Conquering 26.2: An Inside Look at My First Marathon Experience

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My first marathon - Amazing. Painful. Life-changing. Testing. Incredible. Emotional. Difficult as hell.

As I sat down to get out all of my feelings and thoughts about running my first marathon this past weekend, there were almost too many words to even start writing. The words above, and so many more, just kept tumbling around up there in my brain and I had to let myself just think on it for a few days in order to make sense of it all. What I felt before, during and after running 26.2 miles is something I will never, ever forget, but I’m going to try my best to put it into words so, years later, I can come back and read this and feel all the feels again. Because not only did running the marathon change me, but training did as well, and I want to remember that forever.

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(the day before the marathon!)

I dedicated the last 5 months to preparing my body and mind for running 26.2 miles. I think that’s something I didn’t really expect – my mind needed just as training, if not more training, than my physical body did. For 5 months I followed a training schedule, I never missed a run, I fueled my body, I noticed every tiny ache or pain and took care of it right away, I chugged water all day everyday like it was my dang job, I took every precaution not to get sick, I woke up at 4AM every Tuesday when I got back to school to log my long runs before class. The last 5 months were full of discipline, dedication, mental and physical tests, amazing accomplishments, proud moments and a lot of hard work.

But the funny thing is, even though it was tiring and difficult at times, I loved every second of training. This is going to sound insane, but I absolutely loved my 4AM Tuesday wakeup calls and I loved running mile after mile on the treadmill until the sun rose and I was able to take my run outside. I loved the feeling of happy exhaustion at the end of long runs and the energized feeling after short mid-week runs that left me wanting more. I loved waking up each day with the semi-scary, a-little-bit daunting goal of running 26.2 miles.

And I know that makes it sound like training for a marathon is all fun and games, smiles and joy-filled runs. But there were also times where I was so flat-out tired that I could barely keep my eyes open in class, even after getting 8 hours of sleep and drinking 2 cups of coffee. There were runs that I had to keep picturing myself crossing the finish line over and over and over again in order to keep myself motivated to keep going. There were days that the treadmill made me want to pull my hair out. But that’s part of marathon training. It’s a rollercoaster. An amazing, crazy rollercoaster full of high and lows. And I loved every damn second of it.

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The last week leading up to the marathon I was an anxious mess. But a GOOD kind of anxious (if there is such a thing). I was antsy from not running as much (for the last four weeks before the marathon I was tapering, meaning I continually cut down on mileage in order to give my legs time to rest and be at their best on race day. I’ll be doing a full blog post on this later!) and I literally couldn’t think about anything but the marathon. I kept making mental checklists of what I needed to pack, doodling my favorite running quotes in the back of my notebooks during class (sorry profs…), thinking back constantly to my training (mainly questioning if I had done enough) and picturing myself crossing the finish line. Every time I pictured this, I not only almost cried tears of happiness (what can I say, I cry easily), but my stomach would also drop. It was exactly like the nerves I used to get before dance competitions way back when; the kind of nerves that make you want to throw up, but also do a happy dance of excitement.

The race was on Sunday, so I headed up to Portland on Saturday to meet up with my parents and stay the night in an apartment we had rented. It finally hit me that Saturday morning after my last, little 2-mile run that this was it. The day was almost, finally here. The day I had been working towards and dreaming of for months was about to happen. Honestly it was more like the day I had been dreaming of for years, because ever since I crossed the finish line of my first half marathon two and a half years ago and the first words out of my mouth at the end were “that was so fun!!!” I knew I would run a full marathon one day. But I never imagined it would be now. It was always one of those distant goals that seemed a little too scary to actually commit to reaching. I would always tell myself “I’ll do it one day. I’ll do it when I have more time. I’ll do it when I’m older.” I’m so, so happy I stopped listening to myself and letting fear get the best of me. Doing something that scares you, conquering fear and learning to trust in your own strength is so, so rewarding.

