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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 – who, 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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
It’s crazy looking back on this year at all the places my running journey has taken me. This time last year, I was still just playing with the idea of signing up for my first marathon. Today, I sit on my couch sore, chafed, tired, and happily reflecting on my first trail 50k last night.
A couple months ago, right after the Joplin Marathon, I wrote about my first trail running experience at the Catsmacker Fun Run. Shortly after that, I got online and signed up on a whim for the Full mOOn 50k coming up in July. What can I say? I had the post-race blues with nothing on the calendar until Route 66 in November. Full mOOn was right here in Arkansas just an hour away, and registration was a steal at only $40!
I had no idea at the time what wonderful experiences and new friends this decision would bring to me over the next several weeks of training. Trail running scared me. I was afraid of tripping and falling, afraid of being alone in remote locations with spotty cell service and limited access to water, afraid simply because it was new to me and I didn’t know if I would be any good at it. Fortunately for a trail newbie like me, it turns out that Arkansas has an amazingly supportive running community. After meeting some fellow runners at Catsmacker, I was quickly added to several Facebook groups where runners would post about upcoming trail runs. And just about every weekend that I needed to get a long run in to train for Full mOOn, I was able to find others to train with. Getting those trail miles in gave me the confidence I needed to toe the Full mOOn start line without being completely terrified.
I left early the day of the race to make sure that I had plenty of time to find a parking place and pick up my packet. I shouldn’t have worried. Packet pickup was very smooth and efficient. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the building secured for our use was air conditioned, and had real bathrooms! And the race organizers went above and beyond in making sure we had everything we might need. There were mini Ziploc baggies full of salt tablets spread across a table inside, plenty of bugspray cans on a table outside, and even flushable wet wipes in the bathrooms. Seriously, they thought of everything!
I was thrilled to see so many familiar faces from my training runs leading up to this event. I parked right behind Wes and Tee, the sweet couple I had run with on this very trail several weeks ago. (That was the run where we rescued a stray puppy who ended up finding a home for all the way in Washington D.C., but that’s a story for another day!) I quickly found my friend Cymber who had introduced me to the LOViT trail near Hot Springs, and Shelley who I’d run the same trail with a week later. And there were Lisa, Andi, Melanie, and the rest of the amazing runners training for the Arkansas Traveller 100, who I’d joined for a training run near Lake Winona just a couple weeks ago. And there were Jodi, Wendy, and Sherry, the Conway runners who I’d met my first day trail running at the Catsmacker; they were running the 25k, but made a special trip to the 50k start line to wish me good luck. It was amazing that I’d only lived in Arkansas a couple months, yet already I felt like I was part of a big, happy, trail-running family reunion. I guess that’s just what an amazing running community Arkansas has, and I feel so blessed to have become a part of it!
Soon, it was time to start. I smiled when I saw a text from Joshua wishing me good luck. (I wished he could have been here, but he was hard at work laying the new laminate floors I’d been begging for ever since we moved to Arkansas. Yep… I know I have a pretty awesome husband!) We departed from the start area at 7:00pm. Since it was the middle of summer, that gave us a couple hours before the sun went down. As promised, it was hot and very humid, and there was thunder rumbling in the distance. But so far it hadn’t rained on us, so we went on as planned. I ended up running with Melanie, who has actually honored me with a request to pace her for a section of the AT100! I was happy to have this opportunity to do a little training together. Having someone to stick with helped take my mind off the difficulty of the run. Even in those early miles, it wasn’t easy. The air was moist and heavy, and no matter how deeply you breathed it never felt like you were getting quite enough oxygen. I’d been having stomach issues all day due to pre-race nerves, and I’d only been running a few minutes before my side started cramping up. I gritted my teeth and ran through it. I might have to drop before the night was over, but I knew I could at least make it through this mile. Just finish the mile you’re in…. that was a mantra I repeated to myself many times before the night was over.
We ran about a mile before the pavement gave way to the gravel forest road. This stretch was the very same route I had run with Wes and Tee, and it was comforting seeing familiar landmarks. I passed the time chatting with Melanie about the last time I’d run here, carrying a tiny puppy in my arms. Before I knew it, we had made it to the first aid station. I had heard that trail aid stations are extravagant compared to the water-and-gatorade aid stations typical of road races, and I was not disappointed. Spread out on these tables was a veritable feast including several different kinds of soda, pickle slices, pretzels, skittles, and just about every kind of salty or sweet snack you can imagine. I am usually not a pickle person, but with the amount I was sweating, I knew I could use the extra electrolytes. I gratefully grabbed a couple pickle slices, and thought they were the best thing I’d ever tasted!
But my favorite part of the aid stations were the huge coolers of ICE! I was so thankful for the volunteers who grabbed the bottles from my hydration pack as I ran up to the aid station, quickly replenishing them with generous amounts of ice and water. Sipping on ice cold water and Tailwind made the hot miles so much more tolerable. I even asked a volunteer if there was enough ice to stuff into my sports bra. She laughed and said yes, and that I wasn’t even the first runner who had asked her that today!
Then we were off again. I refused to think about the entire distance we had left to cover. I stayed focused on the more manageable goal of making it to the next aid station. The hills were brutal, and many of the steeper ones forced us to slow to a walk. But despite the difficult course, I was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful scenery and the peacefulness of being in the middle of the forest. Gradually the sun started to sink, and caused the light to fade to a dim golden green as it sent its last beams through the treetops. When we reached the aid station at the 25k turnaround, it was really starting to get dark, and people were turning on their headlamps. This aid station was my favorite, featuring music and a disco ball that projected a colorful light show onto the surrounding trees. I spotted one of the volunteers wearing a Marathon Maniacs singlet, and she and I had fun complimenting each other’s attire!
After we departed, Melanie realized that the buckle of her hydration pack had somehow broken. We ran for a little while after the aid station without the buckle, but the pack was swinging around too much and she had to drop. At this point, I was on my own. I could usually see a a headlamp or two in the distance ahead of me or behind me, but there were parts of the run during which I couldn’t hear or see anyone at all. Being unaccustomed to running in the dark, I managed to trip over a rock shortly after nightfall. I ended up with some minor scratches and bruises, but thankfully my worst injury was only to my pride. Hoping no one had seen me, I jumped up and continued on, scanning the ground ahead of me ever more carefully for potential hazards.
