The 2016 Boston Marathon

I am more than a little delinquent in posting a recap of my experience at the Boston Marathon. But better late than never, right?

I had a mostly great training cycle leading up to my first Boston Marathon. I hadn’t put much pressure on meeting a specific time goal, but had trained at paces that would prepare me to run a 3:30, which I thought was reasonable. Having never run a marathon course as challenging as Boston, I didn’t aim for a PR (under 3:27:51), but knew I would be thrilled with anything around 3:30 and the fact that I would have re-qualified for the chance to run Boston again next year if the experience turned out to be as amazing as I expected.

I traveled to Boston the Friday before the race. Jeremy and my parents all made the trip to Boston to be able to watch me run and I am grateful they wanted to be a part of this experience with me. We spent the weekend seeing some of the important Boston sights and eating delicious food. The day before the race, I did make an effort to take it easier and watch my diet a bit more carefully.

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Marathon Monday morning went smoothly. I was lucky enough to get to catch the bus to Athlete’s Village with two of my Bull City Track Club teammates, where we even found another BCTC teammate who was running in an earlier wave. Having them around all morning helped calm my nerves and pass the time.

One thing I had been concerned about, having not run a race with such a late start before, was making sure I ate at the right time. I didn’t want to eat too early or not enough and be hungry and depleted before even crossing the start line. But my stomach can be sensitive so I am always hesitant to eat a huge amount before runs. My best guess was that I should eat a bagel with peanut butter on the bus to Hopkinton (about 2 hours until the start), plus as much of a Picky Bar as I could make myself eat about 45 minutes before. It turned out that this worked perfectly for me.

Unfortunately, as the time went by it got noticeably warmer and sunnier in Hopkinton. By the time we walked to the corrals for the start of Wave 2, it was somewhere around 70 degrees, with no breeze and no shade to be found. I tried not to stress about the weather too much. It was out of my control and, being from the Southeast, I just kept telling myself that at least there was no humidity.

The energy at the start was palpable. I tried to soak it all in. As our wave surged forward I tried not to inadvertently go out too fast on the early downhill miles and was mostly successful. I didn’t worry about weaving through the crowd, and just hugged the side of the road and high-fived lots of spectators.

I felt incredible those first few miles, which you think I would be happy about. But instead, it worried me. You see, I have come to know and love my body’s usual pattern for long races. I usually feel uncomfortable for the first 4 miles or so, then finally get into a groove and settle into my race pace. There will typically be a mile or two later in the race where I struggle and argue with myself whether or not I have hit the wall and should just sulk on the side of the road, but then I can often mentally power through, suck it up and manage to finish strong.

Feeling great the first few miles is not part of my pattern. Suddenly, as early as mile 6, my groove had peaked early and I felt like holding paces in the low 8’s was taking way too much effort. I started to feel incredibly hot. I am not especially sensitive to warmer temperature runs and races, but I think the intensity of the direct sun did have an affect on me.

I held onto something near my goal pace for a while. But I remember hitting the 7 mile mark feeling rough, and thinking the marathon would end bad for me if I was stubborn and tried to hold that goal pace. More than feeling pressure to run a 3:30, the past few days I had stressed over the possibility of having a terrible experience or not finishing the race. The night before, instead of worrying over mile splits and finish times I worried over the idea that I would pace the race stupidly and end up hitting the wall and hating the whole experience. More than anything, after all of the work I did to qualify and get there, I really didn’t want to hate the Boston Marathon.

So starting at around mile 7 or 8, I dialed back to a pace that felt easier and didn’t focus on my watch too much. A few miles after that, I was still really hot and worried about consuming enough fluids so I started walking through some of the water stops so I could focus on getting water and Gatorade in my mouth instead of all over my face.

