When: April 28, 2013
Where: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
I couldn’t have asked for a better first marathon.
When I decided to sign up for the third annual Gettysburg North and South Marathon, I was sitting in the newsroom at The Telegram in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was the day after I ran the Hypothermic Half-Marathon, and even though I had vehemently told my friend Carolyn before the race that “after this, I’m taking a break from running. I am done training for races in the winter”, the endorphins had kicked in and I was still riding that runner’s high. You forget the cold, the numbness that settles in around kilometer 18, the worry that you’ve literally ran your butt off. All you feel is, “this is the best thing EVER!” and “I can’t wait to do it AGAIN!”
It also happened to be my 25th birthday, so I was in one of those contemplative moods where I was writing down the goals I wanted to achieve this year. And one of the dreams I’ve had for years now is running the Great Wall marathon in China by the time I’m 30. When I initially chose “by 30”, I was 18 and that age seemed impossibly far off. But all of a sudden I realized if I wanted to run the Great Wall, I should maybe run a marathon before that.
So I decided right then that I would run 26.2 miles before I turned 26. I looked up races in North America and the first one that caught my eye was the Gettysburg North and South. It seemed too good to be true: running + history + Civil War battlefield + 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg?!? Pretty much all of my favourite things.
I quickly emailed my mom the link to the race with “thoughts???” written after it. Because my mom is amazing and supportive, she replied right away offering to drive down to Pennsylvania with me.
And that was that. I was registered to run my first marathon.
I plan to write future posts on my training and on Gettysburg itself, but this post will focus solely on the race itself.
I didn’t sleep more than an hour or two the night before, but oddly enough I felt very calm and relaxed about that. I have a looooong history of sleep…anxiety, we’ll call it, going back to when I was a little kid and would ask my parents every night when they tucked me in, “how many hours until midnight? How many hours until you go to sleep? Will you come and check on me before you go to sleep?” In my child’s mind, I clearly didn’t get the whole concept of time zones and was terrified that the entire world would be asleep while I would be the only one left awake. This thought filled me with overwhelming, paralyzing loneliness and I would lie quietly in bed, trying not to cry as I listened to my sister sleep in the bunk bed above me. I’ve gotten over this since (thank God!), but I still have nights of insomnia at least once or twice a week.
For some reason though, I didn’t freak out about getting a good night’s sleep before the marathon. I had read that it’s actually two nights before a race that counts the most for sleep, and that Friday I had had a solid ten hours. I wasn’t counting on really sleeping much Saturday night, so I didn’t stress about it. Instead, I lay quietly in bed and focused on feeling relaxed if not completely rested. I visualized the race and how I wanted it to play out, and when my alarm went off at 5 I slipped out of bed and thought, “Let’s do this.”
I’m an early morning runner to begin with and I find it easier to run on an empty stomach, so I didn’t eat anything before the race. I don’t recommend this – I’ve read plenty of articles on pre-race fueling and everyone seems to say the same thing: eat something. A bagel with peanut butter and a banana sounds like a great choice of carbs, healthy fats and protein (as well as potassium!), but for me “running on empty” is just what works although as I’m typing this I realize how unhealthy this sounds. I suggest playing around with food during your training runs and trying different combinations, because everyone’s bodies respond differently. I’ve found that my best bet is to eat plenty of carbs the night before, sleep, get everything, er, “going” the next morning and then hit the road with plenty of stored energy without feeling heavy.
The night before Gettysburg I ate a baked sweet potato and some homemade protein bars – oats, peanut butter, banana, Vega protein powder and hemp seeds. Super simple, but it’s the simple ingredients that I find work best for me. I also drank plenty of water and coconut water for the electrolytes.
The running outfit
Deciding what to wear for a race is not just a silly “how will this look in photos?” concern (although I completely admit that’s still on my mind!). You’ve got to pick clothes that will last through 26.2 miles of blood, sweat and tears (and chafing!). Weather is also a factor, obviously – most marathons have early start times when it’s significantly cooler out before the sun comes out and everything warms up. The weather for Gettysburg looked pretty perfect – sunny and between 10 – 18 degrees Celsius.
I went with an outfit I had worn for one of my 20-mile training runs, so I knew it could go the distance: long-sleeved technical fabric tee, running skirt and compression socks (my love for compression socks knows no bounds – seriously the best running investment ever!)
Finish line in sight!
