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!),

Friday, April 20, 2018

Training vs. Racing

Recently, I remembered a question Oiselle had posed to Twitter a while back: “Do you prefer training or racing?” (Turns out I misremembered it. It was actually whether you’d rather run, race, or recover. But no matter, my inaccurate memory got me thinking.) I responded racing, but what made me consider it recently was that I’m not sure that’s true. I think I prefer training. I realized this because the training for Pittsburgh is wrapping up and I’m kind of bummed about it.

I love racing, but I also love the rhythm of training. (Which is a good thing, considering racing is only a few hours and training is a few hours every day for months.) It may seem like a monotonous routine of getting up early, scarfing down oatmeal, running, stretching, and amassing a heck of a lot of stinky laundry. But I actually love it. (Well, except for the laundry.)
Would I rather be training...

Even on the most exhausting days, I rarely wish I could run less. I always wish I had the time or energy to do more (or a body that could handle it). So when the taper comes, and with it the reduced mileage and shorter workouts, I get sad that it will be months before I’m back in that rhythm again. The race is exciting of course, but before (and after, as I recover) I’ll miss the reflective time I spend pounding the pavement, the satisfaction of a tough workout completed, the fulfilling soreness of a high-mileage week.

And of course, with less time spent running, there’s more time to agonize: am I ready? Did I do enough while I could? (Which is something I grapple with Every. Single. Season.)

On Sunday I redid the workout from a few weeks ago and, disappointingly, it went basically the same, only slightly worse. I was upset for a multitude of reasons: that I had another shot and I failed, that I sat out the 10K for no reason, but of course mostly that I didn’t get the confidence boost I needed. I expected the workout to lift a weight off my shoulders, to give me evidence that I could really do this. And truthfully maybe the weight wouldn’t have been totally lifted, but only shifted slightly, eased a bit. Instead, the weight of doubt grew a little heavier. I wasn’t sure I could carry it around for another three weeks until the race.

This week @thepacinglife posted a quote: “If the problem you’re facing can be solved with action, you don’t have a problem.” If my problem if that I want to run an Olympic Trials Qualifying time, then I know exactly what action I need to take and in three weeks I have the opportunity to take it. (Emphasizing that because we should be grateful when we have these opportunities.) The issue for me seems to be that it’s three weeks before I can take that action. I have to wait to see if I will. Like many eager, type A runners, I’d rather still be doing something that feels like I’m progressing/working towards it, still putting that metaphorical hay in that barn.

Instead all I can do these next weeks is wonder about it. I’m working on my mental game, reminding myself of all the other evidence I have from the rest of my training and racing this season. And really that is the action that I need to take now: to let my body rest while my brain wraps around the task ahead.

Still, I’d rather be working on my physical than mental game. I’d rather be training than wondering.

... or racing?
[Photo Credit: RunWashington]

But when someone asks why I run, why I put so much effort into training, I always say it’s to race. My motivation comes from trying to see what I’m capable of. I won’t know until race day and the excitement of the challenge is in the not knowing. And in putting all that hard work—physical and mental—on the line and finding out.

I guess what it really comes down to is, like many runners, I love training and I love racing.

I just hate tapering.

Which do you prefer: training or racing?

Dream big,

Friday, April 13, 2018

Race Report: 2018 Cherry Blossom

Photo Credit: RunWashington
Three weeks ago, while I was wallowing in my disappointing workout, I got an email from the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile race saying I qualified for the elite women’s start, which would take off 12 minutes before the men and the rest of the field. The email—which I almost deleted without reading it, whoops—immediately lifted my spirits. It was an opportunity to be treated like a star, and even though I would get my butt kicked by the actual stars I knew I wanted to do it.

But I wasn’t sure if it was a bad idea; I’d likely be dropped in the first ten meters, was it worth being stuck in no woman’s land for 10 miles just to feel special? So I asked Friend of the Blog/Neon Angel Kerry, who’s run it a couple of times, if it was dumb to start with the elites, only to feel elite, when I was surely going to be dropped immediately. But she assured me that was exactly why you do it, that we deserve the special opportunity, and if I was in sub-60 shape I should go for it.

