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.
I raced a half-marathon on March 4. It went amazingly well. One would think I would have written and posted a race report almost immediately. But I haven’t. The truth is, I’m having a hard time finding words. Finding purpose. Finding a point in writing about a race in the usual amount of detail. You see, in the time since that race, I have attended two funerals, spaced apart from each other by about two weeks. This isn’t the first time I have run a race that was followed by loss. In fact, one of those losses came a couple days prior to this latest race, and it weighed on my mind and heart.
The Thursday before the Albany Half, my husband’s maternal grandfather – his last living grandparent – passed away. He was in his nineties; he had long outlived his wife, as well as one of his children, and he was ready to go. But even when you know that the leaving has let that person have the peace they have long been seeking, the current of loss remains for those left behind. I did not know this man well – though the handful of brief interactions I had with him cemented my belief that this was a lovely human – but I felt the loss deeply, given how much I love my husband, his family, his sweet mother who just lost her father. Given how recently I lost my paternal grandmother, who was similarly in her nineties and long ready to go. Given how, at the end of one visit, when he could not get out of bed to see us off, I was reminded of embracing my own maternal grandfather similarly near the end, feeling his ribs through his thin flesh and clothing.
My sweet mother-in-law asked what was convenient for us for traveling up to Chicago for the funeral given the race, even as I insisted that this did not matter. The race was of little consequence. The funeral was scheduled for the following Tuesday, and thus we continued with our plans to run with whatever we had that day.
In the days leading up to the race, I had no plans to truly taper – I was going to race it, but my training plan did not back off much, so I would still have somewhat tired legs. But on Monday night’s run, I was feeling my right IT band a bit more than I’d like. Tuesday morning, a mile or so into the run, it wasn’t loosening up well enough for my taste. I have battled on-and-off ITBS long enough to know the early signs and how cautious I need to be when it begins to flare. I bagged the run, and scheduled a visit with my massage therapist for the next morning. I booked her for thirty minutes to focus on my legs, and she gave me at least 45 minutes, finding my IT band to be all stuck with my vastus medialis and lateralis. I kept stretching and rolling the rest of the week and was cautious and under coach’s instructions: a few easy miles Thursday, and 3 mile shakeout on Friday. I felt okay. I suppose I ended up tapering in the end.
Shannon and I left work Friday after a half-day of work, and hit the road for Albany, leaving the pets alone for 36 hours with extra food and water. We weren’t going to be gone for very long, though we had never left the rabbit alone for more than 24 hours before (she did fine). Partway through the drive, an Athens runner friend and his wife called to say they were having car trouble and asked if we could help them out. They had a couple check lights come on and wanted to leave their car at a dealership in Albany, and thus needed help getting to and from dinner (we had planned on eating together at IHOP, with some others) and getting to their hotel. We had time to check into our own hotel first (a few miles from the race site) and bumped into Chrissy and James just after their shakeout miles. It worked out fine in the end, meeting up at packet pickup (which was quick and painless) and then taking the car to the dealership, which was literally next door to IHOP. We gorged ourselves on pancakes with friends, and got back to the hotel to get to bed at a semi-reasonable hour. I did plenty of stretches, especially for my hips, before bed. I felt fairly confident I had gotten the issues under control, and had a massage scheduled for fairly early the morning after the race.
The 4:30 alarm jarred me awake, and I recalled a dream similar to the one I had had before Chickamauga (in which I didn’t recall the race at all but dreamt I had run a 3:36. Not quite prescient, but only a couple minutes off). In this dream, I was running a workout back in Athens with 13.1 in the middle at HMP and nailed it, though I remembered none of it. I took this as a good sign.
I got to work with my usual morning routine of making oatmeal with nut butter in the room, texting Chrissy at 4:45 when I went downstairs for coffee. We were out the door before 6:00 am, piling into Chrissy and James’ car, with Dustin and Catherine following behind us. James and Shannon were being huge goofballs, and Shannon got James to peel out at a light, briefly forgetting that Catherine was trying to caravan behind us. Oops.
