Marathon Girl – Part 2

The morning evaporated in a bit of a blur. Matt served me pancakes in bed (I still can’t believe that he smuggled a George Foreman grill in his suitcase without causing any ruckus at the airport), and we were out the door by just before 4:45am so that we could get our van out of the hotel parking garage before the road closed in front of our hotel.

My mom and Matt drove me over to the start area, not more than 2 miles from our hotel, where we conveniently found a spot to park the van right in front of the road that I needed to walk down towards the start line! We were chatting away when I got distracted by a guy whipping off his shirt and starting to smear thick white sunscreen all over his chest. My heart dropped like a stone, and I realized that I had forgotten to put on my own sunscreen!! My brain totally went into overdrive and I started to weigh my options: 1) Go without (NOT a good idea in the California sun), 2) Ask shirtless guy for some of his sunscreen (not ideal either because his was a thick, heavy brand that I was worried would make me sweat even MORE than I was going to, and cause problems of its own, 3) book it back to the hotel somehow even though the road was closed….ACCCKKKKKKK!!!!

While all of this was flying through my head at a million miles an hour, my ever-helpful mom (who has less than zero concept of distance) chimes in, “HEY, can Matt run back to the hotel and get it!? It’s just around the corner!” It was closer to 2.5km away, but in keeping with his superhero theme of the weekend, Matt gamely hopped out of the car, and took off in an all-out sprint for the hotel down a steep hill. He was back in about 25 minutes (including the time to get up to the 10th floor of the hotel, find the sunscreen in the room and get back down), and thinks he was pretty close to his 5K PB on the whole ordeal 😉 oh yea, and that steep hill that he had to sprint down on the way there? All up on the way back.

One day I’ll make all of this up to him. One day.

With the sunscreen applied, final pictures taken, and good lucks said, I was on my own walking to the start line. You know, there’s something to be said for running a race alone. As soon as I got away from my mom and Matt and anyone else that I knew, I felt much more calm and in control of the whole situation for some reason. I actually didn’t feel nervous at all as I walked towards the starting corrals; it was the most wonderful sense of relief. I stopped to pose for a picture for one of the race photographers (don’t I look cool as a cucumber? ;)), and then found the Brooks VIP porta-potty trailer that I had earned access to for spending $150 or more at the Brooks race gear booth at the expo. Turned out to be a pretty good investment because I don’t know that I would have had time to wait in line for one of the regular porta-potties (and let’s face it, these ones were way nicer and had running water and soap!).
With about 10 minutes to spare, I made my way into my starting corral and waited. I got a kick out of how they had labelled the 1:30 half marathon corral. Since Meb was pacing this corral, they had actually named that corral the “Meb Corral”. I thought that was pretty clever 😉

I (of course) managed to make a friend in the starting corral because a girl actually caught my eye and said to me out of the blue “Are we actually doing this right now?” which kind of summed up how I was feeling, and made me laugh. We got chatting about our hopes for the race (both the girl and I were hoping to be around 5 hours, and the girls friend who was a kind of overweight looking guy just wanted to finish in 7 hours before they swept him off the course!!) and before we knew it, the wave start was off. It was a bit painful to have to wait for 4 corrals to go ahead of us before we got to start, but finally, we made our way up to the line and we were off.

I remember the first few shuffling steps felt funny to me. Maybe it was because I knew how long I would be running for, and how long the journey was going to be, but for some reason I had the thought in my head that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

Cheesy, cheesy, I know. But it’s the truth!!

I knew that I planned to tackle the race literally one mile at a time. My plan was to never allow myself to think even one mile beyond the one that I was working on. The first goal was to get to mile # 1.

As we shuffled away from the start line, still in relatively close quarters, we passed by a sign that read “0.2 miles down, only 26 to go!” which kind of made me laugh, but also hurt a little inside! There was a fair number of spectators out (bless their hearts, at 6 in the morning) and lots of cheering as we ran by. It took me a while to settle into a comfortable running stride, but by the time I hit the first mile marker, I was totally at ease. I had completely forgotten that as part of the Rock n Roll series marathons there are bands at every mile marker, and so was completely shocked to see a stage set up with some Elvis impersonator at mile 1. I was so excited to see him that I actually pulled out my iPod earbuds and cheered out loud for him. Everyone else seemed pretty into it too, so it was pretty exciting to run past. I was feeling kind of euphoric at that point, and like the next 26 miles might not be as bad as I had thought they might be!

I knew that Matt and my family were going to be around 4 miles on the course (because it was just in front of our hotel), so I started to look for them just after I passed the 3 mile marker. My family has never really seen me run a race before, so it was kind of neat for them to be there and see this crazy thing in action that we’re always talking about. I spotted Matt wearing his IronMan Support Crew shirt around 4 miles, but the rest of my family wasn’t with him. I was so overjoyed to see him, I don’t know why, but I was really anxious to see someone that I knew at that point in the race! I asked him as I ran by where the rest of the gang was, and he said that they were just ahead. It ended up being another mile or so, and I saw the rest of the gang (with Matt who had magically managed to get a mile ahead of me again) around mile 5.