Breaking 60 minutes was my goal, but I hadn’t yet said it out loud and as I typed it back to Kerry, it became real: Oh, geez you really think you can break 60? That’s crazy.

At the beginning of the season, I thought this was one of the races I could go for a PR, but that seemed less and less likely lately. I figured a 10K PR was much more in reach, as my 10K PR (37:08, or 5:58 pace, from the first part of a half marathon) is actually a slower pace than my 10 mile PR (59:24, or 5:56 pace). (Which is why I remain super bummed to skip the opportunity to race a 10K.)

In the week before the race, I tried to wrap my mind around why, even if a 10 mile PR was a bit ambitious, sub-60 wasn’t totally crazy. I wrote down my rationale: I ran sub-60 pace at Cherry Blossom in 2015 and I’ve run some* faster workouts and a faster half marathon this season. (*It’s never ALL. Some workouts are faster, some are slower, and a lot comes down to which you focus on. I actively try to focus on the faster/glass half full ones.) As my confidence grew, the possibility snuck in of maybe—on a perfect day, if I feel unexpectedly amazing—maybe, just maybe going for a PR.

And I let the deadline for opting out of the elite start quietly pass.

Race morning was cold and there were about 40 other women freezing their buns off in the advanced start, all of whom looked intimidating. But I talked to one who had a similar goal—start at 6:00 pace—so that made me feel a bit better. I wouldn’t be totally alone from the gun.

Within the first quarter mile, two packs formed: the lead pack, trailing the press truck and motorcycles, and a “chase pack” of five or six women, including myself. I laughed to myself when my internal monologue called us a chase pack, as if the race was televised and the commentators had any reason to refer to us. Which of course they wouldn’t have, because we weren’t so much chasing the leaders as a self-selected group of women who clearly all had the nice round goal of 60 minutes on our minds. I was psyched that, not only was I not alone, there were a couple of women with the same idea. At a turn around near mile 2, we broke up a bit, but I stuck by Rochelle Basil, who had seemed to be in control of our little pack. 

At three miles we were exactly on 60-minute pace, but I fell back a little from Rochelle. I didn’t want to lose contact too soon as I worried that might lead to me giving up a bit and falling off the pace, so I was glad when I was able to reel her back in. As I pulled back alongside her, I began to feel better and around mile 5 ended up passing her.

Photo Credit: RunWashington
As we ran back down Independence, the sun was in my eyes and I could barely see in front of me, but as we turned to head south along the Tidal Basin I finally spotted another ponytail ahead. She was far off but I sensed I could catch her so I focused on her and just kept churning. I was feeling good and the next few miles were sub-six minutes. Maybe I could PR after all?! Around the 10K, I thought, Hmm maybe this is where I get my 10K PR… and I may have sped up a hair for a few strides to hit the 10K timing mat three seconds faster than my old PR.

Mile 7 was a 5:48 and I was flying high. I am going to PR! I suspected I might be running fast because the wind was at our backs, and things might drastically change when we rounded the tip of Hains Point and started heading north, but I was actively repelling all negativity so I didn’t dwell on it. Instead I focused on how good I felt and how much I was surprising myself. I’m in better shape than I thought!

Somewhere in this stretch I caught the woman ahead of me and started focusing on the next one, which was Susanna Sullivan, one of the top runners in the region. Could I catch Susanna Sullivan?! She must be coming back from something. (I later read that link and yes, she is.) I couldn’t really believe I was just behind her, but she was the next ponytail so catching her was my new focus.

As we rounded the turn at the bottom of Hains Point, reality set in a bit. The wind was in our faces, but I was willing myself to stay positive. By mile 8, I had averaged 5:56 pace and I just needed to keep that up for two more miles to PR. I had figured any chance of a PR would mean wildly picking it up at the end, but I didn’t need to do anything too crazy, just maintain. I kept my sights on Sullivan.

