Last week, the OG-Santa Cruz chapter of my running club had its season-end celebration, and it was amazing. I don’t see enough of these women regularly to not fan-girl over what warm and wonderful (and fast!) human beings they are.
“Season” and “season-end” feel like arbitrary terms, since while summer is over, this Fall Racing Season is still relatively nascent. This means that my friends are still going after fast times and personal victories against personal demons. This weekend, in particular, was a big race weekend for many in the BAA Half Marathon, Chicago Marathon, and San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. Many of my teammates are going after the California International Marathon as their goal race, and are tuning up for optimal performances at the beginning of December.
While I’m stoked for my friends, and am deliberately taking a break from racing, I can’t help but feel some racing FOMO (what? when have I ever really wanted to race??! who am I?). There seems to be no getting away from the fact that I feel like I’m off schedule, since I am locked into my hs xc coaching duties, and won’t be ramping up for Boston until end of December or early January.
This year has been a trial year. I’ve run every day year ’round for years, and before this year, rarely raced. Meeting Meg was possibly the best thing for my running (and for me). She got me out of my comfort zone, got me to remember what it means to run when you’re not a one-person wolf-pack, intro-ed me to amazing human beings, and got me racing. In the months leading up to SRM, I raced an 18-miler (PR because I never did one), 2 5k races (PRed at the first before I PRed at the second), and one 6-mile race (never raced before, so PRed) leading up to a big marathon PR at Santa Rosa.
I ran some of these races with a totally different strategy: Just go. As someone who firmly believed that negative splitting was the only race strategy that works, this new strategy seemed bonkers, but worked. I ran the second half of the Santa Rosa Marathon about 4 minutes slower than the first half (1:27 versus 1:31) in an effort to have as many miles in the bank as possible before the heat got to me, on a day that hit about 100 degrees around the time I finished. I have had no complaints with the end result … except to sort out the race blues and runner brain neuroses that linger even now.
In my “off-season”, I’ve been trying to figure out what my next steps and paces are. It’s disorienting to not have anything feel right as a goal. It almost feels to me like trying to figure out if I’m ready to date. Did I settle for that last race time? What does settling mean? Am I ready for commitment? Do I just miss the commitment of a new goal time? How high or low should my bar be?
After this summer of PRs in every attempted distance (why the hell am I bluesy about this? oh, because I’m f***ing crazy), I’ve been wondering if I really knew what “race pace” was for me/my body. My body has changed so much in the last 3 years with pregnancy and its aftermath that I haven’t actively tried to figure out what “race pace” is in a long time. Because I ran alone 99.99% of the year prior to this year for the last decade-plus, “race pace” was whatever times I consistently saw in my daily run efforts. I also “raced” – as in, hard effort – most of my daily runs, so, wtf did I know, I’m Jon Snow. So many things are different now about my “normal” even beyond shoving a 30-lb demanding toddler in about half of my weekly runs.
As of now, I’m seriously considering getting coached. The last few months of sustaining discomfort in the meeting new people thing and racing shorter races thing have been supremely helpful. However, the fall of that 3-hour time barrier has opened up to an exciting and also deeply terrifying Other Side, and one that I’m terrified of exploring without guidance. There are some mental barriers that I don’t think I’m brave enough to break on my own, not to mention for a hobby. This, of course, also makes me wonder, how far do I take my hobby? In the coming months, that’s a question I’ll have to face, and hopefully have an answer for by the time the next cycle rolls around.
In the meantime, I’ve got plenty of people to cheer for!
Backstory: On April 18, 2016 I ran a 3:12:48 to secure my 3rd consecutive Boston Marathon medal and 6th marathon finish, with a nearly 9 minute PR. Though I had been training to break a 3 year-old PR of 3:21, I didn’t dare hope for too much. After all, I was a sleep-deprived working-mom who was constantly battling colds (even pneumonia at one point) throughout the long and late New England winter. But with the PR, I dared to set a new goal: break 3 hours. Since I generally run 1 marathon a year, and I wanted to keep my consecutive Boston Marathon streak going, I saw Boston as my one chance a year to re-qualify for Boston, and my one race to PR in. This plan was bound to blow up sooner or later, and it certainly did this April.
The Heartbreak: The day after we touched down in Boston, I came down with an awful stomach bug that did not fully disappear by race day morning. I had stopped throwing up for long enough to decide that I would attempt the full 26.2 miles. I was tracking for another 3:12 effort in the first half and felt fine…until I didn’t. Leaving Wellesley I couldn’t hydrate enough, my stomach started hardening up, and the awful tell-tale thirst & swish-swish of the fluids stuck in my stomach drove me to aid stations at miles 15 and 16 to rest, drink, throw up, and finally call it quits. After 16.5 miles, I trudged feverishly and bitterly to the shuttle with other broken comrades, knowing that I was going home with nothing but a big, fat DNF. My first.
