It is time again for the post-marathon epic race report. I offer no defense for its length. It was a long, complicated and ultimately amazing race. But first, allow me to tantalize you by offering a preview of the juicy race report details:
The race report will include:
>> harrowing accounts of courage and determination
>> heart wrenching descriptions of physical and mental challenges, and
Let’s begin at the beginning
Last week: My position at the ad agency was cut and I was laid off. (thank you, Recession) That happened Thursday morning. Thursday afternoon I was hit by a car. On the same glorious day. And no, I am not joking (oh, how I wish I were!).
I came into the race weekend with a mixed bag of emotions. The layoff/accident/pre-marathon nerves had left me feeling irritable, worried and but still ready to race. I reasoned that unemployment and some severe bruising shouldn’t slow me down.
I also went into the Eugene marathon with a few different goals. My training has taken quite a leap in the past few months and I was unsure what I was capable of. Furthermore, given the car accident, I wasn’t sure how my body would respond on race day. Hence, my multiple goal levels:
Bronze Medal Goal: Aim to PR modestly. Something around a 3:12 range. I felt like this was certainly do-able
Silver Medal Goal: Finish in the 3:06-3:10 range. I knew there would a a 3:10 pacer and my idea was to hang with them and see how I felt.
Gold Medal Goal: Finish in Sub 3:05. I’d attempt this if things were feeling good in the first five miles
Platinum Medal Goal: Finish in Sub 3:03. I wanted this badly. My training has been consistent, but I’ve struggled these past weeks to know what a 6:59 pace feels like.
I knew I’d be happy if I met any one of the goals as they are all represent gigantic improvements over my last marathon PR . But of course, no one aims for a bronze medal, especially me. We all go out hoping for gold.
Day before the race: I arrived in Eugene with time to complete a quick 30-minute run before heading to the marathon expo to pick up my bib number and stroll the booths. Mission accomplished, I returned back to my friend’s apartment where I made some food stuffs and settled down to relax. Over some zucchini and sauteed chicken I watched Spirit of the Marathon and several episodes of Sex in the City. It was quite frankly, the best idea ever.
I laid out my gear and read the weather report.
Rain was expected.
I went to sleep which of course is such a joke, because I CANNOT sleep before races. I toss. I turn. I try to imagine myself running strong and in control. That just gets me more excited about the upcoming race, and then I toss, and then I turn, and then I think about how great it will be to cross the finish line, and then I toss and turn and finally I look at my clock only to see that four minutes have passed since the last time I checked. Pre-race insomnia, is there no cure?
4:30: The alarm goes off. I shuffle to take a shower, and go through the regular routine of shaving my legs, putting in my lucky earrings and drinking several cups of coffee. It is raining outside. It registers that this could be a potentially wet and miserable race, but I try not to dwell on it. Instead, I apply my way-awesome pace tattoo and drink more coffee.
6:00 AM: I take a shuttle to the race start area with plenty of time to get ready. Or is there plenty of time? I make four visits to the porta-potties. I decide on layers, stash GUs in pockets and jog around aimlessly in some kind of vague attempt to warm up. Before I know it, there is only 15 minutes until gun goes time. OOOHHHHH!!! My heart beats a little faster. Marathon! I don’t know if I’m ready. I take my first Espresso Hammergel, drop off my bag and head to the start line. Oh my goodness, I cannot believe that I’m really doing this. 26.2 seems awfully long!
Start: There are thousands of runners (mostly 1/2 marathoners) and we are directed to choose a corral based on anticipated pace. Those with 10.00 min/mile avg. or more are directed to the back corral and those with less than 10.00 min/mile move to the front. I wind my way up toward the starting line where I encounter the 3:10 pace group. Talk about a serious bunch of runners. 3:10 is the time needed for males 18-35 to qualify for Boston and it is clear that the men grouped around the joyous little yellow bobbing balloon taped to a stick are here on a mission. It’s Boston or Bust. There are no faster pacers in this race. I attempt several conversations with 3:10 group members. They all fall flat. Finally, I move a little bit away and smile to the runner next to me,
“Yeah, you keep smiling!” he says.
