Throwback: My First Marathon

My first marathon was in February 2005 at the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans, Louisiana. This was the last running of this marathon before Hurricane Katrina hit and devastated the city. The marathon did not take place the following year, and eventually the race was taken over by the Rock‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, the organization that owns it today. But in 2005, it was an independent marathon, and my reason for visiting New Orleans for the very first time.

Horrible photo of my first marathon medal

I was not a runner in 2004 when I received a mailing from the National AIDS Marathon Training Program. I normally throw out such “junk mail” but this one I read. They promised me that they would train me to run a marathon, even if I was a beginning runner, and that they’d send me to New Orleans to run, if only I would help raise funds for DC’s Whitman Walker Clinic. I had finished graduate school, so I had more free time, I was ready for a challenge and to meet new people. I decided to give marathoning a try. I hadn’t ever run more than a mile on the treadmill. I couldn’t have named the last time I ran at all outdoors (probably in high school…and I would have hated every second of it). I knew that the first weekend run with the training group would be 3 miles, and that they would use our times for that run to place us into pace groups. I figured I’d get a little bit of a head start. I ran a few times on the treadmill leading up to the timed run. I probably didn’t go farther than 2 miles each time.

When the big day arrived, we were told to run the designated 3 mile route at a pace that felt comfortable, and to walk whenever we needed to. The focus of the timed 3 mile run was not speed; it was to run at conversational pace and to finish the run strong, even if that meant going slow. So, I ran a little and walked a lot on the 3 mile course which started south of the National Mall, and headed north to the Capitol building. I placed into a 14:00 minute mile group, which was a minute or two slower than my timed miles. We were to train at an easy pace because the real challenge would come with adding distance each week. 

Sporting my AIDS Marathon shirt which I wore for fundraising activities

Each pace group with the AIDS Marathon team was named after a famous marathoner. My 14:00 minute group was the Grete Waitz pace group. I had never heard of Grete Waitz, or most of the other pace group names. Now, those are “household names” for me; Grete Waitz was an amazing distance runner! I believe this was the first marathon for everyone in my pace group. We formed a diverse group: an executive, a bartender, a graduate student, among others. We nominated April as our pace leader, who would track our pace and time for each Sunday’s long run, and keep us on track. She was positive, energetic and motivated, so she was a natural for the job.

During the marathon: that's April on the left looking focused, Dana being cheerful, Trish and me in the back

Every Sunday morning we met in DC throughout the fall and winter. We followed a Jeff Galloway training program which used run/walk intervals and included one long weekend run as a group (building up to a 26 mile training run) and two shorter runs on our own during the week. Our long runs always started in the same location south of the Mall, and we added distance each week. The course looped all around the Mall, along the river in Georgetown, up the Capital Crescent Trail toward Bethesda. It was always an out & back course. Volunteers showed up each week to manage aid stations for our training runs. Pace groups volunteered to bring post-run food each week. When it was my turn, I arranged to have Chipotle burritos and chips. The manager at the Ballston Chipotle donated the food, and my friends Jerry and Antonia picked it up and delivered it to us post-run. It was awesome!

In addition to putting in the miles, the coaches and staff at AIDS Marathon taught us about running gear, the importance of proper footwear and proper hydration. They walked us through race etiquette and explained what to expect on race day. They suggested running a 5K during the training program to get a feel for racing, if it was new to us. It was new to me. During my training period, I entered a Thanksgiving turkey trot, my very first race. I can still remember the excitement of waiting for the starting pistol, and the sense of accomplishment I felt after crossing the finish line of this 5 miler. There was no medal, and just a cotton shirt, but I was over the moon.

I developed my first running injury, tendinitis at the back of my knee, which I had to learn to manage. As we got closer to race week, I made my travel plans. AIDS Marathon booked our flights and hotel in New Orleans. My friend Trish decided to join me on the trip and run the half marathon. Jerry and Antonia came to New Orleans to support me. The plans were in good shape.

