Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Chicago Marathon: A Success Story

Put in the work. Do the job. Reap the rewards.

If only running a marathon were that easy.

But sometimes it is.  For me, this time, in Chicago, it was.

When I say “easy,” I am talking about running between 40 and 60 miles per week for months at a time. So no, not exactly “easy.” Frankly, the work required was daunting—but I took it one day at a time, and I did it. When I was told to do core work after an hour-and-a-half workout, I did it. Drills, lunges, speed work, tempo runs, doubles, long runs—I did all of it. And when I was told to rest, I did that, too. Because why hire a coach if you don’t follow his instructions? He was the expert, and I was relying on his expertise to make me faster. Therefore, I had to do what he said. The worst possible thing would be to cross the finish line at Chicago looking over my shoulder at runs I had fluffed or core work I had skipped, wondering if they would have made a difference. Regret always leaves a sour taste, and I wanted Chicago to taste victory-sweet.

However, you can be the hardest worker on the planet and not even make it to the start line. I got lucky. Bad injuries happen to good athletes. No matter how health- and safety-conscious you are, nothing can guarantee that one day, some joint or muscle in your body won’t suddenly rebel, or maybe you’ll trip, or you might accidentally drink out of the same water glass as a kid who had bronchitis. You just never know.

So I got lucky—really lucky. I didn’t get injured. I didn’t get sick. Therefore, the only thing in my way was my own brain, and I was determined to smack that sucker around if it tried to give me problems.

Which brings me to the night before the marathon. I was staying with Coach J___’s family and another teammate in an Airbnb—basically a rich family’s very lavish apartment, which they had rented out to us—and so I had heard him giving other athletes pre-race talks all day. He had cooked us dinner, and now that it was closing in on my bedtime, I was starting to worry that he might not intend to give me a “talk” at all. What if he didn’t? After all this very specific, very instructive training, was I supposed to just run this on my own? Could I manage that? At long last I finally asked him outright. After a bit of jesting derision, he asked me what I thought I was going to run, what my body thought I was going to run.

I don’t like listening to my body, because my body complains a lot. However, based on how I had been running lately, I was pretty confident I would PR this race. The question was, by how much. To date, I had only managed to drop a few minutes at a time at any given race, so I assumed that this race would be no different. In fact, I thought it was quite ambitious of me to say I expected to run around 3:10-3:13. My last marathon, just the previous fall in NYC, had been 3:18 high. In my opinion, eight minutes was a lot of time to drop in less than a year.

In any event, that’s I told him: I thought I’d run somewhere between 3:10-3:13. And here was the defining moment of my whole Chicago marathon experience. J___ looked straight at me and shook his head. “Wrong direction.” I looked at him strangely, so he clarified, “What A___ did today? 3:05? You can do that—if you want to.”

A___ was one of my teammates, whom J___ trained remotely since she lived in Connecticut. That very day, she had run the Hartford marathon in an amazing time of 3 hours and 5 minutes. I couldn’t believe J___ was telling me I could do that. Me? Really

Really, though, any shocked questions were just superficial thoughts. Inside my real brain, inside my heart of hearts, 3:05 had just become my new goal. If he thought I could do it, and I trusted him to know what I could or couldn’t do, then that was exactly what I’d go out there and try to do.

I immediately logged onto my computer and looked up A___’s Hartford Marathon results. From what I could tell, she averaged a pace of 7:06/mile. 7:06. That’s what I had to do. Oh boy.

Fast forward to the start line. This was a race of firsts, and one of those firsts left my hands empty, nervously clenching and unclenching. I had no iPod. This was the first marathon I would run without music. The lack of music didn’t make me nervous, because I had been training without music for most of my long runs, but it felt strange not to be holding anything. Plus, on top of that, I kept looking at my stupid Garmin watch, trying to make sure it didn’t go to sleep after it had finally picked up satellite signal. But then the national anthem started playing and I stopped paying attention—just like I have in so many other races. And by the time I looked down again, it was because I needed to start my watch because my foot was about to cross the first timing mat . . . and the thing had conked out.

Are you kidding me??? I thought. After all that, I’m going to have to run this whole race trying to calculate my pace times off of the course clocks? This time, however, the Garmin gods were on my side. I pushed the button to pick up satellite signal again, and in about fifteen seconds the watch clicked in. This was going to be my day.

The first few miles flew by. There were so many spectators that I had to start an internal chant to keep from being swept up in the fervor and excitement of the race. Relax. Relax. Relax. I felt good, but I needed to keep feeling good, and that meant controlling my pace, even though my body felt primed to go.

In our previous evening’s talk, J___  had indicated that I should take the first 5 miles easy and then settle into a rhythm for the next 8. At mile 13, I was to “throw down” a hard mile, and then ease up again and focus on picking up the pace in the first minute of every mile for the next 7 miles. At that point, there would only be five miles left. “And then,” he told me, shrugging, “it’s just how much you want it.”

