I had hoped to be able to title this blog post: “Redemption!” and document some inspiring tale about pushing through the pain, refusing to give up, and being rewarded with a big, beautiful marathon P.R.; but Steamtown was definitely not the place for that.
Usually boasting it’s “predominantly downhill course” and “cool, fall temperatures” helping runners to perform well, yielding many race P.R.’s and Boston Qualifiers, Steamtown seemed like the perfect place to debut my months of hard work and training from this past year. (Especially after pulling back from a probable marathon PR in Erie to help a struggling runner.) According to my Coach and more experienced marathon running friends, I still “had fuel left in the tank”. So Shep adapted my training to help me bridge the 4 week gap between the Erie Marathon and the Steamtown Marathon. I performed these workouts well, with minimal fatigue and no pain or injury. My spirits were high, as well, with little to no doubts about my ability to perform to my satisfaction in Steamtown. I had taken a friend up on her offer to travel to the race together, split a hotel room, and then run beside her as she paced the 4:15 group throughout the marathon. A week before the race, however, my friend received word that she would now be pacing the 4:10 group instead. I was initially concerned because, while 5 minutes spread out over the course of 26.2+miles may not seem like much, it does have a significant impact on the body; especially considering that the first several miles of this race course are notoriously downhill and almost all of my own training for this year has been on predominantly flat courses since my PR attempt was intended for the Erie Marathon. I was unsure how my quads would handle the additional impact of pounding the pavement for so long while knowing that the final 3-4 miles of Steamtown is packed with several challenging hills to climb. It took just one encouraging message from Shep to give me the confidence I needed to go for it. Shep is much more cautious than I am when considering race strategy; so if he believed I could do it, then I immediately knew that I could.
As race weekend approached, however, concerns began to arise amongst the race director and the Marathon pacing group. The projected weather forecast was indicating unseasonably warm temperatures with very high humidity. The decision was made to pull all of the pacers back 10 min. per slot; so my friend was now going to pace the 4:20 group. Now, if you know anything at all about me, you know that once my mind is made up about something it is nearly impossible for me to change it. The thoughts weighed heavy on my mind but, as I watched the forecast, I decided to stick with my plan. I reasoned that I did not train all summer long in the heat/humidity and then travel all the way across the state of Pennsylvania to run a race and give up my chance to PR at it. Shep cautioned me against it in our phone conversation the morning before the race but, ultimately, left me with the “game day decision” to go out and try, knowing that I may have to adapt and overcome based upon the race day conditions as they unfold in real time. I was content with this and went about enjoying the experience. I was able to meet alot of new friends, run a few miles, take a hundred or more photos, and share in at least a thousand laughs. To say that “we had a blast” does not give the weekend the credit it deserves.
When we woke up early Sunday morning and went about our pre-race routines, it was already warm, humid, and beginning to rain. We crammed in my friend’s car, grabbed some coffee, listened to our favorite motivational videos/songs, and continued the light-hearted and hilarious antics that will forever mark my memories. (😂“That’s what SHE said!”😂) We boarded the shuttle bus and began the 45 minute drive to the start line.
