Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Epilogue: The Chicago Marathon (or BQ While 40)

"Now I'll be bold/As well as strong/And use my head alongside my heart/So tame my flesh/And fix my eyes/A tethered mind freed from the liesAnd I'll kneel down,/Wait for now/I'll kneel down/Know my ground
Raise my hands/Paint my spirit gold/And bow my head/Keep my heart slow
'Cause I will wait, I will wait for you...." 
--Mumford & Sons ("I Will Wait" could be the BQ by 40 theme song)
Last Sunday, the morning of October 13, 2013, dawned chilly and clear. I'd had a nervous taper week (is there any other kind of taper week?), but I'd made it to the day of the Chicago Marathon (my eighth 26.2) healthy, trained, mostly well-rested, without any excuse not to go for my goal: the sub-3:45 race that would qualify me for the Boston Marathon in 2015.

The plan was this: stay with the 3:45 pacers the whole time, until and if it became clear at the very end that I had more to give; hit as many aid stations as possible to keep my fuel and hydration levels topped off (and I had six Clif shots to supplement that); run entirely without music for the first time ever in a marathon; use my Garmin (chimes off) only to track total time elapsed so as not to freak myself out with momentary quirks of pace or differences between what the watch said and what the course mile and kilometer markers said; and ignore the pain and lead-leggedness that would inevitably set in, even if as I hoped it turned out to be a good day.

I got up early, got breakfast down (Frosted Flakes, a banana, an English muffin with butter and some apple juice), hugged my mom good-bye and left my hotel to meet Tara for the walk to the start line. Both of us were nervous, though she in yoga pants looked much better than I did in my giant orange sweatshirt from Goodwill. Having her with me for that long walk was a great help. We laughed our way to Gate One, getting stopped by no fewer than three eager race photographers, then hugged and said good luck to each other. I entered, headed straight to the porta-potties and had a good chat with a local Chicagoan named Kristy who gave me advice on which neighborhoods to enjoy and what else to expect on the course. From there, I wended my way to the entrance to my corral, Corral C, where I'd hoped to find some water to supplement what I had in the bottle I'd brought along. There was no water to be had, but a first-time marathoner, Daniel from Kentucky, offered to give me the rest of his after he took a last swallow to go with a gel. After one last hurried trip to the porta-potties, I slipped into the corral, elbowed my way to the 3:45 pacers and waited for the start. I hadn't been able to warm up, but other than that the pre-race business had gone smoothly.

And soon, at last, I was running.

It had been a while since I'd been in a race this big, and this one seemed to start faster than the other giant ones I'd done (New York in 2005, Houston in 2012). I had the sensation, as I tried to keep the pacers in sight during a frantic first mile, of going too fast, careening out of control. Once we emerged from the secure start area, huge crowds thronged the sidewalks. I looked for my mom on the downtown block where she said she'd be, but couldn't see her (I later found out that she saw me). I hung on to the back of the pace group and calmed myself with the reminder that this was just the first mile, that I wasn't really warmed up (but that would come) and that things would thin out and I'd feel more settled. 

Sure enough, by mile three, I felt much better. I drew closer to the pacers and felt my stride become regular. That's how things proceeded for the next several miles, into the half-marathon mark and beyond. My cousin Sarah was the first spectator I was expecting and actually saw, at Mile 10, and then there was Marcia, wearing her Boston jacket, at the halfway point. All the while, I drank water and Gatorade faithfully, and took a gel at the 10K and 20K marks. My energy remained high, and my legs felt strong. I was able to enjoy the continued cool temperatures, the music and sights of the course and the crowds. As far as the pacers went, I ebbed and flowed with them, sometimes lagging behind, sometimes hanging right on their shoulders (there were three of them to choose from!) but never losing them.

I don't know Chicago at all, so the streets and neighborhoods passed in a blur of noise and Gatorade and turns. The crowds impressed me, and the weather was so good that I enjoyed both the cold breeze and the patches of sun. Only two things in those early miles annoyed me: one of our pacers had a gym teacher's whistle that he frequently and loudly blew to get the crowds riled up (or perhaps to keep eager followers from getting too close--it worked on me); and at one point I passed a runner dribbling a basketball as he went along--I was glad when the thunkety-thunk of that ball faded away behind me.

