How can my heart be overflowing with joy, while at the same time breaking just a little bit?
I finally got to run another marathon and I finished. I got my running life back after a yearlong struggle with plantar fasciitis. The long runs that structure the weekend. The feeling of accomplishment after a tough tempo run. The rhythm of a week marked by training sessions. Time with my real-life running girlfriends and the chance to compare workouts with my virtual training partners. The crazy obsession with the weather when a hard run and a storm loom simultaneously. Even the endless laundry. I had missed all of it, and I got it back.
A year ago, it all felt so tenuous. My running came to a crashing halt. I had to wear the dumb boot and figure out how to get my foot better, but I did it. I worked hard at recovery. I played it smart with the comeback. I found a great coach to help me. My parents got to see me cross a marathon finish line for the first time. I met my coach in person and got to hang out with him for a whole weekend. My dad ran a 5K with us. My heart is happy and full of gratitude.
But still: 4:54:48.
That is not at all the time I thought I would be posting for the Donna Marathon. To be honest, it’s a full hour off the time I thought might be possible. I had a fantastic training cycle. I am in great shape. I’ve lost a bit of weight and fine-tuned some nutritional issues. I was mentally ready to go. And yet. 4:54:48.
That is even slower than the 4:29:12 I ran at Vermont City in May 2016 last time around when they canceled the race due to heat.
But let’s step back a bit. How did I even get to this race? I considered Philadelphia, but that seemed too soon, post-injury. I didn’t want to wait until marathon season re-opened in New England, and I was willing to travel. Coach Mick suggested the Donna Marathon in Jacksonville, Florida and said I could stay with him. Sold!
Of course, there was a risk of a repeat of the problems in Vermont. An edge-of-the-season race, training in the cold, racing in the heat, etc. But Northern Florida in early February has reasonable odds of decent running weather. With reasonable odds, you might as well run the race you want to run because weather is a crap shoot regardless. I am totally at peace with my choice of races. Plus, my parents heard about the chance to escape the chilly north in February and decided to come watch me race in Jacksonville.
The Donna race weekend includes several races and on Saturday, we decided to run the 5K. This was a nice shakeout run for me. My dad and Coach Mick both placed in their age groups! Plus, we got to meet the Olympians. The only negative about the 5K was the first hint that it was probably going to be quite hot for the marathon.
Saturday night, Coach Mick made a pasta and garlic bread dinner. How’s that for full-service coaching? He provides accommodation and pre-race meals as well! We chatted about the race and the crucial question of whether the sun would come out or not. We went to bed at a totally reasonable hour, and I slept well. In the morning, I had oatmeal and gathered my stuff. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relaxed before a marathon in my life. We drove to the start and got our gear situated. Lots of people were making sick jokes about the heat, but I was trying to stay relaxed. It wouldn’t be as bad as Vermont, I said. I know how to run in the heat, I told myself.
Soon enough, it was time to head to the starting line. My friend Running Munchkin and her husband had also come to town for the race. We bid adieu to speedy Coach Mick who needed to line up at the front and headed back to hang around the 4:00 hour pacers. The gun went off and pink confetti flew everywhere as we crossed the line!
Running Munchkin is faster than I am so she took off right after the gun. I was mindful of Coach Mick’s advice about running in the heat: if you think you are going too slow, slow down. I ran really slowly with a 10:21 first split. I truly am not afraid to run slow when appropriate, but that was slower than intended. But the next 4 miles all came in at 9:25-9:35 and that felt right.
Coach Mick had talked about how your energy is like a bag of Skittles. Your body knows how many Skittles are left in the bag so don’t spend them all at the beginning. I was running really easily and chanting in my head: Save the Skittles. Save the Skittles. At mile 6 I saw a local friend and she got this awesome picture! I was still on pace and everything was going according to plan.
The original race plan had been pretty straightforward. Run the first five miles a little slower than goal pace, especially with the heat. Then move to goal pace until about mile 21. Then try to pick it up, hopefully finish strong. It’s a flat course with a bridge at the end. Nothing too complicated. Coach Mick said, if there’s not a lot of sun, that plan is probably ok. If the sun is out, all bets are basically off. For the first five miles, the sun played hide and seek with the clouds. We also got some deliciously cooling fog blowing in off the beach. With a breeze and the fog, it was ok. When it was just sun and no fog, it was pretty ugly. And about to get uglier.
Miles 5-10 were not terrible. I decided to adjust for conditions and aim for 9:15 instead of 9:00, my original goal marathon pace. Splits here ranged from 9:00 to 9:26. Mile 11 was 9:38 and that’s when I knew I might be in serious trouble. I was not at all on track for a sub-4 race and with these conditions, I wasn’t going to make that time up either. It just felt too hard, given how not-so-fast I was running.
I went through the half in just under 2:05 and thought, well, a PR (current PR is 4:09:03) is not numerically impossible, but very unlikely. It would mean negative splitting the race, which had certainly been the plan, but it was getting hotter and sunnier. In any case, 2:05 through the half ain’t sub-4 and it ain’t BQ either. But it could still be a solid race and I wasn’t giving up.
This is where the first seeds of doubt started to creep in though. Big hint. This is TOO SOON for that to happen. In a quality marathon – meaning one run to your potential, I guess, or maybe just one that I would feel happy with – you should feel pretty happy through the half. In any case, to be starting to question things at mile 11 is not good. But, just as I was wondering if I was really going to start to struggle, I saw what I had hoped not to need, not expected to have, and really really wanted: ice.
