When I registered for the Two Cities Marathon, I was sitting in a hotel room in Sacramento in May, the night before I ran the inaugural Pony Express Marathon just for kicks and somewhat begrudgingly, teetering on mental burnout, and I remember thinking that if I weren’t super excited to run a marathon in 24 hours’ time, I probably had no business registering for an autumn marathon. Well, I weighed my options and figured that when push came to shove, I’d regret not running a late autumn marathon (and doing all the training that it’d entail), so I took a chance and just went with it, assuming that I’d figure things out along the way. How you feel at any given moment doesn’t determine how you’ll ultimately feel after the whole thing is said and done, and goodness, this is especially true in the marathon.
My training looked like this: during the work week, I ran pushing one of my kids in the single stroller or both of the kids in the double stroller, just about every day, without caring much about pace, about an hour a day, give or take. I typically took one day completely off from running, though it’s hard to ever really be “off” with kids. My weekly long runs were either on trails, with about 2k-3k’ of climbing, again without concern for pace, or if I had a GMP-type of workout, I’d go on flats and obviously at least try to heed my splits. More often than not, most of my weekly speed stuff were tempo runs around my assumed HM/15k/10k paces, assumed because it has been a while – several years – since I truly raced any of those distances. I peaked around 55 miles per week, and I got strength work and flexibility stuff in when I could but mostly relied on the day-to-day rigor and physicality of mothering to be my “strength” and “flexibility” components to my training. (If you’re not a parent, let me assure you that parenting can be very physically demanding). I used Pfitzinger’s 55/12 as my skeleton plan, but honestly, I rearranged and adjusted so much during the final 4-5 weeks to accommodate for life/travel/sick children/whatever that I hesitate to even say that I followed Pfitz because I think doing so would undermine what is really (I think) a solid program as it’s written.
All things considered, then, my training wasn’t perfect, but it never is. I did what I reasonably could without allowing my training to egregiously interfere with my family life, and I let go of my expectation that in order to be in the best racing shape, I’d have to get back into my 70+ mpw volume: a drop in the bucket for some marathoners, sure, but for me, fairly substantial. This time around, for this training cycle, peaking in the 55 mpw range – what was formerly my base weekly mileage volume – would suffice. I felt confident that I could make the quality count where it mattered while still ratcheting up my endurance and honing some speed. Marathon training is such an experiment of one, and I told myself from the get-go that I’d make this work. Call this “intuitive training” or “listening to your body” or “not wanting to be beholden to anyone or anything because you’re stubborn as hell”; I guess I call it “taking calculated chances each week and hoping for the best.”
Backtracking just a little bit more, because we’re already over 500 words in and haven’t spoken hardly at all about the actual race I ran, you might recall that after PEM in May, I was slated to race the SF Marathon in July and then pace 3:35 at Santa Rosa in August, but neither materialized. The short (eh) version, maybe a subject for a separate post, is that I’ve had GI issues since before I had my firstborn, going on for nearly six years now (if not longer: I have vague recollections of doctors’ appointments in high school about this stuff). Shit got bad recently – far more frequently, far greater intensity, with some added pain and discomfort for the first time for good measure – and it took my stomach basically going into a veritable shitstorm two nights before TSFM and leaving me basically moaning and writhing in pain to get me into a GI’s office, the first time in many years and the first since we moved out here. Racing SF was quickly off the table, and a week or two later I deemed pacing at SRM unwise because of how was I feeling and how wildly unpredictable everything was. A couple months of damn-near weekly visits to my GI and his staff – all of whom should be getting the very nicest Christmas cards ever from my family and me, if for no other reason than their unending patience with my kids tearing up their office every time we go – and a battery of tests, bloodwork, and procedures diagnosed me two days out from TCM with a type of colitis, and for funsies, apparently my colon looks like it has rashes on it. You’re welcome.
