Race Report: 2017 Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon

I am finally a three-hour marathoner.  Not a sub-three-hour marathoner, but a three-almost-on-the-nose marathoner.

I imagine I now know how Eliud Kipchoge felt when he didn’t quite break the two-hour barrier last May coming in at 2:00:25.

My official time was 3:00:29, 6.5 minutes faster than my best race in January. Sooooo close!

While I still don’t have that 2 next to my name, I’m still so happy and proud.

The runners’ ritual laying out of race clothes the night before.

When I heard that the forecast called for mid-50s-60s and a 20mph headwind, I have to admit, I was nervous.  The temperature was a little warm for good racing, but not terrible.

But the headwind?  That’s like running through molasses. (Here’s how much the wind will affect your pace.)

Then I remembered that the race planned to have a 3-hour pace group.  Those are a bit hard to find in smaller races since you have to be a lot faster than that to be able to lead a group comfortably, so I hoped I could just tuck in behind the pacer and draft.

Turns out there was a big pack of us and we stayed in a tight formation for 23 miles.

Early in the race feeling great! The dude behind me in orange mentioned how well we coordinated.

Before the race, I was careful to eat and drink everything exactly the same way I had done in January at the Charleston Marathon since it worked so well.

I had prepared two bottles of my lemonade starch fuel but this time, I used 60g of tapioca starch instead or corn starch and added 10g of corn syrup for glucose with 5g of powdered fructose.  Each 8oz bottle contained 275 calories and 67g of carbohydrate.

But just like Charleston, I ended up only using one.

Miles 1-5:  6:44, 6:42, 6:54, 6:45, 6:52

When I found out that Thomas, our pacer, was a 2:35 marathoner, I decided to ignore my watch and just blindly trust him.  I knew I would need a pack to brace against the wind as well as the mental relief of not having to worry about pace.  He told me at the start that he planned to run even splits which is what I wanted.

This is a flat course with a slight downhill so aiming for negative splits (second half faster than the first) had a big risk of backfiring.  Not to mention, I’ve never, ever run negative splits, so I wasn’t going to start now.

I occasionally checked my watch, but mostly ignored it.

The pack of 20 or so runners was so tight that we occasionally bumped elbows or clipped each other’s heels.  As I bumped the guy in the navy singlet next to me for the third time, I said, “I’m just going to apologize now for the whole race!”

Miles 6-10:  6:54, 6:54, 6:49, 6:49, 6:51. 10k split: 42:24 (6:49/mile pace)

This stretch of the race weaved through cornfields with dairy cows mooing at us in the early golden light.  We crossed the 10k timing mat and Thomas said we were right on target.

I try to avoid doing any kind of math when I’m running hard, so I took his word for it.

The pace was feeling fine and I was taking sips of my drink every other mile or so.  I was sure to grab a cup of water at each aid station and it turned out to be like a well-choreographed dance as each member of our pack held out an arm to grab a cup from a volunteer.

Miles 11-15:  6:55, 6:49, 6:54, 6:44, 6:40. Half marathon split: 1:30:05 (6:52/mile pace)

Coming through the half with nearly perfectly even splits was certainly reassuring.  As a coach, I so often talk about running negative splits, so there was a little twinge of wondering if the pace was too fast, but I let that thought evaporate as quickly as it popped up.

Looking at it later, wow, mile 15 was fast!  Good thing I wasn’t looking at my watch or I would have slowed down!

Miles 16-20:  6:47, 6:43, 6:53, 6:45, 6:54. Twenty Mile split: 2:16:58 (6:50/mile pace)

At this point we were winding through oak-lined neighborhoods of beautiful historic homes.  Our pack had grown smaller, but was still about 10 people.  The two other women that started in the pack with me had faded.

The pace was still feeling fine for me at this point, but the wind was picking up.  I allowed myself to wonder what would happen if I could speed up in the last 10k.  But I knew I didn’t want to lose the wind protection and the mental boost of the group so I stayed put.

My biggest goal was to stay strong where the race really begins–the final 10K

Miles 21-26.2:  6:52, 6:56, 6:49, 6:44, 7:23, 7:17, 7:10 (pace).  Final time 3:00:29

I was really happy that I felt as strong as I did after crossing the 20 mile mark.  I warned myself not to get too excited because there was a long way to go.

“If there is any day that you can do this,” I thought, “it’s today.”

At mile 23, I even started wondering if now was the time to leave the pack and speed up.  I didn’t want a 3 hour time, I wanted a sub-three!  But I knew as we left the protection of the neighborhoods and headed down to the beach, the winds would be in full force and I didn’t want to be alone for that.

Little did I know…

At some point Thomas mentioned there would be a good downhill at mile 24 before the flat beach and that last year he had taken the group 30 seconds too fast through it.  I quite liked that idea, but just before we got there, the pack started pulling away.

I thought that I was slowing down, I had no idea that they were speeding up.

I lost contact with them even though I was running a sub-three-hour pace.  I just didn’t know it.

So by the time I got down to the lake, I was all alone.

All by myself in front of Bradford Beach, Lake Michigan. The guy in the background would eventually pass me.

The full force of the 20mph headwinds hit me like a brick wall.  One of the bike support volunteers (you can see her shadow in the picture above) told me that I was in third place.

Convinced that the pace group minutes ahead of me was on pace and I had fallen behind, I struggled to run as hard as I could the last two miles.  I was not giving up and I do not think I could have run any harder than I did at that point.

I asked the biker if there was any woman behind me.

“Nope,” she replied, “this is all you.”

Oh, how I wish she had said, “Yes!  She’s right behind you!!”

As I entered the finishing chute, I gave it everything I had and I was shocked to see how close I actually was to three hours.

What? So I wasn’t that far behind after all?
So surprised and happy! The finish line clock was a few seconds behind the official time.

