Sunday morning came way too soon, and while getting ready, all three of us admitted that we hadn’t slept too well the night before. Why? We didn’t know, but it didn’t matter. Ready or not, it was race day!
I was grateful to the hotel for providing a nice free breakfast so early in the morning, and I chowed down on oatmeal and a quarter of a Belgian waffle with maple syrup. And coffee, of course! This was more than I would normally eat on race morning, but I hoped that this and the extra calories I had eaten the night before would help me to race extra strong. Or at least that’s how I justified it!
In truth, I wasn’t feeling my best. I normally don’t decide whether to push it in a race until I’ve gotten out on the course and done at least the first 5 miles or so – I think it helps to prevent injuries if you don’t push it unless you’re really ready to do so. While most people do one or maybe two marathons a year, I think that can cause injuries more than the frequent marathoning that I do. If you only have one chance to PR, chances are that you’re going to push for that PR no matter what; when you know that you have another marathon the following weekend, it’s easier to let what will be, be. Some days you’re feeling it and some days you’re not, but just like you wouldn’t push a training run where you weren’t feeling great, I think the same should apply to racing.
Okay, rant over! Point is, I wasn’t feeling at my best that morning. Despite the supposedly fast course (though I have always done better on hills than flat/downhill courses), I wasn’t shooting for a PR – I just hoped to finish in a respectable time for myself, perhaps under 4:00 or 4:10.
Laura, BF and I hopped into the sporty little convertible I had gotten for the trip and headed for the start, 20 miles away. With a nearly straight point to point course where you have to drive to the start, it becomes very clear just how far 26.2 miles is! I think all of us were a little awed at what we were about to do. While Laura and BF were virgin marathoners, I think I was just as impressed by the distance as they were. We really had to run all that way?! Yikes.
We parked in a large lot about 1/4 mile away from the start (hooray for small towns with ample parking and no need to worry about garages or fees or anything!) and headed over, trying to stay warm as we walked. I was wearing a skirt, tank top, and very light jacket, and I spent the half hour until the race engaged in a mental debate with myself about whether to keep the jacket or stow it in the bag Laura was going to check. No matter how many marathons I do, I always have trouble making the transition from summer to winter racing clothes – I can never remember at what temperature I ought to put on a long sleeved shirt (phase 1), at what temperature I ought to switch from skirt to tights (phase 2), and at what temperature I should also throw on a jacket (phase 3). Other runners seemed similarly conflicted – I saw some people in tights and fleece jackets, which seemed to me to be way overkill, and then some in t-shirts and shorts. I tried to look for Maniacs and 50 Staters in the crowd, reasoning that they’d be the most experienced and would know what to do (ahem, except for me!). When I finally spotted a male Maniac in shorts and a singlet, I decided to ditch the jacket and stick with my tank top and skirt. Stupid? I hoped not.
After a pitstop at the porta potties (I got the last of the toilet paper and was thrilled to no end – maybe today would be a lucky day after all?), we heeded the race directors instructions to line up at the start. We took some quick pics to commemorate the occasion (which frustratingly got lost when my phone crashed two days ago, taking my last three months of pictures with it) and then jumped into the queue of runners at the start. BF headed off to hang with the 4:20 pace group, I jumped in around 3:55 (why not think optimistically!), and speedy Laura headed up to 3:45. All of us on different journeys, but all of us excited about what was to come – and that’s what I love about marathoning. No matter what your pace, we are all accomplishing something huge, and we can all cheer each other on along the way. Someone finishing faster than me (okay, thousands of someones finishing faster than me) doesn’t faze me in the least; it’s all about competing with myself to do my very best.
And when the gun went off, that was what I decided to do.
The crowd was slow to start, as usual for the beginning of a race. In that time, I found myself bobbing and weaving a bit – and all of a sudden, I popped up behind Laura and the 3:45 pace group. I considered yelling out something funny/encouraging (“Oh my god, is that really LAURA of Camping Out in America?? I LOVE HER BLOG! She is INCREDIBLE!”), but decided against it when I saw how in the zone she was. Instead, I joined the cheery 3:45 pacer, Mike, who was running an 8:35 pace that was currently pretty comfy for me (though I knew that would change later in the race). I decided to stick with him for at least the first few miles, then drop back and try not to get caught by the 4:00 pacer.
