Jen’s First Marathon

16 10 2006

October 1, 2006- By Jen Szabo

twin-cities-marathon-2006-jen.jpg I would have to say that my training for this marathon really started about two and a half years ago when I was suckered, by my older brother, into joining a run training club with the intention of completing the Bolder Boulder 10k. Weighing in at nearly 250 pounds, I reluctantly attended an orientation meeting for the training club. There I was in a room filled with what appeared to me to be the most physically fit people I had ever seen and I felt as though I stuck out like a sore thumb. The clubs director, Scott Fliegelman, gave a brief but descriptive outline of what to expect from the training. I listened to him talk about all of these foreign things like lactate threshold, tempo pacing and hill repeats and I remember saying to my self,

Hill repeats? Hell, I can’t even go up a set of stairs much less repeat it!

I remember feeling so incredibly uncomfortable and out of place. Surely I didn’t belong here, I was not a runner and I could never run a 10k. My hands were shaking, my eyes were feeling up with tears and my heart was beating so loud the sound over powered Scott’s voice. I was pleading with my self, “Don’t cry, don’t cry”. Just then the meeting was adjourned and I saw my opportunity to bolt. I had the door in my sights when I heard a voice that stopped me in my tracks, “Hi, I am Scott, do you have any questions?”

With eyes filled with tears and a look of sheer terror on my face, I turned around and muttered, “I cannot even run to the phone!”

Smiling from ear to ear, Scott chuckled and like a true coach would do for any their athletes assured me that I could do it. Two days later I showed up for the first workout and for two and a half years now I have been showing up for workouts preparing for a marathon that I never in a million years imagined I’d be running.

So FastForward to about a year ago… If you would of told me then that in the next year I’d run three half-marathons (Boulder Backroads, RnR Arizona and Moab); learn to swim; train and compete in two triathlons; work full-time while attending school full-time (which included a really cool internship); take on a very challenging job change and just for kicks throw in that my husband would be diagnosed and go through treatments for cancer, I would of crawled into a hole and died! But it was all of those things that empowered me during this marathon.


My alarm woke me at 4:30 am and although I wake up this early (or earlier) five days a week this particular morning was different. My usual routine of making a mad dash into the shower, slamming some breakfast and speeding off to make it to work on time (which has yet to happen) was different this day. I laid in bed for a few minutes trying to empty my mind of any negative thoughts and nerves.

For five minutes I tried to put my contacts but it wasn’t happening. My eyes would not stop watering, frustrated I gave up and decided to get a cup of coffee from the lobby and see those who were running the 10 miler off. Moving on I ate breakfast, (Banana and a plain bagel with smooth Jiffy peanut butter and strawberry jelly; which I stole from the restaurant the day before) then checked and re-checked my fuel belt. Using my previously written check off list I went over the items I would need for the day in my fuel belt. Amino Vital…check. SPF 30 lip balm…check. Craisins and Almonds…check. iPod…check. Hammer Gel flask…check. 21 Clif Shot Blocks (3 for every other three mile marks)…check. Peanut butter & jelly sandwich cut into 4…check! Except for the contact issue everything was going according to plan. The other things I included on my check list was: gloves, sunscreen, body glide, black tape for my watch and lots of Advil. (If you haven’t yet met the OCD side of my personality you just go a brief introduction.)

I last item I wrote on my list was ‘ME’. It was now time to prepare me for the race. I had laid out the night before three different clothing options. Would I need long sleeves all day? Would I want just a singlet all day? Would I want both with the option of taking off my long sleeves and tying it around my waist? I decided to go with what I always race in which was a short sleeved F4 shirt. (I own more then one!) I then checked my after race bag that Chris to bring to the finish. Most races I’d put my pre-race clothes in the gear check bag and check it in at the start, but this race would be different and for a good reason. (Stay tuned for those details.)

