I didn’t sleep that well the night before the race. I was definitely nervous. But everyone says the sleep the night before the night before the race is the one that counts so I didn’t let my restlessness get me worked up. I was ready. Up before the alarm went off. This is marathon #10 for me so some things have become pretty routine. I had mixed my Maurten the night before and had no problem drinking it first thing in the morning. I also had my usual Race Day Oatmeal, courtesy of Shalane Flanagan. I even bring my own bowl at this point. The hotel had a free breakfast so Mervus and the kids ate downstairs while I gathered my stuff. It was fun seeing other runners getting their breakfasts! That hotel camaraderie! We left the hotel around 6:45am and drove right to the start at White Haven.
“Marathoners watch the weather” – It’s a line from Deena Kastor’s book and it’s true. You train for four months for an event that’s going to take around 4 hours (or three or five, or six…) and the weather during that four hours can have a big effect on the outcome. Race day conditions were not terrible, but not brilliant. The temperature at the start was predicted to be around 60, but humidity was forecast at 100%. Yikes. I actually stayed pretty calm about this. Coach Mick always says “There’s a 100% chance of weather” and that’s true. I also can’t do anything about the weather so there’s no point in fretting about it.
When Coach Mick and I had our pre-race discussion, he said I didn’t need to “worry” about the weather, but that I should respect it. I had originally hoped to run 3:38 (8:20 pace), maybe 3:36 on a great day and my training said that goal was reasonable. But now we were looking at an exceptionally humid day. He recommended adjusting about 10 seconds a mile and aiming for an 8:30 pace which is a 3:42 marathon. This was sad news because I really want to break 3:40. But I’m not in charge of the weather. I talked to High Power Running Mentor #1 about the race some too. He argued that Kipchoge ran his sub-2 hour marathon in very similar humidity (though lower temps). Joshua Cheptegei ran his recent 5K world record at 79 degrees. Though of course, that’s only 3.1 miles, not 26.2. So, would the humidity matter? I looked at my own past marathons. I’ve run two really hot awful ones, but they were much hotter, and I’ve run a couple in non-ideal conditions, but they were a bit cooler. Hmmm. For good measure, I consulted Spice Boy and he recommended slowing down even more than Coach Mick did – by 15 to 30 seconds a mile. I decided Coach Mick knew what he was talking about and I’d go with the 8:30 pace strategy.
Getting out of the car for the start was another somewhat weird moment. We found the parking lot and I went to the porta-potty to take care of business. At first it felt kind of surreal because there were so few people there. But as more folks arrived, that pre-race vibe started to emerge. People were taking pictures with their friends, doing warm-ups, feeling nervous and excited. Me too!
The last text I sent race morning before putting the phone away was to Coach Mick: “Weather a tinge better than expected. Same temp but humidity is fog and not too warm. My choice what happens today. Run with joy.” I had thought the predicted 100% humidity would feel like a wall of water. Instead, it was a mist that felt like zillions of little ice particles. It was definitely more comfortable than expected.
I had wondered what the start would be like for such a tiny race during the Covid-era. Everyone was wearing masks, of course, but we could get rid of them as soon as we started running. The runners stood near the starting line while the race directors explained what would happen. There were no starting corrals – the race director just said, faster people to the front, please! I lined up in about the middle, having no idea what “faster” meant in this case. They took groups of 10-15 people and said, ok, you guys, start! The next group wait a sec, ok, now, start! With only 150 people in the race, this process went quickly and smoothly. I kind of miss having the national anthem and a starting pistol, but those will be back eventually. Just getting to race at all is fabulous.
The course starts with a mile out in the wrong direction and then back so that you’ve covered enough distance by the finish line. The initial mile out was more trail-like trail than the rest of the race would be. Instead of crushed gravel, it was grass with two muddy wheel ruts. It wasn’t terrible to run on, but a bit slippery and uneven. I know it can take GPS awhile to latch on so other than getting the notification that the live tracking was working, I didn’t look at my watch much. I might have seen 8:50 pace once, but I told myself not to worry about that. The first mile can be a throwaway mile and better too slow than too fast. Just before I got to the cheater mat at the turnaround, I started to see the faster people coming back. YES! A REAL RACE! So good! Then my watch beeped. 8:22. What? I was aiming for 8:30 and had assumed I would be quite a bit slower than that because of the surface.
Ok, I told myself, just slow down a bit. First mile doesn’t matter either way. It’s good that you’re kind of running on a mud track. It was a little reminiscent of the last two miles of the Hampton Court Half in London. I figured the surface would slow me down a bit and I wanted to just let that happen. I got back to the start and my watch beeped again: 8:22. Oops.
