Berlin 2021 Race Report, Part 2

I love the city of Berlin, but it’s a complicated love affair. Berlin can be like a flea market where you expect to find treasures (like the gorgeous Tunisian bowls I bought!) but there’s also loads of plastic crap. When it’s time for a snack, a Russian gentleman serves you delicious pelmeni and lets you take his picture. Berlin is all of that: Tunisians bowls, Russian pelmeni, fascinating back courtyards and wide Stalinist boulevards. You have to take the good and the bad of what the city has to offer. Berlin can be frustrating and overwhelming (though at least there is much less dog poop than there used to be). You might not get what you came for. What you get instead is valuable, but it can take awhile to understand that. This is my Berlin, and it also was my Berlin marathon.

Before arriving in Berlin, I wondered what it would be like to run a marathon in a city where I have spent so much time in transit, often too hot or too cold, sweating before interviews or freezing before class. Berlin can feel like a series of train stations, incredibly far apart from each other, separated by empty fields and constant construction. What will it feel like to run a marathon in a city like that?

It will feel like sewing a place together. My race did not go as planned. I did not get the time or even the effort that I came for. Instead, as my race fell apart, the image that came to me was that the runners were a thread, knitting together the former East and the former West. [This is maybe what I get for traveling with a seamstress! Thank you Mistress Triple M!] The course traverses from East to West and back again several times. We can now run freely across the line where the wall stood, dividing the city for so many decades. Those big empty fields, where the wall used to be, have filled in with shops and cafes and Potsdamer Platz. The once-divided city has grown more and more together and it felt like the race was helping that process along.

The course is marked in red. The blue line is where the Berlin wall once stood.

My alarm went off at 6am. I had brought my standard race day breakfast with me [Shalane Flanagan’s race day oatmeal – she also raced Berlin this year!]. I did indeed purchase a Tunisian bowl at the Winterfeldt market for special race-day flair. The hotel didn’t have a microwave, but the hot water for tea worked just fine. I had coffee and another bottle of Maurten 360. I added a half a Brötchen (a delicious German roll) with jam because, why not? By 7:30, Disco Dan, the Running Munchkin and I were ready to go. Logistical note – they both went for the checked bag option and I went for the poncho. In the future, I would go the checked bag route. The poncho was no big deal, it’s not cool like the one for the NYC marathon and the checked bag retrieval is really easy to deal with.

We made our way to the Tiergarten, snapping a couple of Team IAGSP pictures along the way. The morning was absolutely gorgeous. Comfortable temps and the clouds had cleared [uh oh, cue foreboding music….] Disco Dan went to check his bag and the Running Munchkin and I made a couple of trips to the bathroom and sat on the grass for a bit, already trying to stay in the shade. Another logistical note – there are portapottys to the side of the corrals! We could have and probably should have gone to the corrals earlier. The portapotty lines there were much shorter and I found myself finishing my dynamic warm-up and jumping into the corral more or less as they were counting down the start. Not ideal, but live and learn.

I had brought three caffeine pills with me which I consumed just before lining up. I couldn’t quite figure out how to carry them to take later in the race and I decided I didn’t need them mid-race because Maurten makes gels with caffeine now. Note: That was *definitely* too much caffeine. This was a rookie error. I just wasn’t sure how much to take, so I went for it, but I should have had this settled beforehand. I brought a Brötchen with jam and peanut butter with me to the start in case I got hungry, but I ended up just pitching it.

The atmosphere in the corral was really special. We could hardly believe we were there. Were we actually going to pull this off? The first World Major Marathon since Tokyo in March 2020! The morning was glorious and the sun on the Victory Column was beautiful. There was a guy dressed in a rainbow suit and a guy dressed in a normal suit – not sure which was weirder or bolder for running a marathon, but I loved seeing the other runners and feeling everyone’s excitement.

The start seemed to be multiple countdowns or something, but one of the guns went off and we surged forward. We were off! I tried to hold this image in my mind. When I close my eyes, I can still see it. Just like in all the race videos I watched, the runners leave the starting line and split into two groups to run either side of the Victory Column. What a start for a race! We ran down the Straße des 17. Juni, through the Tiergarten and turned north and then back east. At the dinner with my local friends last week, they had asked about the course and I surprised myself by being able to tell them a lot of detail about where we were going to run.

The first mile clicked off at exactly 8:45 and so did the second one. At mile 2 I thought, 24 more to go, which isn’t really a brilliant thought so early in a marathon, but I was able to drop that nonsense pretty quickly. The first few miles were less relaxed than I would have liked them to be. I was watching pace pretty closely. A local friend had warned that the asphalt in Berlin can feel bouncy and that causes people to run too fast. That was true – I was holding 8:45, but it was taking some pretty consistent reminders to stay slow and mile 3 ended up 8:27 overall. The next three miles were 8:51, 8:30, 9:00, which was either me surging around people or just not able to settle to a steady pace. This course is *flat* so there’s no reason for the pace variation. But I think the combination of the crowds and my excitement/anxiety just made it hard to settle. I knew I should have a fairly blank mind at the point in the race, but I didn’t. It’s been a long time since I’ve done an exciting big city race. I definitely felt the crowd’s energy, but it was bouncing around me in a sort of unproductive way. In retrospect, I think the mega-dose of caffeine was coming into play here.

Karl-Marx-Allee [NOT race day – note cloud cover!]

The next part of the course runs on Karl-Marx-Allee heading toward Strausberger Platz. Karl-Marx-Allee is a socialist boulevard, originally called Stalinallee. Built to impress, it showcases large apartment buildings, meant to be part of the East German workers paradise. The street’s storied history includes it being the site of the 1953 workers uprising, a protest against the East German government which was put down by Soviet tanks. It was also used for parades during the “DDR-Zeit” [East German period] to showcase the power and glory of the Communist government. First the Victory Column and now the fountain at Strausberger Platz – our tour of Berlin monuments was just beginning.

The course goes back to the former West Berlin, through Neukölln and Kreuzberg. Around mile 8 or 9, I turned on my music. I certainly didn’t need more noise. Everything felt loud and kind of crazy and I was hoping the music would settle me down a bit. Splits from mile 7 to 13: 8:28, 8:53, 8:46, 9:12, 8:34, 9:11, 8:55. This is a *flat* course and those splits vary wildly. I was not able to establish a rhythm and zone out, which is the best approach for the early miles of the marathon. It was getting warmer and the idea of moving to 8:35 in the fourth mile had gone right out the window. I figured if I was ready to push at all, I would wait until after the halfway point and perhaps even a bit longer.

This section of the course is in Schöneberg, where the architecture appears most typical of northern Germany. Even having spent a lot of time in Berlin, I might still come across a beautiful church or bridge or gate that I had never seen before. These buildings can suddenly makes the city seem entirely different – like finding treasure at the flea market after all.

I was looking forward to seeing Eismacher Maximus and Mistress Triple M at kilometer 22 (around mile 13). Even though I was using miles on my watch to keep track of where I was, the course is marked in kilometers. The discrepancy didn’t bother me at all. When thinking about my own progress, I used miles. When thinking about when I might see Triple M and Eismacher Maximus, I used the course markers. Kilometer 22 came and went and they weren’t there. I know spectating and supporting a marathoner is a tough gig. I knew neither of them had done it before. But I also knew that they were a fantastic combination. Mistress Triple M turns out to be a brilliant navigator and was already mastering Berlin’s complex public transit system on the way into the city from the airport. Eismacher Maximus’s combination of extreme politeness and total stubbornness meant I was certain he’d be able to procure ice. Then I remembered that we had agreed for them to be on the far side of the intersection. There they were! HOORAY! With fantastic signs and the biggest bag of ice I’ve ever been handed mid-race but most of all their smiling and encouraging faces. I stuffed some ice down my bra and off I went again.

Somewhere in there I got my half split: 1:57. Not great. If I even split the race, that meant a time of 3:54, already well over 3:50. And I was pretty sure I was not going to even split because the temperature was still rising and I wasn’t feeling good. Having counted down the first half of the race to the first time I would see Triple M and Eismacher Maximus, I now had a measly 10k (6 miles) to go before seeing them again. Six miles was feeling quite far, but then the ice started to work its magic. I kept thinking of a passage in Deena Kastor’s book where one of her training partners says something like “It’s not your job to run well on a day when you feel great. It’s your job to run through the bad patches as fast as possible and try to extend the good ones.” Every marathon has good patches and bad patches and as the ice started to take effect, I felt better. Miles 14-17: 8:38, 9:33, 9:27, 9:04. Now I felt more of a rhythm and I could hear the runners’ feet, clip-clopping along the pavement like horse’s hooves.

Fueling and hydration were going as usual, which is to say, exactly according to plan. I race with Maurten gels and I take one every 30 minutes. Now that Maurten has caffeinated gels, I alternate with and without caffeine. For a hot race like Berlin, I drank at every water station, walking if necessary to be sure to get the water down. I also poured 1-2 cups of water on my shoulders at every water stop, starting with the first one. Ironically, I didn’t put water on my head because I was a little worried about my Aftershokz getting wet. I *should* have worried about my phone. It got drenched in my FlipBelt and was dead by the end of the race.

Even with the ice, my race was starting to fall apart. It was warm and I was more tired from the travel than expected. But I was also struggling to find my “why.” I have really good answers about why I run in general. But why run this race and why run it in this way? Coach Mick had said over and over again to have fun. But what did that mean? Should I just let go of time goals entirely? High five all the kids, dance to the bands, make a bunch of friends? That does sound fun, sort of. But I knew I would feel terrible at the end of a 26.2 mile dance party. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but that wasn’t it.

Lack of clarity of purpose is a horrible idea during a marathon, even though it might sometimes be inevitable. Miles 18-19: 10:33, 9:36. I had been walking the water stops, but mile 18 is where that water station walk extended itself . You really need a reason to keep running at that point and it’s even harder to find a reason to start running again if you walk. I thought about my understanding of myself as a “tough runner” and that helped. I am someone who doesn’t give up – I’ve ingrained that into my identity so therefore, I must keep going because it’s who I am. But I am also not stupid – I am a “smart runner” and a smart runner slows down on a hot day, especially with a time goal so clearly out of reach. Did that mean walking was smart? Eventually I convinced myself to start running again.

The nice weather had brought the spectators out in force. We ran past a group playing those huge Alpine horns. A bunch of cheerleaders in sparkling purple in front of a huge arch. A gang of locals having a *serious* party on their second floor balcony. Many people were walking now though, which was demoralizing. One woman was on the ground, screaming in pain, with medical personnel all around her. That was scary.

I have the very best friends!

