Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Race Report: Richmond Marathon

2:50 is my white whale. I have felt like a runner capable of a sub-2:50 marathon since 2012. From 2012 to 2016, I ran five marathons with a goal of 2:50 or faster. I broke 2:50 just once.

So what do I do? I decide that my first marathon post-baby should be another sub-2:50 attempt. There was a reason for this nonsense, namely that I had run exactly that pace for a 12-mile marathon pace workout. A few weeks later, I comfortably cruised through 10-plus miles at that pace again… until a bad hamstring cramp freaked me out enough to cut the workout a few miles short. Before my last few marathons, I had done 16 miles at goal pace, but I consoled myself that I used to run big PRs off just 12. But stopping that workout early also meant I only ran two twenty milers, when I usually do three or more.

And so I fluctuated between thinking that 2:50 was crazy and trying to convince myself that maybe it wasn’t. But I knew I had to go for it; my recent confidence issues wouldn’t be fixed by finishing a marathon, but from challenging myself like I used to and seeing what I was capable of. As an added motivation, the top five would win prize money and, based on results from the last few years, 2:50 seemed like it would get me fourth or fifth. So I repeatedly tried to silence all negativity… or was I silencing logic? Whatever, just ignore it.

Race morning temps were in the twenties; I’m not sure I’ve ever run a marathon that cold and I was thrilled. (I would much rather be too cold than too hot when racing.) Just before the start, I removed my last layer: a long-sleeve I planned to ditch. As soon as I took it off, I put it right back on. I’d take it off once I warmed up after a few miles. (A few miles turned out to be 17.)

Early on I just tried to relax. I couldn’t believe the marathon was here and that I had to somehow get through 26.2 miles at my second fastest pace ever; I tried to not think about it. My hope all through pregnancy was to run this (now) hometown race as my first marathon back, and the fact that it was all working out—I am here doing it!—was special. I focused on being grateful and continually tried to ignore how far I had left to go.

All smiles early on.
 I hit the first few miles right around goal pace and at six miles I was in 5th place (thanks to the enthusiastic spectators for letting me know!) After a speedy downhill seventh mile, we crossed a bridge I used to run in college while training for my first ever marathon. On the bridge, a woman and a man caught me and I tucked in to form a little pack. We hit the mile 8 marker and the guy said something like, “Yes! We crushed that mile, let’s keep it rolling!” It reminded me how nice it was to have constant encouragement at your side, but I saw the split and knew it was a bit too fast for this early. (My plan was to wait until much, much later to get competitive.) I dropped back slightly. The guy gestured for me to get back with them, but I begrudgingly let them (and my podium spot) go. Maybe she’ll come back to me…

The whole race was fall perfection, but miles 8 to 10 were particularly gorgeous: the James River on one side and a canopy of autumn leaves overhead. Someone had set up a bonfire in his front yard, which seemed like the perfect way to spend a crisp fall morning. That, or going for a long run, which is what I truly love to do at this time of year. Right, enjoy this.

The next few miles had some hills and I tried to focus on little landmarks: when I’d take a gel (mile 10), when I might see my family (mile 11), when the course flattens again (mile 12). Somewhere around mile 12, I caught and passed the woman who dropped me at mile 8. I was back in 5th and for a stretch I felt really good. I hit the halfway a few seconds ahead of pace—perfect—and I didn’t dwell on the fact that I had just run farther at that pace than I have in a year and half (and now had to do it all over again). At a cheer zone around mile 14, the M.C. started yelling, “Alright everyone let’s cheer for this woman in pink!! Alright pink woman!” There was no else around, but I felt special nonetheless. I was having fun; I was doing what I set out to do. Maybe I can even pick it up? No. Still too early.

Around mile 15, the course goes over a long (~1.5 mile) highway/bridge heading back into the city. I knew from the elevation chart we were heading uphill again, but it was one of those long stretches where you can’t really tell you’re going up, except you’re slowing and it feels inexplicably hard and it’s windy and, Ugh, this is just the worst. The bliss I’d felt around mile 14 faded quickly. In any marathon this is a tough stretch for me; the early miles are taking their toll but you’re not yet close enough to start counting down to the finish. My feet were really starting to hurt, which seemed earlier than usual: Are my shoes too old?? Did running fewer miles in training mean I’m not prepared for all this pounding??  But then, I’m running a freaking marathon, of course my feet hurt! I refocused on taking it one mile at a time: Get to mile 17 and the course will flatten, get to mile 18 and take your last gel, get to mile 20 and you’re in the homestretch.

Near mile 19, I got passed again and this time I knew it was trouble. This was the point in the race to fight and go with her, but she flew by so fast it didn’t seem possible. My pace had slipped in the last few miles and I was now in danger of not getting top five or sub-2:50. C’mon, fight for it. But she was gone. There was a little blip of a hill over a highway and as I ran toward it I was praying, “C’mon, God, give me the motivation to get back in this race and not give up.” As I crested the hill, I saw the girl who just passed me blow by another woman and suddenly I knew I could catch that woman too. There had been no woman in my sights for miles; she must be slowing. Here we go.

