Because You Only Get One First Marathon

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Friends lined the course with signs cheering me on. (Photo: Christy Hourihan)

In just five days, I’ll be staring at the starting line of the Philadelphia Marathon on November 18, 2012. It will be my fifth marathon in five years. To honor the occasion, I thought I’d take a look back at my very first marathon and the first piece of writing I ever did about running: “Because You Only Get One First Marathon.”

It was first published on in October 2007, but I thought I’d finally put it up here at too. After all, it’s the piece that started it all. I’ll put it the accompanying race recap tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Because You Only Get One First Marathon

First published October 2007

I hated running. Hated it. Flames on the side of my face, breathing, breathless, heaving breaths, to borrow a sentiment from Mrs. White in the movie “Clue.” So why, oh why, am I running the New York City Marathon on November 4, 2007?

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The mylar blanket from my first marathon. (Photo: Christy Hourihan)

At age 14, a persistent ache settled into my right knee. Running became excruciating and I stopped doing it altogether. An orthopedic doc diagnosed me with Osgood-Schlatter disease, a tendon inflammation usually resulting from growth and overuse. As a rapidly sprouting 5’8 swimmer, who’d been competing since the age of 7, I was a prime candidate. Doc said I’d grow out of it; just give it time.

As the world turned, I became a collegiate rower who hadn’t grown in years. But my knee still hurt—a lot. I got into the habit of downing 4-6 tabs of ibuprofen at a time to get through workouts. My coach, worried by the looks of the lump below my knee, insisted I have it looked at again.

Turns out, it wasn’t Osgood-Schlatter. It was a bone tumor. But a rash of x-rays, bone scans, CT scans and MRIs confirmed that it wasn’t any of the usual suspects. My leg was a medical mystery. Doctor after doctor had never seen its ilk. Dozens of attendings, residents and interns were marched past my leg and gawked in awe. My case was the subject of at least one academic paper and was featured at a national convention of radiologists. I was passed along a chain of orthopedists from the University of Massachusetts to University of Chicago until I hit The End of The Line: an orthopedic oncologist at Harvard University. “If he can’t help you,” the doctor who referred me said, “no one can.” It wasn’t exactly reassuring.

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Greeting friends at my first marathon in 2007. (Photo: Christy Hourihan)

I had a bone tumor—made of my own bone. Cue circus music. “A tumor that’s not a tumor,” as one baffled doc described it. My new doc ordered another batch of tests. He too was confounded. He decided to watch and wait for a few more years. But by the time I was 25, simply walking killed and I lumbered along with a visible limp. I couldn’t bend my leg past a 90-degree angle and the lump below my knee was large enough that strangers stopped me in the subway to ask about it. And pain? Constant, around the clock, 24/7, pick the cliché. Doc was now worried—he was afraid it had become cancerous.

Under the knife I went. He removed a hunk of the extraneous bone and scraped away bursitis that had settled in the joint. Then, fantastic news: it was benign. The tumor that plagued me for more than a decade was cancer free.

After half-a-year of recovery—I nicknamed myself “The Crutch-Monster”—I slowly hit the elliptical trainer and weight room. At my year check-up, doc said I could start jogging. Jogging? I was a 26-year-old with a 12-year-old allergy to running. But doc said it would strengthen my leg. So the gal who HATED running hit the pavement. My first day out there in the wilds of sidewalk city, I lasted about 3 minutes before collapsing into heaving breaths. Cue flames on the side of my face.

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Photo: Christy Hourihan

But then a funny thing happened. I kind of liked it. And my knee? I still had a small bump and certainly wasn’t pain free, but it wasn’t all that bad. So I went for another run and another run and before long, I could run 6 miles. Not only did I not hate it, I loved it. And it actually didn’t hurt when I ran. Jubilation! Euphoria! Glee! I found that my knee hurt more when I didn’t run, getting stiff and achy. I changed the screen greeting on my cell phone to “Go For A Run!”

Now I’m one week away from my very first marathon. Because running turned out to be such fantastic therapy, I decided to give myself a goal that would force me to keep on keeping on. I started training on April 29th and have since logged 6 races and well over 500 miles. I put in 3 to 4 runs a week and worked my way up from a base of 20 miles per week to 22 miles in one go. I clocked most of my runs in the Big Apple, but some on the Las Vegas strip, along the Puget Sound in Seattle and beside the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Now I’m ready to show the town so nice they named it twice exactly what I’m made of.

It’s been a long 15 years from my first diagnosis to my first marathon. But let’s get one thing straight: I’m not proud, just thankful. I’m celebrating the fact that I can run. That I don’t hate it. And that it wasn’t cancer. Not everyone is so lucky. So I decided to run for Team Continuum, a charity that funds cancer patient care. You only get one first marathon, so you might as well make it count, right?

Slow and steady, here I go!

Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runner’s weekly lifestyle web show about running. She has completed four marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.

Karla Bruning


Karla Bruning is a race announcer at the TCS New York City Marathon + other major events, TV host for the New York City Triathlon + contributor to Shape, Redbook, Runner's World + other publications. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now it's her job. She's run 8 marathons, 30 halves, 10 triathlons + open water swims. When she's not running, talking about running or writing about running, she's snuggling her baby, spoiling her dog + compulsively traveling.


11 2012


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