Runner of Steel: The Sequel

Nearly two months have passed since I ran the Pittsburgh marathon and reclaimed my all-time favorite runner’s title: Runner of Steel. I’ve finally climbed down from my post-race Cloud 9 bliss, which begs to be reflected upon.

There is a saying that there is nothing like your first marathon experience, and in some part, that is true. My first marathon, while one of the best experiences of my life, was also one of my greatest and painful challenges to date. I have found with each marathon I complete that they all have a lasting, yet different impression on my being, bringing with them trials, victories, lessons, and values that cannot be measured or compared to one other.

I went into this marathon as unprepared as I’ve ever been for this unpredictable distance. Having taken an 18-month hiatus from the 26.2 challenge, I began training exactly eight weeks out from the race. I know, I know.  Insanity at it’s finest. In a determined effort to ready myself to tackle this challenging course for a second time since 2012, I dove in head first. Literally. Going against all I’ve learned and my better judgment, I jumped up in mileage all too quickly, pushing out a 15-miler the first week, followed by a 20-miler the following. While I managed these distances with both ease and fresh speed, it was not without consequence. I suffered a severe foot injury from overuse, a painful back injury, lots of sleepless nights, a lost 20-mile training run, forced extended breaks in running, and above all, loads of mental stress. While most was self-inflicted fool’s play, the universe seemed to be sending me a message: this race was just not going to happen for me. Of course, that made me all the more determined to make it happen.

Forced to completely stop running five days out from the marathon because of severe lower back pain, I busied myself with all things running fun: watching Prefontaine and Spirit of the Marathon movies, tearing through my stack of accumulated Runners’ World magazines, and attempting to calm my nerves in preparation for the big day. I carb-loaded like an elite, and made final preparations as always, and found myself more excited than fearful, more confident than doubtful.

On Friday night, we set out for the race expo, and so began the pre-race hype. In my excitement, I underestimated the effects of my green tea frappucino combined with rush-hour traffic, causing myself extreme discomfort and a desperate need to run several blocks to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in search of the nearest restroom. It was only fitting that I rounded a corner to find this 

This waterfall would be beautiful at any other time.

The expo was fantastic, to say the least. While there were a ton of people, it was fairly easy to get to (minus the unavoidable rush hour), and it wasn’t so crowded you were getting bumped into left and right. There were booths for everything you could possibly want or need as a runner, including fuel, gear, pain relief, upcoming races, and charity information. And the whole “What Do You Run For?” movement really has a way of getting you pumped up.IMG_7720

The night before the race, and as always, I didn’t sleep any more than four hours. Only this time, it wasn’t just race nerves keeping me awake. It was my back pain, which called for a trip to the couch wrapped in my heating pad. Before I knew it, 3:45 a.m. was upon me, and I bounced up to get ready. I forced myself to eat 75% of my breakfast,

Oatmeal with chia seeds and small cup of coffee

Oatmeal with chia seeds and small cup of coffee

got dressed, Body Glided, grabbed my pre-packed bag, and we hit the road towards the ‘Burgh. On the 40-minute trek, my eyes became so heavy that I could literally have fallen asleep right there in the car, but that exhaustion passed as soon as we emerged from the Fort Pitt Tunnels. Parking was a little tricky this time, but we managed to find a spot a few blocks from the starting area. My stomach lurched at the thought of eating anything else, but I forced myself to eat the banana I had stowed…until this happened.

Banana face plant :-O

Banana face plant

I’d be lying if I said I was disappointed.

It was 48 degrees and drizzling, so I decided to take my jacket and forego shivering while waiting in my corral for the start. I located the 3:40 pace group quickly and went to introduce myself to the pace leader. I positioned myself just off to the right of them, planning to hold them in my sight for as long as possible. My sister was running the half marathon, and after I gave her some final tips and advice, I put on my game face and danced around to loosen up. Fifteen minutes later, the gun went off, and the race began. It took a little over six minutes to cross the starting line, and I was off. About two tenths of a mile in, I was hit with a double whammy. I realized I hadn’t pressed the Start button on my Garmin, AND…my iPod battery was low. Great! Shaking my head, I refused to allow myself to panic, and shrugged it off, telling myself I would have to conserve what time I had and save it for the roughest miles: the Oakland climb, miles 16-18, and the final 5K. But for now, I would take in the spectators and cheer groups and enjoy the race day energy surrounding me.

