A few weeks ago I read an article where a professional runner said that come race day, they could tell if they were going to make their goal in the first mile. I wondered at that idea as I read it. Questioned if it were true, then wondered what it would be like to know your own body to such a degree.
     I’ve been training with a running coach for about a year. When I was training for the North Face 50k last year I had a moment a few months prior to the race where I realized that I had no idea how to train myself for that kind of distance, so I enlisted her help. After successfully completing that race, I realized that I really liked working with her, so I kept her on.
     After the ultra I decided to work on my real challenge, speed. I can run all day. I like to run long distances, but I can’t do any of it very quickly. Since last summer I’ve PRed a 10k, and unofficially, the 5k though I still need to do it in a timed race. I’ve run faster times consistently and hit my 10k PR time more than once during training runs. I have made progress, happily tracked by my trusty Garmin, so I can go back and see those times after a not so great run.
     This weekend was my most recent PR attempt. I’ve been working very hard to PR the half marathon and beat a time I set in a race I ran last spring just for fun. In the first mile, I knew I wasn’t going to meet my goal that day. The article I read a few weeks ago popped into my head as I compared how I felt this past Saturday in the first mile of the Rock n’ Roll USA half as compared to how I felt in the Iron Girl half last April – I felt slow, I felt tired, I felt like I was already working hard in the first three miles. Something just felt off. During the Iron Girl race, I felt light, my feet felt like they were hardly working – I knew I was going to PR.
     So I spent the Rock n’ Roll half toughing it out and finding joy where I could. We ran across my favorite bridge in DC which leads to the Women’s Military Service memorial. I paced off of a guy in a kilt for several miles. I appreciated the fact that I did not have to pee the whole race. I enjoyed the animal costumes (a cow beat me by at least 45 seconds). I appreciated the fact that I did not walk the whole race, not even through water stops, or up the hills miles 6-8, even though I wanted nothing more. I was not going to beat myself in this race, but I did not let the race beat me either.
     I also had two free hours during the race to think about running. To think about why I love it even when I don’t. As I was pondering my relationship to running I passed a man holding a sign that said “Run with Gratitude” and that pretty much summed up the thoughts swirling around in my head. When I am running, the gratitude comes without me even trying to be grateful or think about being grateful. With every, often slow step, I know that it is a gift just to be able to do it. To be physically capable of running, of propelling myself forward under my own power.
     This race gave me a new respect for the distance. I’ve gone farther, but that doesn’t make 13.1 miles any less difficult. It gave me a new respect too, for my fellow runners. You never know what a distance means to someone. What they’ve overcome to get to the finish line. A 5k can mean more to one person than 50 miles means to another. I think this is something that I’ve lost sight of over time, believing that running further means more in general, and that is simply a fallacy.
     I am reminded as I propel myself down stairs, hovering one foot over the step below me and then pitching myself forward, hoping I land on the step below, or decide to just stand for a bit instead of sitting because my quads are still sore from missing my goal, that sometimes the best thing for you is to be humbled by something you thought would be easy.

This past Saturday I ran my first ultra, 50K at the North Face Endurance Challenge in Sterling, VA. I finished in 08:20:51. It took way longer than I thought it was going to and the humidity and heat was just brutal. Below is my full, totally long winded race report.

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Pre-race – I got up at 4AM and put on all the things I laid out the night before. Had a plain bagel with PB&J like usual and gathered my gear. I had a camelbak filled with watermelon nuun and packed with snacks, TP in a ziploc, and lip balm with sunblock (which I didn’t use and fortunately didn’t need.) J. and I have an agreement where she only has to come to new race distances (or if I talk her into a destination race where she’s just kind of there already and we can meet up at the end) so she took her duties very seriously and drove me out to the suburbs of VA, dropped me off and agreed to be back at 1ish, the earliest possible moment I thought I would be done.

