I made the conscious decision to not bring my laptop to Eugene because I figured I’d only use it to write my race recap in the airport, but since it’s oldish (5 years), heavy, and bigish, I instead went with an old-school pad of paper and a pen (a pen! imagine that) to record my thoughts before I got back to Chicago.
Well… nine pages later– yes, nine, handwritten, outlined pages later—that describe my entire Eugene experience, including my travel and fun in Portland, here I am, about to describe a race that never in a million years I thought I’d pull off right now in my running career, if ever, and suddenly, those nine pages leave me wondering where the eff I should even start, wondering if this is all real, if I actually did this.
Suffice it to say that I’m equal parts shocked, in disbelief, humbled, elated, and proud, and now, two days post-race, I’m still shaking my head in a “OMGwhatjusthappened?!” reaction…in addition to that aforedescribed whole equal-parts cocktail.
I’ll do my best here to concentrate on the race and on any factors leading up to it that, in retrospect, I think played into my Eugene Marathon experience, but I assure you that this won’t be brief. I’ll at least go for entertaining and informative, the latter particularly for anyone considering the Eugene race in the future
The Cliffs version: at 10:24:58 am Pacific time on Sunday, April 28, 2013, I had just completed my nineteenth marathon in Eugene, Oregon, in 3:20:41. That’s a personal best, my seventh Boston-qualifying race, a six+ minute negative split race, and more than eleven minutes faster than my PR I had set on January 13, 2013, in Houston, just over three months ago. In addition, Eugene was my third marathon post-childbirth (my first being on April 28, 2012, one year exactly after my due date), and nearly two years to the day after having my daughter.
Hence, my elation. And disbelief. And… I don’t even know. Everything.
I had traveled to Portland a few days prior, Thursday night, and stayed with my girl Kelly, a college friend who had relocated to the other part of the country from Chicago in September. Also in Portland was my friend from my online RunyourBQ community, Austin, whom I had met for the first time in NYC last November. Kelly said she’d come to Eugene to cheer, and Austin had also trained for this race (his second Eugene) all winter long.
My brief stint in Portland before the race was generally pretty wonderful. It’s a beautiful city and one that reminds me of a cross between Akron and Chicago. It’s weird because it’s a city, but there are all these super darling houses everywhere, and everything is green, and then there are mountains (mountains!) in the background, and there are tons of vegan places… I could go on. I’d definitely return. The only downer about my time in Portland was that all day on Friday, and for part of Saturday, I had serious GI issues—serious enough to stop running during Friday’s shakeout run with Austin along the Willamette (thank god for a forgiving coffee shop, Stumptown)–that lasted pretty much until I went to bed that night. I had attributed the GI catastrophe to nerves, travel, and to ingesting Gatorade and not diluting it, as I usually do. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous about having GI issues during the race, but I reminded myself that on my shakeout run the day before Houston, I also had GI issues (again, from Gatorade), and still had a rockin’ run and PR the next day.
Corvallis, Saturday morning
Come Saturday, Kelly, Austin, and I awoke early and picked up Austin’s friend, Ellen, whose parents live in Eugene and were hosting Austin for the weekend, and drove down to Corvallis, where Ann-Marie, Kelly’s former DePaul supervisor, now works, for a shake-out run at Oregon State University. Ann-Marie’s students were hosting an untimed, pretty low-key 5k/10k as part of their Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention week. Austin and I chatted away the 5k, just as we had our 10k shake-out the day before in Portland, and I felt comfortable and relaxed. The weather was also gorgeous, sunny and 70s+ (with no humidity), just as it was the day before in Portland.
Following lunch (more great vegan food), Kelly, Austin, Ellen, and I continued south to Eugene and picked-up our packets at the race expo. The expo itself was really low-key and wouldn’t have taken more than 30 minutes if you talked to every single vendor in depth. We instead took about 20, between getting our race materials, posing for some pictures, and buying Connor an awesome (albeit perhaps inappropriate) shirt—picture forthcoming on that one. After the expo, we were good runners and went to Pre’s Rock for some pictures, and from there went to Ellen’s parents’, who graciously invited Kelly and me to stay for a homecooked dinner.
