How it felt running my first marathon

A couple of months after I’d started running regularly, I casually remarked to my mother that I was thinking of running a marathon. She turned around, and flatly remarked to me, “You can’t run a marathon”.

So I did.

I can now call myself a marathon runner, after running Philadelphia Marathon in November 2017. It was the hardest physical feat I’d done until that point, and taught me what it really meant to feel pain.

I first started running regularly in April 2016, after I got my first adult job. A bunch of people in the office used to go on lunch runs, and I said I’d join. Up until that point, I’d only jogged on and off, with half serious efforts, alternating walking with a slow run, stopping every time I got tired. That first day, as we were walking to the change rooms, one of the girls, Z, informed me that they usually ran at a pace of 6 minutes per km. Overly confident, I said I would be able to run at that pace.

Contrary to my beliefs, I was only okay for the first 10 minutes of the run. After that, I turned into a sweating, panting, red-faced mess. Most of the others soon outran me, while one of my coworkers, S, walked back to the office with me out of politeness. I had never felt so out of breath in my life. There was one last hill to overcome before getting back to the office, and S encouraged me to start running again and climb that last hurdle.

That was the beginning of my foray into running, and ultimately, physical exercise. I was the most unfit one in the group, but I persisted with weekly runs with the group a couple of times a week. Gradually, I was even running on my own, and slowly, I got better at running. Over several months, I developed the discipline to steadily run on my own without stopping every time I got tired.

After a couple of months of running, my friend J and I signed up for City 2 Surf in Sydney, an annual race spanning 14km from the city to Bondi Beach. We were very much beginners at this stage, and even with months of running training, I still felt anxious that I wouldn’t be able to perform as I wanted to. In the end though, we both came out fine. However, there was always another hurdle to overcome, and they kept getting bigger. From 14km, I planned to do a half marathon in early 2017. And when that was done, the only thing left to complete was a marathon.

I signed up for Philadelphia Marathon around May 2017, after not getting into New York Marathon. I figured that I’d been running for over a year at this point, and with dedicated training over the next couple of months, I would be fine running my first marathon.

My initial theory for training over the next couple of months proved wrong though. With several deterring factors at hand, including weather (it’s almost unbearable running outside in New York during summer) and joint problems, I realized how stressful training for a marathon actually was. In addition to that, I realized that running with strategic purpose and intent can take a lot of the fun out of it. Having to make sure I went on a certain number of runs per week, with certain distances targeted was more challenging to do than I previously thought. I began to dread going running each week. However, I persisted with training. In early September, I did a 22 mile run alone around Golden Gate Park. After 2 hours of running, you begin moving mechanically, kind of like mindless dancing at a festival when the sun is about to come up.

Then September came, and my boyfriend and I departed San Francisco for our 10 day road trip. A few days after the trip, I flew to Canada and spent 2 weeks with my best friend in the Rocky Mountains. This entire month was spent loafing around, barely running. The whole time, I felt guilty and stressed about my lack of dedication. However, I told myself that I’d be fine doing the 26.2 miles since I’d already covered 22 miles on one training day.

I got back to New York in October and promptly commenced training again. After all those months of dedicated running though, it felt like I had lost momentum. I began to hate running. I dreaded the marathon, and for the thousandth time, I wondered why I’d had the foolishness to sign up.

Race weekend finally came. The day before, Michael and I set out from New York to Philadelphia on a Bolt bus. By that time, the nerves had mostly dissipated, and I was happy and excited to be completing the 26.2 miles.

The next morning, I woke up at 5:40am. I stuffed myself with peanut butter and a cinnamon raisin muffin, put on my marathon clothes, and booked an Uber to the marathon starting spot. I was waiting in the hotel lobby, and it looked like the middle of the night. As I waited, I saw other runners filtering in and out of the lobby in running gear and ponchos, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone anymore.

My Uber pulled up shortly, and as I got in, the driver asked if I was going to the marathon as well. When I said yes, she asked how many miles it was. I replied, “26.2”. She replied in a tone of bewilderment as she asked, “What do you get out of running 26.2 miles?”

My first reaction to this was speechlessness. I replied that I enjoyed the physical challenge of doing something I’d trained so long for. We chatted a little bit more about the difficulty of doing a marathon, before she dropped me off at the drop off spot.

It was still dark, cold and wet out, but the sun was rising. I followed the trail of other runners to the starting spot and weaved through the chaos and testosterone. As I was walking up to the starting spot, a woman offered me her spare pair of hand warmers. This was one of the first of many random acts of kindness that day.

While looking for my race corral, an older woman approached me and asked if I knew where the silver corral was, where we were both supposed to be starting. As I’d been walking around for about 15  minutes trying to find my corral, I felt a lot better looking with a companion. We found the corral quickly, and stood in place. It was hard to feel alone standing in the giant crowd, though my nerves had gathered again. Energy was high during this point, and people were chattering all around me. A woman standing next to me randomly gave me a hug before yelling to the crowd that she needed to pee.

Despite the designated starting time being at 7am, with so many people to get across the starting line, my corral didn’t pass the starting line until nearly 8am. If keeping the same running pace throughout the entire marathon, I should have finished the race within 5 hours with my corral pacer. The weather that day was windy, and it wasn’t ideal at all for running a marathon. Around the 8 mile mark, a tree branch fell down and nearly hit someone running in front of me.

There were many spectators that day, which helped to stay motivated. About every 2 miles, there were water stations with portable toilets. After stopping at the second one, I lost my 5 hour pace group. I continued running at my own pace without worrying about catching up. Things were going fine until about the 2.5 hour mark. Everything went downhill from there.

When I reached the 18 mile mark, it began to get extremely painful. My ankles were on fire. My left hip felt like it was going to bust. I slowed down considerably after this, and cursed myself for having the audacity to think I could run a marathon. But the shame of walking kept me going. I persisted with energy packs, a brownie and a slice of orange that a spectator stuffed into my hand as I was running.

The feeling of relief as I reached the 20 mile mark was palpable. At this point, it was nearly unbearable to continue running, and I began walking and half jogging intermittently. As I neared the 24 mile mark, a man who was running behind me overtook me and said, “Keep going, you’re doing so well”. Little things like this were what kept me going that day.

Finally, I passed the 25 mile mark and started running to the finish line. Crossing the finish line was the biggest relief that I’d experienced in a long time. I stopped running immediately after crossing, and turned around to see Michael waiting for me.

The hotel was only a 10 minute walk from the Philadelphia Marathon finish line, but the walk back was agonizing. I never endured a more difficult walk in my life. Once we got back, we quickly packed our things and headed back to New York on a bus.

I had a tremendous feeling of achievement after finishing, but also an incredible sense of physical pain that didn’t dissipate for a couple of days. Even turning in bed resulted in a sharp stabbing sensation in my joints. One of my coworkers, S, who I used to run with, used to say that running is just the ability to tolerate pain. After running the marathon, I finally understood what he meant.

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