Friday, July 27, 2018

Race Reports: Cul-de-sac 5K #3 and a Track Mile

The summer of speed continues with the last race of the Cul-de-sac 5K series and my first track race in 15 years.

Cul-de-sac 5K #3

After coming in fourth and second in the first two races, I really wanted to win one. And in the back of my mind, where the crazy-over-the-top ambitious part lives, I thought if I could somehow pull out a win, there was a teeny tiny chance that I might be able to pull off the series win. The series is scored like a track meet (10 points for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, etc.) and after two races I was two points behind. Getting the overall title involved some kind of World Cup elimination math: not only did I need to win, but Current Leader needed to get third, giving us the same point total. Then it would come down to cumulative time; going into the last race she had sixteen seconds on me, so I also needed to beat her by at least that much.

Right, well that seemed unlikely, especially since I had not beaten her at all yet. But if none of that worked out, I at least wanted to have won one of these races. That was motivation enough.

The weather was in between the previous two races (88° with a feels like temp of 94°) but at this point I felt mostly used to it; I wasn’t obsessing over it at least. (Acclimatization at its best!)

Race plan was to run relatively relaxed the first mile, but not obsess over pace, and then start pushing at mile 2. I was of course hoping to go faster than the previous two, but I didn’t want to obsess over the pace; I just wanted to focus on pushing and not berating myself for going too slow (like the first race) or screwing myself up thinking I was going out too fast (like the second race). I forbid myself from looking at my watch at all the first mile and tried sticking with a guy who I regrettably let get away from me in the previous races. I allowed myself to glance at my watch at the 1-mile marker, but I hit the wrong button and couldn’t really see the split; I think it was 5:55ish. (For the amount of time I use my watch and obsess over splits, you’d be surprised how often I screw it up mid-race.) Whatever, doesn’t matter, good enough. Time to push, only two miles left.

Through the three out-and-backs I was in first and saw that Current Leader was in third. (Second place was a woman who got second in the first race, but skipped the next week so wasn’t eligible for the series competition). Seriously, is this happening? Could I actually pull off both wins? Wait a minute, don’t get carried away, I’ve been caught and beaten by both these women before.

Through the second mile I tried to press harder than I had the other weeks and to use the fear of being caught to keep pushing. Once again I only allowed myself to look at my watch at the mile marker. (12:01 for two miles, so the second mile was probably too slow, but not as bad as previous weeks.) Right, ok, whatever. This is the last mile, the last time I have to run this race, the last chance to push all the way to the finish. With half a mile left I tried to push harder still, but wondered whether I had enough to fight if anyone caught me. The negative thoughts started swirling (I’m going to lose this right at the end!); I had to keep reminding myself that so far those were just fears and not reality: I was still winning and just needed to focus on getting my butt across the finish line as fast as possible and not worry about anything else.

I didn’t believe I had it until I rounded the final turn and crossed the line in 18:36, my fastest time of the series. I was happy to run faster each race, but the time still isn’t where I hoped it would be at this point. I was also happy to finally get a race win, but still wasn’t sure about the series competition; while waiting for the results I convinced myself that I had gotten second. When they finally announced the results, it was a shock: I had pulled it off. The tiebreaker rules worked in my favor and I won with a slightly faster cumulative time. (Happily, they didn’t have to go to yellow cards.)

Prize for the series win was a trophy that's
basically the same size as my 16 month old.
Summer Series 1 mile

In a serious departure from marathon life, the races for the week weren’t over. Two days later, I raced a mile as part of the Richmond Summer Track Series.

In the day leading up to it, I had to constantly remind myself why the heck I was racing a mile. 5Ks are enough out of my comfort zone, but a mile?? I haven’t raced on the track since high school, I don’t even know how to properly warm up for a track race. The truth was I hoped for a PR because my current mile PR (5:19) is from the last interval of a 3x1 mile workout before the 2016 Trials. Surely I could run faster in a race, having focused on shorter intervals (rather than tons of marathon miles), and if I was just running the one (and not three), right??

Wrong. I went out in 80s (5:20 pace) and held that pace for two laps, but the third lap was too slow. My chest and lungs were starting to burn but I simultaneously realized I was still too comfortable for such a ridiculously short race. I tried to kick it in, feeling my last lap would be my fastest and maybe I could make up what I lost in the third lap, but it was another 80 and I finished in 5:23, exactly the same split as I ran in a 3x1 mile workout in April before Pittsburgh.

Racing on the track for the first time in too long.
The reality is I’m just not in as good of shape as when peaking for a marathon; I’m still building my mileage and getting my legs back under me after Pittsburgh. A few weeks of 5K training has not gotten me in the same shape as months of marathon training. (Which also explains the ridiculous fact that my 10-mile race pace from April remains faster than what I’ve been running for 3.1 miles.)

But I also think it was silly to just race the mile once; I suspect (for me anyway) the shorter the race, the more practice it will take to get it right. (Or maybe it’s just that shorter races can be practiced more often.) If I ran another mile I think I could improve based on my experience and not letting myself get so comfortable in the middle. The 5K is the same: I’ve improved in time and strategy with each race. Hopefully on the last one I can get it right.

Dream big,

Friday, July 13, 2018

Race Reports: Cul-de-sac 5K 1 and 2

The summer of speed has kicked off with two 5K races, which I’m using as practice before aiming for a big PR at the end of the month.

Cul-de-sac 5K #1
These races happen on July evenings in Virginia, so you know what you’re getting into when you sign up: it’s going to be hot. Still, the first one was even hotter than I expected: by 7 pm, the temperature had only dropped to 91°, with a real feel of 101°. I knew all time goals were out the window, but I did want to compete well; everyone would be dealing with the same conditions. No matter what, this would serve as a baseline for the rest and let me know where I needed to improve most.

But the heat was making me really nervous. The purpose of these 5Ks is to learn how to push myself, even when (especially when) I feel like it’s safer to hold back. To resist the urge to go into marathon savings mode, as if I have 10 or 20 miles left instead of 1 or 2. But could I fight that hard in the heat? The weather was helping me wuss out before we even started.

