Post-marathon debrief

I'm really glad I took the time to write a recap and do some reflecting immediately after the marathon, because right after the race I switched gears and haven't really thought much about running or racing at all (except to wonder, "What's next?") 

All of my spare time I used to spend running was filled right away with suddenly very urgent-seeming house and wedding tasks we'd been putting off, plus some long evenings spent working. So, I better go ahead an debrief before Tobacco Road recedes in my memory, along with all of the lessons I learned, because if that happens the suffering I experienced on race day will have all been for naught!


The main thing, that is now extremely obvious to me, is that I was not in good enough shape to run a 3:35 race. In other words: No matter how "smart" I raced, it could not have happened.

Logic proof time! My assumptions going into race day were:

  1. I am in 3:35 shape;
  2. I will run a smart race (slight negative splits, no disasters);
  3. If 1 & 2 are true, I will meet my goal.

Well, I know #2 was true because I have my splits right here. And I know #3 is false, because I did not meet my goal. So therefore, #1 could not have been true. In other words, I must have overestimated my fitness.

Averaging just above pace through the half: Straight from the Smart Racing textbook.

Averaging just above pace through the half: Straight from the Smart Racing textbook.

Cue sad music.

Someone in 3:35 shape should not have bonked so early, with splits that look as nice and chill as mine do in the first 13 miles. The endurance just wasn't there. 

I really don't think Run Less, Run Faster is to blame. When I imputed my City of Oaks half marathon PR (which I got on a hilly course with low mileage interrupted by a funky hamstring pain that put me on the sidelines for a few weeks, and after a summer off of running), RLRF offered a goal marathon time of 3:50. Considering my PR is 3:45, I thought I would just aim for 3:35 anyway. For each long run, I gave myself two paces: the pace prescribed by my 3:50-predicting plan, and the pace prescribed in the "BQ plan" that comes in the book. Midway through training my long runs started to resemble those in the BQ plan more than my own 3:50 plan, which made me feel fantastic. I'm ready, I thought. I just went with it.

Was that a mistake? That's the million-dollar question, right?

^^In a marathon, there is just SO MUCH RUNNING.^^

Mid-race, while I was bonking, I was kicking myself because I knew if I had just started out in the 8:20 range I would have (1) not bonked; (2) run a perfectly comfortable 3:40ish marathon; and (3) probably felt fine the whole time. All of that sounds pretty awesome in hindsight. So maybe I would have been wise to have checked my ego and saved the sub-3:35 goal for a later race.

But the truth is,  I wanted it, I thought my training might be enough to get there, and I was in the mood to run fast without worrying too much about burning up.

I found the vulnerability that came with admitting I had a time goal to be both very uncomfortable and wildly liberating. It was more ambitious than I'm comfortable with; there was a high possibility of failure. I was never, at any point in training, confident in my ability to BQ. I realized I didn't have to know before I tried whether or not I could succeed. I could find out the answer by just trying. Deciding to just TRY felt beautiful to me, like getting out of my own way. 

When I realized I was bonking, I was at first horrified, then humiliated, then enraged, then crushed. And then, I felt peaceful and I gave in to my fate. I alternating running and walking. I did as much as  I was able. I tried to salvage it as best I could by downing tons of water and the rest of my fuel. Quite a few people from the 3:35 group had also fallen off pace, so as I passed them (or they passed me) we chatted and shared our disappointments. Kind of like every other lousy thing in life, it was horrible, but also fine. The world didn't end. 

After I crossed the finish line, I cried. I didn't feel like I'd accomplished anything; it seemed like an enormous waste of time. But now nearly a month out, I think failing was good for me. I am humbled (BOY, am I humbled!) by the marathon distance; the idea of tackling another one seems enormous, but also less scary than it's ever seemed, if that makes sense. I guess I'm saying that I really appreciate how much work it will take for me to actually qualify, and also, that I don't feel so afraid of trying something & failing at it, because it's just running, after all.

The reasons I started running are so different than the reasons I run now, and surely it's affected my running quite a bit. Maybe this deserves a post of its own, but I'm not angry like I used to be, or needing to use running to help fuel a total life change. I have really appreciated having the time and space away from training lately, though I hope the urge to run hard and break my personal records returns this summer, because I have a loooong list of races I'd like to run. Recovery-wise, I ran only one time, about a week ago, and my knees began hurting pretty badly about a mile in. Instead, I've been spending more time on my bike (bike commuting, mostly) and going for long walks.