Everyone seemed to be really happy which I was glad to see (I was a bit worried that they might not really enjoy the whole spectator thing, or that they would have been annoyed that they had to get up so early to get out on the course, or even that my brother may not have been up for the early morning start at all). They cheered for me as I ran by, and my dad asked me “how are you feeling??” to which I replied something about my right foot being kind of numb, but other than that I was good to go! I ran past them, and then got the bajesus scared out of me when I turned my head to the right because my brother was actually running alongside me with the Nikon camera stuck in my face recording me as I ran. The moment sticks out in my head as a particularly happy one for me, because it was the first time that I had seen him run in over a year.

Satisfied that everyone seemed to be having a good time, I turned my attention back to the next mile in front of me. Honestly, I wish that there was more exciting details for me to give you from the first half of the race, but it all went so smoothly and so uneventfully that there really isn’t much to say! Miles ticked by one after the other (I was slightly behind my 5:00 pace, but wasn’t overly concerned about it) and before I knew it, I was at the 10 mile marker and saw my family for the second time. They still looked happy, and I was feeling fantastic, so it was another really happy moment in the race for me. My head was starting to play tricks on me saying that this wasn’t so bad, and that I would be able to run like this all the way to the finish line. I swatted that thought out of my head whenever it surfaced, but I couldn’t help but be pleased with how the race was going.

I passed the half way mark in the race feeling on top of the world. It was a beautiful stretch of the course around an area called Mission Bay, and we were right on the water, the sun was shining and it was the most beautiful day (as they all are in California actually – seriously not fair). Around this time, I did notice for the first time that it was getting a little bit hot now that the sun was out. I was relieved to have my hat on, and also very relieved that Matt and gotten the sunscreen for me. I was drinking a ton of Gatorade throughout the race, and also taking two cups of water at every water station, so I was absolutely confident that I had been drinking enough. I had also been eating two PowerBar gummies at every other mile marker starting at mile 6 (don’t even ask me why, totally made up that strategy off the top of my head, wish there was a more scientific approach to tell you about ;)), so I felt like I was on top of nutrition as well. I really felt like I had done everything right, and that the heat wouldn’t play a factor.

Fast forward another 4 miles. The heat was starting to get to me. I could feel the beads of sweat on my face reflecting the sun, and feel it beating heavily through my hat. It was just before 17 miles that I saw my family again, and although I was still doing okay, it was the first time in the race that I was starting to physically show any signs of wear and tear. My head was starting to play tricks on me again, but they were different tricks this time. Maybe you’re not as strong as you thought you were? Everyone’s always told you that half way meant nothing, maybe it’s true? That finish line is a hell of a long way away; it’s awfully early for you to be starting to hurt? I was swatting those thoughts away as vigorously as I did the positive ones, but they were starting to swarm fast and furious. I kept running, doggedly focusing on the next mile.

Shortly after 17 miles, a Team in Training coach in a lime green shirt (they were all over the course on the sidelines, many of them had cheered for me as I ran by previous miles) hopped on the course and started running with me. “How are you doing?” she asked me in a thick, Texas drawl. Although physically I felt pretty good, for some reason the words that came out of my mouth were “The heat is really starting to get to me”. She nodded, and I could just see her assessing me up and down to determine what stage of dehydration I was at. “Okay, well lots of water, lots of Gatorade, little sips, take it easy”. I nodded, and said “I’ll get there”. She looked at me with such surprise that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. “I know you will.” She said, “It’s only 9 miles.”

Looking back at that comment, it might not have been exactly the right thing to say, because 9 miles is a hell of a long way to run, especially when you’re hurting, but for me, it was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment in the race. The look of absolute and complete surprise on her face when I said “I’ll get there” told me that she had absolutely no doubt that I would get to the finish line, and that meant a lot to me. I had the words “it’s only 9 miles” in my head for the entire rest of the race.

The thing with the San Diego Rock n Roll Marathon is that there’s a particularly nasty hill that spans from mile 19 to mile 22. The hill itself isn’t too bad; because of its length, the grade never gets too steep, but it sure is a hell of a long, gradual way up, and the point in the race that it’s positioned at makes it particularly nasty. As I passed mile 19, and we entered the freeway, I could feel the grade changing, and knew that we had started. I was surprised to see nearly EVERYONE walking up the hill. I had not yet walked except through water stations (like I had planned to), and although the heat was getting to me more and more with every step, I planned to run up that entire hill, because I was still feeling decent physically.

I got about a half mile up the hill before another Team in Training coach in a lime green shirt hopped on the course and started running with me, this time a middle-aged man with a Pennsylvania drawl. “Are you the type of person that likes to be left alone when you run, or is it okay if I tag along with you?” he asked as we ran. I shrugged and told him that I didn’t mind and that he was more than welcome to come along for the ride! We got chatting a little bit (more on his end than mine) about where we were from, and our involvement with Team in Training. His name was Stephen, and sure enough, he was from Pennsylvania, and he was there with several of his Team in Training runners who were also running the race. He told me that he had run the Boston Marathon 15 times before, and that this hill was just as or more challenging than the Newton hills on the Boston course, and that if I could make it up this hill, I could survive Heartbreak. I was listening to what he was saying, but something was happening in my head. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but it was almost like I was underwater; I could hear Stephen talking, but it sounded like he was a tiny bit muffled, and miles and miles away.

