Race Report: Air Force Marathon

So I kind of fell off the blogging bandwagon. I could make a bunch of excuses about life being nuts (true), but I’d rather skip to the goods.

I went into this training cycle with an aggressive goal. In November 2012, I ran Philadelphia in 4:17, just wanting to finish. In October 2013, I dropped out of Marine Corps just shy of mile 18 (my watch was way off mileage markers) because of a bum ankle. Between 2012 and 2014, I had slashed 20+ minutes off my half-marathon PR and gained a lot of speed, strength, guts, and confidence. I aimed high, and set an A+/reach goal of 3:45. There was a risk that I wouldn’t break 4 hours if I really blew up, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I trained with a whole bunch of friends, including Kim and Danielle, both of whom were aiming for a BQ, so my race pace miles were often in the 8:1xs, though the range I targeted was 8:10-8:35, with 8:35 being the goal pace I planned to actually target on race day to land under 3:45.

I had had a lot of training victories and a lot of lessons learned. I nailed some great track workouts, including crushing 10×800 (Yassos) with Danielle and several pace runs with Kim. I was humbled by a couple of brutally hot and humid 18 milers, cut back on the speed on a monstrous interval workout, and ran 22 miles in some serious humidity and sun (by the end, especially) without quitting. I cutback extra miles during the taper, broke my run streak earlier than I had hoped to nurse an angry hip and IT band, did a ton of yoga, and had a couple great shakeout runs the week of the race, my legs feeling much refreshed after three ull days off from running. I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Friday morning, the hubs and I rolled out of bed early – he ran a quick shakeout and I did some hip strengtheners and about 20 minutes of yoga to loosen things up. He headed to a coffee shop to get work done, and I ran a couple errands, including buying bagels from Bagel Factory for our group traveling to the race. I was texting with Kim en route – both of us were freaking out about forgetting something and stirring with excitement. I didn’t like the sounds my car was making while out on errands (turned out the power steering hose gave out) so we decided to take her car. Shannon got picked up by his buddy Devin for the “boys’ car,” and Colleen, my youngest sister-in-law, and I drove to Kim’s, where we took off for Dayton separately. We all met at a Panera for lunch along the way, then made the rest of the drive to the expo for packet pickup and a little shopping. Then it was off to Kroger to get final supplies (bananas and beer were top of the list) before getting settled at the house – the same place we rented last year.

Panera has never steered me wrong when it comes to pre-race carbs.
Keep it classy, Natty Light. (Shannon’s photo)

I did have about 15 minutes of panic upon arriving at the house when there was no key in the mailbox and there was a keypad on the door, but I hadn’t been supplied a code. 20 mosquito bites, two neighbors’ doors knocked on, an email and a voicemail later, the owner called with the code and apologized profusely. Crisis averted! We got inside, picked rooms, got settled, made and devoured pre-race pancakes, Dan arrived after his long drive from Milwaukee, we all foam rolled, accidentally talked Devin into running (he had signed up for the half but had been injured and hadn’t been training, but the enthusiasm in the house was too infectious for him to resist), and went to bed as early as we could manage for a 4:30 a.m. wake-up.

Pre-race pile-o’-crap

Race Morning

I slept well enough and was for once asleep (I think) even as my alarm went off. I quickly got up and began to take care of business – bathroom, lube up, get in race clothes, putting a hoodie on over to keep warm on a chilly morning. I stepped outside for a moment and took in the cool air. It didn’t feel too damp/muggy, but I noted the dark, clear, star-studded early morning – not a cloud in sight – with a buried sense of dread.

Everyone was awake by 5 a.m. and getting ready. I choked down a large leftover pancake with peanut butter and banana. I had heated up two pancakes, but left the second for later, forcing myself to eat the whole banana with a little more PB. My stomach was too jumpy to take in more calories, and I hoped the hit of protein and fat from the granola and PB would be more than enough. By 5:40 we were finally on our way – we had a false start when I inputted a bad end location (the base in general, instead of the Air Force Museum. Lulz, guys, my bad). But as usual, the airmen were swift to get us on base and into parking. Devin was blasting music from his “jammy pack” (and had another runner dancing and gesturing dramatically to “Praise You”). We found Danielle in line and got her her bib before we were scanned and let into the start area. Kim and I made a beeline for the bag check and then the portapotties.

