Running with Your Heart.

Back in October, I admitted the hard truth that I had wimped out training for the San Francisco marathon, and vowed to run Charlotte’s Thunder Road instead.  I made my training schedule and got all pumped up for the race, and then – as usual – life got in the way.  More specifically, winter came…

No sidewalks to run on means runs must be done in the street.  Between work and school, I leave the house as the sun comes up, and drive home as it goes down, so there is literally no chance to run outside.  I did a few long runs, and did my best to make it to the gym to do the rest on the treadmill, but overall, training did not happen.  The longest run I did was 9.5 miles a few weeks ago, and that was at home in Cincinnati.  Not good.

So all of that said, December came and it was time to face the music for Thunder Road.  I decided I was just going to go for it, and to make it seem possible, Casey was going to run it with me!  I knew with him by my side, we could just have fun doing it together and not worry so much about pace and finishing times.  Finally I had a good plan I was excited about.

Imagine my reaction when on Monday of this week, Casey decided to finally look at his upcoming finals schedule: physics final – Saturday morning – 8am.  Whoops.  There was a long period of silence, followed by slight rage and a few tears.  But there was no point in really getting upset about it – it was a final exam – couldn’t be rescheduled or changed, so I needed to accept it and move on.  The sad part was, not only did I lose a partner, I was now seriously on my own.  No one to run with, no one to cheer – a solo marathon that I was completely unprepared to run.

But I’ve run these before, right?  I knew what to expect, and it’s 90% mental, right??  These are the things I told myself as I walked to the Thunder Road Expo at 5pm on Friday all by myself.  Is it too late to register for tomorrow’s marathon?  No?  Shoot.  I am quite confident I was the very last person to register for that marathon.

I headed home, ate a sandwich I had taken home from work, and fell asleep at 7:30pm – seriously.  I had horrible stomach issues, a stuffy nose, and massive allergies.  Not a great confidence boost going into Saturday morning.  But morning came anyways, and at 5:30am I was up and making myself the standard pre-run PB&J.


I opened the door to let the dogs out – holy crap – it was COLD outside!  Since I didn’t actually do any training runs (ahem), I had no idea what to wear.  I haven’t run outside in the cold since last winter in Cincinnati!  I dug my tights out of the bottom of my shorts pile, and tried to put together my best cold weather running outfit – tights, Under Armour tech tee (underneath), favorite North Face pullover, cheapo throwaway gloves, and a fleece headband. 


I thought about how totally unprepared I was for this race.  Normally I would have everything laid out and ready to go, and here I was rummaging around to figure it all out race morning.  It also made me realize how far I’ve come since early racing days – I have a much more relaxed attitude now!  I reached to the back to the back of the pantry where we have our stockpile of running goos and gummies, and picked out what sounded good to me.  Thanks to the nice people at LUNA for sending me these LUNA Moons to try!  They sent me these forever ago, but I had been saving them for a long run (and hadn’t done any until now!). 


Casey had to get to his exam, so around 6:45 we headed out the door so that he could drop me off for the race and still get to school in time.  It was sooooo coooold outside!  (Please notice I have my passenger temp set to 90 degrees in an attempt to get warm!)


Running by myself was one thing, but I was really freaked out about being dropped off for a race all alone.  As you can see, I was a little nervous…


I got a little teary in the car, said my goodbyes to Casey, and jumped out.  I hung out in the convention center for a while to stay warm.  I checked out the crowd around me, but since I know about ten people in Charlotte, it wasn’t like I was going to run into someone I knew.  It was a very strange feeling to be there all alone.

Finally it was race time!  I stepped outside of the convention center door and got slammed with ice cold air.  At that point I was just ready for the race to start so that I could get warmed up!  A few minutes later, the starting gun was fired, and we were off!

My entire strategy for this race was to run SLOW and take multiple doses of Advil – probably not the kind of training they recommend in Runner’s World.  I popped two right before the starting line, and had strategically put 4 more in my LUNA Moons pack pinned onto my waist. 

In all my previous races I’ve always been really concerned about my pace and my time.  As I started plodding along at a 9:15 minute mile from the get go, I realized it was really nice to just run and relax – I had nothing to prove.  If anything, I kept having to make myself slow down.  My natural pace is more like an 8:30, but I knew that if I started that way, I’d end up walking by mile ten.  I casually jogged along, enjoying the company of runners around me, and a great playlist on my iPod.  Not to sound cocky or anything, but it was sort of nice to hang in the back of the pack for a change, and not really
focus on speed at all.

