Monday, October 18, 2010

My First Marathon – the LONG story!

If you've already read my last blog post, "I just ran a marathon! (the short story)" then you can skip this one if you want... unless you want the SUPER-LONG detailed version of it!! But you've been warned! :)

At the start of the race

 After 26 weeks of training, a week of obsessive preparation, and a night and morning of nervousness, I was at the start line in Ashland, WI to attempt running my first marathon. I kept going over the things I could’ve done differently in my training, wondering if they were going to come back to bite me along the 26.2-mile route that lay ahead of me. It wasn’t perfect training, but I felt like I gave it my best – I can’t say I felt 100% ready, but I was as close to that as I could’ve been. I was there. I was at the start line. So I must have done something right up to that moment.

I took Friday off of work. The Whistlestop Marathon is on a Saturday, and I wanted to have a full day to mentally get ready for my run and I needed the time to get up to Ashland so I could get my race packet. Adam and I left Friday morning and took a very slow, scenic route up to Ashland. It was a really fun drive – we took country roads, small highways and drove through little towns. We even stopped for a Subway lunch in Crandon. We enjoyed the fall colors and the scenery along the way, too.

Once in Ashland, we head straight to the Bay Area Civic Center so I could get my bib and race packet. Everything went smoothly. We then head south to Phillips, where we were staying at Adam’s mom’s house for the night. We pulled into the driveway, and my mom called to wish me luck. I was talking with her on the phone, and as I opened the door to the car and went to step out, my foot got wrapped up in a strap on my backpack and I went down onto the driveway like I was catapulted from the car. Adam came rushing around the car as I lay on the ground – his first thought was, “Oh crap! 6 months of training and she’s going to break her leg the day before the race!” He was concerned, and as he offered to help me up, asked me if I was alright. Thankfully I only scraped my elbow. It’s never fun to take a digger!

I ate my dinner in the car on our way to Phillips from Ashland. I had a whole wheat bagel with veggie cream cheese – simple and satisfying. Once we were at Adam’s mom’s house, and I was settled in and calm after falling out of the car, I laid out all of the things I needed for race day. It never even crossed my mind that my race bib wasn’t in the pile. I took a picture with pride because I was “oh-so-prepared,” or so I thought! Haha!

All my stuff laid out and organized, ready for race morning... well, almost all my stuff...

Well, the next morning, Adam and I woke up and had coffee and breakfast with his mom and sister, took our showers, and head out the door. I got into the car and thought, “I need my race bib!” Thank goodness it popped into my mind, because I wasn’t getting a timing chip at the start line without that bib. I searched the car with no luck. I went back to the house and there it was sitting in the entry-way! Whew!

Found my bib!

The drive up to Ashland went quickly for me. Adam drove as I dozed off here and there. Once in Ashland, we head west on Hwy 2 towards Iron River right away, where the actual start line was for the race. We pulled into the designated parking area for runners and spectators where we had to catch a shuttle bus. The shuttle and parking area was already busy and buzzing with runners and their families. Adam dropped me off at the port-a-pottie line and he went to park the car. By the time I got in and out of the bathroom, he was back from parking. We waited in line to get on a shuttle bus to the actual start line of the race.

Once at the start area, I was in awe. The area we were in was beautiful. First of all, it was a perfect fall day and we were in the woods. The temperature must have been in the mid-50’s – I was standing comfortably in my running capris and sleeveless running shirt. We were standing in a section of northwoods with all the leaves a vibrant golden color. Runners were ambling around, stretching, jogging, talking with family members, and waiting in line to use the port-a-johns. I went over and got my timing chip, then got in line for the bathroom myself.

Runners and spectators buzzing around the start area before the race started

Once I was done with the bathroom, I had about 10-15 minutes to do a little warm-up and some stretching. I took off down the road and jogged for a minute or two, took a quick little 15-20 second sprint, did some high-knees and butt-kicks, then I walked back to where Adam was waiting for me. I stretched my calves a little bit and noticed someone was singing “God Bless America.” I glanced at my watch and realized it was 8:56!! Four minutes to the start! I had Adam take a photo of me with the fall colors as a backdrop, then head over and joined the start-line crowd. There weren’t any signs indicating pace times or anything, so I just blended myself in about half-way down the line.

