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How to Go From Freaking Out To Finishing My First Marathon

How to Go From Freaking Out To Finishing My First Marathon


By Emily Kelly

In 2014, I ran my first full marathon. It’s taken me a couple months to write my recount, and in doing so I tried not to write a novel or to rely on all the worn-out clichés. On both counts, I failed.

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“I’m never going to run a full marathon. It’s just too much – I can’t put my body through that. I’m happy running half’s.”

These are the words that, even a year ago, I would repeat like a mantra, on cue, whenever someone would ask when I planned on running my first full marathon. And I believed them. It was too hard, I didn’t think I could put my body through it, and frankly, I didn’t trust myself to train to the point of being able to finish it. I could run 13 miles with half-assed training, but 26 was out of the question.

But almost every runner I talked to had the exact same reply: they would smile, that smile that says Oh honey, and then simply say, “Yep. That’s what they all say.”

My friend, Tiffany, and I decided to take the plunge and train for the marathon at the beginning of the year. Last summer I was with her when she completed her first half, and it felt right that we should run both of our first full’s together. We knew we wanted to run Chicago, so when the time came, that’s what we signed up for.

To ensure our registration, we decided to run with a charity team (individual registration is done via lottery, and we didn’t want to risk one of us not getting in). This seemed ideal: we’d have several months to raise money for Ronald McDonald House Charities, and in return we were guaranteed spots at the start line, and a few other perks.

We didn’t realize at the time, but the greatest perk we received was a discount on the CARA (Chicago Area Runner’s Association) marathon-training program. CARA is one of the more popular training groups in the Chicago area. There are scheduled group long-distance runs every Saturday morning, and shorter mid-week runs for those able to attend. Once you arrive to your first Saturday morning run, you find a pace group to run with (9-minute mile, 9:30, etc.). Tiffany and I joined the 10-minute mile group (“The CARA Perfect Ten’s,” as they’re – eh, we’re – known on the path). This group, which we ran with almost every Saturday morning (at 6am – woof!) for four months, would end up becoming a solid crew of new close friends, and the driving motivation that got us to the start line on October 12th.

It’s pretty obvious why training is so critical for a full marathon. 26.2 miles is a lot to put your body through. In addition to the discipline, accountability, and friendship we found with the Perfect Ten’s, we received a wealth of training tips, resources, and encouragement from people who had done it before – some having 10, 15, even 20 marathons under their belt. We learned to how to pace ourselves, how to fuel on the course, and how to handle the physical and mental demands placed on you as you put one foot in front of the other.

On race-day itself, I ran alone (or, as alone as you can be while surrounded by 40,000 people). Tiffany and I got separated not even half a mile into the course, and that was that. As Chicago is known for being one of the most spectator-filled courses out there, I chose to run without music, and just take in the entire race as it came at me.

It. Was. Amazing.

The weather was perfect: a little wind, cool temps but sunny. Not once did I regret going sans-tunes (and we all know how much I rely on music in my workouts). I had friends strategically scattered along the course to egg me on, and with my name printed on my running tank, I had thousands of cheerleaders encouraging me the whole way (getting called ‘flawless’ at mile 23 was definitely a highlight).

With so many spectators, you can imagine the quantity and creativity of on-course signage. Standbys like, “Smile If You’re Not Wearing Underwear,” “Worst Parade Ever,” “Pain is temporary, finishing is forever” were speckled throughout. But the one sign that stuck with me and actually encouraged me along the way? Trust your training.

The training program we followed had us running 20 miles at the longest. As a newbie, it can be a bit daunting to go into race day knowing you’d be tacking another 6.2 miles to the furthest you have ever run. 6.2 miles is nothing to sneeze at when you haven’t been running for more than three hours. It’s easy to get anxious and let the negativity seep in, thinking “I can’t do this,” “This is too hard on my body,” “I won’t be able to finish.” What brought me the greatest comfort was that I had put in the work I needed to do, and that the training program I followed was proven. Most marathoners I know started with the same program, and they all tell you the same thing: trust the training. It works. At the end of the day, that’s part of what makes your first marathon so spectacular: you’ve never run that far before, ever. As soon as I crossed mile 20, every step was a new personal record.

When you’re putting your body through a challenge in such uncharted territory, it can feel scary vulnerable to let go and just see what you can do. To stay present in each mile was a huge challenge. But every time I found myself getting anxious or stressed, I took a deep breath, looked around at everyone who was on the course (running with me, or cheering us on) and tried instead to enjoy being out there, running on a beautiful day, achieving something I never believed was possible.

What resulted was more than I hoped for. I beat the goal time I set for myself (finishing at 4:27, 3 minutes shy of my goal). I ran almost the entire course, with the exception of water stations and a couple blocks in the 22-mile zone. And I felt good the whole time. Minor irritation from clothes, and standard hip and shoulder pain that comes every time I run aside, I recovered quickly and felt strong enough to pick up speed at the final half mile.

And I didn’t even cry when I finished. I was too happy.

At Mile 22, smiling like an idiot upon seeing my friends
At Mile 22, smiling like an idiot upon seeing my friends

As we move forward into the new year, and set our goals and good intentions (hey new issue theme!), I encourage you to think back on some of your own famous last words. What is something that has always seemed beyond the realm of possibility – running a marathon? Giving CrossFit a go? Hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro? – but still sits there, tucked away in the back of your mind with the rest of the maybes and what if’s. Let's make 2015 the year of getting out of the comfort zone and pushing beyond the limits we place on ourselves. Trust yourself, and trust your training to get you there.

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