When I talked with my coach, Jeff Gaudette, I told him I was worried that not taking in enough fuel played a big factor.  He said that probably wasn’t the case.

“80-90% of the time you lost was due to the wind,” he told me. “But more importantly, what slowed you was mental.

“When the pack pulled away from you,” he said, “you thought your goal was shot.”  I subconsciously slowed down, even though consciously I was fighting as hard as I could.

Obviously, had I looked at my watch, I would have seen where I was, but at that point, I felt it didn’t matter.  If I was running as hard as I possibly could go, what did the time matter?

Apparently, a lot.

Had I realized that I was not only on pace, but under pace during mile 25, Jeff told me, I would have gotten a shot of confidence and adrenaline that could have taken me to the the finish line just a little faster.

I’m also not in the habit of looking at overall time on a run.  I look at pace, mile splits, and distance and ignore everything else.

Heck, if I simply had just the time of day showing, I would have known how close I was!  Something to remember for next time.

But overall, I am thrilled with this race.  I ended up finishing in 3rd place and I also have the swanky new title of being the 2017 Wisconsin State Female Master’s Champion!

“Don’t cha wish you coulda run 30 seconds faster, Mama?” asked my 8-year-old son the moment I got home.

Yes, of course I do.  But this is still pretty good.

 

When a Race is Really a Race

If you’ve been following my running lately, you may have noticed something.  I’ve been running races, but I haven’t been racing.

I’ve been half-assing them.

With my ego bruised from my DNF last fall, my only goal for my last marathon was to finish well and not fall apart.  I couldn’t afford to race with guts and risk falling apart again.  I just needed a happy race and I got it.

Then during my first 5K of the season a couple weeks ago, I just felt completely out of my element and dropped back into familiar marathon pace for the last half of the race.  It was good enough at the time.

But today was different.

I actually RACED!

I’ve run the Chilly Challenge 8K once before two years ago and haven’t run another 8K since, so I had no idea what to expect as far as pace.  Before I left the house, I entered my marathon time into a pace calculator to get a sense of what I should be able to accomplish.  It said 32:05.

This course is very hilly so I suspected I wouldn’t quite get that time.  There’s a hill at the start, two in the middle and a steep one at the finish.  But there is a nice, straight rolling section in the last mile and a half.

I wasn’t supposed to win. Katie is much faster than I am, so I had no problem letting her go up the first hill.

Mile 1: 6:33  I stuck to the race plan, not going out too fast.  I kept Katie in my sight, but the gap widened to 100-200 meters.  There was no way I would close that, so I just focused on making myself proud of the effort.

Mile 2: 6:49  Yes, there was an uphill here, but there was also a downhill.  I was settling back into a familiar rhythm of slowing down when the effort level went up.  Not again.  Not this time. 

Mile 3: 6:42  The middle section has a big loop for a turn around so you can see everyone’s position.  I couldn’t tell if I was closing the gap or not, but Katie did not seem to be getting farther away.  It was at the end of this mile that I decided that I would catch her.  No matter what.  She became my prey and I was going to hunt her down.

(It sounds so serious and mean when I type it out!  But this is honestly the mental game that I play racing that gets me to focus.)

Mile 4: 6:25   I dropped the hammer. That’s more like it!  I was closing in on her.  But I didn’t want to surge to early only to get passed again. I wanted to sneak up on her.

Final 9/10 mile: 6:34 pace Miraculously, I actually caught her about 3/4 of a mile from the finish. She had no clue I was there and couldn’t respond.  Katie is a powerful trail runner and I thought for sure she’d catch me on the last big hill so I gave it everything I had and kicked, gasping to the finish. She was nowhere in sight.

First place female, 32:28, 6:37/mile pace.  That calculator wasn’t so far off after all!

I raced so hard at the end that I had to lie in the grass for a minute at the finish.

More than the win or the PR, I am so happy with this race because I truly gave it my all.  Finally.

And on an unrelated note, I am really looking forward to celebrating tonight with my sister-in-law for her birthday.  Her favorite cake is chocolate with mint frosting so I made her one.  Vegan, of course!  Just have to show you this one.

Yum!

Oh, and next week is my week to start hosting the Run to the Top Extra Kick Podcast!  We answer one running-related question per day in a short daily episode.  Perfect to listen to during your warm up.  Click here to check it out on iTunes.  Or click here if you use Stitcher.

Look!  There I am with elite Tina Muir, head coach and running guru Jeff Gaudette, and the always amazing Coach Danny Fisher.  I am humbled.

Take a listen and let me know what you think!

Charleston Marathon 2017 Race Report. New PR!

I feel so good about this one.

My goal for Charleston was to have a happy race.  I wanted to do well for myself but I did not want to get anywhere near the edge of everything I’ve got.  I needed a confidence builder and Charleston delivered.

Does every racer lay out their clothes the night before?

The temperature at the start was a comfortable and sunny 53 degrees and would rise into the high 6os by the end of the race.  This is warmer than ideal by about 10-15 degrees for racing, but I didn’t mind it.

I woke up three hours before the race and had my usual breakfast of two slices of whole wheat toast with almond butter and jelly with a banana, a small cup of coffee, and about half the juice from a can of sliced beets.

Two hours before the race, I mixed 40 grams of cornstarch into the rest of the beet juice and quickly chugged that down (that’s a little rough on the tastebuds so the quicker, the better).  That would be the last liquid I would take before the race.  An hour before, I took one 40g caffeine mint. Then 45 minutes before the start, I ate two Nature’s Bakery fig bars.

At the start of the 2017 Charleston Marathon

For fuel during the race, I mixed 60 grams of cornstarch, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of Morton’s Lite salt in my 8 ounce fuel bottle with enough already-mixed True Lemon lemonade to fill the bottle.  This is almost double the starch of my original recipe, but the mix is still quite thin.

