Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Year of the Second Chance: One Down, Four to Go

My poor blog has been shamefully neglected so far this year, but that's about to change.  As I posted in the sole other entry for this year, I've labelled 2013 as the Year of the Second Chance, and identified five goals that I've started, dropped, felt bad about, and want to see to completion. I am happy to report that I have now completed one goal, and this post is about that.  I'll be doing another post soon with updates on the one that is well underway and the three that are in various states of neglect, and how I plan to turn them around, too. But for now, let's focus on the positive, shall we?  And the good news is, I have finished a marathon! The Key Bank Vermont City Marathon, to be exact.

Since I didn't actually write about the process of preparing for the marathon, I am going to attempt to do that here while also doing what I consider a public service to other newbies contemplating making this a personal goal for themselves. I am now presenting to the world (or the infinitely smaller subset of people who might read this) Ten Things Someone Should Tell You Before You Sign Up to Run a Marathon.

1. Your best asset is someone who knows what they're doing to help you. In my case, that was my astoundingly patient boyfriend, Jon.  He's a veteran marathoner (actually he even did a 50-miler two summers ago) and has encyclopedic knowledge on all things running.  He put together a training schedule for me, answered a million questions, and dispensed lots of advice, much of which I initially ignored to my peril.  A case in point was the battle over Gu. After we did a half marathon where I felt like I totally lost all my energy and will to move at mile 10.5 (just as I had in two previous half-marathons) he suggested it was really time for me to give up my resistance to Gu -- those little foil packets of energy gel.  But my vision in my head was that Gu resembles nothing so much as chocolate snot, so I continued my resistance.  Finally, on a three-hour run I tried one, and came back home demanding to know why he hadn't told me that it was actually a lot like chocolate frosting. We had similar bouts of me insisting that I really didn't need to carry a water bottle on long runs, and my old cotton sweats would do just fine in all kinds of weather.  If, like me, you insist on doing things as they might have fifty years ago and an expert is telling you differently, save yourself some time and take their advice.
At the Great Bay Half Marathon, where I still refused to learn my lesson that there might be a reason that runners eat Gu. On a side note, the hills on this course were horrible, but they did serve free beer at the end of it.

2.  If you sign up for a marathon held in the spring or early summer, that means you have to train through the winter. And if you live in Vermont, that means you have to train in a Vermont Winter.  My training started in early January for the Burlington City Marathon, which was held on Sunday, May 26. This leads me to point 3, which is...

3. You are about to become annoyingly obsessed with the weather. One thing about a training schedule is that you're supposed to stick to it.  Most people would rather chew glass than run on a treadmill for more than an hour, so for long runs especially, the weekend forecast becomes a huge deal. Don't be surprised if you start checking the forecast the day before a big run every few hours in the vague hope that the driving rain warning will have disappeared, or the expected temperature has gone up at least a few degrees.  You will spend way too much time trying to figure out whether it's better to be cold on the front end of your run, or have to do annoying things like carry your gloves or tie a jacket around your waist while running for two hours on the back end. Marathon day this year was particularly cruel. A week out, the forecast was jauntily predicting a partly sunny day in the low 60s, and then turned a couple of days out to rain, temperatures in the low 30s and wind in the 20ish mile per hour range.

4. You are also about to become equally annoyingly obsessed with your long runs. The average newbie training schedule is built around the Long Run.  Depending on the schedule you complete runs 2-4 other days a week.  Mine had me doing one run a week on hills (my dreaded Depot Street rounds, for those who live in Burlington), and a second day trying to work on speed (a very big problem for me as a very slow runner).  The big run would come on the weekend, either Saturday or Sunday, with every week supposed to build successively on the mileage of the week before.  Again, because I am a very slow runner, I would just run for time, beginning in January running for an hour and a half and working up to my longest run in early May, which was five hours.

Here's the thing about long runs: they take over your weekends.  First, you have to carve out half of a precious weekend day to do them. Then you have to make sure that there isn't a better half-day weather-wise and rearrange if there is.  Then if that half day happens to be a morning, if you're me you have to start by getting up an hour early to eat something. Then you can go back to your nice warm bed for 40 minutes or so on some frigid February morning, and have an argument with yourself about what to wear that will be warm enough but not so hot that it will make you sweaty and then freezing when you do the part of your long run down by Lake Champlain where the wind blows a lot. Then it's 1.5-4 or even 5 hours of running while you are sure that the rest of the world is either sleeping or doing really, really fun things. Finally, you're done, but not really.  Because then you are very stiff.  You will make up elaborate plans to avoid doing any activity involving going up or down stairs, and drive other people crazy by forcing them to listen to your long run stories when they make the mistake of asking why you are walking slowly or limping the day after your long run.

5.  Your second-best asset is a circle of true-blue friends and family. The fact that for roughly five months you will think that the weather and your long runs are endlessly fascinating topics that other people want to discuss for hours brings me to this point, namely that you better have some good karma going with the important people in your life. They will need to be patient, supportive, good at pretending that they care about weather and your long runs, and willing to clear their schedules the weekend of your marathon. Unbeknownst to me, Jon put together a projected schedule of when I would be passing what mile points, and worked with my very excellent friends Siham and Amanda to make sure I'd have support at a bunch of different points during the run. (He actually ran the marathon himself, in three hours and 17 minutes, then joined Siham and Amanda on the Cheer Squad).  My colleagues Katie and Sue stationed themselves at different points during the route, Siham and Amanda popped up most memorably with Jon at mile 21 and my friend and former student Annie pulled together a crew of SMC students to cheer me near the finish.
The ultimate support crew -- Siham, Amanda and Jon -- carbo loading with me at Papa Frank's the night before the marathon.

