Thursday, November 18, 2021

NYC Marathon - 50th Anniversary Edition

This marathon was meant to be an experiment.

Photo credit: John Tran
Photo credit: John Tran

Eight weeks ago, I raced the Survival of the Shawangunks (SOS) Triathlon. It was my "A" race of the season, which means it was the race where I cared most about doing my best. I put all of my physical and emotional energy into preparing for it, which for me meant that the fallout after the big day was significant. It always is.

I know full well that fitness doesn't just "vanish" after a few days (or a few weeks) off. Yet somehow, perhaps because I put so much mental and emotional energy into these races, when I try to return to training, it is an uphill battle. I say all of this because after SOS, I took a week to recover (and heal the mega-blisters on my feet), a week to ease back into bodily movement, and the next thing I knew, I had six weeks until the NYC Marathon—and it felt like I was starting from square one. This was, of course, untrue; I had built plenty of fitness over the course of triathlon training. It just wasn't the "durability" fitness forged from twelve-mile workouts or twenty-mile long runs.

So the experiment was this: How well could I translate my "overall" fitness into marathon-specific fitness in six weeks? And really, I only had four weeks, because tapering for a marathon is a two-week affair. You have to let the body really heal and stock up on glycogen before you push it for 26.2 miles!

To make this endeavor even more complex, my work life was really becoming an issue. Big projects were ramping up, and every client seemed to need increasing amounts of time and attention. Ultimately this meant I sacrificed the "little things" in training. I continued to do my pre-run warmup routine (getting older comes to demand this) and did push-ups and planks two or three times a week, but over those six weeks, I failed to lift a single weight, and I committed maybe half an hour in total to drill/form work. I did a brief recovery routine most nights before bed, but I no longer counted the hours of sleep I would get before a workout or stressed over what I was eating.

Suffice to say, it was an imperfect buildup. I knew I didn't have enough miles in my legs. I felt lucky to have squeezed in a single twenty-mile run, whereas before other marathons of late, I've done at least three runs of that length. When someone would ask me, "What finishing time are you hoping for?" I replied that I would be satisfied with breaking three hours. Yes, I was hoping to run a bit faster, but what I absolutely did not want to do was feel pressured (by myself) to go out at a pace I could not sustain and have a miserable race. I ran this marathon back in 2013 in a time of 3:18:53, and all I remember is the struggle-fest that was Fifth Avenue. I wanted some new memories.

Back in 2013, I rode the 5am Staten Island ferry to the start, wore as many warm throwaway clothes as I owned, and sat alone in the dirt on top of a black trash bag. This is what tens of thousands of runners do before every NYC Marathon, and it's what I've done before most of my 11 marathons. This year, however, I qualified to be part of the sub-elite starting group. It meant I received much of the same treatment as the professionals did: I got to ride a charter bus from midtown Manhattan to Staten Island. I got to spend the hour leading up to the race indoors at the Ocean Breeze athletic complex, where there were free bagels and bananas and Gatorade, and a track where you could jog to warm up. I got to put my warm clothes back into a bag that someone would drive to the finish line for me. And I got to be very close to the starting line when the national anthem played, the starting cannon (yes cannon) went off, and Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" filled the air. All in all, it was pretty cushy. 10/10 would recommend.

And then there was the race.

For starters, I forgot how steep the Verrazzano Bridge is. My first mile was 7:15. The second was 6:08. I'll let you guess which was "up" and which was "down."

Coming into Brooklyn, I felt a wave disappointment. Where were the crowds? A few people were scattered on street corners here and there, but it felt nothing like the bedlam I recalled from 2013. (Fortunately, happy chaos was awaiting just a few miles down the road.)

After the first 5k, my nerves calmed down and I settled in with E___ and V___. E___ is my teammate; she had just run the Boston marathon and was hoping to improve her time from that race. I figured if I could help get her within striking distance, that would be a good use of my run. I had no idea what time V___, who I'd encountered at other NYC races, was intending to run, but the fact that she came back to us in the third mile and announced that she needed to rein in the pace seemed like a good sign. We became a pack of three.

Shortly after our pack formed, a tall, overenthusiastic guy named K___ pulled up alongside us and  announced that he was hoping to "set the world record" for the number of high-fives on the course. This may sound sweet, and in another context we might have humored him, but then he continued to try and make conversation ("What are your names? Where are you from?") while proceeding to veer in front of us so we had to stutter-step to keep from tripping over him. I could read the same thoughts behind each of our polite, strained smiles: Go away. Eventually he did.

Around the 10k mark, my left foot started to throb. This is a familiar sensation I've battled for several years. After doctor's visits, x-rays, MRIs, and physical therapy, the long and short of it is that I have a neuroma (an inflamed nerve), and the best I can hope to do is "manage it." This summer gave me the longest pain-free reprieve I've had, but in those few weeks of marathon training, the neuroma reared its ugly head. I had been hoping I could get through a good chunk of the race before it became a problem, but alas, here we were. Luckily (or not), I have experience mentally preparing for this pain—I've had to learn how to expect and accept it in every one of my last three marathons (the Olympic trials and my qualifying marathon included). And so when it started to feel like I had a golf ball emerging from the underside of my foot, I heaved an inward sigh and began the process of diverting my attention.

