Through the dust motes of this neglected blog – how has it been since Erie since I last wrote? – the just-finished year already seems very distant. A lot happened last year, and as I’m certain I am not the first to write, a lot about 2016 was…pretty terrible. It’s all been written and said to death (…sorry) at this point, and this is my running (and writing) blog, so I’ll try to keep my eye there, but some outside things can’t be ignored. Because running does not exist in a vacuum. It never could.
I ran two marathons in 2016, along with two halfs, and a smattering of other distances. But since running does not exist in a vacuum, it also cannot be confined to our rules of what makes a year. From November 2015 to September 2016, I raced three full marathons. I never thought in my life that I would do that. Sure, maybe run the 26.2 distance that many times in 12 months, but not race it that many times so close together. In those races, I set two big PRs, which sandwiched one crushing disappointment (which, truthfully, in the end wasn’t a terrible race time, though it felt it for every agonizing step of the last eight miles).
In July, I took a crack at my long-standing half-marathon PR (1:40:40) and didn’t quite get there, but got closer than I have in a while (just over 1:41 by gun time, but given the low-key nature of the race led me to miss the “start” command, My watch said just under 1:41 of actually racing). In October, I was really stupid and tried to race out of the gate at AthHalf to attempt sub-1:40 with a group of gals, including one who was doing it as a marathon pace run and led the charge; this was a mere four weeks post-Erie. I pulled the plug on the racing part three miles in and it was an absolute grind to the finish. I hated life. I hated running. I contemplated dropping out. I got a boost from seeing my friend Maricia about 8ish miles in (she was hurting, too, but went out to PR anyway, because she’s a badass), and in the last mile, stopped to try to help a girl who was cramping so hard she was bent over double and sobbing. She told me to go on, and I told her no. I ran alongside her for a bit, encouraging her to breath, telling her she could do this. I lost her a half mile later, I think to more cramps. I hope she finished her race with her head held high. We all have those days. I certainly was.
I hoped to wrap up the year with a couple of short, fast efforts: I trained on hills and returned to the group track workouts to prep for the Give Thanks 8K on Thanksgiving, and later the Santa Stroll 8K in mid-December. A couple days before Thanksgiving, I had a sore throat coming on, and while I didn’t race all out at Give Thanks, I raced hard enough to bring a bad infection into my lungs and was out of running for 9 days trying to kick it. This of course also set me back on Santa Stroll, which felt great for a mile or so before a long mid-race slog, and a hard and fast finish.
In between those 8Ks, despite still getting over the vestiges of the cough (which went on for weeks, as coughs have the tendency to do for me), I got in a great visit with friends in Washington, D.C., which included walking my legs off, and some running on the National Mall.
On New Year’s Eve in Ohio, I intended to race the Great New Year’s Eve race (5K) with Keeley, and though we drove the 30 minutes there, everything inside of me screamed NO and I pulled the plug at the sight of freezing rain, not wanting to mess with my fragile immune system right before marathon training. I was grumpy and frustrated at my decision, though it proved prescient: that evening, I came down with a head cold (which I shook in a few days with rest and fluids, thankfully). Getting sick five times in one calendar year is strange for me, though thankfully almost none of it came during marathon training (aside from that short cough at the end of the Albany taper). I’m hoping it’s out of my system now, and of course now that the holidays are over, I’m back to eating and sleeping better.
It seems 2016 will be remembered by many as a year marked by loss. And for me and those around me, this was definitely the case. Too many of my friends lost parents last year. My paternal grandmother passed in July at nearly 91 – it’s a hard loss, but I also know she lived an amazing life, and that she was ready to go. Harder to swallow is the loss of my stepdad’s twin brother, who was far too young, and far too sweet to leave this earth already.
But wonderful things happened, too: friends and family got married; friends had or are having babies – joys for 2017; my second nephew was born, and shortly thereafter, my brother and his family and their now two little boys moved to the east coast after years of living out west.
I didn’t write enough. I didn’t sit and reflect enough. I didn’t stay in the moment enough. Every day, every week, every month was about looking ahead to the next – about getting to that next day of work, the next weekend, the next vacation, the next travel opportunity, the next marathon – the next BQ attempt. But it shouldn’t be just about getting to the next.
I need to savor the journey. Enjoy every moment of joy or agony, elation or suffering. I need to learn and grow, grieve and feel, push and move on. I need to write more, reflect more, listen more. I need to stop procrastinating, especially on things I know ultimately bring me joy, including writing in my training journal – not just scrambling to catch up every weekend, but writing in it each night. To write for myself, the non-running things, too. Not just invest in other writing activities I’ve accumulated lately – did I mention I joined the Athens Road Runners board of directors and am helping on communications and I’m nerdily thrilled about it? – but also write creatively, for me, for my future, for the career I keep saying that I want.
Running and writing have long been intertwined for me, and so much about them is so similar, so related. Starting up again after a break is difficult. Pacing is a challenge. When you find your stride, it’s a joy. Some days it feel amazing and effortless; other days it feels like a steaming pile of garbage. On reflection, it almost always is better than you thought it was initially.
I need to get back to my roots, to what I love. So expect to see me around here a bit more, even just for a few brief words here and there. I want to run, to write, to live with intention. I want to give my very best to every word, to every stride, to every day. I want to set aside the doubt – to acknowledge it and work through the fear. To recognize what I cannot control, and find ways to make it work the best I can anyway. To strive. To believe. To keep trying and dreaming and working and playing. This training cycle – which began on Monday, January 2 – I will work and savor each day through April 23, when I will give everything I have at the Glass City Marathon to shatter a BQ.
Picture, if you will, a runner in her hotel room after a race. Coated in salty sweat, muscles quivering and convulsing, everything throbbing with pain and exertion. She’s laying on the bed. She’s strewn across the floor. She’s standing in the shower, or laying in the tub of cold water, screeching in pain when the water hits chafe marks, when her muscles can’t stand to move this way or that.
She’s crying. On and off, tears are coursing down her face. She can’t control it – every nerve ending is on fire, every fiber of her soul is exposed. This is what the marathon does – it strips us raw, exposes our heart, wrecks us to our core.
One of these women rips her pace band off her wrist and hurls it across the room. Today was not her day.
The other woman lays in the tub of ice cold water, trying to soothe her aching muscles. She’s sobbing, too.
Both of these runners are me. The first, after Albany, the dark hole of a BQ attempt that was not to be. I wasn’t strong enough, not mentally prepared enough for the fight. Perhaps it simply was not my day, because it sure didn’t feel like it was.
The second woman is me after Erie. Crying in disbelief. Crying with joy. Crying with the pain. Crying with the ache in her heart that the people she carried with her as she ran – her Granddad who passed seven years ago that very day, and her Grandma she lost just this summer in the thick of training, on another race day – are not with her. Except they were. And they still are.
In the days leading up to the race, I kept thinking about Sarah “Mac” Robinson’s post “What the Fire Left.” This summer burned hot and painful for me. I was destroyed by it, rebuilt by it, shaped by it. The long hot runs and brutal workouts. The losses that seared my heart. The simmering burn of that goal on my mind, every single day – BQ. The coals that sometimes needed a kick and a spark when the burning goal grew dim in the wake of everything I was struggling through. Is this worth it? Why am I putting myself through all of this?
I focused on preparing everything that was in my control. I created an absurdly detailed packing list. I made sure I had my pre-race meal plus a backup if the promised microwave did not appear in the room. I triple-checked my race outfit to make sure there were no issues, no missing laces or popped seams (I have a badhistory with this). Nothing that was within my power was going to get messed up.
Of course, one of the big things out of my control was the weather. The week of my friend’s wedding was the absolute perfect temperature. The air was dry and breezy and cool, and it was in the 50s. I would have no such luck at Erie. Every day that I checked that last week leading up, the forecast race starting temperature was 65*. It looked like there was be cloud cover, and a breeze, and the humidity wouldn’t be too insufferable (not compared to Georgia, anyhow), but any long distance runner knows that 65* is not ideal race day weather. Still, I knew I could handle it. I had trained in an absolute sauna. My body could handle more than it ever could before.
I left work at 4 pm on Friday, and picked up Shannon from work; we did a quick driver change so that I could eat dinner while he drove; I had a leftover serving of pasta with marinara, one of my race week staple meals. I ate it cold. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time, got settled, changed gates (ugh), got Shannon some food, and I snoozed during the flight. We landed a little early, got our rental car, and drove to Kim’s house to crash out. Shannon let me have the twin guest bed and he took the air mattress, because he is a saint. We went to bed very late because of the flight, but I didn’t set an alarm and I got a full night’s rest, just as needed.
Kim came back from her morning long run on the trails, and after we were all cleaned up and packed, we grabbed lunch at Panera and also got some donuts at Peace, Love, & Little Donuts – for after the race, of course. I enjoyed the return of Autumn Squash Soup, along with a half salad. My favorite day-before lunch.
After that, we parted ways, since Kim was driving up to Erie the next day. Shannon and I hit the road in earnest. I had been hydrating like a fiend since Friday, but somehow made it through the drive without requiring a rest stop. We headed straight for the race site, and I took in the gorgeous island/peninsula. It was HOT. I knew a storm was scheduled to come through, which was going to cool things into the 60s overnight and give us the much-needed cloud cover. But as we drove north and went to packet pickup, the sky was only dotted with clouds, and had that hazy color of a very hot day. I swallowed my panic. It’s supposed to rain. It has to.
I got my bib; they took my photo with it (a new-this-year security measure against race cheats). We looked a bit at the merchandise and got a “running couple” bumper sticker, but otherwise decided to head to our hotel to relax until dinner.
We had about an hour and change of downtime, and I got my race gear together at that point so I could get to bed as early as possible. I attached my timing chip to my shoe first thing and arranged all my gels, filled a handheld bottle just in case, plugged in my iPod to charge, followed by my Garmin. A little after 6, we headed to a Bob Evans that was just across the way. When we stepped outside, my fears of the storm not showing up were slaked.
The wind was howling and we watched the storm move in as we ate dinner: pancakes and eggs and bacon (bad Jew) and breakfast potatoes. The rain was imminent, and it was just starting to sprinkle as we drove back across the road to our hotel, and it opened up seconds before we had to spring into the hotel, laughing.
Intermittently watching the torrents of rain outside, the spectacular flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, I finished prepping my gear, brushed my teeth, curled up in bed with a book, and turned the light out before 9 pm.
The alarm blared at 4:00 am; as usual, I didn’t need the backup alarms I had set (Shannon, too). I had slept not horribly, but fitfully, and was grateful for Friday night’s great sleep. I set right to work getting ready, making the coffee I had set up the night before to try to get things going, warming up my pre-race oats in the microwave and adding Justin’s maple almond butter (from the packet for easy, TSA-approved transportation). I had a Picky Bar in my packed race bag, too, in case I got hungry more than an hour before the race, but I knew my stomach would probably be fluttering.
We were both dressed, packed, and out the door just after 5 am, and Shannon drove us through the dark while I navigated. I soaked in the social media cheers for as long as I could before my phone refused to find any sort of signal on the peninsula of Presque Isle. It was time to get my brain in the game.
A long line of cars split off to the two main beach parking areas; we were in the right line and were directed to beach 8. Despite fears that the rain the previous night would flood the area, the damage was minimal and parking wasn’t impacted. I had put grocery bags over my shoes to protect them, but ended up not terribly needing it. I got in the bathroom line indoors as soon as we came through, then went to some picnic tables to try to find a sheltered place to rest my legs and sit. I squeezed in between a few other friendly athletes, and began to wait. The wind was howling and blustering. The clouds were moving fast, but I tried not to let this worry me. It made the air chill and cool; I kept my Fleet Feet/ARR racing team tee on to stay warm for the time being.
A little while later, just as I was saying the words, “I wonder if Mark is here yet,” I spotted him from the back, and scooted through people to say hi. Soon after, I found Caitlin and Lori, and a few whiles later, Kim arrived, as well as my dad. I breathed a sigh of relief at his arrival; I worried about him driving in from Cleveland so early in the morning, and the possible traffic situation getting onto the peninsula.
With about 40 minutes to go time, I headed back into the bathroom line. I will now delve into a little “TMI” that will become relevant – runners are chronic oversharers, so chances are if you’re reading this blog, you’re aware of this and are also in this category. If not, sorry not sorry. I was little concerned about my GI going into the race. I had a successful #2 as soon as I woke up, and hoped the black coffee I had with breakfast would help clear the situation further. Weeks before the race, I had done the math and realized I would be getting my cycle. This is kind of a female runner’s worst nightmare. After some experimenting, I switched from tampons to the Diva Cup, especially since so many female athletes swear by its efficacy. My cycle had indeed started the day before the race, with some mild cramping that was mostly soothed by a hot shower. Before bed, I took some ibuprofen, hoping it would help clear my system a bit as it so often does. Probably why #2 upon waking was immediately successful.
After the hotel, I had no further success. I was determined to think positive and believe that my system had cleared and I would be fine. Insert foreshadowing here…
Following the final potty break, I finished getting situated by the picnic tables: I stripped off my tee so I was just in my Oiselle crop singlet and bum wrap, made sure my iPod was situated, took my pre-race gel with a final swig of water (I did my best to taper off my hydration so I wouldn’t have to pee too badly during the race, though I was fully prepared to pee myself if it came down to it with a BQ on the line). I took last pre-race photos, and Mark and I and the rest of the cheer crew pushed our way to the start.
I got last hugs and kisses from my crew, Mark and I laughed at the presence of a little drone (which was taking videos of the start), and shoved our way into a spot nestled between the 3:30 and 3:35 pace groups. My main goal was a 3:32:30, and the middle of my pace band reflected even splits for this goal; Mark also gave me mile splits for 3:30 and 3:35, so I had wiggle room and could relax and find my pace better. The race organizers had O Canada as well as the National Anthem. As the latter played, I said my final pre-race prayers, whispered the Sh’ma, to myself, called on the spirits of my Granddad and Grandma to be with me – telling them once more that this race was for them.
Moments later, the race was off and running.
Erie is a relatively small race, and I think the final tally of participants was well under 3,000, but the narrow road at the start meant that I had to be patient from the beginning. I ignored my watch for a bit, knowing I would just follow Mark and let his inner metronome guide me. I kept relaxed and got a shiver of excitement. This was it – I was running my BQ marathon. It was happening.
The last couple marathons, I’ve had a pacing plan that had me ease into the pace, starting roughing in the 8:20s and cranking it up a few miles at a time. This time, we decided an even plan was best, since it was so flat, and increasing pace seemed to stress me out a bit. This also meant that I was locking in early. But the pace felt great; my legs were fresh and rested and springy. Mark and I chatted a bit here and there, and I stayed relaxed for the first several miles.
