Running has been my “thing” for a long time; marathons have been my thing since 2011. Between 2011 and 2016 I ran 14 marathons. I’ve had amazing races, horrible races, races I ran just for the experience and everything in between – but no matter what, the distance kept drawing me in. The last marathon that I ran was Boston 2016, while 5 weeks pregnant. I had a blast, crossed the finish line, but certainly didn’t race it. After that I didn’t start two planned marathons: once because I had just suffered a miscarriage, and once because I was pregnant with Hannah.
So my last 3 marathons before I toed the line at the Buffalo Marathon this past weekend were comprised of two DNS and one altered Boston experience. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing but it certainly made the lead up to this year’s Buffalo Marathon on May 27th a bit more emotional. I also had to remember what taper and race prep felt like for a goal marathon. The last time I truly raced a full marathon was my 2:58 at Erie in 2015. Here we were in May of 2018, three years later; my PR felt like a lifetime ago. I trained hard but ultimately had no idea what to expect from my first post-partum marathon.
My training had good weeks and bad weeks but on the whole I built my fitness more consistently than I ever had. In Fall 2017 I started training regularly again and realized that running more days a week but fewer miles per day worked better for me than my pre-baby marathon training schedule. It was easier for me to carve out a little time each day for a run than to carve out more time a few days a week.
From the day after Christmas 2017 until March 2018 I didn’t take a rest day. I felt the strongest and most prepared I ever had going into a training cycle when my Buffalo training officially started in February. I took 3 days off in March, 2 days off in April and 6 off in May leading up to the race. My easy and recovery runs on non-workout days were the slowest they’ve ever been, but my workouts were inching closer to the paces I ran when I was in peak shape prior to getting pregnant.
Peak and taper didn’t go as planned, which made me a bit more anxious heading into the race. Three weeks out I should have been peaking; instead I stopped a workout mid-run because my mental game was off, and shortened a few other runs as well. I did have a great 20-mile long run that weekend, but essentially started tapering a week earlier than planned. I spent most of taper going back and forth about race goals, watching the weather, and trying to remember what this is supposed to feel like all over again.
By race weekend, I finally started to feel like all the mental pieces were coming together. I watched ‘Without Limits’, it’s not my usual race weekend movie but felt like a good one to re-watch. I thought hard about pacing, about how some races it’s not about the finish time but how you race. (Little did I know what race day had in store!) I had been watching the weather and had made peace with the thought that ambitious goals may not happen, I would have to adjust depending on how bad it got. No matter what, it was still going to be a good day.
Race morning I was up around 4:10 showering and going through my usual pre-marathon routine. We stayed at a hotel about 20 minutes from the race. Hannah was a champ with the early wakeup and we were out the door a little after 5:30. I noticed how warm and sticky it was the moment we walked out of the hotel. The dew point was well over 60 as I rubbed my fingers together and felt the humidity, something I remembered reading about in pro runner Steph Bruce’s London Marathon recap.
We parked about a block away from the start and my friend Heather met up with us to get my bike and say good luck. Hannah was starting to get antsy with it being early, it was hard to leave her as she fussed but I knew as soon as she got situated in the stroller she would be fine. Once I walked away I was quiet, in my own head, and focused on just getting to the start.
I got to the start area and doused myself in BodyGlide and sunblock. I knew it was going to get warm, and I knew that the back half of the course had very little shade. I found the coordinator and gave them my bag before heading into the corral. I chatted with a few of the other women as we talked goals, race strategy and bounced around to loosen up. A few friends and family members came to the gate and gave me hugs and well wishes, I was getting excited but still hadn’t reached “that point” that I usually have, where I’m near tears (in a good way) at the start line. I love that “I can’t believe this is really happening” feeling at start lines.
When I heard the National Anthem, I finally got that teary-eyed, heart thumping, fist clenching feeling. Now I knew I was ready to race. They set off fireworks to start the race, and we were off. The full and the half start together so many went out fast. I forced myself not to pay attention and just focus on getting my first mile nice and steady. I saw Brian and Hannah and our friends shortly after the start and gave them big smiles and waves. It was going to be a good day.
My goal for the first few miles was to relax around 7:00’s. With the humidity I was adamant about not starting too fast. I’d rather miss my goals by a little because I started too slowly than miss them by a lot because I started too fast and hit the wall. My first mile was 7:00 on the nose and I was pumped. I found some people to run with and chatted trying to find a little pack and a groove.
