Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mimi Strong

In an effort to solidify my seat on the crazy train, I ran the Boston Marathon this past April.

I had qualified for it back in October of 2014, but based on the registration requirements and deadlines, I had to wait a year before I could even register and then another 7 months to actually participate in the event.

This was something I had in my sights from when I first starting running marathons in my early 20’s.  Keep in mind, I ran my first marathon just over a year after I ran my first 5k.  I had never really been a runner.  My workouts in the past involved power walking, light jogging and the StairMaster.  I was not competitive, rather sough to fit in my prom dress or avoid the ridicule of my older brothers who would point out when my ass was getting big.

My first marathon was the Chicago Marathon in 2001 and my goal was just to finish and didn’t really care about my time.  I followed the Hal Higdon training schedule to the tee and I was actually quite pleased with how I finished. I even managed to beat my big brother who was also running it -- not that it was a competition or anything and not that it gave me any sort of satisfaction based on those aforementioned fat-ass comments.

I decided to run the Marine Corps Marathon the next year and found myself training a little harder, a little smarter, with the intent of shaving some time off my time.  I ended up finishing 10 minutes faster than I had the year before and the course was tougher.  Of course, I was still nowhere near good enough to qualify for Boston, especially based on my age.

The qualifying times are different for men and women and are based on age groups, still the idea of working harder and getting better to some day qualify was my ultimate goal.  Of course, in the midst of all this, I got engaged and realized that the Boston Marathon I was trying to qualify for landed on the Monday after our wedding day.  I decided to table my efforts for a while since honeymooning whilst losing toenails didn’t sound all that appealing to me.

I had also found that m  I had this image in my mind of what would happen to my body as I started running more, and despite logging over 40 miles a week, I still didn’t have that lean runners physique I had envisioned.  In fact, I actually gained weight.  I still liken training to being pregnant or nursing where your body hangs on to weight to help sustain you through adverse conditions, like sustaining another life.  Since running was my life during training, it kind of made sense.
Marathon training was extremely time-consuming and left me with little time to do any other types of workouts that I loved.

Eventually, marriage gave way to babies and babies gave way to toddlers and well, if you’ve been reading my column for any period of time or you yourself are a parent, you know what comes next.

Its not to say I stopped running, I just kept it to shorter distances and on a schedule that I could fit in between the demands of having a family.  That is until I got the brilliant idea to re-enter the world of marathon running.  The kids had gotten older and were in school for a good portion of the day, which left me more time to do long runs.  I happened to be covering a marathon in Libertyville for a writing assignment I had taken on and low-and-behold; it was a Boston qualifier.

Although it had been 12 years since the last time I ran a marathon, I knew I was in way better shape than I had been in my early 20’s and I knew my running had improved.  I was itching to see what this mama could do.  So, I signed up.

My training was rough and every time I did a long run I said I wasn’t going to give up this crazy notion.  I had stomach issues and some minor injuries, but with urging and motivation of some of my fellow running friends, I decided to keep training and go through with it.

I found out a few weeks before the marathon that my daughter had a soccer game that morning so my husband and kids wouldn’t be able to come cheer me on.  I also knew that there wouldn’t be as many spectators as the previous marathons I had run.  That’s when I solicited the help of my social media friends for a “virtual cheering section.”

I didn’t need people to be impressed that I was doing a marathon.  I wasn’t trying to brag about how fast I run.  Part of it was to hold myself accountable for my efforts and reaching my goal.  There’s nothing worse than sharing with people you are working towards something and then have them ask you a few weeks or months later how it turned out only to tell them you gave up or failed.  I envisioned running into the people I told about it and pleasantly reporting that I followed through and succeeded in my goal.