I hit the first mile in 6 minutes and second place. That seemed decent but I was immediately passed. And mile two was a mess; I tried to stay with it and continue to push when it got uncomfortable, but I was falling apart. My split for mile two floored me, 6:26. Seriously?? I tried to get back on it and when another girl passed me I didn’t immediately let her go. I remembered the DC Half, when I stuck with a woman trying to pass me longer than I thought I could, and tried to channel that fight. I tried again to not give up because I had been caught, but to use it as a wake up call to get back on it. It worked for a little bit but eventually she gapped me. And another woman caught me too. Geez, this is terrible. Why am I so bad at these?? Why I am running these?? Mile 3: 6:22.

With just the 0.1 left, I finally found a way to push and managed to squeak back into fourth in 19:23 (6:14 pace). I think my exact words upon finishing were, “That super sucked.” I was at least glad to have a kick at the end, but as usual disappointed that I don’t use that energy to push harder from farther out. Maybe that’s because it was freaking hot, but also I just never push hard enough. That’s what I’m supposed to be working on. Blaming the heat for the slow time is easier, but it was hot for everyone and I didn’t compete well. Next time.

The final sprint for fourth.

Cul-de-sac 5K #2
Next time turned out to be about ten degrees cooler (a chilly 82°) and far less oppressive (a real feel of only 83°!). Once again I wanted to compete well, but this time I also had time goals. I figured 6:00 pace seemed doable, given the cooler temperatures, my knowledge of the course, and geez, hadn’t I run faster than that for ten miles three months ago?? I mean, c'mon. My strategy was to hit the first mile in 6, same as last week, and then really focus on pushing the second mile to hit that one on pace too. I generally slip way behind in the second mile but thought if I could just hold this seemingly not too difficult pace for two miles, I could still find something in the last mile to kick it in. I wouldn’t get too far into a hole I couldn’t climb out of.

The race gets its name from three cul-de-sacs you run through in the first mile; three quick out and backs where you basically turn around a cone. I kept my eye on my watch (as I always do, often to my detriment) and it was hovering in the low 5:50s. I tried to relax a little and not get ahead of myself, but it still read sub-6 pace when I hit the mile in… 6:06. What?!? Damn those out and backs for probably screwing up my watch. Damn me for relying so much on my watch.

On to mile 2. I didn’t try to immediately make up those seconds but just tried to stay with it, to not let the woman who had gapped me slightly (when I was busy worrying about going out too fast) get any farther ahead, to try to hit two miles in as close to 12 flat as possible. But mile two was slower still, a 6:11.

And that’s when my strategy changed back to the old RunnerTeal strategy: screw up the first two miles and then push the last one when you finally realize, “Oh hey, there’s only one mile left!” With half a mile to go I tried to push harder still and rounding the final corner, I put on the same sprint as last week, finishing in 18:53 (6:05 pace) and second place. In the last mile I finally felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, feeling the fatigue and still pushing, but it was still only a 6 flat. I didn’t make up any distance on the woman ahead, although she had been steadily pulling away in the second mile and I did stop the gap from growing.

Finishing the second race.
My time was thirty seconds faster but considering the better conditions, my experience on the course, and that last week I was really only getting my feet wet (quite literally as my shoes were totally sweat drenched after that race) I thought I would do better than that. I did improve from fourth to second, but that’s only because two of the women who beat me last week didn’t come this week. And really, given my time goal for the season, it’s not enough of an improvement.

Afterward, a friend asked if my problem with 5Ks is that it takes me longer to get in the groove of it. I hadn’t really thought of it that way but remembering the last mile (which was harder but also felt better somehow) made me wonder if that is my problem. I’ve debated a longer warm up but never sure that’s a good idea on a hot day. I do strides but perhaps not enough. Somehow I need to find a way to conjure mile 3 Teal (or even mile 26 Teal) earlier on.

One more “practice” 5K to go.

What’s your go to strategy for a 5K?

Dream big, 

Friday, June 29, 2018

Summer of Speed

Summertime means sports bra tan lines, sunlit morning and evening runs, an unimaginable amount of sweat… and another attempt to improve at the 5K.

My 5K PR just does not stack up to my marathon time. Although I still think running calculators are not always accurate and need to be taken with a grain of (sweat-encrusted) salt, it’s striking that plugging in my recent Pittsburgh time predicts a 5K over a minute faster than I’ve ever run. The women I compete against run 5Ks a minute or more faster than me, and as I aim to get more competitive, I need to address my weakness: the dang 5K.

One of my problems with the 5K is I don’t give it enough respect. I do one or two a year, at most, usually in the summer when I’m not totally committed and really just waiting for marathon season to start again. (I admit I’m pretty much doing that again, dedicating an 8-week mini-season before gearing up for a fall marathon.) My other issue is that the 5K is a different kind of pain than the marathon; while the marathon starts off comfortable and gradually becomes a slow burn that settles over you in an achy exhaustion, the 5K is holding your hand in the flame almost from the gun. It’s a fiery, I-want-to-throw-up feeling in your chest and stomach that you have to maintain even as your marathoner’s brain is yelling to pump the dang breaks. It always seems too far to keep up the pace. And yet... the 5K really isn’t that long, but I never seem to understand that until it’s over. I always give up slightly in the second mile then kick it in more than I thought I was capable of and end up mad I didn’t push harder earlier. Doing well in the 5K means being comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m just so used to the feel of marathon pace, I can’t seem to deal with the shorter, sharper burn.

So I’m trying to work on getting comfortable with 5K uncomfortable-ness. I found a plan in an old Running Times (RIP) for marathoners dropping down to the 5K and have been doing the track workouts. They start with super short reps (200s!!) and short rest (30 seconds!) and build up to 1K repeats at 5K pace. I’ve been having fun with the changeup (I have no idea the last time I did 200s) and they haven’t been that hard yet, which is a good sign, since they are still so short. It’s comforting to see the progression and know I just have to hold that pace a little longer each time.

