Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Death of a Dream

Part 1: The Race

I spent the last three weeks, the whole taper, focusing on my mental game. Qualifying for a third Olympic Trials (and setting a two-minute personal best) would be the hardest thing I’d ever done. I needed to get my mind right. I accepted how hard it would get and came up with strategies, mantras, smaller goals to get me through. I visualized the course; though the very act gave me anxiety about the suffering I was in for. Even if I wasn’t as physically ready as I’d like, I was mentally ready. And all that mental work started to convince me that I was ready physically: there was enough evidence to prove it was possible and not totally bonkers. 

Race morning, I was surprisingly calm. (All things considered.) I’m here. I’m ready. One step at a time.

Then they delayed the start ten minutes. Anxiety starting seeping through cracks in my fragile façade. “This wait is killing me, I just want to get started,” I said to one of the many fit, elite strangers standing around. She gave a small smile, as if to say, get over it. 

Do I want to get started? I just don’t want to be here, waiting, anymore. 

Finally, the gun cracked. I immediately executed my four-word race plan: Stick to the pacers. 

But the pacing situation confused me.

There were two, Phil and Tim. I had met Phil already, but he said he might go with a faster group if one formed. I didn’t dare go faster than 2:37, so I needed to stick with Tim. 

But who was Tim? And where was he? 

Pacer 2 looked exactly like Nick Willis. But why would Nick Willis, a Kiwi 1500-meter specialist, be pacing a marathon?? About half a mile into the race someone said, “Hey Nick!” Pacer 2 responded in a New Zealand accent. Right, so it is Nick Willis. I tried to be grateful I was running with an Olympian once again. Phil mentioned there were actually three pacers, Tim was towards the front.

His immense 1500m expertise aside, Nick did not seem to know what he was doing. He asked the guy who said hi to him how we were doing and the other guy responded, “a little fast.” 

But I had checked my watch, we were actually slow. 

Why the heck was I checking my watch?! I promised myself I would trust the pacers and not check splits. The benefit of having pacers is to not fret over the pace!

A little farther and Nick asked Phil how we were doing. “A little slow, but we’re okay,” said Phil. 

Phil’s declaration that he might go faster than 2:37 scared me. But his calm confidence assured me I should stay with him. He knew what he was doing. When another woman told him we were too fast, I wanted to defend him. The first mile was too slow! We’re making up for it! 

But also: Fuck. It does feel fast. Anxiety and stress bubbled up. Only two miles in.

I glued myself to the pacers: Phil and Nick. 

The sheer size of the pack made getting in a rhythm hard. The bumping, the tripping, the kicking. Slipping on the slick middle line. Everyone already glistening with sweat. 

I tried to tune out and listen to the drumbeat of our collective footsteps. Tried to focus on the legs and rhythm of the person ahead of me. But while I was doing that, I inadvertently annoyed some dude behind me. “Get over and move ahead!” I tried to move aside, but also: what the heck dudes? Can’t you see this is the women’s OTQ group, get out of our way! 

At mile four, a man shouted, “YES! Now we are on 2:37! Let’s go!” Okay, fine. That dude is helpful. He can stay. Maybe that’s Tim?!?

He was with another guy, also hyping us up, both wearing Bandit. They seemed to be helping one specific woman, but that was fine by me, because they were indirectly helping us all. 

Stick with Phil and the Bandits. Relax. One mile at a time. 

I was with them still. But I was not relaxed. At all. 

The anxiety was at a rolling boil. I knew it was too early to freak out, which made the freaking out snowball. I shuffled through all the distraction techniques I had practiced. None worked. It was like every door in my mind slammed shut. My thoughts immediately bounced back to the race. To the effort. To my spiraling mind. It wasn’t physically hard, but it was already way too hard mentally.

I am not going to be able to do this if I’m already freaking out… 

Whatever, if I have to run twenty-six miles with this anxiety, I will. I’m still here. Still with the pacer. Another mile down.

At mile 7, I saw my husband. As I ran away from him, further down the road, I immediately regretted it. I wanted to turn around, to run back into his arms. This is not going well. I am not going to pull this off. 

Physically I was fine. But mentally, I could not do this. I was overthinking too much. Where did my confidence go? Why were all my strategies failing me? Why was I failing?

I had told myself I could at least make it halfway at this pace (I had done just that a few weeks ago.) But I could not imagine making it farther. The part beyond that, that I had run twice before, that I had pictured every day for weeks, seemed too intimidating, too painful. I knew as soon as I ran past Rusty that I would drop out at my next chance, when I saw Dr. Lesko (the elite coordinator when I was on the Oiselle team and one of the nicest people in the sport) at the half. I could not fathom going further into the beyond, into the pain, than that. 

Somewhere in mile 8, as I was accepting that I would not finish this, I slipped to the edge of the pack and then out the back. As always when you fall back, it seems like no big deal at first: They’re right there, I can still catch up! But then the gap keeps growing and suddenly they’re gone. A constant stream of others flew past. By mile ten (about twenty seconds over pace but the pack impossibly far ahead), I had given up entirely. Get me out of this. Just get to Lesko. 

I tried to tell myself if I made it to halfway on PR pace then I’d keep going. But no part of me believed myself as I made that promise. I did go through halfway exactly on PR pace, if I ran an even split. But I had no will or drive or fight to do that. I had slowed drastically in the last three miles. (And when I set that PR, on this course, I came through the half faster.) 

As soon as I spotted Lesko, I ran off the course. “I’m done.” And I bawled: in her arms, on the curb, in my husband’s arms, all day long. 

It was over. WTF just happened.

A quick intermission to catch up with the other characters in this story: 

Nick Willis dropped out at 13. I saw him on the side of the road as I ran by. (Maybe that was the plan, I don’t know.) 

Bandit Pacers 1 and 2 also appeared to drop out early (perhaps also their plan). When I went to pick up my bag, I saw them hanging out near the finish, but none of the women had finished yet. (Which confirmed to me that neither one was Tim.) 

Tim, who I just Googled and realized I never saw on the day, started fast and was on pace until the last final stretch, but perhaps slowed to try to help stragglers. 

Phil executed a beautiful, fantastic, evenly split race and dammit dammit dammit I wish I had stayed with him.  

As for the giant swarm of women ahead of me and around me in those early miles, which I estimate at about seventy-five, fourteen qualified. 

