I’ve had some pretty big dreams in the last several months. September 2014, I broke 4 hours for the first time and PR’d at the marathon by 25 minutes, finishing in 3:52 (granted, I had DNF’d my fall marathon the year before, so maybe this was more a big step than a huge leap, but still). The dream tickled at my brain. It whispered in my ear. As the months passed, the whispers turned to shouts. By the spring of 2015, I wanted it. Badly.
But we (my husband and I) have been through a lot in the last year. I’ve been unable to PR at the half through all the chaos – brutal courses with not enough water, moving stress, dealing with a new climate, new job, finding new running partners (they are wonderful – it just took some time to find them! Thankfully not too much time :D). My coach knew I was dreaming big. And I knew it was a journey – one I was excited to start. So when we discussed goals, Mark threw out a number and asked for my gut reaction as his first step gauge: 3:33.
I flinched. And grinned. And flinched. My stomach tossed. We stepped it back. He asked me – again, gut reaction – what time did I feel like I could achieve on an average day? Not good. Not bad. I spat out 3:40. So the goals were put into place: A goal – 3:37; B goal – 3:40; C goal – 3:45. All PRs. If at mile 20 I was still on 3:37 pace and feeling strong, I’d throw down the hammer and try to BQ. Mark created a pace band for me, which I printed out and faux-laminated with packing tape, attaching it to my Road ID (I’ll come up with a better system next time, but this worked well, especially since I was wearing arm warmers).
The hay was in the barn. The miles were in the bank. All that was left was to execute.
I left the office around 1 p.m. on Friday and picked up Shannon. We had initially planned on hitting the road right away from there, but realized we needed cash to leave for the pet sitter, and we both forgot things at home (foam roller, handheld water bottle) that we wanted to have just in case. When we got to our house, we were greeted by two of the neighbor’s cats (she has a veritable menagerie of rescues and fosters). The senior sweeties walked right over for pets. I could feel their bones through their floof, which made me sad – they’re about 18-20 years old and far into their twilight years, but didn’t seem any worse for wear. I took the kitty rubs as a good luck loving.
We got underway between 1:30 and 1:45 and took the scenic route upstate, avoiding Atlanta traffic altogether. The drive up was so gorgeous. As we got into the mountains, there was a lot of gorgeous foliage, and the rolling mountains and hills went on forever. Around 5:15, we arrived at the church that was hosting packet pickup. It was like a mini-expo, and very quick and easy. George met us there shortly thereafter (he hit ATL traffic, womp) and after he got his bib, we headed to a nearby iHOP for a last carby meal. The service was terrible (super slow) but the food was great, as always. Pumpkin pancakes, two eggs over-easy, hashbrowns, and bacon for me. We talked race strategy, among other things, and got excited for the next morning. George signed up for the race to support me and was doing the half. We thought we’d have about 8ish miles together, based on the course maps (we learned this wasn’t QUITE the case, but we’ll get to that) and he’d probably throw down the hammer after that and finish strong.
A little after 7, we parted ways for the evening and Shannon and I headed to our hotel, the General Bragg Inn & Suites (on Gen. Bushrod Johnson Drive. We couldn’t stop laughing). It was a tiny little motel but uber cheap, and had a microwave and a fridge, always nice to have for a race. We quickly got settled and laid out our gear. I also re-packed all my layering options into my backpack to bring in the car. Initial call was singlet, arm-warmers, bum wrap (skirt), calf sleeves, gloves, and earband. The race start was forecasted as 37*. Lights were out at 8:30, though it took a while to fall asleep from race nerves and the folks next doors who were also there for the race and were talking VERY LOUDLY about their paces.
I was up with the first alarm at 4:30 and got straight to work: bathroom, making oatmeal (quick oats in water + peanut butter), and getting dressed. I felt like I was overheating in the room from the rushing around and the layers I put on. Stepping outside the room, though, it was quite cold.