Track workouts from Terrace Mahon.
Move up to the next when you can hit or better the projected paces. 

As for getting used to the distance and pacing, I’m going to run a 5K for three Monday evenings in a row as part of Richmond’s Cul-de-sac 5K series. The times won’t be fast (it’s generally 100 degrees and humid), but I’m hoping I can improve each week, if only in giving a more even and fuller effort. And because Richmond is full of fun summer running events, I’m also going to race at the Summer Track Series. I’m looking to do a mile and also taking on my husband in a Spouse Showdown* at 800m. (Because nothing says true love than trying to out sprint each other, right??) My only reasoning behind the track races is they seem super fun (I’m even less a miler than a 5Ker), but that’s reason enough. They certainly aren’t the focus of the season. (Or that’s what I’ll be telling myself when Husband destroys me in the 800.)

The summer of speed begins.

The focus and serious PR attempt will be at the Pony Pastures 5K at the end of July. It’s a flat, fast course and a morning race so hopefully it won’t be too blazing hot. And even though “it’s just a dinky 5K” (my words, which I’ve spoken at least ten times when describing this race) I’m putting it on the calendar early and trying to start giving it the respect it deserves (i.e. not calling it "just a dinky" 5K). Hopefully this year’s attempt at a summer of speed will pay off with a big PR, and if not, it will still be a fun changeup.

Summer of Speed Schedule
Cul-de-sac 5Ks – July 2, 9, and 16
Track mile – July 18
Pony Pasture 5K – July 28
Spouse Showdown* (800m) – Aug 1

*The Spouse Showdown is our own creation; everyone else is just racing an 800m and not risking their marriages over a track race.

Dream big,

Friday, June 15, 2018

No Buildup's Perfect

“Erase from your mind that your preparation must be perfect. Hard work plus dedication equals a shot at your dreams.” – Kara Goucher

In March, a day after my failed attempt at 16 miles at sub-2:45 pace, Brother asked why I was wallowing over the workout. He laughed, “Marathon pace workouts?! Those things are so freaking tough; no one hits those dead on.”

I snapped back, “But I did! Before CIM! That’s how I knew I could run the Trials standard.”

And so I kept wallowing. I wasn’t sure I could run 2:45 pace in a race if I didn’t in practice. So I attempted the workout again. And failed again. And yet… on race day I did run sub-2:45. Because marathon pace workouts are so freaking tough, and it’s rare to hit them dead on.

Just because I didn't run well on this one day... 
I feel like I’ve done you all a bit of a disservice. Here on the blog and in interviews I rattle on an on about the one workout that helped me get to the Olympic Trials the first time, to the point that people have reached out to me to ask more about it. (Which is awesome! I always love hearing from you guys!) The gist of the workout: a long run of 18-22 miles with 12-16 miles in the middle at goal race pace. (I peak at 16 pace miles after building up to it over the years and over the course of each season.) I’ve always said that if you nail this workout, you are ready to nail the marathon. It’s a hard grind that you’ll likely do alone, in the middle of a high mileage week. If you can nail it then, you’ll be ready on race day when you’re tapered and high on adrenaline.

But what happens if you don’t nail the workout? Is the inverse true? Does failing at this one workout mean you’ll fail at the marathon?

No, because it’s only one workout. Every season is an accumulation of workouts, long slogs, hard tempos, intervals, easy days, strides, core, strength, eating right, sleeping enough. No build up is perfect. It’s too long, life is too messy, the weather is too uncontrollable. Every season has its share of bad days. The trick is to focus on the things that go well and forget the rest. (“Remember the compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.”)

Before Pittsburgh, those failed attempts weighed on me. How could I be confident enough to go for a Trials qualifier when I didn’t run my tried-and-true confidence booster? But I was giving that workout too much power; just because I made it to the Trials by one route before, didn’t mean I had to take exactly the same route this time. I looked back over the rest of my workouts and everything else—tempo runs, track workouts, tune-up races—was on par with that magical CIM season. I was in similar shape overall. All that work didn’t disappear because of a couple of bad days. So I put my faith in the total, in the accumulation of miles, rather than in one or two big workouts.

And honestly, I wasn’t wildly off. I’ve had some seasons where I’ve tried to force things when I didn’t have too much evidence to go off, with disastrous consequences. (If there are more bad days and than good days, it’s probably time to reevaluate your goals or give your body a break before it breaks.) But I did run pretty close to my goal (four seconds per mile slow the first time, six seconds the second time), even if it took some convincing for me to see that. I whined and moaned at the time that it wasn’t close enough; it wasn’t perfect. But I wasn’t that far off. I looked back at my past marathons (other than CIM) and realized I often ran about five seconds per mile faster on race day than in a workout. Hoping to run a little faster on race day wasn’t being totally unrealistic.

(I still think marathon pace workouts are the most important workouts of marathon training; they are the most similar to the marathon physiologically and psychologically. They deserve to be given top priority and hard effort. But if the effort is there and the pace is a few seconds slow, it’s not the end of the world. They aren’t the only workout.)

... it doesn't mean I can't run well on this one.
The thing about nailing the most important workout is it’s an easy confidence boost; if you run a long effort at race pace, you’re ready. It’s harder to see that you might still be ready, even if you don’t quite hit it exactly. It takes confidence and knowing your body and the kind of shape you’re in, based on the total season. That can be tough. Experience and looking back on old training logs can help, as can coaches and outside perspectives.

Of course, you need to have an accumulation of something; you can’t run well on optimism and hopes alone. I know I also blab on about dreaming big and believing in yourself, but obviously you have to do the work too. Dreaming big gets you out of bed in the morning to do the work (and maybe also into bed early to get that crucial sleep!) Believing keeps you in the game when doing the work/running the race gets really freaking hard. But behind it all is a base of hard work. Of grinding, of sweat in your eyes, sun beating down, muscles aching to quit, stomach urging to rebel, of hard freaking work. Dreaming and believing won’t get you anywhere without those really tough workouts.

