The marker for mile twenty-six is finally within reach, right at the peak of the seemingly endless hills that have been wreaking havoc on my body for the last six miles. My vision is blurry from the cold wind, I can barely read the time clock mounted on the mile marker. I know that I’m still ahead of pace and that it’s just a matter of how far under my goal time I can get. Heading into the downhill stretch, my legs pick up speed while simultaneously beginning to buckle beneath me. Through the foggy mask over my eyes, I can see the finish line. I charge faster towards glory with every ounce of strength I have left. From the sidelines I hear someone shout my name in a cheer, but I don’t acknowledge them, I keep pushing my ailing body forward. And then, just like that, I cross the finish line. My body breaks in half, with my hands falling to my knees. I can’t see anyone or anything. Sixteen weeks of hard training and discipline hit me all at once. Bent over and heaving, I cry. I don’t know what my official time is, and I don’t care. All I know in this moment is that I have just accomplish an impossible goal, five years in the making.
It all started five years ago…..when a simple bet was made. I was out to dinner with my parents and sister when the topic of marathons came up (naturally, right?). I had just completed my first marathon a few months prior and my sister asked me to do the Disney Marathon with her that following winter. She had been doing a few 5k races and was wanting to take on a marathon as a challenge to herself. I agreed, thinking that it would be my last one and that I’d be doing it just for the experience.
At this point I had never envisioned myself as becoming “marathoner” or a runner for that matter. The main reason I ran a marathon in the first place was to check it off my bucket list. I had just graduated from college and decided to retire from competitive swimming (a career that spanned sixteen years of my life, so needless to say I was ready for a break). However, I needed something to replace swimming, so I turned to running. And because I like to set ambitious goals for myself, I signed up for my very first running race, which was a marathon. In my mind, that race was a disaster. I barely trained, my nutrition was poor, and I came in with an overly cocky attitude. I ran the first 5k way too fast and ended up walking majority of the second half. I finished in a time of 4:51:17.
Back to the dinner….somehow qualifying for the Boston Marathon snuck into the conversation. My dad was curious about what the BQ was for our age group so we looked it up: 3:35. Let the betting begin. My dad, assuming that neither of us would ever get a BQ, told my sister and I that if we received a qualifying time for Boston, he would pay us $10,000 (which somehow got changed to only $5,000, but I stand by my account of hearing $10,000. Unfortunately, nobody else that was present at the dinner can corroborate my story. So we’ll just say $5,000 for my dad’s sake). Hearing this, our eyes instantly lit up. I don’t know what my sister was thinking at that moment, but I knew that I would have a lot of work to do to get a BQ. At the same time, though, I had a lot of motivation to prove my dad wrong. So, after a couple of margaritas, we all shook on the bet.
Two more marathons came and went, and my finish time had only gotten slower (4:55:23 and 4:55:56, respectively). To be honest, I lost motivation along the way and didn’t train properly for these races, plus my diet was still terrible. I, being a bit conceited, thought that over time I would just naturally get faster at running. I didn’t comprehend that I would actually have to put forth effort and discipline. So, after suffering through three lackluster marathons, I figured that I wasn’t meant to be a runner and decided to cut my losses and retire early.
Having been a competitive athlete for most of my life, it’s common for me to experience an impulsive urge to train for a race from time-to-time. And that’s exactly how I got roped into signing up for my fourth marathon. This time around, I employed the help of my husband, who was a personal trainer at the time, to take my training to the next level. He introduced me to the world of weight training. Wow, what a difference. Up until this point, I was stuck in the mindset that in order to train for a marathon I needed to run, and only run, a bunch of miles five-six days out of the week (granted, I never did follow my own training methodology which is probably why I wasn’t getting any faster). Anyways, I dropped down my weekly mileage to running only three-four days per week and began weight training four-five days per week. While I hesitantly trusted my husband’s philosophy of “run less, lift more,” I still doubted the newfound training method all the way up to race day. Lo and behold, I ran a personal best of 4:05:39. Not only did I cut about fifty minutes from my previous best time, but it was also the first time I was able to run the entire race without stopping to walk. Even though I still didn’t get close to the BQ, I was proud of myself. I came away from the marathon feeling as though I had reached my fullest potential. I was finally ready to be done with marathons.
