Writing and running in Austin, TX.
There are so many places a marathon can start. I don’t mean geographical places, although the number of physical marathon start lines available today is really quite astounding. A marathon starts when the enormity of the undertaking really hits you. And the more of them you run, the longer it seems to take for that realization to sink in.
For example, this time around my race started approximately 3 days before the actual gun went off. It was a dark Wednesday morning, pre-dawn, post-run, and I was sitting in a 24-hour diner with Coach Chris and Emily, who I’d somehow convinced to do an unscheduled 5:30am workout. (In an almost cruel twist, the purpose of this diner visit was to celebrate all the other runners in our group who had completed their marathon a week and a half earlier. Jerks.)
We were talking race strategy, which was interesting because up until then, I didn’t have one.
|Pre-race carb-loading at Cafe du Monde. I look concerned because 1) I’m about to run a marathon on a stomach full of fried dough and 2) I had just seen a blade come flying off a ceiling fan and narrowly miss decapitating a tourist.|
Sure, I was coming off a string of big improvements: 30 seconds off my two-mile time trial. Back-to-back half-marathon PRs. My first ever negative-split — where you run the later miles faster than the earlier ones, so your average mile split goes down at the end of the race.
But honestly, there was still a not small part of me thinking I would just take a casual 26-mile jog through New Orleans and “enjoy the sights”.
Coach Chris had other ideas, which I didn’t really process until I heard him say that, all things considered, 4:30 should be a conservative goal.
Umm, yeah… 4:30 is 17 minutes faster than my current PR, and 27 minutes faster than my last full. So, while Emily is confirming that 4:30 is a TOTALLY reasonable goal, all I’m thinking is, “Pick up my race pace by a full minute per mile? You two have lost your minds...”
For whatever reason, I have spent my entire running career convinced that I am incapable of maintaining better than an 11:00 minute pace for a full. It doesn’t matter how fast I run a shorter distance, when I line up for a full, the 4:30 pace group’s sign might as well say: “Here there be dragons!”
So, Coach Chris is saying “10:18 pace”, and I’m thinking, “Imminent collapse and subsequent digestion by large winged reptile.”
I think he could sense my skepticism — shocking I know; I’m such a subtle and nuanced person — because eventually he stopped talking splits and asked me flat out: “What do you have to lose by trying?”
Argh, logic! I hate logic. I actually got a C in Logic in 1st grade. (Although really, whose idea was it to teach logic to 7-year-olds? The Chicago Public School system, that’s who.)
But he had a point. I had nothing to lose. Nothing at all. In most races, I consider it a major victory to finish in the top half of race results. I’ve been running for 10 years with no hope whatsoever for fame or glory or age-group awards. The only person in the world who honestly cares about how long it takes me to finish a marathon…is me.
And dammit. Now I had to admit I’d been sandbagging. I’d been running my marathons slower than I was capable of because, well, it’s easier to run slower. And now everybody (or at least me, Coach Chris, and Emily, knew it).
Here’s the game-day plan “we” (Coach C) came up with:
Well, I like numbers, and specific goals. The ladder of the first four miles sounded almost fun. But that subsequent 16 miles of holding a somewhat difficult pace, followed by 6 miles of outright pain, was downright terrifying. I’ve never been so scared of a race in my life. I told 3 separate people I was aiming for a 4:30 finish, in hopes that shame would keep me from chickening out.
Fast forward to race day.
|Proof that just getting to the start can be a real challenge.|
As I stood in the start corral Sunday morning, it was all I could do not to waste all my energy jumping up and down with nerves.
Handsome J took some pictures and offered encouragement while I tried various strategies to distract myself from the effort ahead.
|What do you mean I “look a little nervous”???|
I read the back of a man’s T-shirt that proclaimed frogs were the indicator species for environmental damage, and felt a little sad that he was going to throw that shirt away.
I watched a guy walk by in a full Wolverine costume, and wondered if he was doing the half or the full. (Because, you know, 13 miles in a superhero costume is no biggie, but 26 is just effin’ crazy.)
A Jack Russell trotted by, and while it wasn’t a carbon-copy of the Doof, I tried to convince myself that it was a sign of an auspicious day.
And I froze a little. It was 50 degrees and shady, and while that’s ideal running weather, it’s rough standing around weather.
Back in corral 16, we registered the singing of the national anthem right around the line “…and the home of the brave”, which was okay because it’s always anti-climactic to hear that gun go off and know you won’t actually move for another 20 minutes.
