My First Marathon

All the Way for 26.2 in Richmond, VA

I completed the SunTrust Richmond marathon Saturday, November 15th, 2003 ( My wife Jeannie, my brother Tony, my friend Nora and her husband Dave came all the way to Richmond to support me. I ran the entire length of the race without having to walk at all and finished in 4hrs, 32min and 43sec.

I arrived at the starting line about 2 minutes before the gun fired (I was “running” a bit late from the hotel). I was supposed to meet up with Pete Miller (a friend from work), his nephew and his nephew’s wife earlier, but I missed them and had to search for them once the race started. Knowing the strategy Pete and I discussed of starting out very slow (10 minute miles to conserve energy), I began the race at the end of the pack and scanned the crowd as I increased speed. I found them within the first half-file.

Pete’s nephew has run several marathons and this was Pete’s second. His wife never ran one before and she didn’t train for it either; she was there mainly to support her husband and stopped running around mile 16; she had never run more than 6 miles in her life so she accomplished an amazing feat!

Pete and I ran together up to mile 20. We coached each other, accidentally stole power gel from a YMCA coach/spectator together, and kept each other from running too fast. Thank goodness we conserved energy otherwise I probably wouldn’t have been able to run the whole way. There were many times Pete or I started to pick up our speed so we reminded each other to keep the pace even. Just after mile 10 at the start of one of a few uphill climbs, I called out that we were 30 seconds ahead of schedule for that mile. Being greedy I started charging up the hill because I wanted to keep the extra time we earned (after all, I did spend time doing hill training). Pete reminded me that we should just burn the 30 seconds and take it easy up the hill – he was right! (But I really wanted to charge up that hill and pass people doing it – it feels so great to pass people on hills.)

Pete and I crossed the 13.1-mile marker (about three miles before crossing the James River back into Richmond) at 2:10:43. We can both do 13.1 miles in about 1:50:00 but we stuck to the strategy of a 10-minute pace. We agreed that if we were feeling really good at mile 20, we would pick up the pace. In retrospect, I have to say “HA! HA! HA!” what a naive notion I had 🙂

I think the abortion protesters were assembled after the second James River Bridge in the course (near mile 15). They held up several enormous, very graphic signs of aborted fetuses all the way down the street. There were also marathon volunteers there trying to obscure the view of the abortion banners for the passing runners by holding huge Richmond marathon banners in front of the protestors; many runners appreciated their effort and thanked them for it. Still, a few runners were so upset by the protectors, they yelled out that they should share their opinion somewhere else. One of the female runners near me was so upset by the ordeal that she cried as she passed the protectors.

Nora and Dave were waiting for us at mile 17 to cheer us on; it was so great that they came all the way to Richmond to support Pete and I! I cannot believe the number of spectators there that day. There were 34 bands playing throughout the course and cheerleading teams were posted at different parts of the course to keep us going. There was even a spectator or race official on roller blades skating along with us at various points in the race to cheer us on.

Traffic was at a standstill at all intersections of the course and police were everywhere letting one or two cars cross at a time whenever there was a gap in the running pack. In spite of the backup, most of the drivers that had been sitting in traffic for 20 to 30 minutes still cheered and smiled for us; thanks for your patience everyone! Of course there were a few who were utterly disgusted with the backup – I caught one guy banging on his dashboard and steering wheel because a police officer wouldn’t let him cross the intersection yet. I imagined the guy cursing at us: “Run faster already and clear the damn intersection!” It was somewhere between miles 17 and 20 I started to feel pain on the bottoms of my feet. I was pretty sure I bruised them so I started alternating between rolling off the inside and outside of me feet to give the middle a break.

My wife and brother were at mile 20 to support us. My wife drove overnight after performing a show in Philadelphia just to see me – she’s the best! Mile 20 was right at the Holiday Inn Central where I stayed Friday night. That was convenient for my wife and brother because after the start of the race, they returned to the hotel for a nap (they were tired after getting in at 2am that morning). They rested until Nora called them on the cell phone from mile 17 with the alert that I would pass them in about 30 minutes. When I finally passed the hotel, I had been running for 3 hours and 21 minutes. My wife met me with smiles and cheers, which was very uplifting. She ran next to me for about 30 seconds, trying to take some video. Unfortunately, the video didn’t come out (mental note: buy a new camcorder battery since the one we have doesn’t keep a charge anymore). She mentioned later that I looked stronger after 20 miles than I had looked after completing my first half-marathon in Philly a little more than a year ago. I’m not sure if I felt better though.

