Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"B is for Brains" – The Berlin Marathon Race Recap

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I’ve rewritten this race recap three times. Each time, I fretted over how much to include, what to omit, which events are "interesting," and just how honest to really be. In the end, it turned out longer than I'd like, but it finally says what I want it to say. I think.

I don’t know how other people do it, but when I prepare for a race, I set three goals. The first is the one I tell my friends and family–mainly the people who don’t know much about running. This “C goal” the “safest” of the three: the one that, barring any catastrophe, I should reasonably be able to hit. Typically, it involves running a PR–a personal best–by any margin.

The next goal is the one that, depending on my mood (and who’s asking), I may or may not tell my running friends. Like the C goal, it’s one I also think I can hit, but requires a little more hope and a lot more luck. If race conditions are good and I keep my head on straight, I have a very good shot. The B goal is usually the one I tell my coach.

And then there’s the A goal. In college-application-speak, this is the “reach” goal, and it’s the one I truly have my heart set on. I almost never share this goal with anyone, because yes, I’m a little superstitious, but also this A goal seems greedy. It reveals that I don’t think it’s enough to just PR; I have to PR by this much.

Pasta dinner "race faces."
Three weeks out from Berlin, I had my three goals in place. The C goal was to PR. The B goal was to run a 2:55 (three minutes faster than my last marathon PR). And the A goal was to run a 2:50. My racing season thus far had gone great, and all three felt achievable . . . right up until I ran the worst half marathon of my life. After that, I spent the next two weeks trying to convince myself that the race was a fluke, that I wasn’t a mental disaster, and that the marathon couldn't possibly feel that bad . . . could it?

Then, to make matters worse, the night I was scheduled to fly to Europe, my coach announced that he was leaving New York. By email. An email that I read on my phone at 9pm while standing in an extraordinarily long airport check-in line, stressing over freelance work I had not yet finished.

This is it, my overreacting brain announced. He’s abandoning you. The team you love so much is finished.

Of course, I knew that none of these things were true. But nevertheless, I proceeded to spend the entire equally long, equally stressful security line trying to convince any onlookers that, no, these weren’t tears, I was just having an uncontrollable yawning epidemic. All in all, not the best send-off.

Fast forward to Saturday, September 24th: the night before race day.

I’ve always known that I am part of a fantastic team. Everyone is friendly and fun, supportive and encouraging. But on this particular day, my incredible teammates and fellow running friends took it upon themselves to remind me how great they really are.

So much love!!!
Here I was, thousands of miles away, in an entirely different time zone, and all of these amazing people took it upon themselves to not just think of me, but to bombard me with Facebook, Instagram, iMessage, and WhatsApp messages wishing me luck and reassuring me "you can do this." And for the first time in two weeks, I felt more than just apprehensive. I felt excited.

So. On to the race.

There’s nothing interesting to say about the morning of my race other than the fact that once I finally reached my starting corral, I was surprised to discover that there were almost no women around. And I don’t just mean standing near me; there were almost no women in sight at all. (As it turns out, fewer than one in four people running the Berlin marathon this year were female!) Eventually, a tiny British woman standing nearby approached me. She introduced herself by way of saying, “Honey, you look about as nervous as I feel!” and we chatted about the lack of women in our vicinity. Then, twenty minutes later, the starting gun sounded, and away we went.

Here was my plan:

Run the first half in 1:28. This would average out to 6:43 per mile (which I calculated the night before).
Then, alternate 2 mile “workouts.” Run two miles of fartleks (i.e., 1-2 minutes fast at the beginning of each mile before settling back into an easier pace for the remainder of the mile), and then run two miles at tempo (i.e., an even pace).

With this scaffolding, provided by my very wise coach, I decided I’d try to decrease my tempo miles by each set. Therefore, my plan ultimately looked like this:
Me, trying to pretend marathons are fun.

