Soaring Wings Marathon 2016

Even though it was only 3 weeks after Tyler Rose, I felt like Soaring Wings wasn’t a marathon I could miss since it was right here in my new home town of Conway, Arkansas! I was not expecting a very good race time, for several reasons. First, it had only been 3 weeks since my PR effort at Tyler. Second, I had just started a new strength training program, which I know will make me stronger runner in the long term, but at the moment it is leaving me more sore the following couple of days than I am after a marathon! I signed up for this race with the mindset that it would be a good training run, and I would be thankful simply to finish.

I was excited when I found out that our veterinary practice manager, Cate, and some of her friends had decided to sign up for the half marathon! The half and the full shared the same course until just after mile 10, so we decided we would run those 10 miles together. Cate and I went to an Italian restaurant after work on Friday evening to carb load with the rest of her family. It was so much fun getting to relax and visit together outside work!

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Cate and me wearing our race shirts on Friday evening while watching the end of her son’s soccer game! She had kindly picked up my packet for me earlier that day since I couldn’t get away from the clinic. Running shirt and scrub pants… pretty¬†much sums up my life! ūüôā

Race morning, I got up early and drove the 20 minutes it took me to get from my house to the McGee center where the race started. As soon as I turned in towards the parking area, I started seeing familiar faces! Karen, who had paced Charlie in the Arkansas Traveller 100 miler, was directing traffic. She told me she would be volunteering on the marathon course at mile 13! I told her I was looking forward to seeing her there, and then pulled on into the parking area so as not to block the cars behind me.

It was chilly, and it felt good to get inside the warm building. The indoor bathrooms were also a plus! I enjoyed chatting with some other runners as I waited for Cate and her friends to arrive. It was wonderful seeing so many friends that I’ve made in the few months that I have been a part of the Arkansas runners’ community.¬†Wes and Tee were there, and both of them would be running the marathon. It would be Tee’s first full! I was so excited for them. We enjoyed visiting and sharing videos of Forrest, the little puppy we had rescued on a trail run a few months early, happily enjoying his new home in Washington D.C. I found Charlie outside… he was still recovering from completing the Arkansas Traveller 100 miler 4 weeks earlier. I had to laugh when he said that running the FULL marathon with the 6 hour pace group was his version of “taking it easy!”¬†He is one inspiring runner for sure!

Soon I found Cate, and she introduced me to her friends Heather and Christine. We made our way to the start corrals, which were divided by yellow tape according to expected finish times. The race started at 7:00am, with a beautiful pink sunrise just starting to peek over the horizon. Just before the race start, there was a pre-race prayer, followed by the traditional singing of the national anthem. The words of the anthem seemed especially meaningful as I watched¬†the star spangled banner waving in the breeze above the crowd, the dawn’s early light gleaming behind it.

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Christine, Heather, Cate and me at the start line! 

Then, the gun went off, and the peace of the¬†moments before gave way to a rather chaotic race start! Each of the start corrals was divided by tape in an effort to keep people of similar paces together. But the problem was, they dropped all the tape at the same time without clearly communicating when they wanted each wave to start! Heather, Cate, and I were just about to cross the start line when a race official told us to stop! But our timing chips had already registered, so she finally said, “Ok, you three go on ahead!” while the rest of the wave waited to officially be permitted to cross the start line.

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This was the moment when we had just been told to stop right before we crossed the start line! You can spot us looking rather confused right behind the timing mat. ūüėČ
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After a rather disorganized race start, we were finally off!

We laughed about the start line craziness as we set out. The race felt great at the beginning, with a cool morning breeze and gently rolling hills that were nowhere near as intimidating as the ones in Tyler three weeks earlier. But we hadn’t gone many miles before I felt the dreaded gurgling in my stomach that lets a runner¬†know this might turn out to be¬†an interesting race. I had to run ahead of my friends to make a porta potty stop at one of the aid stations, and then sprint to catch back up with them.

