Mississippi River Marathon (a.k.a. Lucky #13!)

My 13th marathon was different from all previous marathons I’ve run to date. It was very different in how I prepared for it, and I approached it with a different mindset than I have other marathons in the past.

I had lots of really great running adventures in 2016. Racing was my hobby, something I went out and did as many weekends as possible because it was fun! It was a great way to make friends and make memories. And I even improved some in my marathon time, just from racing frequently and maintaining a decent level of mileage between races.

Then the New Year came along. And New Years have a way of making you reflect on things you want to do a little differently. I started to wonder if I was really running to my full potential. My training lacked structure. Recently, between races, I was only doing a few short runs during the week. Every now and then I might throw in a few strides and call it “speed work.” I tried to do a little strength training now and then as well. But I had stopped seeing any really significant improvements in my marathon time since Oshkosh in April.

In my mind, I played around with different running goals for the New Year. Someday, I would really love to work on training for longer ultra-marathons. I have deeply enjoyed my recent trail running experiences, and have been so inspired by my friends who have completed ultra distances all the way up to 100-milers.

But another thing I would really love to do is qualify for Boston. And in order to do that, I would need to get a lot more  organized and intentional about my training. I would need to start doing things I’d never done before, like true speed workouts to improve my pace, and consistent strength and mobility training to keep my body balanced and help prevent injury.

I finally decided to postpone my goal of training for ultras, and pursue improvement in my road marathon time instead. With no background in track or cross country, I really didn’t know very much about the technical aspects of training to get faster. I needed a coach.

I started researching various coaches in the area. And then the thought occurred to me… why not send a message to Tia Stone and see if she had any recommendations? Tia is a very inspiring runner I’d been following on Strava for awhile. She is extremely fast, and has won overall female at many central Arkansas marathons, including 3 Bridges which I ran in December. And a fun little coincidence, she also happens to be a fellow Harding graduate! If anyone could give me a good recommendation on a coach who could help me my marathon performance, surely she could.

Tia responded with some very helpful information sharing her experiences with various coaches over the years. And I was thrilled to find out that she herself offered online coaching services! With my busy and often unpredictable schedule as a veterinarian, online coaching seemed like a good solution to give me some guidance to train properly, while still allowing some flexibility regarding when I squeezed those runs in.

So we got started the second week of January. Tia sent me a schedule with my workouts for the week, including target mileage and paces for various segments of those workouts, and I programmed them into my Garmin and did them. I’ll be honest, when I first saw some of my speed work assignments, I was terrified. Could I really maintain that fast of a pace over the prescribed distance?

But I decided to approach those workouts with a positive attitude and an open mind, embracing the challenges as opportunities to become a stronger runner and bring me closer to my goals, regardless of whether I executed the workout perfectly. And I was surprised to find that my body was actually capable of much more than I gave it credit for! Not every workout was perfect, but more often than not, I came much closer to accomplishing the goal of the run than I thought I would.

Four weeks of this training went by before it was time to start tapering for the Mississippi River Marathon, a point-to-point race that starts in Lake Village, Arkansas, and ends in Greenville, Mississippi. I really didn’t expect four weeks of coaching to make much of a difference in my performance. Surely it would take at least a few months for my body to adapt and realize the benefits of the speed workouts I’d been doing. But maybe with this flat course in the Mississippi Delta, I could at least run a little faster than my PR of 3:57:56 on the hilly course of the Tyler Rose Marathon.

A few days before the race, Tia sent me an e-mail with a detailed pacing strategy for the race, customized for the expected warm weather. She thought I could run between a 3:49 – 3:53. This seemed a little fast to me, but I planned to approach this race just like I’d approached all the previous workouts she’d sent me: I would focus only on one mile at a time. I would celebrate each beep of my Garmin that announced I ran that single mile at target pace. I would not waste any time worrying about the previous miles or what might happen in the miles that lay ahead. I would give each mile my best effort, and if I slowed down in the later miles, well… this race would still be a valuable learning experience!