At the easier pace, I felt much better and also payed more attention to the atmosphere of the race. The cheers entering and running through Wellesley were incredible. I had been instructed by multiple people that I would be missing out if I didn’t make sure to kiss the Wellesley girls. So I kissed 4. I was going to stop after 3 girls because I didn’t want to be too greedy, but then I saw the girl with the “Kiss me! I’m from NC!” sign. No way I could pass that up.

I was in awe of how the entire course was lined with loud spectators. The crowd energy and support was indescribable. Anytime I felt pain in my legs and feet or a hint of fatigue I would just move to the side of the course to get some high fives and hear a few cheers and feel pretty good again. The couple of times I got to hear cheers directed right at me were the biggest pick-me-up of all. I saw one teammate’s family around mile 17, and then another teammate’s old Boston running crew not too long after that.

My goal for the Newton hills was just to get through without completely burning out my legs. I didn’t look at my watch during any of the climbs; no sense in stressing over pace as long as I was keeping an even effort and not completely giving up and walking. Heartbreak Hill actually came and went relatively quickly. I was able to distract myself by running from one spectator high five to the next and not looking up to see how far I was from the top of the hill. After a fun downhill into the noisy crowds of Boston College, I started to look forward to searching for Jeremy and my parents (who were going to stake out somewhere near the 25 mile mark).

Between Boston College and the Citgo sign (1 mile to go), it seemed like things got pretty dark for a lot of the runners around me. I saw several people start to walk, and even a few sit down on the side of the road or fall to the ground. The heat clearly made it a hard day for almost everyone.

Thankfully, those miles passed pretty uneventfully for me. I started searching for my family around mile 24.5, not entirely sure where they would have ended up finding a spot to watch. The crowd was getting more dense at this point and it was getting difficult to distinguish who was who in the mass of people, so I thought it was likely I would miss them.

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Magically, I spotted my mom in the front row right near the mile-to-go point thanks to the birthday balloon she was holding. (Side note: My first Boston Marathon happened to fall right on my 28th birthday. Clearly, the 2016 Boston Marathon and I were meant to be.) I swerved to the side and gave her the biggest sweaty hug I could. My dad was just a little further down the road, so he got a huge sweaty hug too. Unfortunately, I had missed seeing Jeremy earlier on the course at the 40k mark.

I was determined to soak in as much as possible during the last mile. I remember being grateful I had adjusted my race strategy in that moment. Sure, I was exhausted and in pain, but I was also happy and fully cognizant of my surroundings. Instead of wishing the race would end, I got to enjoy the right on Hereford, the left on Boylston, and even that longer-than-expected straightaway to the finish.

My time was 3:40:23. It certainly wasn’t the time I had trained for but, after about mile 7, it was the time I knew was coming. I made the best of the hand I was dealt that day and made having a great experience my priority.

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If I’m being completely honest, I had plenty of mixed feelings in the weeks following the race. I felt the post-marathon training slump, which was amplified by the fact that the race that had embodied my marathon training and racing goals for three years was suddenly over. At times, it was tough not to dwell on the fact that Boston was, in fact, my second slowest marathon time ever and it came after 16 weeks of training toward a much faster time.

But any of those negative thoughts pale in comparison to the positive memories I got to take away from my first Boston Marathon experience. I had an incredible birthday weekend in Boston – from seeing the sites, to spending time with my family and BCTC teammates, to the race itself. I’m so glad I put in the effort to make my goal of running the Boston Marathon a reality, and I’m grateful I had the support of my family and my team to help get me there.

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6 Benefits of Using a Running Coach

Before I began training for last year’s Wrightsville Beach Marathon, I had decided that I wanted to hire a coach. Having never used a running coach before, I had some reservations early on about the idea. A few of those were valid. For example, I wondered if having a coach would actually be worth it for me since I am very self-motivated and usually don’t have a problem staying accountable to my training plans. But otherwise, most of my reservations were stupidly focused on the outside perceptions of me hiring a coach. More than anything, I guess I’m saying that I felt like I wasn’t “fast enough” to have a coach.

