How can my heart be overflowing with joy, while at the same time breaking just a little bit?
I finally got to run another marathon and I finished. I got my running life back. The long runs that structure the weekend. The feeling of accomplishment after a tough tempo run. The rhythm of a week marked by training sessions. Time with my real life running girlfriends and the chance to compare workouts with my virtual training partners. The crazy obsession with the weather when a hard run and a storm loom simultaneously. Even the endless laundry. A year ago all of that felt so tenuous. The running was about to come to a crashing halt. I had to wear the dumb boot and figure out how to get my foot better, but I did it. I worked hard at recovery. I played it smart with the comeback. I found a great coach to help me. I got back what I love but felt very close to losing. My parents got to see me cross a marathon finish line for the first time. I met my coach in person and got to hang out with him for a whole weekend. My dad ran a 5K with us. My heart is happy and full of gratitude.
But still: 4:54:48.
That is not at all the time I thought I would be posting for the Donna Marathon. To be honest, it’s a full hour off the time I thought might be possible. I’ve had a fantastic training cycle. Better than expected, I think it’s fair to say. I am in great shape. I’ve lost a bit of weight and fine-tuned some nutritional issues. I was mentally ready to go. And yet. 4:54:48.
That is even slower than the 4:29:12 I ran at Vermont City in May 2016 last time around.
But let’s step back a bit. How did I even get to this race? I considered Philadelphia, but that seemed too soon. I didn’t want to wait until marathon season re-opened in New England and I was willing to travel. Coach Mick suggested the Donna marathon and said that I could stay with him. Sold!
Of course, there was a risk of a repeat of Vermont. An edge-of-the-season race, training in the cold, racing in the heat, etc. But – I have a little distance from Vermont now and I’ve watched many more friends train for many more marathons. Weather is the great uncontrollable and all you can do is stack the odds in your direction. Northern Florida in early February has reasonable odds. With reasonable odds, you might as well run the race you want to run because weather is a crap shoot regardless. I am totally at peace with my choice of races. Plus, my parents heard about the chance to escape the chilly north in February and decided to come watch me race in Jacksonville.
Early January was frigid in Connecticut. I did many runs at below 20 degrees and some at below 10. Meanwhile early January was also pretty chilly down in Jacksonville. But as race day approached, Florida got warmer and Connecticut sure didn’t. In the days leading up to the race, the temperature at start time just crept slowly upwards.
My parents and I arrived from our respective northern climes on Thursday night. Coach Mick joined us for dinner and the next day the parents went to St. Augustine while Coach Mick and I went to the race expo with his family. That evening we met up with some Sub-30 friends for dinner, including Florida Girl. I love that pretty much no matter where I go, I can find some running friends from my online gang.
The Donna race weekend includes a lot of distances and on Saturday, we decided to run the 5K. This was a nice shakeout run for me and a chance to see a little bit of downtown Jacksonville. My dad got a chance to check out the expo. Then my dad and Coach Mick both placed in their age groups! Plus, we got to meet the Olympians.
The only negative about the 5K was the first hint that the weather reports weren’t wrong. I wasn’t exactly trying to ignore them, but I was trying not to get too worked up. After Vermont I had a lot of experience running in the heat, and surely it wouldn’t be that bad? When the sun was out, it was pretty bad though. With a little cloud cover or in the shade, it wasn’t terrible, but in the full sun, it was pretty warm.
Running Munchkin was also escaping the freezing cold north to run the marathon and she came over on Saturday afternoon for a course tour. Coach Mick drove us along the route, which is mostly up and down the coast along the beach communities. This race raises money for the DONNA Foundation, an organization that funds breast cancer research and provides assistance to families with financial need who need help getting treatment. Lots of neighborhoods were decked out with pink flags, pink banners, pink balloons, etc. In the car, we talked race strategy and made a quick stop at a grocery store for last minute supplies.
Saturday night, Coach Mick made a pasta and garlic bread dinner. How’s that for full-service coaching? Provides accommodation and pre-race meals as well! We chatted about the race and how the crucial question was whether the sun would come out or not. We went to bed at a totally reasonable hour and I slept well. In the morning, I had oatmeal and gathered my stuff. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relaxed before a marathon in my life. We drove to the office building where we were hanging out before the start and got our gear situated. Lots of people were making sick jokes about the heat, but I was trying to stay relaxed. It wouldn’t be as bad as Vermont, I said. I know how to run in the heat, I told myself.
