Training has been going well. My progress has been steady and obvious. I have been feeling good…so good that I have, at times, not listened to Joe. I have pushed when he has said to rest, added additional mileage greater than his “no more than 10% of the assigned run” rule, and found myself beginning to feel so much faith and pride in myself and my newly developed ability that I foolishly began to think that nothing could hold me back now. Then came this past week of training.
My work schedule had been crazy and very busy. I was not getting much sleep and yet argued with Joe about not removing any workouts or mileage from me. I fear slacking off and losing momentum in this training. We bartered back and forth until we agreed upon the best adjusted training week for myself and my circumstances. This included moving my long run from Sunday to Monday so that I could perform the work out on the road on my day off after a full night’s sleep. This, also, turned out to be the only full day off my husband and I had together this entire week. So when I woke up, I opted to run the roads near our home instead of making the 25-minute drive to my favorite long run spot.
The roads near our home are busy, not very safe, and now see frequent traffic from large construction vehicles entering and exiting the First Energy oil well sites in the area. This was not what I thought about when heading out onto the pavement. I was thinking about the hour or more that I had just saved in drive time that I could now spend with my husband later this afternoon. I was, also, thinking about the hills… Oh. My. God. The HILLS along this route. These hills make “Cardiac Hill” in Oakland look small in comparison. These are the hills that I trained on in preparation for the race in Pittsburgh several years in a row. These are the hills that made me physically and mentally strong and able to handle the hills in Pittsburgh’s course without completely giving in, giving up, or giving out.
“13 miles strong effort with a fast finish” was my assignment.
This loop that I have run before is anywhere from 6.5-7.5mi, depending on whether I circle through Green Valley Park or not. So I had prepared myself to run this twice. It was 50 degrees and sunny as I set out in the first mile and I actually PR’d my first mile of this course. Prior to this day, it had always taken me at least 10:00-10:15 to make it the first mile from my front porch to the top of the first large hill by the Big Knob Fire Dept. – on this day, I did it in 9:15. Then comes a mile of much needed and appreciated downhill grading along a winding road amongst the cool shade of many trees. At this time, I began to pay VERY close attention to the increasing amount of traffic, as the speed along this road is 45 mph and the space alongside the road where I run in is very small and still a mess with debris – rocks, salt, sticks, gravel, and occasionally a little roadkill. It is at this very moment when I realized EXACTLY how large those construction site dump trucks actually are in comparison to me. I barely come up to the top of their wheel well – they could hit me and quite possibly never even know! The drivers of these trucks on this particular day were very attentive, however, and aware of their surroundings – including my running presence. They would slow way down and move to the center of the road as they passed by me. I believe they may have even radio’d to each other because the trucks that followed came around each bend with their eyes wide open as if looking for me and then waved. However, in the miles that followed, I was faced with the scenario of TWO of these behemoth trucks coming at me from each direction at the exact same time. I had a guardrail on my left with a hillside and these two trucks, one coming at me, one approaching from behind, and myself seeing that there was not enough room on this road for all of us. I jumped the guardrail and took the hillside instead, rationalizing that this was most certainly the lesser of the two evils – and it was, I am sure. However, I underestimated how steep this particular hillside was and how soft the ground. In hindsight, I should have just plopped to the ground instead of trying to stay on my feet because I rolled my left ankle and felt the strain in my right knee as I struggled to maintain myself upright and on top of this hillside. I climbed back up and onto the road and began to continue the run, already preparing an alternate route in my mind to complete my 13 miles instead of running this section of road a second time. It took awhile to regain my pace, as the stinging in my knee continued and my ankle throbbed for the first time since the JC Stone Ultramarathon in March 2016. I no longer felt invincible. I immediately regretted my decision not to run North Park’s runner friendly roadways today. I just wanted to finish this. I just wanted be done…and safe. I completed this run but immediately felt the effects; physically and mentally. The remaining workouts for the week were difficult. I felt sore, heavy, slow. Mentally, I was feeling crushed. I questioned myself, my ability, my current level and progress versus how far I still have yet to go before I am “BQ” material. Joe was shocked and surprised when I hinted at my newly emerging mental weakness. I had been running and thinking so strongly up until now. He immediately reduced a longer assigned run to half the distance and gave me TWO full days to rest/recover before my next long run. I, in turn, agreed to simply NOT THINK during this time, just rest; physically and mentally.
