Monday, October 27, 2014

Experiences of a First-Time Marathon Runner

I'm glad I waited a couple weeks after my first marathon to write this blog post. If I would have written this post the first night or two it would have been a somewhat different blog post. The reasons will become more clear later. 

If you are reading this blog for the first time, the primary purpose of this blog and this post is for a diary of sorts for me to remember some of life's adventures. In this post I hope to pass along my experiences and hopefully some advice to those novice runners considering running a marathon for the first time. Let's first start of with the why I chose to run a marathon. 

Why would anyone want to run 26.2 miles at one time? For me the notion that I could actually run a marathon started when I had completed the Portland Half- Marathon the previous year. I wrote about that experience here.  I have actually thought about it off and off since the early 2000's in Nashville, TN. Each year the Music City Marathon would run by a call center that I worked at wreaking havoc with our attendance one Saturday each spring. I thought it would be a tremendous accomplishment to push myself to the physical extreme by running a marathon. At that time I weighed around 220 pounds (I'm 6'2) and barely exercised at all. I knew I was no where close to being able to run a marathon at that point. I decided to go to graduate school and get an MBA instead which put me further out of shape. 

Fast forward multiple life changing experiences and you get to the summer of 2013. By this time I had moved from Nashville, TN to Portland, OR. I had lost and kept off 65 pounds over a three year span. I was also about to start training for my first half-marathon. Up until this point I had only run in a handful of 5K races. I had never run more than 6 miles at one time before the half-marathon training. Once I started training I began running 6 miles and more on a regular basis and not having too much difficulty doing it. I knew now was probably my best shot. I was then 39 years old (6 weeks away from being 40 on race day) and my knees where not getting any younger. So, almost a month after completing my first and to date only half-marathon I signed up to run the 2014 Portland Marathon.

The Training
The training plan that I selected came from the same source that I used for the half-marathon. I used a plan from the website Marathon Rookie. I did take some time and researched other plans such as those from Hal Hidgdon and Jeff Galloway which are very popular. I checked out a few books on various topics including stretching and nutrition. I took quite a few notes during the research phase. 

I knew the training wouldn't be easy nor would it be as simple as just running twice the mileage even though that is roughly what occurred or at least what my log showed. By the way keeping a log is a very good piece of advice that I would recommend. I logged each run for date, distance, temperature/weather, shoes, and then misc notes such as how I felt or what I would try differently next time. For the half-marathon I trained for 10 weeks and ran 182 miles. For the marathon I trained for 16 weeks and ran 392 miles. To get a better idea of how the marathon training is more difficult could be illustrated by looking at the long runs. Before starting the marathon training I had only run 13.1 miles or a half marathon one time. During marathon training I would run a half-marathon distance or greater for 6 consecutive weeks (weeks 8 thru 13).

Charlie - I ran into him a couple of times during my training long runs
Despite the mileage the training overall went pretty smooth. Running a half-marathon first was a tremendous advantage in preparing for a full marathon.  This would be a another key piece of advice to share.  It would have been a lot more challenging starting off with a full marathon. I still experimented with different items during training. Most of my experimenting was with diet and hydration strategies for my long runs. I also used energy gels for the first time. I didn't use them once during the half-marathon training which I still hard to believe. They made a big difference for me. I experimented with how often I took them and with water or a sports drink. What worked best was washing them down with Ulitma Replenisher which was the sports drink that the Portland Marathon served on the course in addition to water. It's also a good idea to experiment with the drink served during the race while you train. 

The only real problem I struggled with during training was with my right knee. In only week three of my training I slowed down to get a drink a water at a water fountain in downtown Portland and right before I stopped I experienced a brief sharp pain that lasted for a second or two. I didn't step awkwardly beforehand nor was there any previous symptoms.  I immediately stopped running and then took a minute to  drink some water. It hurt again for a second or two after I started to run again so I slowed down. It then ached for another mile or two before going away completely during the rest of my seven mile run. For the remainder of my training I would experience aching on and off with my right knee. I only experienced the sharp pains a couple more times after the first incident. I started taking ibuprofen and icing regularly. One thing I didn't do was see a doctor. I think I didn't because I was afraid of having to shut things down and wait until next year. This was probably not a good idea. I did some research online and read some blogs. The general consensus was that since the pain wasn't sharp and intense after the initial episode then I should continue running which is what I did. I did cut back on other activities. I immediately stopped riding my bike to work (7 miles round trip daily). I did resume for a little bit once the aching subsided but stopped altogether for the final 6 weeks of training. My advice here would be to have significant injuries checked out even if it means skipping a few days of training. 