Photo credit: Ben Gross
Smiling and engaging with the thickening crowds was one way to distract myself. I read hand-drawn signs, made eye contact with children, and gave a "thumbs up" to anyone who looked like they were directing cheers my way. I also kept my eyes peeled for people I might know. Most of the people I was expecting to see were waiting for me on First Avenue, but I did see a few friends in Queens. This is the home-court advantage of the NYC Marathon: There's no energy boost quite like seeing someone you know rooting for you.

The Queensboro Bridge was also longer than I remembered.

Because I was running with E___ and V___, my attention was consumed by making sure we all had enough space. It takes no small amount of coordination to dodge NYC's numerous potholes and snatch tiny sloshing paper cups out of volunteers' hands, all while speeding up or slowing down to make room for your running companions. All in all, we did a fairly good job, right up until we reached First Avenue. That's the point in the race when the crowds get insane. The noise is pressing and constant, and it's virtually impossible not to get swept up, at least a little bit. I know better and I still dropped a 6:30 mile heading into the Bronx. This is when I lost E___.  Someone hopped in to run with her, and I thought, Well, I guess she has what she needs now. This would be our point of departure: she'd run her race, and I'd run mine.

V___ and I stayed together until we hit the Williams Avenue Bridge. (Yes, another bridge. There are five of them in total.) By the time I was in the Bronx, I was alone.

It was not the best part of the course to run alone, because I knew the pain was coming for me on Fifth Avenue, and I was still wondering if I'd gone out a tad fast. I had intended to take the race out in 6:50/mile pace, cut down a bit at the halfway point, and then try to hammer home the last 10k. By mile 20, I knew there was going to be no "hammering home." If I could sustain the pace I was going, that would be a success.

Photo credit: Kiersten Johnston

Fifth Avenue is painful because it is uphill. If you were to look at it, you'd barely notice, and if you were to stroll down the sidewalk, you'd be hard-pressed to call it a hill. At mile 23 of a marathon as challenging as New York, however, that slight incline makes you want to chop your legs off and beat someone with them. It hurts. And I was hurting good when I saw a woman up ahead of me in a backwards baseball cap. She looks fast, I thought. I probably won't catch her.

She also didn't look like she was hurting the way I was. As we ran down the street, she kept lifting her arms, trying to get the crowds—which were irritatingly quiet—to pump us up. I found myself joining the effort, giving a double thumbs-up as I ran in the hopes that these people would give us some energy. Why were they standing there if they weren't going to cheer?!

When we turned into Central Park, I felt a wash of relief. This was familiar territory. I knew this road. I had run it many, many times. I knew its dips and its divots, and the fact that it would eventually veer downhill. I was very much looking forward to that.

Photo credit: Emilia Benton's husband
And then I heard a scream—a literal scream—of excitement. My teammate C___ had leapt out from the sidelines and was sprinting alongside me, shouting her head off. She was supposed to have run this race but had held off for health reasons. She had every reason not to be here, and yet here she was, running alongside me, telling me how strong I looked and to go, go, go. I reached out for her gloved hand. Her enthusiasm and energy renewed my gratitude for everyone I had seen along the course: so many former teammates and current teammates and running partners and running friends and friend-friends, and even my partner R___, who was feeling under the weather. I was so grateful to be here, doing this thing.

This thing that f-ing hurt.

Those miles in Central Park feel like the end of the race. It feels like because you know where you are, and because you know where the finish line is in relation to where you are, you're nearly done. But you are not. You have to leave the park and go back onto Fifth Avenue for a little more uphill agony before going back into the park for one final, proper hill. I forgot about that part.

It felt like I was running so slowly I was moving backwards, and yet I'd left baseball-cap girl behind in the park. Turning onto Fifth Avenue, I came up alongside another girl. I fully expected her to surge, yet somehow my leaden legs carried me past her. I saw another one up ahead. Get behind her, I told myself. Get closer. I passed her, too.

I had wanted to race the end of this marathon, and here I was, racing it. But it didn't feel like racing. It felt like "surviving better." As I entered the final stretch, I survived better than a man I had seen at the beginning of the race, who had asked whether it was okay to cross to the other side of the street to see his family. (I'd said yes, so apparently I'd been right!). I survived better than a tall man with a weird gait and a short man sweating profusely. I tried with all my might to lift my knees, because the finish line was right there. I came up alongside a man in a neon green shirt, but there were still too many yards left, I'd kicked too soon. Right at the finish line, Mr. Neon Green Shirt shouldered past me.

"Good job," I grunted as I catapulted over the finish line, wobbled to a stop, and put my hands on my knees.

Didn't want to get chicked, I thought. And I smiled wide for the camera.

