Thursday, December 11, 2014

Race Report: California International Marathon (CIM)

This is a doozy of a post. But if you've been following this blog, you've been waiting a while for this one. I promise it's worth it. 

BEFORE - The Warm Up

After Raleigh, I was on the phone with my sister, explaining—as usual—why I actually was not completely satisfied with my new half marathon PR (1:19:28). The truth was I wanted a 1:18 because I had read that translated to a sub-2:43 marathon, the time I needed to qualify for the Trials. I explained to my (understandably frustrated) sister that I was disappointed because I wanted to go for sub-2:43 this season, and now I lacked the half marathon result to back me up. But even while complaining, I started talking around it.

“Ahh, I’m still going to go for it, probably. If I go for 2:43 and blow up and run 2:48 or 2:50, I’ll be bummed, obviously. But if I play it safe and run 2:46, I’ll still be bummed. I don’t want a 2:46. I want a 2:43. Might as well give myself a shot.”

My sister (bless her heart, we share the same reach-for-the-stars genes) encouraged it. So did my husband, despite knowing he would bear the brunt of Disappointed Teal if this plan backfired.

Still, I needed at least one piece of evidence that it wasn’t bat-$#*! crazy. My remaining marathon pace workout was the last chance to do something 2:43 worthy. The previous two had gone well, exactly on target: 10 miles at 6:21 in early October, 13 miles at 6:18 in late October. Knowing my race day confidence hung on the last one, I nailed it, running an average of 6:12 pace for 16 miles, exactly my goal pace for a sub-2:43. (6:13 pace will squeak you under at 2:42:53 but eek, that is too close for comfort. 2:43:01 does not get you to the Trials.) And so, with that workout, I was all in for sub-2:43. I was going for it.

And I damn well better fight with everything I’ve got, because CIM was easily the best opportunity I had at sub-2:43. I had a (nearly) flawless season, and who knows if I could put together another season as good as this one, without injury, sickness, etc. Also, CIM was encouraging people to get the standard, providing pace teams and financial incentives. The weather looked pretty close to ideal, and ended up being even more perfect than predicted. The course is net downhill, one of the fastest around. Although it isn’t really “around” me, as I—and my husband and parents—was traveling across the freaking country for this race. I damn well better make it worth it.

As I tried to force my brain to soak up every bit of motivation and positivity I could, fear tried to elbow its way in. Not every workout was encouraging; many of the last few were done in cold, driving rain. The times were slower and the paces felt harder, a discouraging combination. Was I falling apart in the end? My disappointing performance in Boston hung over me like an ominous cloud. If this one also went poorly, I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull myself up and try again. I didn’t want to deal with another post-marathon depression, or put my husband through that. I had to break 2:43.

We’ve had a bottle of champagne gathering dust for a while, no big reason to pop it. At one point I thought, “We’ll pop that when I break 2:43.” I wanted to write <2:43 on it, saving it for that occasion and that occasion only, but then I thought I better not. If I didn’t get it, it would just serve as one more reminder of disappointment. But then I thought if I didn’t believe in myself enough to do that, what the hell was I doing? You can’t go into a race not believing. I took out a Sharpie and scribbled on the bottle. Before we left for Sacramento, my husband put it in the fridge. It would be chilled and waiting.

Our flight to the West Coast got cancelled, rebooked, and delayed. We arrived in Sacramento at 3 am East Coast time on Friday night, which was not helping my pre-race stress levels. I struggle to get enough sleep as it is, and there went a few more hours.

Saturday morning, after my shakeout run, I was feeling better. As I gently stretched and listened to pump up music, I felt awesome. I’m ready! This is it! And then—suddenly, like a lobotomy to the part of the brain confidence comes from—I completely fell apart. What the hell am I thinking? How could I expect to run twenty-six miles at 6:12 pace?? That is completely insane! I was putting so much damn pressure on myself, it was surely going to end in disappointment. 

My husband took me in a big bear hug to silence my hysterical, dry-heaving sobs. I don’t remember what he said, something along the lines of “shut the hell up, you’re going to do great,” but in a more loving way. It worked, and I just tried not to think about the reality of the situation too much for the rest of the day; through the expo, carbohydrate feasts, and failed attempts at naps, I tried to just think positively and focus on my cache of motivation. Not about the reality of 6:12 pace for 26 miles.

