Ottawa Marathon race recap

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Crossing the finish line of the Ottawa Marathon continues to play through my mind in slow-motion: in blurs of leafy green, in steamy humid air, in the shouts of spectators (I took their words to heart), in the face of the lovely woman who slowly placed a beautiful, heavy medal around my neck.

This was my first marathon. It was my race, and though it was imperfect in so many ways, it was also absolute perfection. And I will never forget it.

I dug to the deepest part of me to run those final 600 metres to the finish, and a man in an orange shirt ran up to me and sternly told me to smile and throw my arms in the air – because I needed a good finish line photo!! So I did.

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Just past the finish line my shoulders fell forward and I released a gasp, which turned into a cry, and a long wail. I know some heads turned but I didn’t care, as I fully absorbed what had happened. I ran 42.2 kilometres.

I ran a marathon. What was once impossible, was now possible.

A first marathon in such a beautiful city at a huge, well-organized race is so magical. Time didn’t really matter, it was more about finishing the race in an upright position. The extreme heat only accentuated the need to take it easy. But it actually took some of the stress of meeting a time goal away and I was able to take it all in.

My final time was 5:12:28. Here is how I got there.

The lead-up

About a week or 10 days before the marathon, I came to terms with the fact it would be a hot race. This worried me because I have spent the past four months training in cool Saint John. I tried to remain optimistic that the forecast, calling for temps in the high 20s, high humidity and possible thunderstorms, would change, but it didn’t. It was Ottawa’s first heat wave of the year. And we’d be running through it.

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We toured Parliament two days before the marathon. It was at least 30 C with high humidity.

A day or two before the marathon, the local media began reporting that the marathon may be cancelled or changed due to the extreme heat. My heart sank, thinking all those months of training, not to mention the expense of travelling to Ottawa, would be lost. But I knew running in dangerous conditions wasn’t wise either. The last thing I wanted was to end up passed out on the side of the road, or waking up in a hospital with my toddler son a 12-hour drive away from me.

While the heat barely dissipated (race organizers say it was probably the hottest in the race’s 42 year history), its impact on the marathon event was minimal, and mostly by sheer luck. Cloud cover and a light breeze helped keep the heat to a manageable level for most of the marathon. It only become horrid, at least 30 C or 38 C humidity, in the last hour or so of my run.

Still, race organizers pulled marathoners who hadn’t reached a final bridge by the four-hour mark. I’m lucky I made it to the finish line.

Rookie mistakes

My husband and I made a vacation out of the Ottawa trip, including the 12-hour drive one-way. I knew I wouldn’t be resting in the hotel room on the day before the run, but I tried to take it easy. Despite this, we ended up doing a lot of walking, even a hike through Gatineau Park (oops) the day before my run. It lovely, but was sizzling hot. Also, I stupidly wore brand new sandals, which I thought would be comfortable, ending up with beat up feet.

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Atop the Champlain lookout at Gatineau Park, Quebec, er, the day before my marathon.

By the time we got back to the hotel room on Saturday night, my legs and feet were aching. I had tried to drink lots of water, but I probably still didn’t drink enough. I stretched and we went to bed at 10 p.m. and set the alarm for 4:45 a.m.

All the while, I was steeling myself to the very real possibility that I may need to pull out of the race if the heat forced me to.

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Marathon breakfast was a whole wheat blueberry bagel with crunchy peanut butter and a banana. And hotel room coffee. Ugh.

Our hotel was about a 20 minute drive away from downtown, so we strategically left in time to avoid race day street closures. We found a great place to park for free and got to the start line in time to have a quick coffee (for Mark) and to for me to get to the bathroom one last time. I also had lots of time to find my place in the start line corrals. It was not difficult since only the marathon even started at 7 a.m.

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I should also mention here that I purposefully had a shower the morning of so I could have wet hair for the run. Running Room founder John Stanton made this suggestion along with many other great tips at the Saturday night pasta dinner. Another piece of advice he gave was to remove your hat and pour water on it at the water stops instead of dumping water over your head. This can avoid chafing issues (since salt from sweat would wash over the body along with the water). A cool head helps cool down the entire body.