Despite the fact that I wasn’t feeling my best, those first 10 miles flew by as we talked and visited. The course brought us down some main roads, some shaded bike trails, and some beautiful neighborhoods with big, expensive houses. The morning was warming up pretty quickly, and it was humid, but we still kept up a good pace. I was so excited for Cate as it looked like she was going to make a PR!

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Cruising through a beautiful Conway neighborhood!
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I chatted some with the lady wearing the Half Fanatics singlet, as it is the sister group of Marathon Maniacs. Turns out she is a Double Agent (member of both groups) and she has run nearly 100 half marathons, and over 100 marathons! Talk about inspiring!

All too soon, we came to the intersection where the full marathon course split off from the half marathon course. I said good bye to my friends as they turned right to finish their last 5k, and I turned left to the much more sparsely populated full marathon course, trying not to think about the fact that I still had over 16 miles to go. One mile at a time, I told myself.

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One last group picture before I had to say good bye to my friends at the half/full split!

I got a few good miles in after the split, but as the weather continued to get warmer, my pace got steadily slower. I was wearing a pair of shoes that I don’t usually wear for long runs, and my feet were hurting and my big toes were going numb. My legs felt heavy, and my stomach still didn’t feel good. My Amped Fuel gels, which I usually love during a¬†long run, were becoming difficult to get down. But I kept moving forward, trying not to let my slower-than-usual miles get me down. Seeing Karen at mile 13 helped to lift my spirits, as did seeing some other familiar faces at aid stations along the way.

The rest of the race was very difficult for me physically and mentally. The weather was getting downright hot at this point, with the sun beating down directly on us and hardly any of the shade that we had enjoyed during the first half of the race. Without the half marathoners sharing the road, the runners were much fewer and further between, and I didn’t have much conversation to distract me from the difficulty of the race. It was tough to keep a smile on my face. But I kept thinking about the runners in my life who inspire me, and kept telling myself to run with the energy and positivity with which they would run. Time and time again, I would feel my posture slouching and my feet dragging, and I would tell myself “Stop that!” and straighten back up into as strong a stride as I could manage. I hit an especially low point around mile 17, when I was struggling physically, and the thought of taking another gel made me feel sick. I was thankful that I’d thought to stuff an e+ shot in my pack that morning. It went down a lot easier than the gels, and gave me just the energy boost I needed to get out of my slump and keep pushing forward.

Volunteers at the aid stations kept telling me how strong and good I was looking, when the truth was, I felt the opposite. I had a Rascal Flatts song stuck in my head from the drive that morning, and I couldn’t help but laugh at how appropriate it was for these moments: “What she don’t know… is how hard it is to make it look so easy!” I kept digging deep and pressing on, trying not to think too hard about the pain and discomfort I was experiencing, but embracing and accepting it as part of the process necessary to complete this marathon. One mile at a time… 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25… and finally, at long last, I was closing in on that coveted mile 26!

If there is one¬†good thing about difficult races that take you longer than you thought they would, it is that the finish line is even sweeter.¬†Somehow in the last half mile or so, I did what I hadn’t been able to do for the whole race, pushing below a 9:00 pace. What made this finish line even more special is knowing that Joshua was there waiting for me, along with Holly and our Harding friends Richard and Libby. I searched for their faces as I turned the corner into the finishing chute. Not only were they all there, but also Joshua’s brother Justin, his wife Karla, and their two little boys! Seeing them there gave my tired legs the boost they needed to work up a true finish line sprint.

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Spreading my “soaring wings” for a finish line picture!

I crossed that timing mat at just under a 4:30 chip time, the slowest marathon I have run since my first marathon at 3 Bridges last December. But you know what? Even if my time was not the greatest, I still had so much to be thankful for!

I was thankful to have finished, despite all the outside factors that made this race such a challenge for me.

I was thankful for the volunteers, many of them new friends of mine, who made sure I had all the support I needed to complete this race.

I was thankful for the encouraging words of other runners on the course that lifted me up from some low points and gave me the boost I needed to keep going.

I was thankful that I had gotten a great training run in that would make me a stronger runner in the grand scheme of things!

I was thankful for the special opportunity to get to share those first 10 miles with Cate Рwho, by the way, completely killed that last 5k and got the PR that she was hoping for!!

