When Two Out Of Three Actually Is Pretty Bad – Another Thyroid Update

Apparently there are three significant things that can go wrong after thyroid surgery: post-operative bleeding, voice impairment, and damage to the parathyroids. I’m not bleeding so I’ve got that going for me! But I managed to get the other two post-surgical complications, which is a huge bummer.

My first issue is problems with my voice. It’s raspy and I don’t have a lot of ability to project. I can’t sing at all, which breaks my heart. I’m also nervous about my ability to give 80 minute lectures beginning in early September. Right now, I can have a one-on-one conversation and I sound weird, but I can be understood. If I’m outside or in a larger group, it’s much harder for people to hear me. However, last week I was able to start voice therapy! Getting an appointment did involve crying in front of the receptionist, but whatever. The therapist I am working with is incredible. She played me recordings of people she has helped, including another professor, and their voices go from almost incomprehensible to perfect. Plus she is amazingly supportive and understands how frustrating it is when your voice is always weird. I am very hopeful about this issue.

The second issue is much more difficult. I currently have a condition called hypoparathyroidism. This condition is rare, serious, and hard to understand. There is no cure. We are hoping to get to a point where it is well managed, but we are not there yet. The parathyroid glands are near the thyroid. In fact, “para” means “with.” But the parathyroids don’t really have anything to do with the thyroid. Sometimes, though, when the thyroid is surgically removed, the parathyroids get upset or “stunned” and they stop working. That’s what happened to me. Because the term hypoparathyroidism tends to make people think the thyroid is involved (when it is not), doctors and patients often refer to this condition as “hypopara.”

Symptoms of hypoparathyroidism include (from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hypoparathyroidism/):

  • a tingling sensation (paraesthesia) in your fingertips, toes and lips
  • twitching facial muscles
  • muscle pains or cramps, particularly in your legs, feet or tummy
  • tiredness
  • mood changes, such as feeling irritable, anxious or depressed
  • dry, rough skin
  • coarse hair that breaks easily and can fall out
  • fingernails that break easily

As might be imagined, none of that is very fun. The symptoms are produced when low-functioning parathyroid glands don’t send enough calcium into the blood. In that way, it’s a little bit like diabetes except it’s about low calcium instead of low blood sugar. However, diabetes is well known. Hypopara is rare enough that your average ER doctor may not have heard of it. That’s relevant because if calcium drops low enough, you have to go to the ER to get calcium intravenously. Also, not a fun idea.

It turns out that muscles need calcium from the blood stream to operate properly. When I run, I get the tingling sensation and the muscle cramps, which can be pretty severe. I’m incredibly grateful that I am able to run at all. Right now, I am taking a lot of Tums as an easy and cheap method of calcium supplementation. I am also taking fancy vitamin D. It’s nothing to do with calcium in my bones and everything to do with calcium in my blood. It’s very much a work in progress.

My doctors disagree about whether the hypopara is permanent or temporary. The only way to find out is to wait. Even if it is temporary, the best guess is that I will have 4-6 months of dealing with it and those months are not likely to be easy.

I very much appreciate prayers and good wishes, especially directed towards getting my parathyroids to wake up.

Oh, by the way, I had Covid. Which is pretty much how it felt compared to this post-surgical stuff.

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Does The World Need To Know About My Thyroid?

It’s my blog so I guess the world needs to know whatever I feel like writing. I have pictures, but I don’t need to post those here.

I’ve had thyroid “stuff” since long before I was a runner. Way back in grad school, my doctor said, hey, we need to check out that lump in your neck. I’m surprised I even had a doctor in grad school. I did have a lump on my neck, thyroid nodules it turned out. We had it biopsied and the results came back benign and I forgot about it. I don’t remember being very stressed about this process, which probably tells you how stressed I was about grad school.

After giving birth to Patrick (aka Aidan), I struggled to lose the pregnancy weight. Eventually I joined Weight Watchers, learned something about nutrition, and the weight came off. After giving birth to Geneva (aka Rose), we went to Germany for the summer so I could do research. The weight fell off and I figured I had found the magical combination: breastfeeding, lots of walking, plenty of cake and beer. The perfect postpartum diet. Except that a few weeks after we came home, I was walking up our basement steps and I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest. My blood pressure was beyond through the roof, at something like 240/160. I was put on beta blockers immediately and within a few weeks, we discovered I had hyperthyroidism, presumably brought on by pregnancy. Because I was breastfeeding, I went on a medicine called PTU. The hyperthyroid symptoms were well controlled. When I quit breastfeeding, I switched to methimazole. We’ve adjusted the dose a couple of times since then, but generally speaking, my labs have been good and I’ve felt fine.

