It is hard to believe that after four months of training and fundraising, I have finally completed the Inaugural Nike Women’s Half Marathon in Washington, D.C. Last Fall, when my Mom asked me and my sister to do the race, I was skeptical that I would cross the finish line in one piece, and I never expected to run across it. When I announced my participation last December and first asked for your support, I was pretty confident that I could at least walk the whole thing. I am very happy to announce today that I did finish the half marathon, and that I raised over $3500 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as the #3 fundraiser for the Maryland chapter of Team in Training for this event. Additionally, Team McDowney raised over $8,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and all three of us crossed the finish line on April 28th. THANK YOU to everyone who supported us on this journey.
Because I have heard that it is important to write down the race story to read again in the future, and because some of you have asked for the details, here is my recap of the 2013 Nike Women’s Half Marathon D.C. I call it The Longest Story Ever Told. If you think this post is long, just be glad it wasn’t a full marathon – I know I am!
Every runner in every race has a unique story that brought her there. On the morning of April 28th, Run Nike Women posted on their Facebook page, “On this day, 15,000 stories come together as one.”
For several of us running, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society played a part in our stories. There were 2300 Team in Training participants in this race, and together we raised $6 million to beat blood cancer. I have already shared with you my fundraising and training experience this season, including the small victories as well as the bumps in the road, and how I got introduced to Team in Training in the first place. What I haven’t shared with you yet is why running a half marathon was such an incredible personal victory. I ran in honor of seven and in memory of thirty-one people, I ran for all of my supporters and donors, I ran for all the patients and patient family and friends that have been affected by blood cancer, and I ran for me.
When I was a college sophomore, I came down with a bad case of mononucleosis that would not go away for months. After dozens of tests and a few rounds of several different medications and therapies, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I dropped my course load down to six credits, stopped working, and slept 12-16 hours a day. I could not climb two flights of stairs without having to sit down and take a break. A four hour shift standing on my feet at my part-time job was a trial. I left every dinner early, I missed almost every party, and shopping trips were a real struggle. I even fell asleep during my 20th birthday party! No matter what I tried, I could not get better for about two years.
Without going into all the details here (because that could take a few blog posts), I will summarize by saying that my life completely changed for ages 19-21. During that time, I thought I would never work a forty hour week or play another sport, and I locked all my old dreams up in a box and tried to replace them with smaller, achievable ones. I read about people with CFS getting better and I read about people getting worse. I did not know what to expect for the future and I took things one step at a time, learning to not push myself or I would pay for it.
For people who know me well, it is easy to see how this condition was devastatingly contrary to my nature. I’m a perfectionist and overachiever, who packs too much activity into too little time, and I am always chasing the next big achievement. In the words of Daft Punk, “harder, better, faster, stronger” is my mantra. In the words of Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, “if you’re not first, you’re last” sums up how I had felt about most things I had ever attempted. For that reason, I worked hard. And for the same reason, I had a tendency to shy away from things that I knew I couldn’t be great at. While I was sick, I made a promise to myself that if I ever got better, I would no longer shy away from challenges that were outside my comfort zone and I would accept new experiences, even if I thought I might fail, just because I could.
So, seven years later, training for and completing a half marathon is kind of a big deal. I still have to be careful with my activity level and I am very attuned to my body’s needs, resting when I need to, and only pushing it when I know I have the energy reserves. I work hard but I also work smart. I could relapse at any time and when those old symptoms creep in, I step back so that I will not have to battle fatigue again. I am working on keeping that one promise to myself, which is why I said yes to this experience and raised over $3500 for a great cause, even though I knew I would never be the best at it. I ran because I could, I ran to use my energy for the benefit of others, and I ran far!