At this point, my usually positive attitude towards running was starting to waver. I was alone and didn’t have anyone to talk to. Since the sun had gone down, I didn’t even have the pretty scenery to distract me. I had a few moments when I wondered why on earth I was doing this. The water-only aid station at mile 11.5 did little to break the monotony. At some point, my pity party was interrupted by another runner who caught up with me saying that her flashlight wasn’t working. This was one of my biggest fears about doing a nighttime race, so I had actually packed an extra flashlight in my hydration pack. I was glad to lend it to her. Even if I wasn’t having the best race myself, at least I could help make it better for someone else. She thanked me profusely and headed on her way, having a bit more energy and speed in her than I did at this point. And I found myself alone in the dark again.
Finally, I could see lights in the distance. I had made it to the turnaround aid station at mile 15.5! It was amazing how seeing those lights boosted my spirits after miles of running in the dark. This was the most extravagant aid station yet. They had just about every snack and beverage you can imagine. And there was a row of camping chairs I didn’t dare to sit down in, knowing that I would never want to get back up. I scarfed down a slice of cold watermelon and several more pickles. I chatted with the volunteers and with other runners, putting off the inevitability of heading back out into the dark. But I knew that the longer I stayed here, the longer it would be before I finished. So after a few minutes of rest and refueling, I reluctantly strapped my hydration pack back on and hit the road again.
Again, I was alone. I considered how different this was from my road marathons, in which there were always other runners around, and usually plenty of spectators cheering from the sidelines. In my road races, I almost never took long walking breaks; out here in the forest, they were a necessity for getting up steep hills and taking drinks from my water bottle without falling on my face. During a road race, my primary focus was to maintain a certain pace; here on the trail, all I was worried about was staying hydrated and conserving enough energy to finish, no matter how long it might take me. Despite my slow progress, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was actually on pace to finish well under cutoff. That was when I knew I could do this. I didn’t have to go fast, I just had to keep moving forward. And I made up my mind that I was going to enjoy myself in the process!
And even in the darkness, it turned out there was still plenty of nature to enjoy. It had been cloudy all evening. But finally the clouds broke, and I got a glimpse through the treetops of the sparkling white moon for which this race was named. I stopped and tried to get a picture with my phone, but my fogged-up lens did no justice to the beauty of that sky. A little further down the road, I spotted a salamander walking across the trail. I’ve found many salamanders under rocks and logs, but this was the first time I’d seen one out and about. I’d heard stories from other runners about copperheads encountered on this trail and wondered if I would see one. I wasn’t disappointed, and found one crossing the road a couple miles past the salamander. I stopped to snap a picture of the little fellow; then he went his way, and I went mine. I also spotted a possum who looked very confused by my bright light shining in his face.
It seemed to take forever to make it back to the 8 mile aid station, but finally I could hear the music and see the colorful disco ball lights in the distance. The lights had been fun to look at when I came through the first time at dusk, but they were simply spectactular after another long leg of my journey in the dark. I didn’t stay too long, because I could almost taste the finish line with so many miles behind me, and I was ready to be done! By the time I made it to the 3.5 mile aid station, I could tell that I was chafing pretty badly on my thigh and under my hydration pack, so I gratefully applied some of the Vaseline they’d set out for us on the table. I also popped a couple of Aleve… I wasn’t in any more pain than usual for this long of a run, but it was there and I figured it couldn’t hurt. I thanked the volunteers, and set out for the last leg of the journey.
After a distance that seemed much further than the couple miles it was, I felt the gravel beneath my feet give way to a harder surface. I was back on the pavement! I knew I was almost finished now! I won’t say that my exhausted legs were capable of working up a sprint, but they did manage a slightly faster clip than I’d been running for the past several miles. I even caught up with a couple other runners, and we exchanged words of encouragement as I passed by.
At long last, there it was… the right hand turn leading down the hill to the finish! I was thoroughly exhausted, and don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to cross a finish line. Melanie was there to congratulate me. Wes and Tee were waiting for me too, even though Tee had finished the 25k several hours earlier. Once again, I was so thankful to be part of such an encouraging, supportive community of runners. I had only known these people a few weeks, yet I felt like I was among family.
Then came the hour long drive back home. I was grateful for the Starbucks Double Shot can I’d had the foresight to throw in my cooler earlier that day (wait – actually earlier YESTERDAY!) It was over. The race I had intermittently looked forward to, dreaded, and wondered multiple times over the past couple of months if I would be able to finish at all. It was a very different experience from my road races. It even went a lot differently than I expected my first trail race would go, since I didn’t think I would run so much of it alone. But it was a good kind of different. This race made me realize anew that this body God has given me is capable of so much more than I give it credit for. It can take me on amazing adventures if simply have the courage to start, laying aside my fears and trusting God to carry me through the journey.
When I got home at about 3:30am, my muscles were so stiff that I could barely hobble into the house. And I had chafed so badly from my hydration pack that I couldn’t bring myself to face the shower; a quick sponge bath before bed would have to do. Okay… maybe I was just a little crazy for voluntarily doing all of this to myself. But when I finally collapsed into bed next to my sweet husband and started drifting off to sleep, I was already wondering… when can I do this again?
Thought I would write about a running experience that wasn’t a major race, but was still a big deal to me. I ran my first trail race this morning! After Joplin, I had the post-race blues with no other races on the calendar until Route 66 in November. So, on a whim, I searched RunningInTheUSA to see if there were any upcoming races here in Arkansas. I was pleasantly surprised to find the “Catsmacker Fun Run” listed for this weekend, and it was only an hour away! And the best part? No entry fee! (Although donations were accepted to help cover the costs of the aid stations and post-race food.) There were two distance options: 12 miles and 21 miles. Although I knew I could complete 21 miles if I needed to, I opted for the 12 miler since this would only be a week after the Joplin Marathon, and I’m not used to running on trails.
I was a little bit nervous about running without a partner on an unfamiliar trail, so I made plans to run it with a friend I had met during my first marathon here in Arkansas. Sadly, she had to cancel last minute. So, after getting up before dawn and following my GPS to Lake Sylvia, I found myself in a large group of seasoned trail runners not knowing a single soul. It was a rather intimidating way to start my first trail race. I went to fill up my handheld water bottle, and found that the rubber stopper had come out of the lid, so I would have to carry it very carefully the whole distance to keep it from splashing all over myself. Great. I hadn’t even started the run yet, and already, nothing was going to plan.
Fortunately, runners are some of the friendliest people around, and I soon found myself chatting with other people who said I was welcome to run with their group if I needed a partner. I was getting excited about the run again by the time we gathered for the trail briefing. The atmosphere was very low key and non-competitive. It didn’t feel like the beginning of a race, it felt like we were about to set off on an adventure together! I’ve always loved hiking, camping, and any other activity that involves being out in nature. Distance running is a relatively recent hobby I’ve taken up over the past couple years, and until today I had only seriously run on roads and the occasional rail trail. How cool was it that I was about to embark on a journey that combined two things I love!
