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The Marathon Diaries: Completing My First Marathon

We're standing in the dark. All 20,000 of us, ready to run the Nike for Women marathon. It's 6:30 AM and we're packed into San Francisco's Union Square, hugged by high rises. The group is so large it squirrels out into the surrounding streets and women in everything from sport's bras and spandex shorts to mittens and softshells wait nervously for the countdown. I, too, am nervous. But it's okay. The jitters keep the morning chill away. A woman, I'm not sure who, takes the microphone from the obviously-caffeinated DJ and sings the national anthem to a hushed crowd and, also, to a sleeping city. Onlookers from their apartments above Union Square open their windows to listen.

There's something so significant about this moment. We're approximately 19,000 women (the race is 5% male), all bonded together by the challenge before us. We all have goals--whether to tackle a certain race time or simply make it across the finish--and we're here to accomplish them. My goal is to run a sub-four-hour marathon so I link up with the 3-hour 50-minute pace group. The peppy, blond pacer, Carolyn, 35, from Pennsylvania, is quick to make me feel welcome. "Are you running with us?" she asks as soon as I step up. I tell her yes, and proceed to nervously jabber about how this is my first marathon. I realize staying with her group will be a challenge as I haven't sustained an 8:47 pace for more than, oh, 11 miles during my training. The other women in the group are vets--a 45-year-old triathlete with four full marathons under her belt, a shorter, stockier girl name Brittany who's knocking off her seventh.

The countdown begins and soon we're off, making our way towards the start line with roughly 200 runners in front of us. It takes us two minutes to reach the start line and another 12 to complete our first mile. Elbows, feet, hair, people are everywhere. Every time our pacer breaks through a clump of traffic our group manages to sift through too, trailing her like baby ducklings.

For the first seven miles, the women chit chat while keeping the pace. We talk about age and when you start to feel your body slow down, about how we're faster than we were in college, and about why we run. The consensus: to eat [that's a topic for another essay]. The moms in the group say they run to steal "me" time, to find peace. I'm 26 and wonder if I'll run once I have kids. Part of my reasoning for running this race was to cross "marathon" off of my life list before having kids. But seeing these women, twenty years older than me, race at this pace makes me wild with jealousy and ambition to be able to do the same when I'm their age.

We're skirting the edge of the city. Mist hugs the tops of the wheat-colored hills across the bay, sailboats drift lazily in the grey of the morning, a few spectators dot the sidewalks in dark coats with their hoods up, sipping coffee and watching for their friends and family to run by.

We crest the highest point of the hilly marathon after encouragement from our pacer ("Lean into the hill, shorten your steps, pump your arms!") and descend towards a white-cap ridden ocean. The trees to my right remind me of Dr. Seuss tales, with long, thin trunks and leaves only at a giraffe's reach. And I realize how foreign all of this is to me--the race, the location, the people, the number of miles I'm ticking off. I've always been a three-mile jogger, and now, here I am, about to cross mile nine and smiling at the thought of choosing the full marathon and not the half.

It isn't until mile 18 that it hits me: I can't keep up with my group. We've been pacing faster than 8:47 to make up time from our slow, congested start and, now, my legs and mind are starting to pull me away from the pack. At first, Carolyn's little green sign that read 3:50 bounces just a few feet ahead. But as I come over the hill and take in the lake I now have to run around, the distance between us grows. On the other side of the road, the first of the finishers head towards their final two miles. A girl with brown hair, who's obviously been pacing somewhere in the 6-minute range, gives me a thumbs up. I imagine it giving me a push, but my legs don't feel the same way.

A guy on the sideline tries to encourage me by saying I still look "fresh." I laugh, but my body doesn't. My mind starts tussling with my legs, which now feel like shock-less concrete blocks. My body tells me to give in to a slower pace and take whatever time I end up with. For the better part of five miles, I become schizophrenic. Walk, take a nap, part of me whines. Just keep going, the other part argues. My thoughts drift over the last six months. Shauna, one of my training partners and a marathon vet, never let me get lazy on hills. A friend's mantra during her Ironman triathlons now seems apt: "It's swim, bike, run, not swim, bike, walk." I think about the Boston Marathons I cheered on during college and the elite runners who'd initially sparked my interest in taking on this feat.

