Category Archives: running coach

Unfinished (Glass City Marathon Race Report)

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Girlfriends are the best.

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

The Race

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

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

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

8:04, 7:59, 7:59

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

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

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

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7:57, 7:56, 8:03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blowing a kiss to my amazing crew

8:00, 8:06, 8:03

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

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

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

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

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

8:16

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

8:22

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

8:28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Badass women with hearts of gold.

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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Race Report: Albany Half-Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race

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

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

7:32, 7:38, 7:35

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

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

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

7:30, 7:44

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

7:39, 7:38, 7:30

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

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

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

7:29, 7:33, 7:29

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

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

7:20

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

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7:00

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

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

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Chip time: 1:39:29 (PR)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Race Report: The Scream Half-Marathon

I raced a half-marathon on Saturday. It was the first half I have raced since last October. And yet, until this post, I have not made mention of its result anywhere. True, I’ve been lackadaisical with blog posting in general – I have a long post mostly written from my trip to Pittsburgh back in May (including participating in the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay). At this point, I have a feeling it will never see the light of day. Too much has happened between then and now.

I could just write about how this race went in brief summary. I could post a couple of photos from it (not many – it was a tiny race, with 300 participants, and no photographers that I noticed). I could give a mile-by-mile summation of what I can remember. I could post about my time, and how, while it wasn’t a PR, it was the closest I have come in more than two years, and the downhill brutality of the course was tougher in ways I had not anticipated. I could talk about how GPS seemed to struggle extra under the dense foliage of the mountain, the steep and winding paths. About how the mile markers did not seem to even remotely line up, and that made pacing to the finish line and knowing when exactly to kick, to try to PR a bit difficult. I could write all of this, and leave it at that.

But this was not just a race day, a race weekend. It hardly ever is. Our running never exists in a vacuum, and this race perhaps least of all.

I went into this event with a couple of thoughts: that perhaps I could finally crack my 1:40:40 PR (old and dusty from the May 2014 Pittsburgh Half), and that I would have a person in my mind to fight for. When I struggled, while my mind could still function outside the pain cave of racing hard, I thought of Russ, the twin brother of my stepfather, who passed away suddenly at the very beginning of this month. I learned of his passing the evening before the Peachtree Road Race, and I raced in the heat the next day, thinking of him and honoring his memory as I pushed on the hills. I have these legs, these lungs, this heart, this life. Keep going.

Getting to this race was a bit of a stressful ordeal, but such has been life lately, life this summer. Things happening at the last minute, cobbling together a plan. A few weeks ago, I ran 17 miles in the Georgia heat and humidity, wolfed down food, and drove to Atlanta to hop on a plane to scorching out Arizona. I was there to see my grandparents; my grandmother, not yet 91, was fading fast. We knew time was short; we were not sure how short. I did not wait. While I was there, I ran in the desert heat. I felt alive. I felt my life in my footsteps. I felt the bones in her body when I hugged her – gently, lest I break her.

On this last Friday afternoon, I hadn’t been able to leave work as early as I would have liked to head to an out-of-state race, and we were not on the road in earnest until 3:30. We stopped in Spartanburg, SC, and had a lovely pasta dinner with my friend and teammate Erin, whom I was meeting in person for the first time. In chatting about running and racing, and life in general, my mind finally started to acknowledge, at least a little, that I was heading up to a race. I was so disjointed, so disconnected from the coming reality. I was going through the motions, moving forward without aim or certainty.

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We had an hour and a half of the drive remaining, and we were losing the sun. Deep into the mountains, the “low tire pressure” light came on in our car; we pulled off at a gas station to check the pressure, and determined it was fine, perhaps a false alert light (particularly since we had just taken the car in earlier that week for service, including oil change and tire rotation). We arrived at the hotel and turned in too late, but such is life. We kept on. When I awoke the next morning, among my first tasks was checking the tires – they were again fine.

I tried to find the right mind space. Eating my usual pre-race breakfast. Donning the outfit that made me feel fast and powerful. Thinking of the tough workouts I had conquered lately. Of how much cooler it would be on the mountain than all of my long runs lately – by a good 10 degrees – even if the humidity was merciless.

We drove 35 minutes to where we were to park, and quickly boarded a bus. Shannon and I sat across the aisle from one another, each chatting with our seatmates on the drive up. The woman I sat with had run this race a few times before, and we talked about the course, about other races, about our training, about injuries and pitfalls, about our families.

Packet pickup took place at a little mountain shop attached to a gas station – small, unassuming. I dropped my bag in the designated van all of 10 minutes prior to the start. It rained briefly before the race, a welcome result of 100 percent humidity. But the drizzle left, and the humidity remained.