2021 New York Marathon Marathon Race Results

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
W35-39 Place
26.2 mi
351 / 24,944
43 / 11,394
10 / 1,603

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Survival of the Shawangunks

“You are a survivor”

That’s what they say to you at the finish line of Survival of the Shawangunks, aka SOS, a triathlon that involves biking 30 miles and then alternatively running and swimming for a total of 18 and 2.5 miles, respectively. 

But I’m not sure I want that designation. I didn’t “survive” the race. 

Surviving would have been showing up so un(der)prepared that finishing was the accomplishment. And sure, anything can happen in a race (especially a race as crazy as this one), so there are reasons a fit, trained person might not finish. However, I felt confident going in that finishing was not going to be the challenge. The challenge was going to be getting the most out of myself and dealing with unexpected issues quickly and effectively. Because in a race with as many changeups as this one, with as many elements that I simply could not practice in training, there were bound to be at least a few issues. 

And there were.

Bike: 30 miles

Biking has been and perhaps will always be my weakest discipline. In fact, two months out from this race, I was concerned with whether I would be able to finish the 30 miles within the 2:15 cutoff time. The course starts out along flat cornfields and progresses into some rolling hills—right up until the last five miles, which are. All. Up. Hill. 

These hills were problematic for me on several levels. First, there’s the regular old speed issue: The slower you go, the worse you’ll place. And when it comes to triathlon, being slower on the bike is extra-disadvantageous because the longest leg of any triathlon is always the bike. Second, I’m not a great bike handler. In other words, when I’m climbing a hill, descending a hill, avoiding a pothole, turning, or doing virtually anything that requires attention or effort, I do not release my grip on the handlebars. And when my hands are thusly occupied, they can’t do things like rip open a packet of Gu or retrieve a water bottle—both of which would be essential to keep my internal reserves stocked up for the grueling running/swimming miles ahead.

The solution involved several gear-based adjustments devised by my friends/coaches/mentors J___ and N___.  They lent me J___’s much lighter (much more expensive) road bike, which had more gears available, which meant that I could keep my legs turning over on those climbs. They also lent me their hydration backpack so I could drink from the little dangling rubber “straw” that loops over your shoulder on my ascent rather than groping around for the water bottle cage that’s screwed in lower on the bike. It’s a good thing I had that backpack, too, because around mile 19 I accidentally dropped my regular water bottle as I was trying to get one last sip before the hills. (See? Terrible bike handler!)

Run One: 4.5 miles

The bike segment of this race concluded with dismounting and clopping across an asphalt parking lot to where we had to rack our bikes. (For anyone who has never worn bike cleats, imagine you are wearing one-inch heeled shoes, only the raised part is under your toes rather than your heel. That’s what it’s like trying to walk on flat ground in  bike cleats.) At the bike rack, a plastic bag containing my swim/run gear awaited. I don’t like to make lots of mid-race choices if I can help it, so my gear was minimal: sneakers, swim cap, and goggles. I stuffed my bike cleats, helmet, and gloves into the bag, donned my running shoes, and set off with cap and goggles in hand. (I eventually stuffed them between the strap of my sports bra and my shoulder, which is where I stowed them on every run thereafter.)

I’d practiced very few bike-run transitions (otherwise known as “bricks”) in training, so I wasn’t sure quite how I’d feel at this stage of the race. I knew the course started uphill, so even if I felt “good” I knew I wouldn’t be running fast. To my surprise, I ran the first few miles at a mid/low 7 min/mile pace, and I felt fairly in control. Of course, then the hills kicked. The iconic “Cardiac Hill” occurs in that first run, so my pace slowed, but I’d been expecting it, and all in all I didn’t feel terrible—which made me optimistic for the remaining several hours of racing.

Swim One: 1.1 miles

One of the things that makes this race unusual is the fact that you have to bring your shoes with you into the water. No other triathlons require this, because the swim is always first; you go in shoeless, come out shoeless, and then put shoes on for the biking and running segments. In SOS, you run to a lake, swim across that lake, and then get out and run again . . . to another lake. You do this three times. Therefore, if you plan to run wearing shoes, you need to bring them with you across those lakes.

How you do this is entirely up to you. Some people carry dry bags, others stuff their shoes into the zip-up section of their tri suit. My plan (courtesy of race veteran “Dr. Mike”) was to stuff the shoes up the back of the legs of my tri suit. If you want to try this at home, take a sneaker and hold it against the back of your thigh, toes pointed toward your butt, sole out. Now imagine you’re wearing spandex shorts, and jam the shoe in between the shorts and your upper thigh so they’re nice and snug and ready for a swim. That was the strategy, and it worked! The most difficult part was getting the shoes on and off my feet. In this first swim, it wasn’t so bad, because I was still wearing socks, which I had worn on the bike. (Pro tip: Don’t try to swim in socks. I gave it a shot, but after a few hundred meters I had to shed them. They somehow really impair your kick!)