Ultimately, my more rational side talked me out of the petty concerns. My desire to improve as a runner and achieve the goals that had long been out of reach pushed aside the short list of reservations. I enlisted Sarah as my coach for a four month marathon training cycle.

The end result was that I shattered my goals and my expectations at the Wrightsville Beach Marathon (I wrote what is probably too much detail about the race in my recap, so I’ll leave it at that). Better still, I feel like those four months of hard work and attentive coaching brought my running to a new level that I continue to benefit from and build on.

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I can’t say broadly that every runner out there should use a running coach. I think it entirely depends on each individual’s goals, training preferences and, of course, budget. But, in hopes of helping anyone reading who is considering hiring a coach, these are the ways that I found coaching beneficial to me:

  1. A new and individualized approach to training. It’s true that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I know this because, prior to enlisting the help of a coach, this is exactly what I was doing. Training season after training season I used the same or similar plans and tactics and, although I improved, I did so only marginally and nowhere close to as much as was necessary to tackle my goals. I had a hunch that I needed to overhaul my strategy in order to see big results. But I was terrified to try anything beyond my tried and true training plans for fear of training incorrectly or over training and getting injured. Before the season began, Sarah gathered as much information as she possibly could about me and my running history. Then she took all of that into account and designed a training plan specifically for me. There was a lot about the plan that was new, but also some parts that were familiar. It was clear that there was careful consideration into how best to balance those two things so that my body would stay healthy and make the greatest gains in marathon fitness.
  2. They introduce you to new, effective workouts. While working with Sarah, I gained knowledge of and experience with a wealth of new workouts that I have continued to incorporate into my training at various distances. As just one example, it had honestly never occurred to me to incorporate fast finish long runs into my training. Now it is my favorite training run to use because it gives me a great sense for where my combined endurance and speed are in the midst of training for longer distances and it trains my body to finish strong even when it is fatigued.
  3. You have an accountability partner. I know I just got done saying that I don’t have a problem sticking to my training plans on my own. It’s true. In fact, it’s so true that I am prone to being too much of a slave to my schedule and my desire to go above and beyond. I am the type of person that always wants to do the maximum amount of miles on my plan, at the fastest pace that makes sense, regardless of whether I am tired. But this just isn’t a smart or sustainable way to run. Since I would report to my coach weekly on my training runs, she could keep me accountable for holding back my easy runs to a pace that was actually easy and my mileage within the ranges prescribed in the plan. Whenever I told Sarah that I was feeling sick or run-down, she would tell me to take the day off. For some reason it is a lot easier to listen to someone else telling me to slow down or stop than it is to listen to myself. Whether you are the type of person who needs extra motivation to get out and get your training runs done, or you are like me and sometimes just need someone to tell you to back off, a coach can be a tremendously helpful accountability partner.
  4. Your training plan is more adaptable. Whenever I have to divert from my intended training plan due to sickness, injury, or travel, I tend to get caught up in the best way to rearrange my workouts. I know that I should never try to make up mileage that I’ve missed by adding it to my load in later weeks. But beyond that, I’m usually lost. What workouts are the key ones to try and incorporate later in the plan? How much time do I need to ease back into the plan if I’ve taken a bunch of time off? I had to divert from my training for Wrightsville Beach twice – for a terrible cold and for a nagging IT band issue. It was nice to have Sarah there to instruct me to take as much time off as I needed and to explain how the plan could so easily be restructured to put me back on track. Having the reassurance that my entire training cycle wasn’t in the process of crashing and burning allowed me to focus on the most important task at hand – properly resting and recovering so I could run again.
  5. They walk you through the race day game plan. I went into my goal marathon feeling empowered and confident in what I was supposed to do in order to put myself in a position to run my goal time. This was, in part, thanks to a very long conversation that I had with my coach the week before the race where we discussed everything from target pace for each section of the course to when and where to fuel. I had a much better strategy internalized that I ever had for a race before and it translated into a perfect execution of a strong, negative split marathon.
  6. Your own personal cheerleader. My family and friends are so supportive of my training and racing so I have never felt like I am taking on my goals all alone. But there is something unique about the way that a coach’s feeling of accomplishment is intertwined so closely with the successes of the athletes that they coach. I remember texting my coach after my first successful fast finish 20 miler and feeling like her excited response was so incredibly genuine and motivating. We were both feeling good because we could tell that my hard work, guided by her instruction, had me on the right track toward finally reaching my goal.

