Monday, September 15, 2014

On Losing

In running, we all say we're running against ourselves--against the clock. And quite honestly, I think most of us do this, and we do it well. We get our biggest thrills from dropping time from our last PR because, in our hearts of hearts, we know that most of us--not all, but most--aren't going to actually win any races, and if we do, it's just because the "faster folks" didn't show up. Very very few of us ever dream of becoming Olympic or professional runners, and even fewer of us actually become them.

So as a whole, I applaud runners for setting their sights on individualized goals, achieving them, and finding true pride and pleasure in those achievements. After all, the only people who really care if we run thirteen-point-one miles ten seconds faster than the last time we ran thirteen-point-one miles it is . . . well . . . us.


Running is a race. And yes, you can race yourself, race the clock, and try to get faster, but you're only really trying to get faster to beat other people. That's what races are: events where everyone is trying to run faster than everyone else. Therefore, no matter how much time you may have dropped, no matter how big your PR, it still sucks to lose to someone you think you could or should have beaten. No amount of "hooray, I ran faster today" can assuage that.

Or at least that's how I feel.

This past weekend, I ran the Michelob Ultra Boston 13.1. Beforehand, my personal goal was to break 1:28. This was a goal I had set--but failed to achieve--back in the spring. Now, it was five months of grueling training later, and I was ready to go out there and do it. My coach's goal for me was to "execute," by which he meant to do everything right: to run the paces that I meant to run at the miles I meant to run them, to eat right, to hydrate right, and to keep my head on straight, all as practice for the Chicago Marathon, which is my true Goal Race, next month.

I knew, of course, that if I did all of these things correctly, I should break 1:28. And so I did. I PRed.

But if I don't sound happy about that, it's because I'm not. Well, I'm happy I PRed. Who wouldn't be? But I'm downright pissed that I came in 4th woman overall.

Let me explain.

While biding my time at the start line, a young woman standing beside me struck up a conversation. Where are you from? Are you here with anyone? Have you run a half marathon before? The usual runner's version of "Hello, my name is." She said she'd run three half marathons and was aiming to break 1:30. What was my goal time? Nervous about telling someone who was clearly in my "corral" (this race was too small for real corrals, so we all just seeded ourselves) precisely what time I wanted to run, I just said "Me too."

As it turns out, we both were lying.

When the gun went off, we simultaneously crossed the starting line and ran stride-for-stride for about . . . ten paces. Then, she took off. Ah, I thought. One of those. I figured I'd see her at the halfway point, struggling along, looking for all the world like she wanted to quit. And I did see her at the halfway point, but only because it was a partial out-and-back; she was at least a quarter mile ahead of me, having already turned around and running in the opposite direction. She looked strong and fast and professional with her fancy compression socks and matching headband. Damn it, I thought.

But I was going to run my race, and I knew if I tried to catch up to her, I'd risk being fried by the end.  So I continued to repeat what I had already chosen as my race mantra at mile 0.5: execute. Execute, execute, execute.

And execute I did. My first mile was 6:48, right where I meant for it to be. Miles 2 and 3 were a bit on the fast side, but I knew these were the miles I needed to use to lock into a pace for the majority of the race, so I was feeling skittish. Miles 4 through 6 were straight into a headwind along the coast--never good for one's mental state. Then the turnaround came, and I had been counting the women who were running toward me. I was 5th. Fifth, I thought to myself. That's not bad at all. That's actually pretty great. Sounds even better than Top Ten. The positive thoughts were flowing because miles 7 and 8 were back down the coast, the wind was gone, and in the stream of people flowing toward the turnaround, the occasional woman would smile at me and yell, "Way to go," or, "Looking strong."I did my best to smile back.

Around mile 7.5, I realized that we were passing the turnoff where we had arrived at the coast. Great! I thought. Presumably this meant that we'd be running with the wind all the way down the coast, and then probably turn off somewhere to get back to the racetrack. But then I saw the first place man coming toward me. His face looked like agony--agony I soon felt myself when I turned around yet again and started back into the wind. (I really ought to study race maps more closely.)

As if it weren't mentally grueling enough to try and keep a 6:40 pace while battling headwind, I was getting passed. Fortunately only by men, but it was disheartening to keep hearing footsteps approaching behind me and knowing that I'd soon be seeing the back of another runner. One tall very pale guy tried to strike up a conversation as he came up beside me, but I just couldn't do it, especially after he told me that he, too, had set out to break 1:30. (What was it with these people!?) He soon realized that I was not in any shape to converse and sprinted away.

At mile ten, it was time to, in the words of my coach, "Get down to business." I was pleasantly surprised to discover I did, in fact, have another gear. It wasn't a ton faster, but I could tell that I was picking up the pace, and that got my adrenaline going. Only three miles left, I started pep-talking myself. A 5k. That's all. Mile 11 was a handwritten sign, and mile 12 didn't have any sign at all.