Deer that were watching me run on the Springwater Corridor Trail
The only other training activity that I probably would have done differently had to do with the long runs. I normally started my long runs between 5:30 am to 6:30 am on Saturdays in order to beat the heat. I do not run that well in the heat. It helped me get through the training but would catch up with me during the marathon itself as the marathon temps eventually got up to 15 degrees warmer than I was used to running in. If I had to do it all over again I wouldn't have run during the hottest part of the day but I would have spent more time running in temperatures that would be on the high side of what the average high temperatures would be on the marathon day. I think this would have helped tremendously.

Taken during a week day run along the WIllamette River in downtown Portland...a rowing crew and Mt. Hood  are in the background
The Marathon
Now for the big day itself. After years of off and on again anticipation, 4 months and nearly 400 miles of training it was time for the race itself.

I got up at 4:30 am and ate the breakfast that worked best for me which was a bowl of yogurt with granola, a banana, and a 12 oz glass of orange juice. I then put on my running clothes that I had laid out and the night before and listened to a podcast before it was time to take a bus to the start area. We only live a little more than 3 miles from where the marathon started and finished so I took the bus which runs in front of our house downtown. I took the 6:10 am bus and I arrived about 30 minutes prior to the start time. There were actually 4 other runners on the bus with me :-). After I walked about 5 blocks to the start area, I did some light jogging until I found some port a potties with a reasonable line about 10 minutes before the gun went off. 

Pic of me the night before the marathon trying on my race clothes with bib & chip
It was now time to start running. I wasn't nervous or even anxious when the race started. Since I had run the half-marathon at the same place the previous year, I was used to how the event would start. I got out to a good start and was feeling good. I wore my iPhone on my arm and was listening to music. The running app that I use (RunKeeper) was telling me my pace every mile. It was telling me that I was running faster than I normally do to start my long runs but I ignored it. I was excited by the cheering crowd and feeling relaxed that the race had actually started. This would be catch up to me later in the race. 

Heading toward the Starting Line (under the blue banner)
My plan and the advice I was given by an experienced runner was to run the first 2-3 miles slow then build up to your normal pace. I didn't follow this advice too well. I actually did speed up after the first couple miles which probably compounded my eventual problems. I didn't have any issues or problems for the first 11 miles. I was feeling a little warm but not too bad. After the first couple miles the sun had come up. The course is run through downtown Portland so there is hardly any shade. A little past mile 11 Alethea (my wife) and her friend Rachael met me at a pre-arranged spot. They cheered me on and took a quick video and some pictures. I was definitely glad they were there to cheer me on.

Me running in NW Portland between miles 11 & 12. I was definitely glad Alethea and Racheal came out to cheer me on during the race.
Just past the half way point I experienced my first issue. My right knee started to ache pretty bad. I didn't experience the sharp pain that I had experienced when I initially hurt my knee but I experienced a fair amount of aching for the next the several miles. This caused me to slow just a little bit. 

The next issue I encountered was on mile 17. At this point in the race the course goes up a big hill before crossing the St. John's Bridge in north Portland. I was still feeling OK and continued running up the hill. I only made it half way before stopping to walk. Numerous runners around me including several who had passed me long ago were walking. I probably should have walked the entire hill. At the top of the hill I resumed running and ran across the St. John's Bridge while enjoying some of the best scenery of the race. I continued to slowly jog until about mile 20 until I started encountering some real problems. I was out of gas. I wanted to continue running but I couldn't. I texted Alethea to let her know that I wasn't doing too good and not to expect me at the finish line at the time I originally thought I would be there. This caused her to worry but I think it was the right thing to do. At this point I also started to see more and more runners pulled up with cramps. I saw runners stop and lay down. I also saw quite a few getting sick to their stomach. I'm sure this weighed on me mentally. I didn't see this when I had run the half-marathon except for one person getting sick to her stomach about 10 miles are so into the race.

Running across the St. John's Bridge in North Portland ~ 18 miles in
At this point I had a decision to make. There were official marathon vehicles that roam around this point  of the race that shuttle people back to the finish area if they are unable to make it. I saw people get into these vehicles. Even though I was not feeling good and thought that I might pass out there was no way I was getting into one of those vans. I had worked too hard. I then began to jog lightly for a half mile then walk for a half mile at a time. I did hit one stretch by mile 22 that was somewhat downhill. I was able to run for about mile and half. Once this part was over the course started to slightly clime back uphill. I then had to walk some more.  I met up with Alethea again around mile 25. She said I was pale and wasn't looking too good at this point. I kept on walking for another half mile before I got to the final fenced-in area where the finish line was located. At this point I started to run again and crossed the finish running.

