Sunday, October 20th was the day of the Grand Rapids Marathon – my first marathon. I think it was a wise choice to make this race my first because it was an excellent event.
Matt and I drove to Grand Rapids the afternoon before the race and arrived at the expo around 4:00. The expo took place at the YMCA, which was also the site for the race’s start and finish.
We picked up our race packets, which included socks and a very cool shirt.
One of the cool features of the Grand Rapids Marathon is the celebrity pace groups. Rather than boring old pace groups that simply list times, this race uses times run by various celebrities to determine the pace groups. My ambitious race goal was 3:35, so somewhere between 3:29 and 3:44 seemed ideal for me.
There were plenty of things to buy at the expo, and we chose to purchase a book written by the race director, Don Kern. His book is about his quest to run marathons on each continent in less than a month. I’m sure it will be an interesting read. Don was also available to autograph the book.
There was a booth for the Fifth Third River Bank Run and they were handing out glasses for free! I loved running the 25K in May and was excited to add this to the collection.
Gazelle Sports had a variety of merchandise to purchase, including some awesome Saucony shirts designed specifically for the race. Matt and I browsed for a bit and that worked in our favor. The racks said the shirts were 25% off, but someone came around and changed the signs to 50% off while we were still looking around! It was nearing the end of the expo time, so I’m sure they were trying to get rid of things.
After the expo, we stopped for dinner at Noodles & Company on the way to our hotel. When we got to the hotel, we discovered that our toilet was broken. Matt found a workaround to still make it functional, but we called the front desk to let them know. They gave us the option to switch rooms or stay in our room for only $15. We chose to deal with a little inconvenience and save the money! We spent a while preparing everything for the next morning and got to bed around 9:00. They always say that you may not sleep very well the night before a race, and I blame at least half of that on our neighbors. The people in the next room stayed up much later than us. They had their TV cranked up, spoke loudly, and hacked up a lung out on the balcony. Grrrr.
5:15 am rolled around too soon after a restless night, and it was time to get ready for the big race. I had my typical pre-run breakfast of a banana and a Honey Stinger Waffle with water. Rain had been in the forecast just before the start of the race, but luckily it had already cleared up by the time we left the hotel. It was partly cloudy and in the low 40s which was perfect. There was quite a bit of traffic in the area when we got there, but we made our way to a parking lot a few blocks from the YMCA a good hour before the start of the race. I hit a porta potty along the way, then we met up with some friends near the start. After chatting for a bit, I figured I ought to drop my stuff at the gear check. While I was there, I could hear the National Anthem. I hadn’t realized it was so close to the start of the race! I hurried up, found Matt, and we walked around the block to get to the start. Luckily, we still had a good 10 minutes or so.
Matt was running the half marathon and would be going much faster than me, so we wished each other luck and found the pace groups we needed. It was easy to walk on the sidewalk then jump down to the street in the right spot. I chose to start a little behind the Dubya Running Mates, who were aiming for 3:44. I was going to start conservatively and hopefully save some energy for later in the race.
Somehow I managed to not freak out before this race. I figured the nerves would really kick in Saturday night or at least Sunday morning, but they never did. I think I took the pressure off myself by not really pushing for a specific goal. I told myself I was going to go out there and see what happened. Everyone kept telling me that I shouldn’t have a goal time for my first marathon. Even though I’d followed Higdon’s Advanced 1 training plan, I was obviously far from advanced when it came to actually running a marathon. I felt confident in my training and didn’t want to discount that, but I also knew very well that the marathon is quite a monster and anything could happen. I viewed my 3:35 training goal as my best-case scenario, but I wouldn’t be bothered at all if I didn’t hit that for my first marathon. My plan of attack was to start easy, run a pace in the 8:20s until later in the race, then drop closer to my 8:13 goal pace if I had it in me.
The race started and I spotted Matt’s parents before I crossed the starting line. It was awesome that they came to support us, and I saw them a couple more times along the route. Over 1,500 people ran the marathon and just under 2,000 people ran the half marathon. We all started at the same time and the half marathon runners split off before the 9-mile mark. Because both races were together for so long, the course was filled with people. I didn’t feel like it was congested in a bad way though and didn’t weave around people too much.
One reason I chose this race for my first marathon was because it was supposed to be a scenic course. We ran through some of downtown Grand Rapids, and much of the run took place on park and bike paths. It was peaceful and pretty, especially with views of the fall colors in many areas.
Another reason this race appealed to me was because it was billed as flat and fast. There were a few little hills before the halfway point, but nothing significant.
While there were a number of spectators throughout the downtown, there were not many once we hit the park and bike paths. The people at the aid stations were wonderful and enthusiastic, and there were a lot of people at the various relay exchange points. A few spots here and there did have people cheering, and I especially loved seeing a fluffy white Samoyed several times throughout the race. I had a Samoyed when I was growing up, and it made me smile each time I saw the dog on the course.