February 25, 2017: SPRING THAW 10-15-20 Miler.
My long run assignment was for 15 miles of strong, steady effort and brief surges as I feel able. This coincided perfectly with the race going on at my favorite long run location. So I signed up. I had a slightly faster paced friend coming to run with me, as well as, Joe who would be racing to win the event for his age group and then returning to the course to help me finish strong. It was a good plan. But then my friend had to bail from the event due to illness/injury and Joe was also unable to make the trip out for this event. All of my doubts about myself and my own ability began to rise up in my mind again and was magnified by the realization of the ticking time clock that would not only count the time, determine the pace, but also, record it forever on the internet, for better or for worse. All this overthinking began to get the best of me. I considered shutting off my alarm clock and skipping the event altogether. Then, I knew, I would be faced with performing those same 15 miles on my own later that day anyway…and the guilt of having skipped a race event without any good cause or reason would weigh on me and ruin my mood further. So I got up, got myself dressed, and headed out to the event alone. I messaged with two of my closest, most supportive friends, and received nothing but love and encouragement from the both of them. Once there, I found two friends from my FB running group that were also running the race. They are both much faster than me so I made them promise to come back for me after they had finished.
I was still in a bit of a funk upon lining up in the starting corral when I turned around and caught a glimpse of a familiar face. ANDY! I could not believe my eyes! I have not seen Andy in about a year and a half. We met in 2013 while training with SCRR for the 2014 Pittsburgh Marathon. We had run side by side in several long training runs and always seemed to be perfectly paced and compatible with comfortable conversation or our equally comfortable silent support of each other – lots of smiles, laughs, and thumbs up signs. On our 22 mile training run, 3 years ago, I had an especially difficult time due to several compiling factors and, even though Andy was having an exceptionally strong running day, he stayed with me. Weeks later, when he was crashing on our easier 16 mile training run, I stayed with him and pulled him through it. At that moment, he had high-fived me and told me that he would look for me on race day. I hoped he would but knew that it was not likely, considering the amount of people and runners that would be there. We never exchanged phone numbers, last names, and he is much older than me with no desire to join the world of social media apps like FB, IG, or Twitter, so it was unlikely that we would ever see each other again. Race day came and, as I listened to the National Anthem being sung to completion, I turned to my right and happened to see ANDY standing there! I could not believe our luck! 36,000 runners lined up to start this race and we just happened to be standing within five feet of each other, waiting for the gun to go off. We hugged, high-fived and knew right then and there that this was going to be a good day!
We ran together, counting down the miles, one by one, talking, laughing, smiling. Sometimes he was ahead and I clung to his pace to keep from falling behind; other times, I was the strong one and he paced himself by my own footsteps. We conquered “Cardiac Hill” together and high-fived at the top. I taught him to look for, smile at, and pose for the race photographers strategically placed along the race route.
Somewhere between mile 22-23, Andy had fallen behind. I struggled to keep him with me while not slowing too much, but as I looked behind me, he waved me on, shook his head, and slowed to a walk near the sidewalk. I almost stopped. I wanted to cry. We had come so far together, it was like losing my partner in the heat of battle, as I would now have to face the toughest miles of the race alone. I did my best to continue on while still throwing a few glances over my shoulder in hopes of catching site of Andy recovering his pace and making up the lost ground. But I never saw him. My mind became a very dark, miserable, ugly place and I was forced to face it alone. I caved under the weight of it. I took my first walking step across mile marker 25. I stopped and took a photo; a photo that would haunt me to this very day.
While it was the mental battle that I had lost, taking that first walking step immediately created a physical battle that I found so difficult to overcome; my entire body had cramped up. The final 1.20 miles of that marathon took me nearly 25 minutes to complete as I massaged my legs, my hips, my back, and choked back my own tears. I completed the race in 04:37:36. Had I not been so tired and painfully sore at that point and had just turned around, I would have seen my equally as broken and struggling friend, Andy, turning the corner and starting down the homestretch to the Finish Line. He finished just a few minutes after me. We never saw each other.
Fast forward 2+years to August 2016, when a friend and I arrived at the SCRR garage on a Saturday morning to participate in another group long run through Pittsburgh and who do I see??? ANDY!!! Again, we hug, high-five, and take a photo. We run and talk about our race experiences and how we both desire to return to the marathon course and break through the exact miles that broke us on that hot May day back in 2014. Yet, once again, we forget to exchange information.
