The alarm on race day went off at 4am, which is mighty early. It was, of course, totally dark out, but the race gives you a flashlight in your swag bag. How cool is that? We got up and I had my pre-race oatmeal – a double portion of oats, plus a banana, a tablespoon of almond butter and some chocolate flavored protein powder. Yum. And coffee. The whole family was out the door with all the various things everyone needed at 5:15am. Not bad. We were parked and on the shuttle by 5:30am and at the race by 5:45am. Logistically, in terms of finding a place to stay, getting around, organization – this race is excellent.
It was still so dark but kind of cool because everyone had flashlights and the race provided some illumination. We set up our folding chairs near the main pavilion and sort of hunkered down.
This race was so much about the mental side of running for me. I’ve written earlier about how inspiring I’ve found Deena Kastor’s book Let Your Mind Run. Shaping your thoughts in a positive direction turns out to be an incredibly effective tool both for training and for racing. That book is almost an instruction manual on mental training. About a month before Erie, I picked it up and started reading it again. I loved when her coach told her “Define Yourself” before one of her races. Running a faster marathon necessitates an identity shift. On paper, I have been a 4:09 marathoner, but I knew I had the fitness level to be a sub-4 hour marathoner. I practiced thinking of myself like that. That’s one way I wanted to define myself.
HPRM#1 helps me a lot with my mental approach. He’s not afraid to call bullshit if I get off track and he has a lot of great ideas on the mental component of running. [This is where I roll my eyes at his head getting so big that he floats right off the ground….Whatever. He’s worth it.]. In the lead-up to Erie, HPRM#1 talked about something Eliud Kipchoge does. Kipchoge re-reads his training logs. He thinks about his preparation. Then he says, he knows he can race well because he has written it. It’s in the logs. “I Have Written It” became a motto for the race. I knew I could BQ at Erie. I had already written it. Natasha Bedingfield’s song “Unwritten” became my race song – the training was done. The logs were written. The race itself was the only thing left to write.
I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined
I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned
Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the dirty window
Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find
Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten
This was my story to write and in fact, I had already written it. That work is written right into my body and into my mind. The only thing left to do was to go write it on the race course. Time to define myself. I am a sub-4 marathoner and a Boston qualifier. Let’s get that book finished.
Coach Mick is also fabulous with mental preparation. We had talked quite a bit about pacing strategies in the days leading up to the race. In one of these conversations, he added an important shift in perspective. He said that more important than running a particular pace at a particular mile in the race, I should find a way to run with joy in my heart. I went back and finished the race report for the Boilermaker 15K at his urging because I found joy partway through that race. He said he didn’t care what time I ran at Erie as long as I found some joy on the course.
About a week before the race, I had also booked a phone call with Justin Ross, a sports psychologist who works with the Another Mother Runner group. I had done a group webinar with him, but I wanted an individual discussion as well. Justin gave me some great tips on how to mentally approach an important race. One of my concerns about Erie had been lining up alone – I had started 5 of my 6 previous marathons with a friend at my side because I am exceptionally good at talking people into stuff. But Justin and Coach Mick both noted that being alone could be an advantage. I had total control and didn’t have to worry about other people’s needs. Justin gave me a pre-race guided meditation that I practiced with beforehand. He talked about the balancing act between your desire to achieve a goal versus the pain of the race. You can adjust the pain level you feel at a given pace through training, but you can adjust the desire side of the balance by focusing on why you race. I went into Erie with a lot of clarity about my “why”.
Before the race started, then, I was calm and in a really good headspace. I had done a lot of pre-race visualization. I had gone over my training logs. I had reviewed my long runs and some critical races from last spring. I had written it already. I just needed to execute it.
About 6:20am, I had my Five Hour Energy Shot. I started my warm-up with the pre-race meditation and then my standard lunge matrix and leg swings while listening to “Unwritten”. I did some quick strides and a couple of drills, but mostly conserved energy for the race. A last-minute pit stop in the bushes turned comical when I wasn’t the only one with that idea. They should put doors on those things! By 6:50am, I had kissed Mervus and the kids and headed to the start to line up. They had the runners sort of on a side road with pace signs as suggestions. I’ve never been to a marathon before where the field was skewed so fast. I’m guessing 75% of the runners lined up for sub-3:30 marathons or faster. Amazing. I found Pacer Chris from the expo and hung about with him while he cracked jokes. The gun went off and we headed out.
