Last year I made the leap from a respectful half marathon finish to running a marathon in the Big Apple, and I learned important lessons along the way.
After five half marathons, I set out to crack the two-hour barrier. I hired a trainer, Leah Goldstein (a world-class professional ultra-endurance athlete), and started trading junk miles for fuel-efficient ones. Hills and I became buddies. I toughened up and sucked it up through rain, mud and wind.
Five months later, fired up with adrenaline and determination, I ran the Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon, smashing my personal bests: I ran the first 5 kilometres in 24:29 and the first 10 in 49:09 and finished the 21 kilometres at 1:53:39!
Therein lies the first lesson.
Lesson 1: Celebrate your victories but don’t get too cocky.
I was thrilled with these results, and my type-A personality plotted to push my limits. If I wanted to run a marathon, logic dictated that the time to start training was now, so why not aim for the iconic New York City Marathon in November?
I made the decision to register at the beginning of July. My trainer was happy to hear that I planned to take my training to a new level but suggested that I wanted too much too soon. She said I needed to work on my base; I didn’t even have 1,000 kilometres under my belt yet. Bless her heart, she accepted my challenge and strategized my five-month training agenda.
For the next four months I ran my assigned runs diligently. It’s funny how a half marathon can become a training-run distance when the goal is a full marathon.
Training for a marathon is hard work! It demanded a lot more than my previous regime:
- More therapy, like long soaks standing waist deep in the lake to cool my legs after a long run, and long Epsom-salt baths to soothe my muscles.
- More and deeper sleep (and some afternoon catnaps).
- More food—I’ve never eaten so much in my life! I even had to get up and eat in the middle of the night after a long run.
With less than four weeks until the marathon I ran my last long run. Here’s a major tip for all marathon rookies: know the elevation of a long run before you start. I ran a false flat route: 18.5 kilometres on a slight incline one way and slight decline on the way back. The result? Not-so-slight shin splints!
So there I was, injured a month before the marathon. The physical therapy assessment was awful. I was asked to hop on one foot but could not do it on either foot. I was in a lot more pain than I was willing to admit, and it was suggested that I forgo the marathon and take time to heal.
I chose to proceed.
Fortunately, our small town is equipped with state-of-the-art rehabilitation equipment. For the next three weeks I practised active recovery on the AlterG Anti-Gravity treadmill at my physio clinic, running at 25 percent of my body’s weight. Although this was an adapted workout to compensate for my injury, it helped to maintain my cardio and training.
In the original plan, marathon week consisted of tapering, resting and coming up with final plans and race-day strategies. My actual final week included an elephant leg, grossly swollen from my knee to the bottom of my foot due to an allergy to the Leukotape.
At 6:00 on race morning, we were bussed to Staten Island for a four-hour wait, during which we rummaged through cardboard, plastic bags and whatever else we could find to keep warm—awesome conditions for my dry chest cough. The Sinatra start warmed our souls and for the first 15 kilometres I enjoyed myself. For the first time in almost a month I was running on 100 percent of my body weight.
But it was a run of crosswinds and headwinds. At the halfway point I was in severe pain and so discouraged that I called my trainer. She said, “Just keep moving.” I cried and kept moving until the 27-kilometre mark, at which point my mind was going crazy.
Here’s a sample of my internal dialogue: “How do I get out of here? Do I just stop and walk off the course? No, you dumbass, you’ve made it this far—just keep moving! How many more miles? Why can’t I calculate? Why can’t I think straight? Why didn’t I listen to Goldstein back in July? Why the hell am I doing this? Where the hell am I? This f*****g sucks!”
I did make it to the finish line, in 4:58:27—a far cry from the 3:45:00 I had set as my goal back in August when that was my training pace. I went from striving to qualify for the Boston Marathon to just making it across the finish line. Humbling.
As it turns out, after I finished I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my right tibia.
Lesson two: Listen.
I did not have a solid base. I wanted too much too soon. I trained too hard in too short a time. I pushed myself rather than listening to that little internal voice that knows better or the voices of seasoned veterans. That’s a trait of a type A—it’s how we roll.
Lesson three: Running is a metaphor for life.
Not every game day is going to be ideal. Things happen that are out of our control; they are there to be challenged or to pass us by. I chose to challenge my circumstances and celebrate the accomplishment without attachment to the actual timed result. The process of making peace with this took many weeks.
Ego is a wretched thing. Striving for personal fulfillment without attachment to results despite the fact that you have put yourself out there, being vulnerable and transparent with your goals and expectations—all of this is a challenge. I was so frustrated at the finish line. I was an emotional wreck for a few weeks, attending my own post-marathon–blues pity party. I was disappointed and I needed to shift my focus to acceptance and appreciation for the entire process.
Marathoner Lori Culnane has said, “Everything you wanted to know about yourself you can learn in 26.2 miles.” As I reflect on the entire experience, I have reconciled that I did what I did because that is who I am. I’m an all-in kind of gal, a risk taker. I will forge ahead against the odds.
I finished the marathon because I started it. I finished it for the many friends whose stories of persevering through running challenges and overcoming adversity have touched my heart. I finished inspired by my trainer and the friends who are quite literally marathon maniacs.
As a mom, I feel that it’s important to demonstrate perseverance through blood, sweat and tears. To put things in context, people with far greater challenges finish marathons––many with far better results. And there are people who cannot run a single step.
I am the first woman in my family to be involved in sport. My mom died in 2007 after spending the last ten years of her life in a vegetative state, afflicted by MS, and my dad is an alcoholic. She had no control over her health and he has sabotaged his. I run in honour of health and the constant reminder that it cannot be taken for granted. I am grateful for every step.
Running is an individual sport, but it’s also therapy. I refer to it as meditation in motion. Every step, every trail- or road-running journey has many lessons and benefits for the heart, mind and soul. And it keeps the ego in check!
Would I do anything differently? Hell no. But I know this experience has paved the way for a much smoother second marathon attempt.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared on elephantjournal.com.
Leah Podollan is the founder of L Spa and Wellness Centre and is a member of the board of directors of the Spa Industry Association of Canada. She is a wife and a mom, as well as a dietary, allergy, anaphylaxis, wellness and culinary enthusiast. She devotes time to several philanthropic projects and loves to travel and to seek adventure and athletic challenge. In her spare time she blogs about recipes, health and her adventures on Leap Blog, at www.leahpodollan.com.by