I saw my family with the banner Mervus had made several races ago. I waved and blew them a kiss as I ran by. I hoped so much they would have a good day. I know spectating is a hard and sometimes thankless job. It’s a ton of waiting around for a second or two of cheering, but WOW does that second or two matter to the runner. I wished my crew well and kept going, again telling myself to sloooow down. The next mile was partially through the town of White Haven, so I knew it might be quicker because we were on pavement. 8:23. Hmmm, consistent at least. Once on the trail, I told myself to settle in. It was pretty much going to be this for the next 23 miles with almost no variation. There’s an access point around mile 4 and I had hoped my family could get there, but I knew they might not make it. We cruised by the parking lot at mile 4 with only a few people, not my gang. That’s ok, I said. They’ll be at the next access point, mile 11.4. Cruise on through. Another mile down, 8:23. What else is new?
At that point, I pretty much said, fuck it. I’ve run four miles with a one second pace variation. I’ve been trying the entire time to slow down and my perception is that I am slowing down, but I am still in the low 8:20s. That was faster than I planned but I thought, maybe I am just having a day because I felt great. [Note: I am really too experienced to have fallen for this, but it is SO EASY to start too fast!] Mile 5 came in at 8:21. Some guys ran past me at that point, saying that with the humidity and the surface changes and the slight descent, they were having a hard time finding a groove. I didn’t say anything, but I just laughed inside. I didn’t seem to be having the same issue at all. I was locked into 8:22 pace.
Until, I wasn’t anymore. In a moment that seemed very sudden, those delicious icy pinpricks of mist vanished. I doubt the temperature went up 10 degrees, but it felt like it did. All at once running felt a lot harder. This time around my watch didn’t beep until I was a decent distance past the sign for mile 6. 8:37. At first I thought, yikes! That’s a *huge* slow down! What the hell? Then I realized how far past the mile marker I was. If the sign was in the right place, then that split was faster than 8:37. Was the mile marker wrong or was my watch wrong? The RUNegades, the group that puts on the race, had been so amazing about every detail. I don’t know how you figure out where to put mile markers on a trail that looks exactly the same for miles on end, but if anyone could do that, it was the RUNegades. I decided the signs were correct and my GPS was wrong. [This assumption turned out to be correct. The tall rocks along the trail mess up the GPS signal.] I was definitely slowing down, but I might not be at 8:37. The next mile marker came up a lot sooner than I expected so something was definitely off. I decided to start manually taking mile splits. GPS is not perfect. Trust the RUNegades to have the mile markers in the right places. Since there wasn’t any other variation in scenery for distraction, it was easy enough to take splits manually.
I don’t remember the miles from 7 to 11 very well. One of my main goals was to stay happy and run strong as long as possible. Marathons can take you to some pretty dark places. It’s not that I’m afraid of those places, but I don’t run my best there. This was likely to be a lonely race some of the time so I knew it might take some extra mental work and I wanted to manage that. In the book Inside A Marathon, Scott Fauble often tells himself while racing “That’s just thinking.” I did a fair bit of that. “Eight miles down, three until I get to my family” – that’s just thinking. “I might actually be bored, that barely ever happens to me while running” – that’s just thinking. “It’s getting hotter. This is not good” – that’s just thinking. All of that is just stuff that takes you out of your body and into your head. Instead, I tried to stay relaxed and just run. During my own meditation practice, I have often used the phrase “Make the space” and that came to me also. A reminder to relax and let things flow.
For fueling, I took a Maurten gel every 30 minutes, alternating between caffeinated and non-caffeinated. I drank water and dumped it on my shoulders at every water stop. The race provided water in small bottles and most of the aid stations were unmanned. There was also Gatorade at every other stop (more on that in a later post) and Gu and bananas at some – at long as no other forest dwellers had eaten them first.
Finally I got to the mile 11.4 access point. No family. Shoot. That’s ok – I can do this alone. I hope they are fine, but I bet they are. It’s no problem. Then – voila! – a second parking lot? That was NOT on the map. But this was a bigger lot with more people including MY PEOPLE! I was SO happy to see them. They had the banner and water and ICE. I chucked a bag of ice into my sports bra and carried a second in my hand. I had a big glug of water. I probably said something, but who knows what. Then I was off again.
I had thought that miles 12 to 18 would be “easier”. I called this part of the course “The Squiggles” because the course serpentines to follow the river so it bends back and forth every couple of miles. A marathon is too long to run all at once so you need to chunk it up. I expected that during the Squiggles, I could count down the miles in mini-sections because every couple of miles, we turned a corner. Except instead, during this portion of the race, I was very much alone. I wasn’t at all afraid – I didn’t know about the bears yet! – but it’s harder to stay focused and keep pace when you’re by yourself. It was also warmer and I could tell as the ice melted that I was starting to slow down.
I feel better about this phase of the race now that a little time has passed. It would have been easy to start walking, but I didn’t. Running, particularly racing, is one way I find I can be closer to God. I suddenly thought of the sermon from church the week before on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When they refused to worship an idol, King Nebuchadnezzar had them thrown into the furnace. But instead of them burning up, a fourth person appears in the flames and they emerge unscathed. If Jesus could rescue some dudes from a furnace, then he could certainly keep me company on this trail. I thought about God, tried to run my best, and kept going until the next bend in the Squiggles. Repeat for miles 12-18 with splits coming in at: 8:44, 8:34, 8:45, 8:30, 8:41, 8:40, 8:41. They are mostly not even close to 8:30. But I felt like I was moving so much more slowly that when each one appeared, I figured, hey, could be worse, stay on it.
