Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Race Report: Richmond Half Marathon 2019

Whenever I’m struggling midseason, I tell myself that it will all come together in the end. Friends and family echo the sentiment, because it has before: CIM 2014, Pittsburgh 2018, CIM 2018. Of course, there are also data suggesting the opposite: seasons that were resounding flops from start to finish, like this year’s Boston, Grandma’s 2015, and the 2016 Trials. As the Richmond half marathon, my peak race for this fall season, approached, some workouts supported the former, optimistic possibility. I wanted to believe it.

Instead, with less than two weeks to go, it fell apart.

At the end of an easy run, my Achilles started to tighten. Pretty immediately, it felt more serious than a random niggle that is forgotten by the next morning. As I watched the NYC Marathon with my Oiselle teammates, the tension in both my Achilles and my mind rose.

I took the next day off. Inspired by a comment from teammate Carrie Mack, I took the day after that off too, feeling hopeful it was one more day than I needed. My leg felt fine by then, and I wondered if I was being overly paranoid, perhaps a bit wussy. Am I just making excuses? The symptoms didn’t all match up with Achilles tendonitis, but horror stories from friends with Achilles injuries scared me.

I ran the next few days; it was tight the first day, then eased up, but by the third day, it was back to nagging. I took Saturday (what would have been my last long run) off as well.

The roller coaster of the week—will I run or not?—drove me crazy. I had the same feelings as before Grandma’s Marathon in 2015, when I got a stress reaction 3 weeks before the race. In the week between feeling a potential injury and the diagnosis, I was a wreck fluctuating between trying to cross train/hold on to my motivation and trying to come to terms with the season possibly being over. Both times I just wanted to know one way or the other—WILL I RUN OR NOT? SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME!—and every day I woke up with a different gut feeling. More than anything, I didn’t want to compromise my training for the Trials (which was set to start after a quick post-Richmond break). If I raced, even if I raced well, and it set me back a few weeks, I didn’t think it’d be worth it.

I couldn’t get an official doctor’s appointment until after Richmond, but my coach hooked me up with a PT who could see me informally (and quickly) and she diagnosed it as a calf strain, not Achilles tendonitis. That was a huge relief (less recovery time) and she told me if I spent the week cross training, I could still race. I elliptical-ed the next few days but did one last easy workout the Wednesday before the race, to see how it felt and make a final determination if I could race. My leg felt fine, but it was harder to hold the pace than it should have been. (Likely because I hadn’t run for days.) I cross trained the next day, with a quick 10-minute jog to try to get my body back in running mode. The day before the race I did my usual easy shake out, the only normal run of the last week. When I got home my husband asked, “Feeling fast and ready?” I replied, “Let’s just go with able to run.”

That day, I realized my attitude needed to change. I was grateful to run, yes, but I was also making excuses, focusing too much on the training upheaval of the last two weeks. If I wanted to get the best out of myself, I needed to prepare myself like any other race, ready to give my all. I told myself the few days before the race had been pretty normal: a short tempo (though it felt hardshut up, pessimistic Teal!), a day mostly off, and a shakeout with strides. The calf, for all my obsession over every sensation I felt there, seemed fine.

I wanted to salvage the season right at the end, to prove all the work I’ve put in and changes I’ve made (working with a coach and sports psychologist) had an effect. I trained differently, so couldn’t compare to past seasons (possibly a good thing). Maybe I’m in better shape than I think! Maybe the unusual last few weeks will leave me super tapered and super hungry! Starting at 5:55 seemed reasonable and, in the place in my brain where hope and ambition run unfettered, I thought maybe I could pick it up later on.

Race morning was cold (yay!) but windy (not so yay). For the first two miles, it blew directly in our faces. I tried to tuck in to a group, but as always the case with early racing, groups were still fluid, splitting and reforming left and right. Near the first mile marker, a man pulled up alongside me and a few others and asked what we were hoping for. I was the only one to respond, “5:55” and as I did we hit the marker in 5:54. “Bang on.” The man said he was shooting for 5:50s, but this was good for now. My main theory for my poor performance in Twin Cities is that I ran alone and had no one to gauge off, so I was happy we formed an alliance. But after another half mile or so my watch read 6:05 pace. Our pack held steady, other runners weren’t passing us, so I tried to trust the collective pack more than my watch. But no one else had mentioned their goals. After another quarter mile or so, I started to doubt the group and forged ahead. Mr. 5:50 came with me. We hit mile 2 in 6:05.

For the most part, my sports psych efforts focused on not to berating myself when I hit a slow split. Relax, breathe, let it go. To my credit, I did that with that second split. Fine, we just need to get in a better rhythm. The wind somehow slammed us again as we made a right turn onto Arthur Ashe Boulevard and formed a new pack of maybe three guys and two other women. Mr. 5:50 beckoned us to share the work and I tried to do my part. I felt better when I was the one pushing and leading; I’ve honestly never felt like drafting helps me that much (Am I not doing it right?? Is the benefit so minuscule you don’t really notice it?) but I did appreciate the power of the pack and people to stick with. Mile 3 was 6:00. I wanted to scream, “We’re still going too slow!” But also: Relax, let it go. Don’t tense up too much. Mr. 5:50 is still here, he’s fine with this. It’s fine.

