My First Marathon

by Audrey Scanlan

The Hartford Marathon
October 14th, 2006

It was my first marathon. I do not really remember how it all started: a friend and I had trained for the Half Marathon 3 years before and when we crossed that finish line, I remember being really pumped and saying: "next time we do the whole thing!"

"Next time" took 3 years, and I was on my own this time, but it did arrive. Somewhere along the line I also decided that a "marathon by the age of 50" might be a good goal… and so that refrain rung in my head, too. My fitness base is/was erratic going into the training. A yo-yo dieter, I had lost the same 60 lbs at least 4 times in my adult life… I was in the middle of another big campaign to shed the pounds and thought that this might be a good goal. Running always helped me to drop the pounds. I was a regular member of a small private gym - just 6 of us every morning working out with a trainer/friend at her home studio - and she encouraged me to go for it (She was the one with whom I had trained and run the half marathon.)

And so I started in the fall of ’05. Running a mile, two miles, three miles on top of my regular workout: spinning, weights, circuit training… I found a 20 week program (!) that was a ‘step-up’ program to begin building my running mileage gradually. I followed it religiously, eventually dropping out of the morning gym routine in order to get in all the miles. My friends at the gym were incredible. They loved me through this whole thing- acknowledging the craziness of it, but encouraging me and welcoming me back whenever I could join them. They were the bedrock of my support.

The 20 week program was to prepare me to begin marathon training. At the end of the 20 weeks I had lost a ton of weight, went to a party and had too much to drink! I fell and injured my tailbone and ripped a hamstring. This party was the day before the real marathon training program was to begin… ach. The next morning, I got up, put on my sneakers and limped the 3 miles, because that’s the distance that the program had me running that day. I was determined, and scared that if I didn’t ‘start,’ I would not finish.

I limped for several days… two weeks, really, but never missed a day of my training. The mileage increased, with 2 short runs, a medium run and one long run a week. I cross trained the other days, and rested on Sunday. (Hal Higdon’s Novice Marathon training program. Awesome.)

The hardest part for me was the loneliness. I strapped a Walkman to my ears… set to an FM station because I could not bear to be out of touch with the world… I was desperate for interaction… company…. I would wave at passing cars! My time was fast leading up to the injury, and afterwards I really slowed down… to a 9 or 9.5 minute mile.

I was religious about the training, carrying my sneakers on vacation to an island in Maine, to the Adirondacks, to San Francisco, to Vermont… where ever we traveled, I would run. I rearranged my runs each week depending on my work schedule. I am an Episcopal priest and my schedule changes daily… lots of night meetings…

An ‘information-junkie,’ I read book after book about running… about marathons… about the spirituality of running….about the psychology of the endurance athlete…about nutrition… I signed up for 6 months of private counseling with a nutritionist. If there was a website about beginning marathoning, I had been there, read the blogs, posted on the message boards.

I started doing my long runs with a friend in town who was also training for an October marathon… the Marine Corps marathon. We did our long runs together on Saturdays. The company was great even though our paces were different and we mostly ran ‘apart’ on the same long run… She was also training for a ‘mountain run’ (savage athlete!) and so we did LOTS of hill work. I did some speed work on my own, but not much.

Most of my training was in the dark in the early hours of the day (4:30 AM) and on my own. In the cold. Did I mention the dark?!? (That is important for the actual race day…stay tuned.)

TRUST THE TAPER. As the weeks progressed, my mileage increased, my hamstrings grew strong and I was ready. And then, the taper. I hated it. I was depressed and told to cut back my running just as I discovered that I was hooked on the endorphins. I was increasingly anxious about the race and was told to sleep in. Or do 3 miles or 4. What’s the point? But I was faithful and tapered. And ate everything in sight. Carbo-loading became my obsession. And carbo-load I did. I gained quite a lot of weight in the last 3 weeks. But it was worth it. The taper worked.

RACE DAY 40 degrees, cloudless, perfect. I insisted on being dropped off. I did not want an audience. I was afraid of failing. Of being a DNF. That was the worst fear of all.

But I was calm. My friend with whom I had done the long runs ran the half, and when I saw her, I started to tear up. But I focused and kept it together.

The first 10 were easy. Flat. Moving away from the city. It felt great to reach the turn around and begin the 10 miles back towards Hartford. In the first 10, the super-marathoners passed by… ( they had already been out and were headed back). They were beautiful, lean, brown, shirtless men running effortlessly, quietly, like gazelles or horses. So inspiring to see.