Based on my experience, I would certainly recommend hiring a coach to any runner who is committed to working toward any form of running goal – faster paces, longer distances, or whatever else you have your sights set on. I acknowledge that coaching may not be what every runner wants or needs, and that the benefits each runner experiences from coaching are likely to be different than mine. If you decide to invest in coaching, I recommend really taking the time to think about what you want the most out of coaching and what motivates you, and then attempt to find a coach whose background and demeanor match that.

It’s been a while…

I haven’t written a post in quite a while. There has been plenty going on worth writing about, but I have been happy to just embrace the experiences for myself instead of rehashing each and every one in its own blog post. Now that the year is (WAY too quickly) winding down, I felt like catching up the blog would be fun. So here’s what I’ve been up to during the summer and fall:

I tried some new things in the running/racing department through the summer. Coming out of training for the Wrightsville Beach Marathon, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t remotely sick of running. But I knew my mind and body needed a break from strenuous training. So I ran a few races for fun including my first trail race (a 7k in 37:35), a local half marathon (1:44:39) my first 8k (36:54), and a 5k (25:07). I learned that I am certainly not as strong at short distances as I am at half marathons and marathons. The 8k and 5k were both in some pretty ridiculously hot temperatures. But even if the temperatures had been ideal I doubt the results would have been impressive. The feeling of trying to sustain faster paces for a shorter race proved to be pretty foreign to my body and I could never maintain my pace in the later miles.

'Please just kill me now...'

‘Please just kill me now…’

I ran a new half marathon PR. Several of my Bull City Track Club teammates were traveling to race the Lehigh Valley Marathon in Pennsylvania in September. I jumped at the chance to make the trip with them and race the half marathon, knowing that an early fall race would be my best chance to train for a good performance since the later fall months were booked solid with wedding and honeymoon plans. I ended up running a really solid race. I perfectly executed negative splits, starting around a 7:37 average pace at mile 1 and ticking down to 7:25 average pace by the time I reached the finish line (my last mile was 6:51, which surprised the hell out of me). The end result was a shiny new half marathon PR of 1:37:11 and I couldn’t have been happier.

A new PR and third in my age group. And beer, of course.

A new PR and third in my age group. And beer, of course.

I was accepted into the Boston Marathon! No explanation is really necessary except to say that, after over two years of very hard work, it felt so incredible to get that acceptance email.

 

I helped pace somebody for the first time. Last week I ran the Richmond Half Marathon alongside my friend Amelia. It was her second half marathon and she was hoping to improve her time from last year of 1:46:30 to somewhere around 1:45. I had a great time running with her and even felt like I was a helpful motivator at a few points along the way. We crossed the finish line together in 1:43:12 – an incredible new PR for Amelia!

 

Most exciting and hands down most importantly… On October 24th, a perfectly beautiful day in Wilmington, NC, Jeremy and I got married! Part of me wants to go into great detail about each and every part of that weekend, but every single time I try to do that the words that come out don’t seem to adequately capture our happiness and gratitude. The best I can do is say that we couldn’t have asked for a better weekend celebrating with all of our friends and family. The ceremony and reception were fun, stress free, and fit us completely perfectly. At the end of it all, we both agreed that we felt at peace, like everything was exactly how it should be now that we were officially husband and wife.

