Archive for the 'Race Reports' Category

I Did NOT!

In our mainstream culture, we are what we DO. Often, what we do for income. Sometimes what we do to feed our passions, what we do because we have to, or what we do to serve others.

This blog’s focus is no exception. Much of it is a journal of what I’ve done as a marathoner, yoga instructor and practitioner, and wellness educator. By nature blogs record their blogkeepers’  achievements, pastimes, and instructions for how to DO things. (In the case of mine in 2010, the lack of  regular updates may also imply how engaging and high-octane non-virtual life is lately. )

A big “I DID IT!” and the topic of my previous post, April’s Glass City Marathon, seems much longer than about two months ago.  Glancing back through  my athletic and wellness pursuits since that PR day in Toledo, the mental highlights reel plays out as a montage of what I Did NOT:

A month after Glass City, Lloyd and I went to Madison, Wisc., to serve as pace group leaders in that city’s marathon. It would be my first official pacing job, but I was confident thanks to practicing the very relaxed pace I would keep and to coaching from my more experienced husband. We also love Madison, one of my childhood homes, and were excited to spend a few days hanging out on the UW’s lakefront campus and seeing some local friends.

Madison's weather was more suitable for lakefront people-watching than marathon running.

The forecast, on the other hand, was nowhere near as friendly: We would be running under full sun and 80-plus temperatures. Out on the course I coped as best I could, guiding my group to every water stop and any available shade, but even at two minutes per mile slower than my race pace the sun blazing down and radiating back up off the road was grueling. Ironically, just as we reached Mile 22’s breezy, cooler lakefront section, race officials began shutting down the course due to a heat index over 100 degrees and countless distressed runners. Disappointed and confused, I opted to jog the mile back to our hotel rather than board the buses race officials told me were being dispatched, stopping to aid another pacer’s distressed and disoriented runner along the way.

My second marathon DNF (Did NOT Finish) reminded me how badly unfinished business stings. Though I felt I did the right thing by following race officials’ instructions and by aiding a distressed runner, I kept thinking about the three remaining women still hanging on with me, running on, trusting me to get them to the Finish as their pain and effort increased after Mile 20. We were moving forward collectively at that point, not as four separate bodies. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d let them down. It took a little while to feel better about that. Talking about it with our pace team captain Jim and more experienced pacers helped.

Although it had a low note with the race interruptus, our Madison trip completed a happy and busy month of celebrating birthdays and PRs, the end-of-semester madness that still doesn’t feel routine after six years, and two fun road trips that took us from North Carolina’s Atlantic surf through the Blue Ridge Parkway’s watercolor skyline to Chicago’s striking architectural profile.

I welcome adventure but thrive best with routine, and could barely lift my arm to wave hello to June after May’s happy mayhem. Seeking my own renewable energy source, I decided to DO another cleanse. Last year’s 11-Day Nutrition and Yoga detox gave me a major recharge of vigor and joy, so I figured the 21-Day Cleanse Oprah popularized would be no less than (organic, vegan) blissful rocket fuel. I bought and read the book, planned a menu, contributed substantially to Whole Foods Market’s bottom line and waited to radiate inner peace as I dined on gluten-free, sugar-free, animal-free, alcohol-free meals. (You are supposed to eliminate caffeine too, but this die-hard coffee addict compromised by cutting back to one cup of organic brew a day.)

Cleanse author Kathy Freston cautions that the detox process can cause unpleasant side effects, flu-like symptoms or emotional releases. Seismic stomach, check. (Though that could have been the vegan diet’s high bean content.) Scratchy throat, check. Moodiness, check. And also: a side of joylessness and deprivation with most meals, rather than the empowering feeling of self-care I’d had during the less restrictive 11-Day cleanse.

I was surprised. I’ve been curious about full-tilt veganism. I often prepare and enjoy vegan dishes because they are nutritious and just plain tasty. I share many of veganism’s values: humane treatment of other beings, sustainable planetary practices, opting out of our mainstream culture’s less-than-mindful status quo. I envisioned I would feel ultra-pure, uber-compassionate, and positively peaceful as a vegan.

Instead I was gassy and cranky. I had resentful thoughts about poor Kathy Freston, who comes across as a perfectly lovely and mindful person. And then, despite meticulous meal planning and smart supplementation, my energy plummeted in the cleanse’s third week. The shining eyes and glowing skin of last year’s cleanse were dark undereye circles and breakouts this year. Worst of all, I had never felt so weak during runs. After feeling like I was on the verge of collapsing for 10 miles, I surrendered.

Except for one wedding reception, I lasted a total of 16 days on the 21-day cleanse. While not especially physically rejuvenating for me, the experience did clarify some things in my mind:

  1. While I will enjoy vegan food regularly, I can’t go 24/7. Every individual’s physiology has unique and different nutrient composition needs throughout life, and my activities now demand a higher percentage of protein. The only way I could physically consume the tissue-supporting protein I need to feel and perform like a strong athlete would involve more beans than my poor gastrointestinal tract can deal with, or more quantities of highly-processed, likely genetically modified soy foods than I am comfortable with consuming. Many endurance athletes excel on meatless and high-carb eating plans, but the vegan diet’s higher carbohydrate content wasn’t supportive for me.
  2. This cleanse did eliminate cravings for foods with added sweeteners (sugar or otherwise), which I can be prone to when stressed. I’m an occasional light drinker, but also felt the break from alcohol was beneficial.
  3. I ate more processed foods (brown rice cakes, gluten-free waffles, energy bars, etc.) on this cleanse  than my normal whole foods omnivore eating. That didn’t feel cleansing to me.
  4. It was fun to find and try new cooking techniques and recipes. Dry-frying tofu, for instance, makes it firm and golden-brown. Here’s a curry recipe I will be making again.
  5. I spent a lot of time thinking about the global impact of food sources. For instance, does consuming more industrially processed, packaged, and long-distance shipped soy for protein really make less of an impact on our Earth’s resources than buying organic, grass-fed meats directly from a local family farmer? While doing this cleanse I read Barbara Kingsolver’s delightful and thought-provoking “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and it spoke to me as more authentic, connected, and yes, joyful take on sustainable, nutritious food sourcing. Obviously this is a complex issue with no one conclusion that feels right to all people, and this is just my take at this point in my own exploration.

Chalk up DNF No. 2, though a worthwhile and enlightening one.

The endurance athlete’s standard DNF consolation is so common it’s cliche, “A DNF is better than a DNS (Did Not Start).” Well, I logged one of those too. Last weekend our town hosted its first 5K race. I selected the Brecksville Home Days 5K as an early summer fitness test and looked forward to having home course advantage, though the course features a mean climb for most of Mile 2.

This time my body wasn’t its usual cooperative self. Slight hamstring tightness I’d barely acknowledged seized up my left leg two days before race day. Attempting a set of strides after a tentative warm-up jog was all the data I needed to make the smart decision. I Did NOT Start; instead I cheered on competitors and felt grateful my aggravated leg still let me run at easy pace and maintain aerobic fitness. A week later 90% of the pain and stiffness is gone, and I’m penciling in another 5K. Yes, another DO.

I can’t do everything I put my mind or body to, though as a classic overachiever I come close. Applying perspective, the Did NOT’s of June and July are balancing, even complementing, the DID’s of April and May. Instead of just checking off a list of accomplishments and events, I can remain open to the lapses when the pendulum redirects, when a body can use some rest, when a mind needs to think — or when the weather’s simply not cooperating.

I can’t finish everything I start and I can’t always start, even when I plan on it.

Just don’t remind me this next time I am on a Start line and healthy, OK?

