Neonatal Dietitian’s Road to the Boston Marathon

By Shanti Lewis, RD, CNSD
Neonatal Dietitian

Two weeks into fall soccer season, I told my parents that I wanted to quit the soccer team. My dad asked me why and I told him that I loved hanging out with my friends, but I really couldn’t stand the running. I don’t think that my family anticipated that 18 years later his daughter would qualify for Boston on her first marathon and finish the marathon in the top 25 percent.

During my freshman year of gym class, I could barely run a mile without huffing and puffing. Over the course of my time in gym class, I gradually improved my mileage and was running as fast as some of the football players in my class. Simultaneously, I was playing on the field hockey team at school, which I loved, but was far from a star field hockey athlete.

Several Reasons for Running

During the summer before my sophomore year of high school, I learned that the number of girls who wanted to make the field hockey team doubled since many of them would be cut from soccer. My mom suggested that I needed to stay in shape in order to make the team by running since one of the qualifiers for tryouts was a three-mile run.

Over that summer, I started running three miles at the track each night while my brother and dad played tennis. Gradually, I increased my speed and my time that summer. When tryouts came around, I ran faster in sprints and distance than any other girl on my team. Apparently, I caught the running bug and continued running to keep in shape all year round. In fact, I joined that track team that year, but never excelled in track while in high school due to my shorter strides.

Throughout college, I continued running to relieve stress and not gain the freshman 15. Although asked to join the track team repeatedly, I had no interest in competitive running. I always found that running was the way that I could vent and handle my problems, whether it was dealing with a family illness, exams, or problems with roommates. For the most part, I was careful about what I ate, since I entered the field of nutrition because I grew up with a father who was diabetic, and continued to run as I trained to become a dietitian at the National Institutes of Health.

While I was rotating throughout the Clinical Center at NIH, I fell in love with pediatric nutrition and spend subsequent weeks learning about neonatal nutrition at George Washington Hospital and Children’s National Medical Center. I ended up moving to Baltimore after my internship and got a job at University of Maryland Medical Center, where I started working in the neonatal intensive care unit as a dietitian. It is a job that I find rewarding and challenging.

Catching the Racing Bug

My first half-marathon happened in Baltimore in October 2007 after dating a guy that was competing in triathlons. After watching several of his triathlon events, I was impressed by the fact the competitors came in all different sizes and ages and everyone involved in the events was extremely positive. I ran my first half-marathon in 1 hour and 45 minutes and definitely felt sore, but also felt like I could keep going. In 2008, I ran my second half marathon in Baltimore and completed it one minute faster than the previous year. After this race, I was ready for a bigger challenge and wanted to run a full 26.2-mile marathon.

I am not the typical runner in the sense that I don’t train with a group or monitor my time at every mile. I don’t own a watch and I decide to do my long runs whenever I feel like I have the energy to run 15-20 miles. In fact, when I decided to run the Baltimore Marathon in 2009, I had three goals: 1) don’t get injured; 2) finish the race; 3) do not walk at any part of the race unless a ligament is hanging out. My training consisted of running 20 miles twice, about a month apart, before the race. I also consistently ran 6-8 miles five times per week. I never made any alterations in my diet or cut out any foods, since I tend to limit by sugar, trans fat, and saturated fat in general.

To my surprise, I finished my first marathon in 3 hours 38 minutes and 30 seconds. I never really understood what runners mean when they “hit the wall.” However, I will admit that miles 21-25 are a mental game where you have to convince yourself not to quit. After crossing the finish line, I swore that I would never run another marathon and that it was checked off the list. At dinner after the race, my friend Rachel told me that I qualified for the Boston Marathon, and at first I was like, “yeah right.” My friends told me that I had to run Boston and it would be a fun girls’ weekend. When I did look up the qualifying time, I discovered that I indeed qualified and registered immediately.

Over the next several months, I planned a girls’ trip to Boston, but also started graduate school, which limited the amount of time that I could spend working out. My usual 6-8 miles run were often shortened to 3-5 mile run 4-5 days per week related to staying up late several nights a week writing papers and reading for classes. My only legitimate training prior to the race was running 20 miles once to ensure that I still had the ability to complete 20 miles.

While at the fitness expo for the race in Boston, I spent more time examining and critiquing the nutrition content of the energy bars than checking out the high-tech shoes or socks that were marketed to enhancing a runner’s performance. The days prior to the race were spent siteseeing, shopping and wining/dining with only a six-mile warm up run in the rain the day before the race.

Race Day

One of the unfortunate parts of the Boston Marathon was that it starts in Hopkinton and goes to all the way into downtown Boston. On the day of the race, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to make sure that I did not miss the shuttle to the start of the race. It was not the most pleasant experience to wait in 40 degrees at 6 a.m. to board shuttles for the hour ride to Hopkinton. Once I arrived, I had the pleasure of waiting two hours in the cold weather with only a sweatshirt to wait for the race to start. In the future, I would pack warmer clothes that I could throw off and donate to charity. However, once I started running I quickly became warm and disregarded my sweatshirt. In the end, the temperature was approximately 60 degrees and sunny for the race, which is ideal for long-distance running conditions.

The organization of the Boston Marathon far surpasses that of the Baltimore marathon since the runners are broken up into heats based on their qualifying times, which was extremely beneficial when starting the race since there was no trampling over slower runners at the start of the race. Initially, I felt exhausted for the first five miles of the race since I was sitting around freezing for two hours prior to the race. However, I got the runner’s high around mile six that continued throughout mile 21, where it feels as though you can run forever.

One of the challenges of the Boston Marathon is “heartbreak hill,” which is at mile 21 of the race and where a lot of the marathoners hit the wall. For me, I was still on my runner’s high and did not even notice that I was climbing up the hill. Though I was generally unemotional about the entire race, I did choke up slightly while running the last three miles of the race, not because I was in pain, but the realization that I am about to complete a race that I never thought would be imaginable for me.

There is also a major sense of accomplishment in just having the privilege to run against to some of the best athletes in running and being able to view myself as one of them. Since I do not wear a watch and was not watching the clock, I was amazed to find out that I finished the Boston marathon in 3 hours, 30 minutes, and 22 minutes, which equates to an entire mile faster than my qualifying time.

Goals for the Future

After running the race, I decided that this might not be my last marathon because I would love to run the New York City Marathon in the elite group. In order to qualify to have a guaranteed spot in the New York Marathon in the elite group, I have to shed eight minutes off my time in Boston. This fall I plan to run the Marine Corps Marathon, which is a flat course. This hopefully will allow me to shave the eight minutes off my Boston time I need to qualify for New York.

3 thoughts on “Neonatal Dietitian’s Road to the Boston Marathon

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