A Marathon Personal Record: in three acts
Act 1: Are you kidding me with this weather?
Thunder. Actual, honest-to-God, claps of thunder echoed through the second floor bedroom of the rental house on Turtle Cove Golf Course in Kiawah Island, South Carolina, muffled only by heavy rain sitting the clapboards sideways.
Absent the thunder, the weather was the same as when my husband, David, and I made the 75-minute drive to the Island from Charleston airport the night before. He’d flown in from Seattle; me, from Austin, where I’d been working for the week, and where the weather was also soul-stealing rain. (In Austin, it would turn to snow shortly after my departure, stranding flights on the tarmac for hours).
For nearly 12 months I’d been planning for the Kiawah Island Marathon, chosen for its flat course and generally favorable marathon weather. After three unintentional near-misses earlier in the year, I had my sights set on a personal record.
And now, compulsively checking my weather app for changes to the 41-degree, rainy, race-day forecast, I can see that record washing away. I’ve yet to run in these conditions without flirting with hypothermia.
Act 2: Maybe I’m doing this wrong.
I was drinking wine when I got the email: 2017 Suncadia Multisport Canceled and moving to 2018. The marathon an hour outside of Seattle was hilly, but beautiful, as I recalled from the 2016 race, which I’d completed in slow and disastrous fashion, days after embarking on a 3-day juice fast. I was returning in 2017 with a full belly not only to run strong, but to attempt a personal record. Having come within 2-minutes of a PR without actually trying to do so on flat courses but without a taper at Disney, in Dubai and in Washington earlier this year, Suncadia felt doable. I also thought that a small PR there, seconds even, would bode well for a more significant PR in Kiawah Island in December.
And now the race was cancelled.
Not for the first time, I flash back to an article I read by Elinor Fish earlier in the week. The one where she talks about accounting for total stress load when training; not just mileage run, but work stress and home stress. The article in which, like a cartoon hammer bonking me on the head, I’d realized my Monday “rest days” from 6-day per week training schedule weren’t really rest days if I still had a full workday. Holy crap, I’d thought when I read the article. I haven’t really had a “rest day” since I started doing Saturday-Sunday, back-to-back long runs when training for my first stage race in the Spring of 2015.
Two years is a long time to go without a real rest day. And it could explain the nagging pain in my right glute that didn’t away after PR-ing the Chicago Marathon last October; the weird throbbing in my left ankle that came and went through the Spring; oh, and the rash on my neck that, while not visible to others, itched like crazy periodically through the day and after exercise, causing me to raise my chin in the air and scratch at the skin around my wind-pipe, like a retriever seeking reward for good behavior.
For a week I’d been sitting on this newly-discovered insight, unsure what to do about it. Suncadia’s cancellation was a divine sign: To speed up, I obviously needed to slow down.
Over the course of a week, I turned upside down the running schedule that had gotten me through 35 marathons and ultras. I emerged from this self-imposed reset with Sundays off, with 20 weeks to go before Kiawah Island.
Act 3: We talked about this. You just need to go.
My alarm went off at 6:00am. With my eyes still adjusting, I tapped the weather app. 6:00 – clouds. 7:00 – clouds. 8:00 – clouds. 9:00 – clouds. 10:00 – clouds. 11:00 – clouds. 12:00 – clouds. 1:00 – clouds. 2:00 – clouds. 3:00 – clouds. 4:00 – clouds. 5:00 – clouds. 6:00 – clouds. Last night’s weather reports showed rain all day but, overnight, they’d proven wrong. The rain had completely moved out of the area.
Downstairs, Cathy, Tammy and I twittered like little girls on Christmas morning, while our husbands waited patiently to drive us to the start line, 2 miles away. We’d armed them with a course map, and precise times at which to look for us among the pack. Tammy, running the half marathon, could be spotted at Miles 2 and 7 in the vicinity of our rental house. Cathy and I, running the full, expected to see them at 2 and 21.5. They would also meet us at the finish, where Cathy planned on pacing me to a PR.
