On March 2, 2008, I ran the Los Angeles Marathon, at age 41, after an adult life as a couch potato. And since I'm a big believer in sharing the wealth, now I'm going to share the secret of marathoning over 40 with you.
Say yes to your friend who asks you to run RELAY FOR LIFE for the AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY. You agreed to do it because it sounded fun at the time, but as the day approaches, ditching this for a movie sounds better and better. RFL, in case you didn't know, is a 24 hour relay at a local high school track, the idea being that each team has a number of members walking (or running) around the track for 24 hours, since cancer never stops either. Since you haven't exercised in maybe a year, you decide just to walk and meet up with an old friend who agrees to circle the route with you. While catching up, you're having such a fun conversation that when she says "hey, do you want to train for the Los Angeles Marathon with me?" you say yes, because, hey, this relay thing is fun and you aren't really paying attention. How hard could it be?
It is now August, a couple of months after RELAY. Your friend calls to tell you that you both need to register for Aids Project Los Angeles, the organization training you to run the marathon. She ends up not being able to go the meeting with you so you cheerily head downtown and are surprised to find that you need to give them a $75 registration fee. Oops. Then the bright-eyed administrator tells you that you'll need to raise $1500 before January. AND training is three times a week, twice on your own and once with the group. It becomes increasingly apparent that you've never run a marathon before. Now you remember that another friend suggested you train for a 5K and you weren't really focusing on the difference before, but now you've learned that MARATHON means 26.2 miles and that 5K is only 3. You didn't know that before. But what the hell, you need to get in shape so you sign all the forms and wait for what happens next.
Today is orientation at a running store in Santa Monica. You and your friend head out to see what's in store for you. Apparently $200 worth of must-have running shoes is what's up. And you really do need special shoes, tailored to your feet. Otherwise you'll have scores of foot problems, blisters and worse. But you're not spending money on a sports bra - you hope the old one you've used for the past years will last just a little bit longer. So you sit and listen to the NIKE sales pitch (you don't know much about running yet but you do know you don't need a special timed musical device in your shoe). It's inspirational to listen to current and former athletes and then the actual clients of the AIDS program you are running for - so there is a good cause in all this and you really will be helping people after all. Maybe this won't be so bad. After some carbs you both head back home, ready for the very first day of training.
Today is your first day at Griffith Park, the official training site. They tell you that you will be running three miles and that you'll be timed and placed in the appropriate running group. This is the first time you hear about pace groups and walk/run ratios. They are training you in what's called the Jeff Galloway method, from a Marathon Guru who devised a way of running with paced walking breaks to conserve energy, enabling the runner a burst of energy at the end (try it, it works!) You lope around the L.A. Zoo and the Gene Autry Museum and it's not so bad. You have your IPod and it's not too hot, so you finish up in just under an hour and they tell you to go to the 15 minute pace group next week. That means you'll run a mile in 15 minutes with a 2:2 ratio (run 2 minutes/walk 2 minutes). Huh, wait till you tell your friends you're "in training".
Jesus, Mary and Joseph. This is the worst idea you've ever had, you've never been so miserable in your entire life. Good GOD, why did you agree to do this?!! A week ago they told you to come to the 15 minute pace group so you dutifully showed up (early Saturday morning!) and met your fellow runners. One of them is a former ice skating champion and all of them look lean and fit. Uh-oh. The Pace Group Leader (PGL) starts you all out walking for 2 minutes and then you have to run 2. Then walk 2, then run 2 and you realize that your shins feel weird, which you later find out are called shin splits. It's agony. You get slower and slower and the Designated Driver (DD), the one who stays behind to make sure the laggers are taken care of, does indeed stick with you, as you get more and more upset. It's the longest day of your life. Everyone told you that the timing day, the 3 miles, would be the worst day, but they are stupid. Today is the worst. You can't ever imagine going 10, 12, 20, much less 26.2 miles. You just want to die. The earlier the better. Finally, finally, finally you end up back at the training site and you beg the coach to put you in a different pace group. You end up email/stalking him with every neurosis you can think of. There's a reason he won't give out his phone number.