Soon enough, it was time to head to the starting line. Now we were a little nervous and revved up for sure. Running Munchkin and I (and Mr. Running Munchkin, who was running the half) bid adieu to speedy Coach Mick who needed to line up at the front. We headed back to hang around the 4:00 hour pacers. During the Star Spangled Banner I remembered that Mr. Running Munchkin is a vet and I felt proud to stand near him. We did some warm-up lunges, high-fived, took a couple of pictures, and jumped in the corral. The gun went off and we headed to the start. All kinds of pink confetti was flying around as we crossed the line!
Running Munchkin is faster than I am so she took off right after the gun. I was mindful of Coach Mick’s advice about running in the heat: if you think you are going too slow, slow down. I ran really slowly with a 10:21 first split. I truly am not afraid to run slow when appropriate, but that was slower than intended. But the next 4 miles all came in at 9:25-9:35 and that felt right. He had talked about how your energy is like a bag of Skittles. Your body knows how many Skittles are left in the bag so don’t spend them all at the beginning. I was running really easily and chanting in my head: Save the Skittles. Save the Skittles. At mile 6 I saw Florida Girl at the first relay exchange. It was SO incredibly great to see her! And she got this awesome picture! I was still on pace and everything was going according to plan.
The original race plan had been pretty straightforward. Run the first five miles a little slower than goal pace, especially with the heat. Then move to goal pace until about mile 21. Then try to pick it up, hopefully finish strong. It’s a flat course with a bridge at the end. Nothing too complicated. Given the heat, Coach Mick said if there’s not a lot of sun, that plan is probably ok. If the sun is out, all bets are basically off. For the first five miles, the sun played hide and seek with the clouds. We also got some deliciously cooling fog blowing in off the beach. With a breeze and the fog, it was ok. When it was just sun and no fog, it was pretty ugly. And about to get uglier.
Miles 5-10 were also not terrible. I decided to adjust for conditions and aim for 9:15 instead of 9:00, my original goal marathon pace. Splits here ranged from 9:00 to 9:26. Mile 11 was 9:38 and that’s when I knew I might be in serious trouble. I haven’t abandoned the #nowatchme approach exactly but I’ve been using it with some serious modifications lately. I never look at my watch on easy runs. I haven’t looked on most tempo runs. I did use the watch for track workouts sometimes. I have used the watch on long runs when aiming for marathon pace because in those cases, I actually wanted to hit a particular pace. I sort of fell into the habit of getting mile splits, which is what I did during this race as well. In any case, the 11 mile split was bad news and I knew it. I also knew that I was not at all on track for a sub-4 race and with these conditions, I wasn’t going to make that time up either.
The race course does a kind of loop-around thing in the northern edge of the course before heading back south again. I went through the half in just under 2:05 and thought, well, a PR is not numerically impossible, but very unlikely. It would mean negative splitting the race, which had certainly been the plan, but it was getting hotter and sunnier. I knew lots of folks were trying to watch this race – thank you everyone! I actually love knowing friends and family are out there cheering – but I also knew the tracking app was wonky so I wasn’t sure how much information was getting through. Anyway, 2:05 through the half ain’t sub-4 and it ain’t BQ either. But it could still be a solid race and I wasn’t giving up. Up in this turnaround was where I had the first sort of darker feelings though never as bad as in most previous marathons. But this is where the first seeds of doubt started to creep in. Big hint. This is TOO SOON for that to happen. In a quality marathon – meaning one run to your potential, I guess, or maybe just one that I would feel happy with – you should feel pretty happy through the half. In any case, to be starting to question things at mile 11 is not good. But, just as I was wondering if I was really going to start to struggle, I saw what I had hoped not to need, not expected to have, and really really wanted: ice.
