It was kind of a strange feeling going into this race. There wasn’t the usual pre-race hype and nerves – I was weirdly calm about the fact that I was about to race a freaking marathon. It felt almost business-like: I was going to run hard, I was going to hurt, I was going to feel my legs rebel in the final miles, I was going to fight through, and I was going to cross that line before my watch ticked over to 3:20. Like marking items off a checklist.
It sounds obvious, but I’ve learned first-hand that the bigger the base and the higher the training volume, the stronger I feel in the final miles of the race. The problem this time is that I was just coming back from 6 months of dealing with a foot injury. Therefore, I was far removed from my previously-freaking-awesome base and had a shorter training cycle with lower volume than I’d prefer. I get that none of that sounds like PR material, and I know I’m not as fast, as strong, or as fit as I was one year ago. But thanks to having a bad case of bronchitis in Boston, my PR wasn’t from last year – it was from October 2015. So I didn’t have to be as fast as I’ve ever been, I just had to run faster than I did 2+ years ago. I just wanted to break 3:20. Judging from my huge negative split times at the WDW Half Marathon in January, I knew it would be difficult but within reach. Matt told me not to discount my training either: “Maybe it wasn’t ideal, but you still put in the work.”
And frankly, I felt like I could will my body into it either way. I had a lot of question marks about my physical abilities going into this race, but full confidence in my mental game and my ability to maximize whatever my body could bring to the table. I knew, due to the limited number of miles under them, that my legs would feel heavy and slow toward the end of the marathon – whether I’d run fast or slow up until that point. I also knew that the way to push them when they wanted to stop would be to have my goal within striking distance. So my plan was to not push but also not hold back in the first half, and then try to keep it together as long as possible. Reasonable enough.
|Pre-race dinner with Kindal|
I was also in an entirely different headspace than one would normally be heading into a race. Exactly one year before this race week, our dear friend-like-family Matt Brown had a seizure in his sleep and never woke up. Losing Matt was heart-wrenchingly tragic, and my soul still aches over that hard, hard week of his death and his funeral. Needless to say, the week of the race was a very emotional time for me. And all I could think about that Saturday morning was that Saturday from the year before, at his funeral. On one hand, the perspective made something like a marathon seem extremely trivial. On the other hand, Matt was a runner, and I was going to Never Stop fighting to make him proud that day.
Up at the start, I waited and warmed up and took care of business with Heather (@triandrungirl), Tam (@tamarynnleigh), and Heather’s husband Trevor. I’m always grateful for chip starts – we finally made it to the start line at 6:04 a.m. Quick hugs and good lucks and see you laters, and we were off! It was pitch black, so I couldn’t see my watch and decided to ignore it entirely for those first few miles. The Phoenix Marathon, if run with an even effort throughout, is a positive-split course. In the first 11 or so miles, you lose about 800 feet and have a long, gradual 200-foot uphill. The rest of the course is flat. Combine that with the positive split desert conditions – cooler at the start and heating up quick once the sun rises – and yeah, an even effort on that day would yield a positive split. So I just wanted to let my body run at a nice, steady effort regardless of pace for as long as it could and then fight for it when my legs started to quit – and I just hoped that would happen as late into the race as possible.
That first half went according to plan. I clocked in low 7’s on the downhill miles and tallied a 7:44 and an 8:16 on the two uphill miles that came with a bonus headwind. I had no interest in burning matches on those early hills so I really just kept that even effort right on up. I wanted to hit the half marathon mark between 1:36 and 1:37, and got there at 1:36:25 – a 7:21 average pace for the easier part of the race. I felt surprisingly good at this point. My fueling was right on point (Huma Gels every 45ish minutes and water/Gatorade/both at every aid station). Cardiovascularly, I was great! My heart rate was fine, my breathing was fine, and my perceived effort seemed quite reasonable for the first half of a marathon.
