Sunday, November 18, 2012

Philly Marathon Race Report

Goal #1: Run a PR (sub-2:41:06)
Goal #2: Run sub-2:40
Goal #3: Run sub-2:39
Goal #4: Place top 5
Actual: 2:39:02 (chip), 2:39:08 (gun); 4th place female (2nd American)

Going into this race, I knew that on a perfect day in ideal conditions I was primed to run between 2:37:30 and 2:38:30. This would be at least three minutes faster than I'd ever run before, but I had unwavering confidence that it was possible. Every workout I've done in the past four weeks has been better than any workout I did before the Trials--and some of those weren't too shabby. 

It wasn't a perfect day.

It rarely is.

But throughout the mental and physical roller coaster that is the marathon, I persevered. I remained positive. I showed my sisu (and a whole lot more, if you happened to be hanging around near mile 15). But first:

The trip into Philly was uneventful. Jordan and I broke up the 7-hour drive into two days, stopping Thursday night in Greenwich before finishing up on Friday afternoon. The elite athlete coordinator hooked me up with a great room at the incredibly nice Loews hotel, located about a mile from the start and finish line in the heart of downtown Philly. Friday night we met Pezz for dinner and caught up on all the Charlotte gossip. Considering she just debuted in 2:32 as the third American at Chicago and was ready to run sub-1:13 in the half, I figured any time spent with Pezz was bound to rub off on me and translate into a fast race on Sunday. 

Dinner with Pezz on Friday night. "We can have one drink, right?"

Wide awake at 6am on Saturday to catch a stunning Philadelphia sunrise.

On a perfect, crisp Saturday morning we jogged together, and I was pleased to note that my legs felt the freshest I could recall in recent memory. For the rest of the day I tried to balance spending money at Anthropologie with not expending too much energy, and after an ill-fated attempt to meet up with some Charlotte friends for dinner (90-minute wait?! Have fun with that.), I wound up at the aptly-named Marathon with Katie DiCamillo and her dad. ("We're pretty busy right now, so there's going to be a wait...of at least 10 minutes." "Um, yeah, we can handle it.") Katie, who ran a ridiculous 32:31 to place second at the Stanford Invite 10k this year (a mere two full minutes faster than my 10k PR, NBD), had planned to debut at NYC a few weeks ago. So did a lot of people. Instead, she re-routed to Philly and was aiming for a sub-2:35 clocking. I had no doubt she was capable.

I went to bed, and then I woke up, and then I got ready, and then it was 6:55. On the starting line, surrounded by friends from all different aspects of my life--Allison, Sarah, Dalena, Danielle--it almost felt like we were about to head out for a nice Sunday long run. Jordan was there, too; having long since requested an elite entry, then gotten injured, then gotten un-injured, he gamely offered to play queenmaker for the first half of the race for me and Allison. Although I would like to think I'm the kind of person who would insist on doing this thing myself, I didn't hesitate to accept his offer. (I guess I don't really know what kind of person I am.) But I've run behind him dozens of times in workouts over the years and he's never steered me wrong. Why should today be any different?

The first few miles were lightning fast. Left to my own devices I'm certain I would've gone out too aggressively; as it was, despite Jordan's plan of taking us out in 6:10 we were 6:02 through the mile. It felt like walking. The next few mile markers were off, or so I was told by Allison and Jordan. I don't wear a Garmin, and didn't today, and rather than concern myself with any miscalculations I simply focused on doing what I've done so many times before: tuck in and relax.  

We were clicking off the miles effortlessly, 5:55 to 6:00 without a second thought. After four or five miles I felt rather than saw Allison slipping quietly off the back; she'd said in advance that a half split of 1:20 was desired. We were out too fast too soon for her, and I hoped the same was not true for me. 

It felt ridiculously easy until seven or eight. I didn't know the course, willfully hadn't studied the map, and was surprised to discover that the ensuing three miles were almost entirely uphill. Until that point I'd practically been breathing out of my nose; now I found myself struggling to stay physically and emotionally composed. Not mentally composed, but emotionally. If you don't think there's a difference, then you've never truly raced a marathon.

It wasn't exactly hard, but it was no longer easy, and that worried me.

You've got a long way to go.

I pushed the negative thoughts aside; there was no other choice. I knew Jordan planned to take me through halfway, but suddenly I was desperate for more of his help. As the course wound its way back toward downtown Philly, signaling the precise demarcation between Part 1 and Part 2, I spoke for the first time in over an hour.

"Can you go farther?"

"Yes," he said.

I was instantly relieved, but apparently I should've been more specific. Five minutes later, his job executed perfectly up until that point, he was done. He had carried me this far, and now the second half--which was "half" only in the most literal of ways--was up to me.

"Nothing fancy."

A strange mantra, perhaps. But as Jordan left me--solo, in no man's land--around mile 14, those were his words that stuck with me. "Believe in yourself," he said. "I believe in you. Know that it's going to hurt."

And then: "Nothing fancy." Meaning: you don't have to trick it up right now. You don't need to do anything other than what you're doing, what you've been doing for the past 80 minutes, to transform this goal that you've been fixating on for the past six months into reality.

