Beautiful and brutal: Big Sur International Marathon Race Report

It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing this. A lot of that is due to, well, LIFE. Adulting. We’ve been traveling a lot, trying to rest a lot, trying to make lives for ourselves in our new home a lot.

So, there’s that. But I think at least a portion of the delay was the fact that I’m still wrapping my head around this race. I went in with no “real” goal – but all runners know how we feel about that. ‘Oh, I’m not racing this, I’m just running it for fun.’ But that voice in our head is still whispering, but I bet I could run X:XX time…

Training did not go even remotely as we hoped. It probably – definitely – went better than it could have. And I don’t 100% regret committing to a marathon when we had just moved. It kept us honest, and got our butts out the door. It forced us to seek out new routes, new running friends, and keep up with group runs. It was good for our whole selves, not just our running selves.

But it was hard. New climate, new scenery, new HILLS. New stresses, new strains, new routines. A lot of this felt unfamiliar and bizarre, even as we did something familiar and normally comforting, or challenging in a positive way. I broke down early in an attempted 20-miler and bagged it at 10. Some workouts were stellar; but many more than usual were absolute garbage. It was rough. It was far less than ideal. But we had “no goal.” That helped. We wanted to train hard, but with more freedom to dial back more than may typically be necessary –  because we were dealing with more than typical.

I knew I could finish the race. Maybe walking a lot, or maybe I would surprise myself. But I could finish. I just don’t think I was prepared for the beautiful brutality this particular marathon had to offer…

Packed lots of books – and this was of course necessary reading for this trip

Pre-race

Given the time zone situation, we were able to work a half-day on Thursday and fly into San Francisco by the early evening (super-long flights notwithstanding).

I love six hour flights yay

We crashed in a hotel by the airport, trying to get as much sleep as possible since Shannon was getting a sore throat and feared coming down with a cold so close to the race. The next morning (Friday), we headed back to the airport to grab our rental car and make the two-ish hour drive down the coast to Monterey.

monterey sign

Once in the Monterey area – which is lovely and charming, with perfectly cool, dry, breezy weather and a gorgeous coast – we got checked into our hotel: we stayed at one of the host hotels, the Best Western Victoria Inn Monterey. I was honestly surprised at how nice it was. “Best Western” always sounded on the cheap side to me (and it was pretty affordable, which is why we went with it) but it was a very clean, very nice room. We got settled, and shortly thereafter were able to meet with Danielle (my old training partner from Pittsburgh!) and her hubby, Jose, gorging ourselves on crepes, because #carboloading. We then were able to walk over to the expo, picking up bibs, bus tickets, and getting our shop on for a bit.

Found it!

FInding our names on the poster

So, about that elevation profile…

 

Danielle and Jose then headed up to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and Shannon and I spent a relaxing afternoon and evening exploring Monterey in the walkable portion near our hotel: in particular, Cannery Row.

We grabbed dinner at the Fish Hopper, splurging a little (money and calorie-wise) but still making smart choices since we were indulging in delicious seafood. Shannon’s throat soreness was still bad, so at the end of the meal I ordered him some tea…and a shot of bourbon to put in it.

Coconut crusted prawns, sesame crusted ahi, tons of veggies. So much nomz.

Aaaaand then we made less smart choices, after some walking around to work off dinner, by getting giant ice creams at Ghiradelli. Worth it.

ice cream

Saturday morning we got up decently early so we could join the Runner’s World group shakeout run with Bart Yasso! I saw a few editors I recognized from various articles, videos, and of course twitter, and got to meet Bart for the second time. We even got to chat a little bit – we talked about cats, of course. Oh, and running. A little. :)

bart

We spent the rest of the day pretty much lounging (and eating, of course), staying off our feet and trying to get some extra rest, given our very…very…VERY early wake-up call.

Race Day

There’s early. There’s ungodly early. And then there’s “did I even sleep yet?” early. This was the lattermost – we woke up at 2:30 am (I think – it’s been awhile) and quickly got dressed and lubed up, made sure we had all our stuff, including ample throwaway clothes, and headed to the busses. It was a VERY long ride to the start – I think close to an hour – and it was in pitch lack darkness on windy roads. So you could see hints of the beauty of the course, but it was largely a mystery. I ate the breakfast I made and packed for us – English muffin with Justin’s almond butter and banana slices.

We arrived at the start with about 90 minutes (I think) until go time. We wandered the rows of portopotties (blessing them a couple times each), which had hilarious signson them, as if they were houses being advertised: finished basement; pool inside; and the like. It was hilarious. Eventually, we popped a squat on the curb – joined by Danielle – and chatted and killed time and tried to stay warm.

sleepy bundled 3

After a final potty break, we realized we needed to hustle over to the start! We Gu’d up and head over, stripping off our layers at the last possible minute (the warmth of other people in the starting area helped a little). A drone buzzed ahead. The National Anthem was sung beautifully. And then, we were off!

ermahgerd start start line pre-race selfie329522_193171137_XLarge

 

 

The Race

The race started out in the redwoods, and a long, coasting downhill. The road wound, pitching upwards occasionally, but almost imperceptibly. Throughout the race, there were scattered pockets of spectators, but for the most part, it was a serene, solitary experience. I’d equate it (and this is for someone who wasn’t even remotely racing the event) to a jogging tour of Highway One from Big Sur to Carmel. I steadfastly ignored my watch, all the while clicking off sub-9 minute miles for the first handful.

I knew going in that this race was hilly. And I think training in Athens, GA, was a huge asset for my readiness for the course. That being said…I wasn’t ready for this course. Maybe I just wasn’t mentally ready. Because it is BRUTAL. And honestly, Hurricane Point wasn’t the problem.

Around mile 5 or 6, we had lost the shade and stared down a long, straight, slow grinding climb. Cows lowed on the sidelines, and I joked with Shannon that they were saying “gooooooo” instead of “mooooo.” But as the hill – the slope so gentle you’d barely notice it in a car, but which starts to drive nails into your legs after a while – kept going. I also began to realize that I was overdressed in my arm warmers, because despite the cool temperatures, after the first few miles there was very little sun protection: we were very exposed along the coast.

The reward of that hill, though, that took us away from the trees: the sea. The crashing, salt-wafting majesty of the sea. The wind and the sight took my breath away. We had previously discussed not stopping for photos, but threw this idea right away: we had zero time goal, and it was too beautiful not to stop for a couple snaps.

The hills really never ended on this course. I think I had gotten distracted by the huge SPIKE on the elevation chart that was the two-mile climb to Hurricane Point, and the way back down, that the rest seemed like uneventful little rollers. They are not. Do not discount them. Honestly, there are no flat parts of this course: if you’re not going up a hill, it’s because you’re going down the other side. It’s a quad-thrasher. But the beauty….I was almost tripping myself sometimes, straining my neck, trying to get another look, just one more peak of the gorgeousness all around me. The waves crashing on beaches below. The jagged, rugged cliffs. The sky and sea so endless and disappearing into one another in the distance.

When we got to mile 10, we were mentally prepared. Every mile had a unique, charming sign associated with it. This was a cutout of a bellhop-type figure standing near an old-style elevator, asking, “Going up?” We knew we had a two-mile grind ahead of us. I already wasn’t feeling mentally great, but I had been visualizing these two miles for months now, and Shannon promised to get me to the top if I helped pull him down the other side.

The first of those two miles is the worst: it’s incredibly steep, and you slow to a pace that feels more like walking, even as you try to pick up your feet. I focused on my breathing, my arm swing, lifting my knees. I tried to stay as relaxed as possible. As mile 11 clicked, it leveled off just enough to be a bit more comfortable, but it just. kept. going.

I kept telling myself to relax, to keep running, not to stop to walk just yet – I might have to do that later. The top would be worth it. The view would be amazing.

Boy, was I right. The view was sweeping and grand. I wish I had a photo for you, but at the same moment we were hit with the spectacular view, we were hit by a huge gust of wind. We’d pick up a food to run, and it would hit the other ankle – that’s how strong the wind was. So we kept trucking, controlled but flying down the other, super-steep side. I wondered what shape my quads would be in after this. Every step brought us closer to the midway point and the amazing Bixby Bridge, the pianist waiting for us.

bixby1 bixby2

 

 

After that bit of awe wore off, I again felt pretty run down. I had stopped a few miles early for the quickest pee break I could manage, and a couple miles after halfway, Shannon had to stop for a break (what’s hilarious to me is that Strava detects stops in the data and subtracts it from the total time, even as the watch keeps running – it knows you stopped moving, like to take photos or use the porto. Our time with that was… well, I’ll mention that later). We got going again, and the hills and sun and wind kept coming. I tried to refocus my mind on the positive: I was running Big Sur! It was SO BEAUTIFUL. I was really strong, and even if I wasn’t having a great race, I wasn’t trying to race fast, I was just happy to be out here. It only kinda worked. The beauty of the course occasionally distracted me enough. Other times, I still got into my own head.

The mile 20 sign was upon us (of course it was a brick wall) and I felt about the same, but it became clear very quickly that Shannon – who had seemed like he was feeling good and strong for most of the race to this point – was deteriorating rapidly. We had been doing everything we could for his head cold: we slept a TON (the night before the race notwithstanding), tons of fluids, and dosed him with Nyquil each night (NOT before the race) to ensure his sleep was restful.

Now it was exploding. He was coughing so much he was having trouble breathing. That, combined with the 20-mile wall? Suddenly, the guy who really did pull me through the first 20 miles needed some help. As with our first marathon in Philly, I largely forgot (or was able to set aside) the extreme amount of marathon pain setting into my legs and soldier on and focus on getting him to the finish line with me. Several times he told me to go ahead. I refused. This one, we were running together. This one, we were finishing together.

The hills rolled on. Around mile 23, there was the strawberry aid station of legend – I got a delicious, juicy strawberry that was absolute ambrosia at that point. We took walk breaks. We ran when we could. We wove across the road because, while we’d been told that it was best to stay in the middle because of the road camber, the camber shifted a lot, so you had to find that sweet, flat spot that wouldn’t anger your hips and knees.

I distracted Shannon as best I could: pointing out a beautiful sight here or there, the fact that there was a Tesla parked along the sidelines at one point, how close we were, and that run, walk, or crawl, we were going to make it.

There was one last, cruel hill in the 25/26 mile range before we were able to coast down, across a little bridge, and the finish line was at last in sight. The sun beat down on us as we tried to kick a little bit, but mostly just tried to keep it together.

We crossed the finish hand-in-hand, and promptly fell apart.

329522_193784757_XLarge

Finish time: 4:26:11

Here’s the funny thing: Strava took out our stops – the bathroom stops and the photos – and came up with a 4:17 finish time. That’s right. Our Philly Marathon time, basically. I find this rather remarkable.

Post-race

As usual after a marathon, everything hurt. Everything was cramping. Every step was agony. My feet were destroyed (though less so, I think, than typical since I ran in Hokas – especially since I knew I’d be out there a while and the road camber was weird). My quads were shattered. I was sweaty and exhausted. Shannon was a mess for a good 30 minutes. I helped him to and through the food and water tent, and we sat for a few minutes, updating people on our finish (parents, mostly) before heading to the buses. During the bus-ride, he managed to recoup a bit, and we limped to the car and headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up.

We lounged around for a long while, snacking on things but otherwise waiting for our appetites to really come back after forcing in the initial calories immediately post-race. By early evening, we were ready for some burgers. After some googling, we wound up at a diner that was walkable from our hotel, and gorged on burgers and beer, while listening to a group of retirees participate in a ukulele lesson. It was completely adorable.

burger

Asked for a burger with peanut butter and bacon. Yep.

 

The rest of the trip was totally relaxing. We woke up Monday morning feeling…not that horrible, actually. I recall swinging my legs over the side of the bed and stepping down  to the ground tentatively, fearing the worst. Yes, I was quite sore, but I think I was worse (and for longer) after Air Force in September (where I ran my PR of 3:52 and raced my guts out – well, OK, mild exaggeration. I was a bit of a quitter that day but aren’t we all a little after mile 22 :-/). Maybe it was because we hadn’t “raced” this one. Maybe I was better about re-fueling and re-hydrating. The world may never know.

