We asked our contributor, Christina Piluso, to write about her experience running in Sunday's New York City Marathon. We're very amazed and proud of her, as we are of all the other entrants.
Everyone's story for preparing to run a marathon is unique. But we face the common hurdles from just getting into the famous New York City Marathon, to injuries, frustration, exhaustion and most importantly, and finally the thrill of calling yourself a marathoner. I had run casually off and on for 3 years. I considered myself an amateur, but was proud to be a runner. So after 2 years of watching and cheering for the largest marathon in the world, I thought "why not enter the lottery and try to get in?" Imagine my surprise when I found out that I was one of the lucky ones, out of 90,000 people who entered, to get in.
Up until June of this year, I was lucky if I ran 15 miles a week. I printed out the 18-week First-Time Marathoner training program from the ING New York City Marathon web site, and realized how much work I had ahead of me. The first month was good. I had previously got Orthotics to correct the over-pronation that was causing shin splints, something which had plagued me even as a beginning runner. I was running 5 days a week, biking once a week, and strength training (very little of that) twice a week. I felt healthy and strong, if not a bit tired. My weekends revolved around Saturday long runs. Often I would use running as my way of transportation to get to places, so that I would be able to still have some of my weekends left.
In September I began keeping a more thorough training log, and also began physical therapy for my shin splints that had reappeared. My physical therapists immediately commented on my general lack of strength in my legs and tightness in my right side. What little strength training I had been doing had been put on the back burner as my mileage increased, and my body just didn't have the strength it needed to continue the fast increase. So my work was cut out for me, to increase general strength in my legs and improve my stretching routine.
We'd do this by weight training at physical therapy twice a week and daily exercises on my own at home. My shin splints quickly faded, but as I look back at my running log, the entries have a consistent theme:
"9/5 5M Felt ok, shin and right knee a little sore."
"9/7 5M Tired, not too bad though."
"9/9 12M Tired, got lost"
"9/12 4M Felt like I was running all out but time was a little slow."
In the middle of this, I did my first 16 mile run in 30mph winds and rain. It was tough but I felt proud of myself that I had gone out and done it in spite of the awful weather. It was a small victory. As I reached my peak month of mileage, and did my first 20 mile run, I ended up with more injuries. I was continuing physical therapy, chasing around injuries only to have a new one form. The latest was a strange pain in my groin, which I noticed the day after doing my 20 miler. The only notes in my training log for every day that following week is "groin pain". I continued my training, with physical therapy and trying to constantly stretch. My second 20 miler only made things worse, and I started having pain, literally, in my butt (Piriformis).
This was accompanied with the crazy shooting pains through my groin. It's a bit awkward to have that worked on by a physical therapist. All this was one month before the marathon. I was convinced, by the power of Google and the Runners' World discussion boards, that I had a pubic stress fracture. My physical therapists were not. At one point I had to go to an emergency session with them to have heat and electrical stimulation because my pelvis and back were so tweaked from compensating for these other problems. That was the first day of training I missed.
The next 2 days I rode a bike and did the elliptical trainer at the gym instead of running. Thursday of that week was a dismal day of panic and despair. It sounds overly dramatic, but I run to ease anxiety. It's a sort of therapy for me, and one of the few times that my mind isn't going a million miles an hour. It's quiet, I am focused on inhaling, exhaling, stepping evenly, feeling the power in my body, clarity. My therapy was on hold. I was panicking that I'd have to drop out of the marathon 2.5 weeks before the big day. All that energy and effort and money I had pumped into training would be out the window. I would be a failure to myself. I am my worst critic. And I was physically in pain, having a hard time putting pants on and showering. I completed my last long run of 15 miles, and my journal says "Not too bad, but opposite leg starting to hurt. Hamstring/groin pain after run". I remember that afternoon, feeling like I could barely move. I knew I was done running until the marathon. I was at the point of my taper, I would bike or do the elliptical trainer, but my body simply could not handle any more pounding. My hip flexors were inflamed, my Piriformis was slightly inflamed - pressing on my sciatic nerve and sending those shooting pains through my groin, and I couldn't lift my left leg when sitting down. I had to just hope that I could get everything to calm down enough to not be hurting at least when I started the marathon. My goal of 4 hours was out the window. Now I just wanted to be able to start AND finish. Still at physical therapy, they were much more confident than I that I would do the marathon. But the Friday 8 days before the marathon they said, "We think you need to see your doctor." There were discussions of cortisone injections and xrays.
