I ran the Big Sur marathon two weeks ago. Running the Big Sur Marathon is something that has been on my bucket list after I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway several years ago. The stretch of highway between San Francisco and Santa Barbara is one of the prettiest drives I’ve ever done. The road twists and turns countless times as it hugs the rugged and mountainous coastline. The views are out of this world, and I couldn’t imagine a better place to run a marathon.
In the recent past, marathons were out of the question for me. I did my first marathon at the age of 22, but that type of training and those kind of races were out of the question as I struggled with infertility throughout the last 8 years.
I’ve been a long distance runner since my 9th grade track coach thought I’d be a good fit for the mile and two mile races and relays. When I first found out his plans for me, I quickly told myself I’d make it through the week then quit. The week came and went, and I told myself to just tough it out for one season… and a lifelong runner was born. Albeit not on any collegiate team, I ran throughout college at Penn State with a good friend from my high school cross country team and before we parted ways at graduation, we wanted to do a marathon together. We trained really hard for the better part of senior year (1999) for the Pittsburgh Marathon and each qualified for the Boston Marathon during that race, and since then I’ve run ten marathons and lots of half marathons and other races along the way.
Running became my safe space, my happy place, a time for meditation, moments of self-reflection, and a time for resetting my body and mind. Running was my passion, a place of healing and of happiness in my life. It makes me feel alive, and is just a part of my soul somehow.
Then came the years of fertility struggles, and that type of running had to stop. Not by choice, but by necessity. When I ran over fifteen miles a week my monthly cycles were off or were non-existent. While I could do a few shorter runs each week during our IVF years, marathon training and true long distance running had to take a back seat to trying to conceive. Trying to have children and losing multiple pregnancies was heartbreaking, and while I yearned for the respite that long distance running gave my body and mind, it just wasn’t an option.
But the nuts and bolts of what I learned about running from my high school cross country coach applied every bit as much to our fertility journey as it did to running. While he could be a bit gruff sometimes, my coach Mr. Snare taught me that I was capable of much more than I thought was possible.
I remember one day someone on the team was walking during a race and they said they felt like they were going to die. He responded tongue-in-cheek by saying that you would pass out long before you die on our grassy 3.1 mile course, and if we passed out, he would pick us up and put us in the back of his truck and then we could be done running. Being know it all teenagers, we thought we would show him by running so hard that we would pass out, but we never did. Instead we ran harder and faster than ever, and we found out that we could take on more than we ever thought possible. While things may hurt, and sometimes physically or emotionally things may seem impossibly painful, we learned that that those feelings are fleeting. There will be pain and there will be struggle, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you can get there. You don’t have to be the best, but you need to give it everything you have.
A few times each season we would drive out to the mountains and park our cars at the bottom, running the whole way from the bottom to the top and back down again, sometimes more than eight miles… On the way up, our legs burned like they were on fire and our chests felt like they would explode. Coach Snare would drive his pickup truck slowly up the mountain with the team with music playing on the radio out the windows, hollering out at us to keep at it, even if we were running at a snail’s pace. On the way down, our feet would pound so hard in our shoes for so long that we would lose toenails and our legs were like Jello. But at the end of the day, every time I drove up that mountain or saw it in the distance, I knew I won. I owned it. Not because I was the fastest, but because despite the seemingly impossible obstacle of running a mountain at that age, I did it. One step at a time, I owned that mountain and didn’t let it beat me.
Through our years of fertility struggles and losses, there were so many times that the finish line seemed impossibly far away. Despite the pain and struggle along the way, I kept putting one foot in front of the other. With each loss I felt like I was dying inside, in a way that I had never experienced before. I would ugly cry until my eyes were swollen and blurred, and my head pounded like it would explode. But the next day, I would wake up and carry on, again just putting one foot in front of the other, determined that this would not break me.
Eventually we had one child, and then two. When I became pregnant with Mila, not only was I ecstatic that our baby girl was coming to complete our family, but I was also excited that a certain sense of myself was coming back. The physical restrictions I had been operating under for so many years would finally be lifted, and I could finally return to the type of running that is part of who I am. Part of me that had been dormant for a long time was returning, and I missed that person.
I was able to run throughout this pregnancy. With every OBGYN and perinatologist visit, I confirmed that it was OK to continue. I was always safe when running while pregnant, making sure to run early in the morning to avoid hot Florida afternoons, rested if I felt off, and monitored my heartrate by wearing my Apple Watch. I ran up until the day before I was induced with Mila.
