Category Archives: goal-setting

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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Never easy

“I just want one thing to be easy.”

I’ve been saying this a lot lately. In the last several weeks, a lot of Hard Things have piled up. Two deaths in March. Major work deadlines, for both Shannon and myself. Running and training rough patches – I’ve had this strange thing going on with my foot (which seems to be managed, though I fully plan on taking a month off post-marathon to let it get to 100%), and Shannon’s work-life balance has been so heavy on the “work” end that running has been a burden more than a release. And we bought our house, a weeks-long buildup of paperwork and endless emails and calls and panic right up until the very last moment: the lender only gave us the information to wire our downpayment to closing about two hours before our closing appointment. And then we didn’t have enough money for the wiring fee (oops). A co-worker saved me, and multiple Bank of America reps were incredibly kind and patient in the final days as we begged them to move money faster, even though they weren’t even our lender.

In the end, closing on the house was easy and relatively painless: the closing attorney was very kind and funny, and explained things to us first-time homeowners very well. And our realtor got us a cutting board as a gift. And, since we bought the house we’ve been renting the last 2+ years, we didn’t even have to move. We were pretty excited to have the whole process complete, to actually own our house.

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So excited that I didn’t notice until later that I had closing-appointment-chocolate-bowl-chocolate in my teeth for this photo.

The last few weeks of training, especially the taper, so often are rocky and fearful. You begin to second-guess everything you’ve been doing leading up to this point. Wondering if you are ready. Wondering if you are fit enough. Wondering if you could have done more, or should have done less. Wondering if that foot is going to behave, or blow up. Wondering if that missed 20-miler, that missed week of training, is going to be make-or-break. Even when you know, logically, that you’re as fit – more fit – than you’ve ever been.

Having a little extra down-time does not negate all the good work leading up to it, and the work after. Sure, things have felt harder, but that’s okay. The first several weeks of training felt so effortless, uncomplicated. Maybe this would have been detrimental. Maybe it would have had me go into the race with too much confidence and not enough respect. The marathon must always be respected. You have to be confident, but you also have to brace yourself. Prepare yourself for the fight.

I ran the Chick-fil-A half at the beginning of this month as part of a 16-mile day, mostly easy/by-feel, but with pace miles at hte end (either up to 5 miles @ MP or 3 miles @ HMP). It ended up being mostly the latter, primarily because the course is just rough. I did a good job really ignoring my watch, occasionally catching a split when I had a Pavlovian response to the sound of my watch beeping. I was mostly hanging in the 8:30s, slowing a bit later as the hills began to stack up. I saw so many friends volunteering and cheering, and it was fun to run an event without having to really suffer and push the whole time. It’s a hilly course, but it also goes through some of the prettiest parts of Athens.

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Around mile 8, during a very short respite from some of the worst hills, I found Margeaux, who had hoped to break 1:40 at this race, but who was having a rough day – similar to the day I had last AthHalf when I thought I could squeak a 1:40 half four weeks after Erie. We pulled each other along up East Campus and cutting through Five Points, and I tried to refocus her energy and thoughts on the pretty course and the gift of running. But it’s hard to pull yourself out of that dark place once you’re in it. I could hear her breathing beginning to relax when the course flattened on Milledge, and as I neared the 10-mile mark and had to pick it up, she told me to go. Shannon found me a few times, and I gave him a huge smile each time. I finished strong and with a big smile. My foot tightened up post-race but I got it to loosen up once more to run a couple cooldown miles with Chrissy (who beasted the course at marathon pace for a 1:38) and Justin (recently post-BQ-marathon and pacing 1:30).

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Probably the most encouraging moment of the last segment of htis training cycle was my last 18-miler, my last real long run. I ran the first 7ish solo and was hyper-focused on my foot: how it felt, whether it was hurting, whether I was altering my gait, how tight my left side felt overall. I linked up with friends for the next four and began to relax, and by the time we go to the Luv Run for Dustin and Catherine, who had just gotten married the night before, and whose marriage we’d be celebrating that night at their party/reception, I was having fun and feeling good. I just had a couple miles left at the very end of the group run to get to 18, and felt strong to the finish.

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Bride and her #BAMFL sisters! She looked so adorable in the Oiselle runaway bride dress! I love these ladies.
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Just a few of the friendly faces at the reception – we all clean up pretty good!

The weekend of this wedding was a whirlwind, since the very next morning, I was up at 6 am to catch a 10:30 flight home to Ohio for Passover. As it turned out, I woke up to a text message from Delta alerting me my flight had been cancelled in the wake of major service disruption from that Wednesday’s storm system. I rebooked on American, with a hop through Philly, had that flight delayed when I got to the gate, rebooked my Philly connection, and rebooked again when I found an earlier flight to a different airport. I was about 5 hours late to arrive in Cleveland based on my original itinerary, but I made it. I saw both of my parents, my 96-year-old grandfather (who still walks almost every morning – he’s my hero), and got in two runs, including a mile repeat workout on the roads and in the rain. I saw three deer during my warmup; they were maybe 10 feet from me, and when I paused my watch to look at them, they looked at me, regarded me a few seconds, then resumed eating, unafraid.

