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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Philly Marathon Race Recap: How to OTQ*

Step 1: Stay with a non-runner. In this case two of them, your cousin and his wife. Answer questions like "How many marathons have you run this year?" and "What pace are you going to run?" and "Are you going to win?" Also enjoy some really, really good home cooking.
Good-luck flowers!
Step 2: Receive surprise flowers (and totally mis-guess who they are from). Remember, for the first of many times this weekend, just how wonderful your friends are.
Step 3: Lose your race bib. There are many ways you can do this, but one surefire way is to put it in your training partner's identical backpack** after you take a photo together at the race expo. Make sure to tear your whole room apart in a panic before thinking to call her and having your fears eased.
Step 4: Watch The Lion King. Followed by an Iliza Shlesinger Netflix comedy special. All while eating white bread and Trader Joe's Scandinavian Swimmers. (After being fed a personal dinner of spaghetti with marinara while everyone else ate steak and brussels sprouts.)
Step 5: Wake up at your usual "workout wakeup" time. Eat a banana and dry Honey Bunches of Oats, just like you always do. Pack a Picky Bar for later.
Step 6: Squeeze into an over-crowded, muddy "elite" tent, along with all of the pacers for the race, and also Meb Keflezighi and Des Linden, who you will not get a photograph with, because there are only ten minutes left and you need to get to the start line.
Step 7: On the start line, look into the faces of women you know, three of whom were your training partners for the past six months. Let yourself feel excited--this adventure is about to begin.
Step 8: Smile at the rain gods, because they are smiling at you. The rain has stopped. The race gun goes off. It's time to get down to business.
These look "elite" right?
Step 9: Grab your very first "elite" water bottle ever. Try not to fall over the other eight women going for their bottles at the exact same time on the exact same table. Make sure you snag that yellow pipe cleaner "handle" you duct-taped on for its snagability. Try to get back to your pace group in one piece. Discover that you have chosen a very stiff bottle, which was a mistake; now you must attempt to suck the liquid out while still breathing oxygen and maintaining pace. Eventually pull off the gu you taped to the bottle (with some really lovely pineapple-adorned duct tape) and pitch the bottle to the side of the street, where it proceeds to explode.
Step 10: Avoid the giant puddles. Or at least try, because anything could be down there. No need to twist an ankle this early.
Step 11: Get to the top of the One Big Hill In The Race without getting totally dropped. Catch back up to the pack. Let your breathing return to normal. Finish your gu.
Step 12: Notice that one of your teammates is gone. Maybe not gone, maybe just a few meters back. But this is not the time for feelings. You've just come past the halfway point. Refocus. Keep running.
Step 13: Almost trip your coach. Several times. Profusely apologize. Then almost get tripped by the girl running directly behind you several times. Must still be a tight pack.
Step 14: Greet your friend and teammate as she hops into the race. You might only get a word or two out, but that's okay--she knows how you feel, because she's already done this many, many times.
Step 15: Wonder if your attempts at "drafting" are working. It is very unclear whether, as the tallest woman in this group, running behind your friend and your coach--two extremely slender average-height runners--is helping at all. Figure that in this headwind, anything is better than nothing.
Step 16: Perform the running equivalent of elbowing a competitor out of the way to resume your place behind your coach. This is your pacer. If she wants to come along, she can run behind you.
Step 17: Arrive at the turnaround cone. Decide it's too slippery and you're too tired to make the turn. Stop running. Step around the cone. Then hurry to catch back up.
Step 18: Glimpse another training partner still headed "out" toward the cone. Try to guess how far back she is. Assume it can't be very far, but your mental faculties are starting to fail. Hope she is rallying for the final push.
The finish line is near. 
Step 19: Reach mile 21. Remind yourself, in a somewhat happy-yet-pain-filled fog, that this is the farthest you've ever run at this pace. Refocus on mile 22.
Step 20: Lose sight of your coach at the next water table. He had said he would grab water for your training partner. Is he coming back? Nope, because he shouts to go ahead. You're on your own from here on out.
Step 21: Arrive at Mile 23. Check your watch. Still on pace. You know, despite the dead-hurt feeling in your legs, that you can hold this for three more miles.
Step 22: Start feeling emotions swell at the base of your throat. Shut that shit down. There are still three miles left to run. Anything could happen.
Step 23: Arrive at Mile 24. See a familiar uniform up ahead. It's a woman you know. You haven't seen her all race, which means she went out hard. You have two miles. Keep going.
Step 24: Vaguely register Mile 25. It hurts so bad, but you are gaining ground. Now it's a race.
Step 25: Pass her on the final uphill. (An uphill!) Grunt what you hope sounds like encouragement, because this is a fellow New Yorker*** and you're both definitely going to make this 2:45 cutoff, so you might as well help each other get there. But you're also not slowing down.
Step 26: Cross the finish line.
Step 26.2: You did it. You are going to the Olympic Trials.