The first 13 miles were honestly a cakewalk. All I had to do was count to five (“Five easy miles”) and then count to eight (“Lock in for the next eight”). I felt euphoric because the whole time, I could tell that my body had more to give. For that hard 14th mile, the one J___ had told me to “throw down fast,” I cruised past runners, dreamily wondering if I could keep this pace up for the rest of the race. But I knew that was a pipe dream—I was only halfway done, and New York had taught me that those last six miles can feel like sixty—so I eased back up at the 14 mile marker and ate some of my jellybeans (which, while delicious and a much more palatable consistency than gel, require inconvenient amounts of chewing before ingestion).

Counting down the next 7 miles—and their corresponding 1-minute pickups, as assigned by J___—was a bit harder, because changing speeds mid-race is just . . . well it’s hard. It takes discipline. Fortunately, this was something I had done in workouts leading up to the race, so I was used to telling my legs to shut up and move.

And then there were five. Five measly miles. “At this point, it’s how much you want it,” J___ had told me the night before. And not only did I want it, I knew I had it. I had time in the bank, because I had averaged between 6:55-7:05/mile up until this point in the race, and somehow I still didn’t feel like death. I pushed the pace as hard as I dared, and at mile 25, when I saw J___ and his megaphone on the roadside, shouting at me to “just hang on,” I stopped wondering if I should keep holding back. Now was not the time to think. Now was the time to run.

The last 800m were excruciating. But the last 800m of any race are excruciating. The finish line is so close and yet so far. Your legs ache and your lungs strain and you know you’re almost there but the pain isn’t over yet, so you can’t let up. Shut up legs. Shut up legs. Shut up legs.

And then I was there. Across the finish line. I had envisioned this moment back at mile three, at mile eight, at nearly every mile in the first half of the race when I realized that I was running at sub-7:10 pace and I wasn’t even tired. Would I cry? Would I laugh? How would it feel? In those 3 hours, 3 minutes, and 42 seconds of running, I think I cycled through every single one of those emotions. I had played them all out, and so they were no longer available to me. I just felt done. And I was.

I had done it.

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
26.2 mi
1,300 / 40,567
156 / 18,390
55 / 3,987

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Training for the Chicago Marathon: A Season in Review

They say it’s the journey that counts, so I decided to write this post before the Chicago Marathon, not after. Yes this race matters to me—it matters to me a lot—but it’s important to look back on all the work I put in and remember that I enjoyed (most of) it.

In no particular order, here’s a list of superlatives that offer a snapshot review of my training season:

Best Workout
In September, J___ gave me 5 x 1 mile 6:40, 6:30, 6:20, 6:10, 6:10. I nailed it within a second of every pace until the 6:10s . . . which I ran more like 6:05s. I have never hit a workout—alone—so spot on.

Worst Workout
I don’t remember the exact details, but there was a workout in the spring where I had to run 4 miles straight at some particular pace, and I got so frustrated after putting in what felt like sprint-level effort and missing the first two miles by nearly 15 seconds (each!) that I stopped and rested for two minutes before the third mile and then again before the fourth.  It felt like failure—well, it was failure—and failure is the worst.

Most Complicated Workout
On a track, in meters: 200-200-200-400-200-600-200-800-200-800-200-600-200-400-200-200. Oh and there were 200m recovery jogs between each of these. Dizzy yet?

Biggest Inspiration
Watching M___ run Boston literally like a machine: she ran textbook negative splits to finish well below 3:10. Incredible.

Biggest Sacrifice
Leaving my Thursday night writing group in order to attend running sessions at the track. Of course I made better friends with the Thursday night runners, which was awesome, but I miss my writing friends. Scheduling sucks.

Most Surprising Discovery
I’ll probably regret putting this in writing, but I actually like track workouts. (I think???) So long as my teammates are around of course!

Most Annoying Discovery
I need sleep—a lot of sleep. The higher my mileage climbed, the earlier I wanted to go (and often did go) to bed. Also, I don’t get super hungry during peak weeks; no, I get super hungry during taper weeks. How does that make sense?!

Proudest Accomplishment
I think this one’s a tie. On one hand, this was my first season of doubles, and I am proud to say that I didn’t skip a single one! (For those of you who might not know what a “double” is, your guess was probably right: it’s running twice in one day.) But I’m a pretty by-the-book person—if a coach tells me to do something, I intend to go do it as to-the-letter as I can—so I guess that’s not truly my proudest accomplishment. Therefore, I guess I’d have to say I am most proud of running 65 miles in one week . . . three times! Never in my life did I think I’d do that. Who knows what might come next!