I had practiced this concentration in training, but never at the marathon distance, so I made up two bottles of fuel. The plan was to have my husband hand me the second bottle at mile 18.

I wanted to stay on or around a 3:05 finish pace, which translates to 7:03/mile or faster.  I wanted to run the first half conservatively to save energy for the second half, but not so slow that I would have to make up time.

Miles 1- 5: 6:38, 6:57, 6:43, 6:59, 6:53

The first mile is always too quick for me.  The full marathon runs with the half marathon, so there are a lot of fast runners in a big group.  This makes it more fun (at this point), but it is easy to get swept up with a faster pace.  I never completely trust GPS during the first mile, so when I saw the 6:38, I tried to reign it in.

Mile one

 

I was feeling so fresh for these first miles, that it was hard not to think about whether I really could try to make 3 hours. But I let that go and tried to stay in the present moment.  We were running along Battery Park near the water and it was just gorgeous.

Miles 6-10: 6:59, 6:58, 7:06, 6:59, 6:57. 10K split: 43:08 (6:57 pace)

As we left downtown Charleston and headed north, the scenery changed from historic to industrial.  The half marathon turned away from the full just before mile 10 and the marathoners began an out-and-back.  I’m really happy with my pacing here.  I was feeling fine and my breathing was still easy.  I had started taking sips of my fuel at this point as well as grabbing a gulp of water every two miles at aid stations.

Miles 11-15: 7:01, 6:52, 6:48, 6:55, 7:03.  11.8 mile split: 1:23:29 (7:04 pace, was my GPS pace off?)

Just after mile 12, we ran out a pier on the water and turned around.  This was where I could see the women ahead of me for the first time.  Elite runner Esther Atkins (who was just on a training run) was well over a mile ahead of the next woman at this point.  I could see a woman in green ahead of me for a few miles and I was only about 50 yards behind her at the turn around.  I was in fifth place.

As we headed back to re-join the half runners, I thought I had a chance to pass the woman in green.  When I clicked off a 6:48 mile at mile 13 and still couldn’t catch her, I decided to let her go.  Then I saw the third place woman starting to walk.  I was in fourth.

At mile 14.5 the full course met back up with the half course.  We had just run 4 more miles than the half runners at that point so the road was full to the edges with slower runners.  I lost sight of my competition and tried my best to stay at the edge of the crowd.  At one point, I hopped up onto the sidewalk so I could have a clear path.

Then, just before a turn thick with runners, I saw a woman struggling at about my pace and I passed her easily.  It was the woman in second at the turn around.

I was now in third.

Miles 16-20:  7:05, 7:07, 7:04, 7:10, 7:00. 20 mile split:  2:20:31 (7:01 pace).

I knew I was starting to slow down a little, but I was still feeling okay.  Third place is really good in a marathon and I wasn’t ready to push any harder to go faster.  I just wanted to maintain.

But in order to maintain this late in the race, I needed to push harder.

At mile 17, a took another caffeine mint.  The minty taste felt refreshing and I hoped it would give me just a little boost of energy, bypassing my stomach.

I saw my husband at mile 18 and I tossed my fuel bottle before him and grabbed the new one.  I still had about 25% left in the first bottle, so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need it, but you never know.

This part of the course is a series of loops that begin and end around Park Circle like petals on a flower.  Esther Akins was so far ahead that I saw her a couple of times at the beginning of a loop that she was already completing, but I never saw the second-place woman in green again.

My music stopped for whatever reason around mile 20 and my upbeat pop music was silenced.  Not the best timing.

Miles 21-26.2:  7:26, 7:16, 7:22, 7:27, 7:34, 7:44, 6:45 (last 0.2). Finish: 3:06:57 (7:07 pace).

The last 10K was clearly my weakest.  I knew that I had to exponentially increase my effort just to keep the same pace and I thought I was, but every time I looked at my watch, I was surprised at how slow I was.

At mile 22, a volunteer cheerfully shouted, “you’re almost there!”

“No, we’re not,” I muttered.  Don’t get me wrong, I truly appreciate everyone who volunteers at a race, but for the love of everything sacred, DO NOT say “you’re almost there” to anyone in a marathon until mile 26.  It’s just cruel.

Another mentally challenging part was that there were very few marathoners on the course at this point but there were a lot of 3-hour half marathoners walking and chatting and listening to music.  It was not nearly as crowded as it was earlier in the race, so passing was not a problem, but I didn’t have a pack to pace with.  My body was tired, but my brain was even more so.

This is when my sweet but negative Nancy voice in my head got loud.  She means well and just wants to protect me, but she does not care a thing about my racing goals.  You’re in third, she said kindly, just hang on and get there.  No need to speed up.

In training, I concentrate hard on my breathing patterns.  I know that when I’m working hard, I breathe in for two steps and out for one, so I told myself to forget my heavy legs and just get into hard-effort breathing.  I would speed up a little, but then involuntarily slow back down.

About a half mile from the finish, a pacer from the half marathon who had long finished shouted out that I was on 3:05 pace.  Instantly, I forgot about all the mental mind games telling me to slow down and I kicked as hard as I could.  There were several hard turns before the finish and I clipped each one as tight as I could, drove my legs forward and pumped my arms.

The last quarter mile was at 6:45 pace, proving that I still had plenty of energy left in my legs if my brain would just allow it.

The clock was ticking closer to 3:07 and I was determined to get under it.  With three seconds to spare, I did.

At the finish with my friend David.

So while I’m not thrilled with the last 10K, I am very happy with how the race went overall.  Nutritionally, it was perfect and it’s great to know I only need one 8 ounce bottle.  I have never felt better physically during a race and I know that’s because I stayed within myself and didn’t go to the well.  It was still a hard effort, but I’m satisfied knowing that I still have more to give.

