18 Years and 15 Kilometers

Yesterday was our 18th wedding anniversary, so my husband and I did what any couple who loves to run does: We ran the Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K. It probably sounds crazy to you non-runners, but, for us, it was the perfect way to kick off our anniversary and celebrate with an activity we both truly enjoy. After my husband’s injury last spring, I am happy for any chance to run with him, but it was beyond awesome to have him with me in the start corral again (along with our 13-year-old daughter and her running pal).

I have to admit, though, that I had an ulterior motive in signing up for this race. After months of training for a marathon that didn’t go at all as planned, I wanted to remember what it feels like to just run for the fun of it. I wanted to hit the streets of a city I love with no time goal in mind, to follow my body’s natural pace and truly enjoy the experience. And I did. My husband and I ran together until the 5K/15K split, shared an awkward “Happy Anniversary” kiss (it’s not easy to smooch while running, people) and then parted ways. My Nike + app went berserk, so I had no idea how fast I was running. I just ran, and it was wonderful. I felt strong throughout the race, clocked negative splits and sprinted across the finish line with a smile on my face. It was the most fun running I have had in I don’t know how long.

Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K finishers

Hot Chocolate Chicago 5K/15K finishers

Sometimes I think I get so caught up in obsessing about time goals and rigidly following training schedules that I forget the beauty of running and how much joy it brings me. What’s funny is that when I stopped being so hard on myself and forgot about goals, I set a personal record. I ran 0.14 seconds faster than last year. A tiny victory, for sure. But in the face of the disappointment I felt about my performance in the Portland Marathon last month, I’ll take it.

Next month I start training for my third 26.2: the Illinois Marathon in April. I definitely have something to prove — to myself – after Portland, so I know I will be serious about sticking to my training schedule. But I also hope to keep yesterday’s 15K in mind and focus on the journey to the finish line rather than the amount of time it takes me to cross it once I get there. I’m guessing that having my husband and favorite buddy along on some of my training runs – the guy who got me into running in the first place – will help me remember to not only keep pushing myself but also keep enjoying myself.

We celebrated our 18 years of marriage in a more traditional manner with a steak dinner yesterday evening. We may or may not have discussed running. We definitely had fun.

Cheers to 18 years!

Cheers to 18 years!

How NOT to Run a Marathon

I met Karen shortly after the start of the race, both of us desperately bobbing and weaving to try to follow the pace group for a 4:40 finish time. It was difficult to talk as we struggled to keep sight of the red, lizard-shaped pace group sign above the sea of runners. But once the crowd thinned, we chatted easily. Karen, a thin, wiry, athletic woman with a weathered face and broad smile, told me this was her 18th marathon and then mentioned in passing that she would be 60 in three months. She immediately became my hero. As we settled into our pace, I learned she was battling a lingering cold and had chosen the 4:40 group because she wanted to start out slow (she finished the race in 4:12 the previous year), which had been my reasoning as well. I told her about the stomach issues plaguing me for the past three days and my fear they would prevent me from even reaching the start line, and we commiserated about the expected high of 80 degrees, a fluke for Portland, Oregon, which is known for cool, rainy Octobers. Unlike me, however, Karen seemed unfazed by any factors that might hinder her performance. “Every race has a story,” she said breezily.

Karen and I ran together for the first 10 miles or so, including most of a long, hot and tedious out and back through an industrial area. Around mile 11, though, the seemingly endless miles of direct sun brought me to what felt like a “mini-wall.” I struggled over another unexpected hill and began to worry about the terrain ahead. Although the race organizers bill the course as flat, that term, as I painfully learned, is relative. What a Pacific Northwesterner deems flat feels more like a constant stream of small to medium elevation changes to a Midwesterner like me. As I watched the red lizard sign disappear up ahead, I wondered if Karen, who lives in Seattle and is used to running hills, would remain with the 4:40 group. Unfortunately for me, the pace I thought would provide the easy, slow start I needed was now too fast for me to maintain.