One small and simple piece of motivation that has worked for me all season is from Kara Goucher. In one of her Driven episodes on Flotrack she talks about her race in the 2007 World Championships 10,000m. Alberto Salazar encourages her to go for it. (“If you play it safe and kick into tenth, what’s the difference if you go for it and blow up and finish tenth? But which strategy actually gives you a shot of doing something big?” Sound familiar?) He tells her to “stay on their butts.” With a lap to go, Kara is in 5th and pleased, no one expected her to do that well. But then she has an epiphany, that she could do better than 5th, that she isn’t really giving her everything just yet. She tells herself, “Kara, just try.” She musters up her remaining energy to pass two people and nabs the bronze medal.

It’s simple, but that stuck with me. Are you really trying? Just try. That mentality got me big PRs at ten miles and the half-marathon. I planned to rely on it again at CIM.

On Sunday morning, after another restless night, I got out of bed shaking, either from exhaustion, or nerves, or both. Just try not to think: put on your race kit, eat your bagel, get to the start. Don’t think about the reality.

In an attempt to calm my nerves, I made my final decision of the training season: I’d stick with the pacer. He had relayed his plan before the race: a slight negative split, with 6:15-6:17 miles for the first ten and then cut down in the second half. That scared me a bit, I was planning to run as close to evenly as possible (6:12s the whole way). I wasn’t sure what seeing splits over pace would do to my confidence. And I wasn’t sure I could run 6:10s or faster in the latter stage of a marathon. I planned to run the first mile with the pacer, to prevent going out too fast. Then I’d see how I felt from there. But in the final moments of freaking out, I decided I would stick with the pacer no matter what. I was handing this stranger my dream and trusting him with it. But the effect was calming.

Kara’s words popped up in my head. But they weren’t “Just try” like I had expected. Instead, it was “Stay on their butts.” Get with that pacer, and glue yourself to him.

DURING – The Race

The first mile was too fast, even with the pacer. Another girl in the pack (of maybe thirty people) made a snorting noise. Um, hello, that was a 6:00. Too fast. What are we doing? But the next few miles we settled down. People were chatting, the pacer was breaking the ice, making jokes. The first of the elite water stops (which had stressed me out before the race, as they meant twenty-plus women converging on one table to grab their individual water bottle, all while running 6:12 pace) passed without much incident. People who missed their bottles were offered sips from those who had theirs. We were a team, a swarm heading for a mutual goal. One woman laughed and said, “This is the funniest race I’ve ever been in,” referring to the pacer and his jokes. It was true; the pressure of the biggest race of my life was dimmed by the lighthearted atmosphere. I relaxed a bit, so much so that I missed mile markers 2 and 3. I didn’t care. My fellow dreamers were nodding or cheering approvingly as we came through them on target. At four miles I decided I should probably start paying attention to the splits, but I did not plan on leaving this group anytime soon, or ever.

Stay on their butts.

Water bottles designed for high visibility and easy grab-ability.
Besides Kara’s words, I had other mantras planned. I had listened to Eminem on repeat; along with “Lose Yourself” (my ultimate favorite), this season “‘Til I Collapse” had been particularly powerful. But during the race, as I thought about the enormity of this marathon and this goal, instead of my tried-and-true rap songs, I found myself singing something else.

Despite being of the boy band generation—and thus knowing every single word to that song—just that line repeated. You’re all I ever wanted…. It was annoying, an endless loop. But it had the intended effect. In the moment, it did seem like this was all I ever wanted.

Through the 10k, through ten miles, I stayed glued to the pack. There was some jostling at turns and water stops—not something I’m used to experiencing, as I don’t race on the track and jostling pretty much ends at mile 1 in a marathon—but no major incidents. I was just trying to turn off my brain as much as possible and focus on what the pacer was saying, or the next time I’d see my family or have to cut over for a water bottle. Don’t think about how there’s 18, 17, 16 miles left to go. One of my teammates was just ahead of me. He had run a 2:42 at CIM last year, and here we were, poised to do exactly that today. His presence was calming and the cheers from his family an added boost.

Also, in addition to Chris Mocko, our official pacer, the other pacer—who would take us through 20 miles—was Kim Conley, the 2012 Olympian in the 5000. It’s not everyday (any day?) you get to run alongside an Olympian for 20 miles, and I reminded myself to be keenly aware of the awesomeness of the situation.

Stay on their butts.

