I run to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund. Here are some of its programs:
Tl;dr version: I just ran a marathon faster than I’ve ever run a marathon before, and that doesn’t suck.
I started training for Richmond in the spring. I had a solid base from MCM training last year and had kept my mileage up over the winter. I used the Hal Higdon Novice II program for this training cycle, which involved 5 days of running and 2 days of cross training. I also did lots of core work and upper body strength, but that fell off in the month or so before the race.
I focused on losing some weight before/during training. I cut out alcohol entirely in July and just ate better in general while closely tracking calories in/calories out. I lost about 7 pounds in total by race day, and if I am being honest I have about 7 more to go before I hit my ideal race weight.
My training went extremely well. I got all of my miles in, and the long runs were way better than last my last training cycle. Although I still had issues with the heat, I didn’t have to cut any of my long runs short, and they were an order of magnitude less miserable than last time. They were over a minute per mile faster than my long runs last year too, so that was encouraging.
RTB was a huge confidence booster during training. I ran a more difficult set of legs than I usually do, and I ran them well. I felt strong throughout, but it took me a while to recover from this race.
MCM was not quite what I had hoped it would be as a train-through marathon. It was quite a tough run for me, but it had to do with the weather and other non-running-related things surrounding the race. I took what I learned from that experience and corrected a lot of things leading up to Richmond.
Physically I didn’t recover well after MCM. I developed a bit of PF in my right foot, and then I rolled my ankle while walking the dog. My right piriformis has always been tight, but in the weeks leading up to Richmond it got worse. Then my left piriformis got in on the act. I was stretching and rolling and icing and anti-inflammatory-ing and things seemed to be feeling better by race day.
My boyfriend and I stayed with my sister in Richmond, about 15 minutes from the race start. That was pretty sweet, especially since it was in the 20s at the race start. I got up early, ate a banana, drank some water, and donned my race clothes. I went with capris, a long-sleeved top, ear warmers/headband, and gloves. It was the perfect outfit, and I was never too cold or too warm during the race.
My strategy for the race was to warm up the first few miles and then dial in race pace for the rest of the race. My boyfriend and I had taken a bus tour of the course the day before the race, so we knew where all of the hills on the course were, and honestly, they weren’t so bad. I knew there was a pretty steep downhill around mile 6 that I wanted to be sure not to take too hard since it’s rolling hills after that and a screaming downhill to the finish.
My fueling strategy was based on the locations of the water stops: every 2 miles up to mile 20 and then every mile thereafter. In training I had taken a gel every 5 miles on my long runs, and I thought every 4 miles would be too much during the race, so I settled on gels at 6, 12, 18, and then somewhere between 22-24.
The race started with little fanfare (the 8k and half marathon starts were much more exciting), and we were off. The first two miles were a literal warm-up for me since it was cold and I was just trying to get my muscles warm. I settled in behind the two 4:15 pace group pacers, a guy in a skirt and a guy with a chicken on his head. My goal was to stay behind them until after the big downhill and then pick it up from there.
The first 4-5 miles were in the city and down Monument Ave. I tried to take in the sights and enjoy the spectators in these miles. I had no idea of elapsed time or distance at all during this race because I somehow couldn’t set my GPS to display it (I got a new Garmin at the MCM expo and haven’t read the f-ing manual yet). So the splits on my watch only displayed the time and distance for the current mile, which actually helped me keep focus in the later miles.
We turned out of the city and hit that first big downhill. A lot of people were hammering down the hill, but I kept myself reigned in so that I would still have quads left at the end of the race. Around mile 5 I was starting to get a brain fog/negative thoughts about the race which was not normal for me. I took my gel as planned at mile 6 and instantly felt better. I didn’t make the fuel-brain connection until later in the race, and I just kept running on.
Mile 1: 9:55
Mile 2: 9:39
Mile 3: 9:25
Mile 4: 9:33
Mile 5: 9:32
Mile 6: 9:45 (gel, walked through water stop)
10k split: 1:00:27 <9:40>
We ran through some cute neighborhoods and then crossed over the Huguenot Bridge where we got a beautiful view of the James River lined with trees with leaves at their peak fall colors. It was really gorgeous. We turned off the bridge onto a road that paralleled the river for a few miles. Chicken head guy was still in front of me, which was frustrating because I was trying to pick up my pace. This section had some rolling hills winding around several neighborhoods, and then we popped out onto a main county road that we would take for several miles before we crossed back over the river into the city.
