Monday, April 9, 2012

Race Report: Charlottesville Marathon: Part 1

First, a word of warning. It takes me nearly 3 hours to run a marathon, and close to four months to train for one, so I’m not going to be able to describe the race too concisely. This will be the first of a two-part story of my agonizing and painful journey through Charlottesville.

I’ve told you before why I chose Charlottesville. But I’ll let you in on one more secret, because it’s over now and there’s no harm in being honest, I also chose it because I thought I could win. Last year’s race was won in 2:57 and previous years were over 3 hours. This was my chance to get a moment to shine.

Also, of course, I wanted to PR. That’s no secret, I go into every race wanting to PR. I’m very much of the thinking that you need to be moving forward; I don’t train for 4 months to end up back where I started. Considering the course’s hills, this was a tough enough goal. But it’s a goal that I’m used to chasing.

Going into a race with a competitive goal (i.e. winning) is a completely different ballgame, one that I’ve never experienced. Marathons are massive events with thousands if not tens of thousands of people, some of whom are professional athletes or Kenyans, and my primary goals aren’t my finishing places. Mostly I’m going after time; I cared far more that I finished with a 2:55 in Chicago than as the 63rd woman. I would not have felt any differently if I had finished 64th or 73rd. I may try to out kick someone for an extra spot, like at the Rock-n-Roll USA Half, but in the end, that doesn’t really matter. The only places that really matter are the top three, if not just the winner. For the people behind them, the time and the competition with themselves is what matters.

Leading up to Charlottesville, I tried not to concentrate on winning. I didn’t want my entire experience to be ruined if I didn’t win, especially if it was completely out of my hands. I didn’t know if there were other women out there like me that thought Charlottesville could be an easy win. Maybe they had 2:45 PRs. Come race day, I could run the best race of my life, but that would be a race I would not win. And so I tried not to put all my eggs in that basket. I didn’t write about it here. I told very few people that was my goal. I tried to get myself to stop thinking about it as the do-or-die goal. A good piece of advice going into a marathon is to have 3 goals: (1) your very best, perfect day, perfect weather goal, (2) your realistic goal, and (3) your “I can live with this” goal, when you have a bad day, the weather’s bad, you cramp up. So much can happen over the course of 26 miles, there has to be some room to reassess your goals. I tried to think of winning as my #1 goal, my best day, best-case scenario and PRing as my realistic goal. Goal 3 was breaking 3 hours, and although I considered it to be a time I would most certainly get, the hills added an element of uncertainty.

As you can probably tell from this obsessive blog, I put a lot of pressure on myself going into a race. The days before I am a nervous mess. I was scared of the hills, I was worried about running the entire race alone since the field was so small. I knew that despite how much I tried to back off the goal, I would not be happy without a win. It was one of the reasons I came to Charlottesville. One of the reasons I was torturing myself with these hills. Would I be happy with second place and a PR? No, I knew I wouldn’t. I mulled over the possibilities:

1. Ms. 2:45 comes. She runs away with it from the gun and there isn’t anything I can do about it.
2. Someone sits on me the whole race, biding their time and making me do the pacing and then sprints by me in the end. That seemed like the worst possible option. I am a come-from-behind runner, I can’t handle the stress of leading.
3. I would be far and away the best runner and lead easily from the gun. This seems ideal, but would that make me slow down and not push myself to a PR? Would I be happy with a win and no PR?
4. I would be the person sitting on someone and then pull a come-from-behind win. Perhaps the best possible situation.

Turning these options over in my mind in the days and sleepless nights before the race (and through all the weeks of training) did nothing to help my nerves. I couldn’t predict who would show up and there was a part of me that knew I would only be relieved once the race started and I’d finally know what situation I was in.

Race day was perfect weather. I took my spot at the front and did my normal check-out-the-other-runners around me, which serves no purpose except to intimidate myself. There are many incredibly thin, professional looking runners at every race, and in my eyes, they always seem faster than me.