This first swim was the longest and in the coldest lake. It was made even more challenging by two additional factors: First, the water was choppy. Like, really choppy. Ocean-swim choppy. The waves made breathing difficult, but it made sighting (the process of lifting your head to see where you’re going) almost impossible. And second, sighting was already difficult because there were no buoys. Usually in open water swims, there are bright orange, red, or yellow buoys floating in the water that you use in order to ensure you’re swimming in the right direction. However, in this lake there were only two buoys: one where you enter the lake, and where you exit a mile away. Suffice to say, I did a fair amount of breast stroking to get my head high enough to find other swimmers I could swim toward. Being half a mile from shore and unable to see what direction to swim is not great, especially in the middle of a race!

Run Two: 5.5 miles

The second run was probably the most enjoyable due to what wasn’t happening yet: I wasn’t feeling tired, and I wasn’t developing blisters. Also the terrain of this run was generally gentler, the path smoother, and the inclines and declines less steep. (Although again, I wasn’t as tired yet, so don’t quote me!) 

It’s on this run that I caught up with people from the SOS “camp” I had done a month prior, all of whom I’d judged to be formidable athletes. It felt good to breeze past them while feeling in control. The third run is going to be the tough one, I reminded myself as I pranced downhill. That’s where the real race starts.

Swim Two: 0.5 miles

Before I could get to that “tough run” though, I first had to get through the second lake swim. This one was much easier than the first, by virtue of the fact that the water was warmer and there was a yellow rope strung straight across the lake, from the entry point to the exit point. What I should have done was keep my head down and breath to my right for the whole swim so I could navigate using that yellow rope, but I was too stuck in “open water swimming” mode and kept lifting my head to look in front of me, even though there was no need. Definitely something I’d do differently next time

I passed one swimmer about halfway across, and I was three quarters of the way when a man blew by me. By the time I thought “maybe I can draft off of him” he was a whole body length in front of me—too far to catch any useful draft. I knew who it was: A___, who had been part of the camp, who had shared all of his tips and tricks, and who had said in no uncertain terms that swimming was his best discipline. I was impressed, because it’s not like I’m a particularly slow swimmer, and the guy is at least in his 60s.  But I knew I’d catch him on the run. And I did.

Run Three: 8 miles

The third run was THE run, in my mind. This was the leg of the race I really wanted to nail. It was far enough into the race that I could be sure everyone would feel miserable, and yet it was flat enough that I knew I could run it well if I did things right.

As it turns out, most of the eight miles was not just flat, but downhill. In fact, the very beginning of the route was steeply downhill, to the point of causing some serious quad damage as you try to keep from tumbling ass-over-teakettle. Thankfully that decline only lasted maybe half a mile before the pavement leveled out and transitioned back to groomed trail, and then I was off.

Now I was passing the real competitors. How did I know? Well some of them had their last names on the backs of their tri suits. That’s a sign someone’s at least taking triathlon seriously, right? Also they were all running; only one man I passed started walking, and when I saw him do it, I yelled at him to “please come along, I need company!” (He declined.) And finally, I was running fast—or at least faster than I’d expected. My plan was to run by feel, whatever a “marathon effort” should be. But thanks to the gently descending terrain, my watch told me I was cruising at a sub-7 min/mile pace. After four-plus hours of exercise, that wasn’t too bad!

About midway through this run, the trail wound past a popular climbing area. I darted around climbers who moved along the path in slow motion and cheered the way stoned Brooklynites might—with breathy, mid-octave voices that indicated they had no idea what was going on but that they were in good spirits and were happy to acknowledge my passing by. After leaving those khaki-clad groups behind, there were long stretches where I saw nothing but trees, rocks, and dirt . . . until eventually I glimpsed a woman with blond braids up ahead. Generally speaking, I’d passed a lot more men than women, so seeing her got me excited—another competitor! But soon the trail began ascending, and any ground I was gaining became moot; she vanished into the trees. I never glimpsed her again.

This ascent was the second named hill of the course, aptly called “Godzilla.” More than one person had told me they intended to walk it “so they wouldn’t cramp.” I was skeptical of the wisdom of this, so I asked a friend who had won the race a few years prior if he’d walked Godzilla. His response (after a multi-second pause to make sure I was serious) was, “Maybe I walked for a second to gather myself, catch my breath. But then I kept running.” 

All of this is to say, I hadn’t decided what I’d do on this hill before I set out, which left me straddling the two strategies: I would run (which on that gradient is more like a shuffle), then choose a tree or rock ahead, and give myself a walk break. A few steps into the “break” I’d get annoyed and choose another landmark which, when I reached it, would be when I had to start “running” again. I proceeded thusly up the never-ending hill, alternatively lambasting myself for losing sight of Blond Braids and telling myself that it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going to win this race anyway. (Plus what royally pissed me off was that I couldn’t even win this segment of the race. There is an award for “fastest third run,” but it’s an overall award, not gendered. And I might be a fast runner, but I’m not dude-fast.)