At around mile 11, the negative thoughts started creeping back in (why the hell am I out here? How can I run 15 more miles? This isn’t fun, why do I do this to myself?), and again they went away after taking my gel at mile 12. I decided to take the next gel at mile 16 and then another at mile 21 so that I could pre-empt my brain going to negative places by giving it enough fuel. I saw my family between miles 12-13 which was a huge boost. They said I looked much better than when they saw me at mile 18 during MCM!
Mile 7: 9:38
Mile 8: 9:44
Mile 9: 9:47
Mile 10: 9:49
Mile 11: 9:48
Mile 12: 10:02 (gel, walked through water stop)
Mile 13: 10:02
Half split: 2:08:33 <9:46>
With my half split (which I estimated based on the clock at the half timing mat) I knew sub-4 wasn’t going to happen that day. Ok, fine, I will adjust my goal to PRing and keeping every remaining mile under 10 minutes.
The next few miles pretty much destroyed my newly adjusted goal, and I’m still not quite sure what happened. The bursitis in my left foot flared up, but I was able to appease it by moving my orthotic around in my shoe with my toes until my foot felt better. Then my lower back tightened up, which I attributed to my stupid piriformis issue. I pulled over to stretch my piriformis/hamstrings hoping to loosen up. At this point I had lost chicken head man, and we turned onto the Lee Bridge to cross the James River back into the city. Again, another gorgeous view, this time of downtown Richmond (and if you looked closely enough, the finish line). The bridge is ~1.5 miles, and somewhere along there, my right IT band started hurting directly on the outside of my knee. It wasn’t just a dull pain, it was a stabbing pain. I pulled over again to stretch to loosen it up, and with that, my race imploded.
I took my next gel at mile 16, averting the negative thoughts that had crept in before, and focused on seeing my family at mile 20. I knew that once we were back in the city, there were a few more rolling hills but nothing to be concerned about. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and pondered what exactly it was that I did wrong to cause my ITB to hurt. My piriformis and back were going from just being tight to being painful, so I stopped every mile or so to stretch all of them out.
I finally crested the last big hill over the train tracks and was on the downhill towards my family. I smiled and waved as I ran by, and my sister yelled out that my boyfriend was going to visit the med tent at the finish because he injured his foot. So for a few minutes my mind was off my own bad race and went to worrying about/rolling my eyes at my boyfriend because I figured he had gone out too hard and hurt himself. The 20 mile marker FINALLY came into view, and I knew I only had about an hour left of this painful run-stretch-hobble shuffle to go.
Mile 14: 9:53
Mile 15: 10:23
Mile 16: 11:33
Mile 17: 11:32
Mile 18: 10:56
Mile 19: 11:41
Mile 20: 11:56
20 mile split: 3:25:31 <10:15> I honestly didn’t even look at the clock when I crossed the timing mat because I knew my adjusted goal was out the window, plus I wouldn’t have been able to do the math to even estimate a finishing time at that point. So I just kept trudging on.
I took my final gel at mile 21 and just kept moving forward as best I could with stretch breaks. I now know the true meaning of death march. The spectators in this section were great, from cheering on the runners to offering us food and bourbon, they really embraced us. They buoyed my spirits a bit, but as the miles went on, I felt completely broken down. I had a great training cycle, I was totally mentally prepared for the race, I set a lofty but not unreasonable goal for myself, and here I was crashing and burning. I had put it all out there on and I was failing spectacularly. I was sorely disappointed and I still had to finish the damn race.
And so I did, but not before my legs gave me one final surprise. Calf cramps, fun! Both calves twinged at the same time, and I knew I was about to cramp. I pulled over to gently stretch them, and when I got back on the course I saw the “1 mile to go” mark spray painted on the ground. I had visualized this point in the race many times during training runs, but it was never like this! As I got back into my wonky stride, a spectator asked if I was ok and told me I was doing great and was almost there. I said to her, “This fucking sucks!” and she laughed and agreed but said I was about to finish a marathon, and that was pretty fucking awesome.