The sight of the finish line under all those jet wings never fails to give me chills.

At that point, we only had a little time to wait around before we needed to get up to our starting area and find our desired pacers. We exchanged hugs and wished each other the best of luck. I got to give Shannon a pre-race kiss – the half wouldn’t start for another hour – and I wiggled towards the 3:45 pacer, nerve-filled tears already stinging my eyes, a lump in my throat. The final announcements were being made as I knew the sun was rising (just before 7:30 a.m., and I said a little prayer (Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Ehad). Before I knew it, the cannon sounded, and we were off!

The Race

general startAfter the usual shuffle-shuffle-bottleneck-shuffle, I pressed START on my Garmin a few seconds before hitting the mat and we rounded the corner for an immediate right turn past the crowds – Shannon, Devin, and Dan caught sight of me and cheered and I waved back, then immediately surged to catch up with the pacer. I’d describe him as a poor man’s Dean Karnazes who had a little too much corny enthusiasm, and he was quickly annoying me more than calming me. I told myself to stay tucked into the group and kept my watch on lap pace until I hit major splits. Shortly after the start, the course starts to climb – it’s not entirely insignificant, and I watched as some of the flatlanders began to struggle. I dropped my arms, monitored my breathing, and kept as relaxed as I could. This was not the time to push. This was the time to let the hill keep me from busting out of the gate too fast. We crested the top and the course rounded a curve with a sweeping view of the Ohio hills, puddles of fog nestled between them. I grinned.

The downhill that followed this sweeping view was not insignificant, and I let out a “WHOOPS” when I saw my split for the mile.

8:28. 8:38. 7:53

For a brief moment, shame of shames, as my miles kept easily clicking off at faster than goal pace, and the 3:35 group was still in sight, I wondered if I should just go for it: follow my feet and aim higher. I quickly quashed that idea as super dumb and just moved on, praying that the early speed wasn’t going to bite me in the ass later. I felt great! The pace felt amazing! I was smiling like crazy, even as we hit some early rollers (the marathon course doubles back on it itself a couple times, and I recognized certain of those sections from the half course the past couple years – I wasn’t thrilled with that, since they were my least favorite parts of the course). I had already dropped the pacer out of irritation (I never saw him again, though I’m not sure when he finished).We crossed the 10K mat and I glanced at my overall time for the first time. Shit.

8:17. 8:17. 8:11. 

Official 10K split: 51:21 (8:16 avg)

Don’t panic, I told myself. You feel good. Just… ease of the gas. The miles clicked off, and we moved into a long out-and-back into Fairborn. The crowds were fantastic and the drumline for the local marching band threw a fresh surge of adrenaline through my veins. I saw a 3:20 (or something) pace group pass going the other direction and kept my eyes peeled. We rounded a fountain in the middle of town and I worried I’d miss them, but I”m pretty sure I saw Danielle’s braids and green top flying along (with the 3:30 group, apparently!) and not too long after, the out-and-back portions were directly up against each other again. I saw Kim and smiled and shouted encouragement and high-fived. My heart soared. I missed a water stop in my effort to see the other side, but I caught it on the back route after we looped back in.

8:19. 8:15. 8:17. 8:22.

As the out-and-back began to finish and we were around the 10-mile mark, my splits still beeping – too fast – I felt the panic begin to creep in once more. Calm. Listen to your breath. It’s completely, 100 percent controlled. You have this. Just relax. You’re done with the first 10 miles. Now on to the next 10 miles. One step at a time.

