Saturday, June 28, 2014

that time I ran a marathon

Once upon a time people laughed at me when I ran, but on June 21, they cheered for me.

By now, most people know my running story. They know that Nov. 10, 2012, I walked into a gym, plunked down my money and walked on to a treadmill, posting “It’s come to this.” It had. My life, a whirlwind of chaos since 2010, my body, which was expanding, now comfortably rested in an uncomfortable size 16, my hopes for the last great endeavor, stolen with a reality check so real the ache wouldn’t stop. All of these things put pressure on my gas pedal to the gym that day. And I never looked back. 

Still, I can’t say I truly would have believed just over 1.5 years later I would be running a marathon, but that’s what happened. I’ve been working on this blog off and on for the past week. It’s hard to capture 26.2 miles in one piece of writing, but this is the best I can do, choosing some subheads, writing stream-of-consciousness, and attempting to record the greatest day of my life so far.


In May of 2013, I went to Fargo, ND to run my  first half marathon--a feat in itself as I was only down about 30 pounds and 6 months into running. There I met Dick Beardsley, who talked to me for a long time. I told him it was my first half. He was so encouraging and then told me what he felt like the first time he ran a full--and talked of Grandma's Marathon. He wasn't full of himself, so when he said he won it, I didn't realize he was the course record holder, but he was. He told me after he ran his first marathon, he felt like he could do anything. I held that in my head even as I ran my first half, which was one of the most amazing days of my life until now. Beardsley is a hometown guy and is the featured speaker at Grandma's, so I checked the booth--and he was there. I went up to him and pulled out the picture, which he immediately recognized as Fargo. Once again, he encouraged me. (He also noted I had lost a lot of weight since the first picture, so he got bonus cool points!) The next day a Kenyan would break his course record after over 30 years. But Beardsley will always be who I identify with my first half and full. He's a true elite runner--one who loves and encourages other runners. He told me to enjoy the scenery and just run, and who cared how long it took? And so with last-minute advice, I set out to prepare for the biggest moment of my life: running a marathon.
Fargo, May, 2013; Duluth, June, 2014


First of all, the weather was a dream—a cold dream. A race on Summer Solstice that had me in a sweatshirt for 13-plus miles was like a gift from the heavens for this cold-loving girl. It was foggy over Lake Superior as we began—and for the better part of 19 miles, to be honest. But the wind was at our back, and it was never so cold we were miserable. I was however, amused by the weather signs they put up. The first few said “Risk of Hypothermia.” And somehow that made me happy. Not the risk of getting hypothermia, but the fact that I was pretty much stuck into a late spring or early summer race and was almost uncomfortably cold. If you know me, you know cold is my BFF. It was like a gift. 

However, it was a cold gift and the night before found Joyce and me at a local store looking for a throwaway sweatshirt and hat to start the race. I never would have dreamed I would spend the last day of spring shopping for cold weather gear for a race—and I certainly wasn’t complaining about it either (though I sure shivered a lot).

Buying a sweatshirt and hat for the race on Summer Solstice
The Tutu

I never expected to be unique by wearing a tutu in a race of 10,000. Tutus are pretty popular—and they weigh nothing, so it’s not a burden to wear one. For me, if I lay it on my hips, it forces my arms to stay at 90-degree angles so I avoid the rub of it, so it even helps my form. I have had a rough year, and when I heard about the tutu uprising, wearing a tutu became symbolic to me. I have danced on and off for years and love ballet (and tutus). In teaching, I always had a class tutu. It was a gimmick, but running has always been too serious for me. I never wanted to wear a tutu to run (same as how I don’t do “novelty” runs). But when SELF magazine asked that woman to use a picture of her in a tutu and then called it “lame,” not knowing she was a cancer survivor wearing it in her marathon to celebrate her victory, I was not the only person who started running in a tutu. Amazingly, in the tent after the race, I met someone who is close to the lady from the magazine. She thanked me for wearing the tutu, and I told her to thank the lady from the story. And I got a picture of course!

