We’re at that point where the SF Marathon is about to roll around here in a month’s time (or less, actually), and just as I’ve done for the past few summers, my kiddos and I are currently spending around three weeks visiting family in the midwest. I love that my girls get so much quality time with their cousins and my sis/parents (and I’ll never complain about being able to see my family and my BFF whom I otherwise never see anymore). I haven’t lived here in a long time now, so the kids and I all look forward to returning each year for our “midwestern sojourn.”
As any runner will tell you, running in the midwest during the summer can be a mixed bag, since the weather is often fairly brutal (and quite often, rather mercurial). I obviously knew this from having spent my first 30 years of life in this part of the country, but when I saw that my hometown, Wadsworth, Ohio — where neither my family nor I have lived for many years — was hosting an inaugural half marathon, and on a Friday night a couple days after my family and I arrived, I threw caution to the wind. Yes, running a half marathon at 6:15pm could be disastrous for my already precarious GI system (I shake my fist at you, colitis); yes, a half marathon in mid-June in the midwest could feel more like a swim than a run; yes, a half about a month out from the marathon would likely feel impossibly hard due to the residual marathon training fatigue, since I wouldn’t bother trying to taper hard for the race … and yet … I basically said fuck it. $29 for a chip-timed half marathon ($29!) is a pretty sweet deal, certification or not.
The funny thing about this half was that, while it was inaugural (and thus, no one had run it before, only a 5k/10k that spanned what would be the back half of the HM course), I kept hearing buzz about how hard it was — how hilly and unforgiving the course was, particularly the first 7 miles. Shoot, even the emails from the race organizer talked about how challenging this race would be, even for the most veteran runners. Naturally, this just added to the race’s intrigue. I might shit myself because I’m running at night, which my stomach typically isn’t enthusiastic to do; the humidity might make this blow beyond belief; I’m all but guaranteed to be tired AF because I’m in the thickest part of my marathon training; even the race organizers are saying the course is really tough … buuuuuuuut it’s $29, and hey, “hard” is relative, right?! Sure. Oh, and for good measure, the top 3 M/F finishers were eligible to earn cash prizes. Again: intrigue. I hear you. I feel you.
I figured that a few things could happen with this race. If I felt like I could do a bang-up job, maybe it’d be something like a GMP + tempo workout, like what I did in Florida in October before Two Cities. If I started out and wasn’t feeling it, I’d go for a solid GMP run. Alternatively, if things felt especially not great, I could just turn it into a fully supported and easy LR. I mean, why not, right? The difference between “best case” and “worst case” scenarios weren’t all that egregious; nothing was really on the line. The stakes were fairly low. And obviously — importantly — even if everything felt horribly god-awful, simply being able to run 13.1 miles for the hell of it — not because my race performance would dictate my ability to pay my mortgage or anything like that — is and always will be a gift. I am so extremely appreciative of my ability (and want) to run that even if things really sucked mid-race, if everything went to hell in a handbasket like I imagined they would, I’d be eternally grateful that I was out there in the first place. I literally (yes, literally) had nothing to lose.
Though I had lived nearly the entire first 18 years of my life in Wadsworth, as I looked at the map before the race, I realized I had probably never driven on — much less run on — 95% of the roads the race covered. Come race week, I took a rest day on Wednesday (our travel day, anyway), and I went into the race with very-lightly-tapered legs (with maybe about 20 miles on them). We had intermittent thunder, lightning, and rain all day on Friday — making me wonder if the race would be called — but come race time, the skies were overcast and lightning-free and the air thick and fairly suffocating for someone who has lived in dry-ish air for the past few years (91% humidity at race time, woof). 70 degrees in the 6 o’clock hour felt pretty warm, but the humidity, even in my 2 mi warm-up, let me know right away that my work was cut out for me.
Without much fanfare, the other half marathoners and I began the race; folks doing the 5k and 10k wouldn’t start until much later. Right out of the gate, I had to negotiate with my legs to get out of the 6:5x range and strive for something closer to a 7:30, even though the faster paces (strangely) felt much more comfortable. Within the first two miles, I experienced the dreaded slosh slosh slosh feeling of god knows what in my stomach — despite my best efforts to eat and drink fairly minimally all day long — and I hoped that whatever I had going on was more in my head than anything. I have a fairly idiotic tendency to think that I can simply mentally will things away — headaches, menstrual cramps, things that can otherwise be easily rectified by the wonders of modern medicine — so I hoped that I could do some mid-race mental voodoo magic to calm the nonsense down in my midsection. Spoiler: it’s not a good strategy.
