The First One (Fargo Marathon)

I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that I finally ran a marathon. After 5+ months of training and thinking about it on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, it’s all over now. For all the suffering and painful moments, it was absolutely worth every minute of training and I can’t wait to do it again.

Initially when I had begun my training in earnest with the FSR (Faster, Stronger, Runner) group back in January I had reservations about all the banal minutiae that doesn’t really apply; things like pace and the training plan. These were things that would just naturally fall into place for me later on. The training plan was always, and continues to be, one of the more worrisome aspects for my next race, which perhaps contributed to it being an issue with this marathon.

Initially with training, I was running 4-5 days a week, with three days of core work and one day of “hill” (parking ramp) repeats. This then foolishly turned into back-to-back long runs weekly. With the hills in between. So not truly back-to-back, but by the time Saturday long runs rolled around, my legs were pretty destroyed. On top of that, the four or so hours of sleep I would get due to getting home from work at around midnight contributed to all around tiredness. To a degree, I hope that it helps in the future, if only for the knowledge of running on tired legs.

As I stated, the back-to-backs of a sort were on a weekly basis, which naturally led to overuse injury. Granted, I’ve only been running for about two years so I haven’t gotten things figured out quite yet. If I would’ve kept to every other week B2B’s, I think I would’ve been OK. Lesson learned.

I never went to see anyone about it, but I did do some research on the internet concerning my injury. I knew it wasn’t cancer, so I avoided, and after reading through a variety of websites about running injury, I’m fairly certain that it was my IT band. This was the point when my pace work went to hell. I had been running perhaps a bit slower with a group on the long runs, but it was fun. I did pace work earlier in the week, but with my leg going south that went out the window. I took about ten days off from anything strenuous running-wise, although I did still manage to get the long runs in, or at least a portion of them. I did have to cut one short, but otherwise struggled through.

This then led to the use of naproxen prior to my long runs, and the marathon for that matter. I don’t know how I feel about taking an NSAID before that kind of exercise, as I know it’s really not very good for the body. However, stubbornness wins out usually with me. As such, popping pills it was. And it worked. My hope is that these two weeks between the race and my next training block will give things time to heal and get back to relative normal before I start training for the Lean Horse 50 mile race coming up in August.

One of the big things I realized during the end of the training block is that I hate the taper. I truly, truly hate the taper. Or at least how I feel during it. The lethargy really got to me, just ended up feeling antsy the whole time. Roughly like how I feel right now. The only difference being I’m still struggling to walk up stairs now so running is absolutely out of the question.

Photo courtesy of Jacob Cobb

Photo courtesy of Jacob Cobb

Race week I finally felt OK with the taper, though. I finally accepted it for what it was, which was rest. And I took full advantage, even skipping a workout. Race week coincided with the end of my semester at school, so there was fortunately throughout the taper enough for me to keep busy, although sitting and writing papers doesn’t do much for getting rid of being antsy. Anyways, it was finally race week!

Wednesday was the last workout with FSR prior to the marathon, although they did meet the Friday before for one last shake out run. I wanted to go, but was signed up for the “Tailgate 5K” that night, and didn’t want to overdo it. So the 5K rolled around, and it was miserable out. Thursday had been spent pinning my bibs onto my singlets and getting the rest of my gear at least close to being ready. We had gone to the expo, been accosted by a guy named Bear, and checked the rest of it out. I forget how much I don’t really like those things. The high pressure sales really turn me off from wanting to be there. I get the principles of it, but I already have enough on my mind that close to race day, I don’t need some dude trying to push a massage device on me.

Anyways. The forecast for Friday (the 8th) was in the 40s with 16-18 mph winds. And yes, I wore shorts and a singlet. Why? Other than because clearly I’m an idiot, and stubborn (the bib was already pinned on!), I knew it was supposed to be cold the next morning at the start of the marathon, so I thought perhaps there might be some use in dressing similar for both races.

I ended up driving myself to the 5K instead of getting dropped off, which was fine, except then I had car keys tucked into my shorts’ pocket. Luckily, I had experienced that during early morning runs on Wednesday before work outs so it wasn’t a big deal. And then I stood around and froze. I did a bit of a warm up, kick backs and high knees, but nothing much. I was concerned that if I did too much the night before, my legs would be garbage come the marathon.