Eventually, I decided to keep running in it for my own personal victory--there's a story behind my running and my tutu that is important, and every run is a victory lap. And so that’s how I ended up in Duluth, MN running 26.2 miles in a tutu.

But as I ran by, the tutu became a unique hit. It turns out I was the first tutu to run by. I later found out three people wore matching white ones as they ran together, but they were about 30 minutes behind me, so as I ran along, people cheered normally, then saw me, and  they did a double take and often started massive cheering for the tutu. I think it kept me going. Just when I'd get tired someone would start screaming and cheering the tutu. It felt wrong to have such a happy outfit on and not smile. I smiled every single time and I suspect that kept my spirits up.

“I LOVE YOUR TUTU!” they would yell. Some people took pictures. At about mile 7, one lady who had been running close to me said, upon hearing more screeching for the tutu, “You know you're the belle of the ball, don't you?" I hadn’t even processed that, but I realized what she meant. In that moment I realized that by wearing this thing, purely for myself, I had helped make my marathon even more special. Because I was different and happy, they cheered, then I waved and smiled and said thank you. So it was like happy reciprocity going on. I am pretty convinced that these screams and yelling for my tutu were what kept me so happy. How can you be miserable when people’s faces light up seeing you and they celebrate you? You can’t. So I embraced it. One thing I realized in my first race in a tutu was that the tutu brought happiness to people. Their faces light up. I’m sure there are some snobs out there who think it’s dumb or whatever—but I equate them with SELF magazine. The tutu brings joy. And I will continue to wear it.

The Warrior

It wasn’t long after the tutu cheering was evident that I turned off my music and put my Jaybirds in my Amphipod*. (*RunnerSpeak for “headphones in my waist pack”). I wasn’t talking to anyone but I felt like if my phone died, I would want to preserve the power now because I might need music more later. And it was about that time Brian and Melissa appeared. Brian came up on one side of me and said they had seen me earlier and said “you’re a warrior.” Now I can’t explain why or how, but this turned out to be the theme of the day inside my heart. The three of us ran together a while, and it was seriously a godsend. It was crazy, too. There we are running a marathon in Duluth, MN, and we are all from Oklahoma. Really? 10,000 people and I meet people in my same small state? 
12-mile selfie
It got wilder, though. We had all lived in SD. Brian had taught college English. Melissa got her MBA at the university where I now teach. It was her first marathon as well. Our meeting was just perfect. It felt like running with old friends. It made the race so much easier. Brian had run several marathons but was running with his wife for their 25th anniversary. (Now that’s a good anniversary trip!) We were not together the whole time. They appeared at about mile 11, and after running a while, I asked them to be my mile 12 selfie, but later when Joyce sent her pictures, I saw we had been nearby at mile 4. So I ended up with a bunch of pictures with them! 

They ran up to me a couple more times and we chatted some more, making the time pass, the miles pass. After the second time, they had left and I was running alone past a neighborhood where a person had his portable sound system blasting music. I only caught one line of the upbeat song. It said, I kid you not, “you’re a warrior.” And that became my themes for the day. It was like they all knew what I had done to get to Duluth, the many runs, the heartbreak, the work. From size 16 to size 4. From Kansas City to Oklahoma. From heartbreak to hope to heartbreak and back. And yet I ran through it all and made it to a marathon. Me. Warrior? Yep. 

The Race

This was one of those big marathons where you get bussed to the start line. It took over half an hour to get there, which is slightly intimidating. I was so glad I had my friend Eldon on the bus with me; conversation distracted me from the distance, but when some light nausea hit, I inhaled a banana and realized it was that we had been in the bus so long I was getting carsick! That didn’t last but the reality the ride to the start line took so long sure lingered. 

I’d been prepared for a long wait but really, we arrived almost at start time. We dropped off our gear check bags, used the port-potties and were waiting for the gun to go off. 