Yes, I was colour coordinated and wearing a skirt, and yep, that was totally intentional. What can I say? I love pink and running and skirts and pushing myself until I feel like I’m going to die and I don’t think any of those should be mutually exclusive. Running should be fun, and if wearing a skirt and hot pink socks is fun for you, go ahead! 🙂
(Plus, I also like the idea of people who look down on women running in skirts as not being “real runners”…and then I kick their butt). And a little girl who was cheering everyone on during the race told me she loved my outfit, which made me smile – something that was hard to do between Mile 20 and 25!
My parents were going to meet up with me later, so I left them still sleeping in our hotel room (we stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott at 95 Presidential Circle, which was fabulous) and headed down to the lobby. There were shuttle buses running from the hotel to the start line, and the lobby was filled with nervous, excited runners. There was a group of girlfriends all decked out in Southern belle-inspired costumes! As a huge Gone with the Wind fan, I loved this. So much fun! (although I wondered how itchy that pinafore would get after a few miles…)
One of the unique things about the Gettysburg North and South Marathon is that when you sign up, you have to decide what “side” to run for, the North or the South. At the end, the side with the fastest times wins, I suppose, the “battle”. Most runners choose North or South based on where they’re living or where their ancestors came from. As a Canadian, I didn’t really have a dog in the fight so I went with the South because of my aforementioned love of Gone with the Wind and because who doesn’t love an underdog? The North had won every year prior to this year’s race, and in reality, had won the actual battle that took place between July 1 and 3, 1863.
This aspect of the race has sparked some criticism – you can read a Runner’s World article about it here (I was actually interviewed for it!). I can understand where critics are coming from regarding the race issue, although as a white Canadian I’m uncomfortably aware of my own ingrained cultural and racial biases. The American Civil War for me is history. I love learning about it and it is one of my favourite historical periods, but I don’t have that personal, visceral connection to it that many Americans rightly do. I’m not really sure what else to write about this matter, except to say that I do see the critics’ point of view. But I also see the race as a fun, creative way to acknowledge, “Yes, some pretty horrific things happened in our past. But look how far we’ve come – let’s celebrate that.”
I personally thought the race sends such a wonderful message of honouring the past while not letting old animosities linger. There’s such a spirit of friendship and support that I think exists between all runners, but it seemed particularly so at the Gettysburg North and South. I thought the race really proves that it doesn’t matter where we come from or what our backgrounds are, we can all come together, have fun, and run our hearts out.
On the bus ride over to the start line I chatted with various other runners who were all seasoned marathoners. They were so kind and friendly and did their best to put me at ease. I had one last quick washroom stop and then before I knew it, I was lining up at the start with my new friends.
We stood and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” which was just heartachingly beautiful. This was a week after the Boston Marathon bombings and there was so much emotion. Tears ran down runners’ cheeks and many runners wore Boston singlets, race bibs and other paraphernalia to honour the spirit of the sport and the race. It was impossible not to think about what had happened just a week before. Singing the National Anthem – and especially the last, triumphant line “the land of the free and the home of the brave” – remains one of my most stirring, poignant memories.
The first seven kilometers were pretty unremarkable in terms of running. I settled into a good pace (around 4″35 kilometers) and enjoyed looking around at the gorgeous scenery. The first part of the race takes you through the town itself which at this time of year is in full bloom with cherry blossoms. Then it quickly takes you to the rolling hills surrounding the town, where the battle took place and 7,863 soldiers drew their last breaths. Running alongside so much history and bloodshed is incredibly sobering and thought-provoking. As I ran, I tried to wrap my mind around how these same hills – peaceful and somnolent in 2013 – could have been home to so much carnage and senseless destruction 150 years earlier. I also thought about the soldiers themselves, so many of them young and far from home. Or maybe fighting on their home. Young men my brother’s age. I couldn’t fathom it.
It was around kilometer 7 that I heard someone coming up behind me. I’m not going to lie, I hate being passed – wouldn’t everyone much rather be the passer than the passee? The woman drew up alongside me and the first thing out of her mouth was, “You goin’ for a BQ?”
BQ. Two little letters that carried a hell of a lot of weight. You see, this was my secret goal, the letters that had kept nudging me along all winter during my training. BQ – Boston Qualifier. I knew what time I would need – a seemingly impossible-sounding 3:35. When I was younger, I didn’t know you had to qualify to run Boston. I had just blithely assumed that one day I would run the Boston Marathon. Then, when I did discover what a BQ was, I kind of shrugged and thought, “Oh well.”