The kilometer markers between 22 and 32 seemed to be crawling by. Again I wondered if my friends would miss the stop, which would be so hard, but then there they were! By mile 32, I knew I was having a rough day at the office. Eismacher Maximus could tell and said “You’re doing something today I could never do!” One part of me wanted to sit down with him – preferably right at that moment with some coffee and some beer – and explain why that was not true. Why he was perfectly capable of running a marathon, if he wanted to. But the other part of me thought – he is saying the thing he thinks will best motivate you to keep going. Because these friends are some of the greatest friends ever and they are out here cheering for you. And you might be a tough runner and a smart runner, but you are also a great recruiter. You bring people into your schemes and adventures and mostly they are grateful to be a part of them and you are *always* happy that you are so good at getting yourself some company. For goodness sake, keep running.

I did keep running, but unfortunately, I also did a good bit of walking between kilometers 34 and 37 [miles 20-23: 9:41; 11:53; 10:30; 11:26 – ouch]. I could tell a lot of the problem was mental. I had two mantras going into this race, “Faith over Fear,” and “Show Yourself.” But I wasn’t sure what either of those meant when I knew I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted to because of temperatures. Faith over fear is brilliant when getting yourself to believe that 8:20 is possible over 26.2 miles. Show yourself is excellent for proving toughness. But what in the world was I looking for here? Show myself what exactly?

The Gedächtniskirche, it turns out. Also known as the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Memorial Church, the Gedächtniskirche was bombed by the Allies in World War II. The Germans left the hollowed-out spire in the middle of West Berlin as a reminder of the horrors of war. They built a new modern church next door, which I always think of as a reminder of the possibility of renewal. It’s one of the symbols of Berlin I’ve walked by countless times and here it was right on the marathon course. I could hardly walk past the Gedächtniskirche. That was a place for running, so I started again.

It was really hard. I felt like a leaf being blown about in the wind though I don’t think there was a lot of wind. My head was almost lolling backwards and it took huge concentration to try to lean forward even a tiny bit to run more efficiently. But I also thought, if the runners are sewing the city together, this is our last big push. We are bringing the poles of the Gedächtniskirche and the Brandenburg Gate together if we can just finish this run. I was expecting my friends at kilometer 39, Potsdamer Platz, which seemed an eternity, but then there they were! Mark said only 3 kilometers left!

The end of the course is brilliant. It goes by the Bundesrat [admittedly more of a landmark to political scientists] and the Humboldt University and the Gendarmenmarkt. Finally the zig-zagging at the end as you approach the Brandenburg Gate. No walking here, none at all. If my “strong finish” was a pace in the mid 9s instead of the low-8s, well that’s what it was today. I had visualized finishing strong so many times that I was damn well going to do just that. Miles 24-26: 9:14; 9:34; 9:25. Finally I turned and saw the gate. This is one of the best finishes to a marathon in the world. Take it in. Remember it. SEE the gate! I saw it!

I realized that even though I was so much slower than I wanted to be, I might still beat my time from the Philadephia marathon in 2015. Isn’t it amazing how a concrete goal suddenly works. Last .7 miles at 8:49 pace. Just as I practiced, even though I could hardly keep my head up straight, I crossed the blue ZIEL line and raised my arms to get a good picture!

Final time: 4:09:15.

I was so very grateful to stop running. I held onto the fence for awhile. I got my medal and some water. Very slowly, I collected my poncho, which turned out to be ridiculous. I got my food bag. I discovered my phone was no longer at all functional, but I found an official photographer to take pictures. I wanted to lie down on the grass so badly, but I had to get to the family meeting zone to find Mistress Triple M. Unfortunately, Eismacher Maximus didn’t have his vaccine card with him so he wasn’t allowed into the race zone.

What amazing friends!

Triple M found me even without a working phone!

It was a tough day, but in the end a good one. I’ve thought a lot about this race in the past few weeks. High Power Running Mentor #1 says that the clock is not the only way to measure the success of a marathon. I certainly didn’t get the finishing time I was looking for. I also didn’t execute the race to the best of my ability. That’s the point I have struggled with and still struggle with, to be honest. Rose always says, the effort yields its own reward. I didn’t get what I came for this time around, but I got something different. I certainly gained a new perspective on the city of Berlin and I somehow love the city more than ever. I am so incredibly grateful to be able to travel and to run races like this again. More than anything, I am grateful to my friends and my family and my coach for putting up with my brand of insanity. I know I will run Berlin again and better next time. For now, this is enough. Well, this plus pizza and a great cocktail!

 

 

 

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Berlin 2021 Race Report, Part 1

I can hardly believe that I drafted this race report on an Icelandair flight home from Berlin. After a long pandemic-induced break, major marathons are back! Berlin has been my number one bucket list marathon for a long time so it’s truly a dream come true to run through the streets of that once-divided city.

I’ve been planning to run Berlin 2021 for four years. In 2017 I was in Berlin for the German elections, traveling with the International Association for the Study of German Politics (IASGP). I discovered, to my delight, that the Berlin marathon and the election were on the same day so I was able to spectate. I also hatched the plan to run Berlin four years later. In November 2020, when it seemed the pandemic would be over by spring, I convinced two colleagues that we should enter the lottery for Berlin as Team IASGP. It’s much easier to get a spot in Berlin if you register as a team. It worked! The winter of 2020/2021 was even harder than expected, but finally it was spring. I started training for Berlin in late May.

Coach Mick and I had a lot of discussions about how to approach training. I wanted to do “more” but I didn’t have the knowledge or even the vocabulary to express what I meant. I wanted to say something like, I am happy to work harder for a PR attempt and increasing intensity seems a better choice than increasing mileage. But how to increase intensity? Coach Mick and I read some new books. We held a pow-wow with High Power Running Mentor #1. They both drafted some training plans and we worked to combine them and adjust to fit my running ability. Luckily, Coach Mick is an exceptionally patient man because he had to put up with me through all of this. Me and my big fat huge desire to run a faster marathon.

Eventually we came up with an approach we both liked. We increased mileage to about 60 miles per week and ended up holding it there for 12 straight weeks. We re-arranged my weekly schedule, moving long runs to Saturdays, “mid-week medium” runs to Mondays, and track or tempo workouts to Wednesdays. We also agreed to increase the intensity of the Wednesday workouts.

Mostly I have loved the new schedule. I would never have believed that I could run 60 miles a week and feel good, but I did all summer. The speed work was challenging, but rewarding when I managed it. I loved that he gave the workouts Star Trek themed names. Some went great and others not so well, but I was able to roll with both. Summer was hot and humid, but I largely stuck with the plan even through summer travel.

In the meantime, the pandemic sort of limped along. We thought we were out of the woods with the vaccine, then the Delta variant threatened to take away much of the hard-won progress. Races started up again, smaller and shorter at first, but gradually bigger and longer. With international travel still uncertain, I found it impossible to resist registering for the Boston marathon in case Berlin fell through. Then I threw the Wineglass marathon into the mix, in case only small fall marathons took place. Like many marathoners, I hedged my bets, but the dream was still Berlin.

Now is the moment for a huge congratulations and a big thank you to the organizers of the race, SCC-Events. They planned a series of three races, moving from a 10K in July to a half marathon in August, to the full marathon in September. At each stage, the race organizers could test their hygiene concept and consult with city officials. When the half marathon took place successfully and safely on August 22nd, I started to believe Berlin would happen. On the academic side of things, the IASGP had been proceeding with plans for our usual election trip, checking in with participants about their interest in travel and with politicians about their willingness to meet with us. All systems go by about mid-July. A lot of stars had to align to make this race a reality for me and I am so grateful they did!

One other critical piece of background information. In conversations with the Mistress of Mischief and Mayhem, we jokingly raised the idea of her coming along to Berlin. Jokingly, as in, hahaha, wouldn’t that be fun, not at all serious. But then we thought – why not? Her planned summer vacation had been canceled for complicated family reasons. She could have fun in Berlin while I worked and we’d still have a day or two to hang out in the city. Then she could head up the cheerleading squad. Suddenly an outlandish idea seemed much more feasible and within a couple of days, we had purchased tickets.

Taper coincided with a lot of life changes at home. Rose and I both re-started full-time, in-person school. Aidan’s girlfriend went off to college. If not exactly back to pre-pandemic times, fall 2021 was a whole lot more normal than fall 2020. Early September flew by and suddenly it was almost time to head to Berlin!

The Covid-19 pandemic created an extra layer of stress and preparation for travel, of course. I have been vaccinated since March, so that was no issue, but the rules around international travel were confusing and frequently in flux. The race needed proof of vaccination but the requisite app would not accept the American CDC card. Iceland required a negative test result as well as the CDC card in order to change planes in Reykjavík. Germany required surgical masks, homemade ones were not allowed. The U.S. needed a PCR test to get back home. Etc. etc. Traffic on the Facebook group for the Berlin marathon was about 90% pandemic-related. What in the world did runners talk about before we had to worry about which test to get when? But, having mastered the Covid protocols to the best of our ability, it was finally time to fly!

Winterfeldt Market with Caraway and Mistress Triple M

We arrived in Berlin on a Tuesday and spent Tuesday and Wednesday exploring the city and meeting up with old friends. A delicious Vietnamese dinner, shopping at the Winterfeldt Market with Caraway, wandering about Schöneberg and dinner with old friends were some of the highlights. Then I spent two intensive days learning about the election campaign. That was fascinating and if you’d like to read some of my thoughts on the election, you can find them here.

Thursday’s program included hearing from the Social Democrats and learning about German foreign policy, as well as a visit to the dome on the top of the Bundestag.

After the day’s sessions, Team IASGP visited the expo. Besides me, Running Munchkin and Disco Dan rounded out our gang. The expo was pretty small for a World Marathon Major, but thankfully not at all crowded. It’s held in the old Tempelhof airport, where the monument for the Berlin Airlift is located. Despite having pre-ordered a good bit of swag, I bought YET MORE SWAG because I am a total sucker for clothes and accessories from a marathon. We made it back for the end of dinner and enjoyed our spaetzle and Kaiserschmarrn.

Friday was another work day, during which we met with all the other parties and learned about increasing diversity in German politics. We also paid a visit to a rally with the Left Party and caught the end of Gregor Gysi’s speech! We capped off the day with a lovely dinner at Max and Moritz. NO problem with the carb loading while in Germany – in addition to bread on the table, we had lasagna, potatoes, and still more spaetzle.

