In 2013, I ran two marathons that completely schooled me again. The first, Myrtle Beach was spot for a 3:38 finish until the last 4 miles. Then splits started to slip, first by 10 seconds, then 45. Mile 25 was off by 1:30, then 26 was 2 minutes slower than goal pace. I hit the wall hard. I obviously wasn't ready for a 3:38. More disturbing though, was the effect of the fellow runners around me during that race. Before those final miles, a couple was keeping pace with me; the woman was clearly attempting to BQ. He kept giving splits all through the race and letting her know how she stood. Somewhere, near mile 23, she also started to slow and said "I'm hurting". His response to this was to berate and curse at her. My response was to try to get away from them, so I tried to speed up. The man said: "You have to catch up to her!". So they stayed with me, all while she voiced her discomfort and he verbally abused her. At that point, I decided: there's another way to get away from them. I'll just slow down. And it made sense at the time.
When Jason mentioned that he would help pace me during this marathon, I returned to the Myrtle Beach memory more often than I care to admit. I didn't want to hit the wall again. I assured him that if I needed encouragement, it would have to be a little more kind and gentle than what I had heard that day in Myrtle Beach, but I wasn't sure what I needed when I hit the wall. He said: you are going to be tough enough to keep going. I was happy for his enthusiasm, but I didn't think I had it in me yet.
Every time I envision finishing another marathon, I picture another woman from Myrtle Beach with whom I had chatted and run with early in the race for a few miles. Somewhere between mile 25 and 26, she floated by, gleefully calling out, "C'mon! We've got this!" with a huge grin. I wanted to be like THAT at the end my next marathon.
I tried again for a BQ race a few months later, which ended with a finishing time 10 minutes slower than my Myrtle Beach time. You can read about that BQ bust here.
So, I decided to meet with a coach this spring, Carl Leivers, to take a look at my mechanics and make some tweaks. I worked with him for all the months building up to the marathon with a customized plan. Training went really well (no injuries... what!?!) and I truly believe it was Carl's careful mileage increases, his tips on strengthening and the suggestions he made for running form tweaks that made all the difference.
After some really easy logistics of parking, figuring out warm up layers, using the port-a-potties, jogging a short warm up (this is why I love smaller races) we nestled into the start line crowd and were sent off with a big cannon boom. At gun time it was pretty chilly, about 36 degrees. I was wearing shorts, leg compression sleeves, my Oiselle singlet, arm warmers, a long sleeve throwaway T-shirt, gloves and a knit beanie. At the expo we had chatted with a man who had run this race a few times and he let us know that most of the course (because it is so heavily wooded) is in the shade, and stays on the cooler side. He was spot on.
Miles 1-6 (8:23, 8:18, 8:08, 8:12, 7:54, 8:15)
For the first mile or so we stayed around the 6th Calvary Museum, a little loop lined with lots of enthusiastic supporters, then a stretch of road that linked to a poorly paved trail (I talk about that in my Chickamauga Battlefield Marathon race review here) and then into the Battlefield Park and the start of the first loop. There were lots of runners around us during this first loop: I had this vision of the race where Jason and I would be all alone because the field was so small, but it actually never felt that way. We pretty quickly fell into step with a group of three runners who were also from Atlanta who were keeping almost exactly the same pace. At some point in this stretch we were at the bottom of a hill, heading east. The sun's rays were low in the sky and were filtering through all the frosty exhalations of the runners who were in front of us. I desperately wished I could have photographed the scene; hopefully I can remember that for a long time. I took a Gu at mile 6 or so right after a water stop. I tossed the cup on the ground near the aid station, but took my time with the Gu. I shoved empty Gu into my pocket and said something to Jason about being careful not to litter on the course, since this was a National Park. I also off-handedly mentioned that if people relieved themselves outside of a port-a-potty that they could be ticketed by Park Police. I think he grunted.
Miles 7-11 (8:09, 8:08, 8:12, 8:19, 8:16)
Here's where the course splits from the half marathon and re-joins it. I said to Jason: these people are running faster than us, don't let that mess with my head. He said something about not liking that. But that was it. I had thought that we would talk a lot more during the race. His face was frozen, I later learned, and he was having a hard time moving his jaw. Having Jason with me was a great comfort. I wasn't sure that I wanted his company for the whole race, but am so thankful he was there with me. Quite frankly, I liked his company. Most of my anxiety for this race was about pacing: fear of going out too fast in the beginning, and then dropping off in the end when my concentration was low. I wasn't checking splits every mile because I knew he was. When we dipped into the seven's at mile 5 he just said "Let's relax a bit".
We hit a water stop right around mile 11 but I didn't have the urge to take a Gu. Right ahead of us was a port-a-potty. All of the sudden, Jason just said "Keep going, Katie - I will catch up!" and then he was gone. The course crosses over railroad tracks at that point and then makes a sharp turn. I heard the potty door slam and guessed that was where he had gone. For the first time in a long time I looked down at my watch. My overall average pace was 8:12. Wow.