But I was beginning to struggle, in more ways than one. Not only was I completely by myself, entering what would already be the loneliest section of the course, but I was also in desperate need--truthfully, had been for 30 minutes--of a bathroom break. As silly as it sounds or as tempting as it is to make light of the situation, in reality that could've been a game-changer in the worst of ways. Anyone who has faced this sort of dilemma during a race or workout knows how distracting it can be at best, debilitating at worst.

So--and I don't necessarily want to celebrate this but can't in the spirit of transparency leave it out--I pulled a Paula Radcliffe. If you don't know what that means, it's probably for the best. Maybe this course of action cost me my coveted 2:38 (it most certainly cost me my gloves), but as Jordan said later, better a Paula Radcliffe than an Uta Pippig.

The next four miles were the worst. I was rudderless, completely alone and with no reliable grasp of how fast (or slow) I was running. In fact, shortly after 16 I was overtaken for the first time by another woman. She was running shoulder to shoulder with a young guy, and I instinctively latched onto him. She was Fifth Place.

Do not let them get away.

He is the new Jordan.

The girl yo-yoed 10 to 20 meters in front of us, but I stayed glued to the unnamed guy's back. At one point, somewhere around mile 20, I found my voice.

"I hope I'm not bothering you," I said, as polite and civilized as if I were tapping him on the shoulder in the middle of a crowded room. "But you're helping me more than you realize."

"Hell no," he responded, then nodded to the girl just ahead. "And don't let her get away." 

In another scenario I would've been somewhat amused and not a little bit suspicious of his seemingly abrupt shift in allegiances, but right now I was clinging to him for dear life. At 21 he accelerated and I matched him stride for stride, edging past this Fifth Place woman. Another target loomed just ahead, a woman who had been at least 100 meters ahead of me at the most recent turnaround. I passed her without hesitation, then turned to Fifth Place and gestured for her to do the same. I was now in fourth with no other women in sight.

But I was passing men, and lots of them. I didn't feel spectacular but wasn't dying either. There was no wall, only the grim resignation that the remaining minutes would not be remotely pleasant. Yet now, more than at any other point in the race, my self-talk was wholly, unequivocally positive. It was as though my brain, deprived of oxygen and taxed beyond the point of sustainable reasoning, only had room for a handful of fragmented thoughts.       

"This is my day," I told myself. I remember that moment, that realization with striking clarity.

Today is for all the people who told me I could. Today is for all the people who told me I couldn't.

Mile 25. Photo courtesy of P. Ciccarello

Since July, I've been envisioning the clock at mile 25. In all my scenarios it read between 2:30 and 2:31. Today, it flashed 2:31:40. Slower than I wanted, and with one significant uphill remaining before the final downhill push. (Not that I knew any of this in advance. Maybe I should actually do a modicum of research before tackling my next marathon course.) I didn't have much left, but I pushed as hard as I could. Five minutes. Four minutes. Three.

Just like all the previous times, I crossed the finish line with little fanfare. It's difficult to comprehend, really, how much thought and effort and work points toward one moment, one end, only for it to pass almost before you realize it's upon you.

Katie finished 15 seconds ahead of me, and Fifth Place finished in fifth place a few minutes behind me, and together we comprised the top Americans today, on this unusually weighted Philadelphia Marathon day given that NYC was canceled a mere two weeks ago. Pezz was the first familiar face I saw, and she came sprinting towards me, and it meant so much to know how sincerely she felt overjoyed at an accomplishment that paled in comparison to hers. Then Jordan was there, and I found my phone, and saw the posts and texts and calls that were already overflowing with genuine happiness for me.

It humbles me every time.

When I wrote my blog about the Trials, it felt like the the natural end. The end of a chapter, the end of a pursuit, the end of a very distinct period of my life. Today, here, this feels like a beginning. I still don't consider myself an elite runner, honestly. Maybe I never will, and maybe I never will be. But right now, in this moment, all I can think about is the future. I can't wait to run faster. It's not a "what if" or a "maybe," but when. I've done the work before, and I'll do it again, and everything from here on out is a step toward the marathon trials of 2016.

It wasn't the perfect day.

But today was perfect.

Receiving my fourth place award with the Philly mayor and race director.


Ariana said...

Congrats girl! I loved reading your race report and how its better to be a Paula than a uta. I know how that is! You have such a bright and speedy future ahead of you! ((Hugs))

mfranks said...

Absolutely awesome post! Hope you don't mind me sharing this. - Meggan

Jennifer said...

ooh. David Letterman should totally do a "Paula...Uta" meeting! (sorry. old, vague reference)
Excellent recap and I'm so, so happy and excited for you. Congratulations on seeing your hard work and long weeks pay off.

Unknown said...

I just found your blog - so glad I did!! Mind blowing, that finish time!! Congrats!! I dream of getting to the trials one day...going to work hard to make it a reality! I was supposed to run nyc, and considered philly when they opened spots up, but had already decided on a small one in harrisburg, pa. Anyway, Looking forward to following along:)

Unknown said...

Well done!