Mistress Triple M and I started our Saturday morning with a Covid test (of course) and a visit to the East Side Gallery. Then I met Caraway and some friends for lunch and we got to truly geek out about all things marathoning. I spent too much time wandering around the Mitte neighborhood shopping and finally returned to the hotel for final race preparations. Only to discover that I had been placed in the wrong corral. Berlin has several waves and corrals and the faster you’ve run before, the earlier you get to start. Starting earlier means fewer people in front of you so ideally you can run faster. More importantly, earlier waves also start, ahem, earlier, meaning possibly better weather.

Yeah, a word about weather. As is my long-term custom, I attempted to put Coach Mick in charge of weather worries. But this time around, there was no ignoring the weather, even as I tried not to worry about it. A few weeks out, conditions looked decent. Temperature in the low to mid-50s, fairly humid, cloudy, maybe even a possibility of rain (which is a *great* thing for a marathon under those conditions). But every day, the temperature had crept up a degree or two. The rain vanished from the prediction. The tell-all dewpoint increased steadily. Not good, not good at all.

Meanwhile, in our last phone conversation before I left for Berlin, I asked Coach Mick how he thought the training cycle had gone. I was surprised when he hesitated before answering. I had looked back on my training log, considered how workouts and long runs had gone, and decided that a goal pace of 8:15 was not at all crazy. But I couldn’t quite get my head around that and getting your head around goal pace is pretty damn important. I could conceive of a goal pace of 8:20, however. That felt do-able, and it still comes out to a 3:38 marathon, which would be a nice PR and my first time under 3:40. So when I asked Coach Mick how he thought training had gone, I did want confirmation, but I also had an idea of what we were looking at.

But that hesitation. Ouch. The seconds felt like minutes. Finally he said that he wanted to be careful with his answer. He didn’t want to give a time that was overly cautious and have me miss out on a potentially great race. He also didn’t want me to be overly ambitious. He said what he really thought is that it was up to me, and what I believed I could do, within reason, of course. But also – here was the big but – that he thought I had been squeezing the soap a little the entire training cycle. “Squeezing the soap” is Coach Mick’s term for when you want something so badly that you end up missing your goal because you just push too hard. I could see immediately what he meant and of course, he was right. [After all, MIC(K) stands for Mark Is Correct]. I can be a pretty intense person in general and I tend to be quite intense about running in particular. Ironically, often the best running happens when we manage to let go. But when you want something so badly, it’s really really hard to let go. And I really really want to run under 3:40 for the marathon.

As it turns out, the weather conspired to force me to let go, at least a little. That day in the low 50s with cloud cover and a chance of rain had advanced to temperatures starting in the low 60s, rising to over 70, with full sun likely before the race was over. I had a fairly good idea of what I was capable of: holding 8:20 pace for 26.2 miles on a really good day with a dash of luck and a solid dose of grit. Holding 8:20 with that forecast? No chance. Coach Mick and I texted a bit more once I reached Berlin as the forecast clarified. I eventually asked for an adjusted race plan and he suggested 8:45 for three miles, then move to 8:35, and see what’s left after 20 miles. That sounded great to me. Oh – and most importantly – he told me to have fun. Really important advice though “fun” was maybe not quite what I was looking for.

Anyway. Back to that dilemma several paragraphs back, when I discovered I had been placed in the wrong corral. It was just after 3pm in the afternoon and I had dinner reservations for 6pm. The expo was still open so I made a last minute decision to dash back, get the corral changed, and scoot back to the hotel before dinner. Which turned out to be just a few blocks away from the expo. Sigh. So instead of spending the afternoon before the race on mental race prep, I basically spent it on the U-2 and the U-6, shuttling back and forth. Dinner with friends was amazing though.

Back at the hotel, Team Sarah assembled! Eismacher Maximus and Mistress Triple M combined forces to map out a route, create signs, and assign duties. Mistress Triple M in charge of navigation. Eismacher Maximums in charge of ice procurement. We finished up our battle plan and I headed to the hotel room. I mixed and drank a bottle of Maurten 360. This night-before Maurten is a practice I started in Chicago and I’ve stuck with ever since. Does it work? Who knows, but I have a good track record of not bonking. A quick flat-Sarah and last minute good luck wishes from Mervus and it was time for bed. A little less sleep and less visualizing than I had hoped, but that’s life in the (very!) big city. I slept medium well. Not great, but not a total disaster either.

Flat Sarah, ready to roll!

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John and Jessie Kelley Half Marathon 2021 Race Report

The John and Jessie Kelley half marathon is a race that I am poised to love, while almost everyone else is ready to hate. It’s got a lot of things I value in a race going for it. The race has a storied history – first run in 1963 as the 10.5 mile Schaefer Race, the exact course and distance have evolved over the years. Famous winners include John Kelley, Amby Burfoot, Nina Kuscik, and Marilyn Bevins. The race starts and finishes at Ocean Beach Park, a beautiful beach with some kiddie rides and a boardwalk. I love beach races! Plus, it’s free! They just ask you to bring a canned good as a donation.

So, what’s not to like? Well, it’s in August, in Connecticut, pretty much guaranteeing hot and humid conditions. To make things more “interesting”, the course is hilly and the worst hill is pretty late in the race. Sections of the course are pretty exposed so it’s a race with a known heat exposure risk. So, a few drawbacks, to be sure. I had signed up to run the John and Jessie Kelley last year, but we all know how most races in 2020 went. I thought I’d try it again this year. Plus, with Berlin on September 26th, there are not a lot of half marathons to choose from as prep races and beggars can’t be choosers. Allegro Fuerte, my favorite racing buddy, also signed up so I was looking forward to it.

As race day got closer, though, I wasn’t really sure how to approach the race. I ran the Blessing two weeks ago and PR’d but my 10 mile PR is a *lot* softer than my half marathon PR. As the weather reports rolled in, the forecast showed conditions pretty much as expected: hot and humid and, of course, the hills were there regardless. I have to confess that I was not excited about all-out racing a half in those conditions, but the whole point of running J & J was to somehow contribute to preparation for Berlin. I asked Coach Mick what he thought and he suggested a marathon effort simulation. That is, run the race at the pace I hope to run the marathon, but adjust for conditions.

Of course that meant I had to make a guess about likely pace at the marathon, always a nervous-making task. My eventual goal is to break 3:30 and if it happens this time around, I am certainly not complaining. On the other hand, my PR is 3:44 and a 14 minute improvement at this stage would be massive. Mentally I’ve been targeting 3:35 and that doesn’t seem crazy, based on how workouts have been going. That’s right around an 8:12 pace, which felt pretty scary. 8:15 (a 3:36 marathon) felt pretty reasonable. Brains are weird. That’s a three seconds per mile difference. I don’t think I’m a good enough runner to zero in on 8:15 instead of 8:12, but whatever. I decided to start with the idea of an 8:15 pace. Coach Mick has a rubric for adjusting for heat and humidity, which yielded about a 17 second adjustment. We were expecting some sun and most of the course is exposed. Plus, the weather folks had issued an air quality alert. I decided to think about a 15-20 second adjustment, and aim for 8:30-8:35. Coach Mick really wanted me to run exactly how I plan to run Berlin so I had to think about that. I decided to take the first mile at 10-15 seconds slower than goal pace and then land at goal pace by the second mile, assuming things were going well. Otherwise, take another mile or two to get there and then just hold until near the end, when I would try to speed up. For J&J, that meant starting at 8:45, then moving to 8:30, maybe close out the last three miles quicker, if possible. None of that accounts for the hills, which I figured I would do by feel. The course has a couple of big ones, but the last three miles are downhill so I thought I could close pretty well if I didn’t go out too fast.

CIRCUS!

Rose’s big circus performance was the night before the race so instead of a quiet evening at home with my usual pre-race meal, it was a joyous late afternoon circus show and a fairly late dinner at the Blackbird Tavern, one of my favorite local restaurants.

How much do I love Rose? I missed the entire women’s Olympic marathon to watch her

Go Molly! What an inspiration!

show and celebrate and didn’t even mind. (I noticed for sure, lol, but didn’t mind). We got home, watched a four minute highlights reel of the marathon, and I got to bed as quickly as possible. Mervus and Rose had thought about coming to the race, but the early morning start was too daunting.

 

 

Saturday morning did indeed arrive quite early, but after the usual oatmeal and coffee, I was on the road. I would have liked to leave a little earlier, but having prioritized sleep, I had a few things to prep before going. As a result, I arrived at the race at 7:15, for an 8am start. Not ideal. The weather was very comfortable for standing around in a sports bra and shorts, low 70s with humidity above 85%. I didn’t even bother pretending I was going to wear my singlet. The line to pick up bibs was quite long – no pre-race packet pick-up this time around. Everything was taking longer and I had less time than usual because of my late arrival. Allegro Fuerte seemed to be in a similar situation. I saw some other friends too. It’s SO good to be back to live racing! We said quick hellos and went about the business of getting ready. After visiting the facilities, I found myself doing my warm-up lunges while standing in the starting corral. Oops. I decided to really ease into it by adding a warm-up mile up front. I have had a few races where I started too quickly and I wanted to nail the conservative start this time out.

Meeting Death Shuffler in person for the first time! [She picked that name!]

The gun went off and we started walking. Yes, walking. This race is capped at 1,000 even in non-Covid times and I can see why. There’s not really room for more people in the starting area. The course had a couple of narrow passages later in the race also, where more runners just wouldn’t be safe. Once we crossed the line, we could start running and I kept it very easy. The crowd thinned out enough to run and I worked my way forward a bit. The first mile clicked off at 8:59, perfect. I thought about shifting gears to turn it up just a notch and the second mile came in at 8:44, excellent. Time to shift to marathon effort. Coach Mick said it at the start it should feel like 2.5-3 sentences pace, not paragraph pace. In other words, you could say a couple of sentences, but not chatter on endlessly the way I love to do with my girlfriends. Mile 3 felt about like that and ended up as 8:35, pretty much right on target.

I ran the next few miles just thinking about control. I had a definite tendency to speed up a bit and then I reeled it in. I often listen to music while racing but I found that I was pretty focused on my own breathing and noticing my own effort level and I didn’t want the distraction. The course in this section was pretty with views of the ocean, nice houses, lots of flowers. I stayed very chill. Des Linden says the first 20 miles of the marathon are just transportation to the final 10K so I thought about that. I was running well within myself and felt really good. Looking back, I could possibly have run this section faster, but I’m happy with my choice to stay controlled. GAP pace on Strava is supposed to take hills into account and doing that, my pace was pretty even in this section, which was definitely the goal. There’s a decent-sized hill at mile 6 where I slowed down, but otherwise nice and steady. I focused on running the mile I was in, each mile a successful checkbox I had completed. No worrying about the next mile until it started. No thinking about the last mile once it was over with.

