I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to report on my experience in the St. George Marathon on October 2nd. Maybe it’s because I don’t want it to be over — I looked forward to this event for six months; now what do I do? Maybe it’s because, on some level, the race seems uneventful — With a few exceptions (which I’ll get to later), the race went exactly as I planned; where’s the drama in a story like that? Maybe it’s because I’m missing my muse — Many of the ah-hah moments that inspire my writing are born on my runs, which I’m not doing a whole lot of these days (again, we’ll get to this later); how I am supposed to get my mojo back if I can’t run?
With these thoughts – and many more – swirling in my head for the last two weeks, combined with the fact that I returned from vacation with 150+ personal emails and 500+ work emails, I just couldn’t put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to memorialize the event. But, as I reflect, I become increasingly proud of my performance; I am learning to accept that my body needs rest; and I feel a responsibility to my running family to share my story.
So, at long last, I bring you my 2010 St. George Marathon. For posterity and (hopefully) for your enjoyment, I included in every stinkin’ detail. Consider yourself warned.
Prologue :: Race Plan
It’s no secret that I desperately wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon. To have this honor, women under 35 must finish a marathon in 3 hours 40 minutes and 59 seconds. I finished the Chicago Marathon last year in 3:41:44. ‘Nough said.
But, for me, this race was about more than just qualifying. I also wanted the satisfaction of setting a personal best/record (or a “PR” in the running world) that was just that — the absolute best race I had in me. When I finished the Chicago Marathon, I had way too much left. I actually ran about 0.1 mile past the finish line and was still bouncing off walls. Anyone who knew me was convinced that I left 5-10 minutes on course that day. At the time, I didn’t care. As it turns out, though, wondering whether you could have done more is a terrible feeling.
This time, I had a serious plan to finish the marathon in 3:35. I spent hours studying the course elevation, talking with other runners who had run STG, and strategizing my splits.
For pacing, I would run by heart rate, just like I did in Chicago. I would start out slow the first two miles, then settle into my goal pace (around 8:05-8:10) and let my heart rate dictate the rest. I would respect the hills from miles 7.5-12, and I would let my body enjoy the downhills.
Rather than stress out about my pace mile-by-mile, I set two goals: (1) Hit the 1/2 marathon point at 1:48 and (2) Hit the 20-mile mark at 2:45. From there, I would do whatever my body could take to the finish line.
For nutrition, I would carry a water bottle for the first 10 miles; after ditching the bottle, I would rotate between water and Gatorade at each aid station; and I would eat a gu shot at miles 6, 12, 18 and 22-23.
People warned me that the terrain was unlike any I had ever seen or trained on. People warned me that I would be more sore after this race than I’d ever been before. I knew that it was going to be hot. Yet, somehow, I still had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Chapter 1 :: Get Your Game Face On
STG is a point-to-point, instead of the traditional loop or out-and-back, you are loaded on to buses, driven up to 5,240 feet elevation, and dropped off at the starting area where you run down to 2,680 feet elevation — with a few very serious hills to climb along the way.
The first bus leaves at 4:00 a.m.; the last bus leaves at 5:30 a.m.; and the race starts at 6:45 a.m. While I am normally a major Type-A planner, I despise getting to races too early. The idea of having extra time to sit around, full of nervous energy, next to thousands of other runners with the same nervous energy sounds like a science experiment gone bad — very, very bad. So, I was thrilled to hear from prior STG-marathoners that the process of loading onto the buses and making it to the start line worked like a well-oiled machine. You hit the parking lot, walk onto one of many buses waiting for you, and, before you know it, you’re at the top. Or so I was told. But, not on my race day. No siree; that would be too easy!
I made it to the bus-loading zone at 5:00 a.m., just as planned. Instead of seeing a sea of empty buses waiting to pick up runners, I saw a mob of freaked out runners swarming the only bus in sight. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it, and hope never to see it again. People were crying. One girl whispered to a friend, “It’s getting late, what if we miss the start?” And, the next thing you know, the 200+ people around her were wailing about how they were going to start the race without us. “Really?!?,” I thought. You honestly believe they would start a race – that is dictated by a lottery system (13,000 applied and only 7,000 received an invite) and touted as being the most organized race in the U.S. – when at least 1,000 runners haven’t even made it to the start line because there weren’t enough buses? But, you can’t reason with people in that environment, so I kept my logical thoughts to myself.