We got parked and situated, though after we were half a mile from the car I realized I had left my water there – it was fine since they had some at the start. It was freezing. The starting temperature was about 38*, and I was shivering in my throwaway long sleeve, which covered my ARR/Fleet Feet racing team singlet, arm warmers, gloves, as well as throwaway earband, Oiselle bum wrap skirt, and calf sleeves. I’d gone mentally back and forth on my outfit the night before, not wanting to overdress for the hard effort, especially when I knew it would be sunny. I had wanted to get throwaway gloves but never managed to, and figured it was so cold I might want to keep them on. I also knew we’d have support from Athens friends on the course and I could probably toss them my gloves, since this was a good pair I wanted to keep.
We hit the portos immediately and I emptied my bladder one last time. I knew I was well hydrated and with it being so brisk, I wasn’t worried about drying out so I restricted my drinking the last hour so I didn’t have to pee again right before the start (or during the race). With about 20 minutes to go, I headed out on my warmup mile, balling my hands into fists, trying to get them warm.I heard the anthem playing as I rounded a street a quarter mile away. Once I got to the start corral, getting warm was no longer an issue with all those bodies around me.
Shannon and I exchanged good luck kisses, and I wished my running pals luck and ass-kicking powers. I was particularly psyched for Chrissy, who I knew was ready to totally fuck shit up. She had told me she had thrown the explicit sub-1:30 goal out the window, but I also knew she was 100% capable of going for it. She reminded me not to get sucked in with the pack early on as we lined up pretty close to the front (though I tried not to line up TOO close).
The race announcer counted down, and I tried to take deep, relaxing breaths. With little warning, right at 7:00 on the nose, a start cannon boomed, and we were off.
I told myself to relax early on, knowing the first mile or so was slightly uphill, and tried to ignore the urge to get right on pace (or too fast) early. I knew I had a sub-1:40 in me, a goal I had been trying to reach since getting so close in spring 2014, and my workout paces of late had spelled the possibility of something even faster. Whether it was this pressure on myself, or the mental state I had been in that week from my IT band and the loss just two days earlier, the idea of running hard was quickly putting me in a panic. I breathed. I shook my hands out. I focused on my surroundings, the lovely morning, seeing friends out cheering and taking photos. I forced away the memories of my crash-and-burn marathon here just a year ago. My first mile clicked off fast at 7:32 (goal pace to break 1:40 is 7:37). I swallowed fear.
The two courses – half and full – split from the start, so for the first few miles it was nice and quiet. I found myself with a small amount of company, and noticeably more men than women. The women I did see, I tried to pace off of and motivate myself with. One man in a neon green shirt proved a steady pacer for the first few miles, though a few times I would glance at my watch and see I was going too fast.
7:32, 7:38, 7:35
I started to recognize sights from the previous year doing the full, and tried not to let this intimidate me. My inner critic was loud and boisterous that morning, and I tried to talk over her. I’m a different runner than I was a year ago. I’m much faster, much stronger, much smarter. I have run a BQ since last year. I have proved myself far, far tougher than I was last year. I’m super fit, more fit than I have ever been. My breathing is completely relaxed. Listen to it. Even through this positive self-talk, I felt my heart palpitate and I swallowed little balls of fear. I would be on the heels of the guy in green, and see my pace dipping below 7:30, and despite my effort feeling relaxed, I pulled back on the reins and my stress level rose. What was going on? My mind was also deep inside my right leg, worrying my IT band would blow up on me any moment. For a few miles, my right leg felt like it was filled with lead. It was dead weight, and I wished I could stop and shake it out. What if I can’t do this today? What if I have to quit? What if I fail?
I got a mental boost around mile 4 when, at a water stop, I saw James and Catherine cheering their hearts out. I smiled big, and peeled off my gloves (the earband had come off during mile 2) and tossed them in their direction.