Despite what this long post suggests, running is one of the furthest things on my mind these days -- I feel like I'm settling into a quiet, contemplative space in preparing to get married in a few weeks. I do have my eye on a half marathon in June, but it seems wise to wait and see how I feel over the next month or so before registering for anything!

Tobacco Road Marathon Recap

I said on Saturday that my fear was that I would fall apart early and have a death march 'til the end. That's what happened. Want to hear about it, in my raw and miserable state? Read on!

Everything went smoothly in the morning. Despite my habitual lateness, I was up, packed, and out the door by 4:25. This is my first marathon I've done that's nearby, and it was so relaxing to be able to drive there and check a bag (!!) I was warm and not bored at the start (thanks to pants, and a New Yorker) which totally changed my start village experience! Checking a bag = heaven.

At the start I tapped on the pacer's shoulder and asked him about his strategy. He said he wanted to run even splits, which meant I planned to be a bit behind him at the beginning, then catch up.

Wait, I'll just stop here and spoil things by saying I did not qualify for Boston, not anywhere close. I finished in 3:52:06, 7 minutes off of my PR. It's both my second-fastest and second-slowest marathon, depending on how you look at things. Looking at my splits now, it is obvious what happened. But we'll get to all of that. 

So the gun went off and the pacer, in my opinion at the time (which has since changed)  shot off. I was torn between wanting to "run my own race" and the anxiety of watching "my" pace group leave me.

  • Mile 1 - 8:10
  • Mile 2 - 7:50

Bad decisions here. Real bad decisions.

  • Mile 3 - 8:04
  • Mile 4 - 7:59
  • Mile 5 - 7:55 (took my first gel)
  • Mile 6 - 8:09
  • Mile 7 - 7:52
  • Mile 8 -  8:11
  • Mile 9 - 8:05
  • Mile 10 -8:10 (second gel)

These 10 miles went by quickly, and I only checked my Garmin when it beeped each mile. It felt fast, but not crazy. But still, a little fast. I was fighting off a cramp in my side and therefore focusing a lot on my breathing, which was normal. My thinking: "Ok, I'm starting out faster than I planned, but you feel fine so just go with it."

Here's the crazy thing though: Even with these splits, the pacer was still SO far ahead of me. To further mess with my brain, some guys who were running behind me for a few miles mentioned that they were "on pace for 3:25"). Wait, how fast are we running here??

Meanwhile, the course was super boring, as I knew it would be. There were way more spectators than I anticipated and I was never alone on the course, but it was really just  two long out-and-backs, on a crushed gravel trail, with trees on either side. It was pretty, but I missed having turns and changing neighborhoods to mix things up.

In mile 11 (I think) I finally reeled in the 3:35 pace group after we turned "back" from the first out-and-back. I ran comfortably with them for a mile or so until I realized, pretty suddenly, that I was getting really tired. Like, way too tired for mile 12 of a marathon: legs turning over more slowly, breathing more labored.

I tried slowing for 30 seconds or so to get my breathing back under control. I noticed we were climbing one of those sneaky looooooong gradual climbs that this race has, and so I took it a little easier until I reached the top.

  • Mile 11 - 8:19
  • Mile 12 - 8:15

By mile 12, I realized slowing for a little bit wasn't helping. I took my second gel 5ish minutes early to try to stall whatever was happening to me. I put my headphones in. I told myself, "Just hang with them until the half, then you can regroup."

  • Mile 13 -8:47
  • Half - 1:48:00 (8:14) / Garmin says 1:46:19 (8:06)

I'm not a Garmin truther or anything: I include the actual split & the Garmin split to illustrate the fact that I was running much slower than my Garmin told me I was running. I don't think these are tangent issues (because the race has basically no turns), probably the satellites got wonky at some point. So all this time that I thought I was running below GMP,  I was running a little slower than GMP. In other words, all throughout the beginning of the race, when I thought I was logging low 8s and high 7s, I was actually (according to the official results) running something closer to 8:12. This is very significant, because after the bonk happened I thought it was because I started too fast. (Those guys from earlier who thought they/we were on pace for 3:25? They were super wrong. ) There's nothing crazy about my actual official splits. Sure, I didn't have that 8:20 first mile like I planned, but that couldn't possibly be enough to so thoroughly bankrupt me so early in the race. However...I'm getting ahead of myself.