While much of Richmond prepared for the big NASCAR race, I prepared for my own race weekend by completely resting my injured right Achilles tendon to maximize my chances of finishing strong, trying to let work and life stress roll off my back to stay calm, and following my pre-race diet plan (semi-strictly) to fuel my body for the 13.1 miles on Sunday. I took off work on Friday to pack and prepare, and Kyle and I traveled to D.C. on Saturday morning. I was very excited to see my parents and some fellow Maryland teammates decked out in TNT gear in the hotel lobby when we arrived.
We traveled to the Georgetown waterfront to visit the Nike concept store and have some lunch before heading to packet pick-up. Lunch was at Le Pain Quotidien, and because this is a food blog, I have to show you what we ate.
The mint lemonade that I ordered was delicious and refreshing. In the name of carb-loading, I dove headfirst into the most perfect slice of wheat bread before our food arrived. I ordered the avocado and chickpea tartine, Kyle had the spring pea hummus tartine, Dad had the smoked salmon and scallion omelette, and Mom had the roasted turkey and avocado tartine.
After lunch, we walked over to Nike. Nike had put all of the runners’ names on the wall next to their concept store in Georgetown and we had fun finding our names in the mix. I thought this was a pretty cool idea and I was totally surprised by it when we approached the storefront.
My sister Meghan met us for packet pickup and the Expotique, which was unlike any other race expo I have ever been to. Instead of having dozens of vendor tables and booths in a big conference center, this expo featured just the key sponsors, with really cool booths and activities for each one. Nuun had an electrolyte lounge with brightly colored electrolyte-rich concoctions, Luna Bar had a create-your-own cheer poster station, and Bare Minerals and Paul Mitchell were doing free makeovers right in the expo tent!
We met up with hundreds of other TEAMmates at the TNT Inspiration Dinner on Saturday night and lined up for unlimited pasta and veggies. We entered the ballroom through a tunnel of costumed cheering TNT coaches and staff. They made a lot of noise and I felt like a celebrity! The dinner featured some great speakers including a few Olympians and an inspiring survivor and honored TEAMmate, Annalynn Surace, who has fought blood cancer herself two times and was running with us that weekend. Her incredible speech about her journey reminded us all why we were doing what we do, and inspired us to complete the final 13.1 miles of our Nike Women’s Half Marathon journey the next morning. At the dinner we learned that 2300 participants had raised $6 million for LLS during this event, and I learned that I was one of the top fundraisers for Maryland. After dinner, we made our final preparations and headed to bed early!
The alarm went off at 4:00 AM, and in true McDonald sister fashion, Meghan and I were moving quickly. . . 15 minutes later. Ha. By 5:00 AM we were dressed, checked out of the hotel, and eating breakfast in the lobby. I usually eat toast with peanut butter and a banana before long runs. I couldn’t find a banana on Saturday, so I settled for just the bagel and Justin’s maple almond butter that I brought with me. By 5:30 AM we were riding the Metro with hundreds of other runners, and by 6:30 AM we were lining up in our start corral. Energy was high before the race started, as Nike led us through dynamic warmups that were a little difficult to complete, as 15,000 runners were packed like cattle into tight corrals. Then runners made last-minute adjustments and stretches as party music blared through the loudspeakers. The excitement was overwhelming and I had to start my own playlist early just to tune out and relax for a few minutes before the race.
The announcer said a few words about the tragic events at the Boston marathon two weeks before, and tens of thousands of runners and spectators fell silent for a moment that gave me chills. After an hour of nonstop loud noise and bustling activity, suddenly all I could hear was a few birds singing on Pennsylvania Avenue and the quiet breath of everyone around me. I saw the sun rise over the Capitol building as the National Anthem started to stream through the speakers, and thousands of women around me quietly placed their hands on their hearts, wiped tears from their eyes, and gazed at the American flag above us. It was an indescribable feeling.
A few minutes later, we were off! A lot of runners passed me in the first few blocks, as I jogged at a comfortable pace with Meghan and Mom by my side. Mom planned to walk the race, so after about a quarter mile of running, she patted me and Meg on the back, air kissed us on the cheeks and said, “Go, girlies!”
