Tapering brings out all the feels. So does finding out that someone hit your car over the weekend and neglected to leave a note. So some, okay a lot, of my energy during the week was taken up by dealing with getting my car fixed (the damage turned out to be cosmetic, but it still took time and energy to figure that out and get it repaired).
I had one speed session during my taper–basically this is to remind the legs of what it feels like to run fast. It went really well (8x 400), and the rest of the week consisted of short easy runs of 4 miles or less. I did my shakeout 3 on Friday morning early, and returned to my house to hear the telltale chirp of a smoke detector whose battery was dead. Awesome. Especially because it always takes a good 10 minutes to figure out which smoke detector is making the sound. I ended up changing all of the batteries and trying to be grateful that one had died at a reasonable hour this time rather than 3:00 in the morning before I was to leave for Richmond, or after I was already gone leaving my wonderful petsitter to figure out how to deal or worse, to be stuck listening to the ear-splitting chirp all weekend. Smoke alarms sorted, I packed the car and hit the road.
Side note: no matter how many lists I make before a trip, I always forget something. This time, I forgot the two full bottles of electrolytes, I planned to drink in the car. When I realized this, about 60 miles down the road, I had to change my hydration plan. I had brought a 12 pack of La Croix with me thinking I would have it for after the race. Plot twist! New hydration plan: Kill the 12 pack. I did pretty well–9 of 12 over maybe 6 hours–so I consider that a win. Also, that’s a lot of La Croix.
Due to several (intended) stops and a few delays thanks to construction and accidents on I-85, I got to Richmond about 4:15 (I should have been there by 3:00), and my friend and roommate for the weekend, Liz, got there around 5:00. We got settled into our room and debated dinner. We both had brought lots of snacks, because carb loading, so we decided to stay in and conserve our energy rather wander around downtown Richmond to find food. Instead we turned our attention to the next morning’s weather forecast, which seemed to get colder every time we looked (and we were looking pretty much every 30 seconds there for while!). After adjusting to the likelihood that the temperature would be too cold for my original race kit earlier in the week (I had originally planned for a warm weather race because it seemed like everyone else I knew running marathons this fall had been dealt that card), I thought I knew what I wanted to wear on race day. And then Liz read the “25 degrees that feels like 17 with wind chill” . . . I was hoping for a chilly day. By that I mean, I was hoping for low-40s with no rain and low humidity. I came up with an alternative for my kit in the event that when we woke up, it was still going to feel like the mid-teens, and decided to stop fretting.
The next morning, it was COLD. Not as cold as the prediction called for, but SO MUCH COLDER than anything I had trained in since February. Or maybe even January. In any case, a LONG time. 25 degrees at race time with 6-8 mph wind, which made it feel colder. As my brother would say, “Hoo-wee.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I went to bed early. I woke up a bunch of times, a bunch of times, that is, until the time I was supposed to wake up (which almost never happens). I had fallen asleep with headphones on because I had been listening to a Netflix show while I tossed and turned, but I guess I had taken the headphones out at some point. So while I had planned to get up at 5:30 or 5:40 with my alarm, I didn’t actually get up until a little after 6, no alarm. Oops. That threw me off a little bit, but it could have been worse. I got dressed, ate breakfast, had coffee, etc. I wasn’t very hungry–nerves, I guess, but I ate as much as I could, and we got on our way.
The cold was bracing when we stepped outside of the hotel. I was wearing an extra long sleeve shirt and a sweatshirt. I also had a throwaway hat and gloves, and I had Hot Hand packets in my gloves, and I gave another set to Liz. She and I basically followed the herd of runners who we assumed were all heading towards the start, and then since we had different corral assignments, we split up at the bag drop. After handing over my gear bag (filled with warm, dry clothes for after), I found a spot in the parking lot and did some warm up stretches. Then it was time to get into the corral. Put my phone into airplane mode, and I made a wish. My wish was this: I wished that when I was given the choice to quit or press on, that I would be brave. And then we were off.