The gun went off and I was immediately in the women’s lead. Not just the lead for the marathon, but also the first woman from the half marathon or full marathon. I won’t lie, this freaked me out a bit. But I was running a comfortable pace and feeling good. The first miles of a marathon should be easy and feel slow, going too fast here is a dead man’s game. I even slowed down a bit in the third mile, trying to maintain an easy pace. Quickly, I found myself with a biker escort, which appeased my fears of running alone and finding my way along the course, which involved looping through parking lots and parks and along wooded trails. I thought, “Ok maybe this is how it’s going to be: scenario 3, all alone at the front for the whole race.” I saw my sister and fiancĂ©e at mile 3, and they looked none too impressed I was in the lead, perhaps because they saw what was behind me and what was coming. I had no idea where the rest of the women’s field was.

We head up the hill.
I'm in blue, with Orange Shirt just behind.
At mile 5.5 we take a turn and run up one of the worst hills on the course. I had spent time studying the course and drove part of it the day before, and I knew this hill and the hill at mile 24 would be the worst. I even remembered this hill from when I ran the first time, way back in 2005. Still feeling good, I headed up it. I heard a group of people coming up behind me, but they sounded like men, so what did I care. (Yes, I can usually tell women runners from men runners, they breathe differently.) But as they passed me halfway up the hill, I saw one of them was a woman in an orange shirt (no fair! her breath was disguised by the group of men!) Out of the corner of my eye, I checked her bib: red meant full marathon, white meant half marathon. There was a moment where it looked white, thank goodness. Let her go, she’s in a different race. But as she passed I saw it again, more clearly, and that bib was red. (How many times did I learn in my neuroscience classes that peripheral vision can’t see color? Don’t trust it!!) And just like that, there went my lead. Orange Shirt continued up the hill, got the biker escort, and built up a nice lead. At mile 7.5, we turn around and head back the way we came, back down the hill. You can see everyone behind you at this point, and the third place girl didn’t look far. My God, I thought, I’m going to struggle to even get 2nd.

Over the next few miles, I just tried to keep contact. I still didn’t know what to think of what had happened and what I could do about it. We were still following the same course backwards, so the others runners in the race were running by in the other direction, shouting encouragement. “She’s right up ahead! You can catch her.” I wanted to scream back, “No, you don’t understand. She just caught ME. She’s running away from me, I’m not catching her.” 

Back down the hill, alone.
So the situation had gone from scenario 3 to either a 1 or a 4. She could keep building her lead and literally run away with it or I could hang on and run from behind. As I began to realize this, I started to gain back a little hope. Her lead wasn’t extending any more. She was in front and I was where I wanted to be, running from behind. At mile 10.5, my sister told me she looked tired and I took comfort in this; she’s going out too fast, I’m going to stay right here, maybe get a little closer but not pass her. Just bide my time until she breaks. Maybe she’ll pull me along to a PR. For a few more miles, I felt good and at peace with the situation.

I was so involved with the competitive aspect, I wasn’t really paying attention to my splits. It was good I had something else to focus on, because my watch was giving me serious trouble. I wear a Garmin, which is incredibly useful because it can tell you your pace in real time; you look down and it tells you at that moment you’re running a 6:33. I usually have it set so it also beeps at the end of each mile and tells me that split. This can be annoying in races, because Garmins are not exactly accurate (and we shouldn’t expect them to be. It’s a GPS on your wrist, it’s not perfect.) In races what usually happens is it will be a little short. So after a few miles, your watch may beep, alerting you to how fast you ran the last mile, but you’ll see up ahead you haven’t yet passed the mile marker. If you go by that split, you’re going to think you’re running faster than you are. Better to wait until you get to the mile marker, and take a more official split there. (Assuming, of course, that the mile markers are accurate.) Having done the former too many times and gotten frustrated late in the race as my Garmin miles and the mile markers grow farther apart, I switched to the old fashion way for Chicago last fall. I turn off the beeps, and hit the lap button on my watch when I pass a mile marker. This requires you to see all the mile markers, but in Chicago I only missed one.

