Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lessons Learned from my Marathon Experience

First things first... have you entered my Road ID Prize Pack raffle yet? Every $3 donation to Open Heart Magic = 1 entry into the raffle. You have until Sunday (March 18) to enter!

This weekend is the start of the half marathon fever I have picked up this year (as of now, I'm signed up for 5). Based on some of the things I've learned from my marathon experience, I have a completely different perspective. I have eluded to my marathon experience several times (and talk about it briefly in the "about me" section), but I thought it was time for the full history.

I signed up to run the Chicago Marathon on the first day of registration in 2011. It was on my bucket list of things to do and I was excited for the experience. I took most of 2010 off of running because I was planning my wedding, buying a house, and didn't make time for other things. I got a Garmin for Christmas 2010 in anticipation and to help keep track of my runs. I gradually built up the mileage during the winter and spring until marathon training officially started in the summer. I trained with the CARA group that met at Yankee Woods in Oak Forest (the Yankee Runners).

Lesson 1: Doing all your runs outdoors better prepares you for race day
We did our long runs on the trails, and when the weather was really really hot, we would meet earlier or adjust the course accordingly to avoid the sun. I ran a lot of those super hot weekday runs on a treadmill to avoid going out into the heat. In the long run, I wasn't letting my body adjust to all temperature conditions. I was so focused on overall performance and the pace of each run, I lost sight of the end goal. I couldn't meet my pace goal if it was hot, so I adjusted so I could maintain my desired pace... instead of working with the different elements that could be a factor on race day.

Lesson 2: Do not completely focus on a time for your first marathon
I had my mind on the prize of 4:30. I mean, if Oprah ran that time, I could beat it... Right? I ran my 20 miler very strong. I was spot-on my 4:30 goal.

But the weather for my 20 miler was gorgeous. I started running at 6:00am so the sun was barely out. We ran on the trails and in the shade. I had my normal amount of Gu and not too much Gatorade. Also, I did an "out and back" to the 5 mile point 2x so I was very familiar with the territory and it mentally helped to break things up. Because of the strength on my 20 miler, I had every reason to believe that the marathon wouldn't be any different. I wear my 20 miler shirt with PRIDE!

However, that was not the case. On October 9, 2011, temperatures were in the high 60's before the sun rose. The advise was to slow the pace to account for the heat. "Slowing" my per-mile pace by a few seconds (10:15-10:30 minute miles) wasn't enough and I was already struggling by mile 6. We were still on the "fun" part of the course and I could barely keep up. At mile 9 I knew I was in deep trouble. I started the race with my friend Amanda and we both had a goal to finish around 4:30 but Amanda was much more focused on finishing, where I was much more focused on 4:30 (for Amanda's full recap, click here!).
Amanda and I at the start of the Chicago Marathon

At mile 10, Amanda had family waiting so I stayed with her until we saw her family and then I had to slow down dramatically. I'm now averaging an 11:40 minute pace (probably how I should have started) and my stomach is roaring. I saw my family at mile 11 and tried to crack a smile. I didn't want them to see how much pain I was in, especially considering my cousin and Uncle have run several marathons before. At this point, I still thought I could finish. After mile 12, I knew I was in for a rough rest of the race with nothing but the sun beating down my back. There was barely an ounce of shade until the finish and the temps were now in the mid to high 70s.
Flying solo at about mile 12

At the halfway point, I started to walk. My stomach couldn't handle the mixture of water, Gu, and Gatorade and it got the best of me. I threw up and saw all my hydration preparation for the entire day flash before my eyes. Tears started to come but I just started walking. I thought if I kept moving, I might still finish. At mile 15, there was a medical tent. I stopped and said that I threw up and I wasn't sure if I should continue. The nurse touched my arm and realized I didn't have a bead of sweat on me. I was sat down and an IV was hooked up almost immediately. The throwing up continued as the IV was administered and I saw my marathon goal of finishing slipping farther and farther away with each minute. I knew once the IV was in that I wasn't finishing the Chicago Marathon. I was diagnosed with "mild heat exhaustion" and only made it to mile 15. After an ambulance ride to the finish line, I met up with all my running group friends and pretty much had a breakdown. Lots of tears and lots of disappointment. I didn't finish what I had trained since January to do. It was my one running goal for the year and I felt like a complete failure. Everyone told me that I did the right thing in stopping when I did as things could have been much worse.

A DNF for my first marathon wasn't good enough. I had put in the training, the hours, the effort. I was going to finish a damn marathon if my life depended on it. Thankfully, the Grand Rapids Marathon was that following Sunday (October 16, 2011). I signed up on Monday and was back in the saddle. I still had my eye on the 4:30 prize and knew I could achieve it. I treated that training week like a "taper" and started my 2nd marathon with the hope of finishing. I felt great for the first several miles.
My husband and his family was there cheering me on, the scenery was beautiful, and it was a gorgeous day for a marathon.
My cheering squad (even Pepper came too)! My SIL made everyone custom shirts!
The temp was not too hot and not too cold. You would have thought that I learned from some of my mistakes in Chicago.

Lesson 3: DO NOT mix Gu and Gatorade
If you've run a long distance or read an issue of Runners World magazine, this is pretty common information. If you're Gu-ing this mile, don't take Gatorade. Take water instead. DUH. I didn't have a schedule. I was Gu-ing and Gatorading at different times, depending on what I felt like. I am a planner.
Amanda and I looking and feeling great at about mile 17.
Yes, Amanda drove all the way from Chicago to run with me and cheer me on!