By the time we arrived, it was pouring down rain. I found my friend Joe (aka “The RocketMan”) and enjoyed some time talking with him about our race strategies. “Give 100% and you will always walk away proud.”, he told me. An hour later, 1,457 runners stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the Start line. The rain had stopped but the air was still thick and humid; much like walking into a sauna or steam room. The national anthem was sung, the cannon was fired, and we were off; each of us chasing our own goals and dreams for this day. I had made up my mind to keep near the 4:10 pacer. My training had been strong at this pace and promised to reward me with a nearly 20 min PR if I could be smart on the downhills, steady on the uphills, and strong on the flats. The 4:10 pacer is a phenomenal runner and an experienced pacer, but his inclination to talk and engage the group in conversation was entirely too much for my own personal liking. If I were running for fun or simply to finish, I would have enjoyed engaging with him and the rest of the pace group; but my goal was to find my rhythm, control my breathing, and focus on each and every step as we ran through mile after mile of this unfamiliar course. So I pulled away from the 4:10 pace group, keeping them just within earshot. I could hear them speaking, but could not make out their exact words or conversation. I lead the pack steadily in this fashion for the first 12 miles of the race. The course rolled a little bit in the first couple of miles but had turned significantly downhill by mile 4. It was an almost “uncomfortably awkward” downhill slope for me and it was hard to find a balanced speed and controlled impact without “braking” too much. In the 7th mile, the course flattened out a bit and I felt the first twinges of fatigue and discomfort. The air was thick and it was becoming uncomfortable to breathe. My quads were beginning to twinge a little bit but I was still able to keep pace and make my legs move steadily. I began to fuel with my first gel packet and picked up my stride. I opted to carry my own water bottle during this race since I was trying to set a new PR. I have had issues with proper fueling in the past and seem to perform better when I take smaller, more frequent, sips of water while running rather than guzzling cups at a time at the designated water stations. The course turned downhill a bit more and the heat began to turn up along with the humidity. I kept feeling as if something was crawling on my arms and my elbows and it was making me quite uncomfortable; turns out it was sweat pouring off my body and dripping off my arms as I ran. The air felt thick and my “dri-fit” clothing now looked and felt like false advertising. I could hear the voice of the 4:10 pacer getting louder and slowly gaining on me by mile 11. By mile 12, he was running right alongside me as the crowd of runners keeping his pace slowly engulfed me, silently drowning my spirit. Halfway through that mile, I had to let them go. I made it to the 13.10 mile marker (halfway point) at 2:04:13 and drew comfort in the fact that it was not “too late”. Not yet, anyway. Everyone has good miles and bad miles in a marathon and just because I had fallen off pace did not mean that I could not recover and be able to come back from this and still PR it. (The reasoning of Joe, still echoing in my mind.) I continued on and felt the first wave of despair wash over me when my friend, the 4:20 pacer, tapped me on the shoulder and said “C’mon Aubrey, let’s go.”. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? I thought that I was recovering? I never even heard her and her group approaching me from behind. It was then that I realized how ragged my breathing had become and how I had no energy to even say a word to her. I pumped my arms and shuffled my feet in an attempt to keep pace. I stayed with her and made it to the water station in the 15th mile but had to stop to fill up my bottle. I poured a cup of water on my head but it barely touched the surface of the heat rising off my skin. I took this opportunity to use another gel. I tried to catch back up but had lost too much ground. I felt the frustration rise up in my throat and threaten me with tears. I shook it off, along with a ridiculous amount of sweat, and my attention was quickly taken by the sounds of roaring water to my right; a beautiful portion of the creek was flowing right alongside the course. I spotted my chance on a pathway down to it and I went for it; wading in and laying completely down in the gloriously cool water, letting it engulf me from head to toe. Apparently the Mile 16 water stop was set up nearby this area because I heard a loud cheer erupt and sat up in the creek water to see a large crowd of people cheering for me from the top of a bridge, overlooking my little piece of paradise. I waved, climbed out of the creek, and trudged back up onto the course; quickly realizing that the next TEN MILES in soaking wet shoes and socks, squishing with each and every step, was not going to be a good time. I took my bow and accepted several high-fives at the 16th mile water stop. At this point, the 4:30 pace group passed me by and I realized that there was no