And to share the podium with an elite American marathoner whose PR is 2:32 was so much fun.  Sure, she beat me by 20 minutes and was practically jogging, but I don’t care!

Sharing the podium with elite Esther Atkins

Now it’s time to savor, rest, recover, and EAT!  Not sure how many days I will take off running just yet, but after such a long training cycle, I’m really looking forward to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Painful Lessons of the Dreaded DNF

If I had known it was going to hurt this much, I might have kept going.

It was as if my stomach had trapped a rabid animal desperately trying to claw its way out.  The pain worsened with every step.  No amount of positive thinking or deep breathing would soothe the writhing beast captive inside despite my best efforts for over an hour.  Rather than continue to escalate the torture, I quit.

I got my first Did Not Finish (DNF) at mile 16.

The possibility of this happening never, ever occurred to me.  I had big goals for this race, but I also was prepared with not quite meeting them.  At least, I think I was.   The idea of actually giving in to the evil voice in my head that says it’s okay to quit never crossed my mind.

Until it did.

There’s no other way to say it: a DNF sucks.

It’s like being dumped by your high school boyfriend and getting the thin envelope of rejection from your dream college on the same day.

My heart feels like a stress ball in the hand of nervous day trader.  The acute pain I felt on race day seems like nothing compared to this constant ache.

So what happened?  Several things that added up to a big mistake.

At the hotel the morning of the race with my family, I woke up a few minutes before the alarm, three hours before the race.  Since I didn’t have access to a toaster, I ate my standard almond butter and jelly toast as a sandwich with my usual cup of coffee.  Everything went down fine and I had no inclination at that point that anything would go wrong.

Later as we got in the car to go to the start, we ended up in some traffic and had the anticipated struggle to find a parking spot.  I don’t think I felt particularly stressed out about this part, but I definitely was more distracted than I would have been on my own.  We found a spot to park at 6:55, fifty minutes before the start, which seemed perfect.

But as we were getting out, I realized that I had forgotten to take the caffeine pill that I normally take 90 minutes ahead of time, so I quickly washed it down with just a sip of water.  I am always cautious of drinking within an hour of the race to avoid having to stop to pee, but I don’t think I had remembered to drink any liquid at all except for the one cup of coffee.

The banana that I usually eat was forgotten in the car.

After jogging my warm up, I got to the start about 15 minutes before the gun.  I put my cold hands in my pocket and felt the fig bar that I like to take about thirty minutes before the race.  Oops. I managed to chew through half and tossed the rest away.  I wished I had a little water to clear my mouth out, but I dismissed that thought quickly and got into the corral.

The gun went off and I settled in with the 3:05 pace group (7:03 pace per mile).  My strategy was to negative split or to run the first half slower than the first.  It is especially important to run the first 4-5 miles slower to conserve your energy for when things get really hard, so I thought the slower pace group would be a great way to stay slower.

But we ran the first mile in 6:56.  That is too fast for 3:05.  That could be okay for 3-hour pace (6:52 per mile), but still, it’s cutting it a little close. I knew they were going too fast at the time, but the fear of going too slow got the best of me at the time and I remember feeling good about the split.

The water stations were every two miles for the first 20 miles and I took at least a sip or two at every one.  (A sip or two is not enough.)

The next few miles stayed consistent:  6:55, 6:56, 6:47 (danger!), 6:52.  I was in a good group of men at this point and the jockeying for position had stopped as the 3:05 pace group finally slowed down to a more reasonable pace behind me.  I was surrounded by people that were going for sub-three.

It was time for my first gel at mile 5.  I tore open the lemon flavor one and it was saltier than the sea.  A faint alarm went off inside my head, but I pushed it away.  Running hard intensifies every sensation so I told myself that it was my taste buds playing tricks on me.

As soon as the overly-concentrated gel hit my nearly-empty stomach, the pain began.

As we hit the nice, long downhill going to the river at mile 6 (6:56), I fell in step with a guy next to me.  I asked it he was going for sub-3.  He said yes and asked me the same.  I was managing the discomfort okay at this point at expected it to settle down at any moment so I smiled and replied brightly, “that’s the plan!”

He said, “Good.”  Then he added, “just so you know, this is uncharted territory for me, so if I blow up, just go on with out me.”

I said, “me, too.”

We sailed down the hill in a speedy 6:42.  I saw my husband and kids at the bottom of the hill and tried to manage a smile for them, but I was really not feeling good at all at this point.

At the next water stop, I thought I was grabbing water, but it was Powerade.  The opposite of what I needed, but I had a couple swallows anyway and stayed glued shoulder to shoulder with my new running buddy.

A woman who had gone out faster than I did was slowly coming back to me and as we passed her, I felt a momentary  sense of relief that I would get through this rough patch.  This was temporary and would pass.  Miles 8 and 9 were a still-consistent 6:53 and 6:56.

As we headed up the only real hills of the course up from the river, I expected to slow some, but my stomach was in full riot mode.  The next three miles were 7:02, 7:04, 7:05.  At one point, I saw my buddy look back for me and I’m not sure I could even manage to shake my head.  He went on without me.

I knew despite how my stomach was feeling, I had to continue to fuel or I would definitely be doomed.  I opened a peanut butter gel (that was thankfully the correct concentration) and managed to get it down, but violent churning continued.

The 3:05 pace group passed me at the top of the hill.

Now, had I been thinking rationally, I wouldn’t have let that get to me.  My pace was still just about perfect for a negative split and if not that, there was still a really good chance of finishing way faster than I ever have before.

My mind would not let me go there.  I had stopped thinking about finishing and had started looking for an escape.

Maybe I could make it to the half.

