A few weeks ago, watching the USATF Indoor Track Championships with my leg propped up recovering from surgery on my injured hamstring, I found it ironic that I was drinking a beer from my 2018 Houston Marathon Finishers mug. That was the last marathon I ran fully healthy, where I “shoulda, coulda, wish I woulda” qualified for the Olympic Trials Marathon coming up this weekend. Instead, I crashed and burned both physically and mentally before I even hit 10 miles. I was left reeling for months, pondering the end of my competitive running career. Read more >>
After all the calamities during my spring and summer racing, I decided to just put my head down and focus on training hard. In the past I’ve always loved racing my way into shape and competitiveness, but now I live at least an hour away from any mildly competitive races. Not wanting to sacrifice precious family weekend time to spend half a Saturday away at a race, I opted to get in long runs or workouts on weekends instead.
My goal was the Twin Cities Marathon, which I’d never run but had heard good things. I figured a new race would be motivating, and this one always has a competitive field and historically has produced fast times.
Without racing I didn’t have much to go on other than feel, but I felt like my training went really well. I had some great long runs and quality workouts, and even managed to get in some killer Alter-G workouts where I hit times faster than I’ve ever run before. I felt fairly confident despite not having the racing results that I usually use to back it up.
Except then something started feeling wrong. Read more >>
I don’t like leaving questions unanswered. One of the main reasons I decided to attend West Point was that I didn’t want to later regret turning my acceptance down. If I didn’t like it, I could always leave for a civilian school, but not vice versa; if I didn’t accept the initial offer, I couldn’t change my mind and transfer there later.
Same with running. I never want to wonder “what if” or wish I had given it one more go while I could.
When I last wrote here on Salty Running, I left off with lingering doubts about continuing my competitive career, wondering “am I good with good enough?”
But I don’t like open-ended debates, so I decided I wasn’t. I decided to keep racing, committing to giving it my best shot. This wasn’t an easy decision to make, given my limited time, resources, and energy. I was no longer at the stage in life where running could be my top priority (or even close) and had to fit in what I could around three kids, a husband who’s always gone, and a new job that ate away any extra time I had without anything else in life giving to make room. Could I make a comeback? I wanted to try and see. Read more >>
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.
As I sit here the day after the Richmond Marathon, writing my race report, I don’t feel like I just ran a marathon yesterday.
That about sums up my race.
Let me backtrack a bit. On a run 10 days before the marathon my knee started to hurt. It hurt enough to call it a day at 3 miles, then take the next several days off. After switching my shoes and consulting a chiropractor, I tried running again. While it didn’t hurt now, it still had a little pull and wasn’t 100% normal.
My coach advised me to take the following week completely off and then do very short runs the Thursday and Friday before the race. During that week, I set up my bike trainer in the basement and biked the equivalent times I would have run. My knee felt fine and didn’t bother me at all running the two days before the marathon. I focused on the mental aspect of dealing with this extreme taper; I knew the work was done, and I hoped that an 8-mile pre-race week wouldn’t affect my performance.
The elite coordinator Thom had invited me to be the guest speaker at their Sports Backers club dinner Thursday evening and talk at a school Friday morning. Last year they had Desi Linden – quite an act to follow! – but since the race fell on Veteran’s Day this year, Thom (an Air Force Vietnam Veteran himself), thought it would be neat to have a veteran as the speaker. I was very honored and looking forward to talking with and meeting other fellow runners. I thought it would be fun since I used to speak with school groups while in WCAP.
I debated whether to travel to Richmond solo or with the kids. My husband was in the field all week and training nights, and he couldn’t leave until Friday. My Mom was willing to drive over (she lives an hour away) and watch the kids at the hotel while I was at my speaking engagements, but ultimately we decided the easiest thing to do logistically would be to leave them at home with a babysitter while he was working. That meant I wouldn’t have my race support/cheering squad there, but I would hopefully get two nights of solid sleep and time to myself.