I’ve had thyroid issues for so long that I’ve gone through three endocrinologists. My first one, Dr. Kort Knudsen, was a lovely Oberlin grad and I remember talking about Oberlin a lot more than my thyroid. After he retired and moved to Florida (the nerve!), I switched to Dr. Grace Lee at Yale. Dr. Lee was fine, but I hated everything about going to Yale. I hated the drive. I hated the parking. I hated having to put on a hospital bracelet. I hated it all so much that I sometimes let too much time pass between appointments, which was not very adult of me. Sometimes being a grown-up is hard.

Dr. Lee first began urging me to consider surgery years ago. The thyroid nodules had grown larger. But, we checked them periodically. They were always benign. I figured “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Eventually Dr. Lee changed positions and I switched to Dr. Christine Signore, who is, thank goodness, in Middletown. I changed doctors in summer 2020, mid-pandemic, which wasn’t simple. But we got my methimazole prescription transferred, I eventually met Dr. Signore in person, and I was trucking along again.

The first week of May 2021, I ran a really lousy 5K in Providence. That wasn’t surprising. I’d been running shitty 5Ks all spring, my running fueled by pandemic-inspired rage. What *was* surprising is that I almost feel asleep while driving to the race. I told myself I was tired from a lot of travel, a difficult semester, a weekend in Boulder in the thin air. But then my routine thyroid blood work came back out of whack. I had slipped into a hypothyroid state from too much medication. We lowered my dose of methimazole. Now I think those shitty 5Ks might not only have been due to poor race execution.

In January 2022, we did a CT scan of my thyroid. Dr. Signore had suggested this procedure to get a baseline of how large the thyroid nodules were. I work well with Dr. Signore because she doesn’t tell me what to do. I strongly suspect most endocrinologists would have recommended that I have surgery long ago, but I did not want to go that route. You can always cut, but you can never uncut. The CT scan showed that the thyroid nodules were pushing on my trachea though. We’d done multiple biopsies and countless ultrasounds and thank God, nothing looked like cancer, but the nodules were growing. Eventually, the thyroid would need to come out.

If you’ve ever raced a 5K or done a really hard workout, you know that feeling that there is not enough air in the world. You simply can’t suck it into your lungs fast enough. Now imagine running your hardest, sucking wind like crazy, with the image in your mind of a little lump pushing your windpipe closed. I scheduled a consult with the surgeon in February 2022.

Dr. Signore recommended Dr. Courtney Gibson at Yale and frankly, Dr. Gibson knocked my socks off. She was compassionate and smart. She took time to answer all my questions, and yes, you know there were many questions. She never promised everything would be perfect. These two doctors have unfailingly treated me with respect. They understood that as a professor, I talk and think for a living. A surgery that potentially impacts my voice and my mind is a big deal. They understood that being an endurance athlete is a critical part of my personality, not just a “hobby” and that I needed to know how surgery would impact my running. I talked with them, as well as coaches and mentors, about timing the surgery to minimize the impact on my job and my running. A late May surgery date meant I had time to recover from the Boston marathon and finish the semester. Hopefully I would be sufficiently recovered to attend a professional conference in Portugal in late June. If we got the meds right, I would be able to resume training once recovered from surgery.

Surgery was May 27, 2022, and everything went well. I was really scared beforehand. I did a pre-surgical meditation recommended by a friend and that was really helpful. Other friends brought in dinners and that was amazing. I spent a couple of days flopped on the couch. I was able to start walking for exercise about three days post-surgery. The first ten days or so I did a lot of walking. I was also able to see some students from the class of 2020 who returned for their make-up commencement and I was able to march in Middletown’s Pride parade. I did a short run/walk ten days post-surgery. By two weeks post-surgery, I could run five miles with a short walk break. By a month post-surgery, I was back to running just over 40 miles a week. Easy miles are coming along a lot better than anything speedy, but that’s getting better also.

At 26 days post-surgery, I had my first blood work checked. My TSH was 6.8. We are looking for it to be between .5 and 1.5, preferably around 1.0. I was officially in a hypothyroid state of mind (and body). I was not surprised by that result because I felt tired when I got out of bed in the morning and I was falling asleep watching TV at night. We adjusted medication from 125mcg of levothyroxine to 137mcg.

I find myself saying “we adjusted medication” the same way some runners say things like “we scheduled a 17 mile long run for Saturday” when what they mean is: My coach put 17 miles on my schedule for Saturday. “We” did not adjust the medication dose – Dr. Signore adjusted the medication dose. That’s hard for me to swallow because I hate not being in control. In the week when Roe versus Wade was overturned, I am thinking a lot about bodily autonomy. Who should get to decide how my metabolism runs? Shouldn’t that be my choice? My choice with medical guidance, sure, but it is my body. I should be the one to decide. I suspect many people with defective thyroids are happy to hand over the reins to a doctor. But I know that many people with defective thyroids also believe, usually with a lot of justification, that their doctors do not listen to them and do not take their concerns seriously. So far, I am happy with my medical care, but I actually do think it’s worth contemplating why we don’t have patients make these decisions rather than doctors.

