I’ve been saying this a lot lately. In the last several weeks, a lot of Hard Things have piled up. Two deaths in March. Major work deadlines, for both Shannon and myself. Running and training rough patches – I’ve had this strange thing going on with my foot (which seems to be managed, though I fully plan on taking a month off post-marathon to let it get to 100%), and Shannon’s work-life balance has been so heavy on the “work” end that running has been a burden more than a release. And we bought our house, a weeks-long buildup of paperwork and endless emails and calls and panic right up until the very last moment: the lender only gave us the information to wire our downpayment to closing about two hours before our closing appointment. And then we didn’t have enough money for the wiring fee (oops). A co-worker saved me, and multiple Bank of America reps were incredibly kind and patient in the final days as we begged them to move money faster, even though they weren’t even our lender.
In the end, closing on the house was easy and relatively painless: the closing attorney was very kind and funny, and explained things to us first-time homeowners very well. And our realtor got us a cutting board as a gift. And, since we bought the house we’ve been renting the last 2+ years, we didn’t even have to move. We were pretty excited to have the whole process complete, to actually own our house.
The last few weeks of training, especially the taper, so often are rocky and fearful. You begin to second-guess everything you’ve been doing leading up to this point. Wondering if you are ready. Wondering if you are fit enough. Wondering if you could have done more, or should have done less. Wondering if that foot is going to behave, or blow up. Wondering if that missed 20-miler, that missed week of training, is going to be make-or-break. Even when you know, logically, that you’re as fit – more fit – than you’ve ever been.
Having a little extra down-time does not negate all the good work leading up to it, and the work after. Sure, things have felt harder, but that’s okay. The first several weeks of training felt so effortless, uncomplicated. Maybe this would have been detrimental. Maybe it would have had me go into the race with too much confidence and not enough respect. The marathon must always be respected. You have to be confident, but you also have to brace yourself. Prepare yourself for the fight.
I ran the Chick-fil-A half at the beginning of this month as part of a 16-mile day, mostly easy/by-feel, but with pace miles at hte end (either up to 5 miles @ MP or 3 miles @ HMP). It ended up being mostly the latter, primarily because the course is just rough. I did a good job really ignoring my watch, occasionally catching a split when I had a Pavlovian response to the sound of my watch beeping. I was mostly hanging in the 8:30s, slowing a bit later as the hills began to stack up. I saw so many friends volunteering and cheering, and it was fun to run an event without having to really suffer and push the whole time. It’s a hilly course, but it also goes through some of the prettiest parts of Athens.
Around mile 8, during a very short respite from some of the worst hills, I found Margeaux, who had hoped to break 1:40 at this race, but who was having a rough day – similar to the day I had last AthHalf when I thought I could squeak a 1:40 half four weeks after Erie. We pulled each other along up East Campus and cutting through Five Points, and I tried to refocus her energy and thoughts on the pretty course and the gift of running. But it’s hard to pull yourself out of that dark place once you’re in it. I could hear her breathing beginning to relax when the course flattened on Milledge, and as I neared the 10-mile mark and had to pick it up, she told me to go. Shannon found me a few times, and I gave him a huge smile each time. I finished strong and with a big smile. My foot tightened up post-race but I got it to loosen up once more to run a couple cooldown miles with Chrissy (who beasted the course at marathon pace for a 1:38) and Justin (recently post-BQ-marathon and pacing 1:30).
Probably the most encouraging moment of the last segment of htis training cycle was my last 18-miler, my last real long run. I ran the first 7ish solo and was hyper-focused on my foot: how it felt, whether it was hurting, whether I was altering my gait, how tight my left side felt overall. I linked up with friends for the next four and began to relax, and by the time we go to the Luv Run for Dustin and Catherine, who had just gotten married the night before, and whose marriage we’d be celebrating that night at their party/reception, I was having fun and feeling good. I just had a couple miles left at the very end of the group run to get to 18, and felt strong to the finish.
The weekend of this wedding was a whirlwind, since the very next morning, I was up at 6 am to catch a 10:30 flight home to Ohio for Passover. As it turned out, I woke up to a text message from Delta alerting me my flight had been cancelled in the wake of major service disruption from that Wednesday’s storm system. I rebooked on American, with a hop through Philly, had that flight delayed when I got to the gate, rebooked my Philly connection, and rebooked again when I found an earlier flight to a different airport. I was about 5 hours late to arrive in Cleveland based on my original itinerary, but I made it. I saw both of my parents, my 96-year-old grandfather (who still walks almost every morning – he’s my hero), and got in two runs, including a mile repeat workout on the roads and in the rain. I saw three deer during my warmup; they were maybe 10 feet from me, and when I paused my watch to look at them, they looked at me, regarded me a few seconds, then resumed eating, unafraid.
The marathon is never easy. There is no marathon without fear. But I am not doing something new, not doing anything I have not done before. I know what I am capable of. I am aiming for a BQ, but I am a BQ marathoner. That 3:34 was not a fluke, and it’s not gone and done. I need to improve my time, but I already have that capability inside me. I have to reach in and dig it out once more. I have to be ready to fight. I have to be prepared to walk across hot coals for as long as I think I can stand it–and then do it a little more. When workouts felt hard – a half-marathon pace workout a couple weeks ago that felt like hard work, and not the effortless floating of earlier HMP workouts this cycle – I remembered that I learned more from the experience of a workout that feels hard than one that feels easy. Nothing about that last 10K is going to feel easy. But I am ready for it.
Work stress is still swallowing me whole. The Saturday of the Luv Run, I had a 90-minute appointment with my usual massage therapist (I’ve been getting weekly massages to keep my body happy these final weeks, a worthwhile “indulgence” to stay healthy), and two minutes into starting on my back, she remarked, “You are just a ball of stress.” We have a huge research symposium the Tuesday following the marathon. My race week distraction has to be set aside to get everything done that still has to be completed. I’m choosing to believe that focusing on work is helping me to maintain perspective. And I will have perspective on race weekend as well – set aside the work stuff, because it will be all-but-done at that point, and get in race mindset. We had a hectic, social activity filled Easter weekend, and now we’re spending this week as hermits, coming home from work, making and eating dinner, getting our to-do lists done, and relaxing. Quiet is a priority. Sleep is a priority. Wine and chocolate may be assisting a bit as well.
I streamed the Boston Marathon at work yesterday (very distractedly, since, yeah, very busy) and tracked my friends with the BAA app. I was over-the-moon thrilled for them, but my heart hurt. I was not there. I should be there. But the desire is greater. The fire burns hotter. I will be there.
I will make no excuses. This training cycle has been hard. Life never lets up – it never will. The marathon never lets up – that’s what makes it great. Racing the hot Erie Marathon branded me with a fire I will never lose. And this training cycle toughened me in still more ways. I have a couple more angels running with me this time.
Through the dust motes of this neglected blog – how has it been since Erie since I last wrote? – the just-finished year already seems very distant. A lot happened last year, and as I’m certain I am not the first to write, a lot about 2016 was…pretty terrible. It’s all been written and said to death (…sorry) at this point, and this is my running (and writing) blog, so I’ll try to keep my eye there, but some outside things can’t be ignored. Because running does not exist in a vacuum. It never could.
I ran two marathons in 2016, along with two halfs, and a smattering of other distances. But since running does not exist in a vacuum, it also cannot be confined to our rules of what makes a year. From November 2015 to September 2016, I raced three full marathons. I never thought in my life that I would do that. Sure, maybe run the 26.2 distance that many times in 12 months, but not race it that many times so close together. In those races, I set two big PRs, which sandwiched one crushing disappointment (which, truthfully, in the end wasn’t a terrible race time, though it felt it for every agonizing step of the last eight miles).
In July, I took a crack at my long-standing half-marathon PR (1:40:40) and didn’t quite get there, but got closer than I have in a while (just over 1:41 by gun time, but given the low-key nature of the race led me to miss the “start” command, My watch said just under 1:41 of actually racing). In October, I was really stupid and tried to race out of the gate at AthHalf to attempt sub-1:40 with a group of gals, including one who was doing it as a marathon pace run and led the charge; this was a mere four weeks post-Erie. I pulled the plug on the racing part three miles in and it was an absolute grind to the finish. I hated life. I hated running. I contemplated dropping out. I got a boost from seeing my friend Maricia about 8ish miles in (she was hurting, too, but went out to PR anyway, because she’s a badass), and in the last mile, stopped to try to help a girl who was cramping so hard she was bent over double and sobbing. She told me to go on, and I told her no. I ran alongside her for a bit, encouraging her to breath, telling her she could do this. I lost her a half mile later, I think to more cramps. I hope she finished her race with her head held high. We all have those days. I certainly was.
I hoped to wrap up the year with a couple of short, fast efforts: I trained on hills and returned to the group track workouts to prep for the Give Thanks 8K on Thanksgiving, and later the Santa Stroll 8K in mid-December. A couple days before Thanksgiving, I had a sore throat coming on, and while I didn’t race all out at Give Thanks, I raced hard enough to bring a bad infection into my lungs and was out of running for 9 days trying to kick it. This of course also set me back on Santa Stroll, which felt great for a mile or so before a long mid-race slog, and a hard and fast finish.
In between those 8Ks, despite still getting over the vestiges of the cough (which went on for weeks, as coughs have the tendency to do for me), I got in a great visit with friends in Washington, D.C., which included walking my legs off, and some running on the National Mall.