It was during mile 5 that my race could have gone one of two ways. I found myself in a mental hole that felt familiar – one that I felt in the midst of the Albany full just a year before. I doubted my ability to hold this pace. I doubted my right to be on the course, to be going for my goal. I doubted my legs. I doubted my heart and lungs, even as they stayed steady for me.
Then something happened I have never before experienced. At the bottom of the hole, I found a way out. Somehow, I made it so my slowish mile 5 would be the slowest of the day. Somehow, I picked myself up. I kept fighting. I dug inside my mind and body and heart, and recalled how far I had come. The workouts I had crushed, the doubting voices I had beaten into submission, the fight I knew was in me now and growing every second. I focused on my relaxed breathing, trying to mind my tangents (though more on that later), finding runners to pick off as the front-ish pack I was in was growing thinner and more spread out. By mile 8, I had fully turned my race around. I visualized my inner doubter as a physical being, and I told her to leave. I let her shout her doubting words – you can’t do this; you aren’t strong enough; you aren’t fast enough; you don’t have it in you; your IT band is going to start hurting; this is too hard – to the wind, swept away behind me. I imagined her standing on the curb and watching her words fall to the sidewalk – impotent, ineffectual. Her words couldn’t touch me. I imagined enormous wings spreading out behind me and I took flight. No one could stop me but that voice, and I left her in the dust.
7:39, 7:38, 7:30
As the course wound through neighborhoods on the back half, I took this time, this second chance at these miles to enjoy their beauty. A year before, in these miles, I was in immense pain. But now I could soak in the beauty. The turns were many, and I honestly wasn’t sure at times how to work the tangents. The course was coned off to provide directions. At places, this was because only half the main road we traversed was closed to traffic. But on these side streets, I was unsure if these were merely guiding the direction and turns or if I was meant to stay on a particular side of the cone. This probably contributed to the fact that my Garmin reading was well over the distance. Chrissy expressed confusion with the tangents as well, and since she had a lead bike with her (badass), she didn’t want to accidentally cut a cone and be DQ’d as a result.
At one point, rounding a large turn around a lake, I looked up at the trees that arced over the street and tried to memorize how the light looked as it filtered through, Spanish moss ornamenting the branches. I wished in that moment I could have taken a picture.
I kept racing hard. Everything was clicking, and I kept one foot tapping the break. I didn’t want to kick too soon, but running hard felt absolutely delicious. The dead leg feeling in my right leg had gone, though I had creeping numbness up and down it for most of the race. At one point in the last 5K I touched my right leg to see whether my shorts had crept up at all – they hadn’t, it was just that my leg was that numb (an issue I have had for years that sometimes goes away and sometimes reappears, possibly exacerbated or caused by mild scoliosis that crunches my right side and sometimes sets my hips out of place – my massage therapist always checks their alignment). I ignored it and kept running.
7:29, 7:33, 7:29
The course curved onto a familiar turn where, last year, I recalled the 3:40 pacer coming up beside me and passing me, and my despair that day exploded into devastation. But today, I was still racing hard. I still had so much to give. I was trying to hold back for the final mile, but keeping myself in check was getting harder. I picked off a few runners who were beginning to struggle, and the enthusiastic volunteers and course cheerers garnered huge grins from me. I brushed my hand across the shoulder where I had attached the memorial pin for Ashley, the local runner who just last fall was taken too soon by a careless, criminally negligent driver. I dedicated that mile to her. In the next mile, I thought of my grandmother who left this earth last July, the day I raced a half-marathon. I thought of my favorite Hebrew School teacher, who passed in December. I thought of my stepfather’s twin brother, who passed a couple weeks before my grandmother. And I thought of my husband’s grandfather, Tom.
I felt the strength of all these loved ones in my feet and body and heart. I let them drift in and out of my consciousness as I returned focus to the race at hand. I could no longer keep myself reined in. I was letting loose now.