A couple splits clicked off a bit too fast; whoops. I told myself to relax. You’re just on fire today, it’s okay; it means you’ve got this. Mark pointed out these splits as they happened, checking overall time at each mile marker and comparing it to the pace band, and letting me know that, at least very early on, we were faster than 3:30 pace, and we needed to ease off. He didn’t want me to come through the half any faster than the prescribed 3:32:30 goal (so, 1:46:15 half). I had my watch on lap pace rather than overall + insta-pace, and I noticed we had slowed a bit much. “That’s okay, let this mile be slow,” Mark reassured me. “Give a little back.” In my mid-marathon mind, I pictured offering up these extra seconds as an offering to the course. When I could, I took in the view – the course is, for the most part, very shaded, and is lovely and tree-lined. I got a few peeks of the lake early on, and the water was roiling, the breakers frothing high. The breeze that came through at those points was refreshing.
One of the cruelest parts of the course is the tiny out and back plus hard turnaround cone section. Mark advised me to take this wide, and I focused also on my arm carriage to keep my posture and body positioning right so I didn’t get my feet tangled. Shortly thereafter, we came across an aid station staffed by a swim team; most of them were in their speedos. “I didn’t need to see that,” Mark said. I laughed.
I took a sip of water at every aid station, which were a little before each mile marker; I began dumping water on my head and ponytail early, knowing the 65* would build on me as the race went on. It kept me comfortable for a decent amount of time.
At about maybe about 5 miles, perhaps a bit before, I saw Caitlin on the sidelines, cheering me on and telling me I looked strong. I gave her a humongous grin and blew her a kiss. A little while later, I saw my dad, Kim, and Shannon. Seeing my dad there made my heart swell, and to my surprise I saw that Kim had made signs to cheer me on, which she shared with Shannon.
8:04, 7:58, 7:53, 8:08, 8:04; 8:12
Official 10K split: 50:04
The course curved out and wound along the edge of the island. Mark, experienced on this course, had me mind the tangents. I kept to his shoulder to let him pull me along. A couple times I would get distracted and he would simply say “tangent,” and I’d make my way back to where I needed. He noted that this side would be the windiest and weirdest as far as tangents and the portion coming back was a lot straighter, but I needed to mind them carefully now. We kept up an intermittent chatter, and Mark pointed out points of interest, and recalled his first BQ here three years ago. The course began to curve back, and we came upon a short bridge (one that I remember Athens friend David mentioning as a cruel hill, but only on the second loop). Mark mentioned it, too, as we approached, saying, “Now, this is the only real hill of note on the course. Try not to laugh.” I stayed relaxed and on pace up and over it, and as we came down the other side, Mark teased, “now try not to make up that half a second you lost all at once.”
As we headed back on the straighter path, I gave a few more seconds to the course, and soon we were only a few seconds off the intended half split pace, and I stuck right there for a long time. I stayed as relaxed as I possibly could, seeking out Mark’s shoulder all the way and trying to stay in the moment. An hour into the race, Mark asked how I was feeling, and I shook out my arms, saying I felt good, felt relaxed still. At that point, I very much still did.
8:00, 8:13, 8:05, 8:05, 8:09: 8:06
As we approached halfway, Mark checked in on me, and we formed a game plan for the second half. He told me that he honestly wasn’t sure he had 26.2 in him that day, as he hadn’t run more than 15 miles in the previous month and a half (work has been hell). He offered a couple options: he could stay with me as long as possible, through probably about mile 20, or he could drop out at the halfway point and pick me back up on the other side of the course. Since it was starting to get a little hard, and because I know well that my darkest miles are 23 and 24, I opted for the latter option, knowing I would have to tough out the mental block of “omg I’m only halfway” alone for a handful of miles. This, to me, was better than the alternative, and in the end was the right call. (I would like to note – for the record – that since Erie now requires that if you are pacing a runner, that you be registered, which is a new policy this year, that Mark was indeed registered and ran with a bib. Since he did not run the full course, after the race was over, he went over to the timing officials and asked to be disqualified. People, take note. That is how it’s done fairly.) Mark said he felt good about leaving me here for the moment, noting I was breathing better than I had been a couple miles before. I had noted a couple moments that my GI had twisted, which probably accounted for the less-than-relaxed breathing, but the feeling had passed.
I saw Caitlin as we approached the half, and got an enormous boost once more from seeing my family (Kim among them), grinning hard, knowing I was pretty much right where I needed to be.
Official 13.1 mile split: 1:46:20 (5 seconds off goal pace)
Shortly after the halfway split, Mark wished me well and ducked away, heading to pick me back up a few miles later after a few miles’ break.
As I had worried, the next few miles started to become hard. I had hoped to stay relaxed and okay well beyond the halfway point, but it was not to be. My GI was not fully cooperating. My feet were beginning to burn already; usually this doesn’t happen for me in a marathon until the 20-mile mark or later. Kim theorized later that it was related to the extreme flatness of the course; that sounds about right to me. I noted the pain especially as I took that hairpin turn a second time; even taken wide, I cringed at the pull and searing fire in my feet. By mile 16, the burning feeling was there to stay. I kept wanting to back off pace, but I refused, pushing myself to try to keep close to where I needed, even as I was falling back a couple seconds at a time. You can do this. Keep pushing. Get to Mark. I came upon Caitlin and she checked in on me. I gave her a “so-so” hand signal, but told her I was okay, and pressed on. I saw my family once more at about 18.6ish, and by then, I was deep in it, and it was visible on my face according to Kim post-race. I was struggling.
8:05, 8:06, 8:08, 8:13, 8:18
Right around the mile 19 marker, Mark reappeared, and checked in first thing on how I was feeling. “Pain cave,” I confessed in a grunt. He set right to work trying to get me back on pace; I was about 20 seconds off my main 3:32:30 goal. As I watched my lap pace tick up fast, I wanted to cry to him to stop, to slow it down, this was too much, but I told myself to shut up and keep going, trying to keep an invisible, unbreakable thread linking us together from breaking. Over the next couple miles, he pressed me hard to get back on pace and I tried to keep it together; he had me break it up piecemeal: keep on pace these next 4, then focus on the final 5K push.
Official 20-mile split: 2:42:32 (26 seconds off pace)
We arced around the course, and came upon that little bridge once more; this time, it felt like a mountain. The sun had been out for several miles, but now we were going to be largely exposed for the remainder, out of most of the shade until the finish. That wind that had cooled things early and blustered and finally died away before it became a deadly headwind, had also blown out the cloud cover far earlier than anyone had hoped. I was seeing carnage all around me. Since the halfway point, I had been seeing runners drop to a walk. Some stopped along the sides to stretch. Even when I began to struggle after halfway, I was still passing people who were struggling far more. I was dumping more and more water on myself. I grabbed two cups at aid stations when I could, sipping from both, then drenching myself with the remainder. Mark also passed me extra cups when he could. He pointed out the runners around me who were breaking apart, telling me I was staying strong, that I had this, that all of that summer heat training was paying off, right here, right now. I knew it to be true, but I begged for the pain to stop.
8:09, 8:21, 8:23
Sometime in the final 10K, I believe at 23 or later, I looked behind me and saw the 3:35 pace group. My heart leapt into my throat and my body surged forward; in response, my right calf and toes cramped, and I backed off and forced myself to relax and breathe. Keep pushing. They are back there, but you WILL NOT let them catch you. They are your competition. You can not and will not lose to them.
Mark told me with about 5K to go that I needed to maintain 8:30s to get my BQ. I grunted that I thought I could do that, and kept glancing at my watch, begging my splits to stay that low. So, so many times, I wanted to stop. I wanted to walk for just a moment. I wanted to throw in the towel and quit. But each and every time the walking devil whispered in my ear, each and every time the quitter inside me cried for mercy, I told them to shut up. You will be so mad at yourself if you give in. You will never be able to forgive yourself if you quit now and don’t get your BQ. Now FIGHT.
Mark pulled out of reach more than once, and a few times I saw him slow down when he saw how far back I had drifted. Other times I wanted to sob out loud, please slow down, I cannot keep up. I kept pressing.
I wondered if I would lose my lunch before this race was over, or shortly after. In the last couple of miles, I saw the 3:30 pacer walking along the sidelines; I wasn’t sure what had happened, if he had had all of his runners vanish either in front or behind him, or if he had had to fold early himself. I saw a woman who was being held around the waist by her partner; she looked about to pass out, tears rolling down her face. I had seen a few Oiselle singlets early, and one woman who had looked strong early, I passed in later miles, and when I saw her agony, my heart ripped in two. Keep fighting, I told myself. Do it for her. Wings out.
I called on my grandparents. I called on G-d’s strength. I called on my legs to please, please keep it together. I saw Caitlin along the side around mile 25, and she encouraged me and began to run along the sidelines, several feet off the race course (many feet away from me; Mark darted over there briefly, perhaps to tell her to make sure she didn’t actually come on the course so I didn’t get DQ’d, or maybe telling her what he thought my status was, I’m not sure). I kept wanting to start kicking, start pushing, make this agony end sooner, but my body was rebelling. In the end, I had no idea how fast or slow I was going. I just kept running.
In the final 1.2 miles, my legs disconnected from my body. I felt loose and syrupy, my mind a fog of suffering. I felt like I might vomit. I felt like I might pass out. The GI cramps I had been fighting on and off for the last several miles were coming to a head, and I passed gas that felt…productive. I didn’t care. I kept running. Caitlin shouted that I was almost there as the course swerved an S-curve.
The finish banner was so, so far away. I felt like I was sprinting at 5K pace or faster. Please, please get there. Just get across. Just. get. across. I know my family was screaming for me. I saw 3:34:XX ticking on the clock. I ran as hard as my body would let me. I did not throw up my arms. I did not fist pump the air. I did not grin and celebrate that moment that I crossed the line. I simply crossed it with the last shred of strength I possessed.
Final sprint (only .9 over course measurement for my best tangents ever in a marathon): 8:05 pace
Final chip time: 3:34:09
Not a moment after I stopped my watch, my eyes sought out a volunteer or medical. I searched the crowd for my family to see if they could get me help. I stumbled. I felt faint. Apparently I was pretty ghostly pale. A volunteer scooped me up and got me to hang onto a railing along the side. I was a bit overly concerned about getting my medal, and was happy to finally get it. I managed to save my watch data as they walked me to medical and asked what was wrong. “I feel like I’m going to pass out,” I said, stumbling sideways. “I think you should check my BP.” They laid me down on the ground on a jacket (they were out of cots on the warm morning) and helped me drink my fluids. Soon, my family surrounded me and helped me lay down. Shannon held my little carton of chocolate milk for me, and I was able to drink that fine a little while later. After a few minutes, I felt a blood pressure cuff be placed on my arm; all good. Which in itself is interesting, since my BP tends to spike after hard efforts; but I was glad it wasn’t basement low. It was normal.
I felt loopy and disoriented, and I heard Mark reassuring my dad that this was normal, explaining the effects of the marathon on the human body. As everyone chatted around me, I saw Kim’s grinning face, and it hit me. “I did it,” I said to everyone. “I’m going to Boston.” And tears poured down my cheeks.
When I was ready, Shannon hauled me to my feet, and everyone kept me walking. My entire body was shrieking in pain. My feet in particular were flaming, like I had been walking across hot coals (and, I suppose, if you’re a fan of Matt Fitzgerald’s book “How Bad Do You Want It,” I was). I walked as long as I could stand it, getting more hugs from my amazing support crew, before we started to drift our separate ways. Kim helped me back to the car, and I gave one last hug to my amazing coach, pacer, and friend, Mark, thanking him profusely for getting me through that race, and through the entire last year that led to this moment. “You’re the one who did it,” he said. (Apparently after the race, when I was laying on the ground, he told Shannon, “Dude, your wife is an animal,” recalling how he couldn’t keep up with me the last mile. I think I went into the state that my friend Chrissy refers to as “lizard mode.”) Before I got into the car, even though we were going to the same place so we could get lunch together, I hugged my dad hard and told him I loved him, and how much it meant that he was there to see me run this race.
Shannon drove us off the peninsula, and as we navigated the slow-moving traffic, my cell phone signal returned and my phone began pouring in messages. My heart grew three sizes as I read through these. I began to cry again. I sat there shaking and sobbing in disbelief, in exhaustion, in overwhelming love for all those who helped me get here, all those who had supported and believed, and in pride in my fight. I had not quit. At that moment, my mother-in-law called and she was shouting and laughing and telling me how proud she was as I continued to cry.
At Mark’s instruction, back at the hotel I took an ice bath – or rather, an “ice” bath with very cold water, which was more than sufficient. I wrapped my top half in a hoodie and I was shivering like crazy for the 10ish minutes I could stand it. I found as I first tried to sit in the water, I felt a searing pain as I had chafed in places that no one ever wants to chafe, thanks to my GI issues late in the race (also TMI: had the worst runner’s colitis of my life post-race, probably a combination of getting my cycle and racing harder than I ever had in my life. Luckily the worst of the symptoms resolved within 24 hours). I managed to (ahem) clean myself up again and grimaced as I finished sitting, letting my muscles soak in the cold water. I also took note of the horrendous blood blister on my left baby toe, and the almost blood blister on the pad of the same foot behind the big toe. No wonder my feet were aflame. I also managed to re-chafe that same spot under my left arm on the side of my torso, likely from my iPod strap. The spot was huge and raw, and took days to fully heal.
Halfway through my “ice” bath, I broke down in tears once more, and Shannon rushed over to check on me. I reassured him these were still good tears, though at the same moment, I felt my heart break as I thought about my grandparents.
I finished getting cleaned up, and we packed as quickly as we could and had housekeeping knocking on our door as we had overstayed the late race checkout of 1 pm by a few minutes. I hobbled slowly across the lobby, and we ultimately decided on Applebee’s as the lunch destination, since I knew I’d have some options and would just order whatever seemed remotely palatable, and make sure I was getting fluids in. Over lunch, I picked through a salad, and we chatted and recalled the race and explained about how Boston registration works, and the travel plans entailed. Mark was very confident that my :51 buffer would be sufficient this year, since all of the big feeder qualifying races – including Boston itself – have been ungodly hot. Erie itself wasn’t exactly cool, and I learned later that Lehigh Valley – the same day, on the opposite side of the state – was not only hot, but interrupted for many runners by a slow-moving train around mile 7.
After lunch, my dad headed back to Ohio, with one more huge hug and thank you from me, and Shannon and I made our way back to Pittsburgh. We opted to stop at the Burgatory that’s somewhat near the airport for a 4:30 pm dinner, in hopes that my appetite would have returned for real by then. It hadn’t. I forced myself through two-thirds of a bison burger (more iron, please), and drank a ginger ale with it to keep my stomach settled. It helped. I bought snacks at the airport in case my appetite came back, and I walked laps of our concourse until we had to board (we were the second to last row); as I rounded a people mover on each lap, I passed by a flight that was boarding, on its way to Boston.
