This morning, I slowly crawled out of bed, feeling the sting of soreness that had settled into my muscles overnight. Aside from the lingering physical exhaustion even after a full night’s sleep, nothing felt all that different from when I woke up yesterday. Except, that I could now call myself a marathon finisher. A marathon runner. An official marathoner.
There is so much that happened this weekend that I don’t want to forget, so this is going to be long. Read what you want, unless you’re my family, in which case you have to read every last word.
On Saturday, I did an easy two mile jog around my neighborhood to shake out my legs and ease my nerves. A little later that morning, my mom and grandmother accompanied me to the 26.2 with Donna Expo in downtown Jacksonville. We explored all the booths, but I didn’t find too many that caught my eye. I ended up registering for next year’s Women’s Half Marathon to save $15 off the online price and purchasing a couple t-shirts from the Official Merchandise shop to commemorate my first marathon.
Right before we were leaving, I spotted Donna Deegan – the founder of 26.2 with Donna – and decided to introduce myself so I could thank her for all she’s done for breast cancer research and the Jacksonville community. If you don’t know Donna’s story, I recommend reading about it here.
One of the most iconic parts of the 26.2 with Donna course is “Memorial Mile,” where those who have struggled with breast cancer are remembered and honored with large banners that expo attendees sign, leaving behind motivational and poignant messages. Reading through the posts brought tears to me eyes, especially when my mom signed for a family friend who recently lost her battle with breast cancer. My mom and grandmother also signed for me, sending me well-wishes on the banner with the word “FINISH” displayed on it. I wrote, “I’m finishing 26.2 to help finish breast cancer.”
After stepping away from the banners, I knew that I had picked an amazing marathon for my first. All race proceeds (including registration fees) & raised funds go to breast cancer research and care.
The next morning, I woke up an hour before my alarm and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I stayed in bed, visualizing my race and fretting over what to wear with start temperatures projected to be 34-degrees but warming up to about 50 with strong winds that would be even more noticeable along the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, I decided to give up worrying about everything and start getting ready.
I pulled on my race outfit, pinned my bib as straight as I could (I’m getting better with all my bib-pinning experience!), and scarfed down an English muffin with honey and a PowerCrunch protein bar. My mom and grandparents decided to drop me off at the race start so that I didn’t have to drive myself or worry about getting back to my car after running 26.2 miles. Honestly, this was such a good idea, especially with the shape I was in at the finish line (ooh, foreshadowing). We encountered a bit of traffic with about a mile to go to the start, but it only took us 20 minutes or so to navigate through it. Around this time, my two best friends called me from California to wish me luck – they had set an alarm to wake up at 3 AM their time to call me! I couldn’t believe it!
Shortly after I got off the phone with my friends, my family dropped me off and I only had to walk about a half mile to get to the Runners’ Village, which was AWESOME.
The Village had everything a runner could want: tons of porta-potties, heating lamps, an anti-blister & chafing tent, an area to apply free sunscreen, water, coffee, food, and – my personal favorite – a warm-up tent not too far from the start line. I huddled in the tent with hundreds of other runners, listening to tons of conversations about first races and people-watching. At about 7:10, I decided to head to the start line.
Somehow, I failed to notice that the race had corrals and a waved start. I ended up in the second wave, behind the elites and super speedsters, but still close enough to the front that I wasn’t worried about being overcrowded at the start.
By this point, I started getting really excited and nervous. At about 7:20, I decided to toss my throwaway layers so I wouldn’t have to deal with it once I started running. Unfortunately, immediately after I did that and moved away from my gear, the race organizers announced that the start had been delayed for 15 minutes due to severe traffic that had prevented many of the shuttles carrying runners to get to the start. I chatted with the woman next to me to pass the time, and she shared that she’d run either the full or half every year since 26.2 with Donna’s inaugural year. In the middle of our conversation, the organizers made another announcement – the race would start at 8 AM, a full 30 minutes late.
Not exactly the best news for this Type A runner. My heart beat definitely increased after hearing this news. I sent a quick text to my family to let them know there had been a delay.
