Category Archives: coach mark

Unfinished (Glass City Marathon Race Report)

I have always found that writing endings is one of the hardest things. How do you wrap it all up? How do you tie up the loose ends without putting too perfect a bow on it? How do you craft that finish that leaves just the right taste and leaves the mind thinking on it for the the next hours, or days?

Races have the ending down pat. Because there is a clear finish line – a clear line of demarcation – yet there is always a desire, a taste for more. There is satisfaction in completion, and the thought of the next goal, the next challenge.

But here I sit, wondering how even to begin to talk about a race that didn’t have a finish? Sure, it had an ending. I can recall laying on the ground, words coming out in wheezing monosyllables, and I at last reached over to hit STOP on my watch. Stop. Done. Over. End. But no finish.

Over the last three-and-a-half years since my first DNF, I have been almost fascinated by how that race report remains one of my most read blog posts – by far. It isn’t really surprising, though, because we have all been there. And if we haven’t, we will be eventually. If you run long enough, you will – almost inevitably – experience a disastrous race. You will stumble into an obstacle so enormous that even the most stubborn runner must pull the plug and call it quits. Sometimes we don’t get to make this decision for ourselves. And even when we do, the tears inevitably come, because that’s the thing with marathons – you train for months on end for one day, one chance. And so many stars must align for you to arrive at that start line healthy and fit, and to get to the finish in one piece. One misalignment can lead to disaster, and while we can strive to control many of the possible elements, there are some X factors we cannot control, sometimes cannot even foresee.

So, what happened at the Glass City Marathon? Something I have never in my life experienced. Vertigo. But let’s back up. Back to the beginning. Back to race week, the final days of the taper.

Pre-race

This spring has been a doozy. Work stress. Family stress. Too much travel. Too many things on my plate. And the exhaustion of marathon training makes all of this that much harder to deal with. So it isn’t surprising that I got sick. I frequently get sick during training, though I noticed since working with my coach, I hadn’t been getting sick so much in the thick of training – before then, I almost always got a head cold either when I was peaking, my body and immune system crushed by miles, or early on in the taper, the sudden decrease of mileage and demand and allowing my body to rest also seemingly allowing it to succumb to one viral plague or another.

The Wednesday before Glass City, I woke up to go to my last physical therapy session for my foot before going to work. It was a rest day, and all I did was a few minutes warmup on the bike and went through my exercises and stretches. Nothing at all strenuous. Just making sure all systems were go. As my PT and I discussed, my foot had been steadily improving. I noticed it less and less on runs, and some runs I had no issues whatsoever. I knew I’d need some full rest post-race to kick out the last bit of inflammation, but I was good to go.

I noticed that morning, though, that I was feeling a little congested. I’m often congested in the mornings first thing after waking, and of course pollen counts are still soaring this time of year, so I tried to write it off to that. Even so, I began pounding more fluids – also a good plan for marathon week – and planned to get to bed early (ditto). Thursday I felt about the same. That hint of congestion that raised a little yellow flag in the back of my mind, but I was determined to hope for the best. If it was a cold, maybe I could kill it early with hydration and sleep.

Friday, I woke up sick. Not horribly, but it was definitely viral cold nasal congestion. I conferred with my coach, who reassured me that I would probably be fine as long as symptoms remained above the neck. I just needed to keep up with rest and fluids. I did my best to focus at work – a mix of last-minute stress of getting ready for a big work event that would take place the Tuesday following the race, hydrating plenty and running to the bathroom frequently, and race week distraction (how many times can I check the forecast in a single day?) plagued me, but I got through. I left work at 3:30, and by about 4 pm we were on the road to the airport in earnest, Google taking us on a strange backwoods route (though it was pretty and cut through many picturesque farms) to get to the interstate and to the airport. I bought some travel tissue packs and Nyquil at the airport, and we arrived in Cleveland without incident (though I noted that my left ear was just EXPLODING during the descent into the Cleveland airport – it didn’t pop until we landed), my dad and stepmom picking us up and driving us to my mom’s house.

We got to bed very late, but I took Nyquil, pounded more fluids, and didn’t set an alarm. I woke up at about 8 the next morning, then rolled over and dozed more, finally getting up at about 9 am on Saturday. I felt pretty stuffed, but I took a very hot shower and steamed out, and I seemed to be draining for the most part, my energy level decent.

After a trip to Panera for lunch (a day-before tradition of mine – a soup and salad at Panera seem to treat me well as last lunch before a race), we got on the road to Toledo. My left ear still seemed to be partially plugged, and I didn’t get it unplugged until halfway through the drive (and even then I wasn’t certain I had fully opened that sinus). I was draining and draining but was feeling like it was productive and I was definitely on the mend and over the worst of the cold. I posited that if I still felt congested in the morning I could steam in a very hot shower to clear my head before the race, if necessary. I kept drinking water, some with Nuun to try to keep my electrolytes balanced.

First stop upon arriving in Toledo: the expo. I felt nervous, detached. I just wanted to get my bib and get on with it. But of course I also needed a quick photo with my bib, and my supportive husband (though I’m dismayed and embarrassed to say I never got a photo with my mom the entire weekend. That is just not okay).

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It was late afternoon by this point, and I had been texting with twitter/Instagram pal Sarah (whom I’d convinced to run that race earlier in the year when she’d been debating possible spring marathons – she lives in Ann Arbor so it was a nice drive in for her) and we planned on meeting for dinner, which gave me just enough time to get settled at the hotel, try to make a race spectating game plan looking at the maps and parking options, and relax for a little bit. I laid out my gear, plugged in various devices to charge, kept hydrating.

Just after 6 pm, we met Sarah, her sweetie, and their darling toddler daughter for dinner at IHOP (another pre-race tradition of mine). We had a lovely time, eating pancakes and talking about running and life in general. It’s always a cool novelty to meet someone in person who you’ve been communicating with online for so long. And Sarah’s little one charmed all three of us to the extreme. I told Sarah my basic race plan and she said she’d be happy to run with me for as long as she could – she’s a much faster marathoner, but her training had been derailed that winter/spring due to the weather, life, and multiple bouts of sickness. We planned to text and find each other before the race – and before each of us gave up our phones to our families when we got in the corrals.

Maybe around 8 pm or a little before, we parted ways to try to get some sleep. I double-checked my gear and decided that I was probably going to be racing in the full singlet the next morning, rather than the crop top. It was predicted to be 39 or 40* at the start. It would get warm decently fast the last hour or two of the race, since the forecast was also calling for it to be very sunny (rain had been predicted earlier in the week but that forecast changed by Thursday). I had throwaway arm warmers (Shannon’s old socks) and a pair of throwaway gloves donated to the cause by my friend Krystina. I flipped through my training log to remind myself of tough workouts conquered, read over a few messages from friends and family, got a few more encouraging wishes from my coach (who was literally on the other side of the world for work), and tucked into some Harry Potter reading before shutting off the light, sleeping fairly well for the night before a race.

Race day

As always, I woke up with my first alarm and shut off the backups. I moved around quietly as Shannon kept snoozing. I made my oatmeal in the hotel microwave (though I noticed hours later as we packed to leave that I never did put nut butter in it. Oops). I made coffee. I sipped on water. I scrolled through various social media feeds, rolled out my hips and glutes and hamstrings. I looked at the weather. It was COLD. A few degrees colder than predicted. I stuck with my plan: singlet, throwaway arm warmers and gloves, bum wrap skirt, calf sleeves. I had nothing for my ears. I had brought a throwaway shirt, but instead wore my aero jacket, and carried sweats in my spike bag to be carried by my crew. It’s always nice to have a crew to carry your spares and backups and layers. I pulled Shannon out of bed for good around 5 am. The coffee and food did their job and got things moving – I had minimal GI disturbance for the race, which was a huge change from my issues at Erie.

At 5:30, we headed down to the lobby to meet my mom. I was so grateful to have her there – and she got up so early on her day off just to watch me run. As we rode the elevator down, I felt adrenaline shooting through my body. I felt as if I were in full-on fight-or-flight mode, a bundle of nerves, waves of nausea roiling in my gut. I hummed to myself to try to settle my gut and distract my mind. I told Shannon I was scared, and he told me it would be okay. I told him this felt like my last chance. He reassured me it wasn’t.

We stepped out into the parking lot and it was freezing. Maybe mid-30s. The car was coated in frost, but as we sat in the car, seat warmer on, waiting for things to thaw and defog so we could go, the shivering I was doing seemed to burn off some of my excess nerves. I felt ever-so-slightly calmer. We drove about 15 minutes to the race site, and took a chance on parking: we bypassed the main lots to try to find parking on a side street to make it easier for Shannon and my mom to drive around the interior of the course to cheer me on in the later miles. It paid off, and we found a parking spot maybe a half-mile from the starting line.

The area around the start was quiet. We passed the elite tent, and saw a couple of port-o-potties sort of sitting by themselves. After a little hesitation (were these just for the elites? Where was everyone?) I went in one since I had the opportunity. I texted Sarah, but she hadn’t left her hotel just yet. Soon enough, the crowd started to gather, though I think a lot of people stayed indoors as long as they could. The air didn’t have a bite to it, but it was quite cold. I wasn’t complaining though – it was pretty much ideal race weather. It was about the same starting temperature as when I ran Chickamauga in November 2015.

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As we stood around and chatted, some movement in the crowd caught my eye. In particular, I saw a tall young woman who looked familiar, but my brain was determined not to believe what I saw: it had to be my friend Caitlin’s exact doppelganger, right?

It wasn’t. It was her. And as I realized this, I also saw Kim and Lori with her. Crying in disbelief, I made my way over to my friends – who had gotten up at 2:30 that morning to drive in from Pittsburgh – and pulled each of them into a grateful hug. Each woman was wearing a different year’s Boston finisher’s jacket.

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Girlfriends are the best.

I bumbled through introducing my friends to my mom, texted with Sarah as we tried to figure out how to find one another in the thickening crowd, and visited the porto one more time. About 6:45, I stripped off my extra layers (so cold!), gave last hugs, and Shannon walked me to my corral. I gave him one last kiss and pushed my way through, lining up around the 3:35 pacer (I couldn’t seem to find the 3:30 pacer to place myself in-between). I chatted with a couple girls around me who were also Oiselle runners, and I strained to see around me to try to find Sarah. I couldn’t find her. I resigned myself to the fact that I would be doing this on my own, which I knew I was prepared to do, but running with a friend is always more fun. I said a few prayers, whispering the Sh’ma to myself, took some deep breaths, tried to loosen up my shoulders and upper body. After the national anthem, after the wheeled start, after a couple extra speeches and pauses, the gun sounded. We were off.

The Race

I was assigned corral B, and while it wasn’t a huge race, it wasn’t miniscule either, and I knew I was in for a bit of a crowded first mile. I was behind the 3:35 grew by a few seconds, but I had figured going into this that I would let the first mile go a bit slowly. I spotted my cheer squad right after the start, and looked to settle into a comfortable rhythm. My toes were frozen and numb. The streets were beaten up and potholed in many places. I was breathing easily and evenly, finding the comfy zone for the early miles.

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In the middle with the white hat and white arm warmer. The woman in the foreground has her hand raised right in front of my shoulder.

I pulled the 3:35 group toward me without really making an outright effort to do so, and soon enough they were in my rearview. Around this time, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked, and it was Sarah! We grinned at each other, happy to find one another. We settled in for the long miles ahead of us.

8:04, 7:59, 7:59

I’m not sure how I’ve managed it in the past, but even my coach has commented on it: my last few marathon race reports have been a little freakish in the level of detail I seem to recall, even in the pain of racing. Maybe it helps that 2 of those 3 in particular were double-loop courses, easily broken into piecemeal, easier to recall particular sections and moments because I traversed them twice. This time, I don’t know what was different (other than being a single loop – but so was Albany 2016), but I don’t recall as many particulars, as many mile-by-mile moments. The only explanation I can come up with is this: focus. I have never been so keyed into a race I think in my life. I could feel fleeting, floating thoughts of doubt and fear trickle in, but I seemed to sweep them away almost as quickly as they emerged. I recalled the Albany Half this year, and how I had left doubt and fear behind me at mile 8 to race hard. I was more ready now than ever. I ignored the doubt of having only run one 20-miler. I ignored the fear around my foot: it felt fine. I shoved aside the doubt of impostor syndrome: I had done this before, and I could do it again. I could do it better.

My crew found me within the first few miles – twice. Sarah commented on the second time that they were professional cheerers. I smiled huge for them both times. It was such an incredible boost to see all of them, screaming and taking pictures. I felt strong and relaxed.

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Sarah, in purple beside me, was a metronome. Also note that we have not only twin shoes, but are perfectly stride-for-stride here.

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7:57, 7:56, 8:03

In talking race plan pre-race with my coach, we decided I could reuse the pacing plan from Erie: I had paces for 3:30, 3:32:30, and 3:35 listed on it, so I could float in those zones and feel good about it, basically striving to run even. This time, I wasn’t afraid to push more towards flat 8:00s, and not fear those splits when they came. 8:06 would be in the 3:32:30 zone. I would be very comfortable with a BQ of that finish time as well, but a 5:00 buffer would be ideal. I locked right in, finding myself flirting with 7:5X quite often, as I had in many of my marathon pace runs. I also tried a more aggressive fueling strategy (borrowed from my friend Krystina): I was racing hard, and I needed to fuel my body. I also have a highly tolerant stomach when it comes to GU. At roughly certain mileage points, I checked my overall time quickly (not dwelling so I wouldn’t panic at how fast I was going, just checking in) and I took a GU at 30 minute intervals , regardless of proximity to a water stop. Sometimes I would be stuck with a sticky-feeling mouth for a mile or so, but the water stops were more frequent than I had expected, and I never went very long without one.

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After the second time I saw my family, I was predicting being able to see them around mile 10, but as we turned onto what was clearer a bike and pedestrian path, I realized that what I had read as a good point to see them (possibly twice) would not be accessible to them. I let this go, and resigned myself to the fact that I would be seeing them sometime after mile 20. Then, I would really need a boost. At one point I saw my watch was reading a 7:45 pace shortly after seeing them, and I forced myself to pull back (though that mile still went a little fast). I checked my overall time when we passed the 10K flag and my watch read about 50:05 or so. Perfect.

7:55, 7:57, 7:53, 8:04

As much of a blur as this race was overall, I do recall that the course was quite beautiful in many places. We wound through some gorgeous neighborhoods with stately homes. Families were out in their yards and on their porches cheering. When the full and half courses split, the full course crossed into a park and we wound through trees and across a field, and I thought of Chickamauga, and the magic of that day – magic I was hoping I was recreating right then. Sarah and I periodically checked in on each other. I wavered a few times, but I reminded myself that this was a long race: if I felt bad, I would feel good again. And I did.

I think my gloves came off around mile 8 or so, and by about mile 11, I worked on pulling off my arm warmers, easily tugging the right one over my Road ID/pace band, and carefully removing my Garmin and holding it while I pulled off the left one (I was afraid to tug it off over my watch for fear I’d hit a button by mistake). Thinking back on how I had almost gone back to the hotel room to get regular arm warmers, I was grateful I had thought better of it. The sun was warming things up quickly. We entered a long stretch of wide road and open sun, though it remained cool. I stayed hyperfocused on the task at hand and not the endless concrete ahead of me. We crossed over the 13.1 point, marked with a flag, and I again checked my overall time on my watch: about 1:45:25ish. Still perfect. Excitement simmered. But I knew things were going to be getting tougher.

8:04, 8:05, 8:00, 8:04

Since I was mostly keeping my watch on my current lap split for easier pacing, I found myself struggling to remember what mile I was on fairly often. Inevitably, I was always one mile sooner than I was thinking. The grind was creeping up on me, but I knew I still had much more to give. We came to a narrow path, and I upped my cadence to cruise down a short, steepish hill, trying to get a little charge to go up the other side. My quads burned on the downhill. We curved around a loop past a big house, and the tiniest bump of a hill slowed me considerably, but I caught back up quickly enough.

Just before the mile 17 mark, I got a nice surprise. We had come around a lake, which I knew was at the upper end of the course, and the last place I expected to see anyone at all, but as we came back down and headed back to the road, approaching another water stop, I saw them. All those Boston jackets that signaled to me that my entire cheer crew was there. Apparently they had CLIMBED A FENCE to get to me at that point. I blew them all a kiss, then focused back on dialing into the correct effort, almost overcorrecting as we came past the water stop and having to adjust as we started a new mile a tiny bit slow.

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Blowing a kiss to my amazing crew

8:00, 8:06, 8:03

I recalled how at Erie, I was struggling mightily and slipping out of the 8:0Xs and into the 8:1Xs and flirting with 8:20 before I had even reached mile 20. I was still strong. We kept rolling. My watch was already way off the markers, but I knew I had some cushion. I was in a much better position than I had been at Erie. I just needed to hang on. I know I checked my watch at the mile 20 flag, and that I was looking for it to read about 2:40-2:41 and change. I don’t remember what it said, but I know it was in that zone.

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As we came around the arcing driveway past the huge house again (this time it was also a relay exchange), Sarah told me to go ahead, that I had this. At mile 21, she let me go, and I pressed on alone.

8:08, 7:58, 8:16, 8:03

Past mile 21 we came past an aid station giving out orange slices. On instinct, I grabbed one and shoved it in my mouth, taking a slurping swallow. I spit out most of it since I knew I didn’t have it in me to chew on anything, but it was still worth it.

My family found me at a turn as I was deep in the pain cave, somehow getting onto that pedestrian path. Everything around me and in my own head was cacophonous, but evidently Shannon screamed “LIZARD MOOOOOOOODE!” at that point.

8:16

A couple miles later, as I begged my pace to stay below 8:30, better than 8:23 (my slowest miles at Erie), Shannon, Kim, Caitlin, and Lori caught me again and ran along side me. It was at this point, Caitlin was able to observe, I was starting to weave. This didn’t strike me as strange at first. I was in so much pain and trying to push without overdoing it – I had to leave some for the last mile. I just had to keep hanging on. I thought perhaps I was cramping, or it was my scoliosis contributing to an awkward right side lean.

8:22

My cheerleaders let me go to race to catch me at the finish, and I kept pressing on, backing off pace a tiny bit to try to preserve myself. I had cushion. Not a ton, but I had some. If I could survive miles 23 and 24, I could come in hard for 25, and harder yet for 26 (point 2). The sun was baking me at this point, and I wondered if I should have worn my crop top instead of full singlet after all. But it still wasn’t hot, per se, and I knew I had to push through worse. I had to fight now.

8:28

But something was not right. I kept tilting and tilting and tilting right. I couldn’t keep a straight line, kept veering off the side. I knew I was tired. I knew I was cramping and that my muscles were reaching their breaking point. But this was a particular feeling I had never experienced. Nothing I did helped me to readjust course and keep straight and upright. I really couldn’t tell you how long I tried to keep up like this, swaying right, but at some point, I sensed the situation was unsafe, I slowed to a walk to try to regain my balance, and I tripped over the side of the bath and collapsed to the ground. According to my watch data, I had run about 24.5 miles before my pace dropped off completely in this moment.