As we turned down an out and back, our pack started to reel in Kate, a Oiselle/Raleigh Distance Project athlete. I wanted to pull her into our group, but instead somehow I got dropped in the move. My pack pulled ahead, with Kate a little off the back, and me all alone behind everyone. What just happened?? Mile 4 was another 6 flat.

Mile 4: What just happened?
As we turned back onto Boulevard and headed toward the park, I caught Kate and told her we could work together. Mile 5: another 6 flat. (Did I notice or appreciate my consistency? I did not. Except to say running 6 flats consistently bummed me out.) As we entered the park Kate dropped back a bit. I felt good and like I could catch some of the people ahead, who had either been eaten up by my old pack or splintered off the back. The park is the hilliest part of the race, as soon as you enter it goes slightly up. But the main issue for me on that day was the potholes. (I actually had a temporary brain fart on the word “potholes” and distracted myself for a bit debating: Is it potmarks? That’s not right…Distractions always welcome midrace!) I felt my ankle wobbling: Oh no, this is what does my calf in! But then: My calf seems okay, fine actually. Paranoia brought more awareness of my ankle working than I’ve ever had, making me cautious and my stride feel awkward. (Like when you focus too much on one word and it starts to sound weird.) Still, I hit mile 6 in 5:56. See, I’m feeling better.

But after a disappointing next mile (6:03), as we headed up the last uphill and out of the park, things seemed to be going downhill fast. Kate caught me and I couldn’t stay with her. If I have any big regret after a race, it’s almost always that I didn’t fight harder to stick with someone. As always, as Kate ran away I told myself to not let the gap grow, that I could still catch up. Instead, she became another regret: the ones that got away.

And as always, the thoughts of dropping out came. Why am I doing this if I’m just running slowly? Usually I tell myself to continue because at least it will be a hard workout to help me later on in the season, but this was my last race of the season. It wasn’t going to help anything. Am I risking hurting my calf just to have a mediocre race? But truthfully my calf felt fine. Am I just making excuses? The pretty stupid reason I kept going: my clothes were in a bag at the finish. If I stopped, I’d have to find a way to get there and that seemed like a (very cold) hassle. I could stop when I saw my family around mile 10, but that seemed like the wrong message to send my daughter. (Even though, at two, I’m sure she wouldn’t understand or care.)

The "Another Disappointing Race,
Guess I'll Just Try and Finish" Face.
It seems like all year, when a race got hard, a make-it-or-break-it moment (should I stick with that girl or let her go?) I lacked the drive to fight. I feel like I can dig deeper in workouts than races (to be fair, workouts weren’t continuous 13-mile intervals). Realizing I once again didn’t have that fighting spirit, with 4 or 5 miles to go, was not a great spot to be. I told myself to get back into it: The victory today will be not giving up! At mile 10: The victory will be making the last 5K my fastest! But my mind and body didn’t cooperate with each other.

Around mile 10.
The last few miles are a blur of not really caring at the slower splits coming in (for those who do care: 6:07, 6:12, 12:11 for miles 10 and 11, 6:09, and 5:52 for the last downhill 1.1) and being heartbroken over this race, this season, this year. People passed me left and right and I couldn’t muster a fight. Earlier in the season, finishing in the top 3 was my goal. Lately, top 5. Through about 8 or 10 miles I was in the top 10. In the end, I finished a devastating 14th in 1:19:12.

The last mile.
My time is an eternity from my preseason goals. Given my marathon time, I hoped to be knocking on the door of a 1:15 half and a 56-minute 10 mile. That seems laughably ambitious now. But I thought surely, with a season dedicated to those distances, I’d close the gap.

Certainly the season didn’t end on the best of notes. I can’t be sure how much the calf strain affected me (what would I have been able to do if the build-up had ended normally?). But I can’t dwell on it too long. I have to find a way to get that fight back (and maybe an entire year of disappointing races is the fuel I need). Training for the 2020 Trials started yesterday. Time to turn the page.

Dream big,
Teal

2 comments :

  1. Thank you, Teal, for sharing your humanity and your courage. Your work inspires me and others like me who just want to run fast enough to catch the commuter train home! A friend recently told me that just as our heart pumps blood and our GI system digests food, our brain is designed to avoid risk, stay safe, don't go near the lion's lair. Our brain has a default mode for thoughts that take us out of the race, because it's so much more comfortable being a spectator instead of a runner. But you are an elite, accomplished runner and, even though your brain will keep on pumping out those thoughts about your calf, Achilles, potmarks, etc, you have the gift (and experience) of the determination, grit, trust, commitment. You can say "thanks for sharing" to your Fight/Fright avoiding brain and keep your eyes on the prize. Then, even if you don't meet your running goals, you have honored your promise instead of your (very normal) amygdala. I love you, thank your for always inspiring!

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