The Redemption Race: The Santa Rosa Marathon was always meant to be The True Redemption Race after Boston 2017. I had run the T9 East Bay Sirena 18 miler a few weeks after Boston to make use of that training cycle and fitness, and to give myself a confidence boost. While it was flat and fast race, I came into this race weekend thinking that my 6:48/mile pace from the Sirena 18 was a fluke because taper-crazy me started refusing to believe that I could handle the mental and physical test of those last 8.2 miles at a similar pace. I found myself unable to fully visualize any race from the last 3 months, and unable to visualize myself running this marathon. This was my remaining shot this year to get my butt back to Boston for the 2018 marathon, but I refused to think of this race as another BQ attempt. Because I couldn’t visualize running, I tried to focus solely on the idea of that 3 hour barrier. That 2:59 number was the only number that needed to matter. I told myself that it didn’t even matter exactly how I would achieve it during the race, I just needed to see 2:59.
On Saturday afternoon, my friend Erin picked up my neighbor/Arete teammate/training bud Meg and me, and we headed straight to the marathon expo. We grabbed our race bags and Erin got her 3:33 pacer materials and instructions, chatted a bit with friends, and left the oppressive heat as soon as possible to hydrate, eat, and rest. On our way out, we ran into my old friend Gene, who ran XC for a rival high school, and he joined us for a delicious dinner at Haku Sushi.
After dinner, the ladies and I settled in at our hotel for the night with some hair braiding – an old pre-race tradition of mine from my high school XC days – and reading. I reviewed a few favorite sections of How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald for inspiration, but felt oddly divorced from my emotions. I also worried that I still could not visualize anything. Not my pace, not a concrete plan. Just nothing.
At 3:15am the next morning, Meg, Erin, and I churned through breakfast and other pre-race routines. I still felt emotionally flat. It wasn’t until right around 45 minutes from the start that I started feeling a shadow of my usual race-day nerves, and then nausea rolled in and out in waves, periodically making me feel like I was going to be sick again, taking me back to April.
Fearing that I’d give up on myself before I even started running, I scribbled on my arm with a marker borrowed from a race volunteer: “YOU WANT THIS” went on my hand. “Sky above me, Earth beneath me, Fire within me” went on the inside of my forearm. “2:59” went on the inside of my wrist, next to my Garmin. This was new. Scribbling mantras/goals on myself was not part of my usual routine, but neither was quitting, and I still felt shame for quitting back in April, even if it was for a perfectly smart and healthy reason. I needed to put all the positivity out there where I could see it when I needed it, and so on my skin it all went.
When we were allowed into our corral, I said good lucks to Meg and Erin, and positioned myself right at the starting line right next to Gene. Though scheduled to start at 6:00, the race didn’t start until 6:37am, and by then I was itching to be done. The temperature was set to reach 100 degrees, and I wanted to avoid running in the heat as much as possible.
I went out too fast – around 6:00, even dipping sub-6 pace a few times – the first half mile. There were bike leads for the top three men and top three women in the race, and I found myself being pulled by the 1st Female bike escort for about 3 minutes before I could properly reign myself in and slow down. “Slowing down” meant that I followed Brett, the cyclist for Female #3 from mid-1st mile on. That first mile was a little too fast at 6:22, and I figured I needed to sit at 6:40-6:50 to make the pace sustainable. Given the forecast for the day, however, I started thinking by miles 2 and 3 that banking some time on faster miles in the first half of the race while it was cooler would be helpful for when the wall of pain and exhaustion came down in the later miles. I forgot that I had issues visualizing this race, and focused on being flexible and smart in the moment, going by feel.
I dutifully grabbed water at the aid stations to sip and throw over my head to try to stay cool, knowing that I heat up quickly. I took a gel every 6 miles. I stayed in a 6:30-6:50 range per mile, surging when I felt like it, but generally tried to run relaxed.
I headed into mile 10, the DeLoach Winery, with a group of three guys – Paul, Lucas, and Sam. We chatted about our goals to all run sub-3 marathons, and joked around. Among other things, Paul said something like, “This is just an 20 mile long run, with a 10k race.” Oh, the things we endurance athletes tell ourselves as motivation but make us sound out of our minds. As we headed into the Barrel Room together, Lucas told us all to “look pretty” for the photographer. The men turned their caps around to better show off their lovely faces, and we all threw our hands up for the flashes as we rolled on through.
The guys started to pull ahead as we headed into miles of rolling inclines. I ran the first half in 1:27:33, faster than I’ve ever run a half (I’ve only done 3, and it’s been YEARS), and felt decent about banking solid mileage and a few minutes of a time buffer for when I might blow up/hit a wall. I was also a little tired from chatting while running at 6:35-6:39 pace. So I slowed a bit to keep just a touch slower than my goal marathon pace to sit at 6:57/6:59 for the next couple of miles, chatting much more easily at this pace with Brett, my bike escort, and yelling “Car” to warn runners behind me when cars came onto the road.