In the pack at mile 8. The man with the visor is our amazing pacer.
One thing that was stressing me out was the targets Mocko had said for the two halves. When one woman asked, I swear he responded with something like 1:21:41 for the first, and 1:21:21 for the second, but that didn’t add up. I spent a few miles (seriously) debating this. Did I hear him wrong? Can I not do math? Crap. But still, I would not give up running with this group. First because I didn’t have a single morsel of belief that I could go faster, and second because it was so unbelievably amazing to have someone try to distract you for 26 miles.

You’re all I ever wanted…

We came through the half in 1:21:16, and the swarm breathed a collective sigh of relief (some cheered) that we were right on pace. I was relieved because—proving that I cannot do math mid-marathon—I mistakenly thought we were ahead of my planned 6:12 pace (we were actually a few seconds slow). Either way, we had not gone out as slowly as I worried, and we didn’t have the daunting task of trying to speed up in the second half. My coach later pointed out that 1:21:16 would have been a half-marathon PR a little over a month ago. Fortunately, I did not think about that. I was actively trying to not think about anything. Not think about how we were only halfway. Not think about how that was the easy half, and it was going to get much harder. But with every mile, it was getting more and more difficult to not think. I tried to get as close to Mocko as possible so I could focus on what he was saying, not on any doubts trying to squeeze their way in.

He asked us to dig deep for the next few miles, and I remember thinking, “And then what? We’ll be digging deep from here on out.” He was right though; miles 13-19 are always the toughest. It’s where I’ve fallen apart too many times, and I stationed my husband and parents in these miles so I would get a boost when I needed it most. I reminded myself I had done 16 in practice, and had added 3 miles with each workout. If this was just a workout day, I could at least get to 19 miles, so let's just take it mile by mile until 19. Surprisingly, I didn’t need any other mental pep talks just yet. I wasn't falling apart. I was still in this, despite the pace and the distance we had already covered. I saved my stores of motivation (mantras, people to think about, encouraging tidbits) for later. Try to get through one more mile without having to fight too hard. Each mile ticked by and I was still doing okay. I just tried to blur everything out but what Mocko said about television shows, non-alcoholic beer, or that guy in the tutu. And I sang silently in my head.

You’re all I ever wanted…

Still with the pack at 19. (Kim Conley is half off screen on the right.)
We hit mile twenty at 2:04:15, 15 seconds slower than 6:12 pace but still under 2:43. Barely. Was it enough? (I didn’t/couldn’t calculate it then, but we were just 5 measly seconds under 2:43 pace. I am incredibly grateful that I didn’t realize this at the time.) I was still feeling relatively okay, considering. I could do this. Kim Conley left us with some words about how awesome we were doing. Um please, you’re an Olympian. This is unreal.

I had been trying to stay in the front of the pack, as close to the pacer as I could, so that I could hear him well. After twenty miles, I looked around and realized there weren’t many of us left. Some had picked it up; I could see them forging on just ahead. But others had fallen back. Mocko asked the remaining three of us where we wanted him to be, just ahead or alongside. It was time to get serious. The gauntlet had been thrown down, only instead of competing against each other, it was us vs. 2:43. This is it. The final few dreamers in the final few miles.

The final few dreamers.
A feeling of desperation seemed to hang in the fog as we got closer and closer to downtown. I started tapping those mental reserves that I had saved. I hadn’t fallen apart at halfway or at 15 or 19. I was here, on the other side of the wall, in the part of the marathon I tell myself that I always shine. Mocko reminded us to think about the people that got us here, that always support us, which is exactly what I had been telling myself. I thought of my husband, my family, my teammates. But mostly I thought about Lauren.

Lauren was our teammate who was killed walking across the street at the 2012 Club Cross Country Championships. Monday would be the two-year anniversary of her death, and as I ran in Sacramento, my teammates back home were jogging a memorial run in her honor. On a team full of NCAA superstars, Lauren had a similar story to me; she didn’t run in college, but started running on her own, shaping herself into a GRC-worthy athlete. Lauren also shared my goal to run in the Trials, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she would have made it. She had the crucial combination of an enormous work ethic and incredible grit. I had dedicated this race to her, and here I was in the final and hardest miles. Lauren wouldn’t have given up even a second here, and dammit, neither will I.