More soon, because if life without a thyroid wasn’t interesting enough, fate decided to throw Covid into the mix as well.

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Spring 2022 Catch-Up

I’m very keen to post a race report for Boston 2022, but that story is not going to make a lot of sense without some background. Since October Boston 2021, I’ve posted exactly twice: Once about a double loop run at Lyman and once about the Run for Refugees 5K. There’s a lot to catch up on!

The biggest change is not working with Coach Mick anymore. Coach Mick is an incredibly dear friend and I think he will always be what I call the “coach of my heart.” Maybe I will call him Coach Emeritus. In any case, by late fall 2021, it was time for a change. I had started working with a new coach at the end of November, but it didn’t work out. I learned a lot from him, but we were not a good match. We parted ways in mid-February, about nine weeks before Boston. I decided to finish the Boston training cycle with a plan from a friend and advice from Coach K.

That sums up the coaching changes, but there are a couple of races and a significant side project to talk about. Pokey and I were able to return to our New Year’s Day tradition of racing the Colchester 5K. I stayed up until 1:30am New Year’s Eve, eating enormous quantities of cheese and chocolate fondue, and drinking not-small quantities of champagne. I should *not* have been surprised to run my slowest 5K in years (26:09), but I sort of was. Most aspects of the Colchester 5K were delightful. Pokey and I always have fun together and this race was no exception. It was great to see her! It also marked the first time I got in a car with someone I wasn’t related to without a mask and without really thinking much about it.  I saw Fast Friend running with her daughter and I went back out on the course and ran them in. I actually checked all the boxes on my list of pre-race preparations. Pretty much everything about the race was great, except my time, which was a real wake-up call.

After six weeks of actual training (funny how that works), plus a much-improved pre-race fueling and hydration plan, I raced the Run for Refugees 5K on February 13th and ran 24:02. After that race, I transitioned to the new training plan. I loved the new plan! But…..more miles, more intensity, bitter cold, somewhat worn-out shoes, inadequate recovery, bad luck…..can anyone guess where this is headed? The following Saturday, my anterior tibialis flared up during my long run and I had to cut an 18 miler short at 9 miles. I was able to see the Maestro, my amazing physical therapist, the very next day. He did some dry needling, provided some general TLC, and gave me some new exercises. I transitioned to pool running, regular swimming and spin biking. Nine days later I was able to run pain-free. It really pays to have a support system in place to address an injury immediately.

Speaking of that support system, probably the best thing I did this spring was seek out the help of a sports psychologist. High Power Running Mentor #1 had advised me to do this last fall and, he was right, as usual (as much as it pains me to admit it). Most people in this blog get goofy nicknames, but Aisyah Rafaee would like to be found so she can help other people. I’d like her to be found too, because she’s amazing. Here’s her email: arafaee@springfieldcollege.edu

Runners know that running, life, and identity are often deeply connected. The pandemic took a toll on lots of people, including me. I was angry, actually often furious, and also somewhat lost. Whether or not that anger was justified, it wasn’t healthy and it wasn’t helpful. Aisyah helped me figure out how to put it aside. She also helped me regain some of my confidence in running and racing. That’s still a work in progress and probably always will be, but it’s also the biggest win of the spring training cycle.

Two weeks after the anterior tibialis issue cropped up, I ran the Gate River Run 15K in Jacksonville, Florida. Pain free! I didn’t end up writing a race report for the Gate River Run, mostly because life just got too crazy. But I also felt in a weird place with my running. Coaching switches. An injury right before the race. Head maybe not quite in the right space. A few highlights of the race include hanging out with Diamond and her girls before the race and seeing Galen Rupp come out of a porta-potty right before the start. The race itself – well, moving from 5 degree weather in Connecticut to 65 degree weather in Florida doesn’t do one’s performance any favors. I was nauseous almost the entire race and any time I tried to run faster, I felt sure I was going to puke. I decided to stick with my lifetime no-barfing streak. I was incredibly grateful that the anterior tibialis issue didn’t flare up at all with the race. I ran 1:22:31 (an 8:53 pace per mile). That’s something like 5 minutes slower than my PR, but I took some good things away from the race. Mostly I remembered that I know how to fight when it gets hard. The top 10% of finishers at Gate get a special hat and OF COURSE, I desperately wanted the hat. When I got to the big bridge in the last mile, I focused on passing as many people as I could to beat them to the hats. I got one!

The rest of the visit to Jacksonville was spectacular. I stayed with Coach Mick and his wife. I got to see a lot of friends. We spent a day playing tourist in Saint Augustine. A fantastic mini-spring break getaway.

Back in Connecticut, I got a couple more weeks of training under my belt. The Librarian and I did a solid 20 miler together, finishing in a whirlwind of sleet. The weather was atrocious, but we hit our planned marathon pace miles!

