Fair warning. This is long. I have a lot I need to record, so bear with me. And meet me here Thursday if you’d rather talk about vegetables.
On Sunday, October 19, I became a marathoner. 26.2 miles for the first time.
Now I know why people say they have a hard time describing the marathon experience. If you pick one select moment, you think “I was on top of the world” and if you pick another, you think “that was complete and total agony.” So which is it? Both. It felt like everything all at once – joy, pain, despair, happiness, agony, and triumph.
I came in to marathon weekend feeling pretty overwhelmed. I was sick earlier in the week and spent a morning in the ER, nearly in tears because I was terrified they’d tell me I couldn’t run. On Friday, the night before we were supposed to leave for Columbus, Vader got sick and had to go to the emergency vet. Thankfully he was better enough in the morning that we were able to go, and some wonderful friends checked in on him throughout the weekend.
We made it to Columbus for the expo on Saturday, and I had my first overwhelming moment when I saw this sign.
I was, as Mark would say, verklempt. And also, sort of nauseated, to tell the truth. Everything about the expo was well organized – and they even had a Goodwill section where people could buy “throw-off” clothes to have at the start line to keep warm. I had already made a Goodwill run earlier in the week, but that was a fantastic idea.
Also at the expo, I picked up a couple of presents for myself.
Yep, that’s a Christmas ornament. Mark and I will often get Christmas ornaments when we travel, to help remember our trips. I figured this was worth memorializing too. The tank is also incredibly comfortable (and ended up being somewhat prophetic, actually).
Saturday night, we met up with our friends who were running the full and half and spectating for carb overload. We had great sushi at a place called Akai Hana, and followed it up with a singular beer and some pizza back at the hotel. I’ve found that the sushi/pizza/one beer combo is best for my carb loading because it doesn’t upset my stomach too heavily. I will probably do that combo for my next longer race, for sure.
I had a decent night’s sleep for the night before my first marathon, but when my hydration alarm went off at early o’clock, I couldn’t fall back to sleep after I drank all my tea. (I drink a lightly caffeinated green tea before long runs. Works for me somehow.) So I laid in bed and tried to visualize having a really good day, but the fear was creeping in. I have long been plagued by visits from a voice that tells me I’m not good enough, particularly as a runner. Once the final alarm went off, I forced myself up and at em, and silenced the voice in favor of getting all of my gear on without forgetting anything.
Let’s take a moment to talk about gear. I love how people always say that running is the best because all you need are shoes. Well, not me. I needed Body Glide and Kinesio tape, electrolyte chews and my heart monitor, my hydration pack, my shoes, you name it. I wore Walmart capris, my Beat the Blerch race t-shirt, and some arm warmers that turned out to be amazing by Oiselle. I basically wear Walmart and Target running gear, unless I wear a race shirt. I can’t afford LuLu pants or Athleta jackets. But the arm warmers were a last minute Amazon Prime purchase when I realized I would need covered arms, but didn’t want the heat of a second layer. And now I know why people like Oiselle stuff. They were amazing.
That brings us to the start line. Mark and our other friend A were biking the spectator route, so they left a bit later. The four of us that were running, took a brisk morning shuffle through downtown Columbus to get to North Bank Park and our corrals. The only really hard part about that was the full court press of the crowds as the corrals were closing, it still being basically dark outside. Oh and the fact that I was really nervous. I really tried to just think about it as another race and to not be thinking about mile 26 so early.
From our view in D corral, we could see the fireworks during the national anthem and the gun start for wheelchair athletes. Pretty amazing, actually. I was super impressed at the fireworks, but only got a good photo of the smoke afterwards. They did it all again as the elites took off, and then for the “regular people”. Sadly, by the time D corral moved into place, the fireworks were over, but the DJ was still blasting music.
I threw off my Goodwill hoodie, and we were off. The journey of 26.2 miles really does start with one step. If there had been a camera at the start line, I know it would have captured a smile on my face.
As with all races, it was crowded at the beginning, but our group did a good job of sticking together. The first few miles just flew by. I mean, FLEW. I can barely remember running them. I was mostly taking in all the stimuli and the big crowds of spectators, scanning the crowd for helmets, bikes and hoodies, looking for Mark and A. Around mile 3, the course ran parallel to itself, with faster runners already at mile 7 on the other side of the road from us. Man, that was actually pretty inspiring. I was scanning that crowd too, looking for B corral runners that I follow through blogs online, in case I could yell out a cheer. But pretty soon I realized I was going to have to make the first bathroom stop of the race, and I’d have to stand in a line. Ugh. We made a pit stop and went as quickly as possible. (I stopped my GPS at bathroom stops, to at least keep an accurate time of how long it took to run, as opposed to how long we were on the course.)
We knew Mark and A were aiming to be somewhere around mile 8, so we enjoyed just tooling along, checking in on our pace every so often to make sure we weren’t pushing it too fast, too soon, due to being so excited and amped. This race is sponsored by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, and each mile has a patient champion. They had a cheer station with their families for each mile, plus signs along the way with their photos and fun facts. Those were not only a great distraction, but a great reminder of how privileged we were to be running the race in the first place. My favorite was a little girl who wanted to be a number of things when she grew up, including a wheelchair dancer.
I don’t remember much specifically about those early miles, because I was just having a great time, looking at signs and hearing the spectators, checking out the lovely Columbus neighborhoods we ran through. When we got to 8.5 and saw Mark and A, we freaked out and ran over. Mark had made these surprise signs that he laminated and attached to the front of his bike at each stop, so he could use his hands to take photos but still have a sign up. He had three during the race, and they were all Star Trek themed.