As though marathon training were ever completely easy and manageable, figuring out WTF was going on with my stomach added yet another layer, and while I felt fairly confident about my training leading up to TCM, having the “definite uncertainty” that comes with not knowing how my stomach is going to handle a run – no matter how long or how intense – blew. There’s really not an elegant way to describe it. I have had so many runs lately (since the summer, in particular) plagued by GI issues that I honestly stopped tracking their frequency because it became nearly a given that it’d happen pre-run, mid-run, and/or post-run, basically every single day. Not fun. If things went south during the marathon, I was mentally prepared to DNF, if need be. I obviously hoped it wouldn’t come to that, and fortunately – spoiler – it didn’t. Post-race, well, that’s another story, but hey, I’m not complaining. Even with the diagnosis, I’m still counting myself to be pretty lucky because things could be far worse. (Eds. note: I started medicine the day after the race. Here’s hoping).
Alright, back to the race … Accounting for all of this background information, going into the race – the weekend experience I got to share with Meredith, who was coming down to run the Clovis half as part of her day’s 22 miles – I felt cautiously optimistic. I knew that my training prepared me to run the distance; I had basically no control over the future of my stomach and its activities for the weekend, so I tried to not dwell on it; and that which I could control, I did. In the interest of trying to stoke a flame of positive energy, I kept repeating to myself that “it was a great weekend to race a marathon,” as totally generic and after-school special as that sounds. I had the beloved company of a dear friend, and we did all the usual pre-race song-and-dance routine together, and while it was my 28th time at this marathon rodeo, the total lack of nerves on race eve and even race morn was both a little disconcerting – shouldn’t I be caring more?! – and also really fucking liberating – project that quiet confidence gurrrrrrrrrrl. I evidently talk to myself a fair bit because hey, if you’re not your biggest cheerleader, who’s going to be, ya know? Anyway, calm confidence: a little weird but also a lot awesome.
I thought that I maaaaaaaaaaybe kinda sorta (hedging) got myself into PR-fighting-shape, but if you’ve ever run a marathon, you know that basically everything in the entire universe has to align for a PR to manifest. Even if on paper you seem ready and able, the marathon is a beast of a distance, and absolutely nothing is guaranteed. It can show how and where you’re strong, but it can also expose and exploit any and seemingly every vulnerability you have: mentally, physically, whatever. It is really, really fucking tough, and the sheer distance and the time you’re on your feet is brutally unforgiving. I’m really selling this distance to you, aren’t I?! And yet – and yet – if everything does come together at the right time, if the universe is aligned and your training is right and you run a marathon how you envision you can, it’s a feeling that’s indescribable and keeps you coming back for more because it’s a feeling of power, of strength, and of grit that fuck yeah I can do hard things WATCH ME NOW. I think there’s a lot of beauty to the marathon, and for as much physical fitness that this distance necessitates, I’d argue that the mental fitness – the mental conditioning you do to get yourself to the line, ready to rumble – is even greater. Anyway. At any rate, I have been trying since Chicago ’13 to go sub-3:20 and have come up short for all number of reasons, as any marathon RR on my blog from 2013-on details, but if the TCM morning unfolded favorably, I’d at least make an honest attempt at getting that 3:20 monkey off my back. I did the training; all that remained was showing up and giving it a go. Control that which you can; let go of that which you can’t.
After an early morning of pumping, watching bad TV, and doing all the usual stuff, Meredith and I drove the six miles from our hotel over to the starting area. It was foggy as hell outside, making it especially hard to find where we were supposed to go (and all the street closures didn’t help), but the temps were pretty perfect – low 50s, negligible wind – and the race starting area a breeze, with plentiful clean, if not unused, porta-potties and plenty of space to warm-up, drop off gear, and the like. I ran into many of my pacer buddies from the south bay who had come down to pace, which was also great. Many of them had raved about TCM, which piqued my interest, so it was really cool to see them and hear lots of encouragement from them right before we began. I did a 5 minute warm-up and felt pretty good, did several more nervous-and-excited pees, and lined up. Big races are fun, but man: the ease and convenience of the small races really can’t be beat.