I did, but with my slowest mile that far in 7:10, with a half split of 1:31 and change.  Seeing 1:31 at the half should have been a good sign, but it got to me.  I was hoping to cross the half in 1:29 or 1:30 and just that extra minute felt like a slap.  That thought, of course, is absolutely ridiculous and a 1:31 is probably even smarter than 1:29, but at the time it felt like my dream was slipping away.

My family had planned to watch me at mile 16, so I just needed to get that far.  More runners continued to pass during miles 14 (7:07) and 15 (7:13).

The last mile I ran was the long windy bridge across the James River.  Since the packs I had been with had long gone, I tucked behind one guy and braced myself against the wind.  I cringed when I glanced at my watch and saw our 7:45 pace.  I was done.  I just had to get across that bridge to safety.

The last mile was a defeated 7:52 and I hit the stop button and crumpled to the curb.

I sat for a moment, drank some water, and assured concerned volunteers that I was okay.

I called my husband.  Because of traffic, they had decided not to try to go to mile 16 after all and they were closer to the finish.  I told him that I could walk and meet them.

While we were talking, I heard a volunteer shout to the racers, “Great job!  You’re on 3:08 pace!”  In my sad, angry, and dejected state, I muttered, “Fuck that.”

And right there shows me now the most important thing I got wrong.  I was holding so tight to my A goal, that I was not being reasonable.  Right now, I’d be thrilled if I had managed a 3:08!  Yes, I had a B goal and a C goal and even a D goal, but I had not really allowed myself to be truly okay with them.

In the end, I know if I had chosen to continue, my stomach issues most certainly would have only gotten worse and I would still be upset about missing my goals.  If I completed the whole race simply to finish, not only would it have prolonged and intensified the torture, but I would have given up any chance I may have to try again this season.   I cut my losses before any damage was done to my legs.

My heart is another story.

I will be processing this for a while, but even though I quit, I am not giving up.  I am considering either Kiawah in December or Charleston in January.

Even though I made mistakes, what I do not regret is sharing my experience.  The good and the bad.  Maybe I should also feel some embarrassment on top of everything else because I failed so spectacularly in front of others, especially my children.

But I do not feel embarrassed that I didn’t succeed.  I think there is some failure and some success in everything we do and perspective matters.  I made some dumb mistakes and I will do better next time.  And maybe someone else can learn from this as well.

I have been on this unreal trajectory with my running where I have PRed in every race I have attempted until now and as much as I hate going through this, perhaps it needed to happen.   I will learn some real lessons that will make me a better runner.  And a better example for my kids.

One thing is for certain:  now that I know what’s it’s like to DNF, that voice telling me to quit will never be as powerful again.

 

 

Race Report: Pop Up Mile

The mile.  As runners we think about our pace per mile before, during, and after every run.  It is part of our vocabulary when talking about running. Even non-runners have a sense of how fast a fast mile is.  We all grew up dreading the mile race in gym class (in theory, maybe some people liked it, but I certainly wasn’t one of them) and from a very early age the mile became the standard unit of measurement separating the fast from the slow, the athletes from the non-athletes, the talented from the I-hate-this-torture-make-it-stop people.

As a kid, I was solidly in the last category.

For some reason, the mile is not a popular race event.  There are about a zillion 5Ks any given Saturday, but mile races are few and far between.  Marathons get all the glory while mile races have practically disappeared.  I’m not sure why that is.  Perhaps it’s because it requires a blend of speed and endurance that most people don’t think they have.  Or maybe it’s because those forced timed miles in middle school have seared the mile in our brains as pure hell, never to be repeated.

But for some reason, I like it.  I really, really, like it.  Oh, not when I’m actually running it.  Well, maybe the first 400 meters is fun.  Okay, maybe even the first half is not too terrible.  The last half, though? About as far away from fun as you can get.  Every cell in my lungs feels like it is filled with molten lava and my legs feel like I’m running through molasses. Sounds fun, right?

So why do I like it?  It’s the challenge and simplicity of it.  I am not particularly good at the mile, but I want to get better.  Plug in my mile time into any running prediction calculator and you will see that I’m a far better marathoner than a miler.  Even at the 5K distance, I’m more proficient.  For now.

Last night’s race was put on by the Asheville Running Collective, a group of post-collegiate competitive runners and all-around nice guys in our area.  The last time I ran a mile race was last August at the Waynesville Mile in the middle of marathon training for Chicago.  My time was 5:35, but the race is downhill, I was about 8-10 pounds lighter, and I had had a summer of speed work at the track in my legs.  I had no idea going into this race what I’d run, but I’m an optimist and was aiming for a PR.

A goal of 5:30 means that each lap needs to be 1:22.  Like pregnant women counting in weeks and mothers of babies counting in months, track people like to count anything under two minutes by only using seconds, so that’s 82 seconds per lap.  Since I had a pacer, I decided not to bother hitting the lap button each lap because I figured I’d just hang on as long as possible and not get caught up in my per lap times.  But now I wish I had so I could reflect better on it and learn for next time.  That’s lesson one.

To run a mile on a 400 meter track, you need to start just over 9 meters behind where you finish, so the first lap will be longer than the rest. Like most races, I went out too fast (lesson two).  Two guys in my heat who were aiming for 5:15 shot out in front and I instinctively followed right behind them for more than 100 meters.  My pacer Frankie was still behind me at that point and said over my shoulder what I already knew, that I was going too fast.  I slowed a bit and let him pass me.  There was a mild but significant breeze and I knew I should draft behind him.  We crossed the lap line in 82 seconds.

In lap two, I was still feeling in control, but it was starting to get harder.  I focused on the back of Frankie’s head and tried to block out any other thoughts besides keeping my eyes glued to him.  I have a breathing rhythm where my inhale is a step longer than my exhale and I practice a lot at getting in a full breath while running hard.  I maintained that rhythm the entire second lap and crossed the lap line just behind Frankie.