way I was going to PR this race. Today was just not my day. I still decided to give it my best; reasoning to myself that the faster I run, the sooner I would be DONE. The sun began to shine and the heat and humidity climbed another notch. In Mile 19, I turned a corner and came upon a collapsed runner being offered support by the volunteer medical staff. I offered them my final gel for her as I watched an ambulance turn the corner ahead, responding to her emergency. Somewhere in that mile, my new friend, Mike, caught up to me as the course entered another portion of trail. The sticks, rocks, and uneven ground slowed me down considerably and the effects of the previous road grading began to be realized as my ankles began to ache. I wished Mike luck and opted to walk this portion of the course so as to avoid injury. As the trail ended, returning us to paved streets, I found myself running beside a man named “Scott” from New Jersey who boasted a running resume of 100+marathons on 8 different continents. I asked him about his favorite and enjoyed occupying my mind with his stories of Antarctica and Mount Kilamanjaro. Needless to say, today was “not a good day” for him, either, and we laughed about the irony of it all. In mile 20, I had let go of Scott and found myself running alone in those dreaded late race miles that, as I like to appropriately say, “nightmares are made of”. At this point in the race, even on a good day, it’s hard to think positive thoughts. On this particular day, the worst marathon I have ever experienced so far, it felt more than a little overwhelming. Despite my tired protests and against my own will and better judgement, my thoughts took a downward spiral towards the deep dark fear I hold for myself and my running: “I am never going to be able to qualify for Boston.”. I felt the lump rise up in my throat and I choked it down, focusing my attention on the water station ahead as an elderly couple stood on the curb outside their home, handing out bottles of water and bowls of candy. “Only 4 more hours to go!” the man said in an attempt to encourage the runners trudging through. “FOUR HOURS?!” I choked, as tears stung my eyes; I felt as though I’d been punched in the chest. “Where the f*ck are we at?!”, I cried, feeling full desperation now. The man’s wife jumped in and corrected him, “Four MILES, honey. Just four more miles to the finish line. You can do this. You’re almost there.” I thanked them for the water and dumped it over my head. I turned the corner ahead and caught sight of my friend, Mike, again as he was stretching out his legs alongside the course. I sprayed him in the back with what was left in my bottle of water and laughed at his startled face. He told me that he had thought that someone had just thrown up on him. (Yeah, it was THAT kind of hot/humid day.) We walked for a few minutes and then agreed to do the dreaded “survival shuffle” together. This is the part of the race where friendships are solidified. You suddenly put your own pain and darkness aside and do whatever it takes to keep the atmosphere light and funny. You make stupid jokes and do childish things to simply keep everyone involved moving forward. Finishing the race becomes a group effort and the sole focus for the day. “Friends don’t let friends DNF!” is the golden rule of races such as this. I remembered “Marie”, the runner whom I helped a few weeks ago complete the Erie Marathon while suffering a personal medical emergency, and I started to direct Mike to the cones ahead, marking the course. “We run to that cone and then we can walk.”. “We walk to that tree and then we run.” He followed suit, picking our next walking point: “To the bridge…damn, I thought it was closer!”, and we laughed through gritted teeth and burning legs; but we kept moving slowly and steadily forward. By Mile 23, we came upon “Jesse’s Girl”, Becca, spectating along the final 5K stretch in an attempt to find those from our running group (“Runderful”) and help us get to the finish line. “Everything hurts and I’m dying!”, I called out to her, and we all laughed. She told us about the struggles of everyone in our group, with the exception of “Harvey” who was looking strong and still on pace to PR the race! The dude is from FLORIDA though so…yeah. There’s that. We loved to hate him for that right then and there. In all seriousness though, a race PR is “ALWAYS earned, never given” so it was truely inspiring to hear that at least one of “our own” was able to battle through the day’s conditions and claim victory over this course. Becca helped tremendously to keep our spirits high as she ran alongside us and made up her mind to stay with us for the final miles. Nearing the 24th mile, I spotted a man running all alone with a marathon pacing sign in his hand. There was not a single runner with him. I picked up my pace and called out to him, reading his name, “Pacer Pete”, from the back of the sign. He turned and smiled, now revealing the “5:00” marathon sign in full. I asked him what his projected ETA to the Finish Line was and he checked his watch: “Currently, 4:58.” he replied before warning me about “the large hill” up ahead. “You mean the hill before we get to the hill?”, I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard the stories. Looks like the worst is still yet to come.”