The speaking engagements went well. The dinner Thursday evening was coincidentally at the high school my Dad graduated from, and it made me feel like a pro to field questions from a range of people running their first to 20th marathon. Friday I talked with the run club at a military middle school in the city, which was fun. As I relayed some of my Army experiences, I realized that the kids weren’t even born when September 11th happened, an event that had completely shaped my young adult life as a 2001 West Point graduate. That evening I met up with one of my best friends and teammates from college and her boyfriend for an early bird dinner, th
en headed back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep in a crisp, neatly made, all-to-myself bed before race day!
I woke up two hours before the start to eat breakfast, which I had no appetite for and had to force down. I managed to eat a plain bagel, part of a banana, and bottle of water. I took a quick shower to help wake up, then rolled my legs and stretched a bit. I was only a few blocks to the start and wanted to leave the hotel as late as possible since it was below freezing outside and I didn’t want to shiver for too long!
Mentally, I felt good. I had accepted the fact that running a marathon was going to be unpleasant, that I was going to be out there for a long haul, and that it was going to hurt. After dreading it for the last several weeks, I was looking forward to getting it done.
I ran up to the start and got to the line about 20 minutes before go time. It was cold: 25 degrees at the start. My ponytail froze into one solid ice chunk. I kept my sweats on for as long as possible, then stripped down to my shorts, singlet and throwaway gloves. Mistake #1: I should have worn compression socks or sleeves and possibly arm sleeves. I never warmed up the entire race.
I started up front and settled into a comfortable pace. The first mile was 6:23, but I didn’t use my watch too much after the first few miles as I tried to dial into a pace. It was freezing, and it felt like there was a cold wind no matter who I tucked in behind. My next few miles stayed consistent around 6:20-6:22.
I entered this race thinking I was fit enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials (2:45). I felt like I had gotten in a solid training block and that in good conditions I could do it. A OTQ requires a 6:17-8 pace, and I was just slightly off. I didn’t freak out or become discouraged and throw in the towel. I felt good where I was. 6:20-6:22 just happened to be my rhythm that day. I also thought that maybe when I warmed up a bit, I could get into a faster groove.
Around mile 8 I finally began to feel my face and hands again. My throwaway gloves were perfect for gel storage. I always debate pinning my gels to the inside of my shorts or tucking them into my sports bra, both of which result in awful chafing in weird places. I ended up keeping my gloves on the entire race because of the cold and just tucked my gels into them so I didn’t have to hold anything.
I went through the half at 83:16. Still on 6:21 pace, so I’d definitely found my rhythm. I felt good, working but in control. Surprisingly, I was enjoying myself. The marathon was a beautiful course with nice crowd support spread throughout. It seemed to be going by very fast. Normally, even if I don’t look at my watch every mile it still seems like a long drag between the markers, but in this race it felt like the miles just kept clicking away.
If I could keep that consistent pace, I thought I would end up running 2:47-2:48, which I would be happy with. It would make a good starting point for another consistent training cycle. On an easier course in better conditions, I’d be confident to run several minutes faster. While I knew I wasn’t going to negative split it today and qualify for the trials, I was perfectly happy with where I was at and confident I’d maintain it.
And then came mile 18. My quads completely locked up. Sure, at some point in every marathon my legs start to really, really hurt. That’s the nature of pounding the pavement for 26 miles. But this was different. It was serious cramping, enough that I wanted to stop and stretch but didn’t because I knew it would be hard to start again. I felt like I was half stepping, my stride length reduced to nothing. The only thing I could do was try to maintain the same rhythm, although my steps felt incredibly short.
What happened? Maybe the hills finally caught up to me? Richmond is a very hilly course. Some are obvious, others are long stretches that you don’t even notice until you’re running them. The whole thing feels rolling. But I generally run on hilly routes while pushing the stroller, so didn’t think the Richmond hills would bother me that much. Could it have been the cold from wearing shorts? My butt was still numb from cold at the end of the race.
