Marathons are funny. They’re a lot of things, but I count “funny” among them because the distance is just fucking enormous – as my dad says, and with whom I completely agree, I wouldn’t even drive 26 miles if I didn’t have to – and the opportunity for things to go wrong is just insurmountable. It’s as though, statistically speaking, when we register for marathons, we are silently resigning ourselves a bit, acknowledging that no matter how awesome or consistent or strong our training is in the months prior to the big day, we realize that the likelihood of having the performance we dream about, the A+, gold-star variety, is fairly low. Our propensity to make some sort of mistake – or to have some sort of “mistake” made on our behalf, like sub-optimal racing weather – seems more likely to edge out our ability to make a series of good, in-the-heat-of-the-race decisions (and the likelihood that our good decisions will coincide with decisions made for us, the ones beyond our control, is absymal) … and yet, when we register for marathons, it’s like we’re saying no really, it’s okay. I’m good with that. I’m totally cool with training my ass off for this for at least a few months this year … and then just basically hoping for the best on race day. It’s just funny; we can care SO much, but at the same time, we kinda have to not, too. We have to be SO in control, yet at the same time, we gotta get our Elsa on and let that shit go. Care, but not too much. Again: marathons are funny.
This is all a strange way to describe my experiences at the 2016 Surgical Artistry Modesto Marathon in, you guessed it, Modesto, California, but I guess if I had to choose a word or a theme to describe my experience, it’d be perspective. After two friends had strong marathon performances there in ’15, when I was about halfway through my pregnancy, I tucked the race away in the back of my head as one that I’d like to run. I had oscillated between doing Modesto and not doing Modesto for a good month or so last autumn, conjuring every reason in the book to run it (and to not), and finally, I just told myself to stop—that this was for fun, that I had nothing to prove or to lose, and that if I wanted to run a marathon at seven months postpartum, much sooner than I had run my first marathon postpartum the first time around, then so be it. Just stop thinking about it, and do the thing.
Modesto is enough of a haul from SJ that it necessitates an overnight hotel stay. I had planned on the family accompanying me on my little excursion, but virtually at the last minute, C and I decided that it’d be easier on him (and on the kids) if they stayed back. Suddenly, I was going to be on my own for this rodeo – no family there, and as I’d eventually learn, I only knew one other runner doing the race, and I never got to see her (sorry, Stephanie). Leaving home to make it to the race expo in time on Saturday was tough, and ultimately, thanks to me dragging ass and traffic in the south and east bay being pretty deplorable, I barely made it in time – I’m talking a 5pm close time, and I’m strolling in around 4:46 – but I made it. I walked in the expo at 4:46 and was probably walking out by about 4:56, grabbed my complimentary bottle of wine from a nearby restaurant, and then went over to my hotel two miles from the start and vegged on a cocktail of worthless media while downing my pre-race vegetarian Pho I had brought with from SJ, along with my sweet potato that had also accompanied me from down south. With no need to Mom/Wife all night long and no friends alongside me for this racing ride, my singular mission of being away simply to run – I’m here to run, and I’m here to race – materialized even more. I’m not saying being away from family and friends was any better of an experience or meant that I could “focus” more or anything like that because, quite frankly, that makes it all sound much more serious than it is, but for the first time in a long time in my racing experiences, this whole thing was going to be just me.
Little did I know that I was apparently sharing the second floor at my hotel with a herd of horses that insisted on galloping down the halls repeatedly seemingly all fucking night long, but equestrian annoyances aside, I slept as well as I was going to and awoke around 4 (for a 7 start time) to give myself ample time for my pre-race dance number and to pump off milk for as long as humanly possible. The morning went over without a hitch, and soon enough, I was at the starting area of the race, going to the bathroom for the zillionith time, and preparing to drop off my stuff at gear check before my easy 5′ warm-up. In my pre-race song and dance, I managed to bump into and meet the RD, Vickie, which was nice because we’re both in the same pacing group that’s based in the south bay. Gotta love small-ish races where you can run into the RD and casually chat for a few minutes before the big dance begins.
Race day forecast was in the mid-50s and climbing up to the 70s and was supposed to be cloudy, so I figured that things wouldn’t really begin to get uncomfortable or toasty until I’d be close to finishing, and by then, I’d be tired anyway, so what’s a little heat thrown in the mix, ya know? Unfortunately, the race began about 20 minutes late due to some road closure issues, and while I definitely appreciated the police and volunteers looking out for us, in the back of my head, I knew this meant that I – as well as all the other 3,000 runners across the 5k, half, marathon, and relay – would be encountering the heat that much sooner. Ugh. I’ve run so many races, marathons included, in hot and steamy conditions before, and while I definitely don’t enjoy it – give me 30s or 40s any day of the week, maybe with a little rain, please and thanks! – there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, so it’s not worth paying much mental attention to. You just roll with it and adjust accordingly.
