Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Death of a Dream

Part 1: The Race

I spent the last three weeks, the whole taper, focusing on my mental game. Qualifying for a third Olympic Trials (and setting a two-minute personal best) would be the hardest thing I’d ever done. I needed to get my mind right. I accepted how hard it would get and came up with strategies, mantras, smaller goals to get me through. I visualized the course; though the very act gave me anxiety about the suffering I was in for. Even if I wasn’t as physically ready as I’d like, I was mentally ready. And all that mental work started to convince me that I was ready physically: there was enough evidence to prove it was possible and not totally bonkers. 

Race morning, I was surprisingly calm. (All things considered.) I’m here. I’m ready. One step at a time.

Then they delayed the start ten minutes. Anxiety starting seeping through cracks in my fragile fa├žade. “This wait is killing me, I just want to get started,” I said to one of the many fit, elite strangers standing around. She gave a small smile, as if to say, get over it. 

Do I want to get started? I just don’t want to be here, waiting, anymore. 

Finally, the gun cracked. I immediately executed my four-word race plan: Stick to the pacers. 

But the pacing situation confused me.

There were two, Phil and Tim. I had met Phil already, but he said he might go with a faster group if one formed. I didn’t dare go faster than 2:37, so I needed to stick with Tim. 

But who was Tim? And where was he? 

Pacer 2 looked exactly like Nick Willis. But why would Nick Willis, a Kiwi 1500-meter specialist, be pacing a marathon?? About half a mile into the race someone said, “Hey Nick!” Pacer 2 responded in a New Zealand accent. Right, so it is Nick Willis. I tried to be grateful I was running with an Olympian once again. Phil mentioned there were actually three pacers, Tim was towards the front.

His immense 1500m expertise aside, Nick did not seem to know what he was doing. He asked the guy who said hi to him how we were doing and the other guy responded, “a little fast.” 

But I had checked my watch, we were actually slow. 

Why the heck was I checking my watch?! I promised myself I would trust the pacers and not check splits. The benefit of having pacers is to not fret over the pace!

A little farther and Nick asked Phil how we were doing. “A little slow, but we’re okay,” said Phil. 

Phil’s declaration that he might go faster than 2:37 scared me. But his calm confidence assured me I should stay with him. He knew what he was doing. When another woman told him we were too fast, I wanted to defend him. The first mile was too slow! We’re making up for it! 

But also: Fuck. It does feel fast. Anxiety and stress bubbled up. Only two miles in.

I glued myself to the pacers: Phil and Nick. 

The sheer size of the pack made getting in a rhythm hard. The bumping, the tripping, the kicking. Slipping on the slick middle line. Everyone already glistening with sweat. 

I tried to tune out and listen to the drumbeat of our collective footsteps. Tried to focus on the legs and rhythm of the person ahead of me. But while I was doing that, I inadvertently annoyed some dude behind me. “Get over and move ahead!” I tried to move aside, but also: what the heck dudes? Can’t you see this is the women’s OTQ group, get out of our way! 

At mile four, a man shouted, “YES! Now we are on 2:37! Let’s go!” Okay, fine. That dude is helpful. He can stay. Maybe that’s Tim?!?

He was with another guy, also hyping us up, both wearing Bandit. They seemed to be helping one specific woman, but that was fine by me, because they were indirectly helping us all. 

Stick with Phil and the Bandits. Relax. One mile at a time. 

I was with them still. But I was not relaxed. At all. 

The anxiety was at a rolling boil. I knew it was too early to freak out, which made the freaking out snowball. I shuffled through all the distraction techniques I had practiced. None worked. It was like every door in my mind slammed shut. My thoughts immediately bounced back to the race. To the effort. To my spiraling mind. It wasn’t physically hard, but it was already way too hard mentally.

I am not going to be able to do this if I’m already freaking out… 

Whatever, if I have to run twenty-six miles with this anxiety, I will. I’m still here. Still with the pacer. Another mile down.

At mile 7, I saw my husband. As I ran away from him, further down the road, I immediately regretted it. I wanted to turn around, to run back into his arms. This is not going well. I am not going to pull this off. 

