BLOG: My first marathon kicked my butt, but I loved it

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Earlier this year, my cousin reached out to me and asked if I wanted to run a marathon with him. When he first asked me, a marathon wasn’t really something on my radar, but I’m glad I decided to ‘say yes’ and experience a grueling 26.2-mile run for the first time.

Why not run a marathon?

My cousin is a flight attendant who mostly works on flights between the continental US and Asia, thanks to his fluency in Chinese. He had just run his first marathon in Japan the year before and was looking to make another trip out of his second marathon.’

He suggested that we run the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii together on December 8. It didn’t take much convincing to join him when he told me he would help with the flight.

I had never been to Hawaii and that sounded fun.

I had never run a marathon and that sounded intimidating.

At this point, the longest run I had ever done in my life was under 10 miles. I had no idea how I was going to make this work, but I loved the challenge.

Training and preparation

After some serious research and advice from friends with much more running experience than me, I chose a training plan and started working on a slow buildup back in August.

I started running six days a week.

The running was rewarding and addicting.

The fatigue I used to feel after three miles would get pushed back to six miles, and then 6, and then 10.

I finally understood the part of “Forrest Gump” where he just never stops running.

Eventually, by November, running over 50 miles a week was normal – reaching just over 60 miles a week on my ‘hard weeks.’

My longest runs before the race were 16 miles long, which was what my training plan called for. Most training plans have you run somewhere between 16-22 miles, so I decided to go with a more conservative approach for my first marathon. I didn’t want to do too much and hurt myself before the race.

Am I going to be healthy for this race?

About three weeks before the race, I was coming off the final hard week of my training block and I started to deal with some ‘shin splints.’

After having to get more training runs in on the treadmill due to winter weather that week, my body did not respond well to the change.

I had to dial things back significantly at this point, but thankfully most of the hay was in the barn at this point.

I just needed to make sure I was healthy before the race.

With the help of my mom (a physical therapist), I was able to do plenty of work on my recovery.

I worried that I wouldn’t feel 100% by the race, but my mom was very reassuring – telling me that she had seen worse and that I’d be fine.

By the week of the race, I felt ready. And I was excited to see what I could accomplish.

My cousin and I pose for a picture at the Honolulu Marathon Expo the day before the race.

What was my goal?

During training, I had based my plan around the goal of finishing the race in less than 4 hours.

Elite marathon runners can finish the 26.2 miles in 2 hours and some change, with Eliud Kipchoge even finishing the distance in just under 2 hours in October of 2019. That was the first time anyone had broken the 2 hour mark.

If I didn’t make my goal time, I wasn’t going to be greatly disappointed as long as I could just finish.

Since it was my first marathon, I knew there were going to be curve balls thrown my way, so finishing was the primary objective.

Running the race

I was lined up and ready to go about an hour before the race, which would get underway with fireworks at 5 a.m.

I had to use the bathroom before the race, but with about 30,000 other people participating, the lines for the port-a-potties were so long that I just decided to wait until I came across the first toilets on the course.

When the race started, the fireworks weren’t deployed until I was about a mile into the race. Most of the runners around me groaned about the fact that the fireworks behind us and had presumably been fired late.

Outside of needing to use the bathroom, the race was going great. I was making great time and feeling comfortable.

I finally got to relieve myself around the six-mile mark. Even with my potty break, I was still on time for my goal.

Around mile 8, we had to climb the first of two hills in the race. After running hills all the time during my training, I felt very comfortable on the climb. I saw a lot of people struggling, but I continued to feel very comfortable.

Going downhill helped me turn my quickest miles of the race for the 9th and 10th miles – running around 8:35 minutes/mile when I only needed to average 9:09 minutes/mile to meet my goal.

Through the 16-mile mark, everything felt very manageable about the run. The scenery was beautiful. Running with the beach, ocean, and mountains in view made everything seem easier than it probably was.

But nothing gold stays.

Hitting ‘the wall’

Sometime after mile 18, I encountered my first real challenge of the race.

I could tell it was getting harder to hit my goal time, but this was what I prepared for. I knew things would get hard.

But what I wasn’t ready for was a sharp cramp in my hamstring that snuck up on me and put me flat on a sidewalk — wondering how long it would be until I could get on my feet again.

I was trying with everything I had to stretch the hamstring out, but I couldn’t get it to settle down until another runner approached me and sprayed my legs with a pain relief spray.

That guy and his spray saved me.

The cold of the spray relaxed my muscles just enough to where I could get back on my feet and start moving again.

I eased back into running, but I realized by mile 20 that my legs were going to cramp if I pushed things any harder than the slow jog that I had been managing following the cramping.

I had always heard that the last halfway point of the marathon is the final 10k (the final 6.2 miles).

I experienced first-hand why that was the case.

I had hit ‘the wall’ that everyone had talked about.

My times dropped significantly, and I had given up any hope of meeting my goal of finishing before the 4-hour mark.

I just wanted to cross the finish line as quick as I could manage at this point, without cramping and ending up on the ground again.

Crossing the finish line

After slogging along for 25 miles, I felt immense joy when I could finally see the finish line.

I even held back a few tears when I thought of all the work I had put in to get this point.

What once seemed like something completely out of reach was now within grasp.

After 4 hours and 23 minutes, I finished my first marathon.

While things didn’t entirely go as planned, the race taught me about my own resilience and the value of my preparation. I kept thinking how much harder the end of the race would have been if I hadn’t properly trained.

More importantly, the race taught me that we are nothing without the support of others.

Without the support of my family, friends, that guy who sprayed my legs, all the other runners, race volunteers, and the people who offered orange slices outside of their houses, my experience could have been very different.

For them, and for what I was able to experience, I am incredibly grateful and humbled.

What next?

Will I run a marathon again?

Yes. I’m just not sure when yet! I’m going to take the rest of the year to plan things out for 2020.

One of my big personal fitness goals is to eventually finish a full IronMan triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run). Before I do that, though, I’d like to get closer to my goal time for the marathon and spend some time improving my cycling.

Check out the finer details of my run at my Strava account:

If you’re thinking of running a marathon for the first time, feel free to reach out to me at kjohnson@tristatehomepage.com.

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(This story was originally published on December 11, 2019)

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