My appetite did not return that night, though I was hydrated enough (and ate a Snickers bar) to take two ibuprofen before bed to try to further ward off soreness. It wasn’t until Monday night at about 8 pm, when we came home from the group run (which of course only Shannon participated in), Chipotle in tow, that my appetite suddenly came roaring back, and I devoured a chicken burrito bowl plus half a bag of chips and some guacamole. Thank goodness.
What the fire left
The above post showed up on Erie’s page a few days before the race, and I knew more than anything that this was true. Going into Chickamauga, I had mentally prepared to push harder than I ever had before; at Albany, I now think I took it for granted, and expected the first half and then some to feel as great and relaxed as it had in November. I was not mentally prepared. My mind was not where I needed to be.
But everything since then put my mind where it should be before Erie. Every searing hot run. Every emotional breakdown during or after a workout. The pain in my life outside of running. The victories of hard-fought tempos and long runs with MP efforts on the treadmill, trapped in a breezeless hot box of the gym. That day in Erie, I reached inside of myself and pulled out layers of fight I never knew I had. This summer, this cycle, this race chipped away at my soft outside and left a hard, determined animal that would scrape and fight for every single second. After the race, I remember telling Shannon, A couple weeks from now, I’ll wonder if I could have done more. I’ll think I could have pushed harder and gotten my A goal. Remind of this moment: I gave everything I had today. I gave more than I thought I had inside me.
Usually, that feeling does arise in me a few days after the race. It hasn’t yet. I know what I gave to that course. I know the suffering and pain I offered up as a sacrifice to get my BQ. I know what it takes. I gave it all.
At the end of today, I’ll either learn that everyone who applied this week (including myself) was accepted into Boston, or I will find that I’ll learn my ultimate fate next week when a cutoff is determined. Either way, I know I gave my all, and I’ll be back for even more down the road.
In just over two weeks, I run the Erie Marathon in my second “real” attempt to qualify for Boston. The race is the day before registration opens (though to faster qualifications than I am currently capable of). It’s only two hours north of Pittsburgh, the beloved city where I used to live, and where I’m flying into. Not only do I have a few friends coming up to cheer me on, but my dad is driving in from Cleveland as well.
I’ve been largely quiet on here this training cycle. Part of it is blogging malaise – you let enough weeks and posts and ideas go by, it’s harder and harder to get going again. But it’s also been a fairly rough, emotional summer. I can’t really complain – I have it pretty good, and I have close friends and family members who are struggling with worse. But it’s unfair to compare one person’s burdens with another. We all have them.
This summer has been one bookmarked by tragedy. One peppered with breakdowns – in and out of running. The heat and humidity have been crushing, and more than once, it has crushed me. The treadmill and I have gotten very, very close – it was my friend for numerous shorter runs and workouts, and three long runs: two 18s and a 20, all with many miles at goal race pace.
In some ways, I’ve felt a little disconnected from this marathon. A lot of the time, it doesn’t feel real. Many mornings I feel like I’m going through the motions of a run or workout. I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps it’s just a result of having been marathon training what feels like nonstop since August 2015. Maybe it’s better to just go through the motions, have it all feel like routine, like normal, than to put too much weight on each workout, each day, each week. Maybe that’s what becoming a successful marathoner is. Maybe it’s just a part of me now.
A few things have started to feel real. Booking the flight made it feel real. Talking with my coach and with friends about the race makes it feel real. Thinking about how I’m going to bring my pre-race breakfast with me for the flight in, how many possible outfits I might pack, looking at where I can get my pre-race dinner, and where to eat for my post-race celebration. Figuring out when we need to head back to Pittsburgh to catch our flight. There’s a wedding between here and there – a dear high school friend, who is also a runner. My last long-ish run is on a Thursday as a result of the wedding festivities; not ideal, but it’ll do. I’ll feel better doing it at all, unlike having skipped it entirely last time before Albany, with that wicked cough I was fighting.
The taper so far feels normal – the miles are gradually ramping down, the workouts shortening, the self-awareness to every niggle and pull heightening. All of my taper crazies are coming out. Actually, they started coming early. At the beginning of this month, on a Monday night Fleet Feet run, I felt a twinge. I had run 4 on the treadmill that morning and had 6 to run that night. I got in an extra mile just before the group run with a friend; it was warm out but there was a breeze, and the sky looked threatening all around. Athens weather can be bizarre: there will be pockets of showers. It can pour on one side of town, and be bone dry a couple miles away. Another friend of mine once remarked on observing that it was raining in his front yard, but not his backyard; I had lunch with someone and saw it raining across the street.
So we did a quick loop near the store, and it started to rain, at first very pleasantly. We remarked on how nice it felt, how it was cooling things, how neither of us had had a nice rainy run in quite sometime, a relief we would have appreciated at any point this brutal summer. Then, it started to rain harder. As we turned off a neighborhood street and onto a main road, maybe .2 miles from the store, it started to pour; we saw a sheet of rain coming at us, and as it did, we started to sprint, cutting across a parking lot and diving under an overhang, the rain stinging our cheeks as we did. We laughed at the absurdity of it as it continued to downpour for twenty-five minutes. A girl walking back with groceries sought the same shelter, and we chatted with her. Another runner friend snuck up behind us and kept us company as we all waited it out. Multiple firetrucks went to and fro. I had never seen such rain, and for so long.
At last, the rain cleared enough to get the rest of the way to Fleet Feet, and we waited with the big group a few more minutes – lightning delay. At about 6:30 (30 minutes later than scheduled), we headed out on our run, adjusting the 5-mile route because the trails and the intramural fields would be a disaster. I wound up alone a lot, but it was lovely – it had cooled off drastically, even if steam was rising from the pavement. I was coming down Lumpkin hill when my left upper hamstring felt…weird. Just…weird. Not painful and not tight, per se, but off. I thought about stopping to stretch it, but once the hill started going back up, and eventually flattening, it gradually dissipated. I rolled it out later that night at home, but otherwise thought nothing of it.
Tuesday morning, I had 11 miles to do (with some strides), and planned to do the first half or so with friends. Within the first quarter mile, my hamstring and glute grew uncomfortably tight. I paused to stretch it out. It didn’t seem to be working. I decided to give it a mile to loosen, or I’d back it. Thankfully, it did; I was hyper-aware of it for a few miles, but eventually let it go. We got in 5.25 miles together, and as the group separated, I decided to just take a ride back to Ramsey to finish on the treadmill. During the break, it tightened again so I pre-rolled it, eased into the run with a few minutes of walking, and finished the miles without incidence. I did the strides, though did them slower than typical, exercising caution.
Wednesday isn’t a run day, so I was grateful for a rest day. I had already been in touch with my coach, and told him it seemed fine. I was rolling it and stretching it. It seemed manageable, whatever it was. We were both keeping a close eye on it. Thursday morning, I had a track workout – 5×1200 @ 10K pace. I had a couple miles of warm up (done with a friend, who also planned to do the workout with me, though at his own pace), and I had zero issues. It didn’t feel like there was anything there to even warm up. But a lap and a half into the first 1200 rep, my upper hamstring, glute, and groin seized in rapid succession on the left side. I got through the lap, then went to the side to stretch it out. I tried walking it out, jogging it out, nothing. I quickly gave up, and walked the mile back to Ramsey to hit the foam roller. Time to see a doctor.
I was able to make an appointment for the next morning, and I was fully resting until I got seen, so I skipped my Friday morning recovery miles. At that point, I felt okay, and the physician’s assistant (who was awesome and only concerned with getting me to the marathon healthy) palpated and tested my rage of motion and could find no pain points (of course). An X-ray of my pelvis showed no issues, other than minor impingement in the left hip, just my biomechanics. She prescribed me a 24-hour anti-inflammatory to take for two weeks, and a script for PT.
Since I had no pain, I went ahead and ran my 20-miler the next day, with express instructions to pull the plug if I had issues (which I was fully prepared to do, clearly). I only ran the first few miles solo, running the rest with my friend Krystina (who had 18 and ran 18.5 because she is a saint who wouldn’t leave me) and a few others for parts. It was brutally hot and muggy that morning; 4 miles in when I got to the meetup point, I noted I was full on dripping already, and I was going through fluids fast. We walked. We wanted to quit. We soaked our heads and ponytails multiple times at water fountains. But we made it. It was the ultimate “time on our feet” exercise. I felt minor tightness in the hamstring/glute a few times, but never pain, even when I was exhausted and almost falling apart. Krystina truly saved me that morning.
Since then, I’ve gone to PT twice and have been diligent about my exercises, which are primarily stretches for my hamstring and hip flexor (the flexor also seemed to tighten in response to the glute/hammie tightening – not surprising), as well as exercises to strengthen my hips and glutes. The PT also wants to address my lower back posture – I have an inherited hyperextension, so I’m not leaning forward far enough and tucking my pelvis enough when I run, which leads to underactive glutes. I’ve had a couple small flare ups – I bagged some strides a week ago Tuesday because I felt the tightness, but I got the miles in. But other than that, it’s been okay. I had the shortest ortho follow-up in history today, and the PA was happy with my progress. The nurse who took me in to the exam room gave me a little lip at the start – “Have you been s l o w l y easing back into training, or have you been good and not running?” she asked. “Well, no one told me I should stop running, so I didn’t.”
Since the injury scare, even if I’ve bagged some miles and/or strides, I’ve had some serious victories. I nailed 18 miles with 12 at marathon goal pace on the treadmill the week following the hamstring scare. I had a sports massage with my usual person the next day, and she worked at my hamstring like never before.
The morning I skipped the strides, I had to get to work by 7:30, and was to do 4 miles at the end of the day; attempt 1 was at the gym, until I discovered I forgot socks. When I got home and tried to run from there, I felt a tightness in my left heel (I had felt it a tad that morning) and it was uncomfortable enough that I stopped. I seem to have that managed as well – seems to be related to my calf. It’s not quite plantar fascia, not really the right spot, but similar. Or maybe it is PF. Who knows. Either way, it’s managed.
That was meant to be my (other) peak week – the earlier 54-mile planned week was the week my hamstring pain started, and I hoped to have that 54-mile week done this time, but alas. Nevertheless, and despite a mysterious alarm clock foul-up that led me to not be able to start my 20-miler that Saturday early, I nailed the 20, running 10.7 outside (in the heat – first few miles were bad, but then I hit a rhythm somehow) and the rest indoors. I felt so strong.
But the taper tantrums are still there. I heard someone coughing behind me during a presentation earlier this week, and I wanted to don a mask. Tuesday morning, on a very dark road and despite a headlamp, I managed to roll each ankle once – my right one hard, so hard I staggered a few steps. I gave it about a minute and decided to try running on it (I was less than a mile from home) and the pain went away and I was fine. The second time was less severe, but that time I screamed out curse words from frustration. I pulled it together at the end of the run, pushing through my strides even though I felt rather “meh” about it. The next morning at a meeting, I barely tapped my right knee on the corner of the table, and felt a blistering pain; it still felt bruised to kneel on to do my PT exercises the next day. Bubble wrap. PLEASE.
Yesterday, I got a second shot at that 5×1200 (though a shorter run overall). It was a few degrees cooler than it’s been…pretty much this entire summer. And I nailed it, each split progressively faster, the last one almost too fast (I blame the fact that I was getting crowded by ROTC kids, though their senior cadet seemed to be yelling at them to get out of lane one for me, which I appreciated).
Tomorrow, I have one last 18-miler, and next week the taper begins in earnest. I plan on spending this weekend getting organized for the wedding, for the last two weeks of training, for the last two weeks of eating well and sleeping well, for the last two weeks of getting into that mental place I know I need to be. The place I was before Chickamauga – confident, mentally prepared, with the right amount of nerves, the right amount of recognition for the task at hand. The readiness to brace myself for the effort. The fight. The race of my life – at least up to this point.
Yes, maybe it is okay that it all feels routine now. Before, I was becoming the runner ready to do this. Now, I am that runner.
I raced a half-marathon on Saturday. It was the first half I have raced since last October. And yet, until this post, I have not made mention of its result anywhere. True, I’ve been lackadaisical with blog posting in general – I have a long post mostly written from my trip to Pittsburgh back in May (including participating in the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay). At this point, I have a feeling it will never see the light of day. Too much has happened between then and now.
I could just write about how this race went in brief summary. I could post a couple of photos from it (not many – it was a tiny race, with 300 participants, and no photographers that I noticed). I could give a mile-by-mile summation of what I can remember. I could post about my time, and how, while it wasn’t a PR, it was the closest I have come in more than two years, and the downhill brutality of the course was tougher in ways I had not anticipated. I could talk about how GPS seemed to struggle extra under the dense foliage of the mountain, the steep and winding paths. About how the mile markers did not seem to even remotely line up, and that made pacing to the finish line and knowing when exactly to kick, to try to PR a bit difficult. I could write all of this, and leave it at that.
But this was not just a race day, a race weekend. It hardly ever is. Our running never exists in a vacuum, and this race perhaps least of all.
I went into this event with a couple of thoughts: that perhaps I could finally crack my 1:40:40 PR (old and dusty from the May 2014 Pittsburgh Half), and that I would have a person in my mind to fight for. When I struggled, while my mind could still function outside the pain cave of racing hard, I thought of Russ, the twin brother of my stepfather, who passed away suddenly at the very beginning of this month. I learned of his passing the evening before the Peachtree Road Race, and I raced in the heat the next day, thinking of him and honoring his memory as I pushed on the hills. I have these legs, these lungs, this heart, this life. Keep going.
Getting to this race was a bit of a stressful ordeal, but such has been life lately, life this summer. Things happening at the last minute, cobbling together a plan. A few weeks ago, I ran 17 miles in the Georgia heat and humidity, wolfed down food, and drove to Atlanta to hop on a plane to scorching out Arizona. I was there to see my grandparents; my grandmother, not yet 91, was fading fast. We knew time was short; we were not sure how short. I did not wait. While I was there, I ran in the desert heat. I felt alive. I felt my life in my footsteps. I felt the bones in her body when I hugged her – gently, lest I break her.
On this last Friday afternoon, I hadn’t been able to leave work as early as I would have liked to head to an out-of-state race, and we were not on the road in earnest until 3:30. We stopped in Spartanburg, SC, and had a lovely pasta dinner with my friend and teammate Erin, whom I was meeting in person for the first time. In chatting about running and racing, and life in general, my mind finally started to acknowledge, at least a little, that I was heading up to a race. I was so disjointed, so disconnected from the coming reality. I was going through the motions, moving forward without aim or certainty.
We had an hour and a half of the drive remaining, and we were losing the sun. Deep into the mountains, the “low tire pressure” light came on in our car; we pulled off at a gas station to check the pressure, and determined it was fine, perhaps a false alert light (particularly since we had just taken the car in earlier that week for service, including oil change and tire rotation). We arrived at the hotel and turned in too late, but such is life. We kept on. When I awoke the next morning, among my first tasks was checking the tires – they were again fine.