Personally, I think they were the most creative signs I saw all race, but I could be biased. (The polka ladies were a close second.)
Anyhow, the enjoyable miles just kept ticking by. By the time we got to the split, where the half marathoners went to the left to finish and we continued forward, we were talking with each other about how exciting it was to continue instead of turning to finish. As we ran along downtown, we remarked at how well it was all going and realized that we were actually having fun. After a marathon training season that was very much not fun and for me, a meh racing season, this section of the race through the Short North was amazing.
But we were suddenly very alone, the larger groups of runners we were with all turning to finish the half. I think it was somewhere around miles 15 and 16 that I realized that when you’re a back of the packer doing a marathon, your field isn’t huge. And as your field decreases, spectators do too. So I will be eternally grateful to the spectators that stuck it out to keep cheering. Because this is around when my legs really started to feel what they were doing. My left leg started to bother me, which is odd, since I usually have problems with my right. It started to get stiff and sore, but we pressed on through the OSU campus on our way to the stadium.
And right before we got to the stadium, my left calf twisted and cramped, bringing me to a halt. I stretched it out and walked for a bit and made it into the stadium, which was a really cool experience, especially for someone who doesn’t care about football. We heard marching band music playing and kind of wished the OSU band was waiting on the field, but it was a recording. Just as soon as we got to the stadium, we were back out again and headed for mile 17.
Somewhere in here, we found an aid station with food, and I grabbed two orange wedges like they were manna from heaven and shoved them in my face like a ravenous wolf. The juice was running all over, and I recall someone saying it would make a good photo.
I was really happy to get to Mark and A again just before mile 18, and so appreciative that they made it, since this was the farthest point on the course for them to get to. I can’t understate how much seeing Mark every so often helped me. Strangers cheering is awesome, but having someone there for you who knows you just amplifies that support.
I started to really struggle with leg pain for the next 2 miles, and as I started to panic about my legs being crampy and tight and the voice inside wondered how I would get another 10K, my heart rate started to go up. Which as an asthmatic isn’t the best – it makes my chest clamp and tighten. My friend T turned around and told me not to panic – she knows it’s my tendency – so I put both my earbuds in and tried to focus.
But the voices. Those negative voices. At mile 21, I started to really let them get the best of me and began walking more, escalating the leg pain and foot pain as everything started to seize and stiffen. I could barely hear my music, the voices were so loud. Deafening. You are so slow. You are too heavy to run marathons. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re walking. You didn’t train well enough. You don’t belong out here. Everyone else is already done. You’re holding your friends back. If it weren’t for you, they would be having a better experience.
My friends T and R essentially began mentally towing me at this point. I was running behind them, but they didn’t leave me behind. And this is where I tell you that you couldn’t ask for better friends than T and R. It’s a fact that they could have finished faster if they weren’t making sure we all finished together. But they were there for me silently and verbally coaching me forward when I had given up on myself. I don’t know how I could have finished without them, and that’s not hyperbole, either. Even though both of them would probably roll their eyes at this, I am blessed to have both of them in my life.
If I have one regret about this race, it’s that I mentally gave up and let those voices shove me headlong into a wall and keep me there. Yes, there was great physical pain that was no joke, and the entire experience had me verklempt in the way that you get when you’re trying to accomplish the impossible. But miles 21 through 25 were the ugliest part about running for me, and I am disappointed that I let that attitude take the wheel. (I also should have structured my playlist to anticipate that I’d need my best songs towards the end, but I didn’t have that kind of foresight.)
We saw Mark and A in between 24 and 25, and I cried when I saw him and tried to kiss him quickly and move on. He knew I was hurting and struggling and he whispered encouragement in my ear and said he’d see me at the finish. Somehow 6 minutes at a time, 3 minutes at a time, 2 minutes at a time, we got to 26.
And at 26, knowing there was just one more bend and two tenths of a mile left, we pressed on. Mark and A were in the spectator stands waiting for us and taking photos. We heard the announcer calling out names and I heard “Joanna Stone, Carnegie, Pennsylvania!” and threw my arms up in the air and ran across the finish line.
And there was joy.
Hat tip to A for taking this photo. And that’s T, an angel with a hydration pack instead of wings.
After the finish line (where I recall shriek screaming, though I have no idea why), we were given our medal and space blankets by smiling volunteers. The volunteer who gave me my blanket and taped it shut for me congratulated me and I told her she made me feel like a queen, slinging that foil around my shoulders. We moved over to the side of the chute to immediately stretch because our legs were all in pretty rough shape. That’s what happens when you run for 5:52. My chip time was 5:56:24, so I’m counting that as my time, but that included 3 toilet breaks, so we were actually a wee bit faster.
After our finish photos, we grabbed our food bags and hobbled out to meet S, our friend who ran the half, and the boys. I recall hugging Mark so tightly and trying not to cry again. I shoved some disgusting potato chips in my face and a bottle of water and slumped at a table. One advantage of taking so long to finish is that the festival is pretty well cleared out by the time you’re done, so there’s lot of seating and no problems finding your family.
This left the PR gong ready for me to give it a whack.
And then we hobbled as far as we could before we couldn’t walk anymore, and the boys returned on their bikes to the hotel to get a vehicle to pick us up. And it was over.
I can sit here now that it’s over and we’re home and be proud of myself – for the commitment I made to training, even when I really hated it. For pushing myself to the limits of what my body could handle – my body with all of its imperfections that still made it over 26.2 miles. I can also be fine with a race that showed the whole spectrum of what running can be – from the highest high to the lowest low.
The #roadtocolumbus took 6 months to travel. At the end of that road, I can call myself a marathoner.