The event came and my mom was able to come out and support me.  I didn’t see her until the last mile, but I needed her at that moment so badly.  My body was really starting to break down to the point I was literally crying “MOMMY!!!” and there she was.  I knew I was so close to not only finishing, but also finishing under my qualifying time.  Seeing her gave me the boost I needed to push that last mile with everything I had left in me.  I crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 34 minutes even after running an extra quarter-mile due to a poorly marked turn-around at mile nine.  I was overcome with emotion and sheer exhaustion.

I didn’t even realize when I qualified that I would have to wait until the following year to run it, but it really didn’t matter at that point.  I had done it and fulfilled a dream that I thought I had tucked so far back in my brain it had dissipated into oblivion.

Before I knew it, it was time to really start preparing for Boston.  I wanted to be careful not to over-train, since I teach so many group fitness classes, but I also wanted to be prepared.  I ran shorter distances twice a week in between my classes. Then I did a hilly half-marathon that I was told would be great training for the Boston course and did another 10k that had some considerable hills.  I threw in a 20-mile run and felt really good, strong and prepared for the main event.

What I did not take into consideration and what you cannot train for, is traveling to another city with your family to participate in an event. I left first thing in the morning the day prior to the marathon because I had to get my packet before the Expo closed.  Tom and the kids came on a later flight that same day.  Despite the fact I had been up since 3:30 a.m., I arrived in Boston and was anxious to get to the Expo.  I dropped my luggage off at my hotel and walked a mile the Expo and back again. The Expo was insane and couldn’t handle the crowds and didn’t want to wait in line for anything.  I was getting really emotional too and kept tearing up. 

I found the wall that had all the participants’ names etched in and located my name.  While I was waiting to take a picture of it, there was a middle-aged man taking a picture of his daughter in front of the wall.  I watched him beaming with pride as he snapped her picture and asked if they wanted me to take a picture of them together.  They declined, but I told them I wished I could take a picture of the dad to capture his pride at that moment.  I then proceeded to cry and they promptly walked away.

 I decided to grab lunch at the pub across the street and ordered myself a beer, despite the fact I don’t usually drink beer.  It seemed like a good way to counter-act all the coffee I had that morning to get me through a 6 a.m. flight and thought it might calm my nerves.  I sat there trying to assess how I was feeling.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t “a real runner.”  I kept seeing all these other participants walking around in their official Boston Marathon “Celebration Jackets,” both from this year and years’ past. They all looked like the real-deal while I just felt like a soccer mom wearing Chuck Taylor’s, a cardigan sweater because it was chilly and who needed her glasses to navigate around a strange city.

I tried to take a nap back at the hotel before my family arrived, but I was pretty restless. After an hour nap, I decided to go back to the Expo despite receiving advice to stay off my feet the day before the marathon.

My family arrived and we headed to dinner.  Throughout the day I tried to soak up the entire atmosphere around me and post pictures to Facebook.  I was getting so much love and support; the notifications were sucking the battery life out of my phone at warp-speed.  We had dinner and headed back to the hotel to try and get to bed early.

I had to be up at 4:45 a.m. on marathon day to make sure I had breakfast and be ready to catch a bus out to the start at 6 a.m.  One of my major priorities was making sure that I went to the bathroom before I left the hotel.  Here comes the down and dirty truth about running, but in the interest of self-disclosure and giving you a real snap-shot into the life of a marathon runner, I need to tell you pooping is very important.  You hear stories of runners getting “the trots” or people running with crap down their legs. Part of that is due to dehydration, but the bottom line is there is nothing worse than running with a full bowel.  All sorts of bad things can come from that and that’s where I will leave this part of the conversation.

When people asked if I was ready for Boston the weeks leading up to leaving, that was really all I could think about.  Thankfully that fact that I am extremely regular along with cup of oatmeal, a banana and cup of coffee, I was able to cross one major hurdle before I hopped on the bus to Hopkinton. 

