I gave Megan a hug and watched her walk towards the porta-potty line for a minute before moving forward in the corral. The world felt surreal. Hazy, yet with a distinct sharpness around certain shapes; the early morning sun casting shadows that made everything seem both bright and shadowy at the same time. Thoughts swirling in my mind, I felt everything and nothing all at once. I had enough self-awareness to realize what I was about to do and yet all I could focus on was if I had made a mistake by not trying to pee one last time. After all the ups and downs of the past 6 months, I was acutely aware that I should be overcome with emotion or gratitude or nerves but a detached feeling of calm blanketed me instead.
The start was incredibly anticlimactic. I think someone yelled “go!” at the front but I had heard nothing. I looked up, still partially in a fog, and realized a huge mass of runners were already about 200 meters ahead of me. “Ok,” I whispered to myself. “Time to execute.”
The plan was simple. The first 7-8 miles of the course are a gradual uphill – perfect for controlling your pace and ensuring you don’t prance out of the corrals with all the energy of a kid on Christmas morning. 8-minute miles were the goal. “It should feel easy,” my coach promised me. “After that, well … you’ll know. This isn’t your first rodeo. You’ll know what kind of day you’re having and how to run the rest of the race.”
So there it was. 8 easy and then hopefully, giddy the F up. And he was right – 8’s felt so comfortable, even with the mild ascent. The first mile clicked off in 7:57; 7:52 for the second. “Easy…EASY…do not blow this race in the second mile.” Backing off to 8:00, 7:58, then 7:54, 7:53, 7:49. I hit the 10K right around the planned pace and thought of James and Laura tracking me back home. “Alright, you made it this far – they know you’re following the plan and exercising some self-control – now let’s let loose a little.”
Mile 8 brought a short yet somewhat steep downhill – the first noticeable undulation of the race – and I hit it in 7:38. I’ve never been a great downhill runner, though, and sure enough, it was here that I noticed some cramping in my upper quads into my hip flexors.
That was enough to make the mental demons pop in to say hello, and with them, I battled over the next two miles (7:42, 7:38). “Here we go again – your legs HURT! Before mile-freaking-10 of a damn marathon! You’re toast. It’s over. You’re gonna end up dropping around mile 20. This one will end like the others. You’re not strong enough or tough enough for marathons.”
(Have I ever mentioned that I’m pretty hard on myself? Yeah, that.)
A somewhat significant uphill would come somewhere around mile 10.5 and despite a precarious mental state, I mustered enough control over my brain to back off and adjust my effort. 8:05.
A gift came along in the form of two men – a Londoner and a Dubliner – they stuck to me like glue for a few miles, as we chatted and told our backstories. They struggled a bit to keep up, obviously out of breath while talking and in that moment, a glorious realization – I was not breathing hard and my effort was still very much in control. The longer I ran next to them listening to their huffing and puffing, the better I started feeling about my race. (7:44, 7:41)
(Have I ever mentioned that I’m kind of a terrible person? Marathons are hard and sometimes other people’s misery makes me feel better.)
As I hit the half split, I gave the mat a good stomp as I crossed. “Alright, James and Laura know that I’m feeling good. Now it’s really time to get to work.” I put my headphones in, dropped my new friends, and started to see what I had in my legs.
The next few miles were a satisfying grind. My music proved to be too much of a distraction and I ripped out my headphones almost as soon as I had put them in. I wanted to focus. I wanted to feel every minute of the race. No dissociating.
I thought back to the last long run workout in my training – 2 miles up, 8×1 mile @ MP w/1 mile recovery, 2 miles down. I ran this with Laura as my Sherpa on the bike next to me as we looped around Conesus Lake. I ended the day with 20 miles at a 7:40 average and was on cloud 9 – but none of it was easy; I remember that my legs had hurt that day but in a manageable, I-can-push-through-this kind of way. My confidence was building. If I could do it then, I can certainly do it now. 7:43, 7:37, 7:35, 7:34, 7:25, 7:23, 7:25.
Holy shit. I just ran MILE 20 of a marathon in 7:25.
Seconds later, as if it were plucked straight from a Runner’s World article warning new runners about the treachery of the late stages of a marathon, holy shit – I feel like I just ran into a brick wall.
A bit of self-doubt started to reappear. For whatever reason, everything suddenly became VERY. HARD. (Side note: I typically disregard spikes in heart rate data since wrist-based measurement is far from 100% accurate but I do think it’s interesting that right at this point, my Garmin shows my HR jumped about 10bpm and stayed at that elevated level for the rest of the race.) Now I was really working, and now I was feeling bad enough that I started to wonder if I would be able to push myself through this last 10k. 7:30, 7:34. I knew I was slowing and my watch confirmed it, but was it my head that was allowing it to happen or my body that was giving out?
I thought back to the 30K mat I had crossed, which felt like it was years ago and seconds ago all at the same time. “They KNOW you’re going for it. You CAN’T back off. This right here, this is the time to be tough.” 7:25. “See, you’ve still got some fight in your legs, keep pushing. Do not be a baby. Keep going.” 7:30.
As I started to gasp for air, I feared that I gave a little too much too soon. My hips, burning. My quads and calves, empty – as though the muscles had been replaced with jelly. I looked up. Everyone around me looked like death. I started to laugh – why on earth does anyone do this to themselves?
As I assessed the situation, I knew I had to put away the watch. My mental state felt precarious again, as if any pacing feedback – good or bad – could potentially tip me over the edge. I knew I was slowing a bit, but by how much? I couldn’t focus on the finish time, I needed to focus all my energy on making sure that I kept putting one foot in front of the other so that my legs didn’t somehow convince my brain that it was ok to stop.
And then I woke up. That 26 mile split beeping on my watch was a slap across the face, and suddenly I realized that I was going to do this – it was a certainty now – and there was no way I could let myself jog it in to the finish.
Sucking wind, I pushed it to a 7:17 pace for the last little bit, feeling grateful for the beep that pulled me out of my self-induced death march. I remember looking up, seeing the clock, and realizing I was solidly under 3:25. This was it, it was happening. My secret, scary A goal that I never even expressed to my coach, for fear he’d tell me I couldn’t. We had only been talking about 3:26-3:27 on a good day. But there I was, about to break 3:23. Goosebumps broke out all over my body; a minor wave of nausea came and went. And once again, just as the day had started, the world felt surreal.
Dublin Marathon – 3:22:56