Staying busy at work helped keep me from getting too nervous the Friday before the race. I finally managed to get out of the clinic around 6pm, and immediately left for the 2.5 hour drive to Greenville. The race expo would close at 8pm, but thankfully Cate and Heather (who were running the half tomorrow and actually had been the ones who suggested this race to me!) had already arrived in Greenville and offered to pick up my packet for me. So I relaxed and enjoyed the drive, listening to audiobooks and enjoying some breathtaking views of a full snow moon reflecting on Lake Chicot. My heart raced a little faster as I neared Greenville and started seeing mile markers and porta potties on the side of the road all ready for the race tomorrow!

I met Cate and Heather at a little Italian restaurant called Lillo’s, which has been there for over 60 years! The spaghetti, eggplant parmesan, and salad were delicious after the long drive. After we finished dinner, we headed to the hotel for an early bedtime. Tomorrow morning, we would get up early to meet the buses which would be leaving promptly at 6:30 to bring us to our respective start lines. I spent the last few minutes of the evening reading over Tia’s e-mail again, committing the pacing strategy to memory. It felt strange actually having a strategy for my race. So many times in the past, I’d gone to bed the night before a marathon with nothing more than a vague plan to give it my best effort and enjoy myself!

I slept surprisingly well despite my pre-race jitters, and started the morning with some coffee, a small bowl of oatmeal from the continental breakfast that the hotel had set out early for the runners, and my usual IsaLean shake and pre-workout supplements. Soon it was time to head out. I carpooled with Cate and Heather, and we got a quick picture together before parting ways and loading our respective buses.

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Quick group picture before loading our buses!

The bus ride reminded me a lot of a very similar ride to the start line of the Hotter than Hades half marathon that I ran a couple years ago. This race had taken place in Leland, MS, just a few miles from where we were now. The scenery was very similar – perfectly flat fields as far as the eye could see. I enjoyed watching the sunrise out the window and chatting some some fellow runners.

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The bus ride to the start line! 
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Beautiful Mississippi sunrise. My phone camera didn’t do it justice. 

Finally the bus dropped us off at the start area. The morning air was chilly, and I was happy to see the fires that had been set up for us runners to warm ourselves. I was less happy to see the long line in front of the porta-potties, which was not moving nearly fast enough for us all to get a chance to use them before it was time for the race to start. I finally gave up and found some bushes which served my pre-race needs well enough.

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This start area reminded me so much of the one at Hotter than Hades. Except that it was actually kind of chilly this morning, so we had little campfires to keep us warm! 
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My only complaint about this race was that they needed more porta potties at the start line. (But at least now I can say that I got to stand in a porta potty line with the famous Larry Macon in the yellow jacket, a Marathon Maniac legend who has run over 1600 marathons and counting!)

Soon it was time to assemble at the start line. I was excited to see Amanda and Jackie, two fellow runners from Conway! Their pace goals were very similar to my own. Maybe we would end up running together for some of the race.

Right before the race start, I found a tree to hold onto and did some leg swings, partly to loosen up my muscles and partly just to get rid of some nervous energy. I really wasn’t sure if I could succeed in my goals for the miles that lay ahead. But I would certainly give it my best effort.

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Ready to go at the start line.

Finally, the clock hit 8:00, and we were off. The first two miles are a warmup, I kept repeating to myself, remembering the advice in Tia’s e-mail. Let those other runners go ahead, and don’t go faster than target pace. I checked my watch often to make sure I wasn’t going out too fast, a mistake that I have payed for more than once in previous races.

Those first two miles breezed by, and it was time to pick up the pace a bit and settle into marathon rhythm for miles 3-21. It was warm and humid, and there was a strong headwind. I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to maintain this pace. But I was pretty sure I could keep it up for one mile. I focused hard on keeping my upper body as relaxed as possible, channeling my energy to my legs. Whenever I could, I tried to stay close to other runners to help block the wind. That one mile passed by… and another… and another. I celebrated each beep of my Garmin which told me that I had stayed on target pace.

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Settling into my pace in the early miles. I enjoyed the views of Lake Chicot off to our left. 

The course was extremely flat, with no trees to provide shade or break the wind. I was thankful for the cloud cover in the early miles of the race. I might have found the scenery boring if I was running this race purely for recreation. But the long, straight stretches of road actually lent themselves well to settling into my goal rhythm. The miles kept ticking by, and so far, I was still on target.