We continued on for another minute or two like that, before I decided that maybe it would be a good idea to take a walking break and re-group. “I think I’ll walk for a minute” I said to him, and we slowed up to a walking pace. As soon as my feet hit the pavement in walking stride, the heat was suddenly overwhelming. For the first time in a couple of miles, I had a chance to really take in our surroundings. We were in the dead centre of the freeway, black asphalt for miles, and not even a whisper of shade to be found. It felt like we were running in the desert, it was hot, sticky, and there was no relief to be found. Stephen was still chatting away about Team in Training, but I wasn’t even pretending to listen anymore. With every step forward, I was falling apart more and more on the inside. About a minute later, and the falling apart transitioned to more than just my head, and I started to see black spots and stars everywhere. My sweating changed from exertion sweat to a cold, clammy sweat, and my stomach started rolling with nausea. I had entered as Roy and Matt like to call it “The Death Spiral”.

Duh, duh duh.

For all of the times that I had pictured myself falling apart on a marathon course, it looked nothing in my head like it actually went down in real life. I imagined in my head a slow, gradual descent into misery, where my knees and ankles were on fire, and every step felt like knives and my breathing was ragged and uncontrollable and I could hardly stand up straight from the pain. In reality, it was nothing like that. There was nothing physically wrong with me. On the contrary, my knees and ankles felt terrific, and my breathing was well under control. It all happened so fast, that there wasn’t even anything I could do to prepare myself for it, or to make a game plan. I literally went from “I’m going to run all the way to the finish line” to “my day is over” in a matter of 1 minute.

I didn’t say a word, but Stephen knew that something was up. “Are you okay?” He asked me, to which I mumbled something about the heat getting to me, just trying to keep my head up and not collapse right there on the pavement. “The heat is getting to everybody.” He said, “We’ve had to cart a couple of people off this hill because they were cramping up. Dehydration. Get some more Gatorade in you.” I did what he said, but it wasn’t helping; I still felt like I was going to throw up and/or pass out. I asked him when the next water stop was, and he told me it was about a half mile away. He reassured me that we would walk to it together, and get me some cool water to pour on my head there.

In my head, I was one step ahead of him, and I was planning my Plan B. What was I going to do if the water station didn’t have anything that could help me any? I weighed my options. I could try to sit down at the side of the freeway and collect my thoughts a bit, before picking up and carrying on. I could get to the water station, and sit down there and collect my thoughts. Both options didn’t sound good, because both options involved letting someone else know exactly how horrible I was feeling. I trusted Stephen (even though I had just met the man 5 minutes earlier), but knew that if he thought I was medically at risk, then he would have to insist that I stop and get medical assistance. I also knew that if folks at a water stop got an inkling of how I was feeling, they would likely have to do the exact same thing. I came to the conclusion that I was going to have to keep moving forward, no matter what. It was really and truly my only option if I wanted to finish the race. I remember feeling so disappointed that the race had come to this, after all of the successes in the first 20 miles. My time goal was evaporating into thin air. I was so disappointed.

Stephen stayed with me all the way until around the 21 mile marker, where we hooked up with yet ANOTHER Team in Training coach in a lime green shirt. This was an older woman wearing a pink hat, who took over from Stephen as my sheppard. As fast as Stephen had appeared, he was gone, and I didn’t even get a chance to thank him for what he did for me on those couple of miles. It’s a huge regret of mine, and I hope that he realizes how grateful I was to have him with me on those long couple of miles up the hill.

The older woman was less chatty, and a bit less friendly than Stephen, but she did manage to turn around my death spiral when she asked me if I would like some ice. Something about that sounded incredibly appealing to me at that point in time, and I enthusiastically replied YES, I would very much like some ice. She ran ahead and came back with an entire hat-ful of ice (yes, she had taken her hat off and filled it with ice to bring back to me) that she had gotten from a kind lady on her front lawn with a bucket of ice. I lunged into the hat of ice like a starved animal, stuffing it into my sports bra, into my hat, even down my pants!!!! (How embarrassing, what the hell must people around me have been thinking?!). With the ice that was left in her hat, I just buried my face right into it.

Seriously, what a hot mess.

Miraculously, somehow, the ice brought me back to life. The nausea subsided, my head cleared up a bit, and my focus started to come back. “You look a lot better” the coach said to me, and I told her that I felt a lot better too. She stayed with me for another couple of minutes before turning back to hook up with the next runner coming through her zone. I didn’t even get that lady’s name before she disappeared, but again, I was so grateful to her for her support and especially for that ice.

We were around mile 22; only 4.2 miles to go. So close, yet so far. The sun was scorching hot at this point, and I was running about as much as I was walking. It was so incredibly frustrating, but it was all I could do to just keep moving forward. As I slowed up from one of my running stretches into a walk, I pulled up right next to a man wearing a yellow bandana and a purple Team in Training shirt. We looked right at each other, and I think it was him that spoke first.

“How ya doing?” He asked me. “Suffering. You?” I replied. “Me too.” He said.

And we were instant friends.

We walked together for a while, neither of us really saying much. I did learn that his name was Nad, and he was from Pennsylvania. After a few minutes, I felt like I wanted to run for a bit, and I told him I might try to run again. He said that he would run with me, and he did. We trundled along together for a few minutes on and off, walking, running, walking, running. In between the bouts of running and walking, he told me that he had started with Team in Training as a way to see a new city, and get fit. It was years after he had starting with Team in Training that his uncle was diagnosed with Myeloma, and it all became personal for him. He asked me what my involvement was all about with Team in Training, and I remember saying that my brother has Leukemia. It was a bit surreal to say out loud, and I realized that I hadn’t actually said those words out loud very often in the past year. “Wow”. Was all he said. And I guess that about sums it up.