Just fourteen. 

Part 2: The Aftermath 

Years of dreaming of this—through pregnancy, postpartum, injury, cross-training, hundreds of workouts, ever since I first qualified and wondered how many of these I could make—and I gave up in an hour. One hour. 

It was over. WTF just happened. 

All day long and through many tears, I wondered what happened. I had truly started to believe I could do it, that there was a reason I was there, healthy, able to line up with hope in my heart. Why come all this way to fail? What was the point of this? All the time, the effort, the money spent. To fail spectacularly. 

I gave up. Plain and simple. Why didn’t I push through? Why did I allow myself to give up at the half? As soon as I made that decision I slowed. 

A few hours post-race, tear-stained and moping at a brewery, I came up with two lessons to learn from this: 

1. I was not, in fact, ready. 

I had one amazing workout and many great long runs but I was not running better than ever across the board, as I needed to be to achieve this goal. While I told myself I had the endurance, if not the speed, it wasn’t enough. 

Marathons should feel easy from the start. When I ran my PR at CIM in 2018, I was repeatedly trying (and failing) to hold myself back in the early miles. When I first qualified in 2014 (then a ten-minute PR), I was calm and relaxed for the first twenty miles. Last Sunday was not like that at all. Maybe the pressure got to me, but I tend to like pressure. I just couldn’t relax at that pace. I wish I could have turned my brain off—it was the fear of the pain to come rather than current pain—but I couldn’t turn it off. I couldn’t override my brain telling me, This is not okay for this early. Because it really isn’t okay. It should feel mostly easy in those early miles.

2018 CIM, feeling a heck of a lot more relaxed.

I wish I had another year, more time to feel relaxed at that pace. I wish I hadn’t gotten hurt last year. I wish I was tougher, more willing to stick with the pace until I fell over and could go no more. But even then, I don’t think I would have made it twenty-six miles. I wasn’t truly ready.

I don’t regret going for it, despite that. I needed to know. 

A part of me regrets not staying in and finishing, even when I knew I wouldn’t qualify. Not getting the medal, the backpacks and jackets they gave to all finishers. (But would I want one? I didn’t even take one of the participant shirts. I don’t need a memento from a heartbreak.) I regretted leaving all my water bottles behind, carefully planned with notes of encouragement. A super caffeinated gel that was sure to give me a boost at mile 13.5. I never got its jolt. Silly to regret bottles and gels left behind, but it’s effort not attempted, dreams abandoned. 

I also never got the benefit of CIM’s infamous downhills. I dropped when the rolling uphills finally ended. But when I think about this course, in my mind it goes steadily up. I know it doesn’t. I know it’s downhill, that’s why we all fly across the country to race it, with OTQs and BQs and PRs on our minds. But the effort imprinted on me—even in two successful attempts that ended in PRs and OTQs—is that it goes up. Because that’s how a marathon works. The beginning is easy, light, relaxed, and then the effort gradually weighs on you. Until the last few miles feel like you’re running uphill dragging a boulder. I couldn’t handle the early miles. There was no way I’d make it through the tough part. I couldn’t have finished, especially as emotionally spent as I was.

I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t force it. But it’s not so easy for me to accept that. I hate admitting it. I tell people to believe and fight for it. And yet I didn’t. I couldn’t.

My whole schtick is dreaming big. By believing in yourself you can achieve unfathomable things. This gets misinterpreted sometimes as overly wishful, soft thinking. As if I’m ignoring the hard work you need to put in, the support you need, the heavy dose of good luck at the right moment.

Of course I know there are limits to dreaming big. Otherwise, I would wish myself into world record shape, skip right over the dang Trials and win the Olympics. (Wouldn’t we all?) 

But I think those limits are farther out than most of us imagine. If we work hard and believe, we can achieve amazing things. Ludicrous, outlandish things that seem scary to say out loud.

What if we allow ourselves to chase those scary dreams? What if we put them out in the world, let people know how highly we view ourselves? What if we pair that belief with hard work, lung-busting workouts, hours of sweat pouring off us, exhaustion so deep we want to lay on the floor? What if we sacrifice “normal” things: mornings sleeping in, evenings going out? All because we truly believe we can be great.

And what if we fail? Did we not work hard enough? Did we not want it bad enough? Did we not believe in ourselves enough? 

Or were we never capable in the first place?

Which is worse? To be delusional? Or to have given up?

And I wonder: am I still elite? Do I still belong? If I had a little more time, could I find that woman in me again? There’s a certain snobbery is pursuing a crazy goal. Thinking yourself good enough in the first place. But also, honestly, wanting to let people know when you made it, as if they had doubted you all along. I wanted to tell everyone—strangers, acquaintances, that old man at the gym—that I made the Olympic Trials, for a third time. I wanted to get another sponsorship, to run and lounge around in free gear. I wanted to get into the pro field of big races again.

Talk about humbling. Do I deserve to think that way? I’m not a qualifier. Not this time. I didn’t make it.

Was 2018 the best I’ll ever be? Are my days of PRing over? As much as I try to ignore it and think about masters who are kicking ass, people keep reminding me I’m getting older. Subtly and not so subtly saying this is the end. If I accept I wasn’t ready for it now, how can I think I will ever be? When I’m over 40 and officially a master? 

After thousands of miles to the Trials, maybe this is the end of this road. Where does that leave me?

The 2016 Trials.

This brings me to the second lesson, one I know I still need to learn:

2. My identity should not be tied to this. 

I know that and I’ve read so many posts and thoughts from other women who realized somewhere along the way that they weren’t going to qualify for the 2024 Trials. I always envied their maturity, their acceptance. I didn’t have it. I know it’s not healthy to rest your identity as a runner on making one race every four years, but this is how our sport works. Qualifying for the Trials opens up sponsorship opportunities, assures entry into elite fields at other races, and is just damn fun and incredibly rewarding. It’s validating. It shows that the hard work was worth it; that the relentless self-belief was legitimate; that the time, effort, and money was well spent. 

I’ve always said making the Trials is my version of making the Olympics, and it’s not lost on me that what I’m feeling is a fraction of what the pros feel. Our sport puts so much pressure and emphasis on making the Olympic team every four years, as if that is all that qualifies you as great. Those that don’t make it have to find that mature, accepting attitude where they acknowledge the cruelty of the whole system, of everything coming down to one day, of so few athletes actually making it. They are still amazing athletes, still the best in the country, even if that day doesn’t go how they want. 