Obligatory fueling report. I had my usual breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, but added a banana to the oatmeal since I had to eat a couple of hours before start time. I sipped on Nuun during the drive to the race and remembered to take two caffeine pills right before leaving the car. Mid-race fueling was a mix of Maurten and Gu, pretty much what I have left in my stash. Time to order more of both. I had a Maurten at mile 4, a Gu at mile 8, and part of a Gu at mile 11. I don’t generally struggle with fueling, but I like to keep it consistent from race to race just so it’s a habit.

I was more careful about hydration. Starting temperature was about 70-75 degrees, going up to nearly 80 by the time the race was over. Humidity was around 85% and dropping slightly over the course of the race. I might define those conditions as nasty without being dangerous. I decided to carry water in my fuel belt because I had heard rumors that the race sometimes runs out, but water on the course was frequent enough. The best part was that they had plastic cups! I find plastic water cups harder to manage, but that’s what they use in Berlin. The cups at the Blessing were also plastic and I had struggled with them a bit, but I got the hang of it here. By the second half of the race, I was drinking one cup and dumping one on my back so I was completely soaked. I was also incredibly grateful that someone had bags of ice around mile 8. I plopped it into my sports bra where it rattled around, but helped keep my core temperature under control.

Somewhere around mile 7 or 8, I turned on my music. I knew a hill was coming and I wanted to stay focused and positive. I don’t usually talk to people when I am racing, but I heard a conversation behind me that I couldn’t resist. A woman was telling her friend that she wanted to get faster, but had never beat her 10K time of 47 minutes from when she was 17. I asked how old she was now – she’s 33. I seem to be turning into a coach because I couldn’t resist telling her she could definitely beat that 47 minutes. I also kept wanting to correct people’s stride mid-race, which obviously I did not do. I am working on improving my own shuffle-stride so it’s on my mind a lot, but even I know not to be completely obnoxious during a race. Those two things – that conversation and the desire to give advice – are pretty much the only things I retained from most of this race. Otherwise, I was totally focused on monitoring my own effort, which makes for a successful race, but rather a boring race report.

The big climb starts at the end of mile 8 and mile 9 is pretty much up, up, up. I’m not going to lie – this section of the race was kind of miserable. You run on the sidewalk here and it’s not in great shape. The hill is exposed to a good deal of sun. The course goes by a shopping mall with a Stop and Shop, one of the ugliest sections I’ve seen on any course anywhere. The Boilermaker course goes by some used car lots and that’s worse, but this was pretty bad. I did some counting here, which I usually don’t allow myself to indulge in until the race is nearly over, but this part of the race just sucked.

Finally, finally the hill was over and I knew (thought…) it was downhill all the way to the finish! Now things can get fun, if you’ve got anything left in the tank, which I definitely did! The downhill starts with a steep descent, but then flattens out a bit to a more moderate decline. I was really able to kick it into gear here and passed a lot of people. I had been checking splits throughout the race, so I could see that things were going well. We were back at the shore and with a mile to go, turned a corner. I had hoped to see the park (and the finish line) but it was still much too far away. The course flattens out here and I had to start working a lot harder. I started counting again and picking off runners in front of me, one at a time. I passed a young guy who found me after the race for a fist bump! Finally, there was the park and that beautiful finish line. DONE! Final time of 1:52:25, average pace of 8:36. I’m very happy with that. If someone had told me a few years ago that I’d run a 1:52 half on a hot day on a hilly course as a training run, I wouldn’t have believed it. But on this day, it’s one more workout on the way to Berlin.

After the race, I found Allegro Fuerte, Death Shuffler, and other friends who were racing. Post-race treats included clam chowder and seltzer and potato chips, all delicious. We were able to recover a bit and dissect our individual races. Allegro Fuerte wanted to head home, but I wanted to enjoy the beach so I spent an hour or so on the sand and went for a quick dip.

 

Back home, Rose and I got ice cream and enjoyed the traditional celebratory mimosa.

I’m still pondering what this race means for Berlin. I felt great, running adjusted-for-conditions race pace for (most of) a half marathon. Maybe I should have gone a bit faster? Still, the early miles felt easy and controlled, just how I want the early miles of Berlin to feel. I managed the hill at the end and was able to close hard. It reminded me a lot of how I ran Boston in 2019. Taking that as a good sign!

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Blessing of the Fleet 2021 Race Report

I’ve wanted to run the Blessing of the Fleet for several years. It’s a 10 mile race in Narragansett, Rhode Island. There’s a festival, where they actually sail the ships into the harbor and bless them, rides, a band, a great summer atmosphere. It’s a Friday night race in mid-July so weather is likely to be challenging. With this year’s Boilermaker postponed until October, I decided to run the Blessing instead. Have to get my fix of iconic-summer-races-of-unusual-distance! Allegro Fuerte had already run this race twice and he was ready to give it another go. Chewie also decided to run. I’m coaching both of them so it was shaping up to be an exciting race!

By the middle of race week, though, I was not feeling much excitement at all. We’ve switched up my training quite a bit this cycle (more on that in a future post). I’m really enjoying it, but I’m feeling kind of out of touch with what kind of shape I’m in. Plus, pandemic racing is weird, y’all. The Blessing is my 8th race of 2021 (more on that later too, maybe) but most of these races have been a bit strange in one way or another and I have only raced well once. I was also somehow feeling a little lonely. Thank goodness for my family, who always stand by me, no matter what. With all the pandemic weirdness, I haven’t had my family at a race since the Jim Thorpe marathon last September. I *really* love having them there! Rose is doing circus camp this summer so we cruised by to watch her Friday show and left straight from there. Aidan had to work at the bike store so we had to leave him home.

It’s Olympics season again (finally!) so we have plenty of stories of elite runners to inspire us right now. One of my favorites is Heather MacLean, a Boston girl who runs on Dunkin Donuts coffee. Heather is a first-generation college graduate of UMass-Amherst, who didn’t start running until she was a junior in high school. My favorite story I’ve heard about her is that her family didn’t have the resources to come to the Olympic trials in Eugene, OR. With no family in the stands, Heather made t-shirts for her friends, creating her own cheering squad. If you heard from me last week, that might have been some Heather MacLean imitation on my part. By Friday afternoon, I was feeling less lonely, so thank you to everyone who reached out. You can create your own cheer squad – thanks for reminding me of that, Heather.

One person I got in touch with was High Power Running Mentor #1, who is consistently subjected to and puts up with all of my angst as a runner. What? Angst? From Professor Badass? You betcha, and plenty of it. I just don’t show it all the time and certainly not to everyone. But HPRM#1 got an earful last week and he responded with his usual quirky insight. Did I remember the plot of Frozen 2? Um, no, and looking it up didn’t help much because the plot of that movie is bonkers. I thought for sure he must mean Anna’s wisdom of “Take the Next Right Step?” But no, he meant Elsa’s song, “Show Yourself.” Elsa’s journey to her own truth reveals that what she’s looking for has been inside her all along. She just needed to prove it to herself. I can be dense but even I was able to discern the message here.

Because I felt pretty lost about where my fitness level was, I was also struggling with how to approach the race. I knew I wanted to run feeling strong instead barely hanging on by my fingernails, which had often been my approach this spring. The course lends itself to a negative split, which is a good strategy anyway. I was very much aware of my 10 mile PR (1:19:35) from April 2018. Probably too aware. I thought about trying to convert my results from past Boilermakers and somehow beat those times? Maybe just start at an 8:30 pace and work my way down? Yeah, I was pretty dang lost.

Luckily, on the drive to the race, Coach Mick chimed in with some wisdom: He thought I should run #nowatchme, in other words, without looking at my watch. He reminded me that I had done this my first 5K back after the plantar fasciitis saga. He didn’t mention that I had ended up PR’ing that race, but of course he didn’t have to. I decided to go for it. I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself and #nowatchme would help relieve some of it.

We arrived about 4:30pm and the traffic was already chaos so we just decided to leave the car at the start. A quick word on fueling, which can be tricky for an evening race. I had my usual lunch around noon and then a peanut butter and banana sandwich in the car at 4pm. I know that sits well with me and I won’t be hungry or overly full. I had a Maurten gel at the start and another one at mile five. I’d meant to have a couple of caffeine pills at the start too, but I forgot. I grabbed water at most water stations, but the cups were plastic and I found them a little hard to drink from. I’m pretty sure the Berlin marathon also uses plastic cups so maybe I’ll practice with them before September, but that might be too anal, even for me. In any case, this plan worked fine and I’ll try to remember the caffeine next time around.

We met Allegro Fuerte and his wife and Chewie with introductions and hugs all around. HUGS! Fully-vaccinated hugs! HOORAY! Allegro Fuerte and I did our warm-up together while Chewie used the facilities and then it was time to line up! Allegro found a friend near the front so we joined him. I looked around and said, hey, there are almost no chicks here, only dudes, I am moving back. I did and then I moved back again, trying to stand near people who looked about my speed. The start was crowded and happy with no masks or even mention or thought of them. Glorious! They fired the gun and off we went! Mervus and Rose were waiting with the banner at the half mile mark and I gave them a smile and blew them a kiss! SO good to have them here!

The Blessing course is mostly a loop, except the start and finish aren’t quite together. The first mile is a little downhill, then a little uphill, a couple of flat miles, and then miles 5 and 6 are a long straightaway with a little ascent and a lot of potential for sun exposure. Possibly a place to lose heart, mid-race. But going into mile 7, the course turns off the main road and goes through a shady residential area with a slight descent for the last four miles. A good place to turn on the gas, if you’ve got anything left in the tank, and an ideal arrangement for negative splitting.

Coach Mick had advised “sentences pace” for the first couple of miles – run easy enough to get a couple of sentences out, but not more. I tried to stay relaxed as runners streamed by me – that’s fine, maybe they’ll come back to me or maybe not, doesn’t matter. Then I felt it. That spark of joy that can come with racing. The realization that we finally, FINALLY, really have this back and also the feeling that’s been missing all spring. The JOY of running together, working hard, nervousness dissipating, finding a shared groove as the pack of runners thins out and everyone settles in. Absolutely marvelous. I focused on my breathing and said a couple of quiet sentences to check I was at the right effort. Everything seemed good. Actually, better than good.

We arrived at the first mile marker, which unexpectedly had a clock: 7:41. Thoughts flashed through my head all at once. Ooooo, that is WAY faster than I planned, but I feel pretty good, keep it relaxed and hold here. Also: WTF, Allegro Fuerte must be ahead of me, therefore running even faster than that? I hope he doesn’t flame out! Runners were still streaming by me, which can give you the illusion that you’re running slower than you are. I focused on my breathing, the pattern of my footfalls, staying relaxed. Ten miles is a long way to go and you want to feel pretty good at the beginning. I did feel good! We got glimpses of the ocean – the course is really lovely!

