Saturday, September 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Why run a marathon? A first-timer's experience

Philly.com writer Emily Babay runs in the Rock ´n´ Roll USA marathon in Washington, D.C.
Philly.com writer Emily Babay runs in the Rock 'n' Roll USA marathon in Washington, D.C.

When I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, I didn’t have that moment of euphoria most new marathoners describe.

I felt confusion and panic. I thought I was at the wrong finish line. 

I never planned on being ‘That Marathoner’. You know who I’m talking about - the friend or relative who prattles off mile-by-mile by accounts of her last race and devotes entire weekend mornings to runs and describes her fueling and pacing strategies to anyone who will listen.

In fact, I never planned on being a marathoner at all.

More coverage
  • Tips for a first marathon
  • Philly Runners welcomes all running speeds
  • Philadelphia running clubs: South Philly Striders
  • Don’t get me wrong -- I love running. But I’ve always run mainly for fun. In high school, track and cross country practices meant hanging out with friends. During and after college, running has been a way to get away from the stress of school and work. I like running the distances and routes I want, based on what I’m in the mood for on a particular day. Having to run specific distances on specific days -- in training or a race -- wasn’t appealing.

    Yet, I ran my first marathon Saturday, finishing the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA race in Washington, D.C. in 3 hours, 36 minutes, 19 seconds. And I enjoyed the race, and training for it.

    In fact, I enjoyed it a lot.

    Somewhere along the line, I got jealous of marathoners when I watched a race or read running blogs or saw a runner sporting a marathon race shirt. My own runs got longer, and I started feeling ridiculous logging 14 or 16 miles without a better explanation. My dad, who’s now run three marathons, insisted they were fun. I decided to find out.

    I didn’t follow a specific training plan, though my preparation had a loose schedule: Rest Mondays and Fridays, hard runs Tuesdays, speed or hill work Thursdays, long runs Saturdays, easy runs Wednesdays and Sundays. I had some structure, but flexibility to do the routes I wanted, not the workouts dictated by some workout plan.

    My greatest fear never materialized: Running didn’t transform from something I wanted to do to something I had to do. I even looked forward to my Friday afternoon ritual of mapping out the 15 to 22 miles I planned to run the next day.

    I spent hours poring over the course map, developing a pacing plan and breaking it into mentally manageable distances. This was somewhat challenging, since I don’t own a Garmin or other GPS-enabled watch, and rarely even wear my basic sports watch on runs. So I relied largely on the Peco tower for rough approximations of my training-run times.

    My longest run was 22 miles, a double out-and-back along the Schuylkill River: Out to East Falls on the west side of the river, then back to the Art Museum. Then to Manayunk on the east side, and back to Center City. While the Schuylkill miles were somewhat monotonous, breaking the long run into four roughly equal sections worked well for me, mentally. So I divided the 26.2-mile course into four sections, of seven, six, seven and 6.2 miles.

    During the race, I let myself only focus on one section at a time. I knew the first seven miles had the toughest hills of the course. Luckily, these miles also covered the memorials and Rock Creek Park, my favorite running spots during the two and a half years I lived in D.C. My plan was simple: Take a few miles to warm up, then make it through the hills without using up too much energy or dropping my pace too much.

    After each mile, I checked my watch and calculated when I should arrive at the next marker. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the miles went by. If you, like me, are not great at mental math, basic addition can occupy a significant portion of each mile.

    The second segment, I hoped, would be fairly easy, as far as sections of a marathon go. I looked forward to a few downhill stretches, a friend cheering and a couple miles through Capitol Hill, my old neighborhood. The third section was the toughest. By miles 16, 17, 18, I was tired. But I couldn’t start counting down yet -- “nine more to go” isn’t exactly comforting.

    I coped. As the sun came out, I was glad that I wore a short-sleeve shirt instead of long sleeves. I was grateful the half-marathon runners were no longer on the course -- the road was less crowded and water stations no longer required waiting. 

    New marathoners always hear that mile 20 is when things get hard. But mile 20 is where I finally felt confident: I was going to finish my first marathon.

    I tried to forget that I had already run 20 miles. This is just a six-mile run on a day when I’m really tired, I told myself. I’ve run six miles in all kinds of conditions -- through snow and wind, on 90-plus degree days, while sick, hungover or sore. Surely, I thought, I could handle six miles.

    And I did. But after crossing what I thought was the finish line, I still wasn’t sure I was really done.

    Marathon runners were wearing blue race bibs. Half-marathoners had red bibs. But the marathon finish line was red, and the half-marathon line blue. I was perplexed. The lanes were separated by a fence, and I had no idea how I could have ended up in the wrong one.

    Instead of feeling relief and pride during my final steps, I was solely concentrating on determining whether I was in the correct lane and had actually completed the course.

    Once I saw other runners with marathon bibs next to me, I downed the water someone handed me. I stumbled around, looking for more water and the bagels and other food race organizers promised.

    I didn’t walk much the rest of the day, but I sat in bed and researched fall marathons.

    How could I immediately want to sign up for another 26.2-mile race?

    It’s counterintuitive, but marathon pace is actually enjoyable. Yes, it’s hard to sustain for 26.2 miles, but it’s not an uncomfortable, sprint-like pace.

    There’s the sense of purpose. Knowing the race was on the horizon was almost comforting during a frigid 19-miler along the riverfronts and the relentless wind gusts that seemed to accompany every run. There would be some recognition for these brutal runs.

    Then there’s the feeling of knowing you can do something most people can’t. Last year, 487,000 Americans ran marathons, according to Running USA. That’s a lot, but it’s less than 0.2 percent of the population.

    Those are reasons to run one marathon. But why run more? That desire stems from why I love running in the first place: Exploring new places, the sense of freedom, and feeling like a hard-core athlete for the first time in my life. I now take satisfaction as previously challenging runs get easier. And, I love always having something to look forward to.

    My friends, family and Twitter followers who were subject to my frequent training updates probably aren’t happy about this. Unfortunately for them, the very reasons I almost didn’t race at all are why I seem to be turning into That Marathoner.


    Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or ebabay@philly.com. Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

    Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.

    Emily Babay Philly.com staff
    Also on Philly.com
    Stay Connected