So the next week you come back to the training site in spite of your misgivings and they let you into the slower pace group. Now instead of 2:2, you are 1:4 (or as it turns out 1:3) running/walking. Fine. But then they send you up this ENORMOUS and tortuous hill. When are you going to get a break? Your shin splints are worse and you are the very last person in so you cheat a little and don't stop at the rest stop so that coach won't catch up to you and make you ride the ride of shame back to the site. But you do learn some things. Shin splints happen with new runners and last a few months. You can fight them by icing your shins for 20 minutes, resting 20 minutes, icing again another 20 minutes, resting, then icing a last 20 minute set. TWICE A DAY. You can do some exercises too, anything with your ankles, like calf raises, since they engage the shins. Don't put the ice bag directly on your skin, use a towel. Eat a lot of potassium (like a hell of a lot of bananas). You are also learning about how runners eat. You MUST eat before a run, but nothing heavy. You find out what your stomach can tolerate and it seems like oatmeal and a banana in the morning is the way to go. And you make sure you are hydrated (clear urine, especially before a big run). Once you begin running, you lose salt and sugar so you bring runner's bars and gels and the all important GATORADE. Pretzels are a great source of salt too, about a few miles in and you are told to eat something every 45 minutes and keep hydrating (just don't overdo it). Your stomach will tell you what you need.
The next week you think maybe you are getting the hang of the studying part (you are reading Jeff Galloway's MARATHON). You've learned about chafing, which is where your clothes rub against you with the constant moving and makes you raw. You buy sports gel (never use antiperspirant, it doesn't work for running) and you put it everywhere that might have friction. In addition to that, your stomach goes up and down while moving, so you are very susceptible to nausea but you think you finally have that beat. The actual running still sucks. And you're expected to do runs on your own twice a week (30-45 minutes each), in addition to the long weekend run! Definitely hard to get so early, on a Saturday, no less. You hate the coach. And your fellow runners. And the volunteers. And anyone who doesn't have to run on Saturday mornings. Sigh. A typical training regimen may go like this: 3 miles, 6 miles, 10 miles, back down, back up, building your mileage, until one week you find yourself running 12 miles (12 MILES? That's a Half Marathon!) You watch SPIRIT OF THE MARATHON and cheer along with everyone else in the theater and you begin to realize what an emotional accomplishment this will be in the end. You hope.
You wake up one morning panicked about the fundraising. You have to raise $1500! Your family and friends have of course given you some here and there but that's not going to bring you to your goal. In panic mode, you ask your marathoner friends and they make some great suggestions: fundraising events like wine and cheese receptions, donated theatrical shows (i.e. the actors give you the ticket proceeds) and maybe some corporate sponsors. Some of these events pan out, some don't. But due to the surprising generosity of mere acquaintances and even strangers, you end up making your goal before the deadline and then some. Whew! By the way, if you are running with a charity group, they will happily guide you.
THREE MONTHS IN
You've been doing this for three months now and the actual Marathon still seems years away. You're not really going to run 26.2 miles are you? You secretly think that's all malarkey but that doesn't stop you from bragging to everyone about it, pointing out all your blisters and hitting people up for money. Everyone seems to want in on it and you start to feel just the tiniest bit pumped up about it. Your training group turns out to be comprised of a nice group of people and at first you were always, always, always the last one in but gradually you've kept up the pace and come in with the Pace Group Leader by the end of the run. On short runs. On long runs you still want to die. But at least you are getting to know the fine streets of Burbank, Glendale and Toluca Lake. There is a cactus garden you are way too familiar with. Same with the bathrooms at Carl's Jr. and Kinko's. And no matter how many times you go up that stupid hill in Glendale, it never seems to be getting any easier. But somehow your shin splints are going away. That's progress, right?
Christmas rocks because now you have all these out of town family and friends who haven't heard every excruciating detail about your training yet. In fact, you drag some of them with you to a running store for your next pair of shoes since (as you wisely tell them all), your old shoes have worn out and you should always replace running shoes every three months. You ask the sales clerk at the running store a bunch of questions about pacing and running so he knows you know what you are talking about (but still doesn't care). You are excited to be fit for a new pair, even though they look exactly like your old pair. Now you just need to concentrate on running, you tell your family, because you have made all the money you need to. And then some. Did they want to hear more about it - because you'd be glad to tell them! While on vacation, you arrange to run on your own, measuring distances in your car. You've got your pack with all the vitals - asthma inhaler, gels, water, GATORADE. You've even impressed yourself.