On New Year’s Eve in Ohio, I intended to race the Great New Year’s Eve race (5K) with Keeley, and though we drove the 30 minutes there, everything inside of me screamed NO and I pulled the plug at the sight of freezing rain, not wanting to mess with my fragile immune system right before marathon training. I was grumpy and frustrated at my decision, though it proved prescient: that evening, I came down with a head cold (which I shook in a few days with rest and fluids, thankfully). Getting sick five times in one calendar year is strange for me, though thankfully almost none of it came during marathon training (aside from that short cough at the end of the Albany taper). I’m hoping it’s out of my system now, and of course now that the holidays are over, I’m back to eating and sleeping better.
It seems 2016 will be remembered by many as a year marked by loss. And for me and those around me, this was definitely the case. Too many of my friends lost parents last year. My paternal grandmother passed in July at nearly 91 – it’s a hard loss, but I also know she lived an amazing life, and that she was ready to go. Harder to swallow is the loss of my stepdad’s twin brother, who was far too young, and far too sweet to leave this earth already.
But wonderful things happened, too: friends and family got married; friends had or are having babies – joys for 2017; my second nephew was born, and shortly thereafter, my brother and his family and their now two little boys moved to the east coast after years of living out west.
I didn’t write enough. I didn’t sit and reflect enough. I didn’t stay in the moment enough. Every day, every week, every month was about looking ahead to the next – about getting to that next day of work, the next weekend, the next vacation, the next travel opportunity, the next marathon – the next BQ attempt. But it shouldn’t be just about getting to the next.
I need to savor the journey. Enjoy every moment of joy or agony, elation or suffering. I need to learn and grow, grieve and feel, push and move on. I need to write more, reflect more, listen more. I need to stop procrastinating, especially on things I know ultimately bring me joy, including writing in my training journal – not just scrambling to catch up every weekend, but writing in it each night. To write for myself, the non-running things, too. Not just invest in other writing activities I’ve accumulated lately – did I mention I joined the Athens Road Runners board of directors and am helping on communications and I’m nerdily thrilled about it? – but also write creatively, for me, for my future, for the career I keep saying that I want.
Running and writing have long been intertwined for me, and so much about them is so similar, so related. Starting up again after a break is difficult. Pacing is a challenge. When you find your stride, it’s a joy. Some days it feel amazing and effortless; other days it feels like a steaming pile of garbage. On reflection, it almost always is better than you thought it was initially.
I need to get back to my roots, to what I love. So expect to see me around here a bit more, even just for a few brief words here and there. I want to run, to write, to live with intention. I want to give my very best to every word, to every stride, to every day. I want to set aside the doubt – to acknowledge it and work through the fear. To recognize what I cannot control, and find ways to make it work the best I can anyway. To strive. To believe. To keep trying and dreaming and working and playing. This training cycle – which began on Monday, January 2 – I will work and savor each day through April 23, when I will give everything I have at the Glass City Marathon to shatter a BQ.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever seen the sand mandalas made by Buddhist monks? Those intricate, colorful, geometric works of art, created so methodically over days or weeks. The process is as painstaking as it is lyrical. The beauty appears long before the pattern’s full breadth emerges. It’s the process, the ritual, the careful consideration of every breath and movement.
And then, one day, when it is completed, it is dismantled. Stirred up, poured away into nothingness. In moments, that which took so long to create is subsequently destroyed.
The marathon is like that. The marathon is preparation. It is careful, drawn out planning and ritual and routine. It is an agony and an ecstasy over weeks or months of training. And it is all for one day. One moment. A handful of small hours where the canvas can be fully seen. Where the beautiful destruction occurs. A dismantling of all that careful work – whether in the form of a successful, miraculous, magical race with perfect (or near perfect) execution; or a crumbling, a pure-grit, pure-guts experience that can never really be put into words, especially to those who have never experienced it.
Within hours, days, weeks, the memories fade. The sharpness of the pain recedes. It dulls. Did it really happen? Was I really hurting that much? Couldn’t I have run a little faster?
Did I really give it my all?
So, friends, I am here to tell you that I did. I gave everything I had that day.
A few things coalesced that may or may not have led to the crumbling, the destruction. In the end, I think it was just…one of those days. A day that the pieces didn’t click. A day that my legs just weren’t with me; were not in sync with my brain, or those months of training. But perhaps my mind was off kilter from a few of these other things.
First, the week before the race, in Vegas visiting my brother, his wonderful wife, and their darling son – our sweet nephew – I got sick. It wasn’t a bad cold. I had a cough, but my energy was good. It was productive and didn’t sound good, but I slept well and hydrated above and beyond. I made the decision, in consultation with my coach and my gut, to skip my last long run in favor of letting my body rest and try to kick the bug. By Tuesday, I was back on track with my taper week runs: 7 miles that evening with 2 at marathon pace (nailed), and Thursday I ran 3 miles on the treadmill with 5x striders. That run didn’t feel as amazing, but didn’t feel bad either. Just felt…like the taper. I had some aches and tightnesses, but wrote them off to the taper. Perhaps the body wracking cough (that had dried out but was still present) was wearing out my muscles a bit. I could sometimes feel it in my hip flexors. But then again, the taper does strange things to the mind.
But I slept. I hydrated. I ate well. Very, very well. We left work early on Friday afternoon and drove the 3.5 hours down to Albany, a sleepy southern town, and cozied up in our enormous king sweet at the host hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, nestled by the river and directly across the street from a statue of Albany’s native son, Ray Charles. Shannon and I soaked up the river’s presence; we still miss Pittsburgh, and the running water so close by gave us a jolt of our old home on a beautiful, early spring weekend.
We went to iHOP and got treated by the manager to extra pancakes (for no other reason that that he knew we were there for the race) – I stuck to my usual pre-race meal that has yet to let me down. I never felt underfueled, or like I was nutritionally bonking; that wasn’t the issue.
Race morning dawned clear and cool, but with no wind or bite. 41* and calm. I stepped outside in a hoodie and sweatpants and sandals, feeling the air. I changed race outfits three times; the third time was when I discovered I had grabbed the wrong running skirt: I had mistakenly packed the one with the torn inseam (which I got chafing from when I had no choice but to run the Michelob ULTRA half-marathon in it back in October). I panicked. But I swallowed it – I switched back into my crop singlet and into the capris I had packed.
I had my standard breakfast and one that had worked well in training for sustained energy: 2/3 cup oats with some brown sugar, cooked in water, and a banana with peanut butter.
Chrissy came upstairs and asked how I was feeling and told me not to be nervous, not to pressure myself; that I had done the work and this was my moment and I should enjoy it. I grinned. Her enthusiasm was infectious. But the nerves lingered. My mental game was off – sickness, wardrobe malfunction… Some things were clicking and others were not.
We went downstairs, but I ran back up one more time to grab my arm warmers (another mistake – they were not needed). I got a photo with a lovely teammate, Regina, and we wished each other well, bubbling with pre-race excitement and nerves.
In the weeks leading up to the race and at packet pickup the day before, I kept running into the 3:35 pacer, who used to live and coach in Athens. Chrissy swore by his pacing abilities – said he was a metronome (he was: he paced to a perfect 3:35:00 finish). He couldn’t get my name right, but that’s okay. I showed him my pacing plan when we found him again outside the expo the day before, and he said his would be pretty much that at least through mile 12; when I was supposed to pick it up, he would need to stay conservative. I after all was targeting a 3:32:30 – a time that would very likely get me *into* Boston (maybe. possibly). He had to run 3:35 and let his runners decide their fates. I told him I’d line up nearby for sure, and perhaps I’d stick with through mile 12 if our paces did indeed match. Even 12 miles of company is better than none.
We hustled out to the start line and I took my pre-race Gu and a final sip of water. My watch and phone had unsynced again so I had to re-pair the bluetooth, trying to do this quickly so I could start the LiveTrack and put my phone away for good. Chrissy, Krystina, and James had finished their warm up. I got hugs and fist-bumps, a far-off wave from James as I had already lined up. Shannon and I kissed. Our ritual; our good luck charm, always.
I scooted up close to the 3:35 group, got a wave from the pacer. “You ready?” I nodded. I laughed inwardly at his running skirt and red and white polka dotted compression socks. Eye catching; good for pacing.
Few announcements besides, “Marathoners turn right, half-marathoners turn left.” Over and over. No anthem. No warning.
BOOM. The cannon fired, and we began to move.
Even with the nearly immediate split, things were still slow going for the first quarter mile or so. I just tried not to trip, and focused on my breathing and relaxing into the race, knowing I would find my pace soon enough. I was to run 8:20s for the first two miles, 8:15s through mile 5, then click into 8:10s through mile 12. One mile at a time.
We turned right and crossed the bridge (flat) over the river and made another right onto the Albany State University campus. It was foggy and cool. But I could tell I would be peeling off my throwaway gloves and earband within a few miles. My exposed core felt fine even in the cool air. I should have started chillier, but it was still okay. Even though I was in fleece lined capris instead of the breezy skirt I had planned, I was mostly fine.
I hung off the back of the pace group and searched for the pace. I was going a few seconds fast but felt okay, trying to relax more and save everything I had for later. But even though it didn’t feel hard – it still felt relatively easy – I noted inwardly (quiet, brain) that it didn’t feel as effortless and crawling as the first miles of Chickamauga, where I was hitting the brakes and coasting and gliding and savoring it all those first couple miles. I was searching and wandering and looking for it. You’ll relax into it. It’ll click in. Sometimes it takes a good few miles to find that happy place.
When that first mile clicked off too fast, I consciously backed off, knowing I really did want to pace this right. I let the pace group go.
I let the pace group go.