There were no guns or horns to announce the beginning of the race, just the race director saying “Ready, set, go!” And off we went. I’m glad I didn’t look at the course elevation profiles before we ran, because I might not have been brave enough to sign up! The first 3 miles of gravel forest road were a steady uphill slope. I kept hoping that as we turned a bend, the road would level out, but it didn’t. At the 3 mile mark, we turned off the road to an extremely steep, rocky trail. I had to walk up the trail… even if I could have handled the steep incline, I was too worried about tripping on a rock to attempt to run. The climb was challenging enough even at a walk – my heart rate monitor read 180bpm, which is my usual heart rate for a moderately fast run! But the view at the top seemed to melt the previous miles away. Many of us stopped and took pictures. There was also a pile of blue cable ties for us to take as proof that we had climbed the challenging trail. After a quick picture, I grabbed my cable tie and headed back down.
As I made the descent, I found the courage to run a bit down segments of the trail that didn’t look too rocky. I was afraid of falling, but amazingly, the only time I came close to a fall on this run was when we were back on the relatively easy forest road and I wasn’t paying attention to a rock in my path. Soon we turned off the forest road again onto a single track mountain bike trail. I caught up to some other runners who offered to let me pass, but I was glad to have some running partners to make sure I didn’t get lost! It turned out that all three of them were members of a running club in Conway! I’m hoping to join them on some group runs in the future. Running here will be so much more fun with others who know the area and can introduce me to good routes.
Chatting with my new friends made the miles fly by. Unfortunately, my Baton Rouge legs were really feeling the hills by the time we neared the end of the race. I didn’t feel like pushing hard would be a good idea in the humidity and rising temperature, so I let my friends pull ahead and ran by myself for the last couple of miles. At this point, I was really glad I had only signed up for the 12 miler instead of attempting the full 21. I finally rounded the bend back into the start/finish area, where volunteers were busy cooking us hamburgers and hot dogs. My new friends were there to congratulate me on my first trail run. We all went down to the pier at Lake Sylvia to dip our feet in the water, and I couldn’t resist jumping in, running clothes and all! The cool water was so refreshing after the hot run, and felt great on my achy muscles. Lake Sylvia has a special place in my heart as it is one of the places Joshua often visited as a child, and the only other time I’ve been here was when we came for a swim day with his family while we were dating.
After my swim, I had some potato salad and chips, then headed back to the car for the drive home. My pace had been slow. Despite trying to be careful with my broken bottle cap, I ended up wearing a lot of my Tailwind rather than drinking it. According to my Garmin, we had ascended 1,248 feet throughout the course of the race, which made my previous “hilly” runs look like child’s play. By the ache in my legs, I suspected that I would be more sore from my 12 miler today than I was after the Joplin Marathon last weekend. But… how does the saying go? “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” I know that difficult courses like these will make me a stronger runner. And despite the difficulty, I really enjoyed my first trail run. It was like hiking, except I got to go further and see more! And I was thrilled to find what a strong running community this part of Arkansas has. I can’t wait to see what new adventures and friends Arkansas will bring to my running journey.
I just had the privilege of running the inaugural Joplin Memorial Marathon. The event evolved from Joplin’s Boomtown Days Half Marathon, which was cancelled in 2011 due to the EF5 tornado that claimed 161 lives and demolished thousands of homes and businesses. Many runners who were registered for the cancelled race came anyway to help however they could in the tornado’s aftermath. Since that day, the race has continued annually as the Joplin Memorial Run. For the first time this year, a full marathon was added to the event.
This marathon was especially meaningful because I would be running it with a friend, Carey Oster, who I knew from the church I attended as a teenager in Florida. He lost his father and sister in the tornado. He took up distance running so he could run in their memory at the first Joplin Memorial Half Marathon. Before I became a distance runner, I used to read his posts on Facebook and be amazed at his accomplishments in running so far. But more than that, I was amazed and humbled at his faith which remained so strong in the face of such a great loss. Running is more than just a physical activity to him, it’s a way for him to express his faith and trust in God. Seeing that faith has been a huge encouragement and inspiration to me in my own running journey. It was a privilege getting to run with someone who has inspired me so much, probably without even knowing it!
The trip up to Joplin was interesting. Joshua and I made the first leg of the trip from Baton Rouge on Thursday night, May 19. We decided that since I would be starting my new job in Arkansas on June 11, it would make sense to combine my trip to Joplin with our move to Conway. So, we had spent the previous week packing up all our material possessions and loading them into the UHaul. When Joshua got off work on Thursday, we divided our three cats, two dogs, and lizard between the UHaul and my PT Cruiser, and off we went. It was well after dark when we arrived at the house we will be inheriting from Joshua’s mom (the three of us will be living together here for a few months while we build her a smaller house on the property.)
Friday morning was spent unloading the UHaul, with me fervently hoping that I wouldn’t drop something on my toes… I needed those for the race tomorrow! Finally we got everything unloaded, and started the chaotic process of unpacking. Finding places for all your things in a house where someone is already living adds a whole new challenge to moving in. I was pretty stressed out as the time drew closer for me to leave for packet pickup. I hated leaving such a mess for my family and friends to deal with, not to mention our menagerie of scared, confused animals. But that was just the way it worked out. I threw my overnight bag into the PT Cruiser, hoping I’d done a good job packing when I put my race gear in it a couple days before.
My mood improved a bit when, on my way out of the driveway, I found a package in the mailbox containing my beautiful new Marathon Maniacs singlet. Perfect timing! Joshua had bought me a singlet for my birthday earlier that week, but it was too big and I had to exchange it. I wasn’t sure if the new one would arrive in time for this race.
The drive from Conway to Joplin was beautiful. The interstate took me through some gorgeous mountains around Fayetteville. At one point, it literally took me through a mountain. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but the long straight stretch of road going towards that tiny tunnel in the mountain definitely made my heart beat a little faster!
After a little less than four hours, I arrived at the expo. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a lady walk by with a Boston finisher’s jacket! The expo was one of the nicest I’ve been to. We picked up our bibs at the entrance, and then wove our way through the vendors’ tables to pick up our participant shirts at the exit. It was fun chatting with the vendors. There was even a booth for the Baton Rouge Beach Marathon. I have never run this race, but frequently used much of their course around the LSU lakes for my training runs in Baton Rouge. I really enjoyed visiting with the race director. Turns out he is a regular at the vet school, where he brings his dogs when they need medical attention. I wondered if I had ever seen them when I was a student there! There were lots of great deals on running apparel and accessories at the expo, but I tried not to go too crazy. I did splurge on some magnetic “RaceDots” which hold your bib on without puncturing your clothes like a safety pin. I’ve always been intrigued by them, and thought now would be a good time to try them out since I wanted to take good care of my beautiful new Maniac singlet. (I liked the RaceDots, except for the fact that the top and bottom ones would stick together whenever I bent over, and I would have to peel them back apart. Oh well! They did their job of keeping my singlet in pristine condition!)
