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.

 

 

Belief is One Thing, Proof is Another

There is scientific evidence that belief is a very real factor in performance.  If you believe you can do it, you will.

This is not to say that by simply believing that achievement is possible.  I’m not going to jump off a building believing I can fly.  Belief is built by doing the work, every day, and respecting the process.

I have no doubt that I have the physical capability to run a sub-three hour marathon.  Zero.  It is in my legs and it is in my heart.  I know it’s a big statement when that would be more than 11 minutes faster than I have ever run the distance before, but I have never been more prepared.

Based on my half marathon PR a couple weeks ago, the fancy running calculators give me a predicted finish time of 3:00:23 to 3:02:24.  But I know I can do better than that.

All I need to do is prove it.

That will be my mantra on the tough miles when my legs are screaming to slow down.  Prove it.

When my hips begin to ache and there are still miles to go.  Prove it.

When the very act of breathing starts to feel like a desperate panic, I will breathe deeper and keep going.  Prove it.

When I catch sight of my husband and my kids cheering me on from the sidelines, I will remember they are learning what passion, drive, and accomplishment looks like.  Prove it.

Just two short years ago, it took me over four hours to run a marathon.  Breaking 3-hours is really an arbitrary time goal that is no more of an accomplishment than 3:01 or even 5:01.

But for me, that magic number symbolizes the impossible.  The ridiculous.  The unbelievable.

It symbolizes climbing a mountain that I never thought was climbable.  It means years of putting my head down and taking a single step over and over and over again until one day I see the view from the top of that mountain and look back at how far I’ve come.

Sure, there are other mountains bigger and steeper and higher.  But this is my mountain.

As we pack up and get ready to leave for Richmond in the morning, I know I’ve done all I could have to prepare for this race.  I’m feeling good, but anxious, and more determined than ever.

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The weather is looking a bit cooler than I would prefer: a chilly 36 degrees on the starting line, only warming up to the low- to mid-forties by the end of the race.  But a little too cool is good for racing and it’s certainly better than being too hot.  Boston this year was about 30 degrees warmer.

I have no more runs on the schedule, other than a quick 15 minute jog tomorrow and a warm up on race day.  The work is in my legs and in my mind.

There is nothing left to do now but prove it.

 

If you’d like to track my progress in the race click here and enter my bib number 498.

 

Is it Crazy to Race During Taper?

Tomorrow begins the last full week before the Richmond Marathon.  After two months of dry, warm weather, the forecast for November 12 calls for a 55% chance of rain with a high of 57 degrees during the race.  If I had to be picky, I could do without the rain, but the temperature and cloud cover is pretty close to perfect for racing.

The taper cycle for this marathon is different than any I’ve had so far because I’m racing twice in the last three weeks.  The first was the French Broad Half Marathon and tomorrow is the inaugural Zero 5K happening in flat Carrier Park where I train most days.  I had originally planned to race the Vance Rocket Run 5K tomorrow, but after jogging the course and its SEVEN hills, my coach and I came to the decision that it was not going to be beneficial for Richmond and pounding out those downhills could actually contribute to a little more muscle damage that I’m not willing to risk at this point.

Flat and fast it is.

So why am I racing a 5K a week before my marathon?  Shouldn’t I be tapering and resting and only doing a little marathon-specific work?

Yes and no.  The point of a fast 5K right now is to open up some speed in my legs that I haven’t felt in a while.  The faster speed of a 5K also pushes me into the racing red zone for just a little while, practicing one more time what I will feel like when I am pushing myself harder than I ever have before in the last few miles of the marathon.  Yet the 5K is short enough that I will be fully recovered by race day.

In other words, this is mental strength training.

I do not expect to PR at this 5K since I have not been putting in the kind of speed training specific to the 5K.   But you never know.

My PR is 19:33 (6:17 pace) from the Downhill at Dusk 5K back in June and as the name implies, it was mostly downhill, so I have gravity to partially thank for that time.  I know that I’m am much fitter now, but I have a lot of marathon miles in my legs.

Another nice benefit to racing during taper is that I have something to distract me rather than just getting bogged down by the taper tantrums.  Most marathoners struggle with taper because it is such a shift from our normal running routine.  We feel nervous and cranky and heavy and we miss our runners’ high.  We doubt our training, worry about eating too much and gaining weight.