Getting to the start of the race was another part of the whole experience that was impossible to prepare for.  You start the marathon in a little town called Hopkinton that is 26.2 miles from the finish line.  I booked my hotel through a travel group that not only offered a reasonable room-rate right in the city, but offered a charter bus to the start that you could stay on if you needed to rather than sit out in the elements, whatever they might be, in Athletes Village near the start.  This also meant getting out there early and doing nothing but waiting to go to the start.  I knew a handful of people who were also running and they acted as my guides since they had run Boston before.  Of course, we didn’t start until almost 11 a.m. and that meant we walked to Athlete’s Village two times before making our way to the starting corrals adding approximately 3 miles of walking to the day. 

The weather was also unseasonably warm and was already over 70 degrees before we started.  I knew it would be warmer than what I had trained in and had adjusted my clothing options, but I was already sweating before I even started running.  Also something I didn’t account for.  I had my electrolyte drink in one of the bottles I carried on my waist and the other had water.  I also tried to hydrate, not only that morning, but also the days leading up to as well with other thing besides beer, of course!

So, there I was at the starting line of the Boston Marathon.  I saw a man that was a total doppelgänger of my grandpa, so I knew he was with me.  I even took a picture of this man, making him the second stranger in two days to look at me like I was nuts and promptly walk away.  I kept hearing songs that reminded me of things like my Girls on the Run team at my daughter’s school.  The announcer said “You done good!” referring to qualifying to even be there which is something my mom always says to me.  I even got random phone call from Bob Blazier, who is the namesake for the 5k race I help coordinate, literally as I was walking to the starting line.  He didn’t even know I was in Boston, but was calling regarding our next meeting.  He is someone who is a major role model to me and regardless of whether he knew it or not, it was yet another sign that the universe put out there for me.

I began running and immediately had weird cramp in my stomach that I was able to eliminate by the end of the first mile.  The whole first few miles of the course is downhill and I had heard from several people that this would make it hard to pace, but would also be hard on your body.  I did my best to manage it and felt good.  I was thirsty very early on, so I kept trying to hydrate as best I could.  Unfortunately, drinking while running sometimes upsets my stomach, so there was also a lot of belching going on -- just another glamorous aspect of distance running.

The miles were actually going by fairly quickly and before I knew it, I was at the half-marathon point.  I kept pushing forward knowing the infamous hills were ahead of me and noticed my minutes-per-mile were slowing a bit, but I was okay with that.  I was still hovering right around 8-minute miles.  In the back of my mind, I wanted to re-qualify for next year, but also knew that the course was a lot different than what I had originally qualified with.

As I headed into mile 18, I started to feel my toes cramping and knew I was dehydrating.  I tried to drink more water and my electrolyte drink and the Gatorade on the course, but it wasn’t enough.  I had a salt tab in my belt, but couldn’t find it.  I finally stopped at medic tent to get some from them.  The two women argued over how I should take them.  One said to swallow them like an aspirin and the other said to let them dissolve.  I ended up swallowing them, barely, and I have a feeling they were the kind you are supposed to let dissolve.  They helped a little, but ultimately my legs started cramping as well and I had to start to alternate between walking and running to make it through the next few miles. 

My stomach was also getting worse and no matter what I tried to take in whether it was gel, water, Gatorade, my energy chews, they all made me feel nauseous.  I also felt like I might become “that runner” who craps herself.  I stopped at a port-o-john twice, once to check my pants and another to try and puke.  Keep in mind, this was my fourth marathon and I have never had to walk or needed to stop in a port-o-john.

I finally got to mile 23 and knew that I was in trouble.  I was hallucinating, breathing heavily even though I was walking and was pretty sure that I was about to faint.  I made my way to the medic tent and tried to puke, but all I could do was dry-heave.  They sat me down and I immediately began cramping from my toes all the way up to my ribcage.  They had a man who massaged my cramps one at a time and each time one went away, another one would crop up.  I had three people staring at me and they looked concerned.  I asked them why they were looking at me like that and they assured me I was going to be fine.  There was one woman, who we will call “Zsa Zsa,” who appeared to have had a lot of plastic surgery; so reading her expression was extremely difficult for me.  Once minute her expression made me think I was going to die, the next I thought she was mocking me, and the next consoling me.  Needless to say, I was very confused.

