41 seconds. That’s how far off I was from running a sub-3 hour marathon. If it had been a perfect day, I’m sure I would have hit my goal.
But it was not a perfect day. Far from it.
My husband, Kevin, and I drove to the Tri Cities in Washington the day before the race.We brought our own homemade dinners to eat once we got to the hotel. Packet pickup was in the lobby of the place we were staying at, since the race started in the parking lot of the hotel. A one stop shop. I got my bib, ate a turkey sandwich, and watched football. To calm my nerves, Kevin and I looked up inspirational running quotes online. A few of my favorites were:
The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination. – Tommy Lasorda
There is only one way to succeed in anything, and that is to give it everything. – Vince Lombardi
To a runner, a side stitch is like a car alarm. It signifies something is wrong, but you ignore it until it goes away. – unknown
Pain is nothing compared to what it feels like to quit. – unknown
Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic. – Tim Noakes
As is true with life, and in a race, if you are willing to pay the price that others will not, you will reap the benefits that others will not! – unknown
If you’re going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill
The greatest danger to most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark. – Michelangelo
Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. – Thomas Edison
That night I couldn’t fall asleep (big surprise there). Once I finally did, I kept waking up every two hours, then every hour, then every half hour (I drank water and went to the bathroom just about every time this happened), then I just laid awake from 6AM until my alarm when off at 6:30. As soon as I woke up, I ate a banana, went to the bathroom a lot, and then ate a bag of Sport Beans about 45 minutes before the start. I went for a ten minute warm-up jog with Kevin 30 minutes before the race started. We ran out five minutes and back five minutes on a bike path behind our hotel. The view was beautiful, the weather was great, and the wind was almost non-existent.
It was a perfect day for a race.
Back in hotel room, I stripped out of my warm-up gear, used the bathroom one last time, and then headed to the starting line. I tried to shake off the foot woes and chalk it up to pre-race jitters. I did a few form-drills and strides and then found my friends Trae and Bella who were also racing. Bella was upset because her Timex GPS was not linking. I had noticed that it had taken a long time for my Garmin to connect before my warmup. I hoped this wouldn’t effect the accuracy during the race.
The race director made a few announcements, and then we were off. I checked my watch every few seconds to make sure I wasn’t blowing it in the first mile. 6:15, 6:20, 6:34, 6:42, finally 6:53 and I settled in. My foot felt fine and I soon forgot about it. The course started flat and then we ran over a bridge, which included a gradual incline. I noticed coming off the bridge, the incline was steeper and shorter. We continued along the river, first on road through a residential area, and then onto a bike path through a park. It was about 2.25 miles in when Bella passed me saying something about killing herself and began creating a large gap. I resisted the temptation go with her. I knew she was not using a GPS, and I was right on pace. I had trained specifically for a 3-hour marathon and that’s what I was going to run, from start to end.
I came up on a man around mile three and could not shake him. I decided to say hi and introduce myself, since it seemed we may be running together for awhile. This small conversation would also prove to myself that I was not going to fast. If I could keep 6:53’s feeling comfortable now, hopefully, 6:50’s later on would feel easy too. The gentleman’s name was Doug. I found out Doug was aiming for a 3:02-3:05 marathon. I laughed and mentioned that my training partner who passed us both and was up ahead in the distance was aiming for the same time. I would have suggested he pace with her, but right now she was doing 6:40’s. I also let him know our pace was a bit faster than his goal, right around 2:59-3-hour marathon mark. After another mile together, he said he was going to back off and not ruin his race by running up with me.
I continued on along the river path and tried to enjoy the breathtaking view. At mile four, I grabbed my first cup of water. This is how I had trained and I wanted simulate it the best I could: water at mile 4, water and GU at mile 8, and then a small sip of water or Powerade every two miles and another GU at mile 15 and mile 22. I noticed that my breathing was not as calm as I would have liked it to be and I was beginning to get the faintest of side-stitches in my upper right rib-cage. Pain in this area had been a problem ever since the Scandia 10K Run back in August, and my massage therapist thought that it may actually be linked to a muscle in my arm/shoulder that connects down into the side of the ribs. I tried to focus on deepening my breathing and relaxing my arms.
As we approached the second bridge on the course, I was noticed I had been gaining on Bella. As we ran up the bridge, I closed the gap completely. We ran together over the bridge and then looped underneath it back in the direction we had came from on the other side. Immediately we were greeted with a strong headwind that neither of us had noticed before since we had been previously running with it.