Miles 1–13: Average 6:43/mi
Miles 14–15: 2 miles fartlek (2min hard per mi)
Miles 16–17: 2 miles tempo @6:30-40/mi
Miles 18-19: 2 miles fartlek (2min hard per mi)
Miles 20–21: 2 miles tempo @6:20-30/mi
Miles 22–23: 2 miles fartlek (1-2min hard per mi)
Miles 24–25: 2 miles tempo @6:15-20/mi
Mile 26+: Whatever’s left

Unfortunately—as every runner knows—races rarely go according to plan. Here’s how the race actually broke down:

The first half of the race felt like floating. Literally. I felt like I was prancing down the street, with absolutely minimal effort. This is exactly how I’ve felt at the start of every marathon I’ve ever PR’ed, so it was definitely a good sign. My goal at this stage was to stay in control: don’t get too excited, but also don’t lose focus and let the pace slip.

Around mile twelve, the ball of my left foot started to bother me. This has happened before in other races, but I never know when it will start or why. Halfheartedly, I prayed to the running gods that it wouldn’t get worse. Then, since I’d been running primarily on the left side of the street (where it was less crowded), I attempted to move closer to the middle in hopes that doing so would solve the problem.

I crossed the half in 1:27:32. So far, so good.

My first fartlek went better than expected, with each mile clocking in around 6:20. In fact, other than the foot pain, which was getting worse mile by mile, everything was going better than expected. Each mile of my first tempo came in in a tad under 6:30/mi, so I mentally rolled back each tempo set to the faster end of the range. If I could do 6:20s for my next set and 6:15s for the last, it would be a very good day.

Ah yes, there's the pain face.
The next fartlek, I knew, would be telling. Miles 18-19 are typically the “bonk” miles, meaning that if the race falls apart, it usually does so right around here. However, these two miles went okay, and in spite of choking at a water station and slipping on some of the plastic cups (yes, this race used plastic water cups, which we had to grab off of the tables ourselves), I still managed to average the set in 6:25/mi. I was starting to get tired, and my left foot felt like it was being smashed with a sledgehammer, but I wasn’t suffering-suffering. And on the bright side, I only had one fartlek left!

The next tempo was when fatigue really hit. My first mile was nowhere near the pace I had planned, and while I put in effort to pick up the second mile, even that one didn’t quite make it down to the 6:20 mark.

And that’s when I got scared.

This hurts, said the fear, and you’re not even running as fast as you should be. What if you try to go faster and blow up? You’ll be at Mile 23, dead as a doornail, with nothing to show for all these months of hard work.

But listen, continued the fear. You have this PR in the bag. Just hang on here. You can do this—just don’t try anything fancy.

This moment may seem like a turning point, a decision, but that’s not how it felt; it felt like a foregone conclusion. And even as I succumbed to my own mental demons, I already knew: no matter what the clock said at the end of this race, I’d be disappointed. I could have done better.

A few miles later, somewhere within the last 5k, a girl in a white and blue tank top ran by me. Part of me wanted to latch onto her and try to get back under the 6:40 pace I was running, but mentally it was just too late. Let her go, said the fear. Let her run her race. You run yours.

So I did. And off she went.

Team pride, right here.
Finally, we passed under the Brandenburg Gate and into the home stretch of the race. In the distance, I could see the broad blue finish line cutting across the sky. We had less than half a mile left to run, and that's when I saw her. The girl. The one in the blue and white tank, who had passed me earlier. Suddenly, my coach’s voice piped up inside my head. “Don’t get outkicked.”

It's been his mantra to me for a year or so, now, ever since I lost third place to another girl by no margin at all.

Don’t get outkicked.

So I kicked. I ran this girl down, crossed the finish line, and waited for the exhilaration of “winning” to hit. But it didn’t come. Instead, all I felt was a dull ache of disappointment. Sure I had put in a colossal effort, and sure it hurt. But I’d been capable of more, and I gave that up.

Here’s the bottom line: am I sorry to have run a 2:53 marathon? Hell no. It’s a nearly 5-minute PR, and I worked hard for it. Am I embarrassed by my 33rd place finish among 9,000+ women? Of course not. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that sort of statistic would ever apply to me. But could I have given more? Yes. I knew it in the race, and I know it now. I didn’t lay everything on the line, because I was afraid to fail.