I saw two Mr. Sweaty-Tops-Off before I was even on the shuttle. The ride took about 15 minutes to the race site, which is gorgeous. I’ve never been there before and I was treated to a breath taking sunrise over the river which really pumped me up; I felt so lucky to be there. So I hung out, I hit the port-o-johns like 16 times, and eventually meandered towards the start with the rest of the crazy folks, who weren’t crazy enough to do the 50 miler. Dean Karnazes announced the start, and say what you will about that man, he is crazy fit.

My plan was to hydrate every mile at least until I felt thirsty, and save my ipod which was strapped to my wrist, until I needed it.

Miles 0-5 – These were pretty uneventful miles. I knew that I just needed to pace myself so I tried to hang back a bit. So I just found people to pace off of. Paced off of two chicks who looked younger than me and super fit until like mile 4ish (to discover later that they were more than a decade younger than me and finished more than an hour after me – small victories). I knew the hills were coming around the five mile markers of the race and sure enough the elevation started around mile four. I was also trying to figure out the passing thing on the single track. I mean I know you kind of announce that you’re coming and where but I knew that I shouldn’t be going all out, certainly not at this point, but I really felt like I could be going faster at some points and just kind of felt conflicted about what to do. In retrospect I wish I had pushed it more when it was cooler, because later in the heat, it was just impossible.

But I ran behind a woman for a mile or so in head to toe pink with flowers in her hair who was talking about the litany of ultras she’d participated in – Javelina, the Vermont 100, then mentioned that she got hit by a car, possibly in two separate instances while volunteering at Badwater and then ran into the emergency room doctor that treated her later at another ultra. I hung out for a while just to hear her story and moved along.

Miles 6-10 – Aid station two came around mile 5.7. The first one was really early and small so I had a cup of water and pretty much ignored it. The second one was the famed ultra buffet and it was a wee bit overwhelming. I wasn’t really hungry but knew I should take fuel so I grabbed some water and unpacked some sports beans and had a few. Already I was having that long run reaction where as soon as I put the food in my mouth I was like, meh… I don’t want this. It really made me wish I did better with gels.

There was a significant amount of grassland in the single track of the first section which I didn’t anticipate (in places the grass was shoulder height) but this section was more of what I anticipated in terms of wooded canopies next to the river which was nice. Even though I face planted somewhere around mile six (no pokey sticks to the face or gut, so no worries) I was feeling pretty good for these miles, it was hot but not crazy, and I was pretty happy with my times. Mile ten-ish took me over some hills that I knew I’d be crossing again. They were pretty tough, tougher than I expected based on the elevation maps as it was less than 400 feet of elevation gain at the peak but it was a series of ups and downs for each hill set. I could already feel the effort in my quads a bit but it was totally dealable.

Miles 11-15 – Great Falls came around mile 12 and this is where we were co-mingled with the 50 milers doing these crazy sadistic not-quite-loops. Around mile eleven I saw a guy, dead behind the eyes who looked like he might fuel by reaching into a tree and grabbing a live squirrel. My guess was that he was the winner. The aid station here was this crazy triangle set-up with tons of snacks. I refilled my camelpak here, shocked that I had drunk at least two-thirds of my nuun. I had a shot blok, and orange slice and a piece of boiled potato. I really did not want to eat, which made me nervous this early on so I just made a decision to consume whatever seemed appealing. So I had a cup of water, the Clif electrolyte drink (which I think I really like) and some Mountain Dew, disgusting on a normal day, but suuuper awesome during the run. I hit the port-o-john and moved on.

The course is really gorgeous here. I put on headphones just after the aid station and had saved this week’s AMR podcast for this week for the race. There was one point where Dimity was recounting catching a glimpse of her shadow during her Ironman training race on the bike, saying that her own legs moved “like pistons” and getting choked up, almost in disbelief that she was capable of undertaking such an effort. I  paused the podcast when I heard the rush of the river over the rocks to my left, and felt my feet hit the ground almost silently as I’d trained myself to do, and saw the runners coming towards me after they hit the turn-around, quads flexing, arms swinging saying, “hey good job” as they passed me, and I got a bit choked up myself. I was there. I was running my ultra. It’s so cliche to always point back to the post-cancer accomplishments, but at this point in my life I am just amazed at what my body is capable of.  I descended to the turn-around point, rounded the turn and took the ascending hill at a run.

