After much procrastination and a bit of gratuitous prolongation of what can reasonably considered ’fall’ or ’a season’, I find myself at a logical break point (if only in my mind and not in my training) and ready to reflect upon the past 4-5 months. It’s easy for me to stay relentlessly focused on the future and continuing to improve, and given that I’m not very good at being satisfied with absolutely anything, I’m feeling a need to highlight the highs and lows of this past cycle and force a bit of perspective.
First, some context
Well, you see, there’s been a pandemic. Yada, yada, yada, 2020 – 2021 was a challenging and often stressful period of time. We’ve often said, gratefully, we have been lucky (so far) throughout this period of time, but the inherent stresses were impossible to avoid altogether, and that led to a great deal of change (quitting a toxic, miserable workplace; finding and starting a new job; buying a house; having the home-buying process turn into a prolonged nightmare; eventually, moving into new house!).
All that, in addition to a rather long-term and unspecified injury to my left lower leg (possibly nerve-related, but never able to be diagnosed) led to more sporadic training than I prefer. As 2021 progressed, I found myself able to move past the leg issue more consistently and began incorporating more miles into my life yet again. This summer was atrocious: it was very hot. I realize it’s an understatement, but for the purposes of eventually getting into Fall of 2021, I’ll just leave it at that: the summer was very hot. Despite that, I ran the most I’ve ever managed in an NC summer. All easy miles, with some excellent trips to our new favorite spot, Sugar Mountain, helped me get through some time weeks of unrelenting temps and humidity in order to make it to the other side.
California International Marathon – 5 Dec 2021
As Sept began, I kicked off what I’d consider my first ever ’actual’ training cycle for a marathon. This would also be my first ’actual’ road marathon. My 3 efforts at the Umstead Trail Marathon have netted me a 3:57 PR, on a mix of single-track and hilly bridle trail, in early 2019. I split a 3:42 marathon during a 6-hr race, where I ran 41 total miles, in late 2019. Prior to this fall, I’d never put in a dedicated cycle with consistent speedwork, I’d never trained deliberately for a marathon, and I’d never targeted a marathon that had a favorable course profile. I was excited to see what I could do with some proper training and a non-trail, non-totally-bullshit course.
The training cycle was largely perfect. I averaged 75-80 mpw, peaking at 85 miles three weeks prior to the race. Training was pretty simple: a midweek workout; a medium-long run; and a solid long run each weekend, often with quality. Early on in the cycle, I ran the Narragansett Half Marathon in Rhode Island, setting a new PR of 1:35.36. This was my second race in two years (the first being a 10K rust-buster a few weeks prior that was not fast (44:22) but a solid reintroduction to racing) – I went out conservatively, was cautious on the many hills, and felt in control the whole race. I finished 2nd overall woman and got my first confidence boost of the cycle, as well as my first opportunity to re-evaluate my marathon goals.
The rest of the block was uneventful, with one big exception. Before that, I got in multiple solid long runs, including a truly excellent 22 miles with 13 @ MP (avg ~7:30 / mile for the MP section). I felt fit, had a level of confidence in my running and mental fortitude that I’d not previously experienced in a training cycle, and was ready to race. I had made it – three weeks to go, peak week done, one more week of quality training before beginning the taper. You can imagine, then, how much it fucking sucked that two days later, on a midday run, I got hit by a car.
The car incident, or how I learned to start worrying and hate the car
Now, I shouldn’t be too dramatic: I’m fine. If you can consider one lucky when getting hit by a moving SUV, consider me lucky. I was hit in an intersection by a woman driving a Ford Escape. She rolled into a crosswalk, did not see me, did not see the Stop sign or simply did not feel like stopping, and kept going. I, an unwelcome presence in the pedestrian crosswalk, ended up attached to her front bumper before being thrown unceremoniously into Duke Street. For a brief moment, I looked further up the one-way street and saw the oncoming traffic, still coming towards me, and assumed I would meet my death not by getting hit the first time, but by getting run over by yet another car who could not be bothered to stop.