(Here I’ll interrupt myself to just say how cool it was that I was having a homemade dinner the night before a marathon in the home of some near-perfect strangers. The running community is just awesome and really “gets it” when it comes to this stuff. Ellen runs, as do her parents, and it was obvious. I look forward to paying this forward for a future race).
By eight, Kelly and I went to our hotel—as old-school as they come, with outdoor hallways and everything—that was conveniently right across the street from the Knight Stadium and just a five minute leisurely walk to Hayward Field, the start and finish of the marathon. We moseyed across the street to a grocery store to pick up some provisions for the next few days and ended up chatting with “Ultra Al,” a marathoner/ultrarunner from the Eugene area who was going to be running his 241st marathon on Sunday, right around his 60th birthday. (He also shared with us a bunch of head-scratching details, like about his part-dog/part-wolf canines at home for whom he had left voicemails on his home answering machine so they wouldn’t be tearing his place to hell).
Again, I love the running community.
Shortly thereafter, Kelly and I were back at the hotel, watching the most awful TV we could find (“Bet on Your Baby!”), and after a lot of talking to myself and pseudo-nesting, I got into bed to begin a pretty horrible night’s sleep around 10/11pm.
I set twelve—yup–alarms for marathon morning. I like to be safe. I was up at least once/hour due to nerves, weird dreams (walking with and running away from lions and lionesses that had escaped from a zoo), and because I had cranked the A/C to minimize the “old hotel” odor in our room. I got up at 4, ate my two whole-wheat bagels, then got back into bed (after turning off the A/C) to try to sleep a little more until 5:45/6. Once those alarms went off, my GI decided it’d be on my side this morning—YES!–which made me ridiculously and obnoxiously happy After getting race readied, and with Kelly’s body-marking and pace band-attaching assistance, we headed out of the hotel at 6:30, me eating my banana on the go, to meet Austin before the 7am gun.
While I looked for Austin near the baggage drop, I saw the only other Chicagoans I “knew”–via Twitter—doing the race, Tim and Kevin, so I quickly introduced myself and continued to look for Austin. (Sidenote, since I started using twitter in January, I’ve met three people, and all of them have been Chicago runners).
Once Austin and I rendezvoused, and I had checked my stuff—including my gels, oops—I returned to baggage drop, got my essentials, then attempted to use the porta-potties before we decided that the lines were too long and it was too close to the gun. I was pretty sure it was a nervous piss anyway, so I wasn’t that concerned. Austin and I wished each other good luck in our races (he, a 3:05/BQ, and me, a sub-3:30), and went to our corrals (B and C, respectively).
I made my way to the very front of the C corral so I wouldn’t get trapped behind the pace group horde of people near the 3:35 pacer. There wasn’t a 3:30 pacer anyway, so I planned from the get-go to run my own race. I made minimal small talk in the corral, since the guy next to me, Eric, didn’t seem too interested in chatting, even though we shared the same goal for the day. I started to focus inward and visualize a great race and concentrated on running a 1:45 first half.
Aside from the usual national anthem, we also had some moments of silence for Boston. The RD also gave all runners black ribbons to wear on race day to signify our support and solidarity with Boston. While my watch and my pace band occupied my left arm, a big red heart I had drawn over the underside of my wrist occupied my right, for me signifying my love for the sport and the running community and my continued solidarity with Boston. I looked at this heart often throughout the race and thought of Boston and everyone I knew who had run it this year.
And with that, the Eugene lovefest was beginning.
splits: 7:34, 7:44, 7:52, 7:53, 7:44
5k average: 7:44; 10k average: 7:42
Many of the race participants were doing the half, so the first few miles were somewhat crowded. Most of the runners around me at the beginning were halfers shooting for a 1:45 or faster. I took advantage of this and told myself to run my own race and to not chase anyone; in fact, I remember thinking that I should be going for a somewhat lethargic 10k to keep myself in check for later. From the get-go, my plan was to cruise the first half and come as close to a 1:45 as possible and then assess at mile 18/20 and kick accordingly, with anything that I had left.