. I ran with “Pete” for another block or two before I had to let him go and fell back with Mike and Becca again. Mile 24 proceeded to wind and incline. This mountain sized hill was no joke. Neither was the amount of food, water, gatorade, beer, whiskey, music, water hoses, sprinklers, race signs, support, and cheers from the people who live here. There was no way these incredible people were going to let us face this challenge alone. “Run Steamtown, they said!”, I yelled out, “It’ll be fun, they said!” People laughed. “It’s a flat, fast downhill course, they said!”, I continued, “Cool, fall temps and everyone who runs here PR’s!”. “THEY LIED!”, was the unanimous response from the crowd. This was the most honest thing I have heard this entire race and it made me laugh. Mike and I tried to power up this hill but quickly realized that the people walking next to us were moving faster, so we followed suit. Why expend more energy than you have to? Especially when we knew that this was not the last hill on the course. I spotted a group of young girls doing cartwheels in a grassy area outside of a home and the temptation was more than I could resist; I headed for the sidewalk to join in the fun. I always wondered if I could still do one; now I know. (Huge shout out to Becca for being quick to catch this moment on video.)
We finally crested the top of this ridiculously long, steep hill and found Becca’s boyfriend, “Jesse” running towards us. He shared the news of Harvey’s Marathon PR and quickly joined us in our “death march”, encouraging us all along the way. We approached the final hill at Mile 25 and decided to dig deep and finish strong. Jesse ran beside Mike as I began to pull ahead and Becca matched my stride. We powered up this hill together and my eyes searched frantically for the finish line that everyone said was visible from the top. I became desperate when I did not see it; instead, what initially appeared to be a “cresting” of the hill turned out to be a continuing general incline for several more blocks. I heard people cheering for me by name.(I had written my name on my bib prior to starting the race this morning.) I locked eyes with two women sitting alongside the course and called out to them in desparation, “This IS the last hill, right? They said it was the last! They said I’d see the finish line at the top, but where is it?!”. They assured me that it was not much further. They pointed out a large white banner ahead in the distance and promised me that when I reached that banner, I would see the finish line at the bottom of the hill. At this time, I spotted “Pacer Pete” and made him my sole focus. I thanked Becca for staying with me and apologized profusely for my limited, and probably very offensive, late race vocabulary. I pointed out “Pacer Pete” and told her, “I need to catch that man and I need to pass him before the finish line.”. Becca made my goal her goal; and we ran. I pumped my arms as hard and as high as I could. I felt my legs protest but my feet leaving the ground nonetheless. I thought of my friend Beverly (Joe’s wife) and how she speaks of watching runners on the final stretch “take flight” and soar across the finish line as if they had grown a pair of wings and were flying. It’s one of the most beautiful analogies I have ever heard and it has inspired one of my tattoos, as well as, all of my intentionally faster, stronger race finishes. Becca urged me on as I pulled away in the final 400m of the race towards the finisher’s chute. She headed for the sidewalk screaming “You’ve got this. Finish it!”. I closed the gap between me and “Pacer Pete” as fast as my tired legs would carry me despite the seering heat burning in my quads. I tapped Pete on the shoulder and said “I caught you!” as I ran past him towards the timing mats. I raised my arms above my head and let out a triumphant yell. It was FINISHED and I was so glad! 5:00:10. My worst marathon time, to date. My most difficult race struggle ever. Yet, still, a proud moment because I can say that, despite my struggle, I never gave up. I did not quit; and that means more to me than anything else. I was greeted by a sympathetic medical team and medaled by a high-spirited group of Race volunteers. Mike crossed the line not far behind me and we got our Finisher’s Photos taken together. They are quite hilarious to see, too, considering somebody thought it would be a good idea to “jump” for the photo, and the other person followed suit. (I couldn’t even PRETEND that it didn’t hurt!) Our group of “Runderfuls” were gathering along the finish line area and congratulating each other on the accomplishments of today. I looked around for Joe and Beverly but knew that it was probably too late. (Turns out, Joe had run his own race in 3:28 and won his age group! Staying true to his goal of “defying gravity”.) Harvey found me and told me that our friend, Lori, the 4:20 marathon pacer, had collapsed at the finish line and was taken to medical. We rushed to find her and make certain that she was ok. Pretty soon we had a small party going on, complete with i.v. fluids, Ekg’s, post race photgraphs, and bandaged feet!