I went to my doctor and got X-rays, which came back negative for a stress fracture and I was given Celebrex to take until Sunday. I cheated and ran that morning, even though I said I wasn't going to until the marathon. I felt so disconnected from running, biking and elliptical just isn't the same to me. And, I almost fell off the elliptical one day. Trying to prevent more injury almost hurt me worse! (And I thought those things were idiot-proof) I ran because I wanted to see if I still could. And I figured that if I was going to go to the doctor, I may as well be in pain right? Well, the run felt fantastic. I still could run, and even though it was only 30 minutes on the treadmill, I was excited. I was running the NYC Marathon in less than 4 days!
Saturday night rolled around, and some amazing friends came by and gave me a shirt and 2 wristbands, as well as an anti-chafing stick and gels. We had a huge dinner and watched Chariots of Fire. I barely slept a wink that night, and was full of energy when I jumped into my boyfriend's truck to get to the start. My only worry was, Why were we going the opposite direction of Staten Island? And what if I have to go to the bathroom during the marathon. We got there on time, and I less eagerly got out of the truck. I looked at him with panic in my eyes and my lower lip started to wobble. I was terrified. Luckily, I made a friend while walking to the start and she distracted me from my panic. We parted ways when we realized she is a super fast runner starting in the front, and I am a slow runner starting in the back. At the start at 6:15am, I was amazed by how many people were there, I saw a few faces I recognized, but no one I really knew. I ate a bagel, went to the porta-potties 4 times, got a massage, and drank some tea. I tried to stay warm, but didn't have much luck.
10:10am we all line up. I realize I'm running next to a surgeon from London. This fills me with relief in case I have a heart attack along the way. Too bad we lost each other within about 5 minutes. I did run into her at mile 18 looking strong, and I hope she had a great run, I didn't catch her name or bib number to see how she did. Running over the Verrazano Bridge was surreal. It was quiet except for a few runners talking and the sounds of our footsteps thundering over the bridge. Runners were shedding hats, gloves, sweatshirts along the way. Men were peeing against walls as soon as we got off the bridge. I was jealous. I had shed my sweatshirt, hat and gloves and my t-shirt that my friends made me was visible - "Go Christina!" on the front. The spectators grew in number the farther we got into Brooklyn. Miles 1 through 8 were phenomenal - the people, the bands, the sights, the encouragement. I grabbed some paper towels from people on the side for blowing my nose. I had forgotten my Kleenex, and then these people appeared on the side of the road. Brilliant. I entered into my neighborhood and was ecstatic. Park Slope along 4th Avenue was by far my favorite because I was still so energized to really enjoy the crowds and the crowds were loud and I heard my name the whole way. I saw my friends along the route and screamed with joy and kept on going. Mile 11 I saw another friend and screamed her name and she screamed back for me. I rounded the corner into Greenpoint and I saw my friends again, so I grabbed one around her waist and dashed off. (The term dash is all relative here) Then I heard someone yell "Go Dave, you're almost halfway through!", and I thought, "Uhhh halfway through? Yikes."