Miles 16-20 – The Old Dominion aid station was mid-loop through the 50 miler loop and it was crazytown. I lost so much time here because I was totally overwhelmed. There were multiple tables, tons of volunteers, and I just didn’t know what to do with myself. It looked like a sweaty party — maybe I should mingle? I also started to realize that I was soaked. I couldn’t have been more wet if I had jumped in the river, which I started to fantasize about. Fortunately the race volunteers were amazing. An EMT doused me with a gallon of cold water, another opened a bag of pretzels for me as my hands were too wet to do so, I grabbed a shot block, had a single pretzel, an orange slice and the water, soda, electrolyte drink combo that I decided seemed to be working for me. I chatted with a 50 miler in the port-o-john line who was super nice, had put in 32 miles already and let me go in front of him because I would be quick, and he had stomach issues. I wished him luck and was back on my way.

This section also hit Great Falls again around mile twenty. I was feeling tired at this point and knew I wasn’t taking in enough nutrition. So I had a couple of bites of a banana, and more soda, water, electrolyte drink. I should have refilled my camelbak here but I was afraid of how long it would take and I felt like my hands, and brain quite frankly weren’t working and I just couldn’t process how to make a refill happen and didn’t just go to a volunteer and say hey, can you do this? Which I totally should have done.

Also somewhere in here was the rock scrambling section which the coach (who is wonderful and wildly encouraging) I had enlisted to help me about two and a half months prior had mentioned encountering when she ran it the previous year, and then there were all of these crazy wooden stairs. That part was super fun and exciting. I did some fancy downhill footwork around miles 18-19 (I usually love these miles in a marathon for some reason) and passed some volunteers who seemed a little surprised at my speed and good spirits.

Miles 21-25 – I had my first down moment around mile twenty – twenty-one. I knew it would come and I was prepared for it. I remembered what fun I had hiking the AT in the Poconos back in April, so I just decided to speed hike it until my joy came back and sure enough, within about a mile I felt better. This was the next section of hill repeats so there was a lot of necessary walking through here. Also at some point my Garmin got off track because I thought I was way further along than I was as was evidenced by the extra mile it said that I ran on Saturday.

There’s a flat section around miles twenty-three to about maybe twenty-seven, twenty-eight. This is where the wheels came off for me. The heat peaked and I just felt like I was baking. I started looping around the same group of runners. All of us would run a bit, walk a bit, try to encourage each other. For a few miles I fell into a group of about six guys who were trail and ultra seasoned and really interesting. One fellow had run Bear Mountain earlier in the year and was running about a marathon a weekend for several weeks. Another guy had run with Scott Jurek and Chris McDougall earlier in the week. So we chatted and just walked for a while. I just didn’t have the will to move any faster. I knew I was low on water and nutrition. I tried to eat but it just wasn’t working. I felt like I was going to puke if I moved any faster.

Miles 26-finish – It felt forever to the next aid station. I felt like I could feel the entirety of my quad muscles and where they attached to my leg as a whole. I fell back in with the ultra guys for a few miles and then just broke away. I tried to run two minutes, walk a minute which descended to running thirty-seconds, walking for two. I chatted with runners and we tried to pass out encouragement. There were smaller hills here, which felt huge and my quads were screaming and I realized that camelbak had possibly chafed a huge section of skin off of my back. It was uncomfortable but I really didn’t care. Fortunately after the last big section of hills it felt a little cooler and I started to run/walk with more frequency. Unfortunately, it was this point where I realized for certain that my Garmin was at least a mile off, if not more, and before I reached the finish, I would have to hit that aid station that seemed so close to the start.

Along the way I passed a couple of people just laying or sitting next to the trail. There was a woman pouring water on the head of another runner who was puking into the grass. A few runners asked if she needed help and she asked if we could send someone back at the next aid station. Even though the marathoners still had a loop at the next aid station, we were all still so close. At this point I realized that just finishing was enough.

