The Journey to Finishing My First Marathon

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After covering the Bank of America Chicago Marathon for two years, and having run several half marathons, I made the executive decision last October that in 2018, I would be one of the runners on that start line (and hopefully finish line). Running a marathon had been on my bucket list since I watched my high school cross country coach run one, and thought there was no better time to do it than now.

Once I locked down my registration, I immediately knew I had to join some sort of training group; I trained for two of my half marathons by myself, so I knew I couldn’t count on creating my own plan and being accountable. Living in the suburbs, and having worked with the Chicago Area Runners Association on many projects, I knew they were a large, well-supported group with several locations, so I joined the Schaumburg training group.

Every Saturday morning I met the group at 6:30 a.m. at Busse Woods. My first week I was nervous and shy, but the rest of the 9:30 pace group was the exact opposite – after telling them this was my first marathon, they offered constant advice and I learned a lot quickly. It didn’t take long for everyone to feel familiar and start cracking jokes to make the miles go by quickly. One thing my pace group leader repeated to us all was “it’s all about the journey,” meaning the training is what makes you the athlete you are, not the race.

I also had the opportunity to do some training with Nike. There were several “underground” runs downtown that I attended and raced, where I met with different coaches who offered their insight. These events were always full of energy and got me really excited for race day.

Come race weekend, I was feeling very antsy; it was a mix of nerves and excitement, and as I walked around the expo on Friday, I just wanted to jump on the start line ASAP. I had done all I could until this point, and I was ready to see where it would take me.

Nike hooked me up with a hotel Saturday night on Michigan Avenue, which alleviated all of the race morning anxieties such as traffic and bathroom accessibility. Surprisingly, I got a really good night of sleep, and when I woke up and saw the start outside my window surrounded by rain, it hit me: I was about to run a marathon.

Saying the energy in the city that morning was surreal would be an understatement; all along Michigan Avenue, people were taking pictures, warming up, hydrating, stretching and preparing to head to their corrals. I heard dozens of different languages being spoken, and nearly everyone was smiling. It was infectious to say the least.

Before I knew it, I was standing in my corral, walking to the start line with thousands of other people. Being my first marathon, my only goal was to finish, but I did hope to come in before 4:30 and run the entire time. I started thinking about the different mile markers my family and friends would be at to cheer me on, and thinking about the neighborhoods I’d pass through, then suddenly I was at mile one already.

“Just have to do that 25 more times then I’m done,” I remember thinking to myself. It had gone so fast that somehow that sounded like an easy task to me. This was just one of the countdowns I had in my head throughout the entire race, and I used each 5k as a checkpoint to refocus. When I saw the lady with the sign at mile eight that said “18 more and you can do this” with an arrow pointing to her dog laying down, I laughed, and realized I was almost a third done already.

The first half of the race flew by; I saw most of my supportive spectators along the way, and reached the halfway point at 2:01:30! Just two months before I struggled to break two hours in a half marathon, and immediately realized how everyone telling me “the work is done, now just enjoy the celebration,” was extremely accurate. All of those long runs had prepared me for this, and my legs felt like they were on autopilot, just carrying me past each landmark. The cold, cloudy weather definitely aided in that too, after training in heat and humidity for a majority of the season.

I won’t act like running a marathon wasn’t a challenge, because it was. I definitely hit the infamous 20-mile wall, but listened to my favorite podcast, My Favorite Murder, to distract me through some of those hard moments (who else wouldn’t listen to the story of John Wayne Gacy to motivate them?). There were several times where I considered taking a quick walking break, but knew it would be a lot harder to start again after stopping; I had already been running for three hours, what’s one more?

After hitting mile 23, it honestly all feels like a blur. I saw the “5k to go!” sign, and told myself it was just a cool down. While I knew I slowed down a little bit, I didn’t care about pace, I just wanted to keep going. Soon enough, I was turning onto Roosevelt up the legendary hill, when my calves both cramped at the exact same time. This had never happened to me before, and I didn’t know what to do. “Should I stop and stretch them out? No, its 400 to go, if I fall over at the end its fine.” As soon as I made it to the top of the hill the cramping subsided, I saw the finish line, and I teared up. I had really done it.

I ran past my parents and boyfriend right before crossing the line, and the biggest feeling of relief swept over me; 18 weeks of working towards this – all of the Friday nights I denied plans and went to bed early to feel good on Saturday morning, and the moments that I thought “am I crazy for thinking I can do this?” were worth it. Somehow, I had run 26.2 miles in 4:04:36, taken over 40,000 steps, and achieved one of the biggest goals I’d ever set for myself.

As proud of myself as I felt, I think my parents and boyfriend were even prouder, which reiterated the magnitude of what I just accomplished. They all watched me embark on the training journey, and I am very grateful for their consistent support.

After getting some food, changing into warmer, dry clothes, and heading home, I was asked if I wanted to do it again. I’ve heard many people say after finishing one, they said they’d never do it again, or it took them a few weeks to forget about the pain they went through to commit to another one. However, I immediately responded yes.

I know now that marathon training is a huge commitment; while I did have some weeks where I didn’t hit all of my mileage, if it weren’t for CARA and Nike, I truly don’t think I could have been near as prepared for the race. Since working at Chicago Athlete, I’ve heard over and over how supportive and inspiring the Chicago running community is, but had never truly experienced it until this summer. Those people weren’t lying: you’ll never meet a more positive and encouraging group of people than runners.

So, CARA runners, I’ll meet you back out there next summer, because I’ve already set my next goal of breaking four hours, and I’m excited for the journey that gets me there.

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Holly's running career began in high school; after being bummed about not making the volleyball team her sophomore year, she decided to join some of her middle school friends on the cross country team. She also did track in the fall, where the 1600 m race was her niche. Since then, she has run many distance races, and is going for her first marathon at the 2018 Bank of America Chicago Marathon this October. She graduated from Illinois State University in May 2016 with a degree in journalism, and is working towards her Master in Arts in New Media and Marketing.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Congrats Holly! Well run first marathon and well written article. Glad you are on board for more marathons in the future. My son and I both ran this year at Chicago and I am hoping next year it will be my daughter and I.

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