This is an article by invitation. Dr. Yamini Menon, a physician based in the US, writes about her first marathon, completed in December 2021.
Days after the event, I am still in a state of disbelief.
I was able to participate in and complete the St Jude Marathon of December 4, 2021; my first marathon.
I never considered myself a runner although for several years now, I have exercised regularly.
Being a physician – a rheumatologist – I have tried to practice what I preach: that staying active and exercising regularly help physical and mental wellbeing.
In 2016, I happened to take part in a 5K run as part of a local community event and in the spring of 2017, a local 8k run. These events sparked my interest in pursuing longer distances. Soon, aside from being an exercise routine, my running seemed to feel a stress reliever. It was an opportunity to get fresh air and enjoy nature.
Living in Memphis, Tennessee, I was familiar with the St Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, usually held in the first weekend of December every year. I found myself registering for a 10k and then a couple of half marathons in the following years, the last of which was in Dec 2019. More inspiration came from my patients who I met over the years. Some of them have pursued walking and running long distances despite the physical ailments and chronic conditions they deal with.
In 2020, even as the pandemic was on, along with a dozen other lady physicians in the area, I became part of an ` athletics group.’ We came from different backgrounds, had different personalities and interests. But we had a lot in common given our profession. Our shared goal was to take care of one’s health, be consistent with work outs and motivate each other to do more. Due to limitations imposed by the pandemic, initially these activities including walks and runs were posted on a virtual forum. Shortly after we were all vaccinated, we started gathering for early morning runs on Saturdays. As the months went by, these group walks and runs enabled us to share our feelings and frustrations, enjoy a breath fresh air. The outdoors gave us an opportunity to be away from N95 masks and face shields which had by then become part and parcel of our routines. No one seemed to mind the nipping cold of the early morning. At times, the run was followed by hot tea or coffee and snacks, which we all pitched in to bring and share.
The group had challenges assigned for a given month. It prompted us to post and share our activities and runs. In January, when Martin Luther King Day arrived, we were expected to post our work-out activity and a milestone therein to honour the late Dr King. My dream was to run a marathon with this team! I wondered whether this would be an impossible task; one that held high risk of injury. All the same, when registration opened, I signed up for the full marathon.
The reason for choosing St Jude marathon over others was simple. Aside from the fact that it was held locally in Memphis (my home for the past 15 years) and that there was no qualifying time to register for the race, I was excited to run for a cause – raising funds to find a cure for childhood cancer. In the past few years, I had had opportunity to meet and get to know a family whose infant son was diagnosed with a rare brain tumour and received treatment at St Jude Hospital.
After signing up for the marathon I chose a six-month training plan and modified it to fit my schedules. I am an early riser; 4 AM on a regular workday. I modified my morning routines – I tried incorporating a few miles on the treadmill on workdays besides some core exercises and stretches. On my days off, I tried to be consistent with walk-runs in the neighbourhood, averaging about 3-5 miles. On Saturday mornings a few of us in the group would meet and run along Wolf River Parkway – which has pedestrian and biker friendly lanes, and later with sunrise, run along the Trails of Wolf River Greenway. Shelby Farms Park is another popular spot to walk / run – it is usually quiet and serene and the route goes around a lake. In previous years, I had learnt that one loop around the lake would be about 2.4 miles. That made it easy to calculate a given mileage-target. The route also had restrooms and water fountains along the way. However, during the pandemic, they stayed temporarily unavailable.
As the weeks progressed, I was able to run and walk in intervals, gradually increasing the distance. One fear I had was the possibility of injury. I maintained a pace that avoided injury and walked when necessary; if a twinge of pain or cramp started, I walked. Though alone for most of my long runs, the constantly changing scenery, leaves changing colour with the seasons, the sound of birds chirping, even sightings of a few deer and fawn, plus my playlist of devotional songs, kept me upbeat. A couple of friends in the group, who had completed marathons in the past, provided tips on the hydration and nutrition required during the runs. My longest run was about four weeks prior to race day. Then, I tapered down mileage as per my modified training plan. I tried to stay calm and focused.
