They say that you learn more from the races that don’t go according to plan than the ones that do, and I learned two big lessons yesterday:
- Even though a race can go very differently from how you originally imagined, it can still be awesome for other reasons.
- Sometimes it’s best not to be left to your own devices; the guidance of a third party (i.e. a coach) can help immensely.
But I’ll back up to the beginning… Even though I set two alarms — one at 4:45 and one at 4:50 — because I was worried I’d oversleep, I ended up waking up around 3:45 in a panic about my race-day attire. The weather, which had been hovering around the 50’s and 60’s all week, had dropped into the low 30’s and would only get up to the low 40’s toward the end of the race.
I only packed a tank, but once I decided to run 26.2 “ultra-style” with my gear, I bought a t-shirt as added insurance to keep my hydration pack from chafing. But when I tested my arm sleeves during my 10-miler last week, they rubbed the inside of my arms, so at 4:00 yesterday morning I made a game-time decision to run in a long-sleeve top with a t-shirt over it.
Like I said before, a lot can happen over 26.2 miles, and you don’t want chafing to be any part of that!
Hubby dropped me off a few blocks from the start line at 6:35, so I had just enough time to dash into Cobo Center — Detroit’s big convention hall where they held the pre-race expo — for a quick bathroom pit stop before heading over to my corral. It was (literally) freezing outside, so a lot of runners were huddled inside until the last minute, but I got out of there ASAP because I’d have to fight the crowd to get to my corral.
Because my original anticipated finish time was 3:50, I was in corral D. I just happened to line up next to that pace group, bunching together with everyone to share body heat, and smiled to myself. Let it go; let them go, I thought, and made a mental note to check my ego because we’d be parting as soon as I started my 10-minute run/1-minute walk plan for the race.
As “Lose Yourself” blared on the loudspeakers, the horn blew for the start of each wave of corrals and, before I knew it, we were off! I hung with my group for the first 10 minutes, settling into a comfortable pace, and then watched the swell of people move off into the distance as I pulled over to the side for my minute-long walk segment.
“Save something for the end,” became my new mantra, as well as, “I might be seeing some of you later!”
At this point, I still wasn’t sure if my leg would hold up, so I told Hubby and my parents that we’d plan for a few checkpoints along the way. The first of which was mile three, just before I’d cross the Ambassador Bridge into Canada. It’s one of my favorite parts of the race, but I knew that if my leg was giving me trouble early-on, I’d have to bail there because my cell wouldn’t work once we crossed International waters.
Luckily, besides some minor twinges, I was feeling ok (definitely not 100 percent, but good enough to keep going), so we crossed over the bridge as the sun rose. My pictures don’t do it justice, but you get the idea; I was more focused my form while high-fiving the border patrol and then tackling the uphill portion.
I did, however, pull over and take a quick selfie during my next walk segment. Not only did these one-minute breaks become my lifelines later on, but they also allowed me to document some of the course, which I thought would be fun for posterity’s sake!
Another one of my favorite sights on the course is the view of the Detroit skyline, as seen from Windsor. This is about five miles in and where I began fueling, which ended up helping immensely when it came to keeping both my energy and spirits up throughout the race.
During walk breaks I alternated a bite of Bonk Breaker and a few pulls of water with some sips of my Tailwind flavorless electrolyte drink (ok, and maybe a handful of M&M’s from someone along the course!). The goal was to take it easy to try to avoid gastrointestinal issues, and these all seemed to sit well on my stomach.
Another one of my favorite parts of a marathon is the spectator signs. There were some along the Canada stretch that made me smile, including “You are NOT anywhere near the finish” and “USA runners, you only need to work 90% as hard here.”
I kept up my 10 run/1 walk ratio and felt like I had a steady pace, so I went into autopilot and switched back and forth between trying to keep my form in check and taking in all the scenery. Before I knew it, we were headed into the “Underwater Mile,” which is the tunnel that runs from Canada to the US.
Although it’s one of the race’s claims to fame, it’s actually one of my least favorite parts of the course. Not only is there not much to look at, but it also gets pretty stuffy in there. I had been heating up in the previous miles, and by the time we were three-quarters of the way through the tunnel, I could feel my shirt getting soaked with sweat.
But it’s all worth it for what you see when you exit! There’s a huge crowd cheering loudly, plus a banner that we all slapped as we made our way around the bend toward mile nine.
This was the second checkpoint; as soon as I had reception, I texted Hubby and my parents that I was still going. We made plans to meet up around mile 15 as I headed toward my third checkpoint — more of a mental one — 13.1 miles.
By this time, the sun was up and the air was crisp — perfect running weather. We ran along the Lodge Freeway, which I thought was pretty cool — especially because it was along here that the song “8 Mile” came on my iPod.
No better way to run through the streets of Detroit than with a little music from Eminem!
I took the opportunity here to take another selfie during my walk break. Then we rounded the corner and went up the offramp, which I think was around mile nine.
This is where my legs really started to protest; oddly enough, it was more my left hamstring and knee, which started acting up — most likely because I was concentrating so hard on keeping my right shin happy. I kept going, but started wondering if I’d have to stop at the half marathon point.