For Charlottesville, I worried about the visibility of the markers, but I decided to do the lap press option anyway. The weird part was some of the early miles were shorter than my Garmin thought: I got to mile marker 2 at 1.95 for example, whereas I usually get to mile marker 2 at 2.05 or something. This made me wonder about the markers, but again Garmins aren’t perfect so I didn’t stress about it. Until mile 7.5 when we hit the first turn around. Without realizing it, I had chosen the lap press option that also calculates a lap every time you pass a point where you previously hit the button. So when I was at mile 7, I hit the button, and when I passed back by that marker going the other direction, it told me a new split, despite the fact that it wasn’t a mile. I couldn’t stop and fix it now, so after that I gave up on hitting the button. I went even more old school and just tried to calculate splits in my head, trying to maintain as close to a 6:30 pace as possible. I knew where I needed to be at 10 miles to run a 2:52. (My goal had been to run between a 2:50 and a 2:52. When my sister and I drove the course the day before, my goal became a 2:52, barring any divine intervention that would allow me to run a 2:50 on those hills.) I wasn’t far off at 10 miles and I knew where I needed to be for the half split as well, so I focused on that.

My view for most of the race.
Orange Shirt is far ahead, with her motorcade.
(Some of the other runners are in the 8k.)
Having studied the map and elevation, I knew there was some significant downhill at mile 12, and feeling on pace and like Orange Shirt wasn’t getting too far ahead of me, I had a good patch for a few miles. I saw my family again, who assured me the 3rd place girl was way back and no threat. Then came the turn at mile 12.5 onto a new out and back part until mile 19. The elevation maps told me this part wouldn’t be too bad, but when we drove it, I began to have my doubts. Running it didn’t help. I savored every downhill, but only for a moment, because I knew I’d have to run back up it. Every uphill was torture. And something in the right side of my butt started screaming in pain. I knew this was from the hills, and I knew it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. How was I going to run another 13 miles like this? Doubts and hatred for the marathon started in. I wanted to stop. I wanted to drop out. I wanted Orange Shirt to drop out. But who would drop out when they are winning? I thought about second place and how I wasn’t going to be satisfied with that. But this race really sucked. Mentally, it was torture. The halfway mark wasn’t there (or I didn’t see it) and there were hardly any markers when we turned into the woods around mile 14. There were lots of turns and the woods prevented me from keeping an eye on Orange Shirt, who now also had a motorcycle at her side, in addition to a couple of guys and the biker escort. At the turn around near mile 15.5 it got worse. Orange Shirt got a chance to see where I was as she turned back, and I think she picked it up. I lost sight of her again back through the woods, but once again the other runners were all encouragement. Third place told me I could catch her. Orange shirt’s biker escort (he used to be MY biker escort!) commended me for keeping it close. But my God, I wasn’t believing it. I lost the guy I was running behind and felt very alone. There were times where I wasn’t even sure where I was going. My butt continued to protest every step. I had no idea what my pace was, but I figured I had to be slowing down.

After the woods, miles 18 and 19 seemed all uphill. Once again, I saw my family who tried to encourage me, but I wondered if they really believed it. I was a good minute behind this girl now and hurting. I wanted to sit down on the sidewalk with my family and just let it be over. But there was still so far to go.

To be continued....

Dream big,


  1. I know the element of pain you describe, even if I don't run nearly as fast or as long. But reading about how you push through it, motivates me to push myself harder. It is nice to know that even good runners have the same mental challenges as the rest.

  2. This is difficult to read with my eyes filled with tears! Some people face a big stone wall and turn around. People like you design a strategy and follow through, taking out one stone, then another, then another, until it's not a wall anymore. Congratulations and thank you for demonstrating how to achieve extraordinary accomplishments with determination, inspiration, talent, and hip hop.