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Run the Mile You're In: The Story of My First Marathon

Run the Mile You’re In: The Story of My First Marathon

Ani Freedman

It’s incredible how by a single step across a finish line, you suddenly become a marathoner. Yes, you had to traverse 26.2 miles to get there; but I distinctly remember thinking at the end of the race that I had been training months for that I was now a marathoner –– a new identity. I can still hear the booming voice of the woman announcing the finishers saying, “You are a marathoner!” as I crossed the finish line.

It's been less than a day since I ran my first marathon through the stunning roads of Acadia National Park. Yesterday when I woke up, I had never run more than 20 miles; today, my legs are sorer than they have ever been, and I have officially conquered what seemed an impossible distance to run.

Race Day

My alarm woke me up at 5:00 a.m. My partner sleeps like a hibernating bear, so he continued snoozing undisturbed as I dragged myself out of bed to begin preparing. With a start time of 8:00 a.m., I gave myself enough time to digest a carb-rich breakfast and hydrate. I sat on the hotel room bed, eating a cold bagel with peanut butter and honey, drinking my electrolytes, playing Wordle, and mentally preparing myself for the unbelievable day ahead of me.

The anxiety that had been building in my body for days remained as I went through the motions of getting dressed, putting my gels in my hydration vest, and doing some resistance band exercises to warm up my muscles. We left the hotel at 7:00 a.m. to park in downtown Bar Harbor and to ensure I had enough time for that all-important pre-race bathroom trip and a substantial warm-up.

Among 1900 participants, 650 were taking on the marathon as the rest ran the half marathon or three-person relay marathon. Bar Harbor is charming and cozy; the energy of a small town coming together for a race is beautiful. Mountaintops that were beginning to be touched by sunlight overlooked the start line on Main Street. I looked around and saw runners of all ages, body types, and experience levels. Green race bibs celebrated first-time marathoners, and I realized I wasn’t alone as I saw many green bibs around me. My family watched me go through my 15-minute warmup behind the finish line. They stayed with me until five minutes before the gun went off, hugging me and wishing me good luck.

Nerves left me nauseous with no appetite before the race. I planned to eat some additional carbs closer to the start time, but all I could manage was some Gatorade. I kept sipping it, knowing I’d need it. I’m glad I did. 

A few minutes before the race, I spoke with an 82-year-old man who had run this marathon before. He seemed excited to race again, this time as part of a relay team, but warned me about the hills that I had been dreading for months.

“It’s not that they’re steep, they’re just very long,” he told me. I asked him about the long climb after mile 20 that I was most worried about. He assured me that it would be hard. He said it was at least two to three miles long—and that was the last thought in my mind before Thunderstruck began blaring over the speakers, the gun went off, and away we went.

We began the shuffle towards the start line as I desperately looked for my boyfriend and my family. My anxiety was through the roof, a feeling that lasted for the first five miles. Once my nerves shed, I immersed myself in the most captivating scenery I could imagine while running.

I didn’t really have much of a pacing strategy going into the race. I knew the pressure of a time goal was an added stressor I didn’t want during my first marathon, coupled with the course’s difficult terrain. I ended up choosing an aspirational number to hit but made sure not to make too much of it. This was my first marathon, after all, so how would I know what pace my body could maintain over a distance I hadn’t run yet?

We cascaded through rolling hills as the sun glimmered between the reds, yellows, and oranges of fall foliage. I could not believe where I was. Just as we reached mile 7, a gradual downhill made way for our first glimpse of the water wrapped around Mount Desert Island. I had been running in silence next to another woman as we paced each other, but for the first time I spoke. “Wow,” I said, looking out at the shimmering water. She stayed silent, eyes forward, and I was brought back into the race after glancing at her.

I felt strong, empowered by the gorgeous scenery and the ups and downs that moved my legs between burning and relief. I repeated over and over again my mantra, Run the mile you’re in, to stay present, mindful, and immersed in Acadia’s beauty.

Remembering the course map, I knew around mile 11 I might have the chance to see my loved ones again. Soon enough, there was my dad. I spotted him immediately from far away. My mom was on my left, shouting louder than I’ve ever heard her before with her phone camera in front of her face. As I passed my dad, I told him I had over 15 miles left and asked if he could run the rest. He started jogging alongside me (he is not a runner, so I appreciated the sentiment). Ahead, I saw the person who could bring out the biggest grin on my face, my boyfriend. He affixed a stuffed bear to his shoulder to make me smile and went into focused photographer mode the second he saw me, with his camera around his neck. I high-fived him as I passed him, revitalized by the sight of my favorite people.