Why did I not plan this out? Mile 18 comes along and my stomach starts to roar again. "No!" I said to myself (probably out loud). "You are not throwing up. That is final!" My stomach had other plans and at mile 19 up came the Gu, Gatorade, and water all over again. The idea of a 4:30 finish was gone, but the idea of a FINISH was still there. Come hell or high water, I was finishing this damn marathon if it was the last thing I did. After I threw up, there was a guy that came up behind me. He said "It's okay. Just have some water. You're almost done!" That brought a big smile to my face. Someone else understood. Someone else was as crazy as me. It was exactly what I needed to hear! I tried to run/walk to the finish.. that is until I started throwing up more. Amanda stayed with me from about mile 21/22 until the very end. She held my extra clothes, a cup full of gummy bears, whatever I needed. She told people coming over to try to help me that I was fine and she was staying with me. (I refused to be taken off the course!!!!) At mile 25, I turned to Amanda and said: "If you ever hear me say I want to do another marathon again...YOU REMIND OF THIS MOMENT RIGHT NOW!!" (This was said as I was puking for the 5th time of the day). We smile and laugh about it now. (See Lesson 5). I guess the million dollar question at this point is... did I finish?
The final stretch!

Hell yes I did! Look at the size of that smile! With Amanda and one of my little cousins at my side, I crossed the finish line! I was so happy to be done and vowed to never do another marathon again! I finished in 5:28 (ahem, beating Katie Holmes' time of 5:29, thank you very much).

Lesson 4: Try to include other races as part of your training
I think another thing that slipped me up during the planning of the race was the timing. Normally I would get up 1 hour before I needed to start running, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, and drive over to the trail. On the day of the marathon, I had to get up extra early, get to the race, etc. In the year leading up to the Marathon, I didn't complete any other races of a distance longer than an 8k. I think if I had completed a half marathon or something (coinciding with my training schedule of course), I think I would have been better prepared for what the morning would have been like... how early (or late) I should eat, etc. Or even gotten up earlier during the week of a training run just to get my body used to being up earlier than I need to!

Lesson 5: Never say never!
I always said that I was a "one and done" marathoner. I just can't accept this finish as my only race. I've learned so much about myself and about running to have this experience be my only marathon experience. My next marathon goal: finish without throwing up. I think that is a good goal to work towards and I think it is achievable in time. Date of said marathon: TBD :)


  1. Great blog post Kelly! It's what life is about! Live and learn! Glad I was able to help out a little bit!

  2. You helped out a ton! So glad to get this out there as my perspective has changed so dramatically. Maybe someone else can learn and benefit from my mistakes? :)

  3. Girlie, the marathon is a wicked game. I don't think I will ever figure it out. I struggle to finish each and every time and I have 4 in the books. Each time I think this is "the one" and each time I hit the start line chaos begins, horrid temps (2011 & 2010), overtrianing/exhaustion (2008), first race inexperience & sloped roads leading to miserable blistering (2007). Things happen and soemtimes the best part of the experience is the journey to get there. Oh well, I'll be on teh starty line fro 2012 to try it agian. Maybe the 5th time is the charm?

  4. There is always more to learn and I'm happy to finally get my experience down on paper/the internets. I'm hoping to be at the starting line in 2013.

    Best of luck this year. I know you and the rest of the FNRC will do great! Thanks for your continued wisdom and support! :)

  5. I am both terrified and inspired. But i really needed to hear this just the same! :)

  6. I'm sure you will do great for your first marathon! I'll be rooting for you! I'm glad this post was helpful! :)

  7. GREAT post. I'm training to run Chicago this fall, which will be my first marathon. I've been devouring every single piece of advice I can find about the lessons others have learned from experience - and you had some really great nuggets of wisdom here.

    I honestly had no idea that you weren't supposed to mix GU and Gatorade. I've done this by default just because I can't stand the taste of both at the same time. But it's really good to know not to do it, regardless. Before reading your post I could imagine that if I was really fatigued, I might take both at the same time out of desperation!

  8. I LOVE this post - I learn something new at every race. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

  9. Practice during your training runs, especially the hot ones! Mixing Gu and Gatorade definitely didn't work well with my stomach. I should have paid closer attention. A hydration plan is important and I didn't really have one. I hope you can learn from my mistake and have a great first marathon! :)

  10. Thanks Bobbi! It felt good to type out everything I've been eduding to and briefly talking about. I hope others can learn from the lessons that I was too stubborn to learn from in the first place. :)

  11. Great tips, thanks for sharing your insight!

  12. Great post!!!! Congrats on beating Katie Holmes!

  13. Wow, what a great post!!! I had no idea you went through all that, you are so awesome!! I am running my first full marathon in April, Christy Clinic U Of I. I am worried about my hydration plan, I don't like gu, I can handle the blocks and water.....I will let you know.

  14. Thanks! Because beating celebrities marathon times is a priority. Kate Gosselin, you're next! (4:59) :)

  15. great post girl! love it!

  16. I love the pic of you finishing! And your 20-miler pic!

    Ha ha. So many races I think "Never again!" Never say never - you are right.

    It bugs me that I can race all the other distances moderately well, but not the full marathon. It's such a different beast. Fueling really comes in to play! I don't have that figured out either!

  17. Haha, I love the "never say never" quote. Amanda frequently reminds me of what I said at mile 25. I look back now and smile. I always said I would never run another marathon... but after an experience like this, can you blame me for wanting to tame this beast again? I mean, things can only get better... right? :)