It’s a lesson I still need to learn. Maybe that’s what this is all for, to teach me that making the Trials isn’t everything. (Though even as I write that, I think, Maybe if I learn that, if I gain that maturity and perspective, it will help me get back for 2028. So, yea… I still need to learn it.) It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. 

But… it also does matter. I loved pursuing this dream. Dreaming of 2024 as I shuffled along while pregnant, as I rehabbed postpartum, and as I tried and failed and tried and failed to get healthy. Getting out of bed early to flail around in the pool or drown in sweat on the bike. I loved even the miles I hated: in the dark, in the rain, in humidity that left me more soaked than rain. The hours spent on extracurriculars: yoga, core, lifting, rehabbing. Feeling validated in going to bed early, in learning to love beets and kale, of giving up those “normal” things. A snobbiness and righteousness that I secretly carried: if only you knew what I’m training for.

I loved having this focused goal, a hope that maybe I could make it come true. If I worked hard enough. If I believed enough. 

I never made it to my destination, but I loved the journey.

I hate that it’s over. 

The 2020 Trials. I made it to 2 Trials. Is that it for me?

Friday, December 1, 2023

Trying to Keep the Dream Alive

During one of my last track workouts, as I fell off the pace, I realized I didn’t want to go to CIM. It will be the death of a dream. I don’t want to watch it die.

But, if I truly don’t want to do it, I wouldn’t still be here: at the track, in the cold, mid-3K repeat. I would have quit already, gone home, gotten warm. Yet my feet continued to pound the track. I hadn’t stepped off, I hadn’t given up entirely. Not yet.

On the cooldown, I tried to talk myself back into fighting for this dream. My main disbelief comes from the fact that I have to run nine seconds faster per mile than I did for my last (and best, by far) marathon pace workout. As I drove home, I listened to Des and Kara’s podcast. (Highly recommend! Despite this next bit…) They were discussing first marathons and bad marathons and, if they were a coach, whether they would tell their athlete to go out hard or conservative. Kara, my running idol, said that if you had trained at 5:20 and the pack went out in 5:15 it would be dumb to go with them. “That’s a lot of time in a marathon.” 

Whomp, whomp. That’s exactly what I was trying to convince myself was not crazy. (For the record, Kara also admitted she’d probably go out hard regardless, because that’s how she races. Also, was she just talking about first marathons? Let’s hope so.) 

Maybe the way to tell how bad I want something is to notice how bad I desperately hold on, despite the evidence. I feared watching the dream die, but I couldn’t let it go. What was the alternative? Giving up without a fight? 

It wasn’t just that CIM would be the death of a dream, I didn’t want to go if achieving the dream wasn’t even an option. I don’t care about any other outcome. I could go for a PR, but even if I made it, I would be bummed I missed the standard. I’d wonder if I should have gone for it. I don’t even think I have the drive to go after “just” a PR, because that’s not where my heart is. When the race gets tough and I have to fight, I don’t think I would. Not for anything less than the original dream. I have to at least try. And if I fall apart spectacularly, have to drop out in agony, whatever, at least I will know I tried. I can miss my goal in two ways: (1) not even trying because I think it’s hopeless/too crazy or (2) going for it anyway and finding out for sure. I’m choosing the latter.

Once I accepted I was going to go for it no matter what, I had something to focus on during the taper: my mental game. I need to get better at arguing myself back into trying, to not giving up on myself, even when it seems impossibly hard. 

I had to come up with my reasons why this isn’t crazy. 

1. Sorry, Kara. Advanced Marathoning says it’s not stupid 

Back in 2014, I thought I had to hit goal marathon pace in practice exactly, but I proved in Pittsburgh (and again at CIM in 2018) that I could run four seconds faster on race day than in practice. I didn’t believe that was possible until I did it. Maybe nine seconds is possible, especially with the help of the pack. 

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

And just two days ago, looking back through my much-bookmarked copy of Advanced Marathoning (trying to remind myself of what race day warmup consists of) I instead happened upon a post-it on a page about how if you have a pack to run with, going out 8-10 seconds per mile faster than planned is okay. 

Which brings us to… 

2. The power of the pack

A lot of my confidence and hope relies on the power of the pack. In Pittsburgh, despite being unsure I could make it when I didn’t run that pace in practice, I ran alone. I still made it. I run all my workouts alone, even the half marathon a few weeks back. Having a group to work with, to not constantly fret over the pace, is a huge advantage I don’t usually have. 

With the pack in 2014
With the OTQ pack in 2014

The benefit of having a pacer is well studied and undeniable; world records fall with pacers. The only time I’ve ever run with a pack was in 2014, at CIM, when I first qualified. It was an immense help. This time will be harder, the task greater, the pace faster. But I’m a more seasoned athlete now. Back then I had to take ten minutes off my PR, I had to prove I was an athlete good enough to qualify. Now I just have to prove I still am. And just take off a measly two minutes.

Now, about those two minutes... 

3. I fight harder for big, meaningful goals. With deadlines. (That happen to be this weekend.)

I’ve thought about CIM in 2018, when I set my current PR, a lot. The last 10K was ugly. How am I going to fight through that this time? And run faster than I did then? 

I talk a lot about having big goals and I also come up short a lot. But when the goals really matter, when something big is on the line, something that matters even more than a PR, I have an extra fight. CIM is the last day to qualify for the 2024 Trials. It’s my last shot. There’s no giving up in the middle and thinking I’ll be back another day. In 2018’s CIM, I was going for a PR, but the time was flexible (I wanted to run 2:38, or break 2:40, or just get a PR, I already had my qualifier secured) and so when it got ugly in the last 10K, I didn’t have as much fight as I would if those times meant something more. 

And finally: 

4. The trajectory is trending up

This year has been unlike any other. I was on crutches in January and yet somehow ran near my best ever by November. I feel like I am on the upswing more than ever, like my fitness and breakthroughs are coming at an alarming rate that I’m not used to. Who knows what I’ll be capable of on Sunday. 

....Still, it’s going to be hard as shit. 

Going into a race is willingly walking towards torture. (Why do we do this??) You know you are in for hours of suffering, of forcing your body to push through exhaustion and pain, or battling your mind as it goes to the deepest, darkest, ugliest places. It’s terrifying. 