Nothing that I expected to hurt actually did along the way. My hips, groin, Piriformis - all of it felt better than it had in weeks. But my right knee was bothering me at about mile 10. I took some Tylenol on the Pulaski Bridge, and somehow in the process lost my water bottle. Miles 14 through 20 were really long. The Queensboro Bridge was another spot of quiet, and got really dark. We were a herd running in the darkness, just the sounds of footsteps and breathing echoing. And then we heard Manhattan. A surge of noise and cheering and music. I didn't see the people I thought were to be along mile 18, there were just so many people. People still cheered my name, but it was beginning to be a little blurry. I kept telling myself I just needed to make it to 138th St. and I will see my friends again. I got to the KFC where I thought they would be, and didn't see them. I figured they weren't able to make it because of the trains or whatever. And then I came around another corner and there they were, my faithful following, holding the signs they made. I immediately started tearing up and put a hand on my chest when I saw them, filled with complete gratitude and relief. They were afraid I was dying because of the look I gave them. I pushed onward. Miles 21 through 23 are blurry. I pushed myself up the hill, thanking my training around Prospect Park for preparing me for hills. I ran behind a girl trotting beside her friend, in heels. I patted myself on the back for passing the girl in heels. I ate Sweet-Tarts that someone handed out, wanting anything that could distract me from this miserable experience. Mile 24 I walked through a water stop, gulping down the Gatorade. I learned my first water stop that I cannot run while drinking - I threw most of it on my face. I started "running" again, but my legs refused to move. I walked again and was looking at my legs and hitting my thighs trying to get the knots to loosen up. I was telling them to move, out loud, while looking at them feeling helpless and bewildered and wanting to cry. I was exhausted.
Then some older gentleman came out of nowhere, from the screaming crowd, grabbed my arm and screamed "Come on Christina! You can do this. There is only one New York!" And I said, damnit, you're right I can. Although I think it actually came out just a whimper. I shuffled off, willing my legs to move, and ran those last 2.2 miles like Frankenstein. I crossed the finish line, a little teary and wobbly. The medics asked me if I was ok, and I said yes! I shuffled along with the rest of the finishers and made phone calls to my family who had been tracking my progress. My sister stopped receiving the Athlete Alert emails after 15k so she was afraid I'd had to drop out along the way. I froze in the little tinfoil blanket that they gave us to keep "warm". I guess it was better than nothing. I could barely move.
My boyfriend and friends picked me up and we got sandwiches after taking some photos. I came home to vases of flowers and a crockpot of chicken soup as well as 4 bags of ice waiting for me. I couldn't muster the strength to take an ice bath after having felt so cold waiting for the start and after the finish. I took Tylenol PM and went to sleep knowing that I had actually completed this amazing thing, that up until that day, I wasn't ever confident that I could do. Contrary to others having the best sleep of their lives, I slept poorly because I toss and turn a lot but I was in so much pain that I could barely move. I got up, took Ibuprofen and headed out to physical therapy, shuffling along and having to only use one leg for the stairs. On the subway I panicked a bit not knowing if I could get up out of my chair at my stop. And now I am home. Still in pain, but still loving my accomplishment, the best of friends who made this so incredible, and my physical therapists who became my security blanket.
I picked up copies of Monday's NY Times, with my name printed in it, and I read the article about Lance Armstrong's race experience. There were mixed feelings about Lance running the marathon. I think many didn't care if he ran, they just wanted him to run it the way a 'normal' person ran it. Runner's World featured him on the cover and had a long article about him, and he came across as a bit arrogant and ignorant about marathon. I do not think that anyone actually wanted him to fail, but they felt that he didn't appreciate the magnitude of the marathon. I think it's great that he raised a lot of money for charity, and raised awareness for running as a sport. I think that anyone who had a team of trainers throughout the training, as well as people coaching you throughout the entire race, could do a marathon. Lance was able to meet his goal time, which is fantastic. I did appreciate today's article and how Lance seemed to be a bit humbled. He and I both understand the magnitude of the marathon now, I certainly didn't before when I signed into the lottery on a whim.
I have no regrets. I do not know if another marathon is in my future, but I have a sneaking feeling I might be hooked. Ask me when I have my full mobility back and this wicked armpit chafe has gone away. I will be continuing my physical therapy for at least a little while longer, to address any new injuries I may have given myself on Sunday. Until I can run again, I'm not really sure what else to do with myself. I am thinking of training for competitive eating next.