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getting in touch with my inner colorado girl

Owning the Chicago Marathon


I’ll be completely honest – the idea of running a marathon has never appealed to me. I have run half-marathons before and thought at the end, “Wow, I would hate to do this twice.” Yet somehow, I found myself running the Chicago Marathon this past weekend. How did this happen? Peer pressure. All the cool kids were doing it!

The day before the marathon.

How did this happen?

Sometime this past winter, my friend Ashley told me that she was running the Chicago Marathon in the fall with a big group of our college friends. I’m never one to say no to a race, and I figured if Ashley was going to do a marathon I might as well do it too. I signed up for the marathon around February or March, and since the marathon was months away, I didn’t give much thought to it until June.

Vintage Paula and Ashley on the left, college XC banquet in 2008.

By June, the marathon had turned into an event. In total, ten of us were signed up for the marathon, and three people decided to come to cheer us along. We literally rented an entire house for the marathon weekend. There was no turning back. And so I grudgingly trained for the marathon all summer. I actually didn’t run that much at all. I ran maybe three times a week throughout June and July, spending the rest of my time doing CrossFit and hiking 14ers.

The Wild West Relay in August was perhaps the highlight of my summer and a turning point for my marathon training. My relay team members included some legit ultra runners, and I owe a lot to my teammate Jerry who gave me a personalized training and nutrition plan. I really had no idea what I was doing until Jerry intervened. I don’t think I would have even finished the marathon had he not straightened out my training routine.

Jerry and the gang before I ran my last leg in the Wild West Relay.

I upped my mileage in August and September and began to cut down on CrossFit. I still followed a pretty minimal training schedule, and I don’t think I ever ran more than 35 miles in one week. I ran more than that during college and high school when I was just training for 5Ks! At no point was I ever thrilled about marathon training though. I definitely had a love-hate relationship with running all summer long, and I was not a happy camper when I had to sacrifice beautiful Saturday mornings for long runs. My summer weekends are sacred, and I like to spend as much time as possible in the mountains. I pretty much did as little running as possible in order to maximize mountain time.

Mountains > marathon training.  No contest.

Finding time to fit in long runs was a huge challenge.  My two longest runs were 18 and 22 miles, and I missed the week that I had planned to run 20 miles.  My original marathon time goal was 4:30, but after the successful 22 miler with some ladies from Denver Trail Runners, I changed my goal to 4:00-4:15.  As it turns out, the cross training that I did all summer actually left me in fairly decent shape.  Just before the marathon I changed my goal again to under 4 hours.  If Sarah Palin could do it, I could do it!

22 mile run, done and done!

Ice bath in the slightly sketch Platte River.

Marathon week (literally)

The week before the marathon was an unusually stressful and crazy week for me.  I had a paper, presentation or project due in every single one of my classes.  I only had time to run three times that week, and each run was less than three miles.  On one particularly horrible day, I went to night class (after a full day of work of course), stayed up until 12:30 working on a paper, woke up at 4:30 to finish said paper, and then made it to work by 7:00 for an office field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Basically my week before the marathon was a marathon in of itself!

Office field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Somehow, I made it through marathon week and arrived in Chicagoland on Friday night.  Given the craziness of my week, I felt pretty neutral about the marathon.  I was not scared, because I knew I was pretty confident I would at least be able to finish the marathon.  I was not excited either though, because I was pretty confident the marathon was going to hurt.

The marathoners the night before the race.

Race day

The morning of the marathon was kind of just a blur for me.  I remember forcing myself to eat a banana and walking to the El station with the entire gang.  I remember fighting my way through the starting corrals to position myself with the 4 hour pace group.  I remember taking a deep breath as I crossed the starting line and thinking there was no turning back at this point.

Starting corrals.  It was crazy!

The first five or six miles, I felt great.  Perhaps a little too great.  I made the stupid first-time marathon mistake that everyone warns you against: I started out way too fast.  I averaged between 8:30-8:40 for these first miles, when really my goal had been to run 9:00 minute pace.  Around mile ten, I had a huge reality check when I realized that I still had 16 miles left.  And because I had burned too much at the beginning there was no way I was going to be hitting negative splits.  At that point I was just trying to hang on for the next part of the race.

Best sign in the whole race.