I’ve been reminding myself that its only about two and a half hours of pain, after four years of dreaming of this, working toward this, running through pregnancy and the postpartum period (wishing I could be in this shape), of biking and swimming and elliptical-ing through injury (wishing I could be this healthy). Thousands of miles, hundreds of hours spent working my butt off when I could have been sleeping in or relaxing. In the grand scheme of everything, suffering for a couple hours is a drop in a bucket I’ve already filled. What’s another 2.5 hours? It’s worth it. Otherwise, I may spend hundreds of hours regretting I didn’t go for it, I didn’t give it my all. 

“If you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment a few hours, would you capture it? Or just let it slip?” --Eminem, Lose Yourself... mostly

I’ve been visualizing the course and the race. I’m reminding myself that it will be hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m adding to my mental arsenal of mantras and quotes and strategies to call on. I’m really focusing on what I’m going to do when I want to give up, when the pack starts to slip away. I’m picturing those moments, and how I’ll respond. 

“You want to spend all your time thinking about what you’re going to do, not what’s going to happen.” – Mike Smith, NAU coach

It’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I can do it. I am capable. 

Every time I’ve gone into a race trying to qualify, I’ve qualified. 

Every time I’ve gone to CIM, I’ve PRed. 

Time to try to make it 3 for 3. Time to try and keep this dream alive.

Keep dreaming big, 


Friday, November 17, 2023

Race Report: Richmond Half Marathon

I started the Richmond half marathon thinking I might finally be able to get a PR, after five years of struggle. Not all the workouts indicated that, but I focused on those that did, and tried to stay positive. The weather was perfect and race morning (navigating the start/porta potties/bag drop, fitting in my whole warmup and drills…okay, some drills) went off without a hitch (a rarity). A perfect day.

I got a little panicky around mile 2. The pressure of the pace, the race atmosphere, the distance, often gets me really anxious early on. I don’t love that this race starts with a 2.5 mile straight shot down Broad Street—admittedly a weird thing to say because that seems like a great, easy start—but it makes me feel like we’re starting forever. Those first miles feel long. 

Somehow, I put the panic aside (turning off Broad helped), reminding myself I was right on pace. I was doing fine. I saw my wonderful family cheering at mile 4 and was all smiles (still on perfect pace). I told myself to break up the race into 5 miles, 10 miles, and the final 5K. “Just get to 5 miles on pace.” Nailed it.

I knew my 10K split from when I ran my PR here in 2018, because it’s actually my 10K PR. (Maybe I should have gone after that much softer PR instead…) If I could get to the 10K around the same time as I had back then, I would know I was right on it.

Instead, everything fell apart. 

First of all, I was caught by the woman I thought I had put away on the bridge around mile 3. Now I was in third. Then the sixth mile marker came. I had been running consistent ~5:55s. Mile 6 was 6:10. I cursed, loudly. What the heck just happened?

Here’s what happened: we ran the wrong way through the park. I suspected this when I looked at my Garmin afterwards. GPS watches aren’t perfect and mine is often off by 0.01 or 0.02 per mile, no biggie. (I turn the automatic laps off when racing, and press the lap button when I pass an official mile marker. This usually helps, since GPS watches get gradually more and more off as the race progresses. It backfired here.) This mile was 1.07, which seemed like a lot. Sometimes mile markers are in the wrong spot and a long mile is followed by a short mile, but not here. My Garmin map looked wonky, didn’t match the official course, and I suddenly remembered a sharp turn that had felt unusual when we were running. I put it to Instagram and yep: a lot of people ran the way I did. (Everyone? Not one person replied saying they went the correct way.) Many people had similar experiences to mine, they were on pace and suddenly they were quite a bit off. But of course many others told me I shouldn’t have let it affect me so much. We all have slow splits sometimes. Move on, get over it.

I didn’t get over it. 

I didn’t know any of that then. I knew (1) I had just gotten passed and (2) I had slowed significantly. (I hadn’t slowed at all. My watch shows that my pace actually picked up in this stretch.) 

As I was trying to figure out what the heck just happened, we also passed two significant landmarks: (1) the water stop where I had dropped out a year ago, with the rock where I sat and cried that I was officially injured and done for the season. I thought passing this would feel like victory, like getting revenge on an ex. “Screw you rock! I’ve moved on! I’m doing better than ever!” Instead, I suddenly wanted to drop out again. 

(2) The 10K marker. There were people cheering and a water stop, so I couldn’t see the time until I was right on it. Another cold dose of reality. Twentyish seconds off where I needed to be. 

This was a lot to process in the span of roughly a minute. Competition flying by, slow splits, memories of failure, realizing I wasn’t doing what I hoped. 

Next up: the biggest hill on the course. 

(Spoiler alert: mile 7 did not go well.)

Much later, when I realized that mile 6 wasn’t quite right/I hadn’t slowed, I berated myself for letting it get to me so much. Why hadn’t I just done what I had promised I would and put that mile behind me? Move on to the next one. Try to get it back. Sometimes mile markers are off. But I never assume mile markers are off (unless the next split is ridiculously fast: “Ohh a short mile, the other one must have been long, thank God!”). Almost always it’s my fault, I slowed. And so I assumed that again. (Also, here the 10K split unconsciously confirmed correct mile marker placement.) I gave up a lot in this section. Other runners were entering the park as we were leaving and I got so many cheers (thank you!!) but I felt awful. I wanted to tell them, “No, I’m falling apart, I can’t catch that girl, she just caught me. I’m not going to PR. It’s not the day I wanted.” This is not the attitude I promised myself I’d have. And when the mile 7 split came and it was also slow, I was not in the least surprised. 

Again, mile 7 is right in the middle of the race and contained the biggest hill on the course. It was probably always going to be a slow one. But none of that mattered. I was going dark. 

Mile 7

I did try to get it back. Told myself to just get a mile under 6 minutes again. But I knew my goals were out the window. Instead of finding a positive spin, a way to tell myself a PR was still possible, I was again thinking about dropping out. (“When I see my kids next, I’ll just pull over and hang out with them… Nope, not a good look, Mama. Gotta at least finish this, however slow.”) I was thinking about how I wouldn’t bring my whole family to CIM (something I had been debating). CIM wasn’t going to be the celebration I envisioned: OTQing out the window, PRing out the window. Down the dark spiral I went. 

