Work takes me regularly through the Des Moines airport. On a recent trip I’d dropped off my rental and made my way down the corridor from baggage toward security with exactly one other person. (I love our eensy-weensy teeny-tiny airport.) Speed-walking to beat the massive lines, this one other person, an older gentleman, bald with an intense sort of Rex Kwon Do voice, turned to me and said, “You look like a runner.”

Well, yes, I happen to be a runner.”

He went on to share some of his current training and past accolades. I smiled and nodded. And smiled some more at his karate chop gestures. I told him to keep up the good work, and that was pretty much the extent to our conversation. But this stirred two thoughts that often cycle through my head. First, I thought: Really? A runner? I don’t really look like a runner. Cage fighter, maybe. This is actually a thought that I actually have like a recurring dream. It always makes me chuckle which perpetuates the thought, I’m sure.

The second thought is how much I love chatting about running or, as with Mr. Airport, listening to people chat about their running. Whether I’m pegged as one or not, being a runner has made for some of the most memorable experiences of my life. So if you would, I’d like to introduce to you my relationship with the marathon and specifically the IMT Des Moines Marathon.

I have to go back a ways. After a mildly successful high school running career, I’d gone off to college with no intention of running competitively. Once I got to Iowa State University, however, I quickly missed racing. So someone suggested I should walk on to the cross country team. I thought about it. Then out for a run past Jack Trice one day I got up the courage. I stopped and marched myself (literally marched my socially awkward self) up to the coaching suite. I managed to find the head coach, introduce myself, and that was it. I was on the team for a few seasons. But collegiate running, for me at least, was not one of the more memorable running periods. Riddled with injuries, I decided—as you naturally would—to hang up my spikes and pick up marathoning.  

My first go was Chicago. I was a junior at Iowa State and soft from a long layoff from running due to a back injury—the first in a long string of back episodes. The injury was not from running because running is not inherently dangerous. This, of all things, was from inadvertently hitting a jump on a snow tube while going out-of-control bonkers-fast down an icy hill behind the Ames Ice Arena. That was the winter before and by late spring, I’d made up my mind to train.

But, I had no clue how.

Without a clue or a plan, I signed up and started to “train.” I didn’t keep any sort of log or record any mileage. I had no idea about pacing. My long runs were laughable; I never ran more than 13 miles in the buildup, figuring half the distance was good. I never ate or drank anything during any run at all, but hey, you really don’t need electrolytes or fluids or calories if you never run more than 13 miles!

With zero expectations and novice confidence, I went into that October weekend feeling pretty pumped. Meandering around the expo the day before, I passed the pacing table where you could grab a pace group goal time bib to wear on your back—an effort to sort of blob up pace groups, I suppose. My cousin and host who was living in downtown Chicago at the time grabbed the 3:40 bib, handed it to me and said, “That’s what you need to qualify for the Boston Marathon.”

Yeah right!” I laughed.

That was the first time that I learned that qualifying for Boston was a Thing.

And so woke the competitive dragon the evening before my first marathon.

The next day I ran farther than 13 miles for the first time. Ate my first ever gel handed to me at the mile 18 aid station and chased it with water, the only hydration I had the entire race. Defied near-muscle failure in my calf muscles at mile 23—a very common symptom of low mileage training. Ultimately, I finished my first marathon in 3:46. Pathetic training and all, I was five minutes and one second from a BQ because way back then 3:40:59 qualified females of my age group for Boston.

I’ve run over 15 marathons and a few ultras since that first Chicago: one Olympic Trials, one Boston, one Pike’s Peak, and many, many others. A few I’ve repeated, but the race that I’ve run the most is Des Moines, four times the marathon and twice the half. Here, home as it feels, I’ve made some of my biggest leaps in performance and formed some sweet racing memories.

Photo Credit: Jon Duke

When I was approached with the opportunity to partner with the IMT Des Moines Marathon and share a blog series, I thought immediately of my friend from college who had encouraged me to tackle my first marathon back in 2001. She ran her first marathon in Iceland past glaciers and stuff—how cool is that? She also served on the planning committee to start the first Des Moines Marathon in 2002. I’d always admired how she helped to start a brand new marathon while being a very busy college student. I imagine she would have been the only young 20-something on the board.

Almost 20 years later I see this as my opportunity to join the “committee” and help you improve your race experience. So over the next several months I plan to contribute some more stories and true training tips. Thus far I’ve only told you what not to do. While I don’t have running all figured out, I have improved. Trust me, it did take actual training to run my best marathon which was over an hour faster than my first.

In return for my committee work, I’ll be giving away six race entries. So go find me @susiedukeruns on Instagram. If you have running questions that you’d like to chat about, shoot me a comment over there. Feel free to ask me anything. Like, “Do you think a cage fighter could be a good marathon runner?” (Asking for a friend.)

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