My best, most surprising races to date have always been the ones where I took risks. These are the races where I told myself, “it’s okay if you fail—because you gave it your all.” If I'm honest, I haven’t tried this yet in a marathon. I’ve run smart, and I’ve run well, but I’ve never fully thrown caution to the wind and said, “Screw it. If I fail, I fail.” However, that day is coming. And when it does, I can only hope that everything I have in my arsenal—the training, the rest, the food, the sleep, my awesome coach and amazing teammates—will be enough to pull me through. After all, they've gotten me here.

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
26.2 mi
881 / 45,066
33 / 9,263
9 / 1,434

GCR reunion in Berlin.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Berlin Marathon Training: A Season in Review

I'm a sucker for firsts. First love, first kiss, first time having, er, . . . So our culture loves to emphasize romantic firsts, but those aren't the only exciting kind. First time driving a car. First time living abroad. First time running one mile. Or two. Or 26.2.

Nothing will ever quite replicate the exhilaration and pride of finishing my first marathon. However, each marathon season has brought with it a number of other firsts, and this season has been no exception. Some of them have been good, some of them have been bad, but all of them have been memorable.


First time racing abroad. Technically this race hasn't happened yet, but I think it deserves to make the list. I've never even run a race in Canada, never mind on a different continent. After Sunday, I can check this feat off my bucket list!

First time running more than 70 miles in one week. I have a teammate who ran 80-100 training for her marathon, all while working (and traveling for) a full time job. I've decided she's superhuman. Meanwhile, I work from home and have fought the urge to nap so desperately in my life.

First time breaking the tape. Just to put this in perspective, I didn't WIN the race . . . but I did come in first in my age group heat at the Fifth Avenue Mile. The fact that I crossed the finish line first in a one-mile race was surprising enough, but what was even more astonishing (to me) was the fact that I did this at the end of a 70+ mile week of training. Bodies really can do amazing things.


First time worrying that my recovery runs were too slow. I never used to think twice about recovery runs (i.e., runs meant to accumulate "time on my feet," as opposed to structured, speed-based workouts). I'm a big believer in "running by feel," so what used to happen during my recovery runs is I'd step outside, feel like death for a mile or two, and then everything would loosen up and I'd start running at a "normal" pace again. This time around was different. I'd walk out the door, barely able to lift my legs, and for the entire run, my watch would read 8:15, 8:30, 8:45, 9:00 per mile. My body felt like it was fighting against giant, invisible rubber bands, and I had to learn to be okay with that feeling, put my head down, and trudge forward. Easier said than done.

70+ mile week foot. Gross.
First time looking backward to move forward. About midway through training, I suffered a crisis of confidence. I had a god-awful workout (was I getting slower?), started worrying that my prescribed workout paces were increasing (was I getting slower??), and couldn't seem to run a recovery mile under 8:30 (I was totally getting slower!!!). Also, for whatever reason, I was starting to feel neglected. Had Coach given up on me? Had I given up on me? Was I actually going to be in shape to run a PR at this upcoming marathon? My logical brain said, "Shut up, Allison. You ran a half marathon PR, just a few short months ago I might add, minutes faster than the last time you trained for a marathon. You're fine." Meanwhile, my emotional brain was still panicking. "Maybe you are mis-remembering everything. You have a terrible memory for numbers. Maybe you're not one step faster than the last time you trained for a marathon!" So I caved and looked back at my old training log. I just wanted to see: were my newer workouts harder? Was I running more mileage? Was I in better shape? Of course, the answer was yes. And then, as if he has a sixth sense (which he very well might), Coach called me two days later. So much for feeling neglected.


First time walking in a race. I like to think of myself as a decent racer. On most occasions, I can push through pain, not give up, and eke out a respectable performance. This particular half marathon was not one of those occasions.
I started off with my first mile already fifteen seconds behind pace, so I tried to be okay with that and stay in control as I waited for my body to loosen up, find its rhythm, do what it knows how to do. It never did. Instead, I went from mentally chanting "relax" to insisting "you're fine." When that failed, I started making deals with myself. If I could just get halfway, I could eat my Gu, and that would change things. Got halfway, ate the Gu, and nothing changed, except I started feeling sick. So then the goal became finishing without walking. Eventually, that goal also fell apart, making way for, "If you make it to the last 5k without walking, you can have one walking break," followed by, "If you make it to the last mile without walking more than once, you can have one more walking break." Never have I struggled so hard just to finish a race. And never have I felt so undeserving of an award–because, ironically enough, I was the first female to cross the finishing line (thankfully there was no tape to break). But sometimes life reminds you not to take these things so seriously. On the car ride home, I finally looked at the trophy I'd received, and what did I discover? They'd given me the "1st Place Male" by mistake. Go figure.