We made three turns on city blocks and were on the screaming downhill to the finish. Gravity was my friend and pulled me down that hill, and I just let my legs take me. My right calf hurt pretty badly by this point, but I just kept going and going and going. The announcer gave me a shout-out as I crossed the finish line, and I was blissfully, finally, finished.
Mile 21: 12:58
Mile 22: 12:31
Mile 23: 13:19
Mile 24: 12:47
Mile 25: 11:55
Mile 26: 11:30
Mile 26.2: 3:19
Finish time (chip): 4:43:01 <10:48>
PR by 2:10
I got my medal and super sweet fleece blanket and found my boyfriend. The med tent diagnosis was possible stress fracture, but he was pleased with his finish time of 4:12:xx. I got my bag, and we found our way to the shuttle buses back to the start where my brother-in-law had dropped us off that morning and was waiting to take us to our post-race meal at Bottom’s Up Pizza. I “celebrated” with a local IPA and put on a happy face for my family. I had to get up several times during our meal to stretch because everything from my lower back down was tightening up. It was nice to relax for a while with the family before heading back to my sister’s house, showering, then traveling back to my parents’ house for the night before our return to NJ the next day.
Overall I really enjoyed the course, it was very runner-friendly and appealed to me: not super flat, no huge hills, but just enough to keep it interesting. Great course support and volunteers. And the spectators were very energetic, but I kind of hate the ones who were playing Christmas music and made the course a winter wonderland at mile 22 or 24 or wherever that was. I was kind of delirious at that point and the Christmas music just made me angry.
My lower back, piriformis, right ITB, and right calf hurt for several days after the race. The calf I blame on fatigue during the race and possibly the touch of PF I seem to have developed between MCM and Richmond. But I have no idea where the ITB issue came from. The only time I’ve had ITB pain like that was during Steamtown in 2004 when I DNFed at mile 16. I had pain in both knees that I had never had in training and have never had since, until this race. Maybe it was because of the downhill on the course? Who knows. I am stretching and rolling and it’s getting better with time.
I think fueling was an issue during the race. I tend not to eat much before a long run, and during training I took gels every 5 miles. During this race I started out taking them every 6 miles, and I think that might have screwed me up. The brain fog/negative thoughts are not something I experienced during training, and I think lack of carbs to my brain might have been the culprit.
Race-specific-training-wise, I put in the volume, but I don’t think I did enough MP runs. I never really knew where my MP was to dial it in during the race. Definitely something to focus on next time.
So what else did I do wrong that led to my blowup? Maybe I overtrained? Did too much with RTB + lots of long runs + MCM? The fact that I couldn’t speed up after the first 6 miles or so leads me to believe that my body was just worn out from training or something. I did have a migraine and a bad cold going into the race, and maybe that affected me more than I thought. Or maybe it was the non-running-related stress that I had going on the 2 weeks before the race. Most likely it was a combination of these things.
Now that some of the disappointment has worn off and I’ve gotten some perspective, I am kinda sorta satisfied with my 2:10 PR. I am still frustrated that things fell apart at mile 15 when I felt like I had trained for a much better race. I am throwing around a few ideas for training over the winter, but I haven’t decided if I am going to train for a half or a full in the spring. I will let this experience settle for a while longer before making any real decisions about training. I do know that I am going to add in strength training and more yoga and keep up with the core strength (for real this time!).
Still on the quest for sub-4!
Last year I had the honor and privilege to run the Marine Corps Marathon on behalf of the Semper Fi Fund. It was an amazing experience to see and meet those injured and critically ill veterans who receive help from the funds that we raised. This year, and every year I’m able, I will run MCM while raising funds for this incredible organization. Last year I far exceeded my modest $500 goal. This year I have upped it to $2000, and I believe that with your help, I will be able to reach this lofty goal! Donate today!