I completely believe that ice saved my race in Vermont. If “saved” is a good description of that race at all. North Shore Strider ran all over place with a backpack full of ziplock baggies of ice and I dumped it all down my sports bra and my shorts. I’m convinced that kept me going during that race, but I didn’t expect to have access to ice during this one, though Coach Mick had said he would try to bring me some near the end. But maybe I could get ice after all. The first place I saw it was an ice machine being used to keep water cool. But the spectators didn’t care at all if I grabbed big handfuls and shoved them into my clothes. Packed in ice, I felt better and kept running. Later, spectators figured out that handing out baggies full of ice was the best thing to offer runners. I got ice from people’s personal coolers and my favorite source of all – someone’s champagne bucket. Coach Mick also brought ice in bags from medical though he thinks they did a bait and switch on him. They told him it was ice but by the time he got it to me, it was just water. Hardy har har. Coach Mick is a serious expert in what one might lovingly term “dad jokes”.
The tracking app was a complete flop, but the race website had split times from the mats. Anyone tracking me got a lot of info from splits at 10 miles, 13.1 miles, 15 miles. Friends and family could observe the corresponding collapse of the race as splits got slower and then much slower. Looking back I can see the shift happened quite quickly. Miles 9 and 10 were fine. 10 was a little slower, but this is when I had my second Gu and also the 5 Hour Energy Shot and monkeying around with those just takes a few seconds. By mile 11 I was in trouble and mile 12 was the last reasonable split of the race. That’s really early for a marathon to go south. Split times for miles 11-14 ranged from 9:20 to 9:51 but then mile 15 was 11:11. I knew I might see Florida Girl again at mile 16 or so and I did. I also knew by then, these splits were probably out there and I just said “Tell them I’m ok”. I didn’t want people to worry. It’s a little scary when someone slows mid-race because you don’t know what’s wrong. My foot was fine. My mind was fine. I was just too dang hot.
Already at mile 15, it was a pretty big battle to keep going. I knew Coach Mick was going to run out to meet me at mile 23 after finishing the half marathon. I also knew with how slowly I was going that there was some chance he would find me sooner, but he didn’t want to run too many miles so I wasn’t sure. I just started thinking about that. Make it to mile 23 and find Coach Mick. Whose real name is Mark. For the next six miles, I counted down. Five miles to Mark. Four miles to Mark. Etc.
I also used every trick I know to keep running as strong as possible when a marathon gets hard, and I know quite a few of them. I grabbed ice every chance I saw it, down the bra, down the shorts, if possible. I kept with my fueling plan, a Gu every 30 minutes. I drank two glasses of water at every hydration stop and started dumping a couple on my head as well. For me, one of the successes of the race is that I stuck to my fueling plan and I didn’t get dehydrated. Big score for me and Mr. Nutrition Helper.
I tried changing music. I had started the run with the soundtrack to Dear Evan Hansen. That is bouncy happy music. Great for staying in a good mood, though not necessarily what I would pick for running fast. Ideal for the early stages of a marathon. Then I switched to Hamilton, which had been my original plan. I’ve run a lot of miles to Hamilton – I mean, an absolutely insane number of miles, to be honest – and I got my half PR to that music so it’s a good bet for race music for me. I got through about “Wait For It” – less far than I’d hoped – before I needed “change music” as a strategy and switched to Girl Talk. Girl Talk is excellent for running fast and it probably helped for awhile until it didn’t anymore and I switched to the Moana soundtrack. By then I was so far gone that music changes weren’t going to do it for me.
A mantra or just thinking of other people can also be a huge help during a marathon. I had bought a bracelet that says “believe” a word that came to me during a hard training run that went well and I stared at my bracelet. I carried a crane for Glitter Mom’s son in my pocket and I thought of that. I also had a card with names of people who have been affected by cancer and I thought of them and how cancer is such a horrible disease but they had fought it bravely. These sources of inspiration worked for awhile until they didn’t anymore.
Sometimes interacting with other people in the race can help. I high-fived kids and thanked volunteers. I tried chatting with other runners and waving at spectators. When the 4:30 Galloway pace group leaders passed me, I tried hopping in with them. They were looking great and they were totally on pace and I absolutely could not hang.
It’s perfectly reasonable in hot conditions to try walking a bit. I started with walk breaks of 30-60 seconds every mile. Then every song. But the walk portions got longer and the run portions got shorter.