I passed the last water stop with just a very quick sip and for the first time, dabbed a bit of the water on myself. I had kept extremely cool during the race, and know in retrospect I could have done without armwarmers, but I was reasonably comfortable. The course curved again, and I had a long rolling straightaway that I recalled cursing the year before. I was relishing it now. I crossed over the railroad tracks (carefully marked with bright spray paint) and struggled to navigate the sharp turn onto sidewalk, under a covered pathway for another sharp turn, and finally onto the last pathway. I knew it was going to be fairly close: my watch had been on the mile markers at the start, but the last 10K I was beeping at the marathon markers for a while (so .1 ahead of the real distance) and in the end, I was beeping even ahead of the marathon markers). I gutted it out.
I saw the finish banner up ahead and heard friends yelling for me. I sprinted with all I had, a big, stupid grin on my face when I saw that I would not be letting that clock tick past 1:40, and my chip time would be at least a few seconds better. I had it. I cruised across the line with pure joy and elation and pride. When I knew I had it, looking at the clock, crossing the line, I yelled out in victory. Yes!!!
final sprint (Garmin read .3): 6:14 pace
Chip time: 1:39:29 (PR)
My friends found me quickly as I wobbled, struggling with medal and water and heat blanket. I cried. I cried like I always do, whether from disappointment or pride, this time from the latter. I knew I had given a great effort and ran a great race. I also knew, deep down, I had even more to give: had this been my A-race, a 1:38 or even 1:37 may have been in the cards. Rather than feeling disappointment in this, I felt confidence, knowing I had that much more to give for my upcoming marathon.
Once Shannon finished (1:48 and change – very proud of him), I checked on him before letting him recoup in quiet while I struggled through a sore, tired cooldown mile on the nearby greenway with friends. Chrissy had done what I knew she could: an amazing PR and just over 1:30 (given the difficulty of running the tangents, uncertainty as to what they actually were, if it had been clearer, I know she would have run sub-1:30). She also nailed 3rd woman overall. When we came back, results for top 40 were posted, and I saw my name at the very bottom of this list. At first it seemed I was 4th in my age group, but later on it turned out I had managed 3rd! I won a half-zip pullover and a beer cup. The guy in the green shirt also snagged an AG award, and we thanked each other for the pacing push and congratulated one another on the race. We also all grabbed several more Snickers bars from a nearby tent.
We waited for several other friends to finish, including Justin, who came within seconds of breaking 3 hours (though again with the course tangents question, we mentally gave him credit for breaking 3 hours). He ran an extraordinary race and watching him finish and seeing the emotion overtake him was fantastic to witness.
When we started to get too chilled, we hobbled back to the car and headed to the hotel, parting ways to get cleaned up and celebrate with the various food we were craving (Shannon and I wanted pizza from Mellow Mushroom next door; Chrissy wanted fries from Chick-fil-A).
The next 48 hours were filled with driving. We drove back to Athens. We unpacked, repacked. I got a long, much needed post-race massage with my usual person Sunday morning. We got the pets set up for the sitter (I had texted her when I knew this was about to happen, and fortunately she was available even though it was spring break). We hit the road with Shannon’s parents around 4:30 PM and got nearly to the Kentucky border before calling it a night. I ran a sore and slow but decent feeling 5 mile recovery run on a hotel treadmill (it was raining and I didn’t have spare shoes) Monday morning. We drove on into Chicago. Tuesday morning, I ran 8 sweaty miles on that hotel treadmill. And that morning we said goodbye, not for the first time lately, nor the last. During the service, we recited Psalm 23. Just as we had for my grandmother in July. I cracked.
The entire week was about recovery–listening to my body, listening to my heart. I pushed myself through a stressful, short work week (some shit had hit the fan during my absence). When I knew an early Thursday morning 10 miler was impossible that week (we had gotten back to Athens after 11 pm Wednesday night), I leaned on my amazing running girlfriends for 10 great miles in the evening. I managed to survive 20 miles in fairly decent form that Saturday, in no small part thanks to friends like Chrissy.