We wound about the campus, and eventually ended up on a main road I recalled driving in on, and back towards the bridge and across it, soon joining back up with the half-course, with most of the half runners long gone, some walkers remaining for us to pass. We passed the second water stop, around mile 4, and as I tossed my cup, I realized I hadn’t taken a gel as planned. I shrugged this off; my stomach was still pretty full from breakfast, and mile 6 seemed like a better idea. I peeled off the gloves (and slid my hands out of the thumbholes of the arm warmers), and within a mile, the earband followed.
8:13, 8:17, 8:14, 8:10
The pace group was still within visual reach and maybe 20 seconds ahead of me. I fantasized about the later miles when I would reel them in and then pass them, waving at the pacer and saying goodbye for the rest of the race. Sayonara.
But it was a struggle. Chickamauga felt almost effortless for a large portion of the race. This one was all focus. If my mind drifted for a second, so did my pace. It didn’t hurt and didn’t feel hard per se, not yet, but something just wasn’t sliding into place.
Perhaps it was a psych-out, but I think all marathoners know the feeling that can creep in as early as those first few miles. Today is not my day.
I focused. I redirected my thinking. I thought about my posture, corrected my arm carriage. I focused on my breathing and how it fit with my cadence; the fact that it was still very controlled. I tried to let go of the fact that the pace group was still drawing farther off. I reassured myself that they were still well within striking distance, and strike I would. Run your race. Be Desi. Be patient. Stick to the plan.
I took a gel at mile 6 and chased it at a water station. The volunteers were fabulous – I called out for water each time and they were all there for me, water vs. gatorade, and held the cups well for an easy grab. Pinch, pour, pinch, pour, toss.
The courses separated again, and the marathon entered a long, lonely stretch. So much of the course was exposed, and there was not a cloud in the sky. In truth it was a beautiful day. But the sun is merciless to the marathoner. I wished I had contacts and could run in good running sunglasses; I couldn’t pull down the brim of my hat low enough; that low, early spring, morning sun. The angle of it – right in my eyes.
8:12, 8:10, 8:09, 8:06
I was still running strong. My form was good. My breathing was great. I was fueled. But it was work. I kept my mind engaged. I saw the pacer dart into a port-o-potty, having passed off the sign briefly, and dart back out and catch up. I half-chuckled. I took my second gel around 9.5, before the mile 10 water station.
The work continued, but I felt for a bit like whenever I accidentally sped up, over-correcting a slowdown, my legs felt better. Patience, then. Your legs want to run fast. Just a couple more miles of this and you can start to let them go. Then you’ll feel in that groove. Around mile 11, I thought I had found it, and I was floating for a little while. See? It just took until now. Sometimes that happens. Now relax and enjoy. You’ll catch them. Keep running your race. You are executing. You are doing it. It’s supposed to be hard.
But the feeling quickly passed. The sun was still beating. We wound through some lovely neighborhoods peppered with stately southern homes, but shade was brief and intermittent. A few hills rolled in and out; nothing terribly significant, especially to an Athens runner, a former Pittsburgh runner.
I recall crossing the 10-mile mat; I didn’t check my overall time, instead saying, “hello friends” and smiling inwardly, knowing things were okay, even if I wasn’t feeling as amazing as I had hoped I would at this point. I took a gel at 13. When I crossed the half-split, I checked: 1:47:39, just 10 seconds slow of intended split. I’m okay. I’m doing this.
8:11, 8:08, 8:10, 8:07, 8:07
Mile 13 was the pace turning point – it was when I was to drop 8:05s for a few miles, then throw down an 8:04 mile 16, before settling into 8:00 for the long haul. I was hitting it, or nearly, but as I approached mile 16, I thought to myself, Maybe I should just shoot for 8:00-8:05 to the end. Maybe I can close hard if I save myself a bit more like that. I’m not feeling this. It just isn’t right. At the mile 16 water station, I took two cups (expecting from examining course maps that there was a water station break until 19; this ended up not being the case), chasing down a gel. I sipped from both and dumped the remains of both over my head.
8:03, 8:10, 8:06, 8:06
I saw the pace group less and less as the course curved and I lost ground to them. They were pacing more aggressively than I was for the first half, and by the time I was to speed up to catch them… well…
The first time I saw my friends, who had finished the half, was around 18.6 (they tell me). I saw them up ahead, and they lifted me up. I smiled briefly, and then I gritted my teeth and told myself to fight. I could still do this. I felt my turnover pick up. Chrissy and James and Shannon were screaming for me. I rounded a curve up a little hill and I could still hear them yelling my name.
But just as fast as that feeling of strength and love washed over me, it slipped through my fingers. My pace plummeted and I felt like that lift had sapped a little extra from me – more than I could spare. Somewhere around here or there, I took another gel.
How do you explain the wall? How do you explain the day where things fall apart, where you just can’t hold it together? How do you put into words, it just wasn’t my day? Talking to a co-worker this week, I told her, “The wheels just fell off.” And she asked me, “What does that feel like?” I opened my mouth, and all the words I could not find stuck in my throat.
As Shannon put it to me, It’s where mind over matter…no longer matters.
I slowed down during the last 10K, especially miles 22 to 24, of Chickamauga. But looking back now with this perspective, that wasn’t a blow-up. The wheels didn’t fully come off. They wobbled. I wobbled. I reached for them and held them with the edge of my everything. But I held it together and brought it back – not completely, but enough. I was able to grip hard enough to steady the wobble, and to teeter-totter my way to finish.
But this. This was a slow implosion. This was a melting away of strength. This was lead and sand and jelly filling my legs. This was despair in my heart. This was my mind and heart screaming at my legs to run. Run. Go. Fight. You can do this. You trained for this. What about that crazy interval-filled 18 miler? What about that pace-hungry 20-miler where I could barely contain my speed? What about all those tempo runs?
8:21, 8:24, 8:44 (2:44:14 split for 20 miles, 2 minutes off pace)
Krystina and Chris (and his kids – I was too delirious, though) leap frogged with the other group so I saw loving faces quite nearly every mile through the end. I communicated to them, not my day, but they never abandoned me. They kept cheering, kept encouraging. I was going to finish no matter what. And I was not going to walk.
Every time I saw them, every time I saw my husband, I wondered if I should just cry. I wondered if I should go up to them and get high fives and hugs and kisses. If I should walk for a moment and cry and tell them I loved them and today wasn’t the day I was going to BQ, but that I would still finish. But I knew that, too, was more than I had to give. Everything I had, I channeled into forward motion. I forced my eyes up and forward when I caught sight of vomit on the sidewalk, and wondered about my own gut. I reminded myself around 22 that I needed another gel.
Somewhere around mile 22, the 3:40 pacer passed me. A cry erupted from my throat in expletive form. I tried again to up my pace. Just keep up with him. You probably still won’t PR since he likely started behind you, but maybe you could squeak in near 3:40. But I couldn’t hold on. My legs refused.
The miles ticked by in agony. Miles before, I peeled off my right arm warmer, and somewhere in the last 10K, I worked to move my pace band and watch to the other wrist so I could peel off the other, securing both to my fuel belt. Sun filled my eyes. I took at least one gatorade cup in the last 10K. I was taking many double cups and dumping water full on my head and down my back. Just keep running. Just keep moving forward.
Please, just a little faster. Then we’ll be done sooner, if nothing else. Nothing. No response. At one point, my pace readout was showing 11:xx and I though to myself, They’ll think I walked. I’m not really running this slowly. And I’m not walking. I will not walk.
8:56, 9:13, 9:25, 9:38, 9:55
My watch clicked my 25, and what seemed like ages later, I crossed the mile 25 marker. I tried to push. You can do anything for a mile. I picked up briefly, ready to gut it out to a gritty finish, but my legs once more deflated, gave up on me, stopped responding. I wanted so badly to walk. I remembered Air Force, my anger at myself for walking even in the final mile. I wouldn’t do it. Keep going. I negotiated. I thought of how many laps of a track I had left. How little that could seem – and yet here and now, felt enormous. I felt like I hadn’t seen my husband or friends in ages. I felt like the finish was never coming. I kept my death march. The course narrowed into a chute and turned past a train station and into it, throwing in a 90-degree turn that made everything inside me scream.
But mercifully, the course curved and went down, and finally, on a narrow path and chute, there was the banner. Everything you have. Right now. There was a woman in pink ahead of me with whom I had been jockeying for miles, who was also heavily suffering and had been walking on and off. We were both sprinting, silently pushing each other, driving each other to the line and across it. I don’t think I caught her in the end, but it was what I needed. I flew across the line and nearly collapsed.
9:06; 7:37 pace final sprint
Chip time: 3:43:19 (8:32 average)
Volunteers swarmed, but all I saw was Shannon. I gasped and stumbled and landed in his arms. I don’t really recall how a medal wound up around my neck, but Shannon said it happened right away. I was wrapped in a thermal sheet. He walked me to food and water and gatorade. A sob ripped from my throat. At first, it wasn’t even despair. Not yet. It was the last vestige of any strength. A primordial scream. A barbaric yawp. I sipped at the gatorade. He offered be the bagel and half banana he grabbed. Oranges, I breathed, and he walked me there and I devoured the orange third.
He walked me around, and the physical pain finally released the other pain. The one I still feel pounding at my chest. The one that has been simmering in my guts since the race first began to spiral downward. The failure.
I couldn’t do it. He walked me around, up and down along the water. I asked where everyone was, and he said they were all cheering near the finish, but were probably giving us (me) space. The physical pain would overwhelm me for a few minutes, and I’d breathe, and we’d walk, and I’d almost laugh at the absurdity of it all. Not many things are as absurd as the voluntary pain of a marathon. But then a fresh wave would hit. The crushing disappointment. I distracted myself by asking about the joys of their races.