Coming off the bridge, my minor upper left rib-cage side-stitch had moved down to my lower right abdominal. Then my entire right oblique cramped up. I tried to keep my breathing smooth, but the headwind and stronger effort needed to maintain pace though it did not make that very easy. Suddenly, Kevin appeared in front of us, ready to pace us for a few miles. I was so relieved. I tucked in behind him and Bella tucked behind me. I put all my focus on getting rid of my side-stitch. It was getting worse by the minute. Now it had crept along my whole lower abdominal wall and was creeping up my left oblique. I tried puffing out air hard while taking a stomping step with with each stride. I heard this was a tactic to literally “kick out” a side-ache. The process was not working, though, and I felt like I was just wasting more energy.
We saw the leaders folding back on us and there were a few close-call head on collisions when we had to make a sharp blind turn off the bike path onto the road and vise versa. At the run-around-the-cone turn-around I saw that Bella had fallen back. It was just Kevin and I heading back with the wind at our backs at this point. The pain was unbearable, and I put my ego aside and grabbed my sides with my hands pinching hard. Normally, I would never do this in a race. I feel that it is a sign of weakness. When I see a runner up ahead of me grabbing their sides, I know they are falling apart and it gives me motivation to push forward and pass them. I didn’t want to do it, because I saw it as the first step to me giving up, but I couldn’t resist any longer. The side-stitches were so powerful, that I could feel myself begin to slouch forward, as though the muscle cramping was contracting my abdominal into a crunch.
I was desperate for relief, so I took my second GU at mile 11-12ish, or about 1:20 minutes into the run. I thought that perhaps I was cramping so bad because I needed more electrolytes, or energy, or water, or something! The GU and water chaser didn’t help, and that’s when panic really hit me. I was not going to finish this race. I couldn’t. Not in this state of pain. I was in pure hellish agony. The cramps in my lower belly were worse than any mensuration cramps or gluten cramps I had ever experienced. I began wondering if I what I was experiencing was an ovarian cyst erupting or an appendicitis. My contracting obliques were making it difficult to breath. They were squeezed so tightly around my ribs that my lungs could not expand. Of course me panicking didn’t help that either.
Kevin noticed my breathing was becoming irregular and he told me to take longer, slower breaths. Easier said than done! Bella caught back up to us and asked if I was ok.
“No!” I was almost in tears.
“Yes, like nothing I’ve ever had.”
“You’ll be fine. It will pass.”
I thought, are you kidding me? This started at mile what, 8? 9? We are at the half way point now and they are getting worse! Suddenly, Kevin said he had leave us on our own. We were back at his car and he wanted to make sure he got to the other side of the river to see me again at mile 18 and the finish. In my head I pleaded with him not to go. He was my rock. Even though he hadn’t said much while he was pacing me, he was the one consistent thing that I could focus on in this chaos. He was holding pace and I just had to focus on staying with him. Now I was back on my own, depending on my watch and Bella who seemed to have found her second wind and was picking up the pace again. She took over took the lead and I followed close behind, but I realized we were running 6:40-45’s and hadn’t wanted to run that fast at mile 14-16. The stitches, which I thought were maybe starting to diminish, would suddenly come back in full force, and I again grabbed my sides and pinched hard. Sweet relief! It was so awkward running with chicken wings, but it was a few seconds of pain on a scale from 1-10 at a 3 rather than a 12.
Bella asked me if I wanted to take a Tums. She had packed them in case of a gastrointestinal emergency. I told her no. My issue was not my bowels, it was my muscles. As we ran on, I told her I needed to back off the 6:45’s and run 6:50’s and she should go ahead. Instead, she agreed it was smart to back off and she held back with me. I was relieved for this, because it was nice to have her there, just in case I decided to bail out, she could tell Kevin where to come pick me up. Finally, I couldn’t handle the pain anymore, I became desperate to try absolutely anything.
“Bella, I’ll take those Tums.”
“Ok, here,” she said reaching into her shorts and grabbing a package of four out for me.
“Thanks,” I said as I went to grab it, but before I could get a solid grip on the small saving grace, she let go and I dropped it! We were running too fast for me or her to even consider stopping and running back to pick it up. I began to cry, which did not help with my breathing or the stitches.
“Oh my gosh, Bella, I am so sorry! I am so sorry!”
“Don’t worry about it, I probably won’t need them. If I do, I”ll just poo my pants!”
This is what I love about Bella. Her honesty and her heart. She sacrificed her own race to give me a chance to save mine, and in return, I may have screwed us both over, but rather than get mad, she laughed it off and kept running.
We crossed the third bridge on the course, and I re-overtook the lead from Bella. There was something about this bridge, either the change in wind direction, the thought that we were heading back toward the finish line, the fact I now had the responsibility as lead runner, or just the fact that climbing up it required me to engage my hip flexors and lean forward slightly, that my side-stitches suddenly began to recede. I could literally feel the muscles around my abdominal cavity releasing and I could breath easier again. Mentally (and physically) this gave me a second wind. I was overcome with joy and despite slowing down to a 7min pace on mile 17 over the bridge, I dropped the pace right back down to 6:50 and focused on getting to the next water stop.