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The Glass City Marathon Takes the Cake

Event: Glass City Marathon
When & Where: 7 a.m. April 25 2010, Toledo, Ohio
Results: 3:37:22 (PR by 3:40, and 1:50 negative split); 104/455 overall, 17/170 women, 5/35 age group; My 9th marathon

Training: Consulting with my husband Lloyd, a certified running coach,  I was able to take my training to a new level. It included 6-7 days of running per week with hill repeats, two cycles of tempo running, interval workouts, and four runs longer than 20 miles. I averaged about 57-60 mpw and peaked with a 70 mile week. In two tune-up 5Ks I went under a 7:00 pace for the first time which was confidence-boosting, as was a practice race pace half marathon in 1:48 that felt very comfortable. I also included weekly strength, core, balance, and plyometric workouts as well as teaching and taking yoga and pilates classes 2-4 times/week.

I absolutely love training but balancing this and finding energy to train and handle a heavy workload, freelance, and do my share to keep our home in order was a struggle at times. As much as I wish I were one of those adrenaline-fueled superwomen who appears to thrive on juggling two dozen eggs while riding a unicycle on a tightrope, unfortunately I’m more the opposite and thrive on lower stress and life balance. Honestly, one of my motivations for meeting the goal of running sub-3:40 was if I did, I promised myself I would take a break from serious marathon training for a little while.

Pre-race: All week Lloyd, who was also well-trained and racing, had his eye on the forecast. I ignore forecasts until a couple days before a race, so for 10 days he provided me constant regular updates which changed from 60% to 80% to 100% chance of heavy rain and wind. Both of us were concerned, but I continued to think and say that weather is unpredictable and could easily change for the better or worse. Four days out, I made the classic race week mistake of using all my extra energy to overdo another activity. I took a deep stretch yoga class which felt good, but later my groin/hip flexor felt like it had a mild strain – it was really tender and sore. I did round-the-clock ibuprofen doses for two days and thankfully it calmed down.

Carbo-loading commenced.  I used FitDay to carefully adjust my macronutrient ratios to 70% carbohydrate and only slightly increase calories, rather than simply eat too much as I’ve done before. I felt fueled, but not bloated or too full. So dedicated was I to sports nutrition that I did something for the first time in my life: I passed up cake on my birthday, which fell on marathon eve. Anyone who knows me knows this was no easy task. I’m somewhat obsessed with cake and for all the natural running talent I lack, I make up for with cake eating prowess. I should probably change sports to the Cake Walk.

We made the easy drive to Toledo Saturday morning, kept our trip through the small expo on the University of Toledo campus to 20 minutes, and spent almost two hours driving the course. Having the preview was so helpful. We could anticipate windy areas, the few short gradual uphills, and the exciting-looking finish on the 50-yard line of UT’s Glass Bowl stadium.

Lloyd with the statue commemorating Toledo ultrarunner Sy Mah, about Mile 16 of the Glass City Marathon course.

We found a great local Italian spot for the perfect pre-marathon pasta meal, and then relaxed in the hotel watching “Seinfeld” for laughs and the Penn Relays for inspiration. I also read several race reports written by the late Joe Truini, a Marathon Maniac from Akron who suffered a fatal heart attack last July at age 37. Three months before that,  Joe had PR’d at the Glass City Half Marathon. I knew it had been a goal of Joe’s to break 3:40 (his PR was 3:40 at Chicago ’08) and vowed to give it my best shot for him.

Neither of us slept well due to hallway noise and the clock radio alarm going off at 3:00 a.m. Who would set it for that? Oh well, who expects to sleep like a baby with a marathon the next day?

At 4:00 we were up to allow plenty of time for breakfast to settle and get to UT for the 7 a.m. start. This went like clockwork from finding parking to not-too-long port-a-john lines. It had poured overnight, but we rejoiced a forecast that looked a little humid, but not warm, rainy, or even very windy! Fog was the only weather oddity of the morning. With six minutes to go I lined up, feeling almost too calm and a little dull. I wasn’t finding the usual excitement I feel to run a marathon, and felt ashamed to find myself momentarily wishing I’d changed to the half marathon and just gone for a huge 13.1 PR. I hoped my mindset would improve or it would be a very long morning for me!

Miles 1-5: 9:02, 7:52 (marker was short), 8:31, 8:25, 8:19
The race started and we snaked our way off campus and into a surrounding neighborhood. For the first time I was trying to run the first couple miles easy pace and gradually find my race pace groove. Lloyd always does this and it works great for him, but I was skeptical about starting behind goal pace. I spent the first mile chatting with another Brooks ID girl who was shooting for a 3:45 and wished her well before picking up my pace a little. We cruised through a beautiful neighborhood bursting with flowering trees for about three miles, then got on to the flat and smooth University/Parks Bike Trail. About Mile 5 I caught the 3:40 pace group and decided to hang out with them for a while. Their pace felt comfortable and I wanted some company, as I wasn’t feeling my head in the game yet.

Miles 6-10 8:22, 8:25, 8:26, 8:15, 8:08
I chatted with the pacer for a few miles which made the time go by quickly. I also noticed the muggy air and my legs feeling fatigued in the 7th and 8th miles, and still felt “dull.” Hmm, maybe it was not to be my day? The pace still felt very comfortable so I decided to stay with it. After mile 9 we exited the bike path and were now running on open roads – open to traffic and prevailing southeasterly winds. I’d already started sipping Gatorade at water stops to offset too much sodium loss in the humidity, and here I took water and the first of 3 1/2 Gu’s. There was more to think about with these surroundings and I felt myself liven up a bit, pulling away naturally from the pace group.

Miles 11-15: 8:16, 8:21, 8:25, 8:13, 8:22
This was the longest “open” section of the course, out in the country on the northwest edge of metro Toledo. The foggy fields were pretty, but windy with miles 12-14 into a headwind. I came through the half in 1:49:36 (3:39 pace), and had doubts about being able to hold that but decided to withhold a final verdict. Along here I passed several runners including a fellow woman shooting to go under 3:40. Everyone was friendly in this small marathon, and we chatted and encouraged each other. We would play leapfrog with each other for the next 10 miles. She looked really strong and relaxed, and I was excited for her. Finally after Mile 14 we turned out of the wind and down another pretty neighborhood with quite a few residents out to cheer runners – that was nice.

Miles 16-20: 8:20, 8:26, 8:21, 16:51 (miles 19 & 20)
This section included two parks separated by a two-mile stretch of road into the wind, and flanked with cars. Course marshalls and police were doing a great job, but it still wasn’t fun running in a bike lane so close to traffic. I was passing people quite a bit here and took advantage of drafting behind them and chatting with them on the way. Turning into Wildwood Preserve Metropark and arriving on the paved winding trail through gorgeous woods was so welcome! Although I was feeling achiness in my hamstrings and form start to stiffen, somehow I came through mile 20 well below the 3:40 split I’d written on my bib which was encouraging, but I still expected I’d inevitably slow and struggle in like I have in many of my marathons. There was nothing to do but find out.

