Gail Martin recently ran 5 marathons in 5 days-all under 5 hours. This is her story.
Countless jaws dropped whenever I shared of the challenge I was about to take on: The New England Challenge, running 5 marathons in 5 states in 5 days. I’d get the common mixed-bag description of amazing, crazy, and inspiring. I’d get questions like, “How is that possible?” “How do you do it?” “Why would you do it?” “What do you think about over all that time?” My answers tended to be: “It wouldn’t be a challenge if it wasn’t difficult.” “I won’t know how it’s possible until I’ve done it.” “I think about lots of things, I think about nothing. I listen to my body, and tend to my needs. I think about our ancestors who lived under far more difficult conditions than we do, and I take the challenge partly in their honor. I think of those who can’t run, and those who want to run. I think about nature-my nature, Mother Nature.”
Recently, I shared with one of my yoga classes that I’ve been doing endurance training and running for over 30 years. Since the time I signed up for the challenge (back in July 2015 to get the earlybird rates), I had already gained much insight. About a month to the date of the challenge, I was starting to feel an equal combination of excitement and dread. What did I sign up for? Can I do this? Oddly though, I did not feel any anxiety around it. I’ve done enough of these things over the years that I am relatively calm beforehand. But as this challenge was approaching and I could feel the clarity of those two opposing feelings, I realized that in the past anxiety and fear of the unknown shrouded many of the more basic feelings. That anxiety and fear never kept me from showing up, starting, and finishing many events over the past three decades, but it was quite different to come to an age and experience to feel calm, and being able to note the excitement-dread combo looming.
We fear the unknown. And for me, a highly sensitive person or HSP, I fear the “known” but unconfirmed, sometimes waiting for the other shoe to drop. Running has been my solace since I was nineteen, and it continues to be my main go-to activity to best ground my energy. I’ve been doing yoga regularly since 2001, and started teaching it in 2006, and although yoga offers many other benefits that help keep me running and I love it as well, it’s the the foot travel-or movement meditation-that gives me the greatest benefits of centering, calming, clarifying.
I had done back-to-back marathons once before, so I had no issue with the first two days of this challenge. I’d “been there, done that,” and essentially knew what to expect solely because I’d experienced it before. It was day three, four, and five that posed a mystery to me. Figuring I fared well at the back-to-back, and that I had completed a 100-miler in just under 28 hours in October 2014, I thought the first four days would be manageable. Bottom line is that the third day began the unchartered territory when it came to stacking marathons, but not when it came to miles. Day five posed the most unchartered territory in that it was a 5th marathon in five days, and after having run 105 miles. Maybe this was the dread? Or the success/failure scenario? Or was it just the unknown? My assessment, it’s the latter.
Along with being a runner for 32 years, I’ve been a massage therapist since 1992. With that, and yoga, and all the running experiences I’ve had, I certainly entered this challenge with lots of know-how. That might be why I can stand with confidence-even bearing the excitement-dread emotions-because I’ve done enough in my life to know how…even when there’s stuff that’s unknown. Maybe this is the wisdom that we are promised once we reach a certain ripe age!
When it comes to marathons, I no longer get pre-race jitters, and I usually sleep soundly the night before. But when I don’t sleep soundly, I don’t fret. I’ve learned that it’s best to just be horizontal and enjoy the rest than it is to stress over not sleeping. The night before the challenge turned out to be a rather sleepless night. It wasn’t a complete wash, because I found myself waking up at midnight, so all was not lost. We had a 3am wake-up call, all the events began at 6am. That morning, we went through our typical pre-race habits: shower, coffee, light breakfast.
The first event was in Portland, Maine. My husband, Dave, and I arrived at Back Cove, and we met up with our friend, Michelle (who had run the Sugarloaf marathon the day before), in the parking lot. We were all cold, and not that excited about this run. The temps that day began in the 30’s with strong winds that picked up as the sun and temps rose to the low 40’s. I opted to run with a windbreaker over my run gear, and it turned out I kept it for the entire run. The course was repeat loops around the park, which meant at least half of each loop we were running straight into the strong winds. Lesson here: A gentle breeze is welcome, but wind blows! Dave and I started and finished this run together in 4:28:06. Michelle was feeling the previous marathon take it’s toll, and was thinking about dropping halfway. But then she got a renewed sense of energy, and with a rap on our car window, let us know she was going to wrap the whole thing up with one more lap. We were so happy for her to get this done!
