by Greg Green
In the months leading up to the Salt Lake City Marathon we began reaching mileage that introduced me to new body complaints. Each time something happened I was able to identify the problem and a solution. I started experiencing calf cramps in longer runs – an odd sensation that would start as a twitch in the calf before locking into a tight cramp that I had to walk out. I quickly learned that I wasn’t properly hydrating and could add more electrolytes (think Gatorade) to solve the problem. That was a simple fix. I started to have pains in my right knee when I ran, particularly on canted surfaces or when running up an incline. That was diagnosed as runner’s knee, a common ailment for people who begin to run longer distances. The prescription here was to step down on the mileage and let the knee recover before gradually moving back up to the distances I was running. That too was a simple fix, once I understood what the problem was. Avoiding blisters and black toes became a game of adjusting what socks I wore, then what shoes I ran in. I went from a size 8.5 shoe to a size 9.5 shoe to give me more room when my feet expanded as I ran. Troubles appeared, were resolved, and then went away. The good news is that most of us don’t fall apart all at once. You typically find and fix one thing before continuing on. You progress, experience some setback that you have to resolve, then move on.
Music was another big issue for me – whether to tune out or tune in during a run was my own conundrum. I started listening to music when I was working out on a treadmill, and enjoyed the extra motivation I felt during a particularly good song (try not running hard when you are listening to Fergie’s cover of Barracuda). I found that as I began to run outdoors more, there was less need to turn on my playlist. During a couple of runs where I either drained the batteries on my iPod or decided to leave the music behind, it was refreshing to concentrate on my breathing as I ran, or simply listen to the pattern of my footsteps. My mind often wanders as I run, and I will think about things with clarity that I don’t have elsewhere. Currently my runs are headphones optional, with some consideration each day of whether I want to block out the world or run open in it.
Even with training there was some trepidation leading up to the marathon race day. We had run the Moab Half Marathon a few weeks prior to the Salt Lake City run, and that race had gone well (I took 15 minutes off of my 2009 half marathon time), but I had not run any long distances after that event. In our training program there was a build-up of weekly long runs before tapering down before the marathon, and I had missed the window for some of the long runs. We were moving into the period where shorter runs prepared us for the event, and that created some anxiety for me. I wanted the comfort of a 22-mile long run but my longest distance was 19 miles. I was planning to run 26 miles in the marathon; not exactly how you should lead into a first full marathon. I joked that I was preparing for a first fool marathon instead. Regardless I thought I could do it, and planned accordingly.
Race day was beautiful – 50 degrees in the morning as the sun began to rise. At 7AM the marathon and half marathon runners were started, and we proceeded past the Olympic Legacy Bridge starting point and headed down Wasatch drive. The race beginning started as an ebb and flow of walking, brief runs, then walks, followed by a cheer in the group as we were able to run again. The group spread out, some runners falling into their pace as others tried to advance through the pack to run in the clear. Everything felt good. I was reminded to pace myself and intentionally slow down a little for the start of the race. There was plenty of running ahead and I didn’t want to push too hard at the start. The first four miles of the course was all downgrade, which made for easy time.
Sugarhouse Park is beautiful, and the first part of the run with any real hills. The Salt Lake Running Group made the park a regular part of its long runs so this was a familiar setting to go into. I walked with a number of marathoners who started up our first long hill. The number of runners had substantially reduced in the park since we had split from the half marathon participants temporarily. We circled through the park and climbed up again to exit back onto 2100 South where we rejoined the half marathoners. The group turned and ran down 1700 East until we separated again, the half marathoners turning right on 2700 South, and the marathoners turning left to proceed into Holladay. I turned left and felt excitement. I was suddenly committed to the race, and I felt good.
It was around mile 10 that an old problem came back. As I ran on Holladay Boulevard I could feel my right calf start a faint but unmistakable twitching. I slowed, preparing to feel the cramping, but it didn’t start immediately. I had planned for this and had been taking salt pills with appropriate amounts of fluids, but was at only 1/3 the distance I needed to complete the race, with a problem I knew would exacerbate. I began walking longer periods and drank more. Each time I started to run it was a shorter distance before I felt the twinges and cramping, and would slow back to a walk.