We started day dreaming out loud about food and ice baths around mile 24. Just as we were talking about beer and cheesecake, out of nowhere, another Team in Training coach appeared in a lime green shirt. But it wasn’t just any Team in Training coach, it was Nad’s coach from Pennsylvania, a chirpy, cheery woman with braided pigtails who gave him a big hug, and me a handshake.

Nad and his coach got chatting about the rest of the team and how they had done (or were doing), and I was more along for the ride. I was starting to feel nauseous again, so I did less talking and more “trying not to vomit”.

We did a bit of running in mile 24, but when we got to mile 25, Nad and his coach said that we HAD to run the last mile. I know it was only one mile, but at that point, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to run the whole thing! I latched onto them and gamely plodded along. One foot infront of the other. We passed by one lone spectator, all by herself, and she was holding a big piece of bristol board that read “LEUKEMIA SURVIVOR” in big bold letters. I was exhausted and I felt horrible, but as she was cheering for us and pointing at our Team In Training shirts, waving her sign in the air, all three of us cheered right back at her. It was one of my favourite moments of the race, and a reminder that we don’t really know a thing about “hard” or about “feeling crappy”.

I knew we were getting close to the finish line, and I knew at that point that I was going to finish. As we rounded the last corner and saw the finish line arch, I saw my family waiting on the left hand side of the road, but I could hardly acknowledge them because it was all I could do to keep moving forward! Nad’s coach had to turn back just ahead of the finish line because she wasn’t a registered runner, so Nad and I ran into the finish line together. We crossed the line and hugged each other like crazy (I think the race photographers thought that we were long-time friends or at least that we knew each other in some way, but nope, total strangers), took a bunch of pictures together and made our way through the chute.

The chute was a bit of a blur, I remember a very pretty girl with blonde hair handing me two mint chocolate PowerBars and telling me congratulations, and at some point someone put a medal around my neck. I had a brief moment of panic when I realized that I hadn’t made any plans with Matt or my family to meet up after the race, but that was quickly put to rest when I found them right at the Team in Training tent, where I got my second medal of the day from Team in Training, which was kind of nice.

My mom gave me a beautiful purple rose and we slowwwwly made our way about a half mile to where the van was parked. It hurt like hell and I wasn’t at all happy to be walking, but knew that it was probably for the best at that point in time. I remember being super annoyed that the two medals around my neck were clinking around against each other, and taking off the Team in Training one and thrusting it at Matt to hold because it was annoying me (how silly, seriously).

Sitting down in the van was a small piece of Caravan Heaven. My legs didn’t feel AS bad as I thought they were going to, and I was wildly impressed with how comfortable the seats of the van were. I turned the air conditioning vent full blast on my face, and felt so much better right away. The ride back to the hotel felt way too short, because I was so comfortably seated that I didn’t want to get up ever again! We called my dad and Ramsey on the way because they had actually left just minutes earlier to catch a shuttle flight over to Vegas for the afternoon. YOLO right? (Oh god….did I seriously just use the acronym “YOLO” with a straight face?). They were full of praise and enthusiasm, but that could have been a bit of a mixed “excited to be going to Vegas for 4 hours” bag 😉

Fast forward to a long and awkward elevator ride (seriously, I think it stopped on every single floor!) and at long last we were back in the room where a mere 7 hours earlier I had been eating pancakes and bandaging up my feet. My feet held up like the true champions that they are, and blisters were a total non-issue (even the new one that I had created the day before). If there was an award for “toughest body part on any human being in the entire world”, I would nominate my feet for the honour. I seriously just beat the crap out of them.

I discovered a huge bump on the back of my leg which we kind of determined to be an ingrown hair (although it did scare the life out of me at first because it was this huge alien-like bump that appeared within 5 hours on the back of my leg!) and somehow I managed to get myself showered off and changed into dry clothes, which was a heavenly gift in itself.

My mom, Matt, my brother Andrew and I went to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner, and had the most delicious chicken nachos (so much so that I had zero room for my actual salad and the red velvet cheesecake that I also ordered!!) and then came back to the room where I think that I was asleep within 10 minutes. Our flight home was early the next morning, and I knew that there was a good chance I would be pretty sore.

We almost missed our flight home the following morning because we were all dragging our tails to get moving. We got to the airport exactly 59 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave, but Air Canada actually closes their flights 60 minutes before scheduled departure, and so technically we had “missed it” by 1 minute. Some high drama minutes ensued where we thought we were in trouble, but in the end the agent was just being a drama queen, and we got on the flight no problem with tons of time to spare. I squished my poor, battered legs into the tiny airplane seat and literally didn’t move for the entire flight because we were in such close quarters that I couldn’t imagine trying to get up.

Side bar to give my consumer opinion: Air Canada, whoever thought it was a good idea to eliminate the TVs, squeeze the aisles and the rows together by at least an extra two inches and get rid of any in-flight food service on a 5+ hour cross-continent flight? Not your brightest shining star. Rouge sucks. Never fly it. Ever.

