In the last 8 miles of the Maine Coast Marathon in May 2014, when I was hot and miserable and walking the final half of a marathon yet AGAIN, I decided something.
You know something? Maybe marathons just aren’t my thing. I don’t think I need to run them anymore.
Because in every marathon I’ve run, I’d had a great race until about mile 15. Or 18. And when you hit a wall at mile 15 or 18 of a marathon, you still have a long ass way to go until you’re done.
So I finished Maine Coast, told Jeff I was done, and decided to stop running marathons for good. And instead got into triathlon, which has been so much fun. I didn’t really think I was missing anything.
But a good running friend of mine moved last summer, and I missed our girlfriend runs terribly. So when she texted me and told me I should visit her in Arizona, because she found a marathon for us to do the week of Owen’s winter break… I signed up for it without hesitation.
Honestly, I just signed up for it. I didn’t really even THINK about it. It was the next day I realized. Shit. I signed up for another damn marathon.
My goal for this race was simple. I wanted to run the whole thing, as slow as I needed to, without hitting that damn wall at miles 15-18 and walking the rest.
I started working with a triathlon coach this winter, who instructed me to do heart rate training in November through December. I slowed my runs WAYYYYYY down, which was so hard, because I felt like I was out there forever. But in early December, I finished my 18 mile run feeling AMAZING – like I had barely run anything. Then in January, he started adding more speed back into my running. I discovered that I was running faster at a lower heart rate than I had been in a long time. And I started to think that maybe there was a chance I might actually be able to best my PR in the marathon.
And then I got my marathon pacing plan a week or so before the race, which had me finishing under 4 hours. WHAT?
Data doesn’t lie, though. My pacing and heart rate data through the winter was such that he told me that a sub-4 hour marathon was very doable.
So the day of the race, I went into it with three goals. My “stretch” goal was to break 4 hours, which would be a PR of 10 minutes or so. My more realistic goal was to get a personal best. And my absolute, no question goal was to play it smart in the early miles and RUN THE WHOLE THING. I did not want to give up like I have in every other marathon I’ve done.
The Lost Dutchman race basically starts in the middle of the desert. We parked at the rodeo grounds (RODEO! GROUNDS!) and were bused to the start – the last half hour of the ride is on this crazy bumpy dirt fire road into the foothills of the Superstition Mountains. When we got to the start they had about 80 individually wrapped creosote logs burning on the ground, which was warm and amazing and just great. Best way to start the day: standing next to a warm fire, watching the sun rise over the desert – just before you start a marathon.
Hands down the coolest race start ever.
I didn’t honestly pay attention to the weather much. Coming from winter in MA, I knew that no matter what, I wasn’t going to be used to the warmer temps anyway. I was lucky in that we had a pretty mild winter, and the week before I left I did one of my runs in a warm gym, but really, weather wasn’t on my radar.
But a few days before the race, we got an email from the director about the “warmer than average” temperatures. It was supposed to be 84 that day, so he said that they’d have wet towels for the runners at a couple of aid stations.
The first 7 miles were basically downhill, but on dirt with a couple rolling-ish hills, which was actually kind of nice. The uneven surface kept me from giving into the start adrenaline and going out too fast, and I was nice and warmed by the time I hit pavement. But it was definitely not flat – there were some really tough uphills and a pretty intense downhill around mile 12, where I actually kind of tweaked a quad. So yeah, definitely a tougher course than I expected, but freaking gorgeous. You run with a view of the Superstition Mountains basically the whole time, and after the fire roads give way to regular roads, you run through this residential area which was absolutely beautiful.
And when they say “it’s a dry heat?” It’s totally true. With a breeze, the temps were in the 50s, then 60s, and then 70s. Which was pleasant, really, until the last hour or so. I did take salt tabs, which have helped me a lot with staying hydrated in the past, and I drank at every stop, alternating water and gatorade. And at Mile 20, where they started having water stops every mile, I’d dump a cup of water over my head.
I had lost my friend at a water stop back at mile 11 or 12, because she wasn’t feeling that good (turned out she had the flu!!!) and told me to run my race and not worry about her. I saw her at mile 16, though, and she was pretty close behind me, and we smiled and waved and I told her I was feeling really good.
I think it was at mile 17, feeling the road under my feet and the breeze on my skin and the warmth of the sun that it struck me: Oh, wait. THIS is why people like marathons!
It was amazing, that feeling. SO so good. I loved it. I loved everything: marathons and Arizona and sun and the breeze and I was so, so happy.
And then, at mile 22, there it was.
I kept going, but all of a sudden it was really, really hard. It was the uphill section leading to a small turnaround, and my legs hated it, and I kind of lost it, mentally. I had just taken a gel a mile back, I didn’t need fuel. I just wanted to be done.
And then I walked.
I nearly cried in despair. No! Not now! Hold it together, Karen! Come on!
But I did walk, and I looked back for my friend, and I didn’t see her. And then another woman ran by me all perky and was like, it’s