As I walked I started contemplating what might have triggered the cramping. It had been a long work week and I hadn’t gotten anywhere near the amount of sleep I needed. Before the run, in anticipation of sore muscles I had slathered on some pain relief gel. Could that have triggered cramping? I was sure the electrolytes I was taking were sufficient, but then again, were they? I began to contemplate whether I should stop or continue. I felt fine except for the calves cramping up, but there were 13 more miles ahead of me, and I wasn’t going to complete them the way that I had planned. One of the worst things to work against anyone is vanity, and mine was rearing its ugly head up. Did it matter what my time was for this first marathon? Was it more important to finish, or finish well? Ultimately I realized that the goal of completing the marathon was important enough to me that I should finish. I pushed back any negative thoughts and visualized the end of the race. I had already gone well over the halfway point by now. I would get my finishers medal, and I planned how I would make a better run in the future. I was more at ease now. The cheers and comments were heartening, and I was grateful for the number of people sitting outside their homes to watch the runners go by, all the while offering words of encouragement.
At mile 20 I told myself that I had a 10K left, and mile 23 it was only a 5K. When I reached Liberty Park I was fortified knowing that what was left in front of me were three more miles. I told myself that was a walk in the park. ;P I pulled out my phone and saw that Angela had already texted me with words of encouragement – I was almost there! I was relegated to walking through to finish since any time that I started to run my calves would immediately cramp.
The finishing line of the Salt Lake City marathon is one of the best homecomings any runner will receive. Turning onto the cobblestones leading up to the finishers arch and timing mats was incredible. There are people on both sides cheering you on to complete the race. An announcer is there calling runners as they come in, and you can hear the names of runners finishing ahead of you; all really exciting stuff. I began a slow run in – predictably my calves locked up but I pushed my legs to get me past the finish lines before stopping. I was approached by a woman handing out finishers medals. I took one from her and smiled as I put it on, backwards so that the front of the medal faced my chest, a bit delirious and happy and tired. But mainly I was happy. I had just finished my first marathon.
In retrospect I realize things that I should have done, or could have done better to prepare for the race. What was most important to me was that this was not the destination, but a point in my journey. There are many more runs in my future, and I’m excited to open the door and look out each day at the opportunity I find. I will live a better life and I will make myself better than what I was. Somewhere I say a little prayer for my father, and begin to run.
What’s knowledge to me could be new to you:
- If you are making a commitment now, be prepared to go through a couple of weeks of hardship before you start seeing and feeling results. Someone once told me that it takes two weeks to develop a new habit. I’m passing that advice on – if you want to make a change you have to commit long enough for your body to start following your brain
- Set short term goals and long term goals. For the short term goal, always work towards something you feel is achievable in a few months time. The short term goals will step you through to you long term goal, and will give you multiple successes to build on. You don’t have to set all the goals at once; what is important is that you make a realistic short term goal and start working toward it.
- If you can, join a local running group. The Salt Lake Running Company has a great mix of runners who meet at the 700 East store on Saturdays. The group is free to join, and offers training plans for 5K through marathon distances.
- Don’t beat yourself up for missing exercise, but get back into it and don’t let go of the program. Everyone has one (or several) bad days. What’s important is to get back on the bandwagon and keep going. Success is best measured over long periods of time.
- When it comes to food, read labels, and lots of them.
- Keep a log of what you’re watching, whether it’s the food you eat, or the minutes you exercise, or the miles you run. Read what you log.
- Support your local running store. They are there for far more than just to sell you a new pair of shoes, and you’ll quickly realize this as you begin running on a regular basis. There is a wealth of running experience that you can take advantage of each time you step into the store.
- If you buy anything to run in, start from the ground up. Treat your feet well and build up.
- Last but not least, it’s okay to treat yourself once in a while (and it really is okay when you treat yourself to a good breakfast with friends).