We took our tired legs for some more exploring: we checked out the aquarium, and fed the leftover English muffins I had bought at the local Trader Joe’s to some very happy seagulls. Around mid-afternoon, we drove back up to San Francisco and ventured into the Oakland area to have a delightful dinner and night over at our friend Amanda’s. She’s a very cool tech geek with a very cool tech job and a very cool (and handsome) cat.

Tuesday morning, after a leisurely wake-up and shower, we headed to the airport to drop off the rental car and make our way back home! Shannon’s head cold 200% blew up on the plane that day – I felt awful for him. Being sick at 35,000 feet is the actual worst. I myself started feeling it on the drive back from the airport that night, and by the next day at work I was more and more miserable by the hour (I ended up taking Friday off work because I felt so bad). I guess when you’re not training “hard” for a marathon, instead of getting sick during peak week, you get sick during or right after the race.

It’s been now nearly three months since the race. I remember actively thinking sometime during the last 10K – “marathons suck, they are the worst, why do I run these? I am never running another marathon again, they’re stupid.”

What did I do a week and a half later?

Oops, I did it again

The purpose of this race was two-fold: 1.) to have a spectacular experience at a bucket list race (CHECK); 2.) to get another 26.2 under my belt, with the goal of running two this year for the first time ever, and doing so in a way that wasn’t going to destroy me (CHECK).

The marathon and I have been on a bit of a journey together already – but it’s just getting started. It’s a tenuous, tough relationship – and I’m not always in love with it. But there’s this need, this passion, this fire burning. I want to master it. I want to face the beast and wrestle it to the ground.

Yes, I want to qualify for Boston.

But I’ll get to that in a later post…. :)

Race Report: Ragnar Trail Relay Atlanta

I KNOW I KNOW this is incredibly belated. And probably will be written over the course of several days. I’ll try to keep it interesting, mmk?

I never did get around to writing a report on Ragnar DC in 2012, but let me just say this: Ragnar Trail >>>>> Ragnar road edition. They’re both stupidly fun events, but man, Trail has a LOT MORE going for it: it’s basically trail running, camping, and tailgating all rolled up into one muddy, sleepless, sweaty, dirty lovefest with your closest friends – new and old. Embrace the dirt and stank. Embrace the slower mile splits. Embrace the rugged beauty of the trails. And try not to trip on a root and fall on your face (no I did not do this – though I had a couple close calls).

This spring was incredibly busy, and as anal and organized and as much of a type A planner as I am about a lot of things, I found myself leaning heavily on my awesome teammates for this one. They really stepped up – in particular Kelly and Ellen – to help plan and organize and get to-do lists and packing lists and buying lists and who-owes-who-what lists. And everyone had a STELLAR attitude in general through changes of plans, massive rainfall, and sometimes extra miles. So major SHOUT OUT to my amazing Ragnar teammates for team Everything Is Awesome (complete with Lego shirts and lots of singing. It was our mantra for the whole weekend, especially in moments when we felt like we and our race may just fall apart.

Pre-race

Packing piles forming.

Friends came from near and far, by plane and by car (yes – that rhymed; deal with it). Ellen and Lara drove ALL THE WA DOWN from Pittsburgh, Tim and Alys, Danimal, and Kelly flew into ATL, and Kelly rented a car, and hauled them all in. This was Thursday night, and we all arrived within an hour of each other at Casa Quinnwitz, which was SO READY for all these runners…some of whom had to sleep on an air mattress, the L-sofa, and the floor. SORRYLOVEYOU. Big house, not enough furniture.

We ate, drank, and were merry, and tried (but mostly failed) to get to bed at a decent hour. But the amount of sleep we got was still going to be better than Friday night’s sleep (approaching zero), so we took it in stride. We’d been stalking the forecast all week, and it foretold rain: thunderstorms intermittently through the afternoon and night. We’ll get wet, we thought. It’ll be muddy, but we’ll be cautious and we’ll have fun and it doesn’t look too bad. Let’s just get there early and set up camp before the rain comes.

Oh, how innocent. How naive.

We did make it to the Georgia International Horse Park an extra hour early and found what we thought was a good spot and swiftly set up camp, checked the team in, and began the eating and merry-making.

We split up our group to watch the safety briefing video – which was necessary and fun and silly – so that half the group was watching camp and the other half watching the video as mandated (though I don’t think they actually took attendance in any way. *shrug*). We tooled around for a good while longer, but as our team’s 3:30 start time approached, it was game time!

Our team roster and runner order looked like this:

left to right: Alys, Tim, Kelly, Dan, me, Shannon, Lara, Ellen

Alys

Me

Kelly

Tim

Shannon

Ellen

Lara

Danimal

Round 1:

For those not familiar with a standard Ragnar Relay, it goes like this: 12 runners run a total of about 200 miles, each running a range of distance legs; each runner runs three legs. Two vans leapfrog from stop to stop (six runners in each van) for each hand-off. Instead of a baton, you hand off an orange Ragnar slap bracelet. That is pretty fun. It’s a lot of fun, but a whole lot of rushing around and driving and logistics.

Ragnar Trail does it in a pretty nifty way: every runner starts and stops from the exact same exchange tent, and there are three loops that everyone runs (in a different order – I’ll get to that). The green loop is relatively easy; the yellow loop is moderate; the red loop is hard. Inside the exchange tent, volunteers man the tables full of slap bracelets: some red, some yellow, some green; the runner grabs the color they’re about to run. This helps the volunteers know where to direct the runner, and helps the delirious, over-tired runner remember, “what am I running? [checks wrist] OK red. Got it.” As a runner comes in, finishing a leg, they run across a mat that matches the color they just ran, and the teammate they’re “handing off” too is on a mat directly in line with that one, of the color THAT runner is about to run. Easy peasy! Brilliant logistical management. The pattern of the colors always goes green, yellow, red; so the first three runners had those first loops: runner 1 started green, runner 2 yellow, runner 3 red – rinse, repeat for runners 4, 5, 6 and so on. So the order per runner varied, but after the first three runners we could all give each other tips about what the route was actually like.

Alys headed us off on her green loop in thunderous glory! Look at that fierceness.

Alys in blue on the right

Before long, it was time for me to start my first loop! It was a hot, sunny, muggy afternoon, and I figured I would adjust my effort based on the conditions.

Yellow loop was rolling but gorgeous. Some parts were shaded; others were exposed. All were beautiful. I did take a few walk breaks, but my effort was somewhere around 10K-half effort and I managed to stay very evenly in the 10:15s (pace doesn’t matter to me for these – for reference, my 10K pace is low 7s; half is 7:30s-7:40s, so it’s a massive difference. But effort is everything when racing on trails). And I had an absolute blast. Part of the loop joined up with green, so I got a little preview of what I had later. From steep, rocky switchbacks to pine-covered forest floor…just divine.

I handed off to runner 3 – Kelly – who gave me  a big kiss on the cheek and immediately regretted it when she picked up all the sweat from my face! Ha! (loveyousorryaboutthesweatykiss!) She kicked the shit out of the red loop and came back positively giddy. We were all well on our way to being completely trail drunk. Time was up next, and then my hubby, Shannon. We noted with slight trepidation as the sky was growing dark prior to Shannon’s loop.

Maybe 15 minutes after Shannon started his loop, it absolutely opened up.

It POURED. For like, an HOUR. I fought panic and knew Shannon would be smart and adjust pace as needed. I knew he would come back in one of two moods from what was now a slip-and-slide mud run (or growing rapidly so) through driving rain: A.) pissed and annoyed, because EFFING RAIN; or B.) little boy happy because YAY RAIN.

Spoiler alert: it was option B.

Only caveat: as Shannon came roaring in after his run, instead of handing off to Ellen – who was caffeine gel’d up and ready to run up until maybe 30 minutes before, he was handed a card with his entry time on it, at which point he learned what we had just discovered: we were under a one hour lightning delay. An hour from the time on the card, we were to send out not Ellen, but runner #7, Lara – yes, Ellen would be skipped, and Lara would run after an hour delay.

Well, that didn’t quite happen either. It was then extended to two hours, skipping Lara as well, and runner #8 – trusty anchor Danimal – would be running next, two hours from the time on the card.

We were frustrated and distraught. In addition to the two hour delay, throwing off two runners – the rain was still driving and we realized the water level in our little campsite was rising. We noticed we were right on/near a floodplain, and water poured into our area. One corner of our big tent got muddy, though luckily most of our stuff was spared (some of Ellen’s stuff got soaked. UGH).

We quickly tried to mitigate the situation. Our common area was muddy and ankle deep in water. Tim and Ellen engineered the mud to make a dam, separating the flood plain from our site and slowing the water flow a bit. Most/all of us gave up on wearing shoes between our legs, wet wiping and toweling off to get in our tents and changed when needed. (I have to say: after spending like 12 hours barefoot in mud, my running callouses have honestly never looked or felt better. Pro-tip. Save your money on that fancy salon or pumice that looks like a cheese grater. Play in mud! I also had been having issues with literally ripping the callouses at the base of my baby toes, to the point of bleeding, and these also held up and HEALED amazingly well. Not to be TMI about it…but we’re all runners here, right?) I was riding the line between trying to make the best of it and keep on a happy face for the team and fully freaking the fuck out. We were stuck here. In the rain. Two runners skipped. No end in sight. And the trails were going to be an absolute. mess. Also, it was nighttime, and we were going to have to run in said mess in the pitch black darkness.

Round 2:

There’s that point where you cross over the full-on panic point and embrace the shitty and just make the best and have fun. It took me a while, but I got there. We realized runners were allowed to use pacers. Danimal was up next after the rain delay, then Alys was running red – the hardest loop, and the one Ellen had been skipped on – and I was running green just after – the loop Lara had been skipped on. Why not bring the along as pacers? It wasn’t the most ideal way to get their miles in, since it shortened their recovery between their first and second runs, but if they wanted to run it, Alys and I so welcomed the company.

So after Danimal finished his first loop, Alys and Ellen – all gel’d and headlamp’d up – ventured out into the muddy, dark red loop for the longest trek in probably the toughest possible conditions. They finished way quicker than expected, and Lara and I weren’t even ready for them. D’oh! But we rallied and headed out together on the green loop, taking it SUPER easy and calling out obstacles to each other. Mud! Rock! Muddy rock! Root! We bunched up with a few different people a few different times, chatting with them and likewise calling out obstacles. It was great camaraderie and so much fun. We both slipped a bit a few times, but no one bit it. A great success. We came in through the exchange strong, and I handed off to Kelly, who darted into the night.

Round 3

As our runners darted in and out, trading war stories about the extreme mud and slop, how well our dam was holding up, and how much some of the mud pits honestly looked like poop, we took turns fueling and napping. Next time we’ll bring fewer sweets and more salty snacks, since we were devouring those (including stealing a lot of the dill pickle chips our lovely volunteers brought – to share, but still. Hungry runners are scary around all food). We partook in the free dinner (pasta with tomato sauce, veggies, and salad) when we were able, and I had a bagel, peanut butter, and banana towards morning as my last-leg/brunch/whatever it really was fuel.

After some restless but still better than nothing sleep and some fuel, it was time for my last leg- the toughie, the red loop. It was sunny and warm but I was ready to have fun and conquer the wilderness, at whatever pace that meant.

The route started through and around the campground and along the road for a bit before dipping down onto a wide fire road. I knew the first few miles were flat to downhill, so I cooked along at half-marathon effort and alternately had a big dumb grin on my face, or a look of awe and joy. I yo-yo’d with a few runners, trading passes and greetings. At one point, I passed this very large man, and we exchanged pleasantries and commented on the beauty of the trail. A short time later, I came across a section I had heard about from others, which was passable only by grabbing onto a nearby tree and hoisting yourself up. Given the heat, I was carrying my handheld, so I thought fast and clipped the strap of it onto the waist strap of the race number, then grabbed the (small) tree with both hands and yanked myself up. I glanced  back and saw the man was not far behind me, so I waited a moment and offered him a hand. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Of course!” I said, and heave-ho’d and he was up. “You’re like superwoman over here!” he said. And we both laughed and carried on our way.

