I Learn “You’re not ready to run another marathon until you’ve forgotten the last one”

In May of 2009, the day after I ran my first marathon (Cox Sports), I went online to check post-marathon protocol. Specifically, I wanted to know when I could run again. Overall I felt pretty good, although my thighs were killing me when I walked down any stairs. I knew I should probably take at least a few days off from running, and some reading on Hal Higdon’s website confirmed that.

On a high from my Boston Marathon-qualifying run the day before, I also wanted to know when I could go for another 26.2 miler. And a little further reading on Higdon’s site led me to this answer from Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter: “You’re not ready to run another marathon until you’ve forgotten the last one.”

This piece of advice confused me. Forgotten the last one? My “last one” was the day before and it was awesome! When I crossed the finish line, I felt like I could have kept running! A marathon – difficult!? Not my experience!

Even when I ran my second marathon (Marine Corps) in October, when I thought I was out of shape, my time again qualified me for Boston and when I finished I felt absolutely fine. The run wasn’t quite as painless as my first marathon had been, but at no point did I feel like I couldn’t hack it. A few hours after I finished, my parents drove me back to NYC from D.C. (where the marathon took place) and I got up early the next morning and went to work. Marathons!? Easy peasy!

I know. I know. But don’t worry. It may have taken awhile, but oh, how the mighty have fallen!

Yes, I knew it existed. Yes, I had been warned about it. No, I didn’t really think I’d ever hit it.

“It”, of course, being this:

01 6762But oh, how I hit it during my first Boston Marathon.

Let’s take it back a little before we get there, though, because the entire Boston Marathon experience, as a whole, was actually very positive.

02 janenumberIt started early Sunday morning, when our recently-engaged friends Graham and Kelly picked me and Brian up to make the trek to Boston together. They would be running, too, along with over 20 other people from our running club, Rhode Island Road Runners. On the way up we picked up Graham’s brother Trevor, who flew in from Colorado to cheer on his RI running buddies.

Once we got to Beantown, we checked into the Westin Hotel, where most of our group would be staying. Then we made our way to the Hynes Convention Center for the Expo, where we picked up our race numbers and bags.

03 bostonjacketThe Expo was also where the official marathon gear was being sold. Being a Boston Marathon newbie, I of course had to get The Official Gear. Yeah, I could have waited a few days and bought it online at a discounted price, but this was my first Boston. I was going to wear my $90 jacket proudly!

04 25556_386786655761_811930761_3788062_1946318_n1My brother, Keith, who was also running his first Boston Marathon – his first marathon, in fact – had gotten into the city the previous day and already had gotten his official jacket, too.

05 janefinishlineAfter the Expo, we walked down Boylston Street to the Finish Line. There were tons of people with the same idea, getting photos in front of the spot that would be a most welcome sight in a little over 24 hours.

Brian and I also got a photo together in what has become our “signature pose” – it’s the pose we do when we’re taking photos at different places we go together. [When I told Audrey that we did this at the Finish Line, her response was, “Insert gag reflex.” Nice, huh!? 😉 ]

06 janebrianfinishlineHey, that pose got us on the news, albeit briefly! 7NEWS Boston’s Sorboni Banerjee was covering the final marathon preparations and she interviewed me and Brian as Trevor took our picture. Our actual interview didn’t make it on air, but a shot of us in our pose (not to mention a view of Trevor’s upper torso) got on. Here’s a screenshot from the television:

07 finishlinescreenshotAfter that, Brian and I went to grab some lunch while the others went to the Red Sox game. We happened to find a place to eat right next door to the hotel where Keith, my sister-in-law Nicole, and my niece and nephew were staying. So after lunch we went to visit them.