Sure, I got some weird looks every once and a while when running in my sports bra on the West Orange Trail, but I was comfortable in my own skin and so happy to be running that I didn’t care. Even with exercising every day and a relatively healthy diet, I still gained 50 pounds by the end of my pregnancy and had a lot of extra weight to carry around on my runs.
Because Mila was a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean), I didn’t have the same recovery time as I had with Max. With my C-Section I was out of pocket at least six weeks, but after Mila’s birth I was able to get back to running within two weeks of delivery. With Big Sur already on the calendar on April 28th, that gave me limited of 12 weeks to train…
My very abbreviated training schedule:
- Week 1: 2 miles a day, 5 days. 2 days rest.
- Week 2: 3 miles a day 5 days, 2 days rest
- Week 3: 4 miles a day 5 days, Saturday – 6 mile run, 1 day rest.
- Week 4: 5 miles a day 5 days, Saturday 7 mile run, 1 rest day.
- Week 5: 6 miles a day 5 days, Saturday 8 mile run, 1 rest day.
- Week 6: 6 miles a day 4 days, 2 miles one day, Saturday 10 miles, 1 day rest.
- Week 7: 6 miles a day 4 days, 2 miles one day, Saturday 12 miles, 1 day rest.
- Week 8: 6 miles a day 4 days, 2 miles one day, Saturday 14 miles, 1 day rest.
- Week 9: 6 miles a day 4 days, 2 miles one day. 2 days rest.
- Week 10: 6 miles a day 4 days, 2 miles one day, Saturday 16 miles, 1 day rest.
- Week 11: 6 miles a day 4 days, 2 miles one day, 2 days rest.
- Week 12: 2 miles a day 5 days, Saturday 18 miles, 1 day rest.
While some think I’m crazy for doing a marathon right after having Mila, it was a good fit for me. I had the advantage of time. It’s difficult for me to fit in lots of long runs while working full time as an attorney and having not one but two kiddos now, so training while on maternity leave was idea for me. I live in Florida and Mila was born in January, so the weather for running outside with a jogging stroller was ideal. She naps the best when in her infant car seat that fits in the jogging stroller, so it worked out well. The West Orange trail (a miles long paved biking and hiking trail) runs through my neighborhood, so it made finding a place to run with my jogging stroller really easy.
I missed long distance running, so I was excited to get back at it. Plus, the marathon was a great goal that helped to keep me motivated on those days when I was tired. And I’m a huge believer that getting outdoors to move in lieu of going to a gym – the dose of fresh air and a little vitamin D every day does wonders for me.
The race itself was the most beautiful and likely the most difficult run in my life. I didn’t have great expectations speed wise for this race. My best times back in the day were in the 3:30s, but I was just hoping for something south of 5 hours for this race. Over the course of the race runners have a 2100 foot ascent and about 2500 foot decline, with a 500 foot climb over 2 miles at mile 10.
I flew out to California late Friday and came home first thing Monday morning. I spent Saturday picking up my race packet and walking around the marinas in Monterey, rested for a few hours, and drove to Carmel by the Sea in the late afternoon to check out the cool architecture, and Sunday was race day.
Around 4:30 in the morning folks loaded into the busses taking over 5000 runners from Monterey down the PCH to the runners village, which was about an hour long drive in a long caravan of headlights that dotted the winding coastal road. I awkwardly looked for a place to pump right before the race around 6:45, and luckily the security team let me into the VIP area for privacy.
The race started in the woods, which was just as beautiful to me as the coast, and several miles in you head into rolling grasslands for several more miles before eventually reaching a view of the water. My pace for most of the first half of the race was a little over 9 miles a mile until I reached the two mile climb and slowed a bit. Overall I averaged a little over 10 minute miles and finished around 4:30, which was far faster than I expected for such a difficult course so soon after having Miss Mila. I had to dig deep in parts and had my doubts for a bit around mile 18, but I exceeded my expectations.
I had to listen to the theme song from Rocky on speaker phone about 10 times in a row over the last few miles to get the extra push to finish hard, and everyone else seemed to like it too. The culmination of the months of training, realizing I had run a much faster than anticipated, years of sacrifices going through IVF and the relief of it all being behind me all culminated into one massive ball of emotion, and tears came to my eyes as I finally crossed the finish line.
When I flew home to Florida the next day, I left the airport and went straight to daycare to pick up Max. He asked me if I won my race. I explained to him that it’s very hard to win a race with so many runners, and you really just compete with yourself to try your hardest and give it your best. Then he asked again if mommy won… and I replied, “Yes I did little man, yes I did…”