In Vermont, ice had saved my race. I’d dumped it down my sports bra and my shorts. I’m convinced that kept me going during that race, but I didn’t expect to have access to ice during this one. But maybe I could get ice after all. The first place I saw it was an ice machine being used to keep water cool. Later, spectators started handing out baggies full of ice, but I also got ice from people’s personal coolers and my favorite source of all – someone’s champagne bucket.
The tracking app for Donna was a complete flop, but the race website had split times from the mats. Anyone tracking me got a lot of info from splits at 10 miles, 13.1 miles, and 15 miles. Friends and family could observe the corresponding collapse of the race as splits got slower and then much slower. By mile 11 I was in trouble and mile 12 was the last reasonable split of the race. That’s really early for a marathon to go south. Split times for miles 11-14 ranged from 9:20 to 9:51 but then mile 15 was 11:11. I saw my local buddy again at mile 16 and I knew she’d be reporting back to family and friends. I just said “Tell them I’m ok”. I didn’t want people to worry. It’s a little scary when someone slows mid-race because you don’t know what’s wrong. My foot was fine. My mind was fine. I was just too dang hot.
Already at mile 15, it was a pretty big battle to keep going. I knew Coach Mick was going to run out to meet me at mile 23 after finishing the half marathon. I just started thinking about that. Make it to mile 23 and find Coach Mick. I counted down. Eight miles to Mick. Seven miles to Mick. Etc.
I also used every trick I know to keep running as strong as possible when a marathon gets hard. I shoved ice down my bra. I kept with my fueling plan, a Gu every 30 minutes. I drank two glasses of water at every hydration stop and dumped a couple on my head as well. For me, one of the successes of the race is that I stuck to my fueling plan and I didn’t get dehydrated, which wasn’t a given under the conditions.
I tried changing music. I run a lot to musicals and I had started with the soundtrack to Dear Evan Hansen. That is bouncy happy music. Ideal for the early stages of a marathon. Then I switched to Hamilton. I’ve run a lot of miles to Hamilton – an absolutely insane number of miles, to be honest. I got through about “Wait For It” – less far than I’d hoped – before I needed “change music” as a strategy and switched to an album by Girl Talk. Finally I switched to the Moana soundtrack. By then I was so far gone that music changes weren’t going to do it for me.
A mantra or just thinking of other people can also be a huge help during a marathon. I had a whole collection of stuff: a bracelet that says “believe,” a crane I carried for a friend who lost her son to cancer, a prayer from my church. These sources of inspiration worked for awhile until they didn’t anymore.
Sometimes interacting with other people in the race can help. I high-fived kids and thanked volunteers. I tried chatting with other runners and waving at spectators. When the 4:30 Galloway pace group leaders passed me, I tried hopping in with them. They were looking great and they were totally on pace and I absolutely could not hang.
It’s perfectly reasonable in hot conditions to try walking a bit. I started with walk breaks of 30-60 seconds every mile. Then every song. But the walk portions got longer and the run portions got shorter.
The darkest, most mysterious part of a marathon is when I often think of my daughter Rose and her unbelievable sweetness lifts me out of the dark. No world with that girl in it can be entirely bad, but it didn’t work this time around. Part of my brain was laughing at the insanity of the situation. I would find a solution: some ice, new music, inspiration from someone I love or something on the course, run-walk intervals – and start running again. Then I would just slow way down and walk until the next solution. My brain kept telling my body to run, but my body was not listening. By mile 17, I had resorted to counting to 100, a strategy I usually save until the end of the race. When a strategy ran out of steam, I re-calculated: how many miles until I find Mick?
At last, Mick arrived with ice water, a sense of humor, reports that my parents had made it to the finish line, and an arm to lean on. I actually got even slower after he arrived, but much happier. We mostly walked. Sometimes I tried to walk faster or run a little. I felt a little bad because he’s an amazing coach and I want him to be proud of me and I want him to think I’m tough and strong. But, he is proud of me; I know that. And he’s an amazing friend, no matter what.
We mostly walked those last four miles. He worked to encourage other runners because we were a pretty bedraggled crew by then. He told me he didn’t think we should have trained differently and I agreed. We had a good laugh when I said I had to pee, but refused to go at the first opportunity because there was a line. I did go at the second chance, though, even though we were less than half a mile from the finish line. What the heck – I was going to be under five hours even with a potty stop and I didn’t want my bladder to explode while I was getting my medal.
We managed to run the last 400 yards or so. We saw my parents and they saw me finish. Coach Mick gave me my medal, which is something I had wanted though I had hoped for quite different circumstances. We got a little food and gathered our stuff and headed back to the Coach Mick Family Residence for champagne and snacks before going out for dinner.
It was an amazing and wonderful day. I ran a marathon again and I’m as sure as one can be that I’ll run another. Physically, I am mostly ok. My foot is fine – no plantar fasciitis. It was heartbreaking. So much hard work and not the race I wanted. But I believe so deeply – if you can’t accept a day like this, you have no business playing at being a marathoner. This is par for the course. The marathon is like a casino – the house always wins and the best you can hope for is the occasional temporary victory. I am running again and my heart is very happy.