I am a marathoner

Yesterday, I was not yet a runner. Today, I am. I am even more than that: I am a marathoner. As I turn to run the final miles of the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, along St. Paul’s upward-sloping Summit Avenue which is lined by thousands of wildly cheering spectators, one woman’s sign catches my eye: “You are no longer just a runner, now you are a marathoner.” Suddenly, I realize that I am about to finish, to conquer the grueling 26.2 miles and make my dream come true. Less than one mile stands between me and the finish line. The thrill of this realization sends chills over my entire body and I cannot help but smile. “Thank you, I love your sign!” I shout over to the woman who acknowledges it with an enthusiastic wave and a thumbs-up as I continue on my way, carried by the relentless cheers of encouragement and motivation coming from the crowd. I feel great and try to pick up the pace, giving it all I have got – each large stride quickly moving me towards the moment I’ve been working for. In my head, I’ve been here a million times before, but now it is real. “You’ve got power, keep going!” “C’mon, finish strong!” “How can you still have this much energy!? You look amazing!” “You can do this!” I gratefully soak up these words and let them push me forward. As I reach the top of Summit Avenue, the cloudy sky breaks open, rays of sunlight illuminate the beautiful Capitol building on my left and the city of St. Paul spreads out underneath my feet. I can see the finish line at the bottom of the hill; a large U.S. flag waving in the wind above the course is leading the way home. Tears of joy well up in my eyes and I look at my sister, who is running beside me: “Are you ready?” She looks at me – I can tell she is equally overcome by emotion – and nods, “Let’s sprint it in.” Four hours, twenty-three minutes and twenty-seven seconds after the starting gun went off in downtown Minneapolis to mark the beginning of this race, we cross the finish line of our first full marathon – side by side and at exactly the same time. Running a marathon is one of the most challenging and rewarding events that any of us can experience. There are natural limitations our bodies impose on the distance we can run easily. Twenty miles is about the furthest we can go comfortably, even if we are well trained, before we begin to run out of fuel and our muscles begin to hurt. With its 26.2 miles or 42km, the marathon distance takes us beyond our comfort zone, into a realm in which we confront not only the limitations of our bodies, but also our minds. There are no short cuts, no easy ways out. The only opponent we have to face is us, our own selves, the way we were the moment before.

Running a marathon is about facing up to yourself, confronting your own weaknesses, and overcoming them time and again as you go the distance. 

When my sister first proposed running a full marathon together during one of my visits to Minneapolis earlier this year, I thought she was crazy. Of course, I had thought about it before. Every once in a while, the idea would pop into my head that, yes, at some point in my life, I would like to try and run a full marathon. It’s one of those things that you kind of want to do once in your life and then never do again. She was insistent. A day later, she registered. I had no choice but to follow suit because that’s how we are. We’ve been in competitive sports together for most of our lives and, although playing different positions on the field, have always nurtured a healthy competition that pushes us both to do our best. No other person inspires me more or gets me to work harder than my sister. So as soon as she committed herself to this endeavor, my decision was easy. If we were going to do this, we would do it together. 

I’ve never been a great runner, by any means. My sister was a talented and successful track athlete in high school and she has always loved running. I, on the other hand, ran at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. I didn’t hate it, but it was something I did to stay in shape for the sport I truly loved – Lacrosse – or to get away from the assiduous work of writing my dissertation and spending endless hours at my desk. Over the last two years, I had run two half marathons and, admittedly, enjoyed the experience, but I didn’t see it as much of a challenge. I ran effortlessly without any special training or a goal time in mind and somehow made it through the races without much suffering. I knew, however, that this approach would not work for the full marathon. I had (and still have) a huge respect for the physical strength, discipline and mental determination a marathon requires. You don’t just “wing” a marathon, you prepare for it. And even if you are well trained, a lot can still go wrong. I knew I couldn’t do this on my own.

Once I returned to Freiburg, I began to look for a professional coach to accompany me on this journey to my marathon debut. Prior to running my first half marathon in Karlsruhe in 2011, I had bought a new pair of sneakers at the Runner’s Point in Freiburg and the salesperson who advised me on my purchase had handed me a flyer for a company called Leistungsdiagnostik. He told me that his name was Thomas Klingenberger; this was his company and once a week, a group of ambitious amateur runners, who were all training for various races, were meeting near the Stadium at the Dreisam to run together. I should stop by and check it out, he said. It sounded really interesting, but - at the time - I could not imagine training with other runners. I didn’t feel as if I was in good enough shape to run with anyone else, much less runners who had been training regularly for quite some time. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

Luckily, almost two years later, the flyer was still pinned to my refrigerator door and so I sent Thomas an e-mail. He called me back promptly and, only a few minutes into the conversation, I knew that I wanted to sign up, that this was a good fit. Thomas seemed extremely knowledgeable and experienced. Most importantly, however, his obvious love of running and genuine enthusiasm for sharing it with others

through coaching, immediately won me over. The new course would start in only a couple of weeks and I was beyond excited.

Looking back on it now, the day after the marathon, it was the best decision I ever made. This group is so much more than just a group that “runs together.” In the weeks and months leading up to the marathon, we laughed and cried together, cheered each other on, sweated and suffered together. Each one of us received an individual training plan based on our respective goals and fitness level, but we never trained alone. Aside from the joint training sessions on Wednesday nights and the occasional Sunday long run, there were words of reassurance during low times and collective celebrations during high times, for example, when anyone in the group successfully finished a race, set a new personal best or simply had a really good day at practice. Whenever I had a question, someone had an answer. Whenever I had doubt, someone found just the right words to restore my faith. Whenever I felt a sense of achievement, someone was there to share in the joy. I kept coming through week after week after week because I knew that the group was there, waiting for me, depending on me to do my best - just as I needed them to push me through any tiredness, discomfort or lack of motivation. On several occasions I did not feel like running, but knowing that, on any given day, someone else was out there training hard, helped me to stay focused and I ran anyway. Strangers quickly became friends, united amidst all of our differences, through a shared passion for running, respect for one another’s goals and mutual care.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this amazing amount of support, I finished the Cologne Half Marathon, which served as a final test run before the full marathon, in a relaxed 1:51:43 on the day before my flight to the U.S. - improving my personal best by more than seven minutes and boosting my confidence for Minneapolis. And yet, the full extent of this group’s power, as well as of the training plan devised by Thomas and Lukas, did not manifest itself to me until yesterday, the day that I was to actually run my first full marathon.