The third lap is where I started to break down. I could no longer control my breathing and I was just sucking air in and out as fast as I could.  I felt like my cadence remained high (and looking at my stats, my cadence was remarkably consistent–around 192 steps per minute), but I was losing stride length.  The gap between Frankie and me was growing as I was fading back.  At one point, he looked over his shoulder to find me and slid over to lane 2 to encourage me to keep pushing.  Unfortunately, I lost my wind block that way, but I was grateful for the encouragement when all I wanted was for this to be over.  My inner negative Nancy voice told me that I could just stop and quit after three laps, but I pushed her away.  It would be over soon and I could take it.

I have no idea how long the last two laps took me.  I heard other runners watching shout, “Get up on your toes, Claire!  You got this!”  I did not have it and I could not get up on my toes, but I was determined to give it everything I had left.  My lungs burned with every breath as if I were breathing in hot smoke.  I rounded the last corner and pumped my arms in hopes they’d pull me across the finish line.  I would not say that I had a good kick, but I did manage to speed up some for the last 100 meters.  My official time was 5:50.

So even though I didn’t get the time I wanted, I’m still happy with the race.  I have lots of improvements to make and I know that mile training will make me a better runner at all distances.  In many ways, racing the mile is as painful as a marathon, just in a very different way.

There’s talk of putting on a mile race once a month over the summer.  If so, I’ll be back for more torture.

 

 

Downhill at Dusk 5K Race Report

Well, that was fun!  Normally, I don’t describe racing or even running in general as “fun.”  Most of the time, running is just good ol’-fashioned hard work.  I get a sense of accomplishment, it gives me a good body-cleansing sweat, and it feeds my need for self-improvement. I love running, but I’m not the type of person who says after a run, “whee!  Now that was fun!”  But this race was actually fun.

(Okay, the first two miles were fun.  The last mile was a lung-burning, deceptively difficult mental battle.  And let’s not even talk about the last tenth of a mile.  So if you want to get technical, let’s say 67% was really fun.)

I chose this race because I love running downhill and I was hoping for a nice PR course to see what I could do.  Veena, Nate, and I had jogged the course earlier this week and I’m so glad we did, because it didn’t seem all that downhill.  It was more of a gradual decline along Old 70 with a few little rises, ending in the town of Black Mountain with a very short, but fairly steep uphill finish.  “This is supposed to be downhill!” Veena complained.  “It’s a misnomer!”

What we didn’t see on that practice run was the actual starting line.  It sat on top of a ridge in the steep parking lot of the Ridgecrest Conference Center.  The first tenth of a mile was about as steep as a ski slope.

Me with Veena and Megan.  You can see the 80% humidity in the air!
Me with Veena and Megan before the start. You can see the 80% humidity in the air!

We knew we had to careful on that first descent and hold back and we promised each other we wouldn’t go out too fast.  Megan was definitely the best at that.  Veena and I barreled down the parking lot and I really tried to stay conscious of not going full out.  Some guy near us was racing in modified flip flops and all I could hear was the smacking of his feet on the pavement every step.  Thwhack, thwhack, thwhack!  “That’s not annoying or anything,” Megan commented.

As we turned onto Old 70 for the straightaway, I looked at my watch and it said 5:25 pace.  Stupidly unsustainable.  Veena was still accelerating as I called out our pace and I had to let her go.  That is the hardest part of the first mile of a 5K.  You have to be conservative even when people around you are passing you.  By mile 1,  Megan and I passed Veena and were in third and fourth place for the women. Mile 1:  5:47.

For the next mile, Megan and I were shoulder to shoulder.  We are pretty evenly matched and had talked about racing together to support each other.  We were running well and both of our breathing was even.  We were even gaining on the second place woman ahead.  “Let’s catch her,” I said.  I started to try to speed up and Megan was with me for a few steps and then dropped back.  “You can do it!” I encouraged her.  But she lost some ground and I had to keep going.  Mile 2:  6:11.

The last mile has a couple of baby uphills that you have to crest before getting a gentle downhill.  I tried to stay strong, keep my speed on the ups and open up on the backsides, but I was running out of downhill.  My legs felt halfway decent, but my lungs were starting to burn.  Relax, deep breath, relax, I told myself.  I was slowing, but my effort was just as high so there was never a clear awareness of how much I was slowing, but it soon became obvious as I made the turns into town. A quick glance over my shoulder told me Megan was not too far behind.  Mile 3:  6:43.

The last tenth of a mile has two very short, but very steep hills that I was psyching myself up for.  I did the best job I could, but there was no kick left in me.  Arek was at the finish line screaming, “Let’s go, Maggot! Leave it all out there!  Kick!!!”  Last tenth of a mile:  7:36/mile pace.

After the finish
After the finish

I was able to hang onto 3rd place female, 8th overall, and got a 21-second PR with 19:33, 6:17/mile average pace.  Megan and Veena both won their age groups with 4th and 5th place.  Veena PRed and Megan got her North Carolina PR.  They both did a great job.

So I obviously need to work on my third mile and my kick.  The last mile will always be the hardest of any 5K and I need to be better prepared for it mentally.  But the nice thing about this race versus the EarthFare 5K two weeks ago is that the pain of the race started much later this time.  If I can just push that red line of pain further and further down the road each time, I can keep getting better at this distance.

And maybe I”ll even have some fun!

Earth Fare 5K Race Report: New PR!

I signed up for the Earth Fare 5K since it’s one of the few flat courses in town.  I’m still coming off marathon training and haven’t done much speed work at all so this gives me a baseline for the 5K for this year. And judging from the top times last year, I figured I could get third or at least first place Master’s (I love being a Master’s!).

