Mile 9: Pittsburgh Marathon 2017-“4:27:56”

This blog is about winning. It’s about losing. It’s about succeeding, and at the very same time, it’s also about failing; but mostly, it’s about persisting. It’s about never, ever giving up. If nothing else, Joe has certainly ingrained in my brain that “a failure is never truely a failure until you quit.” So let’s redefine “FAILURE”. Failure is not falling short of a time goal. Failure is ultimately giving up or refusing to try. Failure is choosing to not give 100% in pursuit of your goal/dream especially when, deep down, you know that you can and do have more left in you to give.

Pittsburgh was difficult for me. Ultimately, when we began to seriously train and focus on this race, the goal was for me to break the 4-hour mark. A month or two before the race, however, I took a good, hard, honest look at myself, my progress, and my current ability and had to admit that this was not a realistic goal. Not yet. At that time, Joe and I agreed to run this race seperately. I set my sights on the 4:10-4:20 range, as this was still a bit of a “stretch” and would require my full concentration and ability to push myself hard late in the race. This was certainly an attainable goal and would ensure my ultimate desire of PR’ing this course and breaking the 4:30 mark. Two weeks prior to the race, I rolled my ankle coming off a curb in downtown Pittsburgh on a long training run with S.C.R.R.. I sought treatment immediately and did the best I could to recoup and recover as quickly as possible. Withdrawing from the race was NOT an option, in my mind. So on Sunday, May 7th, as is the tradition in Pittsburgh; always the first Sunday of May; I took my place beyond the START Line on Liberty Avenue amongst the other, nearly 40,000, runners. In a last minute stroke of luck, my friend, Cherish was going to run the first 10-11 miles of this race by my side before the mid-course split; where she would go on to finish her half marathon, while I continued on to complete the full marathon course. She promised to return to the 25th Mile and wait for me to arrive so that, in true “sole-sister” fashion, she could jump back on the course beside me and help me “Make Mile 25 my B*tch”, keeping me strong all the way to the Finish line.

 In 2014, Cherish and I had embarked upon this Pittsburgh Marathon journey together. It was the first time either of us had run a full marathon. We had followed the same training plan, shared the same nervousness and fears, but then took to the course and shared an amazing race experience that only runners could ever truely understand. Cherish conquered the course that day. I, however, crashed at Mile 25. I did finish, but with a much slower course time than what I knew I was capable of. This haunted me. I HAD to go back and break the mile that broke me. 

So as race day approached, and I was telling my friend of all the worries on my mind about this race; the injury to my ankle, and my fear of failing to reach my ultimate goal; she told me that she would be there for me and she would not let me fail. “In 2014, we started this together.”, she said, “This time, we finish it.”  

So, together, we arrived at our Corral assignment and settled in…after a few pre-race shenanigans. 😜

We set out somewhere between the 4:10 pace group and the 4:20 pace group. We went out a little too fast the first few miles and, although we had a good time, talking, laughing, and matching each other stride for stride, we steadily closed that gap between us and the 4:10 pace group. I had been focusing on making sure that I took in enough fluids in small but regular increments and was, also, able to take in my gels at appropriate times without feeling sick or vomiting. This has always been a difficult area of long distance racing for me, but today it seemed to be coming together quite well.