For some reason, your training group thinks it's a swell idea to do a "practice marathon". Meaning 26 miles. This is the stupidest idea you've ever heard of but since Jeff Galloway does it, you all have to as well. You get up SUPER EARLY Saturday, before the other groups, because, as they tell you ever so diplomatically, you are in the slowest pace group. It's damn cold but you arrive cheerful and remain so - for about 2 miles. Then you lose your sense of humor. You discover that on long runs, it only takes about 10 miles (yes, you can now run 10!) before you slip into a murderous rage and want to take out anyone who dares speak to you. You've read online that this is actually normal and that you need to take some breaks, get some of that sugar and salt back. Your teammates know better than to try to engage you in conversation at this point. On the "practice" day you are at mile 17 before you completely and utterly give up. If they make you go one more friggin' step, you will seriously have to hurt someone. The coach swings by to pick up the stragglers and offers some annoyingly cheerful words which you ignore. He really should stop talking now. You slink home to sit alone in the dark.
You were half kidding when you bitched to people about the ups and downs of marathon training but when you actually do research on it you discover that there really and truly is a thing called Taper Madness. Because of the intense training you've undergone now (when all is said and done, it ends up as 6 whole months!), your body has gotten used to the endorphin rush and the steady climb of mileage. So as you get closer to the actual D Day, M Day, the Marathon capital "M", you ease off the mileage because now your body is a well trained machine and it's ready for M Day, even if you aren't. Therefore you're going to have to run less and less to conserve energy. That means, unbeknowest to you, you will now be depriving your body of addictive chemicals. You will be a joy and a half at work and at home from now until March and they will ALL want to strangle you in your sleep. You'll think you've lost the ability to run and the least little strain or blister means it's all over. Everything is a disaster and you hate everyone just as much as they hate you. No one will want to come and cheer you on and you don't care but it's only 26.2 miles which ANYONE CAN DO, RIGHT?!! Sheesh.
Today you took off from work and went downtown to the Convention Center to pick up your bib race number and everything you need to run in the biggest race in Los Angeles. Very important to get all this stuff BEFORE the race. You need a timing chip for your shoe too. They tell you 100 times not to forget - DO YOUR RESEARCH BEFORE YOU EVEN REGISTER. There is a LOT to remember. You've got your bib, so now you are free to enjoy the sites. And sights. Everyone there is obviously a runner (even you now). So many booths - but you are warned NOT to try anything new - it's too soon before the race. Every new thing should have been tested during training. By now you should know your body inside and out, what your stomach can tolerate, what socks to wear (nylon, not cotton, same with shirts please) so as not to blister, a breathable hat that ventilates, etc. All of this should be second nature to you months before M Day. You've read every book you can get your hands on regarding running, especially women and running, so you feel you are as expert as you can be. At least that's how you feel today. Lord knows what will happen tomorrow.
THE LAST MEAL
So tonight all of you get to go to the Biltmore Hotel downtown for a big pasta party. The valet wants to charge you something abhorrently ridiculous (did he say $20??!!) so you back on out and around the corner to park somewhere else and then hike on over once again back to the hotel. But now you're in. And everyone is there - all of the team members you bonded with, your coach, all the staff members. There are speeches and pictures and you look at all of this people and marvel at how you put up with each others ups and downs the past 6 months. And it's beautiful. Coach gives you a big hug and tells you he believes in you and to get some sleep but not to worry about tossing and turning from nervousness (it's all normal) and that you would have gotten sleep earlier in the week so tonight just de-stress. Because TOMORROW IS M DAY!!! As you drive home, you think about all of this and can't believe 6 months went by so fast. The best thing about it of course is that everyone encourages you to eat carbs and one of your favorite comfort foods, pretzels, is now your snack of choice on a run. You're happy to share of course. People eat orange slices, bananas, pretzels, red vines and gels and power bars and obviously lots of water and sports drinks. You'll have to keep running when all this is over so you can keep eating the fun stuff.