After exiting the expo, I met Carey, who had been volunteering there all day and had taken a break to get a bite to eat. It was so good to see each other! It had been eight years since we both moved away from Florida, he to Joplin and I to Searcy, Arkansas for my freshman year of college at Harding. We headed to his house where I was greeted by his wife Shirley and their two adorable Shih Tzus. They reminded me of Oliver, the sweet little Shih Tzu I used to dog sit for them when I lived in Florida.
By the time I got my stuff inside, it was time to head back out to the Walk of Silence. This takes place the evening before the race and is open to the public. Carey, Shirley, and I joined about 1,000 other people walking down Joplin avenue, a record number for the event. On either side of the street were 161 banners, each with the name of someone who lost their life in the tornado five years ago. My heart hurt for these families who had lost so much. And at the same time, I was humbled and encouraged by their faith and resilience which has carried them through such unimaginable loss.
After the walk, we went to a local bar and grill for a belated birthday celebration – Carey and I shared a birthday earlier that week on May 16th! We met some of his running friends there, a really fun group many of whom would be running the half marathon tomorrow. It was 10pm by the time we left, and I tried not to think about how early I would need to be up for the 6:30 race start the next morning.
I got to bed at around 11:00 and slept like a rock until my alarm went off at 4:30. I was so tempted to hit the snooze button, but knew I would regret it later if I didn’t give myself enough time for some breakfast and coffee. Since the house was only a few blocks away, Carey and I walked to the start line to meet some of his friends before the race. The walk was a great little warm up in the cool of the morning. Carey introduced me to Ben, a friend of his who would be running his first full marathon and planned to run about my pace. Before we started, we gathered in a circle and Carey led a prayer, praying that we would place our faith in God in the coming miles and trust Him even through the painful moments. I’m always a little nervous before a race, and this was just what I needed to calm my racing heart – a reminder that God would be with us every step of the way, just as He has been in my previous marathons and in my many miles of training.
I had decided when I completed Oshkosh four weeks ago that I would not attempt a PR at Joplin. I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment with hotter weather and a hillier course. And besides that, I felt like I had missed a lot of the race experience at Oshkosh with all my energy focused on maintaining my pace. This was a special race, and I wanted to slow down enough to take everything in. It felt a little strange starting a race without any real goal or strategy besides simply finishing. I had prayed last night that God would keep me from worrying about pace or time, and simply let me run this race in a way that honored Him.
After the anthem was sung, we made our way to the start line. We all ran together for about the first mile, at which point Ben and I pulled ahead. It was great having a running buddy and no real time or pace expectations. We ran the first 12 miles or so together, walking every couple of miles for a water break. The miles flew by as we chatted. He was in training for some triathlons later in the summer, something I’ve always been interested in but never had the courage to sign up for. Sadly at about mile 12 his knee started giving him some issues, so I pulled ahead by myself. (Ben did end up pushing through the pain and finishing his first marathon strong! It was such a pleasure meeting him, and I hope to see him at a future race. Maybe one day he can help me get through my first triathlon!)
The course was very hilly throughout. I’m probably in the minority here, but I actually enjoy hills. Flat courses can be monotonous, and the repetitiveness is hard on my muscles and joints. But hills force me to constantly adjust my form and stride, giving some muscle groups a break while others work harder. And I just love the feeling of being carried down by a downhill slope as I catch my breath after a challenging climb. The terrain reminded me a lot of Jonesboro Arkansas, where I ran my long standing half marathon PR of 2:01.
I got to meet some other runners along the way. One lady had a dog portrait tattooed on her shoulder which I complimented as I caught up with her. We ran together for a bit as she told me about her beloved little pup who likes to ride in a backpack on hiking trips.
I saw lots of fellow Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics on the course, and I loved the feeling of instant friendship as we waved and cheered each other on. I got really excited around mile 20 when I caught up to a fellow Maniac wearing the same new lightning print top that I was wearing! It still doesn’t feel real that I’m part of this incredible group. Many of them have hundreds of marathons on their running resumes, so when a fellow Maniac asked me how many I had run, I felt a little sheepish telling them that this was “only” my fifth!
The water stops were fantastic. Many had energizing music, and at least three of them had ice water soaked towels for us to wipe off our sweaty necks and faces. I gratefully squeezed the towels out onto my head before tossing them aside (and I wonder why my hair is so messy at the end of a marathon!) One sweet volunteer spotted me pouring Tailwind powder into my water bottle as I approached her water stop, and she was ready with a big jug of water to fill it up when I arrived. I also loved the superhero themed water stop with all the volunteers in costume. One young man held a sign which said something to the effect of, “Touch here for power!” and I gladly hit the button. I think it even helped a little!
The volunteers were all enthusiasm as they cheered us on, and high fives were plentiful. It was freeing not being so tied to a pace goal that I missed out on all these fun aspects of the race. I felt relaxed, even as the miles wore on and the now familiar end-of-marathon aches crept into my legs. I even allowed myself a quick porta potty break around mile 20, which I probably could have made it without… but why be uncomfortable when you don’t have to be? One of the volunteers gave me a good laugh in the last couple of miles when he shouted that he loved my outfit – that if he were a girl, and if he ran marathons, that’s what he would wear. I guess the new Maniac singlets do make for a pretty crazy looking outfit… but they are so fitting for the crazy group they represent! I did a lot of smiling throughout this marathon, and made a point of thanking everyone I could for making it such a great experience.
The most emotional part of the event for me was the last turn back onto Joplin Avenue. It was a long, straight stretch of road to the finish line, where once again we passed the banners carrying the names of the 161 people in whose memory we were running. I couldn’t feel sorry for myself as I ran this last half mile. Compared to everything that the people of Joplin went through five years ago, my physical pain was so insignificant. It was a privilege getting to be here, running in their honor, and in support of the loved ones they left behind. I didn’t know any of them on this earth, but someday in Heaven I look forward to meeting the people behind the names on those banners.
Finally the finish line was close enough that I felt I could work up my end-of-race sprint. And I did. Though the vast majority of the spectators didn’t know me, they cheered like I was family, and the announcer made as big a deal of my middle-of-the-pack finish as if I had been the winner. I was all smiles as I accepted my finisher’s medal, as well as a beautiful finisher’s hat that I didn’t know we would be receiving!