Once I hit the half marathon mark, I threw out my arbitrary time goal, knowing I would not meet it. I honestly didn’t care that much, anyway. As I mentioned, it wasn’t that important to me, and I instead shifted my focus to my more important goals of staying present, having fun, and really soaking in the scenery — I wanted this race to feel like a reminder of why I love running, not one overshadowed by the numbers. You only get one first marathon, and I wanted it to become a memory that provoked a smile, not a wince.

The newfound energy from my family carried me through the halfway point and up and down the rolling hills of the next seven miles before I’d see them again. Every time I started to think about the pain, the fatigue, or the daunting final hill that awaited me, I brought myself back to the present. I looked around as much as I could to soak in the gorgeous views. I was convinced there was no better way to experience this park than running through it with the marathon community.

Around mile 16, I saw a group of people on a boat in Acadia’s waters cheering on runners. By chance, the young woman next to me knew them. The second they saw her, their voices bellowed to cheer her on. I smiled as I saw her grinning, waving, and speeding up with the excitement of seeing her support squad. Not only was the path we were on stunning, but witnessing something as beautiful as that reminded me of how special it is to run a marathon.

Four times along the course, I saw a young boy and his dad with a sign for his mom. It had images of power-ups from Super Mario and said, “Tap for a boost.” I tapped his sign every time I saw him, with a smile and a hope that somehow those magic Mario mushrooms would help me.

As we approached mile 18, I looked around for my family again, knowing there would be another spectator spot. The photos of me at this point are much more painful to look at than the first time they saw me. I saw my dad, this time telling him immediately how much pain I was in. Again, he ran alongside me, knowing how much I was struggling at that point. We ran beside one another in silence up a slight hill, until I spotted my boyfriend and the stuffed bear again. I told him how hard it was as I reached him. I told him I was hurting, and I could tell he felt my pain just at the sight of me. But I couldn’t help but smile around him. I needed that to help push me through the final stretch.

The most painful part of the race came just a few moments after seeing them. My dad’s car drove by and he slowed down next to me, only to taunt me with the question, “Want a ride?”

I was not too cheery when I heard that.

At this point, I was just trying to make it to the bathroom — but not out of urgency. During training, I usually made a bathroom stop on my long runs out of necessity. While racing, I didn’t have that same need; yet, just before mile 19, I went straight for the port-a-potty. I genuinely just wanted a moment to sit down.

As I made my way back into running, I saw so many families and strangers cheering on people as we neared the final 10k of the race. A man that saw my first marathon bib told me I looked strong for my first time, making me smile through the pain. A moment later, a man in front of me ran straight towards his wife holding their baby to greet his family. I saw this so many times when I witnessed the NYC Marathon last year — people sacrificed time to have a special moment with their biggest supporters as they struggled and celebrated running a marathon. 

At this point, I was just waiting for the dreaded final climb to begin. In my mind were pictures of the course I studied, the words of my coach telling me, “Do whatever you need to do to get up that hill,” and my exhausted mind trying to console my tired body with the thought that it was almost over.

The final climb was torture. It wasn’t just one long climb; it was a series of long, gradual climbs with small dips on a stretch of highway completely bathed in sunlight. Even with cool temperatures, being in the sun can feel hot after already having run 20 miles. The climb was relentless. I told myself if I needed to walk, I could—but I knew the second I started walking, my legs were not going to start running again. So, I kept running.

Throughout the race, I adhered to my fueling plan in preparation for this climb. I had alerts set up on my watch reminding me to sip every ten minutes and have a gel every 25-30 minutes. Those gels were the last thing I wanted as my stomach turned from jostling around and race nerves, I wanted to set myself up for the best race experience I could have and ensure I never hit the wall, or bonk from depleted glycogen stores. I’m proud of how I continued to sip on electrolytes, chew salt tabs, and consume all the gels I planned on, despite feeling like I couldn’t stomach it.

After seeing the water left in my vest, I know I didn’t drink enough during the race, but overall my fueling served me well. During the dreaded climb, when my watch alert told me to take my final gel, I truly did not want to. I winced at the thought of the sweet taste of the gel. But I knew that gel was going to carry me up those hills and to the finish line.

If I didn’t keep fueling, I don’t think I would have made it up that climb.

My pace slowed to a trot around miles 23 and 24. I was hurting. I conjured thoughts of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the relentless 8-hour climb to the summit after six days of climbing through the thinnest air I’ve experienced. I couldn’t compare the pain, though. Kilimanjaro took every ounce of my mental and physical stamina, but not once did I experience the pain inflicted on my legs during this marathon. All I could tell myself was at least I wasn’t breathing the oxygen-depleted air at 19,000ft.

Do whatever you need to do to get up this hill. I repeated that to myself. I told myself just to make it to the next mile. Just get to 21. Get to 22. Make it to 24. I clung onto my mantra again: Run the mile you’re in.