I started Garmin as we began the slow shuffle, and he greeted me with his usual antics, taking about 20 minutes to pick up a signal. As I stood in a huge crowd of people next to a long line of unfortunately-positioned Port-A-Potty’s, I tried to guesstimate my ability to use the clocks at each mile marker to mentally calculate my pace. (Remember, corral 16 doesn’t start at time 0:00. More like time 26:17. )
Garmin found a satellite right as I was despairing my steady string of B’s in math. (You’ll note that’s an improvement over my grades in Logic. Because no, of course it didn’t occur to me that I would still have a working wristwatch even if I couldn’t connect to GPS.)
I felt like I’d been “racing” for an hour by the time we crossed the start, but naturally it was still almost impossible to hold myself back to 11 minutes for that first mile. It was a huge relief to hit mile 2 and be able to open up a little.
Of course, 15 seconds really IS “a little”, and I did a bit of a yo-yo before settling into 10:45. Part of me wanted to just go ahead and start the 10:20 pace (“Less to make up at the end, right?”, the little devil on my shoulder asked) but I knew that sticking to the plan was crucial purely from a mental standpoint. I needed to focus on the ladder or God knows what would get my attention and psych me out.
|Not a bad turnout, eh?|
Fortunately, Mile 2 offered some early distraction in the form of my first on-course sighting of Handsome J. He ran with me for a surprising distance given he was wearing jeans, cruising along the median of a major road, and giving me reports on how long ago the leaders had passed mile 7.
He also had more than one near miss of a lamppost, which made me think of that Dean Karnazes documentary where a runner is asking the cameraman for football scores, runs into a post, and cracks 3 ribs. This led me to ask myself: “If Handsome J needed medical attention, would I be morally obligated to stop running?”
Ahh, the dilemmas of distance runners. Fortunately, he made it through sighting #1 injury-free, and I left him with a clear conscience.
Most of the first 10 miles were an out-and-back on St. Charles Ave., and while I normally despise out-and-backs, the grand old houses were truly beautiful, and it was early enough in the race that I could still enjoy watching the faster runners who already had 6 miles on me.
I good-naturedly envied them their speed as I jumped on and off the median, squeezed through impossibly small gaps, and tried my best to abstain from “helpful” outbursts every time I came upon a group running 4 across.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really thrilled with the number of people embracing distance running these days. I just feel like we need to start a race etiquette awareness campaign. Maybe every new runner should sign a pledge:
I will do my best to do my duty…
- To move to the right if I need to walk.
- To not run more than 2 across on a narrow road.
- To look both ways before I spit.
I think that covers the worst of it.
Back to the race. At mile 4 one of the on-course bands was playing “Jessie’s Girl”, and despite the fact that it was really an abysmal rendition (and that they spell “Jessie” the girly way), I tried to convince myself it was another sign of greatness to come. Some people see the Virgin Mary in toast. I see marathon PR’s in bad 80s music.
At mile 7, I was feeling good on the 10:20 pace, and was excited to have another Handsome J sighting. He ran along with me again, this time carrying a cup of coffee. It must have been my day for cinematic associations, because it made me think of that scene in Airplane! where the wife is thinking, “That’s funny, he never drinks coffee at home.”
And then I thought about how jokes about commercials don’t really stand the test of time, but that joke about the “sh*t hitting the fan” is still hilarious.
(If neither of those last two paragraphs made sense to you, I highly suggest Netflixing the movie. It’s a classic.)
|Feeling good at Mile 7.|
At mile 9 we were back in the tall buildings, and Garmin went a little nuts. He couldn’t decide if we were running an 8:30 or a 12:30, and I probably ran a much too fast mile for fear of the latter. I was partially motivated by the woman ahead of me, whose shirt read, “Proud mother of 10 children.” 10?! Clearly I had to keep up with this woman just to see if she did anything entertaining that confirmed her utter craziness.
Miles 10-11 took us through and around the French Quarter, and while the crowds were inspiring, the streets got a big rougher. I also felt my hamstrings starting to tighten up, but did my best to pretend it wasn’t happening. I convinced myself this was a psychological response to all the people around me talking about how we were “almost there” and “thank God it’s almost over”.
Once again, I had to practice my irrational-emotional-outburst management. I didn’t say, “We’re not all running the half, a-holes!”…but I thought it.