I did a pretty good job sticking to my plan to run fairly easy early on. The Dubya pace group was within my view, though they were probably a good 30 seconds ahead of me for a while. I caught up to them before the halfway point and ran near the group for several miles. As I hit 13 miles, I felt a pain in my left knee. I’d never had a problem there before and it bugged me for a while, but I ran through it. Luckily the pain faded after a few miles and I still felt good. The pace was easy enough and I was happy with how the run had gone so far. I wore my hydration belt with a couple of 22 oz bottles, one with GU Brew and one with water. With my own bottles, I didn’t have to stop at the aid stations. I also had some Honey Stinger Chews to eat along the way, and I ate some of those at least every 6 miles or so.
The pace group was nice to keep my pace in check, but with the pacers came larger groups of people. As we ran on some of the more narrow paths, I started to feel like it was too congested for my taste. Around the 16th mile, I finally broke away from them. I didn’t like being right on top of other people and needed more space. I sped up a little to get around them, then I had all the space I needed.
When I ran a 20-mile training run on part of the course a month earlier, one of the biggest struggles for me was on the bike path – Indian Mounds Road. For both the training run and the race, that portion involved an out and back stretch. I was fine on the way out during the training run, but struggled a bit on the way back. There weren’t many people around and it was a pretty isolated area. I had been concerned about struggling with that portion during the marathon, but I was fine. There were plenty of people around at all times. Even when I broke away from the pace group, there were always people in front of me that helped keep me going. Because it was an out and back stretch, soon enough the speedy runners came back in the opposite direction. It was fun to watch them, and I also enjoyed watching people after I turned around. I got to see the various pace groups go by and it was a good distraction.
I didn’t mean to speed up too much, but after 17 miles, my pace dropped for a bit. I felt bad as I passed people off to the side dealing with cramps or those who were walking. I hoped that my conservative pace early on would help me finish strong. My pace for the 22nd mile was clearly slower, and that’s when I decided I should stop to fill one of my bottles with more water. I was running low and knew I was getting pretty thirsty. I pulled off at an aid station, dumped a few cups of water into my bottle, then got going again. That was the only time I stopped during the whole race.
My pace slowed down after that point, and things got a bit more difficult. From about 22-23 miles on, it became a struggle. Aside from the knee pain at the halfway point, I hadn’t had any issues. No other pains, no stomach issues, no cramping. However, I started to get pretty tired and my legs started to break down. The bottom of my feet hurt and my legs got heavier and heavier. I knew an aid station would have some Oreos coming up, so I had that to look forward to. I took a couple of the cookies, but my mouth was pretty dry. I made it through one and a half cookies as I ran before I couldn’t do it anymore. Cookies and a dry mouth were not a good combination. I did have plenty of water in my bottle, but maybe I hadn’t been hydrating quite enough and it was starting to catch up with me. Also, it was probably the fact that I’d gone 23 or 24 miles and I was getting pretty wiped out by then!
Another thing that got to me was the fact that I was going to run quite a bit long. As much as I thought I was being aware of the tangents, I clearly did not do a good job. I’m sure I picked up quite a bit of extra distance each time I drifted from one side of the path to the other when I passed others. While I usually run a bit extra in most races, when the race is 26 miles, each little bit adds up quite a bit by the end! As I got closer to the end, I realized I was going to be about .3 miles over, meaning 26.5 miles instead of 26.2. Since I was feeling pretty miserable and counting down the distance I had left, that fact sure didn’t help me feel any better.
I was kind of surprised that my pace was still around the 8:30s near the end, because it sure felt like I was just trudging along. I was in pain and kept telling myself that even if I ran a little slower, I was still going to keep running. I kept passing more and more people who were walking, and I couldn’t let them get to me. Although walking sure seemed appealing, I couldn’t do it. At the same time, people who were going strong were passing me. I couldn’t let that bring me down too much either. It was a bit of a mind game, but I was mostly thinking about how miserable I felt. When I reached 23 miles, I told myself that I had just over 5K left. It felt like the longest 5K ever.
I knew that Matt should have finished a couple hours before I would finish and that he was going to try to track me. I had my phone with me and we had made use of the “Find My Friends” app. He had talked about coming out to run with me near the end, and I saw him coming towards me when I had a little more than a mile left. Although I was glad to see him, not much could truly lift my spirits at that point. I was struggling and in pain, just trying to get to the end. He kept talking me through it and told me that his parents were going to be up ahead cheering for me. I was happy to see them, as well as my friend Jeff near the finish. I tried to push a little bit at the end. I dropped my pace a little, but really didn’t have much left in me. Here’s how my splits broke down:
I ended up finishing with an official time of 3:42:07. Because I should have run 26.2 instead of 26.5, my official pace was 8:29. I prefer going with my Garmin’s pace of 8:23 though. That’s 10 seconds slower than my best-case scenario pace of 8:13, and it’s kind of what I expected to hit all along. It was nice to know that I was right on track!