The course started on the west side of the Fargodome and basically looped around and through a portion of NDSU, using a section of the marathon course. It was actually a nice little jaunt. Fortunately they had folks out holding up pace signs so people could theoretically line up where they thought they should be, although I personally didn’t see a lot of movement. Lots of folks with backpacks, headphones, a ton of compression gear, one guy with a bladder bag, and lots of kids. In other words, a lot of people who had perhaps not run many or any races before. Which is AWESOME! It made me happy to see that many people out, something like 8000 ran. For the record, it was also my first proper 5K. There was one last October, but it came about 20 minutes after my second ever half marathon, so the time was horrible and I’d rather not count it.

The only issue then was the same that are in most races, the slipping around people moving slower than you to get to a comfortable place. I had lined up in the 25:00-30:00min group, hoping genuinely to finish a bit under a half hour. I wasn’t there with the intention of racing, but just a decent shake out to get my legs moving. Naturally, that didn’t happen.

I don’t entirely know if it was because I was cold, or because I wanted to get away from the people I was close to, but I took off at a pretty good clip. The one time I checked my watch I was moving at about a 6:24/mi pace, which is 30 seconds or so faster than the fastest mile I’ve ever run. It took genuine effort to slow myself down and try to hit a comfortable pace. This ended up being somewhere around a 7:24/mi or so. I finished in 24:42, which felt really good. A bit faster than I had wanted, but I just went with it and hoped it wouldn’t cause problems the next day. I picked up my medal, grabbed a bottle of water, and headed home to eat.

Bath, food, bed. That was the intention. I had gotten really good sleep on Thursday, knowing I probably wouldn’t sleep well Friday. But man was I tired after that 5K. Which I thought would help. Ate a big plate of pasta, with a pork chop, and brussel sprouts, and drank some gatorade. We had company coming the next day, my friend Jake and his girlfriend Marissa, so I ended up sleeping in the guestroom because we wanted them to have the queen size bed when they were here. I took a melatonin pill, drank a cup of sleepy-time tea, and rubbed some sleep-inducing essential oil on my feet to assist my slumber.

I laid down at about 8:30 with a book, book 5 of the Wheel of Time series, and by 9 had shut the light off and was trying to sleep. By 1:30am I was wide awake. Getting up to pee every hour or so didn’t help matters, but I contented myself by saying at least I knew I was hydrated. I tossed and turned, played dumb games on my phone, and followed iRunfar’s coverage of Transvulcania until about 4:30 when I decided to just get up.

Went through the usual morning business, food, coffee, etc. in record time, and still had an hour to kill before I needed to be at the Fargodome. So I watched the last half of Unbreakable, a marvelous documentary about the Western States 100 mile Endurance Run from 2010. It’s one of my favorite documentaries, and super inspirational. And suddenly, it was time to go. Past time, actually.

Traffic was terrible, as could be expected. They always say to arrive early, but no one ever seems to listen. I got dropped off, put on my headphones, and went to stand in line for the bathroom. I didn’t have to go, but figured by the time was shorter, I would. After that, I walked in a loop around the concourse to find the bag drop, zoning out to Coheed and Cambria. Saw Joan, well, she saw me and came over to wish me luck. I did likewise and continued on. I arrived at the bag drop, stuffed my coat and iPod into my bag and handed it over to the UPS lady. They really have a great system worked out for that.

At this point, it was just past 7am, the race started at 7:30. So I went and stood in line for the bathroom again, just to make sure. Ran into another person from FSR, who’s name I never actually caught, and we discussed the lack of sleep the night before we both had. Went outside afterwards to get my GPS set up and check the weather. It was gorgeous. The sun rising, not much wind; it was going to be perfect. Then it was back inside and down to the main floor to line up.

The time I hoped to run in had been something gnawing away at me for over a week. I knew that my initial goal of 3:30 was out the door due to my injury. I had been flopping around between 3:45 and 4 before finally (arbitrarily) settling on 3:38. I had a suspicion I could bang out a 3:40 if everything worked out so knocking 2 more minutes off didn’t seem like a stretch. I made my way through the corral to the 3:40 pace group.