I think I lost sight of Pete somewhere between mile 20 and 21. He was running slightly behind me just after mile 20. I looked back every so often and didn’t notice him falling behind. It was very difficult just to look back though because I would lose my concentration. I needed to focus all my mental energies on ignoring pain and ignoring the psychological desire to stop running. When I finally mustered the energy to look back again, he was gone.

I felt bad because I wasn’t sure what happened to him; I was worried he may have been injured. If that was the case, I knew there were lots of people out on the course to assist him. I remembered he had some recurring cramps in his chest so I thought maybe he slowed down to relieve them. I was a bit discouraged and apprehensive because I had planned to rely on him to help me finish the most difficult part: the last six miles. As I’m sure you know, running with a partner is a lot easier than running alone. But I continued the race by myself, using several techniques to keep my mind focused on finishing. I used breathing techniques my sensei taught me in weeks prior; I switched up my stride to keep my legs from going numb; I stretched my hams and quads while running to keep them from tightening up; I even used mind games to keep going. Plus there was the abundance of calories and fluids my body had at its disposal. I must have consumed 4 of those gel packs and 10 half-cups of PowerAde or water throughout the whole course. Geez – I can’t imagine how many carbs I consumed along the way.

I think the best thing I consumed during the race was an orange wedge just after mile 20. The drinks are nice but it’s hard to drink and run at the same time (I remember the scene in Airplane where Ted Striker splashed a drink in his face because of his “drinking problem”; that’s kind of what drinking during the marathon felt like. I just opened my mouth wide and threw in the liquid hoping to catch about half the cup). Still, I never stopped running at all, not even to grab the drink or to drink it. So the orange wedge was a welcome snack because I didn’t have to hold a cup or splash my face with PowerAde or water. Many people stop running at the drink stations to hydrate, and then they have to start running again. I was afraid if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to start running again. A humorous note – most of the marathon I was carrying a crumpled cup, which probably looked strange to the spectators. Since I never stopped at the drink stations, it wasn’t until I passed all the trashcans that I was finished with my drink cup. Then I couldn’t bring myself to throw the cup on the ground (even though I ran by hundreds of cups on the ground at each rest stop). I would just hold onto it until I found a city or homeowner’s trashcan or until I reached the next drink station. The drink stations were every two miles until mile twenty where they were posted every mile.

It seemed to take forever to run the last six miles (probably because I ran them alone). There were a few very slight uphill stretches but most of it was downhill or flat. At mile 22, I just kept thinking: “only four more miles, only four more miles…” I tried thinking back to my last three training runs earlier in the week when four miles seemed like a walk in the park. At mile 23 I used mind games and concentration techniques to separate my mind from my body and pretend I was at the start of a simple 5K race (I literally chuckled to myself when I tried it because it seemed silly… but it worked – or at least it got my mind off the running because my pace improved a bit that mile.)

But near the end of mile 23 the “separating the mind from the body” trick wore out and my run almost came to a stop. I specifically remember landing on my right foot during a stride and with my left I was about to start walking; in a matter of a half-second I scolded myself. I imagined what it would be like to think back on the race knowing that I started walking so close to the end. I would have been crushed, always wondering if I could have finished. I launched off the left into another running stride and pushed on. My main goal for the race was to finish without stopping to walk. It was difficult though, especially since the fluids I drank in the last six miles didn’t sit well in my stomach. I had abdominal cramps several times in the last few miles but I worked them out by regulating my breathing. I also remember silently chanting a quote in cadence with my stride: “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!”, it’s just something that my sensei often yells at us during my karate classes.

By mile 24 I was pretty excited — as excited as I could be after running 24 miles. I knew the end was near but I was still working through abdominal pain and the bruising on the bottoms of my feet. The tops of my middle toes were in pain too (these are the same toenails I lost after my first half-marathon). I was using yet another method to keep my mind off the run: counting. I would count my footsteps with a goal to reach the 25 count increments. I knew that somewhere between 400 and 480 steps was about a quarter mile for my tired stride. So the 25 step increments were small goals to focus on and achieve, then after 480 steps I knew I had definitely completed another quarter. It got me through mile 24 just fine.