Amazing training squad & coach.
2019 Philadelphia Marathon Race Results

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
(F30-34)
26.2 mi
2:44:11
6:15/mile
107 / 10,064
5 / 4,220
1 / 651

* OTQ = Olympic Trials Qualify. For women, this means running a marathon in two hours and forty-five minutes or less. For men, . . . I don't know (2:18 I think?), but it doesn't matter, because this procedure won't apply.
** Thanks again to Nike's Project Moonshot program. The backpack I received as part of the program is my new favorite (and I carry a lot of backpacks). However, it is others' favorite as well, which can be the source of such confusion.
*** Okay, okay, okay. She lives in New York. I am a Jersey Girl. But we both run in New York, so I'm standing by my "fellow New Yorker" terminology here.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Pre-Philly: Peaks and Valleys of the 2019 Fall Training Season

As I was thinking about what I wanted to write in this season recap, I started wondering why I wanted to write it at all. What drives us to share pieces of ourselves on a blog, or Instagram, or wherever? What drives me to share this specific piece of myself before every race? After all, it's not like my story is unique: sure the road felt long, but it feels long every time. Heck, everyone's road to the marathon feels long. And sure, there were bumps along the way, but everyone has bumps (or hills, or mountains). I guess that's exactly why I like writing these: because I like stories, and I like relating my story to other people's stories and finding the humanity in it all.

Also, it's super-important for me to write this all out pre-race, because after the race, it's far too easy to slot things in where they may or may not belong. The whole story gets framed by the outcome: "Oh, she didn't make her goal, but look at all the obstacles she faced," or, "Wow, look at all of those challenges she overcame to accomplish that, how impressive." But we're supposed to focus on the process, right? So regardless of what the finish line holds, here is a look at my process of getting to the start line, and the peaks and valleys I encountered along the way.

Peak: Training Group
My whole life, I've wanted to be part of a team. I love working together, side-by-side, with others for a common goal, and I also love competition. Prior to this year, I knew of other women who were pursuing the same goal as me, but we were all doing it separately, in our own time, in our own way. Some of us did come together to form an official team, which I love, but that still didn't solve the issue of day-to-day togetherness. For every workout, I was texting everyone I knew, looking for people whose schedules might align with mine. And honestly? That level of uncertainty (especially when my whole job is already filled with constant uncertainty) got exhausting. Luckily for me, my coach could tell, or maybe he had wanted to form a training group all along, and this was his chance. Either way, it worked out for both of us. By some miracle, I found perhaps the only two other women in all of NYC who were going for the same goal and didn't already have a coach. Together with another friend who was already being coached by J___ (my coach), we joined forces and formed our own little training unit.

Staten Island: Not my best
Incidentally, four turned out to be the perfect number. Every Wednesday and Saturday, rain or shine, two, three, and sometimes all four of us got together and ran an identical workout. Of course, it never looked identical; inevitably one of us would be having a good day or a bad day, and we would wind up strung out, not so much running "together" as running after one another. But having that steady group of women to reliably meet for the hardest workouts of our lives . . . it made a difference. It was something I knew I needed, I got it, and I couldn't be more grateful.

Valley: The Comparison Trap
Of course, if you train alongside your peers and you all have same goal, there is no avoiding comparison. Why can't I keep up with her? or When am I going to be the one having a good day? were thoughts that circled round and round my mind in those first weeks (months?) of training. I wasn't keeping up. I got dropped over and over on those initial runs, and it was killing me. After all, this whole thing had been my idea! And here I was, not leading the pack, but pulling up the distant rear. Frustration was the least of it. I not only questioned my fitness, but I questioned my potential, whether I was "cut out" for this, and if I'd ever find running "fun" again.

Peak: Therapy
Around the beginning of summertime training, I finally bit the bullet and started seeing a therapist. Part of me is a little embarrassed to admit this, because it feels like a luxury, an upper-class indulgence. I wasn't sick. I wasn't depressed, or hearing voices, or about to commit an act of violence. And it was not cheap. But I was rapidly losing enjoyment in this activity that I had loved for so long, and that loss of enjoyment felt out of my control. I wanted to enjoy running. I remembered what it felt like to enjoy running. And yet, by the time I got to the starting line of the New Jersey Marathon this past spring, I was decidedly not having fun. It's a hobby, I told myself, so if it's not fun, what's the point?

Wilder Lab run
I could have quit. That would have been the easiest thing to do. But I didn't want to quit, because I still didn't understand what had gone wrong. I knew that I was the only one putting any pressure on myself, and that the trick was to "enjoy the process" and "forget what other people think" and "not take it so seriously." I just couldn't do any of those things. And so, upon the recommendation of a friend, I found someone who I hoped could help.