So much of what happened next is a blur. I know that, very quickly, a couple of runners stopped to help me up. One of them, a man named Chris, walked with me for at least a quarter of a mile, possibly a half mile or so. I was staggering and completely unable to stand and walk alone. I held his hand tightly and wrapped my arm around his waist when even that wasn’t enough. A race official on a bike came to check on me, and I repeatedly asked if I was going to get DQ’d for relying on someone to help me walk to get to the finish. Even hobbling along, I was determined to cross the finish line, knowing my BQ was slipping through my fingers like fine sand. Knowing it was over. I apologized to Chris for wrecking his race, told him that I didn’t want to hold him back.

Runners offered me their fuel, water, salt. A woman on the sideline offered me pretzels, which she then fed to me because I needed to hold on with both hands. Sarah caught up with me, and told Chris that she had me, insisting to me that she would stay with me and get me to the finish if I wanted to get there, no matter how long it took. I kept trying to walk, but still, I could not hold myself up. It wasn’t late stage marathon cramping and dehydration (at least, it wasn’t completely that). At one point – I don’t remember when – a young woman asked to squeak past us to finish her race. I remember seeing she was dressed modestly in black and white, limbs covered, wearing a hijab. If I had had the wherewithal, I would have called out, “you go, girl.” I had nothing. When the race official asked if I had any health conditions, it started to dawn on me that this could be related to the head cold. I said aloud that I had been sick, that I had sinus congestion I thought I was basically over, but it may have screwed up my equilibrium.

At last, after what Strava reads as a half-mile of slow, gruesome walking, I stopped. The race official had me sit down along the side, and called for the sag wagon and medical assistance. They had me lay down so that my feet were slightly uphill, toward the course/path. Sarah stayed with me. I slowly reached my hand across my body to hit STOP on my watch.

I cried. My breathing was slow and shaking. I kept wondering about my heart rate and blood pressure. We waited for the sag wagon. Sarah repeatedly helped me lift my head and take sips from a water bottle. I held her hand and cried. I thanked her for staying with me, for being an incredible friend to someone who, in reality, she hardly knew. “We’re sisters in sport,” I remember her saying. I asked if someone had a phone, if someone could call my husband. I never lost consciousness, and I wasn’t delirious, but syllables came slowly, one or two at a time. I told Sarah to check my Road ID, thinking I couldn’t get his phone number out any faster than she could read it off my ID. She had to pull back the pace band I had taped over it, but I was grateful I was wearing it at all. I heard her talking on someone’s phone, reassuring him that I was going to be okay and that I would be taken to a med tent. I murmured to myself and tried to focus on breathing. For a few moments, I wondered if it would be scarier or more of a relief just to pass out right then.

A little while later, the sag wagon had come. They helped me slowly sit up, and once I had my bearings a little in the seated position, they helped me stand. A very large man (I recall thinking of him as Hagrid) had me wrap my arms around him so he could help me into a wheelchair and he pushed me to the van. He and another young woman transported me toward the finish area in the van, still in the wheelchair. I examined my legs, my right leg awkwardly cramped inward, and noted several small cuts on my legs and right arm from the fall I had taken. For a few minutes I thought I might not be able to keep down fluids, and the girl handed me a bag just in case. Thankfully I didn’t end up needing it. I also asked her to call my husband again, and she fully ripped off my pace band (though she gave it back to me) to access the information on my Road ID. They would be waiting for me by the med tent.

By the finish area, they moved me from the van to the back of a golf cart, and I hung on as best I could, with a man holding my arm tightly to keep me on and balanced. The driver of the cart kept shouting at the crowd to move aside so we could get through. I almost wanted to yell at them myself, but couldn’t muster the strength.

We rounded through the football stadium, and as we approached the med tent, I saw my cheering section gathered near it. I sobbed in my mother’s arms. I sobbed in my husband’s arms. He scooped me up and carried me into the med tent and lowered me onto a cot. They took my heart rate and blood pressure – both were normal. I was fine. I laid there for a little while longer while they made sure I was okay (and I made sure I was okay), before helping me to stand and walk somewhat on my own.

Wrapped in a space blanket, I hobbled toward Kim, Caitlin, and Lori. These women. These women who drove all the way out to Toledo long before dawn to watch me race. These women who crammed in a car with my mom and husband to chase me around the course and scream and cheer. These women who stood in front of me with tears in their eyes to match mine. I hugged each one, hard, crying into their shoulders, thanking them for being there, for being amazing friends.

We gathered ourselves up for our journey back to the car, and along the way, bumped into Sarah and her family. I gave her a huge hug, asked her if it was weird if I told her that I loved her. We’re connected now – connected forever. Running a marathon with another person is a powerful, intimate experience. And having someone pick you up and carry you, help you move forward, help you find assistance when you need it, hold your hand and give you water when you are literally on the ground, unable to move? We’re sisters now.

I swallowed my tears to say bye-bye to her little girl, who was already well on her way to claiming her momma’s medal. Before we split up, I managed to have the wherewithal to request a picture of all my runner girls.

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Badass women with hearts of gold.

Once we got back to the car, agreeing to meet back at the hotel, where I would get cleaned up before going to lunch with the Pittsburgh ladies, I dug my phone out of my bag to see an explosion of messages. Good luck wishes, cheers along the way, frantic race tracking, texts, tweets, GroupMe messages, RaceJoy app cheers, Facebook posts… Tears rolled down my cheeks once more. The friends who were tracking me lived and died with every update, and when they heard the bad news, they were right there with me.

We managed to get a little extra late checkout time when we told the front desk I had been in the med tent, but we still had to hustle a bit. I was astounded to discover I had hardly chafed at all, but getting around was still difficult. The shower is still the best place to cry. Shannon helped me to dress, including putting compression on, and we threw our things into bags and got out the door, Shannon doing most of the heavy lifting. Deciding on Applebee’s as a simple lunch option, we girl talked through lunch and I picked at my food. I had ordered chicken tenders and fries because it sounded good, but as usual I didn’t want to eat much once it was in front of me. Shannon actually did a little bit of parent-bargaining-with-a-toddler with me, asking me to eat just one more piece of chicken, and couldn’t I eat that one last bite?

We parted ways by early mid-afternoon, with the girls hitting the road for Pittsburgh, looking sleepy, and Shannon, my mom, and I making our way to Cleveland. I took a few minutes to write a Facebook post to explain what had happened. I cried reading every single comment left by friends and loved ones.

I took over driving the second half as I knew my mom was exhausted, and I was shockingly alert. My brother called along the way, as did my dad, and I filled them in (I had talked to my dad briefly walking back to the car post-race as well; he called again on the drive to check in). Once we arrived home, my step-dad had purchased ice cream I had requested. He had suggested pizza, which initially sounded good, but then didn’t. I knew ice cream would sit well, and was calorie-dense, which I needed.

Before long, we were headed to the airport. Final hugs, a quick security line, a short flight, and a 90 minute drive stood between us and home. When we arrived there at long last, so very late and so tired after a 20-hour day, I saw two huge vases of flowers – one from my in-laws, one from my Athens friends – with cards and treats and so, so much love and support.

Analysis

There’s nothing I could have done to prepare for this. Maybe if I had hydrated even better? Maybe if I had gone ahead and taken that pre-race shower to clear my sinuses more? Maybe if I had taken Sudafed (yeah, probably not a great plan)? My ears were exploding again on the flight home Sunday night post-race, and my sinuses drained for a few more days, even though I felt fine, not sick in the least. There really is no telling what can happen in a marathon, especially when you line up not at 100% health.

The truth is, there is nothing I could have done short of being clairvoyant. All visible signs pointed to giving the race my very best shot. I gave everything I had until I literally could not give anymore. I ran a perfect race for 24 miles. I was suffering, but already imagining digging in at mile 25 and finding those last, deep reserves – the ones that are always there, the ones I have found within myself in the last year more than ever before. I had visualized that finish line so many times. It was just a clock, really, in my imaginings. Now, I can’t see it. The finish never comes.

So how do you finish? You keep going. You thank and love on your supporters and feel completely unworthy of all of their belief and hope and kindness. You remember the feeling of being picked up off the ground by total strangers who were not going to just leave you there. You think of how the woman who ran 21 miles with you and took care of you at mile 25, dedicated her last mile to you.

Marathons are about so much more than finish lines. Each time we go out there, we learn something: about ourselves – our bodies, our minds, our spirits; about our support system; about other runners around us. We’re all in this together. We are never alone out there, even when we feel most alone.

I am not finished. I am resting now – recovering in body, mind, and spirit – but I will return. Running and I are in this for the long-term. I have many, many miles left in these legs and in my soul. And my friends are waiting for me.

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Race Report: Albany Half-Marathon

Lately, it seems, all I hear is Psalm 23.

I raced a half-marathon on March 4. It went amazingly well. One would think I would have written and posted a race report almost immediately. But I haven’t. The truth is, I’m having a hard time finding words. Finding purpose. Finding a point in writing about a race in the usual amount of detail. You see, in the time since that race, I have attended two funerals, spaced apart from each other by about two weeks. This isn’t the first time I have run a race that was followed by loss. In fact, one of those losses came a couple days prior to this latest race, and it weighed on my mind and heart.

The Thursday before the Albany Half, my husband’s maternal grandfather – his last living grandparent – passed away. He was in his nineties; he had long outlived his wife, as well as one of his children, and he was ready to go. But even when you know that the leaving has let that person have the peace they have long been seeking, the current of loss remains for those left behind. I did not know this man well – though the handful of brief interactions I had with him cemented my belief that this was a lovely human – but I felt the loss deeply, given how much I love my husband, his family, his sweet mother who just lost her father. Given how recently I lost my paternal grandmother, who was similarly in her nineties and long ready to go. Given how, at the end of one visit, when he could not get out of bed to see us off, I was reminded of embracing my own maternal grandfather similarly near the end, feeling his ribs through his thin flesh and clothing.

My sweet mother-in-law asked what was convenient for us for traveling up to Chicago for the funeral given the race, even as I insisted that this did not matter. The race was of little consequence. The funeral was scheduled for the following Tuesday, and thus we continued with our plans to run with whatever we had that day.

In the days leading up to the race, I had no plans to truly taper – I was going to race it, but my training plan did not back off much, so I would still have somewhat tired legs. But on Monday night’s run, I was feeling my right IT band a bit more than I’d like. Tuesday morning, a mile or so into the run, it wasn’t loosening up well enough for my taste. I have battled on-and-off ITBS long enough to know the early signs and how cautious I need to be when it begins to flare. I bagged the run, and scheduled a visit with my massage therapist for the next morning. I booked her for thirty minutes to focus on my legs, and she gave me at least 45 minutes, finding my IT band to be all stuck with my vastus medialis and lateralis. I kept stretching and rolling the rest of the week and was cautious and under coach’s instructions: a few easy miles Thursday, and 3 mile shakeout on Friday. I felt okay. I suppose I ended up tapering in the end.

Shannon and I left work Friday after a half-day of work, and hit the road for Albany, leaving the pets alone for 36 hours with extra food and water. We weren’t going to be gone for very long, though we had never left the rabbit alone for more than 24 hours before (she did fine). Partway through the drive, an Athens runner friend and his wife called to say they were having car trouble and asked if we could help them out. They had a couple check lights come on and wanted to leave their car at a dealership in Albany, and thus needed help getting to and from dinner (we had planned on eating together at IHOP, with some others) and getting to their hotel. We had time to check into our own hotel first (a few miles from the race site) and bumped into Chrissy and James just after their shakeout miles. It worked out fine in the end, meeting up at packet pickup (which was quick and painless) and then taking the car to the dealership, which was literally next door to IHOP. We gorged ourselves on pancakes with friends, and got back to the hotel to get to bed at a semi-reasonable hour. I did plenty of stretches, especially for my hips, before bed. I felt fairly confident I had gotten the issues under control, and had a massage scheduled for fairly early the morning after the race.

The 4:30 alarm jarred me awake, and I recalled a dream similar to the one I had had before Chickamauga (in which I didn’t recall the race at all but dreamt I had run a 3:36. Not quite prescient, but only a couple minutes off). In this dream, I was running a workout back in Athens with 13.1 in the middle at HMP and nailed it, though I remembered none of it. I took this as a good sign.

I got to work with my usual morning routine of making oatmeal with nut butter in the room, texting Chrissy at 4:45 when I went downstairs for coffee. We were out the door before 6:00 am, piling into Chrissy and James’ car, with Dustin and Catherine following behind us. James and Shannon were being huge goofballs, and Shannon got James to peel out at a light, briefly forgetting that Catherine was trying to caravan behind us. Oops.

We got parked and situated, though after we were half a mile from the car I realized I had left my water there – it was fine since they had some at the start. It was freezing. The starting temperature was about 38*, and I was shivering in my throwaway long sleeve, which covered my ARR/Fleet Feet racing team singlet, arm warmers, gloves, as well as throwaway earband, Oiselle bum wrap skirt, and calf sleeves. I’d gone mentally back and forth on my outfit the night before, not wanting to overdress for the hard effort, especially when I knew it would be sunny. I had wanted to get throwaway gloves but never managed to, and figured it was so cold I might want to keep them on. I also knew we’d have support from Athens friends on the course and I could probably toss them my gloves, since this was a good pair I wanted to keep.

We hit the portos immediately and I emptied my bladder one last time. I knew I was well hydrated and with it being so brisk, I wasn’t worried about drying out so I restricted my drinking the last hour so I didn’t have to pee again right before the start (or during the race). With about 20 minutes to go, I headed out on my warmup mile, balling my hands into fists, trying to get them warm.I heard the anthem playing as I rounded a street a quarter mile away. Once I got to the start corral, getting warm was no longer an issue with all those bodies around me.

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Shannon and I exchanged good luck kisses, and I wished my running pals luck and ass-kicking powers. I was particularly psyched for Chrissy, who I knew was ready to totally fuck shit up. She had told me she had thrown the explicit sub-1:30 goal out the window, but I also knew she was 100% capable of going for it. She reminded me not to get sucked in with the pack early on as we lined up pretty close to the front (though I tried not to line up TOO close).

The race announcer counted down, and I tried to take deep, relaxing breaths. With little warning, right at 7:00 on the nose, a start cannon boomed, and we were off.

The race

I told myself to relax early on, knowing the first mile or so was slightly uphill, and tried to ignore the urge to get right on pace (or too fast) early. I knew I had a sub-1:40 in me, a goal I had been trying to reach since getting so close in spring 2014, and my workout paces of late had spelled the possibility of something even faster. Whether it was this pressure on myself, or the mental state I had been in that week from my IT band and the loss just two days earlier, the idea of running hard was quickly putting me in a panic. I breathed. I shook my hands out. I focused on my surroundings, the lovely morning, seeing friends out cheering and taking photos. I forced away the memories of my crash-and-burn marathon here just a year ago. My first mile clicked off fast at 7:32 (goal pace to break 1:40 is 7:37). I swallowed fear.

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The two courses – half and full – split from the start, so for the first few miles it was nice and quiet. I found myself with a small amount of company, and noticeably more men than women. The women I did see, I tried to pace off of and motivate myself with. One man in a neon green shirt proved a steady pacer for the first few miles, though a few times I would glance at my watch and see I was going too fast.

7:32, 7:38, 7:35

I started to recognize sights from the previous year doing the full, and tried not to let this intimidate me. My inner critic was loud and boisterous that morning, and I tried to talk over her. I’m a different runner than I was a year ago. I’m much faster, much stronger, much smarter. I have run a BQ since last year. I have proved myself far, far tougher than I was last year. I’m super fit, more fit than I have ever been. My breathing is completely relaxed. Listen to it. Even through this positive self-talk, I felt my heart palpitate and I swallowed little balls of fear. I would be on the heels of the guy in green, and see my pace dipping below 7:30, and despite my effort feeling relaxed, I pulled back on the reins and my stress level rose. What was going on? My mind was also deep inside my right leg, worrying my IT band would blow up on me any moment. For a few miles, my right leg felt like it was filled with lead. It was dead weight, and I wished I could stop and shake it out. What if I can’t do this today? What if I have to quit? What if I fail?

I got a mental boost around mile 4 when, at a water stop, I saw James and Catherine cheering their hearts out. I smiled big, and peeled off my gloves (the earband had come off during mile 2) and tossed them in their direction.

It was during mile 5 that my race could have gone one of two ways. I found myself in a mental hole that felt familiar – one that I felt in the midst of the Albany full just a year before. I doubted my ability to hold this pace. I doubted my right to be on the course, to be going for my goal. I doubted my legs. I doubted my heart and lungs, even as they stayed steady for me.

7:30, 7:44

Then something happened I have never before experienced. At the bottom of the hole, I found a way out. Somehow, I made it so my slowish mile 5 would be the slowest of the day. Somehow, I picked myself up. I kept fighting. I dug inside my mind and body and heart, and recalled how far I had come. The workouts I had crushed, the doubting voices I had beaten into submission, the fight I knew was in me now and growing every second. I focused on my relaxed breathing, trying to mind my tangents (though more on that later), finding runners to pick off as the front-ish pack I was in was growing thinner and more spread out. By mile 8, I had fully turned my race around. I visualized my inner doubter as a physical being, and I told her to leave. I let her shout her doubting words – you can’t do this; you aren’t strong enough; you aren’t fast enough; you don’t have it in you; your IT band is going to start hurting; this is too hard – to the wind, swept away behind me. I imagined her standing on the curb and watching her words fall to the sidewalk – impotent, ineffectual. Her words couldn’t touch me. I imagined enormous wings spreading out behind me and I took flight. No one could stop me but that voice, and I left her in the dust.

7:39, 7:38, 7:30

As the course wound through neighborhoods on the back half, I took this time, this second chance at these miles to enjoy their beauty. A year before, in these miles, I was in immense pain. But now I could soak in the beauty. The turns were many, and I honestly wasn’t sure at times how to work the tangents. The course was coned off to provide directions. At places, this was because only half the main road we traversed was closed to traffic. But on these side streets, I was unsure if these were merely guiding the direction and turns or if I was meant to stay on a particular side of the cone. This probably contributed to the fact that my Garmin reading was well over the distance. Chrissy expressed confusion with the tangents as well, and since she had a lead bike with her (badass), she didn’t want to accidentally cut a cone and be DQ’d as a result.

At one point, rounding a large turn around a lake, I looked up at the trees that arced over the street and tried to memorize how the light looked as it filtered through, Spanish moss ornamenting the branches. I wished in that moment I could have taken a picture.

I kept racing hard. Everything was clicking, and I kept one foot tapping the break. I didn’t want to kick too soon, but running hard felt absolutely delicious. The dead leg feeling in my right leg had gone, though I had creeping numbness up and down it for most of the race. At one point in the last 5K I touched my right leg to see whether my shorts had crept up at all – they hadn’t, it was just that my leg was that numb (an issue I have had for years that sometimes goes away and sometimes reappears, possibly exacerbated or caused by mild scoliosis that crunches my right side and sometimes sets my hips out of place – my massage therapist always checks their alignment). I ignored it and kept running.

7:29, 7:33, 7:29

The course curved onto a familiar turn where, last year, I recalled the 3:40 pacer coming up beside me and passing me, and my despair that day exploded into devastation. But today, I was still racing hard. I still had so much to give. I was trying to hold back for the final mile, but keeping myself in check was getting harder. I picked off a few runners who were beginning to struggle, and the enthusiastic volunteers and course cheerers garnered huge grins from me. I brushed my hand across the shoulder where I had attached the memorial pin for Ashley, the local runner who just last fall was taken too soon by a careless, criminally negligent driver. I dedicated that mile to her. In the next mile, I thought of my grandmother who left this earth last July, the day I raced a half-marathon. I thought of my favorite Hebrew School teacher, who passed in December. I thought of my stepfather’s twin brother, who passed a couple weeks before my grandmother. And I thought of my husband’s grandfather, Tom.