TCM is unique in that there are three, or four, technically, races going on nearly simultaneously: the full marathon, that goes into both Clovis and Fresno; the Clovis half marathon (that’s more runner-than-walker friendly, thanks to the somewhat narrow bikepath that most of the race is run on); the Fresno half marathon (that’s very walker-friendly, since it’s on a big, wide street); and a half marathon relay. All the races start and end at Woodward Park, albeit at different times, and depending on your event and your speed, you might find the race environment to be manageable/NBD or kinda crowded. We marathoners began first, so from the gun, the roads were very open and accommodating. My race began at 6:30, and I was across the line before 6:31. Plus, I think there were fewer than 400 marathoners, so it was easy to find some space from the start, with no ankle-clipping necessary.
We first ran through some residential (if not arterial) streets in Clovis before picking up a bike path, doing a loop through an old-timey downtown district, and heading back toward the park where we began. By virtue of the out-and-backs on some portions of the course, we could see how many runners were ahead of us and where we were in relation to the pacers. There was a 3:03 pacer, a 3:13 pacer (my pacing buddy Don, who paced at Modesto), but then no other pacer until Linh at 3:43. Basically from the get-go, a gaggle of guys and I became an unofficial 3:20 pacing group and aimed to get through the half in about 1:40, give or take. We each had our own individual goals and plans for the day, with one doing his first marathon (!), but it was nice to run in a pack and just bullshit with strangers for a while. It’s something that I really like about running and our community; this sport forges such an instant connection that somehow, it’s so effortless to run in-step with perfect strangers for hours at a time, talking about anything and everything, that you don’t even realize (or you realize less) that you’re covering a huge fucking swath of distance. I mean, imagine how weird it would be for you to just sit down at someone’s table at a restaurant and talk for three+ hours with a perfect stranger. And yet … and yet … in running, it’s NBD. That blows my mind.
Though I was basically running with a pack of guys from the get-go, I recognized a couple familiar women in the starting area – two women I had raced at Modesto and run with there for the first 5ish miles – and they also were in/near our little 3:20 (ish) group for part of TCM. Lots of spectators commented about our little pack looking so strong, how good it was that we were working together, and that sort of thing. I apparently always put myself out in front – the only reason I can think of is that I’m fairly claustrophobic, and this really comes out in racing environments – and I ran with the same group of guys for nearly 18 miles, with one (Andy) closer to 20. The fellas and I bullshitted for a long time and were completely quiet save for our footsteps at others: basically just like any other training run I’ve done with friends. I wasn’t clock-watching at all, but I felt like I was staying within the realm of running a responsible first half and that I was running fairly evenly and consistently. Better still, my stomach was holding it together, though there were some moments of oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck … oh. phew. I felt like I was playing with fire in regards to my stomach, but I was willing to risk it, especially since the day seemed to be unfolding how I had hoped it would.
As we finished the Clovis part of the race, the race took us back in the direction of Woodward Park, and then right when we were about mile, maybe a half mile from the finish line, we took a right on Friant Road, right around mile 16ish, for a ten mile OAB. With being so close to the finish line, only to go SO FAR AWAY FROM IT, I was banking on my soul wanting to go die, but incredibly, it didn’t. I attribute this to still running with a pack, since by 16, I was still in-step with 3 other guys, 2 of whom I had been with since nearly the beginning of the race. We began to talk about what the final ten miles of the race would look like, noting that Friant Rd. is where the Fresno HM occurs, evidenced by HM walkers everywhere, and that we’d encounter the only real “hill” (airquotes because it’s about a 70ft decline/incline) on the course right around mile 20/21. Fortunately, thanks to the wide roads, I didn’t have any problems dodging the HM walkers, most of whom were on the far right side of the road, anyway. Just like at Modesto, the HM participants were super encouraging, which I reciprocated (per yoosh), and even going through water stations with the mix of HM walkers and marathon runners wasn’t problematic. The Clovis HM wouldn’t have been able to handle the crush of HM walkers and marathon runners because the bike paths aren’t very wide, but on a several-lane-wide road like Friant, it was a non-issue.
