Sunday, November 16, 2014

My First Marathon, or, 2014 Stone Cat Marathon Race Report

There was never any question that I would finish. 

The fact that I didn't think about quitting says a lot about how much  you can accomplish when you set your mind to something. 

When I toed the line of the Stone Cat Trail Marathon, I was just convinced that I would finish it. Part of how I knew that was that I acknowledged and accepted that I would feel pain and fatigue, and another part was that I was seeking out an end beyond those feelings.

Words like determination and perseverance come to mind for endurance athletes, and that's really what this marathon was about, except that those words don't convey the power behind the drive. It's based in emotion and an uplifting, forward reaching feeling. When I hear "determination" and "perseverance," I think of pushing onward with your head bowed low, gritting it out, but this experience of running my first marathon was much more positive and adventurous than merely pushing my way through pain for a long time. It was a culmination of so many other experiences and the advice and support of so many people. It was an adventure in and of itself, and while I did push my way through pain for a long time, I found strength that I did not know I had, which was self-affirming and empowering.

I traveled from New Jersey to north-eastern Massachusetts for this race. The rolling and mildly technical course seemed like a good introductory marathon. The unpredictable New England weather held out, and it turned out to be a perfect day to run.

I had packed my gear the night before and had a smooth check in before the race started. The temperature was in the mid 30s at the start, and the sun had just risen when we gathered to hear the pre-race talk. I felt calm and ready. My support staff snapped a picture of me less than a minute before the start, and then I was starting the tracking app on my phone and jogging off after the group of about 200 marathoners as the race began.

In order to make the course exactly 26.2 miles, we ran a double loop around a school field before linking up to the trail. Bagpipe music played, and once I stepped onto the trail, I started to feel emotion well up. "I'm going to run 9 miles further than I've ever run before. I'm going to run a marathon today." The words ran through my head, and I was at a high risk of getting weepy.

The first 5 miles were spent negotiating the trail with other runners. Everyone had different strengths, so we kept leap-frogging each other. I wanted to pass the people who walked the technical spots and down hills, which are my strengths, but I walked behind them to conserve energy. If I took it slowly, the tendonitis in my knee might not flare up too badly. Occasionally I passed people while I hiked up hills, taking long, low strides that scooted me up surprisingly quickly.

When I reached the first aid station at mile 5.4, I felt fresh and motivated. I was doing this! One aid station down! I filled up my handheld bottle with Gatorade and continued on. I had eaten a gel a little before that, and my tummy wasn't quite so happy, but it was holding out, so I was happy about that. I ate a date hoping some "real" food might do me good.

The next aid station was at mile 8.7, and I think I added water to my bottle there, and I had another gel. I didn't stay too long. I was focused on getting to the next aid station after that, which was 5 miles away at the start/finish line and where I'd get to see my support staff.

The trail started to get quiet between the second aid station and the start/finish. I no longer had the sounds of conversations behind me to listen to, and only occasionally would someone come up from behind to pass. I saw some 50 milers taking their time and passed a spectator in a seriously creepy clown costume. I had run on a small portion of that part of the course the day before, and I kept wondering if I was going to see that familiar spot yet. I felt good and kept a pretty even pace, and when I reached the stretch of trail that I remembered, it felt reassuring and encouraging.

One of the wider, less technical, stretches of trail

The trail was very well marked with orange ribbons clipped onto tree branches with clothespins and arrow signs at the hard turns (which had reflective strips for the 50 milers who might still be running after sundown). I never got off course, although I did save a number of people ahead of me who did. At a junction of single track paths, someone ahead continued onto the unmarked one, and everyone behind followed. I looked up, checked for an orange ribbon, and shouted "Trail this way!"

Further out onto the course, there were some wider paths marked by fewer ribbons. I remember looking around, afraid that I had missed a turn. I was on course, but by not paying attention to the ground, I caught my toe on a root or stump and did a spectacular ballet leap to keep from doing a face-plant. Still upright, I scanned my whole field of vision a little more evenly from then on.

An older runner (in shorts that looked that much shorter when paired with a jacket) was running behind me to witness my near crash. Apparently he wasn't too afraid of any more stumbling, because he tucked in right behind me and drafted for a mile or so until we reached the start/finish and I scampered over to my support staff for a gear swap-out and refuel.