But that doesn’t mean they all have to go perfectly.

Dream big,

Friday, June 1, 2018

One Year of Nursing

Almost exactly a year ago, I was returning to running after having a baby. My body felt stiff and foreign, but more than anything else, my boobs hurt. Last week, I found myself in a similar spot: my body stiff from a marathon and time off, with my boobs crying the loudest. This time around, instead of my body learning how to run and feed Baby, it was learning how to cope as I stopped feeding Baby.

When I had Baby, I set a goal of breastfeeding her for one year. I wasn’t sure that would be possible, especially in the early days, and I didn’t know what to expect as I added running and racing to the mix. Below is a summary of how that year went for me, but I’m curious to hear how other mamas dealt, so feel free to share your experience in the comments! (Also please know that I am a stay-at-home mom who works from home part time. I’m sure I would have stopped nursing earlier if I had to pump at work and am uber-impressed with all you Mamas who deal with that!)

But before I get into everything about nursing, let me start by saying more generally to Mamas everywhere: cut yourself some slack and be happy with whatever path you’ve chosen, not just regarding breastfeeding, but running too. I know Moms who are crushing marathons/Boston qualifiers/Trials standards who didn’t run much when their babies were small, and Moms crushing it with babies in diapers. If racing and trying to run fast makes you feel more overwhelmed, by all means take it easy. If it makes you feel more like yourself and gives you a break, then go for it. Don’t let other people and the path they take make you feel any less proud of your own. 

And in that vein, don’t feel pressure to breastfeed if it’s not for you. Don’t feel pressure to run while breastfeeding if it’s not for you. For whatever (often unknown) reason, some babies are super demanding and fussy, some boobs struggle to produce enough, some bodies are injury prone. Do what you can but don’t drive yourself crazy forcing anything, breastfeeding-wise or running-wise. If you do choose to breastfeed and run, know that the combination puts a lot of demands on your body. Take care of you and your baby first; running takes a backseat.

The first few days of Baby:
Breastfeeding-wise, these days were a nightmare. I dreaded having to feed my daughter and the lactation consultants at the hospital made me feel worse, not better. But the more sympathetic nurses helped by recognizing how hard it was, reminding me I was doing a good job just for trying, and not judging if I wanted to stop. For the first week or two I opted to rotate between pumping* and breastfeeding; pumping was less painful and gave my boobs a bit of a break from Baby, who was also struggling to figure out how the heck to do this. (This has nothing to do with running, but it’s a reminder to not feel bad if it’s a struggle; it is for nearly everyone! Also: try not to think about how long you want to keep it up, just take it one day at a time.)

*To feed a newborn pumped milk, you may need to syringe feed her, which a lactation consultant can give you the supplies for. No one mentions this beforehand, but it is totally an option.

The undisputed best part of nursing is the closeness.
Now I just have to settle for these incredibly rare moments. 

The first few months:
When I started running again, I quickly learned to splurge for better sports bras (i.e. not the Target ones I’ve had for five years). I was also careful to time my runs around Baby’s feeding schedule: I would nurse her right before I left and be home before she needed more. At that point she was going about two hours between feedings and I was not running anywhere near that long, so it wasn’t an issue so long as I planned it out.

Starting to train again, 4-9 months postpartum:
I started pumping in the morning before my run, so she’d have milk when she woke up (and I could get out the door earlier to fit in more miles). Pumping also enabled me to totally relieve myself; Baby had a tendency to only drink from one side first thing in the morning, leaving me uncomfortably lopsided. If I noticed I pumped a little less one morning, I would be sure to eat more that day, but it was never really an issue. I also periodically checked I was still producing enough by self expressing a tiny bit after Baby finished nursing, reassuring myself there was more there if she had wanted it. (This was really just to ease my always-worried mind: Baby was a healthy weight and seemed happy and satisfied.) At six months, we introduced solid foods (and by “solid” I mean pureed mush) so even though I was still nursing she was no longer relying on me 100 percent.

The biggest breastfeeding-related issue I faced was that my diastasis recti wouldn’t heal until I stopped nursing. While nursing, your body produces hormones, like relaxin, that keep ligaments loose, making it hard for the abdominal muscles to come back together properly. This meant I had to be a little more cautious about my running and I couldn’t do all the strength and supplemental work I’d normally do, but it also served as a reminder that (a) for me, nursing my daughter was more important than running, and (b) some things just take time and I can’t force anything. The only other issue I had was that I was thirstier on runs, but that was an easy fix: I just carried a bottle more often.

I purposely choose a logistically easy marathon for my first (the Richmond Marathon, where I live), so I could pump before I left the house, have a short drive to the start, and then pretty easily find my family after. I ended up not nursing Baby until we were back at home, which was longer than I had planned but Baby and I were both fine. (She had a bottle and a snack while I was running.) Of course, major marathons—and all the waiting around at the start—would make this more complicated), so that’s something to keep in mind when racing and nursing (although Boston does allow you to have a pump at the start).

Transitioning to solid food... and the inevitable mess.

Training for an OTQ, 10-14 months postpartum:
Breastfeeding for a year would have meant stopping in mid-March. I went in to the spring season with a flexible attitude: if breastfeeding seemed not to be causing any issues, maybe I’d keep going through the marathon and not have to worry about how my body might react to weaning.

And that’s what happened: in the buildup to Pittsburgh, I honestly didn’t really feel affected by breastfeeding. My abs started to close (probably because Baby was getting more calories from solid foods) and I started to hit times and mileage that were in the realm of pre-Baby. I wasn’t sure whether weaning would throw my body for a loop: would the drop in hormones make me crazy cranky, gain a bunch of weight, or feel totally off? Things seemed to be going pretty well, so rather than fix something that wasn’t broken, I decided to keep breastfeeding through race day. (Although I did start to slowly cut back starting around her first birthday; by the time of the marathon I was down to two sessions: pumping before a morning run and nursing her at bedtime. I noticed I was pumping less as I cut out the other sessions, but she still had plenty.)  

