Tuesday, February 15, 2011

If At First You Don't Succeed...

...make sure you keep your second attempt under the radar.

So, I would be lying if I didn't admit that the Mercedes Marathon immediately came to mind after dropping out of Houston two weeks ago. I was already planning to be in attendance to work at the expo on behalf of Karhu, so that part of the decision was a non-issue. Further investigation indicated that the race offered some pretty legit prize money, which served as an added incentive, and my friend and account partner Scott Strand from the Trak Shak had graciously offered to cover my entry fee. The only other key components that needed to fall into place were the weather conditions and the state of my body, both of which wouldn't become readily apparent until very close to game day. So, with a mindset that I would describe as tentatively optimistic, I penciled Birmingham in on my calendar. Unlike with Houston, however, I made a conscious decision not to herald my intentions via Facebook or my blog or any other medium that might result in hundreds of people becoming aware of my potential failure. The few individuals I did tell seemed to understand and agreed to keep the information to themselves (even Caitlin, believe it or not).

As race day drew closer, I became increasingly intent on registering. For starters, my legs continued to carry the unusual spring and pop that had been present ever since Houston, even after multiple runs on sidewalks and pavement in Atlanta earlier in the week and even after working two 10-hour days on my feet at the expo. It also helped that the anticipated weather for Sunday morning appeared to be a
s close to perfect as one could hope for: lows in the 30s, highs near 60, with low humidity and bright sunshine and negligible wind. This was what Houston was supposed to be, I thought ruefully to myself as I filled out my registration form on Saturday afternoon.

Though this may sound surprising, the one variable that hadn't factored into my decision to run was the course. Simply put, the city of Birmingham is hilly. Very hilly. And while I knew that the race directors had altered the course a few years previously to reduce the level of difficulty, I also knew there was no way of getting around the undulating terrain that would surely accompany Sunday's run. Further, the "new" course was now a two-loop format, which meant that all the rollers from the first 13 miles would only seem amplified the second time around. But Houston was considered "flat" and that didn't exactly guarantee me success, so who's to say that I might not actually run better on a more challenging course? I chose not to dwell on it.

Race morning dawned cold and perfectly clear. My best friend Brooke--who, along with her fiance Lance, acted as my hostess and personal assistant and chef and cheerleader and general lifesaver throughout the weekend--dropped me off downtown about 30 minutes before the start. I sought refuge inside the auditorium where the expo had taken place until about 10 minutes before the start, at which point I reluctantly
stripped down to my skivvies and hit the line. It only took a moment for me to locate some familiar faces: my friend and frequent marathoner Camille Herron, who was hoping to break the women's course record of 2:40, and fellow Charlottean and CRC member Mike Kahn, whose goal rested somewhere between 2:48-2:50. Since I hoped to finish midway between the two, I realized there was a strong chance I might not see either of them during the race. In fact, once the half marathoners split from the full marathoners just before 13 miles, there was a chance I might not see anyone during the race. From both a mental and physical perspective, I fervently hoped that wouldn't be the case.

I'm the particularly cold-looking lower half in the black spandex to
the right of the screen. Photo courtesy of The Birmingham News.

The gun sounded at 7:00 on the dot, signaling the beginning of what I hoped would be a (pleasantly) memorable journey through downtown Birmingham and Homewood and the surrounding areas. I settled into a comfortable pace, intending to check my progress at the first mile marker. Unfortunately the clock for this marker was positioned incorrectly, which became apparent when it read sub-5:40 as I passed. Several GPS-sporting runners around me voiced that it was closer to .85, which meant that I was actually running somewhere around a 6:15 pace. As a non-Garmin wearer, from this point onward I was faced with a dilemma. I had no idea when or if the ensuing mile markers would "catch up" to where the actual markers were supposed to be or whether they would all be consistently off. Right then and there, at mile 1, I decided not to split my watch for the remainder of the race. I would run on effort through the half, try to maintain pace through 20, then fight with everything I had to the finish.

The first 45 minutes of the race passed surprisingly quickly as I cruised along in the crowd. I wasn't necessarily running with anyone, but there were plenty of bodies around. As I slowed for a water stop around mile 8, I was surprised to see a familiar face stealthily trying to sneak by me. "Mike?" I yelled to him. "Are you sure about this??" His previously stated race plan was to run 6:25 pace through halfway, and I was aware enough of my clip to know that I was not running nearly that slowly. My concern about his potential future implosion was quickly overshadowed by my (selfish) appreciation for his presence. The next five miles passed almost effortlessly with him at my side and acting as my wind-blocker during some breezy sections. He seemed to be feeling great, high-fiving spectators and encouraging other runners as we passed. I was content to remain mostly silent and let him act as my entertainment, and I hoped we'd be able to remain together for as long as possible.

