It’s been a truly crazy few months with a lot of unfortunate medical developments. However, I’ve been able to keep running and I’ve even returned to racing. On September 11th, I ran the Surftown half marathon in 1:57:44. I’ve run Surftown seven times now, including the inaugural version of the race. I last ran it in 2019 when the world was a very different place. It’s my favorite half and I was so glad to be back!
This year, I am coming back from thyroid surgery. This process is proving more complicated than expected because of various post-surgical complications (see previous blog posts). Surftown was my second race since the surgery in May. I decided if I could run a faster pace per mile at Surftown than I did at the Blessing at the end of July, I would consider it a success. Mission accomplished! I also very much wanted to run under two hours. Mission accomplished again! I remain a little shocked that sub-2 is my “mission” given my PR of 1:44, but at the same time I am incredibly happy to hit that mark. Adjusting expectations on the road to recovery is a tricky thing.
There were six weeks in between the Blessing and Surftown. During that time:
- I switched coaches (Coach #5 in 2022. I realize this is getting ridiculous. Hoping very much that this one sticks.).
- Our family took a two week trip to Boulder to drop Aidan off at college.
- I spent two weeks dealing almost non-stop with medical stuff.
- Rose started high school.
- Blissfully, Wesleyan’s semester started and life started to get back to whatever “normal” is going to look like right now. Whew.
My new coach, who really has to be known as the Maverick, does pre-race phone calls (YAY!) so we talked on Thursday. We are still getting to know each other, but we had a good talk. He recommended focusing on effort, which is of course the right approach and he reminded me that my family and friends would love me regardless of the time on the clock. I know that, but it’s still nice to hear.
He also helped me nail down a calcium strategy. At the Blessing, I took a lot of Tums before the race and then also one every 2.5 miles. This past week I seemed to be having fewer calcium symptoms so we agreed that I would try to take the Tums with a gel every 30 minutes. Of course if I got tingling, I’d have to take more. I ended up taking a Tums when we arrived at the race (an hour before start time), then right at the start, then every 30 minutes as planned. I had a little tingling around 1.5 miles, but nothing serious. The calcium situation is SO much better than it was six weeks ago. I’m still taking quite large doses of calcium, but my levels are stable now so I am a lot less worried about potentially ending up in the ER. I really really really really really hope I can back off the current calcium regimen eventually. Besides being a pain in the ass, taking large amounts of calcium can lead to all kinds of issues down the line, such as kidney stones and cataracts plus a lot of other horrible stuff. But stable calcium beats not stable calcium every which way so I’m super grateful for stability at least. And if Tums is offering any running sponsorships, I’m all ears.
The plan was to run this race with the Maestro, my good friend, physical therapist, and, since last spring, also one my athletes. He’s training for the Hartford marathon so Surftown is a perfect prep race. To my complete delight, he decided we should run Surftown together. I have no doubt that he is currently faster than I am, but he insisted we run together and I loved the idea.
With a calcium plan, a plan to run with the Maestro, a plan to run by effort – things were falling into place. The workouts I did in the two weeks leading up to the race made me think I could maybe handle an 8:30-8:45 pace if I was prepared to really suffer during this race. But I knew I was not. I’m pretty good at running hard when I’m mentally ready, but it’s been a hell of a summer. I’m just getting back my race brain and remembering how to work hard while running. I’m learning (again) that it’s a process and it doesn’t have to happen all at once. At the Blessing, I remembered how to stay in control and pace smart instead of running like an idiot. I also made a conscious choice not to run that hard because I didn’t feel like the calcium situation was sufficiently under control. At Surftown, I was confident in the calcium plan and it was time to start working on mental fitness.
On race day, our gang woke up at 4:15am to get ready. Mervus and Rose are really troopers! I had my usual oatmeal and coffee plus a banana. By 5:15am, the Maestro was at our house and by 5:30am we were all in the van heading out. Rose napped on the way – smart girl. We pulled into the parking lot at 6:30am and it was noticeably less crowded than in 2019. I checked later and the half marathon had 948 runners in 2019 and only 639 this year. I have no idea if that’s still a Covid effect or something else. Surftown remains a great race!