At the aid station I had two cups of soda, electrolytes, and water. An volunteer pulled a gallon of water from a cooler and asked if I would like to have some poured on me too cool me off I said absolutely, mentioned that my phone was in my pack, so he told me to tip my head back and poured the water over the bill of my cap and it rushed down over me. I gasped. It was a shock to the system, a fantastic one. I thanked him profusely and asked how far it was to the end. He said one and six tenths of a mile.

So I took off, walking one minute, running (really, shuffling) for a minute. There started to be spectators, which helped. Once I saw the finish I was able to shuffle for the rest of the way. I heard my name as I approached the finish and saw J. coming towards me with the camera and I couldn’t believe it. I was done. It was over. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I think I did a little of both.

Post-race – I wanted ice bath, beer, t-shirt in that order. I chatted with some of the runners that I spent time with on the trail. I drank a ton of water. I was a little disoriented but so, so happy.

The bad: I think I needed to run more trails and hills and maybe I should have overdressed for some of my runs, but I’m not sure how I could have prepared adequately for that heat and humidity. I need to rethink my camelbak and/or practice quick filling it or just be okay with taking the time to fill it because I was definitely out of water around mile twenty-five.

Also, sure I am sore but the worst is the roof of my mouth, towards the back of my throat is sore and my jaw is distractingly achy. What’s up with that?

The good: Listening to Steve Reich in the woods is pretty amazing. I met a lot of cool people. The volunteers were incredibly accommodating. I didn’t walk away hating endurance racing or the distance but for now I think I’ve hit the limit of the distance I’m prepared to cover and I’m okay with that. I’m looking for my next race.

Later that evening: After getting some food we decided we could make it the house of dear friends for their housewarming-turned-engagement party. My friends expressed their surprise that I made it and made a fuss over me, which was sweet, poked at my quads which was actually kind of funny and indulged my race story blow-by-blow race accounts.

In DC when you chat with new people everyone always asks what you do – it can get pretty tedious. This was the first time that instead, what I did that day was a topic. The race had been a floating topic of conversation. One fellow had heard the distance and looked at me and said, “So it was a cycling race.” I replied no, and watched him think for a minute. “Wait, so you were running?” I said yes. “So you ran almost 32 miles.” Yes. “That’s crazy!” Sometimes people say this about marathons and I pass it off, because ultimately it’s hard, but not totally out there. But that evening, I took a sip of my adult beverage, looked at him, and agreed.

There is nothing so simultaneously exhilarating and bizarre as running a marathon and realizing that there are people you don’t know cheering for you. There are thousands. They are pressed up against metal grates, leaning into the road rattling cow bells and party whistles. They are lounging on their front stoop in a lawn chair next to a case of beer with a sign that says, “This one’s for you!” They made you jello shots. They brought you pretzels and orange slices as if you were their guest at some strange party. They give you a dixie cup of beer at mile 23 and don’t deny you when you circle back for another. They’re your significant other who won’t protest too much when you cover them with sweat as you steal a kiss in passing. They’re still in their PJs, coffee in one hand. They’re tiny kids, 4 or 5 with their arm outstretched waiting for a high-five from the next passing runner. They let you stop and pet their dog who got all dressed up for the occasion in a tutu and a race t-shirt. They’re active duty in fatigues pacing you at the water stop so you don’t have to slow down. It’s a police officer who tells you, “lookin’ good” as she holds back traffic for you to pass even though you know you’re slow and far behind the pack.

If you ever want to feel like a rockstar, without really doing anything special, take a few months, do some running and sign up for a marathon – you’ll feel like a star but will soon realize that you’ve bought yourself front row seats to the best show in town. And while I am sad about the events at the Boston Marathon, and I am sad for the runners who worked so hard to participate in such an epic endurance event, my heart is broken for the spectators who were just there waiting and supporting the finishers. Those who are standing, waiting expectantly, cheering runners to the finish line. Who else would bear the brunt of this kind of attack?