At Mile 8, my Nike app crashed. I had been using this app on my watch to track my race so that I could review my split times and pace later on.  I continued to use the clock portion to guage my approximate pace and projected ETA based upon our official start time of 7:38am. As we approached the South Side race split near mile 11, we had fallen right into place with the 4:10 pacer. Cherish wished me luck and promised to meet me at Mile 25, as she made her turn toward the final 2 miles of her race. I matched my stride to the pacer and felt comfortable and strong. We crossed the Birmingham Bridge and I mentally prepared myself for the upcoming ascent of “Cardiac Hill”.  My previous Coach, Herb Cratty, had taught me how to run uphill very well. I used to be the girl that crashed on hills. I used to get passed by so many runners or slow to a walk. Now, however, I have become quite good at staying strong and steady on hills. Whereas I used to slow down, now I remain steady with, if not slightly increase, my pace. I kept right with the group and even began to push forward a little bit. And then, just like that, those gels began to “talk back”. Without any advanced warning or stomach cramping at all, I began to projectile vomit. Not once, not twice, but THREE times while climbing “Cardiac Hill” into Oakland. This is presumably the most notorious portion of the Pittsburgh Marathon course. It is so difficult that they actually station a group of volunteer runners, dubbed “The Hill Runners”, on this single mile and assign them the job of simply taking turns running this hill, up and down, repeatedly, in an attempt to support and encourage the race participants, as well as, to identify any problems and assist any runner that is sick, injured, or struggling in some way or another. On this day, in this particular moment, I got to meet one of these phenomenal “Hill Runners” up close and personal. He took my arm and guided me to the side to make certain I was ok. I let him know that it was just an issue with fueling and that it is nothing new to me-just simply unexpected this time because I had been feeling so well…until I wasn’t.🤢 He offered a few quick suggestions and words of encouragement and we parted ways. I recovered quickly and soon found myself crossing the halfway checkpoint right behind the 4:10 pacer. I kept pace comfortably through Mile 14 but as Mile 15 approached, I began to experience throbbing in my sprained ankle and a nagging ache on the outside of my right knee and lower leg. I stopped at a water station and took a few minutes to stretch out my leg, use the bathroom, refill my water bottle, and, against my better judgement, pop two Aleve, before continuing on course. I could no longer see the 4:10 pace group but felt comfortable in my ability to hold a steady pace. Mile 16, however, found me vomiting again. Somewhere in Mile 17 my watch battery died completely and by Mile 18, my ankle was “clicking” and my right knee/leg felt like it was on fire. I stopped briefly to pet the Steel City Greyhounds posted up on the side of the road as one of the registered “cheer groups”, and as I did so, I heard someone shout “Go 4:20’s!!!”. I turned around to see the 4:20 pace group breeze right on by me. “Oh Sh*t!”, I thought, and I started to RUN. I kept up with them for several miles before the burning in my leg forced me to slow down. I began to employ the “surge technique” that Joe has stressed so often with me in long distance runs; running faster on favorable terrain while slowing down to recover when my body demanded it. At this point, the Bloomfield section of the race, I actually got to enjoy the downhill portion of Mile 23 before it leveled out onto the long, miserable, all-sunshine-no-shade portion of Liberty Avenue that spans nearly 2.50 miles before the course turns us onto Smithfield Street. I was, as most runners are this late in the race, hating everything about my current situation and simply wanting it to be over with. I had kept my mind “out of the darkness” for most of the race, however, at this point in time, I kept thinking that “I swear, the last time I ran this race THIS was where Mile 25 was!”…and yet, I was barely into Mile 23. I fell in place beside a young, 20-something looking male, as he was keeping a pace that I believed I could hang onto with the aching and burning in my leg. A few minutes after the 24th Mile marker, however, this man stopped and started to walk. I ran a few steps beyond him then stopped and looked back. “Dude, this BLOWS!” I said, and he looked at me almost gratefully, “Where are we even at?!”-he asked. I told him we REALLY ARE “almost there”. I told him that we are about half a mile away from the 25th Mile where I have a friend waiting for me. He took a deep breath and started to run with me again as he said “Ok. We can do this!”. The next thing I knew, Cherish was waving her hands in front of my face and taking her place, running in front of me. I focused my eyes on the heels of her shoes and did my best to keep her pace. Every minute or so, she would turn around and say something encouraging, but at this point it was all just noise to me. I tried to ask her to stop, but I had no voice so I whispered “Ssshhh.” As if she could hear me.😂  As we made the left turn onto Smithfield Street, I really could not stand anymore “noise” though, so when she turned around and began to speak I screamed “Shut up!!!”. She fell into place beside me and leaned in to listen as I said “Please! Don’t talk. JUST BE HERE.” “Ok….Okay.”, was her comforting reply. And we ran. A few steps later, Cherish jumped the curb and swapped places with her husband, Scot, as he began to run beside me and she yelled “You got this, Girl! FINISH IT!”. I knew that Scot was about to yell at me, to say/do anything he could possibly think of to motivate me at this pivotal moment, but I hurt so bad. “Please don’t yell at me right now.”, I said as he ran beside me. To this day, I do not remember what it was that he said to me, but I will never forget the feeling that these two amazing people have bestowed upon me with their unconditional love and support, year after year. I ran to the corner and made my final turn onto the Boulevard. I looked up and thought, “Oh, thank god! It is RIGHT THERE.” I picked up the pace, tried (but failed!) to smile through the pain (aside from one fake one, captured by a race photographer, of course.😉), and made my way toward that Finish Line.

