Fair warning – this is going to be a long one
I am the girl who used to make up excuses to get out of gym class. I was the girl who barely finished the mile in gym class. I was the girl who was never an athlete.
But I’m also the girl who always admired runners and wanted to be a runner. I just didn’t know how to start.
Nine years ago this upcoming Wednesday, I ran my first race – a 5k. It kicked my ass. But I loved it. And I loved the runners. I had never been around a more happy, encouraging, and inspiring group of people in my life.
At the 2008 Baltimore Running Festival, where I was running the 5k, someone put a bug in my ear – that anyone who can run a 5k can run a marathon. I didn’t say it out loud, but I had decided right then and there, before I even ran my second-ever 5k, that I would run a marathon some day.
Seven years and six days later, that day is here.
After four long months of early Friday nights and even earlier Saturday mornings, grueling Tuesday nights, missed outings and social events, dozens of PT sessions, physically – and mentally – painful injuries, and over 500 miles, it was finally here. Marathon week.
All week long I have been bouncing around, smiling like an idiot, super excited that it was almost showtime. As soon as our 8 mile long run was over last weekend, race day just couldn’t get here fast enough.
Tuesday I saw my orthopedist for a second cortisone shot. My bursitis had been acting up again, and she and the PT agreed that it would be best just to get it. I’d be hurting enough from running 26.2 miles – I didn’t need to go in with existing pain if there was a way to mitigate it. Tuesday night was also my last run.
Thursday I went down to Ravens Stadium to pick up my packet and check out the expo. I’ve got to say, it was a little lackluster this year. The official race gear wasn’t nearly as great as it usually is, and the vendors just didn’t seem as interesting. It’s always hard when the expo is at the stadium, though, because the set-up just isn’t conducive to browsing – it’s conducive to frenetically rushing through.
After the expo I had my (hopefully) last PT session. She taped me up, set me up on the PENS machine for a bit, gave me some last words of advice, and I was on my way.
Friday I found our that I was quoted in a Baltimore Sun article about the Baltimore Running Festival! And then I went down to DC to see a friend’s husband be sworn in as US Ambassador – and broke nearly every pre-race rule I have. Sleep well the night before the night before the race? Nope. I woke up at 3:28am. You know, just because. Comfy shoes all day? Nope. I wore high heels. Take it easy and stay off your feet? Nope. I spent 5 hours in commute and then walked around DC. Eat small, carb-dense snacks throughout the day? Nope. Had a steak lunch at 2:30pm – but it did have rice. Small win. Avoid alcohol? Nope. Had champagne at the ceremony. Have my usual salmon and sushi-rice dinner? I was so stuffed from lunch I only had the rice. Despite all of those deviations, it was totally worth it to see them. And, you know, to see witness something so amazingly important, not only for them, but for our country.
It took me nearly three hours to get home and I could’ve used a few extra hours of daylight to get ready for the race. Once (most) of my stuff was together, I went to bed early – I had an early wake-up call the next day!
Every year my training group rents out Pickles Pub, a bar right at the marathon start line, which is a fantastic location! The bathrooms leave a bit to be desired, but at least they’re not freezing cold porta-pots. We chatted a bit while doing a last minute check of our stuff, and before we knew it, it was time to do a group photo and head out to the start!
It was absolutely surreal standing at the start of a marathon! My usual group of girls – Tracy, Jennie, Anita, and Rebecca – and I planned on running together as much as possible. Somehow the group deemed me the pacer – no pressure!! And because Anita had enough energy for three runners, I deemed her the group cheerleader. We were all bundles of nerves and boundless energy, bouncing around and getting teary-eyed, all at the same time.
After the National Anthem, we were off! Ahhh!! It’s really happening!!! We’re running a marathon!!!
The first three miles are up-hill, but barely seemed like it! It was amazing – unlike a most races where there’s the initial surge of people clearly going out too fast, that didn’t seem to happen at the marathon. Throughout that initial section, there were many people out, some still in their PJs, clutching their coffee, cheering us on!
After about a mile and a half the gloves came off, but I was sure glad I had the arm warmers! It was chilly, at 52, but not nearly as cold as they had forecasted (mid-30s). At 3 1/2 miles we turned into the Maryland Zoo – such a great part of the course! The Ravens’ ravens, Rise and Conquer, were out to greet us, as was a Kookaburra (!!) and several penguins! A number of people stopped to take photos with them, but we were on a mission! It was our first taste of downhill, too.
Before we knew it, we were leaving to zoo and heading into Druid Hill Park and onward to Johns Hopkins!
We ran the first few miles a bit faster than intended, but allowed it to happen, taking advantage of the downhills; we weren’t so far ahead that we’d pay for it later. It felt like cruising pace, not like we were pushing it. No worries.
The first relay exchange was at Hopkins – as was Rebecca’s family! She ran off to give her husband and daughter a hug, while I helped myself to a munchkin (Thanks, Dunkin Donuts!) 🙂 That was the best damn munchkin ever….