I found Carey in the finishers’ area, and we congratulated each other. He and his friends had had a great half marathon. I really appreciated them waiting around for me to finish long after they did. I made my way to the results tent, where they were printing out nice finisher’s certificates for each person who completed the race. 4:22:53. I was pretty happy with that, especially for a race in which I didn’t push too far out of my comfort zone, and even made a bathroom stop! When I turned from the results tent, I was delighted to see my Facebook friend Jessica Jones who had finished a little while earlier. Although she lives in Louisiana and we had run three of the same marathons previously, we had never managed to meet each other in person until today! She had run the full marathon today while her sister had run the half. Since her sister lives in Little Rock, I imagine that we’ll be seeing each other again!
It was great being able to go back to the Osters’ house for a leisurely shower before facing the 4 hour drive back to Conway. In most of my previous races, I’ve had to jump straight into the car to endure a trip in my stinky running clothes. After I got cleaned up, I proudly donned my participant tank and finisher’s hat. Every gas stop on the way back would know that I ran the Joplin Marathon today! I said my good byes to Carey and Shirley and hopped in the car, hoping that it wouldn’t be another 8 years before I saw this sweet couple again.
What a special weekend this had been. What a privilege to be a part of it. What a reminder that every day is a gift we cannot take for granted. May I live my life in recognition of this fact. May it be reflected in the way I treat those around me, especially the loved ones I am closest to.
Saturday , 4/23/2016
Well, here I am in a Motel 6 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, ready to run my fourth marathon. Hard to believe my first one was only last December! While I’m very excited to run tomorrow, and am looking forward to enjoying a beautiful course, I still felt a little sick to my stomach this morning as I drove up from Winthrop Harbor. (I’m staying up here for an externship in Menomonee Falls – my last clinical block before graduation in 2 weeks.) Mixed with the excitement is still some anxiety and fear of failure. Dare I seriously hope to achieve my goal of a 4 hour marathon tomorrow? Or will I do well the first half, only to crash and burn the second half like I did during 3 Bridges four months ago? What if I hit the wall so hard that I can’t finish at all? The list of “what ifs” is endless. I wonder if I will ever get to a point where I am NOT nervous the night before a marathon?
It has been 6 weeks since I ran a 4:13:50 at Zydeco. I have been following the Hal Higdon “multiple marathons” training plans, and training has been going pretty well. I have been continuing to incorporate a little speed work into my training, and it is definitely helping my times. My short tempo runs for the past couple of weeks have frequently averaged under 9 minutes per mile, and I recently ran a hilly 5k where I averaged 8 minutes per mile. Weather up here in Wisconsin has been ideal for training – much cooler and less humid than Baton Rouge. The one thing that makes me a little nervous regarding my readiness to tackle this marathon is that I have unexpectedly been having a difficult time adapting to crushed gravel trails, which will make up a significant portion of this course. I found some similar terrain to train on in Winthrop Harbor. I actually ran 10 miles last weekend on a crushed gravel trail at my goal marathon pace, and felt great while doing it. But the next couple of days, my calves were incredibly stiff and sore. Seriously? It can’t be good to be that sore during taper week. I thought softer terrain was supposed to be easier on your muscles and joints.
Well, all I can do at this point is take a deep breath, resolve to do my best tomorrow, and trust God with the outcome. If tomorrow is the day He wants me to succeed in my goal, He will give me the strength I need to sprint across that finish line. If that isn’t in His plan, then may I at least run my race in a way that glorifies Him. Instead of worrying about my times, may I remember to be thankful for the gift of being able to run at all!
It’s amazing how you can simultaneously feel joy, victory, relief, frustration, and disappointment. But those are exactly the emotions I was feeling as I crossed the finish line of the Oshkosh Marathon. Let me back up to the beginning.
The morning started out quite chilly. I got up at 4:30am in my lonely little room in Motel 6 so that I would have time to get ready for the marathon, check out of my room, and go find a parking spot in plenty of time before the race started. Parking was very easy to find, even for someone as directionally challenged as myself, so I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I walked to the nearby host hotel to keep warm and enjoy some of the free coffee. It was fun meeting and chatting with other runners… some girls running their first half marathon, a lady who had just completed Boston last weekend and was part of a relay team today, even a few fellow Marathon Maniacs.
I had made up my mind to try to stick with the 4 hour pacers for as long as possible today. The more sensible part of me kept saying that I was crazy, that my half marathon PR was over 2 hours, and it would be ridiculous to try to beat that pace for a FULL marathon. I decided that I was not going to think about that. I would just try my best and go with the flow today. What’s the worst that could happen? I might crash and have to finish the second half a lot slower than the first. But if I never tried, I would never know.
The race started cold and overcast. As we waited at the start area, I was shivering and thankful for the compression sleeves I had decided to put on at the last minute this morning. The first few miles of the race were pretty crowded as we shared the course with the half marathoners. Our pace group was going fast. Many of our miles were below 9 minutes so that we would have time to walk through the water stations. Not long ago, I couldn’t run sub-9’s for a 5k. But when that annoying little voice in my mind kept telling me I couldn’t keep this up, I just kept telling it to shut up and let me try.
As I warmed up, I found that this weather was really perfect for running. It was cool but not too cold, and overcast enough to keep the sun from beating down on us. I pushed down my sleeves and enjoyed the breeze on my bare arms. Surprisingly, the fast pace didn’t feel that bad. Soon we made it to the trail portion of the marathon, an out and back on the Wiouwash Trail near Lake Butte Des Mortes. I was too focused on pace to really pay much attention to the scenery, but what I did take in made me really want to come back and visit this trail for a leisurely training run someday. It was flat, well maintained crushed gravel, which felt great after several miles of pounding the pavement. Much of the trail was shaded with a canopy of trees. I knew I was in Wisconsin when the trail passed right next to a dairy, and a row of Holstein cows glanced up from their breakfast at us with bored expressions.
This photo must have been taken quite early in the race, judging by the fact that I am still smiling! (Photo credit: Mark Messer)
The miles flew by as I chatted with fellow runners, especially our pace group leaders Cassie and Mike. They had both run many marathons, of course, and even some Ironmans! I love listening to the stories and nuggets of wisdom from more experienced runners. Before I knew it, we had made it to the half marathon marker, and I was still with the 4 hour pace group. I looked down at my Garmin, and sure enough, I had completed the first 13.1 miles in less than 2 hours. Again, that annoying voice told me that it is stupid to run half marathon PR’s when you are shooting for a marathon PR. But here I was. Nothing to do but keep going now.
