My First Marathon
I had never run the marathon distance (42.2 km) before so I didn’t really know what to expect. Like most athletic endeavors I had no shortage of goals and expectations. I did a ton of training, research, and talked with dozens of veteran marathoners.
My #1 goal was to get to the start line with no major injuries. I have trained for a marathon twice before and both times I became injured with a debilitating knee injury so this year when I decided to train for another marathon my first concern was being healthy enough to start the race. The enormity of reaching this goal struck me at the start line of the race when the announcer said ‘by being here at the start line you are 99% of way to finishing a marathon.’
My #2 goal was to finish the race without any major injuries. As big as running a marathon is, my ultimate goal for this year is finishing the Ironman Canada Triathlon on August 30 in BC and I was using this race as a warm up. In the Ironman I will have to run a full marathon after swimming 4 km and biking 180 km. I knew there was a chance I could develop a season ending injury during the marathon that would jeopardize my dream of completing in the Ironman.
My #3 goal was to finish in a time under 3:15. Based on a recent half marathon time, my training over the winter, and talking to fellow runners this felt like a very attainable goal. 3:15 is also the time needed for me to qualify for the Boston Marathon which I thought would be a pretty cool race to do next year.
My #4 goal was to have a strong overall race and finish under 3:10. I even held on to the possibility of going under 3:05.
In preparation I received a ton of usual advice from the guys in my running club. The two common themes I heard from them all was 1. don’t start out too fast and 2. get ready for the pain to kick in during the last 10 km.
As I walked toward the start line with the mass of people, 3000 started the race; I unexpectedly had a wave of emotion come over me. I welled up with tears in my eyes knowing that I had reached my first goal and that I was about to embark upon a journey I had waited years to complete. Before I got too emotional I heard a gun go off and people around me started moving, we were off to the races.
One of my biggest concerns during the first half of the race was to not go out too fast as I had been warned about. To prevent this I used a GPS watch that would tell me my pace in km per hour every step of the way. I also used a heart rate monitor to measure my effort so that I would stay in the “zone” I had trained to be in. If those two tools failed I also had a pace band on my wrist which displayed the time I should reach every km on the route if I wanted to finish in my goal time.
In coming up with what pace to run I went back and forth with two different thoughts. 1. If everything goes perfect I should be able to run under 3:05 so I could go out at that pace and then if things fall a part I could slow down but still have time to finish under 3:15. 2. Start out at a much easier 3:15 pace for most of the race and if I am feeling really good toward the end I can push it and try to come in under 3:10.
Well in true Stratton fashion and having no previous marathon experience to fall back on I decided I wanted to give my self a shot at going under 3:05 and I was prepared to “die trying”. I decided to take the risk of perhaps going out to fast and fading at the end rather than taking the conservative approach of starting out at a slower pace. I figured being untested at this distance I would give it a shot and see if I could surprise myself. In the end if it didn’t work out I really had nothing to lose only my pride…. and a little respect from the boys at the running club but I could get over that.
This first 20 km went almost exactly as planned. I had been taking in lots of water and gels along the route and my pace was right on track for a sub 3:05 race. The pace felt brisk but comfortable and my heart rate stayed in the zone. I remember thinking this is going too well, and I wish I could just get the first 30 km over with so the pain of the last 10 km would kick in and I would be done with the race. The first 25 km kind of felt like being on a slow uphill climb of a rollercoaster when you know the drop from hell is coming, there is no way to avoid it and you just want to get it over with.
Between km 26 and 27 my legs started to feel heavy and tired and I started thinking ‘oh no here we go this is what Billy was telling me about all those mornings in the gym.’ By km 30 my calf muscles started threatening to cramp up and go into spasms. This was the same feeling I felt on my 35 km training run and I managed to avoid the spasms and run through the tightness. I kept thinking if I can just slow down a little and alter my stride I could avoid the spasms and still finish under 3:15. Unfortunately I had no such luck. For the last 10 km, any time I would go up the slightest up hill grade both calves would go into a pulsating spasm, one at a time. At this point I stopped looking at my watches all together and went into survival mode. As I started to rationalize my predicament in my head I thought to myself just make forward progress and don’t walk.