A quick pic on the run from the St. John's Bridge looking back toward downtown Portland
I was relieved to finish and still be standing at this point. As soon as I crossed the finish line I received my finisher's medal and my finishers jacket top to keep me warm. I posed for a picture for a photographer and then limped over to the recovery area. I probably felt my absolutely worse in the first 5 minutes after the race. I knew I could be in a little trouble if I didn't concentrate on my recovery. I was feeling a little light headed and looked around for the medical tent. I drank a little chocolate milk before concentrating on water and getting natural unprocessed sugars in me. I began eating several orange slices and bananas while drinking just water. After about 5 minutes I started to feel somewhat human again. Once I felt like I wasn't going to pass out or get sick to my stomach I left the finish area and met up with Alethea. On the way out I saw several fellow runners in the medical tent or laying on the ground not looking too good.

Me with my finisher's medal on the way home after the race. It had been 20 or so minutes since the finish. I'm starting to feel somewhat human again at this point :-)

Thoughts and initial reaction
My initial reaction to how I did was that I was upset. I finished my first marathon in 4 hours and 58 minutes. Based on my pace on my 20 mile run 3 weeks before the marathon I expected to come in at about 4 hours and 15 minutes. The biggest mistake I made was getting caught up in the excitement and running too fast too soon. I somehow forgot that they call it a marathon and not a sprint. The other key factor was the heat. When the race started it was 58 degrees which was 10 degrees warmer than the half-marathon the year before. During the race it was sunny and got up to 75 before I crossed the finish line. The faster than normal pace combined with above average temperature drained me faster than I realized. I did my long runs to avoid the summer heat and it came back to haunt me. The pain issues in my right knee were completely bearable even though they weren't pleasant. I was feeling down and depressed for the first day or so until I got an email with my unofficial results. It turns out that despite the disaster of the last 6 miles where I had to walk/run I still ended up doing better than 39% of the 6,249 runners who participated. I felt like I was in the bottom 2% when I finished.

2014 Portland Marathon Finisher's Medal, Medallion, & Charm

What's next?
Now that it has been a couple weeks and I have time to reflect I'm starting to feel better about what I accomplished. I set a stretch goal that was very challenging and worked hard for four months to accomplish something that 5 years ago would have been nearly impossible. I would probably would have died if I attempted this then. I'm still not happy with my results. It feels as if I were a sports team who worked hard all year only to lose in the championship. I am proud that I did it though. It was definitely a bucket list item that I marked off my list. I read somewhere that fewer than 1% of the population ever completes a marathon. This sounds a little low to me but it does mean that I am in somewhat rare company.

I took the day after the marathon and spoiled myself  with a Reggie Deluxe from Pine State Biscuits

I definitely want to run another marathon. I may change my mind but I'm not sure I'll completely get the bad taste out of my mouth for how I ran the marathon  I will say this though, the best piece of advice I've seen is from Bill Rodgers who won both the New York and Boston marathons multiple times regarding when you should run your next marathon said, "don't run your next marathon until you have forgotten your last". I think I will follow that advice.

Before I conclude this post I would like to say a special thanks to my wife Alethea. She was very supportive throughout the process. She did a great job preparing healthy meals throughout my training. I am especially grateful for the recovery breakfast meals after my long runs! She also had to pick up my slack with operating  the vacation rental we operate as I was generally useless on Saturdays for several hours. Thank you Alethea! A supportive spouse makes a big difference when pursing your goals.

Listed below are some statistics and notes from my first marathon experience:

Marathon Result numbers (unofficial result numbers from the Portland Marathon bib# 836):
Overall I finished 3,952 out of 6,249 participants
I finished 2,210 out of 3,104 men
I finished 362 out of 481 men in my age group of men aged 40-44
My finish time was 4:58:26
Some facts on the marathon participants: 70% of the runners were from out of state, all 50 states were represented along with 29 countries, 56% were women

Other Miscellaneous numbers
I started training on June 16th and completed the marathon on October 5th

During training I ran 392 miles.
The average temperature that I ran in (when the run started) was 59 degrees with 81% humidity 
I spent a total of $375.64 on the Marathon. This included the entrance fee, 2 pair of running shoes, energy gels and some of the chocolate milk I purchased (Alethea started purchasing with our regular groceries after the couple of weeks). 
I attended 13 yoga classes at work which helped tremendously with flexibility. 
I started my training weighing 169.4 pounds. I weighed in usually once a week. I weighed 169.2 pounds at my final weigh in. Yes, I only lost .2 of a pound while running nearly 400 miles over 4 months. 
I only got rained on significantly on two occasions which is remarkable considering I live in the Pacific NW.
I ran indoors only twice. Once right after I hurt my knee in week 4 of training to soften the impact surface to see if that would help. The other time was in September when it was raining heavily outside & I needed to get my run in before work.