The first 19 miles are on Scenic Highway 61. It's scenic but harder because it's more isolated, and though it is a large marathon, there are less spectators in parts (though there still are some). We could see the lake but the fog was so heavy that it was harder. It was drizzly and foggy for the first few hours. After a while, it felt like the road never stopped. It reminded me of driving a beach road in Southern California, but, well, I wasn't driving!

My only serious mental mistake was evidence I'm an English professor. Yellow balloons marked each mile, and they were easy to see up ahead, which was psychologically very helpful, tricking our minds into mentally being at the next mile. As we approached the yellow balloon for what I thought was 16, I miscalculated. The teens were starting to run together. By 19, we'd be off the highway, and 16 was the number of my first long run in training past the half mark, so to me it was a marker. We approached. I got ready for my 16-mile selfie—and then I saw it: 15! I had lost count--the wrong way--I had to have a mini therapy session with myself right there. It was a difficult moment. I think it wasn't long after that Brian and Melissa appeared. Again. That helped. And somewhere in there, I rewound in my head and restarted at 16 when we hit it. 16 is magic because not far into it, you can start telling yourself you only have single digits left to run. But we got there and that's when the action starts. At 17 there were gels. At 19 we left the highway and started turning into town where there were more people. I knew that from the reviews. That's when you need people most, but it got harder toward the end of the highway part after there wasn't easy access for spectators. Brian and Melissa kept me going through much of these 19 miles, and then Eldon would appear the same way. Eldon does intervals so sometimes after a walk, he would catch up to me before running ahead. Those three kept me aware and refreshed when the monotony of fog on a scenic highway sometimes got to be a bit too much.
Awesome Eldon, running marathon 62 and still looking out for a newbie
Brian and Melissa are on either side of me here

Because if you're going to run 26 miles, you oughta enjoy it
At 21 we could see "Lemon Drop Hill." It made us think we were at 22 since it was so clear in the distance, and I thought maybe it was an estimate, but, indeed, the hill comes at 22, and actually a bit after, which also helped.

Lemon Drop Hill

Lemon Drop was the mental marker I’d planned. If I could run up the hill at 22, I was home free, I'd told myself. Truth is, I never actually felt home free until I saw the finish line, which still chokes me up to type. But after Lemon Drop there was most certainly a sense of impending success. By 23.1, which was easy to see because the half markers were along the course from 13.1 on, the realization there is only a mere 5K left was powerful. At that point, even though my feet and back hurt, I decided there was no longer an option of walking. It had been in my mind. People win places in races who walk through water stops. But I never needed to. I was pretty set it wasn't happening before 20 since is already done 20 without walking on a hot day without hundreds of cheerleaders. So by 23, when I had not had to make bathroom stops, I decided I'd run. I let myself slow immensely to try to ease the impact my feet felt, but I ordered myself—out loud—to not stop running motion. It was possible to walk faster than my run, but running is a different motion and I was staying in it. 

By 24, the number 2 hung on like a promise. I wasn't really worried about that last 385 yards. When I see the finish line in any race, something powerful happens in me. I wasn't positive after 26 miles I could say that, but it was true again. The last timing split was 25. Between 24 and 25 we were in Downtown Duluth, a charming strip of class, laden with people who made us feel we were conquering the world as we ran 26.2. The screams got louder. The winter walkway tunnel held a sign that said "Welcome Runners!" and we knew we were welcomed from our descent from Lemon Drop Hill into the home stretch of the city. Duluth made us its heroes that day.

The Aerial Lift Bridge, the iconic announcement we were home, was just past downtown and over the freeway bridge we were about to ascend, a small hill that would send us from it to Canal Park, where the finish line stood.

And so I ran the cobblestone roads with fierce determination that as much as it hurt and as good as the restaurant food smelled and as tempting as running into a store for Diet Coke was, there was no stopping. The timing mat at Mile 25 was magical, announcing success was a casual run away. All of us can run a mile in our sleep by this point. We could run that mile.