I did at least, keep running. I finished the thing. And I did, with every mile, tell myself to get back under 6 minute pace. Though how much I fought for that, I don’t know. The only mile I did get back under was the last one, which is (1) the final sprint and (2) wildly downhill. I just glad it was over.

When I finished, a volunteer immediately thrust an award in my hands. “Congratulations, you were fourth place woman!” I hadn’t even caught my breath yet.

But wait, wasn’t I third? I said that, out loud, and not very kindly. “I thought I was third!” It was one of those moments where you’re not really upset at what’s in front of you (I don’t care about third or fourth). It was the time that crushed me.

I walked away and fell on the grass crying. It was over. I had an opportunity to prove my fitness, to get a PR after five long years, and I didn’t do it. 

It was (is) so obvious my goal of OTQing at CIM is delusional. I keep thinking about what coaches say about being realistic about your fitness, about not forcing a sport that needs patience, about not going out at a pace that is much faster than what you’ve done in training. How can I be in PR shape when I can’t even run close to my old PR in the half?

As I walked through the finish area, in tears, thinking about how all my dreams were out the window, my hope lost, many kind runners tried to pick up the pieces, strangers and old teammates alike. Charlie Ban, of notorious DC running fame, told me exactly what I needed to hear. “You don’t give up yet! You don’t give up til it’s over.”

Hang on. That sounds familiar… 

Didn’t I just write that on my own dang Instagram?

“But, Charlie/pessimistic Teal, I just ran 13 miles at the pace I need to run for DOUBLE that in a few weeks.” 

But … hang on, hang on. Wasn’t that Instagram post about how I ran a 7-mile tempo run at 6:08 pace and then ran more than double that (16 miles) at the same pace five days later? 

Maybe this was a final marathon pace workout! Okay fine, it was a race and not a workout, but I was still alone. Charlie reminded me I do this the hard way (all my training, even this race, all alone). At CIM there’s going to be a huge pack, all doing exactly what I need to do. 

“Get on that train and hold on,” said Charlie. This half made me think getting on that train, going out with that pack, was completely bonkers, a suicide mission. 


I can’t give up until it’s over. I have the taper to shore up my confidence and mental game. 

And on December 3, I try again, for another PR. Kamikaze style. 

Friday, November 3, 2023

Fumbling for the Switch

I feel myself giving up on this dream. Imagining the finish, the women celebrating OTQs, I am picturing other women, not myself. I am accepting how to get over the fact that I won’t make it. Trying to come up with other goals that are still worth fighting for.

This is self-preservation. My mind trying to have an admittedly healthier attitude to my goals. I know that they don’t matter, that my family loves me no matter what, that my self-worth should not be based on running an arbitrary time within an arbitrary window. That factors like weather and sicknesses will always be out of my control. 

In the words of Laura Green: no one cares. Whether I make it or miss it by many miles, no one cares. 

But I care. 

I do this for me. Really and truly me alone. I know it’s a selfish habit and in times of guilt I try to rationalize it (it makes me healthier, happier, more energized, a better mom, etc. etc.) but truly I do this because I love it. Because I want to see how fast I can be. Because I love that “holy shit I can’t believe I just did that” finish line moment. Because I want to believe in myself again. Because it does add to my self-worth and makes me feel good about myself. Because I love the training, even when it’s not going as well as I like. I love starting my Wednesday with a “medium" long run (what any rational person would call a long run) and feeling slightly exhausted but also fulfilled all day long. 

There are days, months, years where it breaks my heart. The heartbreaks have been racking up the past couple years. I’m desperate to hang on to this goal because I don’t want to admit my best days may be behind me, that I’ll never get to the level I was once at, that I’ll never line up at a Trials again. Age catches up to all of us eventually, I don’t want to believe it’s already caught me. But it’s been five years of struggle. (Admittedly, having a baby took more than 2 of those years.) And annoyingly enough, I don’t appear to be getting any younger. 

Still, I love it. I care about it an unhealthy amount, I know that. But I need to care, or I’ll give up. 

There’s a switch that needs to be flipped on race day and hard work out days. You have to think it’s super important in the moment or you’ll give up. The marathon is so grueling that there will be a moment where it’s overwhelming, it’s too much, you want to give up, give in, not care. Your mind is begging you to slow, even slowing your body down against your will. You need to fight back, you need to care about it like it’s everything in that moment. As ridiculous as it sounds, it needs to seem like life or death to push yourself to new depths. You need that adrenaline, that belief, that unreal power that allows someone to lift a car off a child. Your brain will seize on any crack in your armor, any speck of “this doesn’t matter.” It will compromise, give in, and give up. 

But then you cross the line, stop the watch, end the workout, and it needs to not matter anymore. Flip the switch back. Running doesn’t matter in the real world. Leading into big workouts and race day, the switch needs to be on “unimportant” or the anxiety and pressure will be overwhelming. Moreover, the switch probably needs to stay like that—nice and chill and comfortable—until mile 15 or 18 or so, until that moment of reckoning, or you’ll be too stressed to run relaxed. 


HOW?! How to flip the switch at the right moment? How to not care that much, to let it go, until that last moment? And how to run fast from the beginning—nice and chill and relaxed, but also fast—if you’re trying not to care? This last bit is the struggle I’m having in my workouts. Trying to relax and take it mile by mile and let the fast pace come to me… but when it doesn’t, and the times slip, how to stay engaged and fighting? While also relaxing so you’re not forcing it? I want to force it. It seems my only chance. But I know that’s not how this works.

Trying to channel this finish line fight...
even when the finish line isn't in sight.

If I put too much pressure on myself, I’m not likely to run well. But if I give up on my goals now, I’m not going to run well either. I wonder if my recent workouts going poorly is me giving up: too many years of struggle, too many doubts seeping in, too many excuses. My mind trying to preserve itself. 

The pressure I put on myself seems astronomical but it’s because I want it. I know no one else cares, I know it doesn’t matter. But it matters to me. I think I thrive under pressure: I need that do-or-die reason to fight. I can feel myself trying to let it go, starting to let it go, and maybe that is healthy. But the part of me that is still grasping on, knows I need to grab it with both hands and hang on like life depends on it. (Even though I know it doesn’t.) 