The marathon started at 7:45. I crossed the starting line a couple minutes later. I had taken off the sweatshirt and the long sleeve shirt just before the start (and boy was I cold!). I was carrying a bottle with Gu Roctane drink. I had two goals for the first few miles: goal 1 was to finish the bottle by mile 3–that would put me up 220 calories or so and allow me to bypass the first water stop where it would be the most congested. Goal 2 was to let all of the people pass me and run no faster than 9 minute miles for mile 1 & 2. It’s really hard to let people pass, sen when it is a fixed intention. It goes against every fiber in my being during a race, but my best races have been ones where I have started slowly, let people get ahead of me, and then slowly worked my way up the pack. It worked for me in Myrtle Beach just weeks before. So that was again my plan in Richmond. I was a little bit fast (8:53 and 8:44), but just a little, and I did a good job of letting people pass me by. Including the 3:45 pace group–that was especially hard since I was aiming for a faster time, but I just tried to remind myself that the same thing happened at Big Sur. And at Myrtle Beach. And both times, it worked out well for me. I eventually caught and passed the pace group later. I also remembered the time that I tried to keep up with a pace group–in Los Angeles. No way did I want a repeat of that experience.
After mile 2, I sped up a little bit. I was wearing a pace band tailored to the Richmond course, my goal time, and my preferred strategy (slow start, negative split, fairly even effort, medium fade at the end). I tried to just run the pace per mile that it prescribed, all the while being very mindful of how I felt. My mantras at this point: “All day long” (meaning: I was trying to run a pace that I could sustain all day long). Also, “Nice and smooth and technically pretty.” (“Technically pretty” is a phrase that I took away from Coach Matt at BirdCamp). The first couple miles of the course were not pretty. There was construction on the roads, so I was basically looking at the street and the bright orange barrels and cones along the way, trying not to trip over myself or anything else.
Once we got into mile 3, we started running through neighborhoods. And they were lovely. There were lots of people out cheering for the runners. (Did I mention it was cold? It was really cold). I had adapted a play list for the race and set it up so that the first 5 or 6 songs were mellow, with the idea that these would help me not to get ahead of myself. The first song, Radiohead’s “Everything in It’s Right Place” was on point, and then the playlist shuffled. I didn’t want it to shuffle, and it was way too early to hear the song that came next, Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” so I paused the music for a while. A very long while.
I skipped the first aid station because I had my own bottle to drink. I was also a little worried because aid stations pass out cups of water and sports drink (in this case, Powerade). It was 25 degrees outside. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that water plus 25 degrees can equal ice. Luckily the pavement wasn’t cold enough for the roads to get slippery, but it was a factor I was thinking about early on in the race.
Once I sped up to my marathon pace, I was very consistent (yay me!) until mile 7 or so. We ran over the first splits mat at the 10K mark, and I thought about my friends and family who would be getting an automatic text message from the race telling them that I had made it to the 10K mark. I sent them “Hi!,” “I’m doing this!,” and an “It’s going well,” thoughts, which made me smile. Mile 7 was a lovely downhill mile that turned into the first of two bridge crossings. It was beautiful. And it was windy, and so cold (Did I mention it was cold?), but really beautiful. Sunlight. The James River. Golden autumn leaves. I tried to relax my shoulders and my neck, and I made sure to look at the surroundings as much as I could.
As we came off the bridge, we turned on to a road that ran alongside the river and was also amazingly beautiful with sunshine and river views and lovely autumn leaves. This was the one part of the race that didn’t have many spectators (though there were a few), but it was so scenic that it really didn’t matter. During the river mile, I thought a lot about my friends who are dealing with injuries, some of who had planned to run this race. I thought about how lucky I was to be there, doing the thing that I had been training for all year, particularly since I had to DNS a marathon the year before. I was almost overwhelmed with gratitude to be healthy and to have such support from my friends and my team, some of whom had made the trip to Richmond even though they couldn’t run. Then I had to pull myself back from that line of thought because mile 8-9 is way too early to be running from the heart. I needed to keep that card in my pocket for later on.
The course wound away from the river and back into residential Richmond. There were certain areas of spectators called “party zones” that were really crowded. I made a point of high-fiving any kids I saw, especially the girls, because Oiselle and Converse. I’m a strong believer in Girl Power. I can’t say enough about how impressed I was by all the people who were out there cheering. It was great!