One young girl, who we’ll call “Tootie,” sat with me and was trying to console me saying that the fact I made it to mile 23 was a great achievement and I should be very proud of myself.  I firmly told her that 23 miles is not a marathon.  I also knew how many people at home were tracking my progress and I started to get angry that everyone who had been cheering me on would know how much I sucked. 

I started shivering and they covered me in foil capes.  When the cramps traveled up my body, they decided to lay me down on a cot and wrap me in more foil and eventually a white sheet.   I told them that as long as they didn’t pull that white sheet over my head, I would be fine and could finish.  Their response was, “Oh, honey.  We aren’t going to pull it over your head.  We’re just going to cover you so you are warm.”

That’s when my favorite character in the little mini-sitcom going on in the medic tent entered.  He was about my age and seemed to have a very straightforward attitude and a dry sense of humor.  If you are familiar Joe Santagato who does “Idiots of the Internet” on YouTube, this was his brother from another mother.  Or maybe it was him?  Or maybe I was hallucinating.  Either way, he was the only one who “got me” and told the other idiots, “She means if you pull the white sheet over her head, she’s dead!” in his lovely Boston accent.  Then he assured me I was going to finish and charged my phone for me.  I may or may not have asked him to marry me.  I can’t be sure. 

I had to have stopped courting this guy because I told them I needed to call Tom.  I knew he had been tracking me and despite the fact I texted him that I was bonking, I needed him to know I had stopped.  He, the kids and my neighbor, Nicole, who had arrived late the night before to cheer me on, were in an Uber on their way to the medic tent.  I finally sat up and felt well enough to drink some bouillon.  That’s where my second favorite character, who may or may not have been an angel, helped me out.  He was older gentleman who had been behind me massaging my shoulders and had the warmest hands. He had offered me some warm bouillon when I first entered the tent, but there was no way I could keep it down.  I finally felt well enough to stomach it and when I told him I was ready for it, he got it to me S.T.A.T. Unfortunately, the bouillon wasn’t as warm as his hands, but it would do.

Meanwhile, they introduced me to the concierge drivers who they told me would drive me in a van to the finish line.  They had salmon colored jackets on and I dismissed them telling them I didn’t care if I had to crawl across the finish line, I was not getting on their van, especially if was the same color as their ill-fitting windbreakers.  I am hoping I kept that thought to myself, but seeing as how I lacked any kind of control of my body at point, I can’t be sure.

I decided to call Tom back and tell him to meet me at the finish line instead.  I think the bullion had magic powers because I suddenly felt like a million bucks.  Okay, more like a crumpled up five-dollar bill, but it was like that finding that crumpled up five-dollar bill in a jacket pocket that has been hanging in your closet all summer and fall.  It was all I needed to get up and finish the last 3 miles.  I could have also used the winter coat from my metaphor, because it was 20 degrees cooler than it had been at the start of the race and there was a headwind.  I thought it was just because my body was so screwed up from being dehydrated, but regardless, I decided that if I ran, not only would I be warmer and this whole thing would be over that much sooner. 

I ran the last three miles and finished in just under five hours.

I tried to cry when I crossed the finish line, but I had no tears in my body to shed. I was pissed at my time, but happy I finished.  At that point, all I wanted was my family.

 I called Tom to try and find him and was ultimately reunited with my family and my neighbor, Nicole.  Being the incredibly wonderful and generous person that she is, she bought me the fancy “Celebration Jacket” and had it waiting for me when I finished.  We walked back toward the hotel and I felt okay, but still nauseous.  When we got to the hotel they were leading people up the regular elevators and freight elevators and we went up the freight.  There were several people on the elevator and it was about 100 degrees in there.  As luck would have it, we were on the top floor.  The hotel employee operating the elevator kept getting off and leading people to the doors out of the freight hallway and into the regular hallways to their rooms.  He asked me to hold the door open button since I was closest.  Like I hadn’t done enough that day.