The marathon is never easy. There is no marathon without fear. But I am not doing something new, not doing anything I have not done before. I know what I am capable of. I am aiming for a BQ, but I am a BQ marathoner. That 3:34 was not a fluke, and it’s not gone and done. I need to improve my time, but I already have that capability inside me. I have to reach in and dig it out once more. I have to be ready to fight. I have to be prepared to walk across hot coals for as long as I think I can stand it–and then do it a little more. When workouts felt hard – a half-marathon pace workout a couple weeks ago that felt like hard work, and not the effortless floating of earlier HMP workouts this cycle – I remembered that I learned more from the experience of a workout that feels hard than one that feels easy. Nothing about that last 10K is going to feel easy. But I am ready for it.

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I’ve been lax overall lately about my “check in” entries in my training journal. Plane rides are a good time to write.

Work stress is still swallowing me whole. The Saturday of the Luv Run, I had a 90-minute appointment with my usual massage therapist (I’ve been getting weekly massages to keep my body happy these final weeks, a worthwhile “indulgence” to stay healthy), and two minutes into starting on my back, she remarked, “You are just a ball of stress.” We have a huge research symposium the Tuesday following the marathon. My race week distraction has to be set aside to get everything done that still has to be completed. I’m choosing to believe that focusing on work is helping me to maintain perspective. And I will have perspective on race weekend as well – set aside the work stuff, because it will be all-but-done at that point, and get in race mindset. We had a hectic, social activity filled Easter weekend, and now we’re spending this week as hermits, coming home from work, making and eating dinner, getting our to-do lists done, and relaxing. Quiet is a priority. Sleep is a priority. Wine and chocolate may be assisting a bit as well.

I streamed the Boston Marathon at work yesterday (very distractedly, since, yeah, very busy) and tracked my friends with the BAA app. I was over-the-moon thrilled for them, but my heart hurt. I was not there. I should be there. But the desire is greater. The fire burns hotter. I will be there.

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These ladies ran ridiculously impressive races. I know I can reach within myself to find some of that badassery and toughness.

I will make no excuses. This training cycle has been hard. Life never lets up – it never will. The marathon never lets up – that’s what makes it great. Racing the hot Erie Marathon branded me with a fire I will never lose. And this training cycle toughened me in still more ways. I have a couple more angels running with me this time.

Glass City Marathon: I’m coming for you.

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The long road

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Through the dust motes of this neglected blog – how has it been since Erie since I last wrote? – the just-finished year already seems very distant. A lot happened last year, and as I’m certain I am not the first to write, a lot about 2016 was…pretty terrible. It’s all been written and said to death (…sorry) at this point, and this is my running (and writing) blog, so I’ll try to keep my eye there, but some outside things can’t be ignored. Because running does not exist in a vacuum. It never could.

I ran two marathons in 2016, along with two halfs, and a smattering of other distances. But since running does not exist in a vacuum, it also cannot be confined to our rules of what makes a year. From November 2015 to September 2016, I raced three full marathons. I never thought in my life that I would do that. Sure, maybe run the 26.2 distance that many times in 12 months, but not race it that many times so close together. In those races, I set two big PRs, which sandwiched one crushing disappointment (which, truthfully, in the end wasn’t a terrible race time, though it felt it for every agonizing step of the last eight miles).

In July, I took a crack at my long-standing half-marathon PR (1:40:40) and didn’t quite get there, but got closer than I have in a while (just over 1:41 by gun time, but given the low-key nature of the race led me to miss the “start” command, My watch said just under 1:41 of actually racing). In October, I was really stupid and tried to race out of the gate at AthHalf to attempt sub-1:40 with a group of gals, including one who was doing it as a marathon pace run and led the charge; this was a mere four weeks post-Erie. I pulled the plug on the racing part three miles in and it was an absolute grind to the finish. I hated life. I hated running. I contemplated dropping out. I got a boost from seeing my friend Maricia about 8ish miles in (she was hurting, too, but went out to PR anyway, because she’s a badass), and in the last mile, stopped to try to help a girl who was cramping so hard she was bent over double and sobbing. She told me to go on, and I told her no. I ran alongside her for a bit, encouraging her to breath, telling her she could do this. I lost her a half mile later, I think to more cramps. I hope she finished her race with her head held high. We all have those days. I certainly was.

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Post-Lumpkin hill repeats.

I hoped to wrap up the year with a couple of short, fast efforts: I trained on hills and returned to the group track workouts to prep for the Give Thanks 8K on Thanksgiving, and later the Santa Stroll 8K in mid-December. A couple days before Thanksgiving, I had a sore throat coming on, and while I didn’t race all out at Give Thanks, I raced hard enough to bring a bad infection into my lungs and was out of running for 9 days trying to kick it. This of course also set me back on Santa Stroll, which felt great for a mile or so before a long mid-race slog, and a hard and fast finish.

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Dustin the turkey pushing me to the finish. Full on pain face. I had a cough attack after.
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The best running buddy a girl could ask for.

In between those 8Ks, despite still getting over the vestiges of the cough (which went on for weeks, as coughs have the tendency to do for me), I got in a great visit with friends in Washington, D.C., which included walking my legs off, and some running on the National Mall.

On New Year’s Eve in Ohio, I intended to race the Great New Year’s Eve race (5K) with Keeley, and though we drove the 30 minutes there, everything inside of me screamed NO and I pulled the plug at the sight of freezing rain, not wanting to mess with my fragile immune system right before marathon training. I was grumpy and frustrated at my decision, though it proved prescient: that evening, I came down with a head cold (which I shook in a few days with rest and fluids, thankfully). Getting sick five times in one calendar year is strange for me, though thankfully almost none of it came during marathon training (aside from that short cough at the end of the Albany taper). I’m hoping it’s out of my system now, and of course now that the holidays are over, I’m back to eating and sleeping better.