08 keithjaneIt was awesome to see my brother the afternoon before our big race. I remembered talking to him right after I finished the Marine Corps Marathon in October (Nicole ran it that day, too) about how much he’d love to run Boston someday. I remembered him proudly telling me back in November he’d been accepted into the Miles for Miracles team for Boston 2010. I remembered running our final long run – 20 miles – together just three weeks prior. I knew how hard he had trained and how much effort he had put into raising money for Children’s Hospital Boston on behalf of his “Patient Partner” Christos. Being there with him in Boston right before the big day was simply amazing.
After we got back to our hotel, Brian and I just stayed in and got some rest. And Brian also confirmed something he’d been hinting at for the past few days – he would be running the course with me.

This was a big deal for a few reasons.

One, Brian is what we call a “Wave 1″ runner. That means his qualifying time for Boston is fast enough to put him in the first of the two waves in which runners are divided. The elite male runners and Wave 1 runners (those with bib numbers 1,001-13,999) go off at 10:00am. Runners with bib numbers 14,000 and over go off at 10:30am. Runners are lined up in assigned corrals by the thousand (so, for example, runners with bib numbers 1,001 to 1,999 are in one corral, runners with bib numbers 2,000 to 2,999 are in the next corral, and so on). Being that Brian’s number was 3,682, obviously he would be pretty close to the start of Wave 1. So running with me meant bumping himself waaaaay into Wave 2.

Another reason Brian running with me was a big deal was because Boston itself is a big deal to him. This year was his third time running it. He has always run Boston well. He loves Boston. So for him to forego running all-out in his favorite marathon so he could experience my first Boston with me meant a lot. [Although, him telling people, “Yeah, I’m going to run it with Jane. You know, take it easy” diminished it just a little. Just kidding. 🙂 ]

09 4Being an early riser, Brian wanted to wake up at 5:45am on race day. Since the race begins in Hopkinton and goes through eight different towns until you get to downtown Boston, there are buses to take runners from Boston Common to Hopkinton, where there is an Athletes’ Village with tents, food, drinks and port-a-johns right near the start of the race.

And, of course, this famous sign:10 26269_620947823431_1001104_35334920_1042389_n

Look! It’s the signature pose!

Pretty soon the rest of our group was there, as well as my parents, who, without realizing it, jumped on a shuttle for runners only – probably sticking out like sore thumbs IN JEANS – to meet up with us at Athletes’ Village.

And soon after that, amazingly(!), it was time for us to head to the start… along with a few thousand friends.

As Brian and I filed into the 15,000-15,999 corral (my bib number was 15,265), Brian stuck out with his blue bib (the bib color for Wave 1 runners) among us yellow bib (Wave 2) runners.

13 26269_621108451531_1001104_35340389_2511913_nOne of the volunteers letting us into the corral asked him, “Did you miss your wave!?” to which Brian announced, “No, I hung back to run with my girlfriend.”

“What a good boyfriend you are!” the volunteer cried out. Another one, overhearing the conversation, said, “Wow, you gave up Wave 1?” Then to me: “You owe him!”

This, by the way, was not the only occurrence of this verbal pat on the back. Another time during the run, word once again got out that he hung back to run with his girlfriend. Pretty soon the crowd was chanting, “Brian! Brian! Brian!” which turned into, “Brian for mayor! No, Brian for president” and before I knew it, a mob was carrying him away on their shoulders Rudy style.

That may be a slight exaggeration, but not by much.

14 26269_621108446541_1001104_35340388_1406162_nJust before our wave went off, I found my parents on the sidelines. They were able to get a few final pictures of us before the race began. I had put my name on the front and back of my shirt so that people could cheer for me as I ran by.

Question: Does that look like JAMIE to you? Because that’s what, like, 65% of the people I ran by were calling me.

10:30am came quickly and soon Brian and I were running across the Start Line together, thousands of people smiling at us and cheering us on, holding signs and just generally going crazy for us runners. It was incredible.

The first few miles of the course are downhill, which is fitting because that’s the direction I started going soon after the race began. Sure, you can’t have your best race every time you run, but 26.2 miles is a long distance to run when you feel like crap. This I found out firsthand.