When we finally landed (hallelujah!), I physically wasn’t able to stand up from the airplane seat, it was like the connection between my brain and my legs had short-circuited! On VERY wobbly legs, and with a little bit of help, I managed to get up and make my way off the plane, and every step once I got walking felt a little bit better. Lactic acid can be a real pest, and I think my lesson learned from this experience was to get moving again, as SOON as possible after a race like this, even if it feels like the last thing you want to do in the world.

I know that it is weeks later now (I’m so sorry for the late update), and already so much has happened between now and then. The marathon has been a journey of real ups and downs for me. It truly is the “king” of the endurance sports, just like they’ve all told me.

To address the question: “Which is harder, the IronMan 70.3 or the Marathon?” I say that it’s an impossible question to answer because it’s like comparing a banana with a watermelon. I’m not going to make a statement on which one was “harder”. Both of the races are challenging in their own very unique ways and really should be equally respected in my opinion.

(Wouldn’t I make a great politician ;))?

I would say that triathletes are more multi-dimensional than marathon runners. There’s just something so fascinating to me about an athlete that can swim, bike AND run competitively, and knows how and when to maximize their strengths, and how to minimize their weaknesses. I’ve said before that I have such respect for triathletes for their brains just as much as their bodies. Triathletes are smart, smart people. They know every tick and every tock of their body, what signs to look for, how to conserve, when to push, how to use the other athletes on the course to their advantage, and what equipment will help them to be the very best they can be.

Marathoners get the grit award from me. Not to minimize the brain power that goes into running (or for that matter, the grit that goes into triathlon), but in my personal opinion, I think that there are just less “edges” that you can look for in running than there are in triathlon. There is also something quite daunting about only having the one sport to focus on. There aren’t as many stepping stones in running, you’ve only got the one sport, and you’ve got to do it for a hell of a long time. The best gear, the right position and the best laid strategy can only take you so far in running. The rest is 100%, completely and fully dependent on your training, and the heart that you put into it. There are no shortcuts, only blood, sweat and tears.

It took me a little while to come to grips with the outcome of my marathon. I would be lieing to you if I told you that I was completely happy with the outcome and the way that I fell apart in the last 10km; and we’ve come too far together to start lieing to each other now 😉

I wish that I had trained a little bit more, a little bit more consistently, and maybe I could have prevented that death spiral. But like Matt’s brother Scott reminded me, the marathon is truly a wonderful metaphor for life. Sometimes you struggle. Sometimes you struggle a hell of a lot. Sometimes you struggle so much that you don’t even want to put one foot in front of the other anymore, and you would be more content to sit down at the side of the freeway, melt into a puddle on the asphalt and just give up altogether.

Have you ever been there?

“Death spirals” are everywhere really, not just in endurance sports. We can death spiral in our careers, in our family life, with our friends, our health, maybe even just mentally/emotionally. Ironically enough, I guess it’s fair to say that “death spirals” are just part of life. Working through them is what defines us and sets us apart. I didn’t set out on the path to running a marathon with any intention to learn any of this about myself (really, I just wanted to run 42.2km, and eat a huge cheeseburger at the end of it all!), but I couldn’t be more thrilled with the impact that it’s had on me at the end of the day.

I appreciate my body more than I have in my entire life after my marathon (although I still would love to wear those damn size 8 jeans that I bought years ago hoping to one day fit into!!). It may not be hard as a rock, but it is strong and healthy and capable. And really, what more could you ask for?

If you’re still reading, you deserve a statue to be erected in your honour!! This weekend Matt, Neil, Jess, Matt’s mom Dianne and I are headed up to Muskoka to do some training on the IronMan 70.3 course, back where all of this started in 2012. It feels oddly enough a bit like going home. I think a part of me will always be out on that course!

Have a fabulous weekend, and happy Canada Day to my Canadian readers!! I hope that you enjoy some well-deserved rest, and time with family and friends.

-Sara xo


Marathon Girl

They say that time passing faster than it ever has is a sign that you’re getting older. If that’s the case, then I guess my youth is long gone, because I just can’t seem to slow down the hands of father clock over here.The marathon has come and gone. It may have been the hardest thing I’ve ever participated in, but the verdict is still out on that. I thought that even though I missed so many critical steps and posts along the way, I would still share my experience with you guys.

I’ll bring you up to speed on the training weeks leading up to the marathon with three quick bullet points that basically tell the story:
– Treadmills
– Gatorade
– Bathroom Crisis

Enough said.

The week leading up to our trip to San Diego was a whirlwind of paperwork, last minute details, emotional outbursts and stress. I received about 25 different emails from the race and from Team in Training with last minute details about where I needed to be, what I needed to bring, different locations and venues, dress codes, tips and tricks….you name it. It got to be so overwhelming that I just started printing every email I received and putting it neatly into a big fat file folder that I promised myself I would go through with a clear head one evening (never happened, who am I really kidding?).

I learned from my Team in Training coach that I was actually the number one fundraiser in all of Canada for this race! My heart just swells with pride thinking of all of the good that the funds we have raised together will do. My final funds raised came in at just under $10,500, and another $500 is coming from my company who provides a $500 fundraising matching grant after the event is completed, bringing the GRAND, grand total up to $11,000.