By 5:45, we had defrosted the car and were headed to the race site, about 12 minutes away. The first entrance that GPS led us to was closed, but we quickly found the correct entrance and got parked two rows back from the taped off pre-race area. We briefly headed to the registration tent, but it was too cold even in the heated tent to just stand around. We went back to the warm car and texted with George about staying there as long as possible. I changed my mind about my outfit, and in the backseat changed into Oiselle jogging knickers as my bottom (and skipped the calf sleeves). I waffled on the possibility of short sleeves over singlet, but stuck with singlet; I’m glad I did, it was perfect.
Around 6:45, I headed to the portos to pee one last time, and at 7:15, we took our pre-race gels and tore ourselves from the warm car for good. I lined up with Shannon initially as we listened to the anthem, then after a pre-race kiss, scooted out of the corral to jump up toward the 3:40 group (not to use the group but just for placement), where George was waiting and looking for me. The race had no athlete tracking, and after an 8-mile test run, I went with Garmin’s LiveTrack capabilities. I had previously set up which people to email the link to, and it also tweeted out the link. I started the LiveTrack on my phone a few minutes ahead of the start, then put away my phone for good (buried under gels and inside a plastic baggie); once I hit start on the watch, the tracking timer would start as well.
It was show time.
After the race director shouted “go!” without much pomp and circumstance, the crowd began its shuffle towards the timing mat and unassuming banner, and a split second later, there it was: BOOM. The cannon sounded and everyone jolted a little bit. I grinned and laughed. We were off!
The full marathon course is primarily a double-loop around the battlefield (with the half-marathon completing a single loop with some small differences), but we started with a lap around Barnhardt Circle, rolling up and down a couple little rises, and I looked to lock in. George (who I later discovered didn’t have his watch set to “lap pace” and was unaware of the existence of this screen. Don’t worry, I’ll teach him. He’s a reformed Nike watch user now with a Garmin) was relying on me to determine the pace and make sure we didn’t pull each other too fast. I had studied my pace band a good amount so I wouldn’t have to stare at it too frequently. Coach Mark had me starting at 3:40 marathon pace and slowly dropping down to 3:37 for a nice negative split. The first two miles were supposed to go in 8:24 each. The first mile clicked right around when we started heading out into the battlefield – via a fairly janky trail/road that I had read about and knew would be more painful coming back at mile 25 – a little fast, but we almost corrected it on mile 2. When the first split came, George remarked on his surprise, saying it felt like we were barely moving. Welcome to smart marathon pacing. It should feel SLOW at the start.
As we headed out onto the trail before we hit road again for the main, big loop, I realized just how gorgeous this course was going to be. The path for that out portion was narrow, but the race was so small that it wasn’t overly crowded. Volunteers with big orange flags and smiles on their faces directed us onto the loop, and the early morning light streamed through the trees and the frost that was sublimating from the ground. Everything had that cold, late fall/early winter morning shimmer. It was breathtaking. Monuments and Civil War era cannons dotted the course. The loop carried us past an open field and as we looked out across it, I said to George, “I think I’m falling in love with this race.”
8:18, 8:21, 8:12, 8:15
Locking into the right paces was proving difficult. My legs felt so fresh, my heart was light, and I was having so much fun. The course rolled gently on through half bare trees. The 3:40 pace group was ahead of me for a good while – the pacer seemed to be going a bit fast for the first several miles. George and I meanwhile chatted away – he asked me early on if I wanted to chat or not, and I mentioned I might get quiet as I zoned in but for now I felt really good, and it kept me from going too fast. We commented on the course, how we felt, on the runners around us. A burly looking guy who I think I eventually passed was running in a pair of (women’s, I’m pretty sure) Lululemon shorts…and that’s it. No shirt, no gloves or hat, no shoes. It was 35*. We passed two women dressed in over the top Civil War era yellow dresses, and they told us to go chase the naked cowboy. We both laughed. There were a few good signs around that point as well – “You’re almost there! No, no, not really” (note: only funny on the first lap); “all toenails go to heaven”; “trust that fart too much? baby wipes ahead!”
We clicked along, chatting away. I can hardly remember the specifics we talked about – one of those meandering types of conversations you have with a friend on a long run (and we even remarked how the early miles felt like any old long run).