Fortunately, I spotted a few friendly Dallasites in the crowd, and we calmly proceeded to the next available bus where I learned that being small has its advantages. Two women were trying to block the bus door so that all their friends could ride on the same bus. I snuck between them, and dragged my two friends with me. When they protested to the bus driver, we quickly sat down (three to a row) and turned on the Texas charm. 🙂
We chatted about the craziest things on that bus ride. The runners who had dropped out of our respective Run On! training groups this season. The sorry state of health insurance in this country. The ridiculous hills we were driving up. And, our plans for the upcoming holidays. Pretty much everything but the run were about the undertake. It was my kind of ride!
Chapter 2 :: Sneaking up to the Start
The start area was very well-organized. Before race day, it looked like this…
It seemed like the perfect place for a photo op with training buddies, and I was happy to oblige…
Me with Bryan Crabb, my mentee from Spring training, who rode with us from Vegas to STG.
Me playing photog with a fun group of ladies from Arizona.
Because it is usually cold on race day, they have rows of bonfires set up to keep the runners warm. This is supposedly one of the most surreal and enjoyable parts of the STG experience. Not on my race day. No siree; that would be too easy! On October 2, 2010, it was already 58 degrees at 5:00 a.m at 5,240 ft elevation. So, when they lit the fires, the runners scattered to the outskirts to avoid the heat. It was kind of comical, really.
Although I left our hotel at 4:45 a.m., due to the bus drama, it was 6:20 a.m. by the time I got to the start area. I knew it was going to get hot, so I had been hydrating diligently. Perhaps, too diligently. As soon as I got off the bus, I shed my sweatpants and long-sleeved shirt (very optimistic of me to think I’d need them to stay warm), left them at the clothing drop-off, and made a mad dash for the potty line. You’ll note from the second start line photo that there were rows of port-o-lets as far as the eye could see. Still, I waited in line for 20 minutes. (Sidebar: If anyone knows what one person can possibly do in a teeny, smelly port-o-potty for five solid minutes, please let me know.)
I’ve never been more nervous about missing the start of a race!! Miraculously, I exited the potty line just in time to slip past the barricade tape and just behind the 3:30 pace group. If you look really closely, you can see my tiny red hat next to the barricade on the right side under the South African flag.
Less than one minute later, they sounded the horn, and the 2010 STG Marathon was officially underway. Woohoo!!!!!!
Chapter 3 :: The Battle Begins
I rarely enjoy the first few miles of a race, and today was no exception. It was dark and crowded. Within the first half-mile, everyone crazy enough to have started the race wearing layers was throwing their clothes all over the course. My legs felt clumsy. My left shin/calf that had been nagging me for the last few weeks of training was still warming up. And, I didn’t have a rhythm.
I barely even looked at my Garmin. Oddly enough, though, looking at the data now, my pacing was darn near perfect.
Mile 1 — 8:30
Mile 2 — 8:28
Mile 3 — 8:02
Mile 4 — 8:00
Mile 5 — 8:03
Mile 6 — 7:47
At Mile 6, I took a gel shot, as planned, and braced my self for the infamous Veyo hill.
Chapter 4 :: Have Faith, Not Fear
Although STG is touted as a “complete downhill” race, there are some serious climbs from Miles 7.5 to 12. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Veyo…
The road that runs alongside this volcano may not look like much from here, but it goes up 190 ft in one mile, and then keeps going up another 110 ft for the next 2.5 miles.
People had been warning me about this climb for months. So much so that I was almost underwhelmed when I saw it person. Still, I knew that I needed to respect this climb because it was unlike anything I had trained on and it came pretty early in the race.
My survival plan was twofold: (1) run by heart rate and (2) keep running. I wasn’t going to stress about my pace; of course I was going to slow down, but the key was to keep my heart rate from going above the point of no return. I wasn’t going to walk; of course it’s going to hurt, but once you’ve stopped to walk once, it is too easy to do it again.
So, I hunkered down, had faith in my plan, and executed it perfectly.
Mile 7 — 7:50
Mile 8 — 9:05
Mile 9 — 8:28
Mile 10 — 8:31
Mile 11 — 8:43
Mile 12 — 8:25
Chapter 5 :: Halfway Home
When I checked in with myself at the half marathon point, I almost couldn’t believe it. I felt great. I was dead on pace, crossing the 13.1-mile line at 1:48:45. And, I started really believing I could conquer the course.