As the guys (Erik, Andrew, and Andy) and I cruised along, I was beginning to pay attention to the opposite side of the course to begin to look for the lead marathoners coming through. At one point, I thought that I was about the fifth woman OA, but I didn’t know for sure. Between miles 16-20, the group of guys and I caught up to and passed two women, making me think that I might be able to squeak a podium finish ($ prize!). I felt fine – good, actually – even as we were beginning to ever-so-slightly speed-up after passing through the first half. I had convinced myself that my stomach was going to play nicely after all, that all I needed to do was to keep moving forward, and to mentally keep my shit together. All the silly, New Age-y mantra stuff you see people posting on social media – the “you can do it,” whatever – all that stuff I was repeating to myself embarrassingly ad nauseam: again the importance of being your own biggest cheerleader. There were so many things that were markedly different about how I felt this late in the marathon at TCM compared to how I felt at Modesto – especially since it felt at least ten degrees cooler at TCM – that I was beginning to think the PR miiiiight be within reach. I didn’t want to bank on it, but the cautious optimism was definitely growing.
By the time I approached 20, our little group was just Andy and me, and he was planning to go for his GMP (6:30s/6:40) for the final 10k, so I bid him adieu and godspeed. I descended the little-but-long hill, did the little OAB that followed, and ascended the long-but-not-steep hill back as I began to return toward Woodward Park. By now, on the ‘back’ portion of Friant Road, I was in a sea of HM walkers and 2:20+ HM runners, and I was pretty sure that I had moved up into fourth or third woman OA place. Being on the back portion allowed me to cheer for everyone on the out portion – again, I love OAB races for this reason – and the mental math games began: as long as I run a 10 minute pace, I can finish in X. 5 miles – that’s like 45 minutes, not even. I can do that. As long as I run an 8 minute pace, I can finish in Y. 4 miles – that’s like running around (random route at home). A 5k! I can do a 5k. If I can push a stroller at (whatever pace), I can definitely do it solo for a couple more miles. You can do this. I can do this. Don’t trip. Don’t trip. For the love of god, don’t trip. Don’t step in that pothole. The road is curving. Move over. Hug the tangent. Don’t trip. Don’t trip. Don’t trip.
I rarely look at my watch when I’m racing, so instead, I focused on keeping Andy and his colorful shorts within sight for as long as I could. Eventually, he disappeared, so I focused on counting all the HM runners and walkers around me when I wasn’t having the monologue above, counting, or silently singing assorted children’s songs to myself. I hesitated to push the pace much before mile 23 because I was obviously tiring, but I also didn’t want to inadvertently shoot out like a bat out of hell – as much as one can do that in the final 5k of a marathon, anyway – only to blow up, lose the PR potential, and death-march in it. My hardest bonk was at my first Boston, wherein I literally (and I do mean literally) felt like I was going to fall asleep standing up at mile 23, like if I blinked for a millisecond too long, that it’d be the end of me, and it was the shittiest feeling I’ve experienced in racing 26.2: ever. That said, at TCM, I wanted to be a little conservative on whatever final “kick” I had and not get too far ahead of myself. Eventually, by the time I hit 25 (or the HM 12 sign), I finally had that fuck it let’s do this let’s finish this thing moment with myself and “bolted” – again, as much as you can do that after you’ve been racing for over three hours. I couldn’t help but be nostalgic as we turned back into the park, making me think of making that turn into Central Park during the NYC Marathon (which was on the same day as TCM this year), and I smiled as I dodged all the other participants and hauled relative ass up the little undulations leading into Woodward Park and to the finish line. I wasn’t clock-watching, but I was pretty sure that it’d be something in the high 3:18 or low 3:19 range – provided I didn’t faceplant or something.