I listened to a lot of music when I had cancer. I had some free time and was on a lot of pain killers. It was a good use of my time. I listened to a lot of sad music, but when I was tired of being sad, I was angry and needed something to meet that need. I would get on Beastie Boys kicks. Many tracks were loud, and driving but full of positivity. Sometimes too, the lyrics felt oddly appropriate to my situation. I sang along with “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” because that’s what it felt like I was doing. “Time to Get Ill” put a wry smile on my face. “You gotta fight…” held extra emphasis, I wanted more time to party and do plenty of other things in the meantime. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” passed the time when I couldn’t sleep all night in post-op recovery.

The Beastie Boys aren’t only good for cancer listening, however. I memorized every second of Paul’s Boutique during one of my first jobs out of college. I was working through a temp agency, doing data entry for medical billing company. The supervisor was a nice guy. He knew exactly how much the job sucked. He set me up with a laptop in an empty office with a window. I had a never ending supply of hand filled out medical forms. He told me I could work overtime. I was flat broke, so I did. I went into the office everyday early, went out for lunch to get away from the computer screen, and worked late every night. I had Paul’s Boutique on repeat in my portable CD player. For three months.

Training for my first marathon also required some music. If I was feeling sluggish, I’d turn it to “Sabatoge” and sprint in spite of myself. Hot summer runs through the city were fueled by “Roots Down.” When the day came, I found myself at the startline in Pittsburgh, where I learned to love, really love music in dirty boxy clubs. It was already drizzling and humid even at 8am on a May morning. I prepared for soggy shoes and got ready to go. It was pretty miserable in sections but I was fueled by the amazement that I could push my body like this, even after cancer for 26 miles. I was rough around mile 23 and just in time, on my ipod came “Fight for Your Right.” This slow plodder broke into sprint and played air drums and I pumped my fist in the air. People stared. It was awesome. I rode this high all the way in to the finish.

What’s my point? I don’t know. I’m sad. The Beastie Boys are like soul food for your ears.  I’m just bloody sad that there won’t be more. Sad that I won’t be able to listen to them without knowing one of them is missing. Sad that I was diagnosed before Adam Yauch and now he’s no longer with us. Fuck cancer. Fuck every time someone has to say the words, “very treatable” the way Adam did in 2009. Sad that there won’t be more smart lyrics, more heavy beats, more… goodness. Sad that the world is a little less bright.

Training for the Marine Corps Marathon has sucked. I ran two marathons last year and while that training was challenging, especially considering that they were my very first, this cycle has presented challenges that I couldn’t have prepared for and have really kept me from putting in the mileage that I hoped to this time around.

First there was the stress fracture of my 4th metatarsal, right before my two week vacation to Israel. Immediately prior to the fracture, I had really been pushing myself, apparently a little too hard. But it felt so good! I was running regularly in my VFFs. I PRed a the beautiful Decker’s Creek Half , and slow as I am, I was keeping up with the paces of friends who were running 10 minute miles for long distances. I knew that the Marine Corps Marathon could be awesome and it would be seriously possible to cut my marathon to around 4:30. Then on a run to work there was a sharp pain in my foot around mile five and that was it – 3 weeks of the boot. In Israel. Hiking. With no running (except to catch flights.)

Just as I was getting back into the swing of things, my Grandmother’s health took a steep decline and she eventually passed away. Needless to say, running during this time was not exactly a priority.

Two weeks ago I got the cold from hell. No energy means no running. I skipped my long run completely one weekend, putting in just 15 miles for an entire week.

This leaves me at just under six weeks to go until race day with the short runs leaving me sore and long runs on the weekends feeling like a death march. Though I’m raising money for the American Cancer Society (donations welcome!) I haven’t been running with the group or even with friends because I’m just too embarrassed for anyone to see how badly I’m struggling.

That is up until this past Sunday. I got up around 7AM, took the dog out for a mile, gathered my gear and went to my current favorite trail. We had brunch plans but I still had about four hours to put in my long run and I was shooting for anywhere between 17-20. The way things have been going, I figured that would be enough. It was a beautiful morning, cool and a little dewy. The woods smelled like fall. Everything just clicked. Each step felt good, sure. I took a little walk break every two miles or so to simulate water stops and even with waiting for some red lights at intersections, I ended up putting in almost eighteen miles with a pace at about 12:05/mile. For the first time in months, when I got home I didn’t growl when asked how my run went. So, I guess this means I’m ready!