It seems 2016 will be remembered by many as a year marked by loss. And for me and those around me, this was definitely the case. Too many of my friends lost parents last year. My paternal grandmother passed in July at nearly 91 – it’s a hard loss, but I also know she lived an amazing life, and that she was ready to go. Harder to swallow is the loss of my stepdad’s twin brother, who was far too young, and far too sweet to leave this earth already.

But wonderful things happened, too: friends and family got married; friends had or are having babies – joys for 2017; my second nephew was born, and shortly thereafter, my brother and his family and their now two little boys moved to the east coast after years of living out west.

I didn’t write enough. I didn’t sit and reflect enough. I didn’t stay in the moment enough. Every day, every week, every month was about looking ahead to the next – about getting to that next day of work, the next weekend, the next vacation, the next travel opportunity, the next marathon – the next BQ attempt. But it shouldn’t be just about getting to the next.

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Some of the awesome and hilarious running pals that made 2016 a good year after all.

I need to savor the journey. Enjoy every moment of joy or agony, elation or suffering. I need to learn and grow, grieve and feel, push and move on. I need to write more, reflect more, listen more. I need to stop procrastinating, especially on things I know ultimately bring me joy, including writing in my training journal – not just scrambling to catch up every weekend, but writing in it each night. To write for myself, the non-running things, too. Not just invest in other writing activities I’ve accumulated lately – did I mention I joined the Athens Road Runners board of directors and am helping on communications and I’m nerdily thrilled about it? – but also write creatively, for me, for my future, for the career I keep saying that I want.

Running and writing have long been intertwined for me, and so much about them is so similar, so related. Starting up again after a break is difficult. Pacing is a challenge. When you find your stride, it’s a joy. Some days it feel amazing and effortless; other days it feels like a steaming pile of garbage. On reflection, it almost always is better than you thought it was initially.

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I’ll always remember this day, and how – while it wasn’t enough to get into Boston 2017 – I gave every last bit of what I had that day, and no one can take that victory (or my first BQ) away from me.

I need to get back to my roots, to what I love. So expect to see me around here a bit more, even just for a few brief words here and there. I want to run, to write, to live with intention. I want to give my very best to every word, to every stride, to every day. I want to set aside the doubt – to acknowledge it and work through the fear. To recognize what I cannot control, and find ways to make it work the best I can anyway. To strive. To believe. To keep trying and dreaming and working and playing. This training cycle – which began on Monday, January 2 – I will work and savor each day through April 23, when I will give everything I have at the Glass City Marathon to shatter a BQ.

Wheels up, 2017. I’m ready for you.

 

The bumpy road to Erie

In just over two weeks, I run the Erie Marathon in my second “real” attempt to qualify for Boston. The race is the day before registration opens (though to faster qualifications than I am currently capable of). It’s only two hours north of Pittsburgh, the beloved city where I used to live, and where I’m flying into. Not only do I have a few friends coming up to cheer me on, but my dad is driving in from Cleveland as well.

I’ve been largely quiet on here this training cycle. Part of it is blogging malaise – you let enough weeks and posts and ideas go by, it’s harder and harder to get going again. But it’s also been a fairly rough, emotional summer. I can’t really complain – I have it pretty good, and I have close friends and family members who are struggling with worse. But it’s unfair to compare one person’s burdens with another. We all have them.

This summer has been one bookmarked by tragedy. One peppered with breakdowns – in and out of running. The heat and humidity have been crushing, and more than once, it has crushed me. The treadmill and I have gotten very, very close – it was my friend for numerous shorter runs and workouts, and three long runs: two 18s and a 20, all with many miles at goal race pace.

In some ways, I’ve felt a little disconnected from this marathon. A lot of the time, it doesn’t feel real. Many mornings I feel like I’m going through the motions of a run or workout. I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps it’s just a result of having been marathon training what feels like nonstop since August 2015. Maybe it’s better to just go through the motions, have it all feel like routine, like normal, than to put too much weight on each workout, each day, each week. Maybe that’s what becoming a successful marathoner is. Maybe it’s just a part of me now.

A few things have started to feel real. Booking the flight made it feel real. Talking with my coach and with friends about the race makes it feel real. Thinking about how I’m going to bring my pre-race breakfast with me for the flight in, how many possible outfits I might pack, looking at where I can get my pre-race dinner, and where to eat for my post-race celebration. Figuring out when we need to head back to Pittsburgh to catch our flight. There’s a wedding between here and there – a dear high school friend, who is also a runner. My last long-ish run is on a Thursday as a result of the wedding festivities; not ideal, but it’ll do. I’ll feel better doing it at all, unlike having skipped it entirely last time before Albany, with that wicked cough I was fighting.

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The beautiful bride is third from the right – photo of (most of) the bridesmaids at her shower in late July.

The taper so far feels normal – the miles are gradually ramping down, the workouts shortening, the self-awareness to every niggle and pull heightening. All of my taper crazies are coming out. Actually, they started coming early. At the beginning of this month, on a Monday night Fleet Feet run, I felt a twinge. I had run 4 on the treadmill that morning and had 6 to run that night. I got in an extra mile just before the group run with a friend; it was warm out but there was a breeze, and the sky looked threatening all around. Athens weather can be bizarre: there will be pockets of showers. It can pour on one side of town, and be bone dry a couple miles away. Another friend of mine once remarked on observing that it was raining in his front yard, but not his backyard; I had lunch with someone and saw it raining across the street.