Just past Hopkins, a guy behind us tripped and fell. Having been in the exact same position before, I ran over to help him – as did several others. It was great to see so many people stopping their races to help get him up and make sure he was okay. The spirit of the marathon was alive and well!
The next 3 1/2 miles took us downhill, heading right past the half marathon start at the Harbor, and onto the flat section of the course. Along the way we saw Tracy’s family and Anita’s friend! It was so great to see the support! We then ran past the second relay exchange, aiming for Under Armour’s World Headquarters – but then we saw the holy grail: porta-pots with no line! So we all took a quick pit-stop. It cost us a few minutes, but it was completely worth it. We were comfortable and our legs felt astonishingly fresh. We then continued on to Domino Sugars and UA and headed back to the Inner Harbor. On the return trip we passed the amazing Sid Busch! Obviously we had to cheer and yell for him.
For those who don’t know, Sid runs races nearly every weekend in honor of fallen soldiers. Baltimore is his 200th marathon! And Baltimore truly rolled out the red carpet for him, bringing in seven relay teams to help pace him to the end! I’ll write an entire post about him later this week.
Before we knew it, we were at the half way point! It went by so fast! My parents were there cheering for us and Jennie’s husband had a fresh camelbak for her.
We were a few minutes off pace, because of the pit stop, but it was okay. Nothing terribly concerning. Onward!
We continued on towards Harbor East, tip-toeing over the precarious cobblestones at Katyn Circle, then ran through Fells Point and Canton. At this point we knew the flat part of the course was quickly fading. We’ve all run the Baltimore Half before – we knew what was awaiting us when we turned left off of Boston Street.
A funny thing happened after we turned left – we started passing people. Slowly at first, but then we began passing more and more people. Huh.
The number of spectators picked up, too, with throngs of loud, cheering fans lining the streets near Patterson Park, where the half and full marathon courses merge. It was just the kind of energy we needed at mile 16!
This section of course has been called Baltimore’s Heartbreak Hill – a ruthless, nearly constant uphill from mile 16 to 20. But we persisted, calling on all of those hills we ran this summer. Talk had all but ceased by this point as we put our heads down and pushed up the hills, weaving through tired walkers, marveling at the relative ease with which we tackled them, compared to previous years. We breathed a sign of relief anytime the hills flattened out, while still fully aware of the even steeper hill that laid beyond.
The final – and worst- hill of this section was the hill from the awkward u-turn at Sinclair Lane up to Clifton Park. It’s mile 19. You’ve just run 3+ miles of nearly up-hill road. And if you’re like most people training for a marathon, you’re coming up on the distance of your longest training run. Clifton’s hill is particularly steep and is made more challenging by the relay exchange you have to navigate. And then just when you think the hill has peaked – you turn a corner and it goes up some more!
But shortly beyond the apex of torture, you are rewarded with 1.3 flat miles around Lake Montebello. Noe most people would relish in this flat terrain, but we all groaned. None of us enjoy flat courses. And the lake is so big that the exit seems to pull even further away, no matter how fast you run. Just as we turned the corner to run around the lake, we noticed something – we had caught up to the 5-hour pace group! They must’ve passed us while we had our pit stop. We followed them for a short while, but realized they were running a 10:45 pace – something which was not realistic for us to continue while we extended our longest-ever run with each step. We very, very slowly pulled back, but then passed them at the water stop. For the next mile or so we’d continue to leap-frog them.
After the long, tortuous road around the lake, we were rewarded with more hills! Many people erroneously believe that 33rd Street is flat; it is anything but. The hills are nothing like those that we just conquered, but they’re relentless and punishing on your tired legs.
In the past Jennie has had some issues with nutrition on the run, so I began to remind (quite frankly, pester) her to keep on top of it at this point. I had no intentions of explaining to her husband why she, in her hypoglycemic confusion thought it would be a good idea to go hug a bus at mile 24.
We were all tired and aching at this point, but we just kept pushing. The November Project and Back On My Feet had amazing support at their water stops which helped so much – but only for so long. Each step caused my feet to hurt even more, but I kept going because it was the only option.
I quite frankly don’t remember much of the last few miles because I was staring at the ground – partly to make sure I wouldn’t trip and lose momentum, and partly because I was afraid to look up and see how much further I had to go.
Tracy and Jennie started pulling away from me a little bit, but I managed to catch up with them every time. We wound our way through Charles Village, past the Eye of the Tiger folks, back to Hopkins, and then, finally, made The Turn – the turn back down south, the turn that meant we had only 5k to go. The turn that meant the end was within our grasp.
There was only one more hurdle in our way – the Howard Street bridge. When I first ran (walked, really) the Baltimore Half in 2009, this bridge was my Everest. I barely made it 100 feet up before I had to walk – and it seemed to never end. It looked like a scene from The Walking Dead. But this year? This year, that son of a bitch was going down. Heads down, one foot in front of the other – and it barely even felt like a hill. I guess all those torturous sessions at Oregon Ridge paid off 🙂
We kept running, weaving through the runners. At one point I yelled “coming through” to warn two walkers I was coming through the space between them (because, you know, at mile 24.5, weaving isn’t an option unless there are literally no other options), only to realize it came out much louder, and much more forcefully than intended. In the next breath, I apologized, also surprisingly loudly – they giggled and all was good.