The sun was rapidly drying things – in fact, there was some clean-up happening at the campsite at that moment as they moved the whole thing several feet away from the flood plain mud pit, and took a few tarps down to dry – but I still had a couple of extremely steep downhills to navigate, and I took these very slow to avoid wiping out. Then came the toughest section: half a mile of granite slab, totally exposed, slick in places, rocky in others, and almost missed a sign and went the wrong way (I righted myself very quickly). I was starting to get tired as I passed the golf course, but knew I was close to finishing, and also didn’t want to wish away these last moments on the trails. I came out of a section and…there was the timing mat! (that’s the other thing – we cross a timing mat with .2 to go on any leg, and the team flashes on a screen so you know to get your ass into the exchange tent!) I hauled ass into the finish with a grin, handing off to Kelly one last time.

Our runners clicked off their last runs, laughing and smiling; upon finishing, everyone really scarfed down the food (they also served a paid lunch in the main tent; it was decent) and continued cleaning up the area and packing things. Everyone was in great spirits, even as the day was winding down and the fun was drawing to a close.

Let me talk about Danimal for a second, though. Danimal is a champ. Danimal is the king of jokes and goofballs, and I have never seen him without a smile on his face for more than, like, two seconds. Danimal is ultra-training – specifically, in May, he had a weekend of back-to-back marathons. So he was used to some major miles on weekends. We were all totaling about 15 miles of trails for Ragnar. But Danimal? Well, he went a little extra. Lara had her red (tough) leg still in the dark, and she’s a (relatively) newer runner and fairly new to trails. This was also her first Ragnar. Danimal – champ that he is – ran that leg with her, and then headed right out onto his next leg. He was also our anchor runner, and his last leg was that same red leg, and he cruised in with a grin and a triumphant fist pump and his stuffed penguin Dr. Gregory still pinned to his shorts. We rewarded his amazing attitude and sportsmanship and team player-ness by giving him the race bib. He earned it!

We crossed together while singing “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME” though there was little pomp and circumstance from the race directors and volunteers. Our late start time meant that a lot of people had already left! Oh well. We enjoyed our finish antics.

We got our (seriously dangerous) bling and took a finish photo together, grinning like fools.

race_898_photo_16123813

Post-race

So much celebrating! Tim and Alys headed out to see Alys’ parents in Atlanta that night, and the rest of us – after packing up the cars and driving back to our house in Athens, partied until we were just too pooped to party anymore (spoiler alert: we all crashed early). It was a nice evening and we sat outside, drinking beer, eating pizza (Kelly is a master of ordering delicious pizza – seriously), and taking turns showering off the mud, sweat, and grime. We were elated, exhausted, delirious, giddy, and trail-drunk.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. In fact, we’ve been spitballing ideas since…the moment we finished, or even before we were totally done, to be honest, on when and where and how we’ll do the next one. Maybe even West Virginia in June 2016! We shall see… It remains an expensive endeavor, but I would say a LOT less so that the traditional, 12-person team with team vans to rent and possible hotel stays Ragnar. If you like dirt, mud, trails, beer, camping, not sleeping, tailgating, possibly getting rained out, getting sunburned, you should definitely do this. You’ll love those smelly people forever.

Race Report: Georgia Publix Half-Marathon

Sometimes a race isn’t about busting a PR. It isn’t about hitting the goal pace you’ve been trying for weeks to train for. The one that sometimes seems free and flying and other times feels like a death march, or slipping between your fingers as you grasp for it futilely. Sometimes a race is about having fun and giving what you have that day.

The training cycle for Big Sur was a trying one. I was grateful that I didn’t have a Big Marathon Goal, and honestly, forcing ourselves to train for a marathon within two weeks of moving several states away from our last home was a double-edged sword: one the one hand, it held us accountable; it motivated us out the door. On the other hand, we were stressed. We were tired. We felt off-kilter a great deal of the time. I’ve never had Saturday mornings like during this cycle where we languished in bed minutes…hours… past the alarm, past when we normally would have started our long run, not wanting to do it AT. ALL. I cut two long runs short (one 16 miler became a 12 miler after I started crying at mile 11 – the first 10 miles had felt SO HARD and I couldn’t imagine hanging on another five beyond where I stood) and a 10 mile cutback became 3.6 (early taper for the half, really) after a similar meltdown.

A few months prior, I naively thought I could PR at this race. I’ve been on a hot streak with the half-marathon for a couple years now. I knew being so close to 1:40 meant that every second would be a fight for a while (until my next breakthrough – that’s a thing, right?) but I figured if I did the work, I could do it. By the time we got to race weekend, we knew this was wholly unrealistic for both of us. We hoped to just stick together as long as we could and try to have fun if at all possible. Fight with what we had that day, and live to fight harder another day.

Saturday

We drove into Atlanta the afternoon before the race, got checked into our SWANK hotel, right by the start, finish, and Centennial Olympic Park, and immediately hit up the expo, which was within walking distance.

Great view of the city from our balcony

The expo was so-so, we only browsed for a bit, then walked out with our numbers, scouting some grub. It was about 4 p.m. and we were hungry and wanting to try a new strategy: at 4:30 we each had a waffle at Waffle House – ending up chatting with a representative from Dole (yeah, the fruit people) who was there as a race sponsor rep – for round one of a carbo-loading dinner. We went back to the hotel room and chilled off our feet, then got dinner in the hotel restaurant around 7:30 (later than hoped but there was a wait since it was a special runner dinner and I think they had to stagger us or something): simple pasta with tomato sauce and some veggies. Neither meal was overly filling, but just right. And let me say this now: I have never felt so well-fueled for a race. But we’ll get to that.

After getting our stuff laid out, we crashed as early as we could manage for a 5 a.m. wakeup and slept as well as we could for pre-race sleep.

Race day

We got right up and at ’em – I had packed us bagels with peanut butter and banana, though I could only choke down about two-thirds of mine, plus some water. We hit the bathroom as much as we could before bothering to go downstairs, trying to avoid porto-potties altogether. The forecast was low to mid-50s and rain, but no wind. I waffled on my outfit choice for a while before landing on Oiselle singlet with arm warmers, bum wrap, and calf sleeves. The arm warmers ended up being overkill, but don’t I always overdress? (Answer: yes.) We also donned trash bags to keep dry as long as possible.

We headed down with about 30 minutes to the start, and found that as soon as we walked out the door, there was our corral! Yes, staying in the host hotel is worth it. We stayed underneath the parking deck with other runners until they began announcements and the anthem, then scooted into the corral.

We shed our bags, took our pre-race GUs, got rid of the throwaway water bottle I’d brought, got a pre-race good luck kiss, and right at 7 a.m….

The Race

We were off! We figured we’d largely run together, given our current fitness, but were going to run our own race and just enjoy things. It was DARK. A 7 a.m. start when it’s still sort of winter, plus rain? It was drizzling but there was ZERO wind, so it kept things just right. I was very comfortable, and kinda wanted to shed the arm warmers, but I lazily kept them on the whole race. I got rid of my throwaway gloves at the first water stop, just a couple miles in, and took my hands out of the thumb holes of the arm warmers right after that. I had a feeling that 1:45 was about where we would fall, but I tried to ignore my watch as best I could.

I had been warned the course was really hilly, to the point where I was nervous with how many people were warning me. Verdict? For a Pittsburgh runner, it wasn’t terrible. It honestly wasn’t any worse than the Pittsburgh half course, though, knowing the course well helps a lot, and this was brand new. But it was beautiful. We ran around downtown and through a lot of the neighborhoods, including some gorgeous tree-lined streets. It was rolling and tough, but it was never boring to look at.

7:43, 7:55, 8:00, 8:11, 7:53

I let the hills dictate my pace and tried to focus on keeping an even, strong effort. And it definitely reflected in my splits, which honestly, I’m happy about. I was a little slower on the tougher climbs, faster on the recovery downhills. But overall, and even effort. I took a gel at mile 5 just because I felt I should. I never once felt bonky. Tired legs, sure; wanting to slow down at points, maybe. But didn’t feel underfueled at all.


mid-race-maybe
After some rollers, I recharged on a couple of downhill miles, knowing the last 5K in downtown was going to be tough. Around 9ish, as we came through Piedmont Park, Shannon noted that we’d be running through here for the Peachtree (we didn’t know yet that we had gotten in) and I got a little boost of adrenaline at the thought and got through the park strong, followed by a bit of a struggle on the hill on the way out. At this point, I took my second and last mid-race gel. Downtown again, here we came.

8:08, 8:08, 7:57, 7:38, 8:05

We soldiered on, looking forward to the next personal checkpoint: Georgia Tech, in particular Fraternity Row. I had all these thoughts of some still drunk brothers stumbling around and cheering. Naive: there was almost no one out there. All asleep inside. LAME. We ran past Shannon’s old fraternity house (he was wearing his Tech shirt that day and got some extra cheers for it, which made me grin every time) and we did a call and response a few times: “WHAT’S THE GOOD WORD?” “TO HELL WITH GEORGIA!!!!”

After that, we had a looooong climb, and things were starting to get really, really painful. We kept digging, and Shannon and I yo-yoed a bit. But as we got into the last mile, I started to pull ahead, easing into a kick.

8:02, 8:00

I looked back a few times before deciding that he would probably want me to finish my race in any way I could, and I would have wanted the same if the roles were reversed. So I cranked it up, skipping a couple songs on my playlist to get to good finishing songs as we headed for home. Little did I know just how close he was edging again…

7:45

finish-pain-face2

He was so close behind me and I had no idea at that moment.
He was so close behind me and I had no idea at that moment.

As we came around the final turn and into Centennial Park, I cranked it as hard as I could, wanting to see if I could keep that clock under 1:45. I didn’t make it, but I still crossed the line proud.

beating-shannon

final sprint: 6:50 pace

still-beating-shannon

finish-candid

Chip time: 1:45:06 (8:01 avg pace)

finish-cute

finish-official

Post-race

We caught our breath and stumbled to get our medals and finishing photos. My feet were killing me and we were sore all over and getting tighter the longer we stumbled around. The rain was also starting to chill us after a while. But we got our food and ran into the Dole guy! Who took our picture, of course.

We headed back to the hotel room to get cleaned up and changed and into cozy clothes. I spent a while on the balcony watching the finishers and listening to the announcer and crowds from high above.

Check-out time closed in on us, and we were finally hungry for real food. So we gathered up our things and headed out. Next stop? The Vortex for burgers and beer, of course.

Terrapin Liquid Bliss (chocolate peanut butter porter)

Buffalo bleu burger and a heap of fries – gone in seconds.

Analysis

Was it the race we envisioned or hoped for when we first signed up for it? No. But was it a race we could be proud of? Absolutely. I gutted out the tough hills and miles, in the rain, with my guy. We had a spectacularly fun weekend, ate great food, ran an amazingly well-run race (seriously – it was flawless. Started on time, amazing volunteers, well marked, beautiful course. Run it!). Sure, it was about 4+ minutes slower than my PR. But not every day can be a time PR.

This race was about something else. It was about feeling good in a race in (or at least near) our new home.

What kind of (run) has it been?

It’s been a little quiet around here.

[tumbleweed rolls past]

A lot has happened. A lot is still happening. We moved from our beloved home of Pittsburgh, PA – where we had built a life and home and network and some of the best running friendships I’ve ever had – to Athens, GA. And mostly, I’m just trying to get a grasp on it all and find my happy place – in running and in life. We’ve been racing (well, we raced once since we arrived).

We’ve joined the local running stores and clubs to try to make new friends.

We’ve made new dog friends and drank beer with run friends at Creature Comforts:

But something is still missing. We’re deep into training (Georgia Publix half in March; Big Sur International Marathon in April), but that skeleton of a routine seems both wobbly and weighty. I spent the first few weeks kicking ass and taking names: clobbering speed workouts, keeping up with the fast crowd at group runs, nailing long runs. Then, just as my husband was starting to hit his groove (an end of 2014/early 2015 ITBS flareup had him playing cautious for a while), I felt mine slipping away. Having adjusted the training plan to try to make a better couple of cycles before our March race, last week was changing to a build week, but apparently my body wanted anything but. On Monday, we took it easy on the Fleet Feet store run – 5 miles chatting with some different folks (we make new acquaintances each time).