I hit the half way mark really close to target, and I still felt good. My fueling strategy, which was to Gu every 3-4 miles (that’s a lot compared to most runners, I guess, but it worked for me in Paris, and it’s not like I couldn’t use the calories, especially given the cold–Did I mention it was cold?). I was determined not to bonk because I hadn’t taken in enough calories. Marathons are not diet plans! I knew that the second half was going to be harder, so I kept telling myself to keep doing what I was doing, to hold back and keep drinking fluids and eating my gels. I had started to listen to music somewhere after the halfway mark mostly because I was no longer worried about it carrying me away to the land of “Too Fast.”
Mile 15 brought The Bridge. I had been warned about The Bridge. It’s uphill (though not terribly so), and long, and very exposed so if there’s any wind, it will be especially noticeable. My plan was to keep my gloves and throwaway hat through at least the end of The Bridge. The Bridge was really long. And it was windy. But it was also really beautiful, and after I had crossed it, it was still cold enough for me to keep the hat and gloves on. Around mile 17, I noticed Bart Yasso (a really famous marathoner who usually comes to town for race weekend to cheer for runners), so I ran over to him, and we high-fived–little kids and Bart Yasso high-fives–this was fun!
I just kept humming along. I was starting to get a little tired, but I still felt pretty good. And then at one point, it occurred to me that if I had signed up for the half-marathon instead of the full, that I’d be finished. I really like half-marathons. Why am I doing this? This is so much harder. And then I told myself to STFU, that I’m doing this. That I have ten miles left. But I also started to realize that I had to go to the bathroom. And I remembered a conversation from camp: Bathroom or BQ? Was I going to be faced with a bathroom or BQ situation? I spent mile 18 pondering. I didn’t think it would come to that, but if it did, I was going for the BQ*. Yes, I actually thought that.
I crossed the 20 mile mark, and I saw that I had a very comfortable margin (I needed to finish in 3:55 to BQ) to hit my goal, so I decided to make a pitstop. This was going to be either a very good decision or a very bad one because my legs would appreciate the break or they would cramp like crazy. Happily, they appreciated it. It too me a little less than 2 minutes, and I felt a million times better when I hit the road again. Onward.
From mile 20, I was running to get to my team at the Oiselle Cowbell Corner. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was, but I knew that I would find it somewhere around mile 24. At this point, I was getting really tired, mentally and physically. My legs, what I could feel of them, were getting sore. I wanted to back off. I wanted to slow down. I thought about walking. I kept telling myself, “Just keep going.” “What will you say if your friends ask you whether you eased up?–You will say NO. HELL NO, so KEEP GOING.” “How will you feel if you don’t give it your all? How did you feel in Los Angeles when you walked the aid stations? What is worse? Tired legs now? Or knowing that you let yourself quit? BE BRAVE. GET UGLY.” I started to look for landmarks to run to–I’m going to keep going at this pace until I hit the stop light, and then the next one, and the next one. I thought about how I’m supposed to be tired–I’ve run 23 miles! I thought, just hold on. Just keep going (There is no secret. Keep going). Just get to your team. I didn’t know who would be there, but I knew that they would be wonderful. I kept going.
I came down a block somewhere after mile 24, and there it was. A Yeti! My tribe! My people! I heard them recognize me and start yelling my name and going crazy with the cowbells, and I started gesturing frantically at them waving, blowing kisses, making that stupid Taylor Swift heart sign. I don’t even know what else–I think there may have been some ugly crying because I was so, so happy to see them and to still be running pretty well and to know that I was almost to the finish, and that my dream was right there in front of me. I finally let myself feel it all and though my pace had slowed a bit, I was running as strong as I could run. As I was leaving them behind, I saw two more friends, who got right in my face and yelled ERIN!! And on I went, flying from such energy and joy!
Just a little farther down the road, I passed the 25 mile mark, and then the “One Mile Left” sign, and this part of the course was flat or slightly downhill. And then the drop: the last .2 or maybe .3 of the course is a screaming downhill, which I had also been warned about. My friend described it as an “Ass Over Teakettle kind of downhill,” and that about summed it up. My legs were trashed by then, but you couldn’t help but run fast(er) because the grade was so steep that speeding up was just inevitable. And yet, where was the finish??It had to be right there somewhere, but it wasn’t yet in view because the road curved around and was lined with crowds of spectators cheering and cowbelling and generally going nuts. I finally saw the finish and the clock: 3:42:50–and I charged the line as best I could to try to make it under 3:43. My official time is 3:42:54–with a pit stop. I did it. I beat my marathon PR by a little over 9 minutes, and I qualified for Boston with a 12 minute cushion.