There were a lot of first timers in the 3:45 group (YAY so exciting!), and also a lot of people trying to BQ. However, I noticed one huge difference between the 3:45 group and the 4:15-4:45 groups I normally pace – they were intense! I gave Mike a lot of credit for dealing with some inquiries that I would have found pretty frustrating. For example, at each mile marker, some people would go up to Mike and complain that the pace was off (either 5 seconds too fast or 5 seconds too slow). I understand that a BQ is very important, but I thought it was pretty rude to question his pacing strategy – especially since 5 seconds is well within the range of normal.
Then there were people who questioned the course (“OMG my watch says 3.04 instead of 3 miles – I hope they fix it at the end of the race!”), which was equally obnoxious. People: if you don’t run the tangents perfectly, your Garmin will not match the distance exactly. (And it’s nearly impossible to run every tangent perfectly unless you are one of the front runners). I don’t think I have ever run a marathon where the distance on my watch was less than 26.4 at the end! That doesn’t mean you get to stop your watch when the distance on it says 26.2, either. The finish line is where it is – stop stressing out about what you can’t control and start focusing on your own running.
For my part, I was chugging along, but actually trying not to focus on my running. The group around me was doing a steady 8:35 pace (which was plenty tough to challenge me), so my goal was just to stick with them but distract myself with music and conversation with the other athletes. When we went through an area with spectators, Mike would start up a chant of “3, 4, 5! 3, 4, 5!”, and I have to admit to getting a little teary when he reminded us that “We ARE 3:45, all of us.” I never expected to finish in 3:45, but I was part of the group at that moment, and I felt good about it. How long could I stay with 3:45? It was here that I started to have the first inkling that I might actually do well today.
Around mile 7, when I was still running about the same pace and feeling good, that little inkling became a very real idea. I had actually pulled ahead of the group now – not by much, but enough that I was a frontrunner for my little patch of road, not having to swerve around others or follow directly on someone’s heels. My watch was ticking off 8:20s and 8:30s for every mile, which is a much faster pace than I’ve run any marathon (or half, for that matter!) – but I mostly felt good. The only struggles were on the infrequent uphill sections, all of which were short enough that I could just remind myself to power through and that there was sure to be a downhill on the other side.
I reached the halfway point in an astonishing 1:52 – even faster than I had run my half marathon in Dallas the weekend before! However, I also recognized that I was starting to get tired. I had gotten to this point much faster than I ever thought possible, but now I would have to do it all over again if I wanted to achieve a 3:45 – and I knew my body would not be able to handle that. From here on out, it was going to be a matter of hanging onto the 8:35 pace as long as I possibly could. When that failed, I’d slow it down, but only as much as I had to.
At mile 14, it first dawned on me that I might actually PR today. How was that even possible? I wasn’t really trained, I wasn’t well-rested, and I wasn’t at a “racing weight” that would render a PR possible. (I use the term “racing weight” loosely, but I was about 15 pounds lighter when I last set a marathon PR, and with every extra pound adding about 30 seconds to a marathon time, that would slow me down significantly.) But today, it was gradually becoming more and more clear that I was going to do it – and so I knew that every second counted. Whenever I felt tired, I reminded myself that chances to PR like this did not come around too often, and that I had to gut it out and get it done.
However, at mile 13, I had walked through a water stop a bit slower than usual, and the 3:45 group had passed me. They were only about 10 seconds ahead of me, but I didn’t have it in me to push the pace and catch up; instead, I figured I’d catch them at the next water station. Mike had told us at the beginning of the race that he would be walking through each of the water stations, and so far, I had usually been able to get my drink and still end up ahead of him as we pulled out of the station. Unfortunately, at mile 14, I saw him continue running through the water station – so while I slowed to get some Gatorade, he went right on ahead.