We typically get a cup of coffee post-race, and that day, I had a hard time getting it down. We weren’t allowed a late check-out at the host hotel, so Michelle kindly offered a shower and hot tub at her hotel, which gave her a generous extended check-out. After we were all revived from our wind-blown run, we dined on omelets at the Egg and I. Once we refueled, we got into our cars to head to our next race venue in Nashua, NH. Once again, Michelle had a different hotel, but the one we checked into allowed us a late check-out the next day. Our hotel also had a hot tub, so once we got settled, we took advantage of it to help with recovery. For dinner, we met Michelle at The Portland Pie Co (same place we dined in Portland, only in my opinion, the Portland one had better food, Nashua had better service) for pizza pies for dinner. We ate the whooooole thing!
Once we returned to prepare for race two, I took an Epsom salts bath, stretched, massaged, rolled out my muscles, and went to bed. I zonked out cold for about three hours, and then I went back into the sleepless pattern for the rest of the night-and this 3 hour solid/3 hour light sleep became the remaining pattern for the rest of the week. I took advantage of the light sleep hours, though. When I awoke, I’d stretch my hips, hamstrings, quads, calves. Doing this several times over the last three hours alloted for sleep paid off. When it was time to get up (I’d often be up before the alarm, even though 3am is way off my normal rise time), I would begin the morning with another Epsom salts bath (the pattern became 3 soaks: one late afternoon, one before bed, one upon rising), then stretching. We had our typical breakfast routine.
We arrived at Mines Falls Park at 5:15am, and met Michelle again in the parking lot. This was our day 2, her day 3. She wasn’t feeling well, and not sure what the day would bring. This course was mostly trail. Very runnable, beautiful trails. When the race started, I began with about a 10-minute mile, and didn’t feel too bad. The more the miles came, the more my body loosened up. And although the feeling I had today was familiar because I had done a back-to-back before, I was thinking of experience a runner friend, Steve Walters, had recently shared about running four in a row: “Each day you’ll feel it at the beginning, but once you get going, your body knows what to do.” And I can now say from experience that Steve has this right!
We were given beautiful days to run for days two, three, four, and five. I’m sure this factor has a lot to do with the joy and success of running long distances like this day after day. The cool smell of the earth, the sights of the squirrels, chipmunks, and sounds of birds made running these trails a heavenly day. I ran for a bit with two similarly paced runners named Rhonda and Bill, getting to know enough about each other then to establish new friendships. Lesson here: I do these things to meet like-minded people!
It was almost a year since I had signed up for the New England Challenge. “No time limit” was one of their selling points. As the months rolled on, new challenges appeared, changing strategies, and fitness training plans. Somewhere along the line, I decided I wanted to see if I could do four of these marathons in under five hours. On top of the challenge to complete five marathons in a row, I’ve now added a time goal. However in New Hampshire, we were running trails, which is always slower running than on roads. I wasn’t sure if I could sub-five that day, let alone the next two. I found myself resigning to the fact that the four sub-5 marathons might not happen, but just to do five marathons in a row was enough of a feat. I was quite a bit slower in NH than I was in ME. My finish time was 4:45:29. Still sub-5, so all was not lost.
When Michelle (yes! She ran the whole way and finished AGAIN!), and Dave finished, we took time for photo ops (as we had also done in Maine, but I forgot to mention-another post-race ritual)-and then we went back to our respective hotels to shower, and headed home. Ahhh. Yes. Home. After running on day two, we planned to stay at home. Day three was in Warwick, RI, and the tradeoff for a free night stay, home cooked food, snuggling up with our kitty, getting laundry done, and having a massage by my LMT in my home office, was an earlier rise on Wednesday morning, and about a 35-40-minute longer pre-race ride. Can’t really argue with that planning.
The 2:30am rise wasn’t difficult, but for me, morning refuel was. I had no appetite. Two bites of oatmeal, no desire for coffee (that ceased after my post-race coffee in Maine), a bite of banana was all I could take in. I wasn’t going to force it-just figured I’d fuel as much as necessary during the run. We arrived at Warwick State Park, and having been there before we knew it was confusing, and it still was! Runners were driving around trying to figure out where the race start was. At least we were in an area that had ample porta potties, and ample opportunity to take advantage of them before we were guided to where we needed to be.