I had been planning to run the New Bedford Half on March 20th, but I almost bailed on it. With the switch in training plans, the injury, the Gate River Run – it was feeling really hard to build momentum. I considered staying home and focusing on training. On the other hand, as High Power Running Mentor #1 put it, having a not-great race is not a very good reason for racing less, and might be a good reason for racing more.

Ultimately, I decided to race New Bedford and I’m so glad I did. I had a couple of friends also doing the race and it was fun to hang out with them. Mervus and Rose agreed to come along to cheer and we had a great day. I really enjoyed the course and New Bedford has some great brewpubs plus a bakery at the finish line! I’d be happy to do this race again. I ran 1:52:28 (average pace of 8:35 – almost 20 seconds a mile faster than at Gate and for a longer race. Weather matters!).

The best thing about New Bedford wasn’t my time, though. It was miles 7 through 10. Those miles are on the waterfront and it was very foggy. I could only see about 10 to 20 feet ahead of me so I just stared at the yellow road dividers and the cones they had set up to keep the runners separate from traffic. Something about the fog and the lines clicked something in my brain and I fell into what I have to describe as flow state – my world narrowed to those yellow lines and the movement of my body. I was working hard, but I felt completely calm. Everything in my world was as it should be. I’ve been able to find that state of mind before when running, but not in a long time. I just relaxed, did not look at my watch or worry (much) about pace, and focused on holding onto that feeling for as long as possible, which turned out to be about three miles. Then we turned away from the water, the sun burned off the fog, and everything felt difficult again. But those three miles were worth an entire season of running. My mind grabbed onto that feeling and I was able to get back there on the marathon pace miles of my long runs in the following weeks. It wasn’t easy, but with Aisyah’s help, I developed (and re-discovered) a series of mental tools that I can use on race day when things get hard.

I did one more race this spring – the Middletown 5K. I walked with my family to support Gilead Community Services, a local mental health organization. I had the honor of serving on Gilead’s race committee this year and we held our post-race meal at First Church. You can tell from the smiles in the top picture that it was a great day!

That’s where things stood with my running heading into Boston. A strange training cycle, but ultimately a turning point.

 

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Run for Refugees 5K 2022 Race Report

January was one hell of a month. Maybe I will just leave it at that. February is going a lot better so far!

Yesterday I ran the Run for Refugees 5K in New Haven. The race benefits IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services), an organization that helps settle refugees in Connecticut. When refugees arrive, they often have no money, no possessions, and don’t speak English. IRIS helps new arrivals with housing, basic needs, and employment. They help with language classes, getting kids into schools, and legal assistance. IRIS aims to assist refugees with becoming self-sufficient through integration into Connecticut’s local communities. The organization welcomes newcomers and celebrates the many ways they enrich life in our state. I love this organization and I love this race.

After a not-so-stellar 5K on January 1st (cheese, chocolate fondue and champagne are not great racing fuel – who knew?), I was eager for another shot, though also a little nervous. But I definitely didn’t want to miss this race, even when the weather turned snowy on race day.

Mervus and Rose were able to come spectate for the first time since last summer. We were meeting Chewie there and she and I warmed up in snow globe conditions. The snow was beautiful, the road surface was clear enough, and the wind not terrible – it could certainly have been worse!

Run for Refugees has one of the best starts I’ve ever experienced. The folks from IRIS talk about how many families they’ve helped settle in Connecticut in the past year. The politicians speak (briefly!) about the importance of the organization. New Haven’s mayor even ran the race this year! Instead of the national anthem, they kick off with a poem about a refugee running to a safe haven. It’s the most racially and ethnically diverse starting line I’ve seen. One guy wore a shirt stating “Will Trade Racists for Refugees” – Love that! They rang the “Liberty Bell” and off we went!

I had planned to start at a 7:45 pace and see how I felt after a mile. That’s a slow 5K pace for me, but I haven’t been doing much faster running and it would at least be faster than the January 1st debacle. I straight-up swiped Chewie’s race mantra and broke the three miles into Strong Legs, Strong Mind, Strong Heart. Strong Legs and thinking about the good work I’ve been doing in the weight room got me through the first mile, which clicked off at 7:49. Mervus and Rose were waiting near the mile marker so I got great support from them!

The second mile is two long straight-aways. Strong Mind reminded me to stay focused. For this race, I looked at my watch and if my pace slipped more toward 8:00 minute miles, I sped up. I wasn’t able to go a lot faster, but the second mile came in at 7:41. Mervus and Rose were there again to cheer me on!

Mile three goes back around the park again. I was working hard, but it felt sort of like I was running with the brakes on. Hopefully that was the feeling of some of the rust coming off! I ran as hard as I could, thinking Strong Heart, don’t stop even though you so badly want to, it will be over soon!

