**Warning - long post ahead. Feel free to go grab some popcorn, coffee, or some other yummy snack to get you through this. Apparently it takes me nearly as long to write about a marathon as it does for me to run one.** Final time: 3:03:25 3rd Female Overall
So those of you who have been following along know I had set a pretty aggressive for this race: To run a sub-3 hr marathon. I had practiced the pace this season and while it had felt more tempo-ish than marathon-ish, I still believed I could do it and decided to give it my best shot on race day. I (obviously) didn't make it, but I'm still happy and thankful for my shiny new (6+ minute!) PR. Let's recap it up and then I want you to weigh in!
Day Before the Race: I spent Saturday at my parents' house in town. I'd said goodbye to my family on Friday night and headed over to my parents' so that I could get a good night's sleep (something that's not so easy to do with young kids in the house) and just chill out on Saturday morning before we left for Cary, NC. My Mom and Dad were also running the race (Mom ran the half marathon and Dad ran the full) so we were all driving down together. I slept pretty well the night before, though it took me a long time to fall asleep. I'd had stomach issues all day Friday - just didn't feel great and my stomach had a weird "gurgle-y" feeling whenever I ate something. I kept everything down, but trips to the bathroom were, well, unpleasant. I was worried I was getting dehydrated despite drinking plenty of water and gatorade. I didn't have the same "puffy" feeling I usually do as a result of a sufficient carb load. Saturday unfortunately brought more of the same. Still not feeling great, I was eating all-carbs-all-the-time and keeping them down so I tried not to worry. Went for a little 2-mile shakeout run with my Dad and tried not to think about the fact that my legs kinda felt a little tired after a measly TWO MILES. Yikes. I just tried to remember that I'd had the same feeling in past seasons (feeling sluggish/tired in the taper) and prayed the legs would feel plenty springy in the morning. We relaxed for the rest of the morning at the house. I put my feet up, listened to my mental visualization tape and tried to bat away any negative thought that crept into my head. At around 11:30 we headed to get lunch at Panera Bread (more carbs!) and my stomach unknotted enough to let me eat it before going right back to its gurgling. It was a rainy day and the 2 1/2 hour trip down to Cary, NC was filled with downpours all the way. I knew it was supposed to stop raining later on that evening, but I was a bit worried about what all the rain over the past two days would do to the surface of the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) that 21 miles of the course was going to be run on.
We arrived in Cary around 3pm and headed to our hotel. We stayed at the host hotel (Embassy Suites) which was also conveniently the location of the race expo and packet pickup. The convenience of that part was AWESOME. We literally walked in, checked into our rooms, and then walked down into the lobby to the race expo. We grabbed our packets and looked around for a few moments and then were free to head back to the rooms and relax! So easy and non-stressful. I munched on some pretzels despite not being very hungry and tried to get my stomach to accept some more Gatorade. At around 4:30pm we headed to a local Catholic church to attend Mass. It was super crowded in the church and I since I wasn't feeling very well in the first place, being squished next to strangers wasn't helping. But the service was calming. It was a great way to take my mind off what tomorrow would hold and a nice reminder that there are many things in life that are much more important than a marathon.
After church we headed back to the hotel to heat up our dinner. We'd brought some pasta and sauce from home rather than trying to go out to a restaurant and just heated it up in the microwaves in the rooms. It was nice to know it would be something familiar that we'd be eating. I ate my spaghetti and sauce and had a piece of bread. After dinner I ended up laying down on the couch in the room and trying to make my stomach feel better. It did help to lay down and I spent the next hour and a half watching TV while trying to chill out and will my stomach to cooperate. I was starting to get a bit freaked out. If my stomach was rebelling now, what on earth would it do tomorrow while running at effort and being assaulted by gels? Ugh. Not a great way to end the night. I got ready for bed around 9pm, double-checked my race outfit and breakfast and then tried to sleep. There were noisy young kids next door and while it sounded like they were having a blast, I couldn't sleep through the noise. I have young kids too and hated to be a killjoy, but I was stressed about not being able to sleep and having to get up at 3:45am! I gave them until after 10pm and then finally had to phone the front desk to ask if they might request for them to be quiet. Finally at close to 11pm, I fell asleep.