We’d had The Talk the day before. We were running together, but if either of us felt particularly good, or particularly bad, we would separate. Cathy just set a marathon PR in October, and had her sights set on her next “A” race — the 2018 Boston Marathon in April. Kiawah was my “A” race.
We crossed the 13.1 mile split exactly on goal pace. We wouldn’t need to negative split — run the second half faster than the first — but we couldn’t go slower.
At Mile 16 I started to pull ahead slightly, but held back once Cathy appeared off my right shoulder. I’d made a similar move at Mile 15 of the Blooms to Brews Marathon in April, and I had proven the wrong decision; I’d missed a PR by 20 seconds.
At 19, despite an inkling to move faster, I hung back with Cathy. Afraid of burning out to early, I’d decided at the beginning to run comfortably until at least 20 or 23. And, to reach my goal, I just needed to maintain. But Cathy would hear none of it. “You’re looking strong. We talked about this. You just need to go.”
Do or die, you’ll never make me… I unwound my left earbud from the strap of my sports bra, where I’d tucked it before the race so I could both listen to music and hear Cathy. My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” played into both ears now, an anthem for the final stretch. Go and try, you’ll never break me… I crossed the 20 mile marker and, for the first time since the 13.1-mile split, looked at my watch. Cathy had been our time keeper, but I was now on my own. I’m unashamed, I’m gonna show my scars… I could slow by approximately 20 seconds per mile for the next 10k and still make my goal time. Not a reason to slow, but still, piece of mind. We’ll carry on…
I turned right onto our street and counted the mailboxes to #7, the house we’d rented. Once in sight, I began waiving my neon orange mitten into the air. Tammy descended the porch steps, followed by my husband David, and her husband Chris. “I’m good!” I shouted. “I’m right on time!”
“Good!” Tammy shouted back. “Where is Cathy?”
“Right behind me!” I didn’t wait for a response. I rounded the corner, and they were gone.
I crossed the finish line with a 4 minute and 52 second PR, nearly two minutes faster than my goal time. Cathy came in shortly thereafter, having also met her goal of helping me hit mine.
After 48 races, 9 marathons and 5 ultras, the PR was the last thing I felt like I needed to accomplish this year. I worked hard for this race, but still wonder, vaguely, if I can finish much faster with a proper training plan — one that doesn’t involve 3 marathons and a 50k in the eight week run up. For now, I’m content not to know the answer. I don’t want to stop marathoning long enough to find out.
Deep in the throes of the New Marathoner High, and newly transplanted to Seattle after a lifetime on the east coast, I completed the Amica Seattle Marathon for the first time in 2014 on a day so cold it broke local weather records. A photograph of the winner, his beard crusted with icicles, appeared in the media. Some three years and 31 marathons later, I still tell the story of cold so debilitating that, despite double-layered mittens, I lost the use of my hands to Rinaud’s (a condition not uncommon in women in which blood vessels in the fingers close in completely, cutting off blood flow to one or more digits for a period of time) and, at Mile 18, implored a spectator, a stranger, to bite the top of my gel packet off for me because I couldn’t grip the package strongly enough to bite it off myself. I would pass my husband waiting to cheer me on at Mile 25, his hat pulled low and scarf piled high, with tears streaming down my face. I’m just so cold, I remember whimpering. He felt so badly for me he tried to chase me to the finish.
The 2017 Seattle Marathon website boasted an expected 15,000 entrants across the half and full marathon distances, but the races would finish just under 5,000, amidst sideways rain and 43 degree temperatures. Soaked through every layer of clothing, including those ostensibly protected by my rain jacket and waterproof sneakers, my teeth began a literal chatter in the final race miles, and during the nearly two-mile walk home. It seemed a better idea to just keep moving, than to await an Uber trying to navigate Thanksgiving weekend downtown Seattle marathon traffic. I was just so cold.
While I don’t ever ask myself why I run marathons, I have begun to ask myself why I run this marathon. Pirouetting in the shower, periodically checking to see if I can make the water hotter, even though the lever is turned as far left as it can go, I imagine I’ll run in 2018. They can’t all end like this.