At the end of June, I developed hip bursitis and was not able to train for almost five consecutive weeks with only three months to go before the marathon. Even walking was impossible. But Thomas and Lukas kept encouraging me, telling me not to worry, and reassuring me that everything would be fine. Soon enough the pain subsided and I was back on a regular training schedule. Nevertheless, in the week before the marathon, the nagging little voice of doubt inside my head grew increasingly louder again. Due to my injury I had only been able to complete three 18-20 mile long runs, would I be able to make it

through the entire 26.2 miles? Did I train enough? Or would all those missed trainings take their toll?

The morning of my race, the messages started pouring in: “Good luck today!” “This is your moment, enjoy it!” “We will be tracking you and virtually supporting you all the way, you can do this!” By the time I stepped up to the starting line, all my anxiousness was gone. It felt like I was about to embark on just another Sunday long run and I was looking forward to it. As the sun rose in a yellow-and-pink splendor behind the starting banner and above the skyline of Minneapolis, I warmed up. I jogged at a very slow pace for about fifteen minutes and then went through our routine plyometric drills. I noticed that I was feeling good and strong. Tapering really seemed to have made a difference and “going-through-the-motions” calmed the last of my nerves. As soon as the starting gun went off, I settled in comfortably at a 10 min/mile pace, right behind the 4h30 pacemaker. I knew that at least a few of my fellow runners at Leistungsdiagnostik were following the race, so I didn’t want to start out too fast. Knowing that they were watching, I wanted to deliver a solid performance, but – more than anything - I wanted to finish. The first 13.1 miles simply flew by. I was distracted by the thousands of cheering spectators along the route, the beauty of this tree-lined course around the lakes (we ran past Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet and Lake Nokomis) and the many very funny signs people were holding up. We lost sight of our pacemaker after a bathroom break that cost us about five minutes, but by mile 14 we caught up with her again. Before we knew it, we had reached mile 16, at which point my sister and I looked at each other and said: “From here on, it’s only 10 miles to the finish. We’ve ran 10-mile races. We can do 10 miles.” And right then and there, I knew we were going to make it. We were running together, enjoying ourselves and still feeling really, really good.

In the end, we reached the finish line without any mental or physical suffering. I had expected the last couple of miles to be hard, to have to struggle – even fight – to make it through. I was wondering what the wall would be like when I finally hit it. But it never happened. Somehow, on this day, everything came together just right to make my marathon debut a joyful, positive and very memorable experience from start to finish. As we watched runner after runner slow down, start walking or even drop out of the race after mile 15, we were still going strong. There was no soreness, no muscle fatigue, and there were no cramps. Running uphill between mile 21 and mile 23 I began to feel my hip, but at that point I no longer cared. I was exhilarated at the prospect of finishing so smoothly, and by focusing on a stable running form, I was able to manage the pain quite well.

I thought about our family and friends who were tracking us and the excitement they, too, must be starting to feel now. They, too, must have known then that we were going to make it. And that thought made me not only incredibly happy, but immensely grateful: to know that they were there, a thousand miles away, sharing in this experience of a lifetime. Everything culminated in those final miles, in that last stretch of the race: every minute of hill work, every interval ran on the track, every core stability exercise, every high-five at practice and every word of encouragement over the last four months. Those were all pieces of a magnificent puzzle that was now falling into place. Yes, I still had to do the running myself, but ultimately that seemed like a relatively small feat because of all the love, support, and advice I was given from my family, friends, fellow runners and two coaches during training and throughout the race. Therefore, crossing that finish line yesterday is as much their achievement as it is mine. I could not have done it without them.

As I write this, I already look forward to many more training days and marathons in the future. Even on the day after the race, I feel great and experience no pain. Instead, I cannot wait to get back out there on the road, the track, or the trail and start running. I am officially hooked! As Haruki Murakami writes in his book What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: “I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together.” Besides, who needs toenails anyways!?!

Thank you, Thomas Klingenberger and Lukas Naegele, for being the best coaches anyone could wish for. You live by example each and every day what it means to be a dedicated and passionate athlete and that is inspiring beyond words.

Thank you, Karin Gutmann, for being more than just a phenomenal running buddy. You are a truly great friend who never seizes to amaze me and make my heart laugh. The world is brighter because you are in it.

Thank you, Wolfgang Zimmermann, for being such an incredible and supportive training partner. It is a fortune that you happen to work across the street from me and that you are always up for intense intervals and uphill runs. You push me to go beyond what I think is possible (A 30+km run at a sub-6 min/km pace? Hell yeah!!!) and for that I am immeasurably grateful. Yesterday, it made all the difference.

Thank you, Ralph Schirrmeister, for being the voice of optimism and confidence in my head, especially during those last two weeks. You never once doubted that I could do this and your enthusiasm was so contagious!

Finally, thank you to the rest of you Klingenbergianer for welcoming me so warmly into your group and for being who you are. I am truly in awe of the commitment, perseverance, loyalty and passion each one of you brings to our training each and every day, as well as to your races. I am tremendously proud to be part of such an amazing group. 

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