I had told Chewie to imagine that her friend, Fast Tony, would be waiting for her at a yellow gate to chase her for the last kilometer. In reality, Fast Tony is back in Massachusetts, presumably enjoying Sunday brunch, but in my mind, when I got to the yellow gate, he was there waiting to chase me! He followed me all the way down the last stretch! Apparently he’s plenty fast enough to double back and also go after Chewie because she reported he was after her as well. Well, joke’s on you Fast Tony (or, maybe thanks for your services…), because I finished strong (last mile in 7:39) and Chewie ran a huge PR!

I ended up running more than two minutes faster at the Run for Refugees compared to the Colchester Resolution Run (26:09 versus 24:02). Non-idiotic fueling, some actual sleep the night before, and a few weeks of faster running definitely helped. But I’ve also been floundering a bit with my running for several months. I’m hoping that as we crawl our way slowly out of the pandemic, I’m starting to get back on track. One thing is clear – I did *not* forget how to execute the post-race brunch!

 

 

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December Double Lyman Loop

This run was a gift; that’s appropriate for December. The orchard run is a 7 mile loop with about 600 feet of elevation gain. Doing a double loop is considered a significant feat of badassery. Today my plan was the first loop solo and the second loop with two friends. Weather: grey, rainy, mid-30s, expected high winds at some point, not exactly ideal. But while I was driving to the run, “Wagon Wheel” came on the radio so:
“Rock me mama like the wind and the rain”
Let’s get after it.

The first mile of this run is entirely uphill, but it’s nothing like as steep as what is coming so it’s easy to think “Wow, this sucks, and it’s going to get so much worse!” That’s not a good approach. You have to take these hills one at a time. I try to pretend this first one isn’t happening at all. I was listening to a band called Relient K and the lyrics to their song “Merry Christmas, Here’s to Many More” say:
“I need to realize my sorry life’s not hanging by a thread
At least not yet.”
So: up the hill.

At the two mile mark, you turn a corner and see the real hill, which looks to be pretty much straight up. There’s no ignoring this one. It’s got three stages so just take them one at a time. When you get to the top, the view is the payoff. Sometimes you can see for miles. Today was so misty that it was like being on the top of the earth. I stopped for a quick picture.

Then the big descent, which actually is still rolling hills, but a lot more down than up. I picked up my friends for the second loop. Flood had never done this run before and it’s extra fun with a first-timer. The weather had shifted and we ran through patches of warm air, at least 15 degrees warmer than the average temp, which was strange and unworldly. Flood powered up the hills like the champ she is and we took another picture at the top. Spring is the best season for this run when the trees are blooming but it’s good any time of year except summer when it’s too dang hot.

Back down again. As you approach the driveway to the parking lot, there’s a corn field. Obviously there’s no corn in December, but it looked like someone had planted Canadian geese. The field was chock full of them – I’ve never seen so many so close together. As we ran past, the whole field took flight, honking their way into the air. Proprunner said the whole run was worth that sight and she’s totally right. As we turned into the parking lot, the mist was hanging so low it looked like you could reach out and grab it. We spent ten minutes in the store buying donuts and when we came out, the mist was totally gone.

I feel a little sorry for anyone who didn’t start their day with a run like that. I love to train and I want to run fast. But more than anything, I want a lot of mornings like this in my life, with hills and mist and friends and geese. And donuts, of course.

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Boston 2021 Race Report, Part 2

I slept pretty well the night before the race. The hotel had kindly provided a hot water heater so it was easy to make my oatmeal in the room. Diamond and I were a little nervous and giggling getting ready, but no significant hiccups. We walked over to the Boston Common to get on the bus. Walking through the Public Garden was magical. It was misty and runners were everywhere. We saw one very fit looking guy just sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich, which struck us as hilarious for some reason. We had decided to talk to lots of strangers, as instructed in church, so we were doing our best to spread joy along the way. The wait for the bus passed quickly and soon we were on our way.

But to where exactly? We had been driving quite awhile when we turned off the highway, but the starting line didn’t seem to be coming into view. It turns out the bus took the wrong exit and we were lost! This could have been irritating but we decided just to laugh about it. The bus driver finally got it figured out and eventually we arrived at the starting line.

Coach Mick and I had talked about a range of approaches for the race. I considered all-out racing it, but it felt too soon after Berlin. I also considered a full-on party marathon, but that didn’t seem right either. I ended up settling on running the first 21 miles easy and then seeing what I had left for the last 5. This is a great strategy for Boston anyway and an especially great strategy if you are pretty clueless about how your legs are going to hold up. Diamond has spent the last six months moving and her training has been – let’s call it erratic. Badass Boomer was also interested in something along the lines of 21 easy / 5 hard and we agreed to meet at the start. Badass Boomer and Diamond had never met, but I was certain they’d get along. Thus, our trio was born.

It was a rolling start this year so you just got off the bus, took care of whatever you wanted to, and went to the starting line. They had the biggest collection of portapottys I have ever seen. We did our business and found Badass Boomer. I did my usual dynamic warmup, we snapped some more pictures, and headed to the start. Everyone was so so happy to be back! No starting pistol or anything like that. We just decided we were ready and started running.