After the halfway point, I saw my dad and stepmom cheering for me on the side.  The crowd support throughout the entire marathon was insane but there was something so nice about seeing a familiar face on the course.  I hit the 13.1 mile mark at about 1:57.

The wall

You always hear a lot about “the wall” when people talk about running marathons.  Usually, the wall occurs after mile 20.  For me the wall occurred after mile 13.  Miles 13 through 20 were not fun.  I tried to focus on taking it mile by mile and continuing to move.  My feet hurt.  My legs hurt.  The end seemed far.  At mile 16, I thought darn, I still have ten miles to go.  Finally, I made it to mile 20.  And at mile 20, I knew it was going to be fine.  I told myself that worst case scenario, I had about an hour left.  I could keep going for another hour.

It looks so long right?!

Finish line

I didn’t even stop at the final water station because I wanted to keep going.  Apparently the finish went up a slight incline, but I didn’t even feel it, because I was just so ready to get to the finish line.  I crossed the finish line at 4:06:38.  First marathon ever, check.

Finish line!  I don’t even remember taking this picture.

The real pain hit me after crossing the finish line.  My legs had never burned so badly.  All that I wanted to do was find a giant ice bath and sit in it for three hours.  I only made it as far as the beer tent before my legs just couldn’t take it any longer.  I sat down on the pavement and a cramp started pulsating through my calf muscle.

Thank you 312 beer lady who saved my life.

Two of the beer tent workers came over to me, because I can only assume that I looked like a total mess, and I started crying.  I was exhausted, hot, thirsty and experiencing what was without a doubt the most painful leg cramp I have ever felt in my whole life.  One of the beer tent workers asked me if I had anything with potassium, and I handed her an unopened bag of Honey Stinger fruit chews.  I was pretty much incapable of functioning like a normal human being, so she literally opened the bag and fed me fruit chews one at a time like I was a four year old.  Then she opened my Gatorade and helped me drink it.  It was a high point in my life, all things considered.

After sitting on the pavement for 30 minutes, I finally felt like I was ready to attempt walking again.  At that point I was so over the marathon that I completely wanted out of the finish line area.  I didn’t even take a finisher photo!  I hobbled over to the group meeting spot, where I ran into Ashley.  I was so happy to see her and I gave her a huge hug!  It was pretty fitting that Ashley was the first one I ran into.  We spent four months in Argentina together and now we ran a marathon together.  Basically we’ve been through a lot!

Yay Ashley! 

Final thoughts

The marathon was so much harder than I had ever thought it would be and at the same time so much more rewarding.  I feel pretty lucky to have friends that are: a) crazy enough to think that running a marathon sounds fun and b) organized enough to plan a trip for 13 people.

Champagne toast.  We did it!

The company that I had definitely made the entire experience.  I’m sure I’ll run another marathon, but I know that this marathon will always have a special place in my heart.  The good news is that most of the marathon gang is coming out to Colorado after Christmas for a ski trip.  If we can have fun doing something as crazy as a marathon, I know the ski trip will be a blast.

And don’t worry, I’m already looking at my next marathon.  I have some unfinished business with running a sub-4 hour time.  Anyone game for the Colorado Marathon on May 6?


Author: paulamahla

Typical Colorado girl that can't make up her mind. Trail running, hiking, climbing, camping, CrossFit, ultimate frisbee, and skiing? E, all of the above.

8 thoughts on “Owning the Chicago Marathon

  1. so happy for you! what a great experience! 🙂

  2. Courtney and I are doing Colorado! Definitely do it!

  3. I chortled over your reasoning to do this run… “Peer pressure…” hahaha! Well, not all peer pressure is bad. Embrace the good peer pressure!

  4. Oooh! I wish I could run CO – I don’t think I’ll be in long distance running shape by then. But if you need/want a running buddy for short runs in the spring, I’ll volunteer my services! Or rather, I think that I’LL need a running buddy for short distances as I get my legs/knees reaquainted with running. 🙂

    Congrats on your marathon too – way to push through when it was hard and finish!

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  6. I liked that you didn’t notice the “incline” at the end. If you’re been training in only Chicago for the race, then the Roosevelt Street Bridge is awful – it breaks your back, kills your knees and makes you curse to the heavens for 0.2 miles. But someone from Colorado would think, “Yes! Flat stretch, let’s do this!”

    Congratulations on your first marathon and that excellent time.

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