Miles 21-26.2: 8:22, 8:09, 8:04, 8:05, 8:03, 9:18 (7:45 pace for last 1.2!).
In the 21st mile we came to a long gradual downhill leading to a covered bridge. I love downhill running and this was where I took off. I was sad to leave behind my leapfrog partner, who said she had a side stitch. Part of me thought I should help pull her along but I also knew I had my own race to work on. The winding park path intersected back with the University/Parks bike trail which I knew was the way “home” to UT. Something about this supercharged me and I was able to effortlessly pick up pace. When I saw the 22nd mile had been a fantastic-feeling 8:09, I ignored any ideas of playing it cautious and charged ahead. Finally, I’d found the sense of excitement and joy I usually have about marathoning. Each mile felt stronger and smoother and I made a game of catching the next runner up on the path. I thought about Joe, and thought about how much I wanted to run well to show a couple of friends going for PRs that they could do it too. Please, I thought, let me run this race in a way that will inspire and help others to have great races. I kept seeing a bigger and bigger cushion to break 3:40 with each mile and kept flying forward to make the cushion bigger. Amazingly, my body felt no fatigue or physical discomfort any more. For whatever reason, I had the luck of running in what athletes call “the Zone,” a state of balanced excitement, fun, and relaxation.

The bike path ended back on the still-foggy UT campus and there was less than a mile to the Glass Bowl. I was looking for Lloyd who I knew was long finished by now, and was so excited to see him with a little more than half a mile to go. “This is awesome! I’m having the race of my life!” I yelled. Somehow despite giving his all and running his own PR, he could still chase me and encouraged me the rest of the way.

This final part of the course was poorly marked and disorienting, winding around half marathon walkers, campus buildings, and through parking lot rows. It was my typical race anxiety nightmare come true of not knowing where the course was, and all I wanted was a clear beeline to the finish. Another beautiful long downhill appeared and I charged harder, seeing the stadium. I knew I would break 3:40 easily and felt so thrilled that training, weather, and my race had come together just right. Most marathoners need great training to meet their race day goals, and all of us need a little luck. Less than 2 minutes later, I burst in to the Bowl with arms raised. The race clock had just turned to 3:37 and I steamed ahead shouting “Yeah!” and smiling to celebrate crossing the line.

Post-race: Lloyd collected his age-group award for his incredible 2:54:58 finish and we made our way back to the hotel, where a chocolate Muscle Milk Light was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. Then, as the rain that had held off all morning began pouring down again, we met a handful of Toledo and NE Ohio runners for a delicious and fun Mexican lunch complete with a flaming cinnamon schnapps shot (on the house) and surprise belated birthday cake Lloyd had arranged. It was certainly icing on the cake (buttercream, my favorite) to a successful race and the reward of dedication to training.

A Classic Finish to a Stand-out Season

Event: Cleveland Fall Classic Half Marathon
When & Where: Nov. 22, 9 a.m., Cleveland Metroparks Mill Stream Run Reservation
Results: 1:44:42 – PR! (8:00 pace); 5/46 Female 35-39 AG; 39/233 overall Female

After a successful and healthy fall running season, I decided to use my residual fitness from the Grand Rapids Marathon five weeks earlier to try to add one final PR to my 2009 collection. I set my sights on the Cleveland West Road Runners’ Club Fall Classic half marathon, where I needed to better my 1:44:56.25 from 2 1/2 years earlier at the Norfolk East Beach Half Marathon.

Recovery from Grand Rapids was trouble-free. It was the best I’ve ever felt after a marathon, and soon I was back to 40+ mile weeks made up of all easy pace running. Last week I did a 4 x 1 mile Tempo cruise interval workout on Wednesday then Saturday ran the Twinsburg 5-mile Turkey Trot as another tempo workout in 38:27, although the hills, gravel footing, and 60+ temperatures made it feel more like a race effort. On Tuesday of this week I did a 3-mile sustained Tempo pace run (average 7:31, probably a little fast) and that felt very comfortable. I was confident I could PR and ready to shoot for a 1:42-1:43. My plan was to start easy and settle in to a 7:50ish pace, then finish the final miles in whatever I had left.

After last year's wintery Fall Classic

The race day forecast was extra encouraging: temperatures in the 40-50 range with no wind or precipitation expected. In contrast, year’s Fall Classic had started with snow and 20 degrees and sent us skating over patches of ice.This year I would be comfortable in shorts and short-sleeve tech tee instead of encumbered by slippery ice and bulky layers.

I got in a 2 mile warm-up, did some dynamic stretching while waiting and chatting with some first-time half marathoners in the Port-o-John line, and jogged to the start where I stashed warm-ups in my car. Lloyd would use it to drive to his volunteer post – Miles1 and 5, where he would call out elapsed time.

In no time we were off and running. As always, even though I held back and watched dozens of runners blast by and felt like I was going slow, I was faster than the desired 7:50-8:00 pace. Lloyd and the Mile 1 marker came in to view at 6:08 by my watch, and I slowed to almost a walk to pass him at 7:13. He said the mile was short, and as I moved past now my task was to find a suitable pace. Mile 2 came at 8:37/15:50; now my pace was too slow. Feeling like Goldilocks and the Erratic Mile Splits, I kept looking for a good groove through miles 3 (8:13) and 4 (8:18) and finally found it coming in to Mile 5 (7:51) where Lloyd read a time of 40:10, just on the slow side of my target.

The Fall Classic also includes a 5K race, and I caught the tail end of that field at Mile 5. Just as I’d found a good rhythm, the next 1.5 miles broke it with a constant need to pass and weave around slower groups of 5K participants with faster half marathoners approaching as they started the second 6.55 mile loop out. Most of the slower groups of 5K entrants congregated in the middle of the road rather than staying over to the right. It was crowded and challenging, but I told myself not to become frustrated as that would only waste energy. Much of the 5K field consisted of the local Girls on the Run chapter, which is an organization I think highly of and as an older, wiser(?) “girl on the run” I didn’t want to seem unsportsmanlike to the girls who were having a good time out there.

Finally the 5K and Half Marathon fields split and I estimated I was half-way through the race at 52:30ish. I need to have a stronger second loop to make my goal. I came in to Mile 7 in 56:12, so I was still on the cusp. Problem was, the 8:08, 7:55, and 8:22 (could that mile marker be off, I wondered?) mile splits for 8-10 felt harder than they should. “I’m working for this,” I told Lloyd, who had joined to help at a water stop. “Dig in,” he replied. I wasn’t sure I could and was beginning to doubt my ability to PR, but I kept plugging away anyway. The weather was so perfect, I wasn’t hurting, and it was my last race of the year. No excuses, I told myself.

I arrived at Mile 10 in 1:20:40 (8:04 pace) and though by now was fantasizing about stopping and putting my feet up, decided to try a little surge. Surprisingly, that felt better than the slower pace and got me to 11 in 7:53. So I made up my mind, no matter how much it eventually hurt, that I was going to stay with the more aggressive pace and refuse to give in to discomfort, no matter what. I had fallen in step with another runner and by the way we stuck together, without speaking it was obvious we were helping each other out. This and seeing Lloyd one more time was a boost that put me to Mile 12 in 7:42 more minutes. I knew the last mile of the course well and plotted out points where I would step on the gas a little more. Before long, we got to the last little circular path section. I had run it to warm up and knew at 1:41 in it would be a fight for a PR, but I was prepared for battle! No way was I going to waste the morning’s effort to barely miss it. With each turn, I pushed harder, coming to mile 13 in 1:43:56. I pressed on with more intensity to cross the line and stop my watch at 1:44:41. I was disappointed that my new personal record wasn’t by a bigger amount of time, but still pleased that I’d managed to barely eke it out.

I’m not sure why I didn’t have a stronger showing at the Fall Classic. Though I feel great, I’m probably not in peak condition 5-weeks post marathon with lower mileage and only three Tempo workouts. It’s possible I’ve run my Tempo workouts too fast and overestimated what I could do. Or, since the faster 3 miles felt  better than any other, I wonder if I played it too safe and should have been a little more aggressive with pacing. My hydration balance has felt off the last couple days despite drinking enough fluids, so maybe I’m just slightly off-center.