I was starting to feel okay again. That’s when it always gets you, isn’t it? Monday morning, I had 8 recovery miles to run. And I felt like hot garbage. There is no other way to describe it. Dead, shitty feeling legs. I felt a little pull in the bottom of my left foot, but didn’t think much of it in the wake of the way my whole body and mind felt. I quit at 3 miles, since it felt worthless. I was overdue for a bad run, I figured, especially given how – though I had felt sore and tired, sure – the recovery week post-race had gone amazingly okay. It had been an intense couple of weeks. But it wasn’t over yet.
That evening, Shannon and I spent a quiet evening at home; we had planned to skip the Monday night run, hence running in the morning, to celebrate his birthday peacefully and by ourselves. A text message from my dad shattered the peace. My uncle, one of his elder brothers, was entering hospice. He had been diagnosed with stage 3b gastric cancer just last summer, and his name had been in my prayers constantly, shared at synagogue during the prayer for healing. At my grandmother’s funeral, I was shaken by his noticeably gaunt appearance, but he seemed at peace with this likely fate: he was living life as he always had –with joy, with family, to the fullest.
Tuesday morning I had 10 miles with 10 x quarter mile hill repeats on tap. I made it a couple miles before the tightness in my left foot – in a classic plantar fasciitis position, between ball of foot and heel (though heel itself felt fine, including upon waking) reared up enough to give me pause, I turned back, and walked in the last tenth, feeling the pulling inch towards pain that made me wince. I quickly scheduled an appointment with my massage therapist for the next morning. An hour before, she cancelled; she had fallen and hurt her hand.
That night, my dad called to say his brother would likely pass in the next ten days. The sound of his voice broke my heart.
My foot was in no pain in daily activities, even when first waking up, or standing from being still for a long time, and in contact with my coach, I tried to run on Thursday, opting for treadmill in case I needed to bail out, with a goal of 3-4 easy miles to test things out. A mile and a half in, the tightness returned and pulled towards pain. I tried the elliptical, then the bike. Mark told me to get off the bike and rest. I called the local orthopedic clinic, where I couldn’t get in that week, and they recommended their urgent care clinic for faster service instead. I decided to try that Friday morning, booking a backup appointment at another PT clinic in Athens for the following Monday afternoon. I also found an alternate massage therapist, and booked an appointment for Saturday afternoon.
But plans being what they are – life being what it is, this month being what it was – I cancelled most of this. We had a friend over for dinner Thursday evening – he’s been struggling lately, too, and I wanted to feed him a nice meal and hang out and chat, because there is nothing more healing than being fed (and, honestly, feeding others is healing for me too), or at least so I have always found to be the case (perhaps my Jewish background). While he was over that night, my father texted my brother and me again. My uncle had passed.
I called my dad. His broken heart crackled over the distance of the phone. I would have given anything to be with him in that moment. To bring him to Athens, to feed him, too. His breathing ragged, he told me the plans he knew of – that the funeral would be either Sunday or Monday. Right before I had called him I had received an email from my cousin, the daughter of this uncle, saying it would be Sunday, and I passed along this information. Within minutes, I had booked a hotel, called my brother and his wife to make plans. He would drive up from where he is in training right now in Oklahoma, and his wife would stay there with the boys (it would be too much to cart the little ones all that way). We both were facing about nine hour drives, drives we knew we could do so that we could all be together. “I don’t have anything to wear. I don’t have a suit with me,” my brother lamented. My father-in-law would lend us a tie to bring to him. It would be okay. Our presence was more important. Our family being together – as many of us as could be there – was what mattered.
You give what you can, when you can, as often as you can.
The next morning, Friday, I went to the urgent care clinic and received a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis – caught early. They gave me a script for PT, which I gladly took. I was told not to run through Sunday, and try to run on Monday if doing well. I was given additional stretches and exercises to do. I was told to ice and take ibuprofen twice a day (if I could tolerate it, which fortunately I can), even if my foot didn’t hurt.
Shannon and I traversed familiar interstates – the drive to St. Louis was two-thirds the same as our recent drive to and from Chicago – and arrived at my aunt’s home Saturday evening. So much of our family was there, and the extra strands of our extended support systems buttressed everything leading up to the funeral service, and when shiva began. In-laws of my cousins (the children of my uncle) lifted them up, gave of themselves, helped keep watch of my uncle’s grandchildren.