The first 4 miles flew by. The course took us through a tunnel in the first or second mile with two bands playing underground with us. The drums echoed through the entire tunnel along with the thunderous sound of a thousand feet running through and loud cheering from participants. I was amazed at the volume and energy of that experience. Meghan and I high-fived at every mile marker, which was a lot of fun. She always saw the mile markers before me because I was so tuned into the playlist on my iPod and the scenery around me. There were a lot of TNT supporters along the course, and I saw some great motivational signs in the crowd.
We expected to see Kyle and my Dad between miles 4 and 5 but somehow missed them. That part of the course was packed with spectators on both sides, and we looked and never found them. Meg and I assumed they couldn’t get access to the cheering spot in time so we kept looking for them along the rest of the course. We saw our Team in Training coach, Jack Beach, between miles 5 and 6 and he ran with us for about 30 seconds and told us we were doing great. There were enthusiastic TNT coaches all over the course and they loudly cheered the names they saw on the front of our jerseys and asked us how we were doing. It was really cool how much support we had the whole way. We hit the 10K mark after an hour and 12 minutes and we realized aloud that we would definitely make it to the finish within the 4 hour time limit.
I started to deflate a little after mile 6 and had to walk and have a few Clif shot blocks at the water station, as I felt that my blood sugar was getting low. I was disappointed that I hadn’t seen Dad and Kyle yet because I was really looking forward to the lift. Plus we had planned to ditch some gear with them as my SPIbelt was a little too packed and Meg was still wearing the long sleeve shirt she had started in and wanted to strip down to the race tank around 8:00 AM. It was almost 8:30 at this point and warming up outside. After some carbs and water I was feeling better for the next mile or so. I accepted the fact that I might not see our cheering section until the finish line and it pushed me to get there sooner.
During mile 8, I spotted a bathroom stop that didn’t look too crowded and we were still making good time (12:40 pace compared to my training pace of 13:00-14:00 miles), so I decided to stop and take advantage. All of the bathroom stops before that one had a line of at least 25 runners and this one only had about 10. Unfortunately, the line moved very slowly, and this stop cost us 10-11 minutes, which was really disappointing because when we rejoined the course we were surrounded by people at a much slower pace. We had to do a lot of weaving for the next mile. Meghan said that all the walkers around her made her feel like she was going to start walking too, and I felt the same.
We high-fived at the end of mile 8, and Meghan wanted to take off to catch a faster group. We sped up for a bit but after about a half mile, I could tell she had a lot more energy than me and I needed to slow down. My breathing had not been much of a problem during training, with my muscle fatigue catching up to me faster than my well controlled exercise-induced asthma every time, but at this point I was starting to really feel it in my lungs and my legs. I told Meg to go ahead, she asked me if I was sure, and I told her again to go do great. I was really proud that she was doing so well, and really uncomfortable with my own body despite stretching at several points along the course. I needed to regroup and take it slow.
I started to hyperventilate, so I dialed down to a walk and took a puff of my inhaler. When my breathing was under control, I consumed some carbs and stopped to stretch and enjoy the scenery. I repeated my two mantras, “Slow and Steady” and “Enjoy the Moment” and I realized I had made it almost 9 miles in two hours. I was doing well. Not as well as I had started, but overall I was on pace based on my training, so I accepted that and tried to remain positive. I took in the scenery, which had been amazing the whole way. We had passed six memorials and monuments, Arlington Cemetery and the Kennedy Center, and had been within sight of the Potomac River almost the entire way. I focused on enjoying the moment, and that carried me through the next two miles, through a lot of pain in both knees, my right foot, and both hip flexors.