No huge matter. It is time now to put my legs up, reflect on and appreciate my most successful season to date, and recharge for the next one!

One Grand, Rapid (for me) Marathon

Event: Metro Health Grand Rapids Marathon
When & Where: Oct. 18 2009, 8 a.m., Grand Rapids, Michigan
Results: 3:41:02 – PR! (8:26 pace); 409/1554 Finishers; 78/634 Females; 8/90 Females age 35-39

024Word of mouth is a powerful thing.  After hearing nothing but positive experiences and rave reviews about the Grand Rapids Marathon’s fast and scenic course, high probability of running a PR, runner-friendly touches, and supreme organization, I decided to target the race for a fall marathon.  Two days after crossing the line, I am happy to report the entire race experience lived up to its excellent reputation and certainly helped me progress and record another personal success in marathoning.

Of course, it wasn’t just the race. I needed a LOT of luck in the forms of decent race-day weather and good health, and both came through. And, oh yeah, there was training to do. After three very rewarding, fun, and successful years of working with accomplished DC-based runner and coach Mary Davison, I couldn’t pass up the undeniable advantage of 24/7 access to another talented coach and runner, my partner and now-husband Lloyd Thomas.  Many runners would probably prefer to NOT have their spouse coach them, but this new joint venture turned out to be a seamless and comparatively small part of our overall relationship.

This training cycle began differently with a phase of daily easy-pace running to increase my weekly mileage base to 60 on 6-7 runs per week. Then we progressed through quality phases of hill repeats, intervals (my favorite), and tempo running (my absolute least favorite). I completed every scheduled run except for one due to a head cold, and stayed injury-free. Despite the challenges of juggling training with a very busy job and planning our wedding for the week before Grand Rapids, my motivation stayed high throughout as usual – I simply love training! For the first time, I ran the whole 26.2 mile distance as an easy effort, using the Road Runner Akron Marathon on September 26 as a final long run. I also used the Buckeye Half Marathon on Sept. 12 as an opportunity for some marathon-pace running and dabbled in a little multi-sport cross training to increase my volume of aerobic exercise, as well as to prepare for the Akron Women Only Triathlon Sept. 13. The only tune-up races I did were a July 4 5-Mile race, and two 5K’s in August and early October. Though these races were short distances, all were very encouraging: each yielded a PR and age-group award, and moreover, my 21:46 5K on Oct. 3 predicted a marathon time of 3:32 when I plugged it in to a race predictor.

With a previous marathon PR of 3:44:41, the thought of leaping to 3:32 sounded thrilling, but a bit extreme. I did feel confident that I could target a goal of sub-3:40 and decided to aim for a finish in the 3:37-3:38 range.

067Race week arrived just as we said good-bye to our wedding guests. After all the excitement and busy-ness of the wedding, I was exhausted and diligently slept as much as I could the entire week. I was a little concerned about gaining a few pounds, because combining one of my very favorite things in the whole world, cake, with tapering is not so good for weight management. Between all the buttercream and some bad monthly cycle timing, I was definitely up a few pounds from my final bachelorette days, but still at a comfortable weight for racing. That is, until the carbo-loading phase began on Friday.

Normally I am not a consumer of any processed/refined carbs, and I think I overcompensated with two days of bagel, pretzel, bread, Gatorade, low-fat cookie, pancake, and pasta feasting. For past marathons I’ve followed a formulaic carbing prescription based on body weight  and never hit the wall during a race, but did not like keeping track of how many grams/calories I’d taken in. This time I was trying to be more intuitive and ended up feeling ashamed, like I’d overindulged. I was bloated and uncomfortable, though lucky to not have any digestive distress. Carbo-loading is definitely an area in which I seek to improve and find a better way to fuel up to run without feeling so stuffed.

Other than the continual desire to unbutton my jeans, pre-race was relaxed and fun. Lloyd and I arrived in Grand Rapids Friday evening, and took race director Don Kern up on his open invitation to meet at the Hideout Brewing Company. We spent an hour sharing beer and stories before the busy RD had to leave to attend to one of many last-minute tasks. On Saturday we ran the beautiful Millennium Park section of the course and later shared a low-key, pre-race dinner with a half-dozen Kickrunners.com friends. I stayed up late catching up on grading so didn’t get a full night’s sleep on Saturday, but slept very soundly.

Race morning was uneventful and I felt relaxed and confident, although I was startled when we had to scrape the car before driving to the Start – it was cold, just below 30 degrees, and still dark. Luckily, one of the Grand Rapids Marathon’s very best attributes is the city’s palatial, gorgeous new YMCA that opens its doors for runners to warm-up, use real bathrooms, and keep warm until just before the race. I did just that. At 7:50 Lloyd and I strolled around the block to the Start area, where I took off my warm-ups, handed them to him, and jumped in the corral less than a minute before the gun went off.  This pampered, relaxed start dramatically decreased the pre-race jitters I’m prone to at big-show, big-city marathons I’ve run and was definitely a factor in my race outcome.

014It took less than 30 seconds to cross the Start mat and I never felt boxed in, even in Mile 1. Miles 1-4 on this year’s new course took runners over the Grand River twice as we toured downtown Grand Rapids. The sun was shining and there was absolutely no wind, so the city and placid river sparkled. The first footbridge was actually slick from lingering frost, so I was careful with my footing. Crossing another bridge back in the fourth mile, I enjoyed the sight of a sculpture of a large table and chairs that read “Love Life.” What fitting words for a marathon morning! I was also encouraged that my Mile 3 split showed I’d already found the pace for a 3:37 finish, according to my wrist band. Around Mile 4 I saw Lloyd and gave him my long-sleeved layer. I was comfortable and running cool in a short-sleeve technical shirt, shorts, thin gloves, and “Run Happy” cap to shield my eyes from any glare.

We headed southwest out of town, past an industrial area, along a wide, paved park path through fields of tall golden grass, and came out around Mile 7 on a 3-mile stretch of gently sloping, country road surrounded by trees in various shades of autumn regalia. It was the scenic, inviting kind of road you look at and think “I want to run on it.” I chatted with a few fellow runners in this section which made the miles rush by, but I wanted to focus on smart running: staying focused, taking tangents, and checking my effort level. By Mile 10 when I made it to Millennium Park, I was a solo act again. Lloyd was using the chance to cheer me on and take photos as a fun way to get some miles in, so I was able to see him three times by the time I entered the park where we’d run together the morning before. I knew its curves and small hills, which helped me cruise through confidently, still in time with my pace band.

Leaving Millennium Park, our road trip continued toward the river. Everything was still feeling very easy and I was having a great time. I started greeting as many runners as I could when passing and briefly chatted with a few, including a woman I caught up to at Mile 13 (1:47 in by now) who told me this was her 122nd marathon and all had been sub-4:00. Amazing! The course crosses the river and continues west on a road hugging the banks. With still water and surrounded by trees, it was like being on a beautiful run through the woods. I don’t need cheering crowds for motivation, but appreciated always seeing other runners, the aid station volunteers’ friendliness, and the spectators who were out in good numbers at more points than I expected.

Around Mile 15, the leaders were coming back in on the road leading me outbound. Watching each one fly by helped keep my energy and motivation up. I was still feeling fine and on 3:37 pace, with only a little feeling of starting to work. Mostly I felt joyful for getting such a perfect day and beautiful setting to give the marathon my all. At about Mile 17 I ran over a timing mat and was now heading back. I  smiled at runners going out and could see where I was in relation to the one pace group I vowed would not catch me: Dubya’s Running Mates, the 3:44 group. The marathon features creative Celebrity Pace Groups based on finish times of the famous. If the group based on former President George W. Bush’s time caught me it would not only mean I was far off pace, this would also inadvertently make me a running mate of sorts! (Though I’m no G.W. Bush fan, let me be bipartisan by admitting I also certainly didn’t want the 4:58 Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Pace Team anywhere near, either).