These first few miles were mostly residential. Kelly was going to run over to mile 3, but I didn’t see her. We had a long and very gradual uphill between miles 2-4 and then a steep up around mile 4.5, while miles 5-6 were nice descents that helped with turnover. I saw Kel first at mile 6, which was awesome, and then shortly after, around miles 6.5-7, I saw Ellen, her parents, and her younger brother, Patrick, on their bikes. There were also some great signs in this area from the U of O students, saying things like “run quietly, I’m still hungover” or from little kids, saying “I want to play with your iPod.”
I took my first AccelGel at the 5.5 mi aid station. Unlike in previous races, Eugene’s plan was early and often—six times total—to keep my glycogen at top levels. I had only learned about AccelGel since Houston, thanks to Dan’s recommendation, and while I’d never just snack on the things, they didn’t mess with my stomach and were palatable enough and pretty easy to ingest (drink). I had also made the decision to not drink a ton of Gatorade on the course because of the GI issues I had had all day on Friday, but I figured between my morning calories and carbohydrates from the two bagels and banana, the on-course water, the six AccelGels, and the official aid stations’ bananas, I’d probably be ok.
splits: 7:39, 7:36, 7:42, 7:44, 7:51, 7:52, 7:52
Right around mile 7, I had the first of several bananas, or parts of bananas, on the run. I was pretty surprised to go through a seemingly blocks-long semi-drastic uphill around mile 8 because I didn’t recall anyone saying anything about it or seeing it on the course’s elevation chart. It wasn’t actually too bad because it was thick with spectators and lots of Team in Training-sponsored support, which struck a special chord with me. I found myself waving and smiling a lot through this mile but also thinking back to Traci and her mom and why I got into marathoning in the first place.
As we made our way out of the residential areas and back near Hayward, on our way to a bike path, around my mile 9, I saw some super speedy halfers returning to Hayward for their finish, including Kevin (who was flying his way to a sub-1:16 PR). I took my second gel at mile 10, and immediately afterward, we had a nice downgrade and entered into a shady park/bike path system, though the paths were pretty narrow. On one of the last miles we shared with the halfers, around miles 10-11, we went over a bridge, wherein I audibly said “ohmygosh” to anyone in the proximity who might be listening to me; while we were going over the bridge, with the beautiful (serene, I think) water beneath us, and the mountains in the background, and the greenery everywhere, I was overtaken with a “you’re definitely not in Chicago anymore” moment and just had to share it with someone.
We exited the bike path and went through more residential areas, and I started to chat with a guy, Bret, who was running for Team and shooting for a 3:30. He was telling me about his girlfriend, who was shooting for a 4:30, her first marathon, and how he was planning to run her in if all went well with his race. We talked TNT for a little bit before we separated, but it was a nice little pick-me-up because I love talking TNT with former/current participants. Quickly thereafter, I saw what was probably my favorite sighting on the course: two ginger babies, in high chairs, on the devilstrip, just watching the runners go by. I was missing my girl, for sure, but it was just adorable. I feel like I saw a lot of babies, including newborns, in Eugene.
By the time I hit 13.1, I was at a 1:41/7:44 pace, a good 3+ minutes under my goal (1:44:53). I was trying to be very intentional about hitting each mile split as close to my goal as possible because I didn’t want to crash and burn, even though I was feeling great. My brief chat with Bret was completely conversational, and I felt like I was just going for a 13.1 stroll—not quite at a recovery pace but also not at one that I felt especially taxed. 13 miles is way too early for me to make a move in a marathon, so I figured I just needed to lie low for another five-seven and be present in each mile as it unfolded.
splits: 7:38, 7:34, 7:26, 7:39, 7:26, 7:29, 7:36
Though I had been feeling great at halfway, I knew I would be an idiot to begin pushing so early—and besides, I had really wanted to stick to my race plan—so I continued to cruise and enjoy the scenery and the experience. Since we had separated from the halfers a few miles back, things had opened up considerably, and I didn’t feel cramped at all—good for me for all the obvious reasons but also because I get somewhat claustrophobic in races when people are all up in my business. I’m afraid of tripping, or of being tripped on/over, so I usually try to stay away of tight packs of runners.