As the miles went on, I felt them start to weigh on me. Somehow, I was still managing to keep up with the pace group, but my legs were feeling heavier, and it was getting much harder both to put my brakes on at the water stations and to start running again after a few moments at a stiff walk. Cassie and Mike kept telling me how well I was doing and that they were sure I would accomplish my sub-4:00, but I did not share their confidence. I felt like I was going to hit the wall at any moment. My breathing, usually well controlled during a marathon, was coming out in gasps that sounded like an asthmatic old lady who had never run a mile in her life. To be honest, I was starting to panic a little. How long could I keep this up? I had stayed with the pace group this long. I didn’t want to let my new friends down and give up on my goal after sticking with them for so many miles.
But at mile 25, that’s exactly what happened. There was some confusion about what pace we needed to maintain to get our sub-4:00, due to a discrepancy between the mile markers and the mileage displayed on our Garmins. It turned out that we didn’t have as much of a time cushion as we thought, and would need to pick up the pace a bit to finish on time. The pacers had the energy to push to a perfect 4 hour finish, but all I could do was watch helplessly as they pulled further and further ahead of me. At this point, I was just ready to be done. I was pushing as hard as I could, but my legs felt like jelly. When the finish line came into view, I had nothing left to give… no victorious sprint like I can usually muster at the end of a race. As I jogged rather anti-climactically over the timing mat, I was simply thankful it was over.
When I staggered over to the results board and found my chip time, it read 4:01:18. It was a PR by over 12 minutes compared to my last marathon. It also got me second place in my age group. But mixed with my excitement about these things, there was still some disappointment. It was a tough pill to swallow that I had run 25 miles on track to achieve my crazy 4 hour goal, only to have it taken away from me at literally the last mile.
I had never felt so exhausted at the end of a marathon, and could barely walk on my stiff, tired legs. An unexpected surprise was a free stretch and massage area put on by a local chiropractic clinic. I took full advantage, flopping face down on the nearest table and receiving the best massage I’ve ever had. I was so grateful to these strangers volunteering their time to ease the aches of stinky, sweaty runners’ bodies. In the future, I must remember to carry some cash with me so that I can at least give a little tip to such volunteers for their services.
I wanted to go straight home afterwards, but there was supposed to be an awards ceremony starting at noon. Since I had placed in my age group, I decided to wait. It was raining at this point, and I was shivering uncontrollably. I would have given a lot for a mylar blanket like the ones handed out to us at the end of the Louisiana Marathon. A kind fellow runner took pity on me and let me borrow her jacket for awhile. After waiting an hour and a half with no sign of the awards ceremony, I questioned several volunteers and found out that it had been cancelled due to some trophies not arriving in time. The awards would be mailed to us instead. So, I had just stood shivering in the rain for the past hour for no reason. Lovely.
I found my way back to my car. I had never been so thankful for a good heater, which quickly warmed and dried my cold, wet body. As I made the 2 hour drive back to Winthrop Harbor, I reflected on the race. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t pretty. It was actually the first marathon that I failed to achieve the goal I set out to: at 3 Bridges, my goal was just to finish, and I finished. At Louisiana and Zydeco, my goals were to stay with the 4:30 and 4:15 pace groups, respectively, and I actually finished a couple minutes ahead of each one. Today I tried as hard as I could to stick with the 4 hour pacers, and I came just short of the mark. That was humbling.
But it was a great learning experience. Not every race is supposed to be perfect. Some races are all about the challenge. You’ll never know what your body is capable of if you stay within the comfort zone of paces and splits you know you can achieve. I now know what it feels like to run a marathon with all your heart (quite literally) to the point where your legs are exhausted and simply refuse to do what you want them to any longer. And even if I didn’t achieve my goal, there was satisfaction in knowing that I truly gave it my all.
The next marathon on my schedule is Joplin next month, and then no more until Route 66 in November. I plan to take Joplin at an easier pace and just enjoy it. I’m ready for a break from attempting to break PR’s at every race. Route 66 probably won’t be a PR either from all I have heard about the tough, hilly course. But after Oshkosh, I know my body is capable of achieving that sub-4:00 goal in the future if God continues to grant me the health and strength to train. Maybe someday I’ll even be fast enough to qualify for Boston. It seems like a crazy goal right now… but 4 months ago after my first marathon, at which I averaged an 11:17 pace, I would have thought that averaging a 9:08 pace was impossible. Yet that is exactly what I did today! Nothing is impossible with God, and it is amazing what He has made our bodies capable of when we put our hearts and minds into using them to their full potential.
I signed up for the Zydeco Marathon shortly after completing the Louisiana Marathon in January. It would complete the series of 3 marathons in 90 days qualifying me to join Marathon Maniacs! It would also be the weekend I got home from a month-long externship in Arkansas, which would be a fun way to celebrate before starting my next clinical rotation.
I knew from looking at the elevation map that this marathon would be more hilly than the races I had previously run. Fortunately, Arkansas had plenty of hills for me to train on, and throughout the weeks of my externship, I tackled those hills with enthusiasm. (Ok, some days I managed to muster more enthusiasm than others!) Maybe, just maybe if I got enough hill workouts in, I would be able to beat my previous PR despite the hills. I also started making a point of drinking a protein shake after every workout, since I had recently read that this helps to prevent muscle breakdown after a run.
As race weekend approached, I started to get nervous as I watched the weather forecast. Thunderstorms until the morning of the marathon, which would clear into sunny weather climbing into the high 70s with humidity at 92%. This was much warmer and more humid than the beautiful, cool winter weather I had enjoyed during training and during my previous two marathons. Oh well, nothing I could do about it. I decided I would still try to stay with my goal pace group, but if I had to fall behind due to the weather conditions, I wouldn’t beat myself up about it. The goal was to finish. And regardless of my finishing time, this would still be an exciting day as I would qualify for Marathon Maniacs! No matter what, during my next race, I would proudly be wearing official Maniac gear that would let the world know I was a proud member of this fun and awesome group.
Joshua and I stayed at a hotel in Lafayette with our dogs Terra and Jasper the night before the marathon. I found myself surprisingly relaxed that evening compared to my usual state of pre-race jitters. I guess I wasn’t as nervous because I knew I had achieved this distance twice before, and I had let go of any real time expectations. It’s very freeing when you decide to just go with the flow for a race. Joshua and I just enjoyed the evening, and didn’t even go to bed very early despite the fact that we had to get up at 5:00, and would lose an hour of sleep that night due to daylight savings.