Tuesday morning, after a grueling arms workout, I stood on the treadmill with my head screaming NO. Thinking it was treadmill fatigue, I pushed the run to the evening so I could do it outside in the sunshine. I cut it short to three miles, my brain crabbing with almost every step. Wednesday morning yoga soothed me, and Thursday morning, I crushed a tempo run at a little faster than goal half-marathon pace (for an aggressive goal that I’ve been thinking about throwing out, at least for this particular race). Friday morning – more yoga.

Saturday dawned cold – the damp cold of the south that I’m beginning to learn – and to admit – feels different than up north. After a deep single-digit or lower freeze and heavy snow, 30* up north feels like heaven; a gift from the running gods. Down here, 30* has a sharp bite, nipping at fingers and toes and cheeks. I haven’t lost all my northern blood yet – I swear, I haven’t. It just feels different.

We had 16 miles on the docket, and were going to do 10 alone before joining Athens Road Runners for the final 6. Every step was mental torture. My water bottle was too heavy. My hands were cold. Then my core was too hot. Then we dipped in altitude and ran by the Oconee River and the chill of the water led my core temp to plummet and my quads felt like ice blocks. It was a battle. I hit a rhythm for a couple minutes at a time, every few miles, but I wanted to throw in the towel for the majority. We finished almost 10 miles, then returned to the parking lot where the group began. A mile and a half in, I was in tears. I don’t want to do this. My husband and I cut short and headed back to the start, where I hurled my water bottle as hard as I could into the asphalt and burst into angry tears.

What, exactly, is the problem? I eked out a little over 12 miles, four fewer than planned, two fewer than last week. I had nailed a tempo run – why had I broken down so badly two days later?

I know running is just as much mental as it is physical – sometimes moreso. Sometimes we know why a run went awry; sometimes there’s rhyme and reason to it. Other times there is no logic. This was something in between. This was frustration and exhaustion and depression and loneliness – missing my running pals in Pittsburgh so badly I could feel it in my chest. Wishing I could kick that tempo run’s butt alongside Kim. Wishing I could join Danielle on Mondays when she runs long and I would run long-ish to keep her company for half the miles. Wishing I could explore the seemingly endless network of trails near Pittsburgh with Kelly.

Not everything about the long run was terrible. As someone pointed out to me a little earlier, running as many miles as I did while feeling like absolute shit was, as he put it,”badass.” While the path by the river was frigid because of the nearby water and drop in altitude, it was serene and quiet, and two deer skipped across the path a couple of times, their white, plume-like tails waving their exit. As we finished an out-and-back into Sandy Creek, we observed the feel of that road was perfect: perfectly inclined, up and down, to feel relaxing and to put our muscles at ease.

This week is a cutback week, and I already missed a run. We ran two this morning at the gym, planning for five with Fleet Feet. A work deadline prevented me from making it, but it was freezing rain as I drove to the university to pick up my husband for work so we could grab dinner instead. Through the driving, icy rain, I saw one of the store managers leading a pack of guys down the usual route, and felt a stir of envy. But it’s okay. Maybe this was supposed to happen.

We have a race in just about a month. It probably won’t be a PR day – the course is hilly, and if we do find our groove before the race, it will be just barely. Just by the skin of our teeth. By the edge of our soles. But that’s okay. It’ll happen the way it’s supposed to, and I’ll try to revel in each mile, even the hard ones.

Especially the hard ones.

How (not) to recover from a marathon

Step 1. Take some time off

Actual: Take four days off of running, go to Pilates on day three, spin on day four (gingerly), and try to run probably too-many-miles on the return day. All I can say is thank goodness I was meeting Danielle at a coffee shop that’s a quarter mile between our two places. That first quarter mile would’ve been painful for her to witness. Something funky was up with my right knee – it was tight and a little painful, and those first several strides were very herky-jerky. It loosened up, and I didn’t think too much of it. I just needed more rest. I iced, ibuprofen’d, took a couple more days off running.

Step 2: Don’t race for a while, especially if you kinda blew up during the last few miles of your marathon.

Actual: Umm… about that.

mark-scolding

The Pittsburgh Great Race 10K was my very first race ever back in 2010, and I have run it every year since. This year, back in the spring, I had received an email from race organizers, inviting me to be a seeded runner based on my 2013 finish time. Inviting me. How could I *not* run this event in 2014, even 8 days out from a marathon, when I was going to have a seeded bib?

The other, and almost bigger, factor was this – we’re leaving Pittsburgh. My husband, who sits next to me now working on his thesis document, is defending on Monday, and in mid-December, we are departing our home here to make way for Athens, GA, where he will work at UGA and we will enjoy a whole new running community. I had to run this last one for the foreseeable future. Had to.

The in-laws were in town, so we headed downtown mighty early to get on the 5K bus, before going to close our eyes a few minutes inside my warm car before heading to our own bus. A long wait and a couple porto stops later, I went through a VERY painful warmup, where my knee still felt terrible and stiff, but seemed to kinda-sorta loosen. I jogged, butt-kicked, high-knee’d, carioca’d and prayed my knee into motion before squeezing into the very back of the seeded area and vowing now to race faster than half-marathon-ish pace. I had left music at home to further discourage myself from racing.

Well, I almost kept to it. But the excitement of this race – being my last one, being such a beloved one, being seeded – and the fact that it was my first race in my new Oiselle singlet (yes, I joined the flock – I hesitate to say I’m on the “team” since this segment of it is more frequent-buyer-membership, but it remains a fantastic community, and I love that a portion of my fee supports their elite athletes), and I’d already met a few new bird friends.

Birds! I’m bottom left

I worked the course as I’ve learned well to do over the last few runnings: a lot of up first mile, down second mile, up third mile, down fourth mile, up fifth mile, and SCREAMING down for mile 6. My pace dipped into the 7:1xs a couple times, but I let it slide back a little when we hit the rough part, Blvd of the Allies climb, striding along side a struggling runner and giving her a couple words of encouragement as we conquered the hill. I let myself kick that last mile and cruised to a 46:29 finish (7:28 avg, a little faster than I had told myself I would run).

And oh, the birds I got to meet (and see again, or meet in real life after knowing on twitter)! A really cool group of ladies.

Step 3: Once you’ve tried running again post-marathon, if things are still hurting, take more time off, assess, and perhaps consult a sports doc.

Actual: I totally aced that 10K, guys, it was such a great tempo effort, I love running, let’s run 4 miles two days later!

Or, you know, limp painfully for four miles. It sorta loosened, but really didn’t. I had to do something. Stat.

Finally, I decided to be smart and take at least a week off. I made an appointment with my primary doc (damn insurance requires a referral to a sports doc) and during that week of wait, I did all non-impact cardio (rowing, cycling, elliptical), plus weights, and anything else I could think of that didn’t remotely irritate my knee. I saw my doc the following Wednesday, shirked off annoying questions like “how did you hurt your knee? so you hurt it running a marathon?” and “maybe you didn’t take enough time to rest it?” and politely and firmly asked for a sports doc referral. Got to THAT doc a week later, and having taken time off from running, doing ample cross-training, and doing a 1-mile test run the day before that appointment (after a thorough warmup) and felt no pain, he greenlit me to run and build mileage (smartly) and wrote me a script for physical therapy. Yes!

Step 4: Use PT as a way to work on muscle imbalances and work on kinks. Cross-train!

Actual: Yeah, this part I did right. I saw a PT twice a week, and after being embarrassed twice (once by the sports doc, then by the PT) with my weak hips – “ok, lay on your side, left you leg, I’m going to push down and you resist” *collapse* “yeahhh….” – it was decided that what I really needed was a hip strengthening regimen. And boy did my PT deliver.

Weak hips in runners are pretty much the cause of all ills (or so it seems to me, a non-medical-expert), and in my case, weak hips, especially the right hip, were letting my knees collapse in and putting too much strain on them, thus giving me classic patellofemoral pain syndrome, aka “Runner’s Knee.”

I now have an arsenal of hip exercises – some basic, everyday strength ones where all I need is a band and a space of floor or yoga mat – and some machine work for days I’m at the gym. By the end of four weeks of biweekly PT, daily strength exercises, and weekly machine work, when he tested my hip strength, it was “a gazillion percent better.” Though apparently my hamstrings are still problematically tight.

Step ups. I actually now do these on a lower step and just tap the heel down, which requires a lot of hip control.

I now do my exercises 2-3 times a week, with one of those days being a full legs workout with machine work. Weak hips be damned.

Step 5: Using your new PT tools and including lots of XT still, build your mileage back smartly to a comfortable base for your off-season

Actual: Still in progress, but going well!

I’m still supplementing mileage with the elliptical (bleh), attending Pilates Tuesday nights whenever possible, doing arms workouts once or twice a week, going to Wednesday spin, doing my PT and strength work, and running…increasing mileage very slowly. I avoided running two days in a row for a while, and am still proceedings with caution in that respect, though it seems to bother my knee less and less. I ran 8.5ish a week before the EQT 10-miler with the hubs and Kim, and it felt awesome, despite the brisk chill on that otherwise lovely morning.

The closest I had to a knee pain relapse was the week after EQT, when I raced Sunday, took Monday off, ran Tuesday, and then proceeded to take the rest of the week off from running until a longish run Saturday (which felt fine) when my knee felt not-so-hot, especially going down stairs. I think I raced harder than I thought. Speaking of…

Step 6: When all-systems-are-go, return to racing (for fun! it’s the off-season, after all).

Actual; Well, I mean, yeah. But at least I wasn’t injured for this one. We hadn’t done EQT 10-miler last year so definitely wanted to give it a shot this year. Kim scored a last minute bib, so we decided to try to run it together and prevent each other from racing too hard. We’d been thinking low 8:xx pace, but as race day neared, we both wanted to challenge what we felt were soft 10-mile PRs (all the 10-milers I’ve done were done as training runs at half-marathon pace. Not easy, but not all out either for the distance). Suddenly we found ourselves amped to run in the 7:40s.

I didn’t wear the stripey long sleeve, just the lux layer (and singlet over it) but was definitely overdressed.

The day dawned cold, but we all quickly realized we overdressed, as the any wind was mostly blocked or absent (minus a couple wind tunnels) and the sun made it pleasant. That was okay, it was still doable, especially for “just” 10 miles. I always forget how to dress for 40* when I’m not yet acclimated, especially while racing when blood is running hotter.

We clicked off miles in the 7:40s and 7:50s, feeling good and soaking up the sights – the view of downtown from the West End Bridge never fails to give me chills. The front half of the course was windier and chillier than I expected, and while we whined about that occasionally, we were still running very strong.

Around mile 6, though, by an aid station, I lost Kim. As I tossed my cup I looked around for her but realized I had dropped her. We crossed the 16th street bridge and I tried not to panic. I lost my buddy. She was keeping me honest and calm. What if I freak out and blow up, right now? Can I hold this pace? I examined my breathing and stride, realizing I was fine, and told myself to suck it up and soldier on – Kim wanted me to, I knew it. If the situation were reversed, I know I would want her to go kick ass.

We had a couple out-and-back like turns and my perfectly on point playlist got me back to a better mindset. The last couple miles are a long, straight stretch, with a full view of downtown. I’d been warned that part gets mentally grating since you can see for so long, and I was glad for the warning. But as the finish came into view, I skipped to my final song and kicked hard, clocking in a low 7:1x mile for a solid PR: 1:17:10 (with a negative split! 7:49 pace first half, 7:43 pace overall). I had sacrificed a glove to the running gods for that PR, too, having tucked my gloves under my arm at a water stop, and – between juggling the cup and an empty Gu packet – realizing one had slipped away as I reached under my arm for them. Damn.

Kim also PR’d and we celebrated with some Starbucks.

The next several weeks will be hectic ones – the move is taking everything I have right now – but I won’t be letting my running or strength work slip. Running is keeping me sane, and on Thanksgiving, we’ll earn a little extra turkey and potatoes by running the Aurora Farms 4-miler again that morning (hoping to crush my EXTREMELY soft 4-mile PR). I’ll be soaking up every last bit of Pittsburgh running I can, and hopefully will start next year as a strong, invincible, newly minted Georgia runner.