And I was especially thankful to have the support of my friends and family, who were cheering for me just as loudly as if I’d been the race winner. There is no feeling quite as good as collapsing into your husband’s arms at the end of a tough race, leaning on him for balance as you kick¬†off your running shoes and slip into the Chacos he brought you (best recovery shoes in the world, by the way!) No… it had been a good race, and I¬†truly didn’t have anything to complain about.

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Sometimes in marathons, like in life, things don’t go exactly according to plan. But even when things don’t go perfectly, when you look around, there’s usually still plenty to be joyful about!

Tyler Rose Marathon 2016

I signed up for this marathon on a whim when my friend Jessica mentioned to me that she was running it. I figured, why not? I hadn’t run a marathon in Texas yet, so this would get me one state closer to my eventual goal of running a marathon in all 50 states. Another plus was that it was only 4.5 hours from where I live in Arkansas, which isn’t a bad drive for an out-of-state race.

Out of all the road marathons that I’ve run, this one wins for being the one that I’d done the least amount of official training for. I’ve run pretty consistently over the summer, but much of it has been trail running, which is extremely different from road running. Trail runs are about endurance, not speed, and you end up doing a lot of hiking up steep hills rather than actually running. Most of my long runs recently have been spontaneous runs that I’ve done because my friends were doing it, not anything on a well-planned training schedule. I wasn’t exactly tapered since I had run/hiked 20 miles with Melanie the previous weekend while pacing her for a section of the Arkansas Traveller 100 mile race. I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of my performance at Tyler Rose. I knew I could complete the distance, but could I still run a road marathon in a decent time?

I checked the pace groups listed on the website. There was supposed to be a 4 hour group. Maybe I would try to stick with them and see how it felt… it sure would be nice to finally get that sub-4:00 that I missed by a hair at the Oshkosh Marathon back in April. Worst case scenario, I’d realize that this pace was a little too ambitious, and this marathon would turn into a nice training run that would still get my another state towards my 50!

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Packing the day before the race. I had plenty of “help!” ūüėČ

The day before the race, I loaded up my PT Cruiser and drove to Tyler. At packet pickup, which was inside an Academy Sports, I met Jessica and her sister Julie who was running the half. After grabbing our packets, we browsed around some sale racks which had some great deals on summer running gear. I scored a good quality Under Armour sports bra which perfectly matched the outfit that I planned to wear to the race tomorrow!

Once our shopping was done, we went to the Rose Garden where the race would be starting and finishing tomorrow. It was such a beautiful, serene place. We enjoyed wandering around looking at the roses and enjoying the beautiful Fall weather, before finally deciding to find a place to carb load for dinner. We ended up choosing an Italian restaurant called Portofino’s. Their bread and pasta was delicious, and I enjoyed ample portions of freshly baked rolls and spinach ravioli. If my body suffered from glycogen depletion tomorrow, it wouldn’t be from lack of enthusiastic carb loading on my part! It was great catching up with Jessica and talking about our running adventures and goals, and getting to know her sister who actually lives very close to me in Little Rock.

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Jessica and I enjoying the beautiful rose garden the evening before the race.

After dinner, I headed to the Super 8 where I’d made my hotel reservation. Not sure that I would recommend this hotel to anyone else running this marathon… the walls were very thin, and my next door neighbor decided to leave their TV on literally all night. Fortunately my A/C was loud enough to mostly cover the noise of the TV, and with the help of some melatonin, I managed to get a decent night’s sleep. I had a bit of a scare when I woke up before my alarm and saw light through my curtain – I was afraid I’d overslept and missed the race start! Thankfully it was just the street light in the parking lot.

I hopped out of bed and leisurely enjoyed my¬†pre-workout drink¬†and meal replacement shake, thinking about how nice it was to have consistent nutrition that I knew agreed with my body and that I could count on to fuel me for my race. I was less impressed with the hotel coffee, but I drank it anyway. (If you’re a runner, you probably know that coffee is a necessity on race mornings to, um, make sure things get moving!) I was up early enough that I even had time to log onto the Healthy Mind and Body program for my daily dose of personal development provided by the health and wellness company I’ve recently become a part¬†of. These little sessions are always inspiring and help get me in the right mindset for my day, which is especially helpful right before a physically and mentally challenging race! I laughed when I got to a part challenging me to “be active” today… that shouldn’t be a problem!

