26.2 miles is a lot of running – your head knows this before you ever run the distance, and your body and heart realize it afterward.

How about those final 3-4 miles of a marathon? That’s a distance that’s far. OK, at least for me, for my first marathon, that’s how it felt. They seemed to stretch out before me, a route that was at once both familiar and foreign as my mind attempted to will my heavy legs to just keep running.

But I’ll back up a bit, to the beginning of this weekend’s race, the culmination of 22 weeks of training. Which couldn’t have fallen on a better weather day, especially given this week’s steamy temps even at 7 a.m. Saturday, meanwhile: light rain, overcast, high 40s at the 7 a.m. gun time. I wore a hoodie to stay warm and huddled under an umbrella (thank you, Dad) to stay dry prior to the start, but that was that. Throughout the race I wore only my Athleta purple tank and black running skirt that I’d like to believe gives me some superpowers, and I didn’t have to worry about shedding layers. Sheer bliss for me, to never feel too warm.

Standing at the start line, I felt as prepared as I possibly could. I didn’t have a ton of time to ponder much, having apparently waited in the one porta potty line that moved like molasses and having to find a spot in the pack within moments of the race starting. Still, I felt good. Strong. Ready for the hours of running before me.

Hearing my dad shout “Go Heather!” as I began made me smile. And I thought about all the other friends and family members I’d be seeing along the route. My stomach was fluttering with butterflies from all the build-up to this moment, but I knew once I got going, found my groove, I’d be alright.

The first couple of miles felt smooth, even with the throngs of runners finding their space and settling into their pace. I saw friends at the one-mile mark, giving me a jolt of confidence. The crowds of runners began thinning out between miles 4 and 6, and by the time we hit Bluff Road and mile 7, I was feeling just fine, definitely in a rhythm. I was consistently hitting 8:15, 8:20 minute miles.

A few expected (and unexpected) highlights …

  • Crossing paths with the half-marathoners, who start at the end of Bluff Road at the marathon half-way point. First come the super fast runners, which is always an awesome sight. Amazing, I keep thinking to myself as these men and women with jaw-dropping strides and paces whiz past. Seeing two of my good friends running the half powered me. The out-and-back course also ensures you’ll see the top marathon runners as well, and I never can quite wrap my mind around the fact that these athletes are running 26.2 miles at paces not even achievable for me during a one-mile run. These marathon runners have crested the half-way mark and are heading back in miles before I’ve reached 13.1.
  • The Bayhore Marathon is big, by Traverse City standards – some 6,500 runners participate in the event’s 10k, half marathon and full marathon. And we do have spectators and music throughout the race course. But it’s not a big-city race, there aren’t bands and crowds of people watching at every step. What we do have is beautiful scenery since the entire route takes you along the shores of East Grand Traverse Bay. And the fan support is spectacular. Something I wasn’t expecting but loved: seeing all the kids lined up along the side of the road at certain points with their hands held out, waiting for high fives. Any chance I could, I slapped their palms. It made me think of my own three children, and I figured I’d take any good luck I could get from these adorable kids.
  • When I contemplated signing on for my first marathon, I wondered if going for a big one – the Chicago, NYC, Detroit – would be best since the sheer size and magnitude of the event would help carry me through my first 26.2 miles. I’m sure this would have been a great decision, but having gone with a much smaller race in my hometown, I’m convinced this was the perfect choice for me. Where else could I have friends strategically placed to cheer me on? Heather and Chris yelled for me at mile 11, Michele had two Gu packets for me around mile 19, Jenn and Gloria were at mile 21, Kelle sat watch at mile 22, Meg held a “Homestretch Rockstar!” at mile 25. The icing on the cake: Joe surprised me by being at mile 21 with our kids and my dad, and my mom was at mile 25 with Meg. Then came the final half-mile…

As you all know, I tried my hardest to get as mentally tough as possible leading up to this race. I just knew I’d need that strength during those final miles. Whether it would be mile 20, 21, 22 or later when I hit a wall, I wanted to be prepared, have an arsenal of strength and grit and willpower to keep going and finish strong. But like childbirth, raising children or doing anything else that’s really, really hard, can you ever truly know what it’s like until you’ve been through it? I didn’t expect to feel so ready to stop just after mile 22. I’d had a couple of fleeting moments earlier in the race, when I wondered if I really could pull this off, but they’d passed quickly and I pushed forward. I felt they were more nerves than anything else. I held off using my music until about the halfway point, which helped…until those final 3-4 miles. I just seemed to lose my mojo. I wanted to walk. But I didn’t want to walk. At Lisa’s suggestion, I hadn’t looked at my overall time for most of the race. I remained focused on each mile’s pace. But I couldn’t resist looking down at my watch once I began feeling like I was fading.

OK, I thought, seeing the numbers flash 3:20 something…I can walk through these next couple of aid stations and drink some water instead of grabbing a cup on the go or tearing open a Gu packet with my teeth while running. I knew I had some time for this, that I could still make it to the finish line within 3:45, the time I had to reach to qualify for Boston. Still, funny how your mind can get twisted at this point. I also thought fleetingly, I don’t even care about Boston. I just want to finish this damn race. I’m done. I’m ready to be done with this race.

So I walked through those aid stations (and a few steps after each one, gulping down the cold water) and then pushed on, as hard as it was. So hard. Dig deep, dig deep. When I saw a friend’s husband with about a mile to go and he yelled out, “You’re doing great!” I felt a surge within me, a determination to just do this. (Thank you, Scott!) I carried on, not knowing I was about to meet up with my running angel, my forever friend Trisha who, having finished the half marathon and waiting for me at the finish line, would tell me later that something told her to go out on the course and find me.

Trisha met me with a half-mile to go. I was fading, I knew it. She could see it. “C’mon, ‘let’s go, I’ll run in with you!” I could barely respond, I was so, so wanting to stop. She asked me if I wanted her there, to be sure I wasn’t in a zone and needed to be left alone. “No, stay! Stay with me,” I remember saying. With her help, I somehow pushed through the winding road that led to the high school track, screaming spectators and finish line. At the entrance to the track, where you run the final hundred or so yards, she let me go, and finally seeing the finish line, I willed my legs to GO. Crossing the line, seeing the numbers flash 3:43-something, I stumbled forward. Trisha found me moments later – I’m fairly certain I practically collapsed in her arms, and after a finisher’s medal was placed around my neck, we found a spot on the grass nearby where I sat somewhat dumbfounded at what I’d just done. “You did it! I can’t believe what you just ran! I’m so proud of you!” Trisha said after retrieving a cup of Gatorade for me.

I thought I’d be a crying mess – tears of joy – at the marathon finish line. All the months of training, in all kinds of weather…all the time and energy I spent so focused. But I was completely and utterly spent. Dazed. And then the thought registered: I did it. I finished 26.2 miles. I think I qualified for Boston. And: I gave it my everything.

Official chip time: 3:42:55. Average pace: 8:30. Here’s me crossing the finish line (thank you, Gloria, for these videos!)

Joe, our kids, my dad, my running coach Lisa and several friends were in the stands watching me finish. When I see my kids not long after, they tell me how they were watching the clock and getting nervous waiting to catch sight of me. “She only has a few more minutes!” It’s too cute. I guess I added an element of suspense. I’ve promised them that of course they’ll come to Boston with me.

Thanks for reading this very long post…I’m still processing this experience, so if you’ll bear with me, I’ll likely share more thoughts in posts to come. But I’ll end with heartfelt thanks to you for reading and coming along on this journey with me. I also know there are more journeys ahead, and I can’t wait to share those – and yours! – here on this blog…

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity, but in doing it.” – Greg Anderson

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