Then it was mile 13. Go time.

There had been a woman wearing a green singlet in front of me for a good chunk of the race, but she was long gone, as was the winner, who must have been almost a mile ahead of me at the turnaround. I noticed I was coming up on the short woman in powder blue who had held second place, and miraculously, in front of her, I saw those socks. It was the girl from the start!

I picked up the pace yet again, but with a warning from my coach in the back of my head: Don't kick unless you can maintain it.

I passed the woman in powder blue, who--based on her gaspy breathing--clearly did not have a "final mile gear." Now it was just me and this other girl, and her turnover didn't look as fast as mine. I could catch her!

Don't kick unless you can maintain it.

I now had about half a mile left, and I was gaining, but I wasn't sure if I'd catch her in time. Come on, Allison, I coached myself. You've got this.

We were approaching the back of racetrack where the whole event had started. There couldn't be much distance left. A series of cones were arranged in a curve, which led up to the middle of the parking lot where the big bright blue Michelob Ultra finish line stood, beckoning. When we got to the cones, I kicked. This was it.

I rounded the bend on her heels, knowing that swinging out wide would cost me, and then I closed in beside her. The finish line was right there. I was in front, I had to be, by a stride or two. But then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blur and heard her footfalls speed up. Suddenly she was right there beside me, and we crossed the finish line, and I genuinely didn't know which one of us had made it there first. But for some reason, in my gut, I knew she had won. This girl had beaten me.

And it's true. She had. Based on whatever judging happens at these sorts of casual racing events, her time--identical to mine--was ranked 3rd. I was fourth. I lost.

If I'm honest, even after a few days of congratulatory texts, phone calls, and Facebook posts for my Pr performance, I'm still smarting from the loss. It was right there. Third place. If only I had kicked later or pushed harder or leaned, I could have had it. A Podium Place. And sure, this wasn't an "important" race--it wouldn't qualify me for any Olympic Trials or win me any money--but I was right there neck-and-neck with a girl I could have beaten, and I lost.

I really hate losing.

Suffice to say, the Chicago Marathon--my true goal race--is next month, and if it comes down to a final straightaway, and it's me and another girl who may or may not have lied about her goal time in a perfectly amiable conversation at the start line . . . I won't be losing again.

Michelob ULTRA Boston 13.1
Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
13.1 mi
25 / 1,474
4 / 869
1 / 243

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Thoughts on Boston

Today was the day to sign up for the 2015 Boston Marathon. Well, more accurately, today was my day. Sign-ups for the race began on Monday, but that was for people who had beaten the qualifying time by 20 minutes or more. Today, registration opened to anyone who had beaten the qualifying time by 10 minutes or more. That's me.

I actually qualified for the Boston Marathon several years ago, back in 2009, when I ran my first-ever marathon in Pittsburgh. However, at that time, I didn't know much about running: the big names, the big races, the right way to prepare. I found a training guide online and followed it. . . . Well, I followed the long run schedule. Everything else was kind of a crapshoot. Which makes it that much more surprising that I managed to remain uninjured and run a time that qualified me for Boston.

However, when I say I didn't know anything about running, I really didn't know anything--including how registration for the Boston Marathon works. Somehow, I naively assumed that so long as I signed up before the registration period ended, I'd be guaranteed a spot. I'm not too sure where I got that idea from, but as you might expect, it didn't pan out.

Five years later, in November of last year, I ran the New York City Marathon. Once again, I finished in a time that would qualify me to sign up for Boston, and this time, I wasn't going to miss my opportunity. People train for years to run a Boston qualifying (or BQ) time, and here I was, lucky enough to qualify twice.

So I did it. Today I signed up for Boston 2015. Apparently, signing up doesn't mean that I'll definitely be running the race--everyone has to wait a week or two to find out whether we've made it into the final pool of registrants--but my immediate reaction was to post to Facebook. At long last, I was going to run this race!

Then I stopped myself. People train for years to run a BQ time. Was posting a celebratory, "Registered for Boston 2015!" bragging? Would it make someone else feel bad? Why did I want to post it at all? Okay, it would probably earn me a few pats on the back a few "thumbs ups." But I didn't run the race yet. Heck, I technically wasn't even on the roster. And frankly, signing up for Boston isn't something I should be celebrating. Qualifying for this marathon was never an overt goal of mine; it has simply been one happy side effect of achieving other goals: running my first marathon in Pittsburgh without stopping (mantra: don't stop) and then running my second marathon in NYC . . . faster (mantra: no excuses). Yes, I'm very excited to have the "Boston Experience" just like I was excited to have the "NYC Experience." But for me, it's not much more than that: just an experience to be had. Whatever time I run in Chicago next month means a heck of a lot more to me than registering for any race, no matter iconic.

So I decided I'll save my Facebook posts for October . . . after I run Chicago. And if anyone thinks that's bragging . . . well I sure hope I'll have something worth bragging about.