The course began (and ended) at the football stadium where my high school football team played all its home games. The first bit of the race cut through totally unfamiliar neighborhoods on the south/southeast side of town (I think), ultimately making its way up to the new high school campus, before coming back to where we began and doing a northerly jaunt (that confusingly doubled back on itself in parts). Anything familiar to me we passed had since been reconstructed or repurposed, like my old middle school (now an intermediate school) or my high school (destroyed and rebuilt and now at least 4x larger). Though I was pretty sure I knew where I was the entire time I was racing, it wasn’t until the back half that I could actually identify and remember the streets where some of my friends lived in high school. The hills in the first 7 miles — in particular, in the first 5 — were very fair, absolutely runnable, and as long and intense as folks had warned about, and I’d guess that this course was among the hardest HM I’ve run. I was absolutely getting my $29 worth. Add to the fun terrain challenges the thick air, my bodily fatigue, and whatever the hell was going on with my stomach, and it sure became quite a ride for a while: up, down, slosh, my legs feel so heavy, I feel like I’m wearing a weighted vest, steep ascent, steeper descent, slosh, and repeat.
By about mile 5, course volunteers told me that I was the third woman — a big surprise, since I had counted runners on an out-and-back and must have misidentified a man as a woman — but right around the same time, my stomach made itself known. Apparently the slosh slosh sloshing just predicated the all-too-familiar “urgency” that is a supremely frustrating hallmark of my colitis. After the slosh slosh slosh had subsided, I had that familiar internal struggle wherein I, full of denial, wondered if “that” feeling was just gas, or was it in my head, or did I really have to go take a dump somewhere mid-race, like RIGHT NOW else I’d get to deal with the indignity of shitting myself mid-run. Yup. It didn’t take long for my body to remind me again that, uh, I had to take care of things, and like … ten minutes ago. Once the 4th and 5th women passed me and I had an opening, I had no choice but to do the necessary in as secluded a location I could find. Shit happens: sometimes (often) quite literally with distance running and racing. If you’re reading this, you can likely relate. If you have the added bonus of having a gastrointestinal malady like colitis, the ability to deal with it on the run becomes another skillset worthy of a resume bullet point. Perhaps one of my greater accomplishments from this race was hitting a 7:43 mile with an emergency poo stop in the mix. #efficiency
Unsurprisingly, post-stop, I immediately felt better, but at the same time, I still felt lackluster at best. The stress of having the runs mid-run, and mid-race, no less, when I’m working harder than I would in an average ol’ training run, combined with the humidity (and the fatigue and everything else) just mixed in a way that basically resulted in me getting my ass handed to me. It wasn’t pretty. Never before have I so seriously wanted to drop from a race before — and we ran right by the finish area (where the 5k/10k runners were being staged before their race) — but I knew I’d hugely regret it if I did. Just finish this thing. Remember everything from Grit. Just keep running, just keep running, just keep running.
And then, a funny thing happened. As I was drinking some fluids and throwing more down my backside around mile 7, I ran by the 5k/10k runners waiting for their race to start, and I loudly heard GO ERIN MINK! and saw my friend from high school, Ben, standing on the sidelines. I hadn’t seen him since we graduated 15 years ago, and though I knew he was running one of the races, it was still so surprising and fun to see him that I’m pretty sure it gave me even just a momentary pep in my step, a reminder that oh yeah, racing is actually really fun, even if I’m feeling like ass right now. It’s proof positive that your spirits can get buoyed a bit when you know — or even palpably feel — that someone else out there believes in you, even when your belief in yourself is faltering. I know I wouldn’t have actually dropped at the halfway point, but seeing an old friend for that quick second or two was enough to just push me along. There is absolutely nothing wrong with soaking up any energy you can muster from extrinsic motivation sources if/when you need it. The support and love goes both ways: it’s a rush for the spectator, and it’s a rush for the athlete. Unsolicited advice: use that energy to the ends of the earth.