Physically I was fine. But mentally, I could not do this. I was overthinking too much. Where did my confidence go? Why were all my strategies failing me? Why was I failing?

I had told myself I could at least make it halfway at this pace (I had done just that a few weeks ago.) But I could not imagine making it farther. The part beyond that, that I had run twice before, that I had pictured every day for weeks, seemed too intimidating, too painful. I knew as soon as I ran past Rusty that I would drop out at my next chance, when I saw Dr. Lesko (the elite coordinator when I was on the Oiselle team and one of the nicest people in the sport) at the half. I could not fathom going further into the beyond, into the pain, than that. 

Somewhere in mile 8, as I was accepting that I would not finish this, I slipped to the edge of the pack and then out the back. As always when you fall back, it seems like no big deal at first: They’re right there, I can still catch up! But then the gap keeps growing and suddenly they’re gone. A constant stream of others flew past. By mile ten (about twenty seconds over pace but the pack impossibly far ahead), I had given up entirely. Get me out of this. Just get to Lesko. 

I tried to tell myself if I made it to halfway on PR pace then I’d keep going. But no part of me believed myself as I made that promise. I did go through halfway exactly on PR pace, if I ran an even split. But I had no will or drive or fight to do that. I had slowed drastically in the last three miles. (And when I set that PR, on this course, I came through the half faster.) 

As soon as I spotted Lesko, I ran off the course. “I’m done.” And I bawled: in her arms, on the curb, in my husband’s arms, all day long. 

It was over. WTF just happened.

A quick intermission to catch up with the other characters in this story: 

Nick Willis dropped out at 13. I saw him on the side of the road as I ran by. (Maybe that was the plan, I don’t know.) 

Bandit Pacers 1 and 2 also appeared to drop out early (perhaps also their plan). When I went to pick up my bag, I saw them hanging out near the finish, but none of the women had finished yet. (Which confirmed to me that neither one was Tim.) 

Tim, who I just Googled and realized I never saw on the day, started fast and was on pace until the last final stretch, but perhaps slowed to try to help stragglers. 

Phil executed a beautiful, fantastic, evenly split race and dammit dammit dammit I wish I had stayed with him.  

As for the giant swarm of women ahead of me and around me in those early miles, which I estimate at about seventy-five, fourteen qualified. 

Just fourteen. 

Part 2: The Aftermath 

Years of dreaming of this—through pregnancy, postpartum, injury, cross-training, hundreds of workouts, ever since I first qualified and wondered how many of these I could make—and I gave up in an hour. One hour. 

It was over. WTF just happened. 

All day long and through many tears, I wondered what happened. I had truly started to believe I could do it, that there was a reason I was there, healthy, able to line up with hope in my heart. Why come all this way to fail? What was the point of this? All the time, the effort, the money spent. To fail spectacularly. 

I gave up. Plain and simple. Why didn’t I push through? Why did I allow myself to give up at the half? As soon as I made that decision I slowed. 

A few hours post-race, tear-stained and moping at a brewery, I came up with two lessons to learn from this: 

1. I was not, in fact, ready. 

I had one amazing workout and many great long runs but I was not running better than ever across the board, as I needed to be to achieve this goal. While I told myself I had the endurance, if not the speed, it wasn’t enough. 

Marathons should feel easy from the start. When I ran my PR at CIM in 2018, I was repeatedly trying (and failing) to hold myself back in the early miles. When I first qualified in 2014 (then a ten-minute PR), I was calm and relaxed for the first twenty miles. Last Sunday was not like that at all. Maybe the pressure got to me, but I tend to like pressure. I just couldn’t relax at that pace. I wish I could have turned my brain off—it was the fear of the pain to come rather than current pain—but I couldn’t turn it off. I couldn’t override my brain telling me, This is not okay for this early. Because it really isn’t okay. It should feel mostly easy in those early miles.

2018 CIM, feeling a heck of a lot more relaxed.

I wish I had another year, more time to feel relaxed at that pace. I wish I hadn’t gotten hurt last year. I wish I was tougher, more willing to stick with the pace until I fell over and could go no more. But even then, I don’t think I would have made it twenty-six miles. I wasn’t truly ready.

