I’ve been dragging my feet about writing this race report because it feels like I’m about to pen an insane twist-ending to a story that has read somewhat predictably up to this point. If you’ve been following my training logs, you already know that I had an incredible training cycle and felt like I was responding very well to Hanson’s Marathon Method. Over 18 weeks I ran mileage far exceeding anything I had run before, and for the first time ever I made it to race day completely uninjured! I set what I thought was a conservative, very realistic race goal. As race week approached, I felt READY.
At the beginning of race week, taper was going well. Monday I went out for a scheduled five mile easy pace run in my new shoes and that run actually went pretty terribly. I had been having some shoe drama over the past couple of weeks and these new shoes were giving me some pretty intense pain in my calves and behind my knees. I had run a few times in them, but on this day I couldn’t make it the entire five miles and had to cut it in half. I foam rolled and stretched and was able to run with less pain the following morning. The week continued with a couple of chiropractor sessions to work out some tight tendons in my calf. Rather than exacerbate the pain, I chose to listen to my body and skip the short shake-out runs the last two days before the race. I didn’t second guess this decision and wanted to focus my energy on hydrating and fueling for race day, which I did meticulously.
In the week leading up to the race, the forecast consistently pointed to a pretty warm day: 60 degrees at the start and mid-70’s projected for the finish. I felt worried about this because I struggle greatly in the heat. I decided to instead focus my energy on doing whatever I had in my control to put myself in the best possible position to handle the conditions.
Because I labored over every single detail pre-race, I woke up on Saturday morning feeling absolutely prepared. My alarm sounded at 4:30am and I ate a big bowl of oatmeal with banana and two cups of coffee. I walked around the quiet house that morning brimming with excitement that the marathon was finally here after 18 weeks of hard work, missing social obligations, obsessing over miles and aches and pains. I have never put so much work into my running before and I couldn’t wait to put my training to the test.
Once I got to the Fargodome, it was the typical race morning atmosphere: long bathroom lines, people taking pictures, runners engaged in all types of pre-race routines. I remained calm, went to the bathroom a few more times, and though I wasn’t hungry, ate an english muffin and a GU about 20 minutes before the start.
Two thousand of us running the full marathon lined up and a wave of emotion hit me all at once. I teared up during the national anthem. There is nothing that can replicate the collective energy of thousands of runners on the starting line! Here, we were all the same. We weren’t separated by pace or talent, and we all had the goal to cover the same 26.2 miles.
The gun went off. It was go time. The temperature still felt relatively cool at the start of the race and the bright sunshine, at least for the moment, felt cheerful and fueled my joy! The first few miles felt relatively easy and my average pace was at exactly 10:18, which was precisely my marathon goal pace. What a huge confidence boost that my body just KNEW the right thing to do! The neighborhoods we ran through were lovely and tree-lined and full of cheering. I had a fueling plan to make sure I drank something at every aid station and my plan was to take my first GU at mile four, and then every four miles after that. I was surprised that at mile two my stomach felt hungry. If anything, I tend to lean towards not feeling hunger during my runs, so this was unexpected, given I had fueled more than I ever had before pre-race. The advice, “fuel early and often” floated through my brain, so I opted to take a GU around mile three, just to be safe.
Somewhere around mile six I began to notice the heat bouncing off the pavement. Suddenly the bright sun was no longer a force of joy, but the source of worry. Like the flip of a switch, my positive thoughts started to drift: “If it feels this warm at mile six, how will I feel in 10 miles?” I did my best to stay focused on the present moment and stuff down the negativity. By mile eight, I was WARM and started to notice each mile split getting increasingly slower. I realized at this point that my 4:30 goal was out of reach, but my B goal of 4:45 was still very doable. I ignored the first thought of “Maybe you should just quit.” and kept reminding myself of the weeks of work I put into this day and how terrible I would feel if I DNF’d this race.
Fargo is flat, but there were some elevation changes and curves as we ran several miles on a concrete bike path along the river, then charged up a hill back to residential neighborhoods. I really noticed the fatigue at that hill and had to walk it. This is when I noticed quite a few people around me walking. It seemed so early in the race to struggle, and strangely, seeing others look the way I felt was validating. I wasn’t the only one who felt terrible! Still, I kept plodding forward, my heart rate climbing and my pace steadily dropping. My running had slowed to a pathetic looking shuffle, and the negative thoughts were coming hard and fast.
In the meantime, the 4:45 pace group had passed me. I made a desperate attempt to cling on to them and keep up their pace, but they quickly left me behind. By mile 13, the 5:00 pace group passed me and I think that may have been THE moment that full demoralization took place. My body just would no longer do what I needed it to do. My shuffle turned into a shuffle with occasional walking, and soon, more walking than shuffling.
From there, I wish I could say that I rallied or some super force of will rocketed me back to marathon pace. I wish I had a decent story or excuse or thing that put the final nail in the coffin. But truly I couldn’t fight the mental battle anymore. My A, B, and C goals had already passed me by and I was left with two choices: DNF or just take the D goal and simply cross the finish line.
If nothing else I’m incredibly stubborn, so I decided at mile 15 that I would just get to the finish, even if it meant I had to walk most of it. I thought of my fellow Salties who were probably tracking me and I thought of my family waiting for me at mile 21 with their homemade signs, ready to cheer me on. I thought of my five-year-old daughter telling me the previous night as I kissed her good night, “Mommy, I’m SO excited to cheer for you at your race tomorrow!” I thought about feeling like a disappointment and I shed some tears along the way. A person has a lot of time to think about life when she is walk/jogging the last 11 miles of a hot-hot marathon, wavering between the knowledge that she is perfectly capable and the pain and struggle of the miles ahead.
There was a group of us those last six miles who all seemed to be doing the same walk / jog / wince / shuffle and we eventually bonded over that. I befriended a Canadian woman who had the same pace goal as I had and fell apart around the same time I did. I jogged up to her and asked her if she wanted to be friends. This extrovert had gotten pretty lonely, and I decided to make the best of the situation and at least have some company to get me to the end. We talked running, we talked disappointment, we dropped more than a handful of swears. We chatted with a 50 state marathoner and an older gentleman who was running his 25th marathon. We all had stories of frustration and disappointment, but we kept moving forward.
The race ended with my personal worst time by 13 minutes, and a full hour off my goal time. This was not the race report I envisioned weeks ago. This was not the story of triumph and success I thought I would share, but now that I’ve had a few days to think and heal … it IS a story of success.
Last October, just before I applied to write for Salty Running, I said to a friend that I was so burnt out on running. I said that I wouldn’t likely run another full marathon, and was seriously considering taking a long break from running. It wasn’t fun anymore.
Then in December, I picked up a copy of Hanson’s Marathon Method and felt inspired to give the marathon another go. When I started my training on January 18, my running fitness was low and so was my mileage. Over these last 18 weeks I doubled the miles I’ve ever run during a marathon training cycle. I tackled speed work. I tackled late night treadmill workouts. I juggled family obligations, traveling, and work with lots of weeks hovering around 50 miles per week. My body grew strong, and better yet I was completely uninjured. I took care of myself, I listened to my body, I ate proper fuel and I committed to a foam roller. I learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever thought I was. I had 670 miles of successful training, so do I really need to shame myself over a bad 26.2 miles at the very end?
This was only my third full marathon. In the grand scheme of things, I am still a rookie. I will run more marathons and I will have that giant PR someday. In the meantime, I have an excellent base right now and will use this as a launching point to build more speed and work on shorter distances. I am going to take a few weeks to look at the calendar and make a plan for some fall races. It’s okay to have a bad race. Just keep moving forward!