Well, another year went by and I asked myself, “what if?” What if I could still train harder? What if I could still run faster? What if I could get the BQ? However, I wasn’t exactly ready to jump into training right then and there….seeing as how I was eight months pregnant at the time. I talked to my husband about my desire to try running another marathon and he took the time to write out a personalized training plan for me to follow (once again emphasizing weight training and speed work). I pledged to him that right after our son was born, I’d get back into shape and start training. My ambition was quickly extinguished when the reality of having a newborn smacked me in the face. I got little-to-no sleep, which translated to little-to-no motivation to workout. I was constantly exhausted, irritable, stressed, and depressed. I barely had the energy to get out of bed in the morning, so getting up to exercise was not going to happen. It didn’t take long for me to accept the fact that I was truly done racing.
So another year passes by….and once again I asked myself, “what if?” Also, something felt different this time around. There was a fire ignited inside of me. I had a drive to not only train, but to push my physical limits and boundaries. I wanted the BQ, badly. Of course I wanted to prove to my friends and family that I could do it, but more importantly I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. So for the fifth time, I set out to train for a marathon (with the mindset that this would truly be my last, so might as well give it my all).
For the running portion of my training, I relied on a preset marathon training program I found on the Runkeeper App. The program had me running five days a week, averaging between 40-45 miles per week. Even though the program didn’t call for cross-training, I still decided to incorporate strength training four times a week as well. Mobility and yoga also played key roles in enhancing my running abilities. Another new “technique” I adopted was trying to move as much as possible throughout each day outside of the workouts (including going on morning and evening walks, and chasing my son around the house) rather than loafing on the couch all day.
For sixteen weeks, I followed this schedule (with each run varying in distance and speed work, following the training plan via RunKeeper):
Tuesday: AM – run PM – strength train (ST)
Wednesday: AM – run PM – ST
Thursday: AM – run PM – ST
Friday: AM – ST PM – yoga
Saturday: AM – run PM – walk
Sunday: AM – run PM – walk
Monday – Off (yay!)
Nutrition was a huge factor, and struggle, for me. Before training even started, I knew that I was going to have to get my diet under control (considering that each previous training cycle had been filled with excessive amounts of sugar, grease, and diet soda). I’ve always had the knowledge about how I should eat, I just never committed to changing my unhealthy habits. Plus, I was trapped in the mindset that because I was exercising a lot, I could eat anything I wanted. I used to think: hey, I just ran 10 miles, so I can eat an entire pizza with a pint of ice cream and drink a two-liter of soda on the side. I wasn’t replenishing my body with the nutrients it needed in order to properly recover and grow, instead I was filling my body with empty calories and crap. Hence why my race performances always faltered. That’s why when I trained for this marathon I finally took control of my diet. Tuesday-Sunday (aka my training days) I ate as clean as possible. On Monday (my off day), I allowed myself to splurge with a treat and diet soda. Initially, I was going to go cold turkey off sweets and soda, but for my own sanity and mental stability I gave myself that one day a week to indulge and curb my cravings. I didn’t count calories or keep track of macros, I just listened to my body. In the beginning it was hard to cut out sugary temptations, but seeing the improvements in my running kept me motivated to stay on track.
A typical day of clean eating would entail:
Breakfast – smoothie (almond milk, greek yogurt, vanilla protein powder, chia seeds, spinach, strawberries, and banana) and plain oatmeal
Snack – apple slices with natural peanut butter
Lunch – beans, veggies, and rice
Snack – Quest bar
Dinner – chicken, veggies, and rice
Snack – oatmeal mixed with vanilla protein powder and cinnamon.
The training was hard, the training was brutal, but I pulled through and became a stronger and more powerful runner. Not only did I achieve a Boston Qualifying Time, but I beat it by fourteen minutes, clocking in at 3:21:07. The emotions I felt after crossing the finish line were overwhelming. There was a mixture of pride, exhaustion, happiness, relief, astonishment, and sadness. I was ecstatic with my finish time, but also feeling depressed that the race was over. The moment I had been working towards over the course of sixteen weeks (really over the course of five years) finally came, and I wasn’t fully prepared for it. Part of me knew that this was the greatest athletic accomplishment of my life and I wanted to revel in the moment, while the other part of me realized that this was the greatest athletic accomplishment of my life and that I’ll never experience this moment ever again. Yes, I did win the bet (and claimed the reward), but this race was much more than a bet made over margaritas at a restaurant. This race was just the beginning.