From mile 25 on, it was all downhill — in the good way. A group of kids stood behind a sign that reassured us all, “It’s all downhill from here!” I told myself to let the hill carry me to the finish. Knowing I was so close, knowing the climbing was done, I found the will to speed up. The quicker I ran, the quicker it would be over.

My final mile was my fastest of all 26.2. The downhill helped quite a bit, but by the end I was sprinting. With the finish line in sight, I gave it all I had, glancing around for my family. Straight ahead, there they were. Behind the banner, I saw my boyfriend and dad behind their cameras, cheering me on. It took everything in me, but I ran as fast as I could on legs that had gone numb from pain. As I crossed the finish line, I heard it. “You are a marathoner!”

I collapsed into my boyfriend’s arms the second it was over. I completely blew past the young boy trying to give me my medal. He put it around my neck. I had done it. I was a marathoner.

Why I Wanted to Be a Marathoner

To fully understand how I made it to the starting line, I want to jump back a bit. When I registered for the Mount Desert Island Marathon back in February, I was excited. I loved the thought of a new challenge after having been so inspired by the runners I watched in-person at the New York City Marathon last year. I had written off the marathon until that moment as an insane goal and I would be sticking to half marathons only. That all changed as I saw the beauty of how runners, non-runners, friends, family, and strangers came together on 1st Avenue in Manhattan to support everyone who flooded the streets from early morning until early evening on one of the warmest, most humid race days. I was overcome with the emotion of how hard these people worked and their perseverance through pain. I wanted to be a part of something as powerful as that, something bigger than myself.

The biggest choice I made before I began training to set myself up for a successful, injury-free training bloc was to hire a running coach. In March of this year, I had fallen into a pit of burnout while training for a half marathon — I wasn’t enjoying my runs anymore, I was constantly exhausted, and the worst of all I got injured. I had to take a couple weeks off running and drop out of the race, which ended up being a huge mental relief. I didn’t take time to consider how much I was putting my body through by upping my mileage, strength training, and trying to finish my Master’s thesis all at once. I then decided: If I was going to run a marathon, I needed to do it right.

That’s where my coach, Kelly, came into the picture. We talked about what had happened during my last training cycle, and throughout the many months we’ve been working together, she consistently checked in on me to make sure I didn’t burn out again. I didn’t, and thankfully I went into my marathon healthy, strong, and hopeful.

I was excited at the prospect of running through Acadia at the prettiest time of year — until I looked at the course profile, after I had already registered. I unknowingly signed myself up for 1600-ft of elevation gain across 26.2 miles, with a brutal climb spread across miles 21 to 25.

My confidence was revitalized after I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the hardest thing I could ever imagine doing. If I could persist through thin air and stand atop a mountain over 19,000ft tall, I knew I could do this. That message, the mental toughness I’ve built since then, and the support of my loved ones and my coach, carried me through the race and pain that was entirely different from anything I’ve experienced.

Three Days Before

I recently wrote about the all-important weeks leading up to race day. As the days counted down, my anxiety was through the roof. I was panicking about being able to conquer the distance and push the pace, fears battled by logical thinking telling me that pace and time shouldn’t matter for my first marathon, especially a race where I knew many hills would fatigue me. I knew I was capable; I knew I could make it to 26.2; it was the uncertainty of what could go wrong over a long race that left me on edge for days.

If anyone has carb-loaded before, they will know how fun it can be — for about a day. I had a goal of hitting roughly 440-660g of carbs per day from low-fiber foods for three days before the race. This meant most of my calories had to be from carbs like bagels, pretzels, oatmeal, white rice, cereal, pasta, and bread. I also prioritized hydration, having electrolytes daily and supplementing my carb intake with tart cherry juice.

My diet drastically changed to be extra careful as to not have GI issues during the race. I went from a high-fiber diet packed with legumes, nuts, fruits, and veggies to almost none of those things. I really milked it the first day—adding honey and banana to my oats, a bagel sandwich with pretzels, and a big dinner of naan bread, tikka masala, and rice (with snacks throughout the day too). After that, I was sick of carbs. I craved the veggies I was missing out on. But I knew it was necessary to ensure my glycogen stores were adequately supplied and I wouldn’t bonk on race day.

Since this was the end of my taper, rest was a top priority. With just some easy runs and strides, I focused on mobility, light walking, and trying to keep stress low. I know I’m not alone in the running community with this sentiment, but rest can be difficult. We are so used to pushing our limits and trying to maintain as high of a level of fitness as we can, that resting feels counterproductive, even though logically it is what helps us get fitter by letting our muscles make those necessary adaptations to training.