Later that day it dawned on me that my quad cramps were probably the result of my biking for the last 10 days; I hadn’t ridden my bike trainer in years, so starting a new activity to substitute running the week before my race (ie: stressing different muscles) probably wasn’t a genius idea. Mistake #2.
Needless to say, I lost 4-5 minutes the final 8 miles. I got passed by 2 women, handfuls of men, and finally finished as 6th female in 2:52:39.
I was immediately disappointed in myself, because I felt like I had just run, not raced, 26 miles. Which unfortunately characterizes how I’ve felt after many of my races this season.
On the long drive home (only about 3.5 hours driving, but I stopped frequently to walk around and stretch my legs), I did nothing but analyze my race. Did I run slower than hoped for because of environmental factors (the cold and fact that I never warmed up, the hills, my quads) or because I mentally gave up at mile 18 when my quads seized up? I think it was my quads. Mentally I tried; when people passed me, I used that as motivation to go with them. I’d latch on for several paces, then my quads would seize up again and I’d be reduced to half stepping. It was frustrating that my body wouldn’t cooperate with my mind.
Overall, despite the cramping, I enjoyed the marathon. Which I don’t think I’ve ever said before. I wasn’t engulfed in doubts or negative thoughts about quitting. I actually was thinking about what I wanted to run next, which NEVER happens: it’s normally “run fast so you don’t have to do this again.” It went by very quickly for a marathon.
Based on how I feel, I think I’m going to recover quickly. My quads and a very chafed belly button (thanks diastasis recti) are the only battle wounds I have. While taking some recovery time I plan on analyzing my training cycle to see what I can change and revamp for the next one. My buildup for this marathon was good, not great, and just like this race, my intermediary races were mostly lackluster and left me feeling like I hadn’t left it all on the course. And that means it’s time to refocus on what is next.
In my buildup to the Richmond Marathon, I planned two early-autumn 10-milers as my big intermediate races to gauge my fitness. Here’s how they went.
Virginia 10 Miler, Lynchburg, Sept. 23
I grew up an hour away in Charlottesville, VA, and ran many high school track and cross country meets in Lynchburg. I moved away as an adult, and this was my first time running the Virginia 10 Miler. It’s a pretty historic race: 44 years running, hosting famous runners such as Bill Rogers, Frank Shorter, Rod Dixon, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, and serving as the RRCA 10 Mile National Championships in past years.
I put it on my schedule when the elite coordinator reached out to my running team, GRC, to see if there was any interest. They offer a very generous prize purse, including American-only prize money and time bonuses. With around 4,000 runners, they typically have a competitive field, including plenty of foreign-born athletes who seek out this kind of race.
I ran 82 miles the week of the race, but did cut back the two days preceding it, hoping to be rested. I wanted to run well here; halfway through my marathon training, this would be a good test to see where my fitness was. As a seeded runner, I also wanted to live up to expectations. This was my first 10 miler in quite a long time, and my first race as an invited athlete since I ran the 2016 Jacksonville half marathon leading up to the 2016 Marathon Trials.
Fast forward to race morning. As I stood at the start line with the other invited athletes, I felt completely out of place. Maybe because I had been out of it for so long, or maybe because they all looked so much younger than me. All I could think was, “I’m a 38 year old mother of 3. This is so not my scene anymore.”
It’s an extremely hilly out-and-back course. The first 1.5 miles are steep downhill, next few miles rolling, then turn around to end with the last 1.5 up. Not a flat part the entire way. I went out controlled, and unfortunately stayed that way the entire race. I never really let loose to take advantage of the long downhills. My plan was to pick it up at the turnaround point, but I never did. I stayed consistent throughout the race, and wasn’t bothered by the long uphill to the finish because I usually run hilly routes pushing a single, double, or triple running stroller.