We approached the halfway point, where as many runners know, we perform our first real full-body scan. How am I feeling? Am I getting in enough fluids and nutrition? How’s my pace? How’s my posture? Is my IT band hurting yet? I mostly felt fine, but I knew I was getting inside my head. But pretty much just when I needed it, the perfect song came on. Shannon and I had done a music trade, and he gave me this song from the Captain America soundtrack. He warned me that it’s very quiet at the start, but it builds, and it’s good for rhythm and calm. Rhythm and calm – just what I needed. I focused on my breathing. I centered myself. I listened to the music. I glanced at my overall time as we crossed the 13.1 timing mat, and breathed through the fear.

8:28. 8:24. 8:32

Official 13.1 split: 1:49:13 (8:19 avg)

midrace4

midrace3

I had taken my first gel just before mile 4 (opting out of carrying a bottle meant I had to rely entirely on the aid stations, which I hadn’t studied nearly as well as I should have. Fortunately they were about every mile so became quickly predictable). I took my next around mile 9.5 and another just after the halfway mark. Not many aid stations in, I started dumping any remaining water down my back and onto my cap. I was greedily guzzling every sip I could get, feeling the sun’s relentless gaze. Can I just say real quick though: the aid stations were fantastic. The volunteers made good eye contact on each approach and I only fumbled one cup (my fault) and dumped half of it before even getting a mistake. Possibly on the volunteer. But that probably happens all the time, right? Anyway: they had an amazing attitude, were fast and attentive – civilians and airmen alike. So many great themes, too! My favorite had to be the alien invasion one; put a big smile on my face.

Around mile 16 came my first real issue: a blister, on the outside of my right big toe. It’s the exact spot I got a horrendous double-blister the week of my wedding. I tried to just adjust my foot position, but eventually stopped for a briefly moment to try to fix my sock. It sort of worked. A couple miles later, I developed a similar problem on the left, and did the same. This was not good. It was too early for blisters. Blisters can destroy a race as easily as anything else. Such small things, but so, so nasty.

8:21. 8:53 (blister). 8:37.

midrace2

midrace1

The thing about the wall is it’s not the sneaky thing that just comes up and tackles you. Sure, it kind of is, but really, it’s been lurking there for a while. It creeps up on you. Washes up against your legs slowly. Drags down your strength, your energy, your pace, your will. Then you get to around mile 20 or so, and it drop kicks you, knocks you out at the knees. My wall was very much mental as much as physical, and I could analyze until the cows come home on what went wrong (went out too fast, sun was too hot, course got too windy, blisters blisters blisters), or I could just admit that it was a combination of all of those factors.

But here’s how it all went down. My pace started to plummet. In retrospect, not by much at first. I hung tough for a good while despite the blisters and heat. The course turned and we got hit by a gnarly, unforgiving headwind. I saw several runners reduced to a walk. I hadn’t yet stopped except to fix/re-tie laces to try to alleviate blister pain. I knew I still had a really nice time cushion (yes, yes, I know – you can’t actually bank time). If I could hang on around 9:00 I might be able to squeak in at/near my goal. Could I make it through the dark miles at that pace?

9:14. 9:07. 8:53. 9:04

Meanwhile, by the finish line… MUST BE NICE, HALF-MARATHONERS. (Colleen’s photo)

As I entered mile 22 (and with dismay, I recalled, I ran 22 miles in training – in worse conditions than this. On a hillier course than this. Why does this hurt so damn much??) the Wall sledgehammered me. There’s a point where there are so many pain receptors firing, you can’t even really tell what it is that’s hurting – what it is exactly that’s reducing you to a walk. The blisters were agonizing. My legs were trashed. Every time I stopped to walk, I felt a wave of heat and a touch of nausea wash over me. I had been taking both water and Gatorade for the last few aid stations, each of which I was now walking. I had tried for as long as I could to walk only the aid stations, even if I had to do so slowly. But that quickly fell by the wayside. I knew each time I stopped, the longer I stopped, the harder it would be to start again. I saw a hand cyclist struggling mightily. We came back around to a highway overpass we ran early in the race going the other direction. I told him, “you can do this” then said to myself, “I can, too.” I jogged meekly up. Within a few more steps, I was walking once more. I tried to breathe. The sun, oh the sun… I locked eyes with a girl running next to me and we both gave each other surely death-like expressions. “I know,” I gasped. “I know.” It didn’t help that the half course merged with the full course in the last few miles, which meant that the slower halfers were intersecting with us in a jumble (no offense intended! It’s just not great planning to have the faster half of the marathon field merge with people walking a half-marathon, so late in the race. It’s too congested).