This is the part of the race that is most mysterious to me. Miles 15-21. That’s an absolutely classic portion of the marathon for people to find difficult. Miles 11-14 had not been a lot of fun either. What was strange is that 15-21 were less mentally dark than they sometimes have been in previous marathons. This is often when I think of Rose and her unbelievable sweetness lifts me out of the dark. No world with that girl in it can be entirely bad. She lifted my spirits in Vermont and got me moving again when I was in a sinking spell. But this sinking spell at Donna was longer and less deep than previous ones. Part of my brain was laughing at the insanity of the situation. I would find a solution: some ice, new music, inspiration from someone I love or something on the course, run-walk intervals – and start running again. Then I would just slow way down and walk until the next solution. My brain kept telling my body to run, but my body was not listening. The best split here is 10:27 for mile 16, almost certainly due to seeing Florida Girl again. The worst is 13:13, the dreaded mile 19. By mile 17, I had resorted to counting to 100, a strategy I usually save until the end of the race. Here I used it at mile 17. When a strategy ran out of steam, I re-calculated: how many miles until Mark?
At mile 17, with Mark at mile 23, that’s six miles and using a 10 minute per mile pace, that’s still an hour. I could hardly bear to think of that, particularly since I was well aware that I was moving more slowly than 10 minute miles. But I had nothing else to do so I kept cycling through my strategies. Count to 100, walk a minute when I had to. Try to do this for a mile, but fail dramatically. By 21.5, I was walking. Again. But here was Mark at last. He arrived with ice water, having been duped out of ice by the tricky medics. More importantly, he brought a sense of humor, reports that my parents had made it to the finish line, and an arm to lean on.
I actually got even slower after he arrived, but much happier. It also got hotter and the last few miles on the bridge, you are totally exposed to the sun. We mostly walked. Sometimes I tried to walk faster or run a little. I felt a little bad because he’s an amazing coach and I want him to be proud of me and I want him to think I’m tough and strong. But, he is proud of me; I know that. I’m not sure if matters if he thinks I’m tough and strong because I think he will help me run faster regardless. He’s an absolutely incredible friend, no matter what. So we mostly walked those last four miles. He goofed off some. He worked to encourage other runners because we were a pretty bedraggled crew by then. He told me he didn’t think we should have trained differently and I agreed. He said some of my inability to run might be mental but it didn’t matter either way. It was a long time to be out there in the heat. He got me through it and I wasn’t miserable. We had a good laugh when I said I had to pee, but refused to go at the first opportunity because there was a line. I did go at the second chance, though, even though we were less than half a mile from the finish line. What the heck – I was going to be under five hours even with a potty stop and I didn’t want my bladder to explode while I was getting my medal.
We managed to run the last 400 yards or so, by which I mean, I managed to run and he ran with me and whooped it up for the crowds. We saw my parents and the great banner the Incredible Mervus had made. We found Running Munchkin who had had a very good day. Coach Mick gave me my medal, which is something I had wanted though I had hoped for quite different circumstances. I got a massage. We got a little food and gathered our stuff and headed back to the Coach Mick Family Residence for champagne and snacks before going out for dinner.
It was an amazing and wonderful day. I ran a marathon again and I’m as sure as one can be that I’ll run another. Physically, I am mostly ok. I have a little shin twinge but I think the Maestro and some time off will clear it up. My foot is fine – no plantar fasciitis. It was kind of heartbreaking. So much hard work and not the race I wanted. But I believe so deeply – if you can’t accept a day like this, you have no business playing at being a marathoner. This is par for the course. The marathon is like a casino – the house always wins and the best you can hope for is the occasional temporary victory. I had a good chat later with the Chicago Boys and they are already planning some shenanigans for my upcoming visit, including a (hopefully) speedy 5K. They reminded me that the fitness I have gained is not lost because I ran a race in hot weather. They posted pictures of the drinks they raised in my honor. I have spent a couple of days processing the race and there is surely more of that to come. I was already interested in the question of how to manage a race gone wrong mentally so now my interest is not merely academic. But I am running again and my heart is very happy.