A series of small, friendly races around metro Seattle during Thanksgiving week are big on smiles and low on fan-fair. In one, the Balanced Athlete Half Marathon, participants are few enough to gather inside the Renton, Washington running store before the race, where they sip coffee and hot chocolate; and after the race, where they eat homemade cupcakes.
The other, the Wattle Waddle marathon and Wittle Waddle Half on Thanksgiving Day, marks the first of four races known as the Seattle Quadzuki (4 halfs in 4 days), and Quadzilla (4 marathons in 4 days). Despite that feat of aerobic strength and mental fortitude (particularly in what is notoriously a terribly wet and cold race weekend in Seattle), racers and organizers remain in good spirits.
Races 46 and 47 complete. Bring on the home stretch.
I remember learning about Rosa Parks as a child. A simplistic story of a black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, and it started a civil rights movement. As a child, I thought it was a story about a moment of strength. It was not until I got older that I learned the full story. That Rosa Parks got in physical fights as a child to protect herself, and was an active member of the NAACP a dozen years before she rode that Montgomery bus. It was a moment of strength that brought Rosa Parks to the country’s attention, but it was a life of strength that put her on the bus in the first place.
I was reminded of this today while running with Kelly Herron.
Google her, and pick one of dozens of results to learn how, while training for her first marathon earlier this year, she was attacked in a Seattle park public bathroom. Fighting for her life, all the while shouting “Not today, motherf**ker!,” Kelly escaped, stitched and bruised, and shared her story on social media. It went viral. Women and runners everywhere, including me, talked about “that runner in Seattle” and her moment of strength.
Through profiles in Women’s Running, and through social media, Kelly and I connected online shortly before she completed the Chicago Marathon in October. But, given we are two strong women runners living in the same city, it made sense only that we would do one thing together: we would run.
This race was not my longest or my toughest. It was on a course I’d run before, in weather stereotypical for Seattle in fall. But Race #44 was special. Over the course of the race, Kelly and I talked about running and working, the people we used to be and the people we are now. We cursed and we laughed, often at the same time. And as we crossed the finish line, Kelly’s first trail race completed, I realized that it was a moment of strength that thrust Kelly into the public conscious, but a life of strength that put her in that park in the first place. And I am honored she shared 5 miles worth of that extraordinary life with me.
Anyone that knows me suspected this would happen. That I would not only meet my quest of running 40 races in 2017 for my 40th birthday, but that, upon doing so, I was unlikely to take a rest. In fact, as I approached 40 races on October 22, there seemed only one real answer to the question, what’s next? That answer is 52.
Race 41 was at Cougar Mountain in Newcastle, Washington, the same course I ran on July 8th for race 28, when I’d finished that race nearly 25 minutes faster than I’d run it the year before. On October 28, however, I shaved another 11 minutes off my time.
Still, it’s four hours on the race course with nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Yet multi-hour races seem only to drive me to want to do more multi-hour races.
I ran the following weekend’s In Unity We Run marathon in Kent for no other reason than it made me a 33-time marathoner. And, just one week later and 800 miles south, I ran the Mt. Tam 30k in Stinson Beach, California.
Fifty-two is definitely within reach.
Athletes are superstitious. It is reported that Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform while leading the team to six national championships. So when I picked up my race bib for the Runner’s World Grand Slam — races 37-40 on the year — and found it was actually my birthday (I was born on August 23), I took it as an excellent omen.
I gave myself the calendar year to complete this challenge. My birthday was in Week 35, which meant I would have to have raced more than once a week to meet 40 races by that date. I was afraid that such an aggressive racing schedule would turn the challenge from something fun to something tedious. While, in hindsight, I could have hit 40 by August 23, completing the challenge in Bethlehem, where I’ve raced in every Runner’s World Half since the race’s inception 6 years ago, was an obvious finishing point. A northeast race also meant that my east coast girlfriends and family could take part with me.