Fortunately, the original driver pulled over and helped me to the side of the road. I was in shock, and I, an idiot, thought MY MARATHON! and began hopping around and trying to assess the damage. She yelled at me to sit and to let her call an ambulance. I, again, an idiot, said WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME, YOU JUST HIT ME WITH YOUR CAR, and then DON’T CALL AN AMBULANCE, IT’S VERY EXPENSIVE, and then I THINK I’M OKAY, IT’S JUST THESE SCRAPES. My left side was cut and bruised from hitting the pavement. I felt my right ankle twist a bit on the way down, but as I hopped around, it seemed okay. I had made it out (relatively) unscathed. An off-duty cop happened to be working at DSA, the school a block away, and took down our information. He again asked if I wanted an ambulance; I again said it’s very expensive and that I believed I was okay. I sent a vague ”Hi I got hit by car” message to Mark (who, if you can believe this, was ’not happy’ with that level of information and also ’very concerned’ and also ’wanted to come pick me up’). I could not be bothered with this, as I had a 3 pm meeting to make it home for (?!?) and needed to complete my run (again: ?!?!?).
I ran home and was in some pain, but in all the superficial ways scrapes and bruises make you feel. I managed a shower and got myself to stop shaking enough to keep pretending I was okay. I did attend the meeting (please know that my absolutely wonderful boss found this out later and could not fathom why I did this), and I did a later shakeout run with Mark to make sure nothing felt hurt. I felt fine on the run – we jogged 4 miles, and I was elated to have made it through such a shit incident with no more serious injuries. Unfortunately, this elation was short-lived: upon driving home, whatever concoction of adrenaline, stupidity and optimism had gotten me through the day to this point work off, and my ankle seized up. I could not walk. I could not put any weight on it without wanting to cry. I shifted immediately to despondency. I had three weeks until the marathon, and it felt absolutely impossible that I’d be running. I tried not to panic, but frankly I did a shit job.
At the doctor’s the next day, I was diagnosed with a simple ol’ ankle sprain; she advised me not to run at all and certainly not to run a marathon. She said it was possible I’d recover quickly but that I should take it very easy and not plan on the race. I did not mention my 3-year streak or that I certainly intended to try, even if it meant a longer recovery period after the race. I did, however, take her advice to try out an ankle brace! Good patient!
The next few days were rough – I ‘ran’ a mile in the brace, moving as slowly as I could while considering it a run. It wasn’t as bad as I’d hoped, but I kept the brace on and kept it to the bare minimum. I noticed each day that the movement was helping, not hurting, and I was able to bear weight and move better and better each day. By the end of the week, I was able to jog 3 miles without the brace, and it didn’t seem to make things worse. By the following week, I made a cautious attempt to run fast – I noticed some tightness in my ankle tendons after the workout, but it seemed to subside quickly and not make things worse. While the physical effects seemed to be improving, I felt I’d fully lost my confidence. I felt incapable of running fast. I was not comfortable running near cars. Even if I became physically well enough to race, I became increasingly concerned my mental state would not recover to the same degree.
On Thanksgiving Day, I made the decision to run the Gallop & Gorge 8K (a tradition!) – with the marathon coming up the following week, it felt like a good opportunity to shift back into racing mode mentally (a different kind of rust buster) and to see if my ankle held up over a few faster miles. Prior to the accident, I was hoping to set a big PR. I ended up with the smallest of PRs, nearly matching 2019 instead with a 33:28. I felt physically able to run without pain, but I had trouble pushing myself to that deeper place of discomfort required for a truly good result. I did, however, end the day feeling like the marathon was back on, even if I’d lost something intangible in the car incident.
