September 11, 2020

My Experience Running Marathons in My 40s


As a kid, I never ran unless I was forced to.  Later in life, I discovered that I had exercise induced asthma, and that’s probably why.  But, despite my asthma and at the age of 40, I decided to run 42 kilometers for the 40 years I had been on this earth.  It’s a challenge I will never forget.

In this post, I’m going to share some of the experiences I had during and around the marathons I’ve run, including: Detroit Marathon, Chicago Marathon, New York More Marathon, Montreal Marathon, Austin Marathon, San Francisco Marathon, and Tucson Marathon.

Detroit Marathon, October 5, 2003

The night before the marathon, Rory (my husband) and I walked the streets of Detroit and happened to come across a barber shop.  Since Rory needed a haircut, we decided to go in and walked into what would be a great movie scene…

Not one person in the barber shop was white except Rory and I.  Football was playing on the big screen TV and a woman was giving a rotund black man a manicure while he was sitting on a big sofa.  As Rory was getting his hair cut, people were constantly coming into the barber shop and going downstairs to the basement.  Curious, Rory asked what was down there and was told that it was a shoe store.  However, strangely enough, no one ever came up with a box or a bag…

The next morning, I was nervous, excited, and scared before the race.  As I waited at the starting line with approximately 3,000 other runners on that cold, crisp morning, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the finish line within 6 hours and 30 minutes, which was the deadline to finish the race.  Equally, however, I had a flame inside me; I was determined to run through the finish line.

My first challenge would be to cross the 2.3 km Ambassador Bridge before the cut off time of 9:00 AM.  Because of the time and where I stood to start the race, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it.  But, after putting in my best effort, I did manage to make it over the bridge on time.  I felt relieved that I was able to meet my first challenge of many to come.

In this marathon, we were running from Detroit to Windsor and back to Detroit.  While running through the neighbourhoods en route, the crowds were very cheerful, giving us high fives and candies.  At one point, I saw Rory in the crowd and told him I was hungry.  In those days, I didn’t know about energy gels, so he got me a banana and a chocolate bar.

Later on in the race, I got lost and Rory helped me find my way back.  He told me that he went to a tent where they were able to find me because of the chip in my race bib.  I’m so lucky to have such a supportive husband!  I couldn’t have finished the race without him!

Further along, I saw Rory at another point with a cardboard sign that said, “Hot Johanne.”  That was the nickname my young next-door neighbours apparently gave me and called me when I wasn’t around.  Rory had gone to a convenience store and told them what he wanted to make and they gladly provided the cardboard and paint.

Being a rookie who was not well-versed in how to prepare for a marathon, I had no idea what my choices would do to me.  As an example, I quickly learned that bouncing on the pavement can mess with your stomach and it caused me frequent urgent trips to the porta-potty.  Another problem that I encountered was horrible chafing under my arms and between my thighs due to friction.  And I could not have predicted what seams in socks would do to my feet after 42 km of running.  Thankfully, however, I chose Detroit as my first marathon because it was supposed to be relatively flat.  So, at least I had enough foresight in one area and didn’t have to struggle through hills while dealing with all of those problems.  In any case, I learned many lessons and knew to perfect my kit for future races to avoid as much discomfort as possible.

In the end, I made it to the finish line of the Detroit Marathon just before the cut off time at 6 hours and 19 minutes.  Yes, that’s right: I only had 11 minutes to spare, but I did it!  I was even seen on the jumbotron at Ford Field, where the NFL’s Detroit Lions play!  Needless to say, I was pretty happy with myself.

Once the race was over, I was spent.  All I wanted was a bath and something to eat.  We ordered room service and I stayed in the bathtub until it got cold.  Then, I transferred to the bed and stayed there until it was time to drive back home the next day.  Even though I was dead tired, it felt amazing to have completed my first marathon!

Chicago Marathon, October 10, 2004

When we arrived in Chicago the day before the event, we went to pick up my race kit.  After waiting in line for our turn to be served, the staff member greeted us and began speaking with my husband, assuming that he was the runner.  Now, in all fairness, if you saw Rory’s build, you probably would have assumed the same.  But, little did I know at the time, this would happen at the check-in for practically all of my future marathons.  I guess it’s one of the perks of being a 40 year-old woman running marathons!

With 30,000 participants, the Chicago Marathon was by far the biggest marathon I’ve participated in.  Cutting right to the result, I improved my time by 19 minutes and was proud to finish at almost exactly 6 hours.