The night before I had made a list of the things that I was worried about; I listed three things: Pain, 6 hours and quitting. I told myself to expect some element of pain and /or discomfort but was unsure of how much. Next, I went over in my mind if I could really do this in 6 hours (the course time limit) which was a huge goal for me. The last thing I put on my list was quitting. Would I at some point in the race just quit? I looked over the list, took a deep breath, smiled and tossed the list into the trash as I headed for the elevator.

Still dark, I blindly (remember no contacts) walked to the shuttle which would take us to the start line area. My nerves were at their highest when we arrived at the Metrodome. There was a sea of runners everywhere. I wondered if any of them were as worried as I. Our FastForward Sports team meet for one last cheer of “Just Press Play” before breaking off into our smaller groups. I remember seeing Fliegs just before he headed off to warm up and again with tear filled eyes (just like the day we meet) he assured me I could do this.

I had already left my worries in the hotel but I had one more thing to leave behind. For pre-race I wore my size 28 pants and my XXXL shirt over my race cloths. It was time I left the size 28 person behind. I am not sure if words could explain what it felt like to take these clothes off and leave them at the start but imagine if I ran this whole race with a 6th grader on my back. (Trying to conceptualize how much weight I have lost someone once suggested I visualized a 6th grader, which would be about the same mass.)

The gun went off and the sea of runners headed on their path to St. Paul. I have been well trained to know that if I went out too fast that I’d bonk somewhere later in the race, so I put myself in cruse and followed everyone else. For the first mile there was a young woman in all black just in front of me, whom I thought I could pace behind for the entire race. It was cool to run through the middle of downtown Minneapolis and the tall buildings added a nice shade for me to run through.

Within a few miles the course led me away from downtown Minneapolis through beautiful neighborhoods, parks and even a few of the 10,000 lakes that Minnesota has to offer. I had a great time running along side of others and felt even better when I got ahead of them. I got to the sixth mile marker and thought “I just ran the Bolder Boulder!” I looked down at my watch to see my time but it was blocked by the black tape I had put over it. I promised myself that I was not going to obsess about time. I could of easily pulled back the tape but I felt great so why do it.

I could hear the sound of sirens over my iPod as an ambulance passed me. Thankful that they weren’t coming for me I was taken back when I passed a man lying on the ground being worked on my paramedics. I am no doctor but I could tell that something was seriously wrong. I checked to make sure that it wasn’t anyone with FastForward, said a prayer and kept going.

The unofficial F4 traveling cheer crew was at mile 7. I was so excited to hear them cheering for me after passing the man on the ground a mile before. (I later learned that he died, which I sort of knew it when I passed him.) I got a hug, posed for the only picture taken of me during the race and continued on. I met and introduced myself to a few runners along the way. I joked with them that we’d get to know real well during the course of the day. Some of those people were just too slow for me to stay behind and chat with, which was a really great feeling; as long as they didn’t pass me in another part of the race I’d be ok.

Somewhere around mile 11 a man ran up behind me and asked how I was doing. I had wondered if I looked so bad that someone had to ask, but then he said he was with the “sag vehicle” which was coming up behind me. He told me that I was doing a great job of staying on pace but he politely asked me if I wanted to get on the bus when it caught up to me. I waved him off and politely responded “No, thank you.” I flashed back to the first ever 5k that I did in which the sag wagon person was practically walking their bike next to me. I was the very last person to cross the finish line that day and although I was embarrassed and humiliated I am constantly reminded that I crossed the finish line.

I kept the vehicle behind me for about a mile but it caught up to me. Disappointed doesn’t even describe my feelings at that moment. Again, I was asked if I wanted to get on the bus. This time I was warned that once the bus passed me there would be no other sag vehicles to pick me up. I once again waved him off as I took out one of the quarters of my PB &J and ate it. At mile 13 the man once again came up to me and this time asked me to get on the bus. He let me know that I’d be unsupported because they were taking the aid stations down as they went. I let him know that I was prepared for that and I was not going to get on that bus.