Mentally, I was kind of a mess during these days, making de-stressing a bit difficult. I struggle with anxiety which was at its peak during this time. Every little thought about the race made my stomach turn and my mind panic. A marathon is a long time to be running, no matter how fast you are. I understood my anxiety was rooted in the uncertainty of it — of what could potentially go wrong over the course of those 26.2 miles.

While I confronted the unknown of running a marathon for the first time, I tried to mentally prepare myself for what could go wrong and how I would handle it. Because of how intense my anxiety was, I did as much planning as possible — what gels I would take at what time stamp, how many carbs and electrolytes I would intake, my wake-up time, my pre-race breakfast, down to what I’d wear on race day. If something happened out of my control, I wanted to be in control of as many other factors as I could.

These talks with myself were crucial. I thought about what I’d do if I needed a bathroom break, if I experienced extreme fatigue, or if I felt unsafe to go on from injury or something else. I took these few days to reassure my mind that I’ve done the training, my body is ready, and whatever happens it will be okay — regardless of how long it takes me to get it done, or even if I need to make the toughest decision to pull out of the race at any point for my own safety. I couldn’t melt away my anxiety, but I stayed mindful of my fears enough to feel that I could handle whatever uncertainty was thrown my way, especially with the incredible support system I have.

Post-Race: What I Learned, Recovering, and Celebrating the Race

After I crossed the finish line, I was hobbling around like a baby deer for a few days from the soreness. My legs were in unbelievable pain the second I stopped running. If it wasn’t for my partner holding me up, I don’t think I would have made it back to the car.

I knew that I needed to eat immediately after the race to kickstart the recovery process on the right foot. The problem was, I had no appetite, as many other runners don’t after long runs or races. I could barely get down any of my gels during the race, let alone think about what to eat afterwards. They handed out bagels to finishers, but after the amount of bagels I consumed during my carb load, that was the last thing I wanted. The only thing I managed to get down were some Goldfish we had in the car. I knew better, but I figured something was better than nothing.

Later in the day, I felt nauseous at lunch, only able to finish half my meal even with the sensation that my stomach was completely empty. That become lesson #1: have a plan for post-race nutrition, because I’m certain that hindered my recovery.

In the days following the race, I made sure to go on plenty of walks, as difficult as it was to move my legs, because I needed to get the blood flowing to help alleviate soreness. It was hard, but it helped.

Life got in the way starting the day after the race; family emergencies arose and suddenly the marathon faded into the background as I prioritized my family and what we were going through. Stress flooded back into my body just as I was thinking I could be stress-free, carefree, and relaxed without the pressure and exhaustion of marathon training. What was happening with my family was out of my control, but I wish I handled it better, leading to my next lesson: focusing so much on that stress impacted my sleep, how tense I felt, and how I recovered from the marathon.

I’ve heard from run coaches that it takes the body three weeks to fully recover from a marathon. In my first week, my recovery was off to a rocky start. But that’s how life works. In one moment, you’re crossing the finish line, achieving something that less than 1% of people have done; in the next, it can feel like your world is crumbling down as you receive devastating news on the other end of a phone call.

I felt selfish for wanting to celebrate my first marathon. I had just spent months talking about it non-stop, dedicating so much of my time and energy to training, and putting it high on my priority list that any more time I spent relishing in it felt wrong. It was my boyfriend who brought me back to acknowledging my accomplishment. He made it a priority to celebrate the fact that I ran a marathon. He out of everyone had witnessed firsthand just how much time and effort I put into this training: the early Sunday mornings, the ravenous hunger, the soreness and never-ending exhaustion, the stress over fitting my workouts in, and the absolute pain of training through a brutally hot summer. He recognized my hard work and was proud of me.

That has been the most rewarding part of this all—to feel like I have made the people I love most proud. In some ways, that might be the most valuable lesson: celebrate the achievement of running the marathon, no matter what.

Now that I have more time, energy, and freedom to explore other forms of movement (and to simply rest), it’s time to give back to the people who sacrificed from their own time to help me realize this goal. Marathon training is time consuming and self-serving, there’s no denying that. I’ve heard others acknowledge, some who aren’t even runners, that marathon training is like a second job. But once that training is over and we’ve appropriately appreciated our accomplishments, the most important thing to acknowledge is the people who helped you dedicate yourself to that training. They deserve the extra support that they gave you when you needed it.

No first marathon is ever perfect. I prepared as much as I could — a fueling strategy, visualization, mental preparation, carb loading, and of course the months of training that got me to the end. I know I still have so much to learn, so much to gain, and so much to understand about my mind and my body. Racing is a skill no matter the distance, and I hope to learn how to race over the beastly 26.2 miles of a marathon. With recovery on my mind for the time being, I’m still excited for all the races yet to come. But for now, I simply want to continue savoring the fact that I am a marathoner.

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