Although I was nervous as heck, I realized, with the help from my roommate, that there truly wasn’t anything to be nervous about. She asked me one day “but why are you nervous? What are you actually nervous about?” As I was trying to answer her questions I realized there wasn’t actually any particular thing I was nervous about. I knew I was going to finish, my body had never failed me on any of my long runs during training, I knew if worse came to worse I could walk parts of it and I knew, no matter what, I was still going to reach my goal. My nerves were more just out of excitement and anticipation than anything else. It was just the thought of finally putting so many hours, days and months-worth of work to use and having ONE chance to make myself proud that was daunting. And I’m pretty sure the thought of running 26.2 miles is enough to make anyone a little scared. ;)

But I knew in order to have the best experience I could I had to simply trust in myself. I had to know I could do it and have no doubt in my mind that I could do it well if I was going to push through. So I simply let go of any negative thoughts, any doubts and any unnecessary stress that day before and simply let myself get excited. I spent Saturday picking up my race packet (which was V overwhelming because it was in a tiny space and was jam packed with people… not a huge fan of large crowds and cramped spaces), sipping on turmeric lattes from Kure, eating a mass amount of food and talking my parents’ ears off. It was the perfect pre-race day full of good vibes and I went to bed relaxed and ready to kill it.

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Surprisingly I slept super well, which I was definitely not expecting. All throughout training I always got the worst night of sleep before long runs because I would be so excited/anxious, and I was scared that that was going to happen again. But I only woke up once (30 minutes before my alarm) because I had had a dream that I woke up at 8AM instead of 4:30AM. Even though I knew I had double, triple, quadruple checked my alarm (and set like four of them) I still woke up from that dream downright terrified. Somehow I fell back asleep for those last 30 minutes and woke up feeling refreshed and full of energy. I can hardly begin to describe what I was feeling that morning. I seriously felt like I had chugged 10 cups of coffee the second I woke up – even though I had purposefully given myself a ton of extra time, I couldn’t slow down. I quickly got dressed, threw my hair up, ate my pre-race fuel, drank a few cups of water and (not-so) patiently waited until it was time to head out. I was terrified, excited, nervous and ecstatic all at the same time. I felt so many things I didn’t even know what to feel!!

Finally I was at the start line. It was pitch black, it was freezing, but the air was full of such a buzz from the thousands of runners. Some ready to meet a PR, some ready to walk their way to the finish, some ready to run their first marathon like me. So many diverse runners, but all there ultimately with the same goal. It was amazing to feel the excitement around me. I got situated in my corral and waited for my turn to cross the start line. Corral A… Corral B… It was finally time for my corral to go. Three... two... one. And I was off!

I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face for miles. I couldn’t believe I was finally doing it. I was actually running a marathon. I had prayed like mad the night before that my stomach would cooperate, that I would be able to sustain a positive attitude and that I would be able to cross that finish line and still have loved every second. Prayer is truly a powerful thing because all of my prayers were answered. Despite some stomach pain, my stomach felt SO much better than it usually does during long runs and I truly did love those miles. Even the painful miles, the uphill miles and the difficult miles. I loved them.

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(right about to reach halfway!)

I never doubted my ability to finish, except for a split second at mile 20. I hit the 20-mile marker and used the same tactic I had been using all along – “you only have X miles left. Think of how many X mile runs you’ve been on. That’s so easy!” So I hit 20 miles and told myself to think of how many 6 mile runs I had easily accomplished. But then right after that I couldn’t help but think “holy freaking sh*t. SIX MORE MILES BUT I HURT. What if I can’t do this?” Thankfully I didn’t let myself sit in these negative thoughts for long and it was like I got a recharge of energy. I was going to finish no matter what, so I might as well finish with a happy, positive mindset. Those last six miles tested me like never before, but I am so beyond happy that I didn’t listen to that split second of self-doubt.

Right before the race I told my dad, although I hadn’t tracked my pace on my watch during any of my long runs during training, I was going to during the race because I wanted to make sure I didn’t push it too hard at the beginning. He asked me why I would track it now if I had successfully just listened to my body during my other runs and I said: “because if I’m running 8:30s at the start there’s no way I’ll do well at the end” (little did I know that would be my exact pace the entire race). At the last second I decided not to track it and boy am I thankful I didn’t. I would have completely psyched myself out and slowed myself down simply because I thought I was going too fast. Not tracking it allowed me to just follow the flow of the pace my body wanted to go at. It let me sprint up some hills, and be more careful on the downhills (that somehow hurt even worse than the uphills). I truly don’t think I would have finished with the time I did if I had known I was going that fast.