But my ninth mile was 6:01. Just like last time, I was unraveling a bit and it was clear the wind had been helping and was now actively hurting. Okay, well now I do need to kick it in a little harder. One more mile, pick it up. But I couldn’t, or I wasn’t anyway. There were signs for 1200 meters to go, (C’mon, GO!), 800 meters (GO GO GO!), and, while I felt like my effort was increasing, I wasn’t sure I was going any faster. I seemed to have nothing. The men had started passing me around mile 9 and they were flying by. Beforehand, I had wondered what effect that would have: if getting passed by someone at essentially an all-out sprint would (a) encourage me to pick it up or (b) crush my spirits, but it was actually (c) no effect whatsoever. The finish line being so close also had no effect. The last mile, often my fastest, was the slowest of the day.

So I did not PR. I lost it in those last two miles and finished ten seconds over. It was incredibly frustrating because I came so close and I really thought I had it. I keep missing my big goals by a hair (sub-2:50 in November’s marathon by 20 seconds, sub-1:20 in March’s half by 27 seconds) and I absolutely cannot miss my next big goal by a hair: ten seconds, twenty seconds, whatever. But on the other hand, only in my really optimistic moments did I think a PR was possible at this race. My PR came from the spring of 2015, when I felt fit and fast, fresh off qualifying for 2016 Trials, and with the added motivation to beat my brother. This time I surprised myself a bit, especially with how good I felt in the middle miles while knocking off sub-6 minute miles. (Yea, the wind may have helped, but shhh!)

Even though I was alone for the second half of the race, I have zero regrets about doing the advanced start. Being in the elite start reminded me that I really want to be in more elite starts, to deserve to be there, and to be mixing it up more with the top locals and top Americans. I want to be able to hang with the Susanna Sullivans and not just when they are coming back from something.

I needed that reminder, because it's time for me to stop making excuses or doubting myself because I’m coming back from something, namely having a Baby. A month or so ago, Husband asked if I was still using Baby as an excuse. He was just curious: did I feel like I still was being held back a bit/recovering from pregnancy? I said no. That was my excuse last season, but this season I'm back to running times and doing workouts that are pretty close to my old self, even my old self at her best. And I’m sick of putting an asterisk on things, “This is the best I’ve run since Baby.” (Please note: every woman is going to have a different timeline and road back, this is just my own personal experience and I realize I’m lucky to be where I’m at. But every woman should feel totally comfortable with taking it at whatever pace she wants or needs to!)

But… sometimes I do doubt myself and think, Well, I just had a Baby, I don’t deserve to start with the elites/there’s no way I can run that fast/a PR is out of the question. During the race, I was thrilled at the idea of PRing because that would prove (to myself more than anyone) that I am faster than ever, not just the fastest I’ve been postpartum. Well... not quite yet.

Although I did technically get that 10K PR, so at least there's that.

Dream big,

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Little Extras

Professional runners often talk about the little extras: it’s not just the miles and workouts that make the difference on race day; it’s all the other little things done throughout the day that keep them healthy and able to run those miles and nail those workouts.

The problem, of course, is that we’re freaking busy. We’re not pros, so we don’t have time to sit in NormaTec boots, take afternoon naps, or spend hours lifting. It takes enough time just to get the running done and so the little things often get skipped.

Over the years I’ve worked hard (sometimes successfully, sometimes struggling) to focus on the non-running extras. Having Baby obviously threw that all for a loop and I’ve had to rededicate myself and find new ways to fit it all in. I still don’t have it totally figured out and things get skipped here and there, but below are some of the tips and tricks that are helping me at the moment. (Anything to add? Do so in the comments below!)