Since I was enjoying my run, I started getting all caught up in my thoughts.  The first few miles of the race were down the street that I drive home from school and work every day.  I thought about how cool it was that in just a few short months, I had carved out my own little world in Charlotte, and here I was running those same streets in a freaking marathon. 

We ran through Myers Park – gigantic beautiful homes of bank CEOs and the like – and the streets were so quiet and still in the cold morning.  At this point there were still a lot of people around me, and I wondered what every runner’s story was – who was running their first race?  Who was trying to qualify for something?

Having not trained, I was surprised at how good I felt for the first 8 or so miles, and I figured my relaxed pace was really helping.  I checked out the people around me and realized that almost all of them had green bibs on – half-marathoners – and not so much yellow (full marathon).  This was one of my worries from the beginning.  This race had just under 2,000 people running all 26 miles, but over 5,000 running the half.  My fear came true around mile 11, when the half-marathoners turned off to head into the home stretch, and the lonely pack of yellow bibs stayed on straight to run 15 more miles.

I’m not gonna lie – I was hurting at this point.  And I’ve run enough marathons to know that if you’re hurting at mile 11, you’re in for a bad day.  For a brief moment, I considered avoiding the pain and turning off with the half-marathoners.  A half-marathon is still a great accomplishment, right?  Right, but I knew I would hate myself afterwards, and I would have felt like I had let everyone down (even though no one really knew I was running!).  I knew that if I kept going down the full marathon path there was no going back.  I would have to finish it.  At that point I was still really doubting if I could do it based on the soreness of my legs, but I went for it anyways.

At mile 12 I popped two more Advil, hoping that would help the soreness in my hips.  I thought about how weird it was to be out there all alone running, no one to cheer, no one to even recognize, and I was proud of myself for being brave enough to do something so big all on my own.  And just as I came up over the hill towards mile 13 – there he was – Casey – arms thrown up over his head cheering for me!  He had finished his physics final, checked a printout of the marathon course, and raced back to Uptown to find me along the course.  I was so overwhelmed when I saw him!


I stopped and gave him a huge hug (again, no concerns for finishing time here) and got really emotional and teary.  He told me I was doing great – slow and steady, like I planned – but I told him how early it was and how rough I felt.  He told me to keep going, and I wiped the tears and headed back out, feeling a surge of strength knowing he was out there with me.


I plodded on, dropping to around a 9:30 pace by this point.  As you can see from the pictures, once the half-marathoners turned off there were really so few full marathoners left, that I spent most of my time running completely alone.  I’d pass someone here and there (or get passed), but for the most part, it was just me and the road – kind of like a training run.  I used it to my advantage though, and when I’d get overwhelmed I’d just tell myself to pretend it was any other Saturday morning run – no pressure, just get in the miles.

At mile 15 I decided it was time for some LUNA Moons (thanks again, LUNA!).  These were delicious, but there was a problem.  The Moons were slightly frozen, as was my mouth.  I popped them in my mouth to discover that I could not chew.  As you can see from all the lovely facial expressions in my photos, my mouth was seriously frozen.  The pictures do no justice in showing you how cold it was out there.  Poor Casey must have been freeeezing waiting on the corner for me, but there he was again at mile 15!  (Really, gigantic angus burger in the background?)


I was doing a lot better by 15 – I had just needed to get over the halfway point.  I knew at 15 that I could finish.  Eleven more miles?  No problem.  I spit out my half-chewed Moons, gave Casey a thumbs up and told him that I loved him, and continued to plod. 

The next few miles were actually fun – I was back in Uptown and I got to run right in front of my school!  I had a killer playlist to keep me going too – new iPod additions of Lady Gaga (thank you Lindsey and Matthew!) and the GLEE soundtrack made the miles fly past.  As I came down the hill on Trade Street, I saw Casey for the third time!  I was feeling great at this point – just eight more miles to go – homestretch! 


I know it sounds crazy, but I seriously had so much fun running this race.  Yes, it hurt like hell, but I knew it would, and I was mentally prepared to deal with it (thank you, Advil!).  Having run three other marathons, I also knew that the pain was temporary, but the chance to really live the experience of the race only comes once.  Too many times I’ve gotten caught up in the pain, or down on myself for not being good enough, and this race wasn’t going to be that kind of day.