This was probably one of the worst pains I have every experienced in my life. As I plodded along I thought of some of the other miserable experiences I have gone through so I could compare them. The one thing that came to mind was my experience tree planting in Northern Ontario during university. Like going into survival mode in the marathon, tree planting was all about not stopping and making forward progress no matter how slow.
With about 3.5 km to go I heard some runners chatting behind me and I was thinking; who in the hell is chatting at this stage in the race? As they came up beside me I realized it was the 3:15 pace bunny, this is a guy who has bunny ears attached to his hat that say 3:15. His role is to help pace runners that would like to finish with a time of 3:15. Until this point I had a glimmer of hope that I could still squeeze in under my 3:15 Boston Marathon qualifying cut off. As soon as he came up beside me all I could say was “oh shit, man I really didn’t want see you”. He tried to encourage me and I stuck with him for about 400m until the next spasm hit.
At this point I lost all hope of hitting my qualifying time and just wanted to finish with dignity and not walk. With 2 km left an emotional wave came over me again. I started to get really mad at myself for not reaching my time goals that I felt I was capable of reaching. Mentally and endurance-wise I felt fresh which frustrated me more, but my legs were spasming all over the place now and just couldn’t move me any faster. The other emotion I felt was joy of finally finishing my first marathon. With these two emotions colliding on the final home stretch I choked up and tears started running down my face.
For the last 40 min I would have to stop and stretch out my calf every 10 min or so. Just as I entered the finishing shoot both of my calves were pulsating with spasms but there was no way I could stop and stretch 200 meters from the finish. I hobbled across the finish line and totally forgot about raising my arms in the air for the official photograph, something I thought about for years. I bent over leaning on my knees and chocked back more tears. I knew I should be proud of my self but the main emotion I felt pissed off knowing I could have done much better.
I walk over to the fence and leaned on it for a moment to try and regain my emotional composure. As I started waking over to the massage tent I saw Alexandra (my gf) on the other side of the street behind of the fence calling my name. I was really surprised and excited to see her there as I planned to catch up with her in a half hour after my massage somewhere. I was so happy to see her, as I gave her the biggest hug it took everything to keep my composure I had just regained. She said all the right things and made me feel much better about the race and myself.
It was so nice to see Alexandra and Neal (my brother) and a bunch of my old Vancouver friends cheering me on along the route. The buzz you get from having people cheer you on during a race is priceless, I think it is half the reason we keep signing up for races after enduring such self-inflicted punishment.
I heard lots of stories about how your legs feel the day after a marathon and all the expectations held true. Imagine how stiff your legs are when you go out for your first run in several months and multiply that pain by 10. At times it was actually comical trying to walk and just feeling like I had no control over my legs. It kind of felt like I was walking on stilts and if I bent my knees very much I would fall over.
Now, a couple days after the race I am feeling much better physically and emotionally about the whole event. I look forward to analyzing the race more with all the experienced guys at the club and learning from the experience. It is nice to know I can get through the distance and I have lots of room to improve the next time around.
On Monday I spent the day showing Alexandra around Vancouver and shopping for triathlon stuff you can’t get in NL. The most challenging part of the day was trying to cross the street without being hit by a car because it took way too long to get across a crosswalk than the light gives you. At one point I tried to speed up but it just wouldn’t happen. The other challenge I had was trying on wetsuits, I must have tried on 5 or 6 suits and every time I tried them on I thought my legs were going to spasm again.
I am thrilled that I have come through the experience with no major injuries and am even more excited to start focusing on my main goal of the year training for Ironman in August.
I want to say thanks to everyone for all the kind words of support that I have received over the last week to coach Fabian for his direction and the Nautilus running crew for all there advice.
My overall stats were.
Half way split 1:31:56
Time: 3:20:15 (that makes a 19 min positive split, not quite the negative split I was hoping for up until the 27 km mark.)
Placing: 195 out of 2926