On Sunday nights, I look at my training plan for the week and figure out what days make sense (workout-wise/time-wise/Baby-wise) for strength, core work, and drills. (Each week, I aim for two strength sessions and four core sessions, although some of those core days are just a quick plank series. I do drills before harder or longer workouts, which is usually about twice a week.) In my log I write down which days I’ll do them and make little check boxes for each session. It seems trivial, but it works for me to (a) have a plan and (b) write it down. If I haven’t planned it, I won’t make the time for it (which usually just means getting up earlier) and if I don’t write it down, I’ll just keep putting it off until all I’m left with are days when I really can’t squeeze it in. Plus, checking it off at the end of each day feels good: at least one thing got accomplished.

An example of my log with my intention for the week. 

I also make a checkbox for one weekly yoga session. I often plan it for a day I know I’ll need the extra stretching (for example, if I have Baby all day, post-run stretches can be a little trickier). I prefer to do it at home, where I can do sequences designed for runners at whatever time works for me, but having a scheduled class could help keep you accountable. I had been doing Runner’s World videos but recently started Jasyoga (which has a promo code for a free month if you sign up by April 8!) I’ve been enjoying the videos so much, I’m hoping to do more sessions each week. (Jasyoga also has short meditations, which can be really helpful leading up to a race.)


This is one of the hardest and the one that makes me the most jealous of the pros and their claims to get twelve hours of sleep a day. With all the other things to do, how are we supposed to find time to sleep? Two things have helped me:

1. Cut back on TV
Back in 2014, I gave up TV as a New Year’s resolution, in part because I wanted more time to take care of these things. (That same year I qualified for the 2016 Trials, which I don’t think was a coincidence. I wrote about it for The Washington Post and also achieved a life goal I didn’t know I had: making it on FloTrack.) We as a society spend a ridiculous amount of time watching TV, even though we also claim to be crazy busy. If it helps you unwind and relax (which is important for running well!) then go for it. But what I realized over the year was that doing other relaxing things (like reading or going to bed earlier) helped me more; an hour spent reading felt longer and more refreshing than an hour spent watching TV. Although I do watch TV now, I watch significantly less, which means I have more time in the evenings for yoga/strength work/relaxing/just going to bed.

2. Set an alarm
A much simpler trick than banning TV is to set an alarm on your phone telling you to go to bed. I usually set mine for about thirty minutes before I want to be lights out, so I have enough time to stop whatever I’m doing, get ready, and have some devotional time. Admittedly, sometimes I snooze this alarm just like I would a morning one, but I do think it helps keep me accountable for what I promised myself. Apparently, even in my thirties, I still need someone telling me to go the fudge to sleep.

Foam rolling

I foam roll after nearly every run and (on days I’m really on top of it) before some runs. Doing it at the same time every day makes it a simple habit; like brushing your teeth before bed, it becomes routine and just takes a few minutes. You could put the roller where your store your running shoes as a reminder to do it when you come back from your run or beside your bed as a reminder to do it before bed. Alternatively it’s also easy to roll while watching TV or, if Baby lets you, while playing on the floor.

Baby "helping" me foam roll.
Eating right

Meal prep is everywhere these days and while I don’t quite go to the extent of others, at the beginning of the week I plan out each night’s dinner and do all the shopping. It’s easier for me to take the time to make the decisions all at once and then the rest of the week I don’t have to think about what we’re going to eat or whether we have the right ingredients. If I don't make a plan and just scrounge something up, I don’t eat as well.

Easy runs

This one actually does involve running, so I’m not sure if it counts as one of the “little extras” but I’m throwing it in here because it’s so important and is so often ignored: run your easy days EASY (so you can run your hard days hard). Compared to the others, this takes the least amount of extra time; it just means your runs will be a few extra minutes longer (and we’d all rather be running than lifting and foam rolling, right??). But too many people run moderately fast all the time, which means their bodies can’t recover properly. On my easy days, I wear a watch to make sure I’m going slowly enough, which for me is about two minutes slower than my marathon pace. You should finish your easy runs feeling refreshed, not more tired than when you started.

What are some of your tips and tricks for fitting it all in? Any other little extras you emphasize?

Dream big,