March 15, 2015 was an epic day in my life as a runner. I joined less than .5 percent of the population and became a marathoner. After 18 weeks of training, working through a long road of recovery from an IT Band injury, having to take four weeks off from running because of said IT Band injury, three weeks of painful Physical Therapy, lots of tears, icing my hip and epsom salt baths, I had made it to marathon day! God had been so good and faithful to me, as He always is. I hadn’t really been too nervous even up to the morning of the race when I woke up at 4 am to get ready to be at the American Tobacco Trail by 5:30 that morning. My sweet and supportive husband and parents were still encouraging me and doing anything and everything they could to help me on race morning, just as they had been doing during the 18 weeks leading up to that. After getting ready and gathering all my race day essentials, I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and grabbed a water bottle and we drove to the ATT.
Everything was a little overwhelming at first. There were runners and spectators everywhere, it was still dark outside and all the runners in shorts and tanks looked like they were freezing. My very smart mother had packed big blankets so she and I were wrapped in them for the next hour and a half until the race started at 7 am. We wandered around under the huge tent and spotted the coffee truck, so of course we headed straight for our morning joe. After ordering our coffee we spotted Sean Astin standing right there next to the coffee truck! I had read on the Tobacco Road Marathon’s Facebook page that he was in town and at the last minute had decided to run the half marathon that morning, but with 4,500 runners and 7,000 spectators and running a different course than him, I thought the chances of actually even spotting him would be pretty slim. My husband, Josh, asked if I could get a picture with him, and he ended up chatting with us for several minutes. He was so nice…very down to earth. I told him today was my first marathon and he stated that this was a really big day for me. He said, “You’re one of the fast ones aren’t ya? You look like you could go really fast.” I told him I hadn’t realized until the night before that he was such a runner and exclaimed my awe that he was running Boston this year. Since he had nine marathons under his belt, he told me that the number one advice that he could give me was to not go out too fast. He told me that in one of his first marathons his first mile was at a seven minute pace, and went on to explain how that had understandably been a mistake. He asked me what my plan was for splits for the day. He kept looking at me and then would look at Josh and say, “She is just so cute!” which of course made my day (as if it wasn’t already made with everything else going on!) After talking to him for several minutes and getting our picture with him, I told him we would let him go since he was running today, too, and thanked him for taking the time to talk to us.
Next stop was the port-a-potties, around one hundred of them to be exact. All had very long lines behind them, which is always to be expected at races. That’s why I knew I needed to head to them about 45 minutes before the start of the race. We stood in line and met two fellow runners, one doing the half, the other, like me, doing her first full. The half-marathon runner was an older lady from Sao Paulo, Brazil, a seasoned marathoner with a beautiful Brazilian accent. I found out after the marathon that she had placed in her age group! The other first time marathoner was a college age runner who had come up from Florida with her dad. We enjoyed talking in line (about running, of course) and soon it was time to head to the start line!
The first runner that really stuck out to me was a firefighter in full gear who was planning on running the half, 45 pounds of gear heavier and all. He ran for fallen firefighter brothers and ended up finishing his race strong. I was all smiles and so excited until I looked at the time on my phone when it said 6:59, one minute until the start. That’s when the nerves got to me and I thought, “Wow, I am really doing this!” and I wondered if I should have tried to go to the bathroom again. I kissed Josh and they announced for us to start and off we went! I can’t even begin to explain the happiness that fills a runner’s heart when they are running in a pack of 4,500 runners! It’s amazing! Of course we all (at least all those around me) started out slow, at about a 12 minute pace. I felt great! The energy and excitement around me was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. My next big memory was about mile five, when the elites had already done the loop at mile eight and were headed back doing a six minute mile and probably on the tenth mile already. I watched in amazement as they flew by me, and started yelling out to them, “Great job! Keep it up! You’re doing awesome!” I started telling the lady running beside me how amazed I was at how fast they were going, and she was just as awestruck as I was.