The first half:

The first 21 km of the run was through Ottawa’s downtown, along the Rideau Canal, through beautiful residential areas and along Wellington Street lined with small businesses. It was flat and scenic. My pace was steady as I took one-minute walk breaks every 10 minutes. I took the breaks even if I felt I didn’t need them. My strategy was to conserve energy – because of the heat and because of those dreaded final 10 km which remained a big unknown.

The crowd support was extremely uplifting. I was amazed at the ordinary people out with their children, sitting in law chairs, with signs and garden hoses pointed at runners. Kids ambled for high-fives. I drank it in. The spirit was so real!

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I hit the porta-potties at about 14 km, and lost three-four minutes as there was a bit of a line. It was worth it.

21 to 30 km

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Another great section of the course, across the river to Gatineau, Que. Does this mean I can say I’ve run a marathon in two provinces? Running across the bridge was fun and seemed to go by quickly. At this point we were sharing the course with half-marathoners. They seemed like gazelles and I tried to stay out of their way.

At the 21.1 km mark, the precise halfway point, I noticed a few people let out a cheer as i to say, OK, this is where it gets real! I felt a little surge and fist-pumped.

The course was dotted with plentiful water stations, which also carried Nuun electrolyte drink. By the end the thought of that stuff sickened me, but I kept drinking it so I wouldn’t get dehydrated. It seemed to do the trick!

There were also cooling stations, awesome and refreshing little misting showers. It provided an instant jolt of energy, however fleeting.

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Around the 28 km mark, I noticed the 5-hour pace bunny group run ahead of me. I decided to run along with the pack for a bit. But since their walk break didn’t line up with mine, I soon abandoned that plan. Until that point I believed I would land somewhere between 4:45 and 5 hours. But that was the last I saw of the pace bunny with the shower puff tail. Ah well.

Anytime I started feeling discouraged about how slow I was moving, I told myself it was better to be wise than press on for some arbitrary speed goal. What point is there in risking heat stroke, passing out or bonking? All I needed to do was finish, and at that point I knew that was going to happen.

The feeling of knowing I would finish was warm and motivating. I knew it would be difficult, but I knew I would get there, even if my pace slowed down considerably, which it did.

28 km to 37 km 

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This was my darkest stretch. I may have dropped an f-bomb on Snapchat during this time.

This is when the sun decided to shine in all its hot, miserable glory. The temperature seemed to shoot up about a million degrees, making my legs heavy and every step a struggle. After 32 km, I decided I would take a walk break every kilometre. I just had to make it to the next flag. This strategy edged me along, but my pace lagged.

Looking around didn’t help much either. It seemed as though everyone around me was giving up. There were more people walking than running at this point.

The neighbourhoods continued to cheer us on. They clapped with conviction saying, “You can do it! You’re strong!” People looked me straight in the eye. I had to run. I had to press on. I almost felt guilty walking by a cheering spectator. They kept me moving, step by step.

Around this time I also started to see the Extra Mile Crew, some energetic folks who helped the slower runners get to the finish line. No one specifically came to round me up, but I started to feel like the slow runner that I was. I was starting to feel demoralized. And 5 km seemed so far away.

37 km to the finish

I saw Mark at the crest of a small hill on Sussex Drive, taking cover in the shade. He looked concerned, like he was worried he had missed me. I called out to him and he thrust Gatorade and an ibuprofen pill at me, which I gladly accepted.

He had suspected my IT band would be throbbing by that point, but almost magically it was fine. Still, I was fatigued all over. Beads of sweat sparkled on his brow. We were in the extreme heat of the day.

“I’m going to run with you to the finish,” he said. “Let’s go.”

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Mark on the right

I was so extremely happy to hear this. I really needed an extra push at this point. We ran very slowly and he encouraged me along. I can’t even describe how tough it was. I remember thinking that childbirth is easier (not true).