Waving to Adam as I waited for the race to start

As I was waiting for the race to start and the line to start moving, I noticed someone looking in my direction and waving. She looked familiar, but I didn’t want to be that girl that waves back excitedly only to realize that person was waving to someone directly behind me… but she looked so familiar! Finally she and her friend walked over by me and I realized it was two girls from my hometown of Phillips! It was Britt and Kristi! How cool to see them there amongst a crowd of runners! We chatted a little bit, wished each other luck and started to walk as the line moved forward.

Before I knew it, I was crossing the start line and jogging shoulder-to-shoulder with almost 700 other marathoners -- with Baba O’Riley by The Who playing on my Shuffle, which is my favorite race-start song! Alright! Here we go!

The race has begun!

We first ran a short distance down the paved Long Lake Road in Iron River. Then we turned left onto the crushed limestone recreation trail that parallels Hwy 2 for about 10 miles. It was weird getting used to the surface of the trail at first, but after the crowd of runners spaced out a little bit, it was easy to get into the flattest groove on the trail, find a runner going the same pace that I wanted to go, put myself on auto-pilot and just run.

It was a gorgeous fall day, and the leaves were just past peak, so they were flittering down all over the trail each time a breeze blew by. It was pretty and peaceful. I enjoyed the woods all around me, too. It was so different than a straight road race where you’re looking at buildings, traffic and houses the whole time. I remembered to look off into the woods and up into the treetops every once in a while to remind myself of the prettiness around me – and the lack of vehicular traffic (what a joy)!

This is a shot of the trail we were running on. Beautiful!

It was a neat experience to be running a full marathon compared to a half marathon. The first 13 miles were pretty much like all other half marathons I’ve run before, except, obviously most people were taking what seemed to be a more leisurely run. Nobody really seemed to be in a huge hurry, and once everyone got into their “groove,” I was running most of the race leapfrogging with the same 10-12 runners. I know I was trying to keep it at a safe comfortable speed, too. The adrenaline was racing through me, and I could feel myself wanting to run faster and faster, but when I noticed that happening I got myself behind someone and followed their pace for a while. I started my watch a little late at the start, so I wasn’t exactly sure how my starting pace was, but I think I was somewhere just a little under a 9-minute mile. I forced myself to slow down every once in a while so I’d have something left in the tank for the last half of the race.

The first couple of miles went really smooth. I had so many distractions – my pace, my footing, watching other runners, how they run, what kind of gear they had with them, the scenery, runners passing me, me passing other runners – it was a busy first two-mile stretch. I think after the first water station things started to air out a little bit and I was really able to get into my own groove.

I thought about bringing an audio recorder with me and taking voice notes along the way, which would have been really freakin’ awesome to play back later, but I thought of it too late. I didn’t want to carry something new with me that I haven’t trained with – especially it being something technology-related. All kinds of things could’ve gone wrong, and I had enough to think about! So I tried to take good mental notes.

I do remember coming up to mile 7 and thinking to myself, “I’ve been running for an hour and I feel like it’s only been a few miles.” I felt strong and smooth, and then I started to really look forward to seeing Adam along the trail. I got to the half-way mark and did a cheesy little “raise-the-roof” motion with my hands as I ran past the sign. The few steps past that sign was the farthest I’d run in an actual race, and I felt great! Then to make it better, just a half-mile later I saw Adam! I ran up to him and gave him a kiss, told him I loved him, heard him tell me I had a good pace going, and ran on. I smiled for about the next five minutes on the trail. Seeing Adam was a huge boost!

It was really quite cool not having spectators stretched all along the entire course. I was worried that I’d miss that part of a popular road marathon, but it was the total opposite. I was able to relax and enjoy my surroundings, just running along at an easy pace with a bunch of other like-minded runners. It felt like a dream. I did look forward to the spectators, though – again, this was a cool part about this race – they weren’t lined up everywhere along the course, so they were like a treat that I could look forward to. I’d be bouncing down the trail, see the white tops of the port-o-johns up ahead and that’s how I knew I was coming up to an aid station where there would be spectators (and water!). These came just about every two miles, so I was able to almost break up the entire race into two-mile segments with some other personal milestones in between.