I picked up the pace a little 15 through 18, with my jaw set with a little more fatigue than before. I kept looking down at my watch to ensure that I was in the right range for my splits – 6:46/6:43/6:48/6:48 – just fine. Then the slight downhill at mile 20 leading into a slow climb on the Santa Rosa Creek Trail back towards downtown sucked my legs of energy. The narrowness of the path meant that I was running alongside the half-marathoners. Brett was amazing at clearing the left side for me and other full marathon runners. I basically held my right arm up with a thumbs up for what felt like was a quarter of the remaining mileage on that trail, while saying “thank you” and “good job” and other brief messages of encouragement to the runners that stepped aside for me, and to some of the marathon men that started to pass me. All part of staying positive.
At mile 23, Brett gave me a heads up that he was switching up on me; I was going to catch the 2nd female runner. At that point, I had felt that Brett had been such a huge part of my race experience that I was really sad about the hand off. I even hoped for a moment that the runner would rally. As I passed her, I asked her to stay with me, and told her she was doing great. She shook her head at me, and told me her quads were shot. I gave her a thumbs up and moved on with bike escort #2 and told Brett to take good care of her.
Miles 23-26 were my slowest during the race, and each one was slower than the next as I climbed towards the finish. (This is a pretty flat course, btw, I was just hurting bad in this stretch.) Despite not wanting to slow down too much, I just couldn’t hold onto the sub-7:00 pace during these miles. I was too hot, too thirsty. I felt like I was dragging ass -7:04/7:07/7:13/7:19. Thankfully I had, in fact, banked enough time in the first half, so that it looked like I might still make it to my goal time.
During those slower miles, I wavered and flirted with the idea of earning a finish time in the 3:00-3:05 range at the start of every new mile segment. And every time I humored settling, I would be filled with disgust, and told myself that if I failed my goal, I would have to go through another training cycle. Since I basically hadn’t taken a true break between my Boston Marathon and Santa Rosa training cycles, I was desperate for the mental and physical break from training that I would earn in meeting my goal. I didn’t work this hard for the last 8 months for nothing (I had wanted to run a sub-3 at Boston, a much hillier/harder course), and I certainly didn’t spend a night away from my son (who told me he was upset that I didn’t come home when I called home the night before) to fall short of a big goal. In those awful last miles, I knew that I didn’t have it in me to face my own self if I couldn’t do what I set out to do.
The final 0.2 was mercifully off the creek trail. Just the sight and feel of a real street gave me relief that the sufferfest would soon be over. I saw my husband and son with a poster (my husband doesn’t do posters, so this was a HUGE deal) near the 26 mile marker, yelled my son’s name, and hurled myself towards the last turns and through the finish. I knew from the glance on the clock as I headed down that not only did I meet my goal but even a little better: 2:58 and change. All the months of shame and self doubt following April melted away. I also came in 2nd female overall, a happy surprise.
Brett rode in soon after, with the 3rd female in tow, and gave me a huge hug in congratulations. Had I had the fluids for it, I would have cried tears of joy. Instead, I dry sobbed happily for a few moments and congratulated as many people as I could, including Sarah, the female champion.
I grabbed some lemonade, water, watermelon slices, and hobbled to Gear Check to grab the bag that held all of Erin, Meg, and my things. I saw Lucas and Paul again, and we all congratulated each other. My husband and son met me at Gear Check, and we headed over to the last corner before the finish chute to cheer for Erin and Meg. While waiting for them to come through, my husband told me that my timing chip malfunctioned, and that I was not tracking from mile 8 onwards.
We put a pin in the timing chip discussion, though, since we spotted Erin and Meg approach the finish, and we all (my son included) cheered like maniacs for them. Erin and Meg looked strong and both wore huge, photogenic smiles as they headed into the last straightaway. My husband and son headed off to find them, while I went to the timing tent to ensure that my time was fixed.
Sarah went with me to the timing tent, because she was listed as the 3rd female finisher in the full marathon, while I was indeed not listed at all. Handwritten times and bib numbers from race officials at the finish confirmed that Sarah and I were the rightful 1 and 2 female finishers, respectively. Becky, the woman running the timing tent, took my timing chip and discovered that it was encoded incorrectly, and proceeded to upload and fix the data. My panic at having no record of my finish went away. It was also in this tent that I verified my official PR time: 2:58:46!
I rejoined the ladies, my family, and Gene by the HoneyBuckets (WHY DO WE CALL PORTA POTTIES “HONEYBUCKETS”? THEY SMELL AWFUL.), where we shared and celebrated our achievements: Erin and her pacing partner Simon brought in their pace group just ahead of their 3:33 planned pace with a 3:32, and Meg earned a rock-solid BQ in her first marathon postpartum. Gene, who I had lost track of at the start because I went out like an idiot rocket, had run a 3:13 in his first marathon since a foot fracture in the spring.
It’s now 5 days post-marathon, and it’s still sinking in that I achieved what I did. I told myself frequently these last few months that if I couldn’t break the 3-hour barrier on my own, then I would get myself a coach. Since I did achieve my goal, this would normally mean that I’d have set another Big Scary Hard Goal at another race by now. This time, however, the Big Scary Hard Thing is to let myself fully believe that I really earned this new marathon PR, and enjoy the fruits of my long labor. I dared to dream, and now I dare to be present to enjoy its fulfillment. I really, truly earned it.