Little by little, we passed each flag: 38K, 39K… around 40 km you’d think I would give it my all to the finish. That’s how I always imagined it would be. But I didn’t have it in me. I walked through the very last water stop.

Near 41 km, I decided I needed to run. I stopped again for a few seconds into that final kilometre to gather my strength for the finish line. Then I gave it the final push.

I picked up speed and heard those final cheers, raised my arms, plastered a big smile on my face and sailed across the finish line.

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It’s now day three after the marathon and I’m filled with gratitude. I feel so lucky I had the opportunity to take the road trip Ottawa and run in this world class race. I’m grateful to the people of Ottawa and Gatineau for all the sprinklers, cheers, signs, high-fives and smiles along the route. All those volunteers who handed out cups of water and Nuun.

I’m grateful that my body held up for me. After nearly a month of painful runs, and physio sessions, it held together fine on race day. The weather was disgustingly hot, but I know it could have been worse. I’m grateful for the clouds and breeze.

The marathon training journey was quite an adventure. There were early morning runs, snowy and rainy runs, two-hour treadmill runs. I felt mom guilt and wife guilt and I worried about sleep and food and weight and strength and injuries. I got sick two or three times during training and missed precious runs. Training wasn’t always perfect, but there were many sweet and serene morning runs when everything just clicked, when it felt like I was meant to be a runner, and it stopped being hard work.

I met my goal of running 42.2 kilometres, something I never could have dreamed of accomplishing a few years ago.

42.2km: We will meet again.

I did it!

It was impossibly hot – so hot that the Ottawa Marathon was almost cancelled for the first time in 40 years. But despite temperatures hovering near 30 C, and high humidity, I completed my first marathon today in 5:12:28.

To say it feels incredible would be an understatement. People say marathons change you, and in my case it’s probably true, too.

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If you follow me on SnapChat @aprilrunson, you’ll find a little video diary that shows the highs and lows of the event.

The course was stunning but it was hard. This run was hard work. But I think I stayed strong to the end, even if the walk breaks increased near the end.

I couldn’t have done it without the love and support of my dear husband, who not only agreed to make a couples weekend around this marathon, but met my every need through this training process.

And, he met met at the 37 km mark and ran beside me to the finish.

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An amazing event and experience I will never forget.

More detailed race recap to come!

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Selfie with a robot – just because

Last-minute marathon prep

Now entering the final few days before my first marathon and I’m feeling a mix of emotions. Some days I feel confident and relaxed. Other days I wonder if I’ll even cross the finish line.

This weekend’s 15 km, however, felt great. My energy levels were solid and while I felt a bit of an ache in IT band, it didn’t hurt. Now I just need to repeat that x3 next weekend! GULP.

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The leaves have just popped out over the past few days and it really makes a difference in how pleasant it feels out there.

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With the trip to Ottawa creeping closer, I have been trying to ensure I have all the appropriate gear. I’m writing lists like it’s nobody’s business.

What I bring and what I need is largely weather dependent, and at this point, the forecast is calling for a high of 25 C, which means I will be sweating buckets. So this weekend I picked up a few more odds and ends.

  • Fuel belt pouch: I purchased a four-bottle belt about a month ago from the Running Room, and I find it much more comfortable than my old Nike belt. This weekend after talking to the fine folks at the Running Room I decided it will probably be wise to run the marathon with the fuel belt, especially since it will be so warm. Although there will be water on the course, I think it will be good to have water/Gatorade with me at all times. This also allows me to carry a few little items in a pouch on the belt. The pouch that came with the belt was pretty small to I bought a bigger one, which will fit a phone and energy gels. I always run with a small iPod Nano tucked in my pocket, but the belt will also allow me to bring my phone, which I was wondering if I should carry. (Also thinking this opens up SnapChat opportunities, haha! @AprilRunsOn)
  • Sunglasses: I have some sporty sunnies but they sort of give me a headache. So I purchased these cheapies from Winners. They will do the trick. I may also or alternatively wear a hat. Not sure yet.