There I ran into some FSR pals, Brandon, Cam, Jamie, Adam, Bethany, and one more who’s name escapes me (sorry!). We chatted a bit, asked each other what we were hoping to run in, and then we all dispersed as it was 7:25 or so. There was some talking, the mayor said some stuff, and then we were off.

I had no idea how the indoor start was going to work, only knowing how bad it had been last year with the half marathon and taking 10 minutes to hit the first timing pad. But man, did it go smoothly. I don’t know if they’ll do it again, as they change the route every single year, but starting like that seemed to eliminate all hassles. I tucked in with the rest of the 3:40 group and we shuffled on out the door to head up north.

The first five miles are a blur, to be honest. I remember bits and pieces, but I think a large portion of the time was spent just calming my nerves, and zoning out while the pacer chatted, telling jokes, and generally kept us entertained. I don’t know his name but he was great. Then the first water station hit. I pulled out the first of my GUs, as I had a tentative plan to take one about every 4.5-5 miles, since there was supposed to be the first of a couple GU stops at mile 9.

The big highlight from up north was hitting a new park, Trefoil, that had just been established. It was a marvelous, peaceful place that I think will be absolutely gorgeous in ten years when the trees fill in a bit. The crowd had really thinned there, although a few people here or there cheered us on. After that we went back to the road, passing the civic center. We met up with the half marathoners at this point, with the road being split by concrete barriers. However, there was nothing demarcating the split, so some people, such as the pacer, got stuck on the side with the halfers, of which there were substantially more.

After this, we crossed the 1st Ave. bridge over into Moorhead to go through the two colleges over there, Concordia and MSUM, where I go. Those were fabulous, the support and cheering were really helpful. I had not expected to literally run through the middle of campus, but that’s what we did which was cool. At this point we passed the halfway mark, and I was still hanging in with the 3:40 group. I felt great, mostly.

The GU station that was supposed to be at mile 9 wasn’t there, which was a huge thing. Fortunately I had decided to grab an extra GU before I left in the morning so I was carrying 4 with me. So at this point, every mile I kept looking for people handing out GU. After going through both campuses, we headed south towards Gooseberry Park. Through there and back into Fargo over the suspension bridge into Lindenwood.

At this point, I started to fall back a bit. After 13 or so miles of running on relatively flat pavement, my legs were not ready for the up and down, wacky camber of a bicycle trail. I also think maybe I hadn’t had enough water or powerade. Whatever it was, something was slightly amiss so I started falling back, just a bit. At this point, Adam met up with me, we chatted a bit about how we were doing and he commented on how well the pacer was maintaining. Slowly, the group started to pull away from me.

And thus began my slow descent. I made it through Lindenwood as we headed back north to do the 7-8-9th street slalom. This had been a portion I was looking forward to, as these older neighborhoods had loads of people out ready to cheer. And I knew my wife with Jake and Marissa as well as my parents were going to be around somewhere, and I was getting to be in need of a friendly face. As we looped back around, passing mile 14 I saw Jake. I flashed a devil’s horns at him, he waved. At this point, I noticed my right hand was almost completely covered in blood. Awesome.

Apparently it had been cold. My skin cracks horribly in cold weather, and that was the only thing I could think of that happened. I didn’t consider it to be a big deal except if a water stop was on the right side. I really didn’t want to bleed on some poor volunteer. Luckily, by this point the full and half marathons had merged, with aid stations on both sides of the street so I could pop over to the half side to grab a water. Or, as the case was, slow down to a walk and grab with my non-bloody hand. Finally, at about mile 15, they had GUs. I took 2, and kept on. By this point, I was down to just 1 left of my initial stash, so I was going to be in need very soon.

In hindsight, training with GUs was not something I had done very well. Or at least I had not trained my body to maintain without them. Might mean a look into the method of using body fat instead of carbs…but I digress. As we looped back up north on 9th street, the 3:40 group was still within eye sight, but gaining ground away from me. “Oh well, maybe 3:45 isn’t out of the question,” I remember thinking. In the back of my mind, all I knew I wanted was to do sub-4.