The short version
I ran the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon in 4:51:04. It was not the time I wanted nor the time I had trained for. However, I am not completely disappointed. I know that my body can handle marathon training again, so my next round of training will be more intense and include more mileage. I learned a lot about myself and my abilities out on the course on Sunday, and I will take that with me into my next training cycle.
The long version
My first marathon was NYCM in 2002. Since then I have DNFed a marathon at 16 miles then had a series of injuries and surgeries that kept me from training for another marathon until this year. I trained for and ran three half marathons over the past year and a half, and this past spring I finally felt ready to tackle the marathon again.
My training had its ups and downs. I had a bunch of really crappy runs this summer, the crappiest of which were long runs that I had to cut short. I just could not hack the heat and direct sunlight for some reason. But then I managed to get in two 20 milers in consecutive weekends when it was relatively cooler, so that boosted my confidence. I also had a strong run at RTB, which boosted my confidence further still. I felt as ready as I could be going into the week before the race
The week before the race was less than ideal. I had stress coming at me from every direction, and I wasn’t sleeping. I had cut out all sleep medications a week before the race so they would be completely out of my system for race day. The relaxing few days I had planned before the marathon were anything but. I had to plan spectator schedules, figure out the logistics for the expo, visit with family, and on top of that I was stressed out by things I was trying to put out of my mind but that just wouldn’t stay out. I was pretty exhausted by the time the race rolled around.
My mom, J.P., and I hit the expo on Saturday afternoon. It was a complete mess. There was a 1+ hour line to get race bibs, followed by a ½ hour line to get into the expo (where you picked up your race shirt, etc.). Fortunately I had brought water with me and there were food trucks outside the expo. Unfortunately the food trucks had run out of pretzels so my lunch the day before the race consisted of a dry hot dog. Yum. The expo was crowded, but we made our rounds while waiting for my brother Chuck to make it through the bib and expo lines. He finally made it in, we took a group picture, I handed my mom off to him, and J.P. and I headed to the hotel where we were staying with the rest of our Semper Fi Fund teammates.
I had never considered being a charity runner before this race. When J.P. decided to run MCM and raise money for the Semper Fi Fund, I thought it would be a nice thing to do together, so I joined him. At the pre-race dinner, we got to hear from some of the injured service men and women that benefitted from the money that we had raised for them. Their stories and seeing them racing the next day was more than enough to ensure that I will definitely be running on behalf of this wonderful foundation many more times in the future. The obstacles that they have overcome—both physical and mental—are way more than I can even imagine dealing with. To think that I helped them in some small way…it’s just an amazing feeling. These people are definitely heroes in every sense of the word.
4:45am came way too early, and I popped out of bed even though I had gotten minimal sleep. J.P. and I met our teammates in the lobby and headed over to the finish line, where the Semper Fi Fund had a tent set up with the rest of the charities. We were able to leave our bags in the tent as opposed to checking them with UPS, which was nice. They also had a nice spread of food, and I had a banana and half a granola bar to hold me over until the start of the race. We stripped down to our race clothes and throw-aways and headed down to the start line with the rest of our team. We walked past Arlington National Cemetery as dawn was breaking. That scene will definitely stay with me.
We made it down to the corrals and into a porta potty line just as the pre-race invocation began over the loudspeakers. During the invocation, I looked up to see several skydivers quietly making their way back down to earth. They were carrying the flags of each of the armed services, then the last three skydivers were carrying American flags: two small ones, and one huge one (the biggest American flag ever used in a skydiving event). The invocation was over, and an a capella group started singing the national anthem. The skydivers slowly came back to earth as the national anthem was sung, first with the armed forces flags, and ending with the American flags. They all landed in the field right across from where we were standing. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
After hitting the porta potties, J.P. and I lined up in the 4:15-4:30 corral. I knew my brother was going to line up in that corral too, and I wondered aloud if we would happen to see him among the 35,000 other people lined up to start the race. No sooner had I said that, then I turned and saw him! We made our way over to him, I gave him a good luck hug, and we all got ready for the starting Howitzer cannon to go off. It went off, and the race started. We didn’t move for a few minutes, but soon enough we were on our way and our MCM had begun.