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  • Running outfit: I totally splurged on a new Lulu outfit, which I bought online a week ago, but it hasn’t arrived yet. Yikes!
  • Massage stick: On the advice of my physiotherapist, (Rob Landers at ABC Physio, highly recommend), I bought one of these in place of my old foam roller. It seems to work really well and as a bonus, it’s portable!

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This week I just have three runs planned of 5 and 6 km. It should feel like a breeze… the challenge will be getting prepped for the trip while handling other everyday life stuff. And truthfully, I feel pretty run down at the moment. I have avoided a cold that went through my house last week but my body is rebelling in the form of a cold sore. Still better than being sick, I guess.

 

Making it work: marathon training as a mom

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Silas is almost 2, and as I look back at my running achievements over his short life, I can’t help but feel proud.

Last year included two half-marathons and a number of shorter races, which I managed to train for while working a full-time, demanding job. Now I am less than two weeks away from running my first marathon.

  • I ran 20 km on Sunday in one of my final long runs. Not pain free, but got it done. Stats here. 

Logging miles upon miles to get to the finish line is never easy. Throw a child into the mix and the dynamic of finding balance in life becomes even more tricky. But I am here to tell you it is possible – not only that, but it makes you feel good.

Running is a gift. It’s a place to focus, work out the day’s problems, dream and plan. It’s for me and me alone. This might be why I enjoy running solo. It sounds cliche, but I know that if I am at peace with myself, I am a happier person and a better mother.

It’s also a way I can take control of my body and my health. To work on improving my speed, endurance and strength (both physical and mental).

Everyone is busy, not just moms. But there is a particular part of motherhood that involves giving of your whole self every waking moment. It often feels like there is absolutely no time to spare.

So here is my secret to fitting running into the equation: make it a priority.

The top priorities in my life: 1) family 2) career 3) running/health

When you have that figured out, you quickly realize all the rest can fit in the tiny cracks that surround your busy schedule, and it doesn’t matter if that other stuff (i.e. house cleaning, Facebook, painting my nails) doesn’t get done.

Everyone has different priorities, but I have chosen to make running mine. It matters to me and I know it makes me a better person.

Here are a few other ways I make running fit in my life as a mom:

  • Plan ahead: I roughly know what days I’m going to run, the distance and what time will work best. On my days off, I typically run during nap time to maximize time with my son. On weekdays, I opt for early morning runs.
  • Be flexible: Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Like I am just about to head out the door for an early morning run and I hear “mama!!!” So I keep on my running clothes and try for a lunchtime run. If that doesn’t happen, nighttime treadmill run it is.
  • Use the running stroller: We usually get out for one stroller run per week. It’s tougher than running without but my son loves it. He says “wheeeee!” when we go fast and “runrunrunrun!” I love it.
  • Set achievable goals, gradually: I didn’t start running again until a good two months after giving birth. After that, my first goal was a 5K by Christmas, when Silas would be six months old. I was so proud to finish! Then, four months later, I ran a 13K race with another mama. Three months after that, it was a half-marathon, followed by another one in the fall. I kept running through a December run streak to keep my base strong before launching into marathon training this past January.
  • Be realistic: I don’t try to be perfect. I miss some runs and mis the mark on my mileage many weeks. I love French Fries and McFlurries as much as I love a good protein smoothie. Many  days, I don’t get enough sleep or drink enough water.

Sometimes I feel like an imposter in running gear.

But I guess that’s also part of the appeal. I’m working on becoming someone I never realized was possible. And that will always be a work in progress.

 

Things are looking up!

If you follow me on Facebook, Twitter on Instagram, you already know I conquered 32 kilometres on Sunday.

I’m still baffled by this. I look at this picture and wonder if I was dreaming and my Garmin produced imaginary data.

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Yes, my knee and IT band are still achy and I am still wobbly, but I’m improving – even after running this massive distance. I am amazed and so grateful for medical advice, treatment and the glory that is New Shoes.

Let’s back up a bit. Much has happened since my last post. I ran 3.5 km that night and felt OK.