As expected, the race thinned out quite a bit once the half marathoners peeled away at 13. Though I never saw a 13.1 marker, a few glances at my watch gave me an estimate somewhere around 1:22:30. Perfect. My legs felt strong and my breathing was controlled, and
I'd hardly been winded by the previously feared hills from the first half. At this point I caught up to a short girl in a K-Swiss triathlete kit wearing earphones. As I passed, she called out to see if we wanted to run together. I agreed, but after hearing that her goal was 2:50 I realized that one of us would have to seriously adjust our expectations if the proposed partnership was to work. At about the same time, I saw Trak Shak employee and low-2:20s marathoner Daniel Ellis approaching. Registered for the full marathon, Daniel had paced his brother to a 70-minute half before lingering on the course with plans of meeting me halfway. He arrived right on time with a smile and encouraging words, and I asked him to keep me locked in between 6:15 and 6:20 for as long as possible. He agreed, and almost immediately we began to pull away from K-Swiss and Mike. I turned around and motioned for them to come with us, but from that point on I would only be focused on myself.

Simply put, Daniel's presence was invaluable. He hel
ped me remain calm and focused by foreshadowing each turn, reminding me to run the tangents and absorbing the wind when I needed it most. At 16, when I somehow managed to explode an entire packet of Gu all over my hands, he shared the then-brilliant insight that I might consider grabbing a cup of water and trying to rinse myself off. And once we got to mile 20, reaching the mile long Hill that I'd hardly been bothered by before but seemed like an insurmountable mountain the second time around, he tried his darndest to keep my pace from lapsing to a crawl. (If for nothing else than that one mile I'm grateful I wasn't wearing a Garmin. The world doesn't need to know.) We crested the top after what seemed like an eternity, at which point Daniel peeled off with some lame excuse about taking his three-day-old daughter to the doctor. How selfish is that?? Kidding aside, I cannot thank him enough for his help during the middle section of the race. I barely know the guy and yet he took time out of his day to help me pursue my goal. Daniel, if you're reading this, free Karhus for life! (Just kidding. But seriously, I've got a new pair of the Fast Rides with your name on them.)

Once Daniel departed I was completely and totally alone. Somewhere around mile 18 we had caught up to the second place female, but I only managed a few steps with her before she took off like a rocket. I knew that as long as I kept her in my sights there was a chance I'd reel her in again, but after 21 she was a good 30 yards in front of me and appeared incredibly strong. At the 22-mile marker I looked at the clock and did some quick calculations. Essentially if I didn't royally screw things up in the next 25 minutes I would have the qualifier in the bag. 25 minutes, I told myself. You do warmups that take longer tha
n that. I imagined Jordan's voice in my head, telling me to maintain my form and stay relaxed. Easier said than done given the fatigue that was slowly settling into all of my limbs. At this point I also began to pass some straggling half marathoners, which was both a boon and a hindrance. Their cheers of encouragement helped bolster my spirits, but the general lack of awareness from some of them meant that I wasted valuable time and energy weaving this way and that. Fortunately this section was mostly downhill and I was able to somewhat regulate my breathing, but overall I could feel the weight of the race descending on my body in a hurry.

The final few miles are somewhat of a blur. I remember think
ing about my parents, about Jordan, about my grandpa, about all the people who believed in me and whose support had taken me this far. I remember thinking about my friend Jenna's boyfriend and his family, who are in the middle of an unspeakably difficult time that makes my marathon labors trivial by comparison. I knew that I needed to pass the 25-mile marker at 2:38 or faster to solidify my sub-2:46 finish, and when I eclipsed that milestone in 2:37:45 I wrapped my brain around the almost incomprehensible realization that it was actually going to happen. Again, Jordan's voice filled my head, entreating me to push for six more minutes, then five, then four. The sounds of music and the boom of the announcer's voice signaled that the finish line was approaching, but I still couldn't see it. At 2:42 I felt a surge of panic. What if I'd calculated wrong? Was it possible that I could miss the time after all?? Less than a minute later my fears were assuaged as the finishing chute loomed ahead. I sprinted--or felt like I was sprinting but was probably only shuffling at a marginally faster clip--with all that I had as the clock ticked closer and closer to 2:45. I crossed the line at 2:45 on the dot and immediately heard Brooke screaming my name from the sidelines. I had done it.