I crossed the finish line to posters and t-shirts, a new feeling after so many races on my own. And the question: What’s next? The answer is, of course: More races. I still have runners to sponsor, and 11 more weeks in the year. I’m only 40, but 52 feels good. 🙂
Six years ago tonight, I sat in this same hotel, in a bed just like this one. I ordered spaghetti with grilled chicken, red pepper flakes and olive oil from room service, seeking to recreate the pre-run meal I’d grown accustomed to at home. It wasn’t on the menu, but the kitchen obliged. When it arrived, however, something in the chicken smelled like bleach. I ate cautiously, only until I felt like I had enough calories in me, and tossed the rest in the garbage. And, before bed, I successfully convinced the gentleman that delivered my room service to steal real half and half from the staff break room for me, lest I have to drink my coffee with the powdered cream offered in the room on race morning. I would not let anything, real or perceived, come between me and the personal record I’d spent 12 weeks training for.
I crossed the finish line of the 2012 Runner’s World with a five-minute PR, and the 2013 Hat Trick — a 5k, 10k and Half Marathon over two days — in my sites. I would complete that too, along with the Half Marathon in 2014 (another PR), and the 10k and Half Marathon in 2015 and 2016.
Tonight, I sit in front of the television watching a movie. I went out earlier for a proper dinner. Tomorrow will be race #40 on the year. I am not the same person that I was in 2012, when a half marathon was a daunting endeavor. In the last six years, I’ve run days through the Rocky Mountains; I’ve run marathons on three continents; I’ve run 100 miles without sleep. But I’ve always come back to where I feel like it all began. I’ve always come back to Bethlehem.
The 5k is the entry-level distance. The race that gets people off the couch. The race a friend talks you into over a third drink and it seems like a good idea. For those like me who prefer longer distances, the 5k hardly provides time to warm up before it’s over. For others, it’s the perfect distance to push for the entirety.
The 27 year old winner of this morning’s Runner’s World Grand Slam 5k crossed the finish line in 15:56. Before the clock ticked to 40:00 minutes, my 70 year old mother also crossed the finish line, first in her age group, my aunt and mother-in-law, just minutes behind her.
For some, the 5k is a challenge. An occasional reminder they are capable of difficult things; the burning lungs and quads quickly forgotten. And the reward, be it T-shirt or pint glass or medal, is always sweet; made sweeter by family.
Four races. Three Days. 26.2 total miles. A journey will culminate in Bethlehem.My girlfriends and I are just a few of the several hundred people gathered on a Friday afternoon for 3.8 trail miles in Bethelhem’s South Mountain Park. We will all complete the Grand Slam – 3.8 mile trail race, a 5k, a 10k and a half marathon over three days.
It’s over quickly; I’ve rarely run anything shorter than a half marathon all year. 3.8 miles feels like a warm-up. In a way, it is. Because just 16 hours after finishing the trail race, I will line up at the start of race #38.
The journey culminates in Bethelehem.
I entered Nicole’s house through the garage at 7:11am, 11 minutes after I’d planned to arrive, but with 19 minutes to spare on our 7:30am departure. Plenty of time, I knew, to use her bathroom; I’d change into my running sneakers on the way to Defiance Point, ten minutes away.
As I pinned my bib onto my right thigh, I watched Nicole roll her calves on an acupressure ball. On the couch, Nicole’s friend Jessie appeared completely ready for this, her first 50k.
I am calm to the point of near disorganization on my penultimate race weekend. Races #37-40 will come over three days at next weekend’s Runner’s World Grand Slam in Bethelehem, Pennsylvania.
To get here, I’ve completed 5 ultra-marathons, including the Defiance 50k: 3 50ks, 1 100k and 1 81 miler. Along with 7 full marathons; 3 races between 15 and 20 miles; a dozen half marathons; 7 10 and 15ks, a 10.8 miler, and a lone 5k in January.
I imagine this is how a veteran comedian feels. There are still nerves before the curtain goes up, but I know exactly what I’m supposed to do when it does.