Last year I accomplished a life goal – I completed a marathon. I did it twice, actually. Now, I wasn’t speedy about it. My plan to qualify for the Boston Marathon is to keep running until I’m very, very old and hope that the standards don’t get any higher. But at least for me, the point is that I did it and while it wasn’t easy, running 26.2 miles was far from impossible. With the right amount of training and the mental discipline to just not stop, you too can run a marathon.

However if you have not yet done this, even if you’re a runner, and a fast runner at that, a marathon can appear to be a pie-in-the-sky goal. I think I felt this way before I finished one, but I tend to forget that I ever felt this way. Earlier this year after I picked up my race number and t-shirt for the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, I wondered around the expo that fills the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. Amongst the race tables, there was a booth taking registrations for the National Race for the Cure, which benefits the Komen Foundation. I typically try to make this race, despite the fact that I’m not crazy about shorter distances and this one tends to be crowded with walkers, and strollers, and dogs. But all that dodging does give me a great excuse for a slow time, so I walked over to the booth and began filling out a registration.

As I was filling out the paper work, I began to listen to the conversation between the woman behind the table, who appeared to be in her late 20s,  and an older male volunteer soliciting registrants for the 5K. “You’d have to be fit, really fit to do that,” I heard the man say. “Oh, I know. I can’t imagine,” the woman replied. “I’d like to try it though, one day…” the man responded as he nodded his head, a determined look on his face. The man looked to be in his mid-50s, and very lean and fit. I sneaked a glance at the deep cut of his calf muscles exposed by his running shorts. I felt out of place, between this obviously very in-shape man and a woman several years my junior, at least 15 pound lighter, and inches taller than myself.

As she and the man continued to talk about marathon running I continued to fill out the race registration form and tried to decide whether or not to reveal myself as a completer of said impossibility. Just by looking at these two individuals, I was pretty sure that either one of them could beat any of my times from any race with ease. I felt even more conspicuous as they began talking about how fit someone would have to be to run a marathon. I tried to listen more closely, because maybe they meant race a marathon, which is a decidedly different thing than just running to finish. “Well, I’d like to just finish one!” the man laughed as he paced back and forth in front of the booth, his quads flexing with every step.

No longer able to help myself I piped up, “I actually ran two marathons last year. I think you should go for it,” I said addressing the man as he paced back in my direction. “Really?” he asked. I could feel the two of them assessing my body in the same way I had theirs only moments before. I felt their eyes on my thick frame and short legs. I was totally blowing their mental image of what a marathon runner looked like. I saw the woman’s eyes widen involuntarily in surprise. “How was it?” “Well a lot of it is mental,” I said. “I mean you follow your training plan, hope you don’t get hurt, and on race day you just keep going until you get to the finish.” The man laughed at my description.

I signed the registration and put my credit card back in my wallet, thanking the woman as she handed me my copy of the registration. I didn’t know whether to be proud of myself or ashamed to be able to run a marathon and still not look particularly fit. But I did kind of hope that if visible fitness had been a barrier for either of these potential marathon runners, it would no longer serve as an excuse to not take on the challenge.

Last year I ran two marathons. It was my first real attempt at to take on any kind of endurance challenge. For me marathon running is both terrifying and exhilarating. You get to the start and wonder – did I train enough? Did I do enough speed work? Run enough hills? Log enough miles? Drink enough water? I secretly love the training, the hours of running, in the heat, in the cold, with the dog. I loathe the last 2-3 weeks before race day where you cut back on mileage to prepare. I get bored, and crabby. I’m really fun to be around during that period.

Having had cancer myself, when I signed up for my first marathon, I considered doing so with an organization that raises money for fight cancer. However, though it may sound silly, I wanted to make sure that I could do it first! So this year I will be running the Marine Corps Marathon through the DetermiNation program in order to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

I am on the hook to raise $1275, which is no small chunk of change. Honestly, I would love to raise more. Please help me with this goal. I will be thanking you every mile.

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