I started to think that maybe I should just give up and get on the bus, who was I thinking that I could do a marathon? Who was I trying to impress? Who was I doing this for? Believe me it was very tempting but I realized that if I did get on the bus I have to sit there for another two hours with all the other quitters and think about the fact that I gave up. Doing that would eat at me for the rest of my life. In the middle of that thought the man once again told me to get on the bus. I quickly and sharply responded, “I’m not getting on the Fu¢@in’ bus, A$$hole!” (My brother hit it best when he said I probably sounded like the possessed girl in the Excorcist)

I also mentioned that I wasn’t running his race that I was running mine! Needless to say, I wasn’t asked to get on the bus for the rest of the race.

I was warned by many that demons would try to take over my thoughts during the race. They were right, however I think I was able to unload those demons and put them on that bus. The next few miles I set the goal of getting to mile marker flag before they took it down. My race plan had to change, which really disrupts my OCD. I was not going to make it in 6 hours, and I had to be ok with that. I also was so determined not to let those demons off that bus that I was confident that I was not going to quit. I found myself passing others and cheering for them. I know what it feels like to have someone pass you and encourage you to keep going; now I found myself doing this for others.

I got to mile 17 just as they were taking down the flag. I took a sneak peak at my time and I had now been running consistently longer then I ever had and my legs knew it. I struggled for a few moments with the thought of wanting to walk. Is that giving up? Am I a wimp if I walk? I began to negotiate with myself, “Just run to that street sign, and then you can walk”. The sign would come and I’d walk for a minute and this is how the next five miles or so would go.

I got to the 30k mark just as they were picking up the chip timing mat, and the reality of being unsupported by the race had hit me. I thought about friends that had recently ran the Imogene Pass run (17 miler) and was unsupported after mile 6. Knowing that they had to preserver uphill, through snow and did the entire race despite race officials calling it off, really motivated me not to give up. They knew that they were trained for success and I tried telling myself I was too. I would have to re-evaluate each “tug” of Amino Vital I took, it now had to last me five more miles then I had planned. Luckily, I had enough food fuel to feed a small army so I had no worries there. I didn’t know where I was on the course once I passed the 30k mark because the mile markers were already taken down; I began to feel like I was all alone.

Determined not to let any more demons take over my thoughts I starting replaying all of the stuff I had been recording during all of my training leading up to this race. I thought about the training runs I’ve done in snowstorms and how this day it was beautiful; the fall colors were so vibrant. When I would stop and walk for a minute I would think about the AT runs that usually put me in a dark place and were certainly more painful then what I was in. I thought about how I’ve finished races last, in the dark and without water; and although I wouldn’t be scored as finishing this race I wasn’t going to be last and it wouldn’t be dark. I thought about other races I have done and how I finished those mostly unscathed but also the ones I really kicked ass at (Arizona, Dash-n-Dine, Stroke & Stride, Pearl Street Mile). I decided that I have come too far to let anymore demons take over my thoughts.

I was still cheering on runners/walkers as I passed them, telling them that they rocked for being out here. I admired there determination and perseverance. I wouldn’t say that I hit a wall but I really don’t remember much of the next few miles. I had no mile markers to associate anything with. I do remember a woman on a bike asking if I needed anything and I asked if she could find me some water to fill up one of my water bottles. She returned back not only with my water bottled filled but with a cold 20 oz water bottle as well! This really rocked! I would be good for the rest of the race.

Around what I thought was mile 20 I peaked at my watch again, it said 5:00:00. I knew that I had 6.2 miles to go. I imagined myself at the start of the Bolder Boulder, I felt safer imagining a course that I’ve ran before. “Wow, I only had the distance of the Bolder Boulder to go”, like it was some small feat for me. I tried to visualize running down 30th Street to Pearl and so on. At this point I knew I could do it and I knew I be entering the stadium soon! I motioned to a course marshal and asked, “Where am I”. By the look on his face I quickly realized that maybe I should restate my question, “I mean I know that I’m in Minnesota and in a marathon but where in the marathon am I.” He replied that he wasn’t sure because they just dropped him off.