After another fairly quick uphill around 14 over a highway, we were cruising through a different residential area, though this part of the course seemed to have fewer people lining it. The spectators were all great, of course, but in terms of sheer numbers, the marathoners far, far outnumbered the residents. As I was going along, feeling well and drafting off some guys who were running two abreast in front of me, right around mile 14/15, I saw in the near-distance, probably a couple minutes away, bobbing yellow balloons.
Those balloons belonged to the 3:25 pacer, who had started in corral B (and thus, at least a minute or two ahead of me), and I thought if I were seeing him so early in the race, my pacing was shot to shit and I needed to slow the hell down, regardless of how I was feeling or how my actual splits measured up against those of my goal. Focusing on the positive (always), I thought that as long as I stayed back from these guys, I would be good to go. I didn’t need to think about/try catching up to them—and really, I didn’t think a 3:25 was in the books for Eugene (probably closer to a 3:28, maybe 3:27 if the universe aligned)–but having them right in front of me would be instant feedback on my pace for the remaining 11-12 miles.
I took my third AccelGel around mile 14.5, my only experience of the day with the gels where I had gagged a little—must have been the flavor (vanilla, I think). Continuing along and still concentrating on staying behind the yellow balloons, I was feeling great and told myself that I still had a lot of race to run and that anything could happen.
We entered the bike path system again around miles 15.75/16, and we stayed in it until around mile 25.25. Look at the course map, and you’ll see that much of the course is alongside a river. I think this was both good and bad, largely depending on how your race was going. Depending on where you were on the trail, sometimes there were lots of spectators, and sometimes, there were none, and it was just you and the river. As was the case early on, around miles 10-12, the path was also somewhat narrow, so when you came upon throngs of people, that boxed-in feeling set in REAL quick.
I saw Kelly again right around mile 16, what I thought would be the last place on the course I’d see her, and shortly after, Ellen and her family. By mile 16, I was suddenly in the thick of things with the 3:25 group, though I hadn’t at all tried to speed up to them. By now, I had also run into Eric, the guy I talked to in the corrals about wanting to go sub-3:30, and he was way more chatty now than at 7am (imagine that). However, that whole boxed-in/claustrophobic feeling I mentioned earlier set in pretty quickly, and I asked runners who were two-five+ abreast to part the seas for a second so I could pass through. When I was forced to run behind them, I had to uncomfortably shorten my stride. I didn’t want to get ahead of the pace group to take off; more than anything, I didn’t want to accidentally clip someone’s foot on his/her backstrike and send the two (or more) of us flying.
As I passed the 3:25 group around 16, after seeing Kelly and Ellen and her family, I kept wondering if I was doing the right thing. I had told myself that I wouldn’t make a move until 20, or 18, if I felt amazing, yet I did just that by getting ahead of this group, a group that I didn’t plan to be running anywhere near—let alone IN FRONT OF—for this race. I mentally weighed my options and thought that as long as I just maintained a steady pace for at least two-three more miles, I’d be fine. The 3:25 group probably wouldn’t be that far behind me, but more importantly, at least for me, anyway, I wouldn’t be close enough to them to get sucked up and boxed in again. If they passed me later, as I expected they would, so be it. A 3:25 was my plan for Chicago in October, not Eugene in April.
I took AccelGel #4 at 18 and then began to assess: now?
splits: 7:36, 7:27, 7:42, 7:42, 7:42, 7:43, 7:48, (7:05 for .2)
20mi split: 2:33:18, 7:40 avg; overall: 3:20:41, 7:40 avg
By mile 20, I was still feeling strong. All I could think about was a passage in the Pfitzinger book I had read, specifically in the “race day strategy” chapter, about miles 20-26.2. It said something along the lines of the last 10k of a marathon is what you should look forward to if you’ve trained well and consistently because this is where your tenacity and training is going to show. I think many running publications sufficiently intimidate and scare runners, future or current, of “the wall” that often happens at 20 miles, but I reminded myself that my long long runs were over 20 this cycle—21 or 21.5, three times. Hell, 20 miles into a marathon was still shorter than a training run for me, I rationalized. I told myself that even though I was still feeling well, a 10k at the end of the marathon is still a long way to crash and burn, so I tried to hold steady for at least one more mile, until mile 21, before making any sort of decisive action.