So we did a quick loop near the store, and it started to rain, at first very pleasantly. We remarked on how nice it felt, how it was cooling things, how neither of us had had a nice rainy run in quite sometime, a relief we would have appreciated at any point this brutal summer. Then, it started to rain harder. As we turned off a neighborhood street and onto a main road, maybe .2 miles from the store, it started to pour; we saw a sheet of rain coming at us, and as it did, we started to sprint, cutting across a parking lot and diving under an overhang, the rain stinging our cheeks as we did. We laughed at the absurdity of it as it continued to downpour for twenty-five minutes. A girl walking back with groceries sought the same shelter, and we chatted with her. Another runner friend snuck up behind us and kept us company as we all waited it out. Multiple firetrucks went to and fro. I had never seen such rain, and for so long.

At last, the rain cleared enough to get the rest of the way to Fleet Feet, and we waited with the big group a few more minutes – lightning delay. At about 6:30 (30 minutes later than scheduled), we headed out on our run, adjusting the 5-mile route because the trails and the intramural fields would be a disaster. I wound up alone a lot, but it was lovely – it had cooled off drastically, even if steam was rising from the pavement. I was coming down Lumpkin hill when my left upper hamstring felt…weird. Just…weird. Not painful and not tight, per se, but off. I thought about stopping to stretch it, but once the hill started going back up, and eventually flattening, it gradually dissipated. I rolled it out later that night at home, but otherwise thought nothing of it.

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It may not be obvious from the photo, but we were SOAKED (and pretty giddy about it).

Tuesday morning, I had 11 miles to do (with some strides), and planned to do the first half or so with friends. Within the first quarter mile, my hamstring and glute grew uncomfortably tight. I paused to stretch it out. It didn’t seem to be working. I decided to give it a mile to loosen, or I’d back it. Thankfully, it did; I was hyper-aware of it for a few miles, but eventually let it go. We got in 5.25 miles together, and as the group separated, I decided to just take a ride back to Ramsey to finish on the treadmill. During the break, it tightened again so I pre-rolled it, eased into the run with a few minutes of walking, and finished the miles without incidence. I did the strides, though did them slower than typical, exercising caution.

Wednesday isn’t a run day, so I was grateful for a rest day. I had already been in touch with my coach, and told him it seemed fine. I was rolling it and stretching it. It seemed manageable, whatever it was. We were both keeping a close eye on it. Thursday morning, I had a track workout – 5×1200 @ 10K pace. I had a couple miles of warm up (done with a friend, who also planned to do the workout with me, though at his own pace), and I had zero issues. It didn’t feel like there was anything there to even warm up. But a lap and a half into the first 1200 rep, my upper hamstring, glute, and groin seized in rapid succession on the left side. I got through the lap, then went to the side to stretch it out. I tried walking it out, jogging it out, nothing. I quickly gave up, and walked the mile back to Ramsey to hit the foam roller. Time to see a doctor.

I was able to make an appointment for the next morning, and I was fully resting until I got seen, so I skipped my Friday morning recovery miles. At that point, I felt okay, and the physician’s assistant (who was awesome and only concerned with getting me to the marathon healthy) palpated and tested my rage of motion and could find no pain points (of course). An X-ray of my pelvis showed no issues, other than minor impingement in the left hip, just my biomechanics. She prescribed me a 24-hour anti-inflammatory to take for two weeks, and a script for PT.

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I also did a little extra-special yoga for my hips that week. My cat didn’t really help.

Since I had no pain, I went ahead and ran my 20-miler the next day, with express instructions to pull the plug if I had issues (which I was fully prepared to do, clearly). I only ran the first few miles solo, running the rest with my friend Krystina (who had 18 and ran 18.5 because she is a saint who wouldn’t leave me) and a few others for parts. It was brutally hot and muggy that morning; 4 miles in when I got to the meetup point, I noted I was full on dripping already, and I was going through fluids fast. We walked. We wanted to quit. We soaked our heads and ponytails multiple times at water fountains. But we made it. It was the ultimate “time on our feet” exercise. I felt minor tightness in the hamstring/glute a few times, but never pain, even when I was exhausted and almost falling apart. Krystina truly saved me that morning.

Since then, I’ve gone to PT twice and have been diligent about my exercises, which are primarily stretches for my hamstring and hip flexor (the flexor also seemed to tighten in response to the glute/hammie tightening – not surprising), as well as exercises to strengthen my hips and glutes. The PT also wants to address my lower back posture – I have an inherited hyperextension, so I’m not leaning forward far enough and tucking my pelvis enough when I run, which leads to underactive glutes. I’ve had a couple small flare ups – I bagged some strides a week ago Tuesday because I felt the tightness, but I got the miles in. But other than that, it’s been okay. I had the shortest ortho follow-up in history today, and the PA was happy with my progress. The nurse who took me in to the exam room gave me a little lip at the start – “Have you been s l o w l y easing back into training, or have you been good and not running?” she asked. “Well, no one told me I should stop running, so I didn’t.”

Since the injury scare, even if I’ve bagged some miles and/or strides, I’ve had some serious victories. I nailed 18 miles with 12 at marathon goal pace on the treadmill the week following the hamstring scare. I had a sports massage with my usual person the next day, and she worked at my hamstring like never before.

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It was an extra good thing I got my hammie in working order the week that Kim came into town!