We approached the mile 6 marker and realized the course was splitting earlier than expected: the half-marathoners had to add a little bit, splitting left, and the full went right, staying on course on the loop. It turned out the halfers only had to tack on a third of a mile or so. George and I were a little bummed, but we fist bumped and I reassured him that I felt awesome and it was still great having company for the first 6.
After we split, I was slightly nervous that I did it wrong, even though the course was EXTREMELY well-marked, and I had followed another full marathoner through the split off. When I saw the next mile signs were different from each other – one for the half, one for the full, different color text, and different placements – I knew I hadn’t screwed up. Phew! Water stops had been placed at 2-mile intervals, but because of the distance differentiation so early on, it meant we had even more stops than that. Shannon told me post-race he realized that, with one exception, water was always on the right, powerade on the left. I never managed to pick up on this, so just lowered my music volume when approaching a station and yelled out “water? water?” and the volunteers would wave me over (they were SO on it). “Thank you, volunteers!”
Being that the course was in the middle of a battlefield, I knew going in that cheering crowds would be scant. The volunteers wre SUPER enthusiastic, and there were lots of local runners and cyclists who were doing a reverse route and cheering people on as we went along. There were also little pockets of crowds at certain sections (aided by a spectator bus carting people around). I always had to watch my pace for these sections and make sure it didn’t tick up too high. We crossed one of these clusters of cheering folks, and I flashed a smile, then focused on the volunteers directly us around some cones that blocked off a single lane of traffic. I was behind three guys I spent many miles jockeying with; they were chatting about their pace, their expected time, and as they did, their pace dropped, but I could not for the life of me get around. They were three fairly skinny dudes in a single lane of roadway, and the middle guy kept weaving so I couldn’t squeak through. When the route turned and we had the full road again, I threw down a three-second surge (a baby one) and got around them. 20 seconds later they re-passed me. Whatever. Shortly thereafter, I heard my name. It was George! He threw down the hammer to catch up to me, and we had another mile and change running together before the courses split for good.
8:14. 8:16, 8:15, 8:24
Pacing was still mystifying me. Miles 3-9 were to go in 8:20s, then pick up to 8:16s through mile 16. I would try to lock into 8:20, but having hit that and faster earlier on, I found myself picking up pace; then I would overcorrect, then overcorrect again, hitting splits a few seconds fast. Some of these were at the aid of downhills, some were with cheering crowds, some were even aid stations (which is weird). But I still felt great, so I relaxed into it. It broke up the distance in a different way for me, and I think that kept my mind in a good place for far longer than usual.
The scenery never stopped being gorgeous. We came upon a turn with a volunteer using a big orange flag to direct traffic, and something caught his attention (or perhaps someone called his attention to it) and he turned to glance into the woods. I turned my gaze there, and saw at least two or three deer, white tails flashing. Deer! In the middle of (technically) a road marathon!
A couple more sections came and went where the half and full courses split from one another: there was a decent length out-and-back with turnaround sign for the full, and I got a good look at a woman ahead of me who I was able to confirm was wearing a 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon shirt! That made me smile big. We met back up with the half course, and right around the mile 11 marker, there was a water stop (water on the right!) and I ALMOST went the wrong way and stayed on the half course before a volunteer checked my bib color and redirected me. Whew! Crisis averted. We did a little loop that had us crossing some train tracks (with a sign before them to warn to watch our footing), onto some quiet road, back across the tracks, and connecting back with the main loop. At one point, I saw a small street off to the side called “Kimberly Street” and I grinned, thinking of my friend and training partner who recently BQ’d and drawing some inspiration.
Where the offshoot loop met back up with the main loop, shortly after mile 12, there was a short, steep climb. I increased my cadence and powered up, staying relaxed, taking a mental note that I would need to HTFU when I came to that point on the second loop; it would be way less fun at that point (mile 22/23 or so).