I felt the loss of running acutely. My ritual, my healing salve, my outlet was unavailable to me. I diligently performed my stretches and exercises. I pushed away the loss of running, and felt the other loss – the real loss – wash over me. I hoped that my foot would heal enough, would be okay enough to allow me to run the marathon in April. If for no other reason, then to run those miles for my uncle. With his spirit in my heart and his strength in my feet. When words fail me, I know running is there – and I honor those whose strength sustains me through it.
As we stood in the chilly wind at the burial service, I could hardly eke out the words. Psalm 23. The wind billowed at points when his wife, his children shared their words. Every time they had to stop, when the words stuck in their throats, I wanted to run to them. But I knew they were not alone as they stood there, struggling to say those words.
I’m climbing back into my mileage. I ran two hours this past Saturday with minimal issue. I ran pain-free on Monday, and had an amazing workout on Tuesday, including 4x mile at 10K pace with minimal foot tightness. I’m cautiously optimistic. I’ll see my PT and a massage therapist once a week through the marathon. I will run with what I have. I will remember where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.
I will run for all those I have lost. For the peace they now have. For the loves ones they left behind, whose grace and strength astounds me, exemplifying the souls who left those bodies, now touching each of us.
I run what I can, when I can, with everything I have to offer then. And sometimes, a little more than I thought.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside still waters.
He restoreth my soul; He leadeth me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff – they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou has anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
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.
In just over two weeks, I run the Erie Marathon in my second “real” attempt to qualify for Boston. The race is the day before registration opens (though to faster qualifications than I am currently capable of). It’s only two hours north of Pittsburgh, the beloved city where I used to live, and where I’m flying into. Not only do I have a few friends coming up to cheer me on, but my dad is driving in from Cleveland as well.
I’ve been largely quiet on here this training cycle. Part of it is blogging malaise – you let enough weeks and posts and ideas go by, it’s harder and harder to get going again. But it’s also been a fairly rough, emotional summer. I can’t really complain – I have it pretty good, and I have close friends and family members who are struggling with worse. But it’s unfair to compare one person’s burdens with another. We all have them.
This summer has been one bookmarked by tragedy. One peppered with breakdowns – in and out of running. The heat and humidity have been crushing, and more than once, it has crushed me. The treadmill and I have gotten very, very close – it was my friend for numerous shorter runs and workouts, and three long runs: two 18s and a 20, all with many miles at goal race pace.
In some ways, I’ve felt a little disconnected from this marathon. A lot of the time, it doesn’t feel real. Many mornings I feel like I’m going through the motions of a run or workout. I’m not sure what that means. Perhaps it’s just a result of having been marathon training what feels like nonstop since August 2015. Maybe it’s better to just go through the motions, have it all feel like routine, like normal, than to put too much weight on each workout, each day, each week. Maybe that’s what becoming a successful marathoner is. Maybe it’s just a part of me now.
A few things have started to feel real. Booking the flight made it feel real. Talking with my coach and with friends about the race makes it feel real. Thinking about how I’m going to bring my pre-race breakfast with me for the flight in, how many possible outfits I might pack, looking at where I can get my pre-race dinner, and where to eat for my post-race celebration. Figuring out when we need to head back to Pittsburgh to catch our flight. There’s a wedding between here and there – a dear high school friend, who is also a runner. My last long-ish run is on a Thursday as a result of the wedding festivities; not ideal, but it’ll do. I’ll feel better doing it at all, unlike having skipped it entirely last time before Albany, with that wicked cough I was fighting.