I don’t regret going for it, despite that. I needed to know. 

A part of me regrets not staying in and finishing, even when I knew I wouldn’t qualify. Not getting the medal, the backpacks and jackets they gave to all finishers. (But would I want one? I didn’t even take one of the participant shirts. I don’t need a memento from a heartbreak.) I regretted leaving all my water bottles behind, carefully planned with notes of encouragement. A super caffeinated gel that was sure to give me a boost at mile 13.5. I never got its jolt. Silly to regret bottles and gels left behind, but it’s effort not attempted, dreams abandoned. 

I also never got the benefit of CIM’s infamous downhills. I dropped when the rolling uphills finally ended. But when I think about this course, in my mind it goes steadily up. I know it doesn’t. I know it’s downhill, that’s why we all fly across the country to race it, with OTQs and BQs and PRs on our minds. But the effort imprinted on me—even in two successful attempts that ended in PRs and OTQs—is that it goes up. Because that’s how a marathon works. The beginning is easy, light, relaxed, and then the effort gradually weighs on you. Until the last few miles feel like you’re running uphill dragging a boulder. I couldn’t handle the early miles. There was no way I’d make it through the tough part. I couldn’t have finished, especially as emotionally spent as I was.

I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t force it. But it’s not so easy for me to accept that. I hate admitting it. I tell people to believe and fight for it. And yet I didn’t. I couldn’t.

My whole schtick is dreaming big. By believing in yourself you can achieve unfathomable things. This gets misinterpreted sometimes as overly wishful, soft thinking. As if I’m ignoring the hard work you need to put in, the support you need, the heavy dose of good luck at the right moment.

Of course I know there are limits to dreaming big. Otherwise, I would wish myself into world record shape, skip right over the dang Trials and win the Olympics. (Wouldn’t we all?) 

But I think those limits are farther out than most of us imagine. If we work hard and believe, we can achieve amazing things. Ludicrous, outlandish things that seem scary to say out loud.

What if we allow ourselves to chase those scary dreams? What if we put them out in the world, let people know how highly we view ourselves? What if we pair that belief with hard work, lung-busting workouts, hours of sweat pouring off us, exhaustion so deep we want to lay on the floor? What if we sacrifice “normal” things: mornings sleeping in, evenings going out? All because we truly believe we can be great.

And what if we fail? Did we not work hard enough? Did we not want it bad enough? Did we not believe in ourselves enough? 

Or were we never capable in the first place?

Which is worse? To be delusional? Or to have given up?

And I wonder: am I still elite? Do I still belong? If I had a little more time, could I find that woman in me again? There’s a certain snobbery is pursuing a crazy goal. Thinking yourself good enough in the first place. But also, honestly, wanting to let people know when you made it, as if they had doubted you all along. I wanted to tell everyone—strangers, acquaintances, that old man at the gym—that I made the Olympic Trials, for a third time. I wanted to get another sponsorship, to run and lounge around in free gear. I wanted to get into the pro field of big races again.

Talk about humbling. Do I deserve to think that way? I’m not a qualifier. Not this time. I didn’t make it.

Was 2018 the best I’ll ever be? Are my days of PRing over? As much as I try to ignore it and think about masters who are kicking ass, people keep reminding me I’m getting older. Subtly and not so subtly saying this is the end. If I accept I wasn’t ready for it now, how can I think I will ever be? When I’m over 40 and officially a master? 

After thousands of miles to the Trials, maybe this is the end of this road. Where does that leave me?

The 2016 Trials.

This brings me to the second lesson, one I know I still need to learn:

2. My identity should not be tied to this. 

I know that and I’ve read so many posts and thoughts from other women who realized somewhere along the way that they weren’t going to qualify for the 2024 Trials. I always envied their maturity, their acceptance. I didn’t have it. I know it’s not healthy to rest your identity as a runner on making one race every four years, but this is how our sport works. Qualifying for the Trials opens up sponsorship opportunities, assures entry into elite fields at other races, and is just damn fun and incredibly rewarding. It’s validating. It shows that the hard work was worth it; that the relentless self-belief was legitimate; that the time, effort, and money was well spent. 