It’s weird… although the race seemed interminable while I was running it, trying to recall the event afterwards, only small bits and pieces of the race are clearly in my mind. The start, that I remember. Then I remember around mile 7, when Brian thought it would be a good time to propose we start running ultra-marathons. Then I remember two fellow Road Runners catching up with us, hanging with us for awhile, and then running ahead (mind you, these men are 55 and 72 years old, respectively, and were easily chatting away as I could hardly even mumble anything intelligible).

And throughout all of this, I clearly remember thinking, “Are we done yet?”

I hate, hate, hate complaining, but from the get-go, I had pain in my knees, shins, calves and/or thighs at some point or another.

15 wellesleygirls AP photoThe only time during the first half of the race I forgot how bad I felt was when we ran by the Wellesley girls. I had heard about them. I had heard that I would HEAR them before I SAW them. This turned out to be true.

Somewhere between miles 10 and 11 noise begins. You just hear a roar. And then there’s a huge line of girls holding signs asking for kisses, screaming, holding their hands out. GOING CRAZY.

If you ever have the desire to know what it’s like to date a celebrity, run by the Wellesley girls with your significant other. Since Brian had his name on his shirt, he took FULL advantage of the half-mile or so of co-ed’s screaming, “Brian! Yeah, Brian! Kiss me, Brian! Go Brian! Briiiiiaaaaaannnnnn!!!!”

I let him have his moment. I’m good like that.

In any case, it made me forget about my pain. It was a good distraction. I can honestly say that was one part of the run I actually enjoyed.

After the college, I remember crossing the halfway point thinking, “I felt SO much better at this point during Cox and Marine Corps.” My Boston half marathon time matched my half marathon time at Cox (my first marathon). But at that point during Cox, I felt energized, light, and fit. At Boston, I felt whatever the opposite of that is. And, like at Marine Corps, photographers were positioned at the half marathon point, taking pictures. I was actually able to wave to the cameras and smile during Marine Corps. This time? I couldn’t even muster up a fake smile. It didn’t bode well for the rest of the race.

The wheels really started to come off in the second half. I remember seeing our family friend, Lorie, and wondering if, to her, I looked as awful as I felt. I started feeling like I needed more and more hydration. When we saw Trevor around mile 16, I just felt like I was in a daze.

Ten more miles. Just ten more miles. You can do this. That was me trying a mind-over-matter thing.

Then we saw a sign for Newton, and Brian delivered this most unwelcome line: “Here come the Newton Hills!”

The Netwon Hills are a series of hills that culminate with fabled Heartbreak Hill. Up and down the hills we went, spectators yelling at us to keep going, keep at it, keep running.

I didn’t want to. I wanted to throw in the towel. As the wheels kept coming off, I kept coming up with excuses in my mind to stop. To quit. To give up.

What kept me going? I don’t know. Maybe it was the people who I saw running on one leg. Or the blind man running with his guide, staying close to each other with a rope. Or watching Team Hoyt push through the Newton Hills. Or all the people running FOR people, evidenced by the writing on their shirts.

I don’t know. But just as my mind was playing tricks on me to get me to stop, I tried to play tricks back. I thought of the last ten miles as two 5 milers. I promised myself that if I really, really had to, I could walk at mile 20.

Before we got there, though, just before the 30 km (about 18.5 miles) mark, my calves started to lock up on me and I told Brian I had to stop and stretch my legs. We hadn’t taken any bathroom breaks (which we had allotted a little time for), so this would count as a bathroom break for me.

Stopping is tricky because it can make starting back up again very difficult, especially when your body has already started to cry uncle. So after the minute or so we spent stretching, we began running again at a slow jogging pace. Now, on a normal basis, I am not the type of person to take food from strangers’ hands, but basically anything people held in front of my face from that point on, I grabbed. Bananas, pretzels, PowerBar gels – I didn’t care who was giving what to me. I just took it.