With Karen gone and no friendly chatter to distract me, the dark thoughts began to set in. I only saw my husband four times on the course, despite his valiant efforts to reach me at other points (that should be a whole other post). During the first two sightings, in the early miles when the temperature was mild and I was still with Karen, I smiled happily, waved and told him I loved him. But when I saw him at mile 12 or so, alone, in pain and doubting myself, I burst into exhausted, panicky tears. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I told him. “There are so many hills. The heat – it’s killing me.” After a teary, sweaty hug and some reassuring words, he helped me exchange the empty bottles of Gatorade on my fuel belt for the full ones in his backpack and I was on my way. Seeing him grounded me enough to continue. Even if I have to walk, I thought, I will cross that finish line.

Over the next four boring, nondescript miles (at least they were pretty flat by my standards), I tried to focus on running a steady pace, but I knew what was coming. I could see it in the distance: the 2,067-foot steel suspension bridge that had been the bane of my existence for the past 20 weeks. The cramps in my feet, ankles and calves from all the elevation changes were already forcing me to stop to stretch or walk at times. St. John’s Bridge and the dramatic incline leading up to it seemed like almost insurmountable hurdles. As I approached the on ramp leading to the bridge, I noticed many runners stepping off to the side to walk. I summoned whatever shreds of stubborn pride I could and ran the incline without stopping. I thought about Karen. I wondered how her race was going, as I watched the 5:00 pace group pass me on the bridge. I barely noticed the view of fog-blanketed Mt. Hood as I plodded forward, all hopes of what I perceived as a decent finish dashed. This damn bridge is not going to take me down, I thought.

Oh, how wrong I was. The mini-wall I hit at mile 11 felt like cardboard compared with the concrete mega-wall I crashed into at the 30K mark. After my heroically stupid conquering of St. John’s Bridge, any uphill or downhill running – or walking – produced stabbing pains in my inner quadriceps. My shins and the fronts of my ankles burned, but I could stretch and walk it off. I could keep running. That didn’t work for the quad pain, and I was terrified. I began to seriously wonder if I would reach the finish line.

My husband magically appeared on the sidelines soon after I hit Wall No. 2, and I started to cry with relief the moment I saw him. “I’m really afraid I won’t finish,” I told him. “The bridge … the heat … the pain.” Once again he was my beacon, guiding me away from my fear and helping me believe in myself. “You have to think positive thoughts, Kath,” he said, hugging me tightly. I knew he was right, so I kept moving.

I don’t remember much of the last seven miles of the race. Marathon running is like childbirth in that respect: You block out the unpleasant parts afterward. My routine the rest of the way was pretty much to just run until the stabbing pain in my inner quads and the cramps in my shins, ankles and feet overwhelmed me, stop briefly to walk or stretch, and then push onward. The hills kept coming; there was even another damn bridge toward the end; and when I finally saw the finish line, my exact words were, “It’s about f—— time!” Yes, I said that out loud. Somehow I managed a negative split in the last mile. I think it was just because I wanted it to be over so badly.

I cried yet again when I saw my husband searching the crowd for me in the reunion area, happy to find him and overjoyed to be done. “You would have hated that race,” I told him. I wasn’t just trying to make him feel better about not being able to run it due to an injury. At that point, I did hate the race. It was nothing like what I expected: the decidedly not flat terrain, the brutal heat, the boring course. Even the smattering of crowd support hadn’t helped. A stranger half-heartedly yelling, “Go, Kathleen,” doesn’t do much to bolster your morale when your legs are searing with pain and you’re afraid you may not make it to the finish line – at least it didn’t for me.

When I started to tell him about Karen, whom I never saw again unfortunately, I began to view things differently. She was right: Every race does have a story. While mine was not pretty, it did teach me some valuable lessons about what not to do when training for a marathon. For one thing, don’t go into the race without a true understanding of the terrain (again, “flat” is a relative term depending on where you live). Also, don’t discount the importance of hill work (I have since vowed to incorporate a hill run into my schedule every week). And finally, the most important thing I learned: Don’t have rigid expectations (if 4:40 was my planned starting pace for a cool race, 5:00 may have been a better place to begin on such a hot day).


Best beer I ever tasted. I have never been so happy to finish a race.