I tried to find the right mind space. Eating my usual pre-race breakfast. Donning the outfit that made me feel fast and powerful. Thinking of the tough workouts I had conquered lately. Of how much cooler it would be on the mountain than all of my long runs lately – by a good 10 degrees – even if the humidity was merciless.
We drove 35 minutes to where we were to park, and quickly boarded a bus. Shannon and I sat across the aisle from one another, each chatting with our seatmates on the drive up. The woman I sat with had run this race a few times before, and we talked about the course, about other races, about our training, about injuries and pitfalls, about our families.
Packet pickup took place at a little mountain shop attached to a gas station – small, unassuming. I dropped my bag in the designated van all of 10 minutes prior to the start. It rained briefly before the race, a welcome result of 100 percent humidity. But the drizzle left, and the humidity remained.
As we walked the 600 yards down the road to where we were to start, one of three hound dogs in the yard of the nearby house was alerting the world to our presence; he kept baying and baying and baying, tail wagging furiously. One remained more hidden, with only its wagging tail visible in the shadows. A third repeatedly popped out of the bushes and silently stared us all down. Perhaps we were all distracted by these pups, perhaps it was the noise of the one, but I do not recall a call to “go” or “start,” and I quickly realized there was no start mat. I pushed START on my watch, several seconds late, and started to run. I tried to find my pace, my rhythm. My mind was in upheaval, unsure of how to race a half-marathon, so long out of practice. How strange, since this was my 14th time racing the distance.
As I was told and as I saw from the elevation chart online, the first mile was mostly flat but with the slightest uphill grind. I relaxed. I told my legs to go no faster than an 8:00 pace to start off, to save my legs, to ease into the effort. My watch beeped exactly at the race marker for 1 mile in 8:01; I was never synced up with the markers even remotely ever again.
By the end of the second mile, the road was switching to crushed limestone; as I noted how rocky it was in places, I recalled our long run in Forest Park in Portland, OR, the weekend before training officially began, and hoped it would not be quite that technical the whole way. Mile 2, I clicked several seconds before the mile marker, which seemed more typical GPS behavior; 7:50. Getting there. A controlled first two miles. Now it was time to find my race pace.
I can honestly say I was not really prepared – mentally or physically – for how this course would feel. The third mile was by far my fastest – a screaming 7:26 – and I was trying so hard to hold back, to find a controlled pace at a high cadence. Over the subsequent miles, my mind floated between intense focus – on my feet, on the path, on the tangents, on forgoing tangents in favor of the smoother sections of trail to save my feet – and exhilaration – I could do this, I could PR and by a lot if I played this right – and panic – I was out of control, I was going to crash, how the hell was I supposed to be racing this? I was not tapered. I was not prepared.
Calm. Calm. Think of Russ. You have strong legs and a healthy heart. Your breathing is controlled. Calm. Calm.
Mile 5 was borderline terrifying in its descent at points. I kept tapping the metaphorical brakes. I wondered if I would crash and burn and implode. I wondered if my legs could handle this much stress, this much eccentric contraction. I was already half-rolling my ankles quite frequently in places, barely retaining control. A few such rolls were more out of control – none hurt, but all were startling and disarming. I knew we had some light uphills coming up; I had been warned, and I had been trying to save my legs. I was not sure it was working.
It was during mile 7 that the hills first came. I passed a few people who stopped to walk, though later they re-passed me, and I wondered if their walk breaks were wiser than trying to push through at a slightly slower running pace. But the road screamed down again, and some of the turns were absurdly sharp. Whenever the trees gave way, I looked out at the views, the shadowy, foggy mountains in the distance. As we descended through mile 8, I took note that we had lowered into the fog, and the humidity grew all the more thick. I kept passing mile markers while reading X.85 or so on my watch; some were even X.75 or so. I shook this off and tried to read my effort, but knew I was going to have difficulty pacing the last 5K, knowing when to kick, knowing what marker to trust. I kept to my watch, knowing it would be gut wrenching to expect the finish to show up early just because the markers were doing so, and have it read beyond 13.1.
During mile 9, another appearance of hills almost buckled me. People in front of me and behind me had dropped to a walk. I pushed through, trying to breathe, trying to relax, knowing I still had to conserve. All told, it was still a downhill mile, but the beating those downhills were giving my legs made every uphill, even every flat, feel like running up a mountain. When the course finally went back down again during mile 10, it took a little extra time for the coasting to feel good; at first, it felt awful and out of control. I rolled my ankles a few more times, then berated myself for my own lack of focus and control. Strong legs. Strong ankles. Eyes forward. Support the core.
The course turned and turned and turned as it continued to barrel down, but in the last mile and a half, we switched back to road. I felt my body begin to kick. I passed the couple who had kept dropping to a walk for the uphills and then re-passing me on the downs. I passed them for good. I crossed a bridge across the creek, and my kick was taking its toll. I thought I heard a volunteer say “last hill up ahead.” It was a lie, but an effective one, and I pushed up it. I switched my watch to overall time briefly at the 12 mile mark. I could see I would have to all out sprint to get under 1:40, and I was pretty sure I was not going to make it, not unless the course truly was reading short on my watch. The thought that my watch would read 12.9-something in the end because of GPS issues crossed my mind, but I shoved this idea aside. I could not count on that; there was no guarantee I was really that far ahead on distance. I kept pushing. We climbed up one more little hill, and I saw we were coming down the other side, past a larger throng of people, screaming louder, past the buses that would take us back, and up ahead I saw a squad car with lights on, and the tent, and the timing mats. I gave it everything I had, asking myself, How bad do you want it?
A woman was walking across my path as I careened for the finish, and I mustered enough oxygen to say, “heads up” and she moved aside.
The clock read 1:41:01 as I finished. My watch – started late though it was for official time – read 1:40:52. The latter was a mere 12 seconds off my PR. My watch measured 13.09 at the finish.
Shannon and I crawled onto the bus together, laughing and talking with other sweaty runners, who pointed out that the route we drove back to our cars was essentially the second half of the full marathon route, which takes place in October. I winced at the rolling hills and lonely sections; not a race I would like to run anytime soon. We arrived back at parking and hobbled to the pavilion where food was being served and the extremely kind race organizers gave me my age group award before the awards were even able to begin since we had to leave; a Skype call to the hotel revealed that they would only give us until 1 pm to check out, an hour of leeway.
In order to make that call, I had connected to the tenuous wifi in the pavilion; the rest of the mountain was a dead zone. I had not even been able to send tracking to my coach prior to the start (and wasn’t sure until later that the message I tried to send explaining this had even gotten through).
As my phone came to life, I had a few messages, including one from my father.
My grandmother was in her final days. It was going to happen soon. I should be prepared to travel to Arizona soon, some time that week.
I swallowed all of this; there was nothing I could do. Not in this remote place, on this mountain, hours from home, a plane ride away from her side. I said a prayer of gratitude that I had been able to see her so recently.
We rushed back to the hotel, quickly showered and packed. While Shannon cleaned up, I stood in the middle of the dim hotel room and prayed, tears streaming down my face. I prayed for her to find peace. That if the end was here, that she would find it without pain. That those of us left behind would find comfort in each other. That God would watch over my grandfather, who would be losing his partner of nearly 70 years.
We checked out, we got on the road, and as Shannon read me off directions through the winding mountain roads, my phone rang. It was my brother. There was a darkness in his voice – a devastation. One that even his eternal stoicism could not mask. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“It happened, didn’t it,” I said. No question in my voice. “She’s gone.”
It had happened perhaps ninety minutes before. Maybe in the very moment I had been praying in the hotel room.
By that evening, we had booked flights for Arizona, departing the following evening. We would be staying in the same hotel as my brother and his wife (and their three-year-old son, it turned out; how lovely it was to have a joyful little life around – a blessing I wasn’t sure to expect right then) as well as my dad and stepmother. Nearly our entire family was able to make the trip. We took a cab to my grandpa’s house from the airport, the scorching desert heat hardly abating in the early evening. As soon as we dropped our bags and took off our shoes in the hall, we were greeted with embraces, and with each hug and kiss, my heart cracked further. I looked around at the photographs, the memorial candle, the chair that she had lately been sitting in in the den. I thought of my granddad’s passing almost seven years ago, and how in their house, I kept waiting for him to walk in from his bedroom. Here, too, I felt myself waiting. Waiting for the missing piece to be filled.
I said little about my race. I did not volunteer it, only mentioned it when explicitly asked. I did not post about my result anywhere – not until now. The days strung together into an endless Sunday, an endless time of waiting, of bleary eyed pain. I could almost forget that it had happened altogether, except for every time I stood up. My whole body reminded me that I had just raced thirteen miles down a mountain, but the exhaustion I felt engulfing my soul was separate from all of this.
The pain of the race is receding now. I ran a few miles Monday morning – again in the desert heat, this time with my love rather than alone – and a few miles on the treadmill Tuesday morning, my adorable nephew making an appearance in the little hotel gym when I was nearly done, staring at me as I flung sweat and smiled at him in the mirror, trying to climb atop the recumbent bike beside me. I know within a couple more days, the race pain will be gone for good. Perhaps even by tomorrow morning, when I am scheduled to run 11 miles with some marathon pace miles in the middle.
But this feeling in my heart, I know it will keep coming back, ebbing and flowing, receding at times before hitting me with another wave. The first two weeks of this month have been bookended by loss.
Still, I run. I run because it is my normal, my constant: my beating heart, my lungs, my legs. I run because I know she wants me to. Because I know she is proud of me. That she is with me still. I run because I can hold her in my heart in each mile. I run because we do not run in a vacuum. Because we run to and through loss. Because we run to and through life.
It’s taken me a long time to feel confident about calling myself A Runner.
Any longtime reader of this blog (*cough-my husband-cough*) may recall that I wasn’t really ever a “sporty” or athletic kid growing up. I swam on the neighborhood swim team for a few summers as a kid. I downhill skied beginning at age 3 and drifting off into oblivion sometime around my parents’ divorce and the onset of high school extracurriculars; such is life. I like going on bike rides, but I don’t even currently have a bike in my possession in Athens. I used to cross country ski a bit, but now we live in Georgia, so.
In school, I did not do any extracurricular sports. I never thought of myself as someone who had great hand-eye coordination, and had little interest in playing any sport that involved a ball. T-ball notwithstanding; I was definitely one of the kids sitting in the outfield playing with flowers. As my husband will probably be the first to point out, I actually can catch and throw a ball, and when the pressure is off, I’m okay at a few sports and games. But the pressure in school is always on. In gym class, I was the kid who was picked last for teams. It was a very good day if I was picked second to last. I ran 11 to 12 minute miles (I think – memory is fuzzy) in most of my mile tests in P.E. each year. That is, up until 9th grade, when the teacher wanted everyone to do well, and we sort of “trained” for the test by starting each class with a few minutes of running. I was over the moon about running a 9:15ish that year. That was really for all intents and purposes the day I became a runner, and in the coming weeks and months, I made it a habit, which eventually turned into a love. But I was never confident enough to join track and cross-country in high school or college. Or perhaps, the interest just wasn’t there yet.
The love deepened late in college when my dear friend and eventual roommate, Abby, taught me the joys of running with a friend, chatting about anything and everything so that the miles melt away and the time flies.
It was after college, though, that the competitor in me was born. Having just moved to Pittsburgh in summer 2010, Shannon roped me into my first few races, including the Great Race 10K and Shadyside 5K, and told me I could totally handle running the Thanksgiving Day half in Atlanta. I wasn’t super fast, and maybe I was only competing against myself – especially once my mom got me a Garmin for my birthday that fall – but a fire was lit. And there was no going back.
Even with its small size and sleepy college town vibe, Athens has a vibrant running community, one that is both inclusive and competitive. We felt welcome right away, and getting immediately plugged into the running groups – Monday night runs at Fleet Feet, Saturday runs with Athens Road Runners – is the #1 reason we felt so quickly at home here in Athens and made such a great circle of friends with fabulous people in relatively short order. They brought us instantly into the fold and made us feel like one of them.
The racing scene is huge here: there are usually a couple 5Ks being put on on any given Saturday or Sunday. Last summer in particular, we tapped into a lot of them, despite lots of travel and coming off spring marathon training. Getting to know the folks at Fleet Feet and checking out the racing scene, I kept seeing a certain singlet around, worn by members of the Fleet Feet Racing Team, a retail racing team that I knew existed at other Fleet Feet stores around the country in one form or another. I became friends with a few of the awesome people on the team, and always looked up to them: they placed high in races, were strong and competitive, and were also funny, kind, and welcoming. During one group run, I remember asking one of the team members who is also a friend, Catherine, about what the team was like and what it entailed, thinking to myself that I really would never qualify for such a thing. Catherine encouraged me to talk to Dustin (the owner of our Fleet Feet, her boyfriend, and a friend of ours as well) about it, but I hesitated. I thought to myself, maybe after I BQ… maybe then I could remotely qualify for such a team.
Then I sort of set it aside. I’m happily part of Oiselle Volee, just got an amazing new crop singlet to sport during hot Georgia summer races (aka every race in Georgia, pretty much), and was still in love with where I was in the running community in Athens. Life was good.
Fast forward to the week after Albany. I was entering serious Post-Race Blues. All runners know this feeling – even if we meet a goal, we still feel the letdown of “oh, that race I’ve been working towards for months is…over.” And since I had missed my goal, well, the crash was pretty hard. Work was picking up steam and keeping me busy, but I was still glum, and of course since I was recovering, I wasn’t running.
On Tuesday afternoon after the race, right near the end of the work day, my phone lit up with an email. From Dustin. Subject line: Fleet Feet Race Team.
I held my breath.
In the first line, he congratulated me on Albany (a sentiment I’ve gotten better and better at accepting with grace and gratitude and without rebuttal in the last few weeks – coming to terms with a race that didn’t go your way but still was a strong time is harder than it should be), then quickly shifted gears, inviting me to join the Fleet Feet/Athens Road Runners race team. What was once entirely a Fleet Feet time will now also represent ARR, a change reflected in brand new team singlets and logo. I barely contained a squeal from my desk in my office. I was invited to join a team! Me! The geek with glasses who was never on a team for ANYTHING ATHLETIC EVER.