I talked a lot about this during training, but my goal was never to finish in a certain time. From the start I was excited to end up seeing what time I got at the end, but I didn’t focus on that. I was just excited to accomplish such a big goal. Someone asked me the night before what time I wanted to get and I told them I didn’t care, but under 4 hours would be a dream. I thought I’d run it at a 9 minute/mile pace at the fastest. When I passed the 3:45 marker that’s when I knew I was running faster than I thought possible, but I just went with it. I kept pushing, feeling like I was running pretty dang fast, but also not believing I could really be running that fast. I mean I was running for hours on end… how could I possibly run THAT fast? I thought the pain was just making it feel like I was running fast because my legs were tired. I kept almost stopping to walk, but I have never been so stubborn or motivated in my life to keep going. Every time I thought of stopping, it was like my body wouldn’t let me. I knew I had to make it all 26.2 miles without stopping (I only had to stop once to pee at mile 4 LOL). It was just something I had to do. The last mile I gave it all I had. I ignored the aching back and hips, the sharp stinging from the chafing on my arms, the cramping shoulders and the ready-to-explode thighs.

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I honestly am still so amazed by how mentally strong I was during the race. There were points where my body hurt like hell (like that last mile… OUCH), but my mind pushed me to keep going. My mind reminded me of WHY I was running, of how hard I had trained and how glorious crossing the finish line would feel. How worth it this temporary pain was. I’ve mentioned this before but I run in memory of my friend Parker who died almost three years ago. Running has helped me heal and gave me something to dig me out of the grief I experienced. Running has given me confidence and strength. It has completely changed my life. I kept this all in mind every mile of the way, but especially the last mile. When I stepped foot over that finish line I started crying. Crying out of disbelief. Crying because my body was in so much pain. Crying because I knew I had finished so much stronger than I ever imagined. Crying because I was sad it was over (call me crazy LOL). Crying as I thought about my friend. Crying because I was so dang happy. Thankfully the sweetest race volunteer, an elderly woman, came over and said “are you happy?” which of course just made me cry more as I nodded. Then I like sort of couldn’t breathe because I think I was kind of hyperventilating because my body realized how much I had just put it through so I tried to sit down but she advised me not to sit because then I may not be able to get up. I hobbled through the tunnel of tables and people that the race finishers had to file through like a zombie. I could hardly walk or think. I was so overwhelmed and tired and blissfully happy.

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I finally made my way to where my parents and sorority big were waiting and started sobbing again as they hugged me. All I could get out was “everything hurts so badly” which then made me laugh and cry even more. Some people may think it’s silly how emotional I was, but running helped me through so many difficult times in my life and thinking back through all that I’ve been through and how I used running to dig myself out from rock bottom fills me with so much joy. I have truly never been so happy and in love with my life. I love what I’m doing, I love how healthy I am, I love how well I have learned to fuel my body, I love the amazing relationship I have created with exercise and food, I love the incredibly supportive community blogging has brought me, I love how many positive people I have in my life and how much positivity I try to put out into the world. I am so, so satisfied with my life and I can truly say I’ve never been so happy. I think finishing the marathon also once and for all showed me how much I can handle. I felt and feel so strong and capable of so much and I was in shock of what I had accomplished.

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Rewind to when I crossed the finish line – I saw 3:47 on the timer and forgot to factor in that that was how long the race had been going overall, since corral A started, but my corral started later. After I stopped crying, I told my parents how happy I was with my time and they looked at me like I was crazy and said “Nat… you finished in 3:41. You ran 8:30 splits… You were 6 minutes away from qualifying for Boston.” (I also got 12th out of 146 in my age group!) I think the photo below summarizes how that made me feel. I was SHOCKED! In the back of my head, all throughout training, I had thought how cool if I could finish with 8:30 splits, but I knew not to hold myself to that standard. The fact that I got exactly that time baffles me. Although I didn’t run for a specific time, it felt really dang good to get such a good one for my first marathon (and I WILL qualify for Boston one day. I just know it!).

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The rest of the day was spent waddling around Portland like a penguin, eating amazing food from Harlow and Dick’s Kitchen and soaking up every second of the post-marathon feels. I kept reliving it over and over. It was the most amazing day and I’m so grateful I got to share in it with my parents. As the night was winding down, all of the emotions hit me once again. I started bawling and this time all I could say was “I’m just so sad it’s over. I just love running so much!” Although I’m sure it sounded crazy, my parents just hugged me and let me cry it out. I’m sure it’s hard to imagine how you can put yourself through something so painful and be SAD that it’s over, but it’s hard knowing something you dedicated so many months of your life to is over, just like that. Not having that amazing goal to reach towards is a weird feeling and not having it to look forward to made me feel a little empty. But I also know it’s time to focus on another, different goal. I need to focus on the goal of giving my body more rest to ensure it’s truly its healthiest, and I’m excited to tackle this goal.

