Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Marathon Survivor

I did it! I've finished my first marathon! Jennifer vs California International Marathon 1 - 0!

Sunday, December 2, 2012 was the big day. I prepared, I trained and it was time to deliver. The route to my destination was clearly mapped out. I was to run 26.2 miles, from Folsom to Sacramento.

However, as it turned out, the actual journey there was bumpy and rough. There were quite a few surprise twists and turns and most of the time, I felt utterly lost.

Sunday morning, as I got on the shuttle that would take the runners from our Sacramento hotel to the starting line in Folsom, I felt like an impostor. Around me were all these amazing athletes, ready to run California International Marathon, and what was I doing, trying to be one of them? The spirit on the bus was high, so I put on a brave face, smiled and joined in, meanwhile I could feel my self-confidence dwindle for every mile we drove away from Sacramento and our finish line. By the time we arrived at Folsom, I had gone from nervous to petrified.

As if running 26.2 miles wouldn't have been difficult enough, the biggest challenge of the day was the weather. I live in California. If I plan a run and it happens to rain that day, I'll simply postpone it. Needless to say, I was not prepared to run in stormy conditions with rain and wind. As I stood on the starting line, already drenched and fully saturated in rain, it dawned on me that this would be my reality for the next 5 hours to come. And as it turned out, over an inch (25 mm) of water pour down over our heads and adding to the misery, we had a headwind at 33 mph (15m/s), gusting to 41 mph (18m/s).

I hunkered down and started running. In an instance, I was completely overwhelmed by the task of completing a full marathon and its 26 miles. The first time the thought of giving up entered my mind was around mile 1.  The first time I seriously considered stepping aside was at mile 3. And this mental game would continue all throughout the race and it would prove to be my biggest obstacle.

If someone would have told me that running a marathon is all about mental strength, I would never have questioned my ability. If I got a penny for every time I've been told I'm the most stubborn person alive, I would be a very rich woman. My husband specifically told me not to be too stubborn, incase I would injure myself, I was not allowed to push on, I would have to stop.

So it was shocking to me, how close I came to giving up, multiple times. Between the wind, the rain and my depleted self-confidence, I found it near impossible to push forward. I almost gave up at every aid-station along the road. But, as I pushed pass each aid-station, I knew I wouldn't turn around and go back, so had no choice but to give up at the following one.

Physically I was uncomfortable, but not hurting. My heart-rate was well under control. I knew my body was able to keep going, but I felt so defeated. I have a few favorite mantras and thoughts I go through when I need some extra motivation, but they are usually reserved for the last few miles, as the first 15 miles usually are pretty smooth and not too taxing. But when you have to make a mental effort every time you move your feet, from the very first step and onward, the trusted mantras will only take you so far before you stop listening to yourself.

One thought that did manage to keep me going was that I knew that quitting would be instant gratification while completing the race would be a lifetime of pride. And what is a few hours of misery and suffering in the big picture of things? So I had no choice but to hunker down, and keep moving forward. The minutes would keep on ticking by and if I could keep putting one foot infront of the other, I would eventually reach the finish line.

As the hours progressed I realized how sensitive I had become. It seemed like it took all of my energy to just keep moving forward that I had no energy left to do anything else. I became very sensitive to sounds, I could feel every raindrop on my skin and I felt emotionally vulnerable. All the smiling volunteers and cheering crowds had braved the elements to make our lives a little bit easier. As I read the signs people were holding, every word had an emotional impact on me. Some made me smile, some made me annoyed and one lady made me cry. I was in a particularly dark place when I saw a woman holding a sign saying: "Precious few can do what you do". It hit me right where I needed it. I took her words to heart and thought back to that sign several times as I inched my way towards the end.

When I reached the 20 mile mark, my self-doubt started to subside. I did not run 20 miles just to give up on my final 6! By the time I'd reached 21 miles, the rain had stopped and the sun came out to greet us. Don't get me wrong, the last 6 miles were still a struggle. I was beyond fed up and exhausted. I was even swearing out loud (in Swedish). If running was my child, someone would have called Child Protective Services in a hurry!

The last three miles were not so much three miles of running as they were three miles of shuffling. When I reached mile 25, I though back to when I had run my very first mile of the race. I wish I would have felt a sense of achievement and I wish I could have though to my self "I can't believe I only have one mile left, it feels like I started a moment ago". Instead it felt like I had been running for an eternity and that I ran my first mile a couple of days ago.

A few blocks from the finish line, three familiar faces stood jumping and cheering in the crowd. Seeing my parents and my husband I could feel a wave of warmth and love wash over me. I knew I only had a few minutes left ro run before I could collaps into their arms. As I turned my last corner and caught the first glimpse of the finish line, I could feel tears stinging my eyes. I did not cry out of pride or happiness, I was just relieved that it was finally over, that I somehow made it through and that I could finally come to a stop.

9300 people registered to run the full marathon. 6474 people started the race. 289 people never reached the finish line. I came very close to being one of them. Instead, I'm now one of 6185 people who braved the elements and won an epic battle.

It has been a few days since the race. It feels like it was a lifetime ago. When I look back at videos and photos from the event, I think people must be mad to run in those conditions. Even though I suffered and nearly broke into pieces, my body has handled the stress very well, surprisingly well. The day after the race, my joints felt stiff and my biceps(!) where sore. Three days after the race it feels like it never happened. My heart, lungs, muscles and joints where all ready for the challenge. The weakest link turned out to be my mind. I would never have guessed. California International Marathon turned out to be the biggest mental challenge I've ever faced. But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, so next time I will be stronger. And yes, I'm pretty sure there will be a next time... eventually...

Take a look at this video, especially the second half.

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