Official 35K split: 3:05:48 (8:35 avg – on pace, buffer gone, blowing up)

10:06. 11:07. 10:47.

FInally, finally, finally, the course became recognizable. We came around a curve to a long downhill that I knew was drawing near the finish – that cruel last mile and change when you could see the finish but were still torturously far from the end of the race. I rode the hill a bit, adrenaline kicking in for me once more. I clicked off a mile near pace, then in mile 26 – shame of shames – I walked a few more times. A half-marathoner was gasping for oxygen and I tried to encourage her – told her I knew it hurt, but she could do it. I said this as much for myself as for her. The finish was around the corner, and I skipped a few songs ahead on my iPod to try to bring myself in strong. No more walking. I trudge along in what felt like a death march.

8:38. 9:52.

I hit that flag for mile 26 and I honestly can remember almost nothing of the sights all around me. Normally I’m overjoyed to be running beneath those airplane wings. It’s a thrill. But all I could think of was how far that finish banner seemed away from me. I had already switched screens to my overall time. 3:45 was gone several miles before. 3:50 was gone too. But how far under 4:00 could I get myself? I wouldn’t let that go. I wouldn’t quit anymore. I had this. I was going to best my PR by an unreal amount, regardless of my A(+) goal dying a slow death under the burning sun. I threw my arms up in the air as I saw the clock read 3:52 and crossed the finish line before promptly bursting into tears.

finish1

final sprint: 7:08

Chip time: 3:52:07 (25+ minute PR)

finisher

Post-race

I hobbled through the finish corral, looking over to see Shannon, Colleen, Devin, and Dan all cheering for me. I tried to smile and instead cried. Everything hurt. Bleary eyed, I shook the hands of every airman and officer, I could, thanking them for their service. They draped my medal over my head and stumbled to get some food. All I wanted was water and Gatorade and I forced myself to take a banana and a small donut hole (it didn’t taste good to me in that moment. #mybodydoesntrespondwelltodonutspostmarathon). I stood just outside the food tent and looked around with slight desperation. Then Kim found me. I almost cried again. I gave her a huge hug. She had missed her goal of BQ’ing but had gone under 3:40 for a 6-minute PR. I was so, SO proud of her. We hugged again.

The group finally regathered and we ambled around, talking about our races, getting our peers, and wondering if it was worth finding a spot to sit and stretch. I found Danielle – she also missed her goal, having gone out too fast with the 3:30 pacer (and according to Kim, the 3:35 pacer was going too fast as well. Pacers were not on that day, unfortunately), but seemed mostly at peace with it.

Shannon took a post-race photo for me to send to my parents (my dad then emailed the whole family about my time. Talk about blowing up my phone), and we took a group shot (Danielle had already left, womp womp)

Air Force crew, 2014 edition. Left to right: Shannon, Devin, Kim, Danimal, Colleen, and me

After some beer’ing and regrouping, we started the long hobble to the car, managing to get off base in probably the shortest amount of time ever. Shannon drove the girls’ car since our legs were too fucking dead to manage driving, and Devin and Dan went in the second car.

Photo Sep 20, 12_12_35
I think this was when I noticed that coughing was making my back spasm. Great.

The remainder of the weekend was spent CELEBRATING. We all took turns blobbing on the couch/floor and crawling upstairs to shower. And by crawl I do mean CRAWL. I was on my hand and knees to get up the stairs for a few hours, slowly transitioning to upright (think of those illustrations of our ape ancestors), and scooting down on my butt. But when it was my turn to shower, I made sure to bring along a beverage.

My shower beer of choice.