Thursday: I continued with my physio exercises (bridge and clam shell – here’s a link from a random website), ran 6 km on the treadmill then found a couple short videos on YouTube for stretching and strength exercises for runners.

I also saw my family doctor to get a referral for physio, so I can get insurance coverage. She was very supportive of my running goals and also wrote me a prescription for Naproxen, an anti-inflammatory similar to Aleve.

Friday: I returned to physio and learned a few more exercises for core stability. Had more acupuncture and hot/cold therapy. The physiotherapist wasn’t too keen on me taking the Naproxen. Why mask the pain with medication when we could work on strengthening and fixing the problem directly? I agreed (thinking I’ll fill the prescription anyway, because those things could come handy after the 32 km I had planned for the weekend).

New exercises I learned included lunging with one foot balancing on a stability ball; walking backwards on a treadmill (activating those glutes) and doing side shuffles on the ‘mill, working on keeping my body in alignment.

After work I headed down to Alex Coffin’s Fitness Shop to pick up some new kicks. I wanted the exact same pair of Brooks Glycerin because I love them so much. But I knew mine were worn out.

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Yikes.

Alex was notably alarmed when he saw the state of these shoes (which I only purchased last November). He suggested my form is likely off, and I’m probably not following through on my stride. I’m also clearly putting the most pressure on the outside of my foot, especially on the right side.

I left Alex’s store very pleased with my new shoes – I got black – but worried my old ways would be tough to fix this far into my training.

I came home and after putting Silas to sleep, I tackled another 6.5 km on the treadmill, plus more strength and stretching.

Saturday: Rest day but no sitting. Chasing a toddler around a few stores, then house cleaning. I ate as many carbs and drank as much water as humanly possible. Also a beer. Seriously, before bed I ate a whole Kit Kat bar and a bowl of Raisin Bran. (The shame!)

Sunday: I woke up feeling like I had a big exam. I was so scared to tackle 32 km. I had the blessing of my medical professionals, and I had really been running all week (though the runs were short), but I still had my doubts. I told Mark to stay by the phone. I fully expected I wouldn’t get much farther than 10 km before he got a call.

I struck out with a mixture of fear and determination in my belly. I held my posture high and tried to keep in mind all the tips I had heard from Alex and Rob (my physiotherapist) over the past week. I mentally focused on keeping my core strong. I thought about taking off from my big toe.

My knee and IT band were achy but the pain was very mild and I could run through it. Just knowing that running through that sensation without forcing any longterm damage helped push me along.

I tried to stay in a positive mindset. And amazingly, after the 10 km mark (my mental breaking point, or so I thought), I realized I could do it. I felt warmed up and I felt strong. I had lots of energy (so much sugary goodness coursing through me). I just took it slow and kept going.

By the time I hit the 20 km mark, I called home so my husband wouldn’t worry. Turns out he didn’t expect to come get me at all. He had better faith in me than I did.

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The long, foggy, lonely King William Road in Lorneville. I didn’t see a soul.

Before long, I was more focused on fatigue and a dull numbness in my feet that comes along with long distance running (at least for me) than I was that ache in my knee. In fact, it was barely noticeable.

Could it be that the run actually made me better?

I have no idea, but since then, my pain has definitely not become worse.

I came home from Sunday’s run, had my first ever ice bath (equally dreadful and wonderful) and drank a protein smoothie.

Monday was a rest day but I did yoga and my physio exercises. Today I got up early and ran 5 km. All feels good!

Three weeks to go until marathon day. Fingers crossed this was only a blip in my training.

 

My first trip to the physiotherapist

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Good news from the physiotherapist today: keep running!

As suspected, my knee pain is a result of the IT band (which runs from the hip just below the knee), which has been aggravated by a number of factors, including increased mileage and just being a mom. Turns out carrying a 30+ pound child on your hip can cause an imbalance.

