Training for My First Marathon

Meet Pam Harris, or BAMRPAMR, who is going to chronicle her first marathon journey over the next few months.

The memory of my middle school gym teacher yelling, “My GRANDMOTHER could run a mile faster than you, Greyson!” is a pretty accurate representation of my early running career. Once I passed the age of mandatory participation in the Presidential Physical Fitness assessment, I did not willingly run a single step until my late twenties.

Blythe, my close friend and fellow high school English teacher, decided that our pants fit more snugly than they should and that the solution was running. We stepped out Blythe’s front door into the sweltering Florida summer sunshine wearing far too much cotton. We sprinted until we thought we were going to die, and then walked until we realized we probably weren’t going to, in fact, die. We stopped frequently to filch a loquat (a sweet, juicy citrus fruit) from a neighbor’s tree or pet a friendly dog.

Once the school year began, we often took our workouts to the high school track, running “the straights” and walking “the curves,” and hoping we wouldn’t run into any of our students. One day, about three months in, we joined a seasoned runner who introduced us to the concept of running well below top speed. Blythe ran her first full mile that day, and I ran my own the next.

I was hooked—for, well, life.

In December 2010, a few months after that physical and mental breakthrough, I found a teaching job in Atlanta, GA, where Erik, my then boyfriend and now husband, lived. He and I ran together in fits and starts: once or twice a week, then nothing for months on end. In 2012, I stopped teaching, started a master’s program in Library and Information Sciences, and got married. Between that time and the birth of my first baby, Amelie, on August 11, 2014, I ran maybe a dozen times.

Six weeks later, the day I was cleared to exercise after the unexpected C-section, I watched the door like a hawk and threw the baby at my husband the second he walked through it. I’d planned to jog slowly until it didn’t feel good, but it kept feeling good! (I know: crazy, right?) So I jogged out for a mile, turned around, and jogged on home, suddenly feeling like more than somebody’s mama.

As the weeks progressed, I found that I could run three, then four, then five miles without stopping. It seemed like time to sign up for my first race, the Atlanta Beltline Eastside 10k, in mid-December of 2014. It was out and back, and therefore totally demoralizing: the faster runners began passing me on their way back before I’d run a fraction of the way out.

Erik cheered me on proudly as I crossed the finish line ahead of only two people, and was baffled by my post-race tears. I didn’t run another step for nearly a year.

In August of 2015, we moved down the road to Decatur. Seeking out friends and accountability, I stumbled across the Decatur, GA Moms Run This Town Facebook page, which proclaimed “No mama left behind!” That sounded promising, so I laced up my shoes and headed out to a Saturday morning group run. I checked out the women in fancy running clothes that actually matched, chatting like old friends. “We run at a really slow pace, like 11-minute miles,” the leader told another new runner, clearly embarrassed.

Slow is 11-minute miles? Gulp. I reminded myself that the group didn’t leave anyone behind and followed with increasing trepidation for about three blocks. I stuttered to a walk, fighting back tears, and prepared to do the walk of shame back to my car.

And then a small miracle happened. A runner far up ahead turned around and jogged back to me. “Hi, I’m Meridith. Do you want to do run/walk intervals?”  I didn’t trust myself to talk, so I nodded, and followed along in the wave of Meridith’s conversation. And just like that, a BRF-ship was born.

Training for My First Marathon

The Decatur MRTT crew waiting for the 2016 Hot Chocolate 15k to start in balmy 18 degree weather. My BRF Meridith is in the back row, second from the right.

Decatur MRTT loves running races together, and five months later, I once again found myself on the starting line of the Atlanta Beltline Eastside 10k. This time, however, I was surrounded by my team. While I brought up the rear of our own group, I finished solidly mid-pack overall. I felt redeemed, energized, and ready to see what I was capable of. In the post-race afterglow, Meridith mentioned that the Hot Chocolate 15k, two months down the road, gave out hoodies rather than shirts. I was in.

As we began training for the new distance, somebody in the group mentioned the words half marathon, Savanna, and girls’ weekend. I felt strong in my newfound running abilities and my new friendships, and  decided I might as well give it a try. I ran the Hot Chocolate and earned my very first medal, not to mention the promised hoodie and a cup of decidedly mediocre cocoa.

