Erin Vandenberg: Running 26 To Celebrate 30

Erin just completed her first marathon, even though she never thought she could do one. According to Erin, “I don’t have a heart-string-pulling story or a courageous story of overcoming an illness or even a great weight loss story. I’m just a girl who got tired of the gym! Years ago, my mother told me that I should make fitness a part of my everyday life or I’d regret it when I got to be her age. I took that advice to heart and became a gym rat. But there are only so many hours you can spend on the elliptical…”

Read her Chicago Marathon Race Report on her blog – Eri-thon: from 0 to 26.2 in 30.

You didn’t originally consider yourself a runner. Why is that?

I didn’t know I was a runner, but I did know other people who didn’t consider themselves runners who had started doing it. So, I joined a Beginning Women’s Running Group and trained to run a 5K. After that first race, I was hooked. The feeling in the air, the camaraderie, and the sense of accomplishment after you cross the finish line spoke to me. It also helped that running is a great activity for us kind-of-shy-types. Running has taught me that sometimes things are hard but you have to do them anyway. For someone who has spent her whole life coasting by choosing the easy path, this was quite the epiphany.

When/why did you decide to run a marathon? Why Chicago?

When I first started running in 2007, I thought I’d never run further than a 5K.  I thought marathoners were crazy! But after my first 5K race experience I started thinking bigger. The race was so much fun I didn’t want it to end.  I decided to take it slow, though, and ran 5Ks and 10Ks in 2007 and 2008 and then my first half marathon in 2009. In 2010, I was turning 30 and I thought that running a marathon would be a good goal. In so many of the online running communities people post about running marathons and I admit I wanted to be one of them, too. I debated a long time about whether or not I wanted Chicago to be my first marathon. The weather is such a toss-up here. Last year it was something like 35 degrees at the start line but the two preceding years were hot, hot, hot.  In the end, though, I decided to run Chicago since I live 10 miles outside the city and I thought it was best to keep race prep as simple as possible. Unfortunately, 2010 turned out to be another hot year!

Tell us about your training schedule. It sounds like you incorporated a lot of speed work. Do you think this helped?

I’ve never been a runner who runs 5-6 times a week. I just know that my body couldn’t handle that much running. Also, I love to do other types of physical activity. If I ran too much, I’d miss out on those since there are only so many hours in the day!  Keeping that in mind, I chose the FIRST program. In the FIRST program you run three days a week but can add in more runs if you feel up to it. The key is that you focus on quality over quantity. It also helped that my running club does weekly speed work focused track sessions with a coach during the summer in addition to their regular Monday night runs and their regular Saturday morning long runs. That fit in perfectly with the FIRST program. Have you ever heard the saying that if you want to run faster you have to run faster?  That was definitely true for me. Speed work helped me work though some of the mental blocks I have against running hard as well as help me earn a new half marathon PR during marathon training.  Doing it with a group and a coach was especially helpful because there wasn’t really the option to slack off!

Did you run any races as part of training?

In the Chicago area the Chicago Area Runner’s Association (CARA) has what is known as the CARA circuit. Running clubs compete in races on the circuit to see how high up in the ranking they can get. Even though I’m not competitive in my age group, I could still earn points for my club by running in CARA circuit races. I didn’t do the entire circuit but I did choose a few races that fit in with my training schedule. When I had a 5 mile tempo run on the schedule I did a 5 mile race. When I had a 13 mile run on the schedule, I ran my best half marathon yet.  I was also supposed to run a 10-mile race as part of my training but it ended up getting canceled!

What was your greatest challenge while training? What was easier than you expected?

At the beginning of my training the greatest challenge was the weather. It took me a few horrible long runs to realize that I needed to get out there much earlier and that I needed a new hydration belt. Toward the end of training my biggest challenge was dealing with a knee injury. Seventeen days out from the marathon I tried to go for a run only to have my right knee radiate pain. Thankfully, I’d already done my 20-miler and was headed into my taper period. That said, dealing with the injury definitely took an emotional toll. Overall, the training was easier than I had expected. My first 18-mile run was amazing as was my first 20-miler. In fact, if the marathon had been scheduled on either of those two days I would have been perfectly happy to run the whole distance.  I did start to experience some burn out towards the end.  Knowing that I HAD to run even if I didn’t want to run was a little tough at times. What was your marathon goal prior to race day? My original marathon goal was to finish and not worry about time. I then adjusted that to finishing in under 5 hours. But when my 18-miler and my 20-miler went so well, my friends in my running group started telling me I could run much faster than that!  My 20-mile running partner wanted to run a 4:30 marathon and I got sucked into his enthusiasm. On race day, I lined up with the 4:30 pace group but was really expecting to finish in 4:45. What was the race experience like?

The Chicago Marathon is crazy! I was actually more stressed about my family and friends seeing me on the course since I’d been told it would be nearly impossible to spot me if I we didn’t have a race day plan. It turns out that I never felt that crowded on the course and thanks to technology I was able to see my family several times. When people talk about Chicago they talk about the spectator support. There is never a dull moment on that course. Even in the areas where the spectators aren’t lined up shoulder-to-shoulder three deep, there is always someone yelling! Even if that someone is also a volunteer handing you water.  If you get pumped up by the spectators then Chicago is the race to run!  I’ve run almost 30 races and never experienced spectator support like this. Running itself was a lot harder than I had anticipated. The heat and sun combined with going out too fast and not sticking with my original race day goals made for a difficult race. But I never once wanted to quit. I just revised my goals.

How did it feel when you crossed the finish line? Did you meet your race goal?

I honestly couldn’t believe the race was really over. Part of me was happy to be done and another part of me felt like I had worked so hard for this that I didn’t want it to end. In the end, I didn’t make any of my original pre-race goals but my revised-on-the-course goal was 5:15 and I came in at 5:14:10.

What did you learn about yourself through this experience?

I’ve learned that I run better when I don’t put any pressure on myself to run for anyone but myself.  When I just go out there to run and not worry about pace or a finish time.  I’m very much a “gold star” kind of person and I like to get validation from others, but running a marathon made me realize that the only person whose opinions and goals really matter is me. I also learned that I actually kind of like long distance running. Now if only my right knee would get with the program!

Will you run another?

Yes!  I feel as though I got the short end of the stick with the weather on race day.  I want to run another one just to know what I could do if the temperature hadn’t been in the 80s!

What advice would you give another first time marathoner?

Run your own race. If you want to put in your headphones and zone out and not talk to anyone, do it.  If you want to run with friends and make a party out of it, do that.  But figure out what kind of race you want to run beforehand, make your plan, and stick to it. Figure out what kind of runner you are and do what you need to do to be that person. And remember that the kind of runner you are on a training run might not be the kind of runner you are on race day.  Run a few other races before you attempt the marathon so you can figure that out.

Melinda Hinson