From runner to marathoner

I don’t know how to begin to write about the marathon. To me, it was so big, so monumental, so impossible and so emotional. Hopefully in the next few days I’ll be able to put into words how I felt. For now, I will write about my experience going from a runner to a marathoner in pieces.

It’s not going to be in a pretty order, parts of it won’t be eloquent and it’s not all beauty, sunshine and rainbows. It’s months of training for the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. A day fueled by passion, drive, hope and endless support from the best family and friends a person could ask for.

Race Day

I woke up on marathon morning, just as I’d planned. 5:30 a.m. wake up, eat a TrueBar, lay in bed, pet Pheebs, text John.

“Good morning!”

“Marathon day!”

“How do you feel?”

“Awesome, you?”

Time to get out of bed. Pace around my house, slip on my favorite pair of running shorts and my running top – already pinned with my bib – number 9098 – and a 3:55, to stick with that pace group for the first 20 miles – or so I’d hoped.

I put glide everywhere I could think of and broke off an extra piece to carry with me on the race course – Didn’t need chafing around mile 8 of 26.2.

John and our friend Kat arrived at my house via taxi – we rehashed everything we could need. After the fifth round of “Clif Shot Bloks, GU, 2 GU Roctane, a Truebar..” we figured there was no more to be done at my apartment. We hopped in a cab to the starting line.

Energy bubbled through the city as soon as we left Chinatown and headed toward the start near the American History Museum. Runners in bibs jittered around, smiling nervously and they rubbed their hands together to keep warm. “It’s not too late to turn back!” a woman shouts to her friend. I notice she is wearing a half marathon bib. I look down at my own – the first full marathon bib I’ve ever even touched – and gulp. John is already headed across the street.

It doesn’t take long to find the start and we have 25 minutes before the race begins. I start to invent jobs to keep myself busy. “Let’s find everyone’s corrals,” I say, dragging John and Kat along. “Okay, I don’t have to go, but let’s find the bathrooms,” I shout as I reverse directions in the crowd. “Kat, let’s find your pace group leader.”

Suddenly John asks for the time. “Alright, I need to get to my corral, less than 10 minutes until the start,” he says, looking to corral 6. It may as well be light years away from my corral 9.

Suddenly, all my energy drops. “Wait!” I say, suddenly in a panic. Then I realize I don’t have anything to follow up with. We have to seperate into the corrals. We have to run this marathon. Each of us, on our own. In this sea of people. On this long course. In this suddenly unfamiliar city. Finally we break apart and I find myself near tears. Overcome by self-doubt and anxiety about the huge task I suddenly feel under prepared for.

I walk in a daze with Kat to her corral, a few back from mine and unsuccessfully hunt for her pace group leader – she is aiming for a 2:00 half marathon, it’ll be her first. As I prepare to leave her, a voice calls out “Hey! Did you say 3:55?” an anxious face peeks out from the crowd – at first I thought I might be looking in a mirror. I didn’t yet realize I had found my rock for more than half of the race. Her name was Jackie, she explained, she was visiting from Ohio and this was her first marathon too. Pleased with our mutual anxieties and questions, we head to corral 9 to find the 3:55 pace group.

Jorge

Jorge. Jorge is my angel. John and I met him at the expo – a high point for John, a low point for me. John was riding high on the energy, relieved to be done with the paperwork and all the preparation that happens before we slip on our running shoes to go. I, on the other hand, was sick to my stomach. Doing math in my head. Was 4:00 a reasonable goal? Everyone says not to make a goal.. but I kind of had. So, would I be dissapointed? What socks was I going to wear? How fast should I go? If I even ran with a pace group – which would I run with? 4:00? 3:55? Maybe I don’t like the marathon.

We pass the pace group table and John walks right over. He’s decided on the 3:40 pace group. I am still drowning in race anxiety. But Jorge stretches his hand out from across the table and introduces himself with a smile and a warm welcome. John and I look at eachother. We like Jorge. John gets to meet his pace group leader, Nathan, and feels great about his race day plan. I leave the table with mixed feelings and a 3:55 and 4:00 bib. My plan: to marinate in anxiety for the next 36 hours until I picked a group.

John sensed that I was about to fall apart as we were leaving the expo. He recommended we go back to the pace group table and ask some more questions. There is Jorge, waiting with a smile.