At Mile 18 I was still squarely on pace for a 3:37, but realizing it would take a lot of focus to hold it. At the same time, with each mile beginning at 16, my conniving, loophole-seeking brain kept calculating how easy I could run the rest of the marathon and still qualify for Boston. I could significantly slow down from that point on and re-BQ. This was good assurance, but not what I needed to push me at this stage of the game. I needed to “forget” I could get a ticket back to Beantown with a very do-able sub-3:46 finish. I had trained hard and worked into excellent condition and had the perfect day to test my limits. I started fighting a bit of a mental battle about this, not coincidentally as my legs started feeling the first signs of fatigue. Remembering Lloyd’s advice, I fought back with a surge that pulled me up to a group of three women who I’d been eavesdropping on from 10 seconds behind. We chatted a little and I complimented them on their great pace and how fresh and energized they looked. As soon as I started running with them most of my fatigue disappeared and I felt a real energy boost. Unfortunately we separated around Mile 20 (2:47) -21. Those couple miles gave me a short taste of how beneficial running in a small pack can be, and I would really like to try it in a future race. I never fell far behind two of the women, who ended up finishing 20 seconds before I did, and one periodically turned around to wave which was so nice. I was also greeting and encouraging as many runners as I could, because I find it gives me such a boost in races to put out positive energy, even though it takes energy to talk in the later stages.

035I crossed the river for the final time and now the task was to retrace my steps back to the Finish at the Y. My mindset was swinging wildly between “keep pushing,you trained to do this” and “c’mon, you can jog a 10 min/mile and still BQ.” I struggled to hold on to focus. I knew I needed to dig in, but couldn’t seem to reach deeper. Lloyd was in and out a few times in this section, once handing me Gatorade, but I was foggy-headed and completely consumed with the task of holding on to a good pace. With the past couple miles in the 8:30-8:45 range I wasn’t on a 3:37 pace any longer, but still grasping for sub 3:40. There were only about two miles left, but my legs were progressing from fatigue into heavy stiffness and my hands were so swollen my normally loose new wedding ring was tight. Moreover, my cheery disposition suddenly shifted into SuperGrump. I scolded Lloyd for lurk-running slightly behind me, telling him he either needed to run right by my side to help, or meet me at the finish. Then I furiously chewed out a large group of spectators slowly strolling across the course, forcing the runners to veer around them! I have never experienced such a sudden mood shift during a race, and along with the physical changes suspect there was some fuel or electrolyte imbalance.

Thankfully, I cheered up for Mile 25. Who would want to end a marathon, especially a marathon in which they were still on track to PR, in that state of mind? I was approaching a set of train tracks that meant only 3/4 of a mile remained. Spectators were cheering now: “This is your last turn,” and it was. The cathedral-like YMCA was just a couple blocks up and the white Finish banner was in sight! I hit Mile 26 at 3:39:17 and knew I couldn’t squeak .2 miles in in under 43 seconds. I felt slightly disappointed, but now scolded myself. I was in the last steps and seconds of a solid new PR, a re-BQ, uninjured, newlywed, and finishing my 8th marathon very successfully on a perfect day to run. I smiled wide and carried joy and gratitude across the line in 3:41:02, where I heard my new name announced and was greeted with a big, welcoming hug from race director Don himself. A few steps later Kickrunners.com friend volunteering at the finish, Tonya, was in front of me with a High 5 and congratulations.

Just a short, staggering walk brought me to the best reward, better even than the feeling of accomplishment or pretty new medal around my neck. Lloyd and I were just getting started on our long-distance journey as a couple the first time I BQ’d in 2007, and I had to leave him voice mail with the happy news. A few months later we met in Boston and stayed together for the 2008 running. Now we share a home, and were able to share the Grand Rapids Marathon, and he was excitedly running toward me to share the wonderful result of our training.

040

113th Boston Marathon

Event: 113th Boston Marathon
When & Where: 10:30 a.m. April 20, Hopkinton to Boston, Mass.
Results: 3:48:19 (8:43 pace).

After four months of slogging through lousy winter conditions, logging hundreds of miles on the treadmill, and learning the neighborhood hills by heart, it finally came time to return to Boston.

Despite often arctic weather, training went well. Working with my coach I had been able to get some 6-day running weeks in with regular speedwork, peaking at my highest-ever 60 mpw. Other than a few nagging tight areas, I felt good and had been surprised with a 5K PR four weeks earlier. According to that result, I was fit enough to run a marathon in the low 3:40s. Whether or not I was smart enough would remain to be seen.

In 2008’s Boston, my first, I’d missed a sub-4:00 by 6 seconds. While I would have been even more pleased with a 3:59:59 – funny how that works – it was still OK as I’d gone only with the intention of soaking up and enjoying the whole experience, rather than pressure myself with a hard time goal. It was great fun to approach a marathon with a celebratory vacationer’s perspective, and sharing the exhilarating environment with loved ones surpassed last year’s goal no matter my finish time.

The entire weekend had been so magical that as soon as it ended I began dreaming of next time. That’s when the Serious Runner returned. Next Time, I would not let the Newton Hills break me. Next Time, I would give the race my all the entire way. Next Time, I would run a better race. On such a challenging course it would take everything coming together to score a new marathon PR, but since it’s not every day a runner has the potential to do so I decided to go for it and fight hard for all 26.2 miles. As long as I gave my all the whole distance, I couldn’t disappoint myself.

Pre-Race

boston09fenway1Next Time became This Time when Lloyd and I arrived the afternoon of Saturday, April 18. We went right from the airport to the T to the race expo for my race bib and goody bag, met Lloyd’s coaching client Missy for a chat at a nearby restaurant, and walked just over a mile to our hotel. We knew the hotel was in the vicinity of Fenway Park, but were stunned at the proximity. From the room’s window we looked across a small parking lot at the red brick ballpark’s right field side. Earlier we’d happened upon tickets to that night’s game, and we could hear the pre-game festivities. After a quick bite at Chipotle we found ourselves seated in the lower deck surrounded by rowdy, mouthy Red Sox fans. During the game we explored different areas of the historic facility and got to say hello to Phil and Tonya, a couple from Nebraska who we had watched part of the women’s Olympic Trials race with last year.

After a great, long nigboston09bostoncommonht’s sleep, Sunday started with a reconnaissance expedition so I’d know how to get to the bus the next morning. We went for a short run around Boston Commons, ending up at the Finish and expo area. We found a quick place for lunch and headed to the expo, where I had every intention of reversing the global economic recession. I found a shirt and sunglasses I liked, but was put off by the lines, crowds, and high level of nervous energy. We scoped out a few items of official race merchandise and decided to order them online, then walked back to the hotel. Lloyd went out for a run on his own while I got my gear together for the next day.

About this time I started feeling pre-race nerves kicking in. Everything seemed to be so busy and fast, and I didn’t have the confident zen demeanor I’d had prior to my previous PR race. This set me off and required a brief sports psychology session with my running coach boyfriend to simmer down to a state of barely controlled anticipation.

For the all important pre-race pasta dinner, we were guests of a local running club member’s brother. It was much more laid-back to be at a small, serve-yourself gathering rather than a huge pasta party or waiting hours for a restaurant table. We traded stories of previous Bostons and “good luck”‘s with the other guests, then at my insistence caught a cab back to the hotel. After some final preparations, stretching, and reading, I called it a night. Sleep was fitful, but I woke up feeling energetic and ready.