The back half of the race passed by more quickly than the front, no doubt because the course profile seemed to be a bit more forgiving, and I think over time, I slowly got out of my head and began to convince myself that I didn’t feel as awful as I thought I did. So much literature on this subject exists within the realm of sports psych, but the upshot is that you always have another gear. It is rare that you are ever working to capacity at any given time, and when it comes down to it, our brains quit on us well before our bodies actually do. I gave myself permission to not look at my watch splits when they beeped — I typically don’t anyway — and just run the very best that I could, trying to stay in every single mile of the race without getting too far ahead of myself, and I think this strategy helped me immensely. My body had been throwing my signs that indicated I was scoring pretty high on the “feeling like garbage-o-meter,” so I didn’t need any additional feedback from my Garmin splits to heighten the sentiment.
As I chugged along, I doled out a lot of mental (and physical) high-fives to lots of spectators and volunteers lining the residential streets the runners were overtaking. The volunteers and spectators were sweet, friendly, and enthusiastic in a way that I feel is uniquely Midwestern; one woman in particular, standing outside a cemetery, had such Evangelical preacher-style conviction in her voice as I ran by, telling me I WILL finish this race and I WILL finish it strong and I DO have this that it took my everything not to step off-course to hug her. Shortly before mile 9, running along one of the main roads in my hometown, I could see in the distance another overly enthusiastic woman with children cowbelling like her life depended on it. It’s hard not to smile at stuff like that — no matter how great or poor you feel — and I thought to myself that this woman, much like cemetery woman, was just so sweet.
Turns out, as I got closer, this second woman was my sister (!), and she had shown up with her almost 2 year-old (and my almost 2 year-old!) to surprise me!!! Talk about a great and unexpected pick-me-up. After seeing her, I figured the sooner I finished the race, the sooner I’d see her and the kids again, so time was of the essence; let’s finish the damn thing.
It was shortly after mile 9, not long after I saw my sis and the kids, that I caught up to and passed the 4th woman. The number 3 woman was not far ahead of me, and I kept her in my sight and slowly tried to reel her in. As we finished our race running through the northern-most part of the course, not long after I passed my best friend’s childhood home (and saw her mom chatting with her neighbor outside), I ran by my elementary school (long since destroyed and rebuilt), covered a few more hard-enough hills, and we ran back to the stadium to finish right on the football field under the stadium lights. I tried to rally with whatever I could muster during the back half of the race, especially after mile 9, but by the time I crossed the finish line, I felt laughably horrible. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have more GI distress, if I was going to vomit, or both, perhaps even simultaneously, which surely would be beautiful, but something seemed inevitable. The thought of running 3 more miles — to put me at 20 for the day, and thus, my long run for the week — was revolting, offensive, and impossible. Even the idea of trying to stomach all the generous food offerings was nauseating. For the rest of the night (and most of Saturday), I wanted nothing else than to hang in the fetal position because that was the only thing that sounded remotely attractive.
I finished the race as the 4th woman — missing 3rd (and cash!) by less than a minute — and 15th overall, with a 1:37 time and a 7:29 average. It was my slowest half in a while and honestly, fairly disappointing. The last half I ran was my PR half in November, nearly six minutes faster, making the sting even sharper. Admittedly, it took a little bit of wallowing before I got over myself and my self-imposed pity party about how my race fared. I absolutely had the full gamut of mental freak-outs — the self-talk that questions any semblance of fitness or speed I thought I had/have, that wonders who the hell I think I am that I think that I’m ready to go for a marathon (and likely a PR attempt, no less) in a month’s time (especially if I felt so not-great covering half the distance that night), that questions whatever strength I had to run fast on hills, all those self-doubt voices that manifest all the time but that I can usually keep at bay with a string of consistent and strong training runs, long runs, and races.
Rationally, I knew (and know) that one bad (or good) race/run doesn’t promise a bad (or good) race/run later, but it was really tough to not downward spiral over the shitshow that was my race. Warranted or not, realistic or not, rational or not, a hilly and humid half marathon on untapered legs — ultimately at an average pace that approximated what I’m gravitating toward for my GMP — completely shook me of any confidence I had about my marathon training up until this point. Cue the gutted feeling, the mental freak-outs, the oh shit, I am soooooooo fucked self-talk on repeat.
It’d be really easy and clean here to say and then I took a deep breath, got some perspective, and voila! All was well, and the world kept turning! and to an extent, that did happen, but not without a lot of intention and mental flexing. Part of the beauty of marathon training — what makes me gravitate toward it as a hobby, in the first place — is that it’s not all work-work-work-work-work without reprieve. Sure, there’s that element, but I feel like in order to race well and perhaps more importantly, to improve over time, you absolutely have to — it behooves you to — reflect on your experiences. The entire thing is so cyclical and recursive, and most runners don’t improve linearly. Shit happens. Setbacks happen. You make mistakes. Not every race is better than the one preceding. Hell, not every run is that glamorous. Sometimes you hit the jackpot and things feel effortless, but more often than not, it’s simply not what happens. It’s ok. It’s part of the process. Prepare, work, race, and reflect, and repeat; it’s not rocket science.