The final days:
A day after Pittsburgh I cut out the morning pumping session with no obvious effects. Two weeks later I stopped nursing at bedtime. And 36 hours after that, I was so glad I had waited until the marathon was over. I was a mess. Baby was cranky from a cold, but I seemed particularly drained dealing with her crankiness. (The week I cut from three sessions to two was also a rough one. Again, I’m not sure if Baby was just being particularly difficult, but I felt crankier and more overwhelmed than usual.)

But more than my moodiness was something I hadn’t considered: my boobs were incredibly painful. I hadn’t really had any issue weaning to that point—maybe I felt a little full but nothing too bad—and I had clearly been producing less so I naively thought it would just taper off and that would be that. Not so. From about 36 hours to 4-5 days after I stopped I was painfully full; my chest was so sore I couldn’t lift my arms above my head and when I’d pick up Baby, she’d hug me and leave me wincing. (It’s a sad day when your baby’s hugs hurt!) This corresponded to when I started running again and I was happy to only go a few short miles, because while the post-marathon tightness eased after a mile or two, the boob pain did not. I’m glad I wasn’t trying to train hard or race during this period. (Not that it would have been impossible, but very uncomfortable. I’d recommend timing weaning for a down week if you can.)

So in the end, I’m happy with how I timed everything: I was able to run two marathons while breastfeeding and hit a big time goal in the latter. My paranoia about the added injury risk (the hormones that kept my abs apart can also cause joint trouble) made me more cautious then I have been in the past, making me take a few days off here and there, especially in the lead up to Richmond. But before Pittsburgh, I felt healthier than ever. (Even before CIM, where I set my current PR, I was dealing with a cranky butt muscle.) I can’t attribute it to breastfeeding exactly, but I do think that taking care of Baby and having her rely on me made me take care of myself better. I was more conscious about eating well, I took a prenatal vitamin daily (it’s recommended to continue those while nursing), and I was extra diligent about sleep, given everything that I was asking of my body.

Some say breastfeeding slows you down; maybe I would have run faster this spring if I had stopped earlier, but I’ll never know, nor do I really care. (I'm obviously not complaining about how the season turned out!)  I’m just glad to have hit another goal, one that seemed incredibly ambitious in the early days.

Dream big, 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Race Report: Pittsburgh Marathon

In the final days and weeks before the Pittsburgh Marathon, the familiar doubts returned. Was I really ready to run an Olympic Trials Qualifier?? The big three worries were:

1. The hills. I obviously knew about Pittsburgh’s hills all along and trained for them as best I could. (Was it enough???) I tensed every time someone mentioned them, especially when a few days before the race Gwen Jorgensen (Olympic gold medalist in the triathlon, now committed to the marathon) mentioned how hilly the half marathon course was (which was serving as the US Championships and shared the first 11 miles with the marathon). I considered those first miles to be flat and the hill she mentioned around mile 10 didn't even register on my map. Gwen’s sentiment rekindled my fear of the hills and made me more then a little worried I was being na├»ve.
Pittsburgh Marathon elevation.
The half marathon splits around mile 11 (before the giant hill).
2. My fitness. I struggled in crucial marathon pace workouts: could I really run faster and farther than I had in practice?

3. My toughness. I worried that I wouldn’t be tough enough to push as hard as I’d need to in the end. Ever since Baby, I’ve missed my A goals by ten, twenty, thirty seconds. I feared I’d give up on myself (hadn’t I given up during those major workouts?) and that I’d miss it by a hair. I wondered if I lost the grittiness essential to achieving this ambitious of a goal.

In the two or three weeks before the race I tried to really hammer the only thing left to hammer: my positivity. I came up with arguments against all those points: I had trained on hills, I had conquered harder ones (I hoped??) in Charlottesville. If I ignored the marathon pace workouts, almost all my other workouts and races pointed to being in similar shape to pre-CIM, where I qualified for the 2016 Trials. And I used to (way back in 2012 and earlier) run faster in races than for marathon pace workouts, even at crazy hilly Charlottesville. Over and over I told myself that I am tough and that when I put these big goals out there, I don’t back down easily. I thought about when I said I’d run sub-3 and did. And when I said I’d qualify for 2016 and did. Sure, I had plenty of examples of goals I set that I did not make, but I was telling myself those were the less important ones. The ones I really cared about, I didn’t give up on.

And I reminded myself that I was lucky to be going for this at all. I had originally wanted to run Boston but didn’t have a qualifying time at registration time and wasn’t accepted as an elite. (Which made perfect sense once I saw the depth of the women’s elite field this year!) When Boston turned out to be totally awful miserable weather, I was glad I wasn’t there. I had felt called to Pittsburgh and knew this was God’s plan for me. I was healthy and the weather seemed mostly okay. I had an incredible opportunity that I did not want to waste.

As I kept reminding myself these things and reading over my cache of motivational quotes, I was amazed to realize the positivity thing was working. I really started to believe. I’m going to do it. I’m going to qualify.

Until Saturday, the day before the race, when everything came crashing down. We had arrived in Pittsburgh the day before and that night Baby had gotten sick. She woke up every hour coughing and sniffling and struggling to go back to sleep. By morning, everyone was tired and cranky and desperate for another shot at rest during nap time. But Baby refused to sleep in the hotel room, so we packed her in the car and drove the course while she slept and I tried to tell myself the hills weren’t so bad. I started worrying I would wake up sick too (I feel a little funny… am I congested? I think I have a sinus headache coming on…), but even more than that I worried this weekend was turning into a disaster. Poor Husband was taking the responsibility for sick Baby, no one was sleeping, we’d driven hours to get here (as had my Dad), and it was likely going to rain on race day, which seemed like a suckier situation for the spectators than me. I have to do well or this whole weekend will be a horrible memory.