Maybe fifteen or so minutes of walking later, and we found our crew again. Shannon got me to a chair, and they gathered around me, and told me I was amazing. As I wept into my palms, they told me that they loved me; that I was not a failure; that I did a great thing; that I would be back. I asked them about their races. All the pride and love lifted me up.
That’s the beauty of the marathon. It isn’t just your sand mandala. It’s the patterns of your friends and fellow runners. It’s the geometry of their strength lifting up yours. It’s the camaraderie and love and power of a collective that is so much greater than one runner, one race, one day. We draw the race together, we wipe the slate clean together. We start again. All that beauty is in us. It’s part of us. It’s infused in us. We wipe it clean, but it never leaves us. It’s the well we draw from. The power source.
It’s the reason we ended up in Pittsburgh, and then Athens. It’s the wonderful, amazing people who have taught us so much already, and will continue to teach us more. It’s one marathon of many.
I’m not done yet. I’m cleaning the slate, rebuilding my tools and pieces. I’m resting and living and loving. But I’ll be back soon. The marathon beat me up last Saturday, but it didn’t beat me.
Something bigger is coming. Watch this space.
For those looking for a more analytical glance, here is a screenshot of my Garmin Connect elevation:
Here is Strava:
The course is indeed flat and fast. There were some lovely parts, many of which I could not enjoy because I was having a bad day and blowing up, so please take my impressions there with that grain of salt. Note, though, that the course is largely exposed, so if you get a sunny day, that could be a factor. I’ve definitely overheated a lot worse in marathons before, and I don’t think it was really the source of my downfall, but it did get warm. And I got an early spring tan out of this race. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want more information about the race, which was incredibly well-run and organized. The half is also a well-timed tune-up for spring marathons, including Boston.
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!
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.
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!
I nipped her at the line and finished in a 2015 best of 21:45 for 4th woman and first in my AG.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Watch time: 3:39:28
(started a second or two before crossing the startmat, stopped a second or two after the finish)
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.
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!
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.
And ate. Ate a lot. I’m still hungry, y’all.
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):
And here is my Strava elevation chart (documented 400 feet elevation gain):
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?”
I’ll be looking to figure that out very, very soon.
So, I’m halfway through this marathon training cycle. I keep waffling between feeling strong and confident – on my way to being prepared – and being completely freaked out.
So, about normal.
As with any training cycle, there have been ups (great, great ups) and downs (deep, dark, basement downs). Within the last week, the race dreams (nightmares? Not true race nightmares – yet – but not great signs if I’m at all prescient) have started. Last week, I dreamt I ran a 3:50 and was royally pissed to have worked so hard and only PR’d by two minutes (bratty? Possibly), and then my coach was asking to see my data and I couldn’t find it.
This weekend, I dreamt that I was at the start line of my upcoming half-marathon – the one that I’m supposed to race rather than run as a workout – and realized I had never gotten to talk race plan/strategy with my coach, and was full on freaking. The race never occurred in the dream, at least I don’t remember it, but not a very comforting moment.
In real life, things have been going a lot better. A few weeks ago, I had one of the worst (if not The Worst) long runs I have ever had. 17 miles of pure torture. I woke up with a less-than-stellar attitude, feeling a wave of dread. It had been a brutal week, hot and with a tropical air mass sitting over the south. It was relentlessly humid. My workouts that week had been brutal. And now I had to run 17 and it wasn’t any better. It felt awful from the first step, and I had maybe a half mile here and there of feeling less than shitty, but the rest was terrible. When I was running the last 3 miles out-and-back, I got to mile 15 (half a mile from where I needed to get to before turning around), sat down on a wall, and cried. Pulling myself together, I finished the last bit of out and turned back, forcing myself to keep going to the end, even speeding up by about a minute in the last mile. When my watch beeped the last mile and I hit STOP, I folded over and cried. It probably took me a good 10 minutes to pull myself together again.
The only bit of comfort was that everyone else was dying out there, too. George cut his run short by 3 miles. Lindsay and I took a couple walk breaks in the middle (she gutted it out and finished her planned 11). Will cut his loop short. Everyone looked like they were in the middle of a death march. We had had it.
But since then – some days by degrees, and others by huge leaps – it got better. We got stronger. The tropical air mass moved away. The temperatures started to drop, and the humidity became less than crushing (after weeks and weeks and weeks of 95% humidity on a daily basis, 85% feels downright heavenly, I tell you what). The following week I aced an 800 repeat workout and bossed a 14-mile cutback long run on a beautiful day. True, I cut short my Friday run (did like 2.3ish when I had 4 planned) because it felt like garbage, but one bad run for the week, instead of only one good run the previous week? Definite win.
The following week…I may have gotten a little cocky. With an early morning meeting on Thursday, I flip-flopped my Tuesday/Thursday and did my long track workout Tuesday morning instead. There’s usually some group workout out at Spec Towns most early mornings, but on Tuesdays, apparently it’s the Shirtless Fasties (with Coach Al – this isn’t their official name, just what I call them. Also Dustin was wearing a shirt, so it’s not a firm rule). They were cruising 800s, one dude cranking out 2:20 splits (and making it look beautifully effortless), a second group was doing probably 2:50-3:00, and I think a third group was out there as well, probably just over 3:00. I had 1600s at 10K pace on tap.
Yeah, I fucked up. I hadn’t paced mile repeats in a while, and didn’t have a good feel for my 10K pace. I felt really good on the first one but apparently I was speeding up each quarter and wound up about 14 seconds fast. I tried to slow down on the next two, but was still about 8-10 seconds fast on each. I gave it all up on the last one (stupidly), and as the 3:00ish 800 group came roaring up beside me in the last 60 meters of both our intervals, I sped up and hung on the back of the pack to sprint in to the finish.
Well, my legs and feet were crampy as HELL for the cooldown (and my calves had been yelling at me earlier anyhow because I’d done calf raises Monday for the first time in many weeks). When I posted that workout, oh boy, my coach chewed. me. out. And rightfully. I was racing in that workout, especially that last one, which was foolish.
I foam rolled and hydrated and stretched and rested, and then was ready to crush my next workout on Thursday. I was under strict instructions to bag it if I was struggling (which I defined as “more uncomfortable than comfortably hard,” and Coach Mark agreed to that definition). Despite humidity, janky sidewalks, and darkness (who turned off the lights? Oh yeah. It’s fall), I felt unstoppable for 7 miles with 5 at goal marathon pace, nailing each one a little faster than goal.
I’m once again back to traveling too much – over Labor Day weekend that same week, I was in Cleveland to see my parents and a few friends, and had 17 miles on tap with 5 at race pace.
My saintly mother got up at 5:30 am and drove me into the middle of nowhere Cleveland suburbs to drop me at my start point in pitch black darkness (I ran without headphones, and with headlamp and tail blinkie on a very, very quiet road). She met me at 9.5 for a water refill and towel off, and a half mile later, I pushed through 5 miles at race pace in rolling hills. I was grateful for the shade and for conditions that felt a little better than Georgia had felt all summer (though I know folks who live in Ohio were unhappy about the weather. Pittsburgh, too – sorry for bringing the heat and humidity up north with me, guys!).
On Labor Day itself, I met up with running friend and former neighbor Liz for 9 beautiful miles full of chatting about life and work and school and BQs and triathlon and stories. And we only ran a hair too fast in places.
I’ve started to break in my marathon shoes (or hopeful marathon shoes anyhow) – I at least upgraded to the Brooks Launch 2! Just a couple runs in, but I’m already in love. They’re smooth and springy and just cushy enough, with a perfect arch wrap. Plus, they’re pretty to boot.
Boston Marathon registration opened last week, and I was once again infected by Boston Fever. I go back and forth between feeling confident that I’ll get there someday, and thinking that I’m kidding myself. Like that tempo run last week that I had to cut short because I couldn’t manage half-marathon pace on a crappy treadmill in the shitty med school campus gym after work (sleep won in the morning, and Ramsey at 5 pm is insanely crowded). Or that one crappy-feeling half-mile rep during 9×800 on the road (track was closed – it was annoying. And don’t even get me started on how my watch misbehaved halfway through. We’re just barely on speaking terms again). Or how it still feels hard to hold 9:00 during a 20-miler. But then I think of all the other miles I’m stacking up. Those effortless feeling marathon-pace tempo miles. I’m putting hay in the barn. I’ll keep working.
Two months away from the race, I know I still have a ways to go, but I’ve already come so far. And in two weeks, I get my first real indicator: racing 13.1 at Michelob ULTRA Atlanta. I should probably make sure to carve out time with my coach to discuss race strategy. 😉
These two things are both at odds with each other, and work in a lovely kind of harmony…but only in the long game.
Let me explain.
A lot of things happened and have been happening with this move. My whole life and routine and support system and running partner network was uprooted. I started a new job. I had to find a new network. I had to build new routes and new relationships. I had to really learn (AGAIN) how to boss hills. I had to learn how to run through weirdly cold dampness of Georgia winter (still better than up north, so I’m not actually whining – just observing) and endure the slow build up of Georgia summer heat, and then a THREE WEEK DEATHLY HEAT WAVE in June. And now we’re in another in July (but now this one doesn’t feel nearly as bad – acclimatization works!)
It’s been hard. Really hard. At first, a lot of it felt like one step forward, two steps back; some weeks it is still like that. But we’re definitely moving closer to two steps forward territory, with more infrequent steps back. Sometimes those steps backward wallop us. But we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep fighting.
Or at least this is what I’m telling myself. This is what I’m putting into words here, right now, for myself, really.