Around 4:30 or so most of us regrouped enough to have strength and appetites to hobble down the street to the pizza place we ordered out from last year. We shoveled food and beer in our faces, then returned to the house for more veg time, before venturing out around 8:30 for a second dinner at Max & Erma’s with a high school buddy of Shannon’s who works at Wright Patt. Most of us couldn’t manage to stay up very late, but Shannon, Kim and I all woke decently early (between 7:30 and 8 – it felt so luxurious) and picked at some food and stumbled to the coffee shop down the street.

We got lattes and mochas and sat for a bit. We also saw they had the elusive CRONUT. So naturally we got one and all split it. It was…delicious.

Is it a donut? Is it a croissant? Yes. #mybodyrespondswelltocronuts

When we returned it was time to wake the troops and clean up, which we did in quick order, and were fully out of the house by 10:15 (only a few minutes behind schedule). Then it was museum time! We actually sprung for the IMAX this time and saw an awesome film about D-Day narrated by Tom Brokaw, with the London Symphony performing the soundtrack. It was fantastic. The museum was great, per usual (it’s my fifth visit, including four Air Force Marathon weekends), though soon we were all getting tired and sore and HUNGRY (which we started to tell Shannon… repeatedly. Just to bother him ;D). With that, we headed to Chipotle, meeting up with high school friend Jamie one last time, before hitting the road!

Devin, brushing his teeth, out of the back of his Prius. This was as we were departing the house on Sunday.

Analysis

In an effort to ward off “oh shut up you PR’d by 25 minutes” responses, I’ll say this: I am really proud of my race. Sure, there was lot of time for me to build confidence, strength, and speed since November 2012, but that is still a HUGE improvement. I know it’s a time a lot of runners would kill for. My own husband has told me this. Talking to my brother on the phone yesterday afternoon (full disclosure: he’s not a runner, he would say so himself), while a man of very few and often sedate words, he said, “By the way, congrats on your freaking fast marathon time!” With almost enough inflection to merit an exclamation point. (I love my brother. He’s just highly understated. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, just a fact.)

All that said, I know I could have executed a lot better. I did go out too fast. It was foolish, really. A few miles in as I was clicking of 8:1x splits consistently, I wondered for a flash, “maybe I can BQ?” DUMB. I should have forced myself to hang in the 8:30s. Then maybe I would have been able to maintain it, and even finish strong.

But there were a number of factors I couldn’t really help. The blister was a surprise (though may have not worn the shoes enough times pre-race? Launch usually doing give me issues, and I was wearing my usual long run socks and my usual pre-run lubricant). The sun and wind were awful.

My brain quit. I need to work on that. I didn’t fully quit, sure. Otherwise I wouldn’t have broken four hours. But I need to teach my brain how to suffer better. Not only that,but I shouldn’t have been so panicked at the start. So panicked at mile 10.  Hell, I shouldn’t panic at all (though that’s a tall order).

So what’s my current plan? Ignore that my Google search history includes queries for “fast fall marathons” (for next year) and “am I ready to BQ” (lol), and know that my focus right now is recovery. I ran 4.5 miles easy with Danielle this mornign – the first quarter mile was a hobble as my right knee tried to unlock. By the end, I felt pretty darn good. I’m running the Great Race 10K on Sunday – I got seeded, but I likely won’t start in the seeded corral, and I definitely won’t be trying to better my PR (44:02) or go anywhere near it. My legs just aren’t ready for that. I may pace with some friends. I may just soak up the sights. But I plan on having fun. The rest of the fall is filled with fun local races, some I may try to race or at least run hard, others I’ll just complete for the hell of it.

Hopefully in a few weeks or months time, as I begin my next training cycle – sights set on an early spring half with Big Sur in April (not to race, just to run it), I can start rationally thinking about my long term goals. And, perhaps, in the rearview, see this race more clearly for what it was – a personal victory.

As I wait for all the post-race soreness to dissipate, one thing keeps me very hopeful: the fact that I’m still hungry for more.

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I'm a 30-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

5 thoughts on “Race Report: Air Force Marathon

  1. I know it’s not the time you wanted but with the conditions on the course (and I ran that day and it was HOT in Ohio), you stayed positive and got that sub-4.

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