So my goal for turning 40 last September was to run a marathon. It's something that my dad has done, my sister has done, and plenty of other friends have done. It would definitely be a challenge as I pretty much dislike running. I've always considered myself a cyclist first and foremost and never a runner. Just 2 yrs ago, I had to struggle to run a 5k. I ended up accomplishing something I never expected I could have done.
I can now officially be called a Marathoner and can display proudly one of those 26.2 stickers on my vehicles! With as many endurance type events as I've done (adventure races, century bike rides, etc), I'm sure people thought a marathon for me would be a breeze, but that was far from the case. There were definitely times during the race when I was wondering if I could even finish. But we'll get to that. My wife Jen had also signed up to run the 1/2 marathon, which was not a small feat for her. She had only done a 5k several years ago as well, and her longest run to date was an 8-miler several months ago. 13.1 seemed pretty daunting to her and she questioned if she would finish.
I started training back at the end of September, when the "official" training began with the LR Marathon Group. I probably ran a 5k once or twice a week, mixed in with my usual weekly bike ride, and then followed the prescribed long run mileage on the weekend. I made it out to half a dozen or so group runs on Saturday morning with the training group. It was a great feeling increasing my distance PR every couple of weeks.
I probably could have done better training but I ended up having to take about a month off in December/January due to knee/foot pain after one of the longer training runs. That sort of put me on a "compressed" training schedule for the last month or so before the marathon. I managed to get 12, 16, and 20 mile runs in, while mixing it up with mtn bike rides too. The days leading up to race day found me excited, anxious, and nervous, just like how I feel before any big race. But by that point, I had done everything I could to prepare so there's was nothing more to do except to keep hydrated and eat well. Having done a 20-mile run around the entire River Trail was a huge mental boost too. Just that accomplishment gave me confidence that I could finish a marathon. I was also confident in that I had run almost the entire course during my training runs so I knew the course fairly well. My legs & body both felt great and I did a couple of shorter runs just to stay loose.
A couple of days before the big day, I came down with a cold. I downed Emergen-C like it was going out of style. I didn't feel too great Friday or Saturday, but felt okay race morning. Jen & I hit the health & fitness expo and picked up our packets Friday night. She was nervous but I think going to the expo helped psych her up. I picked up a couple of 26.2 stickers (thinking positively at this point) and a pint glass for a souvenir.
Pre-race eve meal consisted of fettuccine alfredo, a quinoa spinach salad, and tortellini salad from Whole Foods. Pre-race breakfast consisted of a banana, powerbar, and PB&J sandwich. I brought along Honey Stinger waffles, Shot Blocks, and Gu to consume during the race. My goal was to try and eat something every 3 miles or so.
The morning of the race was chilly but not too cold. We managed to get up and out of the house at a decent time and found parking not too far from the race start at the Clinton Library. We took Hobbit's (one of the leaders of the marathon training group) advice and put on trash bags to keep us warm while waiting for the start. The sheer number of people at the start was staggering, both runners and spectators. It took a little bit to find a spot in the open corral but we did so with about 10 minutes to spare.
We heard the announcement for the start of the wheelchair racers and then a few minutes later, we were off too! I felt great for the first 4-5 miles, running at a comfortable pace. I eventually caught up with the 4:40 pace group and kept up with them for quite a while. I quickly warmed up and took off my gloves. I figured it wouldn't be too much longer until I took off my arm warmers too. As I ran, I kept looking for people I knew, enjoying the fans and reading the variety of signs. My favorite one said something like, "keep running! The zombies are coming!" The bands scattered along the course definitely provided some motivational music as I ran past them.
Everything was going great until after we came back over the Broadway bridge around mile 6 or so. My left knee started hurting. It wasn't an ache, but a definite sharp pain. I wondered if it was due to me bruising that knee while playing bike polo a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately for me, the pain never went away after that, and in fact, got worse and worse as the race went on. It definitely proved to be an additional challenge to an already very difficult race. The problem with the pain was that it was persistent and was always there in my head. It was difficult to ignore and I just had to endure it as best as I could.
I managed to keep running for another several miles (until mile 9 or so?) before I started taking walking/stretching breaks. The 4:40 pace group slowly faded from sight as I was unable to keep up with them. I felt like a human yo-yo for a lot of the race. I would pass a bunch of people when I ran, and then they would pass me when I stopped to stretch or walk.
Miles 11-14 sort of passed by in a haze - I would say I was probably running/walking 80/20 at this point. And then came the dreaded climb up Kavanaugh Blvd. Going up Kavanaugh and then down N. Lookout was probably the most physically challenging part of the race. My running/walking was probably closer to 50/50 during the stretch. Lots of others were doing the same. Going down N Lookout with the knee pain was extremely tough. While the downhill was a godsend to most runners, it was my bane. I lost track of the number of people that passed me as I hobbled down that hill. Going back and looking at my splits, you can see a huge difference in my pre-mile 15 splits and post-mile 15 splits. Before mile 15, I was doing probably 11-12 min miles. After mile 15, it had dropped to 13-14 min miles.