After spending Monday shopping, eating and drinking our way through Portland (what a great city!), we headed back to Chicago on Tuesday. Despite my relatively good spirits after the race, the post-marathon depression hit me pretty hard the following morning as I prepared to go home and back to reality. Nothing had gone as planned, and I felt defeated and demoralized. After 20 weeks of hard work – I missed only one run and that was during the taper because of hamstring pain – I knew I was capable of so much more. My 20-miler had been so strong: 10:26 pace, mostly negative splits. I felt great afterward and even ran five miles the next day. Why had everything gone so miserably wrong during the actual race?

On the flight home, I wound up sitting next to another Portland Marathon finisher. After noticing his marathon shirt, I told him I had run it as well and asked how his race went. He told an all-too-familiar tale: The heat and hills exhausted him, he felt pain in muscles he didn’t know he had, his time was way off his goal, and he struggled just to finish. I am an almost 47-year-old mom with a beyond non-athletic build who never participated in sports and could not even run around the block until I was almost 40. He, meanwhile, is an incredibly fit 28-year-old who played college and professional basketball in France. But somehow, as crazy as it may seem, we shared the same story. You have no idea how much better that made me feel. Thank you, serendipity. I needed that.

In the five days since the race, I have run the gamut of emotions about my marathon experience finally coming to an end: joy, sadness, denial and acceptance. I seriously contemplated running another marathon in a month (that would be the denial phase) to prove to myself that I could improve my time, and I even managed to get my husband on board with the plan. Thankfully, I came to my senses, and the words of veteran marathoner Karen helped me. There will be other races. I have more stories to tell. The important thing is that I finished my second marathon and even eked out a tiny PR. I can view it as a failure because I didn’t meet the expectations I set for myself, or I can treat it as a lesson and do some things differently next time. I choose the latter. In fact, I’m already planning next year’s race schedule.


Thank you to everyone who followed my training journey over the past five months, listened to my ceaseless and obsessive ramblings, and lent me support along the way. You all made me feel like a winner.

Away We Go

Well, folks, the big day is almost here. My husband and I fly to Portland, Oregon, today, and on Sunday I will run the Portland Marathon. If – make that when – I get to mile 17, I will cross St. John’s Bridge, a 2,067-foot steel suspension bridge that spans the Willamette River. Here it is.

St. John's Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

St. John’s Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

This, meanwhile, is Arrowhead Bridge, the tiny suspension bridge I run across regularly in the small town where I live.

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My daughter on our town’s teeny, tiny Arrowhead Bridge

As you might imagine, this Midwestern girl, who is used to pancake-flat terrain, is more than slightly intimidated by the idea of running St. John’s Bridge – especially at mile 17 of a marathon. I have thought about it constantly during the past 20 weeks of training, worrying that I won’t be able to handle the elevation, wondering if I will be forced to walk it as many marathon participants apparently do. My fear is if I walk at that point, I won’t be able to raise the momentum to start running again.

The other thing I have been obsessing about is the weather. When I signed up for the race last winter, the notoriously cool, crisp Portland temps in October were a huge draw. I knew there was a good chance it would be overcast and even rainy, and that didn’t bother me. I love running in the rain. What I do not love is running in hot, humid weather. When I saw the forecast for Sunday of full sun and a high of 81 degrees, let’s just say I was less than pleased. All I could think about was how hard it would be to maintain my goal race pace in those conditions. I have three goals for my finish time. I won’t list them here because I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just call them “good,” “great” and “awesome.” After looking at that forecast, even “good” seems out of reach.

Here’s the thing, though, and it’s awfully hard to accept: No matter how much I would like to do so, I cannot predict what will happen during my race. There are so many factors over which I have no control: that damn bridge, the weather, potential injury, etc. All I can do is get myself to the start line as healthy and well-rested as possible and believe in my training. Instead of focusing on a goal time, I am going to concentrate on enjoying the experience (I hear the view from that big ol’ bridge is spectacular). When — not if — I cross the finish line, I will know I did my best. That’s all that matters.

Marathon Update: I’m 65% There

17 miles: done

17 miles: done

It was a big day for this running mama. I ran 17 miles, my longest training run ever despite the fact that I have one marathon under my belt. I both dreaded and anxiously anticipated this long run because it represented a huge not only physical but psychological hurdle for me, one I wasn’t entirely sure I had the strength or stamina to cross.