I’ve always said making the Trials is my version of making the Olympics, and it’s not lost on me that what I’m feeling is a fraction of what the pros feel. Our sport puts so much pressure and emphasis on making the Olympic team every four years, as if that is all that qualifies you as great. Those that don’t make it have to find that mature, accepting attitude where they acknowledge the cruelty of the whole system, of everything coming down to one day, of so few athletes actually making it. They are still amazing athletes, still the best in the country, even if that day doesn’t go how they want. 

It’s a lesson I still need to learn. Maybe that’s what this is all for, to teach me that making the Trials isn’t everything. (Though even as I write that, I think, Maybe if I learn that, if I gain that maturity and perspective, it will help me get back for 2028. So, yea… I still need to learn it.) It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. 

But… it also does matter. I loved pursuing this dream. Dreaming of 2024 as I shuffled along while pregnant, as I rehabbed postpartum, and as I tried and failed and tried and failed to get healthy. Getting out of bed early to flail around in the pool or drown in sweat on the bike. I loved even the miles I hated: in the dark, in the rain, in humidity that left me more soaked than rain. The hours spent on extracurriculars: yoga, core, lifting, rehabbing. Feeling validated in going to bed early, in learning to love beets and kale, of giving up those “normal” things. A snobbiness and righteousness that I secretly carried: if only you knew what I’m training for.

I loved having this focused goal, a hope that maybe I could make it come true. If I worked hard enough. If I believed enough. 

I never made it to my destination, but I loved the journey.

I hate that it’s over. 

The 2020 Trials. I made it to 2 Trials. Is that it for me?

Friday, December 1, 2023

Trying to Keep the Dream Alive

During one of my last track workouts, as I fell off the pace, I realized I didn’t want to go to CIM. It will be the death of a dream. I don’t want to watch it die.

But, if I truly don’t want to do it, I wouldn’t still be here: at the track, in the cold, mid-3K repeat. I would have quit already, gone home, gotten warm. Yet my feet continued to pound the track. I hadn’t stepped off, I hadn’t given up entirely. Not yet.

On the cooldown, I tried to talk myself back into fighting for this dream. My main disbelief comes from the fact that I have to run nine seconds faster per mile than I did for my last (and best, by far) marathon pace workout. As I drove home, I listened to Des and Kara’s podcast. (Highly recommend! Despite this next bit…) They were discussing first marathons and bad marathons and, if they were a coach, whether they would tell their athlete to go out hard or conservative. Kara, my running idol, said that if you had trained at 5:20 and the pack went out in 5:15 it would be dumb to go with them. “That’s a lot of time in a marathon.” 

Whomp, whomp. That’s exactly what I was trying to convince myself was not crazy. (For the record, Kara also admitted she’d probably go out hard regardless, because that’s how she races. Also, was she just talking about first marathons? Let’s hope so.) 

Maybe the way to tell how bad I want something is to notice how bad I desperately hold on, despite the evidence. I feared watching the dream die, but I couldn’t let it go. What was the alternative? Giving up without a fight? 

It wasn’t just that CIM would be the death of a dream, I didn’t want to go if achieving the dream wasn’t even an option. I don’t care about any other outcome. I could go for a PR, but even if I made it, I would be bummed I missed the standard. I’d wonder if I should have gone for it. I don’t even think I have the drive to go after “just” a PR, because that’s not where my heart is. When the race gets tough and I have to fight, I don’t think I would. Not for anything less than the original dream. I have to at least try. And if I fall apart spectacularly, have to drop out in agony, whatever, at least I will know I tried. I can miss my goal in two ways: (1) not even trying because I think it’s hopeless/too crazy or (2) going for it anyway and finding out for sure. I’m choosing the latter.

Once I accepted I was going to go for it no matter what, I had something to focus on during the taper: my mental game. I need to get better at arguing myself back into trying, to not giving up on myself, even when it seems impossibly hard. 

I had to come up with my reasons why this isn’t crazy. 