We headed for the parking garage where we had parked Lori’s car…another mile or two logged in the circular post marathon thought process best described as “Dude, where’s my car?!”…before joining the rest of the “Runderfuls” for post-race food and drinks.
Finally, it was time to say goodbye to our friends, “The Electric City” of Scranton, and head for home; a long 5+hour drive full of cramping muscles, tired eyes, and well-deserved chocolate milkshakes.
I did my best to avoid thinking about the race and my failure to thrive in those hot and humid weather conditions; my inability to PR this race that was supposed to be my “redemption” run after Erie. As the post-race statistics were compiled and the Race director’s emails were sent out to all participants, it became even more clear that it had not just been me having a bad day. This event went down as “the steamiest Steamtown Marathon on record” with the hottest, most humid conditions in the entire 22 year history of this race. A significant number of participants were unable to finish the race, and several required transport to the local hospital’s emergency room. Most of the pacers, with a strong history of spot-on pace times, were unable to fulfill their obligation to pace this race. Of the people that I had the opportunity to speak with, it seemed that most everybody finished a minimum of 30-45min slower than usual and up to an hour slower than anticipated. The race was a bittersweet story documented in the newspaper the next day, as well.
One woman in particular, whom I believe may have been the runner I saw collapsed and being transported by ambulance, posted on FaceBook the next day (still from the Scranton hospital bed that she had been admitted to) something that all of us, as runners, would do well to remember after running a race like this; compliments of an article previously published in Runner’ World magazine:
So before I allowed the emotions of this race to mentally defeat me or hinder my progress in moving forward with training and continuing on my journey of “Chasing Boston”, I took an honest look at this overall experience, and assessed my final results with as much “logic” and as little “emotion” as I could. Had I not backed off after Mile 15 and opted to enjoy this race to the best of my ability while simply finishing it without meeting medical, it is very possible that I, too, would have been one of those unlucky runners unable to finish the race at all or, worse yet, had to meet the medical team in the role of their “patient”. The girl who FaceBook posted from her hospital bed admits that she had refused to back off. She had trained so long and so hard for this day and made her BQ attempt that morning despite the warnings and precautions about the rising heat/humidity. Ultimately, it cost her the entire race, as well as, her short-term memory and some downtime now in which to recover. So, all things considered, I’d have to say that, what started out as a “let go of the good and go for the great” but turned into a “simply survive and don’t meet Medical” race strategy is one that I do not regret. I walked away with a hard lesson learned in overcoming situations/conditions beyond my control. I have aquired many beautiful and hilarious memories, a large group of new friends, and a shiny new race medal to add to my wall. I traveled to Scranton in hopes of a marathon PR on the course that I envisioned would, in the future, hold my own Boston Qualifier; but on the contrary, was met with my slowest time and most difficult marathon struggle to date. And while I will never say “never”, I truely do not have any desire to return to Steamtown anytime soon, and certainly will not consider this particular course when I am in a position to perform my first BQ attempt. That being said, if and when the rest of the “Runderfuls” decide to make the trip back out to “The Electric City” and perform a 26.2 mile “revenge run” from Forest City to downtown Scranton, I might just have to…against my better judgement…join in the “fun”. Afterall, just because it’s probably a bad idea, does not mean it won’t be a good time! Until next time though, my training (and my journey) continues.