February 17th, 2012

How I ran a marathon

I've got a couple of metaphorical marathons going on in my life right now. I'm trying to finish my adult romance by March 1, and the first pass of Such a Rush is due back to the publisher on March 6. This is the first time I've seen the text as it will actually look in the finished book, and y'all, the design is SO PRETTY.

But what I wanted to blog about today is the real marathon I ran last Sunday.

In the grocery store on Saturday, the tall, thin, twenty-something cashier asked the tall, thin, thirty-something customer in front of me, "Are you running tomorrow?" The customer looked shocked and said that she works out but she could never run a marathon. The cashier said, "Oh, you just look like a runner! I'm running tomorrow. I'm so excited!" Then she turned to short, could-stand-to-lose-ten-pounds me, scanned my box of pasta, and asked, "Did you find everything you needed?" The idea that I might be running the marathon obviously never entered her mind.

I am not a vengeful person, nor am I a competitive one, except with myself. But I really wanted to find this girl at the marathon and pass her.

No, I don't look like a runner or an athlete of any sort. But guess what? I am. I think a lot of people have a perception that only certain people can be athletes, and those people are not them, so they never try. But there's been some interest lately among writers trying to get into shape--an accountability group that got started on Twitter, an article in Romance Writers Report--and several friends have told me that my running has inspired them to try it too. I certainly am not an expert or a health professional, but I can tell you about my journey.

I started running after I had a baby and couldn't lose the last 15 pounds. I'd struggled with post-partum depression, too, and I knew that exercise is a great way to elevate your mood. Previously I'd only trained for a few weeks and then run a 5K with my friend Jessica (to whom The One That I Want is dedicated) because we were forced to for P.E. in eighth grade. As a result of that experience, I had that two-mile distance in mind, so that was my goal, slowly, struggling, walking a good part of the way.

Then we moved from Birmingham to Atlanta. The neighborhood was hilly. At first I was committed to running every day, but the baby stroller was heavy, and it was so much easier to walk up the hills and jog down them. Come to think of it, it was even easier to walk the whole way.

A couple of years later, in 2005, we moved back to Birmingham. I was pretty disgusted with myself for basically blowing my nose in my exercise routine. To get out of this rut, I decided to find an official run and train for that. I signed up for the Vulcan Run 10K (that's 6.2 miles) before I could back out of this idea. 6.2 miles seemed like an absolutely impossible distance to run, but I found a training schedule online called Couch to 10K in 10 Weeks and the creator swore that this was not impossible. (If you follow this link...the program is just a schedule for how much you should be running every day. It's not something you pay for. Scroll down.) Ten weeks out, I started training.

At the beginning of the program, the schedule calls for you to break the distance up into 1/4-mile parts. You walk a part, jog a part, walk a part, jog a part. The easiest way to do this is to find a 1/4-mile track. That's what I did--it's the park in Going Too Far, which I was writing at the time (which is also why Meg and John are runners, of course). It sounds very short and very easy. But as I have been telling some of my friends who are just starting out, this was BY FAR the most painful part of my running journey. I felt like my lungs were going to fall out of my chest, and I would get these horrible debilitating side cramps. I thought that this was just not something I could do. But I kept doing it, and the pain went away, and pretty soon I was running three and four and five miles without cramps, and my lungs were staying put.

However, as race day approached, I was honestly not sure whether I could do it. I was very afraid of embarrassing myself by breaking a leg and crawling in tears to the side of the road. But that first Vulcan Run was one of the best experiences of my life. I started on a cold morning in a huge crowd of people. I had a great playlist on a newfangled invention called an iPod, which my husband had bought me specifically for running. We started in beautiful downtown Birmingham, amid the skyscrapers (or the tallest buildings we have, anyway). We jogged through the warehouse district and the homeless people cheered for us. We turned north and passed the gorgeous Orthodox church with a mosaic of the Virgin surrounded by glowing gold leaf, like a blessing before the course's one hill, which I thought might kill me. We ran through one of Birmingham's most beautiful old neighborhoods, winding around three parks--one of which I had crashed a helicopter in before, in an unfinished manuscript with a crazy hero I still love. We came out of the trees and into Five Points, past the fountain that John likes so much in Going Too Far, and straight back downtown to finish where we started. I did not break my leg. I did not cry. And when I turned the corner and saw the finish line--I have rarely experienced such a high.

Time: 1:20. That's a 13-minute mile, folks. For the uninitiated, this means S-L-O-W. And I did it.

This started my six-year stint of running the Vulcan Run, dashing home to shower, and skating into the Homewood Library just in time for the Southern Magic Readers' Luncheon, because they are ALWAYS on the same day. I ran one other 10K. I trained for a 15K a couple of times but got sick with allergies and had to stop. But mostly I was content with this one race per year.

Then, in 2009, my husband decided to lose weight. I think some people at work had been making a comparison to Jon Gosselin. Not sure. But he lost thirty pounds in three months. He ran the Vulcan Run with me. And then he announced that he was going to run the Mercedes Marathon just three months later. If anyone but my husband had said this, I would have tried to talk them out of it because they would get hurt, but really I would have thought they would just drop out on their own before too long. But because it was my husband, I knew he would do it. And he did.

