The Anti-Atkins Diet
Leading into a marathon race, or any race for that matter, it’s necessary tradition that a runner consume as many carbohydrates as possible as this will be the body’s fuel source for most of the race. Once the body uses the last of those carb reserves and if those reserves have not been continually replenished during the race, it will begin to dine on muscle or anything else it can sink its starving teeth into. This is when the body starts to fail rapidly. So, although I was appropriately gorging myself on pasta, oatmeal and cous cous the weeks prior to the marathon, I couldn’t necessarily let up 2 days out. This would have been disasterous. Then again, I was also in Chicago of all places, a city big, diverse, and conscious enough to offer vegetarian/vegan food options at every turn. I always make it a point to hit a few specific restaurants when I visit, making up for the complete lack of options we have in my hometown, and this weekend was no different…sort of. Normally I would order something I can’t make at home or a very involved sandwich with a meat alternative as its base, such as a vegan rueben, vegan bbq sandwich or vegan philly cheesesteak, but with the marathon in 2 days I didn’t want to sacrifice even one extra carb. On Friday night we went to a restaurant called The Handlebar and Michelle ordered an amazing BBQ Buffalo wrap…..I ordered a plate of pasta. Granted, it was very good pasta! But it was still pasta. It felt so wrong to have so many good vegan options at my fingertips and order plain old pasta. I dejectedly stated to my table that I could probably easily make this at home. The next morning I mimicked my race morning breakfast with toast and english muffins and we headed out into the city for more fun. When it came time for lunch again I found myself staring at a menu filled with spectacular vegan sandwiches….I ordered the pancakes. Pancakes. Again, they were good pancakes!!! But I can make pancakes at home. It all just seemed so wrong. Ultimately though, I wasn’t going to take any chances with fueling for the 13.1 unknown miles I had ever yet to run….so as many unexciting carbs as I could get it was!!! I vowed to make up for it after the race.
Mile 16 – 18
Most recreational runners that retell of their marathon experience often jump right to miles 16 through 18 where they describe how everything went terribly wrong, and I won’t say I wasn’t thinking about that possibility as our group continued to eat up the asphalt. At about 16 and a quarter we hit another aid station where I reached out for gatorade, but suddenly found myself unable to grab the cups with the ease I had previously. I knocked a few out of volunteers hands before I finally snagged one, downed a few gulps of the sugary fluid and threw the cup to the ground before getting back with the group, but when returning back to the center of the road I found our group suddenly split and strung out into a straight line. Not daring to lose anyone, I moved ahead and others followed as we took the turn South onto Halsted street towards mile 17. Everything still felt incredibly smooth and again we hit our 5:30 pacing as we moved down the road. Just after mile 17 we took the final Westward turn away from the city and ran down a street that was again only spotted with spectators until we hit another aid station. This time around the attempt to grab at fluids went even worse yet and I started to understand that the very beginnings of a breakdown might be at hand. I reached out for waters, but knocked a few to the ground, then when I went to grab for another the volunteer turned their hand inward and I was left grabbing at empty air! I cursed them openly then grabbed another cup, took in a few sips and tossed it to the side. As I moved down the line of volunteers, not reaching out for water anymore, one of them held a cup out and didn’t move even when I kept my hands low at my sides and hit me right in the shoulder. I cursed again and moved towards the center of the road as we left that mess of an aid station. Although everything didn’t go exactly as planned we still managed to run through mile 18 still on 5:30 pace. Taking another turn South we pushed on through quite possibly the quietest portion of the course, and still managed to stay together as a group, myself hanging in the middle of the pack as we rolled through 30 kilometers and then the 19 mile mark.
Pain – Before
Toward the end of my marathon training I started to notice a subtle pain in my right quad that never stayed in one place, and as I hit harder workouts or ran more races actually began to grow. At times it was near my knee, other times in my quad and other times still around my groin. I so hoped that once the taper period began that it would work itself out and I’d have nothing to worry about on race morning, but even during the last week of incredibly easy running I found myself limping before, after and sometimes even during the run. I was starting to really freak out as the race got closer and closer. I did my best to rest, even completely taking off the 3 days prior to the marathon, but walking around the city on Saturday I could still feel twinges of pain, effectively causing me great concern. I self-massaged, used “the stick” and took ibuprofen from time to time, but nothing was working. I knew I was going to run the race no matter how my leg felt the day of, hoping adrenaline might cure everything at the last second, but I was more concerned how it might react once we got far enough into the race, say somewhere around mile 19 or 20, and feared a race stopping injury or pain intense enough to force me to walk. All I had walking to the start line was adrenaline and hope.
