My First Marathon Experience

This past weekend I complete my first marathon. It was a spectacular journey-  and one like any other- filled with miles, trials, tribulations, and elations!

After backpacking the John Muir Trail I went back to running consistently in October. I officially started the marathon portion of my training in early December. The training went smoothly, though it wasn’t without its hiccups. Week two and three of my training were severely interrupted by a bout of the flu.  And after my first 20 mile long run that vile monster with whom I have so often battled reared his ugly head again- tendinitis. But, with the help of some extra rest days, advil, and ice-ing I was able to get it under control, and still do all my long runs. Though I didn’t always sleep as much as I had hoped or run as fast as I had planned, my training still strengthened my friendship with Discipline and Sacrifice, two steadfast companions for any serious runner.

The last week leading up to the marathon was particularly hard- not because the runs were difficult- in fact they were mostly shorter and easier to allow my body to rest and recover for race day. But because it required an enormous amount of patience on my part. The decrease in mileage and intensity made me feel antsy and anxious all week. Three days before the race I also started feeling like I might be getting sick- you know that creeping feeling in your throat and that general weakness of the body? I didn’t mention it to anyone when they asked me how I was doing because if I said it out loud, it meant I was admitting to it (and I was NOT getting sick the week of my marathon, right??? Right??!!). I managed to feel pretty good, fighting it off with loads of honey lemon tea and some advil.

I didn’t sleep well at all the night before, but I had rested pretty good the week before so I didn’t worry too much about it. The eve of the fray is always a nerve-wracking experience- whether it’s before a big race, a summit push, or any of the myriad of challenges life presents.

At last, the day of the race arrived. I was so so so nervous. And I’m just not good at being nervous. It’s definitely one of my biggest shortcomings, and something I struggled a lot with at track and cross country meets in the past. When I’m nervous, I’m very mentally susceptible- the slightest things can throw me off. It takes me a lot of will power to maintain focus and composure. I told myself over and over to relax, stay confident, and take everything in stride (literally and figuratively, ha!).

As a side note… when asking me about my upcoming race, some of my co-workers asked me why I was feeling nervous to run slowly for 26.2 miles. My answer is that running has been a big part of my life for a long time. I invest a lot into it and get a lot out of it too. I think that when you put a lot of effort and time into something, regardless of what it is, it becomes very meaningful. As allotted energy increases, so does significance. Accordingly, a certain level of anxiety is impossible to avoid for something you care a lot about.

So back to the marathon! The marathon was the Canyon Meadows Trail Marathon held at Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, CA: The course was primarily run on dirt trails and included 3,000 feet of ascent and 3,000 feet of descent. The marathon course is run as two half-marathon loops (bonus mental challenge!). The suffering starts instantaneously as the race begins with a fairly treacherous incline that of course has to be repeated after the first lap. But it was sufferable, and so were all the hills that followed.

I liked that the start was not too crowded (about 400 people I think between all the races?). One thing I didn’t expect based on the weather updates I had looked up the day before was for it to be so cold at the start. It took me all of 7 miles to finally feel warmed up. Up to that point my muscles were tight and frigid and it was definitely a struggle. But, what better way to warm-up then exercise, right?

My up-hills were extremely slow. They are my weakness and also the area in which I will profit from the biggest gains if I improve. Conversely, down-hills are my greatest strength. I ran aggressively on them to make up for the up-hill battles. I fell only once (though I almost ate it about five times), but got up instantly without wear or tear except for the break in stride. The down hills were raging and SO MUCH FUN!!!! (And a bit wild on the twistier, turnier, and rockier sections). I came through the first half-marathon in approximately 2 hours and 5 minutes, faster than I had expected to. In fact, for the whole first loop I was so afraid that I was going too slow.

It was peculiar how on the first half I kind of wished to be running alone, but there were plenty of runners around me. Then on the second half there were some lonely moments when I wished to have other runners around me. After all, the void of exhaustion is often best filled with companionship.

Anyways, after the first loop it was time to trudge up that mighty first uphill again. I had told myself I would run the whole way- because of course running is faster than walking, right? Wrong. On the steeper slopes during the second loop I found myself getting passed by people who were walking. That’s when I realized that my stubborn decision to run the whole way was costing me precious time- so I power walked the steepest parts. Lesson learned, until I can build the strength to truly power up those hills- when the going gets rather inclined, power walking is the way to go.

One thing that I was a bit peeved by during the race was dogs. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. But, not when I’m trying to run a race and their running unleashed between my legs. At the same time I suppose it’s wonderful to see that so many people are still out enjoying the trails and nature with their pets.

A really great thing about this marathon is that it was beautiful!!! If you’re going to run 26.2 miles, it might as well be aesthetically pleasing! One view in particular struck me- an opening in the chaparral shrubbery where endless silhouetted green hills faded one behind the other into the misty bay area horizon. It was a reinvigorating push back against the current of vigor that was seeping out of me with every passing mile.

So what sorts of things went through my mind during the race you ask? A gazillion. Thoughts of family, friends, and people who inspire me. Poems and quotes. Thoughts about my high school cross country days and my teammates from then. Mostly about the race and how I was doing, how far I’d come, and what was coming up next. Extended amounts of focus, and some zoning out too.

The phrase that became the theme of my marathon- GET UP AND WIN THE RACE – came from this poem:

I also enjoyed reciting this short poem:

“I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust too.
”– John Masefield

And this George Mallory quote:

“…to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared… Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and how quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished…Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves!”

A few others meandered in and out of my thoughts, but those were the main three.

After 20 miles, I was further than I had ever run. Many people speak of a wall they hit somewhere around mile 20. I never hit a wall, at least there was no specific point where I felt myself crash. Rather I felt the gradual onslaught of a sneaking, continuously constructing wall of fatigue that creeped up on me and slowly tried to crumble me.

