I focused on the goal of running the full like I had never focused on anything before. I didn't want to fail at it. I bought Hal Higdon's Marathon: Ultimate Training Guide, and let every word sink in. Shortly after signing up, we made our move back to Tennessee. It was now going to be back to running hill after hill. After hill. But I could not have been happier to move back. I decided on Higdon's Novice I marathon training plan, and on July 8, my journey began.
I was unbelievable to me how fast the weeks flew by. I had printed out the training plan, and run after run, week after week, I would mark off the training runs. Two weeks done, five weeks, ten...The weekly mileage got longer, the runs got harder, but I never lost my focus - which is weird for me. I have usually always lost my focus! haha! It did help that I joined the local running group. I always thought running alone was the best, but it really is inspiring and motivating to run with other people. I had some runs where I started to fade, but whoever I was running with seemed to always pick me back up and edge me on. I love how you and the person you run with can be complete strangers at the beginning, but at the end, you seem to have formed a connection. I'm so grateful to those I ran with.
I think another factor in making the weeks seem to fly by, was running in races along the way. What a great time for fun! During the training period, I ran: the Franklin Classic 10K (first 10K - such fun!), the Air Force Half Marathon (well...most of it. Long story - not my fault. Would have been nice to have someone direct the lead pack so we wouldn't have gotten lost, but anyway...I did that race mainly to reunite with a friend I hadn't seen in 30+ years, and it was amazing!), the Women's Half Marathon 5K (with Paige!! So proud of my baby and what she accomplished!), the Murfreesboro Half Marathon (beautiful race - LOVED it and can't wait to do it again next year), and The Wounded Warrior Project 8K (meaningful race, gorgeous route - but killer hills). Wow - now that I see all the races, I can't believe what I have become...I'm truly addicted, aren't I?
Nothing compares to the experience of running "The Full" though.
The time had finally arrived. The four of us drove down to Florida Friday morning. Hung out with Mom and Dad that night, and then with Ray's family Saturday morning. Mom and Dad had so graciously agreed to have the girls stay the night with them that night, and bring them to Pensacola the next morning for the marathon. The girls are such troopers and would have been fine staying in our hotel room, but I know I wouldn't be fine! I didn't want to be a stressed-out mess in front of them.
Upon arriving in Pensacola, Ray and I headed to the expo to pick up my packet. The full and half packet pickups were separated, and I couldn't get over that I was in it for the full. The nerves started to set in.
We checked into our hotel, then headed out to drive the route. Wow...that was eye-opening. I was going to run that far? And did you see those hills?? Crap. I'm not going to lie - doing that sort of psyched me out. I just kept telling myself that no matter what, I was going to get through it. Running, walking, crawling, whatever. We finally headed to dinner and met up with my dear friend, Lisa, who was running her second half, and her family. Dinner was another major stressor! I ended up making reservations at three different restaurants because I couldn't make up my mind what I wanted to eat! I just wanted somewhat bland, normal food so I wouldn't have an upset tummy the next day. Macaroni Grille is where we finally ate, and I had a decent meal of roasted chicken, asparagus and potatoes. And tons of water. Back at the hotel room, I ate a Clif Bar before I went to bed - just one last chance to get some carbs in me. After laying out my running outfit, my gadgets, and nutrition for the next day, I started to relax a little. Ray turned off the lights at 9. I think I got a couple good hours of sleep, but after getting up around 1:30 to use the bathroom, my mind was running the rest of the night.
The alarm finally went off at 4:50. I remember stretching and saying, "I'm not ready...." - I was excited though. Ray lay in bed for a while longer, while I basically ran around in circles getting ready. I drank some Nuun (the caffeineted ice tea flavor), and ate a large wheat bagel with peanut butter. I sat down and stretched for a few minutes - tried to wrap my head around the long run I was about to go on. I had put together a bag for Ray on things I thought I may need along the route - body glide, a Clif Bar, an extra Honey Stinger Gel, and some Nuun - and made sure he had that. We headed downstairs, where we met up with Lisa!
