Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.
— Bruce Lee
Much earlier this year, before I ever decided to sign up for the Baystate Marathon, I threw out my marathon time goals. Let’s face it: While a sub-5, sub-4, BQ, or some other arbitrary round number is nice, it’s not what the pros shoot for. Even they don’t PR every time. They think about their performance and their racing. (When told he nearly broke the masters record at New York, Abdi Abdirahman said, “To be honest, I didn’t know anything about those masters records…I was just trying to be competitive. My goal was a podium finish.”)
And also, to be honest, I was just fed up with obsessing over time.
Back in 2014, I ran my 6th marathon at Gold Coast in Australia. While it was a gorgeous day out, marathon #6 was a crushing disappointment for me, due to debilitating cramps and likely under-training and under-fueling. Yes, it was a PR; but a PR by a single, hard-fought second, and way closer to the 5-hour mark than I wanted to be, or that all the race equivalency calculators said I should to be.
In the three years since, I’d convinced myself that my inner “turtle girl” was right — that I have no real business running marathons… but the itch to do so was still there. So in June, I signed up for the Baystate Marathon: Massachusetts’ other, smaller, lesser-known marathon.
When you have absolutely nothing to lose, you let go and become a master of total non-attachment. I let go completely of any marathon time goals. My process goal for Baystate was to train properly, stick to my race strategy, and see how it went. I even outsourced my training plan — I asked one of the coaches from my running club to write me a plan for a small extra fee, and we’d check in with a phone call every so often.
Somewhere along the line I said to her, “I know exactly how I want to feel during the race. You know the middle miles of a half marathon? With the sun shining and the wind in your hair, and you’re flying along, feeling the earth return to you all the energy you put into it with every step? THAT is how I want to feel.” I believed this with every fiber of my being, and I knew that it was true.
I’d trained using a theoretical goal pace of 9:05, which roughly dictated my tempo and speed efforts, but I honestly couldn’t care less if that was race day pace or not. By the time race day rolled around I was so burned out from work and other life stresses that I knew I wouldn’t hold that pace anyway. (See: no time goals.) Plus, I tend to be on the slower side of race calculator predictions the longer the distance gets, even if conditions are perfect. Perhaps I’m just too chicken to race a hard half or full marathon. That’s fine. I’ll get there.
But not October 22.
I drove up to Chelmsford the day before and shared a hotel room with my club-mate, T. At 5 a.m., her alarm went off — bzzzzzzzt! Morning routine, totally practiced and utilitarian after weeks of 5:30 a.m. long runs. Instant oatmeal, coffee, nuun, wash face, visit bathroom, get dressed. Bodyglide, bra, tank top, shorts, socks, shoes, Garmin. Decided to run without visor, gloves, arm sleeves, or water bottle. 6:15 shuttle bus to the start. Drop off bags. Run into friends, take selfie, head in to UMass’s Tsongas Center to wait, pee, eat a Luna bar. I felt … loose. Preternaturally calm. Totally zen.
By 7:45, it was already warm enough that I wasn’t shivering in the start corral — so, a little warmer than ideal. So what? That’s not something I can control. I’d trained through the entire summer’s worth of heat; I knew my hydration needs; this was nothing. Plus I had no sleeves, gloves or bottle to weigh me down. I planned to start with 9:30s and hold that pace throughout. Anthem. Pushrim start. And then we began.
Miles 1-5. 10:20, 9:21, 9:16, 9:32, 9:40. Gel at mile 5. My plan was to take a gel every 5 miles and water at every water stop (about every 2 miles).
I started somewhere around the 10min/mile section of corral, and took the start very easy (10:20, mile 1). I chatted with people, including a woman doing her first marathon, and then had to pick my jaw up off the floor when we ran by her family and FIVE kids — the youngest were 4-year-old twins. (Spoiler: she finished with me.)
I saw my fan club (Mr. Mango and D-money) who had driven up from Boston that morning and strategically situated themselves up the road from a giant playground. After I saw them the first time … well, what do you do with a toddler while mom runs a fall marathon? You go pumpkin picking, apparently. Now we have two enormous pumpkins and a toddler who has learned the word ‘wheelbarrow’ and uses it enthusiastically.
Miles 6-10. 9:29, 9:16, 9:37, 9:28, 9:28. Gel at mile 10.