By mile marker 25, I cracked a big smile for as long as I could muster the strength because I knew I would make it the whole way. The last 1.2 miles were mostly downhill and the last quarter mile was a very steep downhill on Cary Street just before the Orion hotel/finish line. For most of mile 25 I was in the zone; my mind was on one thing only: getting to the finish line. I don’t remember any pain or desire to stop during that mile. There were several turns in the last mile which broke up the monotony of it: Marshall St, Brook Rd, Adams St., Franklin St, Foushee St. and finally Cary St. I remember hoping that each turn would be the last stretch. When I finally turned onto Cary, spectators were lined up and down the street on both sides. It was nice there were still so many supporters cheering after more than four hours of waiting. I picked up the pace a bit and quickly noticed just how steep the last stretch was, which made me very appreciative to whomever designed this version of the course. I then noticed mile marker 26 about 200 yards ahead. I decided to sprint the remainder with whatever energy I had left. During the race, my pace varied between 10:00 and 11:30, but the last quarter mile must have been a six or seven minute pace. I remember counting the people I passed in the last quarter and I wouldn’t let anyone pass me. Ironically, I passed 26 people (I may have been a few off though since most people were in small clusters of two or three). About 50 or 100 yards before the finish line the hill flattened out and I felt myself slow down. I still didn’t want anyone to pass me so I compensated for my loss in speed and pushed even harder – it felt awesome to finally cross the finish, especially after passing so many people in the last stretch! But after I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t celebrate because standing up straight was challenging and I was having trouble walking. I wasn’t thinking clearly when the volunteer asked to remove the chip timer from my shoe. I should have told him to wait another minute because in order to take it off, I had to stop walking. Once I stopped, I couldn’t even stand – I rested down on one knee and braced myself. It took me a few seconds, but I was finally able to stand back up and walk over to my wife on the other side of the fence. It felt like I leaned on the fence for dear life. I know for my next marathon to jog or walk for a few minutes before stopping dead; that made recovery a lot worse.

After crossing the line and getting a foil sheet to keep my body heat from escaping, I struggled to walk toward the runners’ eating area. On the way I met up with my wife, my brother, Nora, Nora’s husband Dave and Nora’s brother (who showed up while I was running). I tried my best to be in good spirits but I was crashing hard. I’m not sure how obvious it was that my body was collapsing on the inside, but it was hard to breathe and my ears had clogged up. After finally reaching the eating area, I sent my wife and brother to retrieve the vehicles because it would have taken me an hour to walk the six blocks to the parking garage in my state. I waited on a bench near a bus stop and tried to stretch but just ended up giving myself the most painful cramp I’ve ever felt in my calve muscle. It took several minutes for it to go away. On the bright side, I have to say I am very happy with the sneakers I wore for this race because my feet were in better condition after the marathon than they were for my first two half-marathons. The Princeton Running Company helped me pick out the New Balance 855 after looking at the wear and tear of my previous pair of New Balance. I also wore them in three weeks before race day so I’m sure that helped.

We left for home very shortly after the race; Jeannie had another show Saturday night and had to get back by 7pm. Since we had to leave so promptly, I didn’t get a chance to see Pete before we left; there were so many runners and spectators we probably would have missed each other anyway. He did outstanding – he beat his time from the year before by 30 minutes; that’s an awesome improvement! After speaking with him the week after the race, he told me that his nephew caught up with him near the end of the race and they finished it together, crossing the finish line side by side.

I rode back home with my wife while my brother drove my car behind us. I had another cramp in the car during the five-hour drive home, but that one wasn’t as bad as the first. By the time we reached Maryland, I was able to take over the driving and let Jeannie nap. I had pain when walking Sunday; my quads and calves were pretty sore as well as my shoulders. Walking (or should I say hobbling) down steps was the most painful post-race challenge.

Well, that’s my story. Thanks for listening (I can just ramble on and on huh?). And after all that punishment – Yes, I will do another marathon.