Even without an exciting start, the Boston course is pretty magical. The early miles are downhill and we reminded each other to keep it in check. Badass Boomer’s coach had given her words for different sections of the course. Our first word was “Conserve.” We saw Spencer the dog at mile 3 and Badass Boomer even got a picture! Every time we crossed a timing mat, Diamond said something like, that’s another message into the world. She and Badass Boomer were high fiving kids and thanking volunteers and cheering up a storm. I was quieter. I definitely gave out some high fives, but I was a little worried about how the race would go and I really didn’t want to fade at the end. Badass Boomer seemed to know people at every water stop and loads of the other runners too! This really is her hometown race!

Badass Boomer wanted to hear about my Berlin race so I told her how I had lost track of why I was running the race and how that made it incredibly difficult. It was a gift to have the chance to review my reasons for running on this course, with these friends. When you’ve got 26.2 miles to run, you don’t rush any of the story telling so we savored each of my reasons, my 5Gs: Glory, God, Girls, Geeks……I couldn’t think of the fifth one, though of course Geneva came to mind. Then I hit on it – Gratitude, of course. Gratitude for the ability to run, for everyone who supports me, for the beauty of this activity. Just then we ran by a small lake to our right. Soaring back and forth across the lake was a heron, just taking its time. Out for a flight on an incredible October morning. Transcendent. I’ll never forget that sight. A gift I’ll be forever grateful for.

The B.A.A. provided a lot of information on how to handle Covid, but the funniest was this instruction: “Because of Covid protocols, please do not kiss any strangers at the halfway mark of the race.” Um, ok. Kissing strangers elsewhere on the course would be fine? In any case, the Wellesley girls were out in full force! No kisses offered, but plenty of high fives and awesome signs. A seemingly endless row of beautiful strong inspiring funny young women and I high fived as many as I possibly could. They were all out there, with their smiles and their screams and their signs! As we ran past the end of the line, Diamond said: There’s your girls. For sure. I run for them.

Photo by Hilary Swift for the New York Times

Shortly after the scream tunnel is the halfway mark. I checked our split: 1:57. Of course, one question in all our minds was whether we could break 4 hours. I wanted very much not to worry about this question. How I executed this race was much more important to me than the time on the clock. Boston is a tough course to get right. After not running how I wanted to in Berlin, I was looking for redemption of some sort in Boston. 1:57 meant under 4 hours was not out of reach, but that’s not a lot of buffer either. In order to come close to evenly splitting the race, we’d have to be very solid on the uphills that were starting soon. The forecast of mid-60s and high humidity was proving correct. It was nothing like Berlin conditions, not even close, but it was plenty warm especially when the sun poked out. Plus I could feel the fatigue in my legs. I wasn’t sure sub-4 was out of reach, but I reminded myself that that wasn’t the big goal today. I wanted to enjoy the race and finish strong.

I had another reason to run this race well. In talking to Rose and Mervus the night before, Rose asked me who I was running the race for. I didn’t have an answer. I suppose I always run for myself, trying to figure out who I am, how I react when facing a challenge. I was quiet after her question and then Mervus said: Run this one for me. He’s never asked that before. He’s one of the most generous people I know and actually barely ever asks for anything. This race was for him and after the halfway mark, that was never far from my mind. A good race for my absolute treasure of a husband.

Miles 14 and 15 slipped along and then the steep drop into Lower Newton Falls and the hills were about to begin. As Diamond would want me to point out, no section of the Boston course is really flat. It’s “New England flat” – which is pretty much rolling hills the whole time, with a few big downs and the famous four Newton hills. When Diamond and I ran this race in 2019, we also started together and we stayed together for about 17 miles before she got a bad calf cramp and had to slow down. On this day, I felt like I was the weakest link in our three-person chain. Badass Boomer and Diamond had continued their high fiving and thanking everyone routine while I felt like I had better run more within myself. Every now and then I thought: I am not going to be able to stay with them. I have to not let it crush me when I get dropped. Then I would think: Don’t lose contact. No wait – Deena Kastor said in her book to phrase everything positively, so: Maintain Contact! I’ve run with these two women enough to know that Diamond was also working. On the other hand, Badass Boomer truly seemed as fresh as a daisy. I’m not sure she was even sweating! Good for her!

We crossed the route 128 overpass between miles 16 and 17. When we watched the course video the night before, Diamond had noticed that Michael Connor, one of the commentators, took on the role of pronouncer of doom and gloom. He constantly warns the viewer of the various hazards on the Boston course, including the overpass where you are exposed to the elements. As we crossed over Diamond said something like “Now the fiery sun beats down on you like you’re in hell and you are BURNED TO ASH!” It’s really hard to laugh when you’re 17 miles or so into a marathon, but I definitely let out a little chuckle. Laughs on you, Mr. Connor, because we made it across intact.