After recovering from Big Sur (we took a full week off, including being sick as dogs for that and beyond. ugh), which didn’t take as long as usual given we didn’t “race” it, we started building our base back at a smart, reasonable rate, and eventually adding in some fun speedwork. I also hoped to run at least two 5Ks prior to the Peachtree Road Race on July 4 – I wound up running 3, actually.
And beyond trying to get my speed back (spoiler alert: speed is there, but endurance is not), what I really was doing – without realizing – was solidifying my place in the local running community.
Running with the Dawgs 5K (Memorial Day)
I considered this my first speed “test”: I knew I wasn’t remotely fit, so I just wanted to see where I landed. This was also the first day of the Runner’s World Summer Run Streak, which we planned to do (though I had no plans to hold it farther than July 4 – and, spoiler alert, I didn’t). Shannon and I warmed up with an easy mile, and did some drills and strides, per usual. My legs felt dead and heavy, with no speed in them. My fast twitch muscle fibers felt asleep.
The race started in downtown Athens, and with the gun, we came down a nice downhill before swinging around a block, heading uphill for a bit, and then heading down a screaming downhill. I let my legs fly on it but stayed in control, jockeying a bit with another girl who kept me honest the first half but whom I lost sight of later. The first mile clicked off in 6:40. The course slid on down College Ave before flinging us onto the Greenway and sending us on some rolling hills. It was still mostly flat at that point so I stayed strong in that mile. Second mile: 6:58.
Then the course went baaaaad. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t realize until I was out there that they were going to send us where they were: we headed up Willow and took a sharp turn onto Hickory; I think there was a photographer, but I have no idea what came of those photos and I’m not sure I’d want to see them. At this point I was passing a girl I had been keeping an eye on for a while (she was wearing full length tights on a hot day so this was a very distracting thing). She was panting really hard but I tossed her an encouraging word as we climbed. And then the course turned right up Broad Street and I unleashed all the curse words (in my head – mostly) for the short but grueling segment that we climbed (3rd mile: 7:26, ugh)before heading into a parking deck (seriously) and sprinting to the finish (final sprint pace: 6:35). I shook hands with tights girl, who finished a few seconds behind me, and coughed up a lung for a while.
Time: 21:54 (7:04 pace); 4th female, 10th overall, 1st in AG
Overall, a good first effort – well off my PR and more like my 10K PR pace (I’m pretty sure my 10K PR is a unicorn now, but we’ll get to that) but I figured if I did some work I could get back there, or at least closer.
LEAD Athens Midnight 5K
I knew I wanted to get another 5K in before Peachtree, but when the opportunity for a bit of a novelty presented itself, I went for it: a Midnight 5K. I’d been hearing about it at group runs and had separately run across it online, so I decided to go for it. Shannon was out of town so it would just be me, but my friend Christine and I arranged to meet up.
I have to tell you though – fueling for a 5K at midnight is a bit bizarre. I got home from work around 5:30, relaxed a bit, and then took a 90 minute catnap. I figured getting a sleep cycle in wouldn’t be the worst thing, especially since I’m an old person who goes to bed at or before 10 pm almost every night. Midnight was late. I then made pancakes for dinner and ate them with peanut butter and banana while watching Netflix. By 10:30, I was heading out. I followed the crowd of running shorts and shirts in the midst of drunken bar-goers, and eventually found Christine, who brought glow sticks, because she’s awesome.
We did a short warmup, and I did some drills and strides on my own before everyone began lining up. Catherine T. (aka “the other Catherine” as I jokingly call her. To myself. Really, I’m the other Cath(ryn) because I’m a newbie not that many people know, especially in comparison) was there and was standing with some other gals on the Fleet Feet Elite Racing Team, and I joked with Christine, “I am not going to chase them. I am not.”
The race began downhill and curved onto Prince Ave and into some darker streets. I picked off a few people and tried to find that perfect 5K pain place. I opted to race without music – I’ve never done this in a 5K, but it was midnight and the roads were not closed for the race, so I wasn’t taking any chances. As we were heading up Prince, the cop escort took us around a turn and a college girl in a truck (she was behind the wheel and I’m not sure she should have been) shrieked “is this a parade??”
We turned onto some side streets and headed toward a short, nasty climb before zig-zagging down Boulevard, which rolls down for a while before rolling up a bit. I kept pushing and tried to avoid tripping in any potholes (I did get caught up on a speed bump, once each way – didn’t trip or anything, just got caught flat-footed for a second). Surprisingly, I was gaining on Catherine. I stalked off her shoulder for a bit, and pretended everyone cheering for her was also cheering for me. 😉 We traded leads a couple times, but I thought I’d lose contact with her when I fell back a bit coming back. Then as we headed the opposite way on that short but steep hill, I caught her as we rounded the next corner. Without music, I could hear her breathing, and I knew I had her. I just kept on going full tilt, heading past Pulaski on Prince (when it starts to go uphill), wondering whether or not a cop was watching the light (no one was, apparently – I got very lucky at a low-traffic moment).
The course turned once more up College and up the driveway to the bank parking lot where the finish was, all uphill, and I gave my best death face while punching stop on my Garmin.
Time: 22:06 (7:01, 6:57, 7:21; 7:00 pace sprint up the hill); 14th overall, 2nd female, 1st in AG
Given the difficulty of the course, the fact that it was my second 5K that week, and that it was at midnight? I was OK with the slower time. And I bagged an AG win!
Christine and I headed to The Place for half-priced drinks afterwards and chatted with some folks, including the race organizer, Lindsay, and another Athens Road Runners member, Tino. Both EXTREMELY nice people, who along with Will (whom I’d met separately at a Fleet Feet run) get together a lot of mornings to squeeze in some early miles. I got Lindsay’s phone number later that week, and collected the rest over the next few weeks and we’ve been meeting up pretty frequently.
I mentioned that these last few months helped me find community, and as the last mini-race report shows, I’ve definitely made some friends. But there’s another friend that Athens running lead me to that I feel I need to mention. As I said, Shannon was out of town for the Midnight 5K, but he got back late that evening. We had less than 24 hours together, but since we had a run streak to keep, we dragged our butts out of bed Sunday morning for a quick neighborhood loop. It took us a while to get out there. We tossed and turned and cuddled up and resisted the call of the road. But sometimes, timing like this is everything.
We were about a third of a mile or so into the run when Shannon said, “look, a bunny!” We live on the outskirts of Athens, so wildlife sightings aren’t unusual, and we always point out cute animals to each other. So I instantly looked around for a small, brown, woodland creature.
Instead, I saw a little white rabbit chowing down on clover in someone’s lawn. An elderly man sat on a chair a few feet away. He invited us to say hi to the rabbit, saying it was friendly. After a couple minutes of chatting, it became clear it wasn’t his bunny, but had been someone else’s, who had “released” it. Our guess is that it was an Easter gift that became “too much.” Now, this was a white rabbit. Living in a yard. In a neighborhood with cats, off-leash dogs, hawks, and coyotes. We talked to him some more about the rabbit, how long it had been there (a couple weeks), if he knew whom it had belonged to. Eventually, we had to move along with our run.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Shannon and I talked as I drove him to the airport and agreed that, since we had planned on getting guinea pigs soon anyway (after this trip I was getting him to the airport for, actually – we’d have a break from traveling), I could get the supplies (cage, etc.) that we could re-use later if we ended up getting pigs, and get that bunny out of that yard and out of harm’s way.
So I did. Within a week, we took the bunny to the vet and learned that it’s a girl, unspayed, 3 lb, and had ticks. We treated her topically for the ticks, and after very little soul-searching, knew we just had to keep her.
Sometimes you find a friend in the most unlikely of places.
That week, with Shannon out of town, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone in my running life: at Monday’s Fleet Feet run, I ran with Camille for a mile, and after she split off for the 3 mile loop, caught up to Catherine and chatted it up with her. We both ended up pushing each other pretty hard, averaging low 8:XX in the pouring rain, and having a blast. Tuesday night was the monthly brewery run at Creature Comforts, and I found myself running and chatting with Lindsay on that steamy afternoon for the 3 mile loop, before joining her, Nina, and Tino at Little Kings down the street (the brewery was way too packed) for a couple beers and some chatting. We talked running and life and Peachtree (and they got me super-pumped for the race). It was lovely.
We parted ways but not for long, since I was up at 4:45 the next day to join them and the usual crew at the speed workout at Spec Towns Track. I had been meaning to check it out, and it helped that I knew a couple people who would be there. I nailed the 6×800 workout at 5K pace and had a blast while doing it. There was a range of abilities but everyone was encouraging and kind and fun, and it was a nice, relaxed setting.
Friday morning, Christine and I met up at Fleet Feet for a hilly 8.6ish miler on a nice morning, chatting the miles away. My husband may have been out of town, but I was actually starting to feel like I belonged here.
Over the next few weeks, I found a real groove: I got my mileage base where I wanted it (30-35 mpw), went to the track on Wednesdays, and dabbled in some shorter Monday tempo runs to try to get more speed back. Wasn’t quite where I wanted, but it was something. Even better, I was finding friends – running with Christine, Lindsay, Will, Tino, and others, commiserating bad running conditions, celebrating consistent splits, and just generally having a great time.
I also managed to snag myself a Garmin 220 from a friend – new watch, and just in time, too…
Then was tune-up 5K #3!
Let’s Move 5K
I found this one online when I searched for later tune-up races. It was tiny, local, and in a park in nearby Watkinsville. Getting there, it looked reasonably flat, though I had no clue was the course was like, since I was unfamiliar with the layout of the park. We did our usual warmup – 1 mile easy followed by drills and striders. Unfortunately, it was already 77*, wickedly humid, and the sun was baking us, just in time for the 8 am start. Oof.