As we were approaching the halfway split and I was getting ready to look at my overall time for the first time, we passed a big field and four deer (perhaps some of them were older babies) were leaping across the tall grass. They seemed to want to approach the parade of runners, but remained curious from a small distance.
I knew I was a little bit off the markers, but not horribly – I came through the half only about 20ish seconds behind schedule (1:49:20/30ish something – don’t have chip times at this point, which I will explain later).
8:21, 8:13, 8:16, 8:14, 8:19
One last time, the course split. The signs remained crystal clear (though I stayed nervous anyway until I saw the mile 14 marker; I’m such a ninny): half-marathoners to the left, full marathoners to mile 25 to the left; full marathoners to mile 14 to the right. And so began loop 2! The course grew a little more sparse with runners, though several half-marathon walkers remained.
I knew going in that the double-loop nature could be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it broke things up automatically, and I knew what was coming on the second loop. On the other hand…I knew what was coming. But I still felt good. Occasionally my pace and focus flagged, but I’d readjust my brain and keep on trucking, and my pace ticked back up to where it needed to be. I now had a slight bit of familiarity with the hills that were coming. What was also nice was that some of the toughest miles for me mentally (at least in the past) were basically a nice long flat to downhill. I often go into a dark place after the half-way mark, thinking just how far I still have to go, already putting my mind in the place where it preconceives a massive blow-up at mile 20. But I kept this at bay, soaking up the sights. This is the last time you get to do this loop, I told myself; Enjoy it! I told myself the same thing, really, when I couldn’t seem to keep my pace down to 8:16s. Slow down! Enjoy it!
The course rolled up and down, up and down, my pace band told me to click into 8:12s now, and we passed that same group of signs again – “You’re almost there, …no, no you’re really not” – and I flipped it the finger. The ladies in the big yellow dresses were up ahead, and I felt myself flagging a little. I reminded myself of what my friend Chrissy told me: If you feel bad, you will feel good again. It’s a mindset I’ve never had – it’s such a long race, there are so many ups and downs, but so often I let myself go into a dark hole at the first sign of fatigue or flagging mental toughness. As I was reminding myself this, as if on cue, Lenny Kravitz’s version of “American Woman” came on my iPod. I turned up the volume and charged ahead, getting back on pace and back in the zone.
My watched beeped my mile 18 split; I still wasn’t locked into 8:12s, but I had so many slightly-too-fast miles, I wasn’t concerned. Then, within seconds of the mile split on my watch, my watch buzzed again. PHONE DISCONNECTED. Fuck. The watched switched to the time screen, and for a second I thought it had stopped altogether; a couple screen change clicks reassured me it had not, it was still running fine. I decided not to panic. Maybe my phone died. That would suck. I hoped friends and family tracking me on LiveTrack assumed a technical glitch and that the worst hadn’t happened. Then, several seconds later, it buzzed again: PHONE CONNECTED. Well. Okay. This of course messed up the time everyone saw at the end by I think a good 20-25 seconds, but oh well. At least they didn’t lose me for good.
The course carried us out-and-back again to the turnaround sign, and some people I had been jockeying with were not behind me. I checked all the pace signs that were passing the opposite way as I headed back in; 3:40 was decidedly behind me. I was cranking (or trying to). But I could feel the grind beginning to take its toll. My pace was slipping. For a moment I wondered, why am I this tired already? I’ve run longer than this before! Then remembered, oh, right. This time I’m doing it fast. Duh. Perspective.
I was still taking water at most aid stations, tempted (but not that tempted) to douse my head. I removed my gloves and tucked them into my capris around mile 20. I tried moving my earband off my ears a few miles later, but it skewed my glasses so I put it back. I didn’t quite have it in me to take it off and try to attach it to my belt at that point. I was sure I’d fumble it, and I wasn’t really overheating. At the mile 20 sign, I was again only about 20-30 seconds off my desired time, ticking in around low 2:46.
