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Kristin Gerlach, a Physical therapist in the Twin Cities, finishing her first marathon in 1991.

My First Marathon was a Complete Disaster!

I wasn’t a cross-country runner in high school and I went out for track my senior year only because my friend wanted someone to join the team with her. I wasn’t very good at anything, so the coaches competed me wherever they were short, even if I hadn’t practiced or trained for that event. Which is how I ended up throwing the discus at a varsity meet in St. Cloud. I got disoriented during the wind up spin and threw the discus backwards into the cage sending everyone in the area into hilarious laughter!

It was surprising even to me that I started running on my own during my freshman year in college. By the summer after my sophomore year I was running 5 or 6 miles every day. Heidi and Heather were two of my high school friends who had been at the infamous track meet when I threw the discus into the cage. They were identical twins and had run a marathon with their dad. Somehow they convinced me that I could finish one too, especially when we found out that the Twin Cities Marathon that year would fall on my 21st birthday. Marathon day was a Sunday–I wouldn’t be able to go to a bar, so why not run a marathon? I paid my $25 entry, made jokes about paying $1 per mile to run on my birthday, and increased my training.

Marathon Training in the Analog Age

Kristen Gerlach's copy of Galloway's Book on Running
Galloway’s Book on Running (1984 edition)

This was in the early 1990’s and there was no internet to turn to for advice on marathon training or anything else. Heidi and Heather recommended “Galloway’s Book on Running” by Jeff Galloway. His book became my bible. This was prior to the evolution of the Galloway Run/Walk Method. Jeff prescribed running and lots of it. The longest long run was 26 miles! Jeff even justified his recommendation in the book: “To run a marathon you need to run 26 continuous miles. The body is best prepared to do this by gradually increasing the long run to 26 miles, and preferably more.”

I faithfully followed the advice in the book, except I don’t know if I actually ran 26 miles in training because no one had a GPS back then either. I ran for hours on the sidewalks and streets of my hometown that summer and back at college that fall, stopping every so often at a gas station for water. But only water, because that was what Jeff recommended. My longest run was north of 4 hours in length and I figured it had to be close to the assigned distance.

Shortly after that run, the outside of my knee began to hurt. This was before I was in physical therapy school so I had no idea what was wrong or what to do about it. After consulting Jeff’s book, I suspected an issue with my IT band. The twins told me it was ok because you weren’t supposed to run very much the week before a marathon anyway. I was so naive, I didn’t even know about the marathon taper!

Marathon day itself dawned brisk and cold.

I remember layering an extra-long, extra-large long-sleeve cotton t-shirt over the cotton shirt I had already planned to wear. Tech running fabrics existed because I had a pair of black running tights, but I hadn’t invested in a shirt. My mom drove me to the start in downtown Minneapolis and she realized I didn’t have a watch. Would I like to wear her dress watch so I would know what time it was? Not so I would know what pace I was running, but so I could look and think “It’s 10 o’clock and all is well”.

Except by the time 10 o’clock rolled around all was not well. My knee started hurting around 6 miles and was throbbing by 12. Heidi and Heather and their dad had left me far behind. My parents were waiting at mile 17 and had recruited the big crowd there to sing “Happy Birthday” as I approached. By then I was in so much pain and so frustrated—I had trained so hard for this! This wasn’t how it was supposed to go!–that I burst out crying as soon as I saw them. I can still hear the chorus of voices slowly dying away into hushed murmurs of concern.

My parents wanted me to stop and me, being stubborn, refused. “I am going to walk to the finish!” Although even that was painful, I somehow made it onto Summit Avenue and mile 22 where my parents again tried to dissuade me from finishing. By then I was so cold and my knee hurt so much that everything was numb, which allowed me to slowly start running again with an excruciating peg-legged gait.

Kristin Gerlach, a Physical therapist in the Twin Cities, finishing her first marathon in 1991.
Me with my 1991 Twin Cities Marathon finisher shirt—I was disappointed they were out of size XL because I wanted it to fit like my race outfit.

By the time I reached the finish line in 5:09:41, it was almost deserted. I was the 4900th finisher out of 5076, as back then far fewer people came in over 4 hours, let alone 5. The Twin Cities Marathon has always given out its race shirts at the finish line and they were almost out. Only size small was left for me. I could have worn it, but I never did. This was the early 90’s and we only wore giant t-shirts over our biking shorts (a trend that unbelievably has come back!)

After the race, my parents told me I should never try running a marathon again. My knee was sore for months and I finally did see a doctor who diagnosed IT Band syndrome and told me to stretch and gave me super rigid orthotics for my shoes. My knee finally got better, although not from the stretching or those hard plastic inserts.

Kristin Gerlach, a Physical therapist in the Twin Cities, is presented with a birthday cake. at her home. She is icing her knee.
Post-race birthday cake presented by my dad (Note the bag of ice on my right knee)
I eventually found my way back to the marathon (48 more times and counting) and my parents even came back to cheer me on, later joined by my husband and our kids. Kudos also to Heidi and Heather and to Jeff Galloway and his book for giving me that original inspiration. The book was written in 1984 and while much of the advice is now outdated, what does stick with me is Jeff’s confidence that anyone could run a marathon, even a high school track wash-out like me!
Kristin Gerlach, a Physical therapist in the Twin Cities, finishing Twin Cities marathon current day.
Getting my first Boston Qualifier at the Twin Cities Marathon, almost 17 years later

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