Battling impostor syndrome and a huge grin, I told a couple people (including my husband) but kept it largely under my hat. Like I would scare it away if I told too many people; like I would jinx it. I filled out a couple forms from Dustin, and soon was added to a private Facebook group for the team to interact in. Earlier this week, this showed up on Fleet Feet’s website. The singlets are due to show up late on Friday, so I may have a chance to race in uniform at the Midnight 5K later that night, which my hero of a mom said she’d love to go to despite the fact that it’s literally at midnight. (full disclosure: if it’s raining we may not go, just so I don’t make my mom stand in the rain AT MIDNIGHT. That’s just bad daughter behavior)
What does this mean for my Oiselle team membership? Really nothing. I’m under no kind of exclusive “contract” with Oiselle – and in many ways – at least on paper – it behaves more like a paid membership with perks. The community of women it has connected me to is amazing, and I don’t plan on giving that up. Plus, Dustin has already asked if I could give him recommendations on what the store should order from the Oiselle spring catalog. 😉
But will I proudly be sporting the Fleet Feet/Athens Road Runners singlet at local and team races, and singing their praises as much or more than I have already? You betcha. Because never have I felt so welcome so quickly as a runner and a person than I have right here. Because a little over a year after moving here (and as Timehop reminded me on the exact day I got the email, a year since Shannon and I officially became dues-paying members of ARR), it’s already like family.
Have you ever seen the sand mandalas made by Buddhist monks? Those intricate, colorful, geometric works of art, created so methodically over days or weeks. The process is as painstaking as it is lyrical. The beauty appears long before the pattern’s full breadth emerges. It’s the process, the ritual, the careful consideration of every breath and movement.
And then, one day, when it is completed, it is dismantled. Stirred up, poured away into nothingness. In moments, that which took so long to create is subsequently destroyed.
The marathon is like that. The marathon is preparation. It is careful, drawn out planning and ritual and routine. It is an agony and an ecstasy over weeks or months of training. And it is all for one day. One moment. A handful of small hours where the canvas can be fully seen. Where the beautiful destruction occurs. A dismantling of all that careful work – whether in the form of a successful, miraculous, magical race with perfect (or near perfect) execution; or a crumbling, a pure-grit, pure-guts experience that can never really be put into words, especially to those who have never experienced it.
Within hours, days, weeks, the memories fade. The sharpness of the pain recedes. It dulls. Did it really happen? Was I really hurting that much? Couldn’t I have run a little faster?
Did I really give it my all?
So, friends, I am here to tell you that I did. I gave everything I had that day.
A few things coalesced that may or may not have led to the crumbling, the destruction. In the end, I think it was just…one of those days. A day that the pieces didn’t click. A day that my legs just weren’t with me; were not in sync with my brain, or those months of training. But perhaps my mind was off kilter from a few of these other things.
First, the week before the race, in Vegas visiting my brother, his wonderful wife, and their darling son – our sweet nephew – I got sick. It wasn’t a bad cold. I had a cough, but my energy was good. It was productive and didn’t sound good, but I slept well and hydrated above and beyond. I made the decision, in consultation with my coach and my gut, to skip my last long run in favor of letting my body rest and try to kick the bug. By Tuesday, I was back on track with my taper week runs: 7 miles that evening with 2 at marathon pace (nailed), and Thursday I ran 3 miles on the treadmill with 5x striders. That run didn’t feel as amazing, but didn’t feel bad either. Just felt…like the taper. I had some aches and tightnesses, but wrote them off to the taper. Perhaps the body wracking cough (that had dried out but was still present) was wearing out my muscles a bit. I could sometimes feel it in my hip flexors. But then again, the taper does strange things to the mind.
But I slept. I hydrated. I ate well. Very, very well. We left work early on Friday afternoon and drove the 3.5 hours down to Albany, a sleepy southern town, and cozied up in our enormous king sweet at the host hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, nestled by the river and directly across the street from a statue of Albany’s native son, Ray Charles. Shannon and I soaked up the river’s presence; we still miss Pittsburgh, and the running water so close by gave us a jolt of our old home on a beautiful, early spring weekend.
We went to iHOP and got treated by the manager to extra pancakes (for no other reason that that he knew we were there for the race) – I stuck to my usual pre-race meal that has yet to let me down. I never felt underfueled, or like I was nutritionally bonking; that wasn’t the issue.
Race morning dawned clear and cool, but with no wind or bite. 41* and calm. I stepped outside in a hoodie and sweatpants and sandals, feeling the air. I changed race outfits three times; the third time was when I discovered I had grabbed the wrong running skirt: I had mistakenly packed the one with the torn inseam (which I got chafing from when I had no choice but to run the Michelob ULTRA half-marathon in it back in October). I panicked. But I swallowed it – I switched back into my crop singlet and into the capris I had packed.
I had my standard breakfast and one that had worked well in training for sustained energy: 2/3 cup oats with some brown sugar, cooked in water, and a banana with peanut butter.
Chrissy came upstairs and asked how I was feeling and told me not to be nervous, not to pressure myself; that I had done the work and this was my moment and I should enjoy it. I grinned. Her enthusiasm was infectious. But the nerves lingered. My mental game was off – sickness, wardrobe malfunction… Some things were clicking and others were not.
We went downstairs, but I ran back up one more time to grab my arm warmers (another mistake – they were not needed). I got a photo with a lovely teammate, Regina, and we wished each other well, bubbling with pre-race excitement and nerves.
In the weeks leading up to the race and at packet pickup the day before, I kept running into the 3:35 pacer, who used to live and coach in Athens. Chrissy swore by his pacing abilities – said he was a metronome (he was: he paced to a perfect 3:35:00 finish). He couldn’t get my name right, but that’s okay. I showed him my pacing plan when we found him again outside the expo the day before, and he said his would be pretty much that at least through mile 12; when I was supposed to pick it up, he would need to stay conservative. I after all was targeting a 3:32:30 – a time that would very likely get me *into* Boston (maybe. possibly). He had to run 3:35 and let his runners decide their fates. I told him I’d line up nearby for sure, and perhaps I’d stick with through mile 12 if our paces did indeed match. Even 12 miles of company is better than none.
We hustled out to the start line and I took my pre-race Gu and a final sip of water. My watch and phone had unsynced again so I had to re-pair the bluetooth, trying to do this quickly so I could start the LiveTrack and put my phone away for good. Chrissy, Krystina, and James had finished their warm up. I got hugs and fist-bumps, a far-off wave from James as I had already lined up. Shannon and I kissed. Our ritual; our good luck charm, always.
I scooted up close to the 3:35 group, got a wave from the pacer. “You ready?” I nodded. I laughed inwardly at his running skirt and red and white polka dotted compression socks. Eye catching; good for pacing.
Few announcements besides, “Marathoners turn right, half-marathoners turn left.” Over and over. No anthem. No warning.
BOOM. The cannon fired, and we began to move.
Even with the nearly immediate split, things were still slow going for the first quarter mile or so. I just tried not to trip, and focused on my breathing and relaxing into the race, knowing I would find my pace soon enough. I was to run 8:20s for the first two miles, 8:15s through mile 5, then click into 8:10s through mile 12. One mile at a time.
We turned right and crossed the bridge (flat) over the river and made another right onto the Albany State University campus. It was foggy and cool. But I could tell I would be peeling off my throwaway gloves and earband within a few miles. My exposed core felt fine even in the cool air. I should have started chillier, but it was still okay. Even though I was in fleece lined capris instead of the breezy skirt I had planned, I was mostly fine.
I hung off the back of the pace group and searched for the pace. I was going a few seconds fast but felt okay, trying to relax more and save everything I had for later. But even though it didn’t feel hard – it still felt relatively easy – I noted inwardly (quiet, brain) that it didn’t feel as effortless and crawling as the first miles of Chickamauga, where I was hitting the brakes and coasting and gliding and savoring it all those first couple miles. I was searching and wandering and looking for it. You’ll relax into it. It’ll click in. Sometimes it takes a good few miles to find that happy place.
When that first mile clicked off too fast, I consciously backed off, knowing I really did want to pace this right. I let the pace group go.
I let the pace group go.
We wound about the campus, and eventually ended up on a main road I recalled driving in on, and back towards the bridge and across it, soon joining back up with the half-course, with most of the half runners long gone, some walkers remaining for us to pass. We passed the second water stop, around mile 4, and as I tossed my cup, I realized I hadn’t taken a gel as planned. I shrugged this off; my stomach was still pretty full from breakfast, and mile 6 seemed like a better idea. I peeled off the gloves (and slid my hands out of the thumbholes of the arm warmers), and within a mile, the earband followed.
8:13, 8:17, 8:14, 8:10
The pace group was still within visual reach and maybe 20 seconds ahead of me. I fantasized about the later miles when I would reel them in and then pass them, waving at the pacer and saying goodbye for the rest of the race. Sayonara.
But it was a struggle. Chickamauga felt almost effortless for a large portion of the race. This one was all focus. If my mind drifted for a second, so did my pace. It didn’t hurt and didn’t feel hard per se, not yet, but something just wasn’t sliding into place.
Perhaps it was a psych-out, but I think all marathoners know the feeling that can creep in as early as those first few miles. Today is not my day.
I focused. I redirected my thinking. I thought about my posture, corrected my arm carriage. I focused on my breathing and how it fit with my cadence; the fact that it was still very controlled. I tried to let go of the fact that the pace group was still drawing farther off. I reassured myself that they were still well within striking distance, and strike I would. Run your race. Be Desi. Be patient. Stick to the plan.
I took a gel at mile 6 and chased it at a water station. The volunteers were fabulous – I called out for water each time and they were all there for me, water vs. gatorade, and held the cups well for an easy grab. Pinch, pour, pinch, pour, toss.
The courses separated again, and the marathon entered a long, lonely stretch. So much of the course was exposed, and there was not a cloud in the sky. In truth it was a beautiful day. But the sun is merciless to the marathoner. I wished I had contacts and could run in good running sunglasses; I couldn’t pull down the brim of my hat low enough; that low, early spring, morning sun. The angle of it – right in my eyes.
8:12, 8:10, 8:09, 8:06
I was still running strong. My form was good. My breathing was great. I was fueled. But it was work. I kept my mind engaged. I saw the pacer dart into a port-o-potty, having passed off the sign briefly, and dart back out and catch up. I half-chuckled. I took my second gel around 9.5, before the mile 10 water station.
The work continued, but I felt for a bit like whenever I accidentally sped up, over-correcting a slowdown, my legs felt better. Patience, then. Your legs want to run fast. Just a couple more miles of this and you can start to let them go. Then you’ll feel in that groove. Around mile 11, I thought I had found it, and I was floating for a little while. See? It just took until now. Sometimes that happens. Now relax and enjoy. You’ll catch them. Keep running your race. You are executing. You are doing it. It’s supposed to be hard.
But the feeling quickly passed. The sun was still beating. We wound through some lovely neighborhoods peppered with stately southern homes, but shade was brief and intermittent. A few hills rolled in and out; nothing terribly significant, especially to an Athens runner, a former Pittsburgh runner.
I recall crossing the 10-mile mat; I didn’t check my overall time, instead saying, “hello friends” and smiling inwardly, knowing things were okay, even if I wasn’t feeling as amazing as I had hoped I would at this point. I took a gel at 13. When I crossed the half-split, I checked: 1:47:39, just 10 seconds slow of intended split. I’m okay. I’m doing this.
8:11, 8:08, 8:10, 8:07, 8:07
Mile 13 was the pace turning point – it was when I was to drop 8:05s for a few miles, then throw down an 8:04 mile 16, before settling into 8:00 for the long haul. I was hitting it, or nearly, but as I approached mile 16, I thought to myself, Maybe I should just shoot for 8:00-8:05 to the end. Maybe I can close hard if I save myself a bit more like that. I’m not feeling this. It just isn’t right. At the mile 16 water station, I took two cups (expecting from examining course maps that there was a water station break until 19; this ended up not being the case), chasing down a gel. I sipped from both and dumped the remains of both over my head.
8:03, 8:10, 8:06, 8:06
I saw the pace group less and less as the course curved and I lost ground to them. They were pacing more aggressively than I was for the first half, and by the time I was to speed up to catch them… well…
The first time I saw my friends, who had finished the half, was around 18.6 (they tell me). I saw them up ahead, and they lifted me up. I smiled briefly, and then I gritted my teeth and told myself to fight. I could still do this. I felt my turnover pick up. Chrissy and James and Shannon were screaming for me. I rounded a curve up a little hill and I could still hear them yelling my name.
But just as fast as that feeling of strength and love washed over me, it slipped through my fingers. My pace plummeted and I felt like that lift had sapped a little extra from me – more than I could spare. Somewhere around here or there, I took another gel.
How do you explain the wall? How do you explain the day where things fall apart, where you just can’t hold it together? How do you put into words, it just wasn’t my day? Talking to a co-worker this week, I told her, “The wheels just fell off.” And she asked me, “What does that feel like?” I opened my mouth, and all the words I could not find stuck in my throat.
As Shannon put it to me, It’s where mind over matter…no longer matters.
I slowed down during the last 10K, especially miles 22 to 24, of Chickamauga. But looking back now with this perspective, that wasn’t a blow-up. The wheels didn’t fully come off. They wobbled. I wobbled. I reached for them and held them with the edge of my everything. But I held it together and brought it back – not completely, but enough. I was able to grip hard enough to steady the wobble, and to teeter-totter my way to finish.
But this. This was a slow implosion. This was a melting away of strength. This was lead and sand and jelly filling my legs. This was despair in my heart. This was my mind and heart screaming at my legs to run. Run. Go. Fight. You can do this. You trained for this. What about that crazy interval-filled 18 miler? What about that pace-hungry 20-miler where I could barely contain my speed? What about all those tempo runs?
8:21, 8:24, 8:44 (2:44:14 split for 20 miles, 2 minutes off pace)
Krystina and Chris (and his kids – I was too delirious, though) leap frogged with the other group so I saw loving faces quite nearly every mile through the end. I communicated to them, not my day, but they never abandoned me. They kept cheering, kept encouraging. I was going to finish no matter what. And I was not going to walk.
Every time I saw them, every time I saw my husband, I wondered if I should just cry. I wondered if I should go up to them and get high fives and hugs and kisses. If I should walk for a moment and cry and tell them I loved them and today wasn’t the day I was going to BQ, but that I would still finish. But I knew that, too, was more than I had to give. Everything I had, I channeled into forward motion. I forced my eyes up and forward when I caught sight of vomit on the sidewalk, and wondered about my own gut. I reminded myself around 22 that I needed another gel.
Somewhere around mile 22, the 3:40 pacer passed me. A cry erupted from my throat in expletive form. I tried again to up my pace. Just keep up with him. You probably still won’t PR since he likely started behind you, but maybe you could squeak in near 3:40. But I couldn’t hold on. My legs refused.
The miles ticked by in agony. Miles before, I peeled off my right arm warmer, and somewhere in the last 10K, I worked to move my pace band and watch to the other wrist so I could peel off the other, securing both to my fuel belt. Sun filled my eyes. I took at least one gatorade cup in the last 10K. I was taking many double cups and dumping water full on my head and down my back. Just keep running. Just keep moving forward.
Please, just a little faster. Then we’ll be done sooner, if nothing else. Nothing. No response. At one point, my pace readout was showing 11:xx and I though to myself, They’ll think I walked. I’m not really running this slowly. And I’m not walking. I will not walk.