My grin gets bigger. Those will not be the last words we share. It turns out that Mr. Smiles and I have about the same pace and we’ll become racing buddies for miles. But right now, I’m grinning in anticipation and ready to start.
After the usual fanfare, the gun goes off and the race is underway. It takes a few seconds before the crowd moves and I cross the timing mat. I give a little whoop of excitement and start my watch. Let’s get this thing started!
Mile 1 and 2: It is raining. There are lots of puddles and lots of people. I try to run conservatively, but no matter how you look at it I’ll need to run around a 7:05 -7:15/mile pace and there’s not a lot of wiggle room. It’s a very perky pace.
I pass a guy talking with a friend, (mind you, this is still the first mile), “Man, my shorts are really rubbing between my thighs. It’s, like, chaffing,” he says. I cannot imagine how long and painful his race is going to be.
There is a hill in the first mile (steepest on the course) and I don’t even feel it. I glance at my watch and see 7:22 for the first mile and 6:44 for the second mile. Yikes! First was too slow, and then way too fast. I feel great. Of course. Everyone feels fabulous for the first two miles. If only the race stopped at 5k I think marathons would be so much easier.
Soon, I find myself shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Smiles. I glance his direction and grin.
“Oh no!” he says.
Mile 3 -5: These miles turn out to be some of the most difficult of the race. My pace fluctuates, but I’m still hanging with Mr. Smiles who’s real name I can’t recall right now. At every mile marker I glance over and smile at him. And he says something like “Keep grinning, girl.” We chat a bit about where we’re from. But underneath the chatter and the smiling I’m feeling uneasy.
I can’t settle in. I feel uncomfortable. The group I have been running with, including Mr. Smiles and two girls, is moving ahead. I am mildly stressed. It’s a VERY bad sign that I’m having trouble maintaining pace when there is still, oh goodness, 23 miles to go. These should be dreamy, easy miles. I should be floating, not struggling. At mile five I chow down on a Just Plain Gu and pray that it makes things better. GU may be great, but clearly it’s no miracle worker. I remind myself that my overall goal is run the best race I can today. Everything else is extra.
Mile 6 and 7: While my miles splits are erratic, my overall pace is strong and I try to gain confidence from that. The rain has downgraded to a fine drizzle. I pass my lone marathon supporter/cheerleader and toss my gloves to him. He snaps a picture, grabs the gloves and joins me. We run together for about a mile. The race carries us down a pathway, past a high school and around a corner lined with spectators. They clap, yell and scream. I feed greedily off their support and feel a goosebumpy surge of energy. Up to that point, the race spectators had been few and far between (blame the weather). Running past the crowd with my own personal cheerleader reminding that I’m a rockstar boosted my flagging morale.
Mile 8: The race takes us up a hill that is several blocks long. I pass a few women as I tiptoe up. We crest the hill and make our way past the finish line. I spy, on the other side of the road, a lonely Mile 26 sign. Is there anything more cruel than passing the finish line in the middle of the race? It taunts me. Stupid Mile 26 sign, I’ll see you in a few more miles… And by “few” I mean 18… and oh god, that seems terribly long.
Mile 9 -11: I have left whatever panicky, worried feelings behind me and I am my happy, smiling runnerself. Don’t doubt it. The panicky feeling is there, but it’s quieter and I am running well. The course meanders along the river and over a footbridge where the race splits. Half-marathoners veer left to complete their race and the full-marathoners veer right. 95% of the field runs to the left, leaving the 26.2’ers suddenly very lonely and very far from the main group of spectators. I get a sinking feeling as the race atmosphere evaporates. There are some runners ahead of me. One besides me, and a few behind, but we are alone, each of us consumed in our own races. The course winds along a footpath. It’s an out-and-back loop and I get a glimpse of the leading male runner in the marathon as I make my way out. He is flying as he comes back in to finish the loop. (later I discover he ran a 2:18 and qualified for the next Olympic marathon trials. Respect!)
As I move forward, my mile pace improves. 7:03, 7:02…but I am concerned that I won’t be able to maintain. The early miles chipped away my confidence. My mind fills with doubt: Maybe I was too ambitious in my goal times. Maybe I’m not that fast. Maybe I should just scale back, wait for the 3:10 balloon to pass me and join in. All this second guessing feels awful. I have trained hard for this race and I know that I’m fit, but I struggle with doubt.