J.P. and I started the race together. After a few minutes, he was pulling away from me, and I told him to go and run his own race. We exchanged I love yous and off he went. I focused on running my own race and staying in the present moment.
The first few miles of the race went quickly. I was running easy, and I checked my GPS often to be sure I wasn’t running too fast. It was difficult not to get caught up in going out too fast because of the sheer amount of runners and spectators in the first part of the race. I felt like I had settled into a good pace, but it turns out that my splits were all over the place. Also, my GPS showed that I was about a half mile ahead of the mile markers (I ran 26.73 miles total), and I don’t think it was due to zig-zagging to avoid other runners throughout the race. Everyone I know ran about an extra half mile. ??
Miles 1-3: 10:18, 10:23, 9:56
Between miles 3 and 4, I decided I was too hot and I needed a wardrobe change. I had gone back and forth a hundred times on what to wear on race day, and I settled on capri-length tights and a short-sleeved shirt over a long-sleeved shirt. It was supposed to be in the low 40s with 9mph winds at the start, making it in the 30s with windchill, but it turned out to be a lot warmer than that. I should have just gone with regular shorts and the short sleeve like I had initially planned. Lesson learned. I stripped off both my shirts and put the short sleeve back on without breaking stride. I tossed the long sleeve aside just before hitting the bridge into Georgetown.
I took gels every 4-5 miles and drank water at almost every aid station. That worked out well, except that I don’t think I drank nearly enough water. In training I used a handheld water bottle, so I probably should have just stuck with that for the race.
Miles 4-6: 9:41, 10:31, 9:51
We ran through Georgetown and onto the out and back on Rock Creek Parkway. I am sure it was beautiful through here, but I was distracted by tightness that turned into pain in my left butt (piriformis). I have had tightness in my right piriformis before, but never my left, which is why it was so concerning to me. I noticed that the road we were running on was cambered, but in the opposite direction of the roads that I usually run on. I run facing traffic, so the road slants down to my left, but this road slanted down to my right. And it was a pretty steep angle. My left leg is longer than my right leg, so when I run facing traffic, things even out, but with the opposite camber of the road, it exacerbated the leg length discrepancy, resulting in left piriformis pain. The camber evened out in a few spots, and the pain and tightness went away, only to come back when the road tilted again. I decided to just run through it and see what happened.
Miles 7-9: 10:14, 10:26 (very crowded at the turn-around), 10:17
The next few miles were uneventful except for seeing a spectator with a giant pumpkin on his head. Not on top of his head, he was wearing a jack-o-lantern over his head.
Miles 10-12: 9:52, 10:17, 9:55
We reached the halfway point, and I tried to figure out what my actual half split was. The clock said 2:24:xx, but I wasn’t sure how long after the starting cannon that I actually crossed the start line. I had my GPS set to show pace and distance, and somehow it didn’t occur to me to just click over and see my elapsed time. In my confused state, I decided that a PR was out of reach, and that’s when all of the stress and exhaustion of the previous week hit me. From this point on in the race, it was all I could do to keep from crying. The disappointment of not PRing when I thought I could, the increasing pain in my piriformis that I thought was costing me the PR, I was just a mess mentally. I tried using the mantra “relentless forward motion” to re-focus myself, then I switched to “just keep swimming” which is something that my most awesome friend Victor has said to me before. Just after the halfway point I stopped to stretch my piriformis, which helped a lot…for about a mile. From that point on, I stopped every 1-2 miles to stretch my piriformis. Every time I stopped it got harder to start back up running again.
Miles 13-15: 10:47, 10:42, 10:50 (the slowdown begins)
I knew my family would be spectating somewhere on the mall, and that kept me going for the next few miles. Our Semper Fi Fund team, Never Again, made team t-shirts and gave them to our family and friends so that we could identify “our” spectators out on the course. They were bright lime green, so they definitely stood out. I saw our captain’s family at one point and yelled out “never again!” to them. It turns out he did the same when he passed my family. I can tell by my splits which mile I saw my family because I clearly sped up! I ran over to the side of the course and gave them all high fives: my dad, my mom, my sister, and her husband. Seeing them gave me a burst of energy and kept me going.