A note on water and fueling. Same plan as usual, I take a Maurten gel every 30 minutes, alternating between caffeinated and non-caffeinated. With Boston’s late start, I had my usual oatmeal and Maurten 360 drink, but then also a honey and banana sandwich on the bus. Between the pasta dinner the night before and then the hotel snack-fest, we went into this race well fueled. I *highly* recommend that. Boston has water stops every mile. I would normally only stop at every other stop, but with the warmer temps, I stopped most times for a small sip or two. By mile 15, I was dumping water on my shoulders. Shortly after that, my Boston Buddies tank came off.

Up the hills and then also DOWN the hills, remembering to give it some gas on the downs. Badass Boomer had pulled a little ahead by now, maybe 50 feet in front of us, but Diamond was still right with me. On the hills!!! She lives in Florida and manages to get all of 18 feet of elevation gain on a 16 mile training run. The Boston hills kind of sucked her soul last time around, but here she was right next to me! HOORAY! It’s glorious to run a marathon with a good friend by your side.

We weren’t exactly “zooming” up and down the hills, but we were solid. I wasn’t looking at my watch except to get mile splits and I managed to remain pretty neutral in response to them. I think that was important to my being able to continue to stay relaxed. On the hills, it’s definitely important not to care too much about individual splits. I had no real way of knowing if we were still potentially on sub-4 pace and I was fairly good about not caring about that either. Late into the hills, a chant got into my head: I control this course. I control this course. I control this course. That was critical. In Berlin, I lost control and it did not feel good.

By now we were cruising up Heartbreak Hill where I was expecting to see a college friend. Our spectators mean so much to us. At least to me – they give me a destination that is closer than the finish line, so I was running for mile 20.5, hoping to see him. I didn’t find him, but it still helped to have something to aim for.

By now, I was really working. All the way through this race and even up the hills I had been thinking: Ok, the plan was 21 easy and 5 hard, but that’s probably not happening on this day. Just keep it steady. You really don’t want to be walking those last 5 miles. Steady pace is fine if picking it up doesn’t happen.

Then at the top of Heartbreak hill, a switch flipped. Game on! Time for five hard miles. I was able to speed up after all. I probably passed Badass Boomer in here somewhere because we had lost track of her. Diamond came with me. For most of the race, I had been letting the rhythm carry me, but now I was definitely in charge of the action. Nothing beats running Boston and having energy in the tank at the end. Forward lean, power down the hill. FUN! I had forgotten that there are a couple of turns in the course here [and railroad tracks to trip on, reminds Michael Connor]. But we weren’t tripping. We were just pushing and rolling right down the hill!

By mile 22, I stopped taking water and fuel. I expected to see another friend around mile 23, but missed him too. No problem, we were rolling! Unfortunately, there was one more hiccup to come. Around mile 24, Diamond started having trouble getting her breath. She has asthma so that’s serious. She stopped and did some power breathing while holding the fence. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I stop and try to help her? I was pretty sure she would want me to keep going. Just then “Good as Hell” came on my playlist. That’s our shared theme song! I knew it was her way of telling me to keep running, which I did. But I was SO happy when she caught back up a few minutes later, panting out, let’s finish what we started. WOOT!

That stretch down Commonwealth just goes on forever. Someday, some Boston, I’ll remember to look at the street names so I can count them down. On this day, I relied on my old standby of counting, counting, counting while looking for the damn underpass. FINALLY I saw it. Down and up! We took the turn onto Hereford and I heard someone yell “SARAH!” It was a former student! She had said she would be on the course, but I didn’t think she’d find me without more planning. SO fun to see her!

The section on Boylston feels so long. I had been pulling Diamond on the downhills but she was pulling me now. My legs felt like they were running through mud. Still – this is a glorious stretch of racing! I felt the crowds and heard the cheers. I had known back at mile 25 that sub 4 was out of reach, but I could see now that we could get under 4:05 so we kicked it into gear a little more, Diamond urging me on. We crossed together at 4:04:48, exactly the same time!

The rest of the day was fantastic. Once I had caught my breath, we returned to the hotel to shower and commence celebrating. Phone calls home, high fives, race memories, pizza and ice cream, seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Boston doesn’t disappoint. See you again next April.

 

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Boston 2021 Race Report, Part 1

Boston 2021. It’s taken me a long time to finish this race report, so it’s kind of old news at this point. But I write these things primarily for myself and it turns out, I need to finish this one, so here goes.

I’ll start like I usually do – why this race and how did training go? The Berlin marathon was my goal race for the fall, no doubt about that. But when Boston registration opened, I was immediately tempted. The hype around Boston is irresistible! Then I saw this year’s jacket, which is gorgeous. Then a local acquaintance made a comment about how I “could always run it virtually” – because he apparently could not imagine I had a qualifying time (of over 10 minutes, actually). That comment got under my skin. Anyway, I had already signed up for Berlin as my bucket list race, and Wineglass as my back-up race, so what’s one more marathon registration? I signed up for Boston too and got in! It took a long time for the situation in Berlin to clarify and I was grateful to have Boston as a “back-up” – which felt pretty dang weird.