Having this shorter goal has helped shift my focus to what is right in front of me.

Another nice distraction from taper anxiety has been this week of coaching at Runners Connect. I truly love the community of athletes we are growing and I’m enjoying being a part of so many runners’ journeys.

But I have never sat in front of a computer so much in my life!  I’m still working in real estate and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future, but I typically do not spend hours upon hours staring at a screen.  My eyes are tired at the end of a coaching shift and by butt feels suction cupped to my chair.

So today, I  installed my high-tech stand up desk.

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My glutes feel better already.

 

#richmondready

Yesterday was the longest long run of this marathon cycle training for the Richmond Marathon on November 12.  Twenty-two miles.  That capped off my biggest volume week at just over 82 miles.

I’ve run 80 miles per week in both of my last two marathons, but this was the best so far.  I feel strong and fresh as opposed to being sore and tired.  It’s a good sign.

This particular long run was not yet another Long Slow Distance.  It was a quality workout that had over 8 miles at or faster than marathon pace.  After 10 miles of easy running (in the 8 to 8:30/mile range), I had 8 surges of 90 seconds each at 6:30 pace, with 5-minute “floats” of marathon pace (goal is 6:52) in between, finishing the rest of the run easy.  The goal of this workout is to simulate the pace changes you might have in a race and to keep you running fast when tired.  It is also a great indicator of marathon readiness; if you can nail the floats at goal, you’ve got a great goal.

I’m proud to say I executed this one perfectly.  My surges averaged out to be 6:26 and my floats 6:51.  Right on the money.  More than any other workout so far, this one that combines length with speed tells me a lot about my fitness and the possibility of achieving my goal.

But it doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion. Am I really #richmondready?

Renowned marathon coach Greg McMillian, famous for his running calculators, wrote an article for Competitor Magazine that just happened to pop up on my feed after my run yesterday.  It’s called “Six Key Factors to Achieving Your Marathon Goal.”

Would I pass McMillan’s test?  Let’s see.

 1. Stable mileage?  Check.  After a summer mostly staying in the 50 mpw zone, I gradually moved up to the sixties during August, up to the seventies for five weeks through Septmeber, and just crossed over to 80.  I like big mileage and can handle it because the majority of my running is very easy.

2.  Long Runs? Check.  Yesterday’s 22-miler was great and I’ve had two other 20s and two 18s.  One of the twenties was not quite up to speed, but it was only a few seconds off.  “Successful marathoners are usually the ones that not only get in the long, steady runs,” McMillan writes, “but they’re the ones that recover well in the few days that follow.”  I feel zero soreness today, which I’m extra happy about.

3.  Grooving Goal Pace?  Check.  The nice thing about running those faster strides is that in comparison, goal pace felt much more under control.  I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, but it’s comfortably hard.

4.  Leg Durability?  Check.  I haven’t felt leg soreness in a very long time.  This is a huge difference from past marathon cycles.  It certainly helps that I’ve eliminated the high-intensity strength training, in favor of simpler body-weight routines.

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5.  Fueling?  Check.  I’ve been really happy with my homemade gels.  No tummy issues and they go down smoothly and easily with a lot less water.  My caffeinated Salted Peanut Butter with a touch of protein was perfect for the back half of yesterday’s workout.  The Lemon Cream Pie will also be with me in Richmond.

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6.  Mental Toughness?  Check.  I earned this one at Boston this year.  Toughing out a PR in less-than-ideal conditions was the hardest race I’ve had.  I think I’m even better prepared now.

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

My score: Six out of six!

There’s is still a little over a month to go before the race.  I’ve got a tune-up half marathon along the French Broad River on October 22, which will be another good test of my fitness.

But the big miles are now behind me and I see big breakthroughs ahead.

 

*top photo of the James River in Richmond, VA courtesy of www.rvanews.com.

 

And the Winner Is…Richmond!

It’s official.  I’ve got my goal race!  Today was the final day to register before the price increase, so I signed up for the Richmond Marathon, 135 days away on November 12.  (I’m a sucker for a deadline to save $10!)

It looks like a beautiful course along the James River.  Not too flat, but not too hilly either.  Hopefully, my family can join me and we can make a little trip out of it.

Here’s the course video:  https://youtu.be/8YSQWjFP-W4

Let the training begin!