by Cassie Bjork in Stories, image by Nordea Riga Marathon

My first marathon

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I’ve always heard that running a marathon is an experience that cannot be put into words. And here I am trying to gather all of my emotions, thoughts and reflections and translate them into something tangible, actual and real—words that will mean something to someone. Over the past few days, whenever someone asked about the marathon I stumbled over my words as I tried to summarize an experience for which words cannot suffice.  I’ve played the experience over and over like a movie in my head and one thing is certain: This is one of the most difficult and proud accomplishments I have done in my life thus far. 

I guess I never really knew what it was like to keep running when your body is telling you that you’re done.  It’s truly a case of mind over matter.  Even in the long training runs where we covered 20 miles, I always felt pretty strong. That was not the case at Sunday’s marathon. The first few miles were incredible. The pack was tight; it actually took many miles for the runners to spread out. For the first seven or eight, we were keeping a nice and easy pace— just warming up. Spectators were already filling the streets, holding up their signs. Cowbells were heard and ringing loudly as we passed. The brisk fall air filled our lungs. As the sun rose and began to shine brightly, layers of shed clothing lined the streets. I was noticing every detail and trying to take it all in and not let anything pass me by. A friend and I ran comfortably, chatting, and at one point I realized a guy we graduated high school with was running right beside us. We conversed with him and his friend for a few miles. At the tenth mile we stopped to use the restroom and to my frustration, had to wait in a five minute line. I tried to keep moving but my muscles were getting comfortable as I was taking a break. I decided it would be wise to not make any more stops. At the half marathon point, my friend wanted to stop at another bathroom, so I continued on my journey— this time alone. I was feeling pretty good so I decided to pick up the pace quite a bit (which surprised my fans who were following me, resulting in some of them missing me at certain points because they thought they had more time before my appearance.)

One thing is certain: This is one of the most difficult and proud accomplishments I have done in my life thus far.

Mile seventeen was where I really stumbled. I  broke down and felt like I was falling apart, both physically and mentally.  I basically cried from mile seventeen to twenty and the reason the tears rolled down my face was more than just the physical pain that was ringing throughout my body.  I  do think part of it was that my legs were incredibly fatigued, weighing me down like they were made of lead. And part  of it was without a doubt, mental—just  knowing I had over nine miles left (and a year ago I considered nine miles to be a “long run.”) The combination of being overwhelmed in so many ways and the mixture of emotions was overtaking (and overtook) me. It was the sum of months and months of training and sacrificing, waking up at the crack of dawn and pushing my body through workouts I never knew I was capable of. The hours of research that went into understanding mechanics of the body  so I could help it perform its best. The precise adherence to my training program and trying not to miss a beat. The trial and error of strategies regarding nutrition, rest, timing and finding shorts and sports bras that don’t cause  chafing. The turning down activities I would have loved to attend on Friday nights due to “Long Run Saturday’s.”  Marathon day wasn’t just a race day, but an accumulation of months of preparation.  I was crying because I was filled with emotion. My legs were throbbing, my heart was racing and my mind was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love I felt. What kept me going at this breaking point was trusting my training along with the unbelievable crowd support.  Each time I passed one of my supporters I was re-energized and would then look forward to the next time I would see a familiar face. I was literally being fed off of the support of my own fans. I was so humbled to have so many close friends and family on the course, cheering me on. Four of my friends were even on their bikes which enabled them to see me at multiple points throughout the race. And for those who left messages on Facebook, Twitter and my phone, I thought about each and every one of you as well. You were in my head telling me to keep going. I couldn’t stop. Besides, I knew if I did, I’d risk not being able to start again. So I kept running.

What they say is true: the crowd support was absolutely amazing. It was the funny sayings on the signs people were holding to the way they’d call out my name (which was written down my arms) to encourage me. It was the simple exchange that meant so much;  just locking eyes and seeing in theirs that they could read the pain in yours. Sometimes they’d follow this moment by telling me I was doing great or looking good and I’d give them a genuine thank you.

