(Warning – a long race report ahead)
After several months of training and a 20 mile run pacing several seconds faster than qualifying standards, I was feeling confident about the Jersey marathon. Not cocky – I know, as every runner does, that anything and everything can go wrong on race day – but relaxed in the knowledge that I had put in the miles, in both quantity and quality, to run the race that I wanted to run.
So a few days ago I told a friend, “Something will have to go wrong on Sunday morning for us not to reach our goal.”
And so it was when we walked to the start line at 7:15 yesterday morning…
The weekend started off with a little bit more adventure than anticipated. I got home Saturday morning from a quick warm-up run and coffee with a friend to find a newborn raccoon in the street in front of my house. My family and I had seen the little guy the night before, but we assumed its mother was somewhere nearby. When he was still there 12 hours later, I took Bess’ advice and called a local wildlife rehabilitation center. They told me to put on gloves, wrap him in a towel and bring him in. So, with 15 minutes before we were set to leave for NJ, I called Bess and Ali to tell them of the delay, and set about to catch me a raccoon. It was more challenging than I would have thought, but with the help of a neighbor, I managed to get him securely in a mizuno shoebox and race him over. That very same neighbor had, minutes earlier, dropped off her own baby raccoon at the same clinic – it turns out that there was an abandoned litter on our block (likely the mother had been killed while off scavenging for food).
So, I got home to Bess, Ali, and Ali’s husband, Rob, waiting patiently outside my house. I ran inside, threw on some clothes (I was still in my running gear), and prayed that I had packed everything I needed as I sprinted back out to the car.
We made it to Long Branch, linked up with Andrew, our friend from the 20 mile training run, and wandered through the rather lackluster expo before taking a few pictures and heading off to our respective rooms. Andrew was headed back to NYC for the night, Ali and Rob were staying at the host hotel right at the finish line, and Bess, Brent, and I had a room waiting for us about 5 miles away, at a Comfort Inn.
Brent made it up a couple hours later – he had to lead a navigation clinic for GOALS that morning – and the rest of the evening and night passed with little fanfare, save for the unnecessarily attentive waitstaff at the Houlihan’s in Monmouth, NJ and the broken alarm clock that spontaneously broke out into spanish rap music at 2:02 in the morning…
We woke up on race morning at 5:10 and headed out in short order to meet Ali at her hotel. Brent dropped us off at the front door and we went inside to find ourselves amidst of sea of purple. Neither of us had realized that we were entering the official race day Team in Training headquarters. After several trips to the bathroom, we made our way out to the starting line with 15 minutes to spare, and began looking for the 3:40 pace group.
The fact that the pacer didn’t show up until 5 minutes before gun time was our first clue that the day may not go as planned. The second hint came a moment later when we realized that said pacer didn’t really speak English, and thus had no way of communicating to us what his strategy for the morning would be.
But we remained positive and shook out our arms and legs in anticipation as 7:30 AM came and went. Finally, at 7:45, the race director came on the megaphone to apologize for the delay and told us it would likely be another 15 minutes before start time. Apparently, there had been an accident on the course, and the police and medics were clearing the scene.
Finally, the gun sounded a few minutes after 8, and the 9,000 racers lurched forward. It felt like a huge race at that point, as we weaved our way down the clogged boardwalk with runners and walkers elbowing for positioning. But before long the crowd thinned out, and Ali and Bess and I worked to find a rhythm. After a 9:00 first mile, the 3:40 pacer surged forward, pounding out the next few miles at a sub 8:00 pace. We kept up at first and then realized that we needed to collect ourselves and focus on what we had come out there to do. We would later learn that this guy led the “3:40” marathoners to a 3:32 finish… not quite what we had in mind…
For some reason, Bess was just having a rough day. She told me later that it was purely physical, but at that time I couldn’t tell if her body was failing her or if she was struggling mentally, so for a little while, I tried to snap her out of it. I started off with music, trying to recall the words to the Sound of Music soundtrack (her favorite) before giving up and moving onto The Day the Music Died. When that didn’t seem to work, I attempted casual conversation, the sorts of questions that we’d ask each other during regular training runs. By that point, it had become apparent that it was just going to be a long morning for her. She stopped to stretch at mile 6 for the first time, and when I paused with her, Ali decided to keep going and yelled back for us to catch up. While Bess tried to knock some sense into her legs, I walked around, making sure to keep moving so that my muscles stayed loose. We started up again a minute later and ran well for another mile before her legs cramped up again. We paused one more time and then, after a brief powwow, she told me to go ahead without her. “I’m finishing this race,” she promised me.
I gave her a big hug and then started running again, still feeling strong and making up time with every mile. I was moving well, clocking in around an 8:07-8:17 pace, and though it was mildly painful to watch the half marathoners finishing as I started in on loop #2, when I ran by the 13.1 marker at 1:51, I felt like I still had a chance.