I shot out of the gate way too freakin’ fast and spent the first mile slamming on the brakes. I opted out of music again, and decided to suffer in silence. There was one very brief out-and-back section that was shaded, but the rest was baking in the sun, and it was just rolling enough of a course to be noticeable. I clawed my way past a few competitors and tried to hold a good tempo without dying too early. The first mile clicked off in 6:45 and I choked out a 7:12 second mile. In the midst of the third, I found myself once again near the woman in tights from the Memorial Day 5K. She was decently up ahead but I reeled her in.
We hit a turnaround and a tiny girl – I think she as 9 or 10 – was COOKIN’ (turns out she was leading); as we passed each other, I gave her a smile (it was all I could muster) and she said “good job” and I was in awe. We headed back past a water station I once again skipped, and given that the out traffic was heading my way and tights girl was right in front of me, I made a snap decision to surge and pass her before getting caught up.
Then, there was a large gap – and Shannon up ahead. I kept up my surge pace, maybe slowing the barest bit. I came up beside him and he told me to go ahead. I choked out that I was dying. But I gapped him a little, glancing down as my watch buzzed well ahead of the 3 mile marker (new watch means figuring out how far off it tends to measure – multiple sharp turnarounds never help with GPS measurement, to be fair). 6:48. I sprinted as hard as I could and flew through the line, gasping for oxygen. Final sprint: 6:24 pace.
I finished 2nd female. The little badass girl had won!
Time: 21:49 (official/gun); 1st in AG, 2nd female, 7th OA
A few more workouts, and it was go-time: I managed a solid, controlled, strong-feeling Rowland Tempo, an 8×400 track workout (full workout was 10 reps but the in-town coach encouraged us to only do what we felt truly ready for, so I stepped out of two reps. It was the right call. I managed the full workout a couple weeks later!), an attempted 12-miler than ended up being 9 and change because the humidity and lack of wind destroyed my soul, a merciful break in the heat (88* at a Monday night run felt downright blissful), and a race week sharpener of 3×800 at 10K pace that felt sublime, like I was just grazing a well of untapped potential. Maybe I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I knew I also wanted to enjoy my first Peachtree experience as much as I could. I didn’t have a PR (44:02) in me, but I figured I could manage a 45:30ish, or at least break 46 at my current fitness level.
Peachtree Road Race
Shannon and I headed into ATL Friday morning for a full day – I had gotten in my 1-mile minimum streak run (in the pouring rain) and we packed up and hit the road to get to the expo nice and early…to meet team USA, including Shalane Flanagan!
The whole group was super nice. I’m a really awkward person in general, and especially around people of celebrity status, so I decided to just ask them questions I would ask any runner: Is this your first Peachtree? What’s your favorite part of the course? Any tips? What are you most excited for? And of course, they are normal runners. Just super-humanly fast.
Best moment, though, had to be this: we’d been waiting in line for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, and were nearly to the front (we couldn’t really see the team while waiting, not until we were basically at the front). A woman behind us suddenly asked us, “Excuse me…this is the line to meet Team USA for soccer…right?” (recall that the World Cup was going on at this point)
Shannon and I exchanged quick looks. “This is Team USA for the Peachtree Cup,” I said, trying to keep a straight face. For tomorrow’s race.”
There was a half-second of excruciating silence, and then they both tried to laugh it off. And then they left the line.
We got our signatures, got our shop on for a bit, and then wound our way back to the car and headed up to our hotel. We grabbed dinner at IHOP and tried to crash as early as we could for the early alarm.
Well, we happened to way overbudget on time – but better than underbudgeting, right? We got right up, ate some oatmeal that I heated up in the lobby microwave (Hampton Inn 4evar), lubed up, got in race clothes, pinned on bib, tripled-checked everything, obsessed over the forecast, got in the car, drove to the MARTA station, and took MARTA to the start. (btw, for anyone wondering – no, MARTA is not horrible. It’s the same as any other public transportation, only not funded by the state, so it doesn’t go many places.
Since we got there so mega-early, I got to use the portos twice (and the beautiful and clean restroom inside the Ritz Carlton once) and the MarathonFoto people were like a friggin’ paparazzi.
It started to rain early on, though after hiding under the overhang at the Ritz for a while, it lightened up and seemed to vanish, only to return during the race. Oh well. We were garbage bag’d up to keep dry for the start.
Around 20 minutes to go time, we did some drills and warmed up with a jog around a nearby parking deck and street, not managing a full mile, but knowing we were running short on time to get into the crowded A corral. After the National Anthem and a prayer, it was go time!
I knew the first mile was flat and maybe a touch uphill, followed by almost two full downhill miles, before the ups started. I tried to find my happy pace for that first mile, and realized that even with the wave system, it was still really, really crowded out there. First mile went in 7:33, slower than desired. The rain was coming a little harder, and I welcomed it on the muggy morning as the hills started pulling us down. I let them carry me and tried not to destroy my quads: miles two and three went in 7:11 and 7:01, making up for the first slow mile. We passed a group of proselytizers, waving their bibles and signs that said “ARE YOU READY?” On the flip side, a cheery pastor outside an Episcopal church unassumingly threw holy water at us with a big grin on his face, and a few feet later was a water cooling station.
Then came Cardiac Hill. Oh, Cardiac Hill. I had been warned. Then repeatedly comforted that training in Athens would have me ready for anything. Then warned again. Shannon didn’t remember Cardiac hill – didn’t remember any particularly gnarly hills on the course. I think his brain blocked it out. Because that hill. would not. end. Halfway up, we passed the spinal patients, in wheelchairs, many of whom would probably never walk again. I told myself, They can’t walk. I can run. Let’s MOVE IT. It gave me a push for a little while, but the hill continued to destroy my mental capacity. Mile 4 went by in 7:55, and mile 5 wasn’t much better – it flattened and rolled a bit, and I tried to recover, but I had zero fight on the uphills. 7:45. In that mile I came across Tino and we traded encouragement and groaned about the hills. Soon after, I passed him and kept pushing.
We came into midtown and I found myself astride with a young boy who was getting ample cheers from the crowd. We paced off each other for a bit and gave each other silent encouragement. Up ahead, finally, the turn onto 10th. Mile 6 clicked in 7:05, and I cranked hard.
Seconds before the finish line, I realized I saw Shannon up ahead. I was on pace to shoot past him, and made a snap decision to just run with it. But he felt me go by and found one more gear on a rough day, and we finished practically stride for stride.
We briefly got separated but in the end met up by the R with the rest of the Athens Road Runners, who huddled under a tree to try to get out of the driving rain, which was beginning to chill us all to the bone. So many of my friends got PRs, and it was so wonderful to hear their victorious tales.
The rest of the day was spent with family and friends, eating and drinking and being merry.
In the end, no I wasn’t thrilled with my performance – I felt I was fit enough for a faster day, but the conditions and the toughness of the course – and my current lack of mental toughness – got me in the end. But I gained so much in the two months leading up to the race, learning where I need to go from here, and building the support system and group to help me along the way.
It’s taken me a long time to get around to writing this. A lot of that is due to, well, LIFE. Adulting. We’ve been traveling a lot, trying to rest a lot, trying to make lives for ourselves in our new home a lot.
So, there’s that. But I think at least a portion of the delay was the fact that I’m still wrapping my head around this race. I went in with no “real” goal – but all runners know how we feel about that. ‘Oh, I’m not racing this, I’m just running it for fun.’ But that voice in our head is still whispering, but I bet I could run X:XX time…
Training did not go even remotely as we hoped. It probably – definitely – went better than it could have. And I don’t 100% regret committing to a marathon when we had just moved. It kept us honest, and got our butts out the door. It forced us to seek out new routes, new running friends, and keep up with group runs. It was good for our whole selves, not just our running selves.
But it was hard. New climate, new scenery, new HILLS. New stresses, new strains, new routines. A lot of this felt unfamiliar and bizarre, even as we did something familiar and normally comforting, or challenging in a positive way. I broke down early in an attempted 20-miler and bagged it at 10. Some workouts were stellar; but many more than usual were absolute garbage. It was rough. It was far less than ideal. But we had “no goal.” That helped. We wanted to train hard, but with more freedom to dial back more than may typically be necessary – because we were dealing with more than typical.
I knew I could finish the race. Maybe walking a lot, or maybe I would surprise myself. But I could finish. I just don’t think I was prepared for the beautiful brutality this particular marathon had to offer…
Given the time zone situation, we were able to work a half-day on Thursday and fly into San Francisco by the early evening (super-long flights notwithstanding).
We crashed in a hotel by the airport, trying to get as much sleep as possible since Shannon was getting a sore throat and feared coming down with a cold so close to the race. The next morning (Friday), we headed back to the airport to grab our rental car and make the two-ish hour drive down the coast to Monterey.
Once in the Monterey area – which is lovely and charming, with perfectly cool, dry, breezy weather and a gorgeous coast – we got checked into our hotel: we stayed at one of the host hotels, the Best Western Victoria Inn Monterey. I was honestly surprised at how nice it was. “Best Western” always sounded on the cheap side to me (and it was pretty affordable, which is why we went with it) but it was a very clean, very nice room. We got settled, and shortly thereafter were able to meet with Danielle (my old training partner from Pittsburgh!) and her hubby, Jose, gorging ourselves on crepes, because #carboloading. We then were able to walk over to the expo, picking up bibs, bus tickets, and getting our shop on for a bit.
Danielle and Jose then headed up to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge, and Shannon and I spent a relaxing afternoon and evening exploring Monterey in the walkable portion near our hotel: in particular, Cannery Row.