I woke up at 3:45am with a pounding heart and a little bit shaky from nerves. It was race day! The stomach didn't feel awful, so I took that as a good sign and ate my normal pre-race breakfast of a bagel and banana. Drank some water and Gatorade and got dressed and ready to go. We headed over to the start of the race around 4:30am. We knew we'd be way early but wanted to get in the lot before 5:30. We had purchased a parking pass that allowed us to park right by the start (BEST $10 EVER SPENT) and we were so close that we didn't even need to use the bag check - we just left everything in the car. It also meant that we could just chill out in the car and relax until closer to start time, which was awesome. I drank my UCAN mix and sipped on water, trying not to let my nerves get the best of me. At around 6:30am, I hit the restroom one more time and then did a little 5 minute warm up jog. I was cautiously optimistic. It was 52 degrees or so, the legs felt pretty good and I'd been able to successfully use the bathroom (something I'm always nervous about!) before the start. Took a GU with 15 minutes to go and then it was time to race! I wished my parents good luck on their respective races and headed over to the start line. I did some striders at the starting line and then lined up behind the 4th row of folks. The half marathon started at the same time so I did not want to start out too quickly with a bunch of the speedy half marathon folks. I quickly asked around if anyone was shooting for a sub-3 today but had no takers. I was surprised at how many folks had their headphones in! I just crossed my fingers that perhaps I'd find someone along the way in the race that was running my pace. I had a pace chart I was carrying with me, but the general plan was to run a bit slower for the first two miles then drop into goal pace (6:48 on my Garmin since my Garmin is always off the mile markers) and hold steady, potentially throwing in a slightly faster mile or two on the downhill portions of the course.
The Race: Miles 1-5 (6:54, 6:51, 6:46, 6:51, 6:42)
From the gun we got off to an uphill start which had the advantage of forcing me to keep the pace easy. It was quite a bit hillier than I'd expected through the two miles (some rollers) and it made me both excited (the last quarter mile was a big downhill to the finish!) and terrified (the hills would be UGLY at mile 25). I ran a bit with a friend of mine from Richmond who was doing the half that day and he kept me company until we split at the 2.5 mile mark. (The half marathoners went left down the trail, and we took a right. The course makes a big "T" shape.) Before we split, he pointed out two guys in bright shorts up ahead that he knew were also aiming for sub-3. It was helpful to know that and I decided I'd try to keep them in sight as I went along. Then it was onto the trail! It took a few minutes for my feet to get used to the softer surface of the crushed cinder. Unfortunately, due to all the rain they'd gotten the trail was pretty muddy/soft. I could feel the tendons in my foot reacting to the give of the surface and I knew I wasn't getting quite the same push off that I would on pavement. But nothing I could do about it - I had 21 miles on the trail so I might was well get used to it! Breathing was ok so far and the pace felt doable. I was happy and very relieved about that. I took my first gel at mile 4 and managed to get most of it in my mouth (vs. all over my face). The water stop at mile 4 was comical - I think 3/4ths of the cup ended up on my shirt. Apparently I am really terrible at water stops while running my marathon pace!
Miles 6-10 (6:57, 6:46, 6:53, 6:49, 6:48) Around mile six I found myself running side by side a younger guy. He was happy and eager to chat and I was just pleased to have someone to run with! After quick introductions (his name was Gabriel, he was in college), he asked what I was aiming for time-wise. I told him that I was hoping for sub-3, but would see what the day brought. He said he was trying to qualify for Boston and needed under a 3:05. He wasn't wearing a Garmin and didn't seem to be too concerned with pace and he said he wanted to stick with me because he really didn't want to run this whole thing alone. I felt the same way and told him I was totally fine to have him keep me company as long as he didn't care that I was going to run the pace I needed. These miles passed fairly easily with some conversation and I tried to remind myself to look up at the scenery. (which was basically just trees and more trees on either side but it was still pretty) There were several areas of "false flats" on this stretch - long gradual inclines or declines that you couldn't really SEE but you could feel. Thankfully half the trail was paved during a few miles on this stretch and I took the opportunity to run on the paved portion and felt that helped reduce the effort I was exerting. Took another gel at mile 8 and tried (and failed miserably) to get more than a gulp of water/gatorade at the water stop at miles 8 and 10. We hit the turnaround at mile 9 and as we neared that I got to see my first glimpse of the competition. I calculated that I was 5th female at the moment. I also got to high five my Dad as we passed him on the way back - that was very cool and gave me a boost. At mile 10 I noticed the first signs of fatigue in my quads and had a minor freakout moment. It was way too early to be feeling that - had I set a pace that was too aggressive? Would I really pay for this later? I tried not to panic and pressed on.