I've learned a lot from this therapist (although I no doubt still have a long way to go), but one of the most freeing things she said to me during our first few conversations was, "What's so bad about comparison? You're a competitor. That's part of competing." I think we're often told that "good" women are supposed to selflessly and enthusiastically cheer for one another 100% of the time, and that when we size ourselves up against one other, that makes us "bad" or "unhealthy". But I've learned that I'm not wishing anyone ill, I'm merely demanding more of myself. And it's a sport, for goodness' sake! It's okay to want to win. Winning cannot be the only thing, of course, and "winning" in practice is basically meaningless, but the permission those words gave me was such a relief. Go ahead. Compete.

Valley: More Therapy
So they say "it takes a village". . . . Not only did I commit to seeing a mental health therapist through this training cycle, but I also committed to doing whatever I possibly could for this foot of mine. (If you're not up to speed, I have a neuroma [i.e., an inflamed nerve] in my left foot. It reared its ugly head prior to the New Jersey Marathon and hasn't gone away.) I diligently went back to my physical therapist every other week and practiced a whole host of what continue to feel like futile foot/ankle/calf stretches.* I also resigned myself to seeing an acupuncturist on the alternating weeks, so she could put a heating lamp over my foot and proceed to stick needles into it. (If anyone ever tells you acupuncture isn't painful, they definitely have not had any foot treatments.)

Did any of this stuff work? I guess so, because the pain has been more manageable this time around. But, as I've learned in therapy, a fair amount of the pain is in my head, too.** So I guess you could say "everything" is helping? Whether an MRI would show it or not.

Peak: Wilder Lab
In early September, with training and multiple therapies fully underway, I took a break to go to a retreat. I had registered (and paid) for this retreat many many months ago, and now, with the prospect of missing training looming in real time, I second-, third-, and fourth-guessed if this was a good idea. I had already been to a Wilder Retreat—could this one possibly live up? And wasn't sticking to training more important than indulging in a "vacation"?

I shouldn't have worried. The Wilder Lab turned out to be even more magical than the Wilder Retreat. Within the span of 72 hours, I felt so close to the ten other women on retreat—all of whom had started out as perfect strangers—that they could have been my best friends. And yes, we ran (it's a running + writing retreat), but the running was more "movement as medicine" or "movement for exploration,"*** neither of which I've done, at least intentionally, in what felt like a long time.

Valley: Sister in ICU
Me & my sister
Unfortunately, when I returned to life on the east coast, I didn't get to bask in the afterglow from the retreat for long. A day or two after I returned, I got a call that my sister was in the hospital. Again. Around this time one year prior, she'd had a heart attack and now, this year, something weird was happening with her red blood cell count. Fortunately, my parents were in town this time and could take the brunt of it as her health rapidly declined. She wound up in the ICU, where she stayed, fighting for life, for over a month.

It's hard to describe what this feels like if you haven't been through it yourself. My little sister might die, and there was quite literally nothing I could do. Should I be there? Did I even want to be there? She was unconscious, so she certainly wouldn't care either way. Yet my parents were there, and I felt I needed to at least support them. So on the weekend when we were supposed to have held my sister's bridal shower, I flew home to Pittsburgh and drove with my mom to Cleveland, where my dad was literally camped out at my sister's bedside.

Suffice to say, being there did not make me feel better. It's hard to say if it made me feel worse. What I definitely did feel was guilty, though, because at the end of the weekend, I was scheduled to run a 10k. And despite everything that was going on, I still intended to race it.

Peak: The Great Race 10k
I had initially signed up for the Great Race 10k because my training partners were all racing a 10-miler back in New York that weekend, so when I knew I'd be in Pittsburgh for the bridal shower, I decided to capitalize on the opportunity to race something, even if it wasn't a full ten miles. Now, though, my emotions were all over the board, so while I was still going to run this race, I reframed the whole thing as "practice." It was an experiment of sorts: Could I get into race mode amidst all the turmoil?

At the Great Race 10k
It could have been any of a hundred tiny things, from the warmup drills to the heart breaths I was trying to practice, but something worked. I had a great race. It was one of those races where by halfway, I was starting to pass women without any extra effort. Even the hill at mile five couldn't stop me. I was hurting and not caring, and when I came within sight of the finish line and a man tried to pass me, I kicked into that extra gear where it literally feels like flying, and blew him away. This feeling—this is why I run. It's rare and special and absolutely intoxicating. It's what I had been searching for this whole time. And while I haven't felt it on a single day since then, I am comforted to know it might be there, waiting for me, just around the corner.