The other, progressively louder thread going through my head at this point was f*ck my feet hurt. My left foot had hurt from the start of the run, but I was now 100% confident that I’d developed blisters on the arches of both feet. I’d naively hoped that by doing a fair amount of my training runs sockless and putting waterproof Band-Aids on my heels, I might avoid damaging my feet. Alas, the best I could hope for was that at lake number three, the blisters wouldn’t burst while I wrenched my shoes off or jammed them back on.

Swim Three: 0.5 miles

By the third swim, I was feeling a little delirious (this is five hours into the race, after all), and I was excited to get this last swim done. Entering the lake required sliding under a fence and down a dirt embankment, so by the time I hit the water, I still had my sneakers on. I had real trouble getting them off, which I first attributed to doing it in the water and then to my woozy state. Only after a good thirty seconds of failure did I realize that I’d forgotten to loosen the laces.

With that problem solved, I stuffed the shoes into the legs of my tri suit and dolphin-dove in . . . only to feel sudden stabbing pain as both of my calf muscles seized up. Not now, I thought as I flexed my toes to ease the cramps. I’m so close to the end. Not now. The cramps would not let up. With every tiny flutter kick, my calves tightened from the back of my knees to my ankles, and so I did my best to move my legs as little as possible while dragging my body forward with shoulders made of lead. (No one warns you how tired running can make your arms and shoulders!) The farther I swam, the louder the voice in my head shouted, What are you going to do? How are you going to get up that last hill?

Run Four: 0.7 miles 

The last run may have loomed large in my mind, but before I could attempt that, I had to get out of the water. It was no small feat. Balancing on sore calves atop yet another rock submerged in lake water, I did my best to shove my wounded feet into sopping shoes before scrambling up a rocky wall. (That’s right, there’s veritable rock climbing in this race!) At the top I stared around in a frantic daze until a volunteer finally pointed the way forward, and onward I went, alternatively shuffling and walking, panting all the while. Blond Braids was gone, and I knew the pros had finished eons ago, and there was no one behind me, so I made an effort, but I know myself, and it wasn’t all-out.

Thanks K___ for convincing me to do this wacky race!
My feet hurt. The chafing inside my suit hurt. But I felt calm. I was almost done.

The Finish

When finally glimpsed the timer at the top of the peak, I thought there might be a mistake. I had told anyone who asked that I’d be satisfied with a sub-6-hour finish time. But the clock I was seeing read 5:20-something. My frazzled brain tried to reconcile these numbers, but the fact was that I’d actually started later than what that clock was calculating (my age group had started three minutes after the official start), meaning I’d gone even faster.

And then it was done. I crossed the finish line. Someone handed me a towel. Someone else handed me a medal. I waited for a feeling: of excitement, relief, pride, anything. I was among strangers on a mountaintop. I’d done a ton of work to get here, but that work was what had mattered; this was just the outcome.

I think what I was feeling was contentment.

TimePaceAG Place (F25-29)Gender Place (F)Overall Place
Bike1:58:2515.2 mph5 / 842 / 52130 / 145
Run135:077:48 min/mi1 / 82 / 527 / 145
30:401:35 min/100 yd3 / 812 / 5234 / 145
Run241:227:31 min/mi1 / 81 / 523 / 145
16:391:53 min/100 yd2 / 89 / 5223 / 145
Run355:466:58 min/mi1 / 81 / 522 / 145
14:081:45 min/100 yd2 / 811 / 5245 / 145
Run46:199:01 min/mi2 / 89 / 5225 / 145
Overall5:18:34N/A2 / 86 / 5222 / 145

Saturday, September 11, 2021

SOS Pre-Race: Switching Things Up

I’m racing a triathlon tomorrow. Surprise!

Truly, it’s been a season of surprises. 

"Tri Camp" (aka course preview)
For the first time ever, or at least in a very very long time, I enjoyed the act of training more than the prospect of the race. Now don’t get me wrong—if the race were cancelled (god forbid), I’d be pretty displeased; it’s what has kept me focused on and committed to training all this time. (I do not know how people push themselves without this sort of goal. Kudos to those who can!) Yet as the months ticked by, I realized that more than performing well on race day, I was generally looking forward to fitting this training into my life. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, but I was just generally excited to see how my body would respond to this new endeavor. Would swimming exhaust me so that my run immediately afterward was a slog? (Yes, initially, but as I got fitter the swim actually helped get me loose for the run!) Would biking ever get any easier? (Yes and no: I hate it less, fear it about the same, and am marginally better than when I started, but no one would ever mistake me for a “cyclist” or probably even “triathlete.”) Would running less mileage mean losing running fitness altogether? (No. Although how this translates to an actual running race remains TBD.)