When we headed back out to the train tracks, my mind had gone to the dark place. I was suffering. A man ahead of me shuffled to a walk and I wanted to reach out and pat his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging look as I passed, and he picked it back up. I really wanted to walk, and the devil on my shoulder told me, just ten seconds of walking, don’t you think that would be refreshing? But I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew if I walked, it was over. If I walked, I may not run again – not really run – and I wasn’t willing to give up the fight. I could feel that my legs no longer had 3:37 in them; I couldn’t throw down the hammer that hard, but I wasn’t going to throw in the towel on my B goal, either. Keep it under 9:00 pace, I begged. This wasn’t a fuel bonk – my nutrition felt on point: I had taken a gel at 5.5, 11, 16.5, and took my final gel at mile 21. It wasn’t the gels. It was the grind of the pace. It was all in my legs and at least a little in my head.
8:18, 8:24, 8:48, 8:57
The railroad track loop met back up with the main course, and there was that short, nasty hill. I gritted up it, and grunted out loud. A man near me groaned his agreement. I topped it, and a girl I had been back-and-forth with (who had been with the 3:40 group for a good while before evidently dropping them) surged ahead as we coasted down. I settled myself in her current as best I could. She pulled farther ahead and I couldn’t maintain contact or even the same gap, but it helped anyway. My pace ticked back up – not on pace, but better. I was starting to get warm, but my left arm warmer was cinched down by my pace band and Garmin, so I ripped off the right one and tied it around my belt.
One final time, I let myself look at my overall time. I did quick mental math and tried to figure out what I needed – I guessed 8:45ish or faster would still get me in under 3:40. The walking devil kept showing up, and I kept shaking him off. I didn’t even walk the aid stations; I couldn’t let myself walk a single step. Even if I ran painfully slow, I would keep running. No one else can do this. No one else can do this right now but you. Do this. Do this now. We passed the field near the 13.1 mat, no deer this time, and a much more painful outlook on my part. This time, as the loop split, I was heading in toward mile 25.
My finishing power songs were amping up on my playlist, and I cranked the volume a little. I threw down a little surge, trying to stay controlled at the same time. But that janky section of road – I feared tripping or twisting an ankle, and it was just exhausting to run on. Near the end, it goes up and up – little bumps of hills, but at mile 25, everything is agony. I passed a Ragnar ambassador, and she exhaled, “good job,” and I choked out “you too” as I went by. We got back onto the road, out of that one bad section, and my mind whirled with what exactly was left. Did we have to do a full loop of Barnhardt Circle to the finish? Would I have to bypass the finish first? I kept pushing, or trying to. My legs were lead and jello at once. Leave it all out there, I told myself. The time is now!
I rounded a sharp turn at the mile 26 sign, and there was Shannon, screaming my name and cheering me on. I’m sure I gave him something between a grimace and a grateful smile. A moment later, I ripped off my earband and flung it to the sidelines for him to grab when he could. The finish line banner was unthinkably far away, and my face contorted once more as I saw the mile 13 sign for the halfers. One tenth of a mile remaining. I felt like I wasn’t even moving, but somehow managed to pick up a little more speed, watching that race clock tick closer and closer to 3:40. But I already knew. I already knew I had it.
I crossed under the sign, crossed the mat, my arms flung up in victory, before stumbling a few steps and fumbling for the STOP button my watch.
Watch time: 3:39:28
(started a second or two before crossing the startmat, stopped a second or two after the finish)
George was just a few steps ahead of me, and I stumbled toward him. “Help me walk,” I begged, and he supported me with one arm, grabbing a medal for me, grabbing me a bottle of water and opening it for me. Shannon arrived shortly after from his mile 26 cheer spot, my earband in hand, and gave me a hug. I sobbed into him. I sobbed from exhaustion. I sobbed from the pain. I sobbed from the effort. I sobbed for the missed goal. But mostly, I sobbed from elation. I had destroyed my PR by 12.5 minutes. I had broken 3:40. I had given it everything I had that day and I never, ever quit and never, ever walked.