Miles 12-13 (8:14, 8:17)
It took a little while for Jason to catch up to me - maybe a 1/2 mile. We ran through an area that was a little more open during this stretch, and Jason said "How are you feeling?" I didn't feel good at all. My legs felt tired and I felt achy. I was actually freaking out mentally, because I was trying to understand how in the world I was going to get through the next 14 miles without falling apart. Instead of answering, I didn't say anything. I didn't even acknowledge the question, because if I answered it truthfully, I was afraid of what I would do. Jason didn't say a thing more. We passed over the half marathon mat, both took a Gu and kept on going. I started to refer to myself in the third person (I realize that this sounds insane, but there is research to back it up: heard about it on the AMR podcast about Sarah Bowen Shea's Victoria marathon) and silently repeated: "Katie is strong, Katie is fit, Katie can do this".
Miles 14-20 (8:08, 8:12, 8:07, 8:08, 8:20, 8:07, 8:11)
I like to mentally break the marathon into three chunks: the first half, the miles up to 20, and then the last 10K. For some reason, the aches and pains from the previous miles weren't bothering me. "Jason, I felt really, really bad a few miles ago, and now I just don't". He said: "I think that there will be bad patches. It's important to remember that things are going to get better. There may be another one like that." We had caught up to the little group of three from Atlanta again and chatted with them some more. They slowly started to pull away again, and we said so long. "Maybe we'll see you in the existential suffering that is the last 10K of the marathon!" one yelled out as they went down a hill in front of us. Those are some parting words. I took about half a Gu at mile 20 or so. My stomach gave me the signals that it couldn't take anymore, so I listened. I wasn't going to chance getting sick on the course this time around.
We passed a group of Boy Scouts on a hike, and Jason remarked that they were Webelos. I had a brief history of Boy Scout uniforms, but just kept repeating the word "Webelo, webelo, webelo" over and over and over again in my head, not saying a thing. Then Jason said: "Webelo: We Be Loyal Scouts". I made a mental note to address that horrifying grammar error with the Boy Scouts of America later. But I didn't have the energy to discuss it then. (We looked it up later that night and discovered that it stands for We'll Be Loyal Scouts. That gave us quite a chuckle.)
Miles 21-26.2 (8:23, 8:32, 8:22, 8:03, 8:18, 8:11, 7:11 for 0.2)
Somewhere around mile 22, I started to have some stomach upset. The other little group from Atlanta had lost one of their three, and we ran by him as he slowed near the shoulder. We passed, and he began to vomit on the side of the road. There was an aid station shortly ahead, so we knew he would get some help there. The sound and smell hit me and I started to unravel a bit; I actually whimpered, and then dry heaved maybe once or twice. I dropped a glove, whimpered some more as if it was the end of the world and almost STOPPED TO PICK UP THE GLOVE. Jason looked at me and said, "You've got this, Katie. Let the glove go." That mile had some uphill portions, but then we just kept running down gentle descents, Jason saying periodically "You are doing well. You've got this.", and I felt something just click into place. Katie is strong. Katie is fit. Katie can do this.
At the last aid stations I took a cup of Powerade; but I only swished and spit it out. Suddenly the last 10K of the race had turned into the last 5K of the race. When the mile 23 sign came up, I remarked that is was like running from our familiar three mile turn-around point to our house. I felt a fire light up inside me. What was happening? I turned my legs over a little bit faster and they went. Then the mile 24 sign popped up. I said "Jason!" (Which all I could get out, but meant "Jason! I might actually DO this!"). He replied: "You are doing this, Katie!" At some point I remember thinking, "So THIS is what it feels like to run with your heart."
We were passing a lot of people, both marathon and half-marathon runners. Most people offered up encouragement, which was a testament to their character, and something I need to remember when I'm in the last miles of a marathon. At mile 25, Jason said "You are running really well. I may not be able to stay with you, but I want you to go as hard as you can." Wait, what?
I wound along the access road, which by now felt brutally uneven and rough on my feet. Passing people, thanking volunteers, nodding when the course sentries said "400 meters to go!"
We came around a sweeping curve with a wonderful downhill into the finish. I heard my friend Lindsay (with her sweet baby bundled in an Ergo) cowbelling and yelling "Go Katie! Go go go!" Next to her was our friend Sara. Seeing them there was too much. They came all this way to cheer for me! I looked at the finish line clock. It said 3:36. I saw my friends again. And I started to bawl.
I ran into the finish and ugly-cried my way through a medal, a cold water bottle and a huge hug with my husband. I found Lindsay and Sara and cried on them.
Jason and I walked and walked around the finish area and I was over the moon. This pie-in-the-sky goal that I threw out there as a challenge to myself just happened. I don't know if I have ever felt so GOOD after a marathon. I'm so thankful for the patience of my husband, children, friends, and running buddies, as well as the great coaching, advice and general guidance from Carl.
For the first time, I didn't moan "I'm never doing that again!" at the finish line. This was a perfect race in so many ways.
What's your most memorable race?