I remember when I first started out how terrified I was that I wasn’t even going to hit $1,000! I don’t have any words to express my gratitude to my friends and family, to the perfect strangers who supported me, or my colleagues at work that I’ve only spoken 10 words to in my life, or friends of friends who heard our story and wanted to help. This thing really spidered out and touched a lot of people, and I just can’t thank everyone enough.

Because I was the top fundraiser from Canada, we found out that Matt and I were invited to a couple of special events in San Diego for the “VIP Team in Training” group 😉 Matt nearly fell off his chair when I told him that one of the events was a brunch and a pre-race “shakeout” run with 2014 Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi on the Saturday before the race! Because I don’t believe in running the day before a race (okay, okay fine, I’m just not fit enough to blow a bunch of energy running 5km the day before I have to run 42 ;)), Matt was more than happy to take my spot in the run!

There was a bit of a disaster early in the week because as of Thursday morning, I still hadn’t received my Team in Training tank top in the mail (you know, the one that I was supposed to run the marathon in). There had been a mix-up when they had sent me my shirt the week before (they sent me an XS t-shirt instead of a Medium tank-top), and the replacement shirt had not yet arrived. I was freaking out totally about never having had the chance to run in the shirt before the race and by Thursday morning, wasn’t sure that I was even going to be willing to wear the Team in Training shirt for fear that it would irritate me somehow during the marathon. After all of the months of fundraising and learning about the LLS and Team in Training, I was so disappointed to not have that shirt in my hands. I was an emotional basket case.

My whole family shuttled over to the airport like a herd of cattle on Thursday night. We were there early and grabbed a bite to eat at the airport. I realized right away the challenges that Matt has faced for the last year or so with traveling to run destination marathons.

It is really, really damn hard to control what food you eat, how much you drink and how much you are on your feet when you’re traveling to run a destination marathon.

I mean, I always KNEW that, but Matt is so easy going that I never really KNEW, KNEW how hard it was. I ordered chicken strips at the airport, and with every bite wondered if it was something that I “should” really be eating, or if I was going to screw up my marathon by eating something deep fried. I thought about ordering the strongest cocktail I could find on the menu (to help with my nerves – I LOATHE flying), but decided against it, again fearing that the alcohol would somehow mess something up for Sundays race.

The flight was a 5 hour ordeal of nerves and terror, complete with an involuntary SCREAM from yours truly during a particularly bad bout of turbulence. (Yes, I actually screamed out loud on an airplane). Seriously, flying is right there up on my list of things I loathe right alongside spiders, blisters, and the gluten-free phenomena.

Anyways, we arrived in San Diego about 9pm California time, grabbed our rental minivan and made our way to the Westin Gaslamp Quarter where we were staying for the weekend. We ordered room service, and I was so exhausted that I fell asleep literally stretched out like a starfish flat on the floor of the hotel room (no pillow, no nothin’). I woke up just long enough to devour an enormous bowl of pasta, and then went straight to bed. It’s a rough life, I tell you.
The next morning we were up by 8am (still a bit stuck on Toronto time), and ready to head out to the race expo for when it opened at 11am. We went down to the hotel lobby for breakfast, and instantly I grabbed Matt’s arm in a death grip because right away I noticed a table of 4 runners wearing matching Nike track suits and sipping coffee. They were super intense, and we knew right away that they had to be elite runners of some sort. We spent the rest of our breakfast trying to stare at them without getting caught (Matt did, twice).

By the time we finished up, our elite friends were gone, and we made our way outside to pick up our van and head over to the expo. The California weather was absolutely out of this world, 23 degrees and sunny with zero humidity, every single day. I was basking in the sun like a tortoise when the van arrived and we hopped in to set off. Just as my dad was pulling out of the hotel valet zone, I caught a flash of “Skechers GO MEB” on the front of a man’s t-shirt as he was getting out of his cab. Another runner! As my eyes drifted further up his body, I realized that it wasn’t just another runner…..IT WAS MEB HIMSELF! I (again) grabbed Matt’s arm in a death grip and spluttered out something resembling “IT’S MEB!!!” just as my dad pulled past him. Meb was staying in our hotel for the weekend!!

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We got to the San Diego Convention Centre (my brother Andrew freaking out the entire time because it’s the convention centre where ComiCon is hosted every year….) a few minutes early and joined a long line to enter the expo when the doors opened at 11.

We went in through the expo doors just after 11, and I realized right away that there was no way that I was going to run in the race without my Team in Training shirt. Their presence was everywhere, huge purple banners and streamers and inspirational posters were everywhere, it gave me goosebumps to see. I knew from the moment I stepped foot in the expo that even though they had put me in a bit of an awkward position with having to run the race in a brand new shirt, it was worth it to me to suck it up and wear it anyways.

I got my race kit quickly and easily (along with a Team in Training VIP lanyard ;)) and we made our way through the expo. My family has never been to a race expo before, and I think they were pleasantly surprised, although my poor dad (whose idea of exercise is walking out to the BBQ with a heavy tray of steaks in his hands) did comment “Sara…..these are not my people!” My brother Ramsey (who has been doing amazingly well health-wise by the way) rode on a mechanical bull that was decorated like a running shoe, and everyone seemed to find something that interested them at least somewhat. I chatted with some folks from Team in Training (they were the first booth you came across after the Brooks official marathon merchandise) and got super inspired and excited to be a part of the team.