Half-Marathon: I pass the 1/2 marathon marker at about 1:32 and then a few spectators. One says, “Looking strong, Heather. You’re in fifth place.” I am confused. I’ve been concentrating on my pace and my race. I hadn’t considered where I was relative to the field. What? Fifth place? I’m in the top ten women? Clearly, the spectator is mistaken. About a 1/4 mile up I pass another spectator who says “Go, girl power. Fifth place woman. You can do it!!”
Excitement course through me. Maybe I can do this. Maybe I am doing this. My smile reappears. I buckle in. I pass Mile 14 and suddenly I am filled with new confidence. Thirteen is out of the way. I am strong. I feel ready.
Mile 14: I start seeing other runners as they begin their portion of the out-and-back. It jolts me to realize how far ahead I am of the main pack. People whoop and holler as the mini-pack of runners I’m in passes. Lots of women cheer for me specifically, reading my name on my bib and calling out “Looking great, Heather” “Awesome pace!” I nod and give thumbs up and say, “Looking good!!” I love races with out-and-back sections like this. I try to concentrate on their cheers and my good attitude instead of the tide of fatigue that is beginning to rise inside me.
Mile 15-17: My personal cheerleader and part-time running partner is on the scene again. He joins me and rattles off information and provides good old-fashioned pep talk. We run together for about two miles, which turn out to be the fastest and most comfortable in the race. Both under seven minute pace. He also gives me the following advice which I will repeat over and over again during the next 9 miles: Keep your stride short and crisp. Keep your feet moving under you.
Short. Crisp. Under me. Got it.
He peels off and soon I am left alone.
The rising tide of pain: People talk about hitting the wall during a marathon and I would dearly love to have a wall and to hit it forcefully. Instead pain and fatigue in a marathon creep up like waves lapping on a beach. They can be gentle at first, barely noticeable, but they are incessant. Unstoppable. My body is the beach and the waves erode my energy supplies and each time it takes a little bit of me away with it. As the miles slide by, the waves of fatigue get stronger. Eventually, it feels like there is no beach, there is no me… it’s just crashing waves of pain. For me, marathoning is about constantly monitoring that swiftly rising tide and courting those waves. Pain. Fatigue. The rising tide that I cannot stop. How far and fast can I go until the tide takes over?
Mile 18: Historically this is the most challenging part of the race for me. I have eight miles left – far too many to feel easy and still in the teens. I break them down into four increments of two miles. I do not have eight miles left. I only have two. I can do two. I CAN do two. The tide is getting stronger. My legs are less responsive. Short, crisp, strides. Just keep it short and crisp.
Mile 19: The course takes the runners out on the last out-and-back loop and there is hardly anyone around. I recognize that it is a beautiful place to run, but seriously, I couldn’t care less about scenery . . I am 100% focused on moving forward. Is it my imagination or do I spy a girl, a girl who passed me way back in mile five. I can see her. And I can also see Mr. Smiles. All of a sudden I am filled with purpose. I might not get the girl. She is a few hundred meters off. Maybe I don’t even care if I get the girl, but I want to catch Mr. Smiles and flash him a grin. He’d get a kick out of that. I would get a kick out of that, too.
Mile 20: The wall. I am done with my first two-mile portion. I reset my mental odometer. I only have two miles left. Two miles left. Two miles left. And then all of sudden I am passing Mr. Smiles. We go over a footbridge to the opposite side of the river and head back toward town. I smile, but inside the tide of pain is reaching critical levels.
Mile 21: I am empty. Hollow. Awful. The waves of fatigue are overwhelming. I pass a water and Gatorade station and grab for the Gatorade. I hope that the sugar and salt will revive me. I walk a few meters and gulp greedily. Throwing the cup down seems to take an immense amount of energy. Moving forward takes even more.
Someone on the side of the road says “Go get ’em girl.”
I belch loudly.
Then I vomit. In my mouth. It is sticky and acidic and I can’t even get it together to spit. Or wipe the snot from my nose or anything. I am a mess. Then a girl passes me. I am now sixth place.
