Although it still seems surreal, exactly a week ago today, I was running my first full marathon—the St. Jude Country Music Marathon in Nashville, Tennessee.
“You ran a marathon today!” yelled a lady in the crowd, while jumping up and down and pointing her finger at me as I was running down the final hill, and making the turn to approach the finish line. “Trust The Struggle” read loud and clear on my wrist, as I sprinted my way to the finish.
Just two days prior to the race, I spotted a graffiti-covered wall in Atlanta displaying the words “Trust Your Struggle.” I had been contemplating writing something in Sharpie on my wrist for race day, that I could glance down at throughout the entire marathon, and decided this was it.
Although I ended up slightly adapting the phrase to read “Trust The Struggle,” these words adorned my wrist, and kept me constantly reminded each and every step of the way.
THE START LINE
The start of a race that brings upwards of 20,000 individuals to a designated, confined downtown area feels like a music festival. It’s full on sensory overload. I was dropped off near the start line by my mother/best friend/biggest fan who had come along on this inaugural adventure with me, as well as one of my best friends Carly, who we stayed with in Nashville for the duration of our trip. As they let me out of the car and I began the solo walk to where the crowd was flocking, there was a calm in the air. I silently and quickly walked toward the masses, and all the nervous energies I had been battling in the weeks leading up to the marathon, and the waves of self-doubt I was experiencing up to 24 hours before the race, instantly ceased, leaving me with the reality of, “You want to do this. You can do this. You will do this. You are doing this.”
After joining forces with my running partner Martha, and waiting an expected 30 minutes in the porta-potty line while stretching, we suited up with our numbers and made our way over to the gear check to drop our bags, and then to the start corrals.
It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere of the start line when you are standing in a sea of that many runners. There’s a comforting beauty in the fact that although no two individual journeys look the same leading up to race day, the start line marks the beginning of what becomes a monumental shared experience. Everyone is in it together.
The closer you get to the start line, the more the months of training fade into the background, and the more real what is about to happen becomes. It took us 19 minutes to slowly walk down the hill on Broadway and arrive at the start line. Once your corral is next, there are no more seconds of prep that can be done. It’s simply time to run.
PART 1: THE ROLLING HALF
We took off running down Broadway by the waterfront, toward that sun that had just risen, and then weaved back through downtown. During the first mile, I turned the corner and spotted my mom and Carly, which was a reassuring sight. As I smiled and waved to them, any lingering jitters dissipated. As we turned the next corner, I saw two blind guides in bright yellow shirts, leading a blind runner in between them. This was a sight which moved me to tears. I imagine it to be such a trust building, and demanding experience for all parties involved. Serving as a blind guide is an honor that I hope I am able to participate in at some point during my running lifetime.
The first several miles of any long distance race are about getting into a groove and not letting the adrenaline push you too hard too soon. I made a pact with myself in the early miles to keep calm and carry on at a steady pace. Carly’s friend caught me just before the race, and the two of us were able to run nearly side by side for the first 10 miles, which offered silent motivation and helped with steady pacing for both of us.
This was the first time I turned off my GPS/running App on my phone in months and months of training, so I was guided only by my watch [stopwatch] that I told myself I wouldn’t look at too often. By not using the GPS and turning my phone to airplane mode, I was able to conserve battery life and listen to music the entirety of the marathon, something I didn’t expect would be possible.
After leaving the immediate downtown area, the early miles of the race took us through the Vanderbilt neighborhood, complete with Frat boys tailgating, and enthusiastic fans lining the streets cheering us on, and of course, the live bands, a signature part of the Rock N’ Roll race series. An abundance of sights and sounds filled each minute of the race, and the miles passed quickly. Despite the constant up and down of hills that were promised, and most certainly delivered, the road was so thick with runners, you couldn’t quite tell where one hill stopped and the next started, nor could you see one before you approached it. And although it did add some pressure to the hips, the rolling downhills offered relief.
Here’s a quick look at the elevation changes experienced throughout the race.
PART 2: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
Coming off of an energetic mile 10 back through downtown and running underneath a packed bridge of onlookers cheering, the terrain began to shift. As we approached the mile 11 marker at the top of the hill, in the blazing sun, I noticed the majority of the crowd was running on the right hand side of the road following a black sign. It was then I spotted the yellow sign pointing to the left that read, “full marathon.” In that moment, I immediately went from feeling like I was running a half, to realizing the race was shifting to become an entirely different animal as I separated from the crowd, and merged left with what seemed to be a mere handful of runners.
(I later learned 19,000 runners completed the half, while 3,000 completed the full, which explained a lot about the desolate vibes I was experiencing immediately following the split).
“Anyone can run a half,” a man yelled. Although I will never downplay a half marathon, in this moment of struggle, it was the best thing he could have yelled. A girl at the top of the hill had a box of orange slices, which felt like a life saver in that moment. Mile 11 seemed a bit longer than the miles that had previously passed, and it hit me that this would be the feeling during the remainder of the race. The area of town we were running in at that point was primarily desolate, far different from previous miles, and took us out into the uninterrupted sun, meaning things were heating up fast, which I expected they would as we were approaching 2 hours into the race.