The start went off incredibly smoothly. Usually at the beginning of a race there’s loads of congestion, bumping around people, it’s hard to run, that sort of thing. They changed up the start at Erie two years ago to fix this problem and by 1/3 of a mile into the race, we were running smoothly with no one in front of us. Great job Erie Marathon! Pacer Chris and some others in the pace group were chatting up a storm, but I was very quiet. I don’t like to chat much while racing, especially not with people I don’t know. For me, racing is serious business. I don’t mind listening to other people’s chatter, but I’m not inclined to participate.
Also, I realized pretty quickly that despite near perfect race day preparations, I didn’t feel that great. I had been SO calm before the race, but now that we were moving, I felt quite anxious. Usually that’s the reverse! My pre-race nerves go away once I start running! This time I felt what I imagine was a whole lot of adrenaline getting dumped into my system, quicker than I was managing to process it. It reminded me of my panic attack at the start of the Hartford Marathon, though it was less severe. What the hell? I haven’t had those kinds of feelings on a starting line since Hartford. But I haven’t cared about a race as much as I cared about this one since then either.
Luckily, I wasn’t without resources for figuring out what to do. Except it wasn’t luck. I had had very good advice from HPRM#1, from Coach Mick, from Justin, and also indirectly from skier Lindsey Vonn. They all recommended visualizing the race, but not just the good outcomes. Visualize the bad surprises, the stuff that could go wrong. Try to think of every contingency, imagine it happening, visualize yourself coping with it. I never imagined a renewed attack of starting line panic, but I had imagined solving plenty of other problems so I started to look for a solution to this one. First I figured, I would just calm down after a mile or two. The first couple miles are sort of garbage miles anyway and I had barely run as part of the warm-up. So even though the 8:55 pace felt harder than I would have liked, I figured it would feel better soon and actually, it did. By the time I passed my parents at 2.5 miles, I was able to give them a genuine wave and a smile. Maybe things were settling down.
As the next few miles clicked off, though, it just felt like more work than I would have liked. This should be the easiest part, I thought! And it was pretty easy – the weather was cool instead of hot and crazy humid. I did a sort of a mental body scan and everything felt fine. Including – SCORE! – my foot, which wasn’t bugging me at all! After a flare-up of the horrid plantar fasciitis in August, we had cut my mileage by a lot in favor of biking to try to get the PF to calm down. I made frequent visits to the Maestro for dry needling, Graston, massage and anything else he cared to throw at it, plus my usual anti-PF measures at home. Well, good news, that all seemed to have worked because my foot was fine. I just had to get my brain to cooperate.
Having originally planned to leave Pacer Chris at 3-5 miles, I decided I had better stick with him a bit longer. It was crystal clear to me that this guy was going to cross the line at exactly 3:54:30 and if I stuck with him, I would do the same. I turned on my music to try to zone out a little more and ran just a few steps ahead of the pace group. I could hear them but felt a little more isolated. I had thought I might stick with him for as long as 10 miles, but at 7.5, I just couldn’t take it anymore. On a different day, I might have loved running with Pacer Chris and I think he would be a blast to have a beer with, but I wanted more room below a 3:55 finish time. And I remembered Coach Mick’s #1 piece of advice: Run with joy in your heart. I wasn’t finding any joy and I knew I needed to. I knew from finishing that Boilermaker race report that I could find joy if I went looking, so I did. Just like at the Boilermaker, speeding up a little made me much happier. I switched to 8:45s and started to pull gradually away from the pace group.
Finding Joy in the Middle Miles
After leaving the pace group, I felt much better. I found a groove for quite awhile. This portion of the race goes around the tadpole’s head. The course is really pretty out there, though there are almost no spectators. I didn’t mind that. There was lots of natural beauty to look at and plenty of runners. Erie also has water stops every single mile so it feels like “something happens” pretty frequently even without urban landmarks or people cheering. We did pick up some wind, but that first trip around the tadpole’s head was one of the best parts of the race for me.