Then, of course, I did run Berlin. I was initially unsatisfied with my race there so I toyed with the idea of racing Boston, but with only two weeks in between, that seemed a bit risky. Younger runners might be able to get away with that. Runners with more experience running back-to-back marathons might be able to get away with that. I was not convinced that *I* could get away with that and as Diamond told me several times, that was what mattered most.

Ah, Diamond. My soul sister who I met in person at Boston 2019. Being so focused on Berlin, I had not really done a lot of logistical preparation for Boston. But when I asked, she kindly offered to let me crash in her hotel room. THANK YOU! Lucky me, getting to spend almost the entire weekend with this amazing friend!

I have no idea how to “train” for a marathon two weeks after a marathon, but luckily that’s why Coach Mick is in charge. Everything I read about attempting this bit of insanity emphasized that recovery is much more important than anything else and that sleep is the best recovery. So I trained for Boston by trying to sleep as much as possible. Otherwise, I did some hiking and swimming, a few easy runs, and one set of 4x1200m at tempo effort the Wednesday before the race. The farthest I ran was about 6.5 miles.

When I ran Boston in 2019, we turned it into a family affair, but I knew that wouldn’t work this time around. Still, Rose and Mervus came in for the day on Saturday. Rose really loves Boston and the Boston marathon so I wanted to make a great day for her. Plus, she’s become a huge fan of the TV series Cheers so she had her own big goal for the weekend. Visit Cheers!

We arrived just before lunch on Saturday. While Mervus picked up our food, Rose and I went to get my proof of vaccination bracelet. Suddenly the finish line came into view. I immediately teared up. The Boston finish line is sacred ground for runners. When the race organizers repaint the line, they post it on social media. Superstition says if you are running the marathon, you should not step on the finish line prior to the race. More than anything, the finish line was proof: We were getting our race back. As Neil Diamond says in Sweet Caroline: So good! So good! So good!

The vaccine verification was quick and easy. Mervus had our food by the time Rose and I got back. We had a picnic lunch in the Public Garden with the 45s, a group of some of my good running buddies. So fun to catch up with everyone in person! Then we hit the expo. It was soooooo much smaller than in previous years, but we had been warned about that. We still got some good pictures and some merch, of course!

Lastly and most importantly, we went to Cheers for dinner. In 2019, we met up with the Boston Buddies at Cheers and Rose loved it when the gang cheered for a friend as she walked in the door. Just like  when “NORM!” shows up in the bar on the show. I was a little worried that dinner and a gift shop might not live up to her expectations, but boy was I wrong. I think she took a picture of everything in the bar and she loved the “Clam Chowda.” After dinner, it was time for Mervus and Rose to head home and we said good-bye near the Boston Commons parking garage where we had parked. Oof. It was really hard to see them go. But I met up with Diamond and a bunch of running friends at Trillium and that helped a lot.

Diamond – how to describe her? She said it best in her race report. We met online in the lead-up to Boston 2019. Our BQ times were identical and it turned out we had sequential bib numbers. She’s a butterfly chaser and a dog-petter who finds joy everywhere. I’m an analytical over-thinker. But somewhere underneath all that stuff, it’s like she’s the sister I never had. Such joy to spend the weekend together!

We started Sunday with a shakeout run with her coaching group. Three and a half miles or so around the Charles River, and the chance to greet some old friends and make some new ones.

We finished on time for the main event of the morning, the Blessing of the Athletes at Old South Church. Diamond and I attended this service together in 2019 also and it’s a highlight of the weekend. For Indigenous People’s day, they started the service with a Nipmuck song. Then the sermon was about how Jesus asks us to welcome strangers. The city of Boston must have got a heads up on that message because everyone was SO welcoming. The man who started the service explained that the race travels from Nipmuck territory to the territory belonging to the Massachusetts tribe – knowing that felt so integrating and good.

After church, we made our now-traditional outing to Finagle-A-Bagel, Diamond’s favorite Boston food source. Then a “quick” [??] stop at the New Balance store for yet more Boston gear and back to the hotel to chill. I am happy to say there was no last minute bib correction necessary in Boston and I did a much better job relaxing on the day before the race. We had an early dinner at Maggiano’s with the Ginger Metronome and friends. I even ran into High Power Running Mentor #1 on the street while fetching some snacks at CVS!

We were back at the hotel by about 7pm, which was perfect. Diamond and I agreed that extra-early dinner pre-marathon is the way to go. We spent a couple of hours snacking, watching the course video, laying out our flat runners, talking to our families, trying to avoid getting too nervous. Lights out just after 10pm, which was great because we didn’t have to wake up until 7am.

 

 

 

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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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