The start line was just a couple blocks from our hotel so we walked over. When we stepped outside, we were surprised by the winds and how chilly it was - low 50's. The temp felt great, but the wind sucked. I remember feeling a little bit nervous, but I love the start of races - so exciting!! We stood with Ray for a while, then they called the runners to line up. I gave Ray a kiss, and got a bit teary - nerves, fear, and I think I wanted him there with me the whole way. I stood with Lisa for a few minutes, saw our old boss from our restaurants days, then I saw the pace group I wanted to follow. The 4:30 pace group. I don't know why, but I decided 4:30 sounded like a great finishing time. I knew in order to do so, I would need to keep at a 10:16 pace. I wasn't sure I could do that, but I was going to try to just keep them in front of my the entire race and see how close I got.
I didn't introdue myself to the pace group leaders who were surrounded by other runners, but I did end up talking to some very nice women next to me. One had been running 20 years, but this was her first marathon, and the other woman, had only been running 9 months and this was her first as well. They were so friendly, and it took the nervous edge off to have them to talk to. As the horn went off to start, we all gave each other a high-five and off we went! I waved to Ray and told myself, "this is it!!"
The full and half runners all took off together, so it was a bit congested in the beginning. We basically did a big square and I got to see Ray as we came back around - so cool! The pace group did start out fast, but I was pumped up, so I was right there with them. The route started to take us along the bay. Beautiful, but I was focused on the pace group and what was ahead. There was a big hill at mile 2, but it never worried me since it was so early in the race. I made it up no problem. Mom had mentioned they would be around the 2.5 mile mark, so I kept a look out for them, and sure enough - they were there!! The girls saw me and started jumping up and down, and waving their amazing signs they had made that night. Oh, it made me so happy!! I wanted to stop and hug them, but it was right after an aid station, so I had a huge crowd behind me - had to keep on keeping on.
Around 5.5 miles, the full and the half split up. Huge moment. People were there cheering, runners were yelling "Good luck, Marathoners", and I couldn't help but let out a squeal as I followed the full marathon sign. A runner next to me made a comment, and I told him this was all new to me - he said it was for him too. I loved knowing I wasn't the only one out there doing this for the first time. The next two miles or so were flat with no spectators. There were young marines standing along the route - there I suppose to watch for anyone needing help. So many of us told them thank-you or gave high-fives. An hour and sixteen minutes into the race, the lead marathoner came running down the road in the other direction. Amazing.
At this point, I was still feeling great. We got back out onto the road, where spectators had started to gather again. At the mile 8 aid station, I made the decision to go ahead and use the port-a-potty since there was no one in line. This is when I discovered a new challenge for me here in my first marathon...something that screams "well, of course this would happen to YOU, Mandy!". My...umm...monthly visitor made a surprise appearance. Mmmhmmm. Yep. "You are kidding me." I was stunned for a few seconds, then decided there was no way I was going to let that stop me. But I needed a plan...Long story short - after texting back and forth from the road with Mom, then calling, trying to calmly talk about tampons while having other runners around me, I got a text back that Ray was at mile 11 and had me "covered". Mile 11 came, and there was Ray flagging me down. Bless his heart...he was trying so hard to not let anyone see what he was going to hand me, but I just laughed and told him it didn't matter. He's my hero.
So...after that whole fiasco, I seemed to get a second wind. I had lost the pace group, and just decided not to care. I slowed my pace to around 10:20-10:40 and began to really have fun. My energy felt great - at this point, I had taken gels around mile 4.5, mile 8, then again at mile 13. I was switching between water and Nuun (Ray was great at giving me a bottle of prepared Nuun at mile 11!), and just drinking when thirsty. I high-fived all the Marines along the route, and thanked all the volunteers and police watching traffic. It was at mile 16 I saw Mom and Dad. Dad caught sight of me and started waving a sign, and Mom was busy snapping pictures. I just can't described how much it meant to have them out there - an instant rush of energy. I think this is the point where I asked Dad, "Am I almost there?!" I was starting to get tired. For me, they picked the perfect spot - I needed that rush of energy from seeing them because I had the worst hill ever just up ahead. Ugh...what a beast.