In the “teenage miles” ( 13-19) I was heartened by the crowds on the side of the road… bands or combos every 3 or 4 miles paying jazz, reggae, even contra -dancing at one Congregational church! A lone bag piper, a lady holding out a box of Kleenex so we could blow our noses, encouraging signs and placards, runners in costumes, SO MUCH TO SEE!!! For this runner who had trained ALONE and in the DARK in the WEE HOURS of the morning, this was EXCITING. Little kids lined the road to give us high fives, vets in wheelchairs cheered us on, there were pizza parlors, coffee shops, colonial homes, a herd of sheep… so much to SEE!

We came in to Hartford (miles 17-20) down along the river in a new park. Beautiful. Across the river on a closed highway (that was fun!) and then into town. In Hartford, you have to PASS THE FINISH LINE as you hit the WALL. Mile 20. The route goes right past the finishing place and then UP HILL for the fist time in the whole course, to begin the final 6 miles… 3 out and 3 back. It seems a bit of a cruel joke to make the last 6 the hardest… but I was up for the challenge. I had made a ‘psych tape’ full of my favorite music and saved it for the last hour. I pressed ‘play’ and it was like magic! Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, the Allman Brothers, carried me through. I was actually singing out loud, running up that damned hill! Woo hoo. The power of music.

At mile 23 I had a weak moment that lasted all of 15 seconds (it was my ‘wall’) when my legs felt like tree trunks and my brain went goofy. I started to panic and then caught myself. 15 seconds later, it was over. I ran a strong finish, down the hill and into the chute at 4:22.

My name did not get announced at the finish line because I was 4 feet behind a celebrity runner (she was in the middle of a string of marathons) and she has the habit of doing a cartwheel across the finish. My sauntering gait just couldn’t compare, and she got the glory! Oh well, I kept a low profile. (:

After the finish, I received my medal, the space blanket and had my chip cut off. I felt OK. I had a bagel and banana… some water. And then I waited an hour for my ride to come … and I watched the other finishers. I kept choking up and wept some on and off for that hour… It was great… I had done it.

NUTRITION NOTES: Carbo loading for last 3 days before the race. And lots of water. The traditional spaghetti and garlic bread supper the night before. No wine. Breakfast on race day: 2 pieces whole wheat toast, almond butter, dried dates and cranberries, orange juice, 2 cups black coffee. During the race: Gu every 6 miles. Water every 2 miles or so… sporadic… at the water stations … After: immediate carbos (bagel, banana) and for dinner: Chinese takeout and a martini (not a great choice, but delicious!) My appetite was not great on race day… I had to really work at it to eat after the race and on the next day, too. On Monday, though, (Day 2) I was ravenous.

No muscle soreness AT ALL. I attribute my amazing recovery to having followed the training program, taper and nutrition program very carefully.

SOUL NOTES: I had read that a marathon is a life changing event. That is true. There is nothing that will ever compare to the feeling of accomplishment at the finish line. It is about enduring the race, yes, but it is really about enduring the training. Long and hard. Days when you dragged yourself out of bed, days when it hurt, days when your toenails turned black and fell off, or your socks were bloodstained from a sharp toenail cutting into its neighbor toe for 18 miles, or dark, cold, wet, lonely runs. The training- even a novice program- is intense.

I feel like I have learned a lot about discipline and stamina. About how ‘the mind is the athlete,’ and about what an amazing machine the body is. I have a lot of respect now for my body that I did not have before.

I believe that this has helped to boost my self-confidence (if I can do this…I can do anything), but even more, I have changed. I am more comfortable with myself… with being alone… and I actually crave it, now. Though an extrovert, I have learned to appreciate the time on the trail alone.

I have enjoyed a re-newed sense of wonder and awe at God’s creation: I have seen pink and orange sunrises and mist hanging inches above the Farmington river that have made me weep. I have shared the trail with deer, raccoons, bunnies and even a giant old snapping turtle. I have seen spider webs glistening in the early morning sun with the dew lighting them up like crystal spotlights. I have watched black trees against a deep blue sky, run on the soft carpet of pine needles, been showered by a cooling mist on rainy days. It is a beautiful world out there.

WILL I DO IT AGAIN? Too soon to tell.

Audrey Scanlan
October, 2006

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