I need to believe or I don’t stand a chance. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Race Report: 2020 Olympic Trials

Before I get into any of my usual rambles, I need to say thanks to Atlanta Track Club for doing an absolutely phenomenal job putting on the Trials. Every detail was planned out with the athletes in mind. They made it easy to get in touch leading up to the race and on race weekend provided all our meals, hotel rooms, and a super special commemorative poster. The volunteers' enthusiastic, eager-to-help spirits made me feel like the entire weekend had been staffed by Trader Joe’s employees. The personal fluid stops—with 3000-plus individualized bottles—got a lot of press, but on top of that they also had tables with small water or Powerade bottles and, I kid you not, volunteers cracked the seal on every single one so it’d be easier for exhausted racers to open them. Before the race I was asked if I would care if there weren’t t-shirts again and said no, because they were so generous with everything else. Turns out there weren’t t-shirts and I was a little upset, but glad I had so many Oiselle Trials items as wearable mementos. (And after the race, my uncle’s friend literally gave me the volunteer shirt off his back! Told you the volunteers were beyond generous.)


Elite races often come with more to-dos than just picking up a bib and running the race: there are specific time slots to drop off bottles and a mandatory technical meeting (an hour-long presentation of rules and logistics, most of which you’ve already read in your email, but always concludes with at least a few inane questions. There’s sometimes helpful Q&A too, but the real draw—besides it being, you know, required—is spotting all your running idols. I sat a row or two in front of Molly Huddle and Emily Sisson, although they were not actually sitting together, weird since they are joined at the hip in my mind.) The Trials also requires uniform and shoe checks: USATF has ridiculous rules about the size of sponsor logos on Trials’ uniforms; it’s why you sometimes see duct tape on people’s clothes. The shoe thing was new this year, thanks to recent controversy, and involved an official using a small camera to measure the sole's thickness. They also warned us that the top three athletes might have to send their shoes for further testing.

Speaking of shoe controversy, Nike offered free Alphaflys (the newest and most controversial shoe) to every Trials participant. Despite breaking the cardinal rule of marathoning (nothing new on race day!), the marketing ploy worked as nearly a quarter of the field wore them. (I didn’t wear them but did take a pair, which just shows I’m good at following rules but really bad at resisting free stuff. I’m ashamed of my Vaporfly purchases in the past and am hereby switching to similar shoes other companies are releasing. If you’ve tried any, let me know!)

On Thursday, after snagging my most expensive pair of free shoes ever, I went to a party hosted by CIM for everyone who ran a Olympic Trials qualifier there. (I still give credit to Pittsburgh for my OTQ, since it came first, but I ran faster at CIM seven months later.) We each got a photo tile of our finish and the opportunity to hang out with Meb. My daughter’s initials are actually M.E.B. (not intentional but an added bonus once we realized it), so when he walked in, I immediately—and in the most awkward way possible—ambushed him with, “My daughter’s initials are MEB!” Of course, he brushed off my awkwardness like the pro he is.

Meb and MEB and me. (Credit: Husband.)

After that, all athletes were treated to dinner at World of Coca Cola. Mostly everyone was focused on carbo-loading, but I did snag an Olympic pin from 2004, which I loved since I’m such an Olympics nerd.

Friday (after free breakfast and Normatec boots in the athlete hospitality suite) I got to do a photoshoot with Oiselle. I caught up with Haute Volée friends, Sally, and Dr. Lesko while Kara told us we all looked fierce as hell. (Is there a better pep talk than Kara freaking Goucher telling you that you’re amazing??)

Chatting with Oiselle's CEO, Sally Bergesen (Credit: Julie Lowry)

Squad (Credit: Julie Lowry)

Then I did a shake out with old GRC teammates (Kerry, Catherine, and Kristin, all characters on this blog who qualified), the technical meeting, more carbo loading and finally sleep.

Like the 2016 LA Trials, race morning was strange. I ate breakfast (bagel) when I woke up and lay around reading and watching TV before eating another breakfast (oatmeal) two hours before the gun. (Breakfast for both meals because those are foods I’ve eaten before races in the past.) I was strangely mostly calm about the race that morning and all weekend. Paradoxically, this feeling (which I’ve been experiencing more lately) makes me worried that I’m unprepared, like I haven’t fully accepted the race is happening. Physically I was certainly ready, but mentally I wondered. I’d done what I normally did, coming up with three reasons why I would succeed. (I came up with six!) But the lack of crushing nerves made me wonder if something else was missing. My mom guessed it’s because I’m a veteran (this is my 18th marathon; I started losing count at 15), which may be true but I still felt unsettled.

Moments of anxiety did pop up of course; there’s nothing like being in a hotel with 700 of the fittest runners in the country to make you doubt your own ability. Like LA, being around all these skinny runners I recognized from the internet left me feeling inadequate. (I did really treasure the moments someone recognized me from the internet. To all the blog followers who reached out, thanks so much! Meeting you was a highlight of the weekend.) I tried to brush it off and remind myself: I deserve to be here, too! I qualified just like everyone else.

I also told myself this was a race I could shine at. I get intimidated by people’s times at other distances but had to remind myself we weren’t running a fast half (or 10K or 5K, thank God). The hills and distance catered to my strengths. And I was ready: I had trained on the hilliest routes I could find. I planned to run the first lap conservatively, to feel out the hills and the course. I’d get passed by possibly everyone, but that was okay. I’ll catch them later. I tried not to get my hopes up, but I suspected the hills I trained on were worse than the ones on the course. After a lap I’d know if that was true and if so, I’d pick it up for the second lap. I hoped to pick it up again on the last lap but more than anything focus on catching as many people as possible. I wanted to beat my seed (95) and hopefully also finish higher than I did in LA (72). In LA, I beat my seed by 45 spots, despite my oft repeated assessment that I am not a good heat runner. I AM a good hill runner, so surely I can do better here. The doubts did elbow their way in: everyone is so much faster than in 2016! But I tried to remember that not only was I faster too, this was my kind of race.

LAP 1: MILES 0-8

It started like every other race, a mass of fit bodies crossing the line, some trying to surge ahead. But most races don’t have 450 elite women, the vast majority of them with PRs only five minutes apart. (Has any race ever??) That surge of bodies had nowhere to go. The leaders set the pace, the rest of us stuck jogging in a giant mass behind. My watch read 7-minute pace. Nothing to do except continue in the mass and try not to fall. People fell. I watched as women jumped aside a few rows ahead and saw Kaitlin Goodman on the ground. She hopped up, grabbed her sunglasses and ran on. Her sunglasses got knocked off? Jeez, that must have been a hard fall. (It was.