As we walked the 600 yards down the road to where we were to start, one of three hound dogs in the yard of the nearby house was alerting the world to our presence; he kept baying and baying and baying, tail wagging furiously. One remained more hidden, with only its wagging tail visible in the shadows.  A third repeatedly popped out of the bushes and silently stared us all down. Perhaps we were all distracted by these pups, perhaps it was the noise of the one, but I do not recall a call to “go” or “start,” and I quickly realized there was no start mat. I pushed START on my watch, several seconds late, and started to run. I tried to find my pace, my rhythm. My mind was in upheaval, unsure of how to race a half-marathon, so long out of practice. How strange, since this was my 14th time racing the distance.

As I was told and as I saw from the elevation chart online, the first mile was mostly flat but with the slightest uphill grind. I relaxed. I told my legs to go no faster than an 8:00 pace to start off, to save my legs, to ease into the effort. My watch beeped exactly at the race marker for 1 mile in 8:01; I was never synced up with the markers even remotely ever again.

By the end of the second mile, the road was switching to crushed limestone; as I noted how rocky it was in places, I recalled our long run in Forest Park in Portland, OR, the weekend before training officially began, and hoped it would not be quite that technical the whole way. Mile 2, I clicked several seconds before the mile marker, which seemed more typical GPS behavior; 7:50. Getting there. A controlled first two miles. Now it was time to find my race pace.

I can honestly say I was not really prepared – mentally or physically – for how this course would feel. The third mile was by far my fastest – a screaming 7:26 – and I was trying so hard to hold back, to find a controlled pace at a high cadence. Over the subsequent miles, my mind floated between intense focus – on my feet, on the path, on the tangents, on forgoing tangents in favor of the smoother sections of trail to save my feet – and exhilaration – I could do this, I could PR and by a lot if I played this right – and panic – I was out of control, I was going to crash, how the hell was I supposed to be racing this? I was not tapered. I was not prepared.

Calm. Calm. Think of Russ. You have strong legs and a healthy heart. Your breathing is controlled. Calm. Calm.

Mile 5 was borderline terrifying in its descent at points. I kept tapping the metaphorical brakes. I wondered if I would crash and burn and implode. I wondered if my legs could handle this much stress, this much eccentric contraction. I was already half-rolling my ankles quite frequently in places, barely retaining control. A few such rolls were more out of control – none hurt, but all were startling and disarming. I knew we had some light uphills coming up; I had been warned, and I had been trying to save my legs. I was not sure it was working.

It was during mile 7 that the hills first came. I passed a few people who stopped to walk, though later they re-passed me, and I wondered if their walk breaks were wiser than trying to push through at a slightly slower running pace. But the road screamed down again, and some of the turns were absurdly sharp. Whenever the trees gave way, I looked out at the views, the shadowy, foggy mountains in the distance. As we descended through mile 8, I took note that we had lowered into the fog, and the humidity grew all the more thick. I kept passing mile markers while reading X.85 or so on my watch; some were even X.75 or so. I shook this off and tried to read my effort, but knew I was going to have difficulty pacing the last 5K, knowing when to kick, knowing what marker to trust. I kept to my watch, knowing it would be gut wrenching to expect the finish to show up early just because the markers were doing so, and have it read beyond 13.1.

During mile 9, another appearance of hills almost buckled me. People in front of me and behind me had dropped to a walk. I pushed through, trying to breathe, trying to relax, knowing I still had to conserve. All told, it was still a downhill mile, but the beating those downhills were giving my legs made every uphill, even every flat, feel like running up a mountain. When the course finally went back down again during mile 10, it took a little extra time for the coasting to feel good; at first, it felt awful and out of control. I rolled my ankles a few more times, then berated myself for my own lack of focus and control. Strong legs. Strong ankles. Eyes forward. Support the core.

The course turned and turned and turned as it continued to barrel down, but in the last mile and a half, we switched back to road. I felt my body begin to kick. I passed the couple who had kept dropping to a walk for the uphills and then re-passing me on the downs. I passed them for good. I crossed a bridge across the creek, and my kick was taking its toll. I thought I heard a volunteer say “last hill up ahead.” It was a lie, but an effective one, and I pushed up it. I switched my watch to overall time briefly at the 12 mile mark. I could see I would have to all out sprint to get under 1:40, and I was pretty sure I was not going to make it, not unless the course truly was reading short on my watch. The thought that my watch would read 12.9-something in the end because of GPS issues crossed my mind, but I shoved this idea aside. I could not count on that; there was no guarantee I was really that far ahead on distance. I kept pushing. We climbed up one more little hill, and I saw we were coming down the other side, past a larger throng of people, screaming louder, past the buses that would take us back, and up ahead I saw a squad car with lights on, and the tent, and the timing mats. I gave it everything I had, asking myself, How bad do you want it?

More.

A woman was walking across my path as I careened for the finish, and I mustered enough oxygen to say, “heads up” and she moved aside.