Eight miles into the race I spotted a cute couple running a little ways up ahead. They looked not too much older than me, maybe in their early thirties. As I got closer, I noticed that “Missy” (her name was on her shirt) was in front of her husband by a few feet and then I noticed that they had a stick between them. I thought, “That’s so cute. They are using that to make sure that they don’t get too far apart from each other.” Then I realized that they were holding a walking stick between them and that the man appeared to be blind. Since he looked young and fit and the proceeds from the race were benefitting the Wounded Warrior Project, I wondered if he may have been a soldier. As I passed them, I heard her say, “Great job. Keep it up.” That was the first of a few times where I got a little lump in my throat with emotion. Shortly after that, I passed Brittany, my friend from high school, who was also running. This was the first of several times that I saw her, and every time we gave each other a smile and a little word of encouragement to keep going.
Around mile ten I started to see people with matching yellow and red race shirts with pictures of fallen or wounded soldiers pinned to their backs. One I specifically remember, read, “22 too many. 22 soldier suicides a day.” This is the second time that I remember getting a little choked up. I saw other people, too, that didn’t seem to be a part of this team necessarily, with soldiers pictures strapped to their Camelbaks. These were all little reminders to keep pushing forward, to remember who I was running for, the Wounded Warriors and their families, who were in so much more pain than I was throughout this marathon.
At the halfway point I decided to stop at a port-a-potty. I had been taking a one minute walk break per mile, so I decided to use my bathroom break in place of my walk break for that mile. I sprinted out of that port-a-potty, thinking that I needed to make up for lost time. I remember hearing a man yell as I went by, “Wow! Look at her go!” and I looked down at my watch to see that I was running an eight minute mile. I told myself I had to slow down ASAP. I needed to reserve my energy. Not too long after this, when I had brought myself back to a comfortable pace, I found myself in a little pack of runners. The man next to me looked down at his watch and said, “We’re over halfway there!” and I said, “Yep! We got this!” One of the many times that I enjoyed the encouragement of those around me.
The day before the race I had volunteered for a 5K where I saw Dawn, my running inspiration and hero through my injury. Every time I had almost given up hope of being able to run this marathon, she would write me some sweet little note of encouragement or exactly what I needed to hear (even if it wasn’t always easy to hear), that would lift my spirits. A nine time marathoner (and a fast one at that), she was my angel as far as helping me recover from injury without ever physically seeing me, since we were writing Facebook messages from Delaware to South Carolina, and vice versa. Anyway, after the 5K (which she won by the way), she came up to me and said, “Just remember, tomorrow there are going to be times that it is going to suck, but just remember that it will pass.” I was so glad she told me this, because I knew I would use that as one of my mantras in the marathon.
Around mile 17, I was still on a runners high, just enjoying the day, enjoying the run, enjoying the commeraderie from the runners all around me, all pushing through and working together to cheer each other on to the next mile marker. At about 17.5, I started to see what Dawn was telling me the day before, how this was probably going to start getting progressiviely harder in the next couple of miles. I started to feel a little pain in my ankles and feet, and told myself this was the point where it had to be mind over matter. I continued to smile, though, as I had been doing throughout the race, at the runners going by. I passed another friend, Charlotte, who was running the Tobacco Road Marathon for the second time, and she yelled out, “Megan!” and gave me a huge smile. I was so happy to see someone that I knew, so I yelled back, “Hey!” and gave her just as big of a smile in return.
I had started out with a twelve minute mile through miles one to five, eleven minutes per mile for miles six and seven, and ten to eleven minute miles, depending on how I felt, from miles eight to eighteen, with one minute walk breaks per mile. From mile nineteen on, my plan had been to pick up the pace depending on how I felt and to shorten the walk breaks to thirty seconds per mile. I fluctuated between a nine minute mile and an eleven minute mile from nineteen to the finish. I never really felt like I hit a wall, per se, because there was no specific time that I thought, “Oh no, suddenly, I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” I do remember thinking at mile twenty-one that this was going to be really, really tough from here on out, but also thinking that at this point I only had five more miles to go, so I could push through! At mile twenty-two I passed two men who I had passed earlier and they said, “And she’s still smiling!” The pain in my ankles and feet had gotten worse and I was really just feeling weak all over. I was back to a twelve minute mile but I was able to manage thirty second walk breaks like I had planned to do near the finish. At mile twenty-three I asked myself if I would do this again, and I came to the conclusion that I would. During mile twenty-four, a volunteer lady gave me a cup of water and exclaimed, “And you still look beautiful!” And I thought, “I do!?” Although, I do remember passing people earlier and thinking, “These people look like they are dying, and I don’t feel like I’m dying yet. I wonder if I look like that but don’t feel it?”