The half was the last time I saw the 3:35 group. I was running with them, and then I wasn't. I was like a weak antelope in one of those horrible nature documentaries. I saw their back, then the gap between us widened. I knew in my heart I wouldn't be able to catch them again, though at the time I told myself, "Ok, it's cool, so you'll chill for, uh, 9 miles and then catch them in the last 4." But I knew that was a lie.

  • Mile 14 - 8:35
  • Mile 15 - 9:04

By mile 15 I had resorted to walk breaks, something I pride myself on *never* taking during a race. Walking is always the beginning of the end, and the worst way to lost your mental game is to tell increasingly desperate and wild lies to yourself, like "I'll walk for just a minute, it will feel so good." But it did, it did feel so good. And I needed it. I was bonking, hard. In addition to taking water, I took Gatorade at a few of the water stop.

Theses were the most painful miles because I was still carrying the quickly-fading hope that it wasn't too late, that I might still get this under control and get to the finish line in time. My Garmin's "average pace" said 8:14 at mile 14/15, and I was really trying everything: positive talk, Janelle Monae, recalling the bravery/awesomeness of Dorothy Day I had just read about in the New Yorker while waiting in the start village, shame, threats. James and his friends were headed home from his bachelor party weekend in Asheville and even the funny thought of two carfuls of our friends keeping tabs on me from the road couldn't help me along. Nothing could make my legs move faster.

  • Mile 16 - 8:24 (third gel)
  • Mile 17 - 9:16
  • Mile 18 - 9:50
  • Mile 19 - 8:51

Even at this much-slowed pace, I was out of breath, exhausted, I just couldn't break my bonk. I took my third gel ahead of schedule at mile 16, and I was still drinking Gatorade and water during the water stops. Somewhere around this time, the 3:40 group passed me. "Are you kidding me," I thought. "Ok, so just make it through 2 more miles and then you'll catch them." More lies!!!

  • Mile 20 - 10:10 (fourth gel)
  • Mile 21 - 9:50
  • Mile 22 - 9:42
  • Mile 23 - 10:18
  • Mile 24 - 10:18

At this stage in the race I reached acceptance. I had been passed now by the 3:45 group, and seemingly every other person who was running this marathon. I realized that if I had just run a chill normal race I would probably finish ahead of wherever I'm going to finish. But I came here for a 3:35 and if I didn't get it, I didn't much care what happened. I really considered throwing in the towel many times after mile 20, but for sportsmanship reasons, quitting felt unacceptable to me.

Relief finally came when we turned out of the trail and began the 2.5 miles to the finish line. My right knee felt horrible (like a rusty hinge) but I think those gels finally started to do something because I had a little bit more energy toward the end.

  • Mile 25 - 8:52
  • Mile 26 - 9:14
  • .2 - 3:50 (7:45) (where was that speed hours ago?)
  • Finish time: 3:52:06 (Garmin distance: 26.57)*

Yo, that's a 16 minute positive split :(((((((

At the finish, I saw the "BQ bell" I had fantasized about during nearly every run for four months. It was broken and someone was sitting on the ground with a wrench in hand, trying to fix it. How fitting!

Immediately after: I had a little pity cry, downed four chocolate milks, picked up my checked bag, texted my IRL friends who were tracking me, and went home to wallow and convalesce.

Despite my complaints about the boringness, the Tobacco Road Marathon is a really great race. I wish I could have enjoyed it more. Unlike RnR and other for-profit races trying to capitalize on this 21st century running boom, they are a nonprofit that gives all of the net revenue from the race to charity. When I finished, the race director was standing on the other side, beaming, and reached out to shake my hand. The expo was great, the aid stations were great, the shuttles to the start were great, the tshirt fits, and I met lots of really nice people. I would definitely run it again if/when the trauma of this horrible bonk ever wears off.

Next up, all of my ideas about what happened and why.

(Ed. note: Thanks for being sweet to me on the internet, cheering me on, and commiserating with me on twitter. Misery loves company and it's reassuring to know ya'll have been there, too. And as Layla pointed out, and least I didn't drop out at mile 13 like Ryan Hall!)