As all of these things were flooding my brain, I stopped my watch. I kept moving through the finishers’ chute in a daze of fatigue and tunnel vision and emotion. I think I was kind of crying. I collected my medal and my blanket and my finishers’ cup. I was given a bottle of water, but my hands were frozen so I couldn’t open it. I kept walking and got in line to claim my gear bag with my dry clothes. Once my bag was acquired, I found a place to sit. I took my phone out of airplane mode, and it immediately began to chirp and vibrate with messages from my parents and my brother and my friends who had been getting text alerts over the course of the race. I tried to text them back, but my fingers were still very cold, so I couldn’t type very well. And my brain still wasn’t working. I became aware that I was starting to get very cold, and I knew that I needed to eat something, so I collected myself, and I went into a port-let to change out of my wet clothing.
In dry clothes, I then went to the finish area to get food (cold pizza ftw!) and to check out the “free gift for Boston Qualifiers.” There was a line because before they gave away BQ swag, they looked up your finish time to verify that you had indeed qualified. The gift was a royal blue a Koozy (coozi?) with Anthem Richmond Marathon BOSTON QUALIFIER in gold. Boston colors. Pretty sweet. I was especially glad that it was small because between the medal, which felt like it weighed a ton, the cup, the blanket, and my gear bag, which held wet clothes, a bagel, the bottle of water I still couldn’t open, a bottle of Powerade that I also couldn’t open, and my phone, I was kind of a mess.
I shoved as much stuff as I could into my spike bag, and I made my way back to the finish against the crowds, which had grown significantly in the time since I finished myself, and I then walked back up the course to find the Oiselle Cheer Squad, cheering for those who were still running as I went. It felt good to get moving again. Still in a fog, I almost walked right past my teammates, and totally would have had I not happened to look up and recognize one of my friends standing there on the sidewalk. It was so great to share the day with them and to also cheer for other runners as they passed us.
The rest of the weekend is kind of a blur, but it involved a Oiselle Happy Hour with old and new friends, legs up the wall, Kara Goucher fangirling and more. I think back to July 2014, when I was trying to decide whether or not to sign up for the Flock, as the Volée was known as the time. I was really unsure. It felt expensive and I’ve never been much of a joiner, but my partner-at-the-time knew how much I loved the brand and everything that they stand for, and he encouraged me to try it, so I did. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. This weekend is just one of the many occasions that has reaffirmed that truth over the last 3+ years. In the beginning, I figured that if nothing else, I’d at least get some discounts on my favorite brand of running clothing. In hindsight, the discounts are cool, but they’re by far the LEAST important element of this team for me. I’m so proud to wear my singlet and represent our team at races and to the running community. To me, it represents friendship and support and so many strong and amazing women of all paces and ages and professions lifting each other up and cheering each other on. I’m so glad that I could share this weekend with them both those who were there and those who sent me good luck and congratulations from afar.
Head up, wings out!
[Photo by my awesome teammate Caitlin Kovakowski]
*BQ = Boston Qualifier.
From the Boston Athletic Association website: To qualify for the Boston Marathon, athletes must meet time standards which correspond to age and gender. For the 2019 Boston Marathon, qualifying times must be run on or after Saturday, September 16, 2017. The qualifying times below are based upon each athlete’s age on the date of the 2019 Boston Marathon (April 15, 2019). Achieving one’s qualifying standard does not guarantee entry into the event, but simply the opportunity to submit for registration. In recent years, not all qualifiers who submit an entry have been accepted due to field size restrictions. If total amount of submissions surpass the allotted field size for qualified athletes, then those who are the fastest among the pool of applicants in their age and gender group will be accepted.
For the 2018 Boston Marathon, runners had to run a little over 3 minutes faster than the qualifier time, so I would have had to run 3:51:45 or so.
TMI ALERT: The Bathroom or BQ conundrum is this: if you had to choose between not qualifying for Boston because you stopped to use the bathroom and shitting yourself because you wouldn’t stop, which would you choose?