8:56, 9:13, 9:25, 9:38, 9:55
My watch clicked my 25, and what seemed like ages later, I crossed the mile 25 marker. I tried to push. You can do anything for a mile. I picked up briefly, ready to gut it out to a gritty finish, but my legs once more deflated, gave up on me, stopped responding. I wanted so badly to walk. I remembered Air Force, my anger at myself for walking even in the final mile. I wouldn’t do it. Keep going. I negotiated. I thought of how many laps of a track I had left. How little that could seem – and yet here and now, felt enormous. I felt like I hadn’t seen my husband or friends in ages. I felt like the finish was never coming. I kept my death march. The course narrowed into a chute and turned past a train station and into it, throwing in a 90-degree turn that made everything inside me scream.
But mercifully, the course curved and went down, and finally, on a narrow path and chute, there was the banner. Everything you have. Right now. There was a woman in pink ahead of me with whom I had been jockeying for miles, who was also heavily suffering and had been walking on and off. We were both sprinting, silently pushing each other, driving each other to the line and across it. I don’t think I caught her in the end, but it was what I needed. I flew across the line and nearly collapsed.
9:06; 7:37 pace final sprint
Chip time: 3:43:19 (8:32 average)
Volunteers swarmed, but all I saw was Shannon. I gasped and stumbled and landed in his arms. I don’t really recall how a medal wound up around my neck, but Shannon said it happened right away. I was wrapped in a thermal sheet. He walked me to food and water and gatorade. A sob ripped from my throat. At first, it wasn’t even despair. Not yet. It was the last vestige of any strength. A primordial scream. A barbaric yawp. I sipped at the gatorade. He offered be the bagel and half banana he grabbed. Oranges, I breathed, and he walked me there and I devoured the orange third.
He walked me around, and the physical pain finally released the other pain. The one I still feel pounding at my chest. The one that has been simmering in my guts since the race first began to spiral downward. The failure.
I couldn’t do it. He walked me around, up and down along the water. I asked where everyone was, and he said they were all cheering near the finish, but were probably giving us (me) space. The physical pain would overwhelm me for a few minutes, and I’d breathe, and we’d walk, and I’d almost laugh at the absurdity of it all. Not many things are as absurd as the voluntary pain of a marathon. But then a fresh wave would hit. The crushing disappointment. I distracted myself by asking about the joys of their races.
Maybe fifteen or so minutes of walking later, and we found our crew again. Shannon got me to a chair, and they gathered around me, and told me I was amazing. As I wept into my palms, they told me that they loved me; that I was not a failure; that I did a great thing; that I would be back. I asked them about their races. All the pride and love lifted me up.
That’s the beauty of the marathon. It isn’t just your sand mandala. It’s the patterns of your friends and fellow runners. It’s the geometry of their strength lifting up yours. It’s the camaraderie and love and power of a collective that is so much greater than one runner, one race, one day. We draw the race together, we wipe the slate clean together. We start again. All that beauty is in us. It’s part of us. It’s infused in us. We wipe it clean, but it never leaves us. It’s the well we draw from. The power source.
It’s the reason we ended up in Pittsburgh, and then Athens. It’s the wonderful, amazing people who have taught us so much already, and will continue to teach us more. It’s one marathon of many.
I’m not done yet. I’m cleaning the slate, rebuilding my tools and pieces. I’m resting and living and loving. But I’ll be back soon. The marathon beat me up last Saturday, but it didn’t beat me.
Something bigger is coming. Watch this space.
For those looking for a more analytical glance, here is a screenshot of my Garmin Connect elevation:
Here is Strava:
The course is indeed flat and fast. There were some lovely parts, many of which I could not enjoy because I was having a bad day and blowing up, so please take my impressions there with that grain of salt. Note, though, that the course is largely exposed, so if you get a sunny day, that could be a factor. I’ve definitely overheated a lot worse in marathons before, and I don’t think it was really the source of my downfall, but it did get warm. And I got an early spring tan out of this race. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want more information about the race, which was incredibly well-run and organized. The half is also a well-timed tune-up for spring marathons, including Boston.
It’s a word runners use quite a bit. That was a beast of a workout. Hang on – entering beast mode. I have a beast of a post-workout appetite right now!
Perhaps most frequently, the term is used as a compliment to our fellow runners. Perhaps the highest compliment we can give. Beast!
I’ve got a really wonderful core group of running pals here in Athens. The range of abilities and speeds is great, and the encouragement and camaraderie is unending. We push each other, we buck each other up, we support each other. We fist bump before and after every run. And, frequently, we call each other beasts.
When in the thick of marathon training, trading workout war stories with pals, planning out long runs, seeing who is up for some early weekday morning miles, as the paces increase, as the miles stack, it comes around more. You’re a beast!
In some ways, I’ve felt the beast mode pretty acutely. Workouts have been going amazingly well. I got back to training the week of Christmas, and got through the thick of 10-day travel while not missing a mile. While in Michigan with my Grandmom and mom, I ran 15 miles with 8 of the later miles at race pace. I blanched when I first saw the workout on my schedule – such a tough first long run?! Was my coach nuts?? I did the first six with Shannon, ran inside to change tops and use the bathroom (it was fairly cold out so a full top change was actually pretty clutch and kept me from getting clammy/cold), then headed out on a 9 mile loop I had mapped in the sleepy town, surrounding twin lakes. I got some funny looks from drivers as I stayed safely (and hyper aware) on the shoulder, running against traffic, but I nailed every single split. I stopped my watch only once when I missed a turn by a tenth of a mile and had to cross the road. Otherwise, I found a rhythm – locked in immediately – and stayed right there.
The next week, I was in Ohio to see my dad and visit lots of friends from my hometown. I signed up for a 5K on New Year’s Eve – one I ran four years ago, and recalled as hilly and challenging – which was written into my training plan as a 9 mile total day, and racing the 5K all out. It was brisk and frigid, and I braced against the cold wind for 3 miles out and back to get warmed up. I stripped off my top layer and headed to the start, where I raced and gritted hard. I still wasn’t near my peak 5K form from my PR a couple years ago, but bettered my time from the summer, despite a dreaded hill in the last mile.
In the last tenth of a mile, I saw a woman up ahead (looking out of my age group – she was) whom I’d been using as motivation to keep pushing. I had drawn her close but, so I thought, not close enough. Then the announcer called out my placing. “Here comes the 4th place woman, followed closely by the 5th place woman!” Okay, time to go!
I nipped her at the line and finished in a 2015 best of 21:45 for 4th woman and first in my AG.
My long run that weekend…well, that felt less than beastly. After a few days in a row of running in frigid temperature I was no longer used to (the south having already thinned my blood), and wanting more time to spend with my mom on our last day, I pushed my Saturday 16-miler to Sunday, when we’d be back in Athens, with slightly warmer temps. I ran 10 with the Rogue Sunday group, and felt like I was struggling, slow, tired. I took it slower when I ran the final 6 solo, out and back on the only flat roads in town, feeling better near the end. But still – tired.
The next week was mileage heavy, but less intense on paces: a midweek longish run with strides, a 9 mile tempo with 4 miles at marathon pace. Completely manageable, pretty strong. But 17 on Saturday once again felt…tired. Slow. I let a friend I was running with pull me too fast in places, but I slowed way down on the final 6, running with my pal Nina who indicated she was also a little wiped out. We trotted along and caught up on our holidays. Even though I insisted I didn’t feel amazing (though I wasn’t bonking or breaking down or anything), her sentiment was still: Beast.
I flipped through my training journal, wondering what wasn’t clicking. The mileage had started high – a 45-mile week was Christmas week. I was already topping 50 miles. It was like I was in the thick of it already, because I was. This cycle is really more of an extension of the last. A fine tuning. A gearing up. No track work, all long tempos (with strides in some runs to keep speed sharp). Mark is getting me ready for the end: for the last 10K; for the lead; for the jelly; for the wall; for the place where I need to dig down deep and find another scoop, and then another.
On that 17-mile day, it dawned on me: I moved the long run last week to Sunday. My body doesn’t know that my training log is Monday to Sunday. My body doesn’t know the difference between one seven day period and another. My body only knew I had just run 67 miles in the last seven. I laughed about this with my running friends in our never ending group text. No wonder! And there it was again. That word, that feeling, that encouragement. Beast.
Then followed another build week. I prayed my legs would rebound a bit after those seven hard days and rest on Sunday. Double run Monday, all easy, totaling 10. 11 miles Tuesday, with 5 at tempo: half-marathon pace to 15K pace. Dominated. Smashed. I felt indestructible. Sharp. Thursday, I ran 10 easy with some strides. Friday I had 5, and I took them easy and relaxed. I listened to my body.
Saturday had in store for me The Beast – the one I had stared at, wide eyed, when I first got the plan. 18 miles, with 4 x 3 at marathon pace. I knew I had it in me, but my legs were tired. I had 36 miles on them already. It’s going to hurt, I told myself as I tried to go to sleep, sleeping fitfully, dreaming about the workout. It’s supposed to hurt. This is how you become a beast.
I made a plan, running it by Mark to be sure it sounded sane and good and helpful. I’d make a 4-mile loop that was flat, to imitate the course, and after the 2-mile warmup (out and back on Prince Ave), I’d run this loop 4 times to complete the workout. I would do it solo to get ready for the lonely miles, and the loop boredom would also be a good mental exercise. He loved the idea. Time to execute.
I had my alarm set for 5:30, but my eyes were open and my mind was busy by 5:08. My cat, sensing this, started to cry. I sighed, shut off my alarm so Shannon could sleep, fed her and the rabbit, and started getting ready. I had my usual pre-race oatmeal and peanut butter (and half a banana when I was still hungry) and topped off fluids to make a good dress rehearsal. I headed to Hendershot’s to start at about 7 am. A few cars were already there for early miles before the 8 am club run, the one I was skipping. I waved at runners up and down Prince, and as my watch hit mile 2, I switched my brain into workout mode and took off.
The first mile of each loop felt rough – raw, dialing in, mentally taxing. Mile 2 was a little downhill overall, and usually a bit too fast as a result. I was applying the brakes, especially for the first two loops. Mile 3 was grit and keep going, and then I got to rest. I saw a few friends at the end of the first loop, and Chrissy shouted “move your ass!” per my instructions, but I laughed and said I was on my recovery mile, and she laughed and grinned at me. The pace felt pretty good this first loop, but it waffled between MP feel and HMP feel. By the second loop, I was flirting far more with HMP feeling. My legs were not fresh. I really had to focus on keeping this pace. I checked my watch often.
I kept passing the same people, getting funny looks and I think at one point a shout from across the street (I couldn’t tell what they were saying though). Coming back on a recovery mile, I saw the group run coming down Milledge the opposite way. I got cheers and a boost from seeing friends. Big smiles. Encouraging words. Beast.
Laps 3 and 4…they got ugly. The pace started flirting with 10K feel, and thoroughly felt that way near the end. I stopped my watch a couple times in those last two, heaving with breath. I was relieved whenever I got caught by the two major lights on the loop, in either direction. A familiar feeling was settling into my legs: where they’re encased in concrete, but filled with jelly. Where sometimes running feels like falling, like a failing battle with gravity. I knew this feeling well – it felt like the end of a marathon. I kept pushing. My splits kept clicking off on pace or a few seconds faster. My first two recovery miles were in the 8:30s, my legs spinning happily and easily, fast twitch firing away; the last two were much, much slower.
I slammed through the final hard mile in 7:49 and slowed down to a barely jog, and within a tenth of a mile, stopped my watch to draw in a few extra deep breaths. I saw Chrissy once more, this time calling out from her car as she was heading home from the run. I gave her a wave and something like a smile. Then I jogged in the rest of that last mile. At my car, I was taking out my phone and putting down my water bottle and taking off my belt and the plastic bag for my phone fell to the ground, and this was the worst thing ever, my legs shaking near collapsing as I crouched down to get it. I ran into two friends as I was about ot go into Hendershot’s for coffee and we gabbed about our runs. They congratulated me on the workout. I was proud, exhausted, intimidated. It was supposed to feel like this. It was supposed to feel like this.
It was supposed to feel like this.
This week was finally a recovery week. I took Monday’s miles as slowly as my legs would seem to go (which wasn’t even that slow, actually). Six miles Tuesday with some strides seemed to shake out some lead. Thursday morning’s marathon pace tempo scared me a little – would it feel so, so hard again? It didn’t. Relief. Five easy this morning on the treadmill to escape more cold rain as the winter storm closes in.
But last night–last night, the beast cracked. Near bedtime, about to go brush my teeth, I sat at the edge of the bed, Shannon sitting down beside me when he could tell I was upset about something. I unloaded about how emotional of a week I had had (non-running things; life things), exhausted tears welling up. In control. Quietly weeping.
But I broke. I told him what had been whispering inside my chest louder and louder over the last couple of weeks, or at least since that beast of a long run. I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can handle it. What if I fail? What if I quit? What if I’m in those final miles and I just give up? Is this all going to be worth it? It’s going to hurt so, so much. More than it ever has. Or maybe not – because we never really remember the pain at the end of the marathon. Within a couple days, the memory is dulled. A survival mechanism. How else would we convince ourselves to do it again?
I sobbed in his shoulder. He listened to my darkest fears, my rational and irrational thoughts. What if I can’t?
Finally, slowly, I calmed down. I had had a breakdown like this two weeks before Chickamauga. That one was almost worse – and perhaps I’ll have a bigger one still as I get closer – and he had to talk me down twice within an hour.
As he hugged me, my breathing calming, Shannon said, “I’m almost relieved to see that you’re still human,” he said, recalling how I’ve been crushing my workouts lately. How I seemed almost invincible. That he hadn’t seen me crack. You’re not inside my head, I replied.
There’s a terror in the marathon. There’s a fear. It’s where our brain begs us, stop, don’t, please, no more – because it wants us to hold in reserve when we know we have so much more to give. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s instinctual. It’s programmed into our brain.
But our inner beast can prevail. We can push farther. I’ve been flirting with the edge; this week, I backed away from it, and my body, my mind, my resolve made repairs.
I do want this. I want Boston so badly I can taste it. I don’t go a single day without thinking about it. In that last hard loop last Saturday, I visualized the finish line. I pictured the clock. I imagined glancing at my watch and knowing I had to dig deeper if I was going to make it – find that safe(r) margin by which to qualify. To feel safe that I’d have a slot. To push to a place I knew I could find within myself. To run on these legs, with these lungs and heart, that are gifts that I can’t take for granted.
After this cutback week ends, I have four hard weeks to build, to grow, to strengthen, before I taper and reap the benefits and get the rest I need. I’ll keep flirting with the edge. I’ll keep pushing it farther out, because I have more in me. I have so much more to give. Because I’m a very human beast.
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.