At Miles 18 through 20, I kept alert to the possibility of the Wall. I took another gel and the Wall never came. But then I realized my right shoelace was loosening. By just past Mile 20, it was completely untied. This was the only really tense moment in the race: should I stop, for safety's sake, and tie it, and risk being dropped by the pacers, or should I go on? In the end, I decided to stop. But to speed things up, I asked a spectator on the sidelines to tie it for me. He was so nice, obliging this weird request immediately, tying it tightly and asking if I wanted a double-knot. I turned that down, thanked him several times and took off. The pacers were way ahead but still in sight, their small white signs bobbing, and I knew my real race had just begun.

Still, somehow, I stayed calm. I had six miles to reel them in and I vowed to do it consistently but gradually. In the midst of this I snuck a look at the Garmin's pace feature and saw numbers in the 8-teens and 8:20s. I worried that was too fast--but I had no choice, and better too fast now than early on. We turned back north, headed toward the park and the finish line. The pacers and their small signs were closer. My legs hurt, but I remembered what Cynthia said about embracing the pain, learning to hurt, and some lines from my friend Jill ("Believe believe believe") and my friend Mandy (who said saying "This is awesome" at times when it isn't awesome would change my point of view). I thought about friends who had lost homes in the recent Colorado floods, and about my friend Max, who lives outside most of the year. Most of all, though, I reflected on how lousy I'd feel if I failed to BQ after getting this close--and I knew that feeling would be worse than sore quads and calves of concrete.

At Mile 24, after not having seen them anywhere else on the course, I finally saw my mom and our old friends Trish, Tiffany and Tom. I managed a smile and a surge. In another half-mile, I drew level again--at last--with the shoulder of one of the pacers (not the one with the whistle). At Mile 25, still with him, I could see a blue and white sign that looked big enough to be the finish line. "Is that it?" I asked him, the first words I'd said since saying good luck to Daniel, the first-timer at the start. "No," he said. "You still have a right turn and then a left after that. It'll be another 400 meters." I nodded grimly.

I stayed with him a little longer, until I saw the sign that said 800 meters to go. I kicked, and wonder of wonders, there was a little kick left. I hit a small hill over a bridge. That slowed me a bit, but I'd been warned about this and, really, it was just a speed bump and I got my turnover back on the downside. I rounded that last left turn...and there it was, the real finish line. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me, under the banner and across both timing bumps. I hit the watch, stopping it at 3:44:10. My unofficial result, it turned out, was 3:44:06, an 8:33 pace, a squeaker, but the real thing: a Boston qualifying time.

I had done it. Three years of work, preceded by seven years of vague dreaming, had come to fruition. I called my husband Dan. I laughed out loud. Those years included misses and sulking, doubt and angst, lots of money spent and air and road miles logged. They also included lessons I needed to learn--patience, perseverance, humility--and the biggest lesson, that this kind of aspiration isn't accomplished without help from others. I formed new friendships and deepened old ones with runners both local and far-off, people who have taught me about tough goals and good humor. And I learned (again) how lucky I am to be married to Dan (the steadiest, most patient, humble and good-humored person I know) and that having kids isn't the end of freedom but the beginning of another kind of freedom. Before I had my kids, I don't know if I would have been able to cultivate the kind of mental and physical toughness I needed to BQ.

How was this training cycle different enough to have this outcome?

I'd had a string of crappy races that started almost a year ago at the California International Marathon and lasted all the way through the Georgetown to Idaho Springs Half Marathon in August. There were no PRs, and with the exception of the weather at CIM no valid excuses for not running well. This year, I've had tons of fun with friends and enjoyed more time in the mountains than I have in years....but the BQ felt like it was getting less rather than more likely.

