The marathon and me (Eugene Marathon Race Report)

[Ed. note: This race report is posted as it appeared in the June issue of the Athens Road Runners Quarterly Newsletter (which can be viewed in full here. It’s pretty awesome, because I have help from some pretty awesome people to create it.) Given this, some backstory will be familiar to those who have read my blog. Thanks for reading.]

I didn’t BQ. The end.

That’s what my writer’s blocked brain wrote in frustration before I gave up and shut my laptop on this race report for several days. But even as I wrote it, I knew it wasn’t true. This isn’t the end.

Like a lot of other runners, I’m a goal-oriented person. Type A. Perfectionist. I hold myself to an impossible standard. I have no grand illusions about my skills or abilities as a runner, but I’m always seeking the next level. When I began running races in 2010, my goals ran the gamut: from first times at distances to PRs. Reaching those goals is almost easier when starting from the beginning. Zero base. Zero experience. Zero understanding of what there is to fear when you toe the line at a race.

In 2015, my goal became singular: to achieve a marathon time that would qualify me for the Boston Marathon. I hired a coach. I invested myself in the Athens running community and found great friends who were both training partners and a support system. I learned to let the Georgia heat sculpt me into a tougher athlete. I arrived in Georgia a 3:52 marathoner and winnowed my time down to 3:39 at Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon in November 2015, struggled to a 3:43 at Albany in March 2016, and achieved a 3:34 at the Erie Marathon in September 2016 (technically a Boston qualifier, but not by enough to make it into the race for 2017; Boston gives preference to the fastest qualifiers first).

After a nice long off-season following Erie, I went into training for the Glass City Marathon (April 2017) refreshed. Training was imperfect. I missed some training due to some niggling IT band and foot pains. Two funerals in March. Massive work stress in April. As we walked out of the hotel room on race morning, I felt like I might vomit. This feels like my last chance, I remember saying.

I had a miraculous, stars-aligning race: the pace felt incredible. A friend paced me and kept me relaxed. Mile after mile clicked off perfectly on pace. My husband, Shannon, and my mother cheered me on; three girlfriends, who had driven from Pittsburgh to Toledo before dawn to surprise me, chased me around to various points of the course alongside my family. Mile 21 was faster than mile 20, a feat I had never achieved. Even as it was getting hard, even as the pace was slipping, I was hanging on. I had it.

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Sarah pacing me at Glass City in April 2017

At mile 24.5, it fell apart, when a mild head cold I had been fighting turned into vertigo. My ears felt like they were exploding on my flight to Ohio that Friday, and the fluid in my ears was likely messing with my equilibrium. I collapsed to the ground, had to be picked up. My pacer friend stayed with me as the sag wagon arrived. Shannon carried me from the sag wagon to the med tent. My girlfriends tearfully hugged me as I wept. Would I ever have another chance like this?

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The most amazing, supportive women: Kim, Lori, Caitlin, and Sarah

I took a break from marathons for the rest of 2017 to train for a spring 2018 marathon reinvigorated. But when I thought of my BQ goal, it didn’t create that excited stir in my stomach that it once had. I buried this feeling and pushed through training – under a new coach, with fun new workouts, and no niggling pre-injury pains for the first marathon cycle in a while. I cut a couple runs short when they felt bad, but I never shortened or skipped a run because of pain. I wrote off the disappointing tune-up half-marathon I raced in March to training fatigue and work stress, burying the fear I felt racing.

The Eugene Marathon in Oregon had been on my bucket list for years. Countless Olympians have raced on the track at Hayward Field in Tracktown USA, where the marathon finished. We flew into Portland, where Keeley, one of my close friends from high school (also a runner), and her husband Dave live. We balanced relaxing with squeezing in as much fun as possible, sampling local brews, doing a shakeout run on Pre’s Trail, and eating all of the carbs, including at local spot Off the Waffle.

I stuck to my pre-race routine: I laid out my race outfit early to make sure I had everything, feeling that little thrill at the prospect of the race ahead. We made pancakes for dinner. I painted my toenails. I rolled out and stretched. I woke up a few minutes before the 4:00 AM alarm blared and made my oatmeal and coffee. By 5:45 we were on site, trying to stay warm against the damp chill of the early morning. I told myself I was ready. I told myself to get my head in the game. I told myself to prepare for the pain. I told myself to relax. I told myself that whenever it felt bad, it would feel good again, and in the end, every bit of pain would be worthwhile.