I was really excited for this event. For so many of my friends and training buddies, this was The Big One – their A race for the fall, or one of them (many are running Rocket City Marathon in December, and this was a perfectly timed tune-up half). I had heard for months how fun it is, how well run, how well stocked with amazing volunteers and cheering crowds. All of Athens comes out to watch. I knew this course like the back of my hand before ever running it continuously. Two of the hills I only got to run once each in training (the notorious zoo hill, and Riverbend). The rest I had run DOZENS of times. I wasn’t intimidated by the course.
And another advantage: I knew I wasn’t racing this all out. I asked my coach when we were first developing the plan if I could run this as one of my mid-plan races – it fell at the end of week 13, which is very close to race day, and I didn’t want to mess up the taper. I assured him I could run it for fun – pace the 2:00 group maybe, run it easy as a long run, do it as a workout of some kind. Or if he thought it was a bad idea, I would skip it. He gave me the green light, and wrote it into my plan as a marathon pace run in the midst of a 16-mile day.
Another thing going for me: my dad was in town! It was great to know I’d have a cheering section. My dad has watched me race a couple 10Ks and a 10-miler (that was also really a race pace training run), and it always gave me a boost to see him, and I think he gets a kick out of watching me race – I was never a sports person in high school or anything, and he’s a swimmer, so to see his bookworm daughter compete as an athlete is a more recent treat for him.
My dad got into Athens late Friday night and crashed fairly soon after. Shannon and I slept in a bit (mostly just dilly-dallied getting out of bed – first Saturday sleep-in in a while) and I eventually got down to my 5-mile easy run. I was going into AthHalf not at all remotely tapered or rested, but I felt good. I ran 10 recovery-paced miles on Monday (broken into morning/evening runs), 9 miles on Tuesday with 2×3 at 15K pace (treadmill sweat fest), and 10 on Thursday with 10x strides. A lot of my training has hovered around the 50-mile mark, so while my legs weren’t rested, I still felt good going in. I knew it would be a tough workout, but I could handle it.
Packet pickup was short and sweet, and we hung out at the expo just long enough to say hi to some friends and introduce them to my dad, renew our Athens Road Runners membership (with a discount!), and score a couple free shirts (okay, one I paid for forever ago and never picked up). Then we grabbed lunch at Amici a couple blocks away with friends. I took a slight chance and ordered a caprese pizza – fairly minimal cheese, and I ended up having zero issues.
Saturday evening Shannon’s parents joined us for our pre-race dinner: chicken and mashed potatoes with a salad, and my mother-in-law brought brussell sprouts. I indulged in a very small half (maybe quarter) glass of wine and a lot of water. We sort of succeeded getting to bed early, but ended up sleeping fitfully. Having company over a little later than typical for a race night, and having a guest in the house, kind of threw off my going-to-bed-and-relaxing routine. My brain was a little wired, and I had a lot of weird, vaguely race-related dreams. Some things about the course and the hills that were foggy upon waking. Oh well. I got a ton of sleep Friday, and again – the lack of sleep didn’t seem to affect my performance.
We were up at 5 am and I stepped outside to feel the weather – it was already warmer than predicted (60*) and while the air felt cool, I could tell it was very damp out. It would be a muggy race. Not ideal, but it was a workout. I could handle it. As I was standing outside on our porch, I noticed movement in our bushes. Turns out, it was a rabbit! It was one we had tried to catch earlier that had escaped from our neighbor’s rabbit pen (she has a whole slew of animals). We didn’t catch him then, though he did get caught later, but maybe sighting him that morning was a lucky charm. Little stinker.
I made both of us small bowls of oatmeal and continued to sip water, but I was mega-hydrated and didn’t want to overdo it. At about 6:20, the three of us piled in the car and drove to Hendershot’s to park and then walk to the starting line, stopping at a porto along the way. We introduced my dad to a couple more friends, and I walked him to Starbucks to get coffee and a pastry. We met up with the in-laws, and Shannon and I briefly escaped to grab a group photo with the Road Runners.
At that point, I needed to get in my warmup, so I sent Shannon back to the parents and squeezed in a little over a mile (all I comfortably had time for before I absolutely wanted to BE in the corral). Post-warmup, I realized I was sweating a lot already. The humidity was very present. The parents of course then wanted pictures, which I rushed along a bit as I was starting to get race stress (and it never fails I’m trying to take my pre-race gel and someone says “let’s get a picture!”) – I wasn’t concerned about the race, but I don’t like feeling rushed getting to a start line, even if it is a workout. I’m neurotic like this. (I’m still waiting for my dad to send said photos from his point-and-shoot – hopefully will update this post when I get them)
We squeezed into our assigned corral (B) with some buddies – George, Tino, Will, and Roshan. George, Will, and Roshan were targeting low 1:40s/sub-1:40. Tino was thinking 1:35-1:38. I looked at the nearby 1:40 pacer and vowed not to get suckered in. A local high school senior sang the national anthem beautifully (and played guitar). Our crew did our ritual fist bumps, and Shannon and I exchanged our pre-race kiss and wishes of good luck. He was going to take it fairly easy since his foot is still recovering and he’s still biking for the most part.
Before I knew it, we were off!
I started my watch a moment before crossing the mat, and began searching for that magical pace. My marathon pace target was 8:07, though I’ve been doing a lot of lower 8:0X’s and 7:5X’s on my marathon pace tempos and feeling great. We started up a little incline and then swung around Thomas Street and back down a hill. Tino took off like a shot but Will and George were easing in, and I found myself right with them for the first bit. I kept checking my pace and I wasn’t going too fast, despite being so near them. I smiled internally at their wise move of not bolting out of the gate. Good boys!
The course wound onto Prince, which is flat but has a slight incline for a bit as we turned onto Cobb Street just pace the 1 mile mark. While the course has a lot of Athens’ famous hills, it definitely goes on the “better” direction on all of them. Soon enough, Cobb Street dipped down onto King and the pace I felt I was just sort of waffling around in, unsure, started to lock in. It took maybe 2 or 3 miles to really feel comfortable. I never panicked, just felt around until I found it. Or, perhaps, realized that this pace – while a bit faster than planned – really was perfect. The water stops were spaced out at almost perfect 2-mile intervals, and I took a cup at every one, drinking some, then dumping the rest on my head to cool off. The first cup had very little water in it, but the rest were fine. I took double cups at later stations to get more sips and more head cooling. (at one point there was an “unsanctioned” aid station from spectators and I took a cup but then realized it was gummy bears. Bummer)
We had a nice long trip on Milledge, which is almost perfectly flat, and had a good amount of spectators. I was sticking to tangents as best I could, and looking for people to pace off of at various points, but otherwise running my own race, staying focused on my own workout. Cory was targeting 1:45ish or faster as part of a 20-miler (dayum) and he paced with me for a bit but at some point took off.
7:58, 7:58, 8:02, 8:04
After the Five Points water stop – right at mile 4 – I took note of the huge crowds in this bustling section of town. Both running stores are within two blocks of each other right in Five Points, and the turn onto Lumpkin was completely stacked with screaming spectators. I had a HUGE grin on my face and felt my adrenaline spike. I checked my watch as we passed by Fleet Feet. I was suddenly doing half-marathon race pace. I consciously slowed down. I knew the big downhill on Lumpkin was coming, and I was given permission by Coach Mark to take that mile 15-30 seconds faster than race pace (and the subsequent mile with the zoo hill 15-30 sec slower) but I didn’t want to over do it. I brought my pace way back and relaxed on that beautiful Lumpkin downhill, never letting my legs or my pace totally get away from me. I felt really good, really relaxed, and was having so much fun. As we approached the turn into the park, I saw Dianne ahead, slowing down and stopping on the side for a moment to stretch – she had just announced that she was pregnant, and girl was still running this half! I gave her a big smile and a wave and congratulated her again. I rounded the tight downhill turn, and saw friend and fellow Ingress player Chris cheering people on, his dog at his side. I gave him a wave and a smile and kept on trucking. The hill was coming.
I stayed very relaxed, and while I kept note of my pace, I didn’t obsess over it. In fact, I marveled at how little it dropped. The hill is long and annoying and rolling. It’s never over when you think it’s going to be, and even when it’s “over,” you turn onto Gran Ellen, which keeps climbing a bit. But I was fine with it, I was resigned to it, I was still happy. I barely lost pace, and with the previous mile, I really hadn’t lost anything. I took a gel at mile 5, and washed it down at the mile 6 water stop.
The course started back downhill for a bit on Milledge, but once we passed a 10K timing station (though I never was able to find a 10K split posted anywhere – would’ve been interesting to see the official split) I knew the really fast parts were over. We crossed under the highway loop and got up to the turn onto Riverbend; that section was a little tougher than I remembered (and I remembered it being tough). I knew I was fine though, and had a lot of time and energy in the bank. The course gets lonely on Riverbend – it’s a big rolling hill past where I work, and there were no spectators to speak of, though the volunteers were great. We got up the big hill and came rocketing down the other side as I consciously tried to slow down. I went for two cups at mile 8 and accidentally got one water and one powerade. Whoops! glad I didn’t dump the latter on my head. I took a sip of it instead, realized my mistake, didn’t want it, pitched it. I burped up a bit of it a half mile later and thought I was in trouble, but my stomach settled. The course kept grinding up to College Station, where it flattened briefly. A couple of the Fleet Feet shirtless fasties were biking around the course and cheering, and I think at this point it was especially valuable – a lot of people were starting to flag on the hills. I knew the worst was yet to come.
7:59, 8:15, 8:00
River Road is basically flat as it passes Ramsey and the backside of some fraternities, but it does start to grind up, followed by a sharp left turn up a small but steep and annoying hill onto East Campus. I’ve had a mix of experiences on River Road during various runs, ranging from totally fine and almost fast to feeling like total garbage and resenting the never-ending hill. This experience was fortunately the former. When we were nearly to East Campus, I saw the back of a Fleet Feet singlet and recognized Catherine up ahead, but something seemed off. I saw her stop to a walk, and saw the agony on her usually smiling face as I went by. Not good. I recognized that look from Big Sur when Shannon was so, so sick and bonking in the last 10K. Turns out she had the beginning of a downright nasty head cold. The worst. I felt awful for her and tried to be an encouraging presence as I pressed on.
That turn onto East Campus – oy – but it was over soon enough. The pace was beginning to get a little grindy. I told myself to relax, that I was doing great, that I just needed to get onto Sanford. We turned onto Carlton, which goes uphill for a moment, and then onto DW Brooks/Ag Drive (a turn I forgot about, to be honest) before going into the parking lot by Coverdell and up another small hill. A bunch of runners around me drifted to a walk, and I used those sights as motivation to press onward. I could get through Sanford. I just needed to get there.
Hitting Sanford Drive changed the energy in the air. I knew I wasn’t racing, a kick seemed silly and senseless. But I could barely contain myself. I’ve been known to hard charge finishes, even when I’m pretty gassed, and in this case, I had a lot of pent up energy to go. I kept it controlled as best I could, but it was hard. I came across Ty (who also raced Michelob ULTRA, recall) just before Sanford dipped downhill for a big crossing Cedar, and as I passed him, he yelled out “YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME” (teasingly) and I called out to him that it was time to TURN IT UP. I swear I didn’t mean to start kicking. I swear. I was flying. It was almost effortless.
The downhill on Sanford carried us to the bridge that goes over the stadium – not to mention the finish line. I looked out over the stadium, and raised my arms to get the crowds on the bridge to pump it up. I was grinning like a fool and having the best time ever.
I took a few extra deep breaths as we went back uphill for the turn onto Hooper, the quick turn onto East Campus, and the last uphill as it turned onto Baldwin. A few people started to walk – when I passed them, they picked it back up. The fasties cheering were at the top of Baldwin and were screaming for everyone going by. I couldn’t stop smiling. Just get to Lumpkin. Get. to. Lumpkin.
And that beautiful, glorious, marvelous, WONDERFUL Lumpkin downhill… I let my legs just…go. I thought for the 10th time during that race – If I were racing this, if I didn’t have a marathon soon, I’d have sub-1:40 in the bag; but isn’t this nice? Isn’t it nice to go pretty fast and not hurt? – my legs churning beneath me. I eased off the throttle as the course flattened and turned into the Tate Center parking lot for one last little loop: inside the stadium. I spotted all three parents, as well as a few friends who already finished, including Dustin. I grinned once more.
I’ll ‘fess up: I kicked a bit. I kicked around Sanford. I looked all around me at that big, empty stadium – I had never been inside it before – and as we came around the opposite side, saw there was a big screen broadcasting video of us in the stadium. I almost laughed when I saw myself on the screen. Up ahead I saw Margeaux in her pink tank and knew I’d finish just behind her.
The clock was comfortably below 1:45 and I smiled all the way through that finish line, throwing up my arms in victory, not realizing that Lindsay was capturing an AWESOME photo of me finishing, looking as happy as I’ve been with a race in so many months.
Final sprint: 7:21 pace
Chip time: 1:44:25 (7:58 avg)
After collecting my medal, I quickly looked for parents, finding a ton of friends along the way, hearing about PRs and happy races and seeing so many smiles. I squeezed onto the sidelines of the section going into Sanford and waited for Shannon, watching Christine run in hard, crushing her PR by a LOT, with Shannon just a couple minutes behind. He had a rough race – the humidity possibly, the hills, the lack of run training, higher expectations after a better than expected half a few weeks before. He crossed the finish and immediately disappeared over by the parking deck. As I followed him over there, I saw Dustin and Catherine, with Catherine sitting on the ground, leaning over her knees and trying to breathe. I checked on her, and Dustin and I looked at each other and our frustrated and exhausted partners helplessly. We’ve all been on both sides of that situation. Just a few weeks ago, it was Shannon holding me as I sobbed after Michelob ULTRA 13.1. It’s one of the nice things about being married to a runner, honestly. The other person gets it.
After we pulled ourselves together a bit, I handed over most of my post-race accouterments (hanging onto the water) and started my cooldown. I wasn’t super thrilled having to run UP Lumpkin, but I took it super easy and it was fine. My legs were tired but not completely trashed. They felt a bit trashed after sitting down for a while, but recovered from movement.I got in a two mile cooldown and then headed to Big City Bread, near where our car was parked, for brunch with my dad, Shannon’s parents, and even Tino joined us (and he got a sub-1:35!! beast!!!). We had a great time eating and chatting, though I was starting to get VERY chilled by the end, and was glad I had brought sweats that I had put on before going for food.
The in-laws headed off to Sunday church, and my dad, Shannon, and I went back to our house, showered up, and napped (or sort of napped) before my dad had to head to the airport.
