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

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