Rose and I had crafted the middle section of the playlist, chock-a-block full of upbeat inspiring pop songs, most notably “Up for Anything” and “Try Everything” – both songs she picked up from Curious George soundtracks. I can heartily recommend that curious monkey’s movies as a great source of running tunes! But for the end of the race, I had inserted a playlist that High Power Running Mentor #1 made for me, in January 2019. At the time, I was struggling with running and with life and the customized collection of music he put together for me has been in rotation ever since, whenever I needed a little extra reminder of my own abilities. God and the musical presence of my daughter and a good friend kept me going through The Squiggles, if no longer on race pace, then at least also not collapsing.
The Squiggles end near mile 18 and I had calculated that Aidan would probably appear on his bike around mile 20 or 21. I tried to remain open to the idea that he might or might not appear at any time, but of course I was scanning each cyclist I saw. Then, there he was, right around mile 21. Of course, there’s no doubt when you see your own son. Even from a distance, I recognized his way of riding, the tilt of his head, the little wave of his hand. I confess, I have no idea what he said to me. I know I barked out something like “Ice!! Ice!” and he quickly biked ahead and handed me a couple more bags for the sports bra.
Even before Aidan arrived, I had been trying to “go fishing,” as Chris McClung of Rogue Running calls it. To “go fishing” means to set your sights on a runner in front of you and try to reel them in. As soon as I was out of The Squiggles and I could see a couple of people ahead of me, I felt a near-desperate urge to re-connect to other runners. Before Aidan arrived, “going fishing” was a real struggle, but with him biking by my side, it was game on. I spent the last five miles of the race working to catch whoever was in front of me. I’m guessing I passed 5-7 people which, in a 149 person race, is a significant percentage of the field! In any case, chasing people down and passing them was certainly better than the loneliness of The Squiggles. Passing people at the end of a race is fun!
Running the last five miles with Aidan by my side on his bike was a beautiful experience. I was trying to pass people, but I didn’t think about much. I was working really hard. My Aftershokz ran out of battery at some point so I was without music, but it didn’t matter. I thought about being with Aidan in the hospital in early August after his bike accident. I felt the intense pride of a mother whose son loves her enough to support her in what is possibly a completely insane endeavor. I learned later that at that 11.5 mile mark, Aidan had found a cool tunnel, but rather than opt for further exploration he told Mervus, “I think we should go – I want to get to mom. Minutes might count.” I don’t know if Aidan understands yet how the presence of someone you love by your side can completely transform an experience. Those five miles are worth everything to me, the long training runs, the craziness of travel during a pandemic, the early bedtimes and early morning training runs. My son rode next to me while I worked as hard as I possibly could to achieve the goal I am chasing. That is so much more than enough.
I had not been looking at my overall time, but even my fried brain knew by now that I had missed my big goal and was not even likely to PR. One of Rose’s favorite Star Trek quotes is from Data: “The Effort Is Its Own Reward.” I kept my mind on that idea. Just like I told Coach Mick last thing before the race started: My choice what happens today. I would have liked to run faster, but I chose to run strong through the end and I feel proud of that, regardless of the time on the clock. At the very end of the race, some people who had been running easily behind me picked it up. I followed, doing everything I could to stay with them! A big push at the end and a final time of 3:48:05. No PR, but my second fastest marathon ever.
I had imagined giving a huge WOOP! when I finished the race, but I am pretty sure that’s not what happened. Instead, I crossed the line, stopped and put my head down and my hands on my knees. So incredibly happy to be done. Then, the usual. Volunteers asking if I am ok. Getting some water. Getting my medal. Looking for Mervus and the kids. The EMT guys kindly created a seat for me on the side of their ambulance. After an effort like that, my body just wants to hold still and gather itself for several minutes so that’s what I did.
Mervus and the kids brought me some chips and Gatorade and eventually I was able to get up and walk about a bit. We found Team Sizzle and it was amazing to see them, though SO HARD not to hug them!! I also found the race directors and said thank you. The post-race festivities is the one place where I really blew it with masking. I had a mask with me and initially just forgot to put it on. We were outside, of course, but at the next race, I’ll be more cognizant of getting the mask on as soon as possible.
After the race, we scooted back to the hotel so I could get showered quickly and we could grab our stuff. The restaurant I had made reservations for turned out not to have outdoor seating. No worries. Aidan to the rescue again as he hopped on Google Maps and found a brunch place, just outside of town and away from the zoo of Jim Thorpe. We had a delicious brunch in a great tent. I was even able to get my traditional post-race mimosa! It was *hard* to say good-bye to Team Sizzle, but we hope very much to see them soon at another race. The drive back was easy peasy and recovery is going well.
Takeaways? I do wish I could have run faster, but I will probably say that after every race. It feels spectacularly audacious to get away with racing a marathon mid-pandemic. My family is my very best support crew and it was a weekend when I felt wrapped up in their love and support. The marathon remains glorious.