When I had been deciding my time, 3:30 had stuck in my mind because for whatever reason, that appeared to me to be within sniffing distance of a Boston qualifier. Yet, I really have no interest in running Boston, ever. It’s just too many people. So why I used a BQ time as reference, I’m not sure. Who knows, maybe next year I’ll decide I really want to run Boston and try to qualify.

At mile 18 or so, I ran past my parents, which was awesome. They had missed me last year when I ran my first half. The elite marathoners had been been approaching as I was coming up on them, so understandably, they had focused on them. I would’ve too. In here I had taken a few walk breaks. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t maintain. Maybe it was nutrition or hydration, but I took a couple quick strolls.

At one point, Adam showed up again. He’s diabetic and had slowed down earlier because he needed to test his blood sugar. He came up on me, made sure I was taking GUs and water and then blasted ahead. The dude’s a beast.

We headed into downtown for miles 19 and 20, going up Broadway. 1st Ave. N was great. A lot of people out, there was a construction company that had inflated a giant thing with the phrase “Break through the wall” written on it. And Drekker Brewing was out too. That put a smile on my face.

Once through downtown, we headed to 10th Ave. and the first of 2 underpasses. I had to hike up the hills as my legs were dying quickly. It was after the first one, when we hit 6th Ave. that my left quad started seizing. From there, it turned into a battle of running as far as I could before the cramps kicked in. This lasted for a mile or so before my right calf started spasming as well. So from there it was run, run, run, then SPASM, and I’d almost fall over. Then I’d walk a bit, and repeat. I was long out of GU at this point. All I craved was salt. There was no convenient place that I could grab a salt packet from, and none of the lovely people that had food for us had anything salty. So it was a matter of walking through the aid stations, knocking back a couple cups of powerade and water, and hoping for the best.

But boy did I suffer. The last 5 miles or so were probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Strangely, at about mile 22, I clearly remember thinking something like, “Holy shit this sucks. But I can’t wait to do it again!” And truly, I can’t. But the last four miles were a walk-run.

As we came back up north, connecting with that 5K route I had run the night before, Cam came up on me and said hi. He was all business at that point, which was interesting to see from a guy who had spent every other long run chatting and joking around. I said to him, “Man, this really hurts.” I got a “Yep”, and he kept on. It was nice to see him, and I tried to then keep him in view the rest of the race. Survival was the name of the game at that point.

We looped up into NDSU at that point. There wasn’t much of a crowd presence, although the people that were there cheered loudly. As I ran around a loop, I saw my wife driving up to where she was going to pick me up. It gave me a bit of a badly needed boost. Passed mile 25 at this point and I knew the end was nigh.

And was immediately hit was cramps and spasms, reducing me to a walk. With the dome in sight, I was hurting. Yet another one of the FSR  members was waiting on the side of the road. She’d run the half and was there to cheer people on. She saw me and started yelling, motivating me to run. I really am horrible with names. I want to say Amy but I honestly don’t know. But she yelled, and it worked. I ran in the last 3/4 of a mile or so and finished my first marathon. I kept checking my watch on the way in, knowing that sub-4 was going to be cutting it close. But as I crossed that finish line, I looked at the race timer; 3:56:31. And it was over.

I had thought it might be more emotional of a finish than it was. There was a moment where I thought I might lose it, but didn’t. I would’ve been OK if tears had come, it was a big deal. As I walked back through the corral, Adam saw me and congratulated me, and I him. I picked up my medals and made my way over to the chocolate milk and pizza. Cam saw me, came over, fist bumped, and said I did great. We chatted a bit about the race, walking towards the water. Someone from the photo company took our picture. It looks nice and I really like it, but I can’t justify paying $18 for a 5×8 photo.

I saw a few more FSR people, we chatted a bit, everyone happy. And then one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. If you ever want to see something close to a look of defeat on a bunch of people who just ran 26.2 or 13.1 miles, make them climb stairs to get out of the building. God it was horrible. And funny. And I hope I get to do it again next year.

photo courtesy of Jacob Cobb

New car magnet!                           photo courtesy of Jacob Cobb


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