A water stop and a water hose dousing at mile 12 reinvigorated me and the course leveled out as we approached the halfway point. Running across the 13.1 mark certainly felt a bit triumphant. This was coupled with the humbling realization that I’d made it through the easiest half. The turn around was a bit anticlimactic, with just a couple of cones, offering a moment of comic relief. As we returned toward the main road from which we had just deviated, I watched the first individuals around me begin to walk. “No way. Not yet,” I told myself. By the time we passed the mile 15 mark, we were back to where we had split from the half. It was here two good men had mini cups of ice water. This was immediately followed by a bit of shade covering a flat area where the mile 16 marker stood with an official water stop. Knowing that in training, my legs typically want to slow to a walk soon after 16, I made sure I didn’t slow too much while reaching my hand for the water. A turn then took us back into the sun for mile 17, which was entirely up hill. With no water at 17, and the feeling of dehydration setting in, it was during this mile my legs first slowed to a walk.
I always have had a stigma about walking, and a misconception that if I personally walked, my body wouldn’t allow me to start again. During mile 17, I understood that brief bits of walking were an inevitable part of not only my struggle, but the unified struggle, considering both the terrain and the heat conditions. I realized that this in no way prohibited me from continuing my race, nor did it in any way negatively effect the experience. It took me a long mile 17 and a water stop at 18 to begin to feel revived enough again to increase my run to walk ratio and speed things back up. I remained glad I was able to listen to my body, and take in enough water and gatorade to catch dehydration fast enough to be able to recover. I became increasingly thankful for this as the miles passed.
By mile 19 we were running back through a more welcoming part of the course. It was here we saw signs that counted us down to “Marc’s House.” At that point, I wasn’t sure who Marc was or what was so special about his house, but I couldn’t wait. Upon arriving at Marc’s house, we were greeted with maracas and all the good vibes of a yard dance party, and my energy spiked. A giant cool orange sponge, some water, and turning on my power songs helped get me more rejuvenated to trek toward 20.
While some may say that the last 6.2 miles of a marathon are the toughest, I most certainly felt increasingly recovered from the heat-drenched 17-19. From mile 20, the way the last leg was designed as an out and back, I could see individuals who were at 25. While some might consider this mentally straining, I felt it to be nothing but encouraging. From 21 onward, the course flattened out and we were taken through a golf course. Despite there being next to no spectators here, I found this area to be quite relaxing, with water and gatorade stops every mile to keep us moving along in the heat. Through this part of the course, one was able to take in a bit of shade, and some trees, and even enjoy running around a lake.
As I grew closer and closer to the finish, I had absolutely zero doubts I would finish. Although I didn’t set out with a time goal, I realized when my watch approached 4 hours and 30 minutes, if I maintained my running for the bulk of each mile, primarily allowing myself to slow to a walk at each water stop to rehydrate and then get the legs back up to speed, I would finish in just under 5 hours.
At the water stop at mile 24, my quads suddenly felt like I had been doing a lot of squats. But still, I wasn’t in any major pain (or maybe my mind was just overriding it). Either way, I kept running, determined to run the bulk of the last two miles. Bags of ice were given just before the next to last turn of the race. It was (literally) all downhill from there. I poured the ice in my sports bra and ate the pieces, one by one. When I saw masses of spectators lined up and a 26 in sight, I began to tear up and started running faster. As I approached the 26, I went into an all out sprint before turning the corner to the left.
Seeing the finish line was something else, to say the least. I sprinted to the finish with all I had left, and finished in 4:57:05. A nice gentleman placed a medal around a neck. I immediately popped a Tums from my pocket to ward off any potential stomach issues, grabbed a water bottle, banana, and pretzels, and walked through the finish area to reunite with my mom and Carly.
I had nothing but beaming vibes and a smile on my face at the finish line, and even during the 20 minute walk back to the car over the pedestrian bridge. My body was tired, but I was not in crippling pain. I was hot but not dehydrated to the point of falling out. I knew I had pushed my body to its limits and given it all that I needed to give it, but I did not push myself to the point of crumbling to pieces. I simply tried my best to channel courage and confidence the whole way through.
The entire race, rather than retreating into my head, or wishing the miles away, I felt I was able to remain truly present in each step of the journey, even the most struggle-filled steps, which is exactly how I had hoped it to be.
I trusted the struggle. I trusted my struggle. And I couldn’t have asked for or imagined a better first marathon experience. I knew the conditions would be especially difficult; however, I wouldn’t have wanted the course, the atmosphere, or the experience, any other way.
On the supporting end of the equation, I couldn’t have asked for better support meeting me at the finish line. My mom, having run numerous marathons in her 30s, including Boston, pulled me aside after our extended hugging session, stepped back, and asked me a single, pointed question.
“So, do you want to do another one, or do you not ever want to do one again?” knowing very good and well that I would answer honestly in that moment.
The only answer in my heart and head was, and still is, “Yes!”
Although there will never be another first. There will most definitely be more to come. Without a doubt.