Stick a Fork in Me: Parsley’s Houston Marathon Race Report

Spoiler alert: Stick a fork in me, I might be done.

I decided to run the Houston Marathon fairly soon after the Richmond Marathon in November. I felt like I would recover from Richmond quickly since I basically ran 18 miles hard, then struggled the last 8 with massive quad cramps, finishing in 2:52:39. Richmond was a good starting point as my first serious race back after having baby #3, and before the quad cramps I ran those 18 miles at 2:47-2:48 pace. My ultimate A-goal was to run under 2:45 and qualify for the Olympic Trials. I thought I’d get there by building on my Richmond performance with a little more training and going for it at Houston.

Logistically, it also made sense. I didn’t feel the need to take a lot of time off after Richmond, and I didn’t have the patience to start over and go through a typical 12-week marathon training cycle. I recently read an interview with Sara Hall where she explained her attitude towards racing frequently. She likes the approach of generally staying prepared and ready to race whatever comes up, rather than relying on “perfect training cycles” for a single goal race. I agree.

So after a few days completely off after Richmond, and two weeks of easy building back up, I felt ready to train again.

The Training

I got into a groove with some great workouts before Houston — much better than my workouts before Richmond had been.

The holidays allowed my husband to be home enough that I didn’t step foot on the treadmill, did very little stroller running, and had enough daylight hours to actually do real workouts. I got some of my old speed back, and was able to do several of the sprint/working recovery track workouts that used to be my mainstay. I also fit in several quality long runs, either running the entire distance at a fast pace or incorporating fartlek work in the middle, which I hadn’t done before Richmond.

Houston was a low-cost trip. I received a comp entry, used hotel reward points to stay right at the start/finish, spent $1.50 riding the bus to and from the airport, and found a good deal on a direct flight. This was good for me because I don’t like the pressure of feeling like I have to perform to make a destination race worth the cost.

The Race

Despite the short training period, some downtime with the flu, and subsequently caring for a sick 14-month-old with the flu (after we both had our shots!), I felt ready.

Race day conditions were perfect. A cool, clear day, around 35 at the start. I felt confident in my training,  although I hadn’t raced at all to validate it. I got a good night’s sleep before the race, felt hydrated and carb-loaded, and was ready to run. My goal was 2:45 or bust.

The first mile was 6:40. My goal pace was 6:18. Though I started near the front, it was quickly very crowded, which affected my sense of pace. The first mile of a marathon is often a warmup, so I didn’t panic. I slowly picked it up and moved forward until I found what looked like a group of women working together around the 2-mile mark.

Lo and behold, Deena Kastor was leading the group! I asked if she was running incognito, since her name wasn’t on her bib like everyone else’s. She smiled and said she was pacing someone to an OTQ and would drop out somewhere near 20 miles when she saw her husband. All right, can’t ask for a better pace leader than an Olympic medalist and American record holder! Pretty cool to run a marathon with Deena! I stopped looking at splits after that because I figured she would nail it. Perfect conditions, perfect pace leader: this was my best chance to nail it as well.

Everyone in the group was very serious and focused. No small talk or chatter, other than Deena pointing out upcoming water tables or calling tangents at turns. I tried to strike up conversations several times, since in my experience a marathon is much more pleasant when you feel a bit of connection to the people you’re running with, but nobody felt like talking.

Sadly, my legs did not feel like nailing it. Around mile 6, they were so tired I had to start playing all the mental games I normally don’t pull out until the late stages of a marathon. Like repeatedly counting to 100, and whatever else you can do to shut down your brain. Obviously, my legs shouldn’t have felt that bad that early in the race.

Around mile 8, when the group spread out slightly at a water stop, I couldn’t link back up with them. I was done. My drop off was so immediate and drastic (over a minute per mile) that my husband, who was tracking me, thought that something happened.

No excuses, nothing happened, I just blew it. I can’t explain what went wrong. I’ve run fairly well running marathons close together in the past, and while a case of the flu certainly affected the intensity of my training, I was still able to run most days. So I just have no idea. But at that point, I knew I wasn’t going to get any faster.

While I’ve never quit a race and won’t barring serious injury, I seriously considered it at this point. I came there for one reason, and since I wasn’t going to make it, why suffer through 18 more miles? It’s not like I was enjoying the experience. I didn’t drop, partly because I actually didn’t know how (Where was I supposed to go? How would I get back to the hotel?) and partly because I figured after flying all that way, I might as well get in a workout. I finished.

I can’t tell you anything about the race after mile 8. I shut down into a deeply contemplative state. I remember there was great crowd support throughout the course, but as far as the scenery or course itself? I’ve got nothing. I was running on autopilot, my thoughts completely inward during those long, lonely 18 miles.