Right around mile 3 I saw something no one wants to see. A runner down on the road, flat on his back, with emergency personnel administering chest compressions. Oh no! Again, thoughts flashed through my mind: It’s so early in the race and less hot than it might be! That guy looks really young! Will he be okay? He had a lot of people with him already, including EMTs so I just kept running, but that was very sobering. Later I read that he had been in cardiac arrest, but the EMTs got him to the hospital and he is going to be fine. Whew. Somewhere in here I also saw my mile 3 split by mistake: 7:50. Hmmm. A tad slower, I still feel good, this is PR pace, but try not to think about that. Just focus on how you feel and don’t worry about pace.

We turned right and then right again and came to the two mile stretch on 108, up the hill. I thought about Allegro Fuerte and Chewie again. I had told them to increase effort here, but with the expectation of maintaining pace. Route 108 is not the most beautiful part of Narragansett, let’s just put it that way. I was tempted to look at my watch, but didn’t. I was thrilled to take my Maurten at mile 5, just for something to break up this long stretch of road.

Then I spotted Allegro Fuerte! That was a surprise! I tapped him on the shoulder and said something like “Let’s go!” hoping to be motivating and not annoying. I wondered if he would come with me, maybe sit on my shoulder and out-kick me at the end? I really didn’t have the energy to spare to look back though. My legs felt like they were banging out a rhythm that I didn’t have total control over. I was pretty sure I hadn’t slowed much, but speeding up also didn’t seem to be an option. I could almost feel the massive aerobic engine I’ve been building by running so many miles. I thought about two mile repeats on the track. This whole stretch is just one of those, just get it done. Just as I was about to lose heart, we turned right and the course changed dramatically.

We turned off what felt like a highway and onto what seemed like a green path, under cover of friendly trees, slight downhill. Thank goodness. I had told Chewie and Allegro Fuerte to pick it up a little here and Coach Mick had told me to do the same. I wasn’t sure that was going to be possible, but then the downhill and the shade and the no-more-highway started to feel a lot better and I started to roll. Now it was my turn to pass people instead of getting passed. I thought again about All Those Miles and I thought about unhunching my shoulders, running tall, all the form cues and the rhythm of my feet. I thought about Show Yourself. One of the last things Mervus had said to me before the race was “You deserve this” and I thought, yes, I do deserve this. C’mon, show yourself who you are out here. Prove it to yourself. This is why we race!

I knew the Incredible Mervus and Rose would be around the 7 and a half mile mark so I started looking for them, much too early, of course. I was so grateful to have them out there. At last there they were! On the right side of the course with the big green banner Mervus had made! Spectators wait for ages for the two seconds it takes for their runner to pass by. But those two seconds are burned into my memory. When my family is on the course, I look and look and look for them, counting down the miles until I hope they’ll appear. Then there they are and my heart is lifted! With Mervus and Rose behind me, I knew I had “only” 2.5 miles to go, less than a 5K. I wish I had thought, YES! I can do that! But actually I thought, oh, that is still so so far!

We passed by the start, going the opposite direction now, and then turned onto Avice Street. Hmmm, if I had studied the course more carefully, I’d have more of a clue where I am now. We turned right again and I spotted the 9 mile marker and….a clock. I had only seen two splits until now, at miles 1 and 3. But I have a fairly good sense of pace and if I’d had to bet, I would have guessed I was averaging 7:50-7:55 pace. The clock read 1:11:XX and confirmed that guess. My brain started trying to do math. Did that mean if my last mile came in under 9 minute pace that I’d be under 1:20? I would surely run that fast – this was downhill! Could I maybe still PR? I also knew the mile markers on the course didn’t match my watch exactly – did that matter? With one mile to go, no point in holding back. Time to really SHOW YOURSELF that you can do this!

A dear friend of mine lives in Narragansett, Runningwhilemommy. She told me she’d be at the last water stop, with half a mile to go. And also to watch out – there’s a green banner across the road near the finish line, but it is *not* the finish line. So now at every water stop, I was desperately searching for Runningwhilemommy. Seeing her would mean this was almost over. Just when I decided I must have missed her, there she was! I was so happy to see her, but oh God, still a half mile to go? Thank goodness the hill gets a little steeper here and I ran as hard as I could manage. Finally I spotted something hanging across the road. Could it be the finish line? It’s surely the damn banner, but maybe runners are stopping there? Maybe that really IS the finish line? No, of course not. It’s the stupid banner and I have to keep going.

Just as I passed under the banner, I spotted the actual finish line and the clock. Which read something like 1:19:11 or so. I knew I had a couple of seconds to spare because of starting so far back, but not many. I ran like a bear was chasing me, a full-on sprint. Through the line, stop the watch, grab the barrier, bend over, try to breathe. I’m always good for the dramatic finish. Mervus and Rose were there almost immediately. Mervus had seen the clock and knew I had come in under 1:20:00. After a minute or two, I found the race email, pulled up the QR code, and Mervus scanned it to get results. Race results in the time of Covid. Gun time of 1:19:48, but chip time of 1:19:32! Three second PR! Three seconds is not a lot, practically a rounding error, but a PR is a PR and I haven’t managed one since February 2020. Plus, I felt great for most of the race. Really strong and controlled and not panicked as has happened some recently. Show yourself indeed!

Once I gathered myself a little, I started to move out of the chute. I ran into an internet friend I call Number One Spider – someday I’ll tell the story about how much she inspires me and why that’s such a special designation. I reached my family, grabbed a water, got a hotdog for Rose and a couple of granola bars (they had Aidan’s favorite kind!). Mervus had been hauling around a protein shake for me so I got that down, plus the water. Then we started looking for Allegro Fuerte. Surely he had finished already? I had a couple of minutes of feeling worried, but then he texted and we managed to find each other. He was only about a minute behind me and ran…..drum roll please…..a 23 minute PR! We found Chewie pretty quickly also and she had come in three minutes ahead of her goal! Plus, she descended those last four miles perfectly. Well done all around!

I’m so proud of these two!!!

I had imagined celebrating this race under the beer tent, listening to a great band, hopefully eating a lobster roll. Instead, it had started raining and I was getting pretty chilled. We decided to head back to Chewie’s parents and when it turned out that her family had a full-blown feast waiting for us, we decided to stay in, get showered and warm, and enjoy. It was like coming home to family, good food, great conversation, sweet dogs, amazing people.

PR Smile!

After a good night’s rest, Chewie and her mom and I enjoyed a run at the sea wall. Narragansett is really something special. We met Runningwhilemommy for breakfast at Crazy Burger and then headed to the beach. Some Del’s frozen lemonade completed our Rhode Island getaway except for one last stop. A quick stop at the Wakefield Running Company to pick up my prize for 3rd in my age group! Great way to return to real racing!

Run along the sea wall

Brunch with Runningwhilemommy

Del’s lemonade – a Rhode Island must!

Beach time!

Third place in my age group!

Beautiful Narrgansett!

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Pride and Tolerance

I ran 18 miles for my long run this morning, which seems really far. In our small town, that means covering a lot of ground. I decided to head down to Main Street to take a picture I’ve been wanting to get for a couple of weeks. A lot of Middletown’s Pride celebration is virtual this year, but Main Street is DECKED OUT! It looks amazing!

Eighteen miles gives you plenty of time to think. Kevin told me a few weeks ago that he felt proud of my running, even though I am the one doing it. That made a difference today when the miles started to get hard. Eighteen miles is a long way and if my family just “tolerated” my running, it would have felt a lot further. But Kevin and the kids are proud of me and my accomplishments and that helped me keep going this morning.

It made me think about Middletown Pride too. Tolerance beats intolerance, that’s for sure. But I am proud to live in a community that doesn’t just “tolerate” our LGBTQI friends and neighbors, but welcomes them joyfully, and yes, with pride.

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Make-A-Wish Bethany 5K 2021

Make-A-Wish Bethany was the last of the three races I ran in March. It happened way back on March 21st, but then a whole lot of life happened, so I haven’t posted a race report yet. Here it is!

I learned about the Make-A-Wish race from runners in the 169 Towns Society. Members of 169 Towns are trying to race in every town in Connecticut so they keep careful watch on all races, even the tiniest ones. I’ve heard that the Make-A-Wish folks actually contacted 169 Towns and asked where to hold the 5K so that the most people would show up. Of course in this process I ended up joining 169 Towns so we’ll see how long *that* project takes!

After running a bit too slowly at the 3 Miler in early March and then starting way too fast at the Colchester half, I was really looking for good execution at the Bethany race. Coach Mick noted that starting a little hot was becoming a bit of a habit for me and maybe it was time to nip that in the bud. I completely agreed. He suggested putting a pace alert on my watch for the first kilometer so it would beep at me if I went too quick. I tried that on my Saturday shake-out run the day before the race and it sort of worked. The watch definitely beeped at me, but it was because I was running too slowly! Whether it was because I then tried to speed up to hit the pace alert from the too fast side or because it’s suddenly 50 degrees and sunny in Connecticut, the shake-out run felt pretty terrible. I felt gross. Running at noon is awful. I hated the watch arrangement. My Aftershokz died on me. The only thing I was happy about was having my trusty Next%s back on my feet. Possibly the worst shake-out run ever.

I talked to Coach Mick (again….) and he wasn’t worried. The plan was to break the race into kilometers, a technique I’ve used before. For the first kilometer, I was aiming for about 7:30-7:40 minutes/mile, and then drop it to 7:20 and hold there. My primary goal was not to start too fast. I wanted to run hard, but controlled. My secondary goal was to meet some of the 169 Towns people in person.

Make-A-Wish Bethany started at noon, which is a weird time for a race. At least I got to sleep in! I had a normal breakfast. I futzed around with my watch some more. I did a little work-work. Suddenly it was time to leave! I made a half a hippie sandwich and ate a quarter of it on the way to the race. The weather is *finally* warming up so I wore my pink Kari Traa singlet, my ancient Moving Comfort compression shorts and the Next%’s. Pink Manchester Running Company socks for luck!

The drive to Bethany was uneventful except mentally I was stewing about the Covid situation. I was set to get my vaccine the day after the race, but this weird phase of some people vaccinated, some not, not being quite sure what is safe and what isn’t – This phase can be tough. I promised myself early on not to get angry about who gets vaccinated when and how, because I think there’s a lot of good faith efforts going on. But I haven’t always been able to keep that promise. On the way to the race, I thought of Deena Kastor again: Define yourself. How do I *want* to handle the social aspects around Covid vaccination? I want to grant everyone grace and compassion, including myself. That means grace and compassion for everyone, from the person who “jumps the line” to the person who is too nervous to get the vaccine at all. Most of all to anyone involved in vaccine distribution. So a couple of miles outside of Bethany, I just imagined letting all my anger go and defining myself as someone with a big heart and a lot of compassion on this topic. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stick with that position but I’m sure going to try.