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(my post marathon lunch of choice was Harlow! I got a big scramble with roasted veggies, a smoothie and a turmeric drink)

I hope you take this as your push to do something that scares you. Reach for big dreams. Do the unthinkable. Conquer fears. I promise you, It feels damn good.

XO nat

And here’s a little humorous play-by-play of the marathon. ;)

Miles 1-2: I feel like I’m flying. Wow I keep passing a lot of people. Maybe I should slow down.. No you feel fine, keep going!

Mile 3: *spots the 3 mile marker* woohooo three miles!!! …. Oh God ….. 23.2 to go …. No you’re fine! You’ve got this!!! (can you tell how much of a mind game running is?!)

Mile 3-8: What the… how have I already ran 8 miles?! I FEEL AMAZING!!!

Two seconds later: Well f*** that’s a really large hill up ahead that I wasn’t expecting…. Oh wow yup that hill looks like it lasts for effing ever….. it’s fine, I’m fine, YOU’VE GOT THIS.

Mile 8.5-10ish: (all uphill) Eff this hill. This hill sucks. But as much as it sucks I WILL NOT STOP. Wow I’m stubborn… I didn’t realize I was this stubborn until now… But stubborn is good right now! Ok you’ve made it to the bridge. It’s still uphill, but at least it’s pretty. Stare at the pretty water, stare at the pretty water, think about how pretty it is. But also don’t trip. Okay stop staring at the water, watch where you’re going.

Mile 10-12: I have never loved flat land so much. Bless you flat land!!!! Wait… how did I catch up to the 3:45 pacer?! How fast am I running?! Don’t overthink… just keep running! (passes the 3:45 marker… I really should maybe slow down… or maybe I’ll just keep going and see what happens)

Mile 13: OHMYGOD I SEE MY PARENTS!!!! (they surprised me halfway!!) AND I’M HALFWAY DONE!!!! THIS FREAKING ROCKS!!!!!!!!!!

Mile 14: Well shit, my legs are kind of starting to hurt… isn’t it too early for them to hurt?!

Mile 15-17: Oh crap I’ve heard so much about the infamous 18 mile wall that everyone hits… crap crap crap what happens once you hit it?!

Mile 18: Wait… I feel fine! Legs hurt, but I’m fine. What wall?? Okay wow this downhill actually hurts worse than uphill though. Ouch, ouch, ouch!!! WHY DOES MY BACK HURT SO BADLY.

Mile 19-20: I’VE GOT THIS IN THE BAG. I LOVE RUNNING SO MUCH.

Mile 21: *almost starts crying* Wait why am I crying. Am I happy?! Am I said?! Idk BUT STOP BECAUSE THAT’S MAKING IT HARD TO BREATHE.

Mile 23: I’ve officially run farther than I ever have before! WOOOHOOO!! Only 3.2 miles left!! Think of how many times you’ve run three miles. You could run three miles with your eyes closed!! Keep pushing!!!!

Mile 24: I have never hurt so badly in my life. Dear LORD what have I done to myself?! It’s okay to stop and walk, really it is!! EFF THAT KEEP GOING. If you stop who knows if you’ll be able to start again!

Mile 25: One. More. Mile. Envision the finish line. Envision food. Envision ice cold water. Ohmygosh you’re almost there!!! HOW IS IT ALMOST OVER?!

Mile 26.2: ….. ohmygod …. I did it. I DID IT. Okay yup here come the tears. I can’t breathe. I NEED FOOD (don’t worry my parents had roasted delicata squash waiting for me at the end HAHAHA). I NEED WATER. WILL MY BODY EVER NOT HURT. CAN I GO DO THAT AGAIN?!

Related: Marathon Training Taper Week Tips: Slowing Down & Trusting the Process, Tapering Begins: Cutting Back Mileage, Being Patient and Trusting My Body, In It For the Long Run: My 10 Long Run Must-Haves, Run the Mile You're In