A lot of this was surprising to me—I really tried to go into the experience with a mindset of “if I wind up feeling unfit or generally weird or lonely, it’s okay,” but I’ll admit it: I was nervous. Instead I got more (mostly) welcome surprises. A few worth mentioning:
  • Despite putting in at least as many overall training hours as when I’m marathon training, I felt about a third as “beaten down” throughout the four-month training cycle. I know everyone talks about what a “toll” running takes on your body, but I’ve always thought that immensely exhausted, can’t-lift-my-feet feeling was the price of fitness. (After all, back in college when I was swimming doubles and lifting two to three times a week, I could barely drag myself up and down stairs, and I fell asleep in nearly every dark, auditorium-style class.) My “undercarriage” is less pleased with me, and I’ve chafed and blistered in brand new places, but I’d be lying if I said I missed that feeling of utter eyelid-slamming exhaustion around 2pm every day.
  • Training alone is not as miserable as I expected. In the past, whenever I’ve had to do hard running workouts alone, I’ve struggled. Not all the time, not to the same degree every time, but more often than not, I failed to hit the prescribed workout 100%. This has trained me to avoid working out alone if at all possible. Yet if you think trying to find a running partner who can run your pace and is willing to run your workout at your (or their) preferred time is hard, try finding someone who is your swimming pace, interested in doing your swimming workout, and can arrive at the same (probably inconveniently located for one of you) pool at the same (very narrow window of) time. Seriously, I dare you. Try it, and then report back. Needless to say, I did every single swim set—and about 90% of my biking and running workouts—alone. And it actually wasn’t that bad.
  • So grateful for the guidance and generosity of friends.
    One reason it wasn’t that bad is because most of these workouts were effort-based. “Run 15 minutes at 85%” is not something I’ve done much of, nor is “swim 5x75 hard with 30s rest between each.” I’m used to knowing what pace I’m targeting and trying my darndest to hit it. Those paces, of course, are all numbers, which means you either nail them or you don’t. It’s pretty black-and-white: If you don’t, you failed. But when there are no numbers to hit, you can’t really fail. So this was, if nothing else, a nice vacation away from that little gremlin at the base of my brain who likes to pipe up right when I’m really hurting and declare, “You suck. You will never be able to do this. Every success you’ve ever had was a fluke. This is the real you, and the real you can’t do shit.”
  • Another reason working out alone wasn’t so bad is because in two of the three sports (i.e., biking and swimming), I essentially was starting over from zero. A year of COVID meant a year of no swimming, and anyone who knows me knows that I don’t ride bicycles if there is any viable alternative. This means that even in the case where I do have a past self to compare to (I swam collegiately . . . it’s a long story), I know the amount of work that past performance required, and I know that I’ve barely done a fraction of that work. Therefore, I cannot compare to that swimmer. And while I’ve done triathlon before, I’ve never put in any real bike training effort. Therefore it was like being new in these sports, and everyone knows that being new in a sport is the best because improvements are visible in short order, and seeing progress is motivating.
  • The last surprise was how flexible I learned to be. Sometimes pools simply were not available when I wanted or expected. (I showed up at a pool more than once only to have the gates locked, no humans in sight.) Bad weather also played a bigger role, as it’s inadvisable to bike or swim outside during, say, a thunderstorm. In these situations, I did my best to be resourceful, but sometimes you just cannot do what you planned. So call it maturity (the gremlin would call it laziness), but for whatever reason, I increasingly found myself being okay with these changes of plans. I hope I can maintain this outlook, because it’s so, so liberating.

Of course, there was one final surprise that was not so great. The fact of the matter is that I cannot seem to make it to the start line of a big race without some sort of crisis happening. This time it wasn’t my mother, father, or sister, it was my cat.

I think we'll keep her.
For those of you who have never owned a pet, you’re probably rolling your eyes. I get it! I didn’t birth this creature; it doesn't share my DNA. For those of you who are pet owners, however, I think you’ll understand that when I say my cat started throwing up last weekend and then did not eat or drink for an entire week, when she curled up in corners on soft surfaces and barely moved day or night, it was a crisis. Tabouli is four years old. She can’t tell us what is wrong, can’t point to where it hurts. And, as I learned on one trip to the vet (there were two in a matter of three days), cats are really, really good at disguising pain. (It’s apparently some sort of survival mechanism?) Thirteen hundred dollars, four stressful Uber rides, three “shot in the dark” medications, two teary breakdowns, and a whole lot of useless googling later, she magically started eating. The day before I left for this race, she went over the wet food bowl, which we kept refreshing, and took a bite. And another bite. And eventually that little spoonful of wet food was gone.

Relief is not something that is added to a person, it’s a release—like a balloon letting out helium, or whatever bad breath huffed into it. So I had about twelve hours to be a saggy, deflated balloon, and now I’m filling back up with nervous excitement. I don’t think I’ll be as full as I might have been, but I can feel the lift. That’s why we do these races: for the flutters of anticipation, and the battle on the course, the triumph at the end. I’m aiming for the finish line of the SOS Triathlon (and if you don’t know what it is, it’s worth a quick read). There’s no guarantee I’ll make it to the end, and certainly no guarantee of how I’ll place. But that’s why we race.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Olympic Trials Marathon

She might never know it, but Ali Feller gave me the permission I needed to finally write this recap.