Race morning I woke up sick-to-my-stomach nervous, like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. Am I always this nervous??? It was just a race, but it represented months of work, months of sacrifices by people other than me. I have to do this for my family, all my supporters who believe in me. I can’t let them down. Baby was still struggling so no one had slept again, but I reminded myself that I never sleep the night before a marathon. I only ate two thirds of my breakfast I was so nervous, which I don’t think has ever happened before.

Once I got to the elite athlete area I sort of calmed down. I wasn’t thinking too much ahead, just going through the motions of what I needed to do (i.e. go pee nine thousand times). The superstars warming up for the US Half Marathon Championships distracted me a bit. At least I don’t have to compete against them. I did have to run twice as far up far larger hills, but whatever.


My plan was to run the first half around 6:15 pace. To nab a qualifier, I needed to run under 2:45, or 6:17 pace. I don’t typically/ever recommend going out fast in a marathon or trying to bank time, but because of the nature of the course (a flat first half and a hilly second one) I figured to have any shot I needed to at least be on pace or slightly ahead for the flat section.

Despite my typical strategy of constantly obsessing about over/under (That mile was 3 seconds fast, the one before that was 2 seconds slow, so now I’m 1 second under) I tried my best not to freak out about a second here or there. The first mile was 6:12: A little fast, but that’s okay. Just relax into it. The next was 6:16: Okay, right on. The next few miles were a hair under 6:15 and I tried not to scrutinize every second and just kept telling myself I was running exactly according to plan.

Another pre-race fear was that I wouldn’t be able to do it alone; when I qualified at CIM I had a pacer and a big group to stick with, a crucial advantage I wasn’t sure I could qualify without. I hoped there would be some women at Pittsburgh with the same goal and we could work together. About 2 miles in, I found myself beside Devon Yanko, who I remembered from the pack at CIM. (Back then she had talked with the pacer about how she owned a bakery and, being obsessed with baked goods myself, I couldn’t help but remember that fact.) Maybe she’s going for the same goal today. When I asked, she said yes but with a noncommittal “we’ll see” shrug to it. She’s just being humble. (She’s seriously an ultra-running badass.) “Great,” I said. “Let’s try to work together.”

With Devon Yanko, around mile 6.
We ran the next couple of miles side by side and I was glad to have someone to run with. Maybe I won’t have to run this whole race by myself! Around mile 6, we caught up to another woman and I told her to jump in with us: “We can work together!” I was trying to be nice/desperate for company on this mission, but I’m not sure it came off the way. I wasn’t sure if she happily said, “Good, thanks!” or angrily said, “I’m good, thanks.” Maybe I pissed her off by implying she was in need of help? I self-consciously debated this as we crested a bridge, but she tucked in with us whether I annoyed her or not.

I knew we were slowing as we went up the bridge; it was a hill after all, but considering what we had coming, it was a minor one. I reminded myself how great it would be to have company to work with, but when I saw the split (6:25) and thought again how that hill was barely a blip, I couldn’t help but pick up the pace. Suddenly I was alone. Oh man it’s going to be embarrassing if they catch me later. (“Now how about you jump in, you idiot who went out too fast.”) But I trusted sticking to my race plan was my best shot, so it was back to going for 6:15s, alone or not.

At mile 8, I got to see Husband and Baby cheering. It was another reminder of all they do for me and how much I wanted to succeed and celebrate with them. So far, things were going well. I’m doing fine. I’m executing my plan. Just stay relaxed and calm and get to the hill. I was running with a couple men and hoped they were running the full so we could work together for a while. But when we split from the half marathoners around mile 11 only one guy was left. I lost even him soon after. Alone again, naturally

As I crossed the next bridge, I noticed the woman up ahead looked a lot like Clara Santucci, who had won the race in 2014 and 2015 in the low 2:30s. Pre-race press mentioned her as going for the win. Am I really right behind Clara Santucci?! I debated this for a while—maybe it’s someone else, was she wearing white when I saw her at the start?—and soon enough we were over the river and heading up the big hill.

When driving the course the day before, I realized the hills weren’t so much steep monsters as long, slow slogs. They weren’t the kind of hills where you’re huffing and puffing and nearly puking at the top, but just where you’re slowing and it’s hard and, man, it sure would be nice if it were flat again. I expected to lose thirty seconds or so, but hoped to put a metaphorical pin in it, just try to run 6:17s, and not worry about the thirty seconds until after mile 20. The course doesn’t go back down that hill until mile 23, so it was important to not freak out about being over pace, but just settle back in and trust the time would be made up later. I didn’t want to stress myself out or overanalyze my pace too early. At mile 20 I’d give myself permission to start pushing. Wait until mile 20: that’s when the race will really start.

The top of the hill, mile 13.
My split for the hill mile was actually only twenty seconds slow—Woo hoo! Better than expected!—and at the half I was a hair under 2:45 pace. I had been certain I would already be over at this point, so I was feeling good. Just maintain. Take it one mile at a time and don’t freak out over a too slow split. It rolls in this section, but every up you get back. Mile 14 was slow, but—told you!—mile 15 was fast. 16 slow, 17 fast. Around mile 15 I passed Clara—what?! She must be coming back from something. (Something I apparently tell myself pretty often and which is often apparently also true.)

Trying to catch Clara (white shirt). Mile 14.
Somewhere in mile 18 the pace on my watch was hovering in the 6:40s and I was telling myself it must be wrong: the buildings are throwing off the signal. Except we weren’t anywhere near downtown and there weren’t any tall buildings. There was a woman up ahead that I had been chasing since about mile 16. She’s not pulling ahead any more so I must not be slowing that badlyOh but that guy did just blow by me, maybe I am slowing. I reminded myself that the pace often slows in these miles not because you can’t maintain it but because you lose focus. Focus. Get to 20 miles in one piece, then it’s game time.

