Running a marathon is an intensely personal journey. 99% of us are not running to win. So why do it? Why put yourself through months of hard work for a few hours of your time on a Sunday morning? Well, for me, the motivation is bettering myself. It’s that deep internal drive to do something, not because I’ll earn money or lose weight or get some other reward. But because my brain has picked a number and assigned a level of importance to it. That number, for the past two years, has been “2:59:59.”
I had gotten a little cocky in my goal-setting. I was PRing at almost every race and felt like I could go after an aggressive goal. So when I put it out there that I was going to run a sub-3 at Boston 2015, I was pretty confident I could do it even though that meant knocking 7 minutes off my current best time. I put in the miles and the hard work, but come race day the weather did not cooperate, as is usually the case in Boston. I ran a 3:04 and was a complete basket case. I PRed and I ran a hard race in pouring rain with a headwind the entire way. What was I so upset about then? In my mind I had failed. I didn’t hit my A goal and I had let everyone down. Because in my arrogance, I thought people actually cared what time I ran.
I transitioned to the trails in preparation for a 50k that August. I was doing more strength and hill training, and zero marathon-specific work. I decided to run the SF Marathon as a hard training run and had a shocking outcome. Without trying very hard (or stressing myself into oblivion) I ran a 3:01. Another PR, another “so close” moment. The difference this time was my mindset. My goal wasn’t to go sub-3, so I wasn’t a ball of stress at the start and was quite happy with the outcome. I could have learned a few lessons here, such as “chill the eff out” and “you can get faster by running hills” but I chose to ignore that.
My next marathon was Boston 2016, and I knew I could run a sub-3 here. I spent three months doing weekly track workouts and marathon pace runs to prep. I was ready for my redemption. Except Boston, like usual, had other plans. It was warm. Warm enough that I should have backed off my goal. But the stubborn child inside of me decided that I had worked really hard for this and I wasn’t going to let all that go to waste. I ran the second half of that race 17 minutes slower than the first half and ended up in the medical tent being threatened with an IV if I didn’t drink more gatorade. Another great opportunity to learn some lessons gone to waste. I was getting better at accepting my failure, but I was still pretty unhappy with the outcome.
Once again I turned my focus to the trails, where times and splits have much less value. I ran the same 50K this summer, and despite some injury setbacks, had an incredible race, besting my time from last year by 30 minutes. I wanted to keep that good momentum rolling into the fall, so my coach and I decided that my focus race should be the Quad Dipsea in late November. I was also signed up for the NYC Marathon which was only a few weeks before the Quad. I could use it as a hard training run. Except I know myself better and that never happens. I would race it. Hard. I continued training for the Quad, so that meant hills and stairs and more hills. I was doing some of the Impala track workouts, but I did not do a single long run on the road.
My hip injury really flared up after a tough few weeks of high volume track work combined with racing the San Jose Rock n’ Roll Half (another PR and opportunity to learn). I was seeing a physical therapist, massage therapist, acupuncturist, and chiropractor. I needed my body to cooperate but I was in pain and had to cut way back on my volume. Eventually, three weeks before NYC, I made the tough call to drop out of the Quad. My body could not handle two marathon+ races right now, and since I had already sunk $1000 into NYC, that is the race I chose.
So with three weeks to go until a road marathon, my coach switched up my training. I did exactly two marathon pace workouts totaling 6 miles at goal pace. And I felt awful. Legs of lead. My muscles hurt despite all the self-care I was putting in. I did not have high hopes for this marathon and began making excuses before the race even happened. I hadn’t done enough specific training and I was dealing with injury and my head wasn’t in the game and maybe I didn’t want it bad enough right now. I was counting down the days until the race, not because I was excited to go to NY, but because I couldn’t wait to stop running. 26 miles is a really long way to go when you are in pain.
November 6th finally rolls around, and up until the moment that gun went off, I thought I was going to have a terrible race. I had no expectations of going under 3 hours, but figured I might as well give it a try. I was also determined to enjoy this race to the best of my ability. I would get a tour of the five boroughs and be greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheering fans. I might not get this chance again.
Long story short, this race was perfection from start to finish. I made it through the half in 1:29, and the effort felt sustainable. Whenever I felt my energy waning, I would look into the crowds. Making eye contact with someone or giving a small wave elicited a huge roar. It was like energy-on-demand. My fueling plan was solid and I stuck to it, taking a gel every 5 miles. The water stops were impeccably run and I was even able to get more water in my mouth than up my nose. But I knew the wall would hit. I kept waiting for it. My mantra became “one mile at a time.” Just click off a 6:47 mile. Okay, now do it again. Another one. I was staying consistent.
Entering Manhattan caused my watch GPS to go all wonky and read out 8:30 pace. I knew (hoped) I was running faster than that so I started taking manual splits at the mile markers and relying on my effort level. 6:43. 6:47. 6:45. I was in disbelief that this was happening. But I knew not to dwell on it. Look at the crowds. Focus on breathing. I turned the race into a moving meditation. Stay present. One step at a time. Just don’t stop.
With 10k to go, I knew sub-3 was within reach. I channeled my Impala workouts. They were so hard but I knew they prepared me for this very moment. Push through fatigue, chase the person in front of me, just don’t stop. Mile 23 was the start of a long hill up to Central Park. On any other day, it would not be a challenge. But at mile 23, it felt like a mountain. Now I channeled my trail running. “I am so strong. I can run all the way up Marincello and Miwok and the Dipsea. I recognize this feeling and I know it will pass. Just. Don’t. Stop.”
With 5k to go I started doing the math. Even if I ran 7 minute miles I could make it under 3. I started to feel giddy. This is actually happening. Those last 3 miles were a complete blur. I saw the finish line and I saw the “2:58” on the clock. And I ran as hard as I could. I finished the race in 2:58:14. There were a few dry heaves and some tears and lots of hugs given to strangers. Two years of chasing this goal lead up to this very moment. Nobody can ever take that feeling away from me.
So now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I’ve come up with a few takeaways.
- I am such a headcase. I put so much pressure on myself and literally nobody cares what time I run. I shouldn’t either. And I run so much better when I enjoy myself.
- Traditional marathon training may not be best for me. My two fastest marathons came while training for ultras. Track work and long road runs break me down so much more than the softer surfaces and hard hill efforts.
- Every failure makes me stronger. I have run 13 marathons now, and each one teaches me something new. I just need to know where to look.
It took a village of people to get me to the starting line. My success can be attributed to every person behind me. Every person who wished me luck, who called and texted and emailed. Every person who believed in my goal. Every person who told me to relax, and every person who pushed me harder (I’m looking at you, Impalas). THANK YOU: Pon, who puts up with my crazy and believes in me without fail. Ally, who let me take over her apartment for three days and has told me over and over, “just fucking do it.” My clients, who inspire me on a daily basis. My teammates, who make me proud to don that racing singlet. My coach, who stayed flexible and kept me in check. Every person who has followed along on this journey of mine. It makes this victory even sweeter and I dedicate the race to you.
So what’s next for me? Well, I’m committing to two weeks of no running. My body and mind deserve a rest. I plan on improving my swimming and my yoga practice. And when I do start running again it will be with no agenda. No pace or distance concerns, and only if I want to. And then, when the new year rolls around, I will start training for Boston. And you better believe many of those miles will be on trail.