There was a short section of loose gravel in the race which really threw me off. There had been one previously on the other side of the river when Kevin was helping to pace us, and now here it was again. We had to go over a set of railroad tracks that was set on an embankment. I hoped this was the last surprise in the race course. There had been so many right turns, nearly running head-on into marathon traffic on the out and back section, blind corners, longer bridges than I had thought there would be, that I was ready to just run a nice flat, straight, paved course to the finish.
At mile 18 there was a water stop and a headwind. Off in the distance, I could see dark clouds and started to feel rain drops. I started to get chilled and wished I had worn arm warmers and a hat rather than just a singlet, shorts, and gloves. I hoped I was still right on pace for 3-hours, but I really had no idea. My watch had been beeping both early and late at the marathon course mile makers. I kept hitting split to help my watch stay on track with the course, but I was fearful that since I was playing it so close pace-wise to the sub 3-hour mark, that I might be slightly over that mark and miss my goal by a few seconds.
Kevin appeared at mile 18 and helped block the wind for me again. He was only able to help out for about a mile and then had to run back to the car to meet me at the finish. While running with me, he reassured me that I was doing great and that I was right on pace (he emphasized the RIGHT) and I had to maintain this effort. After he left, I tried to tuck behind some of the runners on the course, but they were far and few between. Whenever I caught up to someone and tucked in, my watch would immediately slow to 7 minute pace, and I would have to untuck and run around them.
The course winded around and on a few “switch backs” I looked back for Bella, but couldn’t see her. I got a sickening feeling that something happened to her. I had thought she was close behind, but I wasn’t hearing her footsteps because of the wind. Now I realized, she may have stopped way back at mile 18 and I just left her. I felt like a bad friend. She had been supportive during some of my dark miles, and then when she struggled, I just left her behind. I decided not to dwell on it and push on. For all I knew, she was still close behind me.
I started to feel fatigued, so I tried to take another GU, but as soon as I put a drop into my mouth, I gagged. I spit it out and decided I would have to just drink Powerade for energy for the last 10K. For some reason, my stomach couldn’t tolerate anything sweet and solid.
Somewhere around mile 18-20, I had a feeling my SI joint slipped out of alignment. After mile 20, my low back very began getting sore and spasmy. I could feel my right glute working extra hard and same with my right calf, because both started to cramp. My left inner knee also began to ache which is a tell-tail-sign that my SI joint is out of alignment.
I was f*cking through with this race!
My body was turning against me and I just wanted to be done. With four miles to go, I thought, GO! Make your move! Pick it up! But my body wouldn’t respond. My abdominals were sore, as though I had spent the last hour in plank. My right calf would cramp if I got up on my toes. My back was very angry at me for doing something (turning to sharply? Stepping wrong? Running a marathon? Who knows). I decided right there, though, that I wasn’t going to “go with the plan”. I wasn’t going to run 6:45’s for the last 10K and try to finish with the 6:30 kick I had hoped to have. I was going to get off my ass now (figuratively of course) and finish this marathon with every thing I could, and leave everything out on the race course. I saw Kevin again with three miles to go and he still was telling me I was right on the fence. I didn’t care about the sub-3 hour thing though. I had known all along I was right on the fence. My whole training cycle the last 3 months I was right on the fence. I was going to finish this marathon as hard as I could and be damn proud of every step.
At mile 24, we had to climb over the last bridge, which was the first bridge. As I ran up to it, I realized it was way steeper than running over it the first time. Steeper, but shorter. I busted my ass up the hill, making sure my watch showed I stayed under a 7 minute mile. I tried to open my stride on the downhill, taking full advantage of it and allowing my muscles a break from doing the work themselves. Once I got on the flat, I kicked with everything I had, which was only about a 6:40 for the last mile, but I was ecstatic to have gone through everything I had gone through in this marathon and see a 6:40 at mile 25 pop up on my watch.
As I ran toward the finish line, the big clock was ticking: 3:00:28, 3:00:32, 3:00:38….. I was still going to be under 3:01! I crossed the line and folded forward, resting my hands on my knees and then immediately sat down. My low back was spasming like crazy. A woman rushed over with a medal and a finishers t-shirt for me. I stood up as soon as possible so as to not make a scene, and hobbled over to the massage area.
“Do you guys know much about aligning SI joints?”
“You bet! Hop on the table.”