We arrived in New Orleans the week after Mardi Gras and there were still beads in the trees and debris in the streets. It was my first time there. It was also my first time attending a race expo, which was held inside the Superdome. I don’t recall there being much there other than the packet pick-up. I’m sure the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans race has a much bigger expo these days. There was time to do some touring of the city the day or so before the race. We walked through the French Quarter mostly, visiting iconic spots like CafĂ© Du Monde and Central Grocery, as well as lots of interesting shops. We also rode a streetcar.

With Antonia eating beignets at Cafe du Monde

With Jerry and Trish eating muffaletta sandwiches at Central Grocery (mine was meatless)

The night before the race, AIDS Marathon put on a huge pasta dinner at one of the hotels. We helped ourselves to a buffet dinner and were motivated by stories of people who had been helped by our fundraising efforts. We were entertained by the AIDS Marathon staff and our coaches. We got each other pumped up for the big event.

Our pace group with AIDS Marathon staffers at the pasta party

Race morning came, and it was rainy. The AIDS Marathon team huddled in a dry spot to get a group photo, then we worked our way to the corrals. I was wearing a poncho at the start, and probably kept it on for a while until the rain let up. 

Keeping dry before the start

I'm somewhere in that start corral

The Grete Waitz pace group stuck together, and Trish stayed with us until the half marathoners split off, which was almost at mile 13. I was jealous that she was finishing and I was only halfway done, but I had a mission to accomplish. Jerry and Antonia were excellent spectators and met up with our group at a few spots on the course, and took some great photos. Here are some of the things I remember most about this race:

  • Early in the race, there was an unofficial beer station in someone’s garage. I drank beer during my very first marathon! Being a novice, I didn’t know that beer on a marathon course was a “thing” but still, I participated right from the start!
  • The Garden District had the most uneven, jagged, pot-holed streets I’d ever seen. I don’t know if they are still bad, but they were in 2005. It was quite a contrast between the condition of the roads and the beautiful houses in this neighborhood.
  • Audubon Park was boring to run through, but they had great aid stations. I think there may have been a margarita station there. It looks like the current course just barely touches the park, but in 2005 we looped through the park for at least a couple miles.

Festive aid station in Audubon Park

Here comes my pace group with Diana in the lead

And here I am in front during what must have been a walk break; behind me from left to right: Fawn, April, Iris and Phil

My tendinitis was bothering me for most of this race, but got really bad by mile 20. At some point I told my pace group to go ahead of me, that I needed to walk more. I assured them that I would still finish. We had been taking frequent walk breaks, and one of the things I noticed was that the transition from walk to run or from run to walk was harder on me than simply maintaining a consistent pace. I couldn’t transition as frequently, so I chose to walk for a whole mile, followed by running for a whole mile, and so on until the end. AIDS Marathon had great bike support for its runners, and our program representative Steve was out on his bike and found me in the last couple miles. He was very encouraging.

Finally, I made it to the Superdome. We were to run inside the dome and finish on the field. My pace team was there waiting for me with cheers and hugs. My coworker Reggie, who was in town on unrelated business, also came out to greet me at the finish line. I was so proud to be finished and to have my first medal placed around my neck. I didn’t care that I was so slow, I was just happy to be done. At a 14:00 minute pace, which most of my team maintained, we would have finished just over 6 hours. With my painful last five miles and all the walking I did, I finished in 7 hours. But I finished! I was now a marathoner!

FINALLY finishing with that blasted knee injury!

Proud finisher with friends Jerry, Antonia and Reggie; Trish was already back at the hotel after her half

After a shower and a nap, there was a post-race celebration organized by AIDS Marathon. We went for drinks and swapped stories. Afterward, April and I went out and hit up a few watering holes in the French Quarter. I was limping terribly. Not only did I have muscle soreness from running the marathon, but I was still dealing with my tendinitis.

At the AIDS Marathon celebration party

The next morning, we flew home. Most of us wore our race shirts and medals on the plane. We were the few, the proud, the marathoners!


  1. I was at that race too. I'm glad I got to see the city before Hurricane Katrina.

    1. Wow, that's pretty cool to know. I wonder how many other marathoners that I know now were at my early marathons. I'll be posting more Throwback race reports for my 2005 and 2006 marathons. And then I took several years off.


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