This, not April, is the best of Massachusetts. Fall colors were on full display. The course wound through mostly residential neighborhoods until we got to the part along the river, heading northeast towards the Tyngsboro Bridge. At mile 8 I saw another club-mate — hooray! — who shot the single happiest photo I’ve ever seen of myself during a marathon. It’s pretty easy to be happy at mile 8.
Miles 11-15. 9:38, 9:25, 9:53, 9:28, 9:38. Gel at mile 15. Surprise! I got the single salted watermelon gel I’d packed in my SPIbelt amid all the sea salt chocolate GUs I’d bought in bulk. It was a very tasty game of roulette.
I sang “Top of the World” to myself over and over in the exposed middle miles, and meant it.
Somethin’ in the wind has learned my name
And it’s tellin’ me that things are not the same
In the leaves on the trees and the touch of the breeze
There’s a pleasin’ sense of happiness for me
I’m on the top of the world lookin’ down on creation
And the only explanation I can find
Is the love that I’ve found ever since you’ve been around
Your love’s put me at the top of the world
Other things I thought to myself at this point:
- Why is nobody else running the tangents? People are weird. (For the record, I finished with 26.2 on my Garmin, and I think this is actually just really good tangent-running rather than a short course.)
- Roadkill: Only two dead animals this year! The “highlight” of last year’s half was a flattened raccoon.
- Slow and steady. If I’m Turtle Girl, I’m going to own it.
Miles 16-20. 9:48, 9:30, 10:04, 9:59, 9:53. Gel at mile 20.
I still felt good, like I was merely on an extended long run, but the lengthy exposed stretch around mile 18 was starting to get hot. I knew that I could certainly make it to mile 20, as I’d done on my long runs, and then I could re-evaluate how I felt beyond that.
To distract myself, I chatted with a senior gentleman. At my pace, there are always Senior Gentlemen (and Senior Ladies, too!), the sort of crusty gent who’s been running for decades and is now basically enjoying life. This one told me war stories of marathons past and talked about running Baystate in its early days. When we got to mile 20, I said, this is the fun part now, isn’t it? Clearly it was, for him — when I looked him up in the results later, I found he had BQ’ed by finishing a few minutes ahead of me.
Miles 21-23. 10:21, 10:16, 10:41.
I could feel my quads starting to protest, and gritted my teeth at mile 23 as the protest crescendoed into a full-blown revolt. It was warm now, and I knew from last year that the final miles were in direct sunshine. At each of the last few water stops I downed a full cup of Gatorade, which helped stave off the cramps for a minute or two each time.
Be like water, I thought, channelling Bruce. Where normally I’d start to freak out at the first twang of cramps, checking and rechecking my watch to calculate whether I’d make some arbitrary round-number time goal I’d set for myself, this time…nothing. So I’m cramping. So I’ve cramped in 6 marathons now. This one’s already gone better than any of the previous ones. Cramps? Not a roadblock. Around. Over. Through. I can finish. I can do this. Mentally and emotionally, albeit not physically, I was totally relaxed.
Miles 24-26.2. 10:56, 10:39, 11:21, 9:37 pace for final 0.2.
With my quads cramping hard as usual, I was in no mood to walk and take a gel at mile 25 — I just wanted to keep shuffling on into the finish. Shuffle, shuffle. One foot in front of the other. All I had to do was not stop and I could be proud of my effort.
I didn’t stop. 4:19:38.
You guys. YOU GUYS. That is nearly 35 minutes off my last marathon time. The cramps didn’t kick in till mile 23, much later than usual, which I think is testament to being (mostly) properly trained and being pretty conservative.
What did I learn and what would I do differently next go-round? A 22-miler next time, perhaps? Step-mill for cross-training, to focus on what clearly is a physical weakness? And some real lifting instead of just my MYRTL routine. Mentally, I still have trouble with the idea of pushing medium-hard for that long. I’d like to get more practice racing some hard half-marathons for effort rather than time.
I think what I’m happiest about here is that I finally feel like I’m beginning to run the marathon to my potential, my fitness and my training. I managed to stick with the race plan until the cramps really started in earnest. That decision to try and hold 9:30s, or rather a comfortable sort of just-a-little-faster-than-long-run pace, instead of pushing any harder, was the right one. I enjoyed the whole darn thing. Even the crampy bits.
Maybe one day I’ll race a marathon — go out at a harder effort, endure discomfort for more of the marathon, and see where it gets me. Right now? I’m satisfied with this.