My alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. on Sunday and I shot out of bed with the excitement of a kid at Christmas. I had 45 minutes to fuel and hydrate before we had to be out the door to catch a T into the city for the Pittsburgh Marathon.
When I did my first half marathon last fall, I had an entire spring and summer of training behind it. This year, with a really rough winter, my training was spotty and included zero hills. It definitely wasn’t what it should have been, so while I probably wasn’t in peak physical condition, mentally I was so excited I could barely stand it.
There’s just something about the Pittsburgh Marathon for me that’s hard to put into words. The energy is like a wave. Standing in the start corrals for 35 minutes until my group got close to the start line was cold, rainy and exhilarating. I was trying not to jump up and down from just sheer excess energy – not even nervous, just excited from head to toe. Once we were off, I settled into my music and mouthed the words at some parts, heading through downtown to the Strip District.
I knew my friends and family cheering section was waiting on the North Side, just around mile 6. All I could do was think about getting to them during the first 6 miles. I was moving at a really fast clip and had to sometimes stop myself from getting too excited – my heart was racing and I was smiling like a crazy person. I was getting swept up in the energy. Even the hills on the North Side felt like nothing.
I spotted my cheerers on the other side of the road from where I was running and I darted across to slap their hands. That moment for me when I saw them cheering and screaming my name and waving signs – it’s indescribable. Maybe it’s because I was never an athlete growing up and the activities I participated in didn’t really warrant “cheering sections.” But I felt like I was soaring and lifted up. So much so that I choked up as I passed them and almost burst into tears right there on Western Ave.
It was with that burst that I crossed the West End Bridge and entered the West End. And hills. And I realized I was way too hyped up and tried to slow my pace again. But by mile 9 around Station Square, I knew the wheels were going to fall off the wagon. My calves started cramping – not even just being sore, but twisting in pain. And my IT band? Yikes. I could barely muster the strength to finish those last few miles. I kept going and managed to only take two small walk breaks for 30 seconds, but I knew the PR was gone. I had used up all my gas in the first 7 miles and was going to run on fumes at the end.
At mile 12 I knew I was going to see my cheerers again during the last stretch, so I really pushed my legs and let that drive me forward. Mark took a few photos of me running by and my face pretty much shows how rough it was. I got to mile 13 and only had a tenth of a mile to go, and one of the medics flanking the end of the route looked directly at me, saw my name on my bib and yelled “You GOT this JOANNA! Just 100 yards to go! You can do it!” and I had to choke down tears again as I basically hurtled myself across the line and walked with jello legs forward to collect my medal and some fuel and a spaceman blanket. And some ice. And meet up with my friends.
I feel like I learn something new about the way I experience running in every race. And this race? I realized how much I just love good races and the thrill of running in general. I still want to push myself to complete a 26.2 this year, and I know how much commitment to training that will take, as well as rehabilitation for my IT band. (I start physical therapy today for an injury I’ve had since last year but never really addressed.)
But I also realized that for me, PRs are not something to strive for. I’m not fast and I never will be. Completion is the goal, because if I keep pushing at faster and faster times, I end up having a great first half of a race and a punishing second half. I would rather coast along and enjoy myself and the thrill of being out there and watching my cheerers. During this race I was off of my PR ultimately by 7 minutes, which is only thanks to how fast I ran the first 7 miles.
I do this for health and because I love it, not because I’m ever going to win anything, and I want to stop trying to win against myself. I will remember the first half of this race in my mind as one of the best runs I’ve ever had. And the only thing I’m going to chase this summer is that feeling.
I can’t forget to mention probably the most important part of this whole thing. Through Run for a Reason and the generosity of my family and friends, I raised $710 for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. My original goal was to raise $350 and I doubled that. Correction – YOU doubled that. I am comforted by the fact that something very good came out of this effort and that there are bellies being filled in our area by the money the Food Bank team managed to raise.
I won’t be writing about running much unless I race during the next few months, so if you’re interested, you can follow me on Instagram and watch for the hashtag #yearofthemarathon to see thoughts and photos on training. So now it’s on to physical therapy and training with some races peppered in here and there – the Columbus Marathon in October being the ultimate goal. Columbus, here I come!