I hit the first mile in 6:22, pretty close to my target. When I dared to look up from my own two feet (don’t trip!), I saw the leaders still weren’t far ahead. (They came through the first mile in 6:13.) As the road opened up a bit, women streamed by me and I had to remind myself to let them go. Relax, even the leaders are taking this easy. Reminding myself to be conservative led to overthinking: Is this easy enough?? My watch read low 5 minutes, confirming my Garmin’s inaccuracy in the downtown miles. Ignore it. My second mile was 5:58. Downhill, but too fast. Relax and let everyone go.

Mile 2 mass. I'm in the gold sunglasses
over Fulton's right shoulder. (Credit: Dad)
Alongside our crowded mass slowly moving forward, the crowded mass on the sidelines emitted the most deafening roar I’ve ever heard. I wanted to look for family and friends cheering but I. Could. Not. Make. Out. Anything. But. NOISE. It was incredible. Is this what Taylor Swift feels like walking onto a stage? (If the stage was somehow miles long...) My brother and his family were the first I distinguished and, in my memory, this was at mile 4. After looking at photos and the darn course map (which I supposedly had memorized beforehand), though, it was actually just after mile 2. (Something about the loops of this course really threw me throughout the race, in a way that LA didn’t. I had to consciously think through what mile I was on the whole way.)

I hit the turnaround (mile ~3.5) and headed back downtown, the more uphill direction. So far, the hills weren’t bad but the wind blew at us relentlessly. At times I felt pushed sideways. Somehow my left foot kept getting blown into my right ankle, leaving scars afterwards. I’ve never been good at drafting and was embarrassed it appeared I wasn’t trying to tuck in at all, but my attempts didn’t provide much relief.

Mile 5. Finally able to recognize my parents in the crowd.
(Credit: Dad)
I went back through Cowbell Corner, Oiselle’s cheering section and the loudest part of the course. It was a wall of sound and I was Taylor Swift again every time I ran through it (six glorious times). Or maybe Lizzo, because those moments made me want to belt “Good as Hell” at the top of my lungs.

Just before I turned off Peachtree, I saw the men starting their way up the out and back. This confused the heck out of me. The organizers had said that they didn’t expect the men to catch the women until around mile 21. If the out and back is about four miles long, they are only four miles behind me. Aren’t they going to catch me way sooner??? How embarrassing! I freaked out without bothering to think it through or do the math. I can already see them, surely they’ll catch me! (Like I said, I was immediately super confused by this course. But spoiler alert: four miles is actually a long way to make up, even when they run much faster than you.)

Around mile 6 I saw my sister cheering with a large sign that said “RVA loves Keira and Teal.” How the heck did she get that?? (She found a sign and made friends last time, too.) There seemed to be people cheering for me every block. Sure enough, a few hundred meters later my husband and daughter popped up, a pleasant surprise since I hadn’t been sure where they’d stand. Just after that I grabbed my first water bottle: a purple one with Frozen characters on the side, an homage to my daughter. Apparently a little girl helping her mom volunteer noticed my bottles and tracked them down after the race. (Pro tip: if you want your bottles recycled, go with Elsa.)

At mile 6, I was in 286th place. The stream of people going by me had dwindled to a trickle and I started to catch a few people. I caught up to my teammate Carrie Mack, a badass runner who absolutely crushed her last marathon. We ran together for a few miles and I was so glad to be side by side with her. Early on I told her to be patient — “A lot of these women will come back to us” — a reminder to myself more than her.

With Carrie. (Credit: Cheer Everywhere)
We headed back towards the start and I told myself I was right on pace (though I was possibly overthinking it all too much). Best of all, the hills were not as bad as the ones I trained on. The worst were just after the water stop in mile 7 and a long, gentle uphill towards the start of the loop (mile 8). I am ready for worse. I can do this. I averaged 6:16 for the first lap and was in 273rd place. Start conservatively: check.

LAP 2: MILES 8-16

Helping my goal to drop the pace was the fact that the lap’s first few miles were downhill, so picking it up didn’t feel as drastic. Side by side with Carrie, we hit some splits around 6:05-6:10, the fast end of my goal. This is great, I’m doing it!

Mile 10. (Credit: Brother.)
Back through the roar of Cowbell Corner, past my family stationed on both sides of the road, to the turn around and back towards downtown. I told myself not to worry the splits were fractionally slower on the uphill way back. We had been fast on the downhills, we're averaging 6:10 this lap, it’s all going according to plan! Around the halfway mark, Carrie got a few steps ahead. I should have gotten back next to her, but we had been going back and forth a bit so I didn’t consider it a big deal. But then the gap grew. Regroup, get back with Carrie. I didn’t. It’s my biggest regret of the race.

I hit the half in 1:21:41 (on pace for 2:43:22). Before the race, 2:42 seemed doable if the hills proved reasonable. I was a hair slow, but with a plan to negative split that’s perfect. Yet despite logic (which was lacking for me this entire race) and everything I told myself before the race, the half split stressed me out. A seed of doubt planted itself: what if I can’t do this? I’m not doing it! I tried to ignore it and move forward. I’m doing fine. This lap is faster. I’ve got lots left to give.

The fourth time going through Cowbell Corner’s insanity, I finally spotted my friend Megan. Dressed in head-to-toe Team Teal/BB Blue with a teal feather boa to top it off, she was impossible to miss. And yet it took me four tries (two out and backs) to see her. That is how crazy the crowds were. 

Cowbell Corner. Can you spot Megan? (Credit: Julie Lowry)

Even after Carrie dropped me, I felt like I was catching people and maintaining momentum. I caught a small pack after we made the turn onto Edgewood (around mile 15). I led a bit, taking the wind but not minding because it gave me purpose and a dose of motivation. It didn’t last long and we broke up a bit as we headed to the turnaround at the end of the lap.

I averaged about 6:12 pace for lap 2; I had picked it up. I was in 194th.