It was a gorgeous, sunny and cool day in the upper 40s-low 50s.  I had thought I would run to the race as my warm up since it’s only 1.25 miles from home, but at the last minute decided to drive so I would have a place to stash my long sleeves.  It turned out to be a very good plan since they checked IDs at bib pick up and because I had so much swag to carry home after the race.  It’s a very good thing when a grocery store is the main sponsor!

I really have no idea how to run a 5K as far as strategy goes.  My plan was to start fast, keep going fast, and finish fast.  I got the first part right at least.  My first mile felt good, but certainly a little hard.  I was pleased to see my split at 6:06.  If I could hang on to that pace, I’d not only break 20 minutes, but I could break 19!

I was in third place for most of the first mile, trading spots with my teammate Megan.  We run track together and are pretty evenly matched.  Sometimes I’m faster; sometimes she is.  Of course I would love to beat her, but my goal was just to stick with her and we did that until about halfway.  A cheerful brunette in a Crossfit shirt bounced by us easily, cheering us on, “keep it up, girls!” I thought she must not be running hard enough if she could have the energy to not only pass us but encourage us!  Were we slowing down?  Mile two was the turn around point and my watch clicked a disappointing 6:38.  Wow.  Thirty-two seconds slower?  That is an eternity in such a short race.

Megan had fallen back enough that I could no longer hear her breathing.  At this point, I knew I had fourth place and therefore 1st Master’s, so I just did what I could so stay there.  I would not say that the pace was painful, but it’s definitely something that I was ready to stop doing.  On a scale of 1-10, I’d give it an 8.  I slowed much less the last mile, coming in at 6:41.  My chip time was 19:54, an average pace of 6:25.  Megan crossed the line 15 seconds behind me for fifth.

I wonder if I would have been more pleased if I had started at a 6:25 pace and held it the whole time.  Pacing is a skill that I am a long way from mastering.  The winner, my teammate Kate, had less than a 6 second spread between her mile paces.  I know my first mile cost me time at the end, so would starting at perhaps a 6:20 pace leave me enough reserves to stay stronger through the end?  I’m not sure, but probably.  I’m sure that I need a lot more work at this.

Tomorrow is track with the infamous Newton workout.  Lots of 200s and perhaps even some puking.  Yay.

Boston Marathon 2016 Race Report

When I ran the Boston Marathon for the first time in 2015, I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I cried as I sprinted down Boylston Street and crossed the finish line with a 12-minute PR.  Even though the weather was a miserable, rainy and windy 42 degrees, I felt on top of the world.  Even harder than the 26.2 miles was the shivering half mile shuffle back to the hotel.

So why did I decide to go back again in 2016?  Peer pressure.  Many of my running friends from Asheville had newly qualified and I knew how much fun it would be to go with a group.  And even better, some of my track friends had organized a drive to pay for Norman Blair, coach and owner of Jus’ Running, to come and spectate (you can read more about that here), so I felt compelled to go again.  And I’m so glad I did, although it was a very different race.

After my 3:11:51 finish in the 2015 Chicago Marathon, my focus shifted to trying to crack 3 hours.  I’m a big believer in big goals, even ones that seem just short of impossible.  I also feel it’s important to set smaller goals so that you can still feel a sense of growth and accomplishment, even if the stars are not aligned for the big goal.  Chopping 12 minutes off a marathon PR is pretty ambitious, but I had just made a near-15-minute leap from my 2015 Boston race, so 3 hours didn’t seem out of the question.  I hired an online coach and got to work.  Training was harder than I have ever done, but by the time I finished my last big workout, I knew I had a 3-hour marathon in me.  What I didn’t know was if it would come out on race day.

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In Athlete’s Village with Ginna

Once we arrived in Athlete’s Village in Hopkinton, the sun was already out in full force.  The old sweater I was wearing was quickly shed and the sunscreen was slathered on.  The temperatures climbed into the upper 60s and would rise into the 70s during the race with a constant 10mph headwind.  I lined up in Wave 2, Corral 1 with my friend and teammate Ginna and the gun went off.

 

Miles 1-3:  6:51, 6:45, 6:50

My goal for the first few miles of downhill was to stay right at goal pace of 6:52 and not faster.  I did not want to alter my plan and start too slow, even in the hot conditions, because I needed to see if I could really do this.  I have had a problem with racing too conservatively and ending up with more left in the tank at the finish line and I was determined to give this my all, no matter what.  I had decided to run with music and Pandora promptly stopped streaming a quarter mile in.  But Boston is a race where the fans are so amazingly supportive that no headphones were needed.  I kept them in my ears anyway since that was the most comfortable place for them.  Ginna, a much faster runner, had glided ahead of me at the start, but I never lost sight of her, so I took that as a good sign.   By mile two, the first sign of the effects of the heat began to surface when I felt the beginnings of a stitch in my side.  I had planned to take my first homemade gel at mile 3 and was planning to save my anti-cramp Fireball gel for much later on, but I knew better than to let the cramping get too intense.  I sucked it down and almost instantly, the side stitch dissolved.  I was naturally happy with that, but worried that I’d have nothing left if it happened again later.   I quickly pushed that thought away and by mile three, I caught up to Ginna.  I joked that she should “keep it in her pants” and then I inconceivably slipped ahead of her.  I would not see her again until after the race.

 

Miles 4-8:  6:39, 6:59, 6:44, 6:47, 6:56

Coming off the major downhills, miles 5-10 even out as you go through the towns of Framingham and Natick.  My plan here was to pick up the pace some and maybe throw in a few surges and then back off to save my energy.  Obviously, mile 4 was way too fast and surely cost me in the second half.  I corrected myself on mile 5, but then picked it up for the next two miles.  The wind was a constant factor.  I knew if I could tuck behind someone larger than me (not hard to do since I’m not that big), I could enjoy a windbreak.  I attempted this a few times, but soon grew overly concerned with clipping someone’s heels so I would quickly slide back out into the open.  Later, I would try it again and then start to worry about whether the person in front of me was even enough to keep my pace.  It took too much mental energy to keep up the internal argument very long, so I abandoned that tactic and fully faced the wind.  This is when I realized that starting in the first corral of a wave definitely has a disadvantage in the wind.  Last year, it was just as windy, but I was solidly situated in a tight pack of runners that I hardly noticed it.