The Rest of the Story
I don't want to end on a "valley" but it would be misleading to end this recap with the highest of highs. Because my very next race, the Staten Island Half Marathon, was a huge disappointment. I had ambitions to PR, or at least come within spitting distance of my best time, but halfway through the race, an inexplicable feeling of sadness came over me. I crossed the finish line and cried. I wasn't crying over my race time, although I was definitely not pleased with that. I was crying because I had asked my body to do something, but then this feeling, something I could not see or name, took over. I'm still working on how to prevent that from happening again.

Meanwhile, as of this post, my sister is finally out of the hospital and recovering at home. She still has a very long road ahead of her, but she has a loving fiance, a supportive family, and a stubbornness I could never dream of matching. So I have to trust her to take care of her.

And now it's about time for this race: this adventure. It's uncharted territory. Lots of exciting "first times" coming up: first time using "elite" water bottles, first time trying to race with a group, first time going into a marathon with the full acknowledgement that I very well might "blow up" before the finish line. The prospect of pain is scary, but the prospect of finding out what I can do is exhilarating. All I can say now is, "We'll see." Whatever happens, I'll be as surprised as anyone else.

*Big thanks to Nike's Project Moonshot, without which I would have spent considerably more money on these physical therapy appointments.
**I swear, psychology is like voodoo. I came into the office one week, literally crying about my foot. It hurt so terribly, and I had been spending all this money and doing all these things to help it . . . the whole running endeavor just felt futile.
"It's because [XXX] is making you hyper-aware of your body," the therapist told me. "And you're anticipating the pain. So look right at it: Yeah, your foot is going to hurt. But the doctors told you it isn't going to cause permanent damage, right? So okay, it's going to hurt, and it's not going to stop, and that's the choice you're making. Own it." She was right. A week later, the pain went back to its normal level. Just like that.
**And man did we explore. Two women and I got so lost on one of the runs, we started negotiating what we would do if the sun started setting (because it was already pretty chilly, and none of us had food or water). Ultimately, we had to hitchhike to a town a full hour from camp, we were that lost, but we made it out alive!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

New Jersey Marathon Recap: Falling Short and Getting Up

Well, I did not meet my goal. And disappointment is definitely a Big Feeling.

Those first few hours after the race, it was easy to mistake disappointment for devastation. I had put in so much work and gone, objectively, nowhere. 2:50:58 is thirty-three seconds slower than my time in Portland two years ago. It’s six minutes off of what I need to run to go to Atlanta next February. As I collected my gear and walked to the shuttle and drove to the hotel and stood in the shower and finally flopped down on the queen-sized bed with my fists to my face, I couldn’t stop wondering, “Why did I even bother?”

It’s a foolish question, of course. Anyone who competes at anything knows the answer. I was just disappointed. I still am.

The race really hurt. Not in that “I pushed myself to the physical brink” hurt, where you “give a race everything you’ve got.” I mean yes, it hurt that way, too, but my left foot, which had been plaguing me in the weeks leading up to the race, really, really hurt. This was not a surprise. Given the preceding weeks, I knew it was a question of when it would start to hurt in the race, not if. The answer was around mile 8.

That's Mr. Ironman there on my right. Photo cred: CheerEverywhere.
Mile 8 was around the time I started to get sad, too. I had started the race with a small pack of runners, but when it became clear that we weren’t going to run much faster than 6:30s, I tried following a guy wearing a backwards Ironman cap when he broke away. Yet by mile 8, he and I hadn’t picked up the pace by more than a second or two, and I didn’t need to do much mental math to know the race was not going to turn out the way I had hoped. My plan had been to run as close to 6:20s as possible for the first 18 miles while staying “comfortable,” and then to try to hammer the last 8 miles hard enough to get under 2:45:00. I was already more than a minute off track for the first part of that plan. And the pain in my foot was ramping up.

Three miles later, the half marathoners funneled away toward their finish line, leaving the few remaining marathoners strung out single file down a long, straight road. Ironman guy had broken away from me, and the effort it would take to catch up felt like too much. Should I even keep running? It felt bizarre to be asking myself that question as my feet continued to turn under me, but I couldn’t shake the thought: I could just drop out. No one would care.

I kept running, forcing myself to put in 1-minute surges at the twelfth and thirteenth mile markers. The little hope inside that refuses to die insisted. It might help. You could turn things around.

I lapped my watch at mile 14. It read 6:40.

F*ck this. My foot f*cking hurts. The goal is long gone. Why am I even doing this?

Yet even as my brain was sinking toward despair, I reached into my shorts for the gel I was supposed to eat at mile 14. Maybe it will help, whispered the little hope. Calories. Caffeine. You never know.