This time, however, it was extremely difficult to find Rory at the end of my race because of the huge crowds.  The number of runners, spectators, and event staff at the finish created mayhem.  While there were predetermined meeting areas organized alphabetically, the combined area was massive.  Since we didn’t know what to expect and therefore hadn’t planned for it, I assumed we would meet at “J.”  Thankfully, despite being mentally and physically exhausted, I could still remember the first letter of my name.  However, after running 42 km, walking for another 10 areas to finally get to that meeting space was torture.

After we got back to our hotel, The W Chicago, I took a shower and we went out for dinner.  Unlike last time, I had enough energy not to lie in bed until the next morning, but I was just as famished.  I had a craving for steak, so we went to a steakhouse.  Now, I should say, I never eat steak, but I’ve learned that I crave one after every marathon.  After arriving at the steakhouse and finding out that more than 50% of the menu was sold out, I also learned that I wasn’t the only one with that craving.  I did get my steak however, and it was delightful.

New York More Marathon, April 10, 2005

The More Marathon in New York was put together by More Magazine and was only for women.  The entire run took place in Central Park and a total of 254 women participated.  The weather at that time in April was ideal and the abundance of daffodils made me smile.  In fact, I was surprised that the weather in New York City was noticeably milder than where I had come from in Canada, despite only being a little further south.

Like the Detroit Marathon, this course was relatively flat, which made it slightly less torturous than some of the other marathons I’ve run.  One of my fondest memories is that we had the most enthusiastic race bunny (pacer) who was using this marathon as a practice run.  For the time that I spent with her, her positivity made the run much more enjoyable.

As at my previous races, Rory was once again my biggest fan, meeting up with me at each of the four loops and hanging out at an authentic Irish Pub in between.  With everything going right, I surprised myself by knocking off 30 minutes from my previous marathon, finishing this one in about 5 hours and 30 minutes.

After my usual post-race dinner, Rory and I went to the House of Blues and we got to see blues legend Howard Tate.  This was a big deal for Rory as he LOVES the blues and used to go to blues shows with his brother, Kevin, when he lived in England.  While we were there, Mr. Tate even came to shake Rory’s hand!  We didn’t know Mr. Tate would be in Chicago and hadn’t made any plans until that night, but often the most memorable nights in our lives aren’t planned in advance.

If you’re not familiar with Howard Tate, he had three Top 20 Rhythm and Blues Albums in the 1960s and 1970s.  Rory had always wondered what happened to Mr. Tate.  Turns out he became a minister and, to our luck, had returned to the recording studio just one year before the show.  If you have the chance, I’d recommend checking him out.  It was a great show!

Montreal Marathon, September 11, 2005

The Montreal Marathon was an interesting race.  There were 5,000 diverse participants: some walking, some running; some in wheelchairs, some on bicycles, some on skateboards; some with rollerblades and even some with dogs.  The race would start at the Jacques Cartier Bridge and end at the Olympic Stadium.

I was in great shape for this marathon.  Getting right to the result, I improved my time by about 17 minutes, finishing in 5 hours and 13 minutes.  Although my experience at the event was much different than my past marathons, having been raised in Quebec, it was nice to get back to the province and visit Montreal.

Also unlike my past marathons, what we did around the event was much more relaxed.  While we did have my regular post-race dinner, it was in a quiet basement bar in Old Montreal.  Actually, it was so quiet that only one other couple was there.  We sat in a round, red leather booth and listened to a young man sing the blues.  Since there were so few of us, we invited him to join us at our table to talk.  We learned that in addition to being a blues singer, he was a boxer, and he wasn’t sure which talent he should cultivate.  As I write this, I wonder which path that interesting young man chose…

Austin Marathon, February 19, 2006

When you think of dressing for a marathon in Texas, do woolly hats, gloves, and wind breakers come to mind?  Well, funny enough, the Austin Marathon was the only one I participated in where I had to dress up in warmer clothes.  In fact, it was so cold that they even opened up a building for runners to stay warm in before the race!

In order to get to the starting line of this marathon, participants would have to be bussed in.  Given the cold, for the bus that I was on, our driver didn’t know how to get rid of the frost on the windshield and had to call in for help.  Thinking about it now, maybe I should have offered my assistance as an experienced Canadian!  Anyway, after that got sorted out and we were en route, I saw numerous people slip on metal grates and fall head over heels.  I thought to myself: I guess they’re not as used to frost and ice in Texas as we are in Canada!