Here’s the back story in case you are new here: When I ran the Chicago Marathon in 2011, I never made it past 16 miles in training due to an injury. I managed to finish the race despite my lack of adequate training (it’s incredible what adrenaline and crowd support can help you achieve), but I wasn’t particularly pleased with my time. Running the Portland Marathon in October, for me, is about seeing what I can do in a healthy, injury-free state (I’m frantically knocking on my particle-board desk as I type those words).

With that in mind, I have approached training entirely differently this time around. I feel as if I have found a good groove in terms of balancing running with cross training, stretching, yoga, resting, etc. I’m running much faster than I was in 2011, thanks to finally giving up smoking (duh!). I feel as if I’m starting fresh this time and have a second chance to prove myself. Each long run brings me a step closer to knowing what I will be capable of on race day.

I am proud to say that not only did I finish today’s 17-miler, I rocked it. My average pace was just a few seconds shy of my goal for Portland. I owe much of the credit to a fabulous — and really fast — new running buddy who inspired me to keep pushing forward today. Training without my hubby, who was supposed to run Portland but suffered an injury, has been tough. I am so thankful to the local ladies running this year’s Chicago Marathon who have welcomed me into their training fold. Let’s face it: Long runs kind of suck when you do them alone — at least they sure do for me. I want and need that kick in the butt from someone else to keep moving. I was extra grateful to have it today.

Reaching the 17-mile mark felt like a major victory. It means I’m 65% there. If I can run 17, what’s another mile next week or even an extra 9.2 (gulp) on Oct. 5? I made it past the milestone that scared me most, and I am reveling in my runner’s high right now.

I could also really use a nap.

Happy Friday, peeps! And cheers to the running community at large. What an awesome group of positive, supportive and inspiring people! I am lucky and proud to be a part of it.

With or Without You

I started going without him a month or so ago. The first few times, the guilt outweighed the pleasure. I would think of him and wonder if he was upset that I had left him behind. I tried not to talk about it afterward, even though he knew full well where I had been. He never appeared sad, disappointed or jealous. In fact, he encouraged me to go.

Before you start speculating about the state of my marriage, let me clarify that I am not hitting the singles bar with my girlfriends; I am training for a marathon without my husband. It might sound crazy, but I feel as if I am cheating on him every time I lace up my Sauconys. I know how much he misses running, and heading to the trail without him seems like a selfish, insensitive betrayal. I remember how bittersweet it was for me two years ago when both of us signed up for our second Chicago Marathon, but only one of us crossed the finish line. As happy as I was to be there to support him, I envied him and all the other runners as I watched from the sidelines. I also know firsthand what a frustrating letdown it is to get injured while training for a marathon, which is what happened to my husband this time around.

Although I feel guilty running without him, this next race means a lot to me. I hurt my foot 11 weeks into training for my first marathon back in 2011. I ran it anyway, but my time was nowhere near what I had anticipated because I missed so many of the long training runs. Since then, I have quit smoking and gotten smarter about incorporating strength training and yoga into my workout schedule to prevent injury. I am healthier, stronger and faster. And I am ready to prove it at the Portland Marathon, or at least I will be when race day gets here in October.

As much as I want to run this race, I offered to skip it when my husband learned that he won’t be able to join me. It will be a big expense for us to travel from Chicago to Portland, and we are trying to be (at least somewhat) more budget conscious with college just three years away for our oldest child. Plus, it is not my nature to spend a large amount of money on something that will benefit only me. A family trip to Europe? A must. A weekend in Portland for me to run a race? An extravagance.

I am happy to say that my husband did not see it that way. When I mentioned us canceling the trip, he insisted we go. “You are running for both of us,” he said. And that is my plan. I remember how happy I was when he finished his second Chicago Marathon and set a new personal record. It may not have been my year, but I was thrilled that it was his.

I am sure I will feel a little sad when I enter the start corral without my running buddy on race morning, but I also know how much he wants me to finish and do well. Yesterday, when we were planning dinners for the week, he offered to make a meal with pasta on Thursday, the night I usually rest and carb load in anticipation of a long run Friday morning. We may not be able to run together for a while, but I appreciate how lucky I am to have his love and support as I head out the door on my own. It makes what I initially perceived as cheating feel a whole lot more like winning.

My running buddy and me in Sedona this spring

My running buddy and me during a trail run in Sedona this spring