Shannon grabbed my arm and told me he had strict instructions to keep me moving, and get food in my as soon as possible. I cowgirl hobbled over to the food tent, which was packed with pizza, moon pies, bagels, cookies, orange slices, bananas, and soup. I balked at most of it but went for an orange slice, a half a banana, and a foam cup of vegetable/bean soup. I choked it all down slowly. Shannon also grabbed me two powerades, which I drank throughout the day and I think really helped me recover. I hobbled in little circles for a good 10 minutes before finally sitting so I could eat a little more comfortably.
We stuck around long enough to see results print-outs to see if we snagged any awards; when we learned we didn’t, we headed out. In the car and at the hotel, I caught up on my phone, which had been blowing up for hours. I had so many friends and loved ones tracking me and cheering me on. I texted my parents and brother how it went, and read all the messages with joyful tears in my eyes.
After getting cleaned up (and discovering my iPod armband chafed under my arm – owwww), we met up with George, George’s sister, and her boyfriend at a restaurant in Chattanooga and I got through most of a burger, a pile of sweet potato fries, and more water. My appetite was surprisingly strong, though I still filled up fast. That night at dinner, Shannon and I went to Terminal Brewhouse and got pizza; I forgot my ID at the hotel so no post-race beer for me, unfortunately. After dinner, we treated ourselves to Clumpie’s ice cream, which came highly recommended. So much good food!
And our hotel neighbors who were also runners? Well, they didn’t stay Saturday night, but they did leave their 4:30 AM race alarm to blare Sunday morning. I was up for good at 5:30 and we gave up and go Starbucks, leaving the hotel for good around 7 or so and getting home a little after 10, where we relaxed the rest of the day.
And ate. Ate a lot. I’m still hungry, y’all.
For those who found this race report looking for what the course is like, as a balm for the tiny, not terribly useful elevation chart on the website, here is my Garmin Connect elevation chart (documented 580 feet elevation gain):
And here is my Strava elevation chart (documented 400 feet elevation gain):
The lack of chip time is pretty much a bummer. My gun time is 3:39:37, and watch time is 9 seconds faster. According to the timing guy who replied to an email I sent, a weird glitch happened with the chips and mats that had never happened before: when the 5K went off (30 minutes after the full/half), the chips reset. He spent the entire race trying to retrieve the data, and has been working with the software company on a fix. But I have a feeling I’m just plain out of luck. I feel bad mostly for those who BQ’d – every second counts when it comes to cut-off times. Hopefully the race steps up to the plate to assist with getting as accurate an estimate as possible, since there are start photos out there as well. Fingers crossed for those runners.
As I mentioned earlier, nutrition was on point. Hydration felt that way, too – so many water stops! :) I did unfortunately have some tummy grumblings at various points, but none were awful gut-twists. I definitely did some crop dusting (sorry fellow racers!). So that’s a bit of a bummer, but it could have been way, way worse. And in the end, probably didn’t have much effect on my overall performance. Sometimes you can do everything right and the tummy will still rebel a little bit.
I managed to NOT overdress for once. Yes, I did want to take off my arm sleeves, but taking off one helped, and it wasn’t necessary until the last few miles. I stripped off gloves at 20, shortly thereafter took off the thumb holes of the arm warmers, a mile or two later rolled down the sleeves a bit, then 24ish I took the right warmer off. The end of the race was probably high 40s/low 50s and very sunny, but much of the course was shaded and not too breezy. The weather couldn’t have been more ideal for speed.
While the BQ dream had been in my thoughts, something deep inside me knew that today wasn’t going to be that day. Not yet. I had an AMAZING race. Lots of stars aligned, and I gritted it out hard, and walked away with an amazing PR. But I also needed to learn from this race. This race was the one that would show me that I really did have what it takes. This race taught me I could push through without walking, that I could keep on fighting even when the devil on my shoulder screamed in my ear: walk, quit, just take a short break, you can’t finish this race without a little walk break. This is the race that showed me what I’m made of. This was the race that taught me I can keep fighting for all 26.2 miles. This was the race to get me within striking distance (or as Shannon put it, within spitting distance) of that BQ.
As fictional President Josiah Bartlet would say, “What’s next?”
I’ll be looking to figure that out very, very soon.