My parents’ position at the Cookhouse was basically where the tadpole’s head meets his tail. For the second pass on loop one, this is mile 10. I had asked my parents to send updates to Mervus and I had Mervus sending updates to Coach Mick, HPRM#1, and North Shore Strider. Coach Mick had requested not just the time and location on the course, but information on how I was doing. That was, of course, added incentive to me to smile-for-the-camera, so to speak. He wanted to know if I was finding joy. I smiled and waved every time I saw my family on the first loop. North Shore Strider was additionally charged with sending updates to Sub-30 because so many people had asked about tracking. Also, quite selfishly, it helps me when I’m racing to know friends are getting information about how things are going. It’s a connection to people I care about and those relationships bring me a lot of power during a race. I’m so grateful to my family for adding the texting to their list of support crew duties. THANK YOU! It’s hard to explain how much that means to me.
Miles 10 through 12 were also pretty good. This was the only portion of the race where we somehow had a tailwind. I was SO happy to see Mervus and the kids at around 12 miles. I was genuinely smiling and waving. And then, as a surprise, near the hairpin turn right before the halfway mark, I saw Barley from Salty Running out cheering with her baby! What a bonus! Also at that turnaround, I could see that I was about halfway between the 3:55 and the 3:50 pace groups. Hmmm. Could I catch 3:50? I would have looooooved that, but it was not to be. Post-race info tells me I split the race in 1:56:31/1:57:34, which is really satisfying. I’ve never run such an evenly split marathon. Right after the halfway mark, I saw Mervus and the kids again, as they had scooted across the tail to cheer for me on my way up.
I find that my mood can swing wildly in a marathon and it’s not always related in any sensible way to anything that is happening during the race, except usually the deeper into the race, the more likely darker thoughts are to appear. Here, past the halfway point, at 14 miles, was the first moment was I truly convinced I was going to BQ. Yes, that’s ridiculously early in the race to have that feeling but I went into the race knowing I had a very good shot at it. By 14 miles, I had seen the entire course once. I knew what was coming. I knew what the weather was likely to be. It was not at all a done deal, but I felt a spark of confidence that I was really going to get it done. That was marvelous and of course provided more good spirits. Then I felt some weird anxiety about seeing my parents again at mile 15.5. I don’t know why. Maybe it was pressure to smile-for-the-camera? I did smile-and-wave again but this one felt more performative. That’s ok. I could actually feel the Kipchoge effect. Whenever I could smile, the running felt easier. Maybe it’s the Deena effect – positive thoughts lead to a positive mindset lead to better, stronger running. This was the most mental marathon I’ve ever run and everything I could do to stay happy and find joy was worth doing.
Of course, good patches are followed inevitably by bad patches and one was about to arrive. After seeing my parents, I knew I wouldn’t have any personalized cheering again until mile 23, in about 7 miles. I knew that tadpole head section of the course was pretty but also kind of quiet and there were fewer runners clustered around me now. Then at some point, the wind started to get stronger. You can see the beach more out there, but you lose the tree protection. And naturally it was a headwind. At 16 or 17 miles into a marathon, you are starting to get tired, but still have a long way to go. I celebrated having single digits remaining, but I also had to start calling on more mental resources to get through it. Coach Mick had talked about playing with the wind, something Deena thinks about too. I imagined the wind as a bunch of enthusiastic puppies, jumping on me, and me joyfully pushing them back down.
One of my biggest sources of inspiration was the lake itself. From the moment I chose this marathon, I knew I would love running alongside one of the Great Lakes. We stayed only an hour away from Erie for a family reunion this summer and I did a good bit of running along the shore. Later in the summer, we went camping up on the Bruce Peninsula and hiked along Georgian Bay and swam in Lake Huron. As a child, my family took lots of vacations on Lake Michigan. I grew up knowing the beauty of these waters. Whenever I could see the lake itself, I imagined the enormous power of that water flowing into me. I thought of the city of Erie, which we had been able to explore a little. Erie is clearly part of the rust belt, like Detroit, and I kind of love cities like this. It reminded me of Glasgow. A place with a wealthy past and more recent economic troubles but a strong scrappy spirit. Des Linden territory, I thought. She would fit right in here. This place is a genuine place, no façade possible. Just as I had hoped, the geography, the water and the land, helped me find that kind of scrappiness within myself to not give up when things get hard. With the wind and the miles dragging on, things were getting hard.