My legs, on the other hand, never felt awesome and were starting to feel heavier and heavier as the miles passed. This is where the missing training volume and missing muscular strength could/would start to be exposed. It seemed like a ticking time bomb. I started breaking the race down. If I could just keep cruising until mile 15, then mile 16… until that aid station at mile 17… okay, now mile 18…
When I was visiting Phoenix in November, I made sure to run the last 8 miles of this course so I would have some familiarity when the going got tough on race day. I was, therefore, very much looking forward to getting to mile 18. I reached that point still intact, which felt like a big win on the day. I’d kept my average pace in the low 7:30s since hitting the flats and was holding on okay. I knew what to expect from here on out and was grateful for that. My legs were getting heavier by the minute and I could feel the slowdown coming, but I felt capable to fight. I’d glance down at my watch, see Matt’s phrase “Never Stop” on my bracelet, and pull myself together, willing my lead-filled legs forward.
Somewhere in those late teens miles, I calculated that the last 6.2 miles would take about 50 minutes at 8:00 pace, so if I could hit mile 20 by 2:30 on my watch, then I’d just have to average 8:00 to beat the 3:20 mark. So much easier said than done – and yet doable at the same time. My watch was just over 2:29 when I passed the mile 20 marker. That’s also when my pace started to slip, and I glanced down and saw 8:20 as my moving pace. Literally seconds later, Ashley Anderson/Sorenson (@run4coke) came running up. We went to high school together (hence her always being Ashley Anderson in my head!) and Tam coaches her now, so I’d just seen her for the first time in years that weekend – and she saved me. Ashley was running strong, holding 7:40s. And doing well enough to have a conversation! We chatted a little bit and I was able to hang on for a couple miles before slowing down at an aid station and telling her to go ahead. She was rocking a negative split marathon and I definitely didn’t want to hold her back!
It was a great feeling to hit mile 23 and realize I could run 10s at that point and still pull out a su-3:30 (BQ-minus 5). At least I knew I wouldn’t have to run another marathon this year, I thought. (These things are hard!) That sub-3:20 was still in reach if I could just keep pushing. My legs were fading fast, though, and I worried that if I let up the effort at all, I’d lose the sub-3:20 and the PR and maybe even the BQ entirely. It was so crazy because I still felt so fine on the cardiovascular side of things, but my legs had never felt so heavy or hurt so much. I wasn’t breathing heavy but I was wincing from the pain of picking up my brick legs and putting them in front of me, over and over and over again. I was locked into a robotic motion for those final miles and have never fought so hard through that kind of muscular rebellion in my life. But I was so close, and my goal was so close, and if I let up at all, I would lose it. Never Stop, I repeated to myself over and over again as I mechanically made my way through that last 5K.
And like, literally, never stop – I skipped the aid station at mile 24 completely because I felt like the tiniest pull off the throttle or the tiniest variance from my robotic motion would cause the whole thing to collapse. My legs were teetering on an edge that I’d never felt before. But they were going to do this and I was going to do this and that clock was going to have a 3 followed by a 1, no matter what.
I finally saw the palm-tree lined finish line, ran through the chute, found Kindal, and burst into tears all in what seemed like the same step. I bawled for a few minutes straight while she hugged me. “I’m fine,” I explained. “It’s Matt.” She knew that, though. I’d just spent more than 3 hours holding it back and I just needed a good cry. It was harder than I’d expected to race on the anniversary of his funeral, but also probably the best thing I could have done. I felt him with me and hope I made him proud.
|SO fun sharing the race weekend with these speedy friends of mine!|
(@ashkickn1, @triandrungirl, @tamarynnleigh, @ runningwithstrength)
And if that’s what I can do under those circumstances – 6 months of averaging less than 10 miles/week followed by a 12-week training cycle – then I’m super excited to see what I can do with a proper base + build for my next 26.2. But first, I’m switching gears and training for Gulf Coast 70.3 in May! My bike has been calling my name. J