I kept running. My foot kept throbbing. I think a man passed me, maybe two or three. Otherwise I saw almost no one until I got to the boardwalk at Asbury Park, around mile 17. I was maneuvering up onto the wooden planks when two women went charging past me in the other direction.

Olympic trials qualifiers, I thought numbly as a third woman went whizzing by. I am so far behind.

Yet by the time I hit the turnaround cone at mile 19, something inside me had shifted. Thoughts of dropping out were gone. I had come this far; I was going to finish. The foot pain had sort of plateaued, but my right hamstring was getting tired. I’m compensating. It was a strange realization, because it made no difference. My foot hurt. Nothing I could do about that. My hamstring was tired. Oh well. My feet kept turning. My hands kept snatching cups of Gatorade. My eyes kept peering into the distance to glimpse the next mile marker.

“Never quit,” they say.

“If you believe, you can achieve.”

“You have to want it bad enough.”

Don't be fooled; that's 75% of the crowd on the whole course.
Photo cred: Kai Ng.
There is something to these sayings. They are meant to motivate you, to push you forward when society, and bullies, and your own brain tell you no, you can’t. And yet there are times when quitting is the smarter choice. When believing and wanting are not enough.

I wanted this 2:45:00 bad enough to invest incredible amounts of time and energy. To work on eating the right things and sleeping the right amount and doing little stretches and recovery exercises that I absolutely positively did not want to do. I wanted it enough to go to the weight room and to the pool and to parks and roads all over the city to run in the cold and the heat, the rain and the snow. I wanted it enough to do these things for months on end, and I know plenty of other women who “want” it just as bad. Some of us get it. Some of us don’t.

I carried my disappointment with me for a good majority of that marathon, and I’m carrying it with me now. But after letting time and space do their thing, I have also dug out a few nuggets of pride. I did not drop out. I desperately wanted to, but I did not. And while I may not have successfully adhered to my race plan, I adhered to my nutrition plan. I choked down my gels and gulped water and Gatorade on schedule, no matter how futile. And as terrible and sad and hurting and lopsided as I might have felt, I did not crash and burn. I held on and ran the second-fastest marathon of my life. So there is a silver lining. Or maybe at least a copper one.


Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
26.2 mi
2:50:58
6:32/mile
29 / 2,316
4 / 864

Friday, April 26, 2019

Big Goals, Big Feelings: Pre-Jersey/Spring 2019 Recap

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Some are about running, some are sort of about running, and some have nothing to do with running. One of my current favorites, Work, Play, Lovefalls into all three categories. On this podcast, the two hosts, Lauren Fleshman and her husband Jesse Thomas, answer listeners’ questions about their business (Picky Bars), their sports (running and triathlon), and their relationship (including kids). On an episode that aired a few months ago, a question came up that had to do with setting goals and mentally preparing for success and failure. I don’t remember much more about the question, but I vividly remember Lauren’s answer: when you sign up for big goals, you sign up for big feelings, too. 


NYC Half Marathon. Andy (front) is having way more fun than I am.
Photo: CheerEverywhere
That statement has been a scrolling marquee in my brain this entire training cycle:  B-i-g G-o-a-l-s, B-i-g F-e-e-l-i-n-g-s. It’s a reminder, a warning. Feelings are coming. Prepare yourself. And now that I’m just a few days away from The Race that I’ve been training for, those feelings are coming out in full force.

If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times: the marathon doesn’t owe you anything. You can put in countless hours of work over days and weeks and months. You can eat the right things, do the right exercises, run the right paces, train on the right terrain, hire the right coach, get the right sleep, buy the right gear, choose the right course. . . . You still aren’t guaranteed squat. And that’s scary enough under normal circumstances, but this time, I feel like I’ve invested so much more. I’ve tried incredibly hard to do All The Right Things. I cut way down on desserts and alcohol, and I focused on eating nutritious food both before and after workouts. I prioritized sleep. I passed up very tempting vacations with very good friends. I vigilantly performed strength sessions twice a week, committed to “recovery” activities* at least once if not twice a day, kept a hand-written training journal, and actually stretched. Give yourself the best shot, I kept telling myself as I shelled out hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for preventative physical therapy (when my foot started hurting) and for acupuncture (to manage ongoing lower back issues). Just get to the starting line.

Now the starting line is almost here, and I’m scared of the pain that I know is coming. Scared of the Big Feelings that await me if I fail.

About a year ago, in an episode of the Ali on the Run podcast, the host (Ali Feller) talked about being scared to fail at something she really, really cared about. She was scared because, according to her, she had never failed at anything she wanted that badly before. At the time I thought, Huh, I don’t think I’ve ever failed at anything important to me, either. But the thought nagged at me, until eventually, I remembered something.