Race Report: Air Force Marathon

So I kind of fell off the blogging bandwagon. I could make a bunch of excuses about life being nuts (true), but I’d rather skip to the goods.

I went into this training cycle with an aggressive goal. In November 2012, I ran Philadelphia in 4:17, just wanting to finish. In October 2013, I dropped out of Marine Corps just shy of mile 18 (my watch was way off mileage markers) because of a bum ankle. Between 2012 and 2014, I had slashed 20+ minutes off my half-marathon PR and gained a lot of speed, strength, guts, and confidence. I aimed high, and set an A+/reach goal of 3:45. There was a risk that I wouldn’t break 4 hours if I really blew up, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I trained with a whole bunch of friends, including Kim and Danielle, both of whom were aiming for a BQ, so my race pace miles were often in the 8:1xs, though the range I targeted was 8:10-8:35, with 8:35 being the goal pace I planned to actually target on race day to land under 3:45.

I had had a lot of training victories and a lot of lessons learned. I nailed some great track workouts, including crushing 10×800 (Yassos) with Danielle and several pace runs with Kim. I was humbled by a couple of brutally hot and humid 18 milers, cut back on the speed on a monstrous interval workout, and ran 22 miles in some serious humidity and sun (by the end, especially) without quitting. I cutback extra miles during the taper, broke my run streak earlier than I had hoped to nurse an angry hip and IT band, did a ton of yoga, and had a couple great shakeout runs the week of the race, my legs feeling much refreshed after three ull days off from running. I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Friday morning, the hubs and I rolled out of bed early – he ran a quick shakeout and I did some hip strengtheners and about 20 minutes of yoga to loosen things up. He headed to a coffee shop to get work done, and I ran a couple errands, including buying bagels from Bagel Factory for our group traveling to the race. I was texting with Kim en route – both of us were freaking out about forgetting something and stirring with excitement. I didn’t like the sounds my car was making while out on errands (turned out the power steering hose gave out) so we decided to take her car. Shannon got picked up by his buddy Devin for the “boys’ car,” and Colleen, my youngest sister-in-law, and I drove to Kim’s, where we took off for Dayton separately. We all met at a Panera for lunch along the way, then made the rest of the drive to the expo for packet pickup and a little shopping. Then it was off to Kroger to get final supplies (bananas and beer were top of the list) before getting settled at the house – the same place we rented last year.

Panera has never steered me wrong when it comes to pre-race carbs.
Keep it classy, Natty Light. (Shannon’s photo)

I did have about 15 minutes of panic upon arriving at the house when there was no key in the mailbox and there was a keypad on the door, but I hadn’t been supplied a code. 20 mosquito bites, two neighbors’ doors knocked on, an email and a voicemail later, the owner called with the code and apologized profusely. Crisis averted! We got inside, picked rooms, got settled, made and devoured pre-race pancakes, Dan arrived after his long drive from Milwaukee, we all foam rolled, accidentally talked Devin into running (he had signed up for the half but had been injured and hadn’t been training, but the enthusiasm in the house was too infectious for him to resist), and went to bed as early as we could manage for a 4:30 a.m. wake-up.

Pre-race pile-o’-crap

Race Morning

I slept well enough and was for once asleep (I think) even as my alarm went off. I quickly got up and began to take care of business – bathroom, lube up, get in race clothes, putting a hoodie on over to keep warm on a chilly morning. I stepped outside for a moment and took in the cool air. It didn’t feel too damp/muggy, but I noted the dark, clear, star-studded early morning – not a cloud in sight – with a buried sense of dread.

Everyone was awake by 5 a.m. and getting ready. I choked down a large leftover pancake with peanut butter and banana. I had heated up two pancakes, but left the second for later, forcing myself to eat the whole banana with a little more PB. My stomach was too jumpy to take in more calories, and I hoped the hit of protein and fat from the granola and PB would be more than enough. By 5:40 we were finally on our way – we had a false start when I inputted a bad end location (the base in general, instead of the Air Force Museum. Lulz, guys, my bad). But as usual, the airmen were swift to get us on base and into parking. Devin was blasting music from his “jammy pack” (and had another runner dancing and gesturing dramatically to “Praise You”). We found Danielle in line and got her her bib before we were scanned and let into the start area. Kim and I made a beeline for the bag check and then the portapotties.

The sight of the finish line under all those jet wings never fails to give me chills.

At that point, we only had a little time to wait around before we needed to get up to our starting area and find our desired pacers. We exchanged hugs and wished each other the best of luck. I got to give Shannon a pre-race kiss – the half wouldn’t start for another hour – and I wiggled towards the 3:45 pacer, nerve-filled tears already stinging my eyes, a lump in my throat. The final announcements were being made as I knew the sun was rising (just before 7:30 a.m., and I said a little prayer (Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Ehad). Before I knew it, the cannon sounded, and we were off!

The Race

general startAfter the usual shuffle-shuffle-bottleneck-shuffle, I pressed START on my Garmin a few seconds before hitting the mat and we rounded the corner for an immediate right turn past the crowds – Shannon, Devin, and Dan caught sight of me and cheered and I waved back, then immediately surged to catch up with the pacer. I’d describe him as a poor man’s Dean Karnazes who had a little too much corny enthusiasm, and he was quickly annoying me more than calming me. I told myself to stay tucked into the group and kept my watch on lap pace until I hit major splits. Shortly after the start, the course starts to climb – it’s not entirely insignificant, and I watched as some of the flatlanders began to struggle. I dropped my arms, monitored my breathing, and kept as relaxed as I could. This was not the time to push. This was the time to let the hill keep me from busting out of the gate too fast. We crested the top and the course rounded a curve with a sweeping view of the Ohio hills, puddles of fog nestled between them. I grinned.

The downhill that followed this sweeping view was not insignificant, and I let out a “WHOOPS” when I saw my split for the mile.

8:28. 8:38. 7:53

For a brief moment, shame of shames, as my miles kept easily clicking off at faster than goal pace, and the 3:35 group was still in sight, I wondered if I should just go for it: follow my feet and aim higher. I quickly quashed that idea as super dumb and just moved on, praying that the early speed wasn’t going to bite me in the ass later. I felt great! The pace felt amazing! I was smiling like crazy, even as we hit some early rollers (the marathon course doubles back on it itself a couple times, and I recognized certain of those sections from the half course the past couple years – I wasn’t thrilled with that, since they were my least favorite parts of the course). I had already dropped the pacer out of irritation (I never saw him again, though I’m not sure when he finished).We crossed the 10K mat and I glanced at my overall time for the first time. Shit.

8:17. 8:17. 8:11. 

Official 10K split: 51:21 (8:16 avg)

Don’t panic, I told myself. You feel good. Just… ease of the gas. The miles clicked off, and we moved into a long out-and-back into Fairborn. The crowds were fantastic and the drumline for the local marching band threw a fresh surge of adrenaline through my veins. I saw a 3:20 (or something) pace group pass going the other direction and kept my eyes peeled. We rounded a fountain in the middle of town and I worried I’d miss them, but I”m pretty sure I saw Danielle’s braids and green top flying along (with the 3:30 group, apparently!) and not too long after, the out-and-back portions were directly up against each other again. I saw Kim and smiled and shouted encouragement and high-fived. My heart soared. I missed a water stop in my effort to see the other side, but I caught it on the back route after we looped back in.

8:19. 8:15. 8:17. 8:22.

As the out-and-back began to finish and we were around the 10-mile mark, my splits still beeping – too fast – I felt the panic begin to creep in once more. Calm. Listen to your breath. It’s completely, 100 percent controlled. You have this. Just relax. You’re done with the first 10 miles. Now on to the next 10 miles. One step at a time.

We approached the halfway point, where as many runners know, we perform our first real full-body scan. How am I feeling? Am I getting in enough fluids and nutrition? How’s my pace? How’s my posture? Is my IT band hurting yet? I mostly felt fine, but I knew I was getting inside my head. But pretty much just when I needed it, the perfect song came on. Shannon and I had done a music trade, and he gave me this song from the Captain America soundtrack. He warned me that it’s very quiet at the start, but it builds, and it’s good for rhythm and calm. Rhythm and calm – just what I needed. I focused on my breathing. I centered myself. I listened to the music. I glanced at my overall time as we crossed the 13.1 timing mat, and breathed through the fear.

8:28. 8:24. 8:32

Official 13.1 split: 1:49:13 (8:19 avg)

midrace4

midrace3

I had taken my first gel just before mile 4 (opting out of carrying a bottle meant I had to rely entirely on the aid stations, which I hadn’t studied nearly as well as I should have. Fortunately they were about every mile so became quickly predictable). I took my next around mile 9.5 and another just after the halfway mark. Not many aid stations in, I started dumping any remaining water down my back and onto my cap. I was greedily guzzling every sip I could get, feeling the sun’s relentless gaze. Can I just say real quick though: the aid stations were fantastic. The volunteers made good eye contact on each approach and I only fumbled one cup (my fault) and dumped half of it before even getting a mistake. Possibly on the volunteer. But that probably happens all the time, right? Anyway: they had an amazing attitude, were fast and attentive – civilians and airmen alike. So many great themes, too! My favorite had to be the alien invasion one; put a big smile on my face.

Around mile 16 came my first real issue: a blister, on the outside of my right big toe. It’s the exact spot I got a horrendous double-blister the week of my wedding. I tried to just adjust my foot position, but eventually stopped for a briefly moment to try to fix my sock. It sort of worked. A couple miles later, I developed a similar problem on the left, and did the same. This was not good. It was too early for blisters. Blisters can destroy a race as easily as anything else. Such small things, but so, so nasty.

8:21. 8:53 (blister). 8:37.

midrace2

midrace1

The thing about the wall is it’s not the sneaky thing that just comes up and tackles you. Sure, it kind of is, but really, it’s been lurking there for a while. It creeps up on you. Washes up against your legs slowly. Drags down your strength, your energy, your pace, your will. Then you get to around mile 20 or so, and it drop kicks you, knocks you out at the knees. My wall was very much mental as much as physical, and I could analyze until the cows come home on what went wrong (went out too fast, sun was too hot, course got too windy, blisters blisters blisters), or I could just admit that it was a combination of all of those factors.

But here’s how it all went down. My pace started to plummet. In retrospect, not by much at first. I hung tough for a good while despite the blisters and heat. The course turned and we got hit by a gnarly, unforgiving headwind. I saw several runners reduced to a walk. I hadn’t yet stopped except to fix/re-tie laces to try to alleviate blister pain. I knew I still had a really nice time cushion (yes, yes, I know – you can’t actually bank time). If I could hang on around 9:00 I might be able to squeak in at/near my goal. Could I make it through the dark miles at that pace?

9:14. 9:07. 8:53. 9:04

Meanwhile, by the finish line… MUST BE NICE, HALF-MARATHONERS. (Colleen’s photo)

As I entered mile 22 (and with dismay, I recalled, I ran 22 miles in training – in worse conditions than this. On a hillier course than this. Why does this hurt so damn much??) the Wall sledgehammered me. There’s a point where there are so many pain receptors firing, you can’t even really tell what it is that’s hurting – what it is exactly that’s reducing you to a walk. The blisters were agonizing. My legs were trashed. Every time I stopped to walk, I felt a wave of heat and a touch of nausea wash over me. I had been taking both water and Gatorade for the last few aid stations, each of which I was now walking. I had tried for as long as I could to walk only the aid stations, even if I had to do so slowly. But that quickly fell by the wayside. I knew each time I stopped, the longer I stopped, the harder it would be to start again. I saw a hand cyclist struggling mightily. We came back around to a highway overpass we ran early in the race going the other direction. I told him, “you can do this” then said to myself, “I can, too.” I jogged meekly up. Within a few more steps, I was walking once more. I tried to breathe. The sun, oh the sun… I locked eyes with a girl running next to me and we both gave each other surely death-like expressions. “I know,” I gasped. “I know.” It didn’t help that the half course merged with the full course in the last few miles, which meant that the slower halfers were intersecting with us in a jumble (no offense intended! It’s just not great planning to have the faster half of the marathon field merge with people walking a half-marathon, so late in the race. It’s too congested).