After coming down N Lookout, I ended up passing the 8:00 hr early-start walking group, who started at 6am and who would finish the race at the cutoff time of 2:00pm. The lifted my spirits a little as I knew that as long as my body didn't completely conk out, that I would finish somehow. But now I had to deal with the most mentally challenging part of the race - the run down and back along Riverfront Drive. The problem with Riverfront is that it is flat and straight, and you had run 2 1/2 miles down to the turnaround point and then re-trace your steps back. So for every step you took during this portion of the course (mile 18-20.5), you had to do the same on the way back. My only goal right now was to make it to the turnaround and then I figured I would be in the homestretch. Easier said than done, I know.
It was somewhat disheartening seeing the people on the other side of the road on the leg back. I saw the 3:40 pacers go by which basically signified that it was going to take me at least an hour to get to where they were. Ugh.
At this point in the race, I had to mentally toughen up. I had to set little small goals just to get myself running again. I started by running the entire length of the Rebsamen Park golf course. Then I walked. Then I ran for the distance of 3 powerline poles. Then I walked. It was so difficult getting my body to run. My inner voice kept yelling, "Come on Cliff, stop walking. Come on, run." I remember thinking of Jan Ulrich as some point, but instead of "shut up, legs", it was "shut up, knees!" After having ridden Rebsamen Park road on my bike who knows how many times, you'd think I'd know exactly how far I had to go until the turnaround, right? In my fogged, pain-ridden state, that wasn't the case. I saw a checkpoint up ahead and was convinced it was the turnaround. My spirits lifted and I told myself I could run to that. As I approached, I realized it was the 20-mile checkpoint and the actual turnaround was still another 2/3 of a mile away. Argh.
I had done pretty well keeping my body fueled up until now but at this point, nothing I brought sounded even remotely appealing. Eventually I reached the turnaround and continued my run/walk as best I could. I could feel my hamstrings tightening up too and I forced myself to take smaller steps to keep them from cramping. Somehow I managed to make it back down and back along Rebsamen Park Road and was now convinced I could finish this stupid race. I was stuck with a small group of people now, yo-yo-ing back and forth with them. I would run as long as I could until I felt my legs about to cramp and then walk a spell. Wash, lather, rinse, repeat.
The first hill going up Cantrell was a huge PITA so I managed to run to the base of the hill and then walked to the top. The 2nd hill was pretty tough too but it wasn't nearly as long. Reaching the top of that just after mile 25 was an amazing feeling. I knew that I only had a mile left and I was going to finish a marathon! So close to the finish, I took one of my friend's advice to heart. I was in pretty good pain, but the sooner I finished, the sooner the pain would stop. I managed to force myself to run a 1/4 mile at a time with only brief walk breaks in between. I can't tell you how many people I passed during that last mile who were down to walking. Through the Medical Mile my legs were flying now (at least they felt like they were) and I could hear the finish line announcer. I was pretty sure I was over 5 hrs by this point but I didn't know how much over. Plus I wanted to finish strong. I came around the bend and the finish line was glorious. Pumping my legs, I saw my wife on the sidelines, waved to her as I passed by and strode strongly across the finish.
It was an unbelievable feeling. Indescribable. As they hung the massive finishers medal around my neck, I was holding back tears. I fucking did it, that's all I was thinking. I fucking did it and I'm now a marathoner. I made my way through the finish tents and found Jen waiting for me. I asked her if she finished, she nodded yes, and we hugged each other as the tears flowed. "We fucking did it," I whispered to her as we held each other. It was quite an emotional moment. The sense of accomplishment. The struggle. Success. By far, that was the most physically demanding thing I've ever done. Nothing else even compares.
I'm so proud of Jen as well - she definitely had her own set of challenges too, but this was her toughest, most physically challenging event to-date. Going from the Couch-to-5k program to doing a half-marathon in less than half a year is admirable and something to be proud of. She's already considering upping her goals and doing a full-marathon within the next year.
My official finishing time ended up being 5:13:21. I'm a teensy bit disappointed that I didn't run a sub 5-hr race, but considering I had knee pain in my left knee starting at mile 6 which only got worse as the race went on, I was extremely glad to have finished.
It was such an inspiration seeing all the other participants in the race. Everyone has their own story. Everyone had their own personal goals. My hat is off to everyone who was out there, no matter what distance they were doing or what place they finished. And the volunteers, race organizers and crowds deserve recognition too. So amazing to have complete strangers yelling my name, encouraging me all throughout the race.
Now it's time to consider getting a tat that I promised myself would be a reward for my effort.