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We topped off a great wedding weekend with 8 days of complete relaxation in Jamaica. We enjoyed plenty of quality time together unplugged from email and social media, ate all the food, drank all the adult beverages, and simply enjoyed the view.

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The view from our room. I definitely still miss it.

It’s good to be back on the blog after an extended hiatus. Now that I’m somewhat caught up, maybe I can do a better job of making this into a regular thing again!

The 2015 Wrightsville Beach Marathon

It has been a little over two weeks since I ran the Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon. And it has taken me nearly all of that time to really collect my thoughts and feelings about the race.

I had some big goals for this race, goals that I wasn’t entirely sure were within my reach going in but goals that I had nonetheless put a whole lot of myself into over the past four months or more. My primary objective was to run my first Boston qualifying time. But in order to do that thoroughly and go for a time that was sure to get me into Boston, I had trained aspiring to a 3:30 marathon (8:00 per mile pace).

My training went well for the most part – I hit weekly mileage numbers I had never seen before, peaking at about 60 miles per week, and surprised myself by toughing out more challenging workouts than I previously thought I was capable of. Working with a coach for the first time had me trying new things and really pushing myself. (I will put together a review of my coaching experience in another post really soon.)

About 5 weeks out from the race I was disappointed when some IT band tightness took me a bit off track. I tried to address the problem immediately by treating the weak/overused areas, stepping back my mileage, and temporarily eliminating all speed work from my routine. I worked with my coach to rearrange the remaining weeks of my training schedule and I still hit most of my key workouts. But the fact that my IT band had so recently been in less than perfect shape wasn’t helping out my confidence going into the race.

Jeremy and I made the very familiar trip to Wilmington together, got to stay with old friends, and had an awesome time and all the carbs with my Bull City Track Club friends at dinner the night before the race.

I woke up bright and early on race morning to perfect weather. There had been some rain in the forecast but it held off and it was in the 50’s and clear at the start. I found a few friends from the team to stand with and talk out my nervous energy between bathroom trips until it was time to join the crowd at the starting line.

The marathon and half marathon start together and there isn’t much of a corral system in place. But since it is a smaller race, I have never thought this was a huge problem aside from some minor weaving around other runners during the first half mile or so.

I was so incredibly lucky that my BCTC friend, Emily, had offered to pace me for the first 11 miles of the race. She was supposed to be running the full marathon but had to lay off training to recover from IT band and knee issues. She knew finishing the full marathon wasn’t an option, but she still decided to use her bib to run with me and keep me company to the point where the half marathoners split off from the full. Her support made such a tremendous difference in how my race went and I couldn’t be more grateful to her.

We started quasi-conservatively in the spirit of my race day game plan. We ran the first 3 or so miles at about an 8:10 average pace and then started to pick things up to my 8:00 goal pace somewhere around mile 4. The 3:30 pacer was in our sights most of the time, but we let him stay slightly ahead since he seemed to be going a little ahead of pace. We people watched and talked and, just like that, 10 miles had gone by and it was almost time for Emily and I to part ways. Having the first 11 miles pass without a whole lot of thought or anxiety was huge.

With Emily gone, I was alone but still had the 3:30 pacer in sight. So I put in my headphones and made a move to catch the pacer and the small pack of about five runners sticking with him. I typically haven’t decided to follow pacers during races but really wanted to keep some people nearby for a while longer, which may be because I am in the habit of doing my runs around people now instead of all alone.

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I ended up hanging with that same group of runners and the pacer from mile 11 until around mile 19. Throughout that time, I went through a few mild phases of ‘I feel… meh’ for no particular reason, just minor discomforts and occasional doubt I could hold my pace for the distance that was left. But I always seemed to quickly bounce back to ‘I feel frickin’ awesome’. I was grateful for the pacer, he was going a bit faster than the target pace most of the time but was sure to check with everyone who was in the group to make sure we were comfortable with it. We hit mile 17 with my watch showing about 7:56 average pace.