So here we are again. February 2017. About to begin a race, feeling down and alone in my effort to do my best, and this long-lost running friend of mine just happens to be beside me, once again, amidst a massive crowd of runners. “Oh, it’s going to be a good day now!” we say to each other as we, again, hug, high-five, and have our picture taken.
We set out across the Start Line together just ahead of the 10:00/mi pace group. We agreed to start slow and speed up as we feel able and ready. At this point though, my spirits were flying so high, that by the half mile mark we were already right with the 9:30/mi pace group and by mile marker 2, we were ahead of them. “You good?”, Andy asks, giving me the thumbs up sign. “I’m good!”, I replied, returning with my own double thumbs up.
We continued at this clip, slowly increasing the gap between the 9:30/pace group and gaining on the 9:00/group. Until my watch said 9:27/mi and Andy broke the news that he needed to head out. He had only come to run 10 miles and was actually parked a mile away in the opposite direction at this point. I did not have my phone on me to be able to exchange information at this point, so he rattled off his cell phone number, high-fived me, and headed back. I continued to repeat his number and even made up a little song about it so that I could remember it long enough to write it down.
During our 9+miles together he had told me that he was considering coming back to the Pittsburgh Marathon just to prove to himself that he is stronger than the mile that broke him. He said that seeing me there that day may have just been his “sign” to do it now. I told him the plans that Joe and I have been making and how much I have progressed under his training. We agreed that it would be great to have the company of each other on the long runs throughout training and, considering we both live less than 30 minutes from this park, we should try to meet up and train together. We push each other to perform our absolute best and, all the while, our absolute best is very close in relation to each other. It’s the perfect scenario. However, the moment Andy left the race, it was like a repeat of Pittsburgh 2014 for me. My heart sank. My mind tanked. I began to feel every tweak, every strain, and every little pain. I pushed as hard as I could, knowing the actual race event was the first 10 Miles. I had wanted to pull the 10 Miler in around 90 minutes but the wind was brutal and seemed to always be coming at us head on. I still managed to cross the line a quarter mile or more ahead of the 9:30/mi group (1:34:11) but immediately felt the weight of everything pulling me down. I was met at the 10 Mile mark by a friend from my running group who had already finished his race and returned to help me finish mine. I struggled badly my final five miles. If it were not for the support I received, I quite possibly would have quit.
I kept hearing Joe’s words echo in my mind: “You only fail if you quit.” and “If you get tired, learn to rest, not quit. Run, rest/recover, repeat-all within the same run/race. ANY running motion, even the slowest running motion, is better than walking in a race.”
By the time I reached the final mile, there was a very heavy breathing, hard foot striking runner right behind me. I was becoming increasingly agitated and, at one point, considered turning around and yelling: “JUST F*CKING PASS ME ALREADY!”, but instead, I used the angry energy building up in me to fuel a faster final mile. At this point, another friend from our running group had joined us and these two incredibly supportive guys began to pick up their pacing and verbally challenged me: “Do not let that big guy pass you!”, as they lead me into the park, directed me to the finish line chute, and cheered me on as I opened up my final sprint to the FINISH. (And, just for the record, I did NOT let “that big guy” pass me!￼￼
I was so glad to be done. I did what I set out to do. I did not quit. I was rewarded with final race results that were better than I had anticipated and still within the range of what I had expected of myself on this day. The immediate thoughts that followed, however, were not so positive. They were more along the lines of where I am now in comparison with where I need to be to qualify for Boston; and how very far apart these two standings are from each other. I even thought for a moment, “Who am I to even think that I can TRY?!”. At which point I, again, had to force myself to silence my own mind. Really. Who would ever succeed at anything at all if they never gave themselves the will to TRY??? THIS IS PERSONAL. It has nothing to do with anybody else. It is not a competition against anyone else. It is a competition against myself, my belief in myself, and my own ability to withstand the pain; to dig deep and push past it into a level of athleticism that will elevate my performance to one worthy of Boston. So for the time being, my biggest challenge is to silence my mind. I need to not think – just keep believing, keep running each run to the best of my current ability, keep reaching in my training to push myself to my limits, to then break through them and eventually my level of ability and my level of desire will collide in some future place and time…a BOSTON QUALIFYING time.