At mile 22, my competitive side starts to win. I think about the better part of a year I put into training for this race and how I'm not ready to throw all of those hours away. I think about the mornings I woke up at 5 AM to simulate the morning of the race so my body could get used to digesting a full breakfast and then running. By mile 24, soaking wet from frigid rain, I am commited again.

I always pictured the finish with me wrapped in one of those silver space blankets surrounded by friends and family. In my fantasy, I'm crying and it's as dramatic as if I'm the winner. In real life, I cross the finish line and am immediately thrown into what feels like a conveyor belt of things being handed to me: Gatorade, chocolate milk, bagels soaked from rain, commemorative t-shirts, and finisher's necklaces. I am crying, but the only people to share that with are the volunteers holding recovery drinks. They seem about as disengaged from the feats being accomplished here as children during a history lesson.

One woman handing out hot pink t-shirts hugs me and tells me not to cry. Why not? I think. I just put myself through hell, after months and months of preparation, to see if my body could push itself to achieve a difficult time. And I did it. I'm damn proud. And in pain.

I hobble towards the meeting place I'd mapped out with my friends beforehand, but they're not there. What feels like hypothermia clings to my body and my lips turn blue so I find my ride and head back to my hotel.

It isn't until later, when I'm limping through the LAX airport on a layover back to New Mexico, my home, that I smile to myself and touch my finisher's necklace. I did this for me. I ran a sub-four-hour marathon because I was determined to push myself--not for the friends who might see me at the end--and that, the ability to take on something that seems nearly impossible, is something I get to carry around for the rest of my life.

Now that I'm finished, I'm constantly getting asked if I'll run another one. I'm going back and forth on my decision. But, now that my limp has gone away, I can feel my competitive side starting to take the lead.

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The Marathon Diaries: The Stubborn Gene


Ice BathLast July, when I rode over four-hundred-and-fifty miles across the state of Iowa with one badass, my dad, Larry Erb, I hurt my knee on the sixth day. The sixth day. Twenty miles outside of Manchester, shooting pain started rippling through my knee with each pedal stroke. My 65-year-old father slowed down and argued that we should ask a farmer to drive us into town. I refused.

Later, after the Manchester’s emergency clinic diagnosed me with a severe case of tendinitis, he said he’d call my mom and have her pick us up and drive us the remaining 45 miles to the finish line. 

“Christina, you can’t ride. I won’t allow it.”

“Dad, I’ll do it, if I want to do it.”

“No, you won’t.”

“Yes, I will.”

“Really? You really want to chance permanently injuring your knee just so you can finish the last day?

"Oh, shut up, it’s only 40 miles.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Yes, I told my dad to shut up — sorry, Dad — but I’ve never been the type of person who will willingly quit a race. He should understand that. My dad’s not a quitter, either. He ran his first marathon at 51 and he hobbled the last six miles to the finish line. We are both carriers of “the too stubborn for your own damn good” gene.

He relented and I hopped on my bike the next day. My knee hurt but I survived. We celebrated by cracking open two beers and dipping our front tires into the Mississippi River.

So, when I started experiencing severe knee pain in my other knee this past August, I shrugged it off, thinking, “It was a long run. It’ll be fine tomorrow.”

It wasn’t.

The pain became so bad that two weeks ago I stopped being able to finish my training runs. Sixteen-mile runs were halved. I deemed eighteen-mile runs tortuous. Finally, one day, I pushed through a 20-mile run. I ran painfully slow. My once nine-minute splits transformed into eye watering 15-minute splits. I finished in a painstaking four hours and twenty-eight minutes.

Embarrassed, I finally called my brother-in-law, a nurse anesthetist student and former marathon runner, and sought medical advice. “Go to a doctor,” he said. I refused, kept hobbling and whined to my mother. “Will you just go to a doctor, already?” she snapped. My older sister, Erin, called and bombarded me with questions on why I hadn’t bucked up the nerve to see a doctor.

“It’s probably nothing,” I replied. “I’m sure it’ll just go away. I just need to roll my IT band again.”

But she broke me down. Today, I went to see the doctors at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, an Olympic-caliber training center for Boulderites, where I was greeted by sobering news. My doctor poked and prodded my knee, took a look at my gait and then told me that I have severe biomechanical issues and, with a grim look, that he “fears for my knee.”