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I felt the strength of all these loved ones in my feet and body and heart. I let them drift in and out of my consciousness as I returned focus to the race at hand. I could no longer keep myself reined in. I was letting loose now.

7:20

I passed the last water stop with just a very quick sip and for the first time, dabbed a bit of the water on myself. I had kept extremely cool during the race, and know in retrospect I could have done without armwarmers, but I was reasonably comfortable. The course curved again, and I had a long rolling straightaway that I recalled cursing the year before. I was relishing it now. I crossed over the railroad tracks (carefully marked with bright spray paint) and struggled to navigate the sharp turn onto sidewalk, under a covered pathway for another sharp turn, and finally onto the last pathway. I knew it was going to be fairly close: my watch had been on the mile markers at the start, but the last 10K I was beeping at the marathon markers for a while (so .1 ahead of the real distance) and in the end, I was beeping even ahead of the marathon markers). I gutted it out.

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7:00

I saw the finish banner up ahead and heard friends yelling for me. I sprinted with all I had, a big, stupid grin on my face when I saw that I would not be letting that clock tick past 1:40, and my chip time would be at least a few seconds better. I had it. I cruised across the line with pure joy and elation and pride. When I knew I had it, looking at the clock, crossing the line, I yelled out in victory. Yes!!!

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final sprint (Garmin read .3): 6:14 pace

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Chip time: 1:39:29 (PR)

My friends found me quickly as I wobbled, struggling with medal and water and heat blanket. I cried. I cried like I always do, whether from disappointment or pride, this time from the latter. I knew I had given a great effort and ran a great race. I also knew, deep down, I had even more to give: had this been my A-race, a 1:38 or even 1:37 may have been in the cards. Rather than feeling disappointment in this, I felt confidence, knowing I had that much more to give for my upcoming marathon.

Once Shannon finished (1:48 and change – very proud of him),  I checked on him before letting him recoup in quiet while I struggled through a sore, tired cooldown mile on the nearby greenway with friends. Chrissy had done what I knew she could: an amazing PR and just over 1:30 (given the difficulty of running the tangents, uncertainty as to what they actually were, if it had been clearer, I know she would have run sub-1:30). She also nailed 3rd woman overall. When we came back, results for top 40 were posted, and I saw my name at the very bottom of this list. At first it seemed I was 4th in my age group, but later on it turned out I had managed 3rd! I won a half-zip pullover and a beer cup. The guy in the green shirt also snagged an AG award, and we thanked each other for the pacing push and congratulated one another on the race. We also all grabbed several more Snickers bars from a nearby tent.

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Chrissy and me – double teammates!
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Just a few of the ARR age group award recipients! Dustin, Chrissy, me, and John

We waited for several other friends to finish, including Justin, who came within seconds of breaking 3 hours (though again with the course tangents question, we mentally gave him credit for breaking 3 hours). He ran an extraordinary race and watching him finish and seeing the emotion overtake him was fantastic to witness.

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AMAZING support team of friends: James, George, and Catherine – they all had their significant others racing, and cheered hard and supported ALL of us.

When we started to get too chilled, we hobbled back to the car and headed to the hotel, parting ways to get cleaned up and celebrate with the various food we were craving (Shannon and I wanted pizza from Mellow Mushroom next door; Chrissy wanted fries from Chick-fil-A).

The next 48 hours were filled with driving. We drove back to Athens. We unpacked, repacked. I got a long, much needed post-race massage with my usual person Sunday morning. We got the pets set up for the sitter (I had texted her when I knew this was about to happen, and fortunately she was available even though it was spring break). We hit the road with Shannon’s parents around 4:30 PM and got nearly to the Kentucky border before calling it a night. I ran a sore and slow but decent feeling 5 mile recovery run on a hotel treadmill (it was raining and I didn’t have spare shoes) Monday morning. We drove on into Chicago. Tuesday morning, I ran 8 sweaty miles on that hotel treadmill. And that morning we said goodbye, not for the first time lately, nor the last. During the service, we recited Psalm 23. Just as we had for my grandmother in July. I cracked.

The entire week was about recovery–listening to my body, listening to my heart. I pushed myself through a stressful, short work week (some shit had hit the fan during my absence). When I knew an early Thursday morning 10 miler was impossible that week (we had gotten back to Athens after 11 pm Wednesday night), I leaned on my amazing running girlfriends for 10 great miles in the evening. I managed to survive 20 miles in fairly decent form that Saturday, in no small part thanks to friends like Chrissy.

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Catherine and Chrissy joined me for the first 5 of my Thursday 10-miler, and Maricia stuck with me the whole way! Love these girls.
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Smiling and goofing – just another mile or two to go in our 20-miler at this point.

I was starting to feel okay again. That’s when it always gets you, isn’t it? Monday morning, I had 8 recovery miles to run. And I felt like hot garbage. There is no other way to describe it. Dead, shitty feeling legs. I felt a little pull in the bottom of my left foot, but didn’t think much of it in the wake of the way my whole body and mind felt. I quit at 3 miles, since it felt worthless. I was overdue for a bad run, I figured, especially given how – though I had felt sore and tired, sure – the recovery week post-race had gone amazingly okay. It had been an intense couple of weeks. But it wasn’t over yet.

That evening, Shannon and I spent a quiet evening at home; we had planned to skip the Monday night run, hence running in the morning, to celebrate his birthday peacefully and by ourselves. A text message from my dad shattered the peace. My uncle, one of his elder brothers, was entering hospice. He had been diagnosed with stage 3b gastric cancer just last summer, and his name had been in my prayers constantly, shared at synagogue during the prayer for healing. At my grandmother’s funeral, I was shaken by his noticeably gaunt appearance, but he seemed at peace with this likely fate: he was living life as he always had –with joy, with family, to the fullest.

Tuesday morning I had 10 miles with 10 x quarter mile hill repeats on tap. I made it a couple miles before the tightness in my left foot – in a classic plantar fasciitis position, between ball of foot and heel (though heel itself felt fine, including upon waking) reared up enough to give me pause, I turned back, and walked in the last tenth, feeling the pulling inch towards pain that made me wince. I quickly scheduled an appointment with my massage therapist for the next morning. An hour before, she cancelled; she had fallen and hurt her hand.

That night, my dad called to say his brother would likely pass in the next ten days. The sound of his voice broke my heart.

My foot was in no pain in daily activities, even when first waking up, or standing from being still for a long time, and in contact with my coach, I tried to run on Thursday, opting for treadmill in case I needed to bail out, with a goal of 3-4 easy miles to test things out. A mile and a half in, the tightness returned and pulled towards pain. I tried the elliptical, then the bike. Mark told me to get off the bike and rest. I called the local orthopedic clinic, where I couldn’t get in that week, and they recommended their urgent care clinic for faster service instead. I decided to try that Friday morning, booking a backup appointment at another PT clinic in Athens for the following Monday afternoon. I also found an alternate massage therapist, and booked an appointment for Saturday afternoon.

But plans being what they are – life being what it is, this month being what it was – I cancelled most of this. We had a friend over for dinner Thursday evening – he’s been struggling lately, too, and I wanted to feed him a nice meal and hang out and chat, because there is nothing more healing than being fed (and, honestly, feeding others is healing for me too), or at least so I have always found to be the case (perhaps my Jewish background). While he was over that night, my father texted my brother and me again. My uncle had passed.

I called my dad. His broken heart crackled over the distance of the phone. I would have given anything to be with him in that moment. To bring him to Athens, to feed him, too. His breathing ragged, he told me the plans he knew of – that the funeral would be either Sunday or Monday. Right before I had called him I had received an email from my cousin, the daughter of this uncle, saying it would be Sunday, and I passed along this information. Within minutes, I had booked a hotel, called my brother and his wife to make plans. He would drive up from where he is in training right now in Oklahoma, and his wife would stay there with the boys (it would be too much to cart the little ones all that way). We both were facing about nine hour drives, drives we knew we could do so that we could all be together. “I don’t have anything to wear. I don’t have a suit with me,” my brother lamented. My father-in-law would lend us a tie to bring to him. It would be okay. Our presence was more important. Our family being together – as many of us as could be there – was what mattered.

You give what you can, when you can, as often as you can.

The next morning, Friday, I went to the urgent care clinic and received a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis – caught early. They gave me a script for PT, which I gladly took. I was told not to run through Sunday, and try to run on Monday if doing well. I was given additional stretches and exercises to do. I was told to ice and take ibuprofen twice a day (if I could tolerate it, which fortunately I can), even if my foot didn’t hurt.

Shannon and I traversed familiar interstates – the drive to St. Louis was two-thirds the same as our recent drive to and from Chicago – and arrived at my aunt’s home Saturday evening. So much of our family was there, and the extra strands of our extended support systems buttressed everything leading up to the funeral service, and when shiva began. In-laws of my cousins (the children of my uncle) lifted them up, gave of themselves, helped keep watch of my uncle’s grandchildren.

I felt the loss of running acutely. My ritual, my healing salve, my outlet was unavailable to me. I diligently performed my stretches and exercises. I pushed away the loss of running, and felt the other loss – the real loss – wash over me. I hoped that my foot would heal enough, would be okay enough to allow me to run the marathon in April. If for no other reason, then to run those miles for my uncle. With his spirit in my heart and his strength in my feet. When words fail me, I know running is there – and I honor those whose strength sustains me through it.

As we stood in the chilly wind at the burial service, I could hardly eke out the words. Psalm 23. The wind billowed at points when his wife, his children shared their words. Every time they had to stop, when the words stuck in their throats, I wanted to run to them. But I knew they were not alone as they stood there, struggling to say those words.

I’m climbing back into my mileage. I ran two hours this past Saturday with minimal issue. I ran pain-free on Monday, and had an amazing workout on Tuesday, including 4x mile at 10K pace with minimal foot tightness. I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ll see my PT and a massage therapist once a week through the marathon. I will run with what I have. I will remember where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.

I will run for all those I have lost. For the peace they now have. For the loves ones they left behind, whose grace and strength astounds me, exemplifying the souls who left those bodies, now touching each of us.

I run what I can, when I can, with everything I have to offer then. And sometimes, a little more than I thought.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside still waters.

He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff – they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou has anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

 

 

Race Report: Erie Marathon

Picture, if you will, a runner in her hotel room after a race. Coated in salty sweat, muscles quivering and convulsing, everything throbbing with pain and exertion. She’s laying on the bed. She’s strewn across the floor. She’s standing in the shower, or laying in the tub of cold water, screeching in pain when the water hits chafe marks, when her muscles can’t stand to move this way or that.

She’s crying. On and off, tears are coursing down her face. She can’t control it – every nerve ending is on fire, every fiber of her soul is exposed. This is what the marathon does – it strips us raw, exposes our heart, wrecks us to our core.

One of these women rips her pace band off her wrist and hurls it across the room. Today was not her day.

The other woman lays in the tub of ice cold water, trying to soothe her aching muscles. She’s sobbing, too.

Both of these runners are me. The first, after Albany, the dark hole of a BQ attempt that was not to be. I wasn’t strong enough, not mentally prepared enough for the fight. Perhaps it simply was not my day, because it sure didn’t feel like it was.

The second woman is me after Erie. Crying in disbelief. Crying with joy. Crying with the pain. Crying with the ache in her heart that the people she carried with her as she ran – her Granddad who passed seven years ago that very day, and her Grandma she lost just this summer in the thick of training, on another race day – are not with her. Except they were. And they still are.

In the days leading up to the race, I kept thinking about Sarah “Mac” Robinson’s post “What the Fire Left.” This summer burned hot and painful for me. I was destroyed by it, rebuilt by it, shaped by it. The long hot runs and brutal workouts. The losses that seared my heart. The simmering burn of that goal on my mind, every single day – BQ. The coals that sometimes needed a kick and a spark when the burning goal grew dim in the wake of everything I was struggling through. Is this worth it? Why am I putting myself through all of this? 

I focused on preparing everything that was in my control. I created an absurdly detailed packing list. I made sure I had my pre-race meal plus a backup if the promised microwave did not appear in the room. I triple-checked my race outfit to make sure there were no issues, no missing laces or popped seams (I have a bad history with this). Nothing that was within my power was going to get messed up.

Of course, one of the big things out of my control was the weather. The week of my friend’s wedding was the absolute perfect temperature. The air was dry and breezy and cool, and it was in the 50s. I would have no such luck at Erie. Every day that I checked that last week leading up, the forecast race starting temperature was 65*. It looked like there was be cloud cover, and a breeze, and the humidity wouldn’t be too insufferable (not compared to Georgia, anyhow), but any long distance runner knows that 65* is not ideal race day weather. Still, I knew I could handle it. I had trained in an absolute sauna. My body could handle more than it ever could before.

Pre-race

I left work at 4 pm on Friday, and picked up Shannon from work; we did a quick driver change so that I could eat dinner while he drove; I had a leftover serving of pasta with marinara, one of my race week staple meals. I ate it cold. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time, got settled, changed gates (ugh), got Shannon some food, and I snoozed during the flight. We landed a little early, got our rental car, and drove to Kim’s house to crash out. Shannon let me have the twin guest bed and he took the air mattress, because he is a saint. We went to bed very late because of the flight, but I didn’t set an alarm and I got a full night’s rest, just as needed.

Kim came back from her morning long run on the trails, and after we were all cleaned up and packed, we grabbed lunch at Panera and also got some donuts at Peace, Love, & Little Donuts – for after the race, of course. I enjoyed the return of Autumn Squash Soup, along with a half salad. My favorite day-before lunch.

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PL&LD haul

After that, we parted ways, since Kim was driving up to Erie the next day. Shannon and I hit the road in earnest. I had been hydrating like a fiend since Friday, but somehow made it through the drive without requiring a rest stop. We headed straight for the race site, and I took in the gorgeous island/peninsula. It was HOT. I knew a storm was scheduled to come through, which was going to cool things into the 60s overnight and give us the much-needed cloud cover. But as we drove north and went to packet pickup, the sky was only dotted with clouds, and had that hazy color of a very hot day. I swallowed my panic. It’s supposed to rain. It has to.

I got my bib; they took my photo with it (a new-this-year security measure against race cheats). We looked a bit at the merchandise and got a “running couple” bumper sticker, but otherwise decided to head to our hotel to relax until dinner.

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We had about an hour and change of downtime, and I got my race gear together at that point so I could get to bed as early as possible. I attached my timing chip to my shoe first thing and arranged all my gels, filled a handheld bottle just in case, plugged in my iPod to charge, followed by my Garmin. A little after 6, we headed to a Bob Evans that was just across the way. When we stepped outside, my fears of the storm not showing up were slaked.

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The wind was howling and we watched the storm move in as we ate dinner: pancakes and eggs and bacon (bad Jew) and breakfast potatoes. The rain was imminent, and it was just starting to sprinkle as we drove back across the road to our hotel, and it opened up seconds before we had to spring into the hotel, laughing.

Intermittently watching the torrents of rain outside, the spectacular flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, I finished prepping my gear, brushed my teeth, curled up in bed with a book, and turned the light out before 9 pm.

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Race Day

The alarm blared at 4:00 am; as usual, I didn’t need the backup alarms I had set (Shannon, too). I had slept not horribly, but fitfully, and was grateful for Friday night’s great sleep. I set right to work getting ready, making the coffee I had set up the night before to try to get things going, warming up my pre-race oats in the microwave and adding Justin’s maple almond butter (from the packet for easy, TSA-approved transportation). I had a Picky Bar in my packed race bag, too, in case I got hungry more than an hour before the race, but I knew my stomach would probably be fluttering.

We were both dressed, packed, and out the door just after 5 am, and Shannon drove us through the dark while I navigated. I soaked in the social media cheers for as long as I could before my phone refused to find any sort of signal on the peninsula of Presque Isle. It was time to get my brain in the game.

A long line of cars split off to the two main beach parking areas; we were in the right line and were directed to beach 8. Despite fears that the rain the previous night would flood the area, the damage was minimal and parking wasn’t impacted. I had put grocery bags over my shoes to protect them, but ended up not terribly needing it. I got in the bathroom line indoors as soon as we came through, then went to some picnic tables to try to find a sheltered place to rest my legs and sit. I squeezed in between a few other friendly athletes, and began to wait. The wind was howling and blustering. The clouds were moving fast, but I tried not to let this worry me. It made the air chill and cool; I kept my Fleet Feet/ARR racing team tee on to stay warm for the time being.

A little while later, just as I was saying the words, “I wonder if Mark is here yet,” I spotted him from the back, and scooted through people to say hi. Soon after, I found Caitlin and Lori, and a few whiles later, Kim arrived, as well as my dad. I breathed a sigh of relief at his arrival; I worried about him driving in from Cleveland so early in the morning, and the possible traffic situation getting onto the peninsula.

With about 40 minutes to go time, I headed back into the bathroom line. I will now delve into a little “TMI” that will become relevant – runners are chronic oversharers, so chances are if you’re reading this blog, you’re aware of this and are also in this category. If not, sorry not sorry. I was little concerned about my GI going into the race. I had a successful #2 as soon as I woke up, and hoped the black coffee I had with breakfast would help clear the situation further. Weeks before the race, I had done the math and realized I would be getting my cycle. This is kind of a female runner’s worst nightmare. After some experimenting, I switched from tampons to the Diva Cup, especially since so many female athletes swear by its efficacy. My cycle had indeed started the day before the race, with some mild cramping that was mostly soothed by a hot shower. Before bed, I took some ibuprofen, hoping it would help clear my system a bit as it so often does. Probably why #2 upon waking was immediately successful.

After the hotel, I had no further success. I was determined to think positive and believe that my system had cleared and I would be fine. Insert foreshadowing here…

Following the final potty break, I finished getting situated by the picnic tables: I stripped off my tee so I was just in my Oiselle crop singlet and bum wrap, made sure my iPod was situated, took my pre-race gel with a final swig of water (I did my best to taper off my hydration so I wouldn’t have to pee too badly during the race, though I was fully prepared to pee myself if it came down to it with a BQ on the line). I took last pre-race photos, and Mark and I and the rest of the cheer crew pushed our way to the start.

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My dad and me – yeah, we kinda look alike 🙂
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Best coach ever. Ready to roll!
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Even Yoshi came out to cheer me on his birthday!

I got last hugs and kisses from my crew, Mark and I laughed at the presence of a little drone (which was taking videos of the start), and shoved our way into a spot nestled between the 3:30 and 3:35 pace groups. My main goal was a 3:32:30, and the middle of my pace band reflected even splits for this goal; Mark also gave me mile splits for 3:30 and 3:35, so I had wiggle room and could relax and find my pace better. The race organizers had O Canada as well as the National Anthem. As the latter played, I said my final pre-race prayers, whispered the Sh’ma, to myself, called on the spirits of my Granddad and Grandma to be with me – telling them once more that this race was for them.

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Moments later, the race was off and running.

The Race

Erie is a relatively small race, and I think the final tally of participants was well under 3,000, but the narrow road at the start meant that I had to be patient from the beginning. I ignored my watch for a bit, knowing I would just follow Mark and let his inner metronome guide me. I kept relaxed and got a shiver of excitement. This was it – I was running my BQ marathon. It was happening.

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We had cloud cover early, but you can see how wild the water was in that gusty wind.