Photo credit: Johnny Zhang
Ali is the host of the immensely successful podcast Ali on the Run, and in a recent episode, she interviewed Jay Holder, Director of Marketing & Communications at the Atlanta Track Club (ATC). Without shame–and perhaps, more importantly, without COVID apologies of any sort–she and Jay went straight back to that last weekend in February, when the Olympic Trials marathon happened, and talked about it with abandon. I loved every second.

It's been two months now since the trials, and I've wanted to write about the event. But I haven't. First I needed a week to settle down. Then I needed a week to process. And then . . . a worldwide pandemic happened. Ever since, I've been paralyzed by the fear that it's too self-centered, or tone deaf, or downright irrelevant to write about a happy, once-in-a-lifetime occasion like the Olympic Marathon trials.

But then I heard Ali's podcast, and her enthusiasm for the event took me straight back to that weekend. So I figure if she didn't even run the race and is still that excited to talk about it, and if I enjoyed listening, maybe this blog post will offer a reprieve from the "will we survive?" mentality of the media we're consuming every single day.

If I'm going to recount the experience of running the Olympic Marathon Trials, I want to begin with the weeks leading up to the whole event. Obviously I was training, but unlike many of my competitors, my goal was not to build fitness. Qualifying in Philly had taken everything out of me, and as stoked as I was about the upcoming weekend's experience, I was not excited to actually run a marathon. So leading up, I just needed to stay fit enough to compete without breaking down.

Yet while the training may not have been exciting me, the ever-mounting hype was simply unavoidable. And it was infectious. For the first time in my life, I was being sought out for my opinions, my words, my likeness based on something I'd achieved. Usually I'm the one on the question-asking end of the conversation, but now people wanted to interview me for articles. They filmed me for a television segment. Put me on their Instagram feed. Included me in their podcast. (Okay, full disclosure, I was on the podcast earlier, but that's because the host is my friend, and he needed someone to help him practice.) I have never, ever felt this much like a celebrity. And, knowing that I will almost certainly never experience this again, I said yes. Yes, take my photo. Yes, ask my opinion. Yes yes yes!

Photo credit: Ben Ko
Fast-forward to the weekend of the event. The best way I can describe the experience is that it felt like stepping onto one of those moving walkways and never getting off. From the moment we set foot in the Omni hotel, the energy was thick, palpable, high-octane, and unrelenting. I couldn't leave my room without tripping over someone I knew, or had heard of, or wanted to meet. Every hallway was loud, and everyone was always in motion, going somewhere.

Initially I'd thought that I'd have a decent amount of downtime. However, there was just so much to do! Between eating meals and attending events the ATC was putting on for us athletes, I had to sort out what, exactly, I was going to wear for the race; go and get it approved by a race official (including my shoes, which were measured using what looked like some sort of laser); decorate and drop off my water bottles (where I ran into none other than professional runners Steph Bruce and Allie Kieffer, decorating their water bottles); and attend mandatory athlete briefings. Oh, and I'd also planned to meet up with a few friendly and professional contacts, see my teammates, and eat dinner with my parents. So yeah. There wasn't time for much else.*

As with everything else that weekend, the race was nothing like any other race I've ever run. Part of it was me.** At most marathons, I am dialed in. While I'm running, I see little and hear even less. At this race, I saw everything and heard everyone. The crowds were insane. They were louder than I've ever heard . . . and I've run the Chicago, Boston, and New York marathons. Plus, these crowds were so much closer. The out-and-back course meant that fans could line both sides of the street, and the onslaught began immediately at the start line and extended for two straight miles, maybe more. In that pack were family and friends. And sure, many of them were there to see the race, the spectacle, but they were also there to see me. I can't quite explain what that feels like. I guess it feels like love.

Photo credit: Kelly Kilgour
I saw my ex-teammates first, screaming their heads off, phones out, signs up. These are women who were some of my first New York running friends. They bought plane tickets practically the day I qualified. "Wouldn't miss it," they told me. "We're so proud of you."

Then I saw current teammates–women who had poured their hearts out to hit the trials standard just a few months ago and come up short. These women weren't slower than me. On any given day, they'd be the ones running this race, and I'd be the one on the sidelines. These women (and their partners) had flown to Atlanta late the night before; they were going to cheer themselves hoarse at this marathon; and then they were going to get back on a plane, all so they could run a 5k the next day back in New York. Those are the kind of teammates I have. They're the kind of teammate I aspire to be.

Next up was my family. It's important to note that my parents haven't seen me run a marathon since my very first race back in 2009. I genuinely wasn't sure, if I qualified for this trials, whether they'd attend. But there they were: my dad with his goofy homemade sign, my mom bundled in her puffy bright red coat, hollering and smiling and just looking so happy. And right there next to them was the single-most steadfast guy who has been with me through my good races and my bad, who has cheered for me in the heat and the rain, who really truly has helped me get here, whether he acknowledges it or not.

I saw my neighbors–runners in their own right, and who have been amazingly supportive–cheering like crazy and snapping photos left and right. ("You're doing it!" one of them screamed when I passed them around mile 20-something, almost certainly looking like death. Has a truer cheer ever been cheered? It was exactly the right thing to say.)