He also told me that, if I run the Nike for Women Marathon as planned, I could potentially suffer from knee pain for years. Either way, I need physical therapy, stat. And, oh yeah, that even hiking right now may not be that great of an idea.

Every time I tell one of my friends that I hurt my knee, they say, “But you’re still going to run the marathon, right?” It’s what I get for being predominately friends with ultra marathoners, rock climbers, triathletes and cyclists. No one seems to know when to quit. To many, pain is gain. And while I believe in that slogan, too, I don’t want to deal with chronic knee pain year after year because I couldn’t put my marathon dreams on hold to rehabilitate my knee.

Today, I have a decision to make: Do I suck it up and run the marathon? Do I walk it? Do I shoot for a half marathon? Or, do I stand, depressed and feeling like a quitter, on the sidelines while I enviously watch my dear friend and Outside managing editor Alicia Carr Troxell glide across the pavement toward the finish line?

What do you think?

--Christina Erb

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Amani Toomer's Top 10 Marathon Training Tips

Toomerfootball Amani Toomer, the former wide receiver who helped the New York Giants to victory in the 2008 Super Bowl, has taken up a new sport. He’s currently training for the November 7 New York City Marathon. Toomer became interested in running during the Giants Draft Day 5K race a few years ago. It turned into a focus after he retired from the NFL.

Running isn’t enough, though. Toomer wants his efforts to count for something greater. So he got in touch with the New York Road Runners’s Youth Programs, which promote fitness among kids, and agreed to run the NYC Marathon this year by starting dead last. The objective: to pass as many runners as he can, with his sponsor, Timex, offering to donate $1 to the charity for every runner he passes. There will be about 45,000 runners total. Toomer’s target time: 4 hrs. and 26 min., to beat Lynn Swann’s 4 hrs. and 27 min. when this other former NFL player ran the marathon 17 years ago.

The biggest difference between training for a marathon and training for the NFL? “No two-a-days and no 250-lb. linebackers trying to take my head off!” says Toomer. Here are his top ten training tips for marathon novices.

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Is Massage a Medical Necessity?

Massage
A recent study shows that massage isn't a frivolous indulgence, but a potential medical necessity, the New York Times reports

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles recruited a group of 53 healthy adults to get massages. Some got a Swedish massage and the rest got a light massage. All of the adults had their blood tested before and just after their massage. The results?

The Swedish massage group experienced significantly lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and an increase in their immune systems' disease-fighting white blood cells. The light massage group also experienced increases in oxytocin, the contentment hormone, and decreases in the hormone that triggers the release of cortisol.

If a massage seems like an expensive way to fight off stress and disease, consider looking up massage colleges in your area, where hour-long massages by masseurs-in-training often cost $25-$30--half the cost of a massage at a spa.

--Erin Beresini

Photo courtesy of thomaswanhoff on Flickr.

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Meb Keflezighi's Top 10 Marathon Training Tips

Meb
If you talk about the great runners of today, Meb Keflezighi is undoubtedly part of the conversation. He tore it up on full-scholarship as a distance runner at UCLA, scored Nike sponsorship when he turned pro, and stepped into the international spotlight by winning silver in the 2004 Olympic marathon in Athens. He made headlines again when he won the New York City Marathon last year, making him the first American in 27 years--since Alberto Salazar in 1982--to earn the victory. The 35-year-old will return this year to defend his title. To prepare, he's spent some time training with Jared Fogle, a.k.a. The Subway Guy, who will also run in the NYC Marathon on November 7. Here are Keflezighi's top ten tips for going the distance.
--Aileen Torres

10. Find a race to train for: Running is a great form of exercise, but preparing for a specific race allows you to set goals and structure your training.

9. Find a training buddy or group: In the course of training for a marathon, there will be days where you won’t feel like doing your workout. Having a training buddy or group will keep you accountable to each other, and motivate you to do your workout, even when you don’t feel like it. I always say, the hardest thing about running is getting out of the door. Once you are on your run, you won’t regret the decision.

8. Choose your running routes: Spend more time running on soft surfaces. The impact on your legs from running on pavement leads to injuries and a shorter running career (at any level). Since most road races are run on city streets, it is important to get your body used to running on pavement, so you cannot avoid it altogether. I run on pavement about twice a week.

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