Race Morning

I got up at 5 a.m., quickly had breakfast of oatmeal with PB and coffee, dressed, grabbed my gear bag, said good-bye to Lloyd, and headed out to catch the T to the Boston Common area. Arriving there, I made a quick detour to Missy’s hotel so we could ride the bus together. It took almost 30 minutes to get rolling and another hour to get to Hopkinton, but the time passed quickly with talking, listening to my iPod’s Boston playlist, and thinking about the race. In Hopkinton we left our gear with the transport buses and spent an even more pleasant hour in a home opened to one of Missy’s friends, Dan, who was running for the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center charity. With plentiful food, beverages, restrooms, and floor space to stretch, I finally tapped into some pre-race calm. Walking to the starting corrals under mid-40s temperatures, partly sunny conditions, not feeling a hint of the stiff headwind forecast, I felt giddy and joyful looking forward to 26.2 miles of fun ahead.

The Marathon

I slipped into Corral 17, took a Gu, and counted five minutes to the start. I was wearing Adrenaline 9’s, my favorite black marathon shorts, a black Vertical Runner tank, throwaway long-sleeve tech shirt, throwaway gloves, and black ear band. I carried 4 Gu packets and a sport-top plastic water bottle to bypass the crowded early water stops. Looking around at possibly the most prestigious starting area in marathon running, I felt elation and appreciation for the health, fitness, and means to be where I was at that moment. We cheered and waved as we moved forward, heard the official start, and went forward to seek our marathon fortunes of the day. Striding across the starting mat, I pressed my Ironman watch into service for the first of 27 times. I would record mile split times, though mentally I approached the race in five sections.

1.The Downhill Start (Hopkinton into Ashland, approximately Miles 1-4)

My goal in this section was to never feel like I was pushing hard, but also take advantage of being a good downhill runner. The first crowded Mile 1 was 8:34 minutes of avoiding tripping and bumping with fellow runners and reveling in the crowd’s enthusiastic send-off. My pace quickened for the next three miles, but it felt so effortless and gentle that I stuck with it. In Mile 2, I came upon Keith Straw, a prolific ultramarathoner I first met while crewing at the 2007 Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. Keith is a minor marathoning celebrity known for running his races in a pink tank top, pink tutu, and pink-painted shoes. In one hand he carried a small sparkly wand, and in the other he was already sipping a beer! He explained that he’d done a 100+ mile run the previous weekend so planned to run Boston very easy and accept every beer offered to him. I told him I knew he would brighten many people’s days that day and wished him a fun race before moving on. Miles 2, 3, and 4 descended and my splits were very comfortable 8:12, 8:10, and 8:17.

2. The Flat Part (Ashland into Wellesley, approximately Miles 4-11)

Now the course would be flat for the next hour or so, and I wanted to keep my pace even and closer to the 8:30 min/ miles my coach and I had targeted for race pace. We followed the course through the town centers of Ashland, Framingham, and Natick, where cheering, cowbell-ringing crowds helped buoy us on. I kept wondering where the forecasted strong headwind would crop up, but barely noticed any wind resistance except when passing the small lakes in Framingham and Natick.

I was still wearing my throwaway shirt and feeling comfortable in overcast mid-40s. Because it covered my race bib, apparently another bibless runner thought I was a fellow race bandit (unofficial participant). Right after mile 6 he came alongside and warned, “If you can get by the cops here, you’ll be OK. This is where they pulled me last year.” I thanked him for his tip and chuckled at what a good story it would make if officials tried to pull me, then thought appreciatively of the Boston Marathon’s earliest female runners who had to deceive and fight off officials for the chance to run. We both passed unnoticed, and not long after I tossed the shirt.

Time and miles seemed to be moving quickly. My splits in this section were easy-feeling 8:38, 8:24, 8:32, 8:29, 8:30, 8:32, and 8:37. I tried not to get ahead of myself so early, but did entertain a few thoughts of a new PR and re-qualifying. I was well on pace for both but knew it was much too early to predict, remembering Lloyd’s smart advice: “Let the race come to you.” I would aim for the same pace and effort mile by mile, and see if that delivered me such a day. I felt so happy and alive simply running, and at the moment was completely at peace with whatever the course had for me.

3. Wellesley to Newton (approximately Miles 11.5-15)

Soon after Mile 11 I started listening for the famous screaming Wellesley College corridor.  It seemed louder this year, and while I enjoyed the funny signs and sight of female co-eds enticing runners with offers of kisses, I tried not to get too distracted. When I get caught up in surroundings like that, experience has taught me that I slow. Besides, I had two greetings of my own coming up. The first was my cousin Ann and her three adorable young daughters at the half marathon point. Last year I had fun stopping to greet them with my parents, and thought about that fondly. This year with a more ambitious race goal I gave them quick high 5’s and yelled greetings without losing step, starting to feel the wind increase after I passed. Remembering that I had begun slowing after this area last year, I focused on keeping my pace.

Next up was Lloyd, who would be spectating around the 15th mile. I was very excited to see him soon, and mentally felt even more energized even as my quads began feeling the first slight, easy-to-ignore, touch of heavy fatigue. Lloyd spotted me before I saw him and jumped alongside, handing me a sport bottle of my favorite Gatorade. I looked down and was touched to read an encouraging message he had thoughtfully written on a piece of tape attached to the bottle.

boston09running2Lloyd ran ahead to get a few pictures, then found an area to run along side of the course. Somehow he found ways to do this the rest of the way without interfering with runners, and I loved having him pop in here and there with encouraging words. A personal cheerleader made it easy to keep a positive mindset, and I felt extra lucky to have him.

Finally, I began climbing the I-95 overpass, which meant we were entering the Newton Hills or “The Hills” as Boston veterans call them. I had looked forward to this 5-mile section of the course all morning, determined to run strong and see how actually training on hills would affect performance over last year. In 2008, I struggle-shuffled, watched my pace slip  to over 10 min/miles, and at one point come to a complete stop “to more easily take Tylenol” when really I just needed a break. There would be none of that this time! After three steady miles of 8:28, 8:29 and 8:31, I slowed less significantly to 8:50 in the first ascending mile, which felt easy and comfortable enough.

4. Newton Hills (approximately 25K-Mile 21)

Going up meant coming down, and I picked up pace to run the steepest downhill into Newton as flowingly as I could. We made the famous right turn at the fire station, then headed up. I chanted names of hills I’d trained on at home to myself: “Hinckley. Meadows Drive. Chaffee Hill. Shamrock 15K,” over and over, as a reminder that I could run strong today.

Moving uphill changes muscle recruitment, and I was momentarily relieved that climbing shifted the work into my glutes and hamstrings and away from my slightly aching quads. My heart and breathing were more labored, but no time on Monday did I feel near the red-line of an all-out intensity. As I kept a steady effort going up, I spotted a woman ahead whose red shirt read “RUNFARGORUN” on the back. No way was I going to let a flatlander Fargoan get to the top of this hill before I did! I picked up effort and soon was at her side. “That’s some pretty good hill running for a Fargo girl,” I complimented her, explaining I’d grown up there. We stayed together for a few minutes, and Lloyd was back with his camera and encouragement. This impressed my new buddy. “Wow! Is he the best or what? Don’t you just love him? Can I borrow him for today?” Of course I agreed whole-heartedly with her, and said she was welcome to share my supporter.