There were my two high school friends, neither of whom has a particularly strong interest in running, but who came anyway, for no other reason other than to make signs and stand outside for a bunch of hours to show me they love me.

There was my coach, who was probably the happiest I've ever seen him, smiling and waving and cheering me on.

And then there was one last teammate. This is a woman I haven't known for very long, but who I will never forget. She had qualified for the trials at the New York City marathon, more than a year in advance, but right before the trials, she suffered a knee injury that required surgery. While at first she was hopeful that she'd still be able to race (and cross-trained accordingly–that is, more than any sane human would), as the day drew near, her hope was stripped away bit by bit. At first, her goal was just to finish the race, then just to make it halfway, then a mile. Finally, she settled for the start line, making it 2 minutes and 40 seconds into the race before bowing out. Maintaining hope and optimism throughout that ordeal is impressive enough, but it's what she did after that 2 minutes and 40 seconds that really shows you who M___ is and why I admire her so much: She took her disappointment and her swollen knee back out onto the course and cheered on her teammates for the rest of the race. I genuinely couldn't believe it on that final lap, when I was hurting so bad and in one of those "please just let me stop" phases, and I saw her standing in the road screaming her head off. Because I knew how she must feel–torn between devastating disappointment for herself and excitement and pride for the rest of us. Plus the exhaustion of standing and cheering for three-plus hours. Plus the pain of a swollen knee. And I was almost certainly pulling up the rear on her "cheer list" . . . yet there she was, cheering just as hard for me as for anyone who came before me. I can't quite express how much that meant to me.

I'll tell you what: I didn't stop running.
Photo credit: Andrew Dearling
* Honestly, it was all such a whirlwind that the best choice I made was, race morning, spending the final thirty minutes alone in my hotel room, earphones in, starfished across the king bed. (Song of choice? "Wait for It.")
** And part of it was the course and the conditions. 1,389 feet of elevation? 20mph gusts of wind? Nope, definitely never did that before.

Friday, February 28, 2020

This Is Not a Victory Lap

Me + Teammate at Finish Line PT
It's the eve of the Big Event. The one I trained and sacrificed and lost sleep to attend. The Olympic Trials Marathon. I did everything in my power to get here, and now the moment is at hand and I simply don't have the words. I don't know what to say.

I thought about writing about shoes. For those who don't know, there's this whole shoe controversy going on, where Nike has innovated a shoe that may give runners an advantage. It costs an arm and a leg. Here at the trials, they gave out their new alpha-shoe (aptly named) to every trials competitor for free, and suddenly runners are throwing the "nothing new on race day" rule out the window. The competitor in me also wants to wear them tomorrow because "everyone else might be wearing them and getting an advantage" but this time, unlike in Philly, the competitor isn't winning. The voice inside me that says, "You already have feet problems, you don't know what these will do to your feet. Live to fight another day" is winning. And also, I'm sick of the Great Shoe Debate.

Yep that's a jacked-up foot
So I thought about writing about what it was like to train amidst other qualifiers for this race. And here's the thing: when it comes to locals who qualified for the Trials, it's the top of the top in NYC running. Only the best get to go to this race, so those are the people training together, and suddenly, whether it's the short turnaround after Philly or lack of talent or whatever, I'm not keeping up. I literally cannot do the workouts these other women are doing, and it's frustrating. It's not that I feel competitive with them, it's more that I feel left out. Or like I should be able to join in, but for some reason can't hack it. It's kind of insane to feel this way, when I achieved my goal! I get to go to this amazing event that I qualified for! And yet. There's always "and yet."

More very professional-looking bottles
That's all a little depressing, however, when this really should be a celebration. So the thing I'm going to write about is the idea of a marathon being a celebration. For all of those who heard me talk about how I'm not in the best shape, and I'm not going to PR or even come close, I know you meant well when you said this but I have to make something very clear: The Olympic Trials Marathon Is Not a Victory Lap. A victory lap is a 400m jog with a flag draped over your shoulders, smiling and waving to fans. A marathon will never, ever be a victory lap. Even if I run the very slowest we're allowed, which for women is 3:14:59-pace at mile 16 (or else we get removed from the course), it's still not going to be a walk in the park. This course is hilly. And 26.2 miles long. I will try to smile and wave the best I can, but make no mistake: it's still a race. I'd still like to perform to the best of my current ability.

Someone really likes the new DPNYC gear!
Therefore, I ate my white carbs today, and paid attention to hydrating, and stayed off my feet, and took Zicam . . . and tomorrow I'm going to go out there and experience what it's like to run in the Olympic Trials. I'm going to stay present. I'm going to bring with me, in spirit, all of the people who I know tried so incredibly hard to do this tremendous thing, because they deserve to be here, too. I'm going to bring all of the luck-wishers and cheerleaders and supportive friends and family I have with me. And it's going to be painful and hard, and I'm going to get frustrated on the uphills, but I'll also be excited when I pass someone, and even more excited when I see people I know on the side of the course, yelling their heads off. Because this is the marathon.