For the past five years October was marathon month for me. October marked the final stretch of training that covered the entire summer and it was the month that took me back to a city I love. October was Chicago Marathon month. The Chicago Marathon is this upcoming weekend (Sunday, October 13th) and I’m not running it.
The Chicago Marathon was my first ever marathon back in 2014. Prior to this, I used to always joke that “if I didn’t like driving 26 miles, why would I like running it?” We found out in 2013 that we’d moving to Chicago in 2014 and, in my if-it’s-meant-to-be reasoning, I entered the lottery for the race. I got in and went all-in with marathon training. I’ll get into more details about all five of my Chicago Marathon experiences because they were all so different from one another, but first I’ve got to address my journey with 26.2.
I’ve heard it often enough that there is a sweet spot for running that is unique to each runner. When I first started running that distance quickly revealed itself as the half marathon (13.1 miles/21K) because it was long enough to push myself but short enough that I could still function beyond the race. In my first year as a dedicated runner, I ran seven half marathons. In my second year as a dedicated runner, I ran in nine half marathons. In my years as a marathon runner, that number went down to between four and five half marathons a year.
As I wrote earlier, I ran the 2014 Chicago Marathon because I reasoned that if I was ever meant to run a marathon, entering a lottery and getting chosen was proof that the time was right. I ran in 2014 and, because that experience was so great, I entered again in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 to run the 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 editions of the Marathon.
After an awful experience at the 2017 Chicago Marathon, I decided to enter the lottery for the 2018 race as my way of getting redemption if I was selected. If I got selected, it would also be my fifth Chicago Marathon which would make me a “legacy” runner and eligible to automatically enter for the next five years (so no more lottery). Well, I was selected and now, as I write this, I wish I had more luck with the real lottery than racing lotteries.
You may be thinking, “She kept entering, so she must have liked the marathon!” Here’s the truth that has taken me the past year to acknowledge and be comfortable speaking aloud:
I got stuck in thinking that running marathons and getting a Boston
Qualifying (BQ) time would make me a “great” runner.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have incredible respect and admiration for runners who run marathons and get BQ times, but I lost myself in the shuffle of trying to keep up with everyone else. Every summer my husband would see me toward the end of marathon training and ask me why I continued to train for marathons when it looked like (a) I was dying and (b) I was not having fun. My response went from “it’s just a rough run” to “those finish line feels are addictive!” Seeing those words and knowing what the past year has been for me, I can see that I was simply being stubborn because here’s another truth:
I’m really good at embracing the suck and sticking with
something that I hate when I think it’s what I’m “supposed” to do.
I’ve always said that not only am I dedicated enough of a runner to get all. the. miles. in, but I am also dedicated enough of a runner to get myself from start line to finish line under any and all conditions. Dedicated or stubborn, you decide.
And so, I ran 2018 as a redemption run. I had the experience that I had (more on that later or here) and decided to not enter the lottery for the 2019 race. I figured a year of no marathon training would teach me a lot about myself as a runner and myself as a whole. I was worried I would miss marathon training and that I would fall into that FOMO (“fear of missing out”) space when I saw people train for this year’s Chicago Marathon.
Maybe you’ve guessed it already and, if you haven’t, let me say this: I have not missed marathon training. At all. Not training for Chicago this past year has been a huge relief. Not training for a marathon at all has been a blessing in disguise. I’ve been able to get back to running because it feels good and because it makes me happy. I would see and talk to runners training for their marathon and think, “I’m so glad my run is done” versus thinking “I wish I was out there running with them.” I realized that my anticipated worry over missing out grossly exaggerated the negative feelings I have actually experienced while missing out on training. (Side note: go listen to The Happiness Lab’s podcast on this topic).
More than anything, the past year has been one of introspection where I have been able to fully define and accept what being a “great” runner means to me:
Being a “great” runner means being dedicated to your truth as
a runner and running in a way that joyfully challenges you.