Believe it or not, the day has arrived. The Los Angeles Marathon. You've arranged to meet your friends at the starting line. Some of them park at the finish line thinking they'll drive themselves home, but you have coerced friends to drive you home. Who knows how you'll feel at the end? You wake up while it's still almost night, eat your oatmeal and recheck everything you've laid out before. Bib, timing chip, singlet shirt, jacket, running pants, shoes, socks, pack with blister band-aids, sunscreen, pretzels, salt vial, gels, power bars, extra safety pins, inhaler, sanitizer gels (for those awful porta pottys), hat, sunglasses, cell phone (to coordinate meeting supportive friends at different mile markers) and timing watch. You've finally figured out how to set the watch so it beeps at intervals, just like it's supposed to. Dark and cold, you carpool to the meeting place.
There are a lot of people here already, some reporters and many, many runners. As it gets closer to start time, everyone is ushered over to the start and you and your friends get more and more excited. Are you really running a marathon??? Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." blares out the speakers just as the starting pistol goes off and here you all go!
You were worried about the Cahuenga Pass (you've spent months studying the map layout of the route) but it's not too bad. You're pacing yourself, remembering Coach telling you to start slow, save the energy for the end. It's great to see so many people come out to support all the runners, but you can't high five them all or you will wear out too early. You will let their energy and excitement sustain and propel you. You're seeing Los Angeles in a way you've never seen before, from the ground, with all the streets closed, just for you. And you're running in the footsteps of the elite runners, another thing you never thought you'd do. Hollywood Blvd, Vine, Hancock, Park, KoreaTown, USC, South Central and more, all the way downtown to Flower, all in one day. Incredible.
Around Mile 12, your first set of supporters show up, hooting and hollering. You introduce everyone and you are still running with your team mates at this point, reminding each other to drink and eat enough. After that, you start drifting apart and start your own personal journey. Having been warned that headphones are not allowed you didn't bring your IPod, but so many people seem to be running with them that you regret not bringing it. No one cares and no one is checking. At Mile 18, your legs feel cramped and one of the staff members tells you to drink more GATORADE. You just need to make it to Mile 20 and another of your supporters will be there to cheer you on.
Mile 20. Thank God. You want to stop, you want to give up, the day has never seemed longer. Your Pace Group is expected to finish in 7 1/2 hours and now the lead runners are long gone, home and showered and you are still suffering, alone and desperate. But you see your friends and it's a miracle. They run a good part of the way with you, checking on you, keeping you focused and distracted at the same time, encouraging and loving you. It's a shot in the arm.
After that, you feel more and more determined and become even more focused. Physically, it's a pretty impossible thing you're doing, so at this mileage it's now all on your brain. You have to tell yourself you can do it, that you will finish and that nothing will stop you. Passing some team mates, you feel better, even though the miles seem longer and longer. Mile 24, Mile 25.
Mile 26. Can it be? Yes, and there's the finish line! Triumphant you see the flashing time as 8 hours (official timing chip says 7:59). EIGHT HOURS of constant run/walking. Why aren't you more tired? You receive your medal and then collapse, calling your friends to help you negotiate your way out of there. It starts sinking in that you RAN A MARATHON. You just went 26.2 miles and lived to tell the tale. No one will ever be able to take this away from you. You finally understand the big-journey-begins-with-a-single-step thing.
You should wear that medal, all week or even all month or however long you damn well want to. For a day of pain, you've earned a lifetime of bragging rights and it starts now. Speaking of which, when you check in with your Coach later, he tells you he was pretty worried about you, because of all the shin splints. You are floored. If you had known this, you might have let doubt overwhelm you, but because of all the positive feedback and encouragement you actually thought you could do this impossible thing, when really, you shouldn't have been able to. It blows your mind. And this is the turning point where you realize that it's important to listen to your heart and to trust yourself. You know how to prepare for things now, how to do research, how to work out, what to eat, what to wear, why you should take an ice bath after a long run and heck, maybe you can even offer advice to other people in your shoes who think they can't do it. Now you can tell them they can.