The last couple marathons, I’ve had a pacing plan that had me ease into the pace, starting roughing in the 8:20s and cranking it up a few miles at a time. This time, we decided an even plan was best, since it was so flat, and increasing pace seemed to stress me out a bit. This also meant that I was locking in early. But the pace felt great; my legs were fresh and rested and springy. Mark and I chatted a bit here and there, and I stayed relaxed for the first several miles.

A couple splits clicked off a bit too fast; whoops. I told myself to relax. You’re just on fire today, it’s okay; it means you’ve got this. Mark pointed out these splits as they happened, checking overall time at each mile marker and comparing it to the pace band, and letting me know that, at least very early on, we were faster than 3:30 pace, and we needed to ease off. He didn’t want me to come through the half any faster than the prescribed 3:32:30 goal (so, 1:46:15 half). I had my watch on lap pace rather than overall + insta-pace, and I noticed we had slowed a bit much. “That’s okay, let this mile be slow,” Mark reassured me. “Give a little back.” In my mid-marathon mind, I pictured offering up these extra seconds as an offering to the course. When I could, I took in the view – the course is, for the most part, very shaded, and is lovely and tree-lined. I got a few peeks of the lake early on, and the water was roiling, the breakers frothing high. The breeze that came through at those points was refreshing.

One of the cruelest parts of the course is the tiny out and back plus hard turnaround cone section. Mark advised me to take this wide, and I focused also on my arm carriage to keep my posture and body positioning right so I didn’t get my feet tangled. Shortly thereafter, we came across an aid station staffed by a swim team; most of them were in their speedos. “I didn’t need to see that,” Mark said. I laughed.

I took a sip of water at every aid station, which were a little before each mile marker; I began dumping water on my head and ponytail early, knowing the 65* would build on me as the race went on. It kept me comfortable for a decent amount of time.

At about maybe about 5 miles, perhaps a bit before, I saw Caitlin on the sidelines, cheering me on and telling me I looked strong. I gave her a humongous grin and blew her a kiss. A little while later, I saw my dad, Kim, and Shannon. Seeing my dad there made my heart swell, and to my surprise I saw that Kim had made signs to cheer me on, which she shared with Shannon.

 

8:04, 7:58, 7:53, 8:08, 8:04; 8:12

Official 10K split: 50:04

The course curved out and wound along the edge of the island. Mark, experienced on this course, had me mind the tangents. I kept to his shoulder to let him pull me along. A couple times I would get distracted and he would simply say “tangent,” and I’d make my way back to where I needed. He noted that this side would be the windiest and weirdest as far as tangents and the portion coming back was a lot straighter, but I needed to mind them carefully now. We kept up an intermittent chatter, and Mark pointed out points of interest, and recalled his first BQ here three years ago. The course began to curve back, and we came upon a short bridge (one that I remember Athens friend David mentioning as a cruel hill, but only on the second loop). Mark mentioned it, too, as we approached, saying, “Now, this is the only real hill of note on the course. Try not to laugh.” I stayed relaxed and on pace up and over it, and as we came down the other side, Mark teased, “now try not to make up that half a second you lost all at once.”

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As we headed back on the straighter path, I gave a few more seconds to the course, and soon we were only a few seconds off the intended half split pace, and I stuck right there for a long time. I stayed as relaxed as I possibly could, seeking out Mark’s shoulder all the way and trying to stay in the moment. An hour into the race, Mark asked how I was feeling, and I shook out my arms, saying I felt good, felt relaxed still. At that point, I very much still did.

8:00, 8:13, 8:05, 8:05, 8:09: 8:06

As we approached halfway, Mark checked in on me, and we formed a game plan for the second half. He told me that he honestly wasn’t sure he had 26.2 in him that day, as he hadn’t run more than 15 miles in the previous month and a half (work has been hell). He offered a couple options: he could stay with me as long as possible, through probably about mile 20, or he could drop out at the halfway point and pick me back up on the other side of the course. Since it was starting to get a little hard, and because I know well that my darkest miles are 23 and 24, I opted for the latter option, knowing I would have to tough out the mental block of “omg I’m only halfway” alone for a handful of miles. This, to me, was better than the alternative, and in the end was the right call. (I would like to note – for the record – that since Erie now requires that if you are pacing a runner, that you be registered, which is a new policy this year, that Mark was indeed registered and ran with a bib. Since he did not run the full course, after the race was over, he went over to the timing officials and asked to be disqualified. People, take note. That is how it’s done fairly.) Mark said he felt good about leaving me here for the moment, noting I was breathing better than I had been a couple miles before. I had noted a couple moments that my GI had twisted, which probably accounted for the less-than-relaxed breathing, but the feeling had passed.

I saw Caitlin as we approached the half, and got an enormous boost once more from seeing my family (Kim among them), grinning hard, knowing I was pretty much right where I needed to be.

8:09

Official 13.1 mile split: 1:46:20 (5 seconds off goal pace)

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That feeling of knowing you’re on pace and seeing your cheer section at the halfway point. ❤

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Kim’s photo

Shortly after the halfway split, Mark wished me well and ducked away, heading to pick me back up a few miles later after a few miles’ break.

As I had worried, the next few miles started to become hard. I had hoped to stay relaxed and okay well beyond the halfway point, but it was not to be. My GI was not fully cooperating. My feet were beginning to burn already; usually this doesn’t happen for me in a marathon until the 20-mile mark or later. Kim theorized later that it was related to the extreme flatness of the course; that sounds about right to me. I noted the pain especially as I took that hairpin turn a second time; even taken wide, I cringed at the pull and searing fire in my feet. By mile 16, the burning feeling was there to stay. I kept wanting to back off pace, but I refused, pushing myself to try to keep close to where I needed, even as I was falling back a couple seconds at a time. You can do this. Keep pushing. Get to Mark. I came upon Caitlin and she checked in on me. I gave her a “so-so” hand signal, but told her I was okay, and pressed on. I saw my family once more at about 18.6ish, and by then, I was deep in it, and it was visible on my face according to Kim post-race. I was struggling.

8:05, 8:06, 8:08, 8:13, 8:18

Right around the mile 19 marker, Mark reappeared, and checked in first thing on how I was feeling. “Pain cave,” I confessed in a grunt. He set right to work trying to get me back on pace; I was about 20 seconds off my main 3:32:30 goal. As I watched my lap pace tick up fast, I wanted to cry to him to stop, to slow it down, this was too much, but I told myself to shut up and keep going, trying to keep an invisible, unbreakable thread linking us together from breaking. Over the next couple miles, he pressed me hard to get back on pace and I tried to keep it together; he had me break it up piecemeal: keep on pace these next 4, then focus on the final 5K push.

8:13, 8:00

Official 20-mile split: 2:42:32 (26 seconds off pace)

We arced around the course, and came upon that little bridge once more; this time, it felt like a mountain. The sun had been out for several miles, but now we were going to be largely exposed for the remainder, out of most of the shade until the finish. That wind that had cooled things early and blustered and finally died away before it became a deadly headwind, had also blown out the cloud cover far earlier than anyone had hoped. I was seeing carnage all around me. Since the halfway point, I had been seeing runners drop to a walk. Some stopped along the sides to stretch. Even when I began to struggle after halfway, I was still passing people who were struggling far more. I was dumping more and more water on myself. I grabbed two cups at aid stations when I could, sipping from both, then drenching myself with the remainder. Mark also passed me extra cups when he could. He pointed out the runners around me who were breaking apart, telling me I was staying strong, that I had this, that all of that summer heat training was paying off, right here, right now. I knew it to be true, but I begged for the pain to stop.

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8:09, 8:21, 8:23

Sometime in the final 10K, I believe at 23 or later, I looked behind me and saw the 3:35 pace group. My heart leapt into my throat and my body surged forward; in response, my right calf and toes cramped, and I backed off and forced myself to relax and breathe. Keep pushing. They are back there, but you WILL NOT let them catch you. They are your competition. You can not and will not lose to them.

Mark told me with about 5K to go that I needed to maintain 8:30s to get my BQ. I grunted that I thought I could do that, and kept glancing at my watch, begging my splits to stay that low. So, so many times, I wanted to stop. I wanted to walk for just a moment. I wanted to throw in the towel and quit. But each and every time the walking devil whispered in my ear, each and every time the quitter inside me cried for mercy, I told them to shut up. You will be so mad at yourself if you give in. You will never be able to forgive yourself if you quit now and don’t get your BQ. Now FIGHT.

Mark pulled out of reach more than once, and a few times I saw him slow down when he saw how far back I had drifted. Other times I wanted to sob out loud, please slow down, I cannot keep up. I kept pressing.

8:23

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When I first looked at these photos, I thought maybe I was smiling. Nope. That’s a grimace. This may have been right after I saw the 3:35 group was within sight behind me.

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I wondered if I would lose my lunch before this race was over, or shortly after. In the last couple of miles, I saw the 3:30 pacer walking along the sidelines; I wasn’t sure what had happened, if he had had all of his runners vanish either in front or behind him, or if he had had to fold early himself. I saw a woman who was being held around the waist by her partner; she looked about to pass out, tears rolling down her face. I had seen a few Oiselle singlets early, and one woman who had looked strong early, I passed in later miles, and when I saw her agony, my heart ripped in two. Keep fighting, I told myself. Do it for her. Wings out.

I called on my grandparents. I called on G-d’s strength. I called on my legs to please, please keep it together. I saw Caitlin along the side around mile 25, and she encouraged me and began to run along the sidelines, several feet off the race course (many feet away from me; Mark darted over there briefly, perhaps to tell her to make sure she didn’t actually come on the course so I didn’t get DQ’d, or maybe telling her what he thought my status was, I’m not sure). I kept wanting to start kicking, start pushing, make this agony end sooner, but my body was rebelling. In the end, I had no idea how fast or slow I was going. I just kept running.

8:11

In the final 1.2 miles, my legs disconnected from my body. I felt loose and syrupy, my mind a fog of suffering. I felt like I might vomit. I felt like I might pass out. The GI cramps I had been fighting on and off for the last several miles were coming to a head, and I passed gas that felt…productive. I didn’t care. I kept running. Caitlin shouted that I was almost there as the course swerved an S-curve.

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8:05

The finish banner was so, so far away. I felt like I was sprinting at 5K pace or faster. Please, please get there. Just get across. Just. get. across. I know my family was screaming for me. I saw 3:34:XX ticking on the clock. I ran as hard as my body would let me. I did not throw up my arms. I did not fist pump the air. I did not grin and celebrate that moment that I crossed the line. I simply crossed it with the last shred of strength I possessed.

Final sprint (only .9 over course measurement for my best tangents ever in a marathon): 8:05 pace

Final chip time: 3:34:09

Post-race

Not a moment after I stopped my watch, my eyes sought out a volunteer or medical. I searched the crowd for my family to see if they could get me help. I stumbled. I felt faint. Apparently I was pretty ghostly pale. A volunteer scooped me up and got me to hang onto a railing along the side. I was a bit overly concerned about getting my medal, and was happy to finally get it. I managed to save my watch data as they walked me to medical and asked what was wrong. “I feel like I’m going to pass out,” I said, stumbling sideways. “I think you should check my BP.” They laid me down on the ground on a jacket (they were out of cots on the warm morning) and helped me drink my fluids. Soon, my family surrounded me and helped me lay down. Shannon held my little carton of chocolate milk for me, and I was able to drink that fine a little while later. After a few minutes, I felt a blood pressure cuff be placed on my arm; all good. Which in itself is interesting, since my BP tends to spike after hard efforts; but I was glad it wasn’t basement low. It was normal.

I felt loopy and disoriented, and I heard Mark reassuring my dad that this was normal, explaining the effects of the marathon on the human body. As everyone chatted around me, I saw Kim’s grinning face, and it hit me. “I did it,” I said to everyone. “I’m going to Boston.” And tears poured down my cheeks.

When I was ready, Shannon hauled me to my feet, and everyone kept me walking. My entire body was shrieking in pain. My feet in particular were flaming, like I had been walking across hot coals (and, I suppose, if you’re a fan of Matt Fitzgerald’s book “How Bad Do You Want It,” I was). I walked as long as I could stand it, getting more hugs from my amazing support crew, before we started to drift our separate ways. Kim helped me back to the car, and I gave one last hug to my amazing coach, pacer, and friend, Mark, thanking him profusely for getting me through that race, and through the entire last year that led to this moment. “You’re the one who did it,” he said. (Apparently after the race, when I was laying on the ground, he told Shannon, “Dude, your wife is an animal,” recalling how he couldn’t keep up with me the last mile. I think I went into the state that my friend Chrissy refers to as “lizard mode.”) Before I got into the car, even though we were going to the same place so we could get lunch together, I hugged my dad hard and told him I loved him, and how much it meant that he was there to see me run this race.

Shannon drove us off the peninsula, and as we navigated the slow-moving traffic, my cell phone signal returned and my phone began pouring in messages. My heart grew three sizes as I read through these. I began to cry again. I sat there shaking and sobbing in disbelief, in exhaustion, in overwhelming love for all those who helped me get here, all those who had supported and believed, and in pride in my fight. I had not quit. At that moment, my mother-in-law called and she was shouting and laughing and telling me how proud she was as I continued to cry.

At Mark’s instruction, back at the hotel I took an ice bath – or rather, an “ice” bath with very cold water, which was more than sufficient. I wrapped my top half in a hoodie and I was shivering like crazy for the 10ish minutes I could stand it. I found as I first tried to sit in the water, I felt a searing pain as I had chafed in places that no one ever wants to chafe, thanks to my GI issues late in the race (also TMI: had the worst runner’s colitis of my life post-race, probably a combination of getting my cycle and racing harder than I ever had in my life. Luckily the worst of the symptoms resolved within 24 hours). I managed to (ahem) clean myself up again and grimaced as I finished sitting, letting my muscles soak in the cold water. I also took note of the horrendous blood blister on my left baby toe, and the almost blood blister on the pad of the same foot behind the big toe. No wonder my feet were aflame. I also managed to re-chafe that same spot under my left arm on the side of my torso, likely from my iPod strap. The spot was huge and raw, and took days to fully heal.

Halfway through my “ice” bath, I broke down in tears once more, and Shannon rushed over to check on me. I reassured him these were still good tears, though at the same moment, I felt my heart break as I thought about my grandparents.

I finished getting cleaned up, and we packed as quickly as we could and had housekeeping knocking on our door as we had overstayed the late race checkout of 1 pm by a few minutes. I hobbled slowly across the lobby, and we ultimately decided on Applebee’s as the lunch destination, since I knew I’d have some options and would just order whatever seemed remotely palatable, and make sure I was getting fluids in. Over lunch, I picked through a salad, and we chatted and recalled the race and explained about how Boston registration works, and the travel plans entailed. Mark was very confident that my :51 buffer would be sufficient this year, since all of the big feeder qualifying races – including Boston itself – have been ungodly hot. Erie itself wasn’t exactly cool, and I learned later that Lehigh Valley – the same day, on the opposite side of the state – was not only hot, but interrupted for many runners by a slow-moving train around mile 7.

After lunch, my dad headed back to Ohio, with one more huge hug and thank you from me, and Shannon and I made our way back to Pittsburgh. We opted to stop at the Burgatory that’s somewhat near the airport for a 4:30 pm dinner, in hopes that my appetite would have returned for real by then. It hadn’t. I forced myself through two-thirds of a bison burger (more iron, please), and drank a ginger ale with it to keep my stomach settled. It helped. I bought snacks at the airport in case my appetite came back, and I walked laps of our concourse until we had to board (we were the second to last row); as I rounded a people mover on each lap, I passed by a flight that was boarding, on its way to Boston.

My appetite did not return that night, though I was hydrated enough (and ate a Snickers bar) to take two ibuprofen before bed to try to further ward off soreness. It wasn’t until Monday night at about 8 pm, when we came home from the group run (which of course only Shannon participated in), Chipotle in tow, that my appetite suddenly came roaring back, and I devoured a chicken burrito bowl plus half a bag of chips and some guacamole. Thank goodness.

What the fire left

everything-youvegot

The above post showed up on Erie’s page a few days before the race, and I knew more than anything that this was true. Going into Chickamauga, I had mentally prepared to push harder than I ever had before; at Albany, I now think I took it for granted, and expected the first half and then some to feel as great and relaxed as it had in November. I was not mentally prepared. My mind was not where I needed to be.

But everything since then put my mind where it should be before Erie. Every searing hot run. Every emotional breakdown during or after a workout. The pain in my life outside of running. The victories of hard-fought tempos and long runs with MP efforts on the treadmill, trapped in a breezeless hot box of the gym. That day in Erie, I reached inside of myself and pulled out layers of fight I never knew I had. This summer, this cycle, this race chipped away at my soft outside and left a hard, determined animal that would scrape and fight for every single second. After the race, I remember telling Shannon, A couple weeks from now, I’ll wonder if I could have done more. I’ll think I could have pushed harder and gotten my A goal. Remind of this moment: I gave everything I had today. I gave more than I thought I had inside me. 

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Reminder from coach, kept for future reference when I forget and think I could have done more.

Usually, that feeling does arise in me a few days after the race. It hasn’t yet. I know what I gave to that course. I know the suffering and pain I offered up as a sacrifice to get my BQ. I know what it takes. I gave it all.

At the end of today, I’ll either learn that everyone who applied this week (including myself) was accepted into Boston, or I will find that I’ll learn my ultimate fate next week when a cutoff is determined. Either way, I know I gave my all, and I’ll be back for even more down the road.

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My sweet in-laws left me an adorable set of surprises for my return! The balloons had the numbers of the date of the 2017 Boston Marathon. ❤

 

 

A very human beast

Beast.

It’s a word runners use quite a bit. That was a beast of a workout. Hang on – entering beast mode. I have a beast of a post-workout appetite right now!

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Runner at the annual Cook’s Holiday lunch at UGA? Look out.

Perhaps most frequently, the term is used as a compliment to our fellow runners. Perhaps the highest compliment we can give. Beast!

I’ve got a really wonderful core group of running pals here in Athens. The range of abilities and speeds is great, and the encouragement and camaraderie is unending. We push each other, we buck each other up, we support each other. We fist bump before and after every run. And, frequently, we call each other beasts.

When in the thick of marathon training, trading workout war stories with pals, planning out long runs, seeing who is up for some early weekday morning miles, as the paces increase, as the miles stack, it comes around more. You’re a beast!

In some ways, I’ve felt the beast mode pretty acutely. Workouts have been going amazingly well. I got back to training the week of Christmas, and got through the thick of 10-day travel while not missing a mile. While in Michigan with my Grandmom and mom, I ran 15 miles with 8 of the later miles at race pace. I blanched when I first saw the workout on my schedule – such a tough first long run?! Was my coach nuts?? I did the first six with Shannon, ran inside to change tops and use the bathroom (it was fairly cold out so a full top change was actually pretty clutch and kept me from getting clammy/cold), then headed out on a 9 mile loop I had mapped in the sleepy town, surrounding twin lakes. I got some funny looks from drivers as I stayed safely (and hyper aware) on the shoulder, running against traffic, but I nailed every single split. I stopped my watch only once when I missed a turn by a tenth of a mile and had to cross the road. Otherwise, I found a rhythm – locked in immediately – and stayed right there.

Beast.