Around mile 11, I really started doubting myself. But right as I started slipping into that dark place, I felt someone reach out and grab me — my friend, former-XC-teammate-turned-pro-triathlete, Terra Castro! Her timing couldn’t have been better.
We hugged, and I told her about my legs as she asked how I was doing. “You’re good, just keep it up — you’ve got it.” she said, and it was just what I needed to hear to suck it up, re-adjust my attitude and keep moving forward.
The pain was more of a tightness than a sharp feeling, so I knew I could continue safely with with my 10 run/1 walk plan — the battle from here on out would just be as much mental as physical. But I was still going steady when we hit the turnoff between the half marathoners and the full marathoners, so I took the turn toward the full and texted my family that I’d see them at the fourth checkpoint — mile 15!
The next few miles until I saw my folks were a bit of a grind; there was a long straightaway down a long stretch of road, and I just remember thinking how I had to thank my running coach after the race. I hadn’t run this far since August, and after taking five weeks off during peak training mileage, I was really starting to feel it.
Taking the walk breaks, as he suggested, were extremely motivating. Not only did they give me a chance to catch my breath, but they also were an ideal reminder to refuel and re-hydrate regularly, which I remained diligent about.
The segment between miles 16-18 was actually another one of my favorite parts of the race. My legs were getting progressively tighter, so it was a welcome distraction to check out the beautiful tree-lined side streets of historic Indian Village with its huge, old houses.
Having spectators line up on their front lawns to pass out beer, play polka music and wave funny signs was also an awesome part of this section. It reminded me of my first marathon in Chicago where people in different neighborhoods would hand out food, drinks and really get into the spirit of the race.
I spotted my family as we turned to exit the neighborhood — awesome, I made it to checkpoint five and was almost down to single digit miles! I stopped for a quick photo with my parents, and heard my mom say, “Go, Jennifer! You’re really going to do this!” as I headed off.
As I trekked toward mile 20, I knew that the toughest part was yet to come. Everyone around me was starting to slow as we all began to feel the effects of the miles. People were pulling over to stretch, I saw one gentleman with a bloody back from the pack he was carrying, and I started recognizing a few familiar faces from earlier on as we continued along.
No, I hadn’t hit the wall, per se, but I was flirting dangerously close to it at this point, as were all of those around me. But all I could do was keep up my 10 run/1 walk pattern, keep fueling regularly and just put one foot in front of the other.
Although I did literally run through this wall. Couldn’t resist!
Miles 20-22 took us to Belle Isle, which is a 982-acre island park in the middle of the Detroit River. It’s absolutely beautiful, but I had trouble fully enjoying it because I spent most of this stretch talking myself into not walking the rest of the race.
Knowing you’re down to just six or so miles is an incredible morale boost, but at the same time you’re questioning how the hell you’re going to keep your body moving for another hour. And by this point, my quads were screaming — I was paying for my under-training with a searing build-up of lactic acid — so I gritted my teeth and decided to try to make a time goal to keep myself motivated.
I spotted Hubby between miles 22 and 23, and he ran alongside me for a few minutes to cheer me on toward the final stretch. He saw that I was majorly struggling, so he tried talking to me to keep me distracted, but I was in no mood for chatting.
At this point I knew I would finish, the only question was how long it’d take me. So try as Hubby might to engage me, I just smiled and thanked him, saying, “I love you! I’m trying to finish in under 4:30!” before popping in my ear buds and buckling down for the final 5K.
By then I’d eaten my entire Bonk Breaker bar and drank up my 20 ounces of Tailwind, so I took half a Carb Boom energy gel (which I picked up at mile 16) along with a few gulps of water. I had a little more than two miles to go to the finish, and I wasn’t taking any chances by letting my blood sugar drop before the final mile or so.
Seeing the Detroit skyline come back into view helped — so close! — as did a change in scenery along the RiverWalk leading up to mile 25. Just. One. More. Mile. My legs weren’t locking up as badly as they did in my last marathon, but I was SO ready to be done already.
My parents were lined up at mile 26, which was the perfect final distraction before the home stretch. The finish line wasn’t yet in sight, although I knew we were close, so seeing them right before we turned the corner gave me one last boost of adrenaline.
With the finish line in sight, I kicked it into whatever gear I had left and went as fast as I could for the final .2 miles. Regardless of how many marathons you’ve run, that burst of joy and relief you feel when crossing the finish line never gets old.
Official time: 4:17:18.
My legs were the angriest they’ve ever been after a race; I duck-walked down the chute to collect some food, get my photo taken and meet up with Hubby and my parents. But I was so thankful just to be able to complete this race — not to mention grateful to my PT for getting me to the start line and my coach for giving me a game plan to get to the finish in once piece.
The final to-do item on my race-day list? Kick-starting the recovery process with a deep-dish Pizza Papalis Chicago-style pizza and a warm Epsom Salt bath.
Thank you all so much for following along and cheering me on for what’s truly been a roller-coaster of a training cycle. Looking through your tweets, posts and comments on race-day morning gave me just the extra “oomph” I needed to keep pushing forward, running happy and appreciating the small victories along the way.
And in case you’re wondering…yes, I still have that sub-four marathon goal on my list. But I’m going to give my body a bit of a break so I can heal fully, focus on becoming a better runner and try tackle some different distances in the meantime.
After all, they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So, I look forward to that next new adventure together!