In the days preceding the race, I was nervous; I won’t lie. I was stoked to be marathoning again, but I was nervous simply because it had been a while since I had toed the line at a long endurance race and had planned to be competitive. My trail 50k in Dec ’14 was my first ultra and was more about the experience than my finishing time; I had paced the 3:35 group at Santa Rosa ’14 in August; thus, it had been since SF ’14, way back in July, that I had raced 26.2. Even though Modesto would be my 26th marathon and one could surmise that I “knew what I was doing,” there’s only so much any of us know when it comes to the marathon. Like I said before, the sheer number of opportunities for shit to surprise us, or for us to make a decision that could break our performance later, is just downright daunting. I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer or anything like that; just out of a purely rational analysis of the marathon distance and the time it takes to cover it, we quickly find ourselves awash in decisions big and small throughout the event, from the seemingly innocuous to the big race-breakers-or-makers, and in the throes of things, it can be tough to distinguish the former from the latter. It’s just the reality of the situation. All at once, you’ve gotta run (ideally hitting your coveted pace), be in tune with your body, navigate your surroundings, and make decisions about how and when and if you’ll fuel, speed up, slow down, hold steady, curse or celebrate life, and the list goes on; marathons are all about “one foot in front of the other,” but I think it’s also pretty cerebral as well.
Having not raced 26.2 since July ’14, then, and therefore having been away from this litany of race-day, in-the-heat-of-the-moment decisions for quite some time, in the days preceding Modesto I was a touch nervous simply because I doubted my ability to make the right game-day, heat-of-the-moment decisions … over … and over … and over again during 26.2 miles. Come race morning though, I no longer had any inkling of self-doubt. In fact, I was struck by how good I felt, how right I felt to be there, and how into it I was. I wasn’t lacking in doubt because I was dissociating myself from the experience; in fact, it was quite the opposite. You want to say I leaned in? Sure, I leaned in. I think the doubt subsided because I knew I had put in the time to get physically primed for the race; finally, over the last 24 hours pre-race, the cerebral stuff had clicked. I was finally mentally ready.
The pace group closest to what I figured I was capable of running was 3:22, and since my plan for the first three miles was to ease into things, I stayed in the group’s vicinity. The first 3 miles of the course take runners through cute neighborhoods and park-lined streets before eventually connecting to a frontage type of road parallel to a highway (and “Mount Modesto”) and then connecting to rural country roads lined with walnut, almond, produce, and dairy farms. “Mount Modesto” is a joke – it’s the only “hill” on the course, and it’s an overpass that runners hit around mile 3 and again around mile 24, and the elevation is not even 150′ – but it made me laugh because it reminded me of Chicago’s “Mount Roosevelt” that rudely appears around mile 26. I felt like the pacer came out of the gate kinda hot, so I ended up doing my own thing fairly early on. Before long, I was over MM and on the somewhat pocked country roads lined with the aforementioned farms that would be our backdrop for basically the duration of the race.
There weren’t a ton of spectators on the course, but those who were out were enthusiastic and supportive. The same goes for the aid stations; they were plentiful and spaced out strategically, equipped with supportive volunteers both young and old, but aside from the pockets of aid station cheering and a few spectators here and there, the course was quiet from miles 3-on. We stayed with the half-marathoners until mile 8, and then we turned around shortly after 14 to make our way home, so there also weren’t a lot of turns to navigate on the course, either (proof: my Garmin had me at 26.24 miles. I’m usually pretty adept at running tight tangents, but that’s probably the tightest I’ve ever posted in a marathon). I checked my watch at each beep and periodically viewed down just to see what pace I was running at that exact moment, but for the most part, I ran by feel, as I usually do. Due to the relative silence on the course, I kinda found myself daydreaming (fantasizing?) about how the day would unfold and sometimes found that I was speeding up – 7:1x, what are you doing here?? – but I felt good and strong and just happy. From 3-onward, I felt like we were running into a headwind (and sometimes getting slapped with the smell of cow shit from the farms we were running past), but the wind wasn’t enough to be annoying, and truth be told, it felt somewhat refreshing (shit smells not included), given that the sun was already out. When the opportunity presented itself, I tucked in behind or near other taller runners, but I don’t think the wind was enough that it really made a difference.