The morning I skipped the strides, I had to get to work by 7:30, and was to do 4 miles at the end of the day; attempt 1 was at the gym, until I discovered I forgot socks. When I got home and tried to run from there, I felt a tightness in my left heel (I had felt it a tad that morning) and it was uncomfortable enough that I stopped. I seem to have that managed as well – seems to be related to my calf. It’s not quite plantar fascia, not really the right spot, but similar. Or maybe it is PF. Who knows. Either way, it’s managed.

That was meant to be my (other) peak week – the earlier 54-mile planned week was the week my hamstring pain started, and I hoped to have that 54-mile week done this time, but alas. Nevertheless, and despite a mysterious alarm clock foul-up that led me to not be able to start my 20-miler that Saturday early, I nailed the 20, running 10.7 outside (in the heat – first few miles were bad, but then I hit a rhythm somehow) and the rest indoors. I felt so strong.

But the taper tantrums are still there. I heard someone coughing behind me during a presentation earlier this week, and I wanted to don a mask. Tuesday morning, on a very dark road and despite a headlamp, I managed to roll each ankle once – my right one hard, so hard I staggered a few steps. I gave it about a minute and decided to try running on it (I was less than a mile from home) and the pain went away and I was fine. The second time was less severe, but that time I screamed out curse words from frustration. I pulled it together at the end of the run, pushing through my strides even though I felt rather “meh” about it. The next morning at a meeting, I barely tapped my right knee on the corner of the table, and felt a blistering pain; it still felt bruised to kneel on to do my PT exercises the next day. Bubble wrap. PLEASE.

Yesterday, I got a second shot at that 5×1200 (though a shorter run overall). It was a few degrees cooler than it’s been…pretty much this entire summer. And I nailed it, each split progressively faster, the last one almost too fast (I blame the fact that I was getting crowded by ROTC kids, though their senior cadet seemed to be yelling at them to get out of lane one for me, which I appreciated).

Tomorrow, I have one last 18-miler, and next week the taper begins in earnest. I plan on spending this weekend getting organized for the wedding, for the last two weeks of training, for the last two weeks of eating well and sleeping well, for the last two weeks of getting into that mental place I know I need to be. The place I was before Chickamauga – confident, mentally prepared, with the right amount of nerves, the right amount of recognition for the task at hand. The readiness to brace myself for the effort. The fight. The race of my life – at least up to this point.

Yes, maybe it is okay that it all feels routine now. Before, I was becoming the runner ready to do this. Now, I am that runner.

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Race Report: Snickers Albany Marathon

Have you ever seen the sand mandalas made by Buddhist monks? Those intricate, colorful, geometric works of art, created so methodically over days or weeks. The process is as painstaking as it is lyrical. The beauty appears long before the pattern’s full breadth emerges. It’s the process, the ritual, the careful consideration of every breath and movement.

And then, one day, when it is completed, it is dismantled. Stirred up, poured away into nothingness. In moments, that which took so long to create is subsequently destroyed.

The marathon is like that. The marathon is preparation. It is careful, drawn out planning and ritual and routine. It is an agony and an ecstasy over weeks or months of training. And it is all for one day. One moment. A handful of small hours where the canvas can be fully seen. Where the beautiful destruction occurs. A dismantling of all that careful work – whether in the form of a successful, miraculous, magical race with perfect (or near perfect) execution; or a crumbling, a pure-grit, pure-guts experience that can never really be put into words, especially to those who have never experienced it.

Within hours, days, weeks, the memories fade. The sharpness of the pain recedes. It dulls. Did it really happen? Was I really hurting that much? Couldn’t I have run a little faster? 

Did I really give it my all?

So, friends, I am here to tell you that I did. I gave everything I had that day.

Pre-race

A few things coalesced that may or may not have led to the crumbling, the destruction. In the end, I think it was just…one of those days. A day that the pieces didn’t click. A day that my legs just weren’t with me; were not in sync with my brain, or those months of training. But perhaps my mind was off kilter from a few of these other things.

First, the week before the race, in Vegas visiting my brother, his wonderful wife, and their darling son – our sweet nephew – I got sick. It wasn’t a bad cold. I had a cough, but my energy was good. It was productive and didn’t sound good, but I slept well and hydrated above and beyond. I made the decision, in consultation with my coach and my gut, to skip my last long run in favor of letting my body rest and try to kick the bug. By Tuesday, I was back on track with my taper week runs: 7 miles that evening with 2 at marathon pace (nailed), and Thursday I ran 3 miles on the treadmill with 5x striders. That run didn’t feel as amazing, but didn’t feel bad either. Just felt…like the taper. I had some aches and tightnesses, but wrote them off to the taper. Perhaps the body wracking cough (that had dried out but was still present) was wearing out my muscles a bit. I could sometimes feel it in my hip flexors. But then again, the taper does strange things to the mind.

last run
Last run, one of the last of many rolls.

But I slept. I hydrated. I ate well. Very, very well. We left work early on Friday afternoon and drove the 3.5 hours down to Albany, a sleepy southern town, and cozied up in our enormous king sweet at the host hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, nestled by the river and directly across the street from a statue of Albany’s native son, Ray Charles. Shannon and I soaked up the river’s presence; we still miss Pittsburgh, and the running water so close by gave us a jolt of our old home on a beautiful, early spring weekend.

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Albany is also the birthplace of Ray Charles, and this statue was just across from our hotel and by the river. The sidewalk looked like piano keys, and a speaker played his music continually.