I worried a bit starting at mile 19, heading back into a more dull residential area for the second time (aka land of multi-million dollar houses, golf courses and almost no one out cheering). It was around this part of the course that I had tanked my pace last year. I told myself that if I could get out of the neighborhood without losing speed I would be golden. It was a struggle to do that for miles 19-23 because our pace group completely split apart and I was mostly on my own. But I managed to hang on and keep my pace consistent – my watch lingered around 7:56 average.

At about mile 23 it suddenly became easier to hold the pace, and I even felt like I was picking it up a bit. I caught up to and passed the only other female who had been tagging along with the 3:30 pace group with me (who I had pegged as probably being in my age group as well).

Once I got out of the residential zone at around mile 24, I was worn out but felt a huge amount of relief. I saw Jeremy right after the 24 mile mark which gave me the finishing energy I needed. From there, I pretty much went tunnel vision. I was so focused on the finish that I actually picked up speed and miles 25 and 26 were my fastest of the race (7:39 and 7:36).

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I don’t think I fully believed or realized that I was running the amazing race I was running until I got to the last half mile or so. So I was on emotional overload crossing the finish line. Seeing my teammates and Jeremy and giving them all sweaty hugs brought out a whole lot of happy crying.

I finished in 3:27:51. A PR of just over 9 minutes and I came in more than 7 minutes ahead of my Boston qualifying time. I also found out later that I placed 2nd in my age group, and got a very cool commemorative growler as a prize.

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There are so many things I am proud about from this race, but a few things that top the list:

  • I didn’t really hit the wall or have any miles that stood out as “bad”. I almost expected to get to a point where I had nothing more to give and I lost my grip to my goal pace, only because that has happened to be in every other marathon. But this time when I had periods of discomfort I was able to deal with it and lean into that discomfort, ultimately staying consistent. I think this is a result of taking a new approach to my training – reaching higher mileage overall, and toughening up mentally from my speed workouts and incorporating goal pace miles into the end of my long runs.
  • I negative split the race and my last two miles were my fastest of the day. Proof that taking the first few miles conservatively, at a pace slightly slower than your goal, really can work in your favor (as opposed to my old practice of running off the start like a bat out of hell). Negative splitting has been something I have been able to achieve in a few of my most recent races, like the Richmond Half, and I love being able to finish strong and fast – or at least not completely broken.

I am proud of myself but definitely can’t take all the credit for a successful race. My coach, Sarah, was absolutely amazing. Jeremy was unfailingly supportive and understanding through yet another season of marathon training. And my Bull City Track Club teammates that ran with me day after day made it the most fun and fulfilling marathon training experience I’ve ever had, hands down.

What was your most recent race? How did it go?

Birthdays and anniversaries and time

I’ll be turning 26 on Friday. I am not to the point where I dismiss my birthday yet but am at the age where it sneaks up on me and I anticipate it less. I ran out of big, age-related privilege milestones last year when I became old enough to rent a car (not to say that is anything epic to celebrate). Now birthdays creep further and further away from, Wooo! Now I can vote. Now I can drink. Etc. Now birthdays simply signify a general passing of time.

This year, my birthday also falls on the same week as the anniversaries of two recent major tragic events – the April 16, 2007, shooting at Virginia Tech and the April, 15, 2013, bombing at the Boston Marathon.

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These events are devastating memories, and have a profound impact on everyone in varying ways and at different levels. At the same time, seeing the way that masses of people can rally around those who were affected and both mourn the passing of the victims and celebrate their lives is an inspiring testament to human resiliency and community.

With all that has been going on this week, I am very grateful to celebrate my birthday for exactly what it is – even if that is now simply a passing of time. I have gotten to live every day of another year of my life exactly how I wanted to while others have not been so fortunate. I have worked, played, run, loved, learned, and laughed.

This week, I am truly thankful for the time I’ve had and the time I have left and my heart goes out to those who have had life or the ability to live life exactly how they would chose taken away from them.