We were in the bike path/woods—still—going in and out of shade and groups of spectators. Some parts were noisy, others were pretty sparse, and while I was still feeling well, I was beginning to get bored of this damn path. I think this is where my city training really presented itself because even in the dead of winter, I’m used to training around other people on the lakefront path (or in the suburbs). Even on some of my super-early morning runs over the winter, I’d still see over 50 runners in 60-90 minutes—and after accounting for pedestrians and dog-walkers, that number would be even higher.
I recalled hearing about a big hill around mile 21, going over some bridge, so I had been mentally preparing myself for it. I didn’t know how long it was, or how steep, but it finally came, and it was a joke of a hill—even for someone from the flatlands. We first ran under the bridge and then took a hard right to curve up and on it, and as soon as we were at the top, we went right back down; this “hill” lasted a hot second. (Chicagoans, think of any of the undulations on the south side of the lakefront trail, and that’s the duration and intensity).
My fifth and penultimate gel came in at mile 22, and I was anticipating the last of the officially-provided bananas around mile 23. My racing experience has taught me that running a marathon needs to be something of an Old Country Buffet for me. If there’s fruit on the course—bananas and oranges are the usual suspects—regardless of who’s giving them to me (probably not the best thinking… and HELLO, germs), I’ll take ‘em. I barely saw the last bananas, since a volunteer decided to cut them up and leave the pieces on the table, but I swiped two small halves and continued on, trying to eat them with as little effort as possible (here, I imagined what it was like for A to gum food before she had teeth and tried to do the same. Yup. I distinctly remember this thought process. It made a lot of sense at the time). A spectator shortly after the banana stop was handing out orange slices, so I also took one of those, and for a couple minutes in the late stages of the race, I was running sub-8 miles with 3 pieces of fruit in my hand. I secretly hoped a photographer wasn’t around because I probably looked (more) ridiculous by then.
Also around miles 22-23, the temperatures started to slowly rise, which I anticipated from reading the morning’s weather. We started at 7am in the high 40s/low 50s, and by 10, the temps were going to be around mid-50. The marathon weather gods also blessed us for most of the morning and gave us overcast skies with very little wind, but as the race wore on, the sun began peaking out periodically. Fortunately, I had the foresight on Sunday to throw on some sunscreen, since I had gotten pretty fried in Portland on Friday just from being outside for my shakeout.
This will sound bizarre, but I only remember thinking that my legs were beginning to get tired around mile 24. By then, I had taken my sixth and final gel (right at 24), and I was trying to concentrate on the final 2.2 miles. The course was relatively quiet for a lot of the 24-25.5 mile stretch, besides the brief interludes where we ran through parks and softball games, and I knew I was beginning to dig. I really didn’t want to slow down very much, even though I knew that (barring catastrophe), I’d have a sizable PR, so I reminded myself that it was only 2.2 miles and that I’d be done in twenty minutes (and that anyone can do anything for 20 minutes. Oh, the lies!). While the usual suspects in my legs (namely, ITB) were feeling fine, I felt like my quads were tiring, and I again had a talk with myself that I still had some glycogen to burn and that whatever fatigue I was feeling was all in my head.
The crazy mom in me apparently also kicked in around mile 24 because I was trying to conjure some of my mental games that I’ll use to pass the time when I’m doing planks—the alphabet (in Spanish and English), the countries of the world in A-Z order—but nothing I thought of would last as long as I needed it to. Finally, I had a EUREKA! moment and remembered two of A’s favorite songs right now that I could make have roughly 1,000 verses each, enough to hold me over until at least mile 25: “the hokey pokey” and “if you’re happy and you know it.”