We went to iHOP and got treated by the manager to extra pancakes (for no other reason that that he knew we were there for the race) – I stuck to my usual pre-race meal that has yet to let me down. I never felt underfueled, or like I was nutritionally bonking; that wasn’t the issue.

Race morning dawned clear and cool, but with no wind or bite. 41* and calm. I stepped outside in a hoodie and sweatpants and sandals, feeling the air. I changed race outfits three times; the third time was when I discovered I had grabbed the wrong running skirt: I had mistakenly packed the one with the torn inseam (which I got chafing from when I had no choice but to run the Michelob ULTRA half-marathon in it back in October). I panicked. But I swallowed it – I switched back into my crop singlet and into the capris I had packed.

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Sparkly nails, pace band, stuff laid out. Night before ritual.

I had my standard breakfast and one that had worked well in training for sustained energy: 2/3 cup oats with some brown sugar, cooked in water, and a banana with peanut butter.

Chrissy came upstairs and asked how I was feeling and told me not to be nervous, not to pressure myself; that I had done the work and this was my moment and I should enjoy it. I grinned. Her enthusiasm was infectious. But the nerves lingered. My mental game was off – sickness, wardrobe malfunction… Some things were clicking and others were not.

We went downstairs, but I ran back up one more time to grab my arm warmers (another mistake – they were not needed). I got a photo with a lovely teammate, Regina, and we wished each other well, bubbling with pre-race excitement and nerves.

regina

In the weeks leading up to the race and at packet pickup the day before, I kept running into the 3:35 pacer, who used to live and coach in Athens. Chrissy swore by his pacing abilities – said he was a metronome (he was: he paced to a perfect 3:35:00 finish). He couldn’t get my name right, but that’s okay. I showed him my pacing plan when we found him again outside the expo the day before, and he said his would be pretty much that at least through mile 12; when I was supposed to pick it up, he would need to stay conservative. I after all was targeting a 3:32:30 – a time that would very likely get me *into* Boston (maybe. possibly). He had to run  3:35 and let his runners decide their fates. I told him I’d line up nearby for sure, and perhaps I’d stick with through mile 12 if our paces did indeed match. Even 12 miles of company is better than none.

We hustled out to the start line and I took my pre-race Gu and a final sip of water. My watch and phone had unsynced again so I had to re-pair the bluetooth, trying to do this quickly so I could start the LiveTrack and put my phone away for good. Chrissy, Krystina, and James had finished their warm up. I got hugs and fist-bumps, a far-off wave from James as I had already lined up. Shannon and I kissed. Our ritual; our good luck charm, always.

I scooted up close to the 3:35 group, got a wave from the pacer. “You ready?” I nodded. I laughed inwardly at his running skirt and red and white polka dotted compression socks. Eye catching; good for pacing.

Few announcements besides, “Marathoners turn right, half-marathoners turn left.” Over and over. No anthem. No warning.

BOOM. The cannon fired, and we began to move.

The race

Even with the nearly immediate split, things were still slow going for the first quarter mile or so. I just tried not to trip, and focused on my breathing and relaxing into the race, knowing I would find my pace soon enough. I was to run 8:20s for the first two miles, 8:15s through mile 5, then click into 8:10s through mile 12. One mile at a time.

We turned right and crossed the bridge (flat) over the river and made another right onto the Albany State University campus. It was foggy and cool. But I could tell I would be peeling off my throwaway gloves and earband within a few miles. My exposed core felt fine even in the cool air. I should have started chillier, but it was still okay. Even though I was in fleece lined capris instead of the breezy skirt I had planned, I was mostly fine.

I hung off the back of the pace group and searched for the pace. I was going a few seconds fast but felt okay, trying to relax more and save everything I had for later. But even though it didn’t feel hard – it still felt relatively easy – I noted inwardly (quiet, brain) that it didn’t feel as effortless and crawling as the first miles of Chickamauga, where I was hitting the brakes and coasting and gliding and savoring it all those first couple miles. I was searching and wandering and looking for it. You’ll relax into it. It’ll click in. Sometimes it takes a good few miles to find that happy place.

When that first mile clicked off too fast, I consciously backed off, knowing I really did want to pace this right. I let the pace group go.

I let the pace group go.

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The photographers almost exclusively caught me on downbeats. Disregard the zombie face.

We wound about the campus, and eventually ended up on a main road I recalled driving in on, and back towards the bridge and across it, soon joining back up with the half-course, with most of the half runners long gone, some walkers remaining for us to pass. We passed the second water stop, around mile 4, and as I tossed my cup, I realized I hadn’t taken a gel as planned. I shrugged this off; my stomach was still pretty full from breakfast, and mile 6 seemed like a better idea. I peeled off the gloves (and slid my hands out of the thumbholes of the arm warmers), and within a mile, the earband followed.

8:13, 8:17, 8:14, 8:10

The pace group was still within visual reach and maybe 20 seconds ahead of me. I fantasized about the later miles when I would reel them in and then pass them, waving at the pacer and saying goodbye for the rest of the race. Sayonara.

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But it was a struggle. Chickamauga felt almost effortless for a large portion of the race. This one was all focus. If my mind drifted for a second, so did my pace. It didn’t hurt and didn’t feel hard per se, not yet, but something just wasn’t sliding into place.

Perhaps it was a psych-out, but I think all marathoners know the feeling that can creep in as early as those first few miles. Today is not my day.

