It’s been a long time coming, but I finally slayed the marathon mental beast. Before we get to that, let’s back up a little bit.
After my NYC Marathon debacle in the fall, I decided I needed to reevaluate and come up with a plan for actually making progress toward my 3:10 goal. First, I enlisted the help of my running dad, Lonn, and asked him to coach me. Second, I decided to avoid long-distance travel for races to avoid the motion sickness that plagued me in New York. And third, I vowed to battle my own mind and improve my shaky mental toughness.
I chose a race in Newport, Oregon for its beautiful course and proximity to home. I also chose it because it is the marathon where my mental demon was born back in 2011, when I dropped out at mile 13.
That 2011 DNF released a landslide of self-doubt and race anxiety and I entered several years where my training went superbly, but then I fell apart on race day … four times. Newport 2011 was the little voice in my head telling me that I could not do it despite injury-free training cycles with higher and higher mileage at increasingly faster and faster paces. Could I finally overcome this defeatist feeling five years later?
Leading up to the race, taper went incredibly well. I felt no nervousness at all and I killed all my workouts this training cycle. I ran higher mileage than ever at speeds I never thought I could, stayed super consistent with core work, and followed my plan almost to the letter. I’ve focused on my mental toughness and proved to myself that I was capable of my goal. Maybe even more than that, I accepted that although I did my part, I couldn’t control everything that happened on race day. I had to be ok with that: the looming unknown of how it would all come together the day of.
In April at the Half Marathon Championship, Des Linden said that bad races didn’t bother her because they don’t take away from her fitness or how hard she worked. That sentiment ran through my head in the days leading up to June 4 as the weather forecast predicted warm temperatures. My coach and two of my running partners, Terri and Sam, planned on being on the course for support, I knew they’d have cold water for me, I knew I’d see my family multiple times, and I just felt ready.
The night before, my friends and I went out to dinner at the coast. I had an oyster shooter (that’s a raw oyster with cocktail sauce) and a glass of wine along with my dinner. I felt focused and relaxed. Afterward, I met my family at our hotel room, did a scaled version of my core routine, and slept soundly. Lonn gave me a pretty specific eating plan for the morning, eating earlier and more than I normally do, and I woke up without my alarm. My hotel room was a half-mile to the start of the race, so I jogged there and met up with my crew. The temperature was in the upper 50s, but I knew it would creep up quickly as the sun rose. We took pics, did a warm up jog, peed, then did some strides. My plan was to definitely not go out too fast and to keep my miles consistently between 7:05 and 7:15.
The starting horn went off, and I found my rhythm quickly and enjoyed the views as we weaved through a neighborhood alongside the beach for a three-mile loop. After those three miles, people who had gone out too fast were already falling back, but I maintained my goal pace like a metronome. I saw the two lead women pass back by on the loop and shouted out encouragement to them. Near mile four, a spectator yelled that I was in third place, confirming I had not missed any other women ahead of me. I hoped to stay there, but knew there were still so many miles left that I couldn’t count on anything.
At this point, we headed east from the beach for the long out-and-back to the finish, alongside the Yaquina River. My heart swelled, I felt so damned happy and lucky. I love doing this, I kept thinking, even through some rolling hills. The first part of the out-and-back was cool, shady, and mostly had tree overhang. Around mile seven I took a gel and saw Sam, Terri, and Lonn on the side of the road. I grabbed a drink of water and fist-pumped, telling them I felt great.
I continued to pass a few men here and there over the next few miles, but was mostly alone and hitting my pace dead-on at 7:0x’s, and then heard a guy come upon me from behind. He introduced himself as Dave and asked what I was aiming for. I told him I just wanted to break 3:10, he told me he needed a few minutes faster than that because he wanted to qualify for Boston by a larger margin than he already had so he could actually get in. He had dropped out during the Fargo Marathon a couple weeks prior due to the heat, and spent “way too much money” to come to Oregon to give it another shot. Around mile 13, we both noticed our pace had dropped a bit: from around 7:08 to 7:26. I decided I needed to focus more, so I stopped talking. I had been feeling great and totally at ease, but suddenly my left calf was starting to feel tight and something felt … off.