The end of lap 2. (Credit: Jake Tuber)

LAP 3: MILES 16-26.2

Trouble hit at the start of the last lap. My mile 16 split (marking the end of lap 2) read 6:26 and I resolved to stop looking at splits from then on. (Mile 8 on the same stretch was similarly slow. I wish I had realized that then and not been so hard on myself.) As we rounded the turns at the start of the lap, which I couldn’t really remember even though I had made the same turns less than an hour before, a couple of the people I had recently passed went by. What’s happening? I trained on harder hills; I am ready for this. I started conservatively; this last lap is my moment to shine. Why aren’t I shining, dang it?? The wind and hills and doubts took their toll and my mentality fell from hanging on to my dream to settling for just finishing it. Another major regret. At one point I did realize with relief, Hey, at least the men didn’t catch me!

I was ignoring my watch so I needed something else tangible to mark progress, to keep me in the game as much as possible. My last lap plan was to catch as many people as I could, so I decided to count. (Don’t worry. Like that old Adidas ad suggested, I didn’t count them out loud.)

At times counting proved surprisingly difficult. As I approached a group, I’d try to remember what number I was on but then I’d be running side by side with someone for a bit and wonder: did I count them yet or not? And obviously I had to subtract when someone passed me. Before the race I told my brother to count my place on the last lap. (I knew the number would be too high before then.) I assigned him the task since he had counted in LA, when I was in about 100th. I figured it’d be a similar number this time. As I ran by around mile 18, he shouted “184” which made me both extremely embarrassed that I was so far back (You thought you’d be top 100, ha!) and feeling terrible that I made him count that high. (He had two first grade helpers, one who later told me she counted all 600 competitors.) I started counting before I saw Brother and so opted to just keep my tally instead of think about my overall (depressing) place.

13…14…15… nope, got passed, back to 14… 15

Even though I didn’t look at my watch, I knew I was catching people not because I was picking it up, but because I was slowing slightly less than them. Catching people had been my biggest goal on the last lap, so ostensibly it was going according to the plan. But also, it wasn’t. I wanted to be fighting. Instead I was just surviving.


Near mile 21. Megan (and her boa) are in this photo, too.
(Credit: Julie Lowry)

Before the race, I told my coach to yell “There’s more there” on the last lap. That had been my mantra all season: to dig a little deeper and find more strength, more fight. Here was the moment to use it… and I couldn’t. I kept pressing forward but couldn’t find the fight to press harder. The place and time I had hoped for seemed too far gone.

I tried to remind myself this was the last time through, the last time up and over these hills. Except for the mile 7/15/23 hill, the hills didn’t seem that brutal. Still, they (and the wind) broke me in a sneaky, slow way by their pure relentlessness. I felt prepared, but here I was basically crawling.

Just after mile 21. (Credit: Dad)
45… 46…

Finally, just after 23 miles we turned off the main loop and onto the final section: an out and back under the Olympic rings and then the last mile back to Olympic Centennial Park. My sister shouted I was 138th, revealing my tally to be pretty accurate, but from there it petered out. Counting became too hard; I think I counted 50 like six times. The out and back seemed too long, I could barely see the women making the turn. I did see Jordan Hasay going the other direction and was surprised to be only about a mile behind her.

Heading to the finish. (Credit: Cheryl Treworgy, 
aka former WR holder and Shalane's mom)

The course map showed the last two miles contained the worst three hills, but I couldn’t remember where exactly. Is this hill one of them?? As I headed up MLK Jr. Drive, a volunteer (who turned out to be my uncle’s T-shirt-giving friend) told me just two more hills. Thank God, only two more. Finally, I crested the final hill and saw a sign for 800 meters to go. An 800! I can do that. Then 600, 400, 200 came pretty quickly. I found a sprint in the final meters and edged out two more women. Later I almost wished I hadn’t found a sprint, because it proved there was more there. Why couldn’t I find that earlier, dang it?! (Science reveals why.)

I finished in 130th place in 2:45:27, about 80 spots and three minutes slower than I’d hoped.


"Everything hurts and I'm dying." (Credit: Dad)
Every muscle had been fully pulverized and screamed in pain. Standing with my family at the finish line, I ached to lie down on the road but there was a real possibility I’d never get up again. Later in the hotel room, I realized there was nothing I could do, laying down hurt as much as standing up, so I might as well… go out and dance?? My family met for a big celebratory dinner and then Husband and I headed to the Oiselle party, where we stayed out later and danced harder than we have since we became parents. It was the most fun I’ve had in a while and it didn’t matter how badly my legs and pride hurt.

Team Teal, 2020 version. (Credit: Ben, another member)
With Husband at the Oiselle party (Credit: Julie Lowry)

Until the next day.

I woke up to the realization the Trials are over. And they didn’t go how I wanted. I truly thought I’d finish much higher than I did. Why couldn’t I at least run my seed?? I regretted not staying with Carrie. I regretted not pushing more that last lap. I regretted settling, as my C goal was basically to do anything but that. I regretted not starting my finishing kick earlier. But it’s over now, and as much as I want to, I can’t go back and rerun it. When I saw friends and teammates at the finish upset by their race, I tried to comfort them and tell them what an accomplishment it was just to be here. The next morning I realized I needed to hear those things myself.

Husband, Daughter, and I flew straight from Atlanta to Mexico. (Well, with a layover in Orlando, where my bag got lost and I rode a plane with too many drunk spring breakers, but I digress.) The three of us haven’t been on a vacation together before and Husband and Daughter deserved a heck of a celebration for supporting me so much over the years. Mexico was amazing of course (beautiful weather, beautiful views, beautiful endless margaritas and chips and salsa…), and I tried to stay in the moment, suppressing thoughts of the Trials that kept popping up. If I thought about it, I knew I’d start crying (It’s over! I can’t redo it!) and I couldn’t waste vacation time wallowing.

If I search for positives, Atlanta unexpectedly made me realize maybe I did better in LA than I thought. Ever since 2016, I’ve been bummed at my place and blamed the weather. Turns out I may have handled it better than I thought. Maybe in a few years I’ll look at Atlanta and realize I did better than I feel now. This time I finished 130th out of 390, in the top third of the deepest field in Trials history. In LA, I was 72nd of 149 finishers, only the top half.

The sadness isn’t only that I didn’t race how I hoped: it’s also that the experience is over. The star treatment, the parties, the hype: it’ll be four more years before it comes around again. That’s tough to think about. But if it’s anywhere close to as special a weekend as this one was, it’ll be worth the wait.

Dream big,