I was starting to feel really sick when it we finally arrived at our floor. I exited the elevator to try and find the nearest garbage can only to find a janitorial bathroom in the freight hallway.  I splayed my body on the nasty floor and hung on for dear life to the shit-stained toilet.  I looked up at my husband in disbelief that I was on this disgusting floor like college girl celebrating her 21st birthday in a dive bar.  My kids were worried sick about me, especially Maddie, who had picked up Tom’s concern on the course when I started to slow down and ultimately stop.  She told me I’m never allowed to do Boston again.

I managed to get up and get to the room where Nicole got me a turkey sandwich and some Gatorade.  I was a new woman. Eventually I was able to shower and within the hour we were on our way to dinner.

We went to Harvard Yard that night and I even mustered up enough energy to have some drinks back at the hotel with Nicole while Tom and the kids went up to the room.  I talked to several people throughout the day and evening who said it was tough day out there for a lot of people and congratulated me on finishing when I shared my woes.

Tom had yelled at me for being so down on myself.   While I was proud of myself for pulling myself up and refusing to give up and ultimately finish, I was mad at myself for getting to the point where I had to walk and ultimately stop. I was upset that I struggled so much.  All that hard work and people telling me I was going to “rock it” and I fell flat on my face.  I knew full well that people would still be proud of me that I even got there and that I finished.  Yet, being the psycho that I am, I knew I could do better. I should have been smarter, stopped sooner for salt tabs, hydrated better, trained harder and all the self-doubt that goes along with disappointment.

I’m not the fastest runner, but it comes relatively easy to me as long as I put in the miles. I do well at local races, but I don’t follow any crazy training programs.  I eat healthy, but don’t count how many grams of protein and carbs I take in leading up to events.  I don’t use fancy equipment, shoes, compression socks and such.  I just lace up my shoes, make sure I’ve pooped and run. 

This was one of the first times I struggled and where my finish left me disappointed in myself.  Yet, somehow I knew that this all happened for a reason.  I tell the people I teach in my classes about perseverance and tell them to keep going, taking for granted how easy exercise comes to me.  I tell my children never to give up and that they need to work hard at school and their activities.  It was time for me to lead by example on not just how to win, but  how to fall down and get back up.  Apparently I needed a gut check. I needed to be humbled and knocked down so I could have another chapter to my story.  Actually, two chapters; one about falling down and fighting tooth and nail to finish and another about what I decided to do next.

Going into all of this I said I would never run another marathon.  I said I would check this off my bucket list and move on.  I called this my “vasectomy marathon.” However, once the nausea wore off, the chaffing had healed and I could walk down a set of stairs without looking like I had a potato chip up my ass, I realized I wasn’t done.  Just like giving birth, all that pain and agony was soon erased.  I also had a few fellow runners get inside my head and tell me I needed to come back next year and do it again.

I chuckled at this notion.  Even if I wanted to re-qualify it would have to be for the 2018 Boston Marathon.  I knew the fire in my belly would fizzle if I lost momentum.  Then I realized I could re-qualify for next year if I squeezed a marathon in before September 11th of this year. Needless to say, I was looking up Boston Qualifying marathons before we checked out of our hotel.

So, not only do I have a seat on the crazy train, I am officially driving it.   I pulled the trigger and am set to do the Schaumburg Marathon on Sunday, May 15, in an effort to re-qualify and get back to Boston next year.  Crazy? Yes, without a shadow-of-a-doubt, but I’m trained and ready and would rather do it now than in September when it is more likely to be hot and humid. 

I’m not sure what possesses me to do this.  I don’t know when I will ever stop striving for more or when I will ever be content.  The truth is, I don’t know that I ever will be and quite honestly I don’t know that I ever want to be.