Aside from the above said practice runs with gradual increase in mileage, I also devoted some time to strength training every week. This included core strengthening exercises, a few of them featuring the use of light weights and resistance bands. I also followed a clutch of modified yoga routines and stretches.
Though my specific training for the marathon lasted about six months, I feel that my daily 1–2-mile runs, regular stretching exercises and some of the core strengthening exercises that had been a part of my routine for the past few years, benefited me greatly. They also reduced the risk of injury. I cannot stress sufficiently the importance of listening to one’s body as pushing through any pain may precipitate additional injuries. During my training, I never felt compelled to finish in a certain time. In our group, we always applauded those who have a good pace. But I never took that up as a challenge – for me, it was about completing the race without injuries. The focus was definitely to enjoy the run and finish it.
A few weeks prior to race day, the weather turned quite cold in the morning; anywhere between 30-40 degrees F. That meant learning to dress appropriately for the long runs. I found myself checking the forecast for race day about 3-4 weeks in advance and soon realized that it may be warmer and even rainy by then.
Picking up the race bib a day before the race, brought excitement. The countdown had begun. The previous day and night were filled with a sense of anticipation as well as nervousness. Due to the pandemic, we were allotted corrals and arrival times were staggered to prevent overcrowding. Masks were required until the start line. In the morning there was a drizzle. It was breezy and the weatherman had predicted temperatures ranging from 50-65 degrees F, much unlike the days leading up to race day.
Crowds could be seen close to the start line at B. B. King Boulevard. There was excitement all around, music and cheering for the participants. My turn came to start and praying that everything goes well, I launched into the run. After the first mile, participants run through the Saint Jude hospital campus, where patients and their parents cheer us on. It is a very emotional part of the run. One mile at a time, the run progressed. I had to tell myself to slow down as in the all the excitement I was running faster than my usual pace for the first 2-3 miles. Our group had the half and full marathoners splitting around mile 6-7. Soon the crowd of runners grew thin. Fortunately, the cheering crowd and hydration stations did not!
Around mile 9-10, I felt some fatigue. But I was looking forward to seeing my husband who was to cheer me on at about mile 13. He met me there as planned and also surprised me with a ` cheering squad’ including my mom who was so happy to see me run. My older son Ashwin and a few of my friends had also joined with posters encouraging me along. Running with intervals of walking continued, my pace seemed a bit slower after mile 14. There were two loops within a large park which caused me some confusion and I had to make sure I was on the right track. Around mile 20, I felt tired again and was walking more than running in short intervals. I could see that many of my co-runners appeared tired as well.
I had read about a wall that one hits during a marathon; a point when mind and body protests and wonders what the hell one is doing. I wasn’t sure whether this was that or the fabled wall was yet to come. I saw a young man sit down. As I paused to check on him, he said he had leg cramps. Soon he was back on the track albeit with a slight limp. Exiting out of the park, there was more cheering and I felt glad that the finish line appeared closer. A family that was cheering the runners offered pickle juice. I gulped it down; I had heard that it may help relieve muscle cramps.
To my delight, my personal cheering squad was there again after mile 22. With rekindled energy and another nutrition gel and a round of hydration, I cruised along trying to visualize the finish line. Soon I heard many people shouting, “ almost there, you can do it.” I crossed mile 24 and 25; the last mile felt rather long. The finish line loomed to view, a few meters ahead. I was excited, relieved, happy and in disbelief. I heard the announcer say, “ her ponytail oscillating in the wind” followed by my name. Someone handed me a finisher medal, I was tired but smiling,
I had just completed my first marathon.
(The author, Dr. Yamini Menon, is a physician based in Memphis, Tennessee. In her spare time, she likes to paint.)