This past weekend I ran the Eversource Hartford Marathon and it was a blast! I went into the race with the plan to stick with a plan. Trust me, it was a lot harder than it sounds. A combination of nerves and cockiness usually takes over at races and I end up blowing the whole thing by starting out too fast, crashing at the mid-way point, and attempting to cling on to a pace that’s much slower than it should be. But this time around I admitted this about myself and prepared for it. I spent just as much time mentally getting ready as I did physically.
First, I determined a goal. I want a BQ. I’ve wanted a BQ long before I ever even trained for my first marathon. However, I knew that I wasn’t ready. Despite training for an 8 minute/mile pace, I knew that I didn’t have it, at least not yet. It just wasn’t a realistic goal for me and while I knew I could try for it, I had to admit to myself that I would more than likely fall short and be disappointed again. Baby steps were needed, so I adjusted my sights on simply making a PR, so anything under 3:44, or as close to a 3:40 as I could get. If I still had enough juice left, I’d pour it out toward that 3:30, but I wasn’t going to expect it.
Second, I set out to determine a running strategy. I had been easily training at 9 minute pace for easy runs, and all of my repeats and threshold runs were sub-8. But still. I knew a crash was inevitable. Cushioning that crash was my main objective. I decided to start out slow and easy, around 8:20 pace no matter what. No following a group, no excited first miles, nothing crazy at the gun. Conversation pace. Warm up in the first 3 miles. Maintain effort, not pace, on the hills, use downhills. Every 5 miles throw in a surge for a few minutes. Use up anything that was left in the last 5k.
Third, I actually made a plan for fueling. I am one to shirk water stations. My stomach can’t handle any of the commercial gels, chews, or blocks and I hate the taste of Gatorade. I also find aid stations frantic, loud, and daunting so I try to get through them as quickly as possible. But, I also hate carrying stuff with me. Hydration vests make me feel silly, fuel belts never stay put. I’m never comfortable. I tried pinning fuel to my waistband once, but lost most of it along the way. I’ve tried using my sports bra to stash stuff, only to be left with chaffing and mastitis! So, I tend to just run without, which of course doesn’t work out too well two and a half hours into a race. This time I committed to carrying my DolfinPack in the race and sipping water from it at every mile marker. I also carried electrolyte capsules to be taken every 30 minutes and packets of honey to be taken every 30 minutes after the first hour.
I went to bed early every night the week before and drank water like it was going out of style. On race day, my pee was crystal clear! I was nervous when I got up race day morning. Would my kids actually get up & dressed in time? Would there be enough parking? Am I going to be cold? Too warm? What if I need to poop? My stomach was too knotted to eat much breakfast. I sipped coffee on the way into Hartford.
There was plenty of parking, even though we got there thirty minutes before the gun. I managed to find the gear check near the start and get all my things stowed away and to the start corral in plenty of time though. I was surprisingly calm at the start, however, I was starting to feel a little hungry. The gun went off at exactly 8am. There was a chorus of chirrping GPS watches starting and everyone shuffled forward a few paces before we got to running. I was locked into a crowd and I was actually okay with it.
I did not plan on following a pace leader. My last two attempts with pace leaders did not work out well, mostly in part because of my own competitiveness. Instead I intended to only go off my watch, though I did keep eyes on the 3:30 pace group for most of the race. I ran comfortable and easy. I maintained a slightly faster than planned pace, which was okay, however I did have to reign myself in a few times when I started dropping under 8. It felt good in the moment, but I knew that Mile 18 loomed ahead.
The course was not crowded. There were less than 2000 entrants in the marathon and most people did start with their correct pacing corrals so there was minimal bobbing and weaving through the crowds. Turns were well marked, aid stations were well manned, and volunteers pointed the way at every intersection. There were also plenty of police officers along the route directing traffic and keeping the runners safe. The spectators, of course, were wonderful. Rows and rows of children lined the streets with their hands out for high-fives, ringing bells, and yelling their little hearts out. Residents sat on their porches, in lawn chairs in their driveways, playing music and waving signs. It was enthusiastic without being too overwhelming.
Mile Marker 18 greeted me with the daunting aggressiveness that I was expecting. My toes had already been slamming through the front of my shoes and were silly painful. My calves and hamstrings were crying. And, oddly, I had a cramp in my forearm. I was slowing down, but still maintaining an adequate pace. Whatever you do, stay under 9 I kept telling myself. I was tired and at this point I was STARVING. I could smell food from all the homes and restaurants we ran past, which of course didn’t help. I gritted my teeth and gulped some Gatorade at an aid station to try and trick my stomach.
I ticked through mile 20 and was excited that I was at the 3 hour mark. This was good. I was doing well. I was sore, very sore, but I could probably pull off 6 more miles close to pace! And then I stepped in a hole. I felt the shock go all the way up my left leg as I tried to stabilize myself. Three more steps and I felt it pinch. A nerve, somewhere deep in my hip joint/back hollered at me. It was excruciating. It was the exact same sciatic pain that disrupted all four of my labors. I knew this pain all too well, and feared that it would make my legs go numb and cripple me like it did during childbirth. I hobbled, trying to walk and stretch it out. I tried digging my thumb into the pressure point. I twisted to pop myself back into place. I alternated walking and running. I felt okay, except that my left leg wasn’t working with me any more! I was getting angry at myself, but I was coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t do much about it except push to the finish. It wasn’t an injury. I wasn’t doing damage, it just hurt.
I was getting discouraged at my slow progress, so I switched my watch from pace to distance mode. Seeing the numbers getting closer and closer to 26.2 was more encouraging than watching the time slip by. I was so lost and consumed in my pain that I had forgotten to take my fuel. I couldn’t remember if I had just taken one or if I needed to take one soon. I stopped fueling altogether.
Mile Marker 25 was indeed a beautiful sight. While I didn’t plow through the final mile with the superhero speed and gazelle-like grace I had imagined, I did get myself running again. I wasn’t moving fast, but I was moving! I got up and over the bridge, back into the city, past my cheering family, and around the corner to the finish line. I made it all the way to the end without crying or collapsing. I didn’t fall apart. I didn’t die.
An old friend was there to greet me at the finish line. I gave him a big hug; excited to see him, excited to be done, excited for the burger I was about to hunt down. I had just finished my second marathon in less than 5 months. My second marathon in the 9 months since birthing a fourth child. My second Hartford Marathon. I had just run the smartest race of my life and had a wonderful 3:41:41 time to show for it. A Personal Record, just like I wanted, just like what I worked for, planned for. My plan worked! I got my finisher’s medal–a big heavy beauty–stopped by the medical tent for some stretching and a serious dose of Motrin, collected my family, and headed for the food.
I could be critical of myself and my race. I could list off a dozen things that I did wrong. I could write paragraphs on how the next race will be better. But for once I’m going to be happy with my accomplishment and acknowledge that I did a job well done. I am happy with my time. I am happy with my race. For once, I am happy with me. This was much more than good enough, this was great.