Don Kern, the awesome race director, waited at the end to shake hands with each person who crossed the finish line. Although I really appreciated that personal touch, I failed to show much appreciation when it was my turn. I had finally stopped running and was absolutely beat. I shook his hand and shook my head as I realized how much pain I was in. I got a bit winded for a minute which freaked me out, but luckily that feeling went away. I collected my medal and slowly worked my way through the food area.
As I walked through the food area, I tried to stretch and recompose myself. I was starting to realize all of the places on my body that hurt. I already knew that the bottom of my feet and my calves were trashed, but my hips, IT bands, and nearly everything else ached as well. It probably took a good 5 minutes for me to walk through the food area. I drank a couple cups of Gatorade, then collected a bottle of water, half a bagel, a bag of chips, a banana, and my favorite – a cup of chocolate custard from Culver’s. I worked my way through the area and went to see Matt, his parents, and Jeff. It was great to see all of them.
Instead of a feeling of elation, my only post-marathon thought was that I was in so much pain. I kept thinking, “I hurt.” I didn’t shed any tears as I crossed the line. I was just thankful that I finally got to stop. A feeling of accomplishment didn’t really hit me. It was so hard to look past the pain!
I got my stuff from the gear check to make sure I’d stay warm enough and realized I had a Clif Builder’s Bar in my bag. The bagel seemed too dry since I was probably dehydrated, but the chocolate mint Builder’s Bar tasted good. I followed that up with my chocolate custard and I was growing happier by the minute. I was ready to check out the beer tent with Matt. I’m not much of a drinker, but a beer at the end of a long race always seems appealing. However, I’m very picky and wasn’t really thrilled with the taste of the beer they had available. I had a few sips and was done with that. Oh well!
After a little bit, we decided to take off and go get some lunch with Matt’s parents. It was a bit tricky getting around the traffic and closed roads, but we made it to Peppino’s. They had a post-race buffet available with pizza and pasta, and I wanted to check that out. The choices were pretty limited, so we chose to get our own table and order from the menu. I had some cheesy breadsticks that nearly filled me up alone, then I ate a few pieces of pizza on top of that. Although I had plenty of calories to gain back, I quickly realized that I didn’t need to do it all at once. I was going to end up feeling sick in addition to feeling like my legs were completely trashed. It was quite a mess whenever I tried to walk. As I walked through the restaurant, a fellow runner looked at me and said, “You look like I feel.” Usually a speedy walker, I was the complete opposite as I hobbled around.
Following lunch, Matt and I had a 2-hour drive back home. I was a bit worried about my legs stiffening up. I did put my compression sleeves on in hopes that it would help a little bit. We stopped for gas at one point and I decided I had better try to get moving. Getting out of the car was ugly. I realized how bad my hips hurt and felt a pain in my left knee as well. We saw an old man shuffling through the store, and I knew that I wasn’t walking much better than him. We made it home, and then I found out just how bad it was to deal with stairs. I had always heard that stairs would be difficult following a marathon. I always thought it was because of sore quads. My quads felt fine, but my left knee was a mess. I had to take two steps on each stair because it was agony to bend my left knee.
As expected, I was quite a mess for a couple days following the race as well. Going to work the day after the race was interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever walked so slowly. My knee was a definite issue and it felt like I was limping along, dragging my left leg. Somehow I made it through the day, sore calves, hips, IT bands, knee, and all. I was walking a bit better by the end of Tuesday, though my knee still made stairs very painful. By Wednesday, nearly everything felt fine again, other than my knee. I’m not sure what I did to it, but it may take some time to heal.
Now that the pain is fading, I’m better able to comprehend the accomplishment of actually finishing a marathon. After talking to so many runner friends, it almost feels like running a marathon is just a given – something most runners do. Part of me feels like it’s no big deal because so many of our friends have run multiple marathons. I need to realize that it really is a big accomplishment though, and feel proud of all of the work I put into it. 18 weeks of training is quite a long time, and it meant pushing a lot of things off in order to concentrate on following my training. Even a year ago, I didn’t really think I’d run a marathon. I wasn’t sure my body would hold up, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to subject myself to that kind of torture. Yet eventually I broke down and decided to give it a try. I set my mind to it, and I was able to do it!
I’m really happy with how my first marathon went. Yes, take note that I keep referring to it as my “first” marathon. I’m sure more will come in the future! I need a little time to distance myself from the pain I went through in the last few miles, but when that memory fades, I’m sure I’ll plan to run another. It just may be a good year or so before I put myself through it again! I’ll leave you with the final stats from the race. Not bad for my first attempt!