Mile 25-26

This was it. I know you’re supposed to be tired and feeling like giving up at this stage, but honestly, I was energized. I didn’t feel great physically, of course. My back hurt, and my feet hurt, but my heart was becoming more alive by the second. Running around Canal Park netted us the first sign of the corral gates, which indicate being close to the end. 
Running around Canal Park
One of the professional shots that captured the utter joy I began to feel at the end
We turned a bend and a race official said “you are entering the last quarter mile of the race.” I said “Those are the most beautiful words I have heard in a long time.” And then, there was the 26 mile marker. The magic number. Emotion began to overwhelm me. On the other side of that magic number I could see it: the finish line. I knew I had enough energy to make it. I was going to finish a marathon! We turned toward it and there were crowds of people—and they lit up when they saw that tutu again. I know it wasn’t me personally—it was something different to cheer for, but do you know what it did for me? It made me push harder to the finish.

And then the announcer called my name “And here comes Susan Tyrrell, from Lawton OK wearing a tutu” or something like that. And I flew through the finish line, hands in the air, teary eyed, in awe of myself, that I had gone from that fat girl with no ambition in Nov. 2012 to this girl who just ran hard through the finish line of a marathon—that she never stopped running.

My mile 26, almost-to-the-finish-line selfie

It took me 5 hours and 40 minutes and some change. My half split was decent, but my sore knee for a while and the sheer fatigue slowed me more, but I didn’t stop. Not once. I needed to know I could do it. And later I thought—wow, I ran constantly for almost 25% of an entire day. Somehow that made my time seem even cooler. Truthfully, I wanted to finish in under 6 hours. 5 hours and anything is decent for a marathon if you aren’t fast. For a first timer, it’s totally respectable. But marathons aren’t about time. They are about endurance and staying the course. And I did.

At the finish line were two beautiful things: A finisher's medal (I had to resist hugging the person who put it around my neck, I was so overwhelmed with emotion), and Joyce. Dear sweet precious, loving, giving Joyce who is the whole reason I was able to run this marathon.

In looking at my splits, I see that mile 22 was my slowest; that was Lemon Drop Hill. I also saw that I was significantly faster in my last .2. It’s a good sign I had energy to push through the finish. My body held out and I ran that with my heart.

Other random thoughts, comments and observations:

On Porta-Potties and Bushes

Never in my life have I seen so many men pee! Men, lucky creatures that they are, don’t need a porta-potty. It was not uncommon to be running along the highway and see a group of 5-7 men with their back to us and hands in front of them. It was pretty funny. The porta-potties were gross, as they always are, and usually I don’t need one, though I would have used one if I did. Sometimes I’d run by a line of people waiting for them. Once I ran by as someone came out. The smell wafted onto the highway, practically asphyxiating me. But they get the job done. I made it through the race without needing it—and actually did better than I usually do. 

My Body

My biggest problems physically were my knee, which only acts up on long runs, but mercifully tamed itself and did not get worse, so it wasn’t too bad. My feet were the worst. I am a mid-foot striker now, but man! I tried to be a heel striker, a forefoot striker, anything to remove the pressure off my feet. I was wishing for extra cushioned shoes (I wear Asics Nimbus which are some of the most cushioned shoes out there so it’s unlikely that would have helped much). The bottom line is if you run for over 5 hours, your feet will hurt! But truthfully, it wasn’t a nightmare either. And I kept thinking if I walked, I would be out there longer with sore feet. As we got later in the race, my upper back hurt. No pain the rib area or even lower back where I have had trouble—just the strain on top—probably because I was telling myself “run with your arms! Run with your arms” every time my legs got tired.

My Mind

I coached myself a lot--out loud. I needed to hear the words. Probably the funniest thing was the signs that said “Medical Drop Out 500 Feet” that we passed every so often. I was fine, but every time I saw that sign I said out loud, quite defiantly, “over my dead body.” Because only dropping dead right there would have gotten me to quit. 