Allegro Fuerte also ran Surftown but he was already warming up by the time we got situated with the port-a-pottys. The toilet paper situation left something to be desired but post-Covid, I always have TP in the car so we were fine. The Maestro and I ran just over a mile and then did some strides. This was definitely NOT too much time – we actually started running the warm up at 7am and it would have been better to start 10 minutes earlier. The strides felt good, but I was also already pretty sweaty after the warm-up so I passed my singlet along to the Incredible Mervus. In my 2019 Surftown race report I note that it was only my second race in just a sports bra. Wow. That’s certainly changed in the last 3 years!
Keeping busy during the race
The Hartford Marathon Foundation switched up the course this year. Surftown is a double lollypop with an eastern and western loop going out from Misquamicut State Park. The old course finished with a loop around Watch Hill, which included a hill at the 10 mile mark, but also a nice downhill finish. The new course heads out to Watch Hill first and takes a different, less steep route up the hill. I probably have a slight preference for the old course, but Mervus says this version is better for spectators because there is a lot more room in the start/finish area. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a gorgeous place to run, whichever order the loops come in.
The Maestro and I lined up and I tried to ignore the 2-hour pacer. I *really* wanted to get under two hours at this race. Both because it would be a huge blow to my ego to run slower than 2 hours and because it would be a massive triumph for the Maestro to hit sub-2 for the first time. I didn’t want to see that pacer again and I tried to forget about him. They had wheelchairs this year so they started first and a couple of minutes later, away we went!
It was good to be back running in Westerly. It was great to be running with the Maestro. We easily found Mervus and Rose and waved to them. It was a little strange to be starting in the “wrong” direction. I fueled exactly as planned. One Tums at an hour before the start and at the start. A Maurten gel plus a Tums at 30, 60, and 90 minutes into the race. In addition to the cup of coffee at home, I had a caffeine tab at 6:30am. I’ve been a little gun shy about caffeine since overdoing it at Berlin, but I do think it helps. At most aid stations, I had a few sips of water and also dumped a cup or two over my head. It was in the low 60s at the start, fairly humid with not much wind. Those aren’t perfect conditions, but they are pretty good, especially coming off of summer running.
The first mile clicked off easily in 8:46. The second mile was 8:50 and the third was 8:49. At that point I said to the Maestro, well, my new coach is learning about me here. If conditions are decent and the course is pretty flat, I can run really even splits. The first seven miles ranged from 8:44 to 8:53.
One reason I love this race is that the course is so beautiful. Lots of views of the shore and pretty neighborhoods. We ran past a lovely little street with cafes that I think is a new addition. They looped us around slightly differently so we the ascent of Watch Hill was less steep. It’s just a gorgeous place to run. As we were nearing the end of the first loop a spectator called out “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You’ll get there eventually.” I remarked, “Worst. Cheer. Ever.” which got a good laugh from our fellow runners.
This first section of the race felt really good. I wasn’t working terribly hard. I knew I was running well. I was feeling proud that I was so controlled. Running with the Maestro was a delight. A great day! But, you never know when that phase is going to end. I had been hoping to get to mile 9 before things got really tough, but instead right around 7 miles, everything started to feel overwhelming and impossible. I glanced at my watch and saw the dreaded 9:xx for pace instead of 8:xx. Brains are powerful and in a flash, I was filled with doubt. Instead of crossing the finish line with the Maestro, I started to see myself walking the last few miles alone. I pulled off to the side of the road, stopped, and put my hands on my knees to collect myself. Very reminiscent of what happened partway through the 2022 Boston marathon.
But, it turns out, brains can be taught how to do things. I had talked about that moment in Boston with my sports psychologist last spring. We worked on developing a set of mental tools to have ready to go when things get hard. It worked! I am not sure how long the stop in Boston lasted, but this one was less than 30 seconds. I gasped to the Maestro “This is mostly mental” and then “I need to get to the lines.” He had no idea what I meant, of course, but I started running again, moving to the middle of the street so I could focus on the yellow lane dividers. That’s a trick I’ve used before, but this time, it was very conscious. Really, just like pulling a hammer out of a toolbox! I knew we’d see my family soon and of course I wanted to be recovered by then.