I ran and ran and smiled and ran. Each mile was marked by a simple, skinny wooden post about 10-feet high with a small white sign about 12” wide by about 20” high. I remember coming up to one of the little white signs that read “Mile 18 – Marathon” and it hit me hard – not a wall, not a cramp – a huge smile. I remembered back to my 18-mile training run and how DEAD I felt at the end. I remembered my 20-mile training run and how the last 4 miles made me want to crawl into the ditch, curl up into a ball and cry -- but instead I got stubborn and forced my sore, heavy legs to trod on. But today… I was at mile 18 and I felt… well… amazing! I smiled again, looked up into the sky and thanked God for being there with me. I prayed at the start of the race that He run with me, and I don’t know if it was adrenaline or what, but I sadly wasn’t feeling a strong connection for some reason. It bothered me, but I had to just keep my chin up and keep going. As the race went on, I felt more and more thankful to be there… and to be healthy enough to be there. Then I started to feel it, almost like a balloon of happiness being blown up inside. It made me so happy – and at that 18-mile mark I felt like I was beaming from the inside!

At mile 20 I saw Adam again. I heard him say that I had a really good pace going and to keep it up. I didn’t have any idea when I’d finish, and I didn’t want to concern myself with time. I reminded myself to take it easy and enjoy the run. Just after that 20-mile mark I started to feel a little tired, and I whispered (and repeated) to myself, “Come on, Robin… just a 10K away… good miles, good miles… make these last six good miles…”

A little while later, somewhere between mile 20 and 21 I realized that I’d just run the farthest I’d ever run before and felt better than any of my training runs. It was some sort of miracle! I started to think of how far I’d come that morning, and how far I had to go, how I was feeling, then I whispered to myself, “I’m going to do it!” I felt a rush of emotion come over me, but quickly focused back on the trail.

I had a couple of reality checks that hit me kind of hard along the way, too. It seems like once I hit mile 20, there were quite a lot of people walking and stopping to stretch. I saw one male runner that was stopped frozen in the middle of the trail just trying to lift his toes, and as he tried, he shook his head in frustration – I felt so bad for him – he was so cramped up he couldn’t even move! He had a friend helping him, so I hope he was able to get his cramp worked out and back to running. I saw the ambulance fire up its sirens a couple of times and race off, and the scariest moment during the run was when I ran past a downed runner lying in the ditch with emergency personnel holding their feet up. The runner was completely covered with a heat blanket from their ankles to over the top of their head. All I could see was their shoes. A minute later a pick-up truck was heading towards us down the trail with a crew of EMTs and a stretcher. I got a little emotional, said a little prayer for that runner and kept going.

It was almost like once mile 20 hit it was a different race. I felt like I was playing with the big boys, and this was where we stopped screwing around. It was getting serious, now. Each time I ran a half marathon, I’d watch the full marathon runners come down the final stretch and I would be in complete awe. It was always just amazing to me how they could run that far! I had so much respect for them and always thought to myself, “Someday I want to be like them.”

Well, part of “being like them” also involved dealing with common issues they are all too familiar with. There’s a big one that happens to runners anywhere from the novice level to the most experienced racers, and I couldn’t avoid it, either… it was the wall. The sign for mile 22 came and went, my posture slumped, my legs felt heavy and my feet landed hard with each step. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later, I just didn’t know when. I told myself the week before, as I tried to mentally prepare for and visualize the race, that when I hit the wall I’d recognize it right away and try to push through it. I knew it was going to be mostly a mental exercise. I was starting to feel soreness in my left leg – but that was normal – after all, I’d just run 22 miles straight! But the rest of my slumpiness was just in my head. I was tired, and I had 4 more miles to run. But at that moment those 4 miles seemed like 400. I wanted to walk. I ran past a few people walking and envied them, but at the same time I knew I’d be disappointed in myself if I’d stopped to walk, especially having made it this far! It just simply wasn’t part of my game plan.