Joshua dropped me off at the start line the morning of the race, and I weaved my way through the crowd toward the pacers. Last time I had run with the 4:30 group, so this time I decided I would try to stick with the next group up – 4:15 – for as long as I could. Joshua’s text of “Good luck, beautiful” put a big smile on my face before I started. I fingered the necklace he had gotten me a few weeks ago for Valentine’s Day, with its tiger’s eye heart pendant very similar to one he had gotten me on our honeymoon which I had sadly lost. How lucky was I to have such a sweet, thoughtful husband who supported me in these races? I was in a very good mood as we set out on the first mile.
It was a very humid start. The air was foggy, and puddles still lined the roads from the previous night’s rain. I looked at my watch to see our average pace so far… about 9:30. This was a pace I never dared to try on my long training runs, and I laughed a bit as I prayed, “God… if I manage to keep up this pace throughout a whole 26.2 miles, it’s all going to be by Your strength. Please help me run a good race.”
Surprisingly though, I felt pretty good as the miles went on and the heat gradually increased. During the Louisiana Marathon, I often fell behind the bouncing cat sign with the 4:30 on it. But today I managed to stay beside the 4:15 sign’s carriers, and sometimes even pull out a short distance ahead of them. Sean Broadbent and Sabrina Seher were our team leaders, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to chat with them during the early miles of the race. I felt good enough during those early miles to speed up at the first several water stops when I needed water to mix up some more Tailwind, and that made catching up with the pace group much easier afterwards. There were some hills, as promised, but thanks to my hill training in Arkansas, they really didn’t feel bad at all. I am finding that I actually enjoy hills, in moderation, because they use different muscles than running on a flat surface and keep the run from feeling so exhaustingly repetitive.
The first 12 miles of the race were very well supported by the community. There were lots of people in their front yards cheering for us. One of my favorite moments was running past a lady sitting in her front yard as she shouted encouragement to the music of “Chariots of Fire” blasting from her loudspeaker. Another fun moment was being cheered on by a bunch of people dressed up in Star Wars costumes! The best cheers though came from my dad, who used an app to track me through the race, and sent me regular cheers through my phone. It was almost like having him actually there with me, even though he was many miles away in Florida.
At mile 12, we split off from the half marathoners and the crowd support began to dwindle. There were fewer people running the full than the half, so the streets suddenly felt very empty. The water stops were still great though, especially the one where volunteers were handing out ice cold wet rags for us to combat the rising temperature.
At around mile 18, things started to get really tough. It was plain hot now with the sun beating down on us, and we passed increasing numbers of runners struggling with heat sickness who had to slow to a walk. I had brought four packets of Tailwind thinking that I probably wouldn’t get through them all, but I used and was thankful for every packet… especially later at the finish line when I saw the medical tent full of dehydrated runners on IV drips. Still, somehow, I was managing to keep pace with the 4:15 group. And a little voice inside me doggedly refused to give up this goal after coming so many miles with them.
The worst moment of the race was at mile 25. I was really struggling at this point to keep my pace. My heart rate, which usually hangs around 170 during a long distance run, was climbing into the 190s. But I was so close, I had to keep going. I reached for my heart pendant for inspiration, thinking about my sweet husband who would be waiting for me at the finish line. The chain was there… but the pendant was gone! It must have fallen off at some point in the previous miles. I felt sick. He had gone to so much trouble to get me a pendant like my honeymoon one, and I had lost this one too.
Well, I had to keep moving. Somehow, I still managed to stay just ahead of Sean, who said we were on track and encouraged me to keep pushing forward. When the finish line was in sight, I felt too spent to work up my normal ending sprint. That is, until another runner edged up beside me and started to pass me. We weren’t even in the same age group, so we really weren’t competing, but she still gave me the last burst of energy I needed to pick up my speed and run strong across that finish line, finishing in 4:13:50!
I found Joshua and our two dogs waiting for me at the finish area. I was elated… not only had I finished and achieved my goal of qualifying for Marathon Maniacs, but I had managed to PR ahead of the 4:15 pace group despite the horrid heat and humidity. But the day’s surprises were not over yet. When we went to check the official results, I was the only person listed so far in my age group! It turned out that one girl actually came in ahead of me, but her chip hadn’t registered when she crossed the finish line. Still, when the final results were in, I brought home a beautiful second place medal to hang next to my finisher’s medal.
I’m not sure why things went so well for me that day when they were so tough for a lot of other runners. Part of it was probably that I have found a fueling and hydration strategy that works really well for me. Part of it was definitely having excellent pacers and lots of support from loved ones. But I know that mostly it was God’s strength that kept me going, and I am so thankful that He sustained me through yet another 26.2 injury-free miles. It is truly a blessing to be able to run, and I hope I do it in a way that honors Him!
*Note: I purchased the images included in this blog, so I don’t feel too guilty about sharing the proofs! They will be replaced with scans of my purchased prints once they arrive in the mail.
Just ran my second marathon! I have to admit, I was worried about this one. I had only run my first marathon a month ago, and pre-race conditions this time around were less than ideal. The entire week leading up to the race, I had to get up super early to take care of my animal patients in ICU. This was something I did not anticipate since I was on Oncology, a rotation where you hardly ever have hospitalized patients, and even less frequently are they in ICU. Leave it to me to get both the ICU cases on the block, patients we were actually treating for medical problems completely unrelated to their cancer. Even Saturday, I had no chance to catch up on sleep, since I left at 5:30 to attend a herpetology field trip. A fun weekend, certainly, but it did not help to resolve my sleep deprivation. Besides all that, I hadn’t gotten as many training runs in as I wanted to over the past month, and I had even missed one of my short little taper runs which should have been easy to squeeze in. And I had not given nearly enough thought to my pre-race nutrition, having stuffed my face with king cake and other junk food during our school end-of-block party on Friday. I truly didn’t know how this was going to go… I’m still so new to this marathon running business. Oh well. I had already signed up for the race, and I was at least going to give it my best shot.
Fast forward to Sunday morning at 6:00, when my husband Joshua dropped me off at the St. Joseph Cathedral. I had heard that a priest there had the very creative idea of conducting a 26.2 minute mass, and I thought that sounded like a great way to kick off a marathon, especially one on Sunday that would prevent me from attending my own church service. I’m not Catholic, so it was a little awkward not knowing all the proper things to say and do throughout the service. But I enjoyed the Scripture readings, and they reminded me that even though the Catholic way is very different from what I’m used to, we both read from the same Scriptures and pray to the same God.
After mass, the priest was kind enough to invite us to use the church’s indoor bathrooms. After waiting in the long line, there was not much time left to get to the start line. Fortunately it was very well organized, with Marathon Maniac pacers holding signs with the maniac cat logo labeled with projected finish times. I spotted the cat with “4:30” written on it, and wiggled my way through the crowd to stand about 10 feet away. This was a much bigger race than I was used to. It was amazing and humbling being surrounded by so many other people who share my love of distance running, all of them about to embark on either the half or the full marathon distance.