Pace had dropped slightly, from the fun 8:20 drop into Newton to 8:58, 8:59, and 8:57. One final hill to attack: Heartbreak. I was counting down and chanting “Hinckley. Meadows Drive. Chaffee Hill. Shamrock 15K.” My quads were definitely aching, but I didn’t get discouraged. I never felt like I needed to stop running, but my pace slowed around Heartbreak Hill to 9:06 and 9:29. Still on pace to re-qualify and possibly PR if I could find a strong finish, I didn’t let the slower miles worry me.

5. The Downhill Finish (Heartbreak Hill crest to Finish)

Spotting the large Tudor style house that marks the end of Heartbreak, I was ready for the same second wind I’d caught the last five miles of 2008’s Boston. So sure was I about storming the gradual downhill to Boylston Street, I think I took it for granted. My pace came back to 8:50 cruising into Boston College and its exuberant spectators. All right! Let’s go now! But then my next mile was 9:16. Huh? I was having a hard time ignoring my sore quads, alternating between looking forward to the race Being! Over! and losing focus a bit. I couldn’t quite find the place in my head where I could shut out the discomfort but still stay in the game. Crap, my legs hurt. I tried to tap into the crowds 5-6 deep as we approached Boston but was having some access problems. Unlike many around me I was still running rather than shuffling or walking, catching a runner here or there, but I wasn’t feeling great by any means.

Just a slight pick-up and I could re-qualify. 8:46, OK, keep that up. But re-qualifying was slipping away as I tried to do math in my head, estimating I had about 18 minutes to run 2.2. miles and earn a trip back. But ugh, that sounded so painful. Come on!  This is fun even though it hurts! I am alive and able and healthy! It’s not every day you’re in shape and in this place! I was in full pep-talk mode, and somehow Lloyd was back yelling for me and pointing out a colorful sign with my name on it someone had made for a different Andrea. Even with all the encouragement my next split read 9:18 coming in to Mile 25. I knew then I wouldn’t requalify that day, but could solidly aim for sub-3:50. I challenged myself to run my second-best marathon, which would be sub 3:49. Soon we got to the neon Citgo sign and I hit the split button for the last mile. Last Mile! Thank God! boston09herefordMy head, heart, and breath never wavered, but my legs were complaining loudly. Knowing I was almost done and would be happy with my finish helped dull the pain. But there was no longing to stay on the course longer because I was having so much fun, as I had felt the year prior. Now we were going down under a bridge and coming up the small hill. There’s the famous right turn on Hereford. My watch read 3:45 as we made the left turn to Boylston’s home stretch. The energy here could have inspired the song “Electric Avenue” and I tried to tell myself to soak it all in, but really all I wanted was to be done running. I dug a little harder and accelerated as much as I could, eyes locked on that oh-so-promising sign reading FINISH. A couple more minutes and I slightly stumbled across the mat, having traveling the last mile in 8:55 for my second-fastest marathon of 3 hours, 48 minutes and 19 seconds.

boston09doneAnalysis:

I am very happy with my overall race and experience. I improved my time about 12 minutes over last year. I never walked, never stopped, never felt miserable physically or negative mentally. The increasing headwind may have been a factor in slowing near the end, but I was not consciously bothered by it.

Even though I am happy with the race, I am not entirely satisfied. I think could have run a smarter race and can do some specific things better than I did this year in Boston. Would the result have been different had I forced myself to go slower in the beginning?  Could I have been tougher in the last five miles? Though I dropped some weight this year, what if I had been more disciplined and lost the 5 more pounds I had wanted to – would that have made me faster? Was I too nervous the day before the race? I will never know for sure, but can promise myself to remember and improve for the future.

Here’s where I fared along the official check-points. Projected pace fell gradually from a 3:38 finish after the first, fast 5K. Finishing 12,654, I surpassed my seeded bib number (and therefore higher-ranked runners by qualifying time) by more than 5,000.

Bib Name Age M/F City State Country Ctz *

17844 Berninger, Andrea B. 36 F Brecksville OH USA
Checkpoints 5k 10k 15k 20k Half 25k 30k 35k 40k
0:25:46 0:52:05 1:18:30 1:45:08 1:50:53 2:11:49 2:39:22 3:07:44 3:35:58
Finish Pace Projected Time Official Time Overall Gender Division
0:08:43 3:48:19 12654 3794 2645

Post-race:

boston09lloydmissySoon after finishing I met back up with both Lloyd and Missy, who had run a superb PR despite a dramatic fall in mile 22. The stronger wind and tall buildings made the finish area quite chilly, especially for a sweaty, underdressed body. We exchanged congratulations and took a few pictures, then Lloyd and I walked slowly toward the hotel. Walking was comfortable, except for going down a flight of stairs to a coffee shop for some delicious hot chocolate. We walked back along the race course and stopped to take pictures and cheer on those who were still in their last mile.

After cleaning up, we met up with some Ohio people at a pub for dinner and beers. Before turning in, we stopped at Boston Beerworks and people-watched the bar full of Celtics fans cheer their team’s close win over Chicago. Tuesday, our last day iboston09cheersn Boston, was rainy and very sore one for me, so we didn’t explore too much other than the Quincy Market area where lunch was. The evening flight was full of stiff-legged, happy runners wearing the famous bright blue race jacket, returning back to reality.

I feel so fortunate to have twice experienced the Boston Marathon. It is not the only worthwhile goal in marathoning by any means, but no one can deny the specialness of its history and spirit. I brought back more wonderful memories from my second time running Boston — and the resolve to earn another Next Time!

Breaking Barriers

Event: Strongsville Super Saturday 5K
When & Where: 9 a.m. Saturday, March 21, Strongsville, Ohio
Results: 22:51 (PR); 4/30 women’s 35-39 age group; 12/138 female entrants

For 2 1/2 years I have been trying to set a new PR at the 5K distance. My old PR from the 2006 Waterway 5K is 23:01, and in the half dozen or so 5K’s I’ve raced since then I’ve finished 23:10ish-23:30ish. It seemed like I could not get through the 23 minute barrier.

In January I ran a 23:08 on a flat course in San Diego and promised myself I would improve my PR in 2009.

I have been training diligently for the Boston Marathon: increasing my weekly mileage into the upper 50s, and doing more hill running than ever before because I actually live somewhere with hilly terrain now. Ten days prior to this race I did one 6 X 800 workout and was encouraged by my interval splits, a few seconds faster than when I was doing them last fall. But other than that, almost every “easy” run has felt anything but – sluggish, fatigued, etc. and my easy pace is almost always a little slower than it was during my last marathon training cycle.

The Strongsville Super Saturday 5K is well attended, with about 450 entrants. The course was described as having a fast 1.5 miles followed by a “challenging hill.” I went into this race with the goal to run hard and not let up on a hilly course as practice for Boston, and to get a good workout in the process.

Temperatures were around 30, with overcast conditions and no wind. I warmed up with about 15 min. easy running and a few short bouts of fast running. My legs felt good and ready to go, but I felt generally tired which I told myself to ignore. I lined up where I thought I should and soon after we were off.

It took a couple minutes to find a groove. In the first few minutes I had all those thoughts of “why do I do this – it’s so hard. I don’t feel like this today blah blah blah.” I wish I never had feelings like this, but I do at quite a few races. I’m not a hyper-competitive athlete, and have discovered I don’t naturally love racing unless I have a strong emotional connection to a particular race. I do love when I overcome “race ambivalence” to have a good day or occasionally PR. Then the feeling of accomplishment, fun, and improvement makes all the mental garbage worthwhile.

Back in Strongsville, we turned onto a road with a slight down grade. That seemed to open up my stride and energize me, so I went with it and quickly felt better. Mile 1 – 7:03 and I felt strong.