We grabbed dinner at the Fish Hopper, splurging a little (money and calorie-wise) but still making smart choices since we were indulging in delicious seafood. Shannon’s throat soreness was still bad, so at the end of the meal I ordered him some tea…and a shot of bourbon to put in it.
Aaaaand then we made less smart choices, after some walking around to work off dinner, by getting giant ice creams at Ghiradelli. Worth it.
Saturday morning we got up decently early so we could join the Runner’s World group shakeout run with Bart Yasso! I saw a few editors I recognized from various articles, videos, and of course twitter, and got to meet Bart for the second time. We even got to chat a little bit – we talked about cats, of course. Oh, and running. A little. 🙂
We spent the rest of the day pretty much lounging (and eating, of course), staying off our feet and trying to get some extra rest, given our very…very…VERY early wake-up call.
There’s early. There’s ungodly early. And then there’s “did I even sleep yet?” early. This was the lattermost – we woke up at 2:30 am (I think – it’s been awhile) and quickly got dressed and lubed up, made sure we had all our stuff, including ample throwaway clothes, and headed to the busses. It was a VERY long ride to the start – I think close to an hour – and it was in pitch lack darkness on windy roads. So you could see hints of the beauty of the course, but it was largely a mystery. I ate the breakfast I made and packed for us – English muffin with Justin’s almond butter and banana slices.
We arrived at the start with about 90 minutes (I think) until go time. We wandered the rows of portopotties (blessing them a couple times each), which had hilarious signson them, as if they were houses being advertised: finished basement; pool inside; and the like. It was hilarious. Eventually, we popped a squat on the curb – joined by Danielle – and chatted and killed time and tried to stay warm.
After a final potty break, we realized we needed to hustle over to the start! We Gu’d up and head over, stripping off our layers at the last possible minute (the warmth of other people in the starting area helped a little). A drone buzzed ahead. The National Anthem was sung beautifully. And then, we were off!
The race started out in the redwoods, and a long, coasting downhill. The road wound, pitching upwards occasionally, but almost imperceptibly. Throughout the race, there were scattered pockets of spectators, but for the most part, it was a serene, solitary experience. I’d equate it (and this is for someone who wasn’t even remotely racing the event) to a jogging tour of Highway One from Big Sur to Carmel. I steadfastly ignored my watch, all the while clicking off sub-9 minute miles for the first handful.
I knew going in that this race was hilly. And I think training in Athens, GA, was a huge asset for my readiness for the course. That being said…I wasn’t ready for this course. Maybe I just wasn’t mentally ready. Because it is BRUTAL. And honestly, Hurricane Point wasn’t the problem.
Around mile 5 or 6, we had lost the shade and stared down a long, straight, slow grinding climb. Cows lowed on the sidelines, and I joked with Shannon that they were saying “gooooooo” instead of “mooooo.” But as the hill – the slope so gentle you’d barely notice it in a car, but which starts to drive nails into your legs after a while – kept going. I also began to realize that I was overdressed in my arm warmers, because despite the cool temperatures, after the first few miles there was very little sun protection: we were very exposed along the coast.
The reward of that hill, though, that took us away from the trees: the sea. The crashing, salt-wafting majesty of the sea. The wind and the sight took my breath away. We had previously discussed not stopping for photos, but threw this idea right away: we had zero time goal, and it was too beautiful not to stop for a couple snaps.
The hills really never ended on this course. I think I had gotten distracted by the huge SPIKE on the elevation chart that was the two-mile climb to Hurricane Point, and the way back down, that the rest seemed like uneventful little rollers. They are not. Do not discount them. Honestly, there are no flat parts of this course: if you’re not going up a hill, it’s because you’re going down the other side. It’s a quad-thrasher. But the beauty….I was almost tripping myself sometimes, straining my neck, trying to get another look, just one more peak of the gorgeousness all around me. The waves crashing on beaches below. The jagged, rugged cliffs. The sky and sea so endless and disappearing into one another in the distance.
When we got to mile 10, we were mentally prepared. Every mile had a unique, charming sign associated with it. This was a cutout of a bellhop-type figure standing near an old-style elevator, asking, “Going up?” We knew we had a two-mile grind ahead of us. I already wasn’t feeling mentally great, but I had been visualizing these two miles for months now, and Shannon promised to get me to the top if I helped pull him down the other side.
The first of those two miles is the worst: it’s incredibly steep, and you slow to a pace that feels more like walking, even as you try to pick up your feet. I focused on my breathing, my arm swing, lifting my knees. I tried to stay as relaxed as possible. As mile 11 clicked, it leveled off just enough to be a bit more comfortable, but it just. kept. going.
I kept telling myself to relax, to keep running, not to stop to walk just yet – I might have to do that later. The top would be worth it. The view would be amazing.
Boy, was I right. The view was sweeping and grand. I wish I had a photo for you, but at the same moment we were hit with the spectacular view, we were hit by a huge gust of wind. We’d pick up a food to run, and it would hit the other ankle – that’s how strong the wind was. So we kept trucking, controlled but flying down the other, super-steep side. I wondered what shape my quads would be in after this. Every step brought us closer to the midway point and the amazing Bixby Bridge, the pianist waiting for us.
After that bit of awe wore off, I again felt pretty run down. I had stopped a few miles early for the quickest pee break I could manage, and a couple miles after halfway, Shannon had to stop for a break (what’s hilarious to me is that Strava detects stops in the data and subtracts it from the total time, even as the watch keeps running – it knows you stopped moving, like to take photos or use the porto. Our time with that was… well, I’ll mention that later). We got going again, and the hills and sun and wind kept coming. I tried to refocus my mind on the positive: I was running Big Sur! It was SO BEAUTIFUL. I was really strong, and even if I wasn’t having a great race, I wasn’t trying to race fast, I was just happy to be out here. It only kinda worked. The beauty of the course occasionally distracted me enough. Other times, I still got into my own head.
The mile 20 sign was upon us (of course it was a brick wall) and I felt about the same, but it became clear very quickly that Shannon – who had seemed like he was feeling good and strong for most of the race to this point – was deteriorating rapidly. We had been doing everything we could for his head cold: we slept a TON (the night before the race notwithstanding), tons of fluids, and dosed him with Nyquil each night (NOT before the race) to ensure his sleep was restful.
Now it was exploding. He was coughing so much he was having trouble breathing. That, combined with the 20-mile wall? Suddenly, the guy who really did pull me through the first 20 miles needed some help. As with our first marathon in Philly, I largely forgot (or was able to set aside) the extreme amount of marathon pain setting into my legs and soldier on and focus on getting him to the finish line with me. Several times he told me to go ahead. I refused. This one, we were running together. This one, we were finishing together.
The hills rolled on. Around mile 23, there was the strawberry aid station of legend – I got a delicious, juicy strawberry that was absolute ambrosia at that point. We took walk breaks. We ran when we could. We wove across the road because, while we’d been told that it was best to stay in the middle because of the road camber, the camber shifted a lot, so you had to find that sweet, flat spot that wouldn’t anger your hips and knees.
I distracted Shannon as best I could: pointing out a beautiful sight here or there, the fact that there was a Tesla parked along the sidelines at one point, how close we were, and that run, walk, or crawl, we were going to make it.
There was one last, cruel hill in the 25/26 mile range before we were able to coast down, across a little bridge, and the finish line was at last in sight. The sun beat down on us as we tried to kick a little bit, but mostly just tried to keep it together.
We crossed the finish hand-in-hand, and promptly fell apart.
Finish time: 4:26:11
Here’s the funny thing: Strava took out our stops – the bathroom stops and the photos – and came up with a 4:17 finish time. That’s right. Our Philly Marathon time, basically. I find this rather remarkable.
As usual after a marathon, everything hurt. Everything was cramping. Every step was agony. My feet were destroyed (though less so, I think, than typical since I ran in Hokas – especially since I knew I’d be out there a while and the road camber was weird). My quads were shattered. I was sweaty and exhausted. Shannon was a mess for a good 30 minutes. I helped him to and through the food and water tent, and we sat for a few minutes, updating people on our finish (parents, mostly) before heading to the buses. During the bus-ride, he managed to recoup a bit, and we limped to the car and headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up.
We lounged around for a long while, snacking on things but otherwise waiting for our appetites to really come back after forcing in the initial calories immediately post-race. By early evening, we were ready for some burgers. After some googling, we wound up at a diner that was walkable from our hotel, and gorged on burgers and beer, while listening to a group of retirees participate in a ukulele lesson. It was completely adorable.
The rest of the trip was totally relaxing. We woke up Monday morning feeling…not that horrible, actually. I recall swinging my legs over the side of the bed and stepping down to the ground tentatively, fearing the worst. Yes, I was quite sore, but I think I was worse (and for longer) after Air Force in September (where I ran my PR of 3:52 and raced my guts out – well, OK, mild exaggeration. I was a bit of a quitter that day but aren’t we all a little after mile 22 :-/). Maybe it was because we hadn’t “raced” this one. Maybe I was better about re-fueling and re-hydrating. The world may never know.
We took our tired legs for some more exploring: we checked out the aquarium, and fed the leftover English muffins I had bought at the local Trader Joe’s to some very happy seagulls. Around mid-afternoon, we drove back up to San Francisco and ventured into the Oakland area to have a delightful dinner and night over at our friend Amanda’s. She’s a very cool tech geek with a very cool tech job and a very cool (and handsome) cat.