I got to the race with about 45 minutes before start time. Picked up my bib and shirt. Bought some raffle tickets. The port-a-potty line was pretty long so I just bailed in order to have time to warm up. Running out along the course, I still didn’t feel all that great. My watch was again beeping at me for running too slowly. Then it started talking to me, telling me my pace! Screw that. I decided to just use the settings I am used to. Also, my headphones crapped out again. Not sure what is going on with them! I had just enough time for a few drills and strides and then it was time to line up. The first wave was everyone expecting to run under 25 minutes. I had told Coach Mick I was considering lining up at the start of the second wave and he assured me that was a bad idea. So, back of wave 1 it was. The 169 folks were *everywhere*. I chatted with the guy next to me for a minute or two and then we were off.

I’m the one in pink – pretty much all the way at the back!

I was determined not to start too fast, especially since I opted against the pace alert on the watch. I definitely did not want to tell Coach Mick that I had bailed on his suggestion and still screwed up by going out too hot. Not that he would mind, but I would sure mind! I let the entire wave pull away from me, even the nice 169 Towns guy I had been talking to. Some of them will be coming back to me, I thought. I hoped! I peeked down after a couple of minutes and my watch said 7:15. Cool your jets, girlfriend. You are looking for 7:35 at the fastest. I slowed down even more. My watch’s autolap was still going off at kilometers, but I saw the first mile marker at 7:44. A little slower than planned, but better that than too fast.

This is an out-and-back course with literally one turn. With one mile down, I was ready to take it up a notch. And I was feeling better! You never know what will happen in a race. I’ve been reading Alexi Pappas’s memoir and she starts with a poem:

Run like a bravey
Sleep like a baby
Dream like a crazy
Replace can’t with maybe

That last line is brilliant. I tried to latch onto it as a kind of chant. My music had died, again, so I’ll have to figure out what’s going on there, but in the meantime I just chanted “Replace can’t with maybe, replace can’t with maybe” in my head.

There is pretty much nothing interesting about this course. There’s one barn on it, pictured right here. One of the 169 Towns people snapped this. I love that these folks do not know me AT ALL yet they managed to take the exact same race picture that has been taken during so many other races. The Incredible Mervus calls this look “Zombie Fish.” Attractive, isn’t it? Note also, lack of knee drive and how my hips are collapsing. There’s work to be done!

I had thought up some mantras other than “replace can’t with maybe” but none of them came into my head now. Instead, I just chased a controlled 5K feeling. Yesterday in one of my running groups, we talked about whether you can feel joy when you’re racing hard, and therefore feeling miserable. I think you can. That’s what I was hoping for and I found it. At the 3 mile race two weeks earlier, I couldn’t figure out how to race hard. At Colchester, I was just miserable. At Bethany, I found that hard-joy feeling. It’s a little like what I imagine driving a sports car might be like except you pay for all your speed with oxygen.

With about a half mile to go, I spotted a woman ahead of me in green socks. I had no idea how many women were ahead of me, but perhaps not that many. What if she was in third and I was in fourth? Like, for overall female? How crazy would that be! And how pissed would I be if I missed third by a few seconds. I started to push harder. I was already counting in my head, but by now, I could hardly keep track of what number I was on. I tried to think about the form cues I’m working on. Mostly I just chased those green socks and counted down until this race would be over with.

I crossed the line and went and bent over a traffic cone to catch my breath. Oof. After a bit, the guy from the start also crossed and made a similar move with a fence. We both stood there, bent over breathing hard for awhile until we could finally stand up and congratulate each other. These 169 folks are really great and we had a fun talk. Then I went and said hello and thank you to Green Socks for pulling me through at the end!

I met the bear who the 169ers carry along at every race to honor a friend who passed away.

 

 

 

 

I watched an award ceremony for someone who has completed her 100th town. I stood in the sunshine and talked running with a bunch of new friends. I may or may not have consumed a jello shot. So much joy! And, because these things matter to me: 23:08 for my time, 6th overall female, 1st in age group. No award for running, but I did win a $25 gift certificate for ice cream in the raffle!

After the race, I cruised home to pick up Mervus to celebrate. We had pizza and beer at a local brewpub. Yum! No mimosa, but I’ll take one of these stouts any day!

 

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Colchester Half Marathon Race Report 2021

On March 13th I ran the Colchester half marathon, one of my favorite races. I didn’t run the time I was hoping for, but I am so grateful the race happened at all. I got to run that beautiful course on a sunny day with a good friend. And hey, if I’m going to race like a goofball, let’s get all the mistakes out of the way as fast as possible!

Colchester normally takes place the last weekend in February, rain or shine, or more often, snow and ice. It might be the hilliest half marathon in the state. Colchester is cheap, usually around $14-18 dollars. No t-shirt, no medal. But a great post-race lunch and a chance to connect to the local running community. I had assumed it wouldn’t happen at all this year since the Connecticut racing ban wasn’t lifted until March 1st. But when they announced registration opening in mid-February, I signed up almost immediately. This year, no lunch of course, and they knocked the price down to $10. Racing in the time of Covid means you sometimes have to submit an expected finish time so I said 1:48. Pokey was running also and she submitted the same time so we could line up together.

Loyal readers may remember I am not training for a half marathon. I am training for a bunch of 5Ks. When I found out about Colchester, I extended a planned long run from 10 miles to 15. Other than that, I haven’t run more than a couple of 12 milers since early January. Zero long runs at the orchard where I usually train for Colchester. A couple of mid-week rambles around town with some serious elevation. Mostly weekly mileage of around 50 miles per week. In short, completing a half marathon would certainly be no problem. Running a PR was definitely not happening. Colchester has over 900 feet of gain. My previous times at Colchester are 2:04 in 2014; 1:55 in 2016; 1:54 in 2019. Coach Mick noted that my average pace at Colchester 2019 was slower than my average pace at the Chicago full. It seemed to me like a course PR was in the bag and that seemed a reasonable goal. Then I got a little greedy and started eyeing 1:50. High Power Running Mentor #1 later noted that I had no data to support this. That’s true – I didn’t even look at any data. That’s just a nice round number. Coach Mick didn’t think it was crazy as a stretch goal so I decided to go for it. So, 1:50 as the A goal, a course PR as a solid B goal.

I didn’t feel terribly stressed in the lead up to the race. On Saturday morning I had my standard race day breakfast, oatmeal with protein powder, cocoa powder and a banana. I made my protein shake and hippie sandwich for afterwards. Had my coffee. Packed a change of clothes and a couple of alternative shirts in case I changed my mind once I got there. I ran the 3 Miler last week in Hoka Rocket X’s and I decided to try them for this longer race as well. Nothing noteworthy about the drive over. These are the sorts of race preparations I thought might be hard to remember, but actually, they were no big deal.

Setting up the finish line

I arrived at the parking lot right around 8:20 and quickly found Pokey. A quick stop at the port-a-potty and we commenced our warm up. The only thing different from a regular Colchester was that we couldn’t go inside and people were showing up very gradually. The race had wave starts, 50 runners to a wave, two minutes between waves. I didn’t feel wonderful on the warm up. Nothing really bad, just not peppy. It was colder than expected. We had plenty of time to jog for a mile or so, do a few drills and strides, one last stop at the port-a-potty. I decided to stick with my planned outfit: light weight tights, Tracksmith wool long-sleeved shirt, gloves, no hat, Darn Tough socks, of course, plus the Hokas. At least it was warmer than last weekend! I popped a couple of Jet Alerts and shoved two packets of Maurten into my fuel belt.

Pokey and I lined up at the back of our wave. We were in the 1:48 wave, even though our most aggressive goal was 1:50. Part of the new strategy of pandemic racing is that with a staggered start, there’s no worry about getting stuck in the crowd at the beginning, but it can be hard to figure out exactly where to place yourself. Last week, Allegro Fuerte and I were too far back. This time around, Pokey and I should almost certainly have been in a slower wave. Having done it both ways, I would try to line up appropriately, but err on the side of being too conservative. I didn’t take any pictures at the start because the race was really efficient at getting us going. We lined up in pairs, six feet apart in all directions. Once we were in our “corral” it was only a minute or two before we were ready to start and then we were off, almost exactly at 9:04, as planned. For these small races, the staggered starts are so easy to implement and actually improve the starting line experience in a lot of ways. I won’t be surprised if this model sticks around, post-Covid.

I had planned to start at 8:35-8:40 pace, or even 8:45. A 1:50 half is an 8:20 average pace, but it’s often better to start a bit slower and the first three miles of the course are uphill. As the entire wave pulled away from me and Pokey, I said something like “that’s fine, that’s the idea.” I didn’t feel great, but figured it was race nerves. An initial glance at my watch said something like 8:30. Then the first mile split clicked in: 8:06. Hmmmm.

At that point, I *should* have said to myself, I am 15 seconds faster than goal pace. I am 40 seconds faster than a reasonable first mile pace, particularly considering the hill. A smart racer, and I have sometimes been one, would have slowed down. Instead I thought to myself, wow, this feels bad, it’s going to be a long 12 miles. I did slow down some and the next split was 8:34. I said something to Pokey like “I’m not having a great day. If you want to run ahead, go for it.” She said no, we would stick together.

Pokey is the real heroine of this story. We’ve run bunches of miles together, but it’s been hard to get schedules to match up during the past year. We raced a New Year’s Day 5K together in 2019 and 2020 and it was heart breaking that we couldn’t do that in 2021. But Colchester was a kind of replacement, a chance to run with a good friend on a cold day and find some joy. The very best moments of the day were running next to each other, stride-for-stride. Working hard together, enjoying the shared effort. However, a whole lot more often, she was just in front of me, subtly checking on me, refusing to leave me as I struggled, cheering me on at the end. Without her, this race might have turned into a real horror show. So no, she wouldn’t leave me at mile 2, or mile 6, or mile 10 when I begged her not to let me walk, or the long march of miles 11 through 13. She’s seen me suffer before and I’m afraid she saw me suffer on this day also, but I love her for sticking with me.

Anyway, back to that hill. Around mile 3 it’s finally over and Pokey and I looked at each other and said “One down” because we knew there were more hills coming. Running down the hill felt pretty good. I stopped looking at my watch here and that might have been a mistake. Things were going less badly than I thought. The three downhill miles came in at 8:28, 8:17, and 8:06, which is really fine.