This race was probably the biggest confidence boost of the entire cycle – and really showed me how far I had come. This was faster than my March half, which I raced knowing I wasn’t fit enough for a PR, but felt 1:45 fit (and I couldn’t even break 1:45 that day, even though I tried). This was also more than 3 minutes faster than Michelob ULTRA 13.1, which felt like garbage and I raced with all I had that day on a brutal course without enough water. The next day, my friends who had PR’d and raced hard were SUPER sore; for a couple days really. I evaluated myself carefully – I was sore, but post-hard-workout sore, not I-just-raced-a-half sore. Perfect.
I’ve been grabbing on tight to this feeling as I am now in the taper – confidence with a healthy dollop of nerves and realism. I don’t have my marathon goals lined up yet, nor a race plan, but I’ve been meditating on it a lot, letting the ideas and thoughts flow in and out but not locking into anything. I know Coach Mark and I will have a chat about that at some point very soon. But for now, I’m satisfied with focusing on tapering and looking back at all the training victories and hard workouts beaten and hard lessons learned and taking it one taper day at a time.
I hope to write a post about goals and race plan when the time comes. Perhaps I’ll have a totally-freaking-out post. I’m not sure yet. I did have a meltdown this past Sunday afternoon, but felt better later that day, and even better yesterday and today. It happens. The marathon is a beast, and it’s an overwhelming thing to consider. I know I have a PR in me. But beyond that… well…. watch this space.
It’s a tough lesson to learn as a runner: you won’t always see the numbers on the clock that you hoped for. A lot of factors go into achieving the time you want, getting that PR, whatever your time-related goal may be: fitness, confidence, a fast course, fresh legs, fueled and hydrated body, happy stomach, good weather, and a little bit of magic.
I had a lot of things going for me that Sunday morning at the beginning of this month as I prepared to toe the line at 13.1 Atlanta, prepared to throw down for my tune-up half-marathon of the cycle. I had been acing workouts. Despite any nightmares I had leading up to the race that stated otherwise, I got to chat with my coach about a plan. We didn’t know exactly how fast I was at that point, so the plan was to race by feel. I felt super strong, especially coming off that amazing 18-miler that included the Great Race 10K at goal marathon pace. I then proceeded to stomp a 15K tempo that week and felt better doing striders at the end of a 10-mile treadmill run on Thursday than I felt the previous strider-less miles. I was raring to go.
Saturday morning dawned with drizzly rain, and we drove out of Athens (with all of Georgia and Alabama driving into it – they’d get the worst of the foul weather; the game got absolutely poured on. Atlanta and west were significantly drier) into Atlanta to hit up packet pickup in Buckhead and then crash at our friends Charlie and Jill’s house, watching football, hydrating, eating lovely carbs, and relaxing with them and their puppy and kitty. Ideal pre-race plan, if you ask me. We hit the hay early for a 4:15 alarm, laying out all our stuff and preparing for torrential rain (spoiler alert: didn’t actually happen).
We got to the race site SUPER early and parked in the mall area, about a 2/3 mile walk to the start area. As I got out of the car, I realized why the shorts part of my Oiselle bum wrap hadn’t been feeling right all morning – the right inner seam had split in the middle. Shit. I didn’t have a sewing kit (or skills) nor backup bottoms with me in the car (note to self for future: bring back-up EVERYTHING in the car. Neurotic? Maybe. But also prepared). I put on extra extra EXTRA lube and hoped for the best. I wasn’t going to let a split seam ruin my race if I could help it.
Donning trash bags (that we ended up not super-needing but were briefly helpful against the wind), we walked to the start, which was very quiet for a while. This wasn’t a huge race. I think there were on order of about 1500 finishers total for the half + 5K. We noted with a grimace that the finish seemed to be an uphill, but oh well, everything hurts at that point.
I’d like to take this opportunity to show you the course elevation profile as it appears on the website.
Call me crazy, but that doesn’t look too bad. I looked carefully at the scaling and it didn’t seem awful – rolling hills, but I could use that as a positive. Having raced 4.5 years in Pittsburgh and now living in Athens, rolling hills didn’t scare me. The Georgia Half route in March was fairly hilly, and I ran the 1:45 I knew I was fit for that day, despite the hills. I could work these, too. I was banking on it. And on this day, I was way more fit than back in March.
About 20-25 minutes before the start, I headed out on my quick warmup mile, out and back along the sidewalk where runners were flooding in. One more corral bathroom break (there was a porto right there! Still not sure it wasn’t staff only, but no one stopped me) and finding Ty from Athens Road Runners, we lined ourselves up in Corral B and I squeezed near the 1:40 pace group, eyeing them quietly but knowing I would still follow my feet, my heart, and my breathing. That was pretty much the last moment I saw that group.
The air horn sounded and we had the usual accordion effect before we finally got across the start. I started my watch a good few seconds before crossing the mat, and we were off! I tried not to watch hawk too badly, feeling things out. It had been raining all weekend but wasn’t really raining at the start – the humidity hung in the air and I hoped that wouldn’t be a problem. The race had advertised on its website that there were 11 water stations (foreshadowing moment: I didn’t bring my own water because I figured this would be plenty) and I knew I’d be drinking and dumping water on my head at every station to account for the muggy low to mid-60s weather.
The race start was 7:00 so it was still very dark, and I carefully navigated my footing, using the early downhill to get some momentum and find my breathing. The mile clicked in 7:37, and I tried to restrain my giddiness. I wasn’t on LAP mode, just my overall time, in an effort to feel things out. As the first mile ended and we were about to round under an overpass, I saw the first aid station. Excellent! I thought. So they’ll be nearly every mile, this is great. Oh. Bless my own heart.
Immediately upon turning under the overpass, we headed up the first signifcant hill. It wasn’t terrible, it was a long, slow grind, but over soon enough and I tried to lock back into a rhythm and even out my breathing. The mile 2 mark came and went, and we entered mile 3, which was the worst mile as far as the longest, steepest hill according to my data. It knocked the wind right out of me, and it’s probably at that moment that my early confidence in this race took the biggest hit. I also still hadn’t seen another water stop as we entered into mile 4, and it wasn’t until 4.2ish that a water stop actually showed up. Okay, I thought, Maybe they’re backloading the water. That’s dumb, but it’ll do. Maybe.
The problem with this course was the setting. This is the third year, and not just the third course for this race, but third different area of Atlanta they’ve hosted it in. For those familiar, it’s in the northwest corner of the city, near Cobb Galleria. We were essentially running through office parks, and there were tons of out-and-backs and little repeated loops, so not very scenic. And as with most office parks, there were hills. EVERYWHERE. And not rolling hills, but sudden and steep ups-and-downs. These were not workable hills – these were momentum-and-rhythm-destroying hills. The cumulative effect was startling, but mid-race I didn’t really realize how bad it was until it was too late.
8:04, 8:24 (seriously, the worst hill), 7:57, 8:08
The rain began somewhere around 5-6, but it was light and hardly noticeable – the humidity dominated the day. Right around the 10K mark there was a short-ish out and back that made for a double water stop. This was the first time I saw Shannon, and we caught a quick high five (he’s still dealing with metatarsalgia, but was running the race for fun and totally dominated the course in 1:53, I was SO proud of him, especially with almost no running and so much biking lately, on such a rough course). I gleefully sucked down water at the first out-and-back stop, drinking half and dumping half on my head to cool myself – I had taken my first gel during mile 5 so I was finally getting to wash it down. On the way back I reached for a second cup and completely fumbled it, cursing aloud (sorry, volunteer – not your fault). I needed that water since it was becoming clear that there wasn’t nearly as much as advertised. With this out and back, there had been 4 in the first 10K, with 2 being within a quarter mile of each other.
After the cup fumble, we headed up another crushing hill and I felt my pace just tank. I really wanted to walk. Honestly, I kind of wanted to quit. But I convinced myself I should at least feebly jog, that it wouldn’t destroy my pace as much, and surely the hills would get better soon and I could make up some time.
We did have one nice out and back that crossed the Chattahoochee, and I tried to enjoy the view and the relative flat (well, nicely rolling) and get back into a rhythm and a better mental place. I caught Shannon for another out-and-back high five at this point. He looked strong but I knew the course was affecting him, too. I tried to put on a happy face. Moments before seeing him at that point, too, I noticed another Oiselle runner and grinned big. Seeing her and then seeing my husband within seconds did give me a great mental boost, I have to say. At some point in this vicinity was another water stop…and if I recall right, that was the last water stop on course. Mile 10 was a horrific hill, and I tried to ignore the 9:00+ time that flashed up on my watch.
7:59, 8:21, 8:03, 8:21, 9:07
I did notice from fairly early on and throughout the race, I didn’t have a lot of female company where I was running. About halfway through I started running near and yo-yo’ing with a couple girls, but it was mostly guys around me, which before the race started going very badly for me, gave me a nice mental boost. With such a small field, maybe I could have a competitive finish? This thought drifted away as the hills stacked up.
Ty and I caught up to one another around this point as well, heading back up the mile 1 hill we had been able to go down, and hopping onto a trail by the river for a short piece. We yo-yo’d a bit and complained about the course and lack of water, but it was motivating to try to match pace with him. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, I bitched once more about the lack of water and then turned it on a bit and passed him for the rest of the race (he had Chicago the following weekend so wasn’t supposed to race hard).
The last 5K absolutely broke me. I had taken my second and final gel around 9-something, expecting a water stop at any moment. There were zero – I REPEAT, THERE WERE ZERO – water stops in the final 4+ miles of the race. That is COMPLETELY unacceptable under ANY circumstances, let alone a hilly, humid race in Atlanta (I sent a strongly worded email to the race organizers about this fact). We headed out on one final out and back on a big hill – which was basically as a result a double down-and-up, and as we passed the hill I knew we’d be heading to right after, I said aloud, “you have GOT to be shitting me.” I pushed as much as I could on the downs and grinded the ups. I saw Shannon and the Volee runner one more time, though Shannon was deeply focused and possibly in the pain cave, so he didn’t see me (nor the vehement thumbs-down I flashed his way to sum up my general feelings at that moment). Heading up that hill we previewed, I shouted out loud as a course marshal drove by, “Where is the friggin’ water???” Not a proud moment, but I was I think justifiably pissed about the water situation.
And I walked. For no more than a tenth of a mile (probably less), in the middle of a half-marathon, not at a water stop, for the first time in YEARS, I walked. Just to the top of the hill and then I slid back in and kept my pace under 9:00, but still.
Just a mile and change to go, I turned it on as best I could, trying to kick on a long downhill before the uphill finish knocked me out. My watch had been ahead of the mile markers for a while (the typical amount for GPS) but I clicked mile 13 right at the marker – possibly due to multiple overpasses. 7:39. First mile on pace since…the first mile. The road sloped back uphill and I gritted my teeth, feeling like I was running through sludge. It felt like I was running a 10:00 pace but apparently I managed to sprint 7:09 pace up the hill. I ran through the line and hit stop across the second mat, thankful for a small field so I could wobble around as I tried to find my balance.
Finish time (chip): 1:47:45 (8:12 average)
Oh. So ugly. I stumbled toward the volunteers, waiting for one to untangle her medals before stumbling toward another one who was ready. I grabbed a water, a banana, and some protein recovery squeeze pack thing (that was actually pretty tasty) and tried to figure out where to go to wait for Shannon, whom I knew was no more than a couple minutes behind me.
I neared the finish photo area and wanted to wait for him there. They weren’t monitoring that area very much or telling people to move along as in big races, so I took that moment to sit on the curb, and sob. I looked up through bleary eyes at another finisher who came up to me – a man who said I ran a great race and looked really strong on the hills, that I was an inspiration. I thanked him in earnest, but I didn’t believe him. Not right then.
A few minutes later, I saw Shannon gathering his medal and post-race food and when he spotted me, I broke down once more and he came over and hugged me tightly. I cursed the course. I cursed the lack of water. I cursed my weakness in walking, in giving up, in my time. I had felt so strong and prepared and ready to crush it, and here I was, 7+ minutes off my PR, and almost 3 minutes slower than I was in March, when I was far less fit.
Before I got too cold, and after squeezing in our finishers’ photos, I forced myself to get on with my cool down. Ty managed to get a real smile and laugh out of me as he saw me running out as he was walking back to his car, shouting, “Shut up! Stop it right now! What are you doing??” in a teasing tone. I laughed and reassured him I was just running a quick cool down mile.
It took me a while to be willing to post my data. Or to post on social media about the race. But once I did, the flood of support from friends and my coach came in. The Oiselle team ladies were amazing, and it was a great moment when I learned that a fellow bird broke the tape at the race.
She also commented on the challenging nature of the course, and when I looked at her results and her race history (the internet is forever – sorry!), I saw she was a good 5+ minutes off her best as well. I began to think, So maybe it wasn’t just me.
Remember that course elevation from the site I posted earlier? Here’s the elevation from Strava:
I posted the link to my Strava data on twitter, and got an “uh WTF?!” response from my coach at the elevation. It was no joke. To compare, the pretty darn hilly Georgia Half in Atlanta this March had just under 600 ft elevation gain over 13.1 miles. This course? About 1,100 ftof elevation gain. That’s a little ridiculous. And more than enough to explain why my fitness and effort didn’t spell the time on the clock I had been hoping for.
We headed back to Charlie and Jill’s to get cleaned up and share our woes. I discovered that yes, I chafed VERY badly from the ripped seam (OUCH), but I got into comfy clothes and some Vaseline helped it from getting rubbed raw throughout the day.
My wounds may have been raw, but the more time I had to think and reflect and talk, the better I felt. Shannon and I stuffed ourselves on breakfast food at a great Jewish-style deli in Atlanta and made the drive home (watching the flood of traffic *out* of Athens this time). We downloaded about the race in detail: the course, the water, those hills, the weather, how we felt, how it stacked up against other challenging courses, the routes we run in Athens. And I started to feel a little proud of my fight.
And then, later that evening, I checked my official results at last…
3rd in my age group, and 14th woman overall??? I was floored.
And the truth that I had started to come to terms with as the day went on, finally, in the end, washed over me – this race wasn’t about the number on the clock, not really. It was about how I fought through the odds and still gave it my all with what I had that day, in the conditions I ran through, the cards I was dealt.
If that realization wasn’t enough, the next week of training hit me over the head with it: I ran 6 sore but happy recovery miles Monday after work with the Fleet Feet group, 9 gorgeous autumn morning miles with my usually crew (George and I running easy and commenting on how fantastic we felt – my legs felt inexplicably spectacular), and destroyed a 12 mile workout with 4×1200 at 10K pace on Thursday, feeling strong and free. On Sunday, after wussing out on Athens Road Runner’s usual Saturday’s run due to rain (there had been calls for t-storms but I don’t think they ended up happening during the run), I joined the Rogue Runners on their long run for my 18-miler, and got the little push outside my comfort zone that I probably needed, and walked away sore but victorious.
Including this week, there are five weeks to race day. Each workout is giving me confidence. Each one is teaching me something, getting me a little stronger. That race was a hard workout – my legs will attest to that. And now I’m just hungry for more.