I replaced the knit hat with a headband and had planned on taking off the top-layer t-shirt, but the temperature hadn't warmed up as much as I thought it would. I kept it on and decided that while I was there, I'd run over to the school and use the bathroom. My tummy wasn't overly happy, so this was a good decision. I didn't want to waste too much time, but it was way better than possibly having GI issues out on the trail.

After the break, I ran back out to the course and said goodbye to the support staff before heading out for the second lap. I felt great.

At first, I thought that I was going to finish that second lap much faster than the first. Even when taking it easy, I didn't have people in front of me interrupting my rhythm. Around 16 or 17 miles, though, the tendonitis in my knee started to show itself. This didn't really daunt me, but it was painful, and I slowed down and didn't feel quite so upbeat.

The next aid station at mile 17.9 was rejuvenating. The first time around, all of the runners were still feeling fresh, but now that we all had a number of miles behind us, the volunteers stepped up the enthusiasm. One was making bacon, another generously proffered pumpkin pie, and everyone seemed upbeat and excited. I had my bottle filled with half water, half gatorade, and I sipped some Coca Cola. That was the  motivation I needed as I headed out again.

As I ran along the trail with new energy, I came up to the guy in shorts who had drafted behind me earlier. The single track emptied out onto a wider trail with a blown-down log across it, which we both crossed at the same time. I hopped up with my right leg, feeling light and strong, and at the moment I lifted my left leg to follow up, the left calf seized in a charley horse. I dropped down off the log lightly (don't ask me how) and collapsed in a very sad little heap on the damp, leaf-strewn trail watching the muscle spasm. I couldn't move it. The guy paused and asked if I was alright. I said it was a calf cramp, and he turned and continued his race. I felt slightly affronted that after being used as wind resistance earlier in the race, I could be left behind so easily. More people soon appeared on the trail, though, most of whom stopped and asked if I was ok.

I know that there was nothing that anyone really could have done, but thank you so much to everyone who stopped and offered advice, even going as far as to offer me a gel. I had gels of my own, so I had one as I waited for my calf to stop spasming   As soon as it stopped, I massaged it with my hands and then stood up on it. It felt like it was balled up in a tight knot. I elongated my leg slowly and walked carefully. It was tight, but after a few minutes of walking, I tried jogging, and I could. I was relieved and pressed on, knowing that the gel would take a little while to kick in and that I could probably get another cramp if I did anything too sudden. I got into a bit of a rhythm, and while the going was slow, I was still moving forward. I caught up to someone who had stopped and offered to help. I thanked her, and as I said that I was still in the game, I could feel the other calf on the verge of cramping. "Easy," I told myself. "Just take it easy." I had about 3 more miles until the next aid station, and I knew how important it was to play it safe until I got there and fueled up.

Those 3 miles were hard. I walked and ran alternately and told myself that once I got there, I would get some salt in me and then put on my music, and then I'd be in the home stretch.

When I finally saw the top of the white tent through the tree branches, I felt like I was stumbling upon an oasis in a desert. What a welcome sight! The aid station crew was friendly and supportive. They offered me an array of edible items, and I zeroed in on some Pringles as someone filled my bottle with Gatorade. I'm not sure how long I stayed there, but I had a lot of chips and more Coke as other runners came and went. I pulled my iPod out and got it ready for the last 5 miles and snacked on some strawberries.  When I thought I was ready, I thanked the volunteers and headed out for the final 5 miles.

The first song in the playlist shuffle was Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life." I immediately became teary-eyed and wondered if music was actually a bad idea, since it seemed to make me so emotional. It helped carry me onward, though. Some songs made me feel fierce and powerful, others lifted my spirits and made me feel happy, and others just provided a good beat. In those later miles, when my knee shot through with pain and my calf resisted with every step, music really kept me going.

The farthest distance I had run before this race was 17 miles, so at this point, every step I took was the farthest I had ever gone, and that fact may have been my biggest motivator. I didn't think about stopping, because I saw how far I had come, and, even though I had never done it before, I knew that I could finish the entire distance. I walked when I needed to and kept pushing on. Since it was a double loop, I was familiar with the course and knew how much farther I had to go.