We headed out to CA on the Friday before the race and found our lovely AirBnB right downtown in Sacramento. We did packet pickup and a shakeout, exploring the city a bit, and then found the nearest Whole Foods to get some provisions that I hoped would keep things as normal as possible for my oft-sensitive stomach. (Aside: CA Whole Foods have this truly incredible Golden Gate sandwich on some type of crunchy bread I have longed for since returning home). The days before the race were rather uneventful – we did our usual course drive, which highlighted the rolling hills and helped me think through race strategy – and I felt pretty calm and well-rested going into Sunday. My ankle was largely feeling okay, though I mentally felt like a big gap had been inserted between my training and the race that made me feel ’not ready’. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be the type to truly feel ’ready’ for a race, but this was especially weird. That 22-mile confidence-skyrocketing LR felt eons away. I just didn’t know what to expect. I tried to realign my expectations to simply enjoy the day and have some gratitude for getting to be there, doing this, at all.
The race logistics were pretty straightforward, and I was able to get to the start and use one of the what-felt-like millions of portapotties available. I jogged a bit, did my usual warm-up routine, and lined up in the 3:15 corral area. It was ~40 degrees and misting a bit – perfect conditions. The race began promptly, and I crossed the line around 2 minutes later. I’m not sure what to say about the race itself – it went perfectly until it didn’t, and marathons are hard. I went out cautiously and settled in ~7:25-7:30 per mile pace. I felt I was capable of running ~3:15 if everything went my way. The first half was easy and uneventful – I was looking forward to the inevitable end of the rolling hills and the more gradual, consistent downhill to the flat downtown finish. It felt, though, like the rollers continued longer than I’d thought. It was around this time, when I began to wonder if it ever truly would flatten out, that I began to experience some GI discomfort. It was not until after the race that I realized the issue was not nausea but rather acid reflux, which made it tough to take my last gel and also tough to breathe.
I began to slow towards 18 miles, increasingly struggling to deal with the reflux and starting to internally panic that I had quite a ways to go if I was falling apart now. My legs felt fine, and I got frustrated with myself that I was unable to push harder, to just ignore the discomfort and keep moving. I managed to keep myself moving, slowing to just over 8 min miles through the end. It sucked, and I felt disappointed before I’d even crossed the line, and I had a tough time seeing the bigger picture until much later post-race. I could tell I hadn’t simply blown up or gone out too fast for a couple reasons: (1) my HR recovered well as I slowed; it wasn’t the effort that was the issue, it was my GI system – a different problem to troubleshoot and solve; and (2) after the race, I did not feel I’d given an all-out effort. I felt recovered in a few days. I felt like I did a slightly longer long run with some faster miles towards the beginning. I was simply not satisfied with this as the end of my cycle.
Taking a step back: I ran a 3:20.59. I set a huge PR. I went into the cycle thinking I’d be targeting 3:25, amended halfway through to closer to 3:15, and hit somewhere in the middle. This was not a failure, and I’m proud of the work I put in and what I accomplished. I am also deeply unsatisfied. I know I can do better, even right now, and especially in the future. GI issues aside, I can’t help but wonder just how much my mental game was off due to the accident. It feels like a lot, but its hard to look at yourself truthfully and tell when you’re making a clearheaded assessment or when you’re making excuses. I just don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter to me. At the end of the day, no cycle is perfect, but I hope that the imperfections in the future don’t involve my body making contact with a motor vehicle so I can cross that off the list of potential reasons I have underperformed or not met my own expectations. This was a good block, and best of all, I’m fully ready to start anew.
Frosty 50K – 8 January 2022
With the disappointment I felt toward my CIM result and the speedy recovery I made coming out of the race, I felt eager and motivated to do something else with my fitness. Of course, I’d certainly already peaked, and a few more weeks wasn’t enough to really whip myself back into tippy-top 50K shape, but I felt I wanted to try something else and not start back at square one quite yet. I signed up for the Frosty 50K in Winston-Salem with just a few weeks to go before the race and shifted back into training mode for the time I had available.