My sunglasses hid a lot of the emotion in my face, but FUCKING HELL I BROKE 3:20 AFTER THREE YEARS OF TRYING – 3:19:13 – and netted a third place OA podium spot behind two sub-3 women, including a local OTQ who ran LA earlier this year.
So much happened over the course of running for 3 hours and 19 minutes – I saw so much, I thought so much, I raged about stuff that’s angering me and grieved about other stuff – but at the same time, nothing happened. Does that make sense? I woke up, and I ran. I finally posted a time on the clock that I feel like I’ve been capable of posting for a long time, and in the throes of it all, when I began to get tired, I just felt good. There was no existential crisis as I’ve had in earlier marathons, no mental garbage or demoralizing self-talk that plagued me in other races; I was just running and I kept telling myself that I could really finally truly actually do this at long fucking last. This all makes no sense to me – does this mean I sandbagged a little? It wasn’t effortless, but it wasn’t grisly – and a few days out from the race now, I’m fairly confident I should have pushed harder, or pushed earlier, or something. IDK. There’s more there. Regardless, I’m thrilled and obviously so thankful that the race and all the training, different as it may have been, coalesced favorably. I took a lot of chances with how I approached TCM, liberated myself from any of my own self-imposed expectations in the process, and in the thick of it, convinced myself that I could confidently tell whatever self-doubt I had to go to hell.
Post-marathon, I chatted with Andy (who did in fact execute on his GMP back 10k plan, finishing in a 3:14, with final 10k splits that are a thing of beauty) and later, the women I had met and raced at Modesto, Michelle and Erin, as well as Linh and the other pacers. I loaded up on the many post-race food offerings (fruit, a vegetarian burrito, ice cream, water), eventually met-up with Meredith, who had had her own share of adventures in her 22 miles, and we headed back north.
Experience is beginning to show me that I gravitate toward smaller races. I like the big city fun that you can get from running Chicago, NYC, or Boston, but I’m not all that interested anymore in the annoying and complicating factors that come with the mega-huge races. TCM, while a small race, had the best of both worlds for me. The marathon finishers got not only a nice tee, but we also got a finisher jacket that has the same coloring as my Boston ’09 jacket, plus with reflective elements, which makes it conducive to early a.m. runs. I’m not really into hardware, but having a medal made out of wood was kinda cool, too. The volunteers were top-notch and enthusiastic, showing that they knew what they were doing, and I appreciated the opportunity to finally try Tailwind as an electrolyte replacement instead of the standard Gatorade or nuun offerings on-course. Plus, even with all the hullabaloo of having four events running simultaneously, I never once felt crowded, inconvenienced, or put-off by being surrounded by a ton of other runners, nor did I ever feel like I was a salmon swimming upstream. (To be honest, I thought it was kinda neat to see so many other runners and walkers throughout the course of the marathon. If that means more people will get out and start running, hell, have ten events running simultaneously). Getting into and out of the start and finish line area was a breeze, and really, the entire experience was just hassle-free. To me, TCM felt like a big-city race with all the nice premiums and well-thought-out organization but thankfully, without the hassles and pain-in-the-ass factors. It’s a good little race and one that I expect to grow pretty substantially over the years; I think this year was only its fourth iteration.
Suffice it to say, then, that I’m stoked. A PR is a PR, and to be able to go sub-3:20 after trying to do it for three years (and having my second kid in that mix) makes it deeply gratifying. So much can go wrong during a marathon that I often feel like I’m better off anticipating more bad things to happen than good, but it didn’t this time around. From start to finish, I felt like I ran confidently, in control, and deeply self-aware, while still having a total blast and enjoying the company of the other runners and participants. Racing and having fun isn’t mutually exclusive, guys: you heard it here first! Snagging a podium finish and negative splitting the race (1:41/1:38) were also awesome touches, and as always, I’m just so grateful to be able to do this stuff. The time and the PR matter, but they don’t. I know you understand. The experience of it all is greater than the sum of its parts. It always is.
Thank you for the encouragement and, for many of you, the many years’ worth of feedback and support. I’m really, really lucky. xo