Finished! And looking less than daisy fresh.

Even now, as I type this several days later, the accomplishment seems surreal. Three years ago I could barely run a 10k at the pace I maintained for 26 miles, and at the time I was perfectly complacent with that. More recently, after the debacle at Houston two weeks ago, I started to question my fitness, my ability, my mental toughness--all the things that had allegedly improved so much in the past few years once again seemed so distant and unattainable. Down to the minutest detail, Houston had been engineered as my success story; everything from the elite athlete status to the special race fluids to my pre-race taper had been carefully designed to produce a Trials qualifier. In stark contrast, this week leading up to Mercedes could not have been more different. I ran normal mileage every day, worked the expo all weekend, slept in Brooke's guest bedroom and drank two glasses of wine at dinner on Saturday night. I forgot my CarbBoom gels and didn't get elite water bottles and certainly wasn't afforded the company of an "official" pacer for the first half of the race. Heck, I barely even noticed the mile markers. Instead the entire experience was low-key, laid-back and completely unremarkable--right up until the end result.

Of course, the perfectionist in me wishes I had run faster. Camille, who runs a marathon once a month and earned today's win in 2:43:15, said she felt that the harder than average course probably added four minutes to our finish times. (For reference, she ran 2:38 at Twin Cities in 2009 and, more recently, ran 2:41 for the win at Dallas White Rock in December despite having missed almost half a year of training due to injury.) Whether that anecdotal number is correct will never be known, but even if half that amount is true it certainly helps validate my final time. Either way, it doesn't really matter. I hope that today will be the first of many successful marathons and opportunities to lower my time. Frankly I'll have to do just that unless I plan on getting dead last at the Trials next January. Speaking of successful marathons, turns out my new buddy Mike absolutely crushed his goal and finished less than a minute behind me! It was awesome to see him and congratulate each other at the finish. He was one of the few people who knew my race intentions and, though I don't know him well, I will always feel a special bond after having shared this experience together.

And now, finally, I can say the words that two years ago and even just two weeks ago seemed almost laughable. These words represent the culmination of one endeavor and, at the same time, the beginning of something completely new. They encompass the support of countless friends, family members and CRC teammates. And, more than anything, they affirm for me the admittedly hackneyed cliche that if you put your mind to it, you truly are capable of accomplishing goals beyond your own comprehension.

I am an Olympic Trials Qualifier.


Stuart said...

What an epic run! This is so much of a better story than having done it at Houston. Cat and I are so happy for you! You and Jordan are a perfect match too, by the way (with his deciding to do marathons the night before he goes out and wins them). Great job!!

Mad said...


Cool Down said...

Nice recap and congrads on making the trials. The starting line is going to be crowded with the women from Charlotte.

Mike Kahn said...

That was a pretty spectacular Sunday! Way to re-write your marathon memories only 2 weeks later. Relentless. Pursuit. Massive. Action. You certainly helped my time! That was fun.

allanjel said...

Congratulations! Wow, what a great comeback story :)

mmmonyka said...

Congratulations!!! It was little bit risky, wasn't it? But it paid off!

lauren said...

great recap, great story... you are an EXCELLENT writer! and runner too :)

Anonymous said...

Yeaaaaa, I'm soooo soooo happy for you! You performed wonderfully! I'm thinking Houston/DNF boosted your fitness. Good idea to ignore the splits and focus on the effort (mile markers were weird). Your mindset the last few miles was like a veteran's-- you have to mentally break the race up and think of the last few miles as running a "5K", or a "10K", or even clicking off mile repeats (~I think about how I move and lift the knees in a short race or interval workout-- you crank it and pump your arms to move your legs). Congratulations again and see you in Houston '12 (but hopefully sooner!!!). :)

caitchris said...

Great recap Meagan! You are going to have an even BIGGER PR at the Olympic Trials. I can't wait to run with my bestie !!!

Gabriel Rodriguez said...

Congratulations, Nedlo. Well deserved.

Aaron Linz said...

"I am an Olympic Trials Qualifier" - that says it all! congrats