Tag Archives: missing a BQ

Unfinished (Glass City Marathon Race Report)

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17917930_615037638706384_2742475875261566572_o

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

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

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

Race day

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

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

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

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

18121146_615269032016578_3735000749964122283_o

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

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

55931
Girlfriends are the best.

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

The Race

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

56251
In the middle with the white hat and white arm warmer. The woman in the foreground has her hand raised right in front of my shoulder.

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

8:04, 7:59, 7:59

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

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

55930
Sarah, in purple beside me, was a metronome. Also note that we have not only twin shoes, but are perfectly stride-for-stride here.

5625256253

7:57, 7:56, 8:03

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

55929

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5625556256

56257
Blowing a kiss to my amazing crew

8:00, 8:06, 8:03

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

636307325558379814636307325595411775636307325630531863

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

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

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

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

8:16

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

8:22

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

8:28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

56258
Badass women with hearts of gold.

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

all smiles

Race Report: Snickers Albany Marathon

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

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

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

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

Did I really give it my all?

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

Pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

regina

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

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

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

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

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

The race

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

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

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

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

I let the pace group go.

635929724466385680
The photographers almost exclusively caught me on downbeats. Disregard the zombie face.

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

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

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

635929724302634329635929724239821304

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.

635929724097006989635929724207320888

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.

635929724410291268635929724438416572

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.

635929724339197063635929724357947183635929724384509853

9:06; 7:37 pace final sprint

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

Post-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something bigger is coming. Watch this space.

34796

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

SAM garmin elev
338 ft elevation gain

Here is Strava:

SAM strava elev
238 ft elevation gain

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