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Miles 9-16:  7:00, 6:57, 6:59, 6:46, 6:54, 6:55, 6:55, 6:56, 6:46

I’m really proud of these miles.  Even though they were slightly slower than goal pace, they were consistent and strong.  I started getting into a rhythm.  At the water stations each mile, I’d grab a Gatorade, swallow a couple sips, grab a cup of water, dump it on my head, then grab another water and gulp.  The miles clicked by smoothly and I was surprised at how quickly each water station appeared in the distance.  At the half way mark in Wellesley, I saw my time was just over 1:30. A negative split was out of the question with the Newton Hills ahead, but I still believed I had a good chance getting my B goal of 3:02.  I know 3:02 seems like a strange goal, but at my first marathon in 2014, I got a 4:02 and thought it would be very cool to beat that by an hour.

 

Miles 17-21: 7:09, 7:12, 7:06, 7:48, 8:29

The Newton Hills. I expected to slow here as gravity took over and I was feeling strong through mile 19.  As I took the hard right turn, I pumped my arms up and down to get the crowd into it.  They were thrilled and roared at my effort.  Then the cracks began to show.  I remember last year being warned about how bad the hills were at this point in the race.  As I ran up Heartbreak Hill at mile 21 in 2015 I asked a spectator if this was really Heartbreak since it hardly felt like an incline at all.  This time, it felt like a mountain.  I started to really struggle.  I knew there were only two stoplights to go through to get to the top and I just kept repeating “two stoplights, two stoplights,” over and over again as I shuffled upwards.  Many, many people were walking at this point.  I had been pretty demoralized in Chicago to see people walking late in the race, so I tried to prepare myself for that this time.  I blocked them out and just kept jogging as best as I could to get to the top, telling myself that I would find relief and could just cruise home.  That was not exactly what happened.

 

Miles 22-26.2:  7:53, 8:07, 8:02, 8:07, 8:31, 8:15

It’s all downhill from here, right?  This is the part of the course where you give it everything you’ve got and run as fast as you can.  The race begins at the last 10K, they say.  I crested the top of Heartbreak and told my legs to go and they refused.  At some point during the hills I had looked at my watch and saw I was running in the 9-minute range and my will evaporated as quickly as the water I was pouring on my head .  I don’t think I looked at my watch again.  My favorite part of the race last year was Boston College, so I told myself to suck it up and run strong through the cheering crowds.  I have no idea whether I did that or not. Mentally, I was turning to mush.  I had gone through my last gel and decided to grab one of the caffeinated Clif gels on the course.  I had tried one once before and couldn’t stand the toothpaste texture, but I felt I had to give anything a try at that point. I got one squeeze in and spit it out on contact.  Gatorade would have to do.  I greedily gulped down what I could every mile and each time felt it coming back up a half mile later.  Once I finally saw the Citgo sign, I was scanning the sides of the road looking for places where I could throw up if I had to.  I don’t think the idea of stopping ever really came into my head as it has many times before in races.  I simply stopped caring about my speed and just knew I needed to get to the finish to make it all go away.  With a little over a mile to go, I heard someone yell “Yeah, Jus’ Running!”  I was not wearing my Jus’ Running singlet and I turned over my shoulder to see my teammate Andy, who had started 30 minutes ahead of me.  My jaw dropped open and he just shook his head at me as he shuffled along.  For a moment I thought about slowing down and running in with him, but I shook that idea off and kept going.  I turned right on Hereford and pulled myself up the block before turning left for the home stretch on Boylston.  Even though it’s only about 600 meters to the end at that point, the finish line looked about a mile away.  Last year, I sprinted the last mile in an amazing (for me at the time) 6:38, positively bursting with joy and emotion.  This year, just getting to the end without throwing up was the goal.  My last mile was my slowest of the day, even slower than Heartbreak Hill.  As hard as that was for me, I was shocked at the number of people that were walking down Boylston when we were so close to the end.  Many much stronger runners suffered worse than I did.  I crossed the finish, clicked my watch, and saw I had at least gotten a PR by just 25 seconds at 3:11:26.  A PR was my D goal.

Barely lifting my feet up on Boylston
Barely lifting my feet up on Boylston

Afterwards, I slowly made my way through the finishing chute hoping to find Ginna right behind me.  Another teammate, Danielle, who had started in the corral behind us came through next.  We chatted about the race and several minutes later Ginna had caught up with us.  It turned out that at mile 4, Ginna lost some of her hearing in one ear.  She compared it to the feeling you get when driving up to altitude, but she could never equalize the pressure.  She debated going to a medical tent and ultimately decided just to keep going.  She knew it was not going to be her day. At mile 18, a spectator handed her a beer and she gladly took it.  Ginna, a 1:25 half marathoner, finished in a disappointing 3:18.  A couple hours later, her ears cleared and several other runners told her they had experienced similar ear pressure problems on runs before.

It’s a strange feeling to run your best pace, but yet not your best race.  I really felt like I had a great shot at my goal until mile 19 when I fell off a cliff.  What I am proud of is that I gave it everything I had.  There was nothing left in the end and I know that I took the risk I wanted to take and in some ways, it paid off.  Not in the way I was hoping, of course, but I know that if I had started off more conservatively and finished stronger, I would have always wondered if I could have given more. I began the race as a 3:11 marathoner and I still am.  But I know that I still have a long way to go.