A year ago, I couldn’t walk without crutches, couldn’t reach my feet to tie my shoes.
Today, I laced up and ran a marathon.
Eight months ago, I could barely run for 20 seconds at a time. My hip felt awkward and clumsy, as if all my veteran running muscles had abandoned me and left me with clueless glutes and quads. You want us to do what? Sorry, what does R-U-N spell, again?
Back then, I remember telling myself to just do the work in front of me and trust the process. Back then, the work was a Couch to 5k. I tried not to judge myself for how hard it felt. I tried to take the next step, whatever it might be, and accept where I was.
For eight months, I took step after step until the next step landed me on the starting line of the Kenai River Marathon. There were so many times in the past year that I doubted myself, doubted the process, doubted I’d make it to the start, much less the finish. I’m still in jaw-dropping disbelief at what I asked my body to do today, and that it answered with a heart pounding YES.
In late May, I hit 40 easy miles per week for the first time since surgery. A week later, I began marathon training using the Hanson’s Method. My training was one part running, one part playing whack-a-mole with multiple injuries. As soon as I’d get one under control, another issue would pop up. I had one hip newly rehabbed from surgery and another hip in need of the same surgery. In addition to chronic hip pain, I strained my soleus, battled some old tibial tendonitis and struggled with iron deficiency. Prior to starting Hanson’s, I hadn’t done one meter of speed or tempo work in nearly two years. I certainly had my work cut out for me.
Over the course of the plan, I missed four or five of the quality workouts, but generally was able to get in the majority of the prescribed miles. Throughout training, I often wondered if I was stretching too much to train at an 8:00 goal marathon pace (GMP). The longest of my long runs topped out at just 16 miles. The longest GMP run I ever completed was 10 miles, and it was hard. Really, really hard. After struggling through my last GMP run, I quietly adjusted my expectations and decided it would be a major coup if I could finish under 3:40.
The Race Plan
My plan was pretty simple: leave it ALL out there on the course without literally leaving myself out there. With surgery coming up in November and no guarantee of a successful outcome, I knew it could be my last opportunity to race a marathon. Like a good little Hanson’s trainee, I planned to run the first half as evenly and as close to goal pace as possible. Then, at mile 16, if I’d managed to avoid the struggle bus, I’d run like it was the last 10 miles I’d ever get to race. No conserving, no holding back, no fear, and absolutely no regrets.
The First Half
Am I the only one that hates the first half of races? Generally, that’s when you’re supposed to feel the best, right? My pattern is a bit different. I never feel as good as I think I should given how much farther I have to go. And mentally, I struggle so much with negative talk early in the race. One part of my brain is a major jerkface bully, and the other part of my brain is a mousy little enabler. So, not really ideal. On top of my mental self sabotage, I had a couple of real physical issues as well. My tibial tendon bothered me from the start; and at mile 9, my bad hip began to ache quite a bit. When I wasn’t checking my watch to make sure I wasn’t going too fast, I was worrying about my hip giving out in the final half and feeling overwhelmed at how much distance I had left to cover.
Thankfully, the Hanson’s plan drilled marathon pace into my brain and legs so thoroughly that my splits were fairly even, and I hit 13.1 in 1:46:24 (8:05 average). As I crossed the halfway mark, a huge mental weight fell off my shoulders. For the first time since the race began, I started to relax. That’s when I spotted a woman in the distance. Oh yeah, I’ve got this.
With only 50-60 participants in the race, including relay runners, I knew the course was going to be sparsely populated. I had prepared myself to run predominantly alone both in terms of crowd support and runners to chase. This was the case for a fair amount of the first half. But in the second half, I started spotting runners ahead of me. I caught up to the first woman around mile 14. I asked her what her goal time was, thinking maybe we could help each other out. She said it was her first marathon and her goal was to finish. I told her she was doing awesome and wished her well.
Around mile 17, I hit the first major hill of the course. It was covered in wet leaves and slippery, and I almost bit it a couple times. I saw another runner come into view and focused on catching him. I caught him as we crested the hill, and I surged ahead. Each time I overtook a runner, it was like getting a jet-power boost. I could picture my silly little animated self propelling into the air and zig-zagging around in the air at bonk-defying speed.
The last big hill reared its ugly elevation around mile 20. I saw another guy ahead and put a target on his back. He was going to get me up that hill. I focused on catching him all the way up. Do you know how this story ends? Yep. Dude got chicked. We exchanged marathon pleasantries: That hill sucked! Only 10k to go! See you at the finish! And off I went.
The final 10k
With every mile that clicked off, my confidence grew. I could do this! I might not fade! I might get under 3:35! Around mile 22, I passed another guy. Then another. Way up in the distance I saw a bright pink shirt. She looked strong. She wasn’t fading, at least not by much. I wondered if I could catch her. My hip was really hurting. My tendon was aching. My whole body was sore. I was so effing tired. So I did what any normal middle-aged woman would do. I pretended I was Desi “the closer” Linden! I thought about how she raced the trials and the Olympics and just kept whittling away at the lead, running her race, sometimes all alone. I could do that too! You better not relax, pink shirt lady. I’m coming for you!
It took me two miles of pretending to be Desi and chanting about how much I love pain, but at mile 24, I finally passed pink shirt lady. For the final two miles I had nothing to target other than the numbers on my watch. I reminded myself that these might be my last two miles for a very long time. I couldn’t leave the effort to my legs alone, so my face went all in with some epic ugly-facing. I saved my fastest mile for last, clicking off mile 26 in 7:53, and finishing the marathon in 3:32:34 with the snarliest, angriest, beast-iest ugly face I’ve ever made.
I still can’t believe that’s really the story. I expected so much less of my body, especially given all the obstacles in training. As for Hanson’s training, I’m ordering a lifetime subscription of the koolaid. That plan WORKS! I have never felt so prepared and strong in the final half of a race.
Overall, I’m just so thankful. And hungry. But mostly thankful. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s the feeling that keeps rippling up to the surface whenever I think about the race. I don’t feel triumphant or elated or victorious. I just feel this bone deep gratitude that I made it to the starting line of my first Alaskan marathon, that I reached the finish without an ounce of regret.
Has your body ever surprised you?