I focused. I redirected my thinking. I thought about my posture, corrected my arm carriage. I focused on my breathing and how it fit with my cadence; the fact that it was still very controlled. I tried to let go of the fact that the pace group was still drawing farther off. I reassured myself that they were still well within striking distance, and strike I would. Run your race. Be Desi. Be patient. Stick to the plan.

I took a gel at mile 6 and chased it at a water station. The volunteers were fabulous – I called out for water each time and they were all there for me, water vs. gatorade, and held the cups well for an easy grab. Pinch, pour, pinch, pour, toss.

The courses separated again, and the marathon entered a long, lonely stretch. So much of the course was exposed, and there was not a cloud in the sky. In truth it was a beautiful day. But the sun is merciless to the marathoner. I wished I had contacts and could run in good running sunglasses; I couldn’t pull down the brim of my hat low enough; that low, early spring, morning sun. The angle of it – right in my eyes.

8:12, 8:10, 8:09, 8:06

I was still running strong. My form was good. My breathing was great. I was fueled. But it was work. I kept my mind engaged. I saw the pacer dart into a port-o-potty, having passed off the sign briefly, and dart back out and catch up. I half-chuckled. I took my second gel around 9.5, before the mile 10 water station.

The work continued, but I felt for a bit like whenever I accidentally sped up, over-correcting a slowdown, my legs felt better. Patience, then. Your legs want to run fast. Just a couple more miles of this and you can start to let them go. Then you’ll feel in that groove. Around mile 11, I thought I had found it, and I was floating for a little while. See? It just took until now. Sometimes that happens. Now relax and enjoy. You’ll catch them. Keep running your race. You are executing. You are doing it. It’s supposed to be hard.

But the feeling quickly passed. The sun was still beating. We wound through some lovely neighborhoods peppered with stately southern homes, but shade was brief and intermittent. A few hills rolled in and out; nothing terribly significant, especially to an Athens runner, a former Pittsburgh runner.

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I recall crossing the 10-mile mat; I didn’t check my overall time, instead saying, “hello friends” and smiling inwardly, knowing things were okay, even if I wasn’t feeling as amazing as I had hoped I would at this point.  I took a gel at 13. When I crossed the half-split, I checked: 1:47:39, just 10 seconds slow of intended split. I’m okay. I’m doing this. 

8:11, 8:08, 8:10, 8:07, 8:07

Mile 13 was the pace turning point – it was when I was to drop 8:05s for a few miles, then throw down an 8:04 mile 16, before settling into 8:00 for the long haul. I was hitting it, or nearly, but as I approached mile 16, I thought to myself, Maybe I should just shoot for 8:00-8:05 to the end. Maybe I can close hard if I save myself a bit more like that. I’m not feeling this. It just isn’t right. At the mile 16 water station, I took two cups (expecting from examining course maps that there was a water station break until 19; this ended up not being the case), chasing down a gel. I sipped from both and dumped the remains of both over my head.

8:03, 8:10, 8:06, 8:06

I saw the pace group less and less as the course curved and I lost ground to them. They were pacing more aggressively than I was for the first half, and by the time I was to speed up to catch them… well…

The first time I saw my friends, who had finished the half, was around 18.6 (they tell me). I saw them up ahead, and they lifted me up. I smiled briefly, and then I gritted my teeth and told myself to fight. I could still do this. I felt my turnover pick up. Chrissy and James and Shannon were screaming for me. I rounded a curve up a little hill and I could still hear them yelling my name.

But just as fast as that feeling of strength and love washed over me, it slipped through my fingers. My pace plummeted and I felt like that lift had sapped a little extra from me – more than I could spare. Somewhere around here or there, I took another gel.

How do you explain the wall? How do you explain the day where things fall apart, where you just can’t hold it together? How do you put into words, it just wasn’t my day? Talking to a co-worker this week, I told her, “The wheels just fell off.” And she asked me, “What does that feel like?” I opened my mouth, and all the words I could not find stuck in my throat.

As Shannon put it to me, It’s where mind over matter…no longer matters.

I slowed down during the last 10K, especially miles 22 to 24, of Chickamauga. But looking back now with this perspective, that wasn’t a blow-up. The wheels didn’t fully come off. They wobbled. I wobbled. I reached for them and held them with the edge of my everything. But I held it together and brought it back – not completely, but enough. I was able to grip hard enough to steady the wobble, and to teeter-totter my way to finish.

But this. This was a slow implosion. This was a melting away of strength. This was lead and sand and jelly filling my legs. This was despair in my heart. This was my mind and heart screaming at my legs to run. Run. Go. Fight. You can do this. You trained for this. What about that crazy interval-filled 18 miler? What about that pace-hungry 20-miler where I could barely contain my speed? What about all those tempo runs? 

8:21, 8:24, 8:44 (2:44:14 split for 20 miles, 2 minutes off pace)

Krystina and Chris (and his kids – I was too delirious, though) leap frogged with the other group so I saw loving faces quite nearly every mile through the end. I communicated to them, not my day, but they never abandoned me. They kept cheering, kept encouraging. I was going to finish no matter what. And I was not going to walk.

Every time I saw them, every time I saw my husband, I wondered if I should just cry. I wondered if I should go up to them and get high fives and hugs and kisses. If I should walk for a moment and cry and tell them I loved them and today wasn’t the day I was going to BQ, but that I would still finish. But I knew that, too, was more than I had to give. Everything I had, I channeled into forward motion. I forced my eyes up and forward when I caught sight of vomit on the sidewalk, and wondered about my own gut. I reminded myself around 22 that I needed another gel.