Let me tell you about the Pittsburgh marathon spectators. They are unbelievable. To run through a city filled with such pride and support for their runners, coupled with an energy that exerts warmth, welcome, encouragement, humor, support, and inspiration was truly a moving experience for me, and I don’t know how they haven’t been recognized nationally for their support. This is in comparison to Richmond’s America’s Friendliest, a race where I first fell in love with the 26.2 challenge. But Pittsburgh? They are in a league of their own.

Within the first half mile, I was warm enough to remove my jacket and tie it around my waist until I could hand it off to my husband. He and my sister’s fiance were going to be traveling around the course and expected to spot me at mile 2, 4, and 10. Mile 2 came and went without seeing any of my family, as did mile 4. I held steady at an 8:20 pace for the first 10K, trying like mad to run conservatively and save the whole “go ape and run hard” for the last 10K, and several times had to put my imaginary leash on when I looked down at my watch to see I was clocking six and seven-minute miles. “Whoah! Slow it down, girl.” When I ran across the timing mat at 6.2, I got so excited knowing it would be the first text alert to my family that I stomped extra hard to ensure it’s timely delivery. Somehow that just makes sense to me. 😉

During miles six and seven, I pondered tossing my jacket at least twice, as I began the dance of “tie tighter only to loosen up within minutes,” not to mention the zipper cracking me in the leg every so often. Had it not been my favorite, things would have been different. In the West End, I descended a steep hill and rounded the corner past a cheer group singing and dancing to Happy, and of course, I busted a move in response.

Being one of my toughest spots on the course in 2012 (high 80s, zero shade, miles of flat road with no end in sight), I headed down Carson Street with a fierce, “I’ma take you out” attitude this time around, and before I knew it, it was over. Around mile 10 in the South Side, I spotted my sister’s fiance and immediately tossed my jacket to him, thanking him relentlessly for my freedom. Oh, that’s much better! My husband was just up the street, snapping away with his phone. I was so happy, and knew it would be the final time I would see him until the finish line. He called out to me, “The 3:40 group is just ahead, but you’re going to have to pick it up to catch them.” I laughed and said, “Thanks, but I have a plan this time around, and still have the climb into Oakland to contend with.” I went on to loop back around the block and head up onto the Birmingham Bridge, and he caught up with me again, saying “Go get ’em honey!  You’re doing awesome!” I called back “I love you!” and made my way across the massive bridge. I looked ahead at the hill I was about to climb, and saw a “You are on the full marathon course” sign, and for a split second, I looked over at the other side of the bridge at the half-marathoners heading home to the finish and wondered how bad it would be to jump the median to join them. Cars honked their horns relentlessly from the parkway below, and I shook my head at my momentary insane thought, knowing I would never be okay with anything less than what I set out to do, and continued on my trek. I pushed Play on my iPod and began the most challenging ascent of the course, feeling stronger than ever. I’m not sure if it was the fact that I train primarily on hills, Eminem’s Not Afraid and Imagine Dragons Radioactive, plain old-fashioned adrenaline, or a combination of the three, but this hill didn’t seem to be that big of a deal to me. It’s long and drawn out, but by no means that difficult. 

Before I knew it, I was at 13.1 miles. Then 15, where yet another timing mat was that I had forgotten about. And yes, I stomped it, too. 😉 I felt the need for another pick-me-up, so I pushed Play on my iPod only to be greeted with the “battery dead” beeping. That was it. I refused to allow defeated thoughts enter my brain, saying to myself “The rest is up to me.” My pace group was so far ahead that I could barely make out their sign, but I didn’t allow myself to get discouraged. I gave myself a quick pep talk, “Run your own race. This is going to be your strongest race yet regardless of whether you achieve all of your goals. Keep pushing. It isn’t over until it’s over.” I gave a quick glance (or maybe 100) at my “I WILL” wristband message, and kept pushing forward.