The taper so far feels normal – the miles are gradually ramping down, the workouts shortening, the self-awareness to every niggle and pull heightening. All of my taper crazies are coming out. Actually, they started coming early. At the beginning of this month, on a Monday night Fleet Feet run, I felt a twinge. I had run 4 on the treadmill that morning and had 6 to run that night. I got in an extra mile just before the group run with a friend; it was warm out but there was a breeze, and the sky looked threatening all around. Athens weather can be bizarre: there will be pockets of showers. It can pour on one side of town, and be bone dry a couple miles away. Another friend of mine once remarked on observing that it was raining in his front yard, but not his backyard; I had lunch with someone and saw it raining across the street.
So we did a quick loop near the store, and it started to rain, at first very pleasantly. We remarked on how nice it felt, how it was cooling things, how neither of us had had a nice rainy run in quite sometime, a relief we would have appreciated at any point this brutal summer. Then, it started to rain harder. As we turned off a neighborhood street and onto a main road, maybe .2 miles from the store, it started to pour; we saw a sheet of rain coming at us, and as it did, we started to sprint, cutting across a parking lot and diving under an overhang, the rain stinging our cheeks as we did. We laughed at the absurdity of it as it continued to downpour for twenty-five minutes. A girl walking back with groceries sought the same shelter, and we chatted with her. Another runner friend snuck up behind us and kept us company as we all waited it out. Multiple firetrucks went to and fro. I had never seen such rain, and for so long.
At last, the rain cleared enough to get the rest of the way to Fleet Feet, and we waited with the big group a few more minutes – lightning delay. At about 6:30 (30 minutes later than scheduled), we headed out on our run, adjusting the 5-mile route because the trails and the intramural fields would be a disaster. I wound up alone a lot, but it was lovely – it had cooled off drastically, even if steam was rising from the pavement. I was coming down Lumpkin hill when my left upper hamstring felt…weird. Just…weird. Not painful and not tight, per se, but off. I thought about stopping to stretch it, but once the hill started going back up, and eventually flattening, it gradually dissipated. I rolled it out later that night at home, but otherwise thought nothing of it.
Tuesday morning, I had 11 miles to do (with some strides), and planned to do the first half or so with friends. Within the first quarter mile, my hamstring and glute grew uncomfortably tight. I paused to stretch it out. It didn’t seem to be working. I decided to give it a mile to loosen, or I’d back it. Thankfully, it did; I was hyper-aware of it for a few miles, but eventually let it go. We got in 5.25 miles together, and as the group separated, I decided to just take a ride back to Ramsey to finish on the treadmill. During the break, it tightened again so I pre-rolled it, eased into the run with a few minutes of walking, and finished the miles without incidence. I did the strides, though did them slower than typical, exercising caution.
Wednesday isn’t a run day, so I was grateful for a rest day. I had already been in touch with my coach, and told him it seemed fine. I was rolling it and stretching it. It seemed manageable, whatever it was. We were both keeping a close eye on it. Thursday morning, I had a track workout – 5×1200 @ 10K pace. I had a couple miles of warm up (done with a friend, who also planned to do the workout with me, though at his own pace), and I had zero issues. It didn’t feel like there was anything there to even warm up. But a lap and a half into the first 1200 rep, my upper hamstring, glute, and groin seized in rapid succession on the left side. I got through the lap, then went to the side to stretch it out. I tried walking it out, jogging it out, nothing. I quickly gave up, and walked the mile back to Ramsey to hit the foam roller. Time to see a doctor.
I was able to make an appointment for the next morning, and I was fully resting until I got seen, so I skipped my Friday morning recovery miles. At that point, I felt okay, and the physician’s assistant (who was awesome and only concerned with getting me to the marathon healthy) palpated and tested my rage of motion and could find no pain points (of course). An X-ray of my pelvis showed no issues, other than minor impingement in the left hip, just my biomechanics. She prescribed me a 24-hour anti-inflammatory to take for two weeks, and a script for PT.