I ended up finishing in a lackluster 62:38, 6:16 pace, for 15th overall female and first in my age group. Winning my age group just made me feel old. I was disappointed in myself because I didn’t race. Even my husband said at the finish I looked like I was just out running. On my 45-minute post-race run I headed over to the track and did 12 x 100 m hard just because I felt like I had too much left. I know it was the reoccurring negative thought “I’m a 38 year old mother of 3. This is so not my scene anymore,” that plagued me throughout the race. It didn’t help, either, that after being away from racing for so long and training completely by myself, I forgot how to really get out of my comfort zone to race.
Army 10 Miler, Washington, D.C., Oct. 8
After the Virginia 10 Miler, I took a last-minute trip to England with my husband, bringing baby and leaving my two oldest with my parents. I barely ran during the eight days, apart from 30 minutes here and there. This was partly because it rained almost the entire time we were there, and partly because I didn’t want to turn our vacation into my training trip. It’s just hard for me to train when I’m out of my routine. To help alleviate the effects of reduced training, I sandwiched the trip with a 20 miler/workout the day before I left and a 22 miler the day after I returned.
Physically, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel given the disruption of travel and lack of actual training the preceding week and a half before the race. I had logistical stress with finding last minute childcare since my husband was recalled to work and I was stranded in D.C. with my kids before the race. But that didn’t matter. My goal for this race was to race. I went into it with the expectation that to race meant I was going to feel bad. So no matter what the circumstances leading into the race, even if they were perfect, I should feel bad if I were racing hard.
This is a HUGE race (35,000 people) that I’ve run many times over the years. It’s always a fast field bringing many of the local elites out. Once you get through the masses to the starting line, it’s a fun race. Nice course, plenty of crowd support. It was fun to see many old Army friends before and after the race.
I ended up finishing in another lackluster 61:55, 6:12 pace, for 10th female, 5th in my age group. Finishing 5th in my age group instead of 1st in the VA 10 miler actually made me feel much better — there was hope that maybe I wasn’t too old and slow, getting beaten by plenty of women my age! But I was much happier about my effort than the VA 10 Miler. I’d give myself a 6.5/10 as far as competitive race focus. I went out somewhat hard but in control, ran the first few miles well, then lost focus a bit between 4-7 when I was passed by five women. Between miles 7-8 I stopped feeling sorry for myself, got my head back into the game, and reeled a few in. Played back and forth with two of them for the remaining 2 miles, and finished feeling like I actually raced.
Afterwards everyone was talking about how horrible the conditions were. I didn’t think it was that bad, maybe because it always seems hot and humid in North Carolina, but I’ll take that as an excuse for the slow time (the top times were significantly slower than they have been in years). They actually stopped official timing for the race two hours after the start, rerouted runners a shorter distance to the finish, and downgraded it to a recreational run.
The Army 10 miler was five weeks before Richmond (Nov. 11), which is really just 3 weeks of training followed by a taper. I feel like my training is going well, but I don’t have the confidence I need from my races. Granted, the first 10 miler was a slow, hilly course, and the second 10 miler was in slow conditions, but I don’t like to justify my results. I need fast times to validate my training. And running two 10 milers around marathon pace doesn’t make me feel well prepared.
Update: A few weeks after the Army 10 Miler I ran several 5Ks, and another 10 miler. My goal for each was to really race, regardless of the conditions and competition, and get back into a mindset of really pushing myself. The 10 miler I entered at the end of my last high mileage week ended up being exactly what I needed. I ran faster than my two earlier key race 10 miler efforts, but most importantly, pushed myself to the end even when running solo for the final 7 miles. None of these races were lightning fast, but they did boost my confidence by getting back into a racing mindset.
Any suggestions for building confidence if your race results aren’t what you’re hoping for?
An extremely low-key Tuesday night rust-buster type race, this 5k was the ideal comeback. Plus, it was hosted by NOVA, the club I used to run with while living in northern Virginia. My husband had a work trip to DC for a few days, so the kids and I tagged along to play tourist and take advantage of the free hotel room; perfect conditions for me to stage a comeback! I have been desperate to start racing again, but races are few and far between in the hot North Carolina summer, so I was very excited to take advantage of the opportunity! Read more >>
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