No joke, the HP got me through those 7:42 minutes as I tried to name every body part I could think of.
Clearly, I have a new-found appreciation for that earworm of a song.
At long last, we finally exited the time and distance warp of a bike path around mile 25.25, and while I knew we’d be back at Hayward very quickly, I still couldn’t place where we were. I knew we were on one of the main drags near the U of O campus and Hayward, but there weren’t initially as many people as I would have expected for the end of the marathon. In retrospect, I could have been delusional by this point. I do recall seeing other runners/walkers who were just making their way to the park (so around 9 miles in), and I thought briefly of the same encounter I had in Houston, when I started to have an internal diatribe about the state of society’s health.
I really wanted to have a strong finish on Hayward’s track, and I felt like I could muster up another small kick for the final stretch, even though I was ready to be done. Imagine my ENORMOUS surprise to see Kelly, Ellen, and Ellen’s three family members right around mile 26. Seeing them, and seeing them go batshit for me, was just incredible. I immediately acknowledged them (a wave and a Cheshire smile, I think) and floored it—or as much flooring as one can do 26 miles into a race.
We veered left from the road and then right—the marathoners were on the right side of the cones—and before I knew it, I was kickin’ my last 150m of my marathon on the holy grail of American track and field. I looked down at my watch just as I was entering Hayward and saw it was in the mid-to-high 3:19 range and knew that I’d finish in 3:20 and change, and I just couldn’t believe it. I soaked up the last 100 meters of the run, put both hands over my heart to show my Boston love, and heard my name right after I crossed the finish line. I hugged a young female volunteer who medalled my neck, grabbed a space blanket, though I was hot, and immediately went into the athletes-only recovery area to find Austin. I’d soon learn that he also scored a PR for the day, clocking in at a 3:08, but just missing his BQ. As if the PR in and of itself wasn’t impressive, he also improved on his Eugene ’12 time by SIXTEEN FREAKING MINUTES; it’s like this year he practically ran two+ extra miles.
In true post-marathon Erin form, I began to cry after I got my medal and space blanket as I realized the magnitude of what I had just accomplished. I went into Eugene hoping for a sub-3:30 and expecting to be able to execute accordingly, barring GI or weather issues, and if I were feeling especially rockin’, I thought a 3:27 would be doable. Never, ever, ever in a million years did I think I would be capable of running a 3:20 marathon just a few days ago and on the heels of a PR marathon in January, just about fourteen weeks prior.
Austin and I soon met up with Kelly and Ellen, and there were lots of congratulatory hugs, kisses, and crying. Eventually, we got our gear (though we almost missed it), and I was blown away to see my phone lit up with text messages, emails, and tweets from my running family. They were with me every step of the way, and some even told me that they watched me cross the finish line on their computer and were just blown away at my performance. Dan, my Houston buddy, even told me later that he was as proud of me and the PR that I realized on Sunday as he was when he got his own in Houston.
And since then, since about 10:30 on Sunday morning, I have been in something of a dream state, not exactly knowing for sure that I did what I know I did on Sunday—if that makes any sense at all. (I’ve also come down with a sinus and ear infection since then, something that I was battling the week of the marathon in Chicago and, to a lesser extent, in Portland, so I can’t promise that anything I’m rambling on about is making a whole lot of sense in the first place). I am so genuinely happy and shocked and humbled, and the continued outpouring of support that I’ve been getting since Sunday—and really, throughout my training leading up to Eugene—has just been unreal. I am floored and deeply, deeply appreciative and indebted to my family and friends and runner family who have been with me since forever and have really been putting this sub-3:30 notion into my head in the first place.
I could write so much more about Eugene and my stay in Oregon, but I won’t in the interest of space and your eyes Suffice it to say, however, that I couldn’t be happier right now. I haven’t yet decided what this means for the rest of my races and marathons in 2013, and really, I’m trying not to think too much about future performances right now. I’m taking my training partners’ advice and basking… and probably floating a little bit, too.
3:20:41; 7:40 average; 357/2564 overall; 77/1222 women; 23/227 F 25-29.