13.1 miles is a long time and a lot of time to think. I wish I could say I was filled with the great joy of being able to race again, but that’s not true. Instead, a lot of anger bubbled up. I’m angry at the Trump administration and its handling of the pandemic. I’m angry at people who were hyper cautious and then took off for Florida to get a break from this rough winter. I’m jealous of them too! I wish we had done that! I’m angry at people who judged me for running outside without a mask and I’m angry at myself for caring. I’m angry at people who claimed to “follow science” but really only did so when it served their own previously-formed desires. I’m angry at myself for sometimes being tempted to do the same. I am beyond angry at how school has been for my kids.

I want to rip this pandemic off of us and start the healing but I don’t think it will be that simple.

I’m angry at myself for lacking compassion for people with opinions different from my own. It turns out, I have a lot of anger to burn off and if running a half marathon too hard helps with that, maybe that’s just the way it goes. Maybe I run hard for awhile until there’s nothing left to burn. Honestly, if we could all do that, run and run and run until some of the anger is gone and the healing can start – that wouldn’t be a terrible way to spend the spring.

Even though I remember those thoughts and more, I am not quite sure when I had them. I do know that at the beginning of mile 6 on the Colchester course, you turn a corner and stare up an insane hill. Strava says the steepest part is a 12.6% gradient. People walk on this hill and there were people walking now. We didn’t walk.

The race director was waiting at the top of the hill with a big stuffed hand at the end of a pole for socially-distanced high fives! The top of the hill was also where the race had its one and only water stop. I grabbed a bottle, chugged a bit, and tossed it in the trash. Grab-and-go aid stations are the new norm, but they work fine.

A couple of pieces of record keeping, things I will want to know later. For fueling I had taken along two Maurten gels. I prefer to race with Maurten rather than Gu because it’s easier on my stomach. I don’t usually have nausea at all, but my stomach was a bit off at Colchester. I did end up taking about half a packet of Maurten around five miles and then another half around ten miles when things started to get really ugly. The stomach stuff was nothing serious and I’m assuming it was just from not being used to running that pace for a sustained amount of time. But there’s no way I would have even tried Gu, so I was happy I had the Maurten. I would choose different shoes next time around, however. Partway through the race, the Rocket Xs started to feel really heavy. Maybe they are better for track work. In 2019 I ran Colchester in Vaporflys and that was terrible. Vaporflys have no traction when it’s slippery and sections of this course can be muddy. Next time around, I will try the Next%’s. Mid-race, I was happy to be experimenting with the Hokas now rather than at a goal race.

With all those dark thoughts out of the way (at least for now), miles 6-9 were the happiest ones of the race for me. We still had a long way to go, but at least we were halfway done. This stretch of the course is really lovely. It’s where my favorite barn is, what I consider the prettiest view from any race course in Connecticut. This is also a nice long descent so you finally get a break. I was still hurting, probably more than I should have been, but Pokey and I found that shared-stride feeling pretty often in here. Colchester should be a gloriously joyous race and I found a little bit of that feeling here at least.

I still wasn’t looking at my watch and I wasn’t racing very smart either. Coach Mick had said I should aim for sentences effort, especially early in the race. That would mean that I could get out 1-2 sentences in conversation, though I would prefer not to. I even kind of knew the effort was too great here, but it was like I had lost the ability or the will to make the more serious adjustment that was probably needed.

The last monster hill starts at about 8.5 miles. Pokey noted she had forgotten this one, but I certainly had not. With a starting grade of around 13%, this thing is insane. I just focused on not walking. Not even because walking is always a bad idea on a hill like that but because I was remembering the Westfield 10K of 2019 when I walked. Walking once in a race can open the gate to walking again. It’s like your brain decides walking is an acceptable solution and I definitely did not want my brain thinking that. I ran up the hill, pretty slowly, but running.

What goes up must come down and the descent off the mile 9 hill is truly impressive, dropping 189 feet in a mile. That’s steep enough that you have to be a little careful. Fatigue was also starting to set in in a big way. Around 10.5 miles into this race, it was like the air went out of my balloon. I gasped out to Pokey “Don’t let me walk.” She could tell I was pretty desperate and I didn’t care. I knew the end of the race was yet to come and that it was going to be pretty ugly.

Ugly it was. The last two miles of the Colchester course are uphill. Also, straight, so you can see the hill stretch out before you for the full two miles. As an added bonus, I knew we were going to turn into a stiff headwind, which we did. A race started too quickly. Somewhat undertrained for a half marathon. A steady uphill in windy conditions. How very lovely.

My main process goal for this race was to find the racing mindset again. I just couldn’t get into that gear at the First Chance to Race 3 Miler. It was like driving a car and not being able to press the gas pedal. Colchester was sort of the opposite. I slammed the car into high gear more or less from the start and refused to take my foot off the gas despite empirical evidence that I needed to slow down. Mile 10 or so of a half marathon shouldn’t feel good and uphill into the wind should definitely feel bad. Ok, mission accomplished, because I felt fairly wretched. Now what?

I wanted really really badly to walk. To be completely honest, I wanted to stop and cry and just walk it in. Two miles is still pretty far. But I didn’t walk. Instead, I started remembering how to fight. In Deena Kastor’s book, her coach tells her to go out and define herself. That’s what I had to do now: Define myself. Am I the kind of runner who stops and cries and walks with two miles to go? I am not.

I thought about Coach Mick and how he has often said that he knows I can be really tough at the end of a race. Am I his “toughest runner?” I don’t know – he has a lot of amazing people running for him. But on this long hill, I decided to do my best to earn the title of Sekelsky’s toughest runner. Award ceremonies are currently not legal in Connecticut, so who knows if I won or not!

Finally, I thought about Pokey. A couple of years ago I broke down in the middle of mile repeats, and she got me going again. We finished the workout. I owed it to her not to put her in that position again. She sure didn’t need to deal with a crying and defeated friend in the bright sunshine of a cold spring morning on a beautiful race course. By the last mile, she was actively cheering for me – I’m sure she could see how hard I was working. I counted and counted and counted and finally FINALLY those two miles were behind us. A quick right turn into the finish line and it was done. I was so unbelievably happy to be finished! No cozy lasagna and pizza feast this year. Just a bottle of water, some quick pictures, an actual real hug, and we were on our way.

I’ve thought about this race a lot in the past few days. I’m not going to pretend to have no regrets. If I could do it over, I would certainly do it differently. I wouldn’t start so fast. I would adjust when I realized my mistake. I would probably check my watch more often since I begin to suspect my sense of pace is off after such a long time of not racing. I should stop telling myself I raced stupid, since that serves no purpose but that voice is still there. Maybe some part of me just wanted to see if I still knew how to hurt. It turns out I do, which is good news. Coach Mick assures me that starting a race too hot is a very fixable problem. Thank goodness I have another race next weekend so I get to try again really soon. I would tell a friend that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s just a race, and those things are true. I might tell a friend that the ability to move quickly past a race gone wrong is a good skill to have, and that’s also true. I might even tell a friend, we’ll get ‘em next year and that’s for damn sure true. Colchester, I’m gunning for you. Sub-1:50 next year.

When I got home, I flopped on the couch and talked to my parents. Rose wanted to bake a pie for March 14th (Pi Day) so we did. We ordered pizza and toasted my race and Rose’s fabulous school conference. I believe in celebration!

Racing well can be like playing with fire and at this race, I got a little burned. But last week, I couldn’t even figure out how to get the fire started. Now I know it’s there so let’s see if I can remember how to control it.

 

 

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First Chance to Race in Connecticut 3 Miler

Staying flexible is the name of the game right now. That 4 Mile race in New Hampshire I was planning to do? Too much snow to drive all the way there and back. I did a race simulation at home instead, mostly because I wanted the super cute football-themed race shirt. I also got to try out my new Hoka Rocket X shoes, which I loved. But it wasn’t a real race.

Big news, though. Connecticut has lifted its ban on road races as of March 1st! Hooray!

It should go without saying [yet I feel weirdly obliged to say it….] that these races will have Covid-19 protocols in place. There will be social distancing and masks, etc. etc. Road races this spring will not look quite like they normally do. Yet we’ve known for a long time that transmission of the virus outside is enormously less likely than transmission inside. I was overjoyed to hear that we could race in Connecticut again!

I went with a register-early-and-often strategy and I’m currently signed up for four 5Ks and one half marathon between March 1st and May 2nd. The first race was March 6th, the very first weekend day that races were legal in Connecticut again. Woo hoo!

The “First Chance to Race in Connecticut 3 Miler” is normally the “Last Chance for Romance 3 Miler” but the race director decided March 6th was too long past Valentine’s Day so he re-named the event. He promised coffee mugs as swag “since you all have enough shirts already.” I love a race director with a sense of humor! Allegro Fuerte decided to register also so we could reunite the Dynamic Duo of 5Ks from last spring. YAY! YAY! YAY!

Training has been going……okay. Switching from marathon training over to 5K training was a little bumpy. We’ve been holding at about 50 miles per week, a place where I am currently very happy. I’ve had a couple of really solid track workouts and I bombed a couple as well. Connecticut has had a LOT of snow this year so I’ve done some speed work on a path near the track and some on the road. We had a long string of days where it didn’t get above 20 degrees. It’s often felt like my aerobic capacity dramatically outstripped my ability to get my legs to move quickly, which kind of makes sense, given that I’ve run a lot of easy miles in the past several months and not that many fast ones.

When I talk to Coach Mick about race plans, he often starts by asking what I think I can run, putting the ball squarely in my court. This time around, though, he had a couple of clear recommendations. He thought I should run #nowatchme – in other words, don’t look at pace at all – and he thought my number one goal should be having fun. With the training ups and downs of the last couple of months, it’s hard to predict how fast I might be able to go. Sometimes I’ve run faster than expected by not looking at my watch. Spoiler alert: That wasn’t going to be how this race played out.

The night before the race I was a little nervous, but mostly excited. I made a list of everything I would want at the race and the order I intended to do things in. Rose and I created a special Girl Power Playlist. I got myself to bed on time and slept really well. On race day morning, everything went according to plan. Maybe I remembered how to do this stuff after all. Eat the oatmeal. Pack a protein shake and a change of clothes for after the race. New item for the list: Be sure to bring some kind of mask to wear. Of course, by this point in the pandemic, I’ve got extra masks in my purse, in my car, and in my race bag, so this wasn’t a big deal. I opted for my pink wool buff because it was really cold.