A girl about my age came up next to me and we discovered we were both running our first marathon. She asked if I had a goal time, and I told her no, but I shared the paces of my long runs. Apparently, they were really close to hers so she asked if I wanted to start out together. I agreed, but told her that I’d be brutally honest if I needed to fall back, and for her to do the same. We introduced ourselves and got ready .
RUNNING THE NATIONAL MARATHON TO FINISH BREAST CANCER (a.k.a. 26.2 With Donna)
These miles flew by – I couldn’t believe how quickly the mile markers appeared. I knew I was feeling good due to my taper and the cool weather, but I kept replaying Mary’s advice about not going out too fast, so I made sure to hold back as much as possible. To make sure we were staying at a conversational pace, my new running buddy, Kailyn and I chatted about our training plans and what we did for a living. We kept this up for a couple more miles, and at mile 4 we settled into our own paces and separated.
This portion of the course takes runners through beautiful and upscale Ponte Vedre Beach, where many residents were out in their front yards cheering us on. This was my first taste of just how much crowd support we would have, and I couldn’t believe how many people were out in the cold showing their support for the runners and, of course, the cause.
Once we got to Jacksonville Beach, we took a turn and headed out on the beach to run on the hard-packed sand. While this stretch of the course is gorgeous with the sun rising over the ocean, it is tough. I don’t care how hard-packed sand is, it’s still extremely challenging to run on, especially for 3 miles early on in a marathon. Not only did we have the resistance of the sand, but the wind had picked up and was blowing straight at us the entire time we were on the beach. I knew this part of the race was taking a lot out of me, very early into my run. I tried to focus on all the positives around me: other runners, the crashing waves, the rising sun, the memories of many days spent on this very stretch of beach.
Suddenly, near the half marathon turn-off, I spotted someone who looked like my brother – this caught me off guard because I was not expecting to see my family until at least mile 10. Then, I realized it WAS my brother. In fact, it was both of my brothers and my boyfriend! I got so excited to see them. My boyfriend and younger brother jumped in and ran about a quarter mile with me, asking me how I was feeling and telling me I was doing a great job. They wished me well, told me they’d see me again soon, and let me continue along the beach on my own.
While seeing them gave me a slight boost, battling the wind continued to drain my energy. I found myself wondering when I could get off the beach, a thought I don’t think has EVER crossed this beach girl’s mind before.
At last, we took a left turn up and off the beach.
When I returned to pavement, I knew those three miles had taken a toll on my energy and my legs. I was struggling to regain my pace, something I did not expect to encounter so early. Not too long after I exited the beach, I saw the lead runners come flying through what was their mile 17. Incredible. Right after that, I spotted my whole family cheering for me and I got a little choked up. My uncle jumped on the course to run a little bit with me. He gave me some nuun and Honey Stinger chews, which went down much easier than the half-frozen ShotBloks I had been using to fuel. I shared that the wind on the beach had taken more out of me than I anticipated (in much fewer words), but he told me I was doing great and to keep my mind focused on happy thoughts. He stayed with me until Mile 10, telling me he’d meet back up with me at Mile 17.
The course wound through some cute beach neighborhoods where, again, the crowd support was just outstanding. So many people were cheering for me, yelling my name, thanks to the personalized bibs the race gives all runners.
When I got the half marathon marker, I felt pretty good despite my legs already aching from the sandy portion of the course. I crossed the halfway point just under 2 hours, which was fine with me, even a little faster than I was expecting. Honestly, after that portion on the beach, I began thinking how lucky I’d be if I finished the marathon under 4:30.
Once I hit Mile 14, I thought about Meghan writing in her recent first marathon recap that this was a big moment for her because she had never seen a mile 14 marker in a race before. That resonated with me, and a big smile crept across my face as I ran past the pink Mile 14 banner. After that, I kept thinking “only a couple more miles until I see my family again!” That’s really all I could focus on at that point in the run.