Official 35K split: 3:05:48 (8:35 avg – on pace, buffer gone, blowing up)

10:06. 11:07. 10:47.

FInally, finally, finally, the course became recognizable. We came around a curve to a long downhill that I knew was drawing near the finish – that cruel last mile and change when you could see the finish but were still torturously far from the end of the race. I rode the hill a bit, adrenaline kicking in for me once more. I clicked off a mile near pace, then in mile 26 – shame of shames – I walked a few more times. A half-marathoner was gasping for oxygen and I tried to encourage her – told her I knew it hurt, but she could do it. I said this as much for myself as for her. The finish was around the corner, and I skipped a few songs ahead on my iPod to try to bring myself in strong. No more walking. I trudge along in what felt like a death march.

8:38. 9:52.

I hit that flag for mile 26 and I honestly can remember almost nothing of the sights all around me. Normally I’m overjoyed to be running beneath those airplane wings. It’s a thrill. But all I could think of was how far that finish banner seemed away from me. I had already switched screens to my overall time. 3:45 was gone several miles before. 3:50 was gone too. But how far under 4:00 could I get myself? I wouldn’t let that go. I wouldn’t quit anymore. I had this. I was going to best my PR by an unreal amount, regardless of my A(+) goal dying a slow death under the burning sun. I threw my arms up in the air as I saw the clock read 3:52 and crossed the finish line before promptly bursting into tears.

finish1

final sprint: 7:08

Chip time: 3:52:07 (25+ minute PR)

finisher

Post-race

I hobbled through the finish corral, looking over to see Shannon, Colleen, Devin, and Dan all cheering for me. I tried to smile and instead cried. Everything hurt. Bleary eyed, I shook the hands of every airman and officer, I could, thanking them for their service. They draped my medal over my head and stumbled to get some food. All I wanted was water and Gatorade and I forced myself to take a banana and a small donut hole (it didn’t taste good to me in that moment. #mybodydoesntrespondwelltodonutspostmarathon). I stood just outside the food tent and looked around with slight desperation. Then Kim found me. I almost cried again. I gave her a huge hug. She had missed her goal of BQ’ing but had gone under 3:40 for a 6-minute PR. I was so, SO proud of her. We hugged again.

The group finally regathered and we ambled around, talking about our races, getting our peers, and wondering if it was worth finding a spot to sit and stretch. I found Danielle – she also missed her goal, having gone out too fast with the 3:30 pacer (and according to Kim, the 3:35 pacer was going too fast as well. Pacers were not on that day, unfortunately), but seemed mostly at peace with it.

Shannon took a post-race photo for me to send to my parents (my dad then emailed the whole family about my time. Talk about blowing up my phone), and we took a group shot (Danielle had already left, womp womp)

Air Force crew, 2014 edition. Left to right: Shannon, Devin, Kim, Danimal, Colleen, and me

After some beer’ing and regrouping, we started the long hobble to the car, managing to get off base in probably the shortest amount of time ever. Shannon drove the girls’ car since our legs were too fucking dead to manage driving, and Devin and Dan went in the second car.

Photo Sep 20, 12_12_35
I think this was when I noticed that coughing was making my back spasm. Great.

The remainder of the weekend was spent CELEBRATING. We all took turns blobbing on the couch/floor and crawling upstairs to shower. And by crawl I do mean CRAWL. I was on my hand and knees to get up the stairs for a few hours, slowly transitioning to upright (think of those illustrations of our ape ancestors), and scooting down on my butt. But when it was my turn to shower, I made sure to bring along a beverage.

My shower beer of choice.

Around 4:30 or so most of us regrouped enough to have strength and appetites to hobble down the street to the pizza place we ordered out from last year. We shoveled food and beer in our faces, then returned to the house for more veg time, before venturing out around 8:30 for a second dinner at Max & Erma’s with a high school buddy of Shannon’s who works at Wright Patt. Most of us couldn’t manage to stay up very late, but Shannon, Kim and I all woke decently early (between 7:30 and 8 – it felt so luxurious) and picked at some food and stumbled to the coffee shop down the street.

We got lattes and mochas and sat for a bit. We also saw they had the elusive CRONUT. So naturally we got one and all split it. It was…delicious.

Is it a donut? Is it a croissant? Yes. #mybodyrespondswelltocronuts

When we returned it was time to wake the troops and clean up, which we did in quick order, and were fully out of the house by 10:15 (only a few minutes behind schedule). Then it was museum time! We actually sprung for the IMAX this time and saw an awesome film about D-Day narrated by Tom Brokaw, with the London Symphony performing the soundtrack. It was fantastic. The museum was great, per usual (it’s my fifth visit, including four Air Force Marathon weekends), though soon we were all getting tired and sore and HUNGRY (which we started to tell Shannon… repeatedly. Just to bother him ;D). With that, we headed to Chipotle, meeting up with high school friend Jamie one last time, before hitting the road!

Devin, brushing his teeth, out of the back of his Prius. This was as we were departing the house on Sunday.

Analysis

In an effort to ward off “oh shut up you PR’d by 25 minutes” responses, I’ll say this: I am really proud of my race. Sure, there was lot of time for me to build confidence, strength, and speed since November 2012, but that is still a HUGE improvement. I know it’s a time a lot of runners would kill for. My own husband has told me this. Talking to my brother on the phone yesterday afternoon (full disclosure: he’s not a runner, he would say so himself), while a man of very few and often sedate words, he said, “By the way, congrats on your freaking fast marathon time!” With almost enough inflection to merit an exclamation point. (I love my brother. He’s just highly understated. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, just a fact.)

All that said, I know I could have executed a lot better. I did go out too fast. It was foolish, really. A few miles in as I was clicking of 8:1x splits consistently, I wondered for a flash, “maybe I can BQ?” DUMB. I should have forced myself to hang in the 8:30s. Then maybe I would have been able to maintain it, and even finish strong.

But there were a number of factors I couldn’t really help. The blister was a surprise (though may have not worn the shoes enough times pre-race? Launch usually doing give me issues, and I was wearing my usual long run socks and my usual pre-run lubricant). The sun and wind were awful.

My brain quit. I need to work on that. I didn’t fully quit, sure. Otherwise I wouldn’t have broken four hours. But I need to teach my brain how to suffer better. Not only that,but I shouldn’t have been so panicked at the start. So panicked at mile 10.  Hell, I shouldn’t panic at all (though that’s a tall order).

So what’s my current plan? Ignore that my Google search history includes queries for “fast fall marathons” (for next year) and “am I ready to BQ” (lol), and know that my focus right now is recovery. I ran 4.5 miles easy with Danielle this mornign – the first quarter mile was a hobble as my right knee tried to unlock. By the end, I felt pretty darn good. I’m running the Great Race 10K on Sunday – I got seeded, but I likely won’t start in the seeded corral, and I definitely won’t be trying to better my PR (44:02) or go anywhere near it. My legs just aren’t ready for that. I may pace with some friends. I may just soak up the sights. But I plan on having fun. The rest of the fall is filled with fun local races, some I may try to race or at least run hard, others I’ll just complete for the hell of it.

Hopefully in a few weeks or months time, as I begin my next training cycle – sights set on an early spring half with Big Sur in April (not to race, just to run it), I can start rationally thinking about my long term goals. And, perhaps, in the rearview, see this race more clearly for what it was – a personal victory.

As I wait for all the post-race soreness to dissipate, one thing keeps me very hopeful: the fact that I’m still hungry for more.

Air Force Marathon training: weeks 1-5

We’re already five weeks, two tempos, two track workouts, and five long runs (including a cutback) in.

Things that are hard:

-opening your handheld water bottle for a water fountain refill mid-long run with sweaty fingers

-melty summer long runs

 

Things that are awesome:

-Eating ALL the things!

I want a burger with EVERYTHING

-the beauty that is running in Pittsburgh

-pwning the #RWRunStreak (plus bonus days), completed officially on July 4th, despite Florida heat and humidity (we purposely scheduled our first cutback week – after four weeks of build – for this vacation week for obvious reasons. But damn was that a tough buildup. File that tidbit under “things that are hard,” I guess.)

-racing for fun and speedwork, and scoring some age group bling!

-logging a whole bunch of miles with friends: in addition to the hubs, I’ve been maintaining my weekly runs with Danielle, and Kim and I have also been meeting up when our schedules mesh to log some miles together, helping each other dial into marathon goal pace and chatting up a storm while doing it.

The breakdown

Week 1: few easy runs + 1 track workout (3×1600, totally nailed it despite not having done a mile repeat workout in AGES, which was freaking me out) + 5 miles @ MGP with Kim  (not scheduled, but I could not resist) + 12 mile long run with last 3 @ marathon goal pace.

Week 2: easy runs + 14 mile long run (all easy) + dead legs Man Up 10K (mini-race report below), spectated by my dad!

Week 3: easy runs + track workout (6×800, made all my paces despite wanting to quit so badly around the 4th repeat) + 15 mile long run (about half of which were on delicious trails) w/ last 3 @ MGP

Long run fuel/water/river re-group

Week 4: easy runs + 7 mi tempo (1-5-1, and made it semi-progressive as my legs tried to re-learn how to tempo) + 16 mile long run with middle 4 @ MGP. Majorly struggled the last few miles of the run due to full sun, heat, and humidity, and took quite a few walk breaks, but got it done.

Week 5: all easy runs, including a 4:20 am 3.3 miler before hopping a plane to go on vacation, and then super-sweaty runs Tuesday through Saturday, not once breaking the streak. 10 miles on Sunday, including Sweet Spring 3K (see below)

Race Reports! (yes, TWO)

Man Up 10-K

We’ve run this race the last few years, and like last year, my dad got up SUPER early to drive in from Cleveland to spectate. After our warmup (1 mile easy, then drills and striders), we met him near the starting line for pre-race hugs and well wishes. We both felt pretty shitty, having a rough week and 14 miles on our legs from the day before. But having my dad there made me want to still try to punch it. At the very least, I wanted a solid tempo effort. My legs couldn’t deliver a PR, but despite wanting to quit around halfway in, I never did, and walked away with 2nd in my AG and a time not too far off my PR of 44:02, finishing in 44:27. The girl who got first crushed me by like 5+ minutes, but I’ll take it. I gassed it at the end and was in tears, barely pulling myself together before my dad walked over to give me a hug.

Worth it.

Best fan ever :)

 

14431517414_a1d5168836_z

Sweet Sprint 3K

We ran this last year, too, and this year it came on the heels of our cutback week. We’d arrived home from our Florida vacation late Saturday night, getting to sleep a little after 1 a.m. (ugh) and getting right up at 7 a.m. for a quick breakfast and drive down to the finish/packet pickup area. We met up with our friends Mark and Shannon, and ran easy to the start. Then, after some drills and striders, and various delays, we entered the pain cave for the race. What hurts more than a 5K? Oh, buddy…

Stretching out my hips and waiting for the start
Stretching out my hips and waiting for the start
And.... go!!
And…. go!!
Moving so fast we're blurry! Mark in the foreground here.
Moving so fast we’re blurry! Mark in the foreground here.

blur start2

I started off at a sprint then reined it in…slightly. I found myself pacing with Keri, whom I’d met while running to the start with Shannon (girl Shannon – hee), and we were cooking along in the low 6’s, gradually easing back to around 6:30s. At the one mile mark, we went under the overpass and satellites went briefly haywire. I’d taken note of a sign that said “almost there!” on the way up, and noted it was about 2/3 mile from the finish, which was  a nice check point to have. I dropped Keri slowly and was reeling in a younger girl who I wasn’t sure whether she was in third or fourth perhaps. In the last half mile, as she faded, I passed her and tried to gas it hard to the finish, catching sight of Kim (who was meeting us for the rest of our 10 miles, having already done 8 of her planned 14), who snapped a couple shots of me (including this top one here – other one was taken by the organizers)

photo 1

me finish3I crossed the finish in 12:12 by my watch – 12:09 official. BIG improvement from last year’s 12:57. While it still hurt like the dickens, I thing I was more mentally prepared for it, not to mention was already in training and had a few speed sessions under my belt. We figured we nabbed some bling, but didn’t want to make Kim wait, nor postpone our last 10K of our long run as it was already getting pretty darn hot. We joined Kim for 6+ miles around the downtown area, crossing a couple bridges and seeing some of the “furries” from the annual convention.