But as my training continued and I became more and more serious, my goal for this marathon changed too. I had initially latched upon running a sub-4, and that was the goal I had told my parents. Then, when I read that George W. Bush had run a 3:44.52 (Houston Marathon, 1993), I decided it would be pretty awesome if I could beat Dubya’s time too…
It was during my last long training run over Easter weekend when I ran 32.5 kilometers in 2:34.03 that I dared to admit to myself that a BQ could actually happen. I still didn’t tell anyone about my dream though. I was too scared to verbalize it, I wanted it so badly. Then, after the Boston bombings happened, it became even more important for me. I wanted to be at the start line in Boston in 2014 with thousands of other runners, helping show that terrorism would never, ever win.
So when this stranger ran up beside me and asked, “You goin’ for a BQ?” like it was the most natural thing ever, I paused before answering. My immediate reaction was to brush it off and say modestly, “Oh, you know, I’d just be happy to finish!” and kind of laugh. Like a lot of people I think, I hate tooting my own horn (although I realize this post is entirely self-indulgent and full of personal horn-tooting). I also hate admitting I really, really want something. Because after all, if no one knows you want something, then when you don’t get it you don’t have to deal with their pity and disappointment on top of yours, right? I am a perfectionist and the thought of living up to my own expectations can be crippling enough. Living up to others’ expectations of me? That’s even scarier.
But this time, I answered with total honesty. “Yeah, I am,” I said.
She looked down at her Garmin. “Well, you’re right on track.”
And with that – this unknown runner who would go on to become my inspiration – gave me unspoken permission to verbalize what I want. To speak my dreams. To say, “I want this” and to hell with worrying over whether or not I’ll get it or deserve it. Nope. With Laurie Dymond, it was just a simple question, nothing existential about it. Are you going for a BQ? Yes? Okay, well, get on with it then. Let’s run.
We ran the next 32-odd kilometers together, talking about everything and anything. Laurie was a 47-year-old seven time Boston marathoner with three daughters and a husband and she lived in Pennsylvania. She’s so dedicated to running that she’ll wake up at 3:30 a.m. to get in her long runs before the rest of her family wakes up. For her first marathon back in the 80s, she wore a down-filled parka with the hood pulled all the way up and grey sweatpants, and she ate Fig Newtons throughout. Those were the days before tech fabric this and dri-fit that and Clif shot bloks and Powerbar gels! Laurie was fascinating to talk to and was such a wealth of knowledge on running. I loved picking her brain!
We never agreed to run the race together; it just happened that way. We settled into a nice rhythm and just enjoyed getting to know each other as we ran. Spectators lined up along the country roads cheered us on and we smiled and waved for the cameras and said thank you to the kids handing out water, Gatorade and gels. Quite a few of Laurie’s friends had come to watch her race and she introduced me to all of them as we passed them on the route.
Eventually, we stopped talking and just kept on running. There was nothing awkward in our silence at all – it was actually the most comforting thing ever. Occasionally Laurie would look down at her watch and I’d ask, “how are we?” and she’d answer, “Good” or “let’s pick it up a bit”. As a seasoned Boston marathoner, I trusted her judgement completely, not even bothering to look at my own watch. But I kept telling myself, “I’ve got this. I’m BQing.”
Laurie and I coming up to where my parents were cheering us on at Mile 14
I hit the proverbial wall a little after Mile 20, maybe Mile 21 or 22. I saw my parents at Mile 14, when I zipped by them with a big smile feeling awesome and strong. But by 22, I was struggling. The one thing I would have changed about the race set-up was to add a shuttle for spectators out between Mile 20-24 because that’s when it became the most mentally challenging. Laurie had pulled ahead of me a bit and even though I could see her and was only a few seconds behind, I felt very alone.
I can’t really remember what was going on in my head at this point. I think I boiled it down to a mantra of “just keep going”. My whole body hurt. Every turn in the road I would think, “we have to be almost in the town” and then I’d see another endless stretch of countryside. Finally, the town emerged and I could tell I was almost there, so I picked up my pace.
Seeing the finish line is up there as one of the best sights of my life. I started to sprint – well, my version of sprinting at this point – and crossed the line at 3:18.04. I promptly burst into tears.
When my parents rushed up to me, they didn’t understand why I was crying. But as corny as it sounds, they were tears of complete, baffled, hysterical joy. And pain. Because I had naively assumed that as soon as I stopped running, the pain would go away. Oh no. No, no, no. The pain actually gets WORSE once you stop running. Just a heads up! It was the most crippling pain I have ever been through, and I once spent almost an entire year in various casts after breaking my wrist and then my foot, after running with said broken foot for two weeks.