When we got out of the car, Dave’s knee was bothering him. It was painful to walk, let alone run. You never know if it’s real injury, or one of those kinks you can work out. Unfortunately the first part of this course was the hilliest (never repeated this direction again), so when Dave attempted to start, he was testing his knee with lots of work, and lots of impact. It didn’t work out, so Dave had to make the valor decision to bow out. I did not know of his plight until I finished the first full 2.7 mile loop. And more to summarize than to minimize, as disappointing and discouraging as this was, Dave picked right up and stayed actively supportive of my continuing mile after mile after mile. He is my rockstar support team! I finished that day in 4:38:26, and got to see some local runner friends at both the start and finish line.
From RI, we drove to Hartford, CT. Since our one disappointment with the no late check-out in Portland, we were granted one at all the other venues which was a relief to know I’d get post-race revival sooner than later. After showering, we found a place for omelets and home fries. Eggs were my go-to post-race fare, but immediately post-race I drank a bottle of Hammer Recoverite. We found a nice place for gluten free pasta, but I was finding my appetite was smaller and blander than usual. You just go with it, baby! Did my epsoms salts bath/stretch routine, along with the 3 hours crash, followed by light sleep-and-stretch. My 3am appetite was still pathetic, so I took to drinking more caloric beverages than usual. Coconut water instead of water, juice, anything just to supply a few calories to get me going. And with no desire for coffee, I wasn’t getting my morning jolt…until I was on the course, taking caffeinated gels, or the swigs of Coke that Dave would generously supply me with.
The course in CT was around a golf course. The first 1/4 mile was a little hairy, running along traffic (yikes) on a narrow shoulder. This means even hairier when passing two abreast. Somehow, it seems worse though, before the race gets going. Once you get started, you don’t even think about it. The first part of the loop was fast, the second part, gradual uphill. This is day FOUR!! And, to date, I have run three sub-5 marathons on this journey. Will I run a fourth? I ran the first loop to assess it. Each day began with a pretty solid 10-minute mile. The next lap(s) I found landmarks for walk breaks. I couldn’t wait to get to that first patch of crabgrass!! (That was my mark for first walk break). As the miles wore on, the hills were wearing on me. My walk breaks were getting longer, and slower. In the end, I finished in 4:47:45…FOUR SUB-5s!! WOO HOOO!!
I was a little dopey post-race and was getting caught up in the social and photo ops, when Dave reminded me we were using up time to get to the hotel for that shower before check out. After the shower, I did a brief stretch, and then we headed out for our last venue, Westfield, MA. We had about a 45-minute ride, checked in, and then found THE BEST place in MA ever for omelets called, The Good Table. I had a Greek omelet, hash browns, and sliced watermelon. Delicious! We returned to the hotel, I rested a bit, and then took an epsoms salts bath, and stretched. Michelle wanted in on more fun, so she signed up for the Old Colony Marathon, returned that night to Springfield, and we met her for dinner at Carrabbas. What can be better than friends, food, and running?
Friday posed the biggest challenge of all. I’d already run a total of 105 miles over 4 days in a row, achieved my goal to run them all under 5 hours. That mileage total is more suited for my monthly training, let alone over 4 days. And yes, I had run a 100-miler in just over a day, but now I had surpassed that with 105 miles. And, I was tired. My body was doing OK, but I’d been pushing through less sleep, less eats, and there I was standing at the start of day 5. Can’t say I was feeling fully confident, however I knew that it was just another run, another step after step after step, for a few more hours of another gorgeous day, and I’d be done. When the race went off, I still began with a solid 10-min mile. I had to fuel more. I needed more caffeine. But I ran, and I listened to my body, my mind, my spirit. Taking quiet when I needed, helping others when I could. I sent prayers to those who needed lifting, and thought of those with far greater challenges than the one I was doing.
I ran an early loop thinking, “We really do make a big deal out of things.” I’m just running. It’s not that big a deal. I’m a distance runner…if I was a sprinter, the miles I was logging would be a big deal. But I’m trained. I know what I’m doing. What was there to dread? I was just running, and I LOVE TO RUN!! So maybe now, after all those days, all those miles, the next time I sign up for a challenge, I can eliminate the dread, and just be filled with excitement! As I was heading out for my last loop, Dave was encouraging me, saying that I was going to get another sub-5…and I did! 4:46:45.
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