When I was in high school, I wanted very badly to go to Governor’s School. Governor’s School is a summer program where the best and brightest students in the state of Pennsylvania go off to a college campus and study their “specialty field” with other equally gifted students. A friend of mine (who is now a professional Broadway musician) had gotten into the Governor’s School for the Arts in music, and when we visited her that summer, I immediately knew I had to attend. Everyone seemed so smart, and the campus was so beautiful, and the activities all looked so fun, and the performances were so amazing. It just seemed like a mecca for creativity and advancement—a place where the best went to become even better. And within my high school, I was arguably the best creative writer. At the very least, I was the most decorated. Plus, I had never failed at anything. I would apply, and I would get in, and I would have the best summer of my life.
Early season track 3k. Got beaten handily by Allison (behind me).
Photo: L. Sillen.

The spring of my sophomore year, I received my first rejection letter. Just one piece of paper, folded into crisp thirds inside a standard envelope. It was a form letter. I was lucky they had even bothered to insert my name. In my junior year, I received a second, identical letter. Seniors were not allowed to apply.

The reality was crushing. My writing wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough. And all this time, I had thought I was great. People had told me I was great, talented, special. But these canned, impersonal letters showed me that I was living in a very, very small pond. I couldn't even beat out students in the paltry state of Pennsylvania. It was devastating.

The only tiny consolation I had was that no one else knew about my failure. I think I might have told my parents and maybe my best friend that I had applied to Governor’s School, but I honestly don’t remember telling them I’d been rejected. I kept those rejection letters in my top dresser drawer, where no one would ever see them, and eventually they were smothered in socks and threadbare T-shirts, and I put the whole thing behind me—so far behind me, that I forgot about the event entirely. Until now.

Now I’m older and, if not wiser, certainly more realistic. I don’t have the luxury of assuming I’ll succeed, because I know better. I know what those Big Feelings are like, and how heartbreaking it is to come up short.

Yet as I was spending all the hours doing All The Things, I couldn’t help but imagine the other types of Big Feelings, too. The kind where if everything clicks, and my legs feel fresh, and the weather stays cool, and my stomach cooperates, and I have runners I can hang with, and my brain shuts up, I will get to mile 26.19 and look up at the clock and . . . cry? Or maybe I will smile. Maybe I’ll give a fist pump, or I could fall dramatically to the ground. I’m a writer—I’ve come up with a lot of scenarios. The important thing is that this moment will be one of the very few when I feel complete, genuine pride.

However, there are no guarantees; that’s the gamble we take with Big Goals. So in the last few days before this race, my job is to find pride in what I’ve done to get this far and to express gratitude for those who have helped me along the way. This time last year, I was just returning to running after three months off. I am so grateful to have stayed “in the game” since then, and proud of the patience and persistence it’s taken to rebuild fitness. I have a ton of people to thank, but the short list includes my coach J. Lakritz; my PT A. McGinnis; my acupuncturist S. Park; my “unofficial” teammates (Justin’s Joggers and beyond!); my ever-supportive fiancĂ©; and the many friends who are always in my corner, no matter if I’m running fast, slow, or not at all.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a season recap without some highlights, so here are just a few:

Biggest ChangeJoining Distance Project NYC. Historically, all of my sporting endeavors have been as part of a team, and there’s a reason for that. I like to contribute to something larger than myself. I like rooting for others and having them root for me. So by “running unattached” for the last two years, I’ve missed out on that camaraderie. However, being teamless also been good for me, because the lack of structure and built-in running partners has forced me to broaden my running circle . . . and ultimately led me to help start DPNYC, where I’ve met even more accomplished, speedy, enthusiastic women.

Toughest Run: Long run, in Guadeloupe. I had envisioned running along flat sandy beaches. Instead I wound up on unevenly paved, extremely narrow residential roads that were literally built into the sides of cliffs (and not the pretty “ocean view” sides, either). Also it was 80 degrees and humid, and I drank zero water throughout the entire run. (Yes, this does make me an idiot.) In the last half mile, I proceeded to trip, skin my knees, and tear my shorts. What’s the French word for “fury”?

Most Helpful Tool: Believe Training JournalThere is something about writing by hand that affects me in a way typing never will. The prompts in this journal and the routine of writing in it helped me to mentally focus each week-long block of training and (I think!) grow as an athlete.

Favorite RaceGridiron 4 miler. I ran this race early in the season and it went better than expected. I took a risk by approaching it with a “go out hard and hang on” attitude (not my preferred racing style!), but I still managed to finish hard and pass other women. Can’t ask for more than that.