The next week, I was in Ohio to see my dad and visit lots of friends from my hometown. I signed up for a 5K on New Year’s Eve – one I ran four years ago, and recalled as hilly and challenging – which was written into my training plan as a 9 mile total day, and racing the 5K all out. It was brisk and frigid, and I braced against the cold wind for 3 miles out and back to get warmed up. I stripped off my top layer and headed to the start, where I raced and gritted hard. I still wasn’t near my peak 5K form from my PR a couple years ago, but bettered my time from the summer, despite a dreaded hill in the last mile.

In the last tenth of a mile, I saw a woman up ahead (looking out of my age group – she was) whom I’d been using as motivation to keep pushing. I had drawn her close but, so I thought, not close enough. Then the announcer called out my placing. “Here comes the 4th place woman, followed closely by the 5th place woman!” Okay, time to go!

GNYER-1
About when I heard the announcer state the placing…
GNYER-2
Turn on the jets!
GNYER-3
There’s always one more gear

I nipped her at the line and finished in a 2015 best of 21:45 for 4th woman and first in my AG.

greatnewyearaward
Fleece blanket prize!

Beast.

My long run that weekend…well, that felt less than beastly. After a few days in a row of running in frigid temperature I was no longer used to (the south having already thinned my blood), and wanting more time to spend with my mom on our last day, I pushed my Saturday 16-miler to Sunday, when we’d be back in Athens, with slightly warmer temps. I ran 10 with the Rogue Sunday group, and felt like I was struggling, slow, tired. I took it slower when I ran the final 6 solo, out and back on the only flat roads in town, feeling better near the end. But still – tired.

The next week was mileage heavy, but less intense on paces: a midweek longish run with strides, a 9 mile tempo with 4 miles at marathon pace. Completely manageable, pretty strong. But 17 on Saturday once again felt…tired. Slow. I let a friend I was running with pull me too fast in places, but I slowed way down on the final 6, running with my pal Nina who indicated she was also a little wiped out. We trotted along and caught up on our holidays. Even though I insisted I didn’t feel amazing (though I wasn’t bonking or breaking down or anything), her sentiment was still: Beast.

I flipped through my training journal, wondering what wasn’t clicking. The mileage had started high – a 45-mile week was Christmas week. I was already topping 50 miles. It was like I was in the thick of it already, because I was. This cycle is really more of an extension of the last. A fine tuning. A gearing up. No track work, all long tempos (with strides in some runs to keep speed sharp). Mark is getting me ready for the end: for the last 10K; for the lead; for the jelly; for the wall; for the place where I need to dig down deep and find another scoop, and then another.

On that 17-mile day, it dawned on me: I moved the long run last week to Sunday. My body doesn’t know that my training log is Monday to Sunday. My body doesn’t know the difference between one seven day period and another. My body only knew I had just run 67 miles in the last seven. I laughed about this with my running friends in our never ending group text. No wonder! And there it was again. That word, that feeling, that encouragement. Beast.

Then followed another build week. I prayed my legs would rebound a bit after those seven hard days and rest on Sunday. Double run Monday, all easy, totaling 10. 11 miles Tuesday, with 5 at tempo: half-marathon pace to 15K pace. Dominated. Smashed. I felt indestructible. Sharp. Thursday, I ran 10 easy with some strides. Friday I had 5, and I took them easy and relaxed. I listened to my body.

believeiam-12jan16 tempo

Saturday had in store for me The Beast – the one I had stared at, wide eyed, when I first got the plan. 18 miles, with 4 x 3 at marathon pace. I knew I had it in me, but my legs were tired. I had 36 miles on them already. It’s going to hurt, I told myself as I tried to go to sleep, sleeping fitfully, dreaming about the workout. It’s supposed to hurt. This is how you become a  beast.

I made a plan, running it by Mark to be sure it sounded sane and good and helpful. I’d make a 4-mile loop that was flat, to imitate the course, and after the 2-mile warmup (out and back on Prince Ave), I’d run this loop 4 times to complete the workout. I would do it solo to get ready for the lonely miles, and the loop boredom would also be a good mental exercise. He loved the idea. Time to execute.

I had my alarm set for 5:30, but my eyes were open and my mind was busy by 5:08. My cat, sensing this, started to cry. I sighed, shut off my alarm so Shannon could sleep, fed her and the rabbit, and started getting ready. I had my usual pre-race oatmeal and peanut butter (and half a banana when I was still hungry) and topped off fluids to make a good dress rehearsal. I headed to Hendershot’s to start at about 7 am. A few cars were already there for early miles before the 8 am club run, the one I was skipping. I waved at runners up and down Prince, and as my watch hit mile 2, I switched my brain into workout mode and took off.

The first mile of each loop felt rough – raw, dialing in, mentally taxing. Mile 2 was a little downhill overall, and usually a bit too fast as a result. I was applying the brakes, especially for the first two loops. Mile 3 was grit and keep going, and then I got to rest. I saw a few friends at the end of the first loop, and Chrissy shouted “move your ass!” per my instructions, but I laughed and said I was on my recovery mile, and she laughed and grinned at me. The pace felt pretty good this first loop, but it waffled between MP feel and HMP feel. By the second loop, I was flirting far more with HMP feeling. My legs were not fresh. I really had to focus on keeping this pace. I checked my watch often.

I kept passing the same people, getting funny looks and I think at one point a shout from across the street (I couldn’t tell what they were saying though). Coming back on a recovery mile, I saw the group run coming down Milledge the opposite way. I got cheers and a boost from seeing friends. Big smiles. Encouraging words. Beast.

Laps 3 and 4…they got ugly. The pace started flirting with 10K feel, and thoroughly felt that way near the end. I stopped my watch a couple times in those last two, heaving with breath. I was relieved whenever I got caught by the two major lights on the loop, in either direction. A familiar feeling was settling into my legs: where they’re encased in concrete, but filled with jelly. Where sometimes running feels like falling, like a failing battle with gravity. I knew this feeling well – it felt like the end of a marathon. I kept pushing. My splits kept clicking off on pace or a few seconds faster. My first two recovery miles were in the 8:30s, my legs spinning happily and easily, fast twitch firing away; the last two were much, much slower.

I slammed through the final hard mile in 7:49 and slowed down to a barely jog, and within a tenth of a mile, stopped my watch to draw in a few extra deep breaths. I saw Chrissy once more, this time calling out from her car as she was heading home from the run. I gave her a wave and something like a smile. Then I jogged in the rest of that last mile. At my car, I was taking out my phone and putting down my water bottle and taking off my belt and the plastic bag for my phone fell to the ground, and this was the worst thing ever, my legs shaking near collapsing as I crouched down to get it. I ran into two friends as I was about ot go into Hendershot’s for coffee and we gabbed about our runs. They congratulated me on the workout. I was proud, exhausted, intimidated. It was supposed to feel like this. It was supposed to feel like this.

It was supposed to feel like this.

This week was finally a recovery week. I took Monday’s miles as slowly as my legs would seem to go (which wasn’t even that slow, actually). Six miles Tuesday with some strides seemed to shake out some lead. Thursday morning’s marathon pace tempo scared me a little – would it feel so, so hard again? It didn’t. Relief. Five easy this morning on the treadmill to escape more cold rain as the winter storm closes in.

But last night–last night, the beast cracked. Near bedtime, about to go brush my teeth, I sat at the edge of the bed, Shannon sitting down beside me when he could tell I was upset about something. I unloaded about how emotional of a week I had had (non-running things; life things), exhausted tears welling up. In control. Quietly weeping.

But I broke. I told him what had been whispering inside my chest louder and louder over the last couple of weeks, or at least since that beast of a long run. I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can handle it. What if I fail? What if I quit? What if I’m in those final miles and I just give up? Is this all going to be worth it? It’s going to hurt so, so much. More than it ever has. Or maybe not – because we never really remember the pain at the end of the marathon. Within a couple days, the memory is dulled. A survival mechanism. How else would we  convince ourselves to do it again?

I sobbed in his shoulder. He listened to my darkest fears, my rational and irrational thoughts. What if I can’t?

Finally, slowly, I calmed down. I had had a breakdown like this two weeks before Chickamauga. That one was almost worse – and perhaps I’ll have a bigger one still as I get closer – and he had to talk me down twice within an hour.

As he hugged me, my breathing calming, Shannon said, “I’m almost relieved to see that you’re still human,” he said, recalling how I’ve been crushing my workouts lately. How I seemed almost invincible. That he hadn’t seen me crack. You’re not inside my head, I replied.

There’s a terror in the marathon. There’s a fear. It’s where our brain begs us, stop, don’t, please, no more – because it wants us to hold in reserve when we know we have so much more to give. It’s a defense mechanism. It’s instinctual. It’s programmed into our brain.

But our inner beast can prevail. We can push farther. I’ve been flirting with the edge; this week, I backed away from it, and my body, my mind, my resolve made repairs.

I do want this. I want Boston so badly I can taste it. I don’t go a single day without thinking about it. In that last hard loop last Saturday, I visualized the finish line. I pictured the clock. I imagined glancing at my watch and knowing I had to dig deeper if  I was going to make it – find that safe(r) margin by which to qualify. To feel safe that I’d have a slot. To push to a place I knew I could find within myself. To run on these legs, with these lungs and heart, that are gifts that I can’t take for granted.

After this cutback week ends, I have four hard weeks to build, to grow, to strengthen, before I taper and reap the benefits and get the rest I need. I’ll keep flirting with the edge. I’ll keep pushing it farther out, because I have more in me. I have so much more to give. Because I’m a very human beast.

 

Race Report: Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon

I’ve had some pretty big dreams in the last several months. September 2014, I broke 4 hours for the first time and PR’d at the marathon by 25 minutes, finishing in 3:52 (granted, I had DNF’d my fall marathon the year before, so maybe this was more a big step than a huge leap, but still). The dream tickled at my brain. It whispered in my ear. As the months passed, the whispers turned to shouts. By the spring of 2015, I wanted it. Badly.

But we (my husband and I) have been through a lot in the last year. I’ve been unable to PR at the half through all the chaos – brutal courses with not enough water, moving stress, dealing with a new climate, new job, finding new running partners (they are wonderful – it just took some time to find them! Thankfully not too much time :D). My coach knew I was dreaming big. And I knew it was a journey – one I was excited to start. So when we discussed goals, Mark threw out a number and asked for my gut reaction as his first step gauge: 3:33.

I flinched. And grinned. And flinched. My stomach tossed. We stepped it back. He asked me – again, gut reaction – what time did I feel like I could achieve on an average day? Not good. Not bad. I spat out 3:40. So the goals were put into place: A goal – 3:37; B goal – 3:40; C goal – 3:45. All PRs. If at mile 20 I was still on 3:37 pace and feeling strong, I’d throw down the hammer and try to BQ. Mark created a pace band for me, which I printed out and faux-laminated with packing tape, attaching it to my Road ID (I’ll come up with a better system next time, but this worked well, especially since I was wearing arm warmers).

The hay was in the barn. The miles were in the bank. All that was left was to execute.

Last run on the treadmill - 3 miles with 5x strides
Last run on the treadmill – 3 miles with 5x strides

Pre-race

I left the office around 1 p.m. on Friday and picked up Shannon. We had initially planned on hitting the road right away from there, but realized we needed cash to leave for the pet sitter, and we both forgot things at home (foam roller, handheld water bottle) that we wanted to have just in case. When we got to our house, we were greeted by two of the neighbor’s cats (she has a veritable menagerie of rescues and fosters). The senior sweeties walked right over for pets. I could feel their bones through their floof, which made me sad – they’re about 18-20 years old and far into their twilight years, but didn’t seem any worse for wear. I took the kitty rubs as a good luck loving.

We got underway between 1:30 and 1:45 and took the scenic route upstate, avoiding Atlanta traffic altogether. The drive up was so gorgeous. As we got into the mountains, there was a lot of gorgeous foliage, and the rolling mountains and hills went on forever. Around 5:15, we arrived at the church that was hosting packet pickup. It was like a mini-expo, and very quick and easy. George met us there shortly thereafter (he hit ATL traffic, womp) and after he got his bib, we headed to a nearby iHOP for a last carby meal. The service was terrible (super slow) but the food was great, as always. Pumpkin pancakes, two eggs over-easy, hashbrowns, and bacon for me. We talked race strategy, among other things, and got excited for the next morning. George signed up for the race to support me and was doing the half. We thought we’d have about 8ish miles together, based on the course maps (we learned this wasn’t QUITE the case, but we’ll get to that) and he’d probably throw down the hammer after that and finish strong.

A little after 7, we parted ways for the evening and Shannon and I headed to our hotel, the General Bragg Inn & Suites (on Gen. Bushrod Johnson Drive. We couldn’t stop laughing). It was a tiny little motel but uber cheap, and had a microwave and a fridge, always nice to have for a race. We quickly got settled and laid out our gear. I also re-packed all my layering options into my backpack to bring in the car. Initial call was singlet, arm-warmers, bum wrap (skirt), calf sleeves, gloves, and earband. The race start was forecasted as 37*. Lights were out at 8:30, though it took a while to fall asleep from race nerves and the folks next doors who were also there for the race and were talking VERY LOUDLY about their paces.

I was up with the first alarm at 4:30 and got straight to work: bathroom, making oatmeal (quick oats in water + peanut butter), and getting dressed. I felt like I was overheating in the room from the rushing around and the layers I put on. Stepping outside the room, though, it was quite cold.

By 5:45, we had defrosted the car and were headed to the race site, about 12 minutes away. The first entrance that GPS led us to was closed, but we quickly found the correct entrance and got parked two rows back from the taped off pre-race area. We briefly headed to the registration tent, but it was too cold even in the heated tent to just stand around. We went back to the warm car and texted with George about staying there as long as possible. I changed my mind about my outfit, and in the backseat changed into Oiselle jogging knickers as my bottom (and skipped the calf sleeves). I waffled on the possibility of short sleeves over singlet, but stuck with singlet; I’m glad I did, it was perfect.

Around 6:45, I headed to the portos to pee one last time, and at 7:15, we took our pre-race gels and tore ourselves from the warm car for good. I lined up with Shannon initially as we listened to the anthem, then after a pre-race kiss, scooted out of the corral to jump up toward the 3:40 group (not to use the group but just for placement), where George was waiting and looking for me. The race had no athlete tracking, and after an 8-mile test run, I went with Garmin’s LiveTrack capabilities. I had previously set up which people to email the link to, and it also tweeted out the link. I started the LiveTrack on my phone a few minutes ahead of the start, then put away my phone for good (buried under gels and inside a plastic baggie); once I hit start on the watch, the tracking timer would start as well.

It was show time.

The Race

After the race director shouted “go!” without much pomp and circumstance, the crowd began its shuffle towards the timing mat and unassuming banner, and a split second later, there it was: BOOM. The cannon sounded and everyone jolted a little bit. I grinned and laughed. We were off!

start1

Ordering photos soon but not waiting for the disk to post initial photos - checking if I can just download all instead of buying a disk! Just silly
Ordering photos soon but not waiting for the disk to post initial report – checking if I can just download all instead of buying a disk!

The full marathon course is primarily a double-loop around the battlefield (with the half-marathon completing a single loop with some small differences), but we started with a lap around Barnhardt Circle, rolling up and down a couple little rises, and I looked to lock in. George (who I later discovered didn’t have his watch set to “lap pace” and was unaware of the existence of this screen. Don’t worry, I’ll teach him. He’s a reformed Nike watch user now with a Garmin) was relying on me to determine the pace and make sure we didn’t pull each other too fast. I had studied my pace band a good amount so I wouldn’t have to stare at it too frequently. Coach Mark had me starting at 3:40 marathon pace and slowly dropping down to 3:37 for a nice negative split. The first two miles were supposed to go in 8:24 each. The first mile clicked right around when we started heading out into the battlefield – via a fairly janky trail/road that I had read about and knew would be more painful coming back at mile 25 – a little fast, but we almost corrected it on mile 2. When the first split came, George remarked on his surprise, saying it felt like we were barely moving. Welcome to smart marathon pacing. It should feel SLOW at the start.

As we headed out onto the trail before we hit road again for the main, big loop, I realized just how gorgeous this course was going to be. The path for that out portion was narrow, but the race was so small that it wasn’t overly crowded. Volunteers with big orange flags and smiles on their faces directed us onto the loop, and the early morning light streamed through the trees and the frost that was sublimating from the ground. Everything had that cold, late fall/early winter morning shimmer. It was breathtaking. Monuments and Civil War era cannons dotted the course. The loop carried us past an open field and as we looked out across it, I said to George, “I think I’m falling in love with this race.”

8:18, 8:21, 8:12, 8:15

Locking into the right paces was proving difficult. My legs felt so fresh, my heart was light, and I was having so much fun. The course rolled gently on through half bare trees. The 3:40 pace group was ahead of me for a good while – the pacer seemed to be going a bit fast for the first several miles. George and I meanwhile chatted away – he asked me early on if I wanted to chat or not, and I mentioned I might get quiet as I zoned in but for now I felt really good, and it kept me from going too fast. We commented on the course, how we felt, on the runners around us. A burly looking guy who I think I eventually passed was running in a pair of (women’s, I’m pretty sure) Lululemon shorts…and that’s it. No shirt, no gloves or hat, no shoes. It was 35*. We passed two women dressed in over the top Civil War era yellow dresses, and they told us to go chase the naked cowboy. We both laughed. There were a few good signs around that point as well – “You’re almost there! No, no, not really” (note: only funny on the first lap); “all toenails go to heaven”; “trust that fart too much? baby wipes ahead!”

We clicked along, chatting away. I can hardly remember the specifics we talked about – one of those meandering types of conversations you have with a friend on a long run (and we even remarked how the early miles felt like any old long run).

mile5-1 mile5-2 mile5-3

We approached the mile 6 marker and realized the course was splitting earlier than expected: the half-marathoners had to add a little bit, splitting left, and the full went right, staying on course on the loop. It turned out the halfers only had to tack on a third of a mile or so. George and I were a little bummed, but we fist bumped and I reassured him that I felt awesome and it was still great having company for the first 6.

After we split, I was slightly nervous that I did it wrong, even though the course was EXTREMELY well-marked, and I had followed another full marathoner through the split off. When I saw the next mile signs were different from each other – one for the half, one for the full, different color text, and different placements – I knew I hadn’t screwed up. Phew! Water stops had been placed at 2-mile intervals, but because of the distance differentiation so early on, it meant we had even more stops than that. Shannon told me post-race he realized that, with one exception, water was always on the right, powerade on the left. I never managed to pick up on this, so just lowered my music volume when approaching a station and yelled out “water? water?” and the volunteers would wave me over (they were SO on it). “Thank you, volunteers!”

Being that the course was in the middle of a battlefield, I knew going in that cheering crowds would be scant. The volunteers wre SUPER enthusiastic, and there were lots of local runners and cyclists who were doing a reverse route and cheering people on as we went along. There were also little pockets of crowds at certain sections (aided by a spectator bus carting people around). I always had to watch my pace for these sections and make sure it didn’t tick up too high. We crossed one of these clusters of cheering folks, and I flashed a smile, then focused on the volunteers directly us around some cones that blocked off a single lane of traffic. I was behind three guys I spent many miles jockeying with; they were chatting about their pace, their expected time, and as they did, their pace dropped, but I could not for the life of me get around. They were three fairly skinny dudes in a single lane of roadway, and the middle guy kept weaving so I couldn’t squeak through. When the route turned and we had the full road again, I threw down a three-second surge (a baby one) and got around them. 20 seconds later they re-passed me. Whatever. Shortly thereafter, I heard my name. It was George! He threw down the hammer to catch up to me, and we had another mile and change running together before the courses split for good.