When we made the final turn onto Eutaw Street, I knew it was real. This marathon was happening. Every time I thought about that, I got a little choked up – and then had to take a deep breath and focus on the moment so my throat wouldn’t close off. I continued to put one foot in front of the other, getting a little bit faster with each passing block, continuing to weave in and out of walkers. As we got closer, Jennie found another gear and was racing for the finish line! She’s usually a fair bit faster than me in the shorter distances (like 2-3 minutes faster in the 5k!), but I’m usually the faster one at long distances. I don’t know where it came from, but she was off and running! With about a mile left, I had lost her in the crowd. Tracy was just up ahead of me.
I don’t remember much of this part of the course. I remember hearing the cheering, I remember someone yelling “you all inspire me!!”, and I remember seeing Camden Yards come closer and closer. I remember staring at my Garmin, realizing that sub-5 was within my grasp. I remember thinking that I can go faster. So I did.
I remember crossing the photo mat at Camden Street, and not even caring – I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. I do remember, however, making myself look up at the crowds leading into the spine and take in that final stretch running through Camden Yards. I remember hearing the crowds on the other side of the stadium echoing through, and then bellowing as I exited the spine. I remember scanning the crowds, seeing all of them smiling and cheering for us. I remember crossing Lee Street and seeing the finish line up ahead. I remember pushing with everything I had. I remember thinking, in that ubiquitous Kona Ironman announcer voice, “STEPHANIE CHURCHILL – YOU ARE A MARATHONER!” as I crossed the finish line. And I remember screaming as loud as I could out of jubilation and relief. And I remember breaking down when I realized what I had just accomplished.
I FINISHED A MARATHON.
I finished a marathon in UNDER 5 HOURS!!!!!
I finished a marathon with a brutally hilly second half in under 5 hours with NEGATIVE SPLITS!!!
Jennie was just beyond the finish line – I don’t remember what we said, but I remember celebrating our triumph before getting our space blankets – and our massive MARATHONER medals!
During the race I thought I’d have to stop at the med tent and get ice for my knee, but I realized I felt surprisingly good. I ached, and my muscles were tired, but I didn’t hurt. The wall was never a consideration. It never taunted me. I ran 26.2 miles and felt great. Relatively speaking, of course. 😉
The only spot of tarnish on an otherwise outstanding day was after the race. Whoever was “guarding” the finish line area refused to let people cross the finish line. Throughout the previous 26.1 miles, people could cross the course. But here they refused to let my parents, along with many others who had warm, dry clothes for their runners, cross the course at all – instead, telling them to walk around the entire stadium complex. Even though by the time I finished, there were frequent gaps through which spectators could cross. I’m sure some of it is governed by fear of a Boston-type incident, but fear ought not cripple life. I faced a similar problem last year – as an injured runner, who could barely walk, with multiple icepacks clearly strapped to my legs – when they dared to tell me to walk around the entire stadium complex to get to my car and my dry clothes. I told them off in words I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d utter to a police officer and pushed through anyway. I don’t know who was preventing spectators from crossing this year, and quite frankly I don’t care. But thankfully someone finally had an epiphany to finally let my parents, and the others, through. It’s a damn good thing, too, because it was an incredibly windy, cold day – far too cold to be standing around in cold, wet clothes after running 26.2 miles, and without family to celebrate with. I’m a runner – I get that we don’t need people darting across the course, especially at the finish line. But as a runner, I also want to be able to have my friends and/or family celebrate with me at the finish. It’s awful when such a great accomplishment and (what should have been) such an amazing celebration was sullied by someone on a power trip.
Once they got through I was finally able to get out of my wet shirt and put on some toasty warm clothes and wander around the celebration village. We checked out the official gear shop – they FINALLY had a cute 26.2 shirt! My wonderful parents got it for me, and then we went over to the Under Armour tent – WHICH HAD FOAM ROLLERS!!! I have never been so happy in my life to see these little nubby torture devices. Finally, I got my medal engraved with my time. I never pay for engraving, but this was my first marathon. I’ll never have another first marathon. I had to.
When I got home, I was amazed at just how good I felt. The stairs that I had been dreading just to get to the shower? Piece of cake. Seriously.
I had such a blast running my first marathon! I was so fortunate to have such amazing coaches, who knew exactly what they were doing, a PT who understands runners and seriously works magic, an ortho who gets athletes and knows what he’s doing, truly amazing training partners who made this entire process such a joy that I looked forward to every single day, and parents who supported me 100% – even when they quietly questioned my sanity when I couldn’t stand up but was already planning my next long run. Without this perfect storm of support, I may have still accomplished my goal(s), but the journey wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable.
As I sit here, nearly 36 hours removed from my first marathon finish, I already have dreams of my next marathon (and a 50k!) dancing in my head. So many options, but so little time and money. For now, I look forward to some well-deserved time off.