Focused on one mile at a time.
Mile 18 was still a little slow. So was 19. Just get to mile 20. I passed two women in the twentieth mile, but it was another uphill slog. I had memorized the splits I needed to hit for miles 20 and 25; they would serve as my checkpoints. All I cared about was getting to the clock and seeing where I was.

Mile 20, 2:06:21: exactly thirty seconds over. Okay, this is what I prepared for. This is what I knew would happen. I need to average 6:10s from here to the finish and I’ve got it. The downhill is still coming, that will help.

What also helped, though I had no idea at the time, was that I was so busy looking at the clock on the course that I didn’t check my watch split. Mile 20 was a 6:40, the slowest of the day. When I run an unexpectedly slow mile in training, it often derails me. Oh my gosh, I can’t do this, I’m falling apart! And then, inevitably, I do fall apart. Because as soon as you accept that you’re slowing, falling apart, failing, it just snowballs.

Fortunately (thank you, God!) I had no idea how slow that mile was. I wrongly thought I lost a few seconds here or there between halfway and 20 miles and it added up to thirty seconds, not that I was slowing more and more with each mile. Blissfully ignorant of my unraveling, I refocused on my goal for the next mile, and with the help of a downhill, hit it dead on: 6:10. I’m certain it would not have been that fast had I known my mile 20 split. (There’s an argument to be made here in favor of running by effort and not your watch, but I won’t make it because I am--admittedly--terrible at doing that and check my watch every other block. Maybe someday I’ll learn...)

The doubts were starting, but I was executing my plan. Thirty seconds over at 20 miles is fine. Thirty seconds is doable. Still got the downhill to go. I knew there was one more uphill before that crucial downhill but I couldn’t remember where it was. Does the uphill end at mile 22? I made it to the 22-mile marker (a 6:15 mile, gotta push a bit more!) and saw my Dad cheering wildly. I knew by his enthusiasm he understood how close I was. He also said I was in sixth place. That would win me some money, so I tried to use it as motivation. There were no women in sight and I had no idea if any were on my tail but I also wasn’t sure I entirely cared. I no longer worried about being embarrassed if someone caught me. I just wanted that sub-2:45.

Mile 22. Fighting my way towards the finish.
The demons got louder. And the last uphill had not ended at the mile 22 marker.

When does this hill end? Where is this stupid downhill? I’m not going to make it. I’m going to miss it by a hair.

No! Don’t tell yourself that. There’s more left, there’s more left. It’s better to push for thirty minutes then be disappointed for six months or whenever you get this chance again. When will you get this chance? You’re healthy and fit and not sick (despite Baby’s best efforts) and the weather is good. (The forecasted rain had never materialized.)

But I can’t, I’m not going to do it. I’m going to miss it. I need to run 6:10s and I’m not.

I was trying to cycle through my mantras to find one that would work but couldn’t. The devil on my shoulder was yelling that I wasn’t going to make it. Just accept it. You’ll miss it by a bit. You’ll have to find a way to recover and not act like it’s the end of the world. So the weekend will be a bust. Just get over it. Once again I had written my goal (<2:45) on a bottle of champagne to have ready to pop when we got home. I had done it to prove to myself I truly believed I could run that time, but I had also just used an incredibly old bottle of cheap Andre, so: how much did you really believe in yourself? You didn’t even bother buying a nicer bottle. If you miss it, you can just throw that stupid bottle out. Who cares. (When even champagne choices are fodder for negativity, it’s not a good sign.)

But even as I bargained with myself, trying to find a way to make missing my goal not seem so bad, the angel on my other shoulder was trying to prevent me from accepting it. It’s not over. It’s not over. There’s more there. Don’t give up. You can still make it. Believe, believe, believe. I started praying, out loud. “C’mon, God. Help me do this.”

Mile 23: 6:17 pace. Another not-6:10.

Then, the downhill. Oh sweet mother of God, the downhill. I was flying. Still praying that it was enough. I just let my legs do whatever they could. Go as fast as you can, take every single second you can get. Flying down the hill, the angel gained some ground in his arguments with the devil. The pace on my watch read under 6 minutes. This is what I needed. Thank you, God. I can still do it.

Mile 24: 5:48 pace. (Certainly the fastest mile I’ve ever run in a marathon.)

Okay, I made up the 30 seconds, I’m back on pace. (I was actually 11 seconds under, but I didn’t know it.) Now I just need to run 6:17s for two miles and I’ve got it.

But when the road flattened, the suffer fest resumed. The pace on my watch hovered in the mid to high 6:20s. And suddenly that stupid devil was back in the lead. Well, you’re not going to make it. You have to accept it. You’re going to miss it by a couple seconds. You’ll have to find a way to get over it.

No, don’t give in. It’s not over yet. The prayers became more frequent. “C’mon, God. Help me do this.” Over and over. “C’mon, God. Help.”

I knew I had more in me; I just couldn’t seem to tap it. Yea, I’m tired, yea, my feet hurt, but this is it. (“If you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted…”) There’s more there, c’mon. Still my pace was stuck in the 6:20s.

There was a fluid station around mile 24. At that point, I was (hopefully) going to finish this thing before any Gatorade would actually make its way to my muscles, but studies have shown that just swishing Gatorade in your mouth tricks your brain into thinking fuel is coming, so it lets you speed up. I grabbed a cup, squished some around and tried to spit it out. But my capabilities were so limited at that point the Gatorade instead just dribbled out of my mouth and down my front, like I was a baby who didn’t yet know how to eat or drink. I must have been some kind of sight: muttering prayers to myself as I foamed at the mouth.

“C’mon, God. Help.”

I have to do this for Baby, for Husband, for all they’ve put up with this weekend, this whole season. I want to celebrate with them, not wallow. I HAVE to make it. I was desperate to get to mile 25, the other split I had memorized to see where I was.

Mile 25, 2:37:19: Dead on. (Later analysis would show that mile 25 was 6:28, another split I’m glad I didn’t see.)

Oh my God, I can still make it. It’s not over. One more mile, push push push. I still felt like I had more but couldn’t tap it. C’mon, do it for your family.