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Pre-race photo in front of Hayward

Shannon, running the half, stuck with me for the 10.5 miles the courses stuck together, keeping me at an 8:00 pace. My coach told me to largely ignore my watch and check only at key splits, something I have never done in a marathon. We let the 3:30 group go by mile 3, as they clicked on about 15-20 seconds per mile faster than necessary. I wasn’t as comfortable as I hoped. A monstrous hill (for Eugene) hit around mile 8, and I tried to stay relaxed up it, then shake it off on the downhill. We hit 10K faster than goal pace. We reached 10 miles right on.

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Shortly before the half and full courses split

At 10.5 as Shannon and I parted ways, I knew I was still well within PR range, but my brain was already trying to let go. When at mile 12 my stomach started cramping and rebelling, and I wondered if I would be able to keep down nutrition, if I would be able to finish at all if it didn’t cooperate, I was almost relieved for an excuse to slow down. More than anything, I wanted to finish this marathon. More than anything, I wanted to run on that track, cross that line, go home with my head held high. This would not be a repeat of Glass City.

I backed off to let my gut settle and took in nutrition more slowly. I ignored my watch except to glance at the half-marathon mark: still on pace. But the seams were coming apart. For a few dark miles, I tried to hang on with my fingertips. Then, I allowed myself to mourn. I shed a few frustrated tears. All those weeks. All those workouts and long runs.

And then, I let it go. If I was going to finish, I was going to enjoy it. This would not ruin my Eugene experience and the beauty of the course. Fog-draped mountains on all sides. Multiple city parks. Long stretches of the course ran parallel with the river. The volunteers were attentive and encouraging. The crowds were enthusiastic. I walked when things cramped. I encouraged others as they struggled.

When Shannon and our friends asked where to place themselves, I told them mile 23. Mile 23 is my darkest place. So close yet so far to the finish. I know they expected to see me sooner – deep in the pain cave, fighting hard – ready to tell me they believed in me. I know that when it took me far longer, they expected to see me in tears. Instead, a smile erupted on my face. I high-fived Dave. Keeley was jumping up and down. Shannon jumped in and ran with me for a quarter mile. In the picture he took of us, I’m grinning. At mile 23.

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Mile 23 gratitude

When I got to the finish, I cried. I cried running down that storied track. I cried seeing the word “Eugene” emblazoned everywhere, thinking of my Uncle Eugene, who died of cancer in March 2017, and for whom I was racing. I cried when I got my medal. I cried when I got to my husband and friends. But I didn’t cry for the loss of my BQ. I cry at every 26.2 finish, regardless of outcome. The marathon strips you raw. This time, it was love and joy.

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Finishing down the track

I wouldn’t trade a second of the experience I had that weekend in Eugene – one moment of fun and exploration and discovering a new, beautiful city with people I love – not for one minute on the clock (or 18). I told myself in 2015 that I would not give up until I got into Boston. But the thing about goals is, if the goal is not making you happy, you need to find a different one. My coach echoed back to me: “I like to follow the idea to seek pleasure and not pain with your running.”

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Post-race

We run because it challenges us – physically, mentally, emotionally – but also because it’s fun. For two years, training for and racing marathons in pursuit of a BQ gave me that joy. Perhaps I’m still gun-shy after Glass City. I have been arriving at start lines scared out of my mind since then.  I stare at my watch, freaked by the sight of a pace I perceive as too fast or too slow. I don’t see the entire race.

Becki Spell, an elite runner who achieved an Olympic Trials Qualifier (2:45 marathon or faster) at the Eugene Marathon this year, said in her race report, “I stripped off the limitations I was putting on myself, I wanted to find how fit I could get [for] Eugene, not see if I could find a way to sub 2:45.  … I viewed training not as a means to 2:45, but as a way to start pushing myself toward my limit.”

My coach reminded me that running will always be there for me. I have not lost my love of running. Even as I recovered from marathon soreness, I missed running: the fresh air, the feel of my body moving on road or trail. Running and I are just fine.

But the marathon and I – we need a break. The marathon will be there for me whenever I’m ready to come back to her. She’ll remain massive, merciless, unrelenting. She’ll remain a worthy challenge. But for now, it’s time for me to set her aside, to take a break from the microscopic pace analysis of a perfect BQ. It’s time to show up at start lines afraid, and remind myself I have nothing to fear. And have some fun along the way.

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

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