I also couldn’t believe how hot it was getting. For once, I was thankful to have trained through the Texas Summer. Anticipating that the heat could become an issue, I modified my nutrition plan around Mile 10. Instead of alternating between water and Gatorade at each aid station (which were spaced out every 2 miles), at Mile 11, I started taking one of each every time.
The next five miles were smooth sailing. Literally.
I will never forget Miles 15 and 16 of this race. At Mile 15, there was a sign for truckers warning them of the 8% downgrade and of the strict noise ordinance that prohibited engine breaking. The blazing sun got tucked behind the mountain, the views were spectacular, my pace was screaming fast, and my heart rate still dropped nearly 10 bpm. I felt like I was flying! And, for a few miles, I was…
Mile 13 — 8:00
Mile 14 — 7:58
Mile 15 — 7:41
Mile 16 — 7:40
Mile 17 — 7:47
Mile 18 — 8:10
At Mile 17, I finally saw a familiar face on course. I caught up with one of the guys in my training group just in time for an official photo op. Unfortunately, I could tell he was struggling. He turned to me and said, with a smile, “Hey, have a great race. I went out too fast.” I tried to encourage him, “All you have left is a Tuesday training run. We’ve done this twenty times. You can do it one more!” We had trained together long enough that when he shook his head, I knew exactly what he meant. So, I plowed ahead.
(What I know now, but didn’t know then, is that he got sick twice during the race and his legs were screaming. Not only did he keep going, he still set a PR by nearly 10 minutes. The guy’s got cojones, I tell you. I am totally impressed.)
At Mile 18, I saw another familiar face. Right when I needed it most, I spotted Brad on camera duty. He had rented a bike, trekked up the trail alongside the course (because the road was closed to everyone except runners), and was set up perfectly to capture some great shots and keep me motivated.
Chapter 6 :: The Big Hurt
Then, things got interesting. There is no nice way to put this. Mile 19 just plain sucked.
It was getting hot. Very, very hot. I mean, like mid-80’s hot, which is way too warm to be racing a marathon! Everywhere I looked, people were stopping. Runners were sprawled out in the middle of the road holding their legs. Runners were standing in line at the aid stations to have people rub Icy Hot on them. It was crazy.
At this point, I changed my aid station strategy again. First, I drank a cup of Gatorade. Then, I drank a cup of water. Finally, at the very last stop, I grabbed a second cup of water to pour over my head.
I rallied the troops for Miles 20 and 21, but then came more brutality in Mile 22. I was spent. My feet hurt. My quads hurt. If I had been able to feel them, I’m sure my calves hurt.
Right at that moment, I saw a sign that said “Warning: Irritating Spectators Ahead.” At the time, I laughed. But, I quickly learned that this guy was on to something.
You see, until this point, the race had been calm and surreal. It was the complete opposite of my experience in Chicago where there wasn’t a quiet, spectator-free spot the entire 26.2 miles. In STG, except for three popular spectator points, it’s just you, the mountains, an endless blue sky and 7,000 marathoners out there. At first, I was nervous about not having the crowd support, but I quickly remembered that I love the sound of runners’ feet as much as I love to hear a big peloton whiz by.
After nearly three hours of peace and quiet, when veered left to approach downtown St. George, I was surprisingly irritated. No, I am NOT almost there; it’s only Mile 23! I know don’t look great, so please don’t lie to me! See…
Brad must have picked up on my bad mojo. Right after he snapped this shot, he yelled out “Run the tangents and get it done.” So, I did just that.
Mile 19 — 8:24
Mile 20 — 8:08
[Amazingly, I was ahead of goal, and hit Mile 20 at 2 hours and 43 minutes!]
Mile 21 — 7:40 (Where the heck did that come from?!?)
Mile 22 — 8:18
Mile 23 — 8:03
Chapter 7 :: Are We There Yet?
The last 5k of this race felt like the longest 3 miles of my life. I wanted to finish so badly that I just kept telling myself it would be over faster if I kept running faster.
Initially, my plan was to change the screen on my Garmin from heart rate and pace to only my run time at Mile 23. But, I knew based on my 20-mile split that I was ahead of pace. I was so tired that I feared I would back off if I knew exactly how much extra time I had to finish the race and still qualify for Boston. So, instead, I just kept running.
