateful to you.

So! Now I’m looking forward. When I say that this distance feels like it opened up a damn around running, I’m not exaggerating. I’ve run six half marathons now, and my feeling after all of them has varied, but I have never been itching to get out running again less than 48 hours after those races ended. But last week, there I was Googling how much time off is recommended after a marathon on the Tuesday after the race. I have never been more eager to maintain this level of fitness, not because I feel like I have to but just because I want to, and because I loved the journey of getting to this level.

I’m so grateful to the city of Chicago, where it feels like I’ve learned the most about myself as a runner. My first ever half marathon was the Chicago spring half; that’s where I got hooked. The first half marathon that felt great (i.e. still felt like a functioning human after in terms of soreness, diet, etc.) was the third half marathon I ever did (also in Chicago, also with Amanda). And now, Chicago will forever be the home of my first marathon. It’s been a great place to discover (over and over again) my love of running.

Training for this marathon did remind me that I love running so, so much. I’m not the best at it, but I’ve become a better version of myself through it. I’ve kept at it and have improved by spending the time and effort and sweat and pain on it. It has taught me to listen to and reside in my body in the healthiest and best way I’ve ever known how. This training cycle was hard work, but it was also a lot of fun. It gave me the tools I needed to go easy on myself after a bad day, and to recognize the good days and push myself harder than I ever thought possible. I only had myself to compete with, and only myself to impress.

I loved marathon training in particular, because it convinced me that I can do hard things; this is something I’ve kind of always known, but to think about where I was when I started training vs. where I was on Sunday gives me goosebumps. I mean! I did something I never thought I could do! I just did it! And I did it in a patient and smart way, that took time and effort, but that kept me healthy and strong! I just feel proud of myself!

Okay so I think that’s really it this time. This was so, so long and I am sorry about that. I hope I was able to convey how much fun I had through this wordy recap, though. I will also tell you: I’ve already registered for a half marathon (with, you guessed it, Amanda!) in early December, followed by the Jingle Bell Jog 5K which should be a nice fun break from the longer distances. I may also register for a 5-mile turkey trot on Thanksgiving, but we’re going to see about that one.

I am so grateful to Amanda for suggesting this crazy marathon idea almost a year ago now, to every single human who donated to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospitals, to the many amazing runner-bloggers who have taken the time to document their own races so I could spend months obsessively reading about their experiences, and most of all to my family for always supporting my crazy dreams and getting as excited about them as I do.

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Squinty! Cheesy! Salty! Post! Marathon! Bliss!!!

I FEEL SO FULL. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. All signs point to running more marathons in the future, and I pinky-promise to keep those recaps a tiny bit shorter. ◊