8:14. 8:16, 8:15, 8:24

Pacing was still mystifying me. Miles 3-9 were to go in 8:20s, then pick up to 8:16s through mile 16. I would try to lock into 8:20, but having hit that and faster earlier on, I found myself picking up pace; then I would overcorrect, then overcorrect again, hitting splits a few seconds fast. Some of these were at the aid of downhills, some were with cheering crowds, some were even aid stations (which is weird). But I still felt great, so I relaxed into it. It broke up the distance in a different way for me, and I think that kept my mind in a good place for far longer than usual.

The scenery never stopped being gorgeous. We came upon a turn with a volunteer using a big orange flag to direct traffic, and something caught his attention (or perhaps someone called his attention to it) and he turned to glance into the woods. I turned my gaze there, and saw at least two or three deer, white tails flashing. Deer! In the middle of (technically) a road marathon!

mile10-1 mile10-2

A couple more sections came and went where the half and full courses split from one another: there was a decent length out-and-back with turnaround sign for the full, and I got a good look at a woman ahead of me who I was able to confirm was wearing a 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon shirt! That made me smile big. We met back up with the half course, and right around the mile 11 marker, there was a water stop (water on the right!) and I ALMOST went the wrong way and stayed on the half course before a volunteer checked my bib color and redirected me. Whew! Crisis averted. We did a little loop that had us crossing some train tracks (with a sign before them to warn to watch our footing), onto some quiet road, back across the tracks, and connecting back with the main loop. At one point, I saw a small street off to the side called “Kimberly Street” and I grinned, thinking of my friend and training partner who recently BQ’d and drawing some inspiration.

Where the offshoot loop met back up with the main loop, shortly after mile 12, there was a short, steep climb. I increased my cadence and powered up, staying relaxed, taking a mental note that I would need to HTFU when I came to that point on the second loop; it would be way less fun at that point (mile 22/23 or so).

As we were approaching the halfway split and I was getting ready to look at my overall time for the first time, we passed a big field and four deer (perhaps some of them were older babies) were leaping across the tall grass. They seemed to want to approach the parade of runners, but remained curious from a small distance.

I knew I was a little bit off the markers, but not horribly – I came through the half only about 20ish seconds behind schedule (1:49:20/30ish something – don’t have chip times at this point, which I will explain later).

8:21, 8:13, 8:16, 8:14, 8:19

One last time, the course split. The signs remained crystal clear (though I stayed nervous anyway until I saw the mile 14 marker; I’m such a ninny): half-marathoners to the left, full marathoners to mile 25 to the left; full marathoners to mile 14 to the right. And so began loop 2! The course grew a little more sparse with runners, though several half-marathon walkers remained.

I knew going in that the double-loop nature could be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it broke things up automatically, and I knew what was coming on the second loop. On the other hand…I knew what was coming. But I still felt good. Occasionally my pace and focus flagged, but I’d readjust my brain and keep on trucking, and my pace ticked back up to where it needed to be. I now had a slight bit of familiarity with the hills that were coming. What was also nice was that some of the toughest miles for me mentally (at least in the past) were basically a nice long flat to downhill. I often go into a dark place after the half-way mark, thinking just how far I still have to go, already putting my mind in the place where it preconceives a massive blow-up at mile 20. But I kept this at bay, soaking up the sights. This is the last time you get to do this loop, I told myself; Enjoy it! I told myself the same thing, really, when I couldn’t seem to keep my pace down to 8:16s. Slow down! Enjoy it!

8:15, 8:11

The course rolled up and down, up and down, my pace band told me to click into 8:12s now, and we passed that same group of signs again – “You’re almost there, …no, no you’re really not” – and I flipped it the finger. The ladies in the big yellow dresses were up ahead, and I felt myself flagging a little. I reminded myself of what my friend Chrissy told me: If you feel bad, you will feel good again. It’s a mindset I’ve never had – it’s such a long race, there are so many ups and downs, but so often I let myself go into a dark hole at the first sign of fatigue or flagging mental toughness. As I was reminding myself this, as if on cue, Lenny Kravitz’s version of “American Woman” came on my iPod. I turned up the volume and charged ahead, getting back on pace and back in the zone.

8:14, 8:14

My watched beeped my mile 18 split; I still wasn’t locked into 8:12s, but I had so many slightly-too-fast miles, I wasn’t concerned. Then, within seconds of the mile split on my watch, my watch buzzed again. PHONE DISCONNECTED. Fuck. The watched switched to the time screen, and for a second I thought it had stopped altogether; a couple screen change clicks reassured me it had not, it was still running fine. I decided not to panic. Maybe my phone died. That would suck. I hoped friends and family tracking me on LiveTrack assumed a technical glitch and that the worst hadn’t happened. Then, several seconds later, it buzzed again: PHONE CONNECTED.  Well. Okay. This of course messed up the time everyone saw at the end by I think a good 20-25 seconds, but oh well. At least they didn’t lose me for good.

The course carried us out-and-back again to the turnaround sign, and some people I had been jockeying with were not behind me. I checked all the pace signs that were passing the opposite way as I headed back in; 3:40 was decidedly behind me. I was cranking (or trying to). But I could feel the grind beginning to take its toll. My pace was slipping. For a moment I wondered, why am I this tired already? I’ve run longer than this before! Then remembered, oh, right. This time I’m doing it fast. Duh. Perspective.

I was still taking water at most aid stations, tempted (but not that tempted) to douse my head. I removed my gloves and tucked them into my capris around mile 20. I tried moving my earband off my ears a few miles later, but it skewed my glasses so I put it back. I didn’t quite have it in me to take it off and try to attach it to my belt at that point. I was sure I’d fumble it, and I wasn’t really overheating. At the mile 20 sign, I was again only about 20-30 seconds off my desired time, ticking in around low 2:46.

When we headed back out to the train tracks, my mind had gone to the dark place. I was suffering. A man ahead of me shuffled to a walk and I wanted to reach out and pat his shoulder. I gave him an encouraging look as I passed, and he picked it back up. I really wanted to walk, and the devil on my shoulder told me, just ten seconds of walking, don’t you think that would be refreshing? But I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew if I walked, it was over. If I walked, I may not run again – not really run – and I wasn’t willing to give up the fight. I could feel that my legs no longer had 3:37 in them; I couldn’t throw down the hammer that hard, but I wasn’t going to throw in the towel on my B goal, either. Keep it under 9:00 pace, I begged. This wasn’t a fuel bonk – my nutrition felt on point: I had taken a gel at 5.5, 11, 16.5, and took my final gel at mile 21. It wasn’t the gels. It was the grind of the pace. It was all in my legs and at least a little in my head.

8:18, 8:24, 8:48, 8:57

The railroad track loop met back up with the main course, and there was that short, nasty hill. I gritted up it, and grunted out loud. A man near me groaned his agreement. I topped it, and a girl I had been back-and-forth with (who had been with the 3:40 group for a good while before evidently dropping them) surged ahead as we coasted down. I settled myself in her current as best I could. She pulled farther ahead and I couldn’t maintain contact or even the same gap, but it helped anyway. My pace ticked back up – not on pace, but better. I was starting to get warm, but my left arm warmer was cinched down by my pace band and Garmin, so I ripped off the right one and tied it around my belt.

8:28

One final time, I let myself look at my overall time. I did quick mental math and tried to figure out what I needed – I guessed 8:45ish or faster would still get me in under 3:40. The walking devil kept showing up, and I kept shaking him off. I didn’t even walk the aid stations; I couldn’t let myself walk a single step. Even if I ran painfully slow, I would keep running. No one else can do this. No one else can do this right now but you. Do this. Do this now. We passed the field near the 13.1 mat, no deer this time, and a much more painful outlook on my part. This time, as the loop split, I was heading in toward mile 25.

My finishing power songs were amping up on my playlist, and I cranked the volume a little. I threw down a little surge, trying to stay controlled at the same time. But that janky section of road – I feared tripping or twisting an ankle, and it was just exhausting to run on. Near the end, it goes up and up – little bumps of hills, but at mile 25, everything is agony. I passed a Ragnar ambassador, and she exhaled, “good job,” and I choked out “you too” as I went by. We got back onto the road, out of that one bad section, and my mind whirled with what exactly was left. Did we have to do a full loop of Barnhardt Circle to the finish? Would I have to bypass the finish first? I kept pushing, or trying to. My legs were lead and jello at once. Leave it all out there, I told myself. The time is now!

8:36, 8:33

I rounded a sharp turn at the mile 26 sign, and there was Shannon, screaming my name and cheering me on. I’m sure I gave him something between a grimace and a grateful smile. A moment later, I ripped off my earband and flung it to the sidelines for him to grab when he could. The finish line banner was unthinkably far away, and my face contorted once more as I saw the mile 13 sign for the halfers. One tenth of a mile remaining. I felt like I wasn’t even moving, but somehow managed to pick up a little more speed, watching that race clock tick closer and closer to 3:40. But I already knew. I already knew I had it.

A Oiselle teammate snagged this! Thanks, Jessica!
A Oiselle teammate snagged this! Thanks, Jessica!

I crossed under the sign, crossed the mat, my arms flung up in victory, before stumbling a few steps and fumbling for the STOP button my watch.

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Watch time: 3:39:28

(started a second or two before crossing the startmat, stopped a second or two after the finish)

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Post-race

George was just a few steps ahead of me, and I stumbled toward him. “Help me walk,” I begged, and he supported me with one arm, grabbing a medal for me, grabbing me a bottle of water and opening it for me. Shannon arrived shortly after from his mile 26 cheer spot, my earband in hand, and gave me a hug. I sobbed into him. I sobbed from exhaustion. I sobbed from the pain. I sobbed from the effort. I sobbed for the missed goal. But mostly, I sobbed from elation. I had destroyed my PR by 12.5 minutes. I had broken 3:40. I had given it everything I had that day and I never, ever quit and never, ever walked.

Shannon grabbed my arm and told me he had strict instructions to keep me moving, and get food in my as soon as possible. I cowgirl hobbled over to the food tent, which was packed with pizza, moon pies, bagels, cookies, orange slices, bananas, and soup. I balked at most of it but went for an orange slice, a half a banana, and a foam cup of vegetable/bean soup. I choked it all down slowly. Shannon also grabbed me two powerades, which I drank throughout the day and I think really helped me recover. I hobbled in little circles for a good 10 minutes before finally sitting so I could eat a little more comfortably.

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We stuck around long enough to see results print-outs to see if we snagged any awards; when we learned we didn’t, we headed out. In the car and at the hotel, I caught up on my phone, which had been blowing up for hours. I had so many friends and loved ones tracking me and cheering me on. I texted my parents and brother how it went, and read all the messages with joyful tears in my eyes.

After getting cleaned up (and discovering my iPod armband chafed under my arm – owwww), we met up with George, George’s sister, and her boyfriend at a restaurant in Chattanooga and I got through most of a burger, a pile of sweet potato fries, and more water. My appetite was surprisingly strong, though I still filled up fast. That night at dinner, Shannon and I went to Terminal Brewhouse and got pizza; I forgot my ID at the hotel so no post-race beer for me, unfortunately. After dinner, we treated ourselves to Clumpie’s ice cream, which came highly recommended. So much good food!

ice cream

And our hotel neighbors who were also runners? Well, they didn’t stay Saturday night, but they did leave their 4:30 AM race alarm to blare Sunday morning. I was up for good at 5:30 and we gave up and go Starbucks, leaving the hotel for good around 7 or so and getting home a little after 10, where we relaxed the rest of the day.

donuts
Our bodies respond well to post-race donuts

And ate. Ate a lot. I’m still hungry, y’all.

Analysis

For those who found this race report looking for what the course is like, as a balm for the tiny, not terribly useful elevation chart on the website, here is my Garmin Connect elevation chart (documented 580 feet elevation gain):

garmin elevation

And here is my Strava elevation chart (documented 400 feet elevation gain):

strava elevation

The lack of chip time is pretty much a bummer. My gun time is 3:39:37, and watch time is 9 seconds faster. According to the timing guy who replied to an email I sent, a weird glitch happened with the chips and mats that had never happened before: when the 5K went off (30 minutes after the full/half), the chips reset. He spent the entire race trying to retrieve the data, and has been working with the software company on a fix. But I have a feeling I’m just plain out of luck. I feel bad mostly for those who BQ’d – every second counts when it comes to cut-off times. Hopefully the race steps up to the plate to assist with getting as accurate an estimate as possible, since there are start photos out there as well. Fingers crossed for those runners.

As I mentioned earlier, nutrition was on point. Hydration felt that way, too – so many water stops! 🙂 I did unfortunately have some tummy grumblings at various points, but none were awful gut-twists. I definitely did some crop dusting (sorry fellow racers!). So that’s a bit of a bummer, but it could have been way, way worse. And in the end, probably didn’t have much effect on my overall performance. Sometimes you can do everything right and the tummy will still rebel a little bit.

I managed to NOT overdress for once. Yes, I did want to take off my arm sleeves, but taking off one helped, and it wasn’t necessary until the last few miles. I stripped off gloves at 20, shortly thereafter took off the thumb holes of the arm warmers, a mile or two later rolled down the sleeves a bit, then 24ish I took the right warmer off. The end of the race was probably high 40s/low 50s and very sunny, but much of the course was shaded and not too breezy. The weather couldn’t have been more ideal for speed.

While the BQ dream had been in my thoughts, something deep inside me knew that today wasn’t going to be that day. Not yet. I had an AMAZING race. Lots of stars aligned, and I gritted it out hard, and walked away with an amazing PR. But I also needed to learn from this race. This race was the one that would show me that I really did have what it takes. This race taught me I could push through without walking, that I could keep on fighting even when the devil on my shoulder screamed in my ear: walk, quit, just take a short break, you can’t finish this race without a little walk break. This is the race that showed me what I’m made of. This was the race that taught me I can keep fighting for all 26.2 miles. This was the race to get me within striking distance (or as Shannon put it, within spitting distance) of that BQ.

As fictional President Josiah Bartlet would say, “What’s next?”

whatsnext

I’ll be looking to figure that out very, very soon.

Race Report: Athens Half-Marathon (AthHalf)

I was really excited for this event. For so many of my friends and training buddies, this was The Big One – their A race for the fall, or one of them (many are running Rocket City Marathon in December, and this was a perfectly timed tune-up half). I had heard for months how fun it is, how well run, how well stocked with amazing volunteers and cheering crowds. All of Athens comes out to watch. I knew this course like the back of my hand before ever running it continuously. Two of the hills I only got to run once each in training (the notorious zoo hill, and Riverbend). The rest I had run DOZENS of times. I wasn’t intimidated by the course.

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Elevation chart from website
AthHalf elevation-strava
Elevation chart from my Strava data

And another advantage: I knew I wasn’t racing this all out. I asked my coach when we were first developing the plan if I could run this as one of my mid-plan races – it fell at the end of week 13, which is very close to race day, and I didn’t want to mess up the taper. I assured him I could run it for fun – pace the 2:00 group maybe, run it easy as a long run, do it as a workout of some kind. Or if he thought it was a bad idea, I would skip it. He gave me the green light, and wrote it into my plan as a marathon pace run in the midst of a 16-mile day.

Another thing going for me: my dad was in town! It was great to know I’d have a cheering section. My dad has watched me race a couple 10Ks and a 10-miler (that was also really a race pace training run), and it always gave me a boost to see him, and I think he gets a kick out of watching me race – I was never a sports person in high school or anything, and he’s a swimmer, so to see his bookworm daughter compete as an athlete is a more recent treat for him.

Pre-race

My dad got into Athens late Friday night and crashed fairly soon after. Shannon and I slept in a bit (mostly just dilly-dallied getting out of bed – first Saturday sleep-in in a while) and I eventually got down to my 5-mile easy run. I was going into AthHalf not at all remotely tapered or rested, but I felt good. I ran 10 recovery-paced miles on Monday (broken into morning/evening runs), 9 miles on Tuesday with 2×3 at 15K pace (treadmill sweat fest), and 10 on Thursday with 10x strides. A lot of my training has hovered around the 50-mile mark, so while my legs weren’t rested, I still felt good going in. I knew it would be a tough workout, but I could handle it.

Packet pickup was short and sweet, and we hung out at the expo just long enough to say hi to some friends and introduce them to my dad, renew our Athens Road Runners membership (with a discount!), and score a couple free shirts (okay, one I paid for forever ago and never picked up). Then we grabbed lunch at Amici a couple blocks away with friends. I took a slight chance and ordered a caprese pizza – fairly minimal cheese, and I ended up having zero issues.

Saturday evening Shannon’s parents joined us for our pre-race dinner: chicken and mashed potatoes with a salad, and my mother-in-law brought brussell sprouts. I indulged in a very small half (maybe quarter) glass of wine and a lot of water. We sort of succeeded getting to bed early, but ended up sleeping fitfully. Having company over a little later than typical for a race night, and having a guest in the house, kind of threw off my going-to-bed-and-relaxing routine. My brain was a little wired, and I had a lot of weird, vaguely race-related dreams. Some things about the course and the hills that were foggy upon waking. Oh well. I got a ton of sleep Friday, and again – the lack of sleep didn’t seem to affect my performance.

We were up at 5 am and I stepped outside to feel the weather – it was already warmer than predicted (60*) and while the air felt cool, I could tell it was very damp out. It would be a muggy race. Not ideal, but it was a workout. I could handle it. As I was standing outside on our porch, I noticed movement in our bushes. Turns out, it was a rabbit! It was one we had tried to catch earlier that had escaped from our neighbor’s rabbit pen (she has a whole slew of animals). We didn’t catch him then, though he did get caught later, but maybe sighting him that morning was a lucky charm. Little stinker.

I made both of us small bowls of oatmeal and continued to sip water, but I was mega-hydrated and didn’t want to overdo it. At about 6:20, the three of us piled in the car and drove to Hendershot’s to park and then walk to the starting line, stopping at a porto along the way. We introduced my dad to a couple more friends, and I walked him to Starbucks to get coffee and a pastry. We met up with the in-laws, and Shannon and I briefly escaped to grab a group photo with the Road Runners.

arr pre race

At that point, I needed to get in my warmup, so I sent Shannon back to the parents and squeezed in a little over a mile (all I comfortably had time for before I absolutely wanted to BE in the corral). Post-warmup, I realized I was sweating a lot already. The humidity was very present. The parents of course then wanted pictures, which I rushed along a bit as I was starting to get race stress (and it never fails I’m trying to take my pre-race gel and someone says “let’s get a picture!”) – I wasn’t concerned about the race, but I don’t like feeling rushed getting to a start line, even if it is a workout. I’m neurotic like this. (I’m still waiting for my dad to send said photos from his point-and-shoot – hopefully will update this post when I get them)

We squeezed into our assigned corral (B) with some buddies – George, Tino, Will, and Roshan. George, Will, and Roshan were targeting low 1:40s/sub-1:40. Tino was thinking 1:35-1:38. I looked at the nearby 1:40 pacer and vowed not to get suckered in. A local high school senior sang the national anthem beautifully (and played guitar). Our crew did our ritual fist bumps, and Shannon and I exchanged our pre-race kiss and wishes of good luck. He was going to take it fairly easy since his foot is still recovering and he’s still biking for the most part.

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Before I knew it, we were off!