For Matchstick, I had roughly 1000 reasons going into the race that I knew would somehow stack the odds against me. I all but intentionally sought out a challenge, and I was disappointed that I didn’t rise higher — as high as I would have liked — to the occasion. It’s dumb, and I’ve since gotten over it and now shake my head at … myself. I didn’t run as well as I wanted not for lack of trying, and after the race ended and the dust settled, I realized that I could find comfort in my effort. I think it ultimately goes back to the idea that I’ve written about before here, what my former dean used to espouse to my colleagues and me: that we should always start at yes, both with others and with ourselves. Even when things seem so terrible or challenging that they’re laughable, who cares? The idea might be a moonshot or idiotic, but what the hell do you have to lose? Sure, my ego and pride were burned a little when I couldn’t perform as well as I had wanted under the duress of some circumstances totally beyond my control, but at the very least, I can revel in my knowledge that I at least gave a damn, put myself out there, and tried.
It wasn’t until I had gotten home, talked with my sister to rehash the race, and gotten my little ones in bed that I could begin to wrap my head around the race. Sure, my time was far south of my last HM race time, and it was not what I was envisioning I’d be able to necessarily do, but I at least had the self-satisfaction of knowing that I tried my hardest and did (what I think was) the best I could. It’s perspective. I can bemoan that I couldn’t get a handle on the conditions or my bowels or whatever and ran more slowly than I wanted, or conversely, I can celebrate that I handled the conditions enough and at least gutted out an average on par with what I want to run for double the distance and on a course that’s topographically similar. It’s all perspective.
Following the race, I took Saturday and Sunday off — Saturday because my stomach continued to be in tatters, and I spent more time than I would have liked in the bathroom, and Sunday because I still felt pretty physically and mentally exhausted (and, being honest, I wanted to stay in bed longer to cuddle with my six year-old and eventually lost my run window for the day) — and I think the mini-respite was a great decision, though not without a tinge of guilt. In the month prior to Matchstick, I posted several solid 60-70+ weeks, leading into the final big build for SF, and I decided that if I was going to take off a little time before the more pronounced marathon taper began, last weekend would be the prime time for it.
Overall, I think the Matchstick half was an excellent race. The cost was probably the cheapest I’ve ever had for a half, and the runner premiums were really nice (a long sleeve performance T, medals for HM finishers and AG placers, tons of food from local places [I walked away with 2 dozen cupcakes for my family that the race gave away to people who had stuck around for the awards ceremony!]). The HM course was definitely challenging — the elevation gain was pretty similar to the Berkeley HM, for my California friends, though the profile felt very different — but it was absolutely a fair and manageable course. My only point of contention was that it lacked porta-potties along the course, but at the start and finish, being able to use real bathrooms in the stadium was a treat. If I’m ever here again during the race weekend, I wouldn’t scoff at repeating the race, particularly if I’m in the throes of training for a hilly marathon like SF. If you’re local to NE OH, definitely put this race on your summer racing docket, and show up ready to work.
Sometimes having your ass handed to you in a race is a great way to remind yourself that running is inherently very hard. It’s a lot of fun, of course, but it’s also very, very hard. The work — the mental and physical efforts — that you constantly have to put forth to run and to race at your very best become all the more meaningful when you have a race that doesn’t go as well as you would have liked. To put it succinctly, it’s from some of the sub-par races and training runs — the runs that just blow, that make you want to quit running forever — that the PRs that you eventually earn become even sweeter simply because you know what hell you voluntarily put yourself through to get there. The scars are fresh and visceral. Matchstick forced me to go beyond my comfort zone — repeatedly — and messed with my head a bit — also repeatedly. It was my first recent race where everything wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and of course, I’m grateful for the experience and the opportunity to work hard — and harder still — when I was certain I had depleted my reserves. Digging deep, getting ugly, and working against conditions that seemed to be stacked against me: what better practice could I have for a 26.2 in a month’s time? Bring on the brutal because I won’t let it break me. #gauntletthrown