Around mile 15, I started to get really warm so I stripped off the throwaway gloves my mom had bought me at the Expo and pushed my ear warmers up into my hat. I began regretting the long sleeve shirt I was wearing, especially since my bib was pinned to it, removing any hope of being able to remove that layer. I rolled the sleeves up as much as I could.
This is when my stomach started to hurt, badly. I felt unsettled and slightly nauseous. I’ve never experienced anything like this during a race or long run, so I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it. Was I going to get sick? Did I need to stop at one of the porta-potties? I couldn’t tell, all I knew was that I did not feel well.
I kept running, taking sips of water at every hydration station, but nothing calmed my stomach. That’s when I saw someone handing out Flavor Ice frozen pops and, oh-my-God, I never wanted anything more badly than I wanted one of those popsicles. I took a lime green one, grunted out a half-assed but sincere thank you, and took small bites as I ran along. After that, I felt slightly better – not amazing, but better. I kept thinking, “just let my family appear soon, please.” And, not too much further, appear they did.
When my family came into view, I broke out into a huge smile. My uncle joined me again, and so did his two sons (my adorable cousins) and my boyfriend. The four of them ran with me for a little while, until my boyfriend and cousins peeled off to let my uncle and me keep going.
After my uncle and I finished the half marathon in December, he came down with severe plantar fasciitis in both feet. Months ago, I asked him to run some of the marathon with me to help me through the tough parts, but with his injuries I wasn’t sure if he would. He adamantly insisted he wanted to help me through the “hard part,” and that’s exactly what he did from Mile 17-Mile 22. At this point, the course followed one of the main roads in Jacksonville Beach. While beautiful, it is extremely uneven. For this entire stretch, my right leg was slightly higher than my left, which led to a very painful imbalance that took a toll on my hips, especially the one I injured in the beginning of my training. The uneven ground also left my ankles aching, another thing I never felt during my long runs.
I knew I was struggling at this point. I hadn’t hit the wall, so to speak, but I was hurting. My uncle kept giving me nuun and Honey Stinger chews, telling me funny stories to keep my mind off the pain. He tried navigating me to more even parts of the street, but they were hard to find. This stretch of the race blurs together for me, but I remember hitting the Mile 20 marker and feeling an insane sense of achievement.
We saw a lot of people stopping to walk, and I knew more than anything I did not want that to be me. My big goal going into this race was to run the whole thing, no matter what. If my uncle hadn’t been there, I am not sure I would have achieved that goal when I got to mile 21 and realized I still had a good 45-55 minutes of running left.
The days leading up to the race, I had been texting my uncle about how nervous I was. He responded, “You’ll have fun, damn it!” That thought stuck with me, and when we hit Mile 22, he said, “Are you having fun?” and I said, “Yes, damn it!” This little joke kept my spirits up, especially since I knew that he’d have to stop running with me soon and I would be on my own for the last three miles.
My uncle had to stop running with me right before we turned on to JTB Boulevard, the last three miles of the course that would take us up and over a big bridge at mile 25. For months, I’ve been worried about that bridge – it’s steep for Florida standards and, let’s be real, any incline change at the 25th mile of a marathon, especially your first, is not exactly welcomed.
One thing I must have overlooked, though, was the winding on-ramp we had to climb to get on to JTB. Now, my legs screamed out as I returned to uneven terrain. That ramp almost broke me, but I refused to let it. I had come so far, I had run further than I had in my life, and a measly three miles stood between my goal and me. I replayed these thoughts over and over as I climbed that seemingly endless on-ramp.
Unfortunately, this part of the course is where running marathoners catch up to the half marathon walkers, which can be extremely frustrating for both parties. I did not have the energy to be polite and ask walkers to move to the right or left, and I’m sure I spooked a good number of walkers as I closely passed them. Also, the fact that so many people run the marathon relay can also take a toll on your confidence – it’s a bit disconcerting to see people blowing past you at mile 24 on fresh legs.
My brother’s girlfriend was volunteering at the water station right before the incline of the bridge and she ran a little bit with me, handing me an extra cup of water that I desperately wanted. She promised I was only about 1.5 miles from the finish, and I told her, “Good, because this freaking hurts.”