Tuesday morning, after a leisurely wake-up and shower, we headed to the airport to drop off the rental car and make our way back home! Shannon’s head cold 200% blew up on the plane that day – I felt awful for him. Being sick at 35,000 feet is the actual worst. I myself started feeling it on the drive back from the airport that night, and by the next day at work I was more and more miserable by the hour (I ended up taking Friday off work because I felt so bad). I guess when you’re not training “hard” for a marathon, instead of getting sick during peak week, you get sick during or right after the race.
It’s been now nearly three months since the race. I remember actively thinking sometime during the last 10K – “marathons suck, they are the worst, why do I run these? I am never running another marathon again, they’re stupid.”
What did I do a week and a half later?
The purpose of this race was two-fold: 1.) to have a spectacular experience at a bucket list race (CHECK); 2.) to get another 26.2 under my belt, with the goal of running two this year for the first time ever, and doing so in a way that wasn’t going to destroy me (CHECK).
The marathon and I have been on a bit of a journey together already – but it’s just getting started. It’s a tenuous, tough relationship – and I’m not always in love with it. But there’s this need, this passion, this fire burning. I want to master it. I want to face the beast and wrestle it to the ground.
Actual: Take four days off of running, go to Pilates on day three, spin on day four (gingerly), and try to run probably too-many-miles on the return day. All I can say is thank goodness I was meeting Danielle at a coffee shop that’s a quarter mile between our two places. That first quarter mile would’ve been painful for her to witness. Something funky was up with my right knee – it was tight and a little painful, and those first several strides were very herky-jerky. It loosened up, and I didn’t think too much of it. I just needed more rest. I iced, ibuprofen’d, took a couple more days off running.
Step 2: Don’t race for a while, especially if you kinda blew up during the last few miles of your marathon.
Actual: Umm… about that.
The Pittsburgh Great Race 10K was my very first race ever back in 2010, and I have run it every year since. This year, back in the spring, I had received an email from race organizers, inviting me to be a seeded runner based on my 2013 finish time. Inviting me. How could I *not* run this event in 2014, even 8 days out from a marathon, when I was going to have a seeded bib?
The other, and almost bigger, factor was this – we’re leaving Pittsburgh. My husband, who sits next to me now working on his thesis document, is defending on Monday, and in mid-December, we are departing our home here to make way for Athens, GA, where he will work at UGA and we will enjoy a whole new running community. I had to run this last one for the foreseeable future. Had to.
The in-laws were in town, so we headed downtown mighty early to get on the 5K bus, before going to close our eyes a few minutes inside my warm car before heading to our own bus. A long wait and a couple porto stops later, I went through a VERY painful warmup, where my knee still felt terrible and stiff, but seemed to kinda-sorta loosen. I jogged, butt-kicked, high-knee’d, carioca’d and prayed my knee into motion before squeezing into the very back of the seeded area and vowing now to race faster than half-marathon-ish pace. I had left music at home to further discourage myself from racing.
Well, I almost kept to it. But the excitement of this race – being my last one, being such a beloved one, being seeded – and the fact that it was my first race in my new Oiselle singlet (yes, I joined the flock – I hesitate to say I’m on the “team” since this segment of it is more frequent-buyer-membership, but it remains a fantastic community, and I love that a portion of my fee supports their elite athletes), and I’d already met a few new bird friends.
I worked the course as I’ve learned well to do over the last few runnings: a lot of up first mile, down second mile, up third mile, down fourth mile, up fifth mile, and SCREAMING down for mile 6. My pace dipped into the 7:1xs a couple times, but I let it slide back a little when we hit the rough part, Blvd of the Allies climb, striding along side a struggling runner and giving her a couple words of encouragement as we conquered the hill. I let myself kick that last mile and cruised to a 46:29 finish (7:28 avg, a little faster than I had told myself I would run).
And oh, the birds I got to meet (and see again, or meet in real life after knowing on twitter)! A really cool group of ladies.
Step 3: Once you’ve tried running again post-marathon, if things are still hurting, take more time off, assess, and perhaps consult a sports doc.
Actual: I totally aced that 10K, guys, it was such a great tempo effort, I love running, let’s run 4 miles two days later!
Or, you know, limp painfully for four miles. It sorta loosened, but really didn’t. I had to do something. Stat.
Finally, I decided to be smart and take at least a week off. I made an appointment with my primary doc (damn insurance requires a referral to a sports doc) and during that week of wait, I did all non-impact cardio (rowing, cycling, elliptical), plus weights, and anything else I could think of that didn’t remotely irritate my knee. I saw my doc the following Wednesday, shirked off annoying questions like “how did you hurt your knee? so you hurt it running a marathon?” and “maybe you didn’t take enough time to rest it?” and politely and firmly asked for a sports doc referral. Got to THAT doc a week later, and having taken time off from running, doing ample cross-training, and doing a 1-mile test run the day before that appointment (after a thorough warmup) and felt no pain, he greenlit me to run and build mileage (smartly) and wrote me a script for physical therapy. Yes!
Step 4: Use PT as a way to work on muscle imbalances and work on kinks. Cross-train!
Actual: Yeah, this part I did right. I saw a PT twice a week, and after being embarrassed twice (once by the sports doc, then by the PT) with my weak hips – “ok, lay on your side, left you leg, I’m going to push down and you resist” *collapse* “yeahhh….” – it was decided that what I really needed was a hip strengthening regimen. And boy did my PT deliver.
Weak hips in runners are pretty much the cause of all ills (or so it seems to me, a non-medical-expert), and in my case, weak hips, especially the right hip, were letting my knees collapse in and putting too much strain on them, thus giving me classic patellofemoral pain syndrome, aka “Runner’s Knee.”
I now have an arsenal of hip exercises – some basic, everyday strength ones where all I need is a band and a space of floor or yoga mat – and some machine work for days I’m at the gym. By the end of four weeks of biweekly PT, daily strength exercises, and weekly machine work, when he tested my hip strength, it was “a gazillion percent better.” Though apparently my hamstrings are still problematically tight.
I now do my exercises 2-3 times a week, with one of those days being a full legs workout with machine work. Weak hips be damned.
Step 5: Using your new PT tools and including lots of XT still, build your mileage back smartly to a comfortable base for your off-season
Actual: Still in progress, but going well!
I’m still supplementing mileage with the elliptical (bleh), attending Pilates Tuesday nights whenever possible, doing arms workouts once or twice a week, going to Wednesday spin, doing my PT and strength work, and running…increasing mileage very slowly. I avoided running two days in a row for a while, and am still proceedings with caution in that respect, though it seems to bother my knee less and less. I ran 8.5ish a week before the EQT 10-miler with the hubs and Kim, and it felt awesome, despite the brisk chill on that otherwise lovely morning.
The closest I had to a knee pain relapse was the week after EQT, when I raced Sunday, took Monday off, ran Tuesday, and then proceeded to take the rest of the week off from running until a longish run Saturday (which felt fine) when my knee felt not-so-hot, especially going down stairs. I think I raced harder than I thought. Speaking of…
Step 6: When all-systems-are-go, return to racing (for fun! it’s the off-season, after all).
Actual; Well, I mean, yeah. But at least I wasn’t injured for this one. We hadn’t done EQT 10-miler last year so definitely wanted to give it a shot this year. Kim scored a last minute bib, so we decided to try to run it together and prevent each other from racing too hard. We’d been thinking low 8:xx pace, but as race day neared, we both wanted to challenge what we felt were soft 10-mile PRs (all the 10-milers I’ve done were done as training runs at half-marathon pace. Not easy, but not all out either for the distance). Suddenly we found ourselves amped to run in the 7:40s.
The day dawned cold, but we all quickly realized we overdressed, as the any wind was mostly blocked or absent (minus a couple wind tunnels) and the sun made it pleasant. That was okay, it was still doable, especially for “just” 10 miles. I always forget how to dress for 40* when I’m not yet acclimated, especially while racing when blood is running hotter.
We clicked off miles in the 7:40s and 7:50s, feeling good and soaking up the sights – the view of downtown from the West End Bridge never fails to give me chills. The front half of the course was windier and chillier than I expected, and while we whined about that occasionally, we were still running very strong.
Around mile 6, though, by an aid station, I lost Kim. As I tossed my cup I looked around for her but realized I had dropped her. We crossed the 16th street bridge and I tried not to panic. I lost my buddy. She was keeping me honest and calm. What if I freak out and blow up, right now? Can I hold this pace? I examined my breathing and stride, realizing I was fine, and told myself to suck it up and soldier on – Kim wanted me to, I knew it. If the situation were reversed, I know I would want her to go kick ass.
We had a couple out-and-back like turns and my perfectly on point playlist got me back to a better mindset. The last couple miles are a long, straight stretch, with a full view of downtown. I’d been warned that part gets mentally grating since you can see for so long, and I was glad for the warning. But as the finish came into view, I skipped to my final song and kicked hard, clocking in a low 7:1x mile for a solid PR: 1:17:10 (with a negative split! 7:49 pace first half, 7:43 pace overall). I had sacrificed a glove to the running gods for that PR, too, having tucked my gloves under my arm at a water stop, and – between juggling the cup and an empty Gu packet – realizing one had slipped away as I reached under my arm for them. Damn.
Kim also PR’d and we celebrated with some Starbucks.
The next several weeks will be hectic ones – the move is taking everything I have right now – but I won’t be letting my running or strength work slip. Running is keeping me sane, and on Thanksgiving, we’ll earn a little extra turkey and potatoes by running the Aurora Farms 4-miler again that morning (hoping to crush my EXTREMELY soft 4-mile PR). I’ll be soaking up every last bit of Pittsburgh running I can, and hopefully will start next year as a strong, invincible, newly minted Georgia runner.