The items provided by the crowd saved me, from the Vaseline, bananas, fresh-cut oranges and peaches to beer and champagne

They knew what we needed. The entertaining signs they held up the entire way—some that made you laugh (“I hate skinny people!”) (“26.2. WTF”) and there were those that didn’t seem quite as funny at the time (“You are NOT almost there”) (“You WILL do this again.”) (Reading that sign through my tear-filled eyes that said, “You WILL do this again,” I could do nothing but chuckle considering I had already signed up for my second marathon for June 2012.) And besides the thousands of fans that lined the streets, I was amazed and blessed by so many friends and acquaintances through text messaging, phone calls, Facebook and Twitter. People I haven’t talked to in years offered their support and respect. An acquantaince from college wrote on my Facebook wall that her and her mother were following my progress throughout the run— what an honor!

At mile twenty I saw my parents and received a few encouraging words from my mom, which helped me get my head back on straight. I again started to notice the signs “One foot in front of the other” and hear the encouraging words from the crowd, “You’re already done with the hardest part! This is the home stretch” and the supportive words as runners passed me—which isn’t contradicting in the least; it’s just part of the runner’s code. Marathon runners are notorious for offering encouragement to one another. It isn’t all about winning or losing, it’s about the experience and being in it together.  It’s that nod of the head that signifies and expresses understanding of what the fellow runner is going through and enduring: the months of training, the mental and physical demands that running requires. It’s the special language, understanding terms like “negative splits” and “runner’s high”, the alternative use for Vaseline and that utmost respect and true understanding that is exchanged with the simple head nod.

Throughout the race it was important to be especially in tune with my body. What did I need? Water? Gatorade? To slow down the pace or pick it up? To hear my music or cheers from crowd? In the same sense, it was important to be in tune with my thoughts and internal dialogue. In the words of Ryan Hall, “Any runner interested in maximizing potential must study the mind body connection or their journey will not be complete.” I’ve been reflecting on the thoughts that ran through my mind for the four hour and forty minute time frame.  When I was struggling, I focused on phrases like, “One foot in front of the other” and “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.” I was even talking out loud to my legs when they felt like lead (“C’mon, move!”) I  had been running “naked” (no music) up to mile eighteen. Up until this point my energy was derived soley from the crowd and internal dialogue.   But this was when I needed encouragement the most, so I reached for my carefully designed playlist (with recs from friends and Twitter followers), and turned up the volume. The lyrics really spoke to me in a time when I was clinging onto anything I could grasp.

As I passed the American flag at mile 26, the finish line was finally in sight. I felt fired-up and on top of the world, while at the same time feeling exhausted, depleted and numb in both legs. But  I felt like a champion as I sprinted (literally) down the last 385 yards to the finish line in front of the capitol.  I gave it all I had.

Reflecting,  I probably peaked too early in my training which is why my body felt fatigued on race day. But as they say, you learn from each marathon and I am proud to have completed my first. I’m also proud to say that on that very day, based on many contributing factors,  I couldn’t have done better than my 4:40:04 finish. I pushed myself to the limit: mentally, physically and emotionally. I am still hurting all over my body but as my friend Karl put it precisely:  ”That medal wouldn’t mean anything if there wasn’t a physical price to pay.”

I will never forget the feeling when it finally dawned in me that I was, I am, a marathon finisher

It really hit me when I picked up the newspaper the next morning. I read about the “elite runners” and realized I was one of them. I had never considered myself to be an elite runner! As one of my Twitter followers, a fellow marathoner wrote to me: “Today a marathon runner has been born!” another told me I had been “baptized.” The world of runners is like a prestigious club that I am happy to now be a part of. I have crossed the border from a trainee to a marathon finisher, an “elite runner.” Running isn’t about winning. It’s about perseverance, determination and setting the bar higher by pushing yourself past limits you never knew were possible. Pressing on when you feel like you can’t go any further. Even when I felt like I couldn’t walk anymore, I pressed in. I kept running. I didn’t stop.

I made it through the marathon thanks to friends, family, spectators, Eminem and faith. The experience of my first marathon will be forever imprinted in my mind and part of my story. It was truly an indescribable experience and much harder than I would have ever imagined, yet I would (and will) do it all over again.

So whether you were out on the course cheering me on, praying for me or tweeting at me, thank you all for helping me conquer my first marathon. Couldn’t have done it without you.




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