When we finally reached Boston College, I had another moment like I had in Wellesley. The BC kids were so full of energy, so enthusiastic, so LOUD, that I forgot how terrible I felt. Even if it was only for a brief moment, it was a most welcome reprieve. Apparently, my cousin Gina was in that crowd, calling my name as I ran by, but I couldn’t hear her with all the other yelling around us. (So, Gina – thank you for being there! Love you!)

The closer we got to the finish, the harder the race seemed. When we were finally at mile 23, I told myself, “Come on, Jane, you just have a 5K left.” Then, we got to mile 24. Two more miles. That seemed tolerable. Possible, even.

Those last two miles I started to feel my kick set in. Once again, the crowds were just nuts, and their cheers carried me through the pain I felt. I knew my parents were somewhere at the end of the race, and I knew Nicole was somewhere in the crowd, too, with my other brother, Adam, kids, and friends. However, finding them – or hearing them – would be difficult.

As Brian and I ran the last half mile, my parents saw us (even though we didn’t see them) and my mom snapped this photo of us running by.

16 25417_1362804783558_1034753782_1039916_107477_nWhen we finally [FINALLY, I said!] rounded the corner onto Boylston Street, such a feeling of relief came over me. As we ran toward the finish, I heard a group shouting my name and I turned to my left to see a bunch of smiling faces and big hand waves. It was Nicole, Adam, and crew!

Then, for a brief [BRIEF, I said!] second, I didn’t want it to end. Brian had stuck by me the whole time – as I complained, shot him dirty looks, pouted – and told me I could do it, stayed patient with me, and carried me with his love.

I wanted to stay in that moment with him – with the crowds around us, the Finish Line in sight, him running next to me, the same way I originally fell for him – for just a little longer.

As soon as we finished and started walking, my leg cramps came back in full force. Every single muscle in my legs was screaming in pain. I finally had to sit down because I just couldn’t walk anymore. When I got back up and walked a little more, it just got worse. As we passed one of the medical tents, I told Brian I had to go in. By that time, I had started to get cold, and I was shaking uncontrollably. The medical tent was heated, so between that and the blankets they wrapped around me, I was able to stop shaking. And getting off my legs for a few minutes made them feel a bit better. I left the tent and we walked back to the hotel.

On the way, I told Brian I finally understood what The Wall felt like. For me, it wasn’t one moment, one place where I could pinpoint the hit. It was actually more like I was a train that slowly derailed – and then just crashed and burned. Going faster wasn’t an option. Regaining speed wasn’t an option. Rebuilding wasn’t an option. Once my body decided it was done, there was no turning back.

There were two things I could do: keep going anyway or give in. I’m glad I went with the former. I’m glad I had reasons – Brian, the crowds, the inspiring people around me – to go with the former.

Brian actually said he was glad I hit the wall. It is a learning experience. Now, he says, I know what it feels like. Now I know sometimes you have to use everything you have – both physically and mentally – to get through a race. Now I respect the marathon a little more.

A marathon is not easy. It takes training, hard work, determination – and probably a little luck, too. Because you can do everything right in your training for weeks and weeks and weeks, and still come up short on race day. I was fortunate my first two marathon experiences were really, really awesome. But the fact my third was really, really not awesome makes me realize the importance of training right, having a good mindset and making sure your body is as ready as it can possibly be.

There are plenty of things I could have done differently in the weeks and months leading up to the Boston Marathon. I could have been in much better shape than I am now. I could have cross-trained more, like I did leading up to Cox last year. I could have had a better diet.

But that is in the past. I have to look forward now, using this as an experience to learn from, to grow from.

But you better believe I was sporting my Official Boston Marathon gear. Maybe I didn’t run my best marathon, but it took pain, exhaustion and sweat to get through it. This jacket I’m wearing everywhere. I earned it, baby! I even had the urge to wear my finisher’s medal to bed!

Will I run another marathon? Absolutely.

When? I’m not sure.

I haven’t forgotten my last one yet.

Jane Couto (Govednik)
New York, New York
April 19, 2010
Age – 29
Bib # 15265