Finally it was time to get dressed and head over to the start area. It was cold, so I threw on a hoodie and mingled with some other runners inside the Tyler Rose Museum before the race start. They already had our finisher prizes laid out on a table inside a conference room – a beautiful assortment of real rose bushes!

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Rose bushes all lined up and ready to be handed out to marathon finishers.

At 7:00, I headed back out into the chilly morning air to join a little pre-race devotional. The man leading it was so sweet and sincere, and reminded us that Jesus would be with us every step of the way.

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Pre-race devotional and prayer. I can’t think of a better way to start a marathon!

After he led a prayer and dismissed us, I dropped by my car to pick up my hydration pack, and then made my way back over to the start area. There I met Chris Bouchard, a friend I’d met on Facebook who is part of the Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics clubs. It was cool finally getting to meet each other in person! He was running the half marathon distance that day after already running a half marathon the previous day.

We wished each other good luck, and soon it was time for the marathon runners to assemble at the start line. It was at this point that the first wrench was thrown into my race strategy. I was straining my eyes searching for signs rising from the crowd indicating the pace groups that had been advertised on the website, but there were no such signs to be seen. No pacers. The last road marathon I had run without being part of a pace group was 3 Bridges, and I had done a terrible job pacing myself at that race. Oh well… I did have my watch, and I was certainly better acquainted with my body’s capabilities at this point in my running journey than I was when I embarked on my very first marathon almost a year ago. Maybe my sub-4:00 goal could still work out.

Right before the start, Jessica found me in the crowd. We decided it would be fun to try making a Facebook Live video to share this exciting moment with our friends and family – some mutual running friends of ours had been doing the same thing for their races, and it was always so much fun to watch their videos. Ours may have been a little corny, but we still had a lot of fun and laughter making it! The race actually started a little bit after 7:00. Something must have gotten overlooked in the organization, because there was no count down or national anthem preceding the race start – just a sudden blowing of an air horn, and we were off!

Jessica and I ran together for the first 10k. It felt so good running in the cool, dry, 55 degree weather after a long summer of running in the heat and humidity. The gently rolling hills didn’t even seem difficult. It was fun climbing effortlessly up to the top, and then letting gravity carry us down the other side. I had to keep checking my watch to make sure I was pacing myself appropriately and not going out too fast. Jessica and I chatted about our running adventures and dreams for the future, and the miles flew by.

Around mile 7, Jessica and I parted ways. She is training for a serious attempt at a BQ within the next couple of months, and didn’t want to overdo it trying to PR at this marathon. I decided to keep trying for my sub-4:00 as long as my legs were agreeable to it. From this point on, I was basically running alone, besides a few brief conversations with other runners as I passed them or they passed me. I passed the time by intermittently checking into Facebook Live, letting my friends and family know what mile I was on and how I was feeling. I might make this a tradition in future marathons, because it was so much fun afterwards to look back on these videos and remember little details of the race that normally would get lost in post-marathon brain fog. In the future, though, I do want to make a point of sweeping the camera around to capture some of the beautiful race course instead of staying focused on an unflattering angle of my chin!

The course itself was very nice. We experience a wide variety of scenery, starting in the west side of Tyler and journeying outside city limits to circle the airport. We passed cow pastures and wide open fields, all with plenty of hills, before circling back and making our way back into city limits. We ran down busy city streets with a lane blocked off for the runners, and shot off into smaller neighborhoods with brick roads that really gave us a glimpse into the heart of Tyler. Many of the streets we ran on were covered with big, beautiful shade trees that reminded me a lot of the trees surrounding the LSU lakes where I used to love training when I lived in Baton Rouge. The constant hills were reminiscent of the Doc Rock & Run half marathon in Jonesboro, which held my half PR for a very long time. I took comfort in remembering Jonesboro as the miles accumulated on my legs and each hill started to feel more and more difficult. I’d had plenty of practice running hills in the past, and I could keep running them today. And the great part about running up a hill is that I could always look forward to coasting back down it once I made it to the top! I focused on maintaining as positive a mindset as I could, and kept pressing on.