When you’re focused on your time and pace, you get the amazing satisfaction of really racing, and feel a huge sense of pride and accomplishment when it’s all over.  But you also miss out on some of the other great things that you can experience during a run, rather than a race…

I slapped high fives of all the little kids I passed in Myers Park.  I stopped and asked runners stretching on the side if they were okay, and if I could help.  I cheered on others as they went from walking to finally running again.  I stopped for an orange slice around mile 25, and thanked the nice lady who was the only person cheering in those critical last miles.  I stopped and pet a German Shorth
aired puppy for at least two minutes.  I made a point to thank every single police person I ran past (working traffic on their day off, while being heckled by the rude people of Charlotte who were sitting in traffic honking and yelling at runners).  I really, truly experienced this run for all it was.  The good, the bad, the hills, and the cold.

They say that marathons are 10% physical and 90% mental, and I was determined to prove that true on Saturday.  I knew I wasn’t even close to being physically prepared, but I thought that as long as my head was in the right place, my heart could do the rest.  I actually kind of laughed at myself when I started picking up my pace around mile 23 – I checked the Garmin and I was running an 8:45 pace – guess I had a little bit left in the tank after all.  By taking my time and talking the walking breaks I needed, I was able to finish the race strong and confident.  I turned the corner just after the 26 mile marker to see the finish line straight ahead! 


Casey was already there waiting – snapping pictures and capturing everything for me!  The Carolina Panthers mascot was there…


And so was…Huey?


Maybe not, but it was Huey’s long lost twin brother.  This German Shorthaired Pointer ran the entire marathon with this girl!  Check him out too – totally still pulling on his collar (just like Huey) and not exhausted at all.  Oh wait, who’s that coming…?


It was ME!  Four hours and forty minutes later (haha!), I dragged my sorry (and sore) butt across the finish line.  I gave it everything I had to push to the finish and ran over to give Casey a high five as I passed him – he looked so proud of me! :)


Just after I saw Casey, I crossed the finish line and saw KATH and MATT – cheering and waving!  (photo stolen from Kath)


Kath was awesome enough to snap some great pictures at the finish line too, including this one of me getting my medal…


And this awesome VIDEO of me crossing the finish line!!  THANK YOU, Kath!  (Video also includes finishes of Whitney and Sarah, who also raced in Thunder Road yesterday – congrats, girls!)


I crossed the finish line, got my medal, and headed to the Great Harvest tent to grab a few big hunks of bread, even though at the time I was feeling super nauseous.  My body was aching so badly, but once I stopped moving I also started getting a lot colder, so we couldn’t hang around the finish line for too long. 

IMG_0138 (480x640)

(Another photo courtesy of Kath!)  I was so excited and surprised that Casey was able to be there and see me run and finish.  I started o
ut the race feeling lonely and scared – in the convention center packed with 8,000 people who all seemed to know each other, while I stood alone and nervous all by myself.  I spent the first half of the race thinking about how proud I was of myself for doing something scary and hard, and for having the faith in myself to do it on my own.

I spent the second half of the race literally crying inside, and sometimes out – totally overwhelmed with emotion.  I had proven that I could do it, and that I was strong enough to do it alone, but I had also realized that I didn’t have to

Casey was there after all, cheering and beaming with pride.  My friends from school all texted me afterwards wanting to hear how I’d done.  My friends back home called to congratulate me.  I even had new friends cheering for me and ready with hugs when I crossed the finish line.  If you had told me in August that by December I would know people willing to brave 26 degree temperatures to cheer for me in a marathon I wouldn’t have believed it.  It made me feel like I have come so far in such a short time, and I am so grateful to the three of them for making me feel so loved.

It took four hours, forty something minutes (no chip times yet), and 26.2 miles for me to stop longing for the road behind me.  I am finally read to call Charlotte home.  


Would I do it again?  Definitely, although I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others.  It was fun to do a “casual marathon” and experience such a great race.  But I also miss the thrill of a challenge, and pushing myself to my physical limits.  My next marathon is in May, and I’m out to beat last year’s time.  Training starts in just a few short weeks, and with Thunder Road behind me, I know that I’m physically strong enough to accomplish anything I set out to do.  More importantly, I know I can beat any mental game that creeps up in those final marathon miles.

Until Saturday, I always thought you needed to be able to count on your legs and your lungs to get across the finish line.  But I learned this weekend that any distance is achievable, as long as you run with your heart.