With 5K left, Mocko doubled his efforts to keep us going. “Twenty minutes and only a 5K left. You can run a 20 minute 5K, c’mon!” That’s true, stranger, I can run a 20 minute 5K, but you have no idea how shockingly close that is to my PR (Reminder: I am terrible at 5Ks.) And, hello! I have just run 23 miles at 6:12 pace. Holy crap, am I going to screw this up? I can’t. I have to make it.

One step at a time.

Keep pushing.

Stay on their butts.

You’re all I ever wanted…

For Lauren. Do it for Lauren.

I started worrying. Was this pace really fast enough? We only had a few seconds to spare at 20 miles, what if we lost that? Was this 20-minute-5K-pace? I was freaking out we weren’t going fast enough, but also fully aware that I could go no faster. At mile 24, Mocko told us we had 14 minutes left. 14 minutes? Is that enough? I can’t do math anymore. If I run 6-flat, that gives me 2 minutes to run 0.2. Is that enough? (Spoiler alert if you do the—actually very easy—math.) I wasn’t sure. I also wasn’t running 6-flat. Shit. I gotta move. This is it. THIS. IS. IT.

So I pulled slightly ahead of Mocko and the other girls. Mocko had told us not to look at our watches (what’s the point? Just freaking run AS FAST AS YOU CAN) but I was looking at mine every other block. I had to be sure I was still going fast enough. (What would I have done if I wasn’t??) My Garmin seemed to be hovering around 6 flat and I just tried to keep going at that pace. I knew the final turn was onto 8th Street, but I made the mistake of looking at a street sign and seeing 29th Street. Oh God, so far to go.

As we neared the park and the turn onto 8th, pretty much everything was a blur. I heard my mom screaming, but the fact that she was there (I hadn’t expected that) didn’t register as surprising. Everything seemed to be in some universe outside of where I was; I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other. I glanced at my watch one final time as I neared the mile 26 marker. I had two minutes left, and only 0.2 to go. My math ability came back to me. I could run 8-minute pace and still make it.

Holy shit, I’m going to make it.

I had imagined this moment hundreds (thousands?) of times, on training runs, pre-race sleepless nights, hard workouts. For years, it was a non-descript finish, but more recently it morphed into CIM’s finish. The clock would say 2:42 something, I would sprint towards it, throw my hands up and thank God, touch my LWR patch in remembrance of Lauren, and then break down crying.

It was almost exactly as I pictured it, except I started crying as soon as I made the turn. It was overwhelming and unbelievable. Even though it played out exactly as it had in my dreams, I couldn’t process it. In the final 200 meters I was completely overwhelmed by emotion. Somehow my legs continued surging forward despite my breakdown from the neck up.

I did it. 2:42:13 (chip time).

2:42. Olympic Trials, here we come.
AFTER – The Cool Down

The rest continued like the dream: I threw my hands up and thanked God. I know everyone has their own religious beliefs, but the way this season has gone, the way that race went—so completely perfectly—cannot be rationalized (by me, at least) to be anything less than the work of God. Running that fast, achieving this dream, was a religious experience. So I thanked Him for it. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.

Next I had my moment for Lauren. I couldn’t have done it without her either. And when I run in the Olympic Trials in LA, I know she’ll be there with me too.

And then I continued my emotional breakdown. Basically I just spun around in circles, crying, hugging my husband, crying, hugging my mom, more crying. I couldn’t (still can’t) freaking believe it. I found Mocko—my savior—and gave him a big hug and more tears. I cannot thank him enough for pulling me through the entirety of that race. I could not have done it without him and my last minute decision to put my faith completely in his hands seemed like another work of God.

Sharing disbelief and tears with Mom.
I found my dad, my other teammates, called my siblings. More tears. We went out to lunch and celebrated, and have basically been celebrating since. I still cannot believe it. Sometimes I remember that it has really happened and want to jump up and down or dance around (possibly to *NSYNC?). I don’t think I’ve frowned since 9:42 Sunday morning. I can’t begin to express what a huge deal this was for me (um hello, it finally validated the name of this blog), or my immense gratitude to everyone who helped along the way. The outpouring of congratulations has only proven that my tear ducts are, in fact, bottomless.

It still feels like a dream, like my final 200 meters are just the imaginary finish I’ve been picturing for the last five years. Did that really happen? Can I really say (like I did a few paragraphs ago) ‘when I run the Olympic Trials’? It seems like a dream.

Because it was. Like I said, dream big. It’s the only way it will come true.

Always believe.

Dream big,