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This was around mile 22. The brick roads were tough for a lot of runners. I think all my trail running over the summer was good training for the uneven surface!

My fueling strategy was a little different for this race than it has been for previous marathons. I used to fuel solely on Tailwind, but after hitting the wall at mile 25 of Oshkosh, I decided it was time for a little experimentation with other fuel sources. I still had my bottle of Tailwind in my new Orange Mud Hydraquiver (which, by the way, I enjoyed much more than the handheld that I’ve carried with me for all my previous road marathon!) I probably didn’t drink quite enough as I only refilled the bottle once at an aid station a few miles after the halfway mark, but it still provided me with the hydration and electrolytes I needed to keep pushing forward. For the rest of my fueling, I had taken a serving of AMPED Power before the race to improve blood circulation in my muscles, and I had also done an AMPED NOx load for the past several days which helps improve circulation through a different pathway than “Power.” I can definitely feel a difference in my muscles when I use these products… they feel much lighter, and don’t fatigue as quickly, which is a huge blessing when pushing hard through a marathon. I also took 3 servings of AMPED Fuel at mile 6, 12, and 18, which provides your body with carbohydrates as well as branched-chain amino acids which help stimulate muscle repair pathways and stop your body from consuming the protein from its own muscles for fuel. “Fuel” tastes just like apple sauce, and I found it much easier to get down than other gels I’d tried in the past, which had been the reason I’d taken a hiatus from gels and switched over to Tailwind in the first place.

This new fueling strategy worked well. I barely stopped at any aid stations during this race, which was certainly a contrast from slowing down at each aid station like I’d done with pace groups in the past. I think less stops actually helped me stay in my stride as I didn’t give my muscles a chance to focus on how tired they were. By mile 19, my splits were definitely starting to get slower… I’m not sure if it was from muscle fatigue or from the fact that the worst hills were at the end of the course. But I had banked enough time in the first part of the race that I knew a PR was still feasible, and I kept pressing on as hard as my muscles would allow me to, embracing the fatigue and soreness for just a few more miles.

At mile 23, I looked down at my watch and discovered that I could get my sub-4:00 if I could just maintain 10 minute miles for this last 5k. That was a huge confidence booster, and I pushed hard to make it happen. All of my muscles were getting pretty sore and stiff at this point, and my knees had been bugging me a bit ever since mile 10, but I was thankful that I wasn’t experiencing any pain intense enough that I couldn’t push through it. Then, as I made my way up yet another hill shortly after passing mile 25, I felt a sharp cramp beginning to knot up my right quadricep. Of course, I’ve seen other runners struggle with muscle cramping, but I’ve never had much of an issue with it myself. “Come on, leg,” I thought to myself, “not now! We are so close to the finish line and making our sub-4:00 goal!!” I thought about all the advice I’d received from various running mentors through my marathoning journey. Daddy would tell me to focus on my breathing. Melanie would tell me that “everything is temporary if given enough time.” Shelley would find something positive about the experience to smile about and be grateful for. Sabrina would tell me to focus on pumping my arms up this next hill, and my legs would follow. Angie would tell me to dig deep for just a little bit longer.

So I gritted my teeth, and I kept going. I made it up that seemingly never ending hill, and then I could hear the announcer over the loud speaker at the finish line. A little further, and I could see the entrance to the Rose Garden up on my right. A little further, and I was cruising down the hill at the finishing stretch. Then the pavement ended and gave way to the beautifully manicured lawn of the rose garden. I heard my name announced over the loud speaker. I looked at the timing clock, and there was a “3” at the beginning of my time instead of a “4!” And those tired legs somehow managed to work up a sprint and take me flying over that finish line with a chip time of 3:57:56.

