Category Archives: marathon

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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Race Report: Erie Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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PL&LD haul

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

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

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

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

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

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Race Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moments later, the race was off and running.

The Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Official 10K split: 50:04

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

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

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

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

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

8:09

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

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

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Kim’s photo

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

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

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

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

8:13, 8:00

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

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

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8:09, 8:21, 8:23

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

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

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

8:23

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

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

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

8:11

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

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8:05

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

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

Final chip time: 3:34:09

Post-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the fire left

everything-youvegot

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

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

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

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

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

medal

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

 

 

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.

bride and maids
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.

soaked
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.

no secret

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.

ray charles
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.

 

 

A very human beast

Beast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beast.

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

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

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

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

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Fleece blanket prize!

Beast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was supposed to feel like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Race Report: Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was show time.

The Race

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

start1

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

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

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

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

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

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

mile5-1 mile5-2 mile5-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

mile10-1 mile10-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8:15, 8:11

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

8:14, 8:14

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

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

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

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

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

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

8:28

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

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

8:36, 8:33

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

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

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

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)

20151114_174954

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.

12239494_10154589409747316_1585408919326639289_n

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.

Beautiful and brutal: Big Sur International Marathon Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

I love six hour flights yay

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

monterey sign

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

Found it!

FInding our names on the poster

So, about that elevation profile…

 

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

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

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

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

ice cream

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

bart

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

Race Day

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

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

sleepy bundled 3

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

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The Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bixby1 bixby2

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finish time: 4:26:11

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

Post-race

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

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

burger

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

 

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

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

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

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

What did I do a week and a half later?

Oops, I did it again

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

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

Yes, I want to qualify for Boston.

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

Race Report: Air Force Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-race pile-o’-crap

Race Morning

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

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

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

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

The Race

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

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

8:28. 8:38. 7:53

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

8:17. 8:17. 8:11. 

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

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

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

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

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

8:28. 8:24. 8:32

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

midrace4

midrace3

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

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

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

midrace2

midrace1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8:38. 9:52.

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

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final sprint: 7:08

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

finisher

Post-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My shower beer of choice.

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Air Force Marathon training: weeks 1-5

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

Things that are hard:

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

-melty summer long runs

 

Things that are awesome:

-Eating ALL the things!

I want a burger with EVERYTHING

-the beauty that is running in Pittsburgh

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

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

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

The breakdown

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

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

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

Long run fuel/water/river re-group

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

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

Race Reports! (yes, TWO)

Man Up 10-K

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

Worth it.

Best fan ever 🙂

 

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Sweet Sprint 3K

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

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

blur start2

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

photo 1

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

Hubs’ shot from Fort Pitt

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

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