This is where things get hazy. I pass more people. At the next aid station I eat a GU and maybe some water. I think that is mile 22.
Mile 23: I pass one of the girls. I am back in fifth and I can see the fourth place girl up ahead. I just need to keep moving. Keep moving as fast as possible. I pass several guys. We all started together and some of them are completely done for. I understand their pain. One guy says to me as he walks, “Relax your shoulders. Relax your elbows.” I do both, and immediately I feel my stride become more efficient. My pain level decreases for a few seconds and I am back in the game. I repeat my mantra incessantly: You can do it. You can do it.
I concentrate on the bobbing hat of the girl in front and will myself closer. There isn’t a whole bunch left of me. I dig around to see what else I’ve got and there is nothing. I am spent. Fumes, willpower, and vomit. This is what I have.
Mile 24: I pull up with the girl. We jokey around. She is strong. But eventually I pass her. I keep thinking eight laps. It’s just eight laps on the track.
Mile 25: I spy my cheerleader and the mile marker. I smile. Thumbs up. Four laps. Four laps. I am going to do this. I will finish, my mind is blank. Moving my legs forward is taking everything I have.
At this point there are two options: I can continue at this pace OR I can fall over on the side of the road. Clearly, I have come too far to lay down, but even this late in the race it feels hard to not want to physically just stop. Stop running. Stop racing. Stop caring. My legs are mush. I swing my arms faster in an effort to drive my legs. I decide at some level that my legs do not exist. I think of arms. My arms are doing the running now. Go arms. Go.
I wind around the footpath and there are more people cheering. I am among the top women and I am close to the end. I am SOOOO close and yet this mile seems impossibly long. It is the longest mile. Ever. I want to stop, but I can’t NOT finish. So I just keep hanging on and moving the arms. Everything is blurry.
Closing In: Thoughts are just fragments: Keep going. Finish line. Perky. Run. One step. Do not look at her. She is sitting. Sitting. Not allowed. . .
Mile 26: I am overflowing with pain and joy. I round the corner and see the finish line a few hundred meters away. It seems SO far away. I bob around some 1/2 marathoners. I gasp. Tears are already starting to form. I feel sick and overwhelmed and SO proud. I near the line and the announcer says something like “We have a female marathoner. Looks like that is Heather Daniel finishing fourth.
Finish line. Cross it.
I stagger a bit. I double up and spit and gag and cry. It is all too much. Someone comes up to me. Another person asks me if I need immediate medical attention. Someone else puts a medal around me. I start gagging again, and if there was anything except hollow pain inside me I’m sure I’d be throwing up all over the nice medal volunteer. I am passed off to someone else who says he needs to walk with me for awhile. I am too confused to say anything. It’s all too much. Someone has thrust a bottle of water in my hand. I swig. I gag.
But my body decides that it will survive after all and soon I stagger into the finishing area and roam aimlessly while my body recovers.
Official Time: 3:07:55
4th place female
2nd in my age division
New PR by 7:02.
Conclusions: I attained my “silver medal” goal. I ran a gutsy, difficult race and felt like I couldn’t have raced harder or faster than I did. That in itself feels like a huge accomplishment. The rain was definitely a factor, and maybe more than I realize.
Overall I think yesterday was a breakthrough race. My previous time of 3:14 was evidence that I had potential to be a competitor. Yesterday’s race proved that I am fast. I am a competitor. My biggest obstacle was my inability to lock in to a pace and feel it. It was unexpected but in retrospect not a huge surprise. I just haven’t had that much time to adjust and truly “know” a 6:50 pace.
What I loved: Being a top female runner. Not ever before have I run with such a solid group of guys and crept up and passed such amazingly strong women. It was so cool.
I spoke with my mom on the phone after the race (it was the first marathon my parents were unable to attend and I sorely missed them) She reminded me that it was only a year ago that I ran Boston. I finished in 3:37 and was thrilled. After the race we had dinner with a three runners from LA. They are approachable, genuine and amazing people. They are also talented runners who run sub 3:10 marathons. Over dinner I remember saying to them “But how do you run so fast? I mean, 3:10… that’s just SO fast!”
That was only a year ago.