I made my way up that dreaded bridge, but I took time to look around as I climbed up to the summit. The bright blue skies and pretty marshland helped take my mind off the pain in my legs, and the next thing I knew, I had reached Mile 25 and the extremely loud Bridge Brigade cheer station.
Not too much further now…
CROSSING THE FINISH LINE
I came off the ramp after the bridge and thought, “Where is Mile 26?! Where is it?!” I wanted to see that I had made it to the final mile. As so many first-time marathoners think, I was not sure I would actually finish this thing until I could see the final marker and the finish line. I just needed it to come into view before I could let myself believe that I would be a marathoner.
Slowly, finally, that final pink banner came into sight and I threw up my hands. YES! Anyone who runs with me knows that I joke about being the Princess and the Pea when it comes to running – if anything, no matter how small, is bothering me, I am not happy. For some reason, my poor hat and headband became a victim of this… I ripped them off my head. I don’t know why, but these two items that I run with all the time were annoying the hell out of me and I just needed them gone. Luckily, right after that, I spotted my family. I tossed my hat on the ground near them and then did a really ugly half-cry, half-smile in their direction. When I passed my mom, she threw confetti up in the air – I can’t even tell you how much more real that all made it seem. My boyfriend and cousins jumped in with me, and ran a few feet, cheering me on and telling me to “run faster, run faster!” They stopped to let me finish by myself, but I could still hear them cheering.
When I crossed the final timing mat, I stopped running and my body immediately tightened. Everything that was hurting during the race hit me 10x harder once I stopped moving. Struggling to walk, my mind was set on one thing: Where is my damn medal?! I wanted that bling around my neck immediately. A few steps later, a volunteer handed me a space blanket, and I haphazardly wrapped it around my shaking body as I kept my eyes peeled for the person who would drape that beloved medal around my neck. Finally, I neared the amazing volunteers handing out the medals – I could barely bend down to allow the young kid to place the medal around my neck, and I think I burst into tears as soon as I looked down to see the symbol of my accomplishment.
I took a few more steps, and before I knew what was happening, two medics were at my side helping me over to the medical tent. All I wanted to do was find my family, but the medics were intent on working on my hip. Apparently the way I was collapsing when trying to walk on my left leg had caught the main medic’s eye from across the way, and he was adamant about taking care of me so I “could keep running for a long time.”
After about 10 minutes, the medics said I was okay to go meet my family. I hobbled over to them, hugged my mom, and collapsed on the ground. My mom helped me into sweats so that I would warm up and stop shaking, and I began freaking out about how I’d make it to a shuttle and then back to my mom’s car which was at least a 15-minute bus ride away. Apparently, my boyfriend and brothers had ignored everything I’d said about the spectator shuttles and had no problems driving along the course or finding parking anywhere, including across the street from the finish line.
The 26.2 with Donna is known for its post-race party complete with a pink champagne toast and soup from Panera. Due to the severe pain in my leg, I opted to skip out on the party in favor of my warm car and getting home. Next year, I think I’ll run the half marathon and take full advantage of that party to make up for missing it this year.
My boyfriend and brother basically carried me to the car, and I made them blast the heat while I checked all the amazing messages I received via texts, Twitter, and Facebook. I spent the rest of the day sleeping on the couch and stretching.
Saying goodbye to my family before heading back home to Tampa, my grandmother told me how proud of me she was. My grandfather said he was even prouder. My mom got teary-eyed, knowing how hard I had worked to achieve my goal. My little brothers congratulated me again. Texts continued to come in from my uncles and aunt. My boyfriend kissed my forehead and said, “You know what? You came in 15 minutes faster than I thought you would, and I thought that time was fast. You’re a badass.” As hard as I can be on myself, seeing the pride my family felt for me is something I will never forget. I only hope they all know how much strength I drew from them during the marathon.
I did it. I’m officially a marathoner. And, I could not have chosen a more incredible race to be my first.
Chip Time: 4:12:28 (I am so happy with this time, and not just because 4/12 is my birthday or 412 is my lucky number, although those facts don’t hurt).