But in that moment, the pain didn’t register. The only thing that did was the fact that I had qualified for Boston, one of the biggest dreams of my life.
And then the pain hit me again like a brick wall. I collapsed to the ground (so dramatic sounding!) and just curled up in a ball. My mom massaged my legs for a few minutes which helped a lot, and then I plunked my butt down in a bath tub of ice water. Ooh.
Feeling the burn
Laurie came running up to me to hug me and yell, “You’re going to Boston!” and I introduced her to my parents. Honestly, I really wonder if I would have BQed without her. Not only did she get me to finally speak out loud what my dream was, but she also kept me motivated and inspired throughout the race. I will never forget her and am so grateful to her. Who knows? Maybe we’ll run into each other at Boston next spring!
We had to get in the car and drive back to Ontario soon after that (note to self: a long drive after running 42.2 kilometers is NOT a good idea but what can you sometimes, right!?) but I was there to watch more people come in and to find out that the South had lost (again) but I had won the first female in my age category. It was a pretty awesome moment.
Final thoughts on my first marathon
First of all, I couldn’t have done this without my parents. Their support overwhelms me when I think about it. Driving to Gettysburg and back, cheering me on, asking me about my training over the winter, just being incredible, incredible people. And my mom? All through this she was dealing with a debilitating back injury and was in severe, constant pain. We drove down to Gettysburg with her lying down in the back seat because that was the only position she could stand the pain in. And yet she still came. I get teary-eyed when I think of that sacrifice and I just hope she knows how much I loved having her there.
In terms of the actual marathon, I thought it was really well-organized. It’s a smaller race (624 people finished) so it has an intimate, very supportive vibe to it without losing any of the energy of the bigger races. There’s also enough people running it that you can really choose whether you want to run with people, another person or entirely by yourself – whatever works for you! Water stations were frequent and there were plenty of spectators through most of the course cheering everyone on, which helped SO MUCH. They were fantastic.
The race director, Lowell Ladd, was completely on top of things and sent out frequent and helpful emails. He also responded promptly to an email I wrote prior to the race with some questions, which was really appreciated. Shuttle buses from the hotel to the start line was a great touch, and there were TONS of porta-potties throughout the course! Nice to see!
The t-shirts and medals were distinctive and unique, and the race bibs were personalized with your name and the colour of either the North (blue) or South (grey). Definitely keepsakes!
It really couldn’t have been a more unforgettable first marathon experience for me. There are plenty of “soul-searching” moments throughout the run, especially once you’re out near the battlefield running along the rolling hills and underneath that big blue sky. And isn’t that why you run a marathon? To dig deep down within yourself and find that part of you that won’t give up, that part of you that’s bigger than the blisters or the cramps.
Marathons are inherently selfish things, even though they can feel selfless when you’re giving up nights out with friends for early morning weekend runs in blizzards. But they demand a ton of time and complete and utter focus on YOU. Other things – hobbies, friends, family – get shoved to the backburner when you’ve “got to train”. It’s very all-encompassing. And it seems silly to invest so much worth and meaning into a physical feat. Okay, so I ran a marathon. So what? I still can only do, like, ten “real” push-ups before I collapse to the ground, so it’s not like I’ve been suddenly imbued with this physical prowess.
What does running a marathon really mean, at the end of the day? Why did I do it? To prove that I could (to myself and to others, although who these “others” are, I’m not really sure!). To say that I could (yep, bragging rights do play a role in this). To give myself something to do. To test myself, my discipline, my drive, my endurance, my…character, yes. Because that’s been the biggest lesson for me from this. When I’ve felt discouraged in the months since my marathon, for whatever reasons (primarily career ones for me), I’ve really drawn upon my marathon as inspiration. If I could do that, I can do this, the thinking goes. I know I’ve got the kind of single-minded focus to train and qualify for Boston, so I can apply that same focus to my other life goals, some of which frankly seem insurmountable most days! And maybe they are, but still being able to tell myself, “I ran a marathon, I can do this” really helps.
The feeling of accomplishment my marathon gave me has probably been the most valuable takeaway from the whole experience for me. That, and the feeling of community with the runners and supporters. I loved feeling like I was running alongside 623 friends who all loved the same thing I did and who were all mutually crazy.
Whew! Okay, I doubt anyone out there has made it through this entirely self-indulgent post. But it felt good to finally write down my memories of what was an unforgettable experience. If you’re looking for a fun, spirited and unique marathon, whether it’s your first or your fiftieth, definitely consider the Gettysburg North and South!