Miles 11-15 (6:53, 6:54, 6:58, 7:07, 7:02) Another guy joined our little group around this point. His name was Abraham and he was a 2:42 marathoner - which freaked me out for a minute until he admitted that he was not in 2:42 shape at the moment. Still, he could easily talk and joke at this pace and I was starting to have to concentrate and work a bit harder. It helped having him there to keep the conversation going and to take my mind off the fact that my quads were becoming heavier by the minute. I took a gel at mile 12 and tried to grab two cups at the aid station in an attempt to successfully get some liquid into my mouth. Managed to almost wash out my contact lens (seriously - how can I be so bad at water stops!?), but got a few gulps down. Thankfully the stomach was cooperating thus far. Hit the half in 1:30:24 - behind the sub-3 pace, but incidentally, it was a 4+ minute PR for me over my best half marathon time. The course had no spectators besides the tiny pockets of people when we'd cross over a road. During this stretch a few spectators (incorrectly) told me I was 3rd female. I knew I wasn't, but the thought kept me going - I knew the third place finisher won some significant prize money ($750!) and if sub-3 wasn't in the cards for me today then I'd focus on trying to place. I didn't want to start thinking negatively, but the legs were feeling so heavy and the gradual uphill we were facing in these miles resulted in seeing 7 minute miles on my watch. UGH. I moved up to the front of the two guys and resolved to try and push the pace a bit to get back on track. I could not give up yet.
Miles 16-20 (6:54, 7:02, 7:06, 6:48, 7:12) Had another GU at 16 and managed to get in a gulp of water. Moving in the right direction on this mile, but the legs felt very fatigued. So fatigued that (full disclosure here) I even contemplated turning off early and heading back towards the start - reasoning that maybe I'd pick another marathon to do in a few weeks. I was very worried about how these next 10 miles would play out. At this point I realized that sub-3 may not be in the cards today. But I told myself to not be a moron - it took lots of planning and sacrifices for both me and my family to allow me to travel to run THIS race - it's not realistic to expect them to allow me to go run another one in a few weeks. I knew I'd be so mad at myself if I gave up - AND I knew I'd have to live with this results for months until my next race - so I tried to banish all negative thoughts as we crossed over to the next section of the trail. We were now on the portion of the trail that the half marathoners had run and it was both simultaneously encouraging and horrifying to see their mile markers. (ugh so far to go!!!) There were plenty of walkers in the half marathon so we were continually dodging them as we made our way out to the turnaround. The trail was wet in portions and muddy and the footing around the water stops (thanks to dropped cups and water) was a bit dicey and I hoped I wouldn't slip. At around mile 18 I started to fall back a bit from Abraham and Gabriel. I picked it up again on mile 19 (thanks to a gradual downhill mile) and caught back up to them, but then we flipped it at the turnaround and had to run UP that same stretch. I counted the marathon women again and found that I was 4th - perhaps one of the girls had dropped? I was getting frustrated that I was so tired already but told myself that this next portion would be where I would pass lots of people and finish strong. Advanced Marathoning says that that last 10K is the part of the marathon that well prepared marathoners relish. I felt I had done all I could have done to prepare myself for this - so it was time to relish. Took another GU at mile 20 and prepared to get it done.