Somewhere between miles 10-14, I asked a volunteer how many women were ahead of me, and she said she thought maybe 3 or 4. I hadn’t seen any marathoners begin the “back” portion of their run until I was at 12+ (I think), so as I was running along, just taking in the scenery, I tried to scan the very drawn-out crowds ahead of me for women. I finally saw one woman who was way ahead of me (who’d go on to win the women’s side in a 3:08ish, I think), and another woman maybe about ten minutes thereafter, and before long, I had crossed the half marker at 1:39:22 and was approaching 14, just before the turn-around, when I finally saw another woman ahead of me. She bolted over to the side to go to the medical table that appeared after the aid station, and like that, I pulled ahead of her, navigated the hairpin turn at 14.1ish, grabbed a sandwich and clementines from a volunteer (I think this might be my first time eating a sandwich mid-race, and damn, it was amazing), and I became third female. One of the last things I told C when I left on Saturday was that depending on who showed up on race day and how well I raced, I might stand a chance to place in the top ranks, and here I was at mile 14 in that spot with a lot of race still left before me. The fourth woman and I saw each other on our out/back sections and smiled/waved to each other (or did something else equally supportive), and as I was beginning to see more and more runners on their “out” portions, I was getting an onslaught of encouragement, folks telling me that I was third female, that I looked good and strong, all that stuff that we runners love to hear mid-race. I dished it out as fast as I got it (protip: encouraging others takes literally two seconds of your time and will do a world of good for the other runners you see and probably for you, too. You’re not too cool to give it out), and I was feeling great.
Looking back, I don’t think I got passed by very many, if any, runners from mile 14-on, which was unreal. I told myself to remain calm because I still had a lot of race left to run and that anything can (and does) happen in the marathon distance, especially on the back half. Once we turned around at 14 and started to make our way back, the sun came out in full force – full. force. – which blew, and I knew would eventually drain me, but what are you going to do, ya know? That wind that I mildly mentally complained about in the first part of the race was non-existent by now, too, so it made the 60+ degree temps feel even warmer because we were in unadulterated sun, running on pavement, and with very spotty (and mostly nonexistent) shade. I’m glad I had the foresight early to dump water on me at almost every aid station because while I looked like I had taken a shower in my singlet, I wasn’t as uncomfortable as I could have been. Drink some water, dump some water … and repeat.
Aside from the weather, over which I have no control, the only real “hiccup” in my race was that I hit the screen-switching button on my FR 220 around mile 17, so suddenly my screen was on time of day and I didn’t see my cumulative distance or current pace or time. I was wearing a backup stopwatch, so I knew the running time, but it took me a good mile or so to figure out how to switch screens back, a stupid mistake that I think mentally tripped me up because as I look at my splits now, I needlessly sped up for a bit. I never transfer between screens on my FR, so apparently, that was my new thing that I had to learn on Sunday.
As the race wore on, no doubt I was getting tired, and I was beginning to feel pretty certain that my maybe out-of-reach 3:18 goal was, in fact, out of reach, given the elements, so I shifted my focus to staying in the third female spot and to not being passed. If I could eke out a sub-3:20:06, which would still be a PR, that’d be awesome, but it’d also most likely end up being a pretty tight squeeze. I so desperately wanted to turn around to see where the fourth woman was in relation to me, as well as the 3:22 pacer, but I made myself stay in the moment and just focus on picking off each and every person in front of me; by my mile 21/half runners’ 7 and change, there were many runners/run-walkers on the road, several people abreast, and I figured focusing my energy on passing all of them ahead of me – nevermind that they weren’t even doing the same distance as me – would keep me going and help me will my legs to just.keep.moving.
Before long, “Mount Modesto” was in sight, so I finally had an opportunity to take a look over to see if I spotted any women marathoners behind me (and to see how close the 3:22 pacer was). I didn’t see either group immediately behind me, so I delusionally convinced myself to use the “momentum” (snark) I’d get from running down MM to fuel me into the final 2 and change miles to town. Those final 2.2 miles coming off MM and into the finish line were thick – saturated – with HM, relay, and 5k walkers, but everyone I passed was awesome. Seriously. It’s easy to bitch about people walking so many abreast or being oblivious to the runners, and while yes, many folks were strolling along many people wide, I’m guessing I must have sounded like ass because it seemed like practically everyone heard me coming, yielded, and virtually everyone cheered for me and excitedly told me I was third female. Seriously. It was really cool, and again, I tried to dish it out as fast as I got it. Cheering on other participants and thanking volunteers mid-race makes my soul happy, and I do it as often as I can. We never know everyone’s story, what folks did to get to the starting line, so I feel like it’s the least we can do, to be a good human being, just to throw out a casual “you got this!” or “you’re kicking butt!” to others when we see them. (Tangent, not sorry).
With not much left, a male marathoner, who had already finished and was chillin’ on the sidelines, told me that the second woman was not far ahead of me and that I could “get her,” so I immediately began scanning for her, but it was pretty hard to see given all the other participants ahead of me finishing the HM/relay/5k. I soon came upon the 3:12 pacer (what?!), whom I’m pretty sure I met when we both paced Santa Rosa ’14, and I kept yelling “hey! Pacer!” at him to get his attention. The 3:18 wasn’t going to happen, but I was close – really close – to PRing, and I thought that if I could get someone to run me in the final less-than-a-mile, I could do it. I yelled a couple times – no avail, headphones, whyyyyyyyyy – and ultimately, I ended up passing him. (I’m definitely not faulting him; pacers are human like the rest of us and as such, have bad days. Racing in the heat is hard, and many pacers at Modesto ended up not hitting their times because of it).
