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.