Unfortunately, for Jorge, I start to feel comfortable – which means I unleash all of my concerns on him. Dragging him to a nearby map and asking him to tell me, step-by-step, everything he knew about the race. Patiently, he explained everything he knew, sharing a bit of his pacing strategy. Then he let it slip – he was leading the 3:55 pace group. I was sold. Jorge and I would be best friends forever and he would tell me jokes and stories and carry me through miles 15-25 – I just hadn’t told him any of this yet. “Okay Jorge, see ya on Saturday.” I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off of my shoulders and placed in Jorge’s lap. “I feel better,” I tell John as we head out of the expo and toward our pasta dinner.

Corral 9

It’s crowded. I can’t find Jorge. Jackie follows behind me as I dash through groups of people looking for the balloon and sign Jorge told me he’d be holding. After what felt like ages, I spot a balloon. “Jorge!” I yell, to no one in particular. Finally we make our way to Jorge who is standing just at the end of corral 8. Relieved, I practically hug him. The national anthem begins and for the first time, in any race I’ve ever run, the crowd goes completely silent.

Soon after, the corrals are called. 1-5 tick by as I wait anxiously for John’s corral to be called. As they call corral 6 to the line, I send every molecule of positive energy I have his way. I don’t know where 7 and 8 went but before I knew it, corral 9 was called to the start. “Natalie DiBlasio is in this corral!” I hear over the loudspeaker! “Hey! That’s me!” I shout to the few friends I’ve made around me. I remember Chris, the Run Westin concierge who tweets at @Run_Westin (offering running tips for travelers) told me to listen for a shoutout. That little shoutout filled me with so much positive energy I was suddenly ready to go. It’s a good thing because it was time. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, at the end of this, I’ll be a marathoner.

The Start

I felt good. I felt great. Our pace group headed out slowly.Enjoying the beautiful scenery of downtown Washington, D.C. Reading every word on every sign. Taking in every note of the first two bands. I didn’t want to be more than a few yards from Jorge. Jackie and I took turns dodging Jorge’s balloons and they flapped in the wind behind him. Every step felt fresh. Every moment felt like one to remember.

The Hill

It was a beautiful morning on a beautiful course. The mile ticked away. Just after mile 5 I saw my parents, my biggest supporters. They were beneath an enormous bridge on beautiful Rock Creek Parkway. I made a mental note to tell John I wanted to run on Rock Creek paths all the time. This place was gorgeous. I was feeling great but seeing my family motivated me even more. My dad has a huge smile and you can see in his eyes when he is excited. He was excited. I could hear my mom yelling “go Natty!!” from Mars. The combination of the two of them gave me more than enough fuel to power through the main hill on the course.

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Yeah. That one.

It’s huge, but it didn’t phase me. I was on top of the world.

I cruised through Adam’s Morgan and down East Capitol Street where I saw my family again. Big smile on my dad’s face. “Go Natty!!” Feeling beyond lucky to have such steadfast supporters- and looking around to make sure I was still with Jackie – I kept on.

My Pace Group

I am certain that 10 of the best people on this planet just happened to sign up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Marathon 3:55 pace group. These people were full of positivity, encouragement, advice and humor. We laughed and joked over rolling hills for miles. Around mile 11 we were itching for the split. The moment when the half marathoners peeled away from the marathoners, leaving us to finish 13.1 more miles as they headed to their victory. “Last chance to bail!” I announce to the group, thinking of the woman from the morning. We don’t bail. We continue on. It’s quiet. The field is down to a quarter of the size and so are the spectators.

We pass the Capitol and I see my boyfriend, Brent, with his camera. It’s a surprise – I wasn’t expecting him for a few more miles. “Guys! That’s my boyfriend! Everyone do something awesome when we run past him.”

Looking back through the photos post-race, they had all decided to point at me. I was smiling, floating past the Capitol.

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But we power on. Keeping each other company in a little clump of comfort, navigating the streets of D.C.

Passing under the National Mall I see Julie – John’s wife. I squeal in delight – thrilled to see her. Wondering how John is doing. My pace group spends the next mile mocking my bird like squeaks of joy to see a familiar face.

We catch my parents at their next cheering station. A loop that allowed them to see me at mile 15.5 and 16.5 – just where they said they’d be. My mom’s sign said “It sounded like a good idea 4 months ago.” I laughed, thinking – I’ve got this.

The Wall

It hit me like a truck. At the time I didn’t know what was happening. All I knew was I needed water. Now. There was a water stop near mile 17. I came to a stand still – the first one of the race – and gulped down a dixie cup of water. I tried to pick up my feet and carry on. I struggled through mile 17, about 50 feet behind my pace group. By mile 18 I felt sick. I struggled through. I knew my friend Hadley was planning to jump on the course with me at mile 19 to keep me going through the hardest miles. Knowing she’d be there got me to mile 18.5. I felt sick. I was seeing spots. I was dizzy. My ears were ringing. I didn’t care that I wasn’t going to finish under 4 hours. I was worried that I wasn’t going to finish at all.