Around mile 10, the course curved, and the headwind began to turn into a tailwind. I was very thankful for this little blessing, especially since the one climb of the race – the bridge over the Mississippi River – was coming up in a couple more miles.

The climb up the bridge wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. The tailwind definitely helped. I ran near the edge so I could enjoy the view.

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Made it up the bridge!

Coming down the other side of the bridge, I started to feel a blister developing on the ball of my foot. It was annoying, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. I was happy that the rest of me was still feeling pretty good.

The miles kept ticking by. And the sun also kept getting higher, and the weather hotter. I forced myself to keep my mindset positive, focusing only on one mile at a time. I’d run good races in warm weather before. I could do this for at least one more mile.

Mile 21 was when things really started to get hard. This was the point at which Tia had told me to give it everything I had left. And I did. It took every bit of my effort and focus to get through those last 5 miles. The end of a marathon is never a walk in the park, but the escalating heat made this especially difficult.

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Working hard to stay focused in the late miles. 

I was pouring sweat at this point, and was very thankful for the aid stations placed only a mile apart. I still haven’t perfected the art of drinking those little cups of water on the run without making a huge mess, but honestly I was just as glad to splash the water on my hot face as I was to drink it.

This was seriously hard, and the miles seemed to stretch on forever. All I wanted to do was stop and walk, as many runners around me were doing. But I was supposed to be leaving everything I had on the course… and maybe I could do that for just one more mile… and one more mile… and one more mile. God, please give these legs strength for just one more mile…

Finally I could see the finish line… at the end of a very long, straight stretch of road which felt like it was taking absolutely forever to run! I knew I’d given it all I had by how difficult it was to work up my finish line sprint the last couple tenths of a mile.

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I’ve never been more ready to cross a finish line! 

Oh, it felt so good to finally cross that finish line! And I couldn’t believe what the clock said. 3:48:46! This was over nine minutes faster than my previous PR at Tyler Rose, and 14 seconds faster than the low end of that 3:49-3:53 that I thought looked “too fast” when I was reading Tia’s e-mail last night!

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New PR!!!

I was so exhausted that I could barely walk to the finisher’s tent. I had chafed badly despite putting on copious amounts of Body Glide that morning, and the blister on my foot was huge. But I was ecstatic.

Several of my running friends from Conway were there to congratulate me. It was wonderful seeing some familiar faces in a sea of strangers here in Mississippi. I hobbled over to the results tent for my official time. And I literally did a happy dance when I saw that not only had I PR’ed, but I’d also placed first in my age group! I had never done this before!! And almost as exciting was the discovery that I had run negative splits between the first and second halves of the race. Fighting through those last 5 miles had paid off. I couldn’t wait to text my results to Tia!

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Official results!
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My beautiful age group award! 
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I packed this tank top optimistically hoping I would get a chance to wear it. And I did! 🙂 
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It was so good seeing some friends at the finish line! 

Soon Cate and Heather arrived to pick me up – they finished the half a couple hours earlier, and had already been back to the hotel to clean up. We enjoyed a delicious lunch together before getting back on the road home to Arkansas, with a small detour to a very cool little home decorating store!

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Cate, Heather, and I enjoying some well earned relaxation after the race! 

The drive home gave me plenty of time to reflect on the race. I was happily surprised at what a success it had been on so many levels. I’d PR’ed. I’d won my age group for the first time in my life. I’d run negative splits… without having to rely on a pace group. I’d simply followed the plan laid out for me by my coach, taking one mile at a time, trusting her strategy and greater running experience. And it honestly couldn’t have gone better.

I still have some time to shave off before I’m really close to a Boston qualification. But this race was a big step in the right direction. This race, and the 4 weeks of training leading up to it, has taught me to never underestimate the challenges your body can rise to when you have the commitment and determination to give it your best shot.

I experienced a big breakthrough in my running when I changed my nutrition, and now I’m experiencing another one as I’ve started working with an amazing coach. I’m so excited to see what the months ahead will bring! Maybe… just maybe… with a lot of hard work and a little faith… my dream of running Boston will become a reality sooner rather than later.