The split at mile 13 was a relief. Of the 22,000 runners in New Orleans, only 3,600 or so were doing the full. It felt like escaping onto a side road from a traffic jam. Who knows if I even want to be going this way, but at least I’m not in THAT anymore.
My relief was short-lived though, because at mile 14 I had to acknowledge that the hamstrings really were tight, my stomach was a little upset, and there was a very real possibility I couldn’t hold this pace for another 12 miles. (The stomach issue wasn’t helped by the college-aged girl talking loudly about the first time she vomited from drinking too much. There’s a time and a place to talk about vomit. The middle of a marathon isn’t it. Add it to the pledge.)
I figured what I needed was another distraction, so I busied myself looking for Rogue T-shirts among the runners coming back the other way. I knew there were about 20 Rogues running New Orleans, so I figured finding one could take a significant amount of time. Alas, it only took 3 miles, but I still whooped and yelled “Go Rogue!” to the girl.
Granted she was at mile 22 while I was at 17, and come to think of it, I think she was actually kind of rude to me once, but we’re teammates, right? I like to think my support carried her home.
As the course turned onto “beautiful Lake Pontchartrain” (prettier than you’d think, but really a long stretch of monotonous levy), I was force to admit I couldn’t hold the 10:20 any longer. I told myself that dropping to a 10:30 was okay — I was running into a pretty strong wind, and I would still get a huge PR if I could hold that.
If that sounds like the rationale of a desperate woman, it was.
Mile 20 was where that sh*t really did hit the fan. (Well, proverbially. Thank goodness for small blessings.)
The wind stopped, and without it the sun suddenly felt brutally hot. A twinge began in my left knee, and by mile 21 it was a full-blown IT band blowout. I hobbled up a hill near tears and watched my split drop to around 13 minutes. How could this be happening?? I always have IT band problems in my right leg, not my left. I was ready to leave the traitorous limb on the side of the road, but then I remembered those articles about amputee runners, and realized they were still faster than me. (I’m not making that up. I really did have that thought on course. Yes, I know, I’m a bad person.)
Maybe it was the absurdity of that thought, but I suddenly felt myself snap back to reality. Okay, so I was having a bad race. But I was over 20 miles in, and I had a lot of miles in the bank already. And moreover, how long did I really want to be out here??
As the course turned back into City Park at mile 22, I was able to pick things back up to an 11:30 pace. Still glacially slow, compared to my starting goal, but all I could handle given the stabbing feeling every time my left foot hit pavement.
|Feeling less good at Mile 24.|
I felt downright positive for the next couple miles (minus another minor fit of rage at the cops who were letting drivers cross the course in their cars(!!!) at mile 23) and by the time I saw Handsome J at mile 24, I had moved from “when I see him I’m going to burst into tears” to “don’t cry over something that won’t cry over you”.
Okay, so I got that quote from a women in business book I read for work. It’s still a widely applicable sentiment.
I won’t lie, the last mile was pure torture, which wasn’t helped by my realization that the PR was gone or by the members of the last band who, clearly tired of playing, were calling out things like, “Green shoes are cool! You know what else is cool? Water bottles. Water bottles are cool!”
Obviously, I was NOT going to walk in the last half mile of a marathon. I unleashed my mental drill sergeant on myself, silently screaming some really impolite things in my head that involved my laziness and the size of my rear.
That got me to within a 100 meters of the finish, at which point I glanced down at Garmin the Traitor. 4:49.14.
Like hell I’m running over 4:50!!!
I gunned it, passing approximately no one.
My official finish was 4:49.41. Two and a half minutes off my PR.
As I limped through the finisher’s chute promising medics that, despite appearances, I really was okay, I tried to put the day in perspective. I had tried to do something big, but the day just wasn’t my day. On the other hand, I’d had a near total meltdown with 6 miles left in the race and still ran my second-fastest marathon ever.
In the end, I think this race felt even better than my PR. That race (in Düsseldorf) was more of a happy accident. This race was a carefully-executed plan, and while I didn’t quite fulfill the *total* vision, I hadn’t left an ounce back on course. I know this because I couldn’t walk for the next 4 hours.
Even as Handsome J half-carried me to the buses, even as I lay in our hotel room yelping every time the bed sheet so much as touched my left knee, all I could think was, “When do I get to try again?”
|A spectator near the finish line.|
Bring it on, Chicago 2012. You have a PR that belongs to me.