The young woman in black that I had tried to pace at the beginning of the race came back into my sight! Sweet! I also had come up to a group of about 7 women. One of those ladies was clearly not doing the marathon and must of joined her friends as some point during the race. I asked her how much longer I had to go. She stated to tell me about all of the upcoming streets and then after that street was then next street. Bascially I got a guided tour of downtown St. Paul but I could of care less I just wanted to know how much longer I had to go! (Plus not being from the area the names of the street had no relevance to me.) A guy with his red Coleman cooler was filling up water bottles and I of course was more then happy to have mine topped off. I asked him how long I had to go and he said he thought about 3 miles. My mind went back to all of those 5k’s and time trials I’ve done on the dams at the Boulder reservoir.

I, at this point was doing more of “shuffle” because my legs felt so heavy and it felt better then walking which made my stride get longer causing my legs to hurt even more. It took every bit of effort I had to keep picking up my legs one after another after another. Knowing that asphalt is easier to run on then concrete I opted to run in the bike line rebelling against the security vehicle that passed me four times telling me to get on the sidewalk. I was desperate for every bit of relief I could get and didn’t care what the rent-a-cop way saying.

I was surprised by the number of churches I passed on this leg of the run and since I had been doing a lot of praying, “Oh, God this hurts”, “Please God, don’t make this suck so bad”, “Now is a good time to carry me just like to footprints poem says”, I felt as though he was close enough to listen.

At mile 24 (and I knew it was mile 24 because it was spray painted on the street) the woman in all black from the beginning of the race was doing a shuffle/walk thing so I figured that if I just kept shuffling I’d catch her; and I did! When I got up to her I said, “I have been chasing your ass for 25 miles, I’m not going to finish with out you!” She smiled and mentioned that we had just passed her house and that she thought about giving up but saw me behind her and kept going. It was cool to know that I influenced someone to keep going.

As we approached mile 26 I saw Chris, my loving, darling, wonderful, super handsome, husband standing there. “Oh my god, its over, I’m home!” It was weird but the song on my iPod was the theme song from Top Gun; this is my “Rocky” song! I was so excited to see Chris, that I started running faster then I had been all day. I ripped off my fuel belt threw it to him (or at him, really not sure) and flew down that hill towards where the finish was. I blew the woman in all black away, I turn around and I couldn’t see here anymore.

I started to run towards where the finish was, but since I didn’t finish in there time limit I was diverted just to the right of it, and it didn’t much matter because, Holy shit, I just ran a marathon!

The finish was nothing like I had been imagining for 26 miles, because of the race time limit everyone pretty much had packed up and went home and I thought my friends had given up on me because they too were no where to be found. I remember seeing my friend, Ashley who I asked to find me some water. In her desperate attempt she came up with a 20lb bag of ice and a can of Coke. That Coke was the best damn Coke I have ever had and the ice proved to be handy as I used some to cool me down.

For a moment I was let down that I had no end of race excitement (except Ashley’s cheers). There literally was no one there; I could hear crickets chirping. There was no announcer announcing my name, no triumph music over the loud speakers and no photographers to capture my finish. With my head down (enjoying the ice on my neck) I walked back in the direction that I last saw Chris. I was happy that the marathon was over but had no excitement about doing it; the empty finish area left me feeling like I had failed by someone else’s standards.

Then off in the distance (like 75 yards) I saw a pack of people walking in the other direction. I could tell by their body language they were looking for someone…ME! It was my friends, husband and uncle! I guess I had run by them so fast that they missed me! I remember running towards them and I swear that I’ve never cried as hard or as loud as I did at that moment. It is one thing to accomplish a huge task but it’s another to accomplish it with friends and family.

I remember crying a lot, hugging a lot and feeling the hugest since of accomplishment. I don’t think that my experience is unique or unusual by any means but it’s my experience, I own it and I thank you all for letting me share it with you.




One response

11 07 2008

You rock jen!

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