We finished up at the expo, and made our way over to the USS Midway, a decommissioned aircraft carrier docked at the San Diego Harbour just across the water from the live naval base! It was so freaking cool, I have to say! We toured around the massive boat, Matt, my dad and brothers all did this flight simulation thing where you turn upside down in this little dome that’s supposed to simulate a fighter jet pilot chasing down enemy planes. My mom and I both passed, we’re prone to motion sickness and that would not have ended well.


Andrew's Face....perfect.
Andrew’s Face….perfect.

After we had toured around the rest of the ship and eaten some barbeque at the restaurant where they shot the “Great Balls of Fire!” bar piano scene from Top Gun (I kid you not), we headed back to the hotel so that Matt and I could a) take a dip in the hot tub/pool and b) get ready to go to the reception for the top fundraisers.

In the car on the way back to the hotel, I noticed a bit of a stinging feeling in the side of my left foot (the same one with the massive blister on it from the Chilly Half Marathon). I didn’t think too much about it, but knew that I needed to get my flat walking shoes off ASAP.

When we got back to the room and I took my shoes off, I was horrified to see that it wasn’t just irritation from my shoes; I had actually taken the skin off a tiny little patch of skin right at the base of my toe bone on the outside.
I totally freaked out.

How could I have done this? How could I possibly have been so idiotic? What was I thinking wearing flat Michael Kors shoes while I’m out sightseeing two days before my first marathon? How could I have been wearing anything on my feet except for my running shoes?

The top fundraisers reception was a fancy event, and I had no choice but to wear my flip flops with my dress because every single pair of shoes I had brought rubbed uncomfortably against the spot on my toe, including my running shoes. I could have just killed myself, I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been and the position I had put myself in. I was going to be standing at the start line in pain from a blister.

Somehow, someway, I managed to put that aside for at least a little while and we made it over to the reception (which was in the most gorgeous outdoor courtyard I’ve ever seen in my life by the way) right on time. We were actually some of the first people to arrive, and definitely the youngest people there.

I’ve always really sucked at the whole “networking” thing. I know it’s been bad for me in my career too, because I tend to avoid those events like the plague, even though I know other new grads are there schmoozing and putting in a good word for themselves with the higher ups that decide our fate in the company. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I love to make small talk with my class members at the gym, I do it all the time, every single day with perfect strangers, and I absolutely love it. But for some reason, take me out of my running shoes and Lululemon and put me in any sort of a fancy or professional setting and I truly loathe it. This event seemed to be a bit of a networking event, and right away my hackles were up, and I said to Matt that I didn’t want to stay long.

Matt and I kept mostly to ourselves chatting about whether or not we thought that we could vault over the hedges in the courtyard like a steeplechaser or if we could make it with a two foot jump (dead serious discussion), when the man of the hour arrived. Meb himself.

We had no idea that Meb was going to show up at the event, but he did, and he brought friends with him! At the time we didn’t know who the guy beside him was, but we later learned that it was his brother (who also happens to be his agent). Along with him was American record holder in the mile Alan Webb, and later on American running star Ryan Hall as well! Our conversation immediately turned from steeplechasing hedges to how we were going to get closer to them and maybe even get a picture with them. We didn’t have to wait long for our opportunity.

Within about 10 minutes of Meb arriving at the reception, one of the professional photographers grabbed him and asked him to pose in front of a big backboard that they had set up with the marathon logos. I think that this was really just supposed to be one individual photo-op but we fans jumped on the opportunity and people started getting in line to take pictures with the poor guy! He ended up standing there for over a half hour taking pictures! Matt and I got this one (check out the flip flops…so embarrassing….):

Meb - Reception

After we had gotten our picture with Meb, we hung around for a few more minutes hoping that someone would stand up and make a speech of some sort or give us any direction at all really, but it seemed that it really was just a mix and mingle, and so shortly after, we called it a night and left.

Dinner was a long story, and not one that I really feel like getting into much, but suffice to say that we ended up eating at TGI Fridays and were quite happy about that. I was totally exhausted by the end of the day, and my feet were killing me. I went to bed feeling stressed out and totally bogged down, wondering how on earth I was going to get through the weekend in one piece.

Saturday morning, Matt and I were up semi-early (okay, 8am) to head over to our brunch and shakeout run with Meb! Brunch was conveniently being held at the San Diego Hall of Champions inside beautiful Balboa Park in San Diego (which also houses the San Diego Zoo!). We got there early, and it turned out to be a good thing that we did because our “private” brunch with Meb had somehow exploded into a line of 160 people waiting to get their bibs and head inside to meet him. Turns out that the marathon had opened up the opportunity for people to pay $75 for if they wanted to meet Meb and get a chance to run with him. We got the opportunity for free, which was kind of a nice benefit! We also each got a free pair of CEP Compression Socks (the same ones that Meb won the Boston Marathon wearing and swears by for all of his runs!).

There were a few small speeches and a quick overview of the morning. It turned out that Meb wasn’t the only elite runner in attendance at this event! Alan Webb, Andy Whacker, Alan Culpepper and one other guy from Boulder, Colorado whose name I can’t remember were also introduced to us (I could feel Matt’s excitement building next to me ;)) and then the crew set off to go for their 5K run. I was enormously glad that I had decided not to run with the group, because man did they ever take off. Even though the race director (Alan Culpepper) assured us all that the pace was going to be a nice easy one, it was still faster then I run, and I would have a) felt like a fat slob and b) probably stressed out my still-sore feet and muscles trying my best to keep up with the pack.