As you may be able to tell from the length of each item in this list, the "bad" items are weighing more heavily on my mind lately. But that is the curse of taper, right? You sit back, put your feet up, try to ignore the latest aches and pains, and hope that all the work you've put in for the many days and weeks and months leading up to the race will do its job.

So here's the bottom line, which I am writing as much for myself as for anyone who reads this: I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am not the same athlete now that I was eighteen months ago. Whether or not everything clicks on race day, and the clock and I emerge as friends, I've absolutely made progress. And that counts for something. It counts for a lot.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: Swimming Studies

Swimming Studies Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really loved this book. Not all of this book, but most. And I absolutely think it's because I grew up as a swimmer. So I will start this review with a disclaimer: To all childhood competitive swimmers, read this book. Everyone else . . . take your chances. Because I cannot speak to the experience of reading this book without waves of recognition and nostalgia and the desire to point and shout, "Yes! I did/saw/smelled/felt that, too!" However, I suspect that without those feelings, I would probably not like this book nearly as much, and that suspicion is due to the fact that the parts of the memoir that I didn't like were virtually everything that fell outside of the realm of competitive swimming–namely, Shapton's art career and her never-ending tour of strange and exotic swimming pools.

That is not to say that I did not appreciate the inclusion of Shapton's artwork throughout the book; in fact I adored it. The change in medium and, consequently, in pace, really made the memoir a thought-provoking experience rather than just a story. However, anything she had to say about painting I almost entirely glossed over, just like every time her adult self climbed into a random Italian pool, I started skipping paragraphs.

Her accounts of swim meets, however, of practices, of not wanting to swim yet feeling the insatiable compulsion, of the agony of jumping into cold water in the dark hours of the morning . . . all of those things were so spot on, it's hard to believe I never wrote these depictions myself. The tone of the book as a whole is self-reflective and slightly subdued, as if Shapton herself is submerged as she writes it, in the shaded part of a cool, shallow pool. She recounts her feelings of ambition and competitiveness by showing us how she visualized her races while she waited for her breakfast to finish microwaving. Yet we don't feel the rush of adrenaline, of antsy competitive spirit so many athletes have when they talk about their sport. Shapton is calm, analytical, viewing herself with adult eyes, eyes that have already seen herself come short of the mark and be forced to accept that reality.

I will reiterate: any and every childhood competitive swimmer should read this book. You will find gems inside that will conjure up habits you forgot you had and rituals you forgot you followed. You will find yourself missing your stiff, chlorine-bleached hair and the simplicity of counting against a clock. But it's always there, the pool, and Swimming Studies reminds us that, if we choose to, we can jump right back in.

View all my reviews

Monday, July 11, 2016

How You Feel

Recently, I have been running into the phrase “it’s not how you look, it’s how you feel” over and over again. When I first started seeing these messages, I thought That’s nice. It’s great to see someone standing up to our culture’s overwhelming focus on appearances, especially a woman. Still, something didn’t sit quite right with me, and the more I saw of these messages, the more my gut kept saying No. Wrong.

Finally, as I was soldiering through my long run this past Saturday, I realized what it was that bothered me. I agree that your self worth shouldn’t be based on how you look, but it shouldn’t be based on how you feel, either. In fact, deriving one’s self-worth from feelings can be very, very dangerous. Because no one—and I mean no one—feels great all the time.

Some days we don’t feel like getting out of bed. Other days, we don’t feel like we could possibly run a single step, play a single note, type a single word. We’re tired. We’re sick. We’re sad. We “can’t.” And yet we do. Because no matter how we feel, the truest parts of ourselves believe we can do these things. And so we do them.

Ultimately, what we believe about ourselves becomes our reality. If we believe we are worthy of love, others will love us. If we believe we are kind and compassionate, we will act kindly and compassionately. And if we believe we are capable—of running this marathon or writing that book, of starting a new career or approaching a stranger—then we will take the necessary actions to accomplish these things.