Mile 19 – 20
As I looked at the 5:30’s still broadcasting from my watch it finally hit me how far I had come at this pace and became very conscious of just how good I still felt. Our group was still tight despite the previous mishaps and we started running through the predominately latino/a Pilsen Neighborhood. Just like the promotional pieces said, mariachi bands periodically cut the air with their high-pitched horns as we blasted down the street. Coming up on the turn that met mile 20 we ran through a mess of noise created by some sort of rock band with the amps turned far too high, yelling fans and a man on a microphone egging the audience on. The noise became overwhelming and I was glad to get past the racket as we took the turn and ran through the mile 20 marker. The oft-repeated mantra suddenly entered my head “The race begins at mile 20”. I’ve heard this over and over and I suspect it means any number of things to different people. I know for some it means the pain starts to become restricting, for others it means the mental effort becomes much more difficult, and still for others it rings literal, that the RACE, the competitive running, begins here. For me, it honestly meant much of nothing. I knew my goal was to drop even further out of 5:30 pacing toward the end of the race, but I expected that more around 21 or 22 depending on how I felt, not mile 20. That was just me though and soon I noticed our tight group wasn’t so tight anymore, separated by long strides between us, myself still somewhere around the middle. Taking a quick look around I saw a runner drifting off the back of our group and that’s when I realized someone else ahead had picked up the pace. We weren’t completely broken just yet and continued to roll up the road before taking a sharp turn toward Chinatown. Soon though, as we continued through mile 20, our group was getting pulled apart like taffy as we each individually responded to the new pacing in different ways. Some of us tried to hold on to those that moved out ahead, some stayed at about the same pace, and others started to fall off the back. I hung a couple seconds off the front, but wasn’t yet prepared to lay into the finish just yet, but also didn’t want to lose fast paced runners. Our newly formed line of runners hit the next aid station and although I hoped I’d make up ground in the fluid gauntlet, I came out the other side at about the same spot, just as we ran through the 21 mile marker. NOW the real race was about to begin.
There are a lot of important workouts that comprise marathon training, but the most important for my mental confidence was the Marathon Goal Pace run. This is essentially a run of distance marked by completely even splits of which one wants to run the average of for the marathon. At some point I arbitrarily chose 5:30 miles as my goal pace, even though when I did the math I realized that was significantly under what I thought I could run for a complete marathon, especially for a debut marathon. For some reason though, I felt trying to knock out 5:30 goal pace runs could only help me in the long run, so that’s what I stuck to. They also became my most difficult training run. Always running on tired legs I would do whatever was scheduled, an 8 miler or 10 miler at 5:30. I hit them dead on almost every time, but would also come through the last mile gasping for breath and the realization of just how SHORT that was of a full marathon. Sure, I could run 5:30’s for ten miles, but in the marathon I’d have another ten and then almost ANOTHER ten on top of that! A question bounced around my head for weeks, “Just HOW in the world am I going to do this?!” When I started incorporating longer predator runs into my workout I would do 15 miles, the first 5 at 6 minute pace, the next 5 at 5:45 and the next 5 at 5:30. Again, I could do that workout, but would again be left gasping for breath after the final 5 miles. And again, I’d still have TEN more to go in the marathon!!! That question smacked me into a humbled state again and again. So now, without offering any spoilers, I’m still dumbfounded at the abilities of my body when simply FORCED to do what is asked, such as run 5:30’s over and over and over and over again, past 10 miles, past 15 miles, past 20 miles. It feels like that wasn’t me out there on the course, like I was watching an out of body experience, watching someone else take over and do what seemed impossible leading up to the start line. But there it is, etched into my memory for as long as I can hold onto it. I still don’t know HOW I did it, but regardless, there it is.