We started heading downhill again. For some reason downhill running suits me and I used the descent to naturally and easily speed up. At the bottom of the hill we were at about 10:30. Then the road curved and I could see the “challenging hill” we’d start to climb. I’d run bigger and harder hills, but not in a 5K. I focused on shortening my stride, using my arms more, and pushing myself up. It was steep and I felt pretty bad at the mid-point, a short flat respite. The road curved again and the hill continued, longer but not as steep. I had caught my breath enough to feel better on this part of the hill. Mile 2 came at 14:37 according to the volunteer – my watch had missed the split.

I didn’t feel too bad from the big hill and realized I had a good shot to PR with 8:23 left to run 1.1 miles and still do it. I was encouraged and pushed as strong as I could. The course was still slightly climbing at points, but not bad. It also didn’t feel anywhere as near as miserable as a 5K usually does at this point – more like a hard tempo effort. I focused on keeping my pace as strong as I could.

We made the final turn at about 20:00 and I knew I could get to the finish in less than 3 minutes. I probably even eased up a tiny bit. I was excited to have a good shot at a PR, so these last minutes weren’t as miserable as they usually are – funny how the mental state makes such a huge difference.

I crossed the line smiling at 22:50 by my watch and 22:51 official time. The last 1.1 miles had been 8:09. Not a huge PR, but set on a much more challenging course than my previous.

This was a good encouragement that Boston training is working, and good practice for staying tough on hills. I feel fortunate to be running, and am hopeful of staying healthy for the next weeks to see what happens on April 20.

Making “The Bear” Bear-able

Event: The Bear 5-Mile Run
Where & When:7 p.m. Thursday, July 10, Linville NC
Results: 57:05 (watch)/57:14 (official), 445 of 819 finishers

Last spring, my boyfriend Lloyd invited me to spend time at a friend’s family cabin in Western NC during the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, which mixes feats of mountain endurance athleticism along with traditional Scottish games. Living a cultural and topographic world away on the other side of the state, I excitedly accepted. He mentioned a five-mile race called The Bear. “You’re doing it,” he said. A 5-miler? No sweat. Cool. In the middle of training for the Boston Marathon, I gave a measly five miles little thought.

A few months later, I had time to realize and think about the exact location of those five little miles:

Grandfather Mountain, Elevation 5,964 feet

Grandfather Mountain, Elevation 5,964 feet

By now Boston and its rigorous Newton Hills were behind me, and this life-long flatlander started to realize what I was up against. Five miles straight of Heartbreak Hill, but steeper and at higher elevation. Normally I look forward to races. After all, I voluntarily sign up, pay money, and train to do them. But now I began to profoundly, earnestly, dread The Bear. I had no doubt that I could complete the run, but also harbored no delusions about the pain and suffering involved in reaching the finish.

We arrived in beautiful Boone the day before the race. Friends offered to drive us to Grandfather Mountain. “No thanks, I’d rather not see it,” I said. When I did catch a glimpse of its peak, which resembles the profile of a bearded old man, it seemed unfathomable that any human could actually run up it. Yet the race’s winners do in 30 minutes and change.

As Thursday dawned, I grew more apprehensive and nervous. “I’d rather do a 100 mile run than The Bear,” I moaned. “I feel like I’m headed off to the guillotine.”I jokingly warned Lloyd that I would be looking for him at the finish, with a few choice words. OK, occasionally my dramatic streak comes out.

We loaded up and headed to the Start, arriving with plenty of time to contemplate our sorry fates, er, warm up. Lloyd dashed off to do just that. Rather than loosen my legs, I jogged to a nearby convenience store with Lloyd’s equally nervous running buddy Denine. We proceeded to interrogate our restroom line-mates who were Bear veterans, getting a good preview and a little reassurance in the process.

The weather was cooperative, at least. It had rained all day, but precipitation ceased and the sun shone brightly upon the crowd of 800+ fools, er, runners poised at base camp. The starting gun fired. It missed me, so I had no choice but to amble forward.

My entire “race” plan was to minimize misery. Normally I do not race with a heart-rate monitor, but I wore one this evening so I could try to keep my heart rate below red line. My other cue to watch was breathing. I wanted to feel like I could breathe the whole time. Almost immediately after starting, my heart rate climbed into Tempo pace (8:00-8:15 min/miles) zone as my feet trudged at slower than recovery pace. The first mile was a controlled 11:20. It is actually difficult for me to run at this pace, but it allowed me to breathe and feel as relaxed as possible.

“Pant, pant, pant,” all the otherwise silent runners huffed and puffed their way up. There was no usual joking or chatter. At one point someone exclaimed, “How the hell would anyone actually prepare for this?!,” but otherwise we saved our precious breath.

Miles 2 and 3 nearly matched my first in pace, although my heart rate now equaled my mile repeat heart-rate zone (7:30-7:40 min/mile) of about 170 BPM. Since I was controlling my effort somewhat, I was able to appreciate the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain vistas that met our eyes when we exited a wooded dirt road in the second mile. We were definitely climbing a mountain! Every so often, road signs ordered “No Walking.” “I’ll try not to,” I said to myself.

Mid-way, the course all too briefly flattens out as runners pass through the decked-out Highland Games campsite and competition field. We were greeted by tartan-clad clapping spectators, Scottish family crest flags, and bagpipe music as we were pampered with half a lap on the track. I took advantage of the fleeting flatness and picked up my pace to actual 5-mile race pace for the 200 yards, passing about 10 runners. Maybe that wasn’t too sportsmanlike, but it was a welcome break from trudging.

Immediately after the track, a steep grassy hill continues the course. I walked for the first time, but back on the road continued slowly running even as the course grew steeper and more winding. Now I was bargaining with myself. Just run to the turn and then decide if you want to walk. OK, now run to the next turn, then you can walk if you want.

Like an evil, venomous serpent, the road uncoiled upward. When my run became an involuntary march, I turned on my speed walking muscles and walked for intervals. I found I was actually faster and could easily pass people while walking. I wasn’t running The Bear competitively, but made it a game to try to “catch” the person in front of me whenever I walked. To my surprise, it worked very well. Like everyone else around me, I alternated walking and running through the fourth mile (12:30).

“No Walking,” the sign said again. “‘F— you!” I thought now.

After several minutes of begging, I approached the Mile 4 sign. From here, the switchbacks grow tighter and course steepens even more to the summit. I looked at runners still zig-zagging high above and thought “that is just F—ing sick!”

At this point I spotted Lloyd standing on a rock mid-way up the switchbacks. He had finished the race and was now cheering runners on and taking photos. From below, I pointed at him and shook my fist, pretending to be furious. Really I was happy to see him, especially since he willingly re-traced the final ascent for a second time when he began running by my side.

The approach to the summit includes the mountain hairpin turn featured in the film Forrest Gump.

We climbed together and I finally pushed beyond the red line as I ran harder and breathed harder, encouraged by the spectators now lining the course. It was an unforgettable sight to look up and see people yelling and clapping along the final steep incline to the summit. Funny how a clicking camera, crowd, and company work. My last mile to the finish was run in 9:49, the fastest by far.

Immediately after finishing, discomfort turned to relief. The dreaded Bear was done, with no higher ground to cover. I had survived and met my goal of avoiding self-induced misery. Clouds rolled back in, so there was a strange sensation of being in the sky. We lingered at the top, crossing an unstable feeling swinging bridge, comparing Bear tales, and exploring a bit before catching a shuttle back to base camp.

The mile-high swinging bridge on the mountains peak is the closest Ive been to skywalking.

The mile-high swinging bridge on the mountain's peak is the closest I've been to skywalking.


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