My legs were starting to feel tired, but I put my head down, took smaller strides (MUCH smaller), and made it up the hill running. And kept running! Not far up ahead, I could make out Ray and the girls. The sight almost made me cry - there were Paige and Charlotte holding their signs and high-fiving all the other runners. I was soooo proud!! I just know it gave those runners just as much of a rush as it did me - almost every runner that passed, made their way over to get a high-five. Ray told me later, that they had been in that spot for 45 minutes with the girls doing that. Love. As I came up on them, I did quickly stop and give them a hug and kiss.
I got a boost of energy at that stop, and carried on, but was definitely beginning to feel it. At mile 20, we faced another big, daunting hill. However, at the base of this hill was a high school marching band's drum line. Omg, they were amazing and perfectly placed!! I gave them the "rock on" sign and they cheered as I trudged up the hill. Again, I made it up running, but did have to walk at the top to get a drink. Only a drink though - I wasn't ready to walk yet. I remember telling myself that I only had two more 5Ks to go...the real race begins at mile 20 and I knew that...just keep those feet moving. I saw Ray briefly - he had parked by the side of the road and asked if I needed anything. I told him I was fine and had to keep going. I love him so much - every single time I saw him, he would pump his fist and tell me how great I was doing with so much enthusiasm. It's was the best feeling knowing he had my back, and wanted me to succeed.
Another hill at mile 22. Good grief. Ray was at the top of it again, asking what I needed. I stopped to fill my bottle up with Nuun, and told him I was really tired. He told me I was in the homestretch and sent me on my way. I looked at my watch - honestly, this was the very first time I looked at the time - and saw I had been running for 4:09. My brain wasn't working that well, but I did figure that there was no way I was going to finish at 4:30 - and that was just fine with me. This is the point where I noticed so many runners now walking...stumbling...working out cramps. I just had absolutely no desire to quit or really walk. Sure, I was exhausted, but more than anything, I was ready to be done and I wasn't going to be DONE until I crossed that finish line. And the quickest way to the finish line was to keep on running. I have no clue what my pace was at this time - probably somewhere around 11:00. I was dragging.
Mile 23 gave me another little boost of energy - one more 5K to go! A man on the side of the road yelled "Go 145!! Looking good!". 145 - that's me!! Woohoo! The Marines and police started offering more words of encouragement, and each time they did, I felt more and more inspired to continue on. Ray had parked again at mile 24, asking if I needed anything. Part of me wanted to climb into the car, but I waved him off and told him I was fine. I passed a great group of kids, all dressed in Superman garb, who gave high-fives - they were fun! After that, we were running along the bay again, and the winds had picked up dramatically. I had my hat nearly blown off several times. Headwinds plus exhausted legs equal one helluva battle to keep going. I had a moment where I thought I was going to drop - I looked at my watch and saw 24.88 miles. I told myself I could walk until 25 miles - there was no way I was going to walk the last 1.2 miles. So, I started walking. Problem is, after running for that long, walking HURTS! I ran again.
The route made it's way into historic downtown Pensacola - I knew the end was near. The finish line, the finish line, the finish line...it's all I could think about - just get me to the finish line, legs! I was surprised to see Ray and the girls standing at the road - they went wild! A man across the street started clapping and yelled, "You're doing great! Finish strong!" I gave the girls a high-five and told Ray, "I'm going to keep going!" I soon ran up on a police officer directing traffic who looked at me and said, "You go around that corner, and you'll see the finish line - keep going." There were several families standing at the corner cheering, yelling my name, and a rush of adrenaline came over me. I looked over and saw my dad standing near an arch leading to the finishing chute lined with flags. I ran over and held out my hand,giving him a high five - "I'm going to do this!!", I told him.
It's so hard to describe how amazing it was running those last few feet towards the finish line. Total strangers were calling my name and cheering. I was so exhausted, yet so amazed that I was actually about to complete a marathon - something that just never seemed possible to me. I never even dreamed about it, because I never thought someone like me would ever attempt something like this. A marathon!! All the pain and exhaustion seemed to fade in an instant and I threw my arms up and cheered - I DID IT! 4:48:38
It's Thursday now, and I am still on a runner's high. My quads killed me the first couple days after the race, but I'm much better now. I can't wait to start running again. Everyone tells me you never forget your first, and I never will. I remember every face, and every word of encouragement. I'm so grateful for those people, my family, the cloud cover that day, and for my body holding up through all the beating it has taken. I want to do it again.