I connected with another woman and we chatted for a bit about our kids and running and ticked off a few miles. The only thing I allowed myself to see on my watch was overall time and overall average pace. After a few miles I saw the average start to go down and realized how good I was feeling. The pace felt effortless. Yes it was early, but the level of control felt different from anything I’d experienced in my prior marathons. Even with the humidity, chatting, and the pace, I didn’t feel like any of it was forced.
I pulled out my first gel around mile 4 or 5 and started ‘sipping’ on it like I usually do. Little bits here and there, continuous fueling, and hydration at every stop. Around mile 5 I found myself falling into a group. I did a quick scan around me and realized we had a good pack going and asked what people were shooting for. Most were marathoners, and most had the general reaction of ‘sub-3 or die’. Perfect, I’d found my people! I saw my family and friends at mile 6, gave a wave and focused on staying in contact with the pack. I knew that working with them as long as possible would be beneficial.
The spectator support in this section is pretty good because it’s closer to downtown, as we made the right turn around 6.5 one of the guys commented how it’s hard to hold back when everyone is cheering so much. We chatted and agreed, we love all of the fan support but always see a spike in heart rate and pace through there.
From that point on, I had a new friend and comrade. My new Irish friend Colin would be a big part of my race. We got to know each other’s life stories, running goals, and everything in between. I knew the course so I told him what was coming up, what we should focus on next, and we just kept going mile for mile. When we got down to the Marina area, we were excited to see the other runners in front coming back at us. I cheered and high-fived friends doing the half, and then we started counting the female marathoners. One. Two. Three.
Fourth place was mine to lose, the others had a pretty good lead on me already. I didn’t think much about it at that point, there was a lot of race to go and didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself. Colin and I kept on talking, checking in with how we were feeling and focusing on small goals.
Our pack had dwindled a little bit, but was still a decent size as we finished the first half. I encouraged some people around us, remembering the 3:00 marathon group doing the same for me in Buffalo 2014 when I broke 90 minutes for the first time in the half marathon. Now it was my turn to pay it forward. I saw my crew again shortly before the split and smiled and waved, secretly wondering if they had been counting too.
We turned to head out for the second half. I was felt physically and mentally pretty strong but tried not to think too hard about it — like I was afraid of jinxing that feeling. The sun came out blazing at this point, so I noted that some adjustment might be necessary. The third-place woman ran way ahead in the distance; Colin and I talked about reeling her in over the next few miles and used that to keep us focused. Keeping my eyes on her helped me pass the time on the rolling elevation through that section, and I took third not long after. Quite honestly, that is as far up in the field (for women) as I thought I would get.
The miles clicked by with consistent splits. I was methodical about my fueling and hydration, and poured water over myself to keep from overheating. I took some sponges from aid stations and shoved them in the back of my sports bra by my neck. I finished my second gel around mile 15 and immediately pulled out the next to get started. This method has worked well for me the last few years, small consistent fueling.
At mile 16, I called over my shoulder to Colin that we should hold pace for 4 more miles and try to pick it up at 20. When we got to Delaware Park at 17, I got to see my friend Brittany on the bike. She asked me how I was feeling and I told her I was trying to wait until 20 to push home. In hindsight I realize me talking to Colin and then telling Britt that was my way of trying to say it out loud and hold myself accountable. I was feeling good, but it’s been so long since I’d covered the distance that part of me was scared. As we rounded Delaware park I didn’t realize that I had started pulling away. Around mile 18, I saw her….one of the lead females walking and then she started running again. I went by giving a nod and a small wave. I pressed on and was in second place exiting the park. I spent the next mile going oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit. I was very much alone at this point, and just focused on getting from one turn to the next.
The last 10k: Shut up, legs!
Around mile 19-20 is when it all went blurry. I was focused, feeling good and picking up the pace again after a momentary lapse at 30k. The sun was blazing and I was glad I’d put on sunblock and hydrated. A few times my legs kind of gave me that ‘I’m tired’ feeling and I yelled at them and said ‘do it now’. I had read and re-read this one passage from Relentless many times in the week leading up to the race, including about 10 times that morning. So if my legs said a word, I told them who was boss. I think I even said it out loud a few times – whatever works, right?
I was trucking along like this when I saw the lead female up ahead. I wasn’t sure I was seeing correctly, was it a heat-induced hallucination? I think I even slowed up a bit at first trying to process it. Then she stopped, and then I passed her and suddenly I was in the lead. Running in the later miles of marathons makes math hard, and apparently makes simple comprehension of basic concepts hard. I just passed the lead woman, does that make me the lead woman now? As in I’m winning? HOW DO I LEAD A MARATHON?