* My recovery activities (and these vary by athlete) include: foam rollingHypervolting, and voodoo banding, often interspersed with text messaging, Instagram, Twitter, and Netflix. Still testing whether the media additions confer any advantages; stay tuned.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Hartford Marathon Recap: A Glimpse into "Elite" Marathoning


Let me begin by making something clear: I am not an elite marathoner. Shalane Flanagan is an elite marathoner. Desiree Linden is an elite marathoner. Me? I’m sub-elite at best, and even saying that, I cannot help but think of at least ten women whom I know on a first-name-basis, who live within a few miles of me, and who could kick my ass at a footrace of literally any distance tomorrow morning.

However, according the Hartford Marathon's standards, I was “elite” enough for them. And if they wanted to give me free entry into a race I was already intending to run, I certainly wasn't going to say no.

Of course, as I was applying for “elite” status, I quickly discovered that the race had an even higher tier than elite, which they called “New England’s Finest.” If you, as a woman, ran a 2:55 marathon or better and lived in New England or New York, you could apply to receive travel reimbursement of up to $150, a free hotel room, and the opportunity to win considerably more prize money than the rest of the elites. (Take, for example, first place: the NEF runner would receive $6,000, while the regular elite could only earn $1,000.*)

I think this is the finish. But I'm honestly not sure.
Alas, while I did run a sub-2:55 marathon last year, and while I can literally see the World Trade Center from my apartment window (and spend more time running in New York than I do in New Jersey), I do not actually live in New England or New York. Therefore, despite my beseeching email to the race director, I was relegated to elite status. (Yes, yes, poor me. Merely elite.)

What I did get as part of the elite program was access to a tented area beside the finish line where I and the other NEF/elites could put our gear. The morning of the race, my friend and wonderful weekend host A___ and my fiancé R___ escorted me to that tent, which turned out to be not so much a clean, heated haven, as I had envisioned, but instead consisted of two rows of folding chairs and a folding table laden with safety pins, a case of water, and a box of bananas, all set up atop some already-soggy grass. (But hey, we had a tent, which was a lot nicer than standing out in the rain!)

After quick hugs and mutual wishes of “good luck,” A___ and R___ departed, leaving me feeling incredibly out of place as I hunched over my folding chair and watched all of the svelte runners arrive, looking like they knew exactly what they were doing and wearing matching warmup kits to boot. I, meanwhile, was wearing men’s sweatpants from Marshall’s and a free jacket I got at a race in Massachusetts last year. (I had meant for them to be my throwaway clothes, but apparently a volunteer was assigned to collect the NEF/elite runners’ warmup clothes at the starting line and take them back to the tent for us. Who knew?) Just as I checked my watch for the twelve-hundredth time and decided that 7:02am seemed like the perfect time to start tucking gel packets into my shorts, a woman in the next row of folding chairs made eye contact with me and smiled. After we exchanged a few pleasantries (yes, the weather was a little gloomy, and the grass beneath these chairs was awfully soggy, but hey, at least we wouldn’t be too hot!), she asked what I was going to do to warm up and would I mind the company? This was her first marathon, so “she didn’t know what marathoners did to warm up.” I invited her along on my one-mile warm-up jog, and as we trotted away, she asked what time I was hoping to run. I said anything under 2:55 would be a success. When I returned the question, she said she was hoping to OTQ (which is short for "Olympic Trials Qualify," meaning running under 2:45:00). Hmm, I thought. That’s a bit ambitious for a first marathon. But when she followed that up by saying she had recently run a 1:16 half marathon, my skepticism vanished.**

After finishing our jog, we parted ways. I had been told we’d be “escorted” to the starting line, but as I started seeing more and more runners leave the tent on their own, I decided that I must have been misinformed and jogged out toward the throngs of runners. When I finally found the starting line, I simultaneously ran into C___, a friend of a friend whom I’d met once before on a run in Connecticut. We hugged, at which point she said that since it was her first marathon, she just wanted to break three hours. (Just!) Then she inevitably asked what I wanted to run, and when I told her I was aiming for 2:55, she declared, “Perfect! We can run together, then.”

As the gun went off, my competitive brain got hostile. She’s totally crashing my marathon. Now I’m going to feel like I have to stick with her, instead of running my own race. What if she goes out too hard? What if she feels good? What if I feel good? I tried to reason with myself that if she started throwing down 6:15s in the first half, I’d just let her go and try not to let it bother me. On the other hand, if I felt good and she was flagging, I could leave her at mile 20. She’d better be flagging, warned the competitive voice. It’s her first marathon. You aren’t going to get beat by a first-timer are you?