Then I got some good advice from two people: my friend Cynthia and my coach Darren. After Georgetown, Cynthia told me it seemed like all I needed was to learn to hurt. And after the same race, I had lunch with Darren, who seconded that and also told me that I needed to stop worrying about the BQ and just focus on executing a decent race. I thought of their advice on every training run after that. Because it was true: all along, I've hoped (against reason) that my training would get me to a place where running 26.2 miles at an 8:34 or better pace would feel....easy. I had to accept that this was not going to be the case. And over the six weeks of hard training that followed, I did accept it.

I also did my best, while training, to focus on that training and all the details that go into making training effective, instead of fretting about how I'd feel if I didn't BQ. Those details are these:

1) I cleaned up my diet. No, I didn't eliminate all "fun" eating, I didn't go vegan or dairy-free or gluten-free or alcohol-free or even entirely sweets-free. That's never going to be me. But I ate a ton more vegetables (a lot in the form of V8 juice), I limited things that might make for gut issues on long runs, and I monitored my weight weekly. Before the Eugene Marathon in April (a bitter disappointment I ran in 3:57 with a big bonk at mile 17), I gained five pounds in the last month of training. That did not happen this time. I've learned that sugar really packs pounds on me. I never want to give up sugar entirely--I get a lot of pleasure out of treats--but I do plan to make it an occasional rather than a regular feature of my life.

2) I made my hard training days hard and my easy ones really easy. It's a cliche, but I knew I needed to take it seriously. By hard, I mean I saw 5s on paces for some speed intervals for the first time in my life. I did all my training outside, even during the flood days of mid-September, so I could learn the feel of various paces without help from a treadmill's steady belt. I also took real advantage of drawing energy from others. I did both of my two 20-mile runs (and several others) with the Boulder Striders group, often getting up early to get some miles out of the way before meeting them for hard hill intervals or tempo efforts, and then running some miles alone afterwards.

As for those easy days, by easy, I mean super-easy, even taking walk breaks if that's what it took to keep my heart rate nice and low or if I felt overly fatigued.

3) I followed my coach's advice to the letter. In Eugene, he had counseled me to start the race slow. Caught up in the fervor of wanting to go to Boston in 2014 in the wake of the bombings, I forgot that and threw caution to the wind, going out with a pace group that started too fast. After that, I vowed not to ignore his counsel again. This time, I was religious with weight training (he scheduled it every Thursday, and I supplemented with core work on other days). I stuck to the heart-rate ranges he prescribed, warmed up as he described and tried to find the kinds of courses he wanted me to run on (flat when he said so, hills when he wanted them). With my doctor's blessing, I even took the vitamins Darren recommended (a multi, Omega 3s, Vitamin D and the occasional iron supplement).

When race day rolled around, and I had a roster of great training runs under my belt, beautiful weather ahead and no illness to hamper me, and with the latest runs indicating I might be able to do paces well under the BQ threshold, Darren told me not to feel disappointed but that he wanted me to be conservative. He wanted me to run a good race that left me happy but wanting more, to go with the 3:45 pacer and stick to him or her "like a fly on his back."

And that is what I did.

Do I want more? Yes, of course! Any red-blooded runner would. But my days of tunnel-vision obsession with one time goal are, for a good long while anyway, over. I want to run a 5K PR. I want to run a half-marathon PR. I'd love to get my marathon time under 3:40 (so I don't have to endure what a lot of hard-working worthy Boston qualifiers this year went through: qualifying but not by enough to actually get into the race itself; I am aware that may well happen to me next September).

But none of that has to happen on a timetable. In fact, none of it has to happen at all, as long as I never stop trying. My real goal is to run with joy for the rest of my life, to be a good example for my kids and to take what I've learned about patience and what it takes to achieve a tough goal and apply it to other areas of my life.

I hope my story here helps someone else out. Never write yourself off as "too slow." Remember: I ran my first marathon more than 16 years ago in a time of 5 hours 26 seconds. In 2005, before I had my twins, I ran the New York Marathon in 4:14. My BQ time at age 40 is a full hour and 16 minutes faster than my first marathon at age 24, and a half-hour faster than that NYC time at age 32.

The teen who quit cross-country because of all kinds of unfounded insecurities has turned into a grown-up runner who knows she never wants to quit, not ever again--and, even better, knows she won't.

Raise my hands. Paint my spirit gold.