Of course nothing spells support quite so directly as this handmade Yoda doll my sister Katrinka made for me and sent from Tacoma to arrive right before the big day.

6. If you never thought about your bathroom habits before, you will now. Every subculture has its embarrassing questions that newbies need to know but don't want to ask.  In long-distance running that question is, "but what about going to the bathroom?" My favorite set of advice comes from a great running blog called Shut Up and Run.  The url is here:
Most people I know, myself included, have found that another part of marathon training is "getting regular" -- that is trying to establish the habit for your body so you can get everything out of your body before you set out on your run.  Works for me, but I also know people who bring toilet paper and/or know where there are toilets to use on the route.  I've heard more than one story from people who missed their goal marathon time because they just had to make a pit stop.

7. Training for a marathon might actually set you back in some of your other fitness goals. I always assumed that all marathoners were ultra-fit individuals who probably ran a marathon, then turned around and swam across a lake and then maybe won some other kind of sports championship, just for fun.  Obviously, there are a lot of uber-fit athletes among marathoners, but just because you complete a marathon, that doesn't automatically translate into other forms of fitness.  In fact, what I found was that it detracted from some of my other fitness goals for two reasons.  The first is that marathon training requires the discipline of holding to the training schedule, and the soreness that accompanies that.  I couldn't do my regular cardio class at the Y on Monday mornings because I'd still be really sore from my long runs most weeks. I did try to continue rock climbing indoors at least twice a week, but other exercise often got sacrificed to marathon training.  The other problem is that marathoners start to get pretty nervous after a couple months of training about any possible injuries that could render all that training for naught.  I didn't downhill ski this year in part because of that fear, and on a rock climbing trip in Utah I'm sure I drove the whole group crazy with my slower-than-usual hiking up and down approaches to make sure I wouldn't twist an ankle or otherwise throw my training in jeopardy.

8.  It really is true that marathon training is for your mind as much as your body. I don't think I really understood this till the marathon was over.  Jon was always reminding me that long runs are partly just about "time on your feet" -- getting your body, but also your mind, used to moving for such a long distance and knowing that it can. One of the reasons I wanted to do the marathon in the first place is that I've always had major issues stemming back to being an extremely mediocre high school cross-country runner.  I just didn't think I could do it.  But the conundrum is that in marathon running, if you think you can't, you're probably right.  I was in tears the night before and again the morning of, the marathon thinking that I just wasn't going to be able to pull it off.  Luckily, my friend and veteran marathoner Patrick told me that this is normal and would fall away when the race actually began. He was right, and when I hit the 13 mile point, where the half-marathon relayers stopped, I suddenly thought that actually, I could do this. And then when I hit the twenty mile point I knew I'd be able to finish it.
Amanda snapped this picture of me on the Burlington Bike Path around mile 24.  I had been super-worried that I'd quit in the last four miles.  But lots of people told me if you make it that far, there's no way you're willing to stop then, and they're right.

9. Marathon training starts out being about injury avoidance and ends up being about injury management. Whatever underlying weakness we have in our bodies, marathon training will pick it right up.  Although Jon kept telling me to first of all try to avoid injuries, and I did try, I was relieved when our Yoga for Runners teacher, Erika, told us that ultimately, almost everyone sustains some kind of injury training for a marathon, and that continuing the training is all about injury management.  I had some knee pain and stiffness, but the thing I didn't expect was the beating that my feet took.  After every long run I'd have a big pain on the outside of my left foot and an even worse one in a bump that developed on the back of my right heel. 

10. Despite everything in the previous nine points, knowing you've completed a marathon -- at whatever pace, in whatever way you did it -- is a truly great feeling.  I highly recommend it. When I started training for the marathon, I had goals for the time I wanted to run it in, and I didn't want to take any walk breaks.  By the time of the marathon, I knew those weren't realistic, and the only goal I kept was just finishing the marathon. And I'm so happy that I did.  Something that I've come to realize is that I don't believe in perfection.  I think perfection is the enemy of action, and that we waste way too much of our lives refusing to start something or to complete it, because it's not perfect.  My sister Katrinka sometimes reminds me to "just trust the process", and on this one she was so right. If you think you'd like to run a marathon, my advice is to do it.  It takes months to train, possibly longer if you haven't run before, and it requires a commitment to stay with the process every week during those months. But here I found the words of Earl Nightingale very useful, "Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it.  The time will pass anyway." If I can do it, anyone can.
Jon and me at a few minutes after I finished (he'd, of course, been done for ages). I really wanted to take a nap, but was also trying to figure out a way to get to my bed that didn't involve moving my legs and feet.


  1. I enjoyed your post and appreciated it very much. It was also just fun to read your perspective with a twist of humor. :)- Jess Davis

  2. Fantastic post! And an excellent introduction, for those of us who needed one, to Jon.

  3. TRISH! You are such a force. Congratulations! I loved this post, too. My favorite point is about "getting regular." The embarrassing runners' issues are usually the most fun to talk about ;)