The clock read 1:41:01 as I finished. My watch – started late though it was for official time – read 1:40:52. The latter was a mere 12 seconds off my PR. My watch measured 13.09 at the finish.

scream finish

 

 

Shannon and I crawled onto the bus together, laughing and talking with other sweaty runners, who pointed out that the route we drove back to our cars was essentially the second half of the full marathon route, which takes place in October. I winced at the rolling hills and lonely sections; not a race I would like to run anytime soon. We arrived back at parking and hobbled to the pavilion where food was being served and the extremely kind race organizers gave me my age group award before the awards were even able to begin since we had to leave; a Skype call to the hotel revealed that they would only give us until 1 pm to check out, an hour of leeway.

scream award

In order to make that call, I had connected to the tenuous wifi in the pavilion; the rest of the mountain was a dead zone. I had not even been able to send tracking to my coach prior to the start (and wasn’t sure until later that the message I tried to send explaining this had even gotten through).

As my phone came to life, I had a few messages, including one from my father.

My grandmother was in her final days. It was going to happen soon. I should be prepared to travel to Arizona soon, some time that week.

I swallowed all of this; there was nothing I could do. Not in this remote place, on this mountain, hours from home, a plane ride away from her side. I said a prayer of gratitude that I had been able to see her so recently.

We rushed back to the hotel, quickly showered and packed. While Shannon cleaned up, I stood in the middle of the dim hotel room and prayed, tears streaming down my face. I prayed for her to find peace. That if the end was here, that she would find it without pain. That those of us left behind would find comfort in each other. That God would watch over my grandfather, who would be losing his partner of nearly 70 years.

We checked out, we got on the road, and as Shannon read me off directions through the winding mountain roads, my phone rang. It was my brother. There was a darkness in his voice – a devastation. One that even his eternal stoicism could not mask. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

“It happened, didn’t it,” I said. No question in my voice. “She’s gone.”

It had happened perhaps ninety minutes before. Maybe in the very moment I had been praying in the hotel room.

By that evening, we had booked flights for Arizona, departing the following evening. We would be staying in the same hotel as my brother and his wife (and their three-year-old son, it turned out; how lovely it was to have a joyful little life around – a blessing I wasn’t sure to expect right then) as well as my dad and stepmother. Nearly our entire family was able to make the trip. We took a cab to my grandpa’s house from the airport, the scorching desert heat hardly abating in the early evening. As soon as we dropped our bags and took off our shoes in the hall, we were greeted with embraces, and with each hug and kiss, my heart cracked further. I looked around at the photographs, the memorial candle, the chair that she had lately been sitting in in the den. I thought of my granddad’s passing almost seven years ago, and how in their house, I kept waiting for him to walk in from his bedroom. Here, too, I felt myself waiting. Waiting for the missing piece to be filled.

I said little about my race. I did not volunteer it, only mentioned it when explicitly asked. I did not post about my result anywhere – not until now. The days strung together into an endless Sunday, an endless time of waiting, of bleary eyed pain. I could almost forget that it had happened altogether, except for every time I stood up. My whole body reminded me that I had just raced thirteen miles down a mountain, but the exhaustion I felt engulfing my soul was separate from all of this.

The pain of the race is receding now. I ran a few miles Monday morning – again in the desert heat, this time with my love rather than alone – and a few miles on the treadmill Tuesday morning, my adorable nephew making an appearance in the little hotel gym when I was nearly done, staring at me as I flung sweat and smiled at him in the mirror, trying to climb atop the recumbent bike beside me. I know within a couple more days, the race pain will be gone for good. Perhaps even by tomorrow morning, when I am scheduled to run 11 miles with some marathon pace miles in the middle.

But this feeling in my heart, I know it will keep coming back, ebbing and flowing, receding at times before hitting me with another wave. The first two weeks of this month have been bookended by loss.

Still, I run. I run because it is my normal, my constant: my beating heart, my lungs, my legs. I run because I know she wants me to. Because I know she is proud of me. That she is with me still. I run because I can hold her in my heart in each mile. I run because we do not run in a vacuum. Because we run to and through loss. Because we run to and through life.

HQ481

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!

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

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

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

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

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

Beast.

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

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

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

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

greatnewyearaward
Fleece blanket prize!

Beast.

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

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

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

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

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

believeiam-12jan16 tempo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was supposed to feel like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Race Report: Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was show time.

The Race

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

start1

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

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

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

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

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

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

mile5-1 mile5-2 mile5-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8:15, 8:11

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

8:14, 8:14

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

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

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

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

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

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

8:28

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

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

8:36, 8:33

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

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

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

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Watch time: 3:39:28

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

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Post-race

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

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

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

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

ice cream

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

donuts
Our bodies respond well to post-race donuts

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

Analysis

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

garmin elevation

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

strava elevation

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

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

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

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

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

whatsnext

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

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

elevation

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

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

The Race

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Note that the bird in front here is NOT me 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8:29, 8:45

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

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

Post-race

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

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

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

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Trying to smile through it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The journey of marathon training

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia Marathon, November 2012
Philadelphia Marathon, November 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday: strength and core

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

Friday: short run, yoga/core

Saturday: long run

Sunday: full rest day

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

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

Who's excited?!?
Who’s excited?!?