It was terrific that he lost weight and got back into shape. But maybe the best outcome of his marathon was that he set up a Sacred Run Time And Then Coffee with two of his best friends from college. They have been religious about this ever since, and I know he's a happier person because they've grown even closer.

The side effect for me was that I now had three people running marathons, showing me that it was possible for normal, middle-aged folk, and telling me that I could do it too. And they were giving me practical info I'd had no idea about before, such as: NO, you will never get faster unless you use a watch and consciously try to increase your pace; NO, nobody expects you to be able to run that long without drinking, eating, and peeing; YES, there are bathroom stops and water stops around Birmingham that are okay for runners to use; and EW, you have to learn to like Gu, which is not as bad as it sounds once you get used to it. By 2011, I believed them. I ran the 15K that had eluded me before, the Statue-to-Statue, a wonderful and horribly hilly course that runs from the statue of Vulcan in the center of town to the Statue of Liberty on the outskirts. I ran my favorite race ever, the Talladega Half Marathon, which goes around and up and down and through the famous NASCAR track. I ran the Montgomery Half Marathon through the gorgeous historic district. Instead of the Vulcan Run, which seemed very quaint and short by now, I ran the Ruben Studdard Half Marathon last November, and then I decided to run the Mercedes Marathon, and I signed up for it and told everybody I was going to do it before I could change my mind.

From November until last week, I followed a marathon training schedule I found online. Most weeks this meant a couple of days of rest, a couple of five-mile runs, an eight-mile run, and then a long run on the weekend. Looking back, I know that when I was training for the Vulcan Run, I would have said YOU HAVE TO RUN EIGHT MILES AND YOU ARE NOT CALLING THAT YOUR LONG RUN? But no, innocent and naive Jennifer, the long run is a half marathon, then fourteen miles, then fifteen miles, all the way to twenty. You never run twenty-six. And then you back off the training to give your body time to rest up.

Let me interject here a peculiarity of marathon training. Stuff that never bothers you at six miles or even thirteen miles will drive you batty at fifteen. Your shoes that fit perfectly will rub blisters on all your toes. And if you every forget to apply anti-chafe gel under your sports bra YOU WILL BE SORRY, believe me.

Let me also say that if you started running to lose weight, that's pretty much over by the time you train for a marathon. You would think the marathon would make everyone look like the grocery cashier and her not-marathon-running customer, and you ARE burning a huge number of calories. But you're also taking in more because running makes you HUNGRY. And you're taking food with you to eat on the run because you simply can't finish without it. I think the whole experience gives you a much healthier understanding of food, though. It can be pleasure, it can be entertainment, it can be solace, but that's not what it's FOR. It's fuel, and your body needs it to go. Too little and your body will not go. Too much and your body gets bloated and doesn't function as well as it could.

I was very afraid going into the marathon because I had never run that far. Again, I did not want to break my leg and crawl to the side of the road. This possibility seemed more real this time. But as my husband and my friends kept reminding me, I had trained and I was ready. I had a super run until about mile eight, when I started to get an unfamiliar calf cramp, something that happened to my husband on his second marathon. His were so bad that he finished with a terrible time, and I was afraid that mine would bloom into something like that, so I had to stop a number of times to stretch. Luckily, they never got that bad.

I also had a point at mile 17 where I totally ran out of gas, even though I had been eating Gu as usual (if one can call the intake of Gu "eating"--you really have to experience Gu to understand this). I started grabbing anything the break station people handed me--Gatorade, banana, orange slice. I made it through to mile 20 and thought, "All I have to run now is the equivalent of the Vulcan Run," which was oddly cheering. At mile 22 I got a horrible side cramp like the ones I got when I first started running, except that this one was higher, and I did have a few minutes when I was thinking, "Is that my heart? Am I having a heart attack? That would be so unfortunate. No, I am not having a heart attack. That is not where my heart is." I was kind of wishing sixth grade human anatomy had been a little more thorough on this point. And I said to myself, "This sucks, and I am not running any more marathons."

But by mile 24, I realized I was going to finish and in under five hours which was my S-L-O-W goal--doable and yet respectable, at least in my own mind. I cried tears of joy. I am sure I looked like hell. I turned onto the straightaway--the very same one at the end of the Vulcan Run, around the very same park, to the very same finish line. They called out my name and I threw up my hands in joy.

That day my legs were sore, but I never really had trouble walking, and I didn't experience any of the horror stories you hear about sometimes. The following day, I felt okay at first, and at 11:30 in the morning I completely pooped out like I had the flu. But I took it easy, and the next day I felt all better. And the day after that, I went for a run.

My goal now is to run fun new half marathons and get my time down, because I don't think there's a lot of point in going around running five-hour marathons. However, my husband says I will run the Mercedes Marathon again next year. And I suspect he's right.