I hardly had time to catch my breath before they asked us to take our hats off for the national anthem. After the anthem was sung, they let a group called Ainsley’s Angels start 5 minutes before the rest of us. I found out later that this is a group of runners who team up with people with disabilities, pushing them the entire way so that they can have the experience of completing a half marathon or marathon. The smiles on their faces in their finisher’s photos brought tears to my eyes. I take for granted the ability to run and the joy that it gives me. How wonderful that other runners are sharing this joy with people who never could have experienced it otherwise. Maybe one day I will be a strong enough runner to be able to share this joy with someone else.
And then, the rest of us were off. I had debated between trying to pace myself with my Garmin, or following the pace team. I decided it would be simpler to try to stick with the pace team for as long as possible. The team was led by Ryan Westin and Angie Pace, two super awesome Maniacs who encouraged us, coached us, and cheered us on throughout the course. They let us walk through water stops, but didn’t let us walk for so long that it would ruin our finish time. Every now and then, that little red cat would gradually bob away from me, but I decided that as long as I had the energy I would keep doing little sprints to catch back up to it. I had never run with a pace group before, and it was a very freeing experience not having to worry about checking my Garmin or watching for course directions. The only thing I had to worry about was keeping up with that cat!
Miles 1-5 were great. I dutifully sipped my Tailwind, having decided that I would try to consume 3 packets total. I only had 1 packet during 3 Bridges, and wondered if the lack of fuel might have contributed to my horrible drop in pace during the second half of the race. At Mile 8, I started to get worried that I would have to drop behind. I was starting to have intestinal cramps, even though I had used the bathroom twice before the race. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good idea to engorge myself so much during the end-of-block party at school the previous Friday. And my right foot was cramping terribly, a new and very painful problem that started a couple weeks ago while I was at school. It kept cramping up over the next few miles, and I kept trying to run it off, silently praying that God would give me the strength to get through this. Yes, I might have even prayed for God to get me through the race without having to waste time in a porta-potty. And He did! By around Mile 17, other things were starting to ache, and I still doubted my ability to keep this pace for the next 9 miles, but the horrible foot cramping had stopped, and for that I was thankful.
Throughout the race, I kept repeating to myself something that my dad had said to me on a recent 8 mile run with him at home in Florida. He coaches cross country, and we were talking about how some of his runners really struggle with distance training. He said something along the lines of, “I tell them not to think about how far they’ve gone or how far they still have to go. Just be in the moment, and focus on what you can control right now. Don’t worry if you’re out of breath, just wait for it, and it will come back.” Such simple advice, but something that I really needed at this moment. Especially during the last few miles when my legs were screaming at me and it was very hard NOT to think about how far they’d carried me and how far they still had to go.
Before I knew it, I was at Mile 25. Amazingly, I had managed to stay with the pace group the entire time, and the pacers were encouraging us to go on ahead if we had any last reserve of energy to do so. I dug deep and focused on my breathing, on maximizing the oxygen delivery to my tired muscles, having discovered in my training runs that if I breathe for the pace I want, my legs often discover that they have the strength to follow. I looked down at my watch and was surprised to see that my pace was below a 10:00 mile! In all my previous long runs and marathon, I was exhausted at this point and cranking out much slower miles than this, usually involving a lot of walking. I pressed on, breathing as deep as I could and even weaving around a few other runners near the finish line. Then I was close enough to the finish line to read the clock: it said 4:29:50. Now if I had stopped to think about it, I would have realized that the clock time would be slower than my chip time, since it took a couple minutes to cross the start line at the beginning. The pacers had said we were a full minute ahead of schedule, and they were behind me. But all my brain could think of at that moment in its hypoxia-induced fog was, “Oh, no… I did not work this hard to give up my 4:30 now!” And I sprinted with all the fumes I had left, crossing the finish line just in time.
After a few happy tears, I posed for pictures with my pace group, then wrapped myself in my Mylar blanket with my beautiful finisher’s medal proudly displayed around my neck, and I set out to find Joshua. I hadn’t seen him along the finisher’s chute, but I was so focused on my final sprint that I wasn’t really looking. When I did find him, he said he had just barely missed my finish. He had left church early to try to make it on time, but the estimate I had given him of a 4:30-5:00 finish turned out to be too slow. When we went to the results tent, I was ecstatic when they printed out my finish time: 4:28:10! A PR by over 30 minutes compared to 3 Bridges, and a time I hadn’t dared to seriously hope for in my sleep-deprived, junk food filled state.
Joshua and I wandered around the post-race tents for a while and he spoiled me rotten, letting me get my finisher’s medal engraved with my new PR, and buying me a hat and finisher’s jacket I really liked from the race merchandise area.
Then, we were off home. It’s very nice only having a 15 minute drive from the finish line to your house… I’m so used to doing out of town races where you still have a long drive to get through after you finish running. We stopped on the way home to get two bags of ice so I could have an ice bath when I got home. I sat there in the freezing water stiff and achy and chafed, but very happy. And I was already on my phone looking up other races I might be able to do in the next couple of months. Because I had done what once seemed impossible… I had run two marathons only 4 weeks apart. And despite the odds that I felt were against me, I even managed to PR by a huge margin! All things ARE possible through Christ who strengthens me. And if I can complete one more marathon before March 18, I will qualify for the Marathon Maniacs group I have admired for so long, and to whom I now owe a huge thanks for pacing me through a PR I didn’t think was possible that day, and that I certainly could not have achieved on my own.
Overall, it was a fantastic marathon. The crowd support was phenomenal… many homeowners who lived along the course had set up their own little aid stations, offering us water, bananas, beer, pancakes, you name it! Since my stomach doesn’t appreciate anything other than Tailwind while I’m running, I had to decline their offerings, but I appreciated their hospitality nonetheless. Even little kids were out in their front yards cheering enthusiastically, which was especially impressive since we were not the fastest runners out there, so they had to have been at it awhile before we finally passed them. One of my favorite moments was when a little girl shouted to us at the top of her lungs, “You can do it! I BELIEVE in you!!”
There are many things I will not miss about living in Baton Rouge when the time comes for us to move away… the traffic, the hot humid weather, the high crime neighborhood in which we currently live. But I saw a side of Baton Rouge today that I hadn’t seen before, and was touched by the hospitality and encouragement of many of its residents as they stood outside in the cold to cheer us on, fast and slow runners alike. That’s a part of Baton Rouge I will miss when we leave, and I’m glad I got to see it. Thanks for a great race, Louisiana Marathon! I would love to run you again someday!