Also in this stretch I heard the best cheer of the day. After I removed my long sleeve shirt, people could finally see my number, #22, and were cheering for it. One girl screamed, “I don’t know ‘bout you…” I knew it was directed at me, but I didn’t put it together for a few strides: “… but I’m feeling 22.” I was too far past her to say anything, but I wish I could tell her that is the most thought out cheer I’ve ever heard. Thank you.

As I focused on my new target, I passed the 20-mile mark. I always memorize my goal splits for 20 and 25 miles; I know that seems silly (especially 25) but it’s helped me in numerous races. If I’m anywhere close, it gives me a boost to know I’m ahead of pace or a kick in the pants if I’m just over. (If I’m nowhere close, I’m already well aware and not looking at splits anymore. See: Boston 2013, 2014 and the Trials.) I knew I was probably a few seconds slow, but when I saw the clock, it seemed I was nearly 40 seconds slow. Can that be right? That doesn’t seem right...? For some dumb reason (I am not exactly logical mid-marathon), I didn’t just look at my watch, which would later tell me that whatever I saw wasn’t right. I was only 11 seconds slow. I wish I had known that, 11 seconds seems within striking distance; 40 seemed unlikely. I tried to put it behind me; I can still get 5th. Focus on getting 5th.

Mile 24, all focus.
I caught 5th place a little after mile 20 and tried to make it decisive. She stuck with me for a bit before falling back and I tried to keep pressing. I was running scared, but it was helping. Once again, I felt good. I can do this. Maybe I can even pick it up and get back on pace. Miles 21 and 22 were faster and I started counting down: one more mile until I take PowerAde for the last time, then one more mile until I see my family, then one more mile and I’m done. I can do this. I AM DOING THIS. My feet hurt, my bones hurt, my left calf was tightening. Doesn’t matter, I’m picking it up, I’m finishing strong. Except, after mile 22, I wasn’t. I was slowing. Miles 24 and 25 were the slowest of the day. But I felt like I was trying; I felt like I was giving it my all. I knew sub-2:50 wasn’t going to happen, but I could get close. And more importantly, I could hang on to 5th. I had to hang on.

With just the 0.2 left, the course turns toward the river and you go flying downhill. People were cheering: “You’re in 5th!” “It’s the last podium spot, go get it!” As I got closer to the finish I swear I heard multiple people screaming, "She's on your tail!" I was sprinting all out, flying down the hill, praying out loud: “Please, please, let me get 5th. Please, please don’t let me give up now.” All the way to the finish line.

2:50:20. Fifth place.

So I did get my top 5 finish. Sixth place finished two minutes later. Once again I have no idea what those people were cheering about (or how I conjure up these hallucinations of cheers). The half was finishing simultaneously, so maybe they were cheering some rivalry among those finishers. (The top places had been decided long before.)

Women's Podium. (1st place left before the ceremony.)
But once again I did not break 2:50. Did I really push hard enough? What if someone had told me there was a woman on my tail a bit earlier? What if I hadn’t miscalculated the 20-mile split? Could I have knocked off 21 seconds to get my other goal of 2:49:XX? I don’t think so. Even “sprinting all out, flying down the hill” my split for the last 1.2 wasn’t all that fast. When I ran a huge ten-mile PR of 60:19 in 2014, someone commented that I should have gone just two seconds per mile faster to nab my original goal of sub-60. When you put it like that, it sounds easy (here, it was just one measly second per mile), but it’s not so simple. In those final miles, I really thought I was pushing it and picking it up, but my body wasn’t responding. Even if I had been under goal pace, I think I would have lost it in the final miles. Miles 24 and 25 were the slowest of the day, despite telling myself I could finally give everything I had left.

On the one hand, I’m a little annoyed I just missed it… but on the other hand, I’m also more than a bit surprised I did it at all. As always, God carried me through the race. He gave me a motivational boost right when I needed it most and proved once again that I capable of things that seem more than a little bananas on paper. The time is my second fastest EVER, fifteen seconds faster than I ran at the Trials when I was in MUCH MUCH better shape. (Case in point why I will happily take a day in the 20s over one in the 80s.) How did I do that? The training was not the greatest. The tune-up races were slower than goal pace. There were many times (that I was actively trying to ignore) when all the miles left seemed insurmountable, but unlike most races there wasn’t any particular moment where dropping out seemed like a real possibility. I’m not sure I vanquished all the demons I talked about in my last post, but I certainly proved I am still a marathoner who doesn’t give up. (Also: We are all capable of so much more than we realize, if we just believe it.

And that’s what I’m most excited about. Because the training for this marathon was shorter than normal, I wasn’t as eager as usual about a taper or time off. I’m already anxious to get going again (but am forcing myself to take my usual time off anyway). I’m dreaming of spring races and I’m excited to see what I can do on training that’s closer to 100 percent. All season, I considered this race to be the ultimate rust buster: just get the first postpartum marathon out of the way, it wouldn’t be perfect, it wouldn’t be a PR, but I’d prove I can conquer it again… and then next season I’ll get back to business.