I hung out outside the hall of champions under a palm tree for a bit and waiting for them to return. It didn’t take them long, and about 25 minutes later, the first runner came tearing down the hill, followed closely by the rest of the pack, Matt and Meb himself. Matt was right at Meb’s shoulder when they finished! I took a couple of pictures and we headed back inside. Matt told me that a couple of people made the comment on the run that it was the fastest they had ever run 5km in their life. The day before a race?! Some people are made of tougher stuff then I am, I tell you….

Matt - post run with MebMatt - post run with Meb 2

I was quite happy to skip the run and go straight for the buffet breakfast which included these cute little breakfast wraps, fruit, cereal and some mini muffins. While we ate, they did a bit of a Q&A session with each of the elite runners.
It was pretty cool to hear what these runners had to say. They inspired me a lot because they do what they do, even though it certainly isn’t the easiest, most conventional or best beaten path. Andy Whacker told us that he works 4 jobs to make ends meet (including as a cashier at Whole Foods!), and another one of the runners told us that he is a PHD student who works 8 – 4 every day and does his 2 a day workouts before and after work.

I’ve been feeling really restless in my career lately (well, for a long time actually) and struggling with what it is that I even want to do with my life. It sure isn’t what I’m doing right now, that’s for damn sure. I’ve always been reassured that following the beaten path, going to school, getting a degree and starting a full-time 9-5 job is just “what people do” and is really the only path to success. It was refreshing for me to see these guys take such a huge risk, toss aside the perception that you have to work in an office and wear a suit every day to be successful and build the lifestyle that they want, whatever it takes.

My favourite speaker was the race director Alan Culpepper because he was very well-spoken and had some good advice for us novice runners. He admitted that the marathon course was “challenging” (that’s marathoner speak for “mother effing miserable” by the way) and that the hill at mile 22 was a big one. He reassured us that after the hill, the rest of the race was downhill, and that we would all be fine.

Meb & Alan - Brunch

We waited in a massive line to get our picture taken with Meb and get his autograph on some paraphernalia (Matt got his Boston Marathon bib signed which was incredible!) and cleared out of the hall shortly after noon. Matt and I hung out under a palm tree until my family came and picked us up to go over to the zoo for the afternoon.

Matt & Meb - NomadsSara & Meb

It was hot and sunny at the peak of the day when we got to the zoo and we quickly decided that it wasn’t a good idea to be walking out in the sun around the massive multi-acre park. We decided instead to take a shaded bus tour of the zoo, which worked out really well.

When the bus tour wrapped up, we stopped at one of the restaurants in the zoo for lunch and I had real trouble picking what I should eat. The cheeseburgers looked amazing (I have such a weakness for cheeseburgers….if I were on death row; my final meal would for sure be the biggest cheeseburger I could order, no hesitation) but I was just so freaked out about putting anything bad in my body this close to the race. I instead got a chicken wrap which was mediocre to be polite, and I was still hungry when it was done. Around this time, something didn’t feel quite right. I was feeling EXHAUSTED to the point of dizziness and could hardly keep my eyes open. I figured it was the early start to the day, combined with all of the activity from the last couple of hours.

We walked around the zoo a tiny bit more before I really was just too exhausted and starting to feel a bit light headed. I asked my family if we could go back to the hotel so that I could take a nap. The walk back to the car felt like it was 26 miles itself. I felt horrendous, totally nauseous, dizzy, light headed….sitting down seemed to help a bit, but not completely. I fell asleep in the car on the way back to the hotel and woke up just long enough to stagger up to our room where I fell asleep with cold cloths draped all over my head and neck.

We were supposed to attend an Inspiration Dinner hosted by Team in Training on the Saturday night before the race. I felt so sick that we had to miss it, which I am so disappointed about because it would have been an amazing night, I’m sure. After about an hour nap and a bunch more Gatorade and water, I felt a little bit better, and we went to the Old Spaghetti Factory for dinner.

I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. First my shirt, then my feet, now the rest of my body?! Everything was just falling apart?! I couldn’t fathom how on earth I was going to make it through the next morning. My head was going a mile a minute, trying to reassure myself in any way I could think of that I would be okay, but nothing really helped. My brother Ramsey made a comment that I had probably just stressed myself the heck out and that was what was causing everything. He may have been right, I know what stress can do to you physically and it ain’t pretty.

Back at the hotel after dinner, I somehow made the decision to forget everything that was wrong with me and just focus on getting my race gear ready to go. Matt had actually smuggled a George Foreman grill, pancake mix (in a Ziploc bag which had an uncanny resemblance to a massive bag of cocaine) and maple syrup over to San Diego just so that he could make pancakes for me in the hotel room before the race and he was busily setting up his cooking station in the bathroom of our hotel room.

With mostly everything set out and ready to go, I hit the hay shortly after 10pm. I don’t remember it taking long for me to fall asleep, and the next thing I knew, the alarm was going off at 4am and I woke up to the smell of pancakes wafting from the bathroom. It was race day, or “go time” as Matt likes to say. The time for excuses and talking was done. It was time to start doing.

Sara pre-race

 To Be Continued…..