Within the first few miles, all the OTQ women were long gone. Sure, there were a few men around, but otherwise it was frankly just me and C___. She seemed fine, and I seemed fine, and so we carried on, with her informing me at every mile marker exactly how fast her watch said we were running. (She was using the GPS auto-lap, while I was manually lapping my watch, so her announcements came earlier and earlier as the miles clicked away—exactly the reason I'd chosen not to use auto-lap.) We ran on a narrow park path and up along a highway. We ran beneath a bridge underpass where her family was screaming her name, and through a downtown stretch where R___ was screaming mine. On the uphills, she forged ahead, and on the downhills I sped past, but for the most part we ran stride for stride, taking turns going ahead of one another at water stops. (That is, except at three water stops where there were “elite runner” water tables. At those, she grabbed her pre-placed water bottle, and I ran straight past to grab a regular Dixie cup from a volunteer. Nothing new on race day, right?)
A rare photo with the "Dalai Lama" of running.

Now, my “ideal day race plan” had been to run 6:35-40 per mile for the first 10 miles, 6:30-35 for the next 7, 6:30s for the next 5, and anything sub-6:30 for the last 4+. However, the terrain was so uneven throughout the race and, quite frankly, I was so caught up in the fact that this girl was sticking to me like glue, that somewhere around mile 15, I abandoned that plan. My reasoning was as follows: (1) Nothing in my training indicated that I’d be able to negative split with this kind of precision. (2) If I picked up the pace significantly, C___ might not come with me, which would mean two things. First, I’d have to run the rest of the race literally by myself (because the annoying man who decided to sit on our heels starting at mile 8 was clearly not going to run beside me), and second, if my "wheels came off," I would have to watch C___ fly right past me. And call me a wimp, call me a coward, but I just did not want that to happen. Better to outkick her at the very end, I thought. After all: you know the kind of fatigue that’s coming. She doesn’t.

In fact somewhere right around where fatigue was starting to set in, we reached the second “elite” water bottle table, and C___ dropped her bottle. I saw her do it, and immediately thought Now what do I do? I could pick up my pace and try to drop her. I could simply keep going and see what she would do. Or I could slow down a little and look over my shoulder to try and encourage her to join me again.

You don’t know this girl, my competitive brain said. You don’t owe her anything.

Yeah, but if that were you, you’d want the other person to wait for you, said my rational brain. And what’s a few extra seconds? It’s not going to make a difference in the ultimate outcome of your race.

So I slowed down a beat and kept looking over my shoulder until I heard her footsteps again.

Around mile 19, we passed one of the OTQ girls. She looked absolutely miserable. “Come with us!” I tried to shout, but I was getting cold and my lips weren’t really functioning, so I doubt she heard me. And speaking of things not functioning, I spent all of miles 20 and 21 trying to get a gel out of my shorts pocket with fingers that absolutely would not cooperate. By the time we hit mile 22, my shorts were twisted, my shoulders were tired, and I had completely given up hope of getting that gel out—at which point C___ asked, “Do you want a gummy?”

See, this is why you were right to wait for her, my rational brain said as she handed over one of her shot blocks (which is basically a giant cube-shaped gummy bear). My competitive brain had absolutely no comeback to that one.

However, it had plenty to say when, a few hundred meters later, the man who had been running one step behind us the entire time finally started taking off.

Go with him! screamed my competitive brain. You can’t just let him beat you after he used you all that way!

But we were still four miles out from the finish line, and I just did not feel spry enough to match the move.

It’s okay, said my rational brain. Another time, another guy. You can go next time. This time, in this race, just hang on until 25.

And so I did. At mile 25, I saw what looked like an old man up ahead of us, near what looked like a gas station. He didn’t seem to be moving particularly quickly, and some guy C___ knew had just jumped onto the course to help her out. Neither he nor she said a word to me, so I figured all bets were off.

Time to go.

I pushed as hard as I could up the highway ramp that led back into downtown Hartford. I suffered through the downhill that came next. I tried to turn a wince into a smile when I passed by A___ and R___, all without turning my head, because I had to focus. I couldn’t let up, and I didn’t dare look back. C___ might be there, and I needed all of my energy to move forward. If I got out-kicked by the first-time marathoner who “just wanted to break three hours,” I’d never, ever forgive myself.

When the finish line finally came into sight, I couldn’t hear anything but my own footfalls, and there was nothing in front of me except that big, unforgiving clock. Suddenly it was all very real: if I didn’t push for these last 200 meters, I was going to finish with a 2:54 to my name, and damn it, I might have traveled a long way to get here, but I was better than 2:54. So I kicked as hard as my weary, beaten legs could kick.

And, as it turned out, those legs didn't let me down.

2018 Hartford Marathon Race Results

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
26.2 mi
2:53:58
6:39/mile
27 / 1,560
5 / 635

* Not that I had any dreams of winning, the race, mind you, but prize money extended down through eighth place, and given the previous years’ finishing times, finishing somewhere in the top eight seemed possible.

** This woman went on to not only OTQ—by nearly 4 minutes, I should add—but she also won the entire race. Guess my warmup routine was sufficient....