I was still careful not to do anything too sudden that may cause another cramp. As I gingerly stepped over another log at about mile 24, a runner came up behind me asking "Did you really come all the way from NJ just for this?" She was referring to my Wildcat Ridge Romp shirt that proudly sported "NJ Trail Series" across the back. I did come all the way just for this. It may not be a big race with lots of pomp and circumstance and bling, but it didn't have to be. I enjoyed traveling to and running in a new place. After chatting a bit and wishing me well, she continued on past me, and I was alone again.

These last few miles were very solitary, and the words "no man's land" came to mind due to the pain I was feeling. Considering the WWI connotations of the phrase and the beautiful and peaceful forest I was in, it's a rather unfair description, but that's what I was thinking. Luckily, when Pharrell's "Happy" popped up on the playlist, my spirits lifted enough that I could have danced right there on the trail.

As "Happy" played, I entered the home stretch. I had finished the sections of single track and had only a mile or so of wide, even double track. 50 mile runners passed me coming and going now, as we were on the connecting trail between the school and the loop. I congratulated and smiled at everyone as they passed. I was so relieved to be finishing the second loop - imagine running the loop 4 times!

As I got closer to the school, I started to feel excited. This was it! I had done it! A new song came up on the playlist, and I decided that as soon as I stepped off the trail and onto the school fields, I would take my earbuds out. I wanted to be fully present when I stepped over that finish line.

Just before I reached the fields, a man and woman passed me as they chatted with a spectator. The woman was wearing a flower-patterned dress, which made me smile. Then I was pulling my earbuds out and taking in the fact that I was finishing my first marathon. A guy in a Stone Cat costume was running and dancing along the side of the field and gave the guy ahead of me a high five. I raised my hand for one, too, and then it was truly the home stretch.

Spectators were milling around everywhere. I looked for my crew of one, who was wearing a red jacket, and saw red jackets everywhere. Then I saw him holding up a camera. He was just past the finish line. I closed my eyes for a split second and thought again "This is it! I've done it!" When I opened them again, I couldn't place him. Then I saw him again, right through the finish line timing arch.

Approaching the finish line

I saw the time on the clock showing that I would finish in under 6 hours. I ran it in, feeling surprisingly strong and no longer feeling the pain in my knee or calf. Done! The official time was 5:41:46.

Now a marathon finisher!
I hugged my support staff and was so relieved not to be running anymore. I think he asked how I was feeling, and I said "tired and happy not to be running". The girl who had asked if I came from New Jersey had finished and was sitting down near the person handing out the finisher items (messenger bags with the Stone Cat logo and "Stone Cat Trail Races Marathon Finisher" embroidered on it) and congratulated me, also looking happy to be done. The volunteer who handed me my messenger bag offered to take my picture standing in front of the clock, and I should have accepted, but I wanted to stop the tracking app on my phone first. I had turned the brightness on the phone down very low to conserve battery life, and it worked, but I couldn't see anything on the screen in order to turn the brightness back up, and I was getting frustrated! My support staff came to my aid, and once he fixed that for me, I realized that I needed to eat. I grabbed half a burger from the aid station table before my tummy started acting up. I'm so thankful it was ok during the race!

Soon after I finished, my running buddy called to congratulate me. She and so many other people were so supportive and kept me going when I was close to deciding not to run this race, and it meant so much to have them all rooting for me. Thank you especially to Elizabeth from Mountain Peak Fitness, who helped me get strong enough to complete this race. She was with me every step of the way with training workouts, nutrition advice, and motivation. I had always thought that with flawed running mechanics, I could simply never build up the base needed to run a marathon, but she worked with me to strengthen my weaknesses and make it happen.

The course as tracked by my Wahoo app
A lot of people have asked if I'll ever do another marathon. My answer is yes - not right now, but yes. At the moment I have to let my knee heal. I would also run the Stone Cat Marathon again. It was well organized, had great aid stations, and was a scenic and runnable course. I have a lot of good memories from this race, and I really value the confidence that this experience has given me.

So now it's time to rest and recover, but I know that there will be many more adventures in store for me.  There's no question about it.

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