And it’s all linked to my relatively weak core, glute and hip muscles. That was easy to see (especially on my affected right side) when the PT pushed against my thigh while I pushed up while lying on my side. At the end of a longer run, my hips, alignment and posture likely collapse. So I need to get stronger while running, my PT suggests. If I stop running of course it will stop hurting, but it won’t solve the problem.

I’m so, so happy to hear that all of this is manageable to continue training.

“Let pain be your guide, but don’t let it stop you,” he said. Basically, if I can muster through pain of a long run – or the marathon – it won’t do any long-term damage. And if I continue to get stronger and manage inflammation leading up to the race, I should be fine. He said he can’t promise the next few weeks to be pain free, but there is no reason to stop.

He helped me stretch, massaged the area and showed me a couple of strengthening exercises to try at home – the bridge and the clamshell – and how to do them effectively. He also gave me acupuncture, which was a first! The tiny needles didn’t bother me one bit, in fact, they actually provided relief.

So tonight I tried a slow, easy three kilometres. My IT band felt tight and there was a bit of pain around the knee, but it was low on the pain scale. The PT suggested I try a little longer run on Thursday, then continue with training from there.

I have also realized my shoes have more than 500 kilometres on them, so I’m hoping to ease into a new pair soon.

On a side note, turns on foam rolling isn’t necessarily the best option, putting too much abuse on an already strained and stretched muscle. Adding gentle pressure to a rolling pin might be just as effective, without the squish factor.

This random article seems to sum up a lot of what my physiotherapist told me, including this point: “Get your glutes firing again and maintain mindfulness of their proper use while working out.”

 

My knee hurts

I’ve now entered the hallowed phase of marathon training known as “obsessing over possible injury.”

And like most runners flirting this unspeakable affliction, I remained blissfully ignorant the past week, believing the knee pain I felt during the last 6-7 km of my 28.5 km run last weekend would just go away on its own.

I was so wrong.

Yesterday, as I set out on a beautiful afternoon on what should have been a perfect half-marathon long, slow distance, the niggling knee pain I had felt all week flared up with a vengeance.

I was less than 5 km into the run and I felt a tugging around the outside of my right knee. But I am a stubborn person (is there any other way to get through marathon training?) and decided I was going to push through this run with pain or without it.

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The tide was out at Lorneville when I hit my turnaround point.

It was minor at first, and I got through the first half with no major issues. Then, as I gradually got closer to home, I couldn’t make it through each 10 minute running section without a mini walk break. I would stop and stretch, but it almost felt like my leg was throbbing, all the way up to my hip.

With less than 2 km to go, I wanted to pick up speed and just get home. But I couldn’t. It hurt so bad, I stopped to walk and burst out in tears. I felt utter defeat and as the scenarios of this possible injury played out in my head – sitting out next weekend’s 20-miler, and what that would mean for getting through a May 29 marathon.

I got home and flopped on the couch, completely spent. I managed to toss together a protein smoothie, which I shared with my toddler son as he crawled all over my tired body. I felt like a banana peel left out on the highway. When he got frustrated that the thick smoothie wouldn’t suck up the straw, I got him his own spoon and we both gobbed dollops into our mouths.

Eventually I pulled myself together but I was down, and I rarely feel down after a run.

Here is what I realized:

I screwed up. I have not been cross training/strength training enough (or hardly at all). I have excuses, like fitting in the miles is tough enough as a working mom – how do I get to the gym on top of that? But that doesn’t matter, because training for a marathon is a big deal and until now I haven’t felt that gravity.

Here is what else: I need to take some time off running. Maybe a few days, maybe two weeks. I am only one month out from marathon day. So I may not run a 20-miler, which means I’ll have to trust that my 29.5 km long run will get me to the finish line.

And then there’s this: I might not be able to run this marathon at all. (But let’s not even consider this option right now).

For now, I am using ice, anti-inflammatories and the foam roller to massage sore areas. From my initial internet research and talking to friends, I think I have a case of runner’s knee, and likely IT band syndrome.

I have made an appointment with a physiotherapist, which may seem unnecessary but I really want the best advice on how to heal this while still holding on to hope of running 42.2 km in four weeks.