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Race Autopsy, Part 2: Execution

February 12, 2013

During our months of training, I drove Little G and Fern, our trainer, crazy with my fears and doubts about the 26.2 distance. I had two previous attempts at the marathon under my belt. In March 2009, I had trained alone, and arrived at the starting line feeling very tired and spent. I was determined to run a conservative race, and though I knew I couldn’t predict how I would do at my first marathon, I really hoped to finish in 4:30 or under. I accomplished my goal by the smallest of margins, getting a 4:30:04 chip time, but it was a miserable experience, as I ran the race in a complete downpour and finished demoralized, wet, and shivering. And yes, there was plenty of walking in those last five miles. Then, in November 2010, I trained with Little G for the Space Coast Marathon, and though I felt stronger and faster than ever, I got injured before I ever made it to the race. I ran the companion half marathon instead, in tears and pain. Since then, I had been too scared of the volume of training required by the marathon, of my own propensity for injury, and of the distance itself, to want to sign up for another attempt.

I know who I am as a runner. I love to run, but when I enter a race, I have no desire to watch scenery, take great pictures, or enjoy conversation with the other athletes–at least not on the race course. When I step up to the line, my competitive juices come out, and I run to race. So running another marathon easy was out of the question. I had an easy marathon under my belt. When I signed up for another, I wanted to race it. Finding Fern and her training methods was perfect, because she honed my speed, which I wanted so badly, and mitigated my risk of injury, which I feared.

I wanted to try the distance again, and we thought Tallahassee was a great place to do it. The course is fast and straight, and Little G and I don’t mind small races with little crowd support. A Florida race meant low travel costs, and we lowered those even further by staying with her mother for race weekend. Better yet, we knew a nearby race would mean having someone available to act as our support crew along the course.

But I also knew, as I signed up for the race, that racing the marathon meant this one would be like my first one, all over again. I knew that I had no experience at the kind of mental toughness and physical pain I’d have to endure. And this time, I wanted to go into it with my eyes wide open. I didn’t want to start the race at an easy pace–I had done that, and learned that, no matter how smart you start, running, after the 20-mile mark, is always an exhausting, terrifying proposition. If I was going to be rendered mindless with exhaustion and pain at 20 miles anyway, at least I wanted to get there as fast as possible.

Throughout training, and even in the days before the race, the fear of the distance threatened to paralyze me. I stood at the start line, shivering, in a small cluster of people, thinking, “What am I doing?” But when we started running all that went out of my head. I knew only running, and running fast. My heart and lungs didn’t struggle with the pace, nor did my legs, though fear swirled about my head as I considered whether I could hold that pace for 26 miles. Still, I ran on, ignoring the first bouts of cramping pain, and was feeling well enough to lead Little G for much of miles 14 through 20. At the 20-mile mark I turned to her and said, “It’s a 10k from here,” and though we were both tired and hurting, we were still moving, as a team.

I was right, in some ways, to fear the distance. Racing the 26.2 was more difficult, more exhausting, more painful than I had imagined, and it started to hurt much earlier than I had expected. It’s why I said with such conviction, to anyone within earshot those first few post-marathon days, “I will never run another.”

But I have learned this: I finished the race. Somehow, my legs, my heart, and my lungs got themselves wrapped around the ridiculous feat of running 26.2 miles, and in spite of every obstacle, I finished well. Though my legs were hard to move for the next three days, and though our first run back six days later was still humbling (our quads, it turns out, are not fully healed), I didn’t die, I met my goals, and I am thankful for the experience–yes, for every mile I spent on that tree-lined, lonely trail.

After a slow and painful run Saturday, Little G and I met Fern again, for our final postrace debriefing. She was smiling ear-to-ear, and a little smug. Yes, we are dreaming together of next season. Little G’s time qualifies her for Boston, and I’m bothered enough by my six minutes over four hours to be dreaming of another attempt at breaking the four-hour barrier. Fern thinks I can do it, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, in a year, I might be able to face the agony again. We’re talking about changes we’ll make to our fueling, hydration, and nutrition, looking forward to tweaking our marathon experience a little at a time.

And our dreams are growing . . . We each have a half marathon best time just under 1:50, and we are realizing we’ve never raced a half as hard as we raced this marathon. What could we be capable of at 13.1 miles, with Fern’s race-specific speed intervals and the resolution to be willing to hurt, even from the first mile? As we look toward the fall, we are hoping to race a half marathon on the way to a spring 26.2. Notice we’re spreading our races out: Little G hopes to run Boston in April, and I’m likely to return to Tally. Frank Shorter said, “You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.” We’re doing our best to follow his advice.

All my running life, I’ve run carefully in the first miles of a race, being cautious not to start too fast. One of many lessons learned from this race is that I have been selling myself short. I am faster than I have dared myself believe, and I can hold on to my speed miles after it has begun to hurt. I am excited about putting this knowledge to use on the race course, at every distance.

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