I almost cried when I saw the marker for the end of mile 11 and realized I had run the farthest I ever had. My pace had tanked and I was doing a combination of jogging and walking at this point. Every inspirational sign along the way nearly brought me to tears, along with the slow songs that randomly started playing on my iPod as I had run out of playlist and was just shuffling a Chemical Brothers album at that point. I walked almost all of mile 12 because I was in pain, I was getting emotional, and I wanted to save some energy to finish strong. Things got weird in this mile as the course widened, more people around me started getting sick and injured, and I saw strange (de-)motivational posters from spectators, like “I didn’t get up this early to watch you WALK!” My mantras weren’t working anymore and I realize now that I just wasn’t mentally prepared for those last two miles.
I hit the end of mile 12, downed one last Clif shot block, and hung unto a new mantra that I had seen at the Luna Bar area at the expo the day before: “Mind Over Muscle.” I started jogging again and right as I saw the finish line in sight, my left Achilles tendon (not the problem one) started hurting and my left big toe and foot arch started to cramp up. I immediately thought, I knew I should have tried harder to find a banana this morning, because I always have a banana along with my toast and peanut butter before running, but I couldn’t find a single banana in D.C. the day before the race so I went without. When my toe would not stop spasming, I stopped in the middle of the course and started to stretch my calf as a random TNT coach ran over to me and asked if I was OK. I told him what happened and he said, “you’re almost there, be careful, and don’t worry about this last part of the race, just take it easy and walk, you’re doing great.” I nodded my head and said thanks, and he added, “make sure you rest the rest of the day, these injuries can take a long time to heal.” Great!
I really appreciated the support when I was mentally over this race. I told him I was okay to jog, and thought, screw it, I’m so close, I can finish easy and strong. Mind Over Muscle. I jogged the last half mile, and there were so many spectators cheering my name (from the front of my TNT jersey) that it was impossible to find the three faces I was looking for: Kyle, Dad, and Meghan. I fought back tears as I crossed the finish line and walked down the red carpet to get my finisher prizes. My knees were killing me. Runner’s high, my ass! I just wanted to get out of there and stretch! I gulped a bottle of water, and accepted my finisher “medal” – an exclusive silver necklace in a little blue Tiffany & Co box (my first), handed to me off a silver platter by a cute boy in a tuxedo. Yup, this was a women’s race.
I collected free snacks and my finisher shirt and headed out of the finisher area. When I had gotten out of the crowd and to a quiet spot, I started to eat a banana, texted my Dad, and started to stretch. Five minutes later, Kyle came out of nowhere and hugged me tight. Meg and Dad followed and I was so happy to see their faces! Apparently Dad and Kyle were on the bridge after mile 4, long before anyone in the race made it there, but we never saw them and they never saw us. Somehow the crew also missed me crossing the crowded finish line, even though we were all there at the same time, so I have no photos of that. You’ll have to trust my word and my timing chip for proof that I completed this race! After Meghan and I compared notes and stretched together, Mom rejoined the group and the men went on a coffee run for us. I have never been so happy to see an iced coffee in my life.
Immediately after the race, someone asked me if I would ever do a half marathon again. My legs and in turn my voice screamed “I don’t think so!” but after some reflection, I’m considering it. I think that if I were able to train properly, without any injuries along the way, and if my work schedule normalized so that it would not interfere with exercise time, then I think I would do it. I had a great race this time around, and I think I would have an even better one the next time, now that I have the experience, and the knowledge that comes along with it, to say that I am a half-marathoner!
Thanks again to all who supported me through generous donations, encouraging messages, and motivational tweets, facebook posts, and instagram comments. Thank you also to the Richmond, VA and Harford County, MD Team in Training coaches and teams for the support during my tale-of-two-cities training experience. If you are interested in getting involved with Team in Training, I absolutely encourage you to do so, and you can find a local chapter here.For Richmonders, there is a Fall season info meeting this Tuesday, April 30th at 5:30 PM at the REI in Short Pump.
What’s next for Team McDowney? Supporting Nick (Dad) in his Seagull Century this Fall – more details to follow. What’s next for me? Rest and relaxation! Recipe development! And after a couple weeks of rest, trail running! Then, who knows?