I didn’t look back. I didn’t look at my watch or try to do math. I just kept running and telling myself not to get passed. I couldn’t control what was behind me but I was feeling strong and feeling like hey – if someone does come at me I have a lot to fight with right now. Again I realized that I was physically doing really well.
But I was desperately longing to see a friend or someone I knew, so I could ask them how to lead a marathon and what I am supposed to do, because I just couldn’t think of what that might be. I think I killed 2 miles just trying to figure out how this happened and how to keep it going. I prepared diligently for just about every aspect of this race, the weather, the terrain, the pacing, the fueling, but I didn’t prepare for being in first place.
Finally my brain got with the program and I realized the race was mine to lose. I wasn’t fading, I was running strong in first place. I gave myself a few checkpoints and focused on that feeling of continued strength. I finished my third gel around mile 23 and decided that was it for fuel (aside from water stations). I knew I would see a bunch of friends at mile 24 so I pushed knowing I could use their support to get me up the hill that would follow.
The Bergen Elite crew was out cheering in full force and screaming like crazy. I asked one of them if they could see the woman behind me, I had to ask twice and I got a resounding “NO”. That was the only time I asked where she was or did anything remotely close to looking behind me. I shot over to the water station and grabbed a cup which ended up being Gatorade, I took it even though I’m always nervous about mixing Gatorade and gels in my stomach because that has gone horribly wrong before. Most notably in the heat…and on this Buffalo half course in 2010. Ugh. I remembered my friend Sarah sharing a line recently from Deena Kastor’s book and asked myself if this thought will slow me down or make me faster. Take in only what will make me stronger. I threw out the Gatorade thought because it wasn’t making me faster.
At mile 25 I thought I would be seeing my friends at the top of the hill. The more I thought about it and the more I looked for them, the more I realized that there was no way in hell they would be there. There was no way in hell they would be at mile 25 if they knew I was in the lead! They were at the finish, waiting to cheer me on as I broke the tape. I wished I could see them before the finish, but was elated that this was even a thing: the reason they weren’t there was basically the best reason ever not to be where you said you would.
On the downhill, the owner of the timing company started riding next to me on the bike. He radioed into the finish saying he had the first woman, my bib number, and asked for a clock time. I heard it, but couldn’t think about the math and didn’t care. I knew it was low enough that I might be under 3 if I was not dying…and I wasn’t. Rich kept encouraging me, and eventually started yelling at me. HOW BAD DO YOU WANT IT? There was another guy near me and he yelled at me that he was going to pass me and to make him work for it. I responded with a few surges. We got closer to the finish line and I didn’t even realize I had passed mile 26. In the circle near the finish Rich was close to me, radioing to the finish line that we were almost there and telling me to give it everything.
The cheering was deafening as I made the last turn to the finish. Rich was still yelling on the bike, race officials were moving half marathoners out of the way and guiding me to the left. I looked up and saw the clock 2:56:XX, I saw the tape. I PR’d in number of F bombs dropped and threw my fists up, fought back tears, yelled as if I’d just won NYC or Boston and found 3 more gears to run that few hundred yards at damn near my 5k pace. I broke the tape and didn’t even notice they set off fireworks as I did.
What just happened?
I had over 6 miles in the lead to process the possibility of winning and even after the tape was lying on the ground I still couldn’t believe it. The race director greeted me, and a few others including my friend James who’d finished a few minutes before me. People were yelling my name from every direction and I didn’t know where to look. I was quickly ushered to the media, where I stuttered and stumbled through interviews. Regularly pausing and trying to collect myself. I said thank you and that I needed to find my family as I tried to shuffle away. As soon as I turned around I saw my friend Michele and doubled over again in tears. I apologized for the insanely sweaty salty hug even though I knew she didn’t care.
I made my way through the finish area with water, my medal, my winning tape in my hand and a smile on my face. But I was desperate to find my family and friends.
I accidentally exited the closed-off area without getting my bag from the elite coordinator at the finish line. I walked all the way around back to the finish and asked the race staff to let me back in — being the winner gives you a little pull at least! They let me back in and then I saw my family and friends on the other side, finally. Sweaty hugs and kisses and oh my god that just happened. Security was very tight so they were not allowed into the finish area, but I had to wait in there for awards. I laid on the concrete in the sun, talking to them and trying to gather myself.
This race was a long time coming. A minute-plus PR and my first ever win at the distance on what I consider a hometown course. I didn’t anticipate those things, which probably makes them that much sweeter. I cannot control who shows up, who executes the best race, or the weather, but I controlled myself and my reaction to those things. How I got to that finish line gives me more pride than the time or placement does.