The first and last two and a half miles were not on the American Tobacco Trail. They were on the roads around the ATT. This was both a blessing and a curse at the end because my first thought when I got off the trail and back to the side of the road was, “You’re almost there! You can do this!” About a mile later I felt like I’d never get to the finish. I remembered the sweet Brazilian marathoner from the port-a-potty line earlier that morning telling me that, “The last two miles are always the longest.” I tried to tell myself things like, “This is just like a nice and easy training run on the side of the road” and “In about ten to twenty minutes, I’m going to be a marathoner!” There was nothing easy about the last two miles. Nothing. But I kept pushing because I had come so far there was no way I could’ve quit! My goal had been under five hours and I looked down at my watch eight minutes from the finish line and realized that I was still a mile away and there was not a chance with my jello-y legs that I was going to finish with an eight minute mile. I told myself not to look at my watch again and just get to that finish line. The last two tenths were the hardest physically but the sweetest emotionally. I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe simply because I was getting so choked up. I really thought I was going to cry tears of joy, and I’m surprised that I didn’t. I spotted Dawn right as she spotted me and she gave the biggest smile and waved her hands so big to tell me to keep moving forward. Right as I saw her my left leg started cramping up, and I thought, “No! This can’t be happening right now!” I yelled to her, “My leg’s cramping up!” and I don’t even know what she was saying but I knew she was telling me to keep moving. Right after that I saw my dad and my husband, but my leg was hurting so bad from the cramp in it that I had to take my eyes off of them and set them on the massive American flag flying above the finish line. I kept my focus on it with gritted teeth and kept going. Right after the finish line I saw my Aunt Donna and my mom, snapping pictures for all she was worth with her brand new camera. I crossed the finish line and Donna hugged me saying, “You did it!” A girl stopped me and put a huge medal around my neck. I couldn’t believe that it was over! I was a marathoner! Nothing will ever match the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that I had in that moment. It was unbelievable! Soon mom, dad, Josh, and Dawn had joined Donna and I and we were all smiling and hugging. They were all telling me that I had done a great job. Josh looked at me and put his arms out to embrace me and said, “Baby. You did it. I’m so proud of you,” as he lifted me up in the air in his arms and gave my disgustingly sweaty self a huge kiss. It was picture perfect. My legs and feet were so sore and my body had never felt this taxed, but I was so incredibly happy. I was a marathoner!
After all the hugs and smiles and congratulations and pictures, Dawn told me to keep moving. I needed to walk and I needed to get food in my body as soon as possible. I told her I was so glad she was there because I wouldn’t have even thought about those things. I was just so happy that I had been able to finish, and relatively close to my goal time of five hours (my time was 5:03), that I wasn’t thinking about anything else. They wrapped the “runner’s cape” around me and we started walking toward the food tent. I had been so hungry that I could hear my stomach growling through most of the race from mile two to the finish line, but as soon as I crossed, the last thing I wanted to do was eat. We went to a Papa John’s food truck and I got two slices of cheese pizza, but after eating only half a slice, I thought I was going to puke if I ate anymore. I took a big swig of water to wash the little bit of pizza down that I had managed to eat, and then Dawn asked if I wanted some chocolate milk. Now that sounded like just what I needed, so after grabbing a bottle from the chocolate milk booth, I had downed it pretty quickly. After saying goodbye to Dawn and Donna, we started heading back to the car and we passed my Floridian friend from that morning. She had finished her first marathon in 4:36, so I was so proud of her! I love how quickly you can become friends with other runners because of what you push yourself through together.
I think that is what I love most about the running community. The bond that we all have, no matter how fast or slow. We encourage each other to finish no matter what. I remember during the marathon seeing people stop to ask friends if they needed to stretch out as they were obviously in pain. I saw a girl crying and walking at mile 21, but her friend was right beside her with her arm around her. She wouldn’t leave her side.
In many ways, running has taught me so much about myself in every other area of life. I remember Dawn saying right after I crossed the finish line, “You learned a lot about yourself out there today.” In many ways, I did. I feel like I can do and accomplish so many other things in life because I am a runner. Running gives me confidence to keep on pushing when the going gets tough, no matter what the situation. Running isn’t about competing with the other runners. It’s about pushing yourself to go farther and faster than you’ve ever gone before.