I crossed the Finish Line with 4:45:xx on the time clock. As I collected my medal, posed for the Finisher’s Photos, and made the “Walk of Pain” through the finisher’s chute down to the Finisher’s Festival at Point State Park, tears began to sting my eyes. I could no longer think straight or do anymore math in my head, but I was pretty certain that I had failed to accomplish what I had set out to do here today. Immediately, I told myself to “STOP”. “DON’T THINK.”, “JUST BREATHE”, “Wait and see.”. So when my husband came walking up to me with the biggest smile on his face saying “Well…you did it!”, I was almost in disbelief, until he handed me his phone with my split times and official finish time of “4:27:56”.

 I was ecstatic! I started screaming like a little kid and then immediately shouted, “Oh thank god, I don’t ever have to run THAT course again!”. Scot and Cherish arrived and the post race celebration began.

Once home, recovery became my main focus. R.I.C.E. (Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation.) of my ankle, as well as, my right leg/knee. Something was not right. By the following day, I was in serious pain. I immediately sought evaluation and treatment. I babied this ankle and this leg/knee for two weeks before trying out another run. I have since run just twice. Both runs were a struggle, each for their own reasons, but neither one entirely “bad”. The discomfort afterwards, however, has me concerned. This is definitely something that will require time to heal and diligence with my focus on recovery being just as important as the workouts themselves. As my favorite elite runner, Meb, always says: “PRE-Hab, not RE-hab.”. This is something that has never come easily for me, or any runner, actually. However, it is extremely important if I wish to continue in this sport; to run, to PR, and to “Chase Boston”. I am not in my 20’s anymore, that is painfully apparent, but that doesn’t mean that I can not or will not still be an exceptional runner someday. That being said, I have been forced to take a brutally honest look at myself and my current level of ability. Runner’s World (June2017) published a quote by Mike Tyson that said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” The same is true of running. Everyone toes the Start line with a plan; an idea or thought process of how they wish to perform and how they plan to execute their race. This is especially true when attempting to PR or Boston Qualify. It is, also, painfully true that not everything happens according to plan. My performance in Pittsburgh did not earn me my BQ, not even close! But it was still a “success” in my ultimate goal of not only breaking the 4:30 mark on our hometown city’s notoriously difficult course; but a signifigant, nearly 10 minute course PR, as well. It was an experience and a lesson learned, once again, in how the Marathon can humble you, and how this distance demands respect. You must respect the toll that it will take on your body and your mind, regardless of the pace that you push. That being said, the pace you must push to achieve a Boston Qualifier, while respectfully determined by age and gender, is no easy or simple feat at all. So, once again, I take a very real and very honest look at myself; where I am now, and where I need to be to BQ. With this realistic view, I have been forced to admit that this progress can not be rushed. It is not realistic to think that I can go from a 4:27:56 marathon to a 3:40:00 marathon in the span of 4 months. It’s just not. And, given the physical aftermath of my race in Pittsburgh, it would not be wise to try. My life and my work are not able to accommodate injury. I have a very physical job; THREE, to be exact. Training for a BQ marathon is still my ultimate goal and I have every intention of doing so. But, to do so, I need to readjust my plan. The decisions I have made have not been easy or quick. I have decided not to run any more full marathon distances this year. I have submitted my requests for deferrals or refunds for the September Erie Marathon and the October Steamtown Marathon. I have decided to do whatever is necessary to heal up completely from the Pittsburgh Marathon and then to focus on smaller distances at stronger, faster paces. I see my Chiropractor and Massage Therapist religiously. I will be reincorporating strength training back into my routine. I will be focused on gradually increasing my pace/performance up to the half marathon distance with a specific PR and time goal in mind for races that I have already scheduled in July, October, and in May of next year when I return to the streets of our beautiful city and crush the Pittsburgh Half marathon course. I am confident that I can make the kind of progress I need to in that span of time and can then resume training for the full marathon with the intent to Boston Qualify, or at least be fit enough to make an honest attempt, at the 2018 Erie Marathon and/or 2018 Steamtown Marathon. So even though I am not where I want to be just yet, my journey is far from over. In fact, with Pittsburgh under my belt, I am now well on my way and the best is yet to come!

#ChasingBoston #ForTheLoveOfTheRun