We didn’t seem to be behind on time (in fact, some quick mental math showed me that we were right on pace for 3:45), so I figured it had been an anomaly. I was now even further back from the group but still running at their same pace, so I figured I’d catch back up at the 16 mile water station… until he went running through that one as well. At this point, I realized that he must have a different strategy for the second half of the race than the first; unfortunately, I was way too tired to pick up the pace and rejoin. From here on, the race would have to be all on my own, with no pacer to guide me.
On the bright side, the fast pace I had kept so far meant that I would finish much faster than usual – and so I didn’t have that much longer to go. I normally reach mile 18 around 2:45/2:55; today, I hit it around 2:35. Later on at mile 20, when the clock ticked over to 3 hours, it was crazy to think that on my best days I would usually be a full two miles behind where I was now. Running faster is certainly not easy, but it was nice that it would be over sooner because of the pace I was keeping!
Despite knowing I was going to PR, the last six miles of the race were rough, both physically and mentally. I was exhausted and I knew I was so close to the finish, but I also just didn’t have the strength to push myself as much. I found that when I really focused and thought about nothing else except turnover, I could get my legs to continue at an 8:30 pace – but the second I stopped putting all my attention on turnover, I slowed to a 9:00 pace. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the mental strength to just keep thinking “fast turnover, fast turnover.” For better or for worse, my MO during a race is usually to zone out and try to think about anything else other than how many miles are left, how my feet hurt, how tired I am, etc. While I wanted to go faster and really crush my PR, I decided to just be happy with what I was doing – which was much faster than any marathon I’ve done so far.
Coming into the final stretch and with my favorite songs playing in my ear to inspire me, I reminded myself that while I hadn’t seen a mile marker for 26 (the most important one of all!), I could see the finish line ahead and had less than two minutes to go. In fact, at an 8:30 pace, I only had about a minute and a half left. On it! I picked my legs up to a sprint and went as fast as my legs would go, passing a male runner in the process (yes, chicked!). I crossed the finish line with my arms in a V for but then immediately reached down to stop and check my watch – and then I burst into tears of joy at how well I had done. This was not the first time during the race that I cried; I had actually gotten teary at various points of the race where I realized I was going to PR. But now I just couldn’t get over the 3:48 time on my watch; I think it’s the happiest finish photo I’ve ever had.
Overall, I could not believe how well I had done. It had been a very long time since I had Pred – in fact, looking it up later, I discovered it had been 25 marathons since I last broke my own record. – (Such a long time, but not at all surprising given that I don’t really train). I was also especially proud since I am also carrying an extra 15 pounds that I didn’t have in spring 2010 (when I was working a practically-part-time 40 hours a week and not traveling for work, plus running marathons most weekends). They say that every extra pound adds one second per mile, but I had managed to drop my pace by a few seconds. I had definitely earned this one!
After congratulating the amazing Laura on her very first marathon finish (she finished in 3:38 – despite PRing, that was a time I could only dream of!), I then jogged back to mile 25 to run the final mile with BF. I was surprised that it actually felt good to run the extra miles – it seemed that as long as I slowed the pace down, I could have kept going, which was an interesting revelation. I tucked my finisher’s medal into my tank top so it wouldn’t bang around on my chest while running, and was happy that the ribbon was coincidentally the same color as my shirt, so it wasn’t readily apparent that I had already finished and was running extra (I hate when people do that). I also made sure to duck out of the race once it came down to the final stretch, since I didn’t want my PR time to get overwritten!
When all was said and done, we had three shiny new PRs for Laura, BF, and I, and I couldn’t have been happier. After showering and refueling, we headed back to the finish area to collect our commemorative wineglasses and champagne bottles – one of the coolest perks of this race – and then toasted in the check in area at tiny Elmira-Corning Regional Airport. Cheers to a great race!
Distance: 26.2 miles
Overall place: 497/1584
Gender place: 162/796
Age group place: 30/111