Hubs’ shot from Fort Pitt

Turns out, my husband got 1st in his AG and I got 2nd woman overall! (it bears mention that this race only had like 75ish finishers). Mark grabbed our bling for us in our absence, having gotten 1st in his AG as well.

Now the real work begins: from here on out, we have two-week build cycles followed by cutbacks, so hopefully we can really push on the builds and then rest “aggressively” in between to reap the most benefits. I’m still treating the training plan like an overall guideline: any sign of trouble and it’s subject to change. But after the first couple weeks, first feeling strong and then feeling dead, we could feel that our bodies were already responding to the higher training load and adjusting to it. It can be demoralizing how rough the first couple weeks of marathon training are, but I always remind myself that those first weeks are roughly equivalent to peak half-marathon training. We will adjust, but it won’t be instantaneously.

 

 

Need for speed

Time for a little ketchup.

Okay, okay. Bad joke.

What have I been up to? Well, for one, a very abbreviated off-season. I took Monday through Thursday off post-race, before diving back in Friday with a 5-miler with Danielle – a warm, humid 5-miler. While I can’t generally complain about how this spring into early summer has been, we did have  a couple of surprise hot and muggy days that were a bit of a shock to the system. Then again, I had forgotten what it was to sweat from a run – and I kinda loved it.

Hail Mary mesh is right – saving grace on a hot run

I contemplated reigniting the run streak again, and while I did eventually, I let myself ease in. Danielle and I changed up some routes – a hilly-as-hell 9-miler though Schenley Park springs to mind (done at an 8:34 average – I blame all the marathon training talk getting our hearts pumping as our splits started creeping into BQ marathon pace range the last few miles, even after all the quad-crushing climbs), and I dove back into cross-training with a vengeance.

We returned to some old favorites, including the 5K ladder workout, a week and a half out from a local 5K we wanted to kick butt at.

This would be the hubs’ data overlay, not mine, but to be far, I wasn’t THAT far behind! We also did this at Schenley Oval, since as you can see, CMU was unusable.

We also got to venture into new territory, including me being stupid about mileage (but it’s okay, because, off-season?). The week of the 5K,  and after, I did the following:

Friday: Kim and I ran 5 miles at goal marathon pace (~8:15) and marveled at how much our legs wanted to click into 7:30s (half-marathon pace) and as a result, how “easy” low 8:00s felt. Hope that remains true! I’m not targeting a BQ (YET) but am training with two women who are, so bring it.

Saturday: 10 miles with the Early Birds! These downright mythical creatures (okay, okay) are an offshoot of Steel City, and all wicked fast and really cool folks. The hubs hung with them, but after the first mile clicked off in 8:0x, Kim and I backed off to 8:30s to cruise the last 9 miles in, which was still a solid effort! And my ACTUAL marathon goal pace. Since we were near REI, I of course had to load up on Picky Bars…

Once again, not my data overlay. Clearly.

Sunday: 1.1ish mile warmup, striders, and raced the It’s About the Warrior 5K.

This tiny local race was at North Park, and as predicted, was an out-and-back starting at the Boat House and going around the lake loop counter-clockwise until the turnaround, which meant just enough rolling hills to keep things interesting. We got in a full mile-plus warm-up, did drills, and got the fast twitch muscles firing with faster-than-race-pace striders. It felt like death, but I knew this was what it should feel like. At least for me.

After some more milling around, they told us to head to the start – you know it’s a gun start when they say “go stand by the ____ shelter” and without any warning whatsoever, the gun went off, and we were off! The hubs and I shared quick wishes of “good luck and have fun!” as we took off at a dead sprint that I quickly tried to rein back in. I took a gander at the field and saw I was probably among the top four or five females (in the admittedly very small race). I figured this was as good a spot as any and tried to lock into right around 6:50ish, which was a good 20 sec/mile faster than my actual PR pace (though I did “break” that PR twice during teach split of the Great Race 10K, though at doesn’t really count).  I started reeling in one girl, then another, and mile 1 clicked off in 6:48 as we headed up a hill, tanking my pace for a bit, but I caught up. I could see my sweetie not too terribly far ahead – though definitely out of striking distance.

As we approached the turnaround and we went for our typical out-and-back high five, I saw there was only one girl ahead of me. I wasn’t sure how much she was scoping out the field, but I just chugged around the turnaround table and started reeling her in, wondering if I should pass her, stalk  right behind her, or hang out right beside her, righting the current and making her sweat. I ended up slowly reeling her in, despite some efforts to stay just off of her, and we ran together for probably a good half mile, trading a few words of encouragement. As we clicked off past the second mile (6:54), I slowly inched past her, knowing it was too soon to kick yet and praying I could just hang on. I had gotten the sense she was struggling to maintain the hot pace she had set, but as the mile counted down, I imagined her hot on my heels, telling my brain not to quit.

Mile 3 came in at 6:40 and I was in absolute agony, perking up a hair when I heard the crowd clap a bit more as I rounded the corner as first female. I neared the chute, a guy I had passed briefly and who then re-passed me, just a few seconds ahead, and I saw that two volunteers were waiting for him to clear the chute… so they could draw a finishing tape across! I couldn’t believe it! I was going to break the tape! The pain gave way to elation as I crossed with arms up and I’m pretty sure a big dumb grin on my face. I’m also fairly certain I heard my husband say, “holy $#%&!!” (in the best way)

I shook hands with the second place girl, who was really nice and a great sport, and we meandered around, sucking down gatorade and eating the post-race snacks until the awards. When I was given an invisible trophy!

Okay, not actually invisible, but sure looks that way.

And my sweetie got first in his (very competitive) age group!

Monday: 6.8ish trail miles with Kelly. Gosh darn beautiful… and warm. And someone – the mom of the second place female, I believe, recognized me from the race, which cracked us both up.

Finally getting to see the greened up trails.

Tuesday: I swore up and down I would take it easy. My legs were DEAD and I was just generally worn out. But when Danielle texted – “same route as last week?” (i.e., 9 miles including Schenley), well, I couldn’t say no! We were both dead tired – me from too many miles and her from racing a 5K on Monday and doing lunges, plus all her other mileage, but it was still pretty fabulous. And we saw a lovely doe, which I never see at Schenley, and it made it all worthwhile.

So there you have it – 35.5ish miles in five days. Whoops…? I put myself on mileage lockdown the rest of the week, but with one mile minimums because…

Yep! Streaking again – I’m counting the official streak, but adding a parenthetical +4 to my counts since I actually started the Thursday before Memorial Day. We’ll see how long it lasts!

 

Race Report: Pittsburgh Half-Marathon

7:37

That’s the pace I’d need to run to break 1:40. The pace that – in September 2011 – was my 5K race pace that left me wanting to vomit a little. The pace that was faster than goal tempo up until the last several months. The pace that was 12 seconds per mile faster than my PR from JASR. And the pace that was kind of scaring the pants off of me. But no matter what, I knew my real goal was to have fun: we have a lot of running pals in the area now, and big plans to see as many of them as possible. So without further ado…

Saturday

My husband and I rolled out of bed at a leisurely 8 a.m. after almost 10 hours of sleep. Ah, bliss. We ate a quick breakfast before heading downtown to the expo, parking at the convention center and then strolling to Market Square to meet up with Kim for a quick shakeout run. Our satellites all went haywire from the buildings, but we kept the effort super, duper easy, ran a couple of bridges to and from North Shore, and talked race strategy before heading back to the expo, Kim grabbing a quick breakfast before rejoining us there. There, we had a special job to do: watch this nugget … …while his mom – our friend Kelly – and her other kiddo ran in the Kids Marathon, the culmination of the 25.2 training miles they did in the weeks leading up to race day, wrapping up with one mile from north side to the downtown finish line. While they prepped for their race, we hit up the expo to grab our bibs and packets and scope out the booths, all while navigating the area with a stroller (moms – HOW DO YOU DO IT?) and watching the clock to make sure we headed out at the appropriate time. Baby and I made good friends while we waited. Or I was a horrible influence. We headed out of the expo to park ourselves a little before the finish line to watch some pretty cool kids run the race with their pretty cool parents.

Kelly, in pink, with her kiddo
Mark and his sweetie pie daughter – her first race! (I think)

We got the baby boy back to his momma (he saw her run by, we think, and then had a little meltdown when she didn’t stick around, so he very much wanted to be with her again. Poor tyke!), who gave us bottles of WINE to say thank you (seriously, I’d hang out with that kid for free) before heading back to the expo for a bit. I caught up with Danielle for a few minutes, my hubby bought discounted shoes, we both got some fuel, and True Runner through in a cowbell as a bonus. The rest of the afternoon we tried to stay off of our feet. We had fortunately done our shopping the night before (Giant Eagle is DEAD at 8pm-ish on a Friday evening – protip). Late in the afternoon, my former childhood neighbor Liz and her running buddy Carol arrived from Toledo. We chatted for a while before they each headed out for their respective dinner plans, while the hubs and I had our usual granola pancake dinner (all leftovers, actually). Everyone was home around 8 or 8:30 and by 9 pm we were all winding down – stretching, foam rolling, and heading to bed as soon as possible. The 4 am alarm waited for no runner.

Race Day

As usual, I’m pretty sure I was already awake when the alarm went off – though groggy, in a what the hell is that annoying sound? oh wait that’s the alarm TIME TO WAKE UUUPPPPzzzzz kind of way. But it was time to go: oatmeal, coffee (instant, because I’m lame and forgot to buy coffee filters, which I thought I still had laying around), and about a thousand trips to the bathroom before Devin and my running partner Danielle arrived and we all headed to the race! We took a longer route to get to North Shore just in case of early road closures, and after one misstep, parked a half mile-ish (maybe longer) walk across a bridge and to the start. We hit up some untouched porto-potties on the walk over, and had a photographer stop us for a group shot, still carrying our bags and wearing our throwaways.

pre-race group 1
Left to right: the hubs, Devin, Liz, Carol, me, and Danielle

pre-race group 2   After some discussion and bag dropping, we decided to chill in Market Square for a while, snagging a big table with plenty of seats, near a cluster of portos, which, yeah, we hit up like two or three more times (or was that just me?).  20ish minutes to start, we headed to the corrals, wishing each other luck and splitting up. Before I knew it, the anthem was being played, and I was running (my warmup! I guess) with my hat in my hand, trying to get to A corral. We GU’d up, stripped off our throwaways (after much deliberation, the outfit I landed on was the winona tank, bum wrap, and arm warmers (all Oiselle), and CEP compression calf sleeves. And, of course, Brooks Launch, and some swiftwick socks on my feet), and squeezed into the corral, locating the 3:20 marathon pace group (since there was no 1:40 half group) and finding Kim, who had the same goal. Score! A few minutes later, it was gun time – go time.

The Race

After the typical start line bottleneck, I hit START on my Garmin a few strides before the mat, exhilarated and excited. We tucked near the pacer and I soaked up the sights and sounds. I had chosen to race as long as I could without music, my iPod strapped to my arm, ear buds tucked into the pocket of my bum wrap. I felt calm, yet excited; focused, and thrilled. I was racing with my husband. I was racing with Kim. I was gunning for a 1:40, or at least a PR (previous PR at JASR being 1:42:17). But at the end of the day, I wanted to just enjoy every step running through this city I have grown to love. Some spitting rain had shown up during the last 20 minutes pre-race and kept on a little bit into the race, but I felt comfortable, and within the first three miles, shed my throwaway gloves (I just used a pair of thin winter gloves that needed to be retired anyway since they were getting very frayed). It was kind of hilarious running with a marathon pace group, since so many of the cheers we got were “yeaahhhh go 3:20!!!” But, I’ll take it. The pacer was also calling out how far off pace we were (not much) and reassuring everyone not to worry, that we would make it up. I appreciated him easing in, though.

