Editor’s notes: Stephanie Kliethermes is studying for her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa from and also a coach for Girls on the Run of Johnson County.
By Stephanie Kliethermes, community contributor
I never considered myself a runner until I completed my first marathon in Chicago of 2009.
An athlete? Yes. A runner? No way.
Even though I was a member of the track team at my undergraduate institution, Lawrence University, I specialized in (short) sprints and long/triple jump. The mile cool down was too much for me. I viewed my mid- and long- distance teammates as runners yet felt running would never be for me.
This all changed when I graduated from Lawrence in 2007 and enrolled in graduate school for Biostatistics at the University of Iowa. My college days as a volleyball player, basketball player and track athlete were over and I found myself searching for a way to fill the void. Running was the easiest way for me to fit exercise into my daily routine because I could run when I wanted and for as long as I wanted.
Though still associating myself as an athlete, I lived by the saying “running is our sport’s punishment!” I never ran more than 2-3 miles because I didn’t think I would enjoy it, or better yet, I didn’t think I could run more than 3 miles. But something didn’t feel right. I realized I was missing the competition from my athletic days — the adrenaline while in the blocks waiting for the gun, the excitement of serving match point or the heartache of a missed field goal at the buzzer.
I missed the challenge to succeed, and thus I got the crazy idea to sign up for a marathon.
When I decided to run the Chicago marathon in ’09, I still was a skeptic about my abilities as a runner. I told my running partner that I would never be a distance runner because I was a sprinter at heart. He laughed at me because he realized my potential long before I did.
As my training progressed, I began to think I may have an outside shot of qualifying for Boston. Common advice for a first marathon is to simply enjoy it and finish it, but I wanted more. My competitive nature wanted to give it a go, and so I did.
I ended up missing the qualifying time (3:40) by 45 seconds, but I was so excited about completing my first marathon that I wasn’t too upset. Little did I know, the marathon bug had arrived.
A few weeks later, I decided I wanted to try again. I decided to run Chicago the following year in an attempt to qualify. I thought the date, 10-10-10, would serve as a memorable day for me and I was confident I could make it to Boston on my second go around. Unfortunately, this marathon didn’t go very well. The temperature climbed to 80 degrees that day (way too hot for a marathon) and I had an asthma attack 11 miles into the race. I finished the race (even though I probably should have dropped out), but I was upset about my performance.
That was a difficult one for me, yet I was still determined to qualify for Boston.
By now, Boston was more than a goal, it was a dream. I signed up for a spring 2011 marathon at the University of Illinois. Because I had become so focused on my running times/paces in an effort to qualify for Boston, I decided to do something different for this marathon.
I went through the entire training cycle AND the actual marathon without wearing a watch. Instead I decided to trust in my body and my spirit to get me through the training and the race. I will never forget the day I qualified for Boston. Because I wasn’t wearing a watch and because there were no clocks on the course, I didn’t have a good idea of what time I was running — all I knew was that I felt good and I felt strong.
I remember repeating towards the end of the race one of my race (and really life) mantras: “Trust yourself; you are strong.” At the 26.1 mile mark, as I turned the corner for the final stretch, a spectator yelled that I was running a BQ time. When I heard him, I dug in with all I had left and sprinted to the finish. I couldn’t help but throw my arms in the air as I crossed the finish line with a new PR (personal record) and a BQ. I successfully qualified for Boston by nearly 5 minutes. It was such a special day and accomplishment for me.
And now with April 16 just a day away, I am close to realizing my dream.
It just so happens that the marathon falls on my 27th birthday and my friends joke that there is not a better fitting way for me to celebrate my birthday than by running the Boston marathon.
I couldn’t agree more.
Training for a spring marathon can be tricky in the Midwest because it means a majority of the training must be done during the winter months when streets and sidewalks are typically covered with ice and snow. But just as Boston isn’t a typical marathon for me, this has not been a typical winter for the Midwest. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I ran on a treadmill during the past 18 weeks of training. This is unheard of, but I’m incredibly thankful.
I have had my strongest training cycle yet, and I feel physically and mentally prepared to tackle Boston and all its challenges—including heartbreak hill.
The last 2-3 weeks of any marathon training cycle are reserved for tapering. This is the part of training where all the work is done and the runner greatly reduces mileage to allow the body to recover and rest for race day. It’s not uncommon for runners to say this reduced mileage time is the most difficult part of training. Forget the 20 mile long runs or the fast tempo runs, a runner’s worst enemy is not running.
Needless to say, this last week of taper before Boston has been interesting. Because I am not running my typical 50-plus miles each week and instead I’m greatly anticipating the race, I find myself with extra nervous energy and less productivity and focus on dissertation writing or statistical analysis.
Of course, this is very normal, but it doesn’t make it easier.
And so I’ve had to be creative in finding ways to calm my excitement and nerves surrounding Boston. Other than obsessively checking the weather forecast in hopes of ideal running temperatures, it’s been helpful to talk strategies and plans with my running friends.
I can’t control the weather, but I can control how prepared I am both mentally and physically for the run on Monday.
I’ve also found complete solace in coaching at my Girls on the Run practices this week (which is a program I volunteer for and fully support). This is the one time during my week where Boston has not overtaken my mind and I find I can focus on the positive spirit of the young girls I coach. I soak up their energy and enthusiasm and relish the opportunity to share my love for running with them. And lastly, I’ve been extremely grateful for the outpouring of support I have received this week from friends, family and general supporters.
To feel their excitement and support of me means more than they’ll ever know and it has helped me channel my nerves in very positive ways. I plan on bringing the cards, emails and well-wishes I have received to Boston so I can read them before the race.
And a very special fourth grader made a friendship bracelet for me to wear during the marathon so that I know she (and the rest of her amazing family) will be with me in spirit as I run. The support I have received to pursue my dream has already made this experience a dream come true, and I cannot wait for what the next few days have in store.
I’m so looking forward to experiencing Boston with the support of my parents and my oldest brother (who also qualified and will be running the race). But in the meantime, I will continue to corral my nervous energy in Boston as best I can by attending the expo, cheering on my mom as she runs the Boston 5K, attending a BoSox game, resting and taking in the entire Boston experience from the moment I step off the plane.
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