I took another gel, earlier than planned, and suddenly the hill and trees that had blocked a lot of the direct sun to my left fell away and we were on a long wide-open road. The ocean coolness was long gone, and the temperature jumped. I wanted to take my tank top off, I’d pinned my bib to my skirt so I could do that in anticipation of the heat, but I promised myself I wouldn’t until after the turnaround. My left calf was so tight, my mile held at 7:25, slow. The mental beast emerged and my thoughts took a turn to the negative.
Thankfully, I saw Sam up ahead on the side of the road with cold Gatorade. I told him my calf was cramping, he encouraged me and told me Lonn and my family were ahead at the turnaround at mile 16ish. I forged on, my breathing losing its normal rhythm. The lead man ran back by followed by more men, then the first two ladies widely spread apart. I yelled encouragement to both of them though I felt my own resolve disintegrating. The sun beat down and then reflected back up from the road and I stripped off my tank, unable to stand it anymore. My mental demon began to whisper…
There was Lonn, he took one look at my face and knew I was in a deep hole. I sputtered about my calf, my watch beeped – mile 15, 7:34- and I almost started to cry. He ran alongside me for a bit, telling me to relax and slow my breathing, then up ahead I saw the turnaround and my family, both kids, my husband, and our dog. I ran straight to them, stopped, kissed Alora and Kellen, told my husband I loved him, then turned and continued on. The crowd collectively cheered, “Go Mom!”
I caught up back to where Lonn waited for me, he told me to stop and stretch out the calf and hammy for a moment if they weren’t getting better so I did. I started back up, drank the water he offered me, and then continued back toward where Sam waited. Lonn jumped back into his car with Terri at the wheel. Two women passed me and my spirits sunk. Sam waited for me back at mile 18 (7:54) and started to run with me, wrapping an ice-cold handkerchief around my neck and offering me water. I stopped a last time to stretch out my cramped left leg, and Lonn’s car pulled up. Terri jumped out and the three of us ran together for a mile or so. They gave me water and told me how well I was doing. My family drove by cheering.
I reminded myself that I had so much more in me and to have faith in my training. The beast in my brain retreated… The sun was blessedly to my back and I emerged from the depths and took two caffeinated gels at mile 20. “How far do you want me to run with you?” Sam asked. “Until the end, please,” I replied. My calf felt better and I caught up to and passed one of the women who had passed me. Into fourth place. Sam sprayed cold water from his bottle on me and that helped. I could feel my temp dropping and The End became a reality in my mind.
Fuck you, Doubt, I thought, I do this because I love this. I love this. The beast retreated even more.
I stopped looking at my watch and just went by feel, I knew I was way off pace (7:5x’s) but I was going at a level I could maintain. We began on the final five miles, into a series of low-grade grinding uphills. I was catching up to and passing half-marathoners at this point, but the third place woman was nowhere to be seen and fifth place was long gone behind me. Two guys caught up to me and made a comment about my skirt and called me a chick. They were trying to be funny but I picked up the pace. “She’s picking it up,” one said to the other. “I just want you to know who has bigger balls here,” I tossed back over my shoulder. “Ouch,” they replied. They ended up passing me, but I was okay with that. I wasn’t racing them. I was racing myself, heading for a decent PR, and I felt so much better than I had a few miles back.
Then, at mile 23, I saw Dave up ahead. I called his name, “Dave! We’ve got this! This is the fucking shitty part! Keep going!!” I passed him and he threw me a sad, sideways glance. A group of walking women half-marathoners heard my comment as I passed and one lady hollered, “The whole thing is fucking shitty!”
“No!” I yelled, bumping my fist, “We do this because we love this. We. LOVE. This.” My heart swelled with emotion, I continued to pass half-marathoners and male full-marathoners on the never-ending grinding low-grade hill to the finish. Sam continued to douse me with the last of his water and tell me how strong I was.
I crested the hill where Lonn was yelling and saw the finish, Terri, and my family below and I let it rip for that last quarter-mile (6:22 pace says my watch). I flew down the hill, fists raised victoriously, stomping the mental demon into the ground, and crossed the finish line at 3:18:26. Fourth place, seven-plus-minute PR, mental beast annihilated. I’ll take it. CIM, here I come.