You Never Forget Your First Marathon

Rather than write a post about my pre-marathon jitters (48 hours to go!!), today I'm turning this post over to my friend Faisal, who recently completed his first marathon this past October, the Detroit Free Press Marathon.  I met Faisal over a year ago through the fitness classes that I coach, and I was fortunate enough to coach him through his first marathon training cycle.  Faisal has made such amazing fitness gains since I have known him, and he has a wonderful way with words, which you will find out for yourself.  He has a very bright running future ahead of him.  The goal, as it should be for your first marathon, was to finish with a smile on his face.  Mission accomplished!  If you are a marathon veteran, this will take you back to your first, and if you have never completed a marathon, this just might inspire you to sign up for one!  Here we go:

I knew I had hit an all-time low in my running career as both hamstrings simultaneously cramped when I crossed mile 14 and couldn’t jog another step without excruciating pain. I thought I had run a strategically sound race thus far – negative splits every 5k, while taking my time at fluid stations and fueling every 5-6 miles. Waddling along, I saw the 4:00 pacer pass me. My eyes swelled; my throat tightened; waves of realization crashed over me. I tried to pull out my phone to text my running coach, Sara, only to see my hands fumbling like uncoordinated puppets. So, THIS is what it’s like to run a marathon.

Just over a year ago, I never had any desire to run. It was my least favorite way to exercise. I was obese and inactive in high school. In fact, when PE class conducted fitness tests, I ran the mile in 15 minutes. Circumstances navigated me through murky marshes of self-doubt and the stifling vacuum of vacillation to meet life-altering mentors like Sara, who somehow saw potential in my running ability (or lack thereof). I had never even run a 5k. Little did I know … Sara was my first glimpse into the spirit of running and marathoning.

I think my willingness to give running a shot was one of the best decisions of my life. In October 2016, I ran my first 10k and surprised myself, finishing in 49:11. Two weeks later, I registered for a half marathon. I found myself waking in winter darkness, slipping on my balaclava, gloves, and layers of running gear to brave the bitter wind chills and snow. As 2017 began, I wanted to sign up for the Detroit Free Press International half marathon, but registered instead for the full on a whim. The commitment was made. Had I gone bonkers? Maybe. Did I think I could do it? Hell yes. Because my first glimpse of marathoning was this incredible Wonder Woman whom I didn’t even know that well (at the time), and she believed in me so strongly that I was nonplussed. Why would someone do that? “What in flaming salamanders does she see in me?” I thought. I still do.

In attempting to follow a structured training regiment, I quickly discovered that I desperately needed guidance. Sara took me under her wing, and I embarked on a journey of growth I will never forget. Training was wonderfully brutal, yet flexible. I was gasping for air during threshold paces. My legs were screaming after every 200m repeat. Long runs started at 12 miles, and I dreaded how long it would feel once I hit 20. I remember many mornings where getting out the door was impossible because my mind thought I couldn’t handle it. But as legendary ultra-runner Jeff Edmonds remarked, “Training is doing your homework. It’s not exciting. More often than not, it’s tedious. There is certainly no glory in it. But you stick with it, over time, and incrementally, through no specific session, your body changes. Your mind becomes calloused to effort. You stop thinking of running as difficult or interesting or magical. It just becomes what you do. It becomes a habit.”

And it did. I began to eagerly await Saturday morning long runs with my training partner, Jill. Our runs would begin at 4:45 a.m., which meant I was up at 2:45 a.m. I remember carbing up the night before, regulating my bathroom breaks, discovering which pre-run fuel worked, and understanding my body better. From nightmarish bathroom experiences, to leg cramps and side stitches, to my first blue toenail, Jill’s jovial personality made every mile not only bearable, but

thoroughly enjoyable. We would constantly remind each other that at the end of our runs, there were stacks of pumpkin pancakes and whipped cream with our names on them. Many uncensored conversations about topics I would never dream of discussing otherwise were had. I remember naming a particular hill as the perfect laxative. I remember when my Garmin first lied to me, clocking a 4:40 mile. I remember the pain. I remember embracing it. And I remember becoming a better person because of it.

Whilst I was ecstatic about my increased calorie intake (hellooooo carbs!), my body was changing. I lost ten pounds. Vascularity and muscle mass decreased, and I struggled to accept it. But as the weeks elapsed, my lungs were noticeably stronger, my legs had adjusted to the mileage, and self-esteem shot up. Sara was with me every step of the way, providing feedback on my splits, advising me on what to focus on, and reassuring me when I was discouraged. I didn’t feel like I had a coach. I felt like I was talking to a long-time friend.

During peak training a month out from the Free Press marathon, I cross-trained probably more than I should have, while running 40-45 miles a week. The one lesson I learned during times of fatigue was to trust in your training. When runs felt harder than expected, I reminded myself to trust Sara and trust in my tenacity.

It is said that the second hardest part of running a marathon is the taper madness. During the final three weeks of training, although my exterior may have appeared calm and nonchalant, internally I was increasingly erratic, irrational, and paranoid. I questioned my readiness, thought I should run more, and yearned to eat mountains of desserts as a coping mechanism. I googled marathon tips, strategized plans A through Z for race day, and cared too much about the timing my carb loading. Bottles of Purell filled my car’s armrest, and I was sanitizing my hands at work every ten minutes because I was scared to fall ill. Coworkers were giving me weird looks and family was perplexed.