Since I had no pain, I went ahead and ran my 20-miler the next day, with express instructions to pull the plug if I had issues (which I was fully prepared to do, clearly). I only ran the first few miles solo, running the rest with my friend Krystina (who had 18 and ran 18.5 because she is a saint who wouldn’t leave me) and a few others for parts. It was brutally hot and muggy that morning; 4 miles in when I got to the meetup point, I noted I was full on dripping already, and I was going through fluids fast. We walked. We wanted to quit. We soaked our heads and ponytails multiple times at water fountains. But we made it. It was the ultimate “time on our feet” exercise. I felt minor tightness in the hamstring/glute a few times, but never pain, even when I was exhausted and almost falling apart. Krystina truly saved me that morning.
Since then, I’ve gone to PT twice and have been diligent about my exercises, which are primarily stretches for my hamstring and hip flexor (the flexor also seemed to tighten in response to the glute/hammie tightening – not surprising), as well as exercises to strengthen my hips and glutes. The PT also wants to address my lower back posture – I have an inherited hyperextension, so I’m not leaning forward far enough and tucking my pelvis enough when I run, which leads to underactive glutes. I’ve had a couple small flare ups – I bagged some strides a week ago Tuesday because I felt the tightness, but I got the miles in. But other than that, it’s been okay. I had the shortest ortho follow-up in history today, and the PA was happy with my progress. The nurse who took me in to the exam room gave me a little lip at the start – “Have you been s l o w l y easing back into training, or have you been good and not running?” she asked. “Well, no one told me I should stop running, so I didn’t.”
Since the injury scare, even if I’ve bagged some miles and/or strides, I’ve had some serious victories. I nailed 18 miles with 12 at marathon goal pace on the treadmill the week following the hamstring scare. I had a sports massage with my usual person the next day, and she worked at my hamstring like never before.
The morning I skipped the strides, I had to get to work by 7:30, and was to do 4 miles at the end of the day; attempt 1 was at the gym, until I discovered I forgot socks. When I got home and tried to run from there, I felt a tightness in my left heel (I had felt it a tad that morning) and it was uncomfortable enough that I stopped. I seem to have that managed as well – seems to be related to my calf. It’s not quite plantar fascia, not really the right spot, but similar. Or maybe it is PF. Who knows. Either way, it’s managed.
That was meant to be my (other) peak week – the earlier 54-mile planned week was the week my hamstring pain started, and I hoped to have that 54-mile week done this time, but alas. Nevertheless, and despite a mysterious alarm clock foul-up that led me to not be able to start my 20-miler that Saturday early, I nailed the 20, running 10.7 outside (in the heat – first few miles were bad, but then I hit a rhythm somehow) and the rest indoors. I felt so strong.
But the taper tantrums are still there. I heard someone coughing behind me during a presentation earlier this week, and I wanted to don a mask. Tuesday morning, on a very dark road and despite a headlamp, I managed to roll each ankle once – my right one hard, so hard I staggered a few steps. I gave it about a minute and decided to try running on it (I was less than a mile from home) and the pain went away and I was fine. The second time was less severe, but that time I screamed out curse words from frustration. I pulled it together at the end of the run, pushing through my strides even though I felt rather “meh” about it. The next morning at a meeting, I barely tapped my right knee on the corner of the table, and felt a blistering pain; it still felt bruised to kneel on to do my PT exercises the next day. Bubble wrap. PLEASE.
Yesterday, I got a second shot at that 5×1200 (though a shorter run overall). It was a few degrees cooler than it’s been…pretty much this entire summer. And I nailed it, each split progressively faster, the last one almost too fast (I blame the fact that I was getting crowded by ROTC kids, though their senior cadet seemed to be yelling at them to get out of lane one for me, which I appreciated).
Tomorrow, I have one last 18-miler, and next week the taper begins in earnest. I plan on spending this weekend getting organized for the wedding, for the last two weeks of training, for the last two weeks of eating well and sleeping well, for the last two weeks of getting into that mental place I know I need to be. The place I was before Chickamauga – confident, mentally prepared, with the right amount of nerves, the right amount of recognition for the task at hand. The readiness to brace myself for the effort. The fight. The race of my life – at least up to this point.
Yes, maybe it is okay that it all feels routine now. Before, I was becoming the runner ready to do this. Now, I am that runner.
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.
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. 😉