Before mile 7, this race was great. I was feeling good at my target pace (around 8:50). I very much enjoyed the feeling of being in control instead of being furious or incredibly sad. After mile 7, though, this race was straight-up work. I had hoped that the work wouldn’t start until mile 9. Writing this afterwards, it doesn’t seem like much difference but at the time, the difference between mile 7 and mile 9 felt huge. The entire causeway was going to be work now.
One of the best things I did at that point was to quit looking at my watch. I no longer knew how fast we were running but it didn’t matter. Now the point was just to keep running at a pace that seemed hard but sustainable. In my head I chanted “Look at the lines, look at the lines, look at the lines.” I wanted to keep my mind as quiet as possible. I was working, but I reminded myself that the work was the point. At the Blessing, I wasn’t ready to work – I would even say, it wasn’t appropriate to do the work. But now I was ready and I was working.
The best thing about the causeway heading east is that you pass the runners coming into the finish line. I was still running in the middle of the road to stay on the lines so I knew I’d see some fast friends. I tried to cheer but it came out “CRROOAAKKKK!!!” Oops. My voice is pretty much completely non-operational while running hard. Still hoping that comes back at some point.
As we came into the mile 10 water stop, I slowed to a near stop. I made sure to get a full cup into me and dumped a couple more on my shoulders. Then off we went again. The second loop of the new course is shorter, thank goodness. I gave myself permission to count with three miles to go. Up to one hundred and back down again, over and over, until we got through 11 miles. Holy shit, that was a long freaking mile. The clock at mile eleven said 1:40 and I knew as long as we didn’t slow down, we would run under two hours. Two miles to go and I just pushed.
Some part of my brain was still doing a little analysis. My legs were okay, but it felt hard to get enough air. I even got a side stitch (maybe caused by too little oxygen? – haven’t had one in years!). I suspect the skin around my neck and chest just isn’t quite back to normal yet so my breathing is a little constricted. Instead of feeling angry or sad, I felt hopeful. That will surely correct itself with time. Maybe more stretching will help. I got a massage the next day and I DO think it helped! Hooray for healing!
The last two miles felt pretty endless. They always do. Counting helps me because it ticks off the mileage. Looking at our splits, except for that mile 10 water stop, we barely slowed down in the second half of the race. That breakdown at mile 7 WAS largely mental. I COULD keep going and I did! I remembered how to push and I found the mental and physical energy to go after it. I did not end up walking and the Maestro and I did cross the finish line together! It was awesome! !
Photo credit to Rose
Mervus and Rose were there cheering. We got our medals and some water. I caught my breath and we checked out the beach. It was fantastic!
I also want to note the dark tunnel lurking in this story. I can see it in my mind – it’s always to my left for some reason. It looks like a train tunnel with large stones around the opening. This imaginary tunnel is the counter-narrative about this day. The tunnel focuses on how the last time I ran Surftown, I ran 13 minutes faster. I got a nice PR in the lead-up to the Chicago marathon. I felt strong and free. I didn’t think about calcium or carry Tums. My breath came without restriction. When I called to friends, they heard me because my voice was strong and clear. The tunnel asks, will I ever run like that again? I don’t want to know what else is in that tunnel and I have mostly avoided exploring it. That’s one of the things I am most proud of. The tunnel is so clearly there, but I am largely staying out of it. On this day, for where I am with my running right now, this race was a big victory. Maybe that’s part of the magic of Surftown and another reason to love this race. Victory is not always a faster time on the clock.
This time around, victory was also 3rd place in my age group! I’ve never placed at Surftown before and I’m mighty happy about that! It’s true that there were fewer runners this year so there was less competition. Part of a race is just showing up which can be really hard. I understand not racing because I considered that. But instead, I showed up and I won a bus trophy!!! Super stoked about that! We went to the Cooked Goose for brunch and it was just as good as it always is. This day was a BIG step forward!