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Breaking into a sprint with the finish line in sight! The soft grass of the rose garden felt great on my tired feet.
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I felt like I was flying towards that finish line, and this photo captured that feeling well!

I was so out of breath that I could barely say “thank you” to the volunteers that placed a medal around my neck, handed me a water bottle, and gave me my hard earned little rose bush. But it was the best kind of exhausted you can be, setting a goal and truly giving your all to achieve it despite difficult circumstances.

I finally caught my breath again and slowly hobbled my way over to a pool with a fountain where other runners were dipping their tired legs and feet. Easing my tired feet and calves into that cold water felt heavenly. I made a final Facebook Live video letting my friends and family know that I had made it. I was still pretty thirsty even after guzzling my first water bottle, and I was thankful for the volunteer who noticed me sitting there and asked if I wanted another – at that moment, getting up to get the bottle myself sounded more difficult than running a marathon! After relaxing in the pool for awhile, I got up and made my very slow way back to the car, where I switched out my running shoes for some Chacos. Chacos are rapidly becoming my very favorite recovery shoe… you can’t beat the arch support, not even with Oofos! Then I headed back up to the Rose Museum (boy, climbing those stairs was a challenge!) and was pleasantly surprised to find that a local chiropractor had set up a station to give free stretches and massages to runners. I happily accepted – there is nothing that feels quite as wonderful as a massage right after a marathon. The chiropractor said that my muscles were much looser and more flexible than those of other runners she’d worked on that day, and she was surprised when I told her that I had run the full marathon and not the half. So I guess I must be doing something right with my training and nutrition!

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On the balcony of the museum overlooking the rose garden!

After my massage, I went to find Jessica, who excitedly told me that we had placed second and third in our respective age groups! She’d had a great race as well, beating her previous PR for this course by over 20 minutes. We took some pictures at the finish line with our age group awards. I was sad when it was time to leave… it had been so fun getting to catch up with a friend who is as crazy about running as I am, and who has very similar goals for a BQ in the near future. But since we seem to sign up for a lot of the same races, I’m sure it won’t be long before we see each other again!

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Jessica and I positing with our medals, rose bushes, and age group awards. It was a great race for both of us!
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Finish line picture with Jessica!

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The icing on the cake of this wonderful day was getting to catch up with another dear friend over lunch before setting out on the journey back to Arkansas. I had completely forgotten that Sara Beth, a veterinary colleague who I served with multiple times on the mission field in Honduras, now lived and practiced in Tyler! It was great seeing her beautiful smile and hearing about all the adventures life has taken her on since graduating veterinary school a year before me. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we can return to Honduras and show Jesus’ love to those beautiful, precious people, and mentor other veterinary students the same special way that we were mentored there when we were students.

Lunch was over far too soon, and then it was time to start the 4.5 hour drive back home. It’s funny that I had just run nearly that many hours, but it seemed so much longer in a car. I was glad to have good music and some inspiring podcasts to listen to and keep me alert on the drive. And, as usual, the drive was a great time to reflect on the race and the lessons it had taught me. Like my discovery that I didn’t need a pace group to accomplish a PR… there is more intrinsic strength in this body God has given me than I’ve given it credit for. I know it wasn’t all me, though. Like the preacher had said at the devotional early that morning, Jesus was with me every step of the way. I was supported by the prayers of many dear friends and family who were keeping up with my progress while I was out there running, and I know I couldn’t have done it without them. Accomplishing that PR, especially on THIS course which had the most elevation gain of any road marathon I’ve run to date (1,120 feet according to my GPS watch), made me all the more excited about the things that I might be able to accomplish on other courses in the future. A BQ seemed like a distant dream less than a year ago when I crossed my first marathon finish line at 4:58:28. If you’d told me at the end of 3 Bridges that I would run a sub-4:00 marathon in less than a year, I would have said you were crazy. But if I’ve learned anything in the past 10 months, it’s that you should never underestimate the amazing things that you can accomplish through grit, determination, consistency, the support of loved ones, and most importantly through trusting God and relying on His strength. Time will tell, of course, but I’m starting to think that maybe my dream of running Boston is not quite as far away as I once thought.