The drive down to Stratford was easy. I listened to a podcast with Molly Seidel and her sister Izzy. They talked a lot about having fun and I thought about Coach Mick’s number one goal suggestion. It’s been a long hard winter. For everyone. We don’t always see the trauma each of us is going through right now. The level of unkindness in the world seems to have escalated at an extreme pace. If I came away from this race feeling sad, what a missed opportunity that would be.

I sometimes pick words to focus on during a 5K and for this race, I chose Control – Joy – Gift. I didn’t want to go out too fast and I know that can easily happen, especially since I haven’t raced in so long. So, start with Control. I went seeking joy, JOY in all caps! The first chance to race! Lastly, I wanted to remember something I’ve told myself since getting past the plantar fasciitis a few years (years!) ago: Every step is a gift.

I arrived at the race nice and early, got parked, found Allegro Fuerte. It was dang cold and windy. Packet pick-up was easy-peasy. The main Covid protocols were that everyone wears a mask and the volunteers had to be outside the whole time. As promised, we could pick between a mug and a t-shirt. Plus, everyone got candy!

We were so early and it was so cold that Allegro Fuerte and I retreated to our respective cars for ten minutes before warming up. I listened to “Unstoppable” by Sia, a new-to-me song selected by Rose for my Girl Power Playlist. I wore light weight tights, my Tracksmith long-sleeved wool top, gloves and mittens, and the Hoka Rocket Xs. Darn Tough socks, as always.

 

Then AF and I went and warmed up. We ran the course backwards to get a look at the hill at the start of the third mile. It was indeed quite noteworthy, but then a nice downhill into the finish. We made a last minute potty stop and I ditched my jacket and hat in the car. I kept gloves and mittens and even added hand warmers because I hate having cold hands. There was time for a quick set of drills and then we lined up!

Instead of cones, they had just dumped spots of flour on the road at six foot intervals. Each flour spot could accommodate three runners. Every ten seconds, a row of runners advanced. I truly don’t mind this kind of staggered start. The very fastest runners – what looked like a crew of high school boys – were all the way up front and the rest of us spread out down the driveway of the park where the race started. It’s actually great to be able to start running immediately without being tangled up with a bunch of other people.

As we approached the start, I turned on my music and…..nothing. I have a Garmin Forerunner 245 *with music* that for some reason was now *without music*. Urg. No Girl Power playlist! Oh well. I prefer to race with music even though it is decidedly uncool, but it wasn’t the first time I’d go without it. I had set my watch to show only time of day so I wouldn’t be tempted to get any information from it while running and I didn’t look a single time.

Allegro Fuerte and I started together, but I fairly quickly pulled ahead. Good! I am coaching him now and trying to get him away from his start-like-a-bat-out-of-hell habit. The course starts with a decent downhill and I ended up passing quite a few people. From a Covid-perspective, this felt fine to me. I don’t know if I was always six feet away from people, but I was certainly always at least four feet away and everyone was moving. We were not required to wear our masks while running and I did not. It definitely “felt like” a real race because it was! Near the bottom of the hill first, I felt like I heard Allegro Fuerte behind me – he later confirmed this was correct. Hmmm, either he is running a tad fast or I am running a tad slow.

I tried to focus on how I felt. That’s the point of #nowatchme and since it turned out I was also running #nomusicme I had no distraction. But I found it hard to figure out exactly how I *should* feel. I ran a trail race on October 31st of last year, but I didn’t race it. Other than that, I haven’t toed a starting line since Jim Thorpe last September and a marathon does not feel much like a 5K. I know there’s what I call a 5K-awful kind of feeling, but I didn’t want to feel that until maybe a mile into the race. I had very little idea how fast I was running, though I was still passing quite a few people. The first mile was supposed to be “easy-peasy, a nice downhill,” which was true, for the first half mile. Then it went back UP hill. We turned right and hit the first mile marker.

The second mile did not turn out to be flat, as had been promised – maybe it would qualify for “New England flat”. But, this mile was for JOY! so I went looking for some. I passed a lot more people. Not hard-core racers – after all, they were up front. A couple of families with kids. Some girls running together and laughing. Lots of runners out working hard on a cold and windy spring morning. I thought about how incredibly grateful I was to be able to do this again, this shared striving, on the same course, at the same time, with bibs pinned to our chests to show that we are willing to put a number to our efforts. Some runners say they feel most alive when they are racing. Sharing this run, at whatever speed each of us happens to be traveling, deepens the experience for all of us, one reason the absence of races has been so hard. To be sure, nothing like as hard as losing your job, or getting sick, or losing a loved one. But losing access to a particular type of joy is a very real loss. For mile two, I focused on feeling that joy as deeply as I could.

The promised “monster hill” at the start of mile three matched the course description completely. Last minute instructions threatened the loss of one post-race granola bar for any cursing on this hill so I kept my mouth shut. I also remembered, every step is a gift, even the steps up this ridiculous hill. To be honest, I knew by now that all this positive thinking was likely a sign that I wasn’t working hard enough. By the start of mile three of a 5K, one should be fighting a tidal wave of despair and I just wasn’t. I crested the hill and one of the very few spectators yelled out “half a mile to go and all downhill!” I did manage to speed up, but I didn’t pass the woman in front of me, though I came damn close! Down the hill, around the corner, into the park, finally over the finish line. I ran directly behind a bush so I could catch my breath for a minute or two before putting my mask back on.

Oldest and youngest finishers!

As I was waiting for Allegro Fuerte to finish, a very small racer came cruising across the line. Turns out he is six years old. The oldest finisher was 95. The winner of the race was 16 and the last finisher was 77. It’s no secret that I think the Connecticut racing ban was ridiculous. Except for an elbow bump with Allegro Fuerte, I touched no one. I was never closer than four feet away from anyone and that was only for a few seconds. This race had 166 finishers, starting three at a time, ten seconds apart. That’s 166 stories getting played out on the course. It’s the high school speedsters coming in at just under 17 minutes. It’s the girlfriends cheering for each other. It’s the families running together. It’s me and a whole lot of other people looking for joy through the process of striving together on a hilly race course on a cold and windy spring morning. I’m so very grateful to get this back.

Oh, my time? 23:40. Good for first in my age group. 6/81 women, 26/166 finishers. Average pace of 7:53. That’s almost a minute a mile slower than where I want to be. And, dear reader, if you think I don’t care about that, you’re definitely not paying attention. Of course I care about that. What needs to happen so I can run faster? More time for 5K training to take hold, a flatter course, better weather, different mindset? Probably all of those things. Now that we are racing again in Connecticut, I’ve got three 5Ks and a half marathon coming up in the next two months so that’s plenty of opportunity to figure it out!

 

 

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Change of Plans

What a month it’s been. Around January 1st, I took some time to look back at last year and try to write up some kind of year-end reflection on the great mess that was 2020. That task threw me into a serious funk and that was *prior* to the little insurrection of January 6th. When everyone said “Winter is coming!” I have to admit – I did not expect an invasion of our nation’s Capitol to be part of the story. I used to work on Capitol Hill and watching those people – I would say those punks, but I have too much respect for actual punks – smash the windows and defile those hallways hit me hard. I can tell writing this that I am still angry about it.

But, January 6th was followed by January 20th. A new President, finally, and the beautiful words of Amanda Gorman to help us climb the next hill. A huge sigh of relief and a breath of hope.

Also, some significant changes in spring running plans. Despite my best efforts, I could not muster any real excitement for training for the Newport marathon. I kept slugging it out on the roads, running through slush, running through some cold grey winter days in Michigan, attempting to run many tempo miles on the streets of West Hartford before finally realizing that my heart wasn’t in it. I had told High Power Running Mentor #1 that the main reason to train for a marathon during a pandemic was because I love marathon training. But I sure wasn’t loving it. So I changed plans.

I toyed with the idea of a half marathon, but even that felt pretty dang far. Instead Coach Mick and I settled on the idea of a 5K training block. I had a lot of fun training for the 10K last spring and I want some of that speed back. I also suspect short distance races are the ones most likely to happen in person and I have no interest in a virtual race. So, 5K training it is. I even have a race coming up – the Super Sunday 4 Miler in Bedford, New Hampshire. Sure, that’s a little longer than a 5K, but beggars can’t be choosers. I’m hunting for an actual 5K later this spring. Fingers crossed.

 

 

 

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New Training Cycle – New Hope – Newport – Berlin!

This week kicks off a new marathon training cycle and even though life is quite weird and sometimes scary and depressing, I am also finding the excitement that comes along with new beginnings.

I am training for the Newport Marathon, which will hopefully take place on April 17th, 2021. I chose Newport before we knew we’d have a vaccine for the coronavirus. I wanted to run a spring marathon between late March and early May and I didn’t want to have to fly anywhere. A small race like Newport is much more likely to happen than larger events. With just under 350 finishers in 2019, Newport is more than twice as big as Jim Thorpe so I’m hoping to have people to run with for more of the race. The racing company, Rhode Races, held several successful events this past fall and they know how to put on a race with Covid protocols. The course is hillier than I would like, but I’ll take what I can get. The race takes place during Newport’s Daffodil Days Festival. I keep imagining myself running past vast beds of daffodils, one of my favorite flowers. It feels like a joyful way to welcome spring.

Official training started Monday with my usual swimming and weights. Tuesday was a more challenging tempo run which I nailed (!), thank you very much. The rest of the week is about getting in some miles while dodging our first big snowstorm of the season. First long run with pacing this weekend.

The first Covid vaccinations were also delivered Monday. I don’t know what the spring will bring in terms of racing or the virus. But new beginnings bring new hope. I planted daffodils and tulips in our yard this fall. I can’t wait to see those little green shoots peek out next spring.

I got more good running news this week. I got into the Berlin Marathon through the lottery! I’ve wanted to run Berlin as long as I can remember. As a scholar of German politics, I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin and I love the city. It’s sort of the underdog of world capitals – a difficult but fascinating history, lingering signs of the division if you know where to look, glitzy consumer capitalism next to neighborhood hangouts. I still remember a long training run in 2013 for the Hartford Marathon when I ran with a much-loved colleague. A dear friend met me in East Berlin with a jacket I never ended up returning. That day, running 16 miles from West to East, the seed of marathoning in Berlin was planted in my mind.

The national elections and the marathon coincided in 2017. The Christian Democrats “won” the elections, but the radical right party, the Alternative for Germany, entered parliament for the first time. It’s also probably the first day I paid attention to Eliud Kipchoge, winner of the men’s marathon. He didn’t run a world record time that day, but he came back to Berlin in 2018 and smashed it, running 2:01:39. Kichoge wasn’t the first to break the record in Berlin. It’s probably the fastest course in the world and the record has been broken 11 times there. I don’t expect to break the world record but I sure would like to break my own. Bring on Berlin!

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