I caught up with Ali about 1.5 miles later, far earlier than I expected to, and found her walking through a water stop, in the early stages of a panic attack. I ran with her for about three miles, and we tried together to shake the anxiety out of her. I sang a couple verses of American Pie, pumped my arms high as Rocky and Livin’ on a Prayer came blaring out of two houses, and made a few poor attempts at conversation before she said she needed to stop to catch her breath. Rather than following the same strategy as I had with Bess and walking around while Ali collected herself, though, I paused with her on the side of the road.
The rain and cold from the previous 17 miles instantly caught up with me, and all of my muscles came to a screeching halt. When we started again a couple minutes later, my legs were seizing up, and it was all I could do to keep pushing forward. Luckily, at that moment, her Team in Training coach came over to run with us, so as they started talking I took off. It wasn’t an intentional decision; I just knew that I needed to focus on relaxing myself if I had any hope of finishing at that point.
For me, there were eight miles left in the race. I knew that I was on my own at that point, and I knew that I wouldn’t be qualifying for Boston. My legs were a mess and my mind was starting to fail me. And then, miraculously. my own cheerleader came around the bend. Brent had been biking around the course the whole morning. I first saw him at mile 9, after we’d all separated but well before I started to break down. I was feeling good at that point and after filling him in on the morning’s events, he turned around to find Bess and make sure she was okay. By the time Brent found my at mile 20, though, I was really struggling. He stuck with me for half a mile, telling me that I was still looking strong and giving me updates on my friends. Then he threw me the long sleeve shirt that I had given him at mile 9 – I was pretty chilled by that point – and, with my blessing, went to check on them again.
I took a couple walking breaks between miles 20 and 23, the first time I’ve ever walked during a marathon. I ran for a little while with a woman named Alison, a Montana native who’d recently moved to DC for a teaching job. This was her first marathon, and though she was struggling a bit physically, she was feeling good and excited for the finish line to come. We both agreed that the two loop course was a drag, especially after 2/3 of the field stopped at the halfway point, and took with them about 75% of the spectators.
At 23, I resolved that I would run the rest of the way, no matter how much it took out of me. Brent found me again at that point and reported that Ali was moving forward again (yay, Ali! Way to conquer those demons!) and that Bess was running and looking strong. The good news provided me with just enough energy to finish out those last few miles, though the final 1.2 were the longest in my life (especially because there were half a dozen mile signs during that stretch, all with competing information about where we were and how far we had to go).
I crossed the finish line without looking at the time and was totally disoriented by the time I collected my medal and finisher’s hat. I walked gingerly through the tent, in more post-race pain than I’ve ever found myself in, far worse than after the ironman or any adventure race – and found Brent and my parents waiting for me. I wanted to wait to see Bess and Ali finish, but I was soaked to the bone and starting to shiver, and when Brent said that he would bike back and follow them in, I took that as license to go inside and warm up.
I sat with my mom and dad and rehashed the day before limping to the massage tent (another first for me) and getting stretched out by a wonderful masseuse-in-training. When I got back to my parents, Brent was waiting, and a couple minutes later, Bess came into view. I walked over and we both teared up as we hugged tightly. We sat with my family for a few more minutes and I slathered my legs with Icy Hot offered up by a generous racer sitting next to us. Rob called a couple minutes later to report that Ali had been cleared by the med tent.
Half an hour later, we all convened at Amy’s Omelet House for a celebratory post-race lunch. Sure, it wasn’t the race any of us had expected. But in a lot of ways, it was still a victory. I ended up finishing somewhere between 3:53 and 3:56 (times still aren’t posted online), a PR however you look at it. I managed to push through some of the hardest miles I’ve ever run, and in spite of the crummy day, was still able to smile at the spectators and thank the police officers for helping out. I’ll take it. Our rockstar friend Andrew clocked in a 3:33 in his second marathon appearance ever. Bess was a super trooper and finished at 4:13 (I think… maybe 4:14?). As she put it, “less than stellar physical performance. Spectacular mental performance.” Ali came in a few minutes later, having broke free of her anxiety and PR-ed by close to 45 minutes.
I woke up this morning with my legs still in a little bit of shock from yesterday, but with my mind fully in tact. Somehow, I’ve found myself down three pounds from my pre-taper weight, so I have a feeling that my body’s been fighting off some sort of virus for the past week that will take hold in full force in the next couple days.
This afternoon, Bess and I have a date at a local ice cream shop to eat our weight in frozen yogurt and put together a plan of action for the next several months. Part of me wants to run another marathon in the next few weeks to take advantage of the training, but since I’ll be traveling every weekend from now until late June, and since two of those weekend trips will be for a 12-hour running/orienteering event and a 24-hour adventure race, I don’t think that another spring marathon would be possible, let alone smart. Right now, we’re thinking about another marathon in the fall, as well as our first ultra.
As Bess said on the drive home yesterday, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Lucky for us, we still have a lot of plans in us. And a lot of races, too…