I waited until I took the final left turn and had 0.3 mile left before I tapped my Garmin to see my time. At that moment, I did a double-take. 3:30, are you kidding me?!? I could phone in the last 0.3 miles and still qualify for Boston. And, for a split second, I thought about. NO! I had trained for this. I practiced kicking at the end of my long runs. I wanted to run the best time I possibly could.
Somehow, I shut off my brain, I shut off my legs, and I pushed all the way to the finish line.
Mile 24 — 7:43
Mile 25 — 8:11
Mile 26 — 8:04
Last 0.3 at a 7:25 pace
Official Finish = 3:33:39
Chapter 8 :: Victory!
This is what it looks like to win a hard-fought battle with Mr. Marathon…
Chapter 9 :: The Aftermath
When I first crossed the finish line, I was just plain giddy. But, I also knew that I needed to start getting nutrition in me. Stat!
Brad rushed to get my recovery mix; I dashed through the runners’ recovery area, grabbing a popsicles and fruit along the way; and I made a bee-line for the massage tables.
This is where the damage of the day started to set in.
First, it started with my feet. While standing in the massage line, I noticed that the entire toe box of my left shoe was filled with blood. This is never a good sign. I could feel my right pointer toe (yes, that’s what I call it) throbbing. While everyone else around me was desperate to pop off their sneaks and put on flip-flops, I was totally afraid to take off my shoes. (We stopped by a drug store so that I could get a quick first aid fix, and, by some miracle, I didn’t lost any toenails.)
Then, I realized I had a major nutrition problem. When I took my energy gu flask out of my pocket, Brad immediately starting harping on me to eat more. At first, I didn’t see what the big deal was, but, in my post-marathon stupor, I trusted his instincts completely and ate more gu. When I looked at my flask, I immediately knew that I hadn’t eaten enough during the race. I ate four times, at Miles 6, 12, 18 and 22, just as planned, but apparently I had not taken a full shot of gel each time because my flask (which holds 4.5 shots) was still half full! (In hindsight, this explains exactly what happened at Mile 22. I bonked. The fact that I still had the energy to finish the race faster than my goal pace is a miracle. One that I’m still paying for today, I might add.)
For the next week, I could barely walk. Forget about trying to run. Forget about the fabulous hiking I thought we would do in our vacation time. Between the heat, the malnutrition, and the 20 miles of downhill running, I was a wreck!
Fast forward to today, and I’m still struggling to recover. I so wanted to be Superwoman and jump right back into running with my training group. But I am not.
Fortunately, I have a patient, athletic husband who ‘gets it.’ He has forced me to get out and do recovery runs/rides to keep things moving. The runs hurt like hell. My left shin is cranky; my right leg is overcompensating for the pain in my left leg; and my form is totally off. My doctor has assured me – repeatedly – that it is ‘just’ a typical case of shin splints and will subside in a few weeks with the right active release therapy. Being the overly-cautious person that I am, I got an MRI this week just be sure it isn’t a stress fracture. (I should have the results today, so please send good karma my way.)
Unfortunately, I also have a husband who not only listens, but remembers what I say. He keeps telling me that it takes 1 day per mile raced to truly recover, which means I’m only halfway there. I can’t even argue with him because he is repeating the mantra that I tell my runners. Darn!
I am trying my hardest not to wallow, but the truth is that I am not good at taking recovery time. I’m just not meant to be this sedentary. By this time after the Chicago Marathon last year, I felt fine, so it’s very frustrating to still be struggling to finish a 3-mile run at a 10:30 min/mile pace. Grrrrrrrr.
Right when I was feeling at my worst, this quote arrived in my inbox:
I was unable to walk for a whole week after that, so much did the race take out of me. But it was the most pleasant exhaustion I have ever known. ~Emil Zatopek, Olympic marathoner
This reminded me that I am feeling exactly the way I’m supposed to feel. I said I wanted to leave everything I had on course, and I did. I just didn’t know what that really meant… until now.
At the end of the day, I am completely satisfied with my performance. I would rather be dealing with all these aches and pains than wondering whether I could have run harder. I’m looking forward to a few months of (eventually) running for the love of running and doing more cross-training on the bike and in the yoga studio.
Best of all… On Monday, I get to register for The 115th Boston Marathon.