I had never felt so accomplished: I’d overcome both my genetics and lifelong disinclination toward running. Not one week later, on my 34th birthday, I stumbled on a rock during a group run and felt my ankle give way. I felt somehow cheated: I put in the work and did not deserve this injury.

When I was still limping two weeks later, I went to see a PT. He explained I had an overuse injury in my ankle, introduced me to dry-needling, prescribed daily strength exercises, and nixed running for two weeks. Two weeks before the race, I was cleared to ease back into running and made the starting line of the Savannah Women’s Half Marathon in April of 2016: six weeks post-injury and (surprise!) five weeks pregnant. Meridith promised to run with me every step of the way to the finish. We alternated between a slow jog and a walk, crossing the finish line at 3:04.

Training for My First Marathon

Sidelined by Plantar Fasciitis at 26 weeks pregnant, I went out and bought a road bike that day. This is one of my first rides on the road. Chandani (in yellow) was also pregnant, and Sue, the experienced cyclist of the group, kept us laughing the whole time and taught us how to lower our gears and “doodle up the hills.”

I continued to run throughout the first two trimesters, averaging about three slow runs per week. When the bouncing got to be too much for my bladder, I borrowed a friend’s maternity splint to hold up the belly and continued until plantar fasciitis forced me off my feet and onto a road bike.

After an uneventful pregnancy, Beatrix was born via C-section on November 11, 2016. Once again, I got the green light to begin running six weeks later, so I started off the new year with a run/walk of three miles.

The PT said to take it slowly and listen to my body, which I did. In February of 2016, I ran the Hot Chocolate 5k, feeling great. The next month I upped it to a 10k, where I ran a nine-minute PR, still feeling great. A few weeks later, I was gunning for a sub-30 minute 5k PR at the Atlanta Women’s 5k, running faster than I ever had. I was surely invincible.

Then? Snap.

Seconds after passing the second mile marker, I felt my ankle just go. Turns out that niggling pain I’d been ignoring the past couple weeks was a fibular stress fracture. I limped my way to the finish line, telling off the MC who urged me to “run it in strong.”

To cap it all off, the promised mimosas at the finish line were VIRGIN. Seriously???

I was utterfly defeated. I sucked. I was worthless. I worked harder than anyone and kept getting injured. I texted as much to Christy, a longtime friend and mentor in sport. She convinced me that before throwing in the towel for good, I should give heart-rate training a try, and she sent me a link to the Train Like a Mother homepage.

A high school swim coach and accomplished triathlete, Christy sensed I needed a coach of my own and a program that would teach me how to train at my current level. Two months later, out of the boot and cleared to run, I began training by heart rate on the Amazing plan for the Atlanta Thanksgiving Half Marathon. Because clearly I could not be trusted to listen to my body, I would rely on the objective measure of my heart rate.

I ran SLOWLY (anywhere from 18-24 minute miles) four days a week and completed about 20 minutes of low-resistance and bodyweight strength training six days a week. I crossed the finish line at 3:10:14, six minutes slower than my first race.

I didn’t even care, though, because I had managed to complete the entire training cycle uninjured. I felt so good that I signed up for another round, culminating in the DC Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon on March 10, 2018. I upped my running to five days a week and kept up the strength training, finishing the race in 2:37:05. My next race? The Cape Cod Half Marathon in mid-October, where I hope to shave at least another 30 minutes off my finishing time.

Training for My First Marathon

The finish line of the 3 Taverns 5k in May of 2018: a race I had intended as a PR ended up being a spectacular one-mile race (to date my mile PR at 7:43) with a two-mile cool down. I love this picture because OMG LOOK AT THOSE LEG MUSCLES!!

I’ve learned over the past few years that I have untold potential as a runner and that nothing is impossible with the support of a tribe. This week I begin training for my first full marathon. On February 10, 2019, the eve of my 38th birthday, I will show my middle school gym teacher and, more importantly, myself, that not only can I run one mile, but I can run 26.2 of ’em.

I can’t wait to share this journey with you all!