Then I did something I knew very well how to do: “Stubborn mode: ON”

I straightened my back, sunk my eyebrows down as if angry, turned up my music a few notches, forced my stride to hop along as if I were on mile 1, and said out loud, “F*** the wall!” and I took off. I didn’t go with an all-out sprint, but I picked up my pace enough that I ended up passing a couple of other runners. Once I felt as though I’d pushed through, I slowed my pace back down to a comfortable trot and ran on. No wall was gettin’ me down!

At about mile 24 I realized that today was the day I was going to be a marathon finisher. This was my fourth attempt at training, and I’d gone the distance (well, mostly at that point!). I only had a couple more miles to go! I actually started to get teary-eyed as I ran. I felt proud, happy and awesomely exhausted all at the same time. As I nearly cried with joy, I noticed I was starting to hyperventilate a little bit! I shook my head back and forth quickly a couple of times and told myself to save it for the end. This happened about two more times in the last couple of miles. I’d just shake it off and think to myself, “save it for the finish line.”

Between mile 25 and the finish, there was no fooling my mind – we were almost there. My left knee started to hurt, and the whole side of my left leg felt tight. I was way too close to the finish line to stop and stretch, so I just ran through it. During each training run I did, I felt things tighten in about the last mile but then I'd be just fine the second I was done – I knew this was pain from running 26.2 miles, but I also knew it probably wasn’t quite as bad as it felt that very moment. It was mostly in my mind. Had I felt this pain in mile 17, I’d have stopped and stretched.

I came around a corner and took off my headphones so I could hear the buzz of the finish-line crowd. There were a lot of people cheering me on as I ran through the last couple of curves. As I futzed with my headphones to tuck them away in my pocket, I looked up, and a very nice gentleman said to me, “Remember to SMILE!!” and I gave him the biggest, happiest smile I had and it stuck. I ran around the next corner and saw the finish line and the clock. The clock had JUST turned over to 3:59, and I quickly realized that my official chip time was going to be under 4 hours! I was excited about that, but instantly distracted when the announcer said, “Oshkosh, Wisconsin -- Robin Grapa.” I threw my hands up in the air and cheered myself across the finish line.


A volunteer took my timing chip off, another volunteer asked me if I needed any aid (I didn’t -- I felt great!), got my mylar and wrapped it around my shoulders, another volunteer put my finisher medal over my head, and I walked into the food tent. I almost felt like I was in a cloud. I grabbed a few things out of the food tent and came out to look for Adam. Once I saw him walking towards me, I lost it. I started crying and he gave me a huge hug. He asked me if I was okay – he thought I might’ve been injured – he saw me trying to tuck my headphones in my back pocket when I came down the final stretch and he thought I was holding my back as if it hurt… that was scary for him! I told him I felt great and that I was just so happy! I did it! I finally ran a marathon!

First photo after I finished. My face is covered in salt and I'm a big, proud crybaby!

I was amazed with how great I felt. I was a salty-faced, teary-eyed girl, but I was happy! I laughed after Adam hugged me, because I left behind a dusting of salt on the shoulder of his black t-shirt. I felt my face and it was caked with a layer of salt from sweating for four hours!

I originally didn’t want to really focus too much on my time for the race. I’d never run that far before, and I had no idea how my body was going to react. My first goal was to just finish the race. I wanted to cross the start line and that finish line under my own foot power. My second goal was to run the entire way without slowing to a stop – which I did – I even jogged through the water stations. Thankfully I only got PowerAid up the nose one time, and it made me laugh, so it was alright. My third goal was a time goal – but it was my #3 goal so I didn’t think about it too hard. I originally wanted to finish under a 10-minute mile, but looking back on all my training runs, I was pretty certain I’d do that without any problem – so I told myself maybe I could finish with a 9:30-minute mile.