“C’mon, God. Help. Help. Help.”

The thing that’s always cited as the best evidence that it’s our brain slowing us down (not our muscles/heart/lungs) is the end sprint. If we slow down because we have absolutely nothing left, our muscles are spent, our fuel depleted, our body incapable of pushing any more, we wouldn’t be able to speed up no matter what happened. But when we get close enough, when we see the finish line, we find another gear. Which tells scientists that our fatigue is (mostly) in our mind. In Endure, Alex Hutchinson writes, “Science has confirmed what athletes have always believed: that there’s more in there—if you’re willing to believe it.”

I knew this and was reminding myself I had science on my side. There’s more there. But still, I was not speeding up. Oh my God, I’m going to miss it. I have zero seconds to spare. C’mon God, give me something. Help me go faster.

I don’t know at what point that prayer was answered, maybe when I finally could see the 26-mile marker, when my brain finally let up the emergency break. All of a sudden I was all-out sprinting. I have to do this, I can make it. Sprint sprint sprint.

The end sprint.
Husband was cheering wildly in this stretch and I knew from his voice he knew how close I was. He said later that he’d never seen me like that, never seen that kind of a sprint from me or that look in my eyes. “Desperation and I would even say fear,” he said. Uh yeah, I’d say fear too. I was scared out of my freaking mind.

C’mon, everything you’ve got, for Husband, for Baby. This. Is. It.

Scared out of my freaking mind.
The turn for the finish comes just after the 26-mile marker and I could finally see the clock, but I couldn’t make out the numbers. Oh God, please don’t say 2:45. Please say low 2:44. Still sprinting, still praying. Does it say 2:44:50 something?! Oh my God, I’m going to miss it. 

Willing the clock to have enough time left.
No, no! It says 2:44:20 something. Oh my God, I’m going to make it!

I did not let up until I was under the banner and the clock and then, OH THANK YOU GOD, we did it.

Thank. You. God.
(The clock on the right is for the half.)
2:44:36. An Olympic Trials qualifier and sixth place.

I didn’t break down in tears like at CIM, because I was so gutted I could barely celebrate. By the time I got through the crowded finisher’s chute (the half was finishing too) and realized I had walked a few blocks past the elite tent, I felt so sick I had to sit down. I convinced a police officer to let me out of the barriers so I could sit on the curb but he in turn convinced me to go to the medical tent, which I accepted mostly so I could get a ride back towards the elite tent. I knew I was fine, just depleted, and the doctors confirmed that. I finally made it to the elite tent but I still could not wrap my mind around it. Did I really make it??

Even days later, it doesn’t seem real. I knew it would be a dramatic fight to the finish and I would have to be relentless in those final miles. But for all my pre-race talk about belief, now that I've done it... I can’t quite believe it.

Dream big, 

Friday, April 27, 2018

Taper Time To-Dos

With fewer miles and shorter workouts, what are you going to do with all that extra time during the taper? A few suggestions:

1. Rest

This is obviously the number one thing you’re supposed to be doing. Run less, rest more. Sleep in, go to bed earlier. Curl up with a good book (I highly recommend Deena Kastor’s Let Your Mind Run, it helps a lot with #5, below) and—if at all possible—procrastinate any to-do items until after the marathon. Spring cleaning can wait until… never, right?

2. Freak out about the weather

Just kidding, don’t do that. (Good luck not doing that.)

3. Plan any last minute details of race weekend

And by that I mean plan where you’re going to celebrate afterward. Around this time is when I start imagining all the junk I’m going to eat post-race, mostly of the cupcake/donut/ice cream variety. (If you have any suggestions of good Pittsburgh bakeries/ice cream shops/burger and beer places, let me know!)

4. Visualize your race

Don’t just picture the cupcakes; also picture how you’re going to earn those cupcakes.

I wrote about visualization before and it’s a relatively simple way to get mentally prepared. Imagine running well of course, but don’t pretend everything will go smoothly. Know that it may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I got an unexpected comfort from reading over an old race report. I remember the race going well, because it ended well, but I wrote that it was the hardest race I had ever run. I'd forgotten some of the struggle, but knowing I struggled and still succeeded was comforting. Recognize that in your visualizations. There will be moments of doubt and fear and wanting to drop out. Mentally practice moving through those moments. Feel yourself struggle and then see yourself pulling out of it and succeeding.

5. Build the mental arsenal

Keep looking for things that will help you pull yourself out of those tough spots. I’ve spent the last week or so writing down every encouraging quote or thought I have. I plan to scroll through this arsenal race weekend with the hope that I can memorize the most powerful to rely on during the race.

One of the quotes that really hit me was “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the BS story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.” Every time I think about all the reasons I believe I can make my goal, the old stubborn demons try to pop in and tell me why I can’t. In the Believe I Am Compete Training Journal, Lauren Fleshman writes about making a case for yourself. She suggests writing down all the negative chatter you tell yourself before a race and then coming up with an argument against each one (even if it’s an argument you only wish you could believe). Memorize the big ones and repeat them to yourself three times in a row every morning and night. (The repetition will help you believe, even in the shaky ones.) Deena Kastor suggested a similar strategy in the I’ll Have Another podcast: come up with three reasons why you’ll achieve your goal and remember them when the going gets tough.

I always sign these posts “Dream big” but in the days before a race, my mantra is different: Believe. Believe in God, believe in yourself, believe in the potential God has given you. Believe you’re capable of much more than you know. Believe in the training, in the miles and hard work accumulated. Believe in the taper, in the way your body is soaking up that rest. Believe that when it gets tough—seemingly impossible—you’ll find a way through and prove it wasn’t. Believe and don’t stop, because as soon as you stop the race is lost… but if you keep believing, who knows what will happen

Adding one extra piece to my race day attire.

(Note: There won’t be a post next Friday. I’ll be focusing on #1 on this list, but look for a race report in two weeks!)   

Dream big (and believe!),