Hadley

I saw her when she was a few yards ahead of me, in a white shirt, smiling. Welp, at least she’ll be able to tell my mom what happened if I die right here, I thought to myself. She hopped on course, a bundle of positive energy. I croaked out that I needed water and needed to walk. We made it to the water stop where I stopped to drink water, hobbling forward over a bridge. Hadley had been running with me for all of 30 seconds and we were walking. I apologized. “Are you kidding? You’re running a marathon,” she said. Quickly dismissing any chance that I should be upset about anything that was to come. That line played over and over again in my head. When I almost fainted again at mile 20. I am running a marathon, I told myself as I needed to stop and put my head between my knees. I am running a marathon. I told myself as I needed to loosen my shoelaces that were most certainly about to crack my foot in two.

“Okay, all we need to do is run to that lamp post,” Hadley said. “Uh huh,” I replied, thinking a nearby patch of cement covered in broken glass looked like a nice place to curl up and die.

At mile 20, in the most desolate area of the race I heard someone call my name. “Natalie!!” I looked over, my colleague Emily – who had hopped on course to run with John from mile 16-20 – was waving, dashing to snap a photo of me as I stepped over the 20 mile mark.

Brent was biking along side us, offering words of support and snapping photos of me when I emerged from my low points and could manage a smile.

During mile 21 Hadley dashed off course to a medical tent to get me a water bottle to drink when we realized a drinking station wasn’t in sight.

“Wait, you have only been drinking water?” Hadley asked. “You need gatorade.”

She was right. I downed 2 cups of water, a cup of gatorade and another cup of water at the end of mile 21. Within 5 minutes I felt like a different person.

Miles 22 and 23 were a gradual improvement. I was feeling much stronger. Although, at one point, I did tell Hadley that “I don’t really feel like doing this anymore.”

She laughed. She’d been there.

I felt like I was coming back to reality. A reality that would not have been existent if Hadley wasn’t there with me.

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I started to notice the things around me. The neighborhoods, the bands, the cheerleaders.

A man on the corner had a boombox blasting R. Kelly’s Remix to Ignition. Hadley and I discovered our mutual love for the song. I had forgotten I ever loved anything ever. My foot hurt.

The next band was playing “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira. We laughed. I forgot I knew how to laugh. Suddenly I didn’t hate the marathon any more. I hurt. Everything hurt. But soon, I’d be a marathoner.

Bouncing back

At mile 24, I knew I could finish. I started to reflect on the day. I thought about how I couldn’t be here, in this step, without Hadley and Brent who stuck along side me for the last 7 miles of the race.

I couldn’t have had the courage to train for a marathon without John, who I hoped was across the finish line eating pizza. I thought of my buddy Caleb, a little boy who has Congenital CMV that I was paired with in a program called Who I Run 4. I never would have had the confidence to put my heart into anything like this without the unwavering love and support from my parents.

Just before the 26 mile mark Hadley jumped off course to join my parents with Brent. It was just me. Me and about .3 miles to go.

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I can do this, I told myself. I can see the finish. I crossed the finish line in a daze. I was holding back tears as a medal was placed around my neck.

I stumbled through the chute collecting gatorade, chocolate milk, pretzels, water and power bars. Staring blankly at anyone who asked me anything.

I crossed through and saw my family. I hugged Brent and said “I think I just ran a marathon.”

We did it

All my superheroes were huddled around me – except for one. My mom looked at her phone. “John is fine, but he is in the medical tent.”

My heart dropped. I’ve killed my running partner, I thought to myself. I sent the people who could walk out to find John. I couldn’t straighten one leg, couldn’t bend the other, had a huge bruise on the top of my foot and thought I was going to faint. I needed to sit or I’d end up in the medical tent too. That would have been fine, but there were about a million medical tents and I was only interested in finding one.

John ended up being okay, but he did need to get IV fluids. Turns out we both need to work on our mid-race hydration. My dad found John and Julie and brought them over to our camp.

John and I waddled toward each other in a salty, sweaty, broken hug.

“We did it.”

“We did it.”

“…Whose idea was this?”

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I finished in 4:12:31

John finished in 3:51:16

I’ve never been more proud in my life. We are marathoners.

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