The problem with the 9:30-minute mile is that I would’ve finished in 4:09 and probably would’ve left the race thinking, “Wow, I’m just 9 minutes above the 4-hour mark… I could run another marathon under 4 hours…” This same sort of thing happened to me on my first half-marathon. My ultimate goal was to finish, and that was pretty much it. When I finished in 2:02, I had to run another one. I did, and crushed the 2-hour mark with a 1:51. But the marathon took so much more time to train for! I had it on my list to run one before I die, and I wasn’t certain I’d want to do another one. I’ve heard people say with marathons, “It’s either one and you’re done, or you get addicted and do more.” I think I could easily go either way, but because I like doing so many different things (and have so many more things to cross off my list), I’m going to go with the former (at least for now!). And especially because I surprised myself and confidently ran it under four hours, I’m going to walk away proud and fully satisfied. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll feel a hunger to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 3:40? Hmm, that’s a ways off! Haha!

After I calmed down a little from running across the finish, we walked into the festival tent, and Adam bought me a beer. It tasted amazing! I then collected my official finisher shirt and we head over to the Civic Center. I was going to sign up for a massage, but the wait was about an hour, so I decided to head to the car to get my clothes so I could shower. By the time we got back they weren’t taking any more massage requests. Oh, well. We hung around a little bit, I had my medal engraved, took my shower, went to the finish area to watch a few more excited runners cross the finish line, then got on the road back towards Phillips.

Post-race celebratory beer!

I had a strong case of runner’s high. I was stoked the entire way home. I thought I’d be passed out and sleeping, but there was no chance of that! I was a little stiff-legged whenever I had to move after sitting down, but other than that, I was feeling awesome. We drove to my parent’s house, and my mom and dad made an amazing celebratory post-race meal for us all. Dad made tasty, dripping ribeyes over the open fire, and mom put together salads made with all fresh ingredients right from her garden in the backyard… and she made some really great sliced baked sweet and white potatoes with fresh herbs (from her yard) and cheese melted on top. We stuffed ourselves silly, then we collectively decided to go out. Even after the long day I already had, there was still a little fight left in me, as I was out until wee hours in the morning! What a great day!

Amazing steak dinner! Thank you, mom and dad!

The aftermath hasn’t been so bad. At least it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. I had a tight left leg for the first few days after, a couple of nasty chafe lines on my chest from where my sports bra rubbed, and my big right toenail is getting darker and uglier each day. I didn’t feel the chafing or my big toenail during the run at all, so for that I’m thankful. I clearly remember my knee stiffening up on me late in the race, so I’m certain if I just stretched faithfully for a few days, my leg would be right back to normal. I really need to get better about stretching.

Also, about three days after the run, I started to come down from my runner’s high and began to feel a little sad. I’ve been focusing on that one day for 6 months, and was constantly working towards that one big event. I never had more than two days off from running, and during those two days, I was usually doing some sort of cross-training. But I needed to rest my legs and body, which I’m actually finding difficult. And I decided that once I get back into a workout routine I’d take a break in training for a while and try some new workouts – and maybe take a few runs just for fun. Normally I’d transition right into training for the Frozen Otter in January, but since I completed the 64 miles this January, I think I will volunteer this year and cheer on other participants. I’m going to miss it like crazy, and the thought of not participating in the race eats at me quite a bit, but I guess I need this break. 2010 was an awesome year. I completed the Frozen Otter, then spent months recovering while starting to train for the marathon. I don’t have a lot of lasting recovery to deal with from the marathon, though, so that’ll be nice.

My mind is reeling, though. I’m not really sure where to go with my own workout routine. One goal I did have was to start working on Adam and helping him get into shape, so I think whenever I feel that “want” to pick a new race or a new event, I’m going to focus that energy on him. Haha! Adam – baby, you better watch out! Hah!

My goals going in and results:

Goal #1: Finish the marathon
Goal #2: Run the whole marathon without slowing to a walk
Goal #3: Finish in 4:22:11 or under. That's a pace of 10 minutes/mile*
* I actually wanted to finish under 4:09, which was a 9:30 minute mile, but I set my time goal low because I didn’t want to stress myself over a particular time, having no idea what it would be like to run past 20 miles.

Final Results:
Chip time: 3:59:02
Pace: 9:07 minutes/mile

301/682 total
23/50 female age group (30-34)
80/247 division (female)

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