At that point, my lower back pain was at an all-time high, and as I reached back to dig my fingers into and rub it for a moment, I promised my body we would have a nice long rest as soon as we finished what we came here to do. My back screamed back that it didn’t care, so I put on my stubborn game face and surged forward, letting my adrenaline do it’s thing. At some point, the pain shifted to chills and extreme tightness back to pain, and while I was always aware of its presence, I was able to continue without any major faltering.

Before I knew it, I was on mile 21, chatting with a woman from Louisiana. We shared our race experience thus far, and she told me that mile 23 was always her worst, and that she never knew what it would bring. I told her that today she was going to own it, and to stay strong. She pulled ahead, and I fell back in my pace a little. I allowed myself to get a little comfortable for a few minutes, knowing my sub-four was a definite, but after getting confused attempting to do the math in my head to project my finish time, I picked up the pace again just in case.

Around mile 24, I said on repeat “2.2 miles to go, less than a 5K. You’ve got this.” A saint was standing in the middle of the road, fumbling to quickly open and hand me a small bottle of water, to which I thanked him graciously. Oh my, was it one of the most amazing waters I had all morning, ice cold, crisp, and just what I needed. I downed it in four gulps, tossed it, and picked up my pace by another ten seconds. I zipped through the final water stop and could see the tall mirrored buildings up ahead. I could feel the finish, my finish, so close. Come on legs, we’ve got this!

As I rounded a bend, I was surrounded on either side by shiny city buildings, crowds lining the sidewalks, screaming my name and those of the nearby runners. I could hear an announcer shouting up ahead, “You are about to finish the Pittsburgh Marathon!!” I immediately choked back a sob, and pushed forward. I spotted my buddy from mile 21, who was now walking, and made my way across the road to her, calling out that we were just around the corner from the finish, and offered some words of encouragement before passing her. 

I rounded the turn onto the Boulevard of the Allies, and the final stretch was upon me. I couldn’t see the finish line yet because someone thought it was a good place to put a slight incline (aka hill if you’re at mile 26), in front of it. Somehow I spotted my sister off to my right, and saw her disappear into the crowd behind the barricades. The crowd was reeling, yelling “Go Christina!” and “Finish strong!” I smiled through my tears, charged up the final ascent, and saw the most beautiful thing in my world that day. The finish line. Knowing I was going to break four hours was one thing, and despite the six-minute start/clock delay, there was something special about getting to see the “3” on the clock as I surged forward and through the finish, arms in air, fists pumping.

What happened next is always so funny to me. It makes sense, yet it doesn’t. I can run nonstop at full capacity for all those miles, and upon stopping, find it difficult to pick up my feet to walk. Of course, I shared this with anyone who would listen: the guy who handed me my medal, photographers, and people manning the water/food stations. I heard my husband calling out my name from a distance, and I looked up to see him beaming at me. As I made my way slowly and not so steadily over to him in the family gathering area, I watched him laughing at my attempts at something resembling walking. I collapsed into his arms in a bear hug, and immediately asked what my official time was. “3:52:09. You did amazing, honey!” Overcome with pure pride and joy, I nodded tearfully, “I did, didn’t I?”  IMG_7669

IMG_7677After taking some post-race photos and engaging in a foam roller torture session (an awesome touch, by the way), my lower back pain became more severe than ever, forcing me to call it a day sooner than I would have liked. After taking a quick pull of the Geico PR bell, and accidentally yanking the rope off because I must have missed the “swing side to side” memo,IMG_7680I hobbled for half an hour to the car. As I passed by the finish area, I looked on at the runners still making their way in, and started to go out of my way an extra block to watch for a few moments, but then my back told me, “Think again.” Note to self: I must spectate a marathon.

To say I was in my glory is an understatement. I felt stronger than I ever have in a marathon, and in turn, my life. As I said in the beginning, everything seemed to be standing in my way from the moment I decided to run this race. Did I forfeit and go along with what fate had in mind? Absolutely not. I made my own fate because that is what I do. I wanted this so much, and NOTHING was going to stop me. I was unstoppable. 

10308094_711227175586820_3351968690622042134_n

Every day, I am more and more amazed by what the human mind and body are capable of. Against all odds, I did what I set out to do, and then some. And I can’t wait to do it all again.

For all of you half and full marathoners out there, if you haven’t already, make sure to mark this phenomenal race off your list. Much ❤ to you, Pittsburgh! See you in 2015! 

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