Miles 21-26.2 (6:55, 7:04, 7:30, 7:17, 6:58, 6:59, 6:30 (last 0.2))
No longer with Gabriel and Abraham (though I could see them), these next miles were lonely. The only bright spot came when two things happened: I passed a female marathoner who was clearly struggling (I encouraged her to come with me but she sadly told me it was not her day) and I got to see my Dad again as we headed back from the turnaround. This position change moved me to third, but I had no idea how much of a gap I had on the girl behind me and I was struggling. A gradual uphill on miles 23-24 took its toll. Abraham had prepared us for the incline, but I think knowing it was there took more wind out of my sails - I wasn't paying as much attention to pace at this point and think for these two miles I had more mentally checked out than anything else. I thought the Garmin was off due to the trees (it had been erratic with pace) so I didn't panic at the 7:30 pace displayed until we actually hit the mile marker and I realized with a jolt that YES - that mile WAS a 7:30 - almost a minute off my pace. UGH - GET IT TOGETHER, JEN! I tried to stay positive and pulled out some of my mantras and positive self-talk - I would NOT quit, I would push as much as my quads would allow. I was wishing for another gel at this point but I wasn't due to take my last one until mile 24. I was also getting too hot - I had pulled up my tank to try and cool myself off but it was almost 60 degrees. We finally got off the trail with about 2.5 miles to go - it was such a welcome relief to be back on the pavement and get that solid rebound from the road. I took my last gel and hunkered down and pushed as much as I could. My stomach was sloshy at this point which was surprising to me since I felt like I was barely getting any water or Gatorade at the stops. I could see the hills and failed miserably at running the tangents as I had to dodge the half marathoners making their way back. Perhaps it was the change of scenery and finally being off the trail, but even with the rollers I was keeping a better pace - I wasn't dying and I kept pushing even though my quads were screaming. I was trying to focus on not getting passed - I wanted that third place finish, and I wanted to get as close to that 3hr mark as I could. The last mile was so hard - up a hill and it felt as if the finish would never materialize. I hit the very last stretch and was so very happy for the downhill finish. Suddenly I could hear my fellow RVA teammates (they had come to run the half marathon) cheering for me and I knew I was almost home. I exhausted what was left in the tank and even remembered to put my hands up as the announcer called "And here's our 3rd place female, Jennifer Fox!". (which, gotta say - I'd never been announced before and that was COOL!) Took two steps across the finish line and promptly plopped down on the ground! I was done! No need for medics though - the ground just looked very comfortable after 26.2 miles. I hauled myself back up, hugged my teammates and rang the PR bell! 6+ minutes off my previous PR (3:09). No sub-3 for me today, but a step in the right direction.
After grabbing some water and chocolate milk, I watched my fellow teammates clean up in the age group awards in the half - they all did really well! Then saw my Dad finish his marathon and caught up with my Mom to celebrate her new half marathon PR. We were waiting for the marathon awards when I thought to go to the results table to check my official time. Except...they couldn't find it. They had no record to pull up! Friends who were tracking me online say that my results came up as a 2:02 for a while (which, umm... I think Paula Radcliffe would have had something to say about that), but then my name just disappeared. Sure enough, another girl who had run a 3:05 was listed as 3rd. I quickly headed over to the officials table and explained. They'd already given the other girl the 3rd place female check! After a few tense minutes while the officials ran down to the timing folks, it was finally sorted and my time was reinstated. (whew!) The other girl was really sweet about it and knew I had beaten her (she'd seen me in front at the turnarounds) and so I was given the check. It was the first time I'd ever won money in a race and it was so amazing to be announced for the awards!
Overall the race was really well run and I'd definitely recommend it. The race director was very on top of everything and really nice. Logistically it could not have been easier - the host hotel was good, packet pickup was a breeze and the course would have been great if it hadn't had been so soggy. If you are looking for a great North Carolina marathon, this is a good one to check out.
Okay guys - so how do I nail that sub-3?
While I'm a tiny bit upset that I didn't get the sub-3, I'm very happy that I pushed through and finished (relatively) strong despite having some bad miles. I'm so thankful that the stomach hung in there. The fueling worked well and crazily I even thought I might have used one more gel (even though I'd taken 6 throughout the race!!). I know I could have used more focus in the middle miles. I think that once I realized that sub-3 was out and I lost the two guys I was running with I let my guard down mentally for a bit. I'll work on that for next time.
But speaking of that next time...I'm a bit at a loss for what to do to improve from here and snag the time. This season was a big investment in mileage and in time for all the peripheral stuff - core work, PT to come back (and stay healthy) after my stress fracture, strength training, etc. And I was (and am) prepared to do all that to chase that sub-3 goal. It didn't materialize this time, and that's okay. But I'd love thoughts on what I need to do to make sure that next time I toe the line, I'll snag it. I'm not quite sure how much more mileage I'll be able to add without risking my sanity - this season was a mileage high for me at a 96 mile peak week. To be fair, most of those were easy miles - with my easy mile pace being somewhere around 7:55-8 min when I ran by myself, and 8:15-8:30 when running with friends.
What thoughts do you have? Would another (hopefully healthy) season of the same be enough to bump me to the next level? Same mileage but concentrate on faster paces for both easy runs and speed? Add longer marathon-paced runs? Incorporate more PT/strength exercises or add yoga? I'd welcome any and all thoughts!