Somewhere around mile 22, the 3:40 pacer passed me. A cry erupted from my throat in expletive form. I tried again to up my pace. Just keep up with him. You probably still won’t PR since he likely started behind you, but maybe you could squeak in near 3:40. But I couldn’t hold on. My legs refused.

The miles ticked by in agony. Miles before, I peeled off my right arm warmer, and somewhere in the last 10K, I worked to move my pace band and watch to the other wrist so I could peel off the other, securing both to my fuel belt. Sun filled my eyes. I took at least one gatorade cup in the last 10K. I was taking many double cups and dumping water full on my head and down my back. Just keep running. Just keep moving forward.

Please, just a little faster. Then we’ll be done sooner, if nothing else. Nothing. No response. At one point, my pace readout was showing 11:xx and I though to myself, They’ll think I walked. I’m not really running this slowly. And I’m not walking. I will not walk.

8:56, 9:13, 9:25, 9:38, 9:55

My watch clicked my 25, and what seemed like ages later, I crossed the mile 25 marker. I tried to push. You can do anything for a mile. I picked up briefly, ready to gut it out to a gritty finish, but my legs once more deflated, gave up on me, stopped responding. I wanted so badly to walk. I remembered Air Force, my anger at myself for walking even in the final mile. I wouldn’t do it. Keep going. I negotiated. I thought of how many laps of a track I had left. How little that could seem – and yet here and now, felt enormous. I felt like I hadn’t seen my husband or friends in ages. I felt like the finish was never coming. I kept my death march. The course narrowed into a chute and turned past a train station and into it, throwing in a 90-degree turn that made everything inside me scream.

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But mercifully, the course curved and went down, and finally, on a narrow path and chute, there was the banner. Everything you have. Right now. There was a woman in pink ahead of me with whom I had been jockeying for miles, who was also heavily suffering and had been walking on and off. We were both sprinting, silently pushing each other, driving each other to the line and across it. I don’t think I caught her in the end, but it was what I needed. I flew across the line and nearly collapsed.

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9:06; 7:37 pace final sprint

Chip time: 3:43:19 (8:32 average)

Post-race

Volunteers swarmed, but all I saw was Shannon. I gasped and stumbled and landed in his arms. I don’t really recall how a medal wound up around my neck, but Shannon said it happened right away. I was wrapped in a thermal sheet. He walked me to food and water and gatorade. A sob ripped from my throat. At first, it wasn’t even despair. Not yet. It was the last vestige of any strength. A primordial scream. A barbaric yawp. I sipped at the gatorade. He offered be the bagel and half banana he grabbed. Oranges, I breathed, and he walked me there and I devoured the orange third.

He walked me around, and the physical pain finally released the other pain. The one I still feel pounding at my chest. The one that has been simmering in my guts since the race first began to spiral downward. The failure. 

I couldn’t do it. He walked me around, up and down along the water. I asked where everyone was, and he said they were all cheering near the finish, but were probably giving us (me) space. The physical pain would overwhelm me for a few minutes, and I’d breathe, and we’d walk, and I’d almost laugh at the absurdity of it all. Not many things are as absurd as the voluntary pain of  a marathon. But then a fresh wave would hit. The crushing disappointment. I distracted myself by asking about the joys of their races.

Maybe fifteen or so minutes of walking later, and we found our crew again. Shannon got me to a chair, and they gathered around me, and told me I was amazing. As I wept into my palms, they told me that they loved me; that I was not a failure; that I did a great thing; that I would be back. I asked them about their races. All the pride and love lifted me up.

That’s the beauty of the marathon. It isn’t just your sand mandala. It’s the patterns of your friends and fellow runners. It’s the geometry of their strength lifting up yours. It’s the camaraderie and love and power of a collective that is so much greater than one runner, one race, one day. We draw the race together, we wipe the slate clean together. We start again. All that beauty is in us. It’s part of us. It’s infused in us. We wipe it clean, but it never leaves us. It’s the well we draw from. The power source.

It’s the reason we ended up in Pittsburgh, and then Athens. It’s the wonderful, amazing people who have taught us so much already, and will continue to teach us more. It’s one marathon of many.

I’m not done yet. I’m cleaning the slate, rebuilding my tools and pieces. I’m resting and living and loving. But I’ll be back soon. The marathon beat me up last Saturday, but it didn’t beat me.

Something bigger is coming. Watch this space.

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For those looking for a more analytical glance, here is a screenshot of my Garmin Connect elevation:

SAM garmin elev
338 ft elevation gain

Here is Strava:

SAM strava elev
238 ft elevation gain

The course is indeed flat and fast. There were some lovely parts, many of which I could not enjoy because I was having a bad day and blowing up, so please take my impressions there with that grain of salt. Note, though, that the course is largely exposed, so if you get a sunny day, that could be a factor. I’ve definitely overheated a lot worse in marathons before, and I don’t think it was really the source of my downfall, but it did get warm. And I got an early spring tan out of this race. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want more information about the race, which was incredibly well-run and organized. The half is also a well-timed tune-up for spring marathons, including Boston.

 

 

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.

finish1 finish2 19798

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.

AthHalf elevation-web
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.

midrace3 midrace2 midrace1

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.

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

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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

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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

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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.

launch2

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.

believejournal-CBMwk2

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?!?