Go Time at Mile 19
I had planned all along to pick up the pace at mile 20, if at all possible. But at mile 19, I heard the chatting Pacer Chris in the distance behind me. Uh oh. He wasn’t that far back. I did not want that guy to catch up to me. Then I would have to work to stay with him instead of being on my own. Go time, at mile 19 then. Somewhere in here I also started feeling a little nausea. Not terrible, but I don’t generally feel any when running. I’m not sure I ever have. This is such a common problem though, that I had absolutely visualized it happening. My solution both in visualization and in real life was to run through it. I just decided that I wasn’t going to let it affect me. I’m sure under some circumstances that wouldn’t work, but under my circumstances it did. I also decided to lay off the Gu and water for the rest of the race. I’m a metronome about fueling and I take a fair amount of fuel. Mr. Nutrition Guy has helped me fine tune some of that. He recommends a Gu every 30 minutes and that’s what I usually do. Now, though, I thought, ok, no more Gu and let’s not stop for water either. I took my last fuel and hydration at 2 hours 30 minutes into the race, around 17 miles. But Pacer Chris was too damn close. I’d been great about hydrating and fueling until that point and I thought I could get away with not doing it anymore. “Only” seven miles to go, after all. I’m not sure now that the race is over that this was a wise choice. I slowed down at the end and that could be inadequate fueling. On the other hand, I maintained my lifelong streak of no-barfing-while-running, always a plus.
At mile 19, go time, I had seven miles left in the race, but first, four miles to my parents. I hope they understand how important it was to have them out on the course. Instead of 7 miles, I thought about just 4 miles and then a longish 5K. Corgi Speedster lives in Manhattan and runs zillions of four mile races in Central Park so I pretended I was with her in one of those races. Sometimes during earlier parts of the race, when I felt good, I would see my pace drop to 8:25 or so. That was faster than I wanted, but I had noted it. Now I remembered those quicker miles and told myself – you have the fitness to run faster. You finished some of those long runs at 8:20. You can speed up. You have written it! When I heard Pacer Chris, I remembered what Alex Hutchinson said in Endure, which Justin Ross had repeated: If a tiger was behind you, you would probably figure out that you could run faster. I imagined Pacer Chris as a tiger that I was fleeing. I imagined Rose was with me and I was running with her, maybe carrying her, to get away from the tiger. How much faster could I run to save my daughter? Damn right, a little faster than I had been going for sure. I knew I was going to run by my parents and not be able to smile and wave this time. I wished I could explain to them what was going on, but I knew I couldn’t. They’d just have to wait until after the fact when I had a shiny new BQ and I could tell them then. And, of course, I would definitely save their granddaughter from the tiger.
Physically, this part of the race was pretty rough. My legs felt really tired. It felt like I was running 5K effort, but starting around mile 19 with 7 miles to go instead of only 3. My legs and especially my feet felt so heavy and I longed for my Nike Pegasus Turbo shoes, which are lighter than the Mizuno Wave Riders I was wearing. The Mizunos felt like bricks. But, I reminded myself that no matter how heavy my shoes felt, my foot felt completely fine. I chose the Mizunos for the marathon because they seemed the best at keeping the PF at bay so that was totally worth it. Here, deep in the race, my foot felt good. I thought about running that 5K last spring with HPRM#1. I reminded myself that as bad as the wind was today, it was nothing like the crazy gale force winds we had then and I ran fast then. I tried to imagine how badly I had wanted to stay with HPRM#1 during that race or with the Retiree during the races where he paced me in the spring. Anything I could come up with to keep myself running.
Whenever I lost focus, even momentarily, I would slow down. If I could stay focused on my turnover, I could run faster so I just thought about moving my legs as quickly as I could. I thought about riding the stationary bike for hours and hours of cross training and constantly aiming for a cadence of 95-105, and trying to move my legs that quickly. I thought about North Shore Strider struggling with the same problem late in her marathon in May and figured we were sisters in needing stride speed or something. Mostly I did anything I could think of to keep running as fast as I could and miles 20-23 are all 8:47-8:49 pace. I passed my parents and did not smile and wave. Three miles to go.