For me, that means being a runner that focuses on the half marathon distance because training for that distance makes me happy and makes me look forward to the challenge of getting faster. Being this kind of runner allows me to feel like I am more than “just a runner,” which is hugely important to me, because I am better able to balance running with other things that I love to do, like yoga. Being this runner means I find joy in knowing that my longest run in a training cycle is always shorter than the long runs in a marathon training cycle.
I thought I would be missing out and even felt guilty about missing out on marathon training this year, but the reward of the choice to step away is that I am now able to run in a way that is more meaningful to me.
The part you’ve all been waiting for, here’s a recap on my Chicago Marathon journey:
Training: First marathon! I followed a Jeff Galloway marathon training plan. Most of my training happened in Chicago, so I had many fantastic runs on the Lakefront.
Race Experience: My goal was a 4:30 marathon. I felt amazing from the start and the novelty of the experience kept me smiling and moving forward.
Final Takeaways: The marathon experience is much like motherhood where training is the pregnancy, running the marathon is laboring, and getting the medal is like being handed your newborn child. The post-race amnesia is real and I couldn’t wait to sign up to race another marathon again.
Training: I followed a mash-up of Runner’s World training plans as I was running two marathons within two weeks of each other (Berlin and Chicago). My focus was on the long run and running as much as I could while taking the two weeks between races as a recovery. Training was in the Miami summer.
Race Experience: I had never run two marathons so closely together, so my goal for this race was to smile and make it through the distance. There were tough spots, but I managed to find a cruising pace and stick with it.
Final Takeaways: Never do that again! For me, it was a lot on the body and the mind. I hadn’t fully recovered from the experience of Berlin before I ran Chicago. While it was a challenge, it was a great opportunity to see how strong and crazy I was as a runner.
Training: I followed a plan from the “Hanson’s Marathon Method” book. The plan was high mileage, which means I was hitting 50+ mileage weeks. I did some speed work, but not consistently. Training was in the Miami summer.
Race Experience: Goal was sub-4 hours. Weather was great. Massive half marathon PR set at 1:51:46, but pace was not sustainable for all 26.2 miles. Even with the positive split, I couldn’t believe I just ran the race that I ran. The high was real and I couldn’t wait to do it again.
Final Takeaways: High mileage got me race results, but it left me feeling unbalanced as an athlete and person.
Training: Mash-up of plans, with little speed work done. I focused on the long run and speeding up the pace on all the other runs. Training was in the Miami summer.
Race Experience: Rainy Chicago race with cooler temps than Miami, but high humidity. Goal was to PR, maybe go after a 3:45 time. I knew five miles in that my goal wasn’t going to happen and I spent the next 21 miles holding on for dear life. I got a massive side stitch that persisted throughout the final 10k and was so severe at the end that I walked through the finish line.
Final Takeaways: It took me a good three months to get over this race because the disappointment was so profound. The race was something I could have never anticipated, and it left me feeling so heartbroken by running. This race, however, proved my love of running because, even though I was heartbroken, I still loved to run.
Training: The disappointment in 2017 led to me to start working with a run coach (Jessica of Sugar Runs Coaching). I did everything I could do as a runner with aerobic runs, easy runs, long runs, and speed workouts. Training was done in the Miami summer.
Race Experience: My goal was to finish feeling strong after feeling so defeated following my 2017 experience. The race didn’t go as planned (you can read more here), but I finished that race feeling proud of myself as a marathon runner.
Final Takeaways: My strength as a runner has little to do with finish times and more to do with the mental tools I have to keep my body moving forward when the challenge begins to settle in and overwhelm me.
I’ve ran nine marathons in total and, while I don’t know if I’ll return to the distance someday, I am really enjoying where I am today and all the running experiences that have brought me to this point in time.
My hope is that whatever distance speaks to your heart is the one that you are running. Never stop challenging yourself to go faster or farther, but don’t sacrifice love of the sport for distance or speed. If you run, you are a runner. If you are a runner, you are a great runner. A mile is a mile, but a mile means nothing if you aren’t loving the journey of each footfall’s move forward.
For those of you running the streets of Chicago this weekend, trust your training and embrace whatever comes your way with a heart that knows, beyond a doubt, that you are a great runner. No, great marathon runner.