I can’t wait.

Dream big, 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Ready or Not...

The Richmond Marathon is Saturday. Am I ready? Yes… and no. I’ve done the long runs, the tempos, the track workouts. Some went well, some didn’t, that’s pretty par for the course; no buildup is perfect. I went in with lower mileage goals and lower expectations to match. But despite doing pretty much everything I set out to do, I still don’t feel as ready as I’d like.

I think it's because coming back from Baby was so unpredictable. Some things were easier than expected, so in some ways I feel like I haven't done enough to deserve to run well. Other things were a lot harder than expected, totally blindsiding me, and they’ve left lasting scars on my confidence.

It's been a long road back, but I've done the work.
My body is ready... now to get my mind there...

Easier than expected:
In early summer, I wrote out a plan that slowly increased my weekly mileage and my long runs. It looked a little daunting, considering I was coming back from six weeks of zero running and many months of short walk/shuffles. But the long runs came back surprisingly easily; twenty miles is once again no biggie, which seemed impossible just a few months ago.

As hard as expected: Speed.
I suspected speed would come back slower than endurance and that was/is definitely the case. All season, I’ve run basically one pace, whether it’s a half marathon, a ten miler, 12 miles at goal pace alone on the roads, a trail 5K. I can’t speed up in shorter races… but I also haven’t really slowed down in longer workouts. I may not be able to crush a 5K (when can I ever?) but if I can run that same pace for 26.2… then speed schmeed, I’ll be just fine with that.

Harder than expected:
1. Not having control/ownership of my body. One thing I didn't appreciate fully was the role nursing would play in my running. I figured I’d have to time workouts around Baby’s meals (definitely true in the early days, less of an issue now) and that I probably wouldn’t get to my racing weight this season. (I don’t feel comfortable worrying too much about weight loss while I’m nursing and see no need to rush things in that department.) I didn’t anticipate the ab issues I’d have, which my PT says won’t resolve until I stop nursing since the hormones can cause ligaments to stay loose. Because of that, I haven’t been able to attack core or strength workouts with my old gusto. My body is still not my own, and I can’t treat it as such. I didn’t anticipate that. The fact that I slacked off on these “little extras” makes me feel a bit like I didn’t put in enough effort, that I don’t deserve to run well.

2. But the much bigger issue that I did not see coming, AT ALL, is the hit that labor/delivery gave to my running self-esteem. I knew labor would be a doozy, to say the least, despite everyone assuring me, “You’re an athlete; you’ll be fine.” Well, I wasn’t. I always knew I’d get an epidural—I didn’t see the point in suffering when relief is possible and safe—but I didn’t anticipate how bad actually taking it would make me feel afterwards. All the women who do it naturally? How the fudge do they do that? And why couldn’t I? That mattered not a whit to me before labor, but somehow afterwards I felt really defeated that I couldn’t take it. (Though I do believe there’s something to be said for going in knowing I was going to get an epidural eventually. You can’t do anything your mind isn’t set on.) And ultimately I needed a c-section. While I am beyond grateful for modern medicine and a healthy happy Baby (albeit one with an off-the-charts-enormous head), I still feel like my body failed me. My body that I rely on so much to run well, it couldn’t do this thing it’s made to do.

One thing I hear repeatedly (I even wrote about it myself before Baby) is that labor toughens you. All these women say, “Running is easy after labor, nothing compares.” “If my body can do that, it can do anything.” Well, what if my body can’t/didn’t do that? Maybe everyone who says those things made it through naturally (and to them I say, “Heck yea, you are crazy tough and CAN do anything), but that would put them in the minority.

Maybe I’m alone in this (I hope so... I don't wish self doubt on anyone!), but I feel the opposite; my sense of toughness has been seriously questioned ever since labor. One person who labored naturally told me contractions just feel like bad menstrual cramps, but in my opinion they are at least an order of magnitude worse. Which makes me wonder: Maybe I’ve never had a bad cramp. Maybe I’ve never felt real pain. Maybe I’m a giant wuss.... And it spirals from there.

This attitude is absolutely terrible for the marathon. I do not think I’m a particularly talented runner; I certainly did not start off all that fast. I’ve always thought any success came from being tough and determined and now I’m left wondering… am I really?

This is the part where I’m not sure I’m ready. The marathon is a mental beast and your mind has to be ready to tackle it. I grappled with whether I should run at all. But giving up now—not even showing up at the start line—is giving into those demons that have haunted me for almost eight months. That’s not the answer. It’s time to shut them up.

It will not be easy; these last few days I’ve been preparing myself with mantras and battle strategies to have ready when the doubts start. In a recent episode of Lindsey Hein’s podcast, Deena Kastor explains that when the race gets tough you have to dig deep and "define yourself," and that’s what I feel I need to do. Remember what I am capable of and prove it to myself. Find the old Teal, deep within me somewhere. The one who IS tough, maybe not in the delivery room, but on the race course. Somewhere on the streets of Richmond, when the miles are taking their toll, and the pace starts to slip, she damn well better be ready to come out... or we're going to have to get her out, one way or another.

Dream big,