7:47. 7:41. 7:30

Up Liberty and then doubling back down Penn, we curved onto the first bridge: 16th street (one of my favorites, actually – it’s beautiful) to hit up the north side. The first few miles are super flat, but the rolling hills began with the bridges and I buckled up for the task of really working the hills and my experience on the course to my advantage. On the bridge, the pacer called out that the last split was on pace, and that we were 20 seconds behind overall (well, you know, approximately). No biggie. The miles clicked off and I tried to stay even and relaxed behind the pacer. Kim seemed to be feeling great and surged ahead of him a bit. I monitored my breathing – in control – and stayed near my husband, the first time actually racing together in quite a while.  I took my first gel at the first water stop I was prepared for, which was I think at 4ish. Soon we were onto the double-bridge cross: you run 9th Street into downtown, run down two blocks which are LINED with people, and head back across on 7th. I’d work the rollers, and feed off the crowds, I told myself. _dsc0712 _dsc0715 _dsc0716 _dsc0718 _dsc0719 _dsc0720 The crowd was a little quiet as we moved from bridge to bridge, so I moved my hand to my ear and motioned to the crowd to pump it out. I got cheers and cowbells in response and tried to keep my pulse and pace from jumping too high. What a rush. Back across to the north side and past the first marathon relay exchange, I eyed my 10K overall time as we crossed the mat – a little slower than I’d hoped but not bad.

7:43. 7:37. 7:38

Official 10K split: 48:01 (7:43 pace)

 We rolled down a hill and headed toward the West End Bridge, which is a big one, but with a great view of downtown. At this point, I was very much on the outskirts of the pace group, and by the bridge, I had lost contact. I also lost Kim from my rearview after a water stop right around 10K. I kept the pace group and my husband in view but let myself follow my own feet: it was time to run my own race, especially as we made the Steuben Street climb right after the bridge ended. The rollers were starting to get to me, but as we spun around Steuben to Main to eventually land on Carson, I laughed and grinned as a band played “500 Miles” (modified for running, naturally), cruising down a hill. I tried to bring my pace back up and my effort back down by increasing my cadence, a tactic that seemed to be working. The pace group and the hubs were still out of reach, but I was holding steady as we reached Carson. By mile 8 or so, I was feeling slight twinges to turn on my music. But every time, I got a distraction. A girl who looked to be about 14 was running with her mom – she was going at a great clip but was suffering and her mom urged her on. I gave her a quick “you’ve got this” and kept on. We came upon the usual contingent of military folks, and even as I felt my pace and heart rate sky rocket, I still got as many high-fives as I could. Worth it. But it was still starting to get mentally taxing. I had lost sight of the pace group (I think they were going a bit fast, possibly banking time before the more brutal hills on the second half of the marathon) but I mostly had my husband in my sights, keeping an eye on his dark gray shirt and bright white compression socks. I made myself a deal: make it to mile 10, quickly evaluate, and if needed, turn on music. I also realized I probably needed a gel, and took one at 9.5 or so, a little ahead of a water stop.

7:40. 7:33. 7:38. 7:58

Yeah, I needed it. Out came the earbuds and I plugged right in, accidentally skipping a song, but it was perfect: on came “Get Lucky,” the perfect mind calmer and rhythm setter. I shouted to the crowd: “Let’s hear it, Southside!” and got a cheer echoed back. The split was coming. Soon we were spilling onto Birmingham Bridge – big and brutal – and the split was done: marathoners to the right, halfers to the left. I tucked in and pushed up, trying to stay relaxed. And I was drawing closer to my guy.

brains
I call this my zombie photo. BRRRRAAAAAIIIIINNNSSSS

beatthebridge2 beatthebridge3 beatthebridge4

As the bridge reached its peak, I found myself drawing abreast of my guy, giving him a very quick glance, but mostly providing him quiet company. We turned left onto Forbes and had the last steep climb, which I knew was coming – but had forgotten just how bad it was. I was trying maintain pace. Then I gave that up and tried to maintain effort. Dear lord please let this end. Can I make it up this hill? I want to walk. I NEED to walk. No, I just WANT to walk. Don’t walk. Just a little farther… (apparently he knew I was having this debate in my head – I think he knows me well or something)

The hill finally ended – or at least the portion – and we wove onto Blvd of the Allies, a long, gradual climb, but I knew exactly where it ended. The desire to quit and walk went away, and I rallied everything inside of me to just keep calm, be patient, and wait for the hill to end and the descent to start. And it would happen just after the mile 12 mark.

7:43. 8:04.

The hill – finally, mercifully – ended, and something in me clicked. I switched songs (Lady Gaga’s “Applause”) and took off.

The course goes down and down and down and down.

elevation pgh 2014
No but seriously: the last couple miles

I rode the hill, picking up my cadence and feeling the miles and miles of pounding in my feet, begging the blisters I was starting to feel to hold off just one more mile. A girl blew past me and I gave chase – not completely, but enough not to hold back, not to give up just yet. I rode the hill as long as I could, and as it began to flatten, looked at my overall time and cursed. A man next to me asked if I was going to break 1:40. “Not quite,” I said. But I was still not going to give in. The song ended and I restarted it as the flat began to climb just a little – only a little, but so cruel. The finish line was right down the street, but not in sight. I knew I was about a 10th of a mile off, but I wouldn’t look at my distance, glancing down only when I saw mile 13 tick off.

6:47

The hill ended and it was all downhill to the finish, the banner at last in sight. I didn’t know how close I was – I knew sub-1:40 was just out of reach (after some back-and-forth on the mush brain mental math) – but I prayed for my own watch not to tick over 1:41. In the last few strides, I had no kick left to give, felt like I was slowing, felt like my legs were oozing out from under me, and prayed that I would just. hold. on.

stretchrun1 stretchrun2 stretchrun3 stretchrun4

Final sprint: 6:07 pace

I flew across the line, arms in the air, and hit stop on my watch, gasping for air and chocking back tears.

finishing1 finishing2 finishing3

Chip time: 1:40:40 (7:40 avg) – new PR***

Post-race

A volunteer was instantly in front of me, helping me stand. I reassured her that I was okay, that I was just really happy, that I always do this (seriously – does anyone else cry at the finish line? Because it’s like every. damn. half.). I stumbled over to get my medal and looked back to see my husband had finished just behind me (27 seconds, I believe). He looked ready to fall down and/or vomit, so I broke the rules and stopped moving, then walked over to him to rub his back and help him walk to get his medal. We stumbled through the volunteers to snag our finishing photos. And I noticed how badly I had chafed under my right arm.

owchafing

derp official finish 2We grabbed all the food we could get our hands on and found Kim, all making our way to the FedEx tent for post-race massages, catching up with a few other folks there, including Mark.

A little bit later, we caught up with Devin, who finished in about 2:05 – a 15 minute PR!!! After a bit more stretching and relaxing, we packed it in and hobbled to the car. We had a brunch to throw! We took turns with the shower and shuffled to the end of our street where the marathon passes, clanging our new cowbell and cheering for the marathoners for about 20 minutes before we needed to head in to set up and start cooking.

Between noon and about 4:30 we had a steady stream of runner friends, and their partners, as well as a couple of kiddos. People rolled in and out depending on finish time, schedules, and distance. We traded war stories, gossiped about local running happenings, tracked our friends, drank mimosas, and ate like runner kings: bacon, pancakes cooked in bacon grease, bagels from Bagel Factory, fruit, and French toast.

Seriously. How did we live without griddle? And bacon-grease cooked pancakes?

I of course took no photos – but at least that means I was really in the moment and enjoying myself, right?

Now what?

Well, now, I rest. A little. I’m planning on doing a 16-week marathon training cycle for Air Force, starting June 2. Injected with a whole lot of confidence, I’m hoping to tackle the cycle with grit and determination; high mileage and marathon pace workouts; speed and form training; and strength training that will hopefully get me to the start line as a solid sheet of muscle (or something like that).

Maybe that will help me make up for the lack of marathon experience.

Maybe.

Pittsburgh half buildup: salvaging the mileage

We had grand plans for this training cycle. I was already doing 30-35 mile weeks before training commenced, with help from the run streak and my mile hog run buddy, Danielle. I was loving it. I felt so fit and so in love with the sport. We aimed to hit  a peak week of 48 miles before the half, just a couple weeks after our wedding.

HA. Fat chance.

Week before JASR week: 36 (which included cutting a long run short + cutting out a recovery run because of hip trouble)

JASR week: 19 miles (3 mile walk + 3 mile test run + half-marathon)

Wedding week: 20 miles (sleep prevailed a couple of times over squeezing in more miles. The right decision)

Honeymoon week: 23 miles

We had figured wedding week would be nuts and hoped to get in 30 miles. I think he managed that – I did not. Being in the thick of it at home with my mom, finalizing wedding stuff… not possible to get in more than 20 miles without losing sleep and therefore my mind. And the 40 miles we had planned for the honeymoon, because we hoped for an awesome gym and treadmill set up?

HA. DREAM ON.

But we still did pretty well. We ran most days we were there, and though it was often short, we did pretty decent paces. Our “long run” was about 8.5 miles divided between 4-ish mile morning and afternoon segments.

When we got home, newly husband and wife + one week, we knew we’d have to adjust our plans. We dialed back the mileage but still hoped to hit about 36-38ish and then 40-42ish for the final week.  We’d do our best and listen to our bodies, respecting their limits. I seemed to have gotten my hip under control, but I knew that was probably a fragile peace.

The first week back home, we did a little over 8.5 the Monday we both took off to regroup, I got back into a groove with Danielle on Tuesday with an easy 6, ran 1 mile + cross-trained Wednesday, and then – trading out a track workout for a tempo – met up with Kim on Thursday morning at Bakery Square for a little road redemption. With the harsh winter, I had yet to tempo outside this season. And having missed some speedwork in the previous couple of weeks, was worried I could manage it. Kim and I figured an HM tempo was our best bet, and – if you can believe it – I ran the entire thing without music. I had brought it with, but didn’t turn it on at first, looking to key into the pace. But then – it felt great! True, a couple points I kinda wanted to turn it on, and the last mile was a grind that we both sort of died on. But we kept at least 1:42ish half pace, and mostly stayed at (or under) 1:40 half pace (around 7:38). Having a suffer buddy was absolutely clutch, and we got to witness a great sunrise at the end to boot.

We were in Athens, GA, for my sister-in-law’s wedding that weekend, and after having planned a 12 miler and hoping for the middle-ish four to be at HM pace, the hills and our utter exhaustion got the best of us: we stuck out 10 miles, mostly at just-get-through-this-alive pace. Not pretty, and not very confidence boosting.

The next week we bounced back, but my confidence was still shaking. We had great runs, all easy, leading into the weekend, when we ran a 12-miler on one of our favorite routes, also all easy. The next day, of course, was Burgh 10K. Flat. Fast. Ripe for PRs.

But that was not our plan. With a lot of hemming and hawwing and whining, we decided to go with our friend Mark’s idea (well, okay, we stretched it a little – sorry, Mark!) of making it JUST  tempo run. NO RACING. We ran an easy one mile warmup, did some drills, and I was able to find Danielle, so we lined up at the start together with a plan: 7:37 average (as best we could manage) for a half-marathon tempo. My husband (so weird saying that) and I left music at home on purpose to prevent the urge to race. We picked through the crowd at the start, since it’s a narrow-ish crushed limestone trail, but otherwise reined in our horses. We lost satellites in and out of the tunnel on the out-and-back course, and my Garmin stopped at some point (I bumped it? it froze?) so for the last 2.5ish I had no real idea of where we were and what pace I should be doing. We actually nailed goal pace on the way out, but came back in too fast. And of course sprinted to the finish to finish only a second or two apart from each other. I finished in 46:18 for a 7:27 pace.

One mile cool down with all of us plus Kim later, we went to get our wings and free beers, try to defend a helpless garter stake from women screaming about it and one person stomping its tail for no good reason, we found out that my husband got 2nd in his age group, and Danielle and I got 4th and 5th! If we had raced it, we could have gone 1-2 or 2-3! Ridiculous.

20 miles on the weekend, and almost 42 on the week.  All that was left was the taper. Oh, and the race.