Two weeks since popping my marathon cherry, I’ve finally been able to digest my training and race experience. Friends and coworkers have congratulated me on finishing. Family has hosted a dinner to help me refuel. Sara is, I think, much happier than I was. And that bothered me.

Why was I not an emotional kaleidoscope post-race? Was this guilt? Could I have given more? Maybe it’s because I missed that one threshold workout several weeks ago. Or I didn’t hydrate enough. Or I underestimated the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel’s effects. What was I expecting, really? The fairy tale 3:35 debut for a guy who’d only run two 1:50 half marathons and was nowhere near the level of fitness expected for that kind of time? That too, when obscene humidity and windy weather made for tough running conditions? These thoughts pounded in my head for four nights following the race.

Then came the epiphany. I remember a surreal feeling in mile 23. Sara, as well as my wonderful training partner, Jill, texted me within minutes of each other, as I rounded the bend exiting Belle Isle.

“I’m pulling for you, my friend! Keep going!!”

“Keep going!! I’m here! You’re doing great!”

I felt my pain subside a bit. Their unshakeable faith in my ability reminded me again of the marathon spirit. Here I was, running, of my own volition. And there they all were - volunteers, customs agents, law enforcement officials, families, fans, Jill and Sara, of their own volition – unconditionally reminding me how capable I was.

I was sad. I was mad. I cried, and yes, I sulked. I wished I could rewind and prepare differently - do that threshold run I missed, eat better, hydrate. But reality gives nothing back, and neither should I. I gave this race everything. Dwelling too much on what could have been, or what could be, made me forget what is. I am a marathoner.

The greatest lesson the marathon teaches is that by focusing on the mini milestones along the way, one finds beauty in the struggle of doing the simplest of things. Each mile marker, each turn, each construction cone, the next street lamp, that oak tree at the corner, that fire hydrant, the next aid station, that power-up sign held by a spectator … all remind us that our limits are not where we think they are. I could still jog, despite my hamstring issues. I could still smile. My GI system was cooperating. And with each mini milestone I passed, the belief that I could cross that finish line grew. The same belief that Sara and Jill had in me. And I am now a better runner for it.

So, when thoughts of, “I can’t do this. I am not worthy, and I am not capable” flashed across my mind during miles 14-20 after my hamstrings gave out, I found myself fighting back, gutturally uttering words of resilience. “I am capable, I am healthy, I am strong, I am running, I am free, I am thankful.” It took several miles for the influx of positivity to turn into determined grit. “Whatever I have, give. Bring it out today. Right now. Everything. Be free.” I jog-walked through residential areas, absorbing the Halloween decorations and hilariously creative signs of supporters. A baby high fived me at mile 17. A group of people had erected a fake brick wall at mile 18 and were encouraging racers to run through it. A basketball hoop had been hung over a trash can at an aid station on Belle Isle. Two points for me! Once I began to focus on the marathon experience, the race took on a new meaning.

After I exited Belle Isle and processed Sara and Jill’s texts, I remember the biting wind during mile 24 as we ran along the Riverwalk. Of course, I WOULD be running into wind during the final 5k. My right hamstring’s final plea shot down my leg as an enthusiastic man tried to shovel Fireball my way. Flashes of my dad swimming laps at the YMCA dissolved into the numerous failures I’d experienced in my life. I remembered them all. With a guttural growl and tear-laden eyes, I reminded myself of four things:

“This is not how the story is going to end. I am not limping across the finish line.”

“If I want to grow, I have got to suffer. Come here, pain! Let me hug you.”

“You feel like you’re crumbling, but this is not your destruction. This is your birth.”

“Do it for yourself, do it for Sara, for Jill. Hell, do it for pancakes and cupcakes. Just #$@!*& DO IT!”

As the hamstring pain ebbed, I was side-by-side with the man who had sang the national anthems of both Canada and the United States at race’s start. In a brief chat with him, I discovered he was running his 30th marathon THIS YEAR. Flabbergasted, I congratulated him, and he reassured me that I would finish strong, because marathoners always do. And that reminded me of Hal Higdon’s remark, “If you are staring at the specter of self-doubt, you can find a bit more strength deep inside you if you look closely enough.” Finishing a marathon is the triumph of desire over reason. Your body screams a thousand reasons why you should give up, but you ignore them anyway.

I slogged up the final hill and made the turn for the finish line. If my jaw could have dropped, it would have. Crowds lined both sides of the street, their thundering cheers propelling every runner forward. I felt the hairs on my arm rise, and a cauldron of elation began to bubble in the pit of my stomach. Jill was screaming herself hoarse on my right. I pointed up to the heavens in gratitude as I crossed the finish line. I felt numb at first. I didn’t know what to feel. A volunteer wrapped me in a race blanket and handed me water. As I made my way to the racers’ exit, I knelt along a building’s wall. And tears began to flow for no reason. Just as they are as I’m writing this. I would like to think it is joy, but gold-medalist and long-distance runner Emil Zatopek’s observation is perfectly fitting: “If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

Positivity during the first 11 miles, doubt at miles 12-13, devastating disappointment and fear of failure at 14, frustration at 15, acceptance at 16, appreciation at 17-19, elation at 20, mental ping pong at 21-22, reassurance at 23, pain at 24, determination at 25, and adrenaline at 26.

THAT is what it’s like to run a marathon. I can’t wait to experience it again.

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26.2 Success!!