Another highlight was that as we were waiting to start the race, a deer came running through the crowd.  As you can tell, there were numerous pre-race oddities!  But neither the weird events nor the cold fazed me as I completed my best marathon ever at 5 hours and 10 minutes.

After I finished the run, Rory and I spent some time seeing the sights of Austin.  I can tell you that it’s definitely a lively city, full of bars, music venues, and comedy clubs.  Now, can you guess what I ate for dinner that night in Austin?  My favourite post-race meal and one of the things Texas is known for: Steak!  It was the best steak ever!

San Francisco Marathon, July 30, 2006

Participating in the San Francisco Marathon was a great experience and the city was fantastic to visit.  We ate the best clam chowder ever and delicious sourdough bread at a restaurant in the Fisherman’s Wharf.  But San Francisco was much colder than I expected and I turned out having to buy myself a jacket.  And have you seen the seagulls?  The ones in San Francisco are the biggest I’ve seen!

One of my few regrets from our stay in San Francisco was not getting to visit Alcatraz.  We could see the island from where we were staying and wanted to go, but we didn’t know that you needed to buy tickets in advance.  Now I know for next time…if there is a next time…

Instead of getting to see Alcatraz, we did get to visit a submarine museum.  During the tour, I felt claustrophobic and anxious, and I concluded that I could never stay in such a tight space for any period of time.  While it was interesting, I can tell you that I was certainly happy when I got out of there!

We also got to ride the famous San Francisco cable car, which I learned has been around since 1873, and spent time walking up and down the colorful streets of the old part of San Francisco.  We stopped to do some shopping as well, which isn’t normally one of the things we like to do, but it was in a lingerie store where I was able to make my husband blush a few times.

During the race, I got to run across the Golden Gate Bridge.  It is one of my fondest memories of all of my 7 marathons.  I also remember seeing a runner dressed in a full Centurion costume and could see that he was struggling with the weight of it through San Francisco’s hills.  As I ran those many hills, I too faced my own struggles.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wasn’t going up a hill, I must be going down one.  At one point, when I came upon some Hell’s Angels who were volunteering and directing traffic at the race, one of them said, “This is the last hill!”  I replied, “Liar!” and kept pushing on.

Given the difficulty of running those hills, it surely wasn’t my fastest race.  This time, I finished in 5 hours and 45 minutes.  But besides the result, the whole experience was one of the best that I’ve had.

Tucson Marathon, December 10, 2006

 The day before the Tucson Marathon, I found a leaflet at the entrance of the hotel for a Cold War era museum.  Rory and I decided to go and there we got to see the only Titan II missile launch site left in America.  The museum and launch site gave us a rare view into the technology that was used to deter nuclear war.

At one point during the tour, I was asked to open a very thick metal door.  I expected it to be heavy, but it was very easy for me to open it.  I had noticed that springs were used everywhere in the launch site, so maybe that had something to do with it…that or I’m as strong as The Hulk!

During the tour of the launch site, we got to go down into the control room and were shown that it would only take two people from a distance to activate the missile.  Something else that was neat was that in those days, the code to get into the control room would be on a piece of paper that would simply be burnt and discarded in an ashtray.  I also learned that the missile was 103 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, weighing 330,000 lbs, and having a range of 6,000 miles.

That night, we went for a walk and the stars in the Tucson sky were magnificent.  There was so little light pollution that you could see everything!  It’s easy to forget how beautiful the stars are when you live in the city!

On the day of the marathon, all of the runners would be taken by bus to the starting line, which was at the top of a hill.  The day began cold and dark, but it became quite hot by the end.  For this marathon, my biggest fan decided to rent a bicycle.  Periodically, Rory would use the bike to catch up and cheer me on along the way.  It was sweet and I enjoyed his support.

In the end, I finished at 5 hours and 23 minutes, which wasn’t as good as I was hoping for.  However, I was thankful that I completed it.

On that note, I was lucky never to have hurt myself during all of my races.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the Tucson Marathon would be my last due to a long-term injury that came during training.  Going from a child with asthma who wouldn’t run to a grown woman only starting to run marathons in her 40s, I’m proud that I’ve completed 7 full marathons.  I’m thankful for all of my experiences and to have enjoyed them with my wonderful, supportive husband, Rory.

Do you have any interesting stories around your athletic accomplishments?  Or how about doing something when you’re older that would have been much easier if you were younger?  Let me know on Facebook or in the comment section below!

- Johanne Levesque


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