I’d run the 25K a couple times, poorly, in the past, and knew the lake loop quite well. The 50K is 4 loops around Salem Lake (plus a little out-and-back each time) – to me, the lake is flat, but it is actually somewhat rolling, with 3 more substantial hills each loop. Race day was slated to be absolutely freezing for soft Southern folk like I have grown to be, and I was not sure how I’d fare in such cold temps. We arrived at the lake with 40 minutes to spare, got my packet, and set up to start. At 8 am, the temperature was 19 degrees with some decent wind. I hadn’t run in weather this cold for 5 years, and I certainly hadn’t tried to do so quickly, by any stretch.
The race began, and I could not warm up. I did not wear the right gloves, and my hands felt cold for nearly the entire race. I tried to go out around marathon pace – with the cold and the trail surface of the loop, this ended up being ~7:40 pace for loop 1. I couldn’t even muster a faster mile or two to escape the truly infuriating anti-vax conversation happening directly behind me from miles 1-4. I just had to keep moving and hope I could drop them eventually. Loop 1 felt controlled, albeit cold, and put me perfectly on pace for my optimistic goal of breaking 4 hours. As I went back out for loop two, I noticed I may have to use the bathroom. Fortunately, it wasn’t an emergency situation, and I just accepted that I’d have to make a quick stop when I finished the loop. Unfortunately, the slight GI discomfort made getting my second gel down a bit challenging – I managed, but I gagged and coughed a bit – not great!
I finished loop 2 exactly on pace with loop 1. I made my bathroom stop and lost ~1.5 mins as I fumbled to use my frozen hands in the portapotty just off course. I crossed the timing mat to end the loop and began #3 after my pitstop. I began to slow. At this point, all the 25K runners are gone, and I’d already been running alone. Now, I was fully alone. The race is not particularly well supported – there is a water stop at 3.5 where cups are left on the table for you to grab, and there is another just before 7. I had no one around me for the loop. I was still cold, and I still had a long way to go. I had trouble motivating to push and felt myself slowing a bit to a less uncomfortable pace – not exactly the definition of mental toughness, but I felt my time goal slipping away and instead refocused on enjoying the run and setting a new 50K PR at the very least. It began to feel more like a somewhat-supported long run than a race, and that reflected in my splits.
As I finished loop 3, it was very clear no one was in front of me or anywhere near me. I felt absolutely no motivation to push for loop 4 other than to be done and maybe be able to move my lips to form words at some point in the future. I did what felt like a jog, by myself, for another 7.66 miles, to win the women’s race in 4:12. My previous 50K PR was a 4:24 split in my 6-hr, so this plus a win was a solid day. I wished for a better time, but I felt grateful for the good, uneventful long run and another PR out of this training cycle.
Wrapping it up
Even after getting this all out of my head and onto virtual paper, I don’t know that I feel any less hazy on the fall. I’m happy, I’m not happy. I’m proud, I’m disappointed. I’m grateful, I’m angry. I’m faster than I was, I’m not as fast as I think I should be. At the end of the day, I’m making progress. I’m motivated as ever. I do not feel the training fatigue or need for a break that others describe when talking about marathon training – it just never felt like too much for me. I always want more. Something is certainly broken in my brain for me to be this way – it’s true in my career as it is in running. All the grace I can give to other people, I cannot give to myself. I probably (definitely) need therapy. I don’t know what else to say. Running is a part of me, of my mental state. It is a way I find meaning in the endless monotony of the day-to-day. It is a way I make tangible my insatiable and pathological desire to improve. I wish I could just ’be happy’ with my accomplishments, but I also don’t wish to hold myself to a lower standard just to do so. I am grateful that, despite all of this, my motivation doesn’t wane, and I don’t take setbacks as reasons to quit or pull back. I love doing this, even the disappointments or mental hurdles. Maybe especially those.