No mater how we feel.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Going For It: An Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon Race Report

This spring, I didn’t train for a marathon; I trained for a half. The Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon, to be specific. What follows is a rather gruesomely detailed race report, so consider yourself warned. And since every race actually starts during taper week, I begin my tale on the Thursday before the race.

Me and my teammates!
Two days out, my a.m. teammates and I did our standard pre-race workout: one mile close to race pace, followed by six quarters a tad faster. Of course, it felt awful. Taper always feels awful. And, of course, the usual voices of doubt bubbled up, just like they always do. If one 6:10 mile felt that bad, how the hell are you going to run twelve more of them? You’re out of shape. You were panting after those quarters. You should be able to run those paces in your sleep. What is wrong with you?

Fortunately, those taper week demons and I are already well acquainted. I’ve proven them wrong often enough that—knock wood—I’ve become semi-comfortable feeling uncomfortable. So I let them natter on, while my inner self said, You’re in shape. You know you’re in shape. You’re ready for this. You’re going to do this.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that when the conversation turned to projected race times, I didn’t estimate conservatively. After all, a PR is a PR, so as long as I broke my last half marathon time (a low 1:22), I’d honestly be happy. And barring any last-minute weather- or health-related issues, I was pretty confident I could do that.

Through the course of the conversation, I learned that my morning coach believed I could run a 1:21 (yay!), and also that a guy who trains at the track at the same as us had volunteered as a pacer for the race. When we asked what time he was pacing, he responded,

“The 1:20 group.”

What? Come again.There was a 1:20 pace group???

“Yeah, it’s the fastest one. Honestly, if you’re going to run a 1:20, I don’t see why you need a pacer, but they asked me to do it, so that’s the sign I’ll be holding.”

So this guy was going to run 6:06/mile for 13.1 miles while holding a sign. Unreal.

“See you guys on the course, maybe,” he said as we gathered our stuff to leave. Impulsively, I replied,

“Ha! If I see you on the course, I’ll buy you a beer.”

Ironically, I now owe him a beer. But he totally earned it.

Ran my midday 30-minute shakeout alone. The demons of doubt were still yammering away, this time pointing out how much I was sweating, how dry my throat felt, and how I still couldn’t breathe through my nose. I continued to reassure myself that none of that mattered. Then, I made a deal: no matter how the first eleven miles of the race went, when I got to those last two miles, I would "go for broke." After all, why not? I’d trained for this race for months. There was nothing to lose.

Ate pasta. Packed my bag. Set my 4am alarm. Went to bed.

Saturday – RACE DAY
I've probably written this before, but when it comes to racing, I get really selfish. I love warming up and hanging out with my teammates all the way up until the gun goes off, but when I step over the starting line, it’s all me, all the time. I don’t want to think about what pace anyone else is running; I don’t want to hear how heavily they’re breathing; I just want to run my race, by myself.

Of course, that’s not to say that races happen in a vacuum. The beginning of the Brooklyn course has this quick little out-and-back, so you get to see runners who started before/after you on the opposite side of the course for about a mile. I absolutely love this. It’s such a rush to see your teammates and give a little cheer and a wave as you pass them going in the opposite direction. Plus, it’s the beginning of the race, so everyone is smiling and feeling good, and it takes your mind off of those early race jitters. Am I going out too fast? Taking it too easy? Why are all these people passing me? Oh look—there’s one of my teammates! Hiiii!

The first part of the race circled and then entered  Prospect Park. This part of the race was all about control. Cruise the uphills, relax on the downhills, don’t take things too easy, and try not to tie yourself up in mental knots. Luckily, this part of the race was convenient to spectate, so I got to see my teammate cheer squad not once, but twice within the first six miles, plus a bunch of other folks I recognized along the course. Seeing people I know screaming my name will never, ever get old. It’s an instant confidence boost and a welcome distraction from the mental daisy plucking that is simultaneously going on in my head. (My body loves me…. It loves me not.)

Then, suddenly, the hill was done. We were out of the park. Trees became concrete. Ocean Parkway. Halfway done.