It’s funny how you think it’s too much, too far, you can’t do it, but then you think of the other option--quitting--and how that is so not an option that you find strength to keep going. They say you learn a lot about yourself while running a marathon. I guess that’s true, and yet I feel like I mostly reinforced what I knew, what I had been learning since my first run.

Running has never come easily for me. I’m not fast, not a natural, not consistent with time, though I am with my run. But I am disciplined. I have learned to run in all seasons. I have run on ice, in blistering heat, in 45 mph winds, up a mountain, down a valley (literally and figuratively). I run and each time I make it I find out what I am made of. The marathon was my proof to myself I could do the rare thing. In my social networking world, it seems everyone is talking about marathons, but the fact remains that about 2% of Americans have started a marathon and only .05% have finished. Those numbers are lower than the percentage of Americans with a PhD, which is under 3%. To do both is amazing to me. But let me be clear. It’s not amazing because I’m all that. It’s amazing because I dropped out of elementary school and between 3rd grade and college only completed one actual year of school. It’s amazing because I grew up the fat kid, beat up almost daily for being fat (bullying was legal then, it seems). Because I made casts from Plaster of Paris to get out of PE because I hated running. An elementary school dropout who despised running (and the number one reason I hated school was PE) who now has a PhD and has completed  marathon—that’s amazing because it means I defied the odds. I’m better than that. I can overcome. I got a PhD for the same reason—to prove I could. Being a professor is a perk, but my goal was doing it. Just like the marathon. 

A fascinating side note: After the marathon, I was in my hotel room looking at my Timehop app on my phone, which shows what posts I have made on social networking one in other years on the same day. As I looked that night I saw it was exactly 4 years to the date that I was cleared at Texas A&M for my PhD. Graduation was in August, but on June 21, 2010, I was "Dr. Suz." Joyce was my adviser, of course. And now, four years to the day, there she was a key piece of the other vital and unique event of my life. I couldn't have planned that if I wanted. June 21 will forever be a special day. 

I came back different. I came back ready for a life of adventure again. I used to say that if you’re going to live, you should live loud. The marathon made me loud again. And I don’t want to be quiet.

On the Future

One reason I wanted to run the entire way was to know I could so I could go back to half marathons--if I did this successfully, then I could chalk it up to being done. Training for a full becomes a driving force of life. Sleep, eat, runs, all of it ruled by the training. I was definitely more lackadaisical with the schedule than some, though I did not miss a long run. But in the end it was bothering me that since I had an 18 mile run one week, for example, I could not randomly run how I wanted when I wanted. My coach, Jan, in Kansas City, labeled me an “organic” runner. She noted I was having success not following some regime but just running and doing the requirements (i.e. long runs for a race). I love that because it’s part of the freedom of running for me. Marathon training isn’t free, but it was worth it. I wanted to be a marathoner. Now I am. Will I do another? Probably. I don’t have a specific plan, but it wasn’t so hard I could never fathom doing another. It would have to be another special one, and probably in the spring so I didn’t have to train in summer. I suspect it would be a destination marathon, as those are my favorite races. Running a marathon was hard, but not nearly as hard as I expected. My body was tired, sore, but it wasn’t like some exercise in torture. It was an exercise in strength. The marathon tests the limits of human endurance, they say. I have endured far more in my life, and every run reminds me that I am still surviving. The marathon just moved me up a step and told me to live loud. In hot pink, of course. 

Earned that 26.2 (and yes, the hot pink one is on its way to me)


  1. Love love love this post! I found you from the Grandmas fb page (I love reading reports from others on races I have done), and most especially Grandmas (Duluth is my hometown and this was the 4th year in a row I've run this race).

    Congratulations on an amazing accomplishment - I have never managed to RUN an entire marathon. That is OUTSTANDING! And I love that you ran in a tutu...such a fun way to CELEBRATE your victory lap. Great job!!!

    1. Thank you, Bobbi! I so appreciate your comment. I'm following your blog now too--I love to find other runners and hear all the stories! Grandma's was AMAZING! It was a perfect first choice. Your hometown is awesome!