The race

I started my watch a moment before crossing the mat, and began searching for that magical pace. My marathon pace target was 8:07, though I’ve been doing a lot of lower 8:0X’s and 7:5X’s on my marathon pace tempos and feeling great. We started up a little incline and then swung around Thomas Street and back down a hill. Tino took off like a shot but Will and George were easing in, and I found myself right with them for the first bit. I kept checking my pace and I wasn’t going too fast, despite being so near them. I smiled internally at their wise move of not bolting out of the gate. Good boys!

The course wound onto Prince, which is flat but has a slight incline for a bit as we turned onto Cobb Street just pace the 1 mile mark. While the course has a lot of Athens’ famous hills, it definitely goes on the “better” direction on all of them. Soon enough, Cobb Street dipped down onto King and the pace I felt I was just sort of waffling around in, unsure, started to lock in. It took maybe 2 or 3 miles to really feel comfortable. I never panicked, just felt around until I found it. Or, perhaps, realized that this pace – while a bit faster than planned – really was perfect. The water stops were spaced out at almost perfect 2-mile intervals, and I took a cup at every one, drinking some, then dumping the rest on my head to cool off. The first cup had very little water in it, but the rest were fine. I took double cups at later stations to get more sips and more head cooling. (at one point there was an “unsanctioned” aid station from spectators and I took a cup but then realized it was gummy bears. Bummer)

We had a nice long trip on Milledge, which is almost perfectly flat, and had a good amount of spectators. I was sticking to tangents as best I could, and looking for people to pace off of at various points, but otherwise running my own race, staying focused on my own workout. Cory was targeting 1:45ish or faster as part of a 20-miler (dayum) and he paced with me for a bit but at some point took off.

7:58, 7:58, 8:02, 8:04

After the Five Points water stop – right at mile 4 – I took note of the huge crowds in this bustling section of town. Both running stores are within two blocks of each other right in Five Points, and the turn onto Lumpkin was completely stacked with screaming spectators. I had a HUGE grin on my face and felt my adrenaline spike. I checked my watch as we passed by Fleet Feet. I was suddenly doing half-marathon race pace. I consciously slowed down. I knew the big downhill on Lumpkin was coming, and I was given permission by Coach Mark to take that mile 15-30 seconds faster than race pace (and the subsequent mile with the zoo hill 15-30 sec slower) but I didn’t want to over do it. I brought my pace way back and relaxed on that beautiful Lumpkin downhill, never letting my legs or my pace totally get away from me. I felt really good, really relaxed, and was having so much fun. As we approached the turn into the park, I saw Dianne ahead, slowing down and stopping on the side for a moment to stretch – she had just announced that she was pregnant, and girl was still running this half! I gave her a big smile and a wave and congratulated her again. I rounded the tight downhill turn, and saw friend and fellow Ingress player Chris cheering people on, his dog at his side. I gave him a wave and a smile and kept on trucking. The hill was coming.

I stayed very relaxed, and while I kept note of my pace, I didn’t obsess over it. In fact, I marveled at how little it dropped. The hill is long and annoying and rolling. It’s never over when you think it’s going to be, and even when it’s “over,” you turn onto Gran Ellen, which keeps climbing a bit. But I was fine with it, I was resigned to it, I was still happy. I barely lost pace, and with the previous mile, I really hadn’t lost anything. I took a gel at mile 5, and washed it down at the mile 6 water stop.

7:52, 8:18

The course started back downhill for a bit on Milledge, but once we passed a 10K timing station (though I never was able to find a 10K split posted anywhere – would’ve been interesting to see the official split) I knew the really fast parts were over. We crossed under the highway loop and got up to the turn onto Riverbend; that section was a little tougher than I remembered (and I remembered it being tough). I knew I was fine though, and had a lot of time and energy in the bank. The course gets lonely on Riverbend – it’s a big rolling hill past where I work, and there were no spectators to speak of, though the volunteers were great. We got up the big hill and came rocketing down the other side as I consciously tried to slow down. I went for two cups at mile 8 and accidentally got one water and one powerade. Whoops! glad I didn’t dump the latter on my head. I took a sip of it instead, realized my mistake, didn’t want it, pitched it. I burped up a bit of it a half mile later and thought I was in trouble, but my stomach settled. The course kept grinding up to College Station, where it flattened briefly. A couple of the Fleet Feet shirtless fasties were biking around the course and cheering, and I think at this point it was especially valuable – a lot of people were starting to flag on the hills. I knew the worst was yet to come.

7:59, 8:15, 8:00

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River Road is basically flat as it passes Ramsey and the backside of some fraternities, but it does start to grind up, followed by a sharp left turn up a small but steep and annoying hill onto East Campus. I’ve had a mix of experiences on River Road during various runs, ranging from totally fine and almost fast to feeling like total garbage and resenting the never-ending hill. This experience was fortunately the former. When we were nearly to East Campus, I saw the back of a Fleet Feet singlet and recognized Catherine up ahead, but something seemed off. I saw her stop to a walk, and saw the agony on her usually smiling face as I went by. Not good. I recognized that look from Big Sur when Shannon was so, so sick and bonking in the last 10K. Turns out she had the beginning of a downright nasty head cold. The worst. I felt awful for her and tried to be an encouraging presence as I pressed on.

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That turn onto East Campus – oy – but it was over soon enough. The pace was beginning to get a little grindy. I told myself to relax, that I was doing great, that I just needed to get onto Sanford. We turned onto Carlton, which goes uphill for a moment, and then onto DW Brooks/Ag Drive (a turn I forgot about, to be honest) before going into the parking lot by Coverdell and up another small hill. A bunch of runners around me drifted to a walk, and I used those sights as motivation to press onward. I could get through Sanford. I just needed to get there.

8:03, 8:01

Hitting Sanford Drive changed the energy in the air. I knew I wasn’t racing, a kick seemed silly and senseless. But I could barely contain myself. I’ve been known to hard charge finishes, even when I’m pretty gassed, and in this case, I had a lot of pent up energy to go. I kept it controlled as best I could, but it was hard. I came across Ty (who also raced Michelob ULTRA, recall) just before Sanford dipped downhill for a big crossing Cedar, and as I passed him, he yelled out “YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME” (teasingly) and I called out to him that it was time to TURN IT UP. I swear I didn’t mean to start kicking. I swear. I was flying. It was almost effortless.

7:42

The downhill on Sanford carried us to the bridge that goes over the stadium – not to mention the finish line. I looked out over the stadium, and raised my arms to get the crowds on the bridge to pump it up. I was grinning like a fool and having the best time ever.

sanfordbridge2
Don’t ask me about my expression. I have no clue.

sanfordbridge1

I took a few extra deep breaths as we went back uphill for the turn onto Hooper, the quick turn onto East Campus, and the last uphill as it turned onto Baldwin. A few people started to walk – when I passed them, they picked it back up. The fasties cheering were at the top of Baldwin and were screaming for everyone going by. I couldn’t stop smiling. Just get to Lumpkin. Get. to. Lumpkin.

And that beautiful, glorious, marvelous, WONDERFUL Lumpkin downhill… I let my legs just…go. I thought for the 10th time during that race – If I were racing this, if I didn’t have a marathon soon, I’d have sub-1:40 in the bag; but isn’t this nice? Isn’t it nice to go pretty fast and not hurt? – my legs churning beneath me. I eased off the throttle as the course flattened and turned into the Tate Center parking lot for one last little loop: inside the stadium. I spotted all three parents, as well as a few friends who already finished, including Dustin. I grinned once more.

I’ll ‘fess up: I kicked a bit. I kicked around Sanford. I looked all around me at that big, empty stadium – I had never been inside it before – and as we came around the opposite side, saw there was a big screen broadcasting video of us in the stadium. I almost laughed when I saw myself on the screen. Up ahead I saw Margeaux in her pink tank and knew I’d finish just behind her.

7:29

sanford4 sanford3 sanford2 sanford1

The clock was comfortably below 1:45 and I smiled all the way through that finish line, throwing up my arms in victory, not realizing that Lindsay was capturing an AWESOME photo of me finishing, looking as happy as I’ve been with a race in so many months.

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Lindsay took this one – it’s now one of my favorite running photos ever

Final sprint: 7:21 pace

Chip time: 1:44:25 (7:58 avg)

Post-race

roshan george me coach al

After collecting my medal, I quickly looked for parents, finding a ton of friends along the way, hearing about PRs and happy races and seeing so many smiles. I squeezed onto the sidelines of the section going into Sanford and waited for Shannon, watching Christine run in hard, crushing her PR by a LOT, with Shannon just a couple minutes behind. He had a rough race – the humidity possibly, the hills, the lack of run training, higher expectations after a better than expected half a few weeks before. He crossed the finish and immediately disappeared over by the parking deck. As I followed him over there, I saw Dustin and Catherine, with Catherine sitting on the ground, leaning over her knees and trying to breathe. I checked on her, and Dustin and I looked at each other and our frustrated and exhausted partners helplessly. We’ve all been on both sides of that situation. Just a few weeks ago, it was Shannon holding me as I sobbed after Michelob ULTRA 13.1. It’s one of the nice things about being married to a runner, honestly. The other person gets it.

After we pulled ourselves together a bit, I handed over most of my post-race accouterments (hanging onto the water) and started my cooldown. I wasn’t super thrilled having to run UP Lumpkin, but I took it super easy and it was fine. My legs were tired but not completely trashed. They felt a bit trashed after sitting down for a while, but recovered from movement.I got in a two mile cooldown and then headed to Big City Bread, near where our car was parked, for brunch with my dad, Shannon’s parents, and even Tino joined us (and he got a sub-1:35!! beast!!!). We had a great time eating and chatting, though I was starting to get VERY chilled by the end, and was glad I had brought sweats that I had put on before going for food.

Paige caught us for this photo as we were walking back to the car post-brunch.
Paige caught us for this photo as we were walking back to the car post-brunch.

The in-laws headed off to Sunday church, and my dad, Shannon, and I went back to our house, showered up, and napped (or sort of napped) before my dad had to head to the airport.

Analysis

This race was probably the biggest confidence boost of the entire cycle – and really showed me how far I had come. This was faster than my March half, which I raced knowing I wasn’t fit enough for a PR, but felt 1:45 fit (and I couldn’t even break 1:45 that day, even though I tried). This was also more than 3 minutes faster than Michelob ULTRA 13.1, which felt like garbage and I raced with all I had that day on a brutal course without enough water. The next day, my friends who had PR’d and raced hard were SUPER sore; for a couple days really. I evaluated myself carefully – I was sore, but post-hard-workout sore, not I-just-raced-a-half sore. Perfect.

I’ve been grabbing on tight to this feeling as I am now in the taper – confidence with a healthy dollop of nerves and realism. I don’t have my marathon goals lined up yet, nor a race plan, but I’ve been meditating on it a lot, letting the ideas and thoughts flow in and out but not locking into anything. I know Coach Mark and I will have a chat about that at some point very soon. But for now, I’m satisfied with focusing on tapering and looking back at all the training victories and hard workouts beaten and hard lessons learned and taking it one taper day at a time.

I hope to write a post about goals and race plan when the time comes. Perhaps I’ll have a totally-freaking-out post. I’m not sure yet. I did have a meltdown this past Sunday afternoon, but felt better later that day, and even better yesterday and today. It happens. The marathon is a beast, and it’s an overwhelming thing to consider. I know I have a PR in me. But beyond that… well…. watch this space.

Lies, Damn Lies and Finish Times: Michelob ULTRA 13.1 Atlanta Race Report

It’s a tough lesson to learn as a runner: you won’t always see the numbers on the clock that you hoped for. A lot of factors go into achieving the time you want, getting that PR, whatever your time-related goal may be: fitness, confidence, a fast course, fresh legs, fueled and hydrated body, happy stomach, good weather, and a little bit of magic.race clock

I had a lot of things going for me that Sunday morning at the beginning of this month as I prepared to toe the line at 13.1 Atlanta, prepared to throw down for my  tune-up half-marathon of the cycle. I had been acing workouts. Despite any nightmares I had leading up to the race that stated otherwise, I got to chat with my coach about a plan. We didn’t know exactly how fast I was at that point, so the plan was to race by feel. I felt super strong, especially coming off that amazing 18-miler that included the Great Race 10K at goal marathon pace. I then proceeded to stomp a 15K tempo that week and felt better doing striders at the end of a 10-mile treadmill run on Thursday than I felt the previous strider-less miles. I was raring to go.

Pre-race

Saturday morning dawned with drizzly rain, and we drove out of Athens (with all of Georgia and Alabama driving into it – they’d get the worst of the foul weather; the game got absolutely poured on. Atlanta and west were significantly drier) into Atlanta to hit up packet pickup in Buckhead and then crash at our friends Charlie and Jill’s house, watching football, hydrating, eating lovely carbs, and relaxing with them and their puppy and kitty. Ideal pre-race plan, if you ask me. We hit the hay early for a 4:15 alarm, laying out all our stuff and preparing for torrential rain (spoiler alert: didn’t actually happen).

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Current favorite day-before lunch: Panera’s Kale Caesar + autumn squash soup
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Pre-race oatmeal and a kitty for company

We got to the race site SUPER early and parked in the mall area, about a 2/3 mile walk to the start area. As I got out of the car, I realized why the shorts part of my Oiselle bum wrap hadn’t been feeling right all morning – the right inner seam had split in the middle. Shit. I didn’t have a sewing kit (or skills) nor backup bottoms with me in the car (note to self for future: bring back-up EVERYTHING in the car. Neurotic? Maybe. But also prepared). I put on extra extra EXTRA lube and hoped for the best. I wasn’t going to let a split seam ruin my race if I could help it.

Donning trash bags (that we ended up not super-needing but were briefly helpful against the wind), we walked to the start, which was very quiet for a while. This wasn’t a huge race. I think there were on order of about 1500 finishers total for the half + 5K. We noted with a grimace that the finish seemed to be an uphill, but oh well, everything hurts at that point.

I’d like to take this opportunity to show you the course elevation profile as it appears on the website.

elevation

Call me crazy, but that doesn’t look too bad. I looked carefully at the scaling and it didn’t seem awful – rolling hills, but I could use that as a positive. Having raced 4.5 years in Pittsburgh and now living in Athens, rolling hills didn’t scare me. The Georgia Half route in March was fairly hilly, and I ran the 1:45 I knew I was fit for that day, despite the hills. I could work these, too. I was banking on it. And on this day, I was way more fit than back in March.

About 20-25 minutes before the start, I headed out on my quick warmup mile, out and back along the sidewalk where runners were flooding in. One more corral bathroom break (there was a porto right there! Still not sure it wasn’t staff only, but no one stopped me) and finding Ty from Athens Road Runners, we lined ourselves up in Corral B and I squeezed near the 1:40 pace group, eyeing them quietly but knowing I would still follow my feet, my heart, and my breathing. That was pretty much the last moment I saw that group.

The Race

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Note that the bird in front here is NOT me 🙂

The air horn sounded and we had the usual accordion effect before we finally got across the start. I started my watch a good few seconds before crossing the mat, and we were off! I tried not to watch hawk too badly, feeling things out. It had been raining all weekend but wasn’t really raining at the start – the humidity hung in the air and I hoped that wouldn’t be a problem. The race had advertised on its website that there were 11 water stations (foreshadowing moment: I didn’t bring my own water because I figured this would be plenty) and I knew I’d be drinking and dumping water on my head at every station to account for the muggy low to mid-60s weather.

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The race start was 7:00 so it was still very dark, and I carefully navigated my footing, using the early downhill to get some momentum and find my breathing. The mile clicked in 7:37, and I tried to restrain my giddiness. I wasn’t on LAP mode, just my overall time, in an effort to feel things out. As the first mile ended and we were about to round under an overpass, I saw the first aid station. Excellent! I thought. So they’ll be nearly every mile, this is great. Oh. Bless my own heart.

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Immediately upon turning under the overpass, we headed up the first signifcant hill. It wasn’t terrible, it was a long, slow grind, but over soon enough and I tried to lock back into a rhythm and even out my breathing. The mile 2 mark came and went, and we entered mile 3, which was the worst mile as far as the longest, steepest hill according to my data. It knocked the wind right out of me, and it’s probably at that moment that my early confidence in this race took the biggest hit. I also still hadn’t seen another water stop as we entered into mile 4, and it wasn’t until 4.2ish that a water stop actually showed up. Okay, I thought, Maybe they’re backloading the water. That’s dumb, but it’ll do. Maybe. 

The problem with this course was the setting. This is the third year, and not just the third course for this race, but third different area of Atlanta they’ve hosted it in. For those familiar, it’s in the northwest corner of the city, near Cobb Galleria. We were essentially running through office parks, and there were tons of out-and-backs and little repeated loops, so not very scenic. And as with most office parks, there were hills. EVERYWHERE. And not rolling hills, but sudden and steep ups-and-downs. These were not workable hills – these were momentum-and-rhythm-destroying hills. The cumulative effect was startling, but mid-race I didn’t really realize how bad it was until it was too late.

8:04, 8:24 (seriously, the worst hill), 7:57, 8:08

The rain began somewhere around 5-6, but it was light and hardly noticeable – the humidity dominated the day. Right around the 10K mark there was a short-ish out and back that made for a double water stop. This was the first time I saw Shannon, and we caught a quick high five (he’s still dealing with metatarsalgia, but was running the race for fun and totally dominated the course in 1:53, I was SO proud of him, especially with almost no running and so much biking lately, on such a rough course). I gleefully sucked down water at the first out-and-back stop, drinking half and dumping half on my head to cool myself – I had taken my first gel during mile 5 so I was finally getting to wash it down. On the way back I reached for a second cup and completely fumbled it, cursing aloud (sorry, volunteer – not your fault). I needed that water since it was becoming clear that there wasn’t nearly as much as advertised. With this out and back, there had been 4 in the first 10K, with 2 being within a quarter mile of each other.

After the cup fumble, we headed up another crushing hill and I felt my pace just tank. I really wanted to walk. Honestly, I kind of wanted to quit. But I convinced myself I should at least feebly jog, that it wouldn’t destroy my pace as much, and surely the hills would get better soon and I could make up some time.

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We did have one nice out and back that crossed the Chattahoochee, and I tried to enjoy the view and the relative flat (well, nicely rolling) and get back into a rhythm and a better mental place. I caught Shannon for another out-and-back high five at this point. He looked strong but I knew the course was affecting him, too. I tried to put on a happy face. Moments before seeing him at that point, too, I noticed another Oiselle runner and grinned big. Seeing her and then seeing my husband within seconds did give me a great mental boost, I have to say. At some point in this vicinity was another water stop…and if I recall right, that was the last water stop on course. Mile 10 was a horrific hill, and I tried to ignore the 9:00+ time that flashed up on my watch.

7:59, 8:21, 8:03, 8:21, 9:07

I did notice from fairly early on and throughout the race, I didn’t have a lot of female company where I was running. About halfway through I started running near and yo-yo’ing with a couple girls, but it was mostly guys around me, which before the race started going very badly for me, gave me a nice mental boost. With such a small field, maybe I could have a competitive finish? This thought drifted away as the hills stacked up.

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Dat downbeat, tho. So attractive.
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Suffer level: high

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Ty and I caught up to one another around this point as well, heading back up the mile 1 hill we had been able to go down, and hopping onto a trail by the river for a short piece. We yo-yo’d a bit and complained about the course and lack of water, but it was motivating to try to match pace with him. At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, I bitched once more about the lack of water and then turned it on a bit and passed him for the rest of the race (he had Chicago the following weekend so wasn’t supposed to race hard).