One particular thing I noted in the final miles was my decreased mental capacity. Your brain fatigues, just as your body does. Around mile 22 I was trying to calculate something about pace and mileage and I just couldn’t do the math. So I gave up the calculation and told myself to just keep running.

The last two miles were looooong – I so wanted to find some great inspiration that would propel me to the finish- but it wasn’t happening. My brain was slow and my thoughts waning. The best I could muster was a “just keep this up, you’ll get there under 4:30.”

Even with the final miles seemingly enlarged, the finish came up on me as kind of a surprise. I wish I had realized sooner exactly how far I was from it to start my kick (if it can be called that) a little earlier. But, considering it was my first marathon I’m still pretty happy with the finish.

I finished in 4 hours, 27 minutes, and 47 seconds as the 2nd place female finisher. She broke the old course record and I was about a minute away from it. The competitive part of me was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get first considering she passed me with 3 miles to go, but I did try to catch her and I couldn’t. You have to give it to her, she ran a great finish. Next time!

I felt pretty nauseated and elated after the race. Thirst was immediate, but I soon gained an appetite as well. After eating too many of the delicious snacks provided by the race organizers, I was nauseated anew. I mostly regained my appetite when we all convened at In-n-Out for a post-race meal. However, I didn’t finish my burger or fries- something quite abnormal for me after an endurance event, because for those of you who know me, after endurance events, I am usually a bottomless pit of eating.

Some thoughts looking back- I had carefully studied the map beforehand, but other than knowing which parts of the course were mostly up and which mostly down, trying to figure out mile markers was pointless. I ran most of my training long runs willing myself to go one mile at a time. But, for the race I had to adapt my methods, because except for a few spots, I had no way of knowing exactly where each mile marker was.

Also, since this was trail marathon, there were no where as many aid stations as road ones tend to have, so I decided to carry a camel back with water and my gu’s. I didn’t stop at any of the aid stations for fear of wasting time, but sometimes I wonder if I should have- may be getting water from the aid stations and not carrying a camel-back would help my time by lightening the load on my back? Something to ponder…

Overall, I think the race was nicely set-up-  well-marked and well-stocked. And a friendly environment to be in. The other runners were really encouraging and courteous. You could expect people to step aside and let you pass on the single track trails and also gain words of encouragement if you were passing or being passed.

The night after the race I was so simultaneously tired and wired that I couldn’t sleep (I know that’s odd to say, but that’s what it felt like). So I stayed up writing this instead. It was mentally and physically exhausting, but at the same time I know I can do a whole lot better. My mind and body still have plenty of learning to do!

So, will I do another marathon? Probably, but I don’t know when and I don’t think I’ll think about it for a while. A road one seems enticing so that I can compare the experience and run for a fast time. But, deep down, I also know that I belong on the trails. We’ll see… for now the certainty is that my legs hurt.

I truly believe that anyone with a more or less functioning set of legs can run a marathon (and even without legs, you can still finish one!). That is why it has been called the common man’s Everest. So much of the marathon is about mental conviction and will power- being determined, staying focused, taking it one mile at a time, having an unfailing belief in your capacities, and willing yourself to the finish.

I find it so funny sometimes how humans organize things like this- races, challenges, deliberate suffering, all for enjoyment and a sense of accomplishment. It is so foolishly and admirably human. I must admit I love the feeling of death, delirium, and elation associated with running. A bit masochist? Perhaps…

For me the marathon is a GREAT personal challenge. One with which I can learn patience, belief in myself, and to take everything in stride- big and small obstacles alike. It is a comprehensive experience. A means of exploring our landscapes- external and internal. It is about adapting to the terrain, enjoying the views and suffering the pain, getting through the ups, the downs, the turns, the changes of pace, and sharing it all with some fellow human beings… oh you see where this is going don’t you? What an exquisite metaphor for life! You can’t expect things to go perfectly, but you can hope for the best and you can prepare for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Lastly, it was so great to have the support of some of my best friends and to share such a demanding and fulfilling experience with them. And of course to lie in the grass afterwards recovering, relaxing, and enjoying a beautiful day. I can’t thank them enough and anyone else who has encouraged me along the way. Including some of the people from the Golden Valley Harriers Running Club in Davis who were at the race (which I so infrequently attend due to work conflicts, but has been a great place for training and encouragement)!

Speaking of people and how great they are, there were some pretty amazing runners out there. To me, the one that stands out most was a 13 year old boy who ran the 50k (that’s 31 miles!). We matched each other in pace quite well on the down-hills, but he beat me through the marathon and ran 5 more miles after that.

Well, thanks again to everyone who has encouraged and supported me and dealt with my nervousnessness and understood what running means to me. I hope I can do the same for you in your endeavors. I’ll be writing another article soon on running, what it has meant to me and taught me, and the general application of sports in life. Stay tuned!

Pura Vida! Just Bagel… No Regrets!

At the start with my good friend Marvin!

Published by Johanne Boulat

Johanne Boulat was born in French-speaking Switzerland, where she lives again now, but she grew up under the resplendent California sun. For 21 years she basked in the spirit of the Wilderness, which she discovered on hiking as well as literary paths. She received her Bachelor of Science in Animal Biology from the University of California, Davis in 2012 and since then has worked as a scientific field aid, a translator, a sales specialist, and a running coach. In 2018, she completed her master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. She now teaches English and Science at a local elementary school and dedicates her free time to the three “R”s: Running, Reading, and Writing.

3 thoughts on “My First Marathon Experience

    1. Hello!
      Thank you and congratulations to you as well 🙂
      I’m going to check out your blog right away- thank you in advance for taking pictures and letting me save them!

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