1. Sorry, Kara. Advanced Marathoning says it’s not stupid 

Back in 2014, I thought I had to hit goal marathon pace in practice exactly, but I proved in Pittsburgh (and again at CIM in 2018) that I could run four seconds faster on race day than in practice. I didn’t believe that was possible until I did it. Maybe nine seconds is possible, especially with the help of the pack. 

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

And just two days ago, looking back through my much-bookmarked copy of Advanced Marathoning (trying to remind myself of what race day warmup consists of) I instead happened upon a post-it on a page about how if you have a pack to run with, going out 8-10 seconds per mile faster than planned is okay. 

Which brings us to… 

2. The power of the pack

A lot of my confidence and hope relies on the power of the pack. In Pittsburgh, despite being unsure I could make it when I didn’t run that pace in practice, I ran alone. I still made it. I run all my workouts alone, even the half marathon a few weeks back. Having a group to work with, to not constantly fret over the pace, is a huge advantage I don’t usually have. 

With the pack in 2014
With the OTQ pack in 2014

The benefit of having a pacer is well studied and undeniable; world records fall with pacers. The only time I’ve ever run with a pack was in 2014, at CIM, when I first qualified. It was an immense help. This time will be harder, the task greater, the pace faster. But I’m a more seasoned athlete now. Back then I had to take ten minutes off my PR, I had to prove I was an athlete good enough to qualify. Now I just have to prove I still am. And just take off a measly two minutes.

Now, about those two minutes... 

3. I fight harder for big, meaningful goals. With deadlines. (That happen to be this weekend.)

I’ve thought about CIM in 2018, when I set my current PR, a lot. The last 10K was ugly. How am I going to fight through that this time? And run faster than I did then? 

I talk a lot about having big goals and I also come up short a lot. But when the goals really matter, when something big is on the line, something that matters even more than a PR, I have an extra fight. CIM is the last day to qualify for the 2024 Trials. It’s my last shot. There’s no giving up in the middle and thinking I’ll be back another day. In 2018’s CIM, I was going for a PR, but the time was flexible (I wanted to run 2:38, or break 2:40, or just get a PR, I already had my qualifier secured) and so when it got ugly in the last 10K, I didn’t have as much fight as I would if those times meant something more. 

And finally: 

4. The trajectory is trending up

This year has been unlike any other. I was on crutches in January and yet somehow ran near my best ever by November. I feel like I am on the upswing more than ever, like my fitness and breakthroughs are coming at an alarming rate that I’m not used to. Who knows what I’ll be capable of on Sunday. 

....Still, it’s going to be hard as shit. 

Going into a race is willingly walking towards torture. (Why do we do this??) You know you are in for hours of suffering, of forcing your body to push through exhaustion and pain, or battling your mind as it goes to the deepest, darkest, ugliest places. It’s terrifying. 

I’ve been reminding myself that its only about two and a half hours of pain, after four years of dreaming of this, working toward this, running through pregnancy and the postpartum period (wishing I could be in this shape), of biking and swimming and elliptical-ing through injury (wishing I could be this healthy). Thousands of miles, hundreds of hours spent working my butt off when I could have been sleeping in or relaxing. In the grand scheme of everything, suffering for a couple hours is a drop in a bucket I’ve already filled. What’s another 2.5 hours? It’s worth it. Otherwise, I may spend hundreds of hours regretting I didn’t go for it, I didn’t give it my all. 

“If you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment a few hours, would you capture it? Or just let it slip?” --Eminem, Lose Yourself... mostly

I’ve been visualizing the course and the race. I’m reminding myself that it will be hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m adding to my mental arsenal of mantras and quotes and strategies to call on. I’m really focusing on what I’m going to do when I want to give up, when the pack starts to slip away. I’m picturing those moments, and how I’ll respond. 

“You want to spend all your time thinking about what you’re going to do, not what’s going to happen.” – Mike Smith, NAU coach

It’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I can do it. I am capable. 

Every time I’ve gone into a race trying to qualify, I’ve qualified. 

Every time I’ve gone to CIM, I’ve PRed. 

Time to try to make it 3 for 3. Time to try and keep this dream alive.

Keep dreaming big,