The last 5K absolutely broke me. I had taken my second and final gel around 9-something, expecting a water stop at any moment. There were zero – I REPEAT, THERE WERE ZERO – water stops in the final 4+ miles of the race. That is COMPLETELY unacceptable under ANY circumstances, let alone a hilly, humid race in Atlanta (I sent a strongly worded email to the race organizers about this fact). We headed out on one final out and back on a big hill – which was basically as a result a double down-and-up, and as we passed the hill I knew we’d be heading to right after, I said aloud, “you have GOT to be shitting me.” I pushed as much as I could on the downs and grinded the ups. I saw Shannon and the Volee runner one more time, though Shannon was deeply focused and possibly in the pain cave, so he didn’t see me (nor the vehement thumbs-down I flashed his way to sum up my general feelings at that moment). Heading up that hill we previewed, I shouted out loud as a course marshal drove by, “Where is the friggin’ water???” Not a proud moment, but I was I think justifiably pissed about the water situation.

And I walked. For no more than a tenth of a mile (probably less), in the middle of a half-marathon, not at a water stop, for the first time in YEARS, I walked. Just to the top of the hill and then I slid back in and kept my pace under 9:00, but still.

8:29, 8:45

Just a mile and change to go, I turned it on as best I could, trying to kick on a long downhill before the uphill finish knocked me out. My watch had been ahead of the mile markers for a while (the typical amount for GPS) but I clicked mile 13 right at the marker – possibly due to multiple overpasses. 7:39. First mile on pace since…the first mile. The road sloped back uphill and I gritted my teeth, feeling like I was running through sludge. It felt like I was running a 10:00 pace but apparently I managed to sprint 7:09 pace up the hill. I ran through the line and hit stop across the second mat, thankful for a small field so I could wobble around as I tried to find my balance.

Finish time (chip): 1:47:45 (8:12 average)

Post-race

Oh. So ugly. I stumbled toward the volunteers, waiting for one to untangle her medals before stumbling toward another one who was ready. I grabbed a water, a banana, and some protein recovery squeeze pack thing (that was actually pretty tasty) and tried to figure out where to go to wait for Shannon, whom I knew was no more than a couple minutes behind me.

I neared the finish photo area and wanted to wait for him there. They weren’t monitoring that area very much or telling people to move along as in big races, so I took that moment to sit on the curb, and sob. I looked up through bleary eyes at another finisher who came up to me – a man who said I ran a great race and looked really strong on the hills, that I was an inspiration. I thanked him in earnest, but I didn’t believe him. Not right then.

A few minutes later, I saw Shannon gathering his medal and post-race food and when he spotted me, I broke down once more and he came over and hugged me tightly. I cursed the course. I cursed the lack of water. I cursed my weakness in walking, in giving up, in my time. I had felt so strong and prepared and ready to crush it, and here I was, 7+ minutes off my PR, and almost 3 minutes slower than I was in March, when I was far less fit.

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Trying to smile through it

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Before I got too cold, and after squeezing in our finishers’ photos, I forced myself to get on with my cool down. Ty managed to get a real smile and laugh out of me as he saw me running out as he was walking back to his car, shouting, “Shut up! Stop it right now! What are you doing??” in a teasing tone. I laughed and reassured him I was just running a quick cool down mile.

It took me a while to be willing to post my data. Or to post on social media about the race. But once I did, the flood of support from friends and my coach came in. The Oiselle team ladies were amazing, and it was a great moment when I learned that a fellow bird broke the tape at the race.

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She also commented on the challenging nature of the course, and when I looked at her results and her race history (the internet is forever – sorry!), I saw she was a good 5+ minutes off her best as well. I began to think, So maybe it wasn’t just me.

Remember that course elevation from the site I posted earlier? Here’s the elevation from Strava:

elevation-strava

I posted the link to my Strava data on twitter, and got an “uh WTF?!” response from my coach at the elevation. It was no joke. To compare, the pretty darn hilly Georgia Half in Atlanta this March had just under 600 ft elevation gain over 13.1 miles. This course? About 1,100 ft of elevation gain. That’s a little ridiculous. And more than enough to explain why my fitness and effort didn’t spell the time on the clock I had been hoping for.

We headed back to Charlie and Jill’s to get cleaned up and share our woes. I discovered that yes, I chafed VERY badly from the ripped seam (OUCH), but I got into comfy clothes and some Vaseline helped it from getting rubbed raw throughout the day.

My wounds may have been raw, but the more time I had to think and reflect and talk, the better I felt. Shannon and I stuffed ourselves on breakfast food at a great Jewish-style deli in Atlanta and made the drive home (watching the flood of traffic *out* of Athens this time). We downloaded about the race in detail: the course, the water, those hills, the weather, how we felt, how it stacked up against other challenging courses, the routes we run in Athens. And I started to feel a little proud of my fight.

And then, later that evening, I checked my official results at last…

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3rd in my age group, and 14th woman overall??? I was floored.

And the truth that I had started to come to terms with as the day went on, finally, in the end, washed over me – this race wasn’t about the number on the clock, not really. It was about how I fought through the odds and still gave it my all with what I had that day, in the conditions I ran through, the cards I was dealt.

If that realization wasn’t enough, the next week of training hit me over the head with it: I ran 6 sore but happy recovery miles Monday after work with the Fleet Feet group, 9 gorgeous autumn morning miles with my usually crew (George and I running easy and commenting on how fantastic we felt – my legs felt inexplicably spectacular), and destroyed a 12 mile workout with 4×1200 at 10K pace on Thursday, feeling strong and free. On Sunday, after wussing out on Athens Road Runner’s usual Saturday’s run due to rain (there had been calls for t-storms but I don’t think they ended up happening during the run), I joined the Rogue Runners on their long run for my 18-miler, and got the little push outside my comfort zone that I probably needed, and walked away sore but victorious.

Including this week, there are five weeks to race day. Each workout is giving me confidence. Each one is teaching me something, getting me a little stronger. That race was a hard workout – my legs will attest to that. And now I’m just hungry for more.

Halfway dreams

So, I’m halfway through this marathon training cycle. I keep waffling between feeling strong and confident – on my way to being prepared – and being completely freaked out.

So, about normal.

Will I ever stop sweating, though?
Will I ever stop sweating, though?

As with any training cycle, there have been ups (great, great ups) and downs (deep, dark, basement downs). Within the last week, the race dreams (nightmares? Not true race nightmares – yet – but not great signs if I’m at all prescient) have started. Last week, I dreamt I ran a 3:50 and was royally pissed to have worked so hard and only PR’d by two minutes (bratty? Possibly), and then my coach was asking to see my data and I couldn’t find it.

This weekend, I dreamt that I was at the start line of my upcoming half-marathon – the one that I’m supposed to race rather than run as a workout – and realized I had never gotten to talk race plan/strategy with my coach, and was full on freaking. The race never occurred in the dream, at least I don’t remember it, but not a very comforting moment.

In real life, things have been going a lot better. A few weeks ago, I had one of the worst (if not The Worst) long runs I have ever had. 17 miles of pure torture. I woke up with a less-than-stellar attitude, feeling a wave of dread. It had been a brutal week, hot and with a tropical air mass sitting over the south. It was relentlessly humid. My workouts that week had been brutal. And now I had to run 17 and it wasn’t any better. It felt awful from the first step, and I had maybe a half mile here and there of feeling less than shitty, but the rest was terrible. When I was running the last 3 miles out-and-back, I got to mile 15 (half a mile from where I needed to get to before turning around), sat down on a wall, and cried. Pulling myself together, I finished the last bit of out and turned back, forcing myself to keep going to the end, even speeding up by about a minute in the last mile. When my watch beeped the last mile and I hit STOP, I folded over and cried. It probably took me a good 10 minutes to pull myself together again.

The only bit of comfort was that everyone else was dying out there, too. George cut his run short by 3 miles. Lindsay and I took a couple walk breaks in the middle (she gutted it out and finished her planned 11). Will cut his loop short. Everyone looked like they were in the middle of a death march. We had had it.

But since then – some days by degrees, and others by huge leaps – it got better. We got stronger. The tropical air mass moved away. The temperatures started to drop, and the humidity became less than crushing (after weeks and weeks and weeks of 95% humidity on a daily basis, 85% feels downright heavenly, I tell you what). The following week I aced an 800 repeat workout and bossed a 14-mile cutback long run on a beautiful day. True, I cut short my Friday run (did like 2.3ish when I had 4 planned) because it felt like garbage, but one bad run for the week, instead of only one good run the previous week? Definite win.

The following week…I may have gotten a little cocky. With an early morning meeting on Thursday, I flip-flopped my Tuesday/Thursday and did my long track workout Tuesday morning instead. There’s usually some group workout out at Spec Towns most early mornings, but on Tuesdays, apparently it’s the Shirtless Fasties (with Coach Al – this isn’t their official name, just what I call them. Also Dustin was wearing a shirt, so it’s not a firm rule). They were cruising 800s, one dude cranking out 2:20 splits (and making it look beautifully effortless), a second group was doing probably 2:50-3:00, and I think a third group was out there as well, probably just over 3:00. I had 1600s at 10K pace on tap.

Yeah, I fucked up. I hadn’t paced mile repeats in a while, and didn’t have a good feel for my 10K pace. I felt really good on the first one but apparently I was speeding up each quarter and wound up about 14 seconds fast. I tried to slow down on the next two, but was still about 8-10 seconds fast on each. I gave it all up on the last one (stupidly), and as the 3:00ish 800 group came roaring up beside me in the last 60 meters of both our intervals, I sped up and hung on the back of the pack to sprint in to the finish.

Well, my legs and feet were crampy as HELL for the cooldown (and my calves had been yelling at me earlier anyhow because I’d done calf raises Monday for the first time in many weeks). When I posted that workout, oh boy, my coach chewed. me. out. And rightfully. I was racing in that workout, especially that last one, which was foolish.

Spoiler alert: sleeping in calf sleeves doesn't actually fix everything
Spoiler alert: sleeping in calf sleeves doesn’t actually fix everything

I foam rolled and hydrated and stretched and rested, and then was ready to crush my next workout on Thursday. I was under strict instructions to bag it if I was struggling (which I defined as “more uncomfortable than comfortably hard,” and Coach Mark agreed to that definition). Despite humidity, janky sidewalks, and darkness (who turned off the lights? Oh yeah. It’s fall), I felt unstoppable for 7 miles with 5 at goal marathon pace, nailing each one a little faster than goal.

The runner's selfie.
The runner’s selfie.

I’m once again back to traveling too much – over Labor Day weekend that same week, I was in Cleveland to see my parents and a few friends, and had 17 miles on tap with 5 at race pace.

5 a.m., eating a bonk breaker, sitting on the floor of my former bedroom.
5 a.m., eating a bonk breaker, sitting on the floor of my former bedroom. #glam

My saintly mother got up at 5:30 am and drove me into the middle of nowhere Cleveland suburbs to drop me at my start point in pitch black darkness (I ran without headphones, and with headlamp and tail blinkie on a very, very quiet road). She met me at 9.5 for a water refill and towel off, and a half mile later, I pushed through 5 miles at race pace in rolling hills. I was grateful for the shade and for conditions that felt a little better than Georgia had felt all summer (though I know folks who live in Ohio were unhappy about the weather. Pittsburgh, too – sorry for bringing the heat and humidity up north with me, guys!).

17miles

On Labor Day itself, I met up with running friend and former neighbor Liz for 9 beautiful miles full of chatting about life and work and school and BQs and triathlon and stories. And we only ran a hair too fast in places.

liz and me

I’ve started to break in my marathon shoes (or hopeful marathon shoes anyhow) – I at least upgraded to the Brooks Launch 2! Just a couple runs in, but I’m already in love. They’re smooth and springy and just cushy enough, with a perfect arch wrap. Plus, they’re pretty to boot.

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Boston Marathon registration opened last week, and I was once again infected by Boston Fever. I go back and forth between feeling confident that I’ll get there someday, and thinking that I’m kidding myself. Like that tempo run last week that I had to cut short because I couldn’t manage half-marathon pace on a crappy treadmill in the shitty med school campus gym after work (sleep won in the morning, and Ramsey at 5 pm is insanely crowded). Or that one crappy-feeling half-mile rep during 9×800 on the road (track was closed – it was annoying. And don’t even get me started on how my watch misbehaved halfway through. We’re just barely on speaking terms again). Or how it still feels hard to hold 9:00 during a 20-miler. But then I think of all the other miles I’m stacking up. Those effortless feeling marathon-pace tempo miles. I’m putting hay in the barn. I’ll keep working.

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Hay in the barn, or GU in the drawer?

Two months away from the race, I know I still have a ways to go, but I’ve already come so far. And in two weeks, I get my first real indicator: racing 13.1 at Michelob ULTRA Atlanta. I should probably make sure to carve out time with my coach to discuss race strategy. 😉

The journey of marathon training

I was talking to a couple pals on twitter the other week about what makes someone a marathoner (actually, the topic at hand was what makes someone call themselves an ultrarunner, but the topic extends). For me, if any person who has traversed 26.2 miles with a bib on asks me this question, I respond, “you! You are a marathoner!”

But as that conversation went on, I wondered about my own response. I’ve called myself a marathoner off-handedly. But I’m more likely to simply define myself as a runner. Yes, I’ve completed three marathoners (trained for four, having DNF’d Marine Corps in 2013 – still a frustrating blemish on my record, but one I suppose every runner has to experience at least once). But am I a marathoner? By the aforementioned definition I’d give to anyone else besides me, yes.

We’re all toughest on ourselves, runners in particular. We look at great tempo splits and wonder why we didn’t push a bit harder on that last one. We cross a finish line with arms up in victory and 10 seconds later are already imagining our next PR. We run a half-marathon between our 26.2 treks and when people ask about our race – “you ran a marathon this weekend?” – we respond, ‘oh, no, just a half.”

Chatting with runner pals and runner acquaintances lately, talking about our fall goals and what’s next and mentioning my next marathon, I’ve been asked more than once if I like marathons. I never really know how to answer. As with anything else running-related, sometimes it’s a yes, sometimes it’s a no. Most times it’s a mix. I love marathon training. I love the structure, and how hard it is. I love the gains I see. I love pushing my limits, even if I fall apart (not that I enjoy falling apart, but that run you have after falling apart? The one you’re sure is going to be the worst run of your life and instead is a major breakthrough? There is nothing like that). I love shattering PRs at shorter distances along the way, feeling crazy strong because of the miles and miles and miles I’m stacking up in the weeks leading up to 26.2. But ask me how I feel at mile 22? It’s not a pretty place. It’s a dark, ugly, awful place.

Marine Corps Marathon, October 2013. Not long before I dropped out from foot pain.
Marine Corps Marathon, October 2013. Not long before I dropped out from foot pain.

And yet, there’s something magical about that, too.

Philadelphia Marathon, November 2012
Philadelphia Marathon, November 2012

So what do I want out of the marathon? I want to master it. Perhaps that’s foolish: the marathon is a beast. It’s an absolute monster. It can break you down in ways you can’t even fathom, even if you’ve run one (or more) before. But I want to feel – even just once – that I came out of a marathon victorious. That I beat it. That I found a way to get past that dark place and executed a plan almost perfectly. It’s a lot to ask. A lot of it comes down to training and discipline and diet and rest. It also comes down to weather and course and conditions and luck. The stars have to align.

Mastering a race means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me – this runner, this distance, this time in my life – it means to qualify for Boston. I want Boston so badly I can taste it. I think about qualifying for Boston – I think about running Boston – pretty much every single day. I’ve been hungry for it for a couple a years now, but the quiet, occasional thoughts, the dreamy sighs, the “what ifs” and “wouldn’t that be cools” grew from noncommittal to something I just have to have. Goal-setting is tricky, and we all have to acknowledge that we won’t always reach the goals we set, and often we’ll get something else out of the journey – something we didn’t expect. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach for the stars.

Air Force Marathon, September 2014. I may have cried moments after the finish - frustrated disappointment, missed goal, ridiculous pain - but I know this was a race to be proud of.
Air Force Marathon, September 2014. I may have cried moments after the finish – frustrated disappointment, missed goal, ridiculous pain – but I know this was a race to be proud of.

I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement from friends (including extremely knowledgeable ones when it comes to running) and family. I’ve got the shorter distance PRs that spell BQ potential. Since my first half-marathon in November 2010 and my 10th in May 2014, I shaved almost 30 minutes off my PR time, going from 2:10 to under 1:41. Between my first completed marathon in November 2012 and my second completed marathon in September 2014 (with an injury-related DNF in between), I chopped 25 minutes off my time. With a 3:52 PR, I have a ways to go before I break 3:35 (the BQ standard for my age group), let alone do so by enough to actually get into Boston given the registration process. Potential isn’t enough. I needed experience. I needed a plan.

In the spring, I ran Big Sur for a couple reasons: one being – it’s an amazing experience and a beautiful race I wanted to run at some point in my life; another being – get another 26.2 under my belt with (almost) no time pressure, get more experience, and get more than one marathon into my schedule in a 12-month period for the first time in my running career, something I know will be required for me to BQ at some point.

Just before Big Sur, I enacted the other big part of my plan. I reached out to my friend Mark and asked him if he would be my coach. I think he probably knew this was coming. 🙂 For an extremely reasonable set of fees, and following a detailed questionnaire to get to know more about me as an athlete (my running history, injury history, goals, goal race, cross training preferences, time limitations, speed workout experience, and other questions), Mark outlined a plan for me. We made some tweaks (I wanted more strength training, and to make sure I got to go to my Monday night group runs, for instance), and then fleshed out the details. We could have stopped there, but I knew I needed more to really nail my goal in the long term: Mark is also remotely coaching me, checking in on my workouts, answering my (tons and tons and tons) of questions throughout, and will make tweaks to the plan as life may require. He’s also there to kick my ass if I’m slacking or talk me down if I’m pushing too hard.

My basic training week looks like this. Note that this is highly specialized for me as an athlete; mileage/results may vary, as always.

Monday: double run, including evening group run (one run is shorter than the other), strength

Tuesday: tempo run (ranging from 15K to marathon paces, depending)

Wednesday: strength and core

Thursday: speedwork (ranging from standard track work like 800s, 1200s, mile repeats, etc., to easy runs that include late mile strides)

Friday: short run, yoga/core

Saturday: long run

Sunday: full rest day

The plan is on a lovely google spreadsheet, and sometimes I look at it and think, “BRING IT ON, LET’S DO THIS.” And other days I kind of think I’m going to wet my pants. But that, in a nutshell, is marathon training.

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I’m just over two weeks in. So far I’ve nailed three speed workouts, survived a super-humid 800 repeat workout, managed 14 miles on the treadmill in Arizona on family vacation without wanting to kill myself, and run with as many friends as possible to get as much joy as possible out of every mile. I’m not going to enjoy every step of training – as I’m not going to enjoy every step of the marathon. But I want to savor the journey. I want to know that, when I get to that starting line on November 14 – whether I feel ready to BQ, or take a step closer, or if I know it’s not my day and I just need to give what I have that day – I want to know that the journey wasn’t wasted. That it isn’t all hanging on those few hours on the course. That I’ll be back for more, because I love it.

Who's excited?!?
Who’s excited?!?