I got on the table face down. The masseuse, who I will from here on call “Mr. Magic Hands” grabbed my leg with one arm and pressed the palm of his other hand into my low back. He then push, pulled and twisted. The force he was using on my back didn’t hurt my back as much as it hurt my abs as they were being pressed into the table. I grinned and bared it, believing this brief moment of pain would be worth it in a few minutes. Then he flipped me over and tugged on my legs. Finally, he twisted me to each side. As he was working, another masseuse walked up to oversee what he was doing.
“Did you check her leg length?”
“Yeah, she was two inches off,”replied Mr. Magic Hands
“Two inches!?! Wow! Does this happen often to you?”
“After some long runs,” I said.
“When did it happen today,” asked the masseuse.
“Around mile 18 or 20. I’m not sure. I felt my knee first, then my back, then my calf.”
“Wow, that’s impressive you ran that far with your legs two inches off!”
My back was feeling a lot better after about a two minutes of work, so I thanked Mr. Magic Hands and told him that I thought he got it and I could take it from here. I got off the table and my back was no longer spasming. My stomach on the other hand was about to loose it’s GU’s. Kevin grabbed me a free water and we walked back to the hotel room. I walked in and started screaming in the sake of nausea.
“Pour me Pepto! I..I… need…. to …ugh! I need….to… shower.”
I could hardly talk, let alone move without feeling sick and dizzy. I knew I needed to drink more water. I struggled to peel off my wet race clothes and waddled into the shower. My legs felt exhausted, my abs felt bruised, and my back was sore. While in the shower, I turned the water as cold as it would go. We had to be checked out of our hotel room in 45 minutes and I was bound to take an “ice bath” before we left. Twice I almost tipped over and fell out of the shower. Kevin came rushing in to make sure I was ok. I couldn’t talk, I was now sick, sore and freezing. I did my best to stay in as long as I could bear it, and then I shouted for Kevin. He came in with a towel and a shot of Pepto. I threw back the shot and told him to poor me another. I chased it with as much water as I could. After the second shot, I dressed in compression gear and covered with some clean warm up clothes.
Kevin showered and packed up the car, while I kept walking circles around the hotel room and sipping water. Finally, we headed back out to the finish and checked my overall results. 3:00:40, second place female overall. I found the race director to get my award early so Kevin and I could get started on our four hour drive home.
During the drive, we stopped once for food (I had a salad with salmon on it since that was the only gluten free menu item and some of Kevin’s left over jojo’s) and three times for the bathroom (I peed clear every time!). When we got home, I was on my feet constantly and other than feeling like I had been in a boxing match and had my ribcage blown apart by Muhammad Ali, I felt great! My legs felt great, my back was feeling much better, and my stomach was fine.
The following days went the same. No problems walking down stairs or staying hydrated, but if you tried to hug me, I would scream. My abs stayed sore for a good two days. Crazy! As for the race, I have no regrets. I am not upset that I was 41 seconds slower than my goal. I know that I gave the race everything I had, and even more than I ever knew I had. Looking back, I am astonished that I held some of my fastest race splits during those 8 agonizing miles. I also cannot believe that I averaged under a 7min pace for the last 10K of the race. Those brutal workouts that I ran when I was in pain and doubt and wanted to quit, yet still pushed through, hoping I wasn’t making a mistake and instead building my pain threshold had paid off.
Right before I ran this race, the term “warrior” was being tossed around in a lot of conversations. Cassey, the woman whose Pilates blog I follow, wrote on her Facebook pages “Be a warrior, not a worrier.” My boss told me that what will separate me from the others in the race is that I am a warrior. And Kevin, on many occasions leading up to the race, told me that I am a warrior in my workouts. Since the race, I have had time to reflect on what it takes be truly be a warrior. When I had been running the marathon and wanted desperately to end the pain and drop, I thought back to that quote, “Pain is nothing compared to what it feels like to quit.” I know now that if I would have quit, I would have been disappointed with myself, even though at the time, it seemed like the best decision. Battling through the pain, giving everything I had in the moment, and not giving up, is being a warrior. I have no ill-feelings toward that 41 seconds. If anything, it’s a motivator to train harder next time. When goals don’t come easy, that’s what makes them even the more rewarding to achieve. Part of what’s scary about the marathon is the anticipation of pain and not knowing if you can overcome it. Now I know that I can run through pain that I never imagined that I could. Next time I just have to cut off that 41 seconds!
Congratulations to Anna Denn of Salem, Oregon on a great race, a great report and placing third in our 2015 Race Report Contest!!! When she’s not training hard with her husband and one year-old Maltese, this 31 year-old works as a sales associate and fitness instructor for Gallagher Fitness Resources, Salem’s local running store and teaches fitness at Willamette University. Since this report, she’s gone on to nail that sub-3 and then some! Woo! Thanks, Anna, for sharing this amazing report and keep an eye out for your prize!