Of course Howie Mandel – or the devil – came along to offer his deals: You’ve already got the BQ in the bag. Pacer Chris is running 3:54:30, that’s good enough. You could be a minute slower, probably 90 seconds slower, and still run Boston. This is too hard and it’s not necessary. But I had no interest whatsoever in those deals. Coach Mick had qualified for Boston the day before Erie at a race called BQ2. He told me how hard he worked on the last loop of that course and how he refused the deal. He had said his race was BQ2, but really he was BQ1 and I was going to be BQ2. Damn straight. I thought about friends who have qualified for Boston, but without enough cushion to run it and told myself every second counted. Like I always do when it gets hard, I counted. I counted and counted and counted and clicked down those never-ending miles, feeling really like total crap, but wanting so badly to stay ahead of Pacer Chris. I saw Mervus and the kids and maybe waved to them or also not – I have no idea. I finally spotted the hairpin turn and it was so so incredibly far away. I just kept running and counting and thinking about my foot turnover until I went around the corner and then after a bit more running and counting, finally finally saw the finish line, which also seemed so wildly far away. But now I knew every second really truly did count so I pushed as hard as I could until I crossed the line. My watch said 3:54:07. Official clock results: 3:54:05. I beat Pacer Chris! BQ by 5 minutes, 55 seconds. PR by 14 minutes, 58 seconds, which yes, I am rounding to 15 minutes.
The finish line area at Erie is really small. Mervus and the kids were right there and I could collapse into Mervus’s arms over the fencing. He held me up and I just cried a bit. I couldn’t believe it. I had done it! Everything hurt. I was pretty shaky. I was totally overwhelmed. I was beyond happy. I was there with Mervus quite awhile before moving away to get my medal and water and heat sheet. The volunteers could see I was in rough shape and one of them eventually walked me out, which was only about 30 feet anyway. I grabbed something I thought was going to be a dry bagel but ended up being half an apple fritter. SCORE! Mervus had a chair for me so I was able to sit down and recover a bit and call Coach Mick. I talked to HPRM#1 in the car on the way home.
Having just written the longest race report ever, I still don’t think I have a way to express what this race means to me. I’ve been chasing Boston a long time. Catching the unicorn isn’t the end stage of my running career but it’s a damn important moment along the way. HPRM#1 says I am going to feel different after this and I suspect he’s right. I know that was probably the best executed marathon I’ve ever run. I know what I’ve learned about running and myself in the past year or two. I am a different person than I was before.
Thank Yous at the Finish
I have a LOT of thank yous to say. Of course, #1 is to Mervus. He married a bookworm who evolved into a runner and an athlete, obsessed with this sport. He saw some of this coming before I did. He’s backed me every single step of the way. Whenever I ask something, he says yes before I finish the question. I can not imagine a better life partner and I only hope I am half the wife to him that he is husband to me. My kids get thanked here too. They put up with crazy mom, busy mom, tired mom, grouchy-injured mom, insane-tapering mom. I hope they know that I’m still mom-mom, and I love them to pieces, no matter what. My parents came to my first marathon, but didn’t get to see me finish. They came to Jacksonville and saw me limp across the line at Donna. They saw me finish at Erie and I’m so grateful that they were there. Thank you, family, for supporting your crazy runner, through all the ups and downs.
I have what I consider my official team and Coach Mick is the head of that team. Sometimes Facebook brings sort of random stuff into your life. [Isn’t that almost the purpose of Facebook?] About 18 months ago, I found Coach Mick in the Running 4 Real Facebook group. I was looking for a coach and we hit it off and the rest is history, as they say. Except that after a lot of searching and some trial and error, I found the perfect coach for me. Someone who is not only a coach but also a teacher and now most importantly, a very dear friend. May we learn together and run together for many many years to come. Can’t wait to see you in Boston, BQ1!
I’m not sure why I need both a running mentor and a coach, but apparently I do, so luckily I’ve got both. HPRM#1 talks me off the occasional ledge, gets inside my head and then gets me out of there, and generally inspires me to run better and live better. Thank you. Thank you also to the FBs and the FFs, my two virtual online running gangs. To say my life would be less fun without you is a major understatement. Thank you for the hand-holding, the brain-storming, the commiseration and the many laughs. And thank you to my real life running girlfriends for lots of company over many miles. See y’all in Beantown!