I didn’t feel any worse at mile 26 than I did at 8, which was the only good news. I finished in 2:58:40, but I didn’t care about my finish time. I actually ran again later after I showered: I needed to get to the airport and was worried I wouldn’t find an open bus stop because of the road closures.

Deena Kastor paced the women working on an Olympic Trials qualifier! How cool is that?

So about that fork…

The conclusion from my contemplative race? Like a Thanksgiving turkey ready to come out of the oven, I might be done. I’ll spare the litany of reasons I arrived at this — I’ve had a very long career, lack of time/resources/environment/reliability/motivation to train how I need to, age, to name a few. But ultimately, my heart just isn’t in it.

While I’ve often said I’d like to qualify for one more Olympic Trials (I’ve made it to three), and have gone through the motions of several training cycles and races, I haven’t been “all in.” And no matter how great your physical condition, if your heart isn’t in it, 26.2 is a long way to go.

I have always loved racing. My competitiveness is what has driven my running career. But I haven’t felt that competitiveness in quite a while; maybe my laid-back approach to running has crept into my racing mentality as well. Racing used to always leave me wanting more. Now “more” feels like a burden.

But before I give away my racing flats and truly retire, I’ll give it a little more time. Because I did find myself holding back tears when telling my parents this, which gives me a faint glimmer that maybe a piece of me still wants it. Or maybe it’s just nostalgia for what used to be.

I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. Former competitive runner (3 x marathon OTQ & trail marathon national champion) currently working through a lingering injury. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids and moving into a new post-competitive stage.

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  1. Oh man, this is almost exactly how I felt in Houston. Perfect day, perfect conditions, good training, but my heart wasn’t into it. I’m sort of in the same place you are (am I done?). Hope you find peace with whatever you decide!

  2. Thank you for sharing! I’m not a competitive enough runner to understand how this would feel, but you did a really wonderful job putting us in your shoes. I hope you feel content with whatever you decide.

  3. This was so interesting to read, I appreciate the honesty and openness about it all. I also appreciate that you finished- not that I am anti-DNF, but I believe in finishing what I start if I don’t have a truly good reason not to finish. I’d also put you on that pro-pedestal with your speed, level, and experience. I always appreciate seeing athletes finish even if they know it won’t be their day, see the likes of Meb in NYC and other races.

    As for being done, no one can make that call but you. Some time to think, mull it over and figure out what is next. I’m a firm believer in “when you know, you know” on a lot of things- you’ll know when you’re ready to and in the mean time enjoy recovery and spending time with your family!

    1. Thank you. Unfortunately I am not very decisive when making decisions- I normally second guess things way too much. That’s why it seems like it would be much easier if I could have that one great race, and finish my career on top, without any regrets. Although I think most people probably wish to end things that way!

  4. Parsley, you have accomplished SO MUCH during your career. How many people make it to 3 Olympic Trials,and are considering a 4th attempt? My guess is not very many, that’s a really long time to run at such a high level. That’s super impressive. Even if you’re done, you have a lot to be proud of.

    As a fellow single married mom (aka military spouse), I have really admired how you have kept up high-level training while being a mommy to 3 kids. That is incredible.

    Des Linden just took a several-weeks break, and now she’s gearing up for Boston. I like how you mentioned you are going to give it some time before formally deciding, I think that is a great idea. Only you truly know your full circumstances, and I have no doubt you will come to the best conclusion for you 🙂

    1. Thank you Cocoa. Then you will understand, that part of my decision is because of the military life; it’s hard to get motivated and really commit to hard training/racing when there’s always another deployment, or long stretch of single parenting ahead, when I won’t be able to train hard and race.

  5. I’m sorry to read this race report as well. BTW, you are not the only person to have an off day in Houston, despite the great weather. I do know that the air quality was poor in Houston that weekend, and I’ve wondered if those who struggled are more sensitive than they realize.

    Another thought – while I don’t think you’re done for good, I do think that your lack of “kill instinct” and dead legs both point towards the same thing – you’re in an overreaching hole. You’ve certainly rested between races, but I wonder if you need more. Basically, take a break and don’t come back when you feel OK. Wait until you are really hungry and can’t resist coming back any longer. Then come back.

    (sorry for the unsolicited advice from someone slower than you – but I’ve been in that overreaching hole too)

    1. Thank you, I really appreciate the advice! I may try that. I normally take a few days off after a marathon, a week at the most and then am ready to get back into it. Now it’s been two weeks, and I’m still taking my time. Maybe I will go past the point of wanting to run, and wait until I really NEED to run.

  6. Although I am so sorry you had an off day at Houston, I am really glad you posted about it because it was comforting to me. I also attempted the 2:45:00 there, ran it as a second marathon off of kind of an addendum to a training cycle, and ran it after feeling like I didn’t quite get my full potential in my first marathon (I wrote about my experience here: You’ll figure out what is in your heart to do next, and that will be best for you.