Now, I’m no mental math savant (I have another teammate who gets that title), but by my rough estimation, I was so far executing according to plan. Cross the half in 40-42, I’d been told by my coach. Then start hammering the parkway. With half of the race still to go, I didn’t want to kill myself, but I knew if I didn’t settle into a slightly faster rhythm now, I might never get there. So I picked a guy who seemed like he was running a fairly consistent (faster) pace, settled in behind him, and . . . well . . . ran.

Several yards before the Mile 7 sign, my watch beeped. 6:01. Uh oh. This is not what I had intended to do. I’d been thinking more like 6:05-6:08ish, and that’s certainly what it had felt like. There were so many more miles to go. I checked in with my body: my breathing wasn’t horribly labored, and nothing else was acting wonky. Yet. So now it was time to decide: should I back off, let this guy run away, and hope I could pick up the pace for the last 2-3 miles? Or should I try to hang here, at this pace–in vastly unknown territory–as long as I possibly could?

I decided to go for it. After all, what I did I have to lose? It would be super painful at the end, and my body might start failing me. But at least I could say I went for it. And thus began my mantra: At least you can say you went for it.

About to cry/throw up/pass out.At mile 8, when my Gu was not going down right: At least you can say you went for it.

At mile 9, when I saw a former of teammate of mine walking on the side of the road, face dejected, clearly no longer on pace to hit the 1:19 he’d said he was going to run: At least you can say you went for it.

At mile 10, when a red-headed girl I had passed earlier sped by me: At least you can say you went for it.

At mile 11, it was time to execute on the deal I had made with myself: when you have two miles left, go for broke. But no matter what mental games I tried, my legs felt stuck in gear. Granted it was a pretty good gear, but I had clearly lost all semblance of control. At least you can say you went for it.

At mile 12, when I saw the race clock, I realized: I had this! All I had to do was maintain my pace and I’d break 1:20. I’d break 1:20!!!

However, my bodily functions were starting to go haywire. My bladder gave out almost exactly at the mile marker, and I was starting to feel nauseous. You only have a mile left! cheered the supportive part of my brain. A six-minute mile. You’ve run these in practice. You can totally do this. Then I made the mistake of checking my watch. You’ve only run a quarter of a mile, and you are literally about to die, announced the demon doubters. It feels like you’re slowing down, doesn’t it? And you may have passed that red-headed chick again, but she’s obviously right behind you. . . .

At that moment, I glimpsed the 1:20 pace flag bobbing up ahead. The guy from the track! What was he doing up there? He’d started in the corral behind me, and I was on pace to break 1:20 . . . at least I thought I was. Had I calculated wrong?

Boy was my stomach feeling unhappy now....

Then, for whatever reason, he looked back and saw me. “Hey!” he shouted. “Come on! Let’s go!”

With 400 meters left, I finally made it to his side.

“You’ve got this,” he cheered. “Go catch that CPTC girl!”

I could see her, in the orange-and-blue crop top, just a few steps ahead of me. I could do this. It was just 400 meters. Time to kick, right?

“When your legs get tired, use your arms,” I could hear my coach say. “Don’t get outkicked. This is why we sprint when we’re tired.”

Yep, can't breathe.Tired doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I have never been so scared that my legs would collapse under me in my entire life. I’m pretty sure they were actually wobbling, and the uneven slats of the boardwalk didn’t help.

I'd studied the map. I knew that when we turned onto the boardwalk, the finish line should be right there. And it was. Yet no finish line has ever seemed so far away.

When I finally crossed, I was too out of breath to do anything but wheeze. Also, I was scared of falling over. And vomiting. I’m pretty sure it took me ten solid minutes to feel confident that I hadn’t suddenly developed asthma and that neither of those other two things was going to happen.

But I had done it. I had gone for it . . . and it worked. 1:19:33. It felt like someone else's time.

Later, at the bar, one of my teammate asked, “So, what does running 1:19 feel like?” When I described it (in only slightly less detail than I have here), her response was, “Oh. So it feels just like running 1:40.”

Yes. Yes it does.

Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon 2016 Race Results

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
13.1 mi
152 / 27,409
14 / 14,716
7 / 3,510