Miles 16-18: 10:49, 9:59, 11:00
I wouldn’t see another split in the 10s for the rest of the race. By now I was stretching every mile, sometimes twice a mile, just so I could keep going. We were past the mall by now, running back towards Virginia and the finish. This stretch of the race included a grueling section on a highway bridge that seemed like it would never end. We actually drove over this same section of highway the next day, but it wasn’t quite as long or grueling in the car.
Miles 19-21: 11:03, 11:27, 12:05
We then ran through Crystal City where there was a lot of crowd support. Some spectators were giving out free beer, and I seriously considered having some, but they were all the way over on the other side of the street, and it just seemed like too much effort at that point. We ran over a bridge taking us back toward the Pentagon, and I was concentrating on the ground in front of me, telling myself to just keep swimming. I was so focused that I didn’t realize that I had passed J.P. I heard him call my name, and I turned around, startled, because I figured he had already finished. He told me that his hamstring popped at mile 20 (it turned out to be his calf), and he was hobbling toward the finish. I stopped with him as he stretched and walked for a bit, then we picked up back running. J.P. had to keep stopping to stretch, so he told me to keep running to break my PR, but I told him that went out the window at the halfway point, so I was going to run with him the rest of the way. We started this together, we were going to finish this together.
Miles 22-24: 11:36, 12:04, 12:32
We made our way toward the finish line slowly, stopping to stretch and walk and to punch a street sign (J.P., not me). Our GPSes clicked past 26 miles, then past 26.2 miles, and the finish still wasn’t in sight. We passed where we started the race, so I knew we were close. We finally saw the mile 26 marker ahead and decided to walk until we hit that, then we would run it in from there. Whoever designed this course was a masochist, because there is a very steep hill up to the finish line. J.P. was cursing the whole way up that hill, and I was saying, “This doesn’t feel good at all,” to no one in particular, when we looked up to see the finish chute. He grabbed my hand, and we finished together with our arms in the air, so happy to finally be done. We shook hands with as many Marines as we could on our way to get our medals, and again I had to hold the tears back as a Marine put a medal around my neck and then saluted me.
Miles 25-26.73: 12:36, 13:18, 8:46 (a whopping 10:54 pace)
Finish time: 4:51:04
We got our pictures taken in front of Iwo Jima, which is huge in real life, and then J.P. visited the med tent where he learned that it was his calf that he had pulled and that he was massively dehydrated. They gave him fluids, we grabbed our bags from the Semper Fi tent, and we made our way to meet my family for lunch (which was the most painful uphill 3 block walk ever). My brother had finished in 4:19:xx, which of course made J.P. vow to do another marathon since he was running with my brother until his calf went, so he knows he could have run a 4:19 and now he has to beat my brother. I of course was already planning my next marathon too.
I checked my GPS after the race, and it turns out I hit 26.2 miles in a time of 4:44:46. That would actually be a small PR for me (I ran NYCM in 4:45:11). So why did I think a PR was
out of the cards at the halfway point? Because I couldn’t figure out that I actually hit the half in 2:17:09 and that if I ran even a little bit of a positive split that I would still PR. I should not be allowed to do math while running. That’s one lesson learned.
Another is that I need to do more MP runs during training, because I honestly couldn’t tell how fast or slow I was running during the race. I am terrible at pacing even during training, so I need to get a handle on that. The one thing I was happy with though was that I ran my own race, stayed in the moment the whole time, and didn’t let what someone else wanted to do impact what I needed to do. So that’s a win.
I learned that my body really doesn’t like reverse-cambered roads. There’s not much that I can do about that. I know that it definitely affected my gait during the race, because I am sore in places that I’ve never been sore before.
But now that I know my body can handle the rigors of training again (if not the heat of the summer), I am ready to find my next marathon and plan my training schedule. I have plans for strengthening my core (my race photos aren’t pretty) and my calves (they are the most beat up part of me) before jumping back into any training. I am considering a spring marathon or maybe a spring half and a full in the fall. All I know is that there will be another marathon for me in 2014. And it will be a PR.