After running in a straight line for about 2 miles, I had my final left turn into the finishing chute, and a quick glance at my watch showed that I hit my existing PR probably around mile 26.0x or 26.1; a final sprint-as-much-as-I-can-sprint-at-the-end-of-a-marathon later put me at the finish line at 3:21:00, for 26.24 miles by my Garmin, and BAM: I did it. Third woman, 26th marathon, my 14th Boston Qualifier, in a warm-ish race, and fuck, I had a baby 7 months ago and am breastfeeding her still. Getting here wasn’t easy, but dammit if I didn’t find a way.
I soon learned from the official results that I must have started my watch a little early and actually posted a 3:20:56 – just fifty seconds shy of my Chicago ’13 PR that I posted at nearly 2.5 years postpartum – and yea, I was fucking floored. FLOORED. When I finished Modesto, aside from the delusion and exhilaration (and, at this race, the “shit get me out of the sun/I forgot to put on sunscreen/omg I need so much water right now!” thoughts), I immediately thought ok. You’ve got a choice. You can lament this as “just another 3:20 or 3:2x marathon” – which is totally shitty of you, by the way – or you can celebrate this. The time you ran today, seven months after having G, basically ties the PR you posted over two years after having A. That you came within striking distance of your PR this soon postpartum is a good indicator of your fitness and what’s to come when the time and elements are right. You can boo-hoo this, or you can revel the shit outta it.
Yeah. It was a no-brainer.
I was – and remain – so happy, SO happy, about my Modesto training cycle and my race performance. Training and racing for PR performances is fun and fulfilling, no doubt, and I totally dig it and love to work my ass of in training, but basing the success of a training cycle or a race simply or exclusively on the series of numbers on the clock just doesn’t jibe with me anymore. Maybe that means I’ve gotten soft, but in my humble opinion, I think it means I’ve gotten smart. In this week post-race, I’ve paid very little mental real estate to wondering how things could have gone differently if I had done X, or Y, or Z, which, in cycles/races past, I would have basically beaten myself up about. I could poo-poo the fact that I didn’t PR or that I posted an ugly two-minute positive split (1:39:22/1:41:34) or that the sun sucked my soul away, but nope. No more. No matter. Experience and being a mom now to two young girls has finally – finally – taught me that I need to cut myself some slack now and then. Call it being realistic, being your own biggest advocate, giving yourself some “grace,” making excuses – whatever. The name doesn’t matter. In my marathons, if my performance doesn’t exactly mirror that which I’ve envisioned in my daydreams in the months preceding the race, it doesn’t mean that the race was a wash. It’s a simple lesson, really, and you’d think I would have “gotten it” in sooner than 9 years or 26 marathons. You – I – can still have a kick-ass race and not have it look like that perfect race that has fueled training all cycle long. It all boils down to perspective, gang. Races – good, bad, mediocre, whatever – are learning opportunities, provided we are willing to listen.
I’m thrilled knowing that where I am now envies where I was two years PP in 2013, and I’m stoked to finally have some quality feedback about my fitness. Postpartum running is a tricky thing because so much is out of your control, and in my case, anyway, my body and time aren’t my own right now and won’t be for a while. So many of my workouts were based on “educated guess” paces because I hadn’t raced in a long time, making Modesto that much more gratifying because it showed me what postpartum racing can look like, if I give both it and myself a chance.
For my race efforts, I earned a very pretty metal trophy; a bright orange visor for my 2nd AG placing; a neon “I BQ’ed at the Modesto Marathon!” tech shirt (how cool: if you BQ at Modesto, you can get a shirt or a license plate frame, declaring that you BQed at the race. It would be so awesome if other races did something like that because so many runners covet BQs); and some cash money. The race premiums also included a tech shirt; arm warmers with the Modesto Marathon logo adorning them; a superhero-themed medal (that has a kickstand, which my four year-old loves); and a bottle of wine for the first 1,500 (I think) registered runners. I think I paid about $70 for this race, so I’m pretty sure I can call this an excellent value.
Suffice it to say that I recommend this race. If you’re into thick, spectator-lined crowds, larger-than-life-sized expos, or entrant fields that rival the population of small towns, then Modesto wouldn’t be a good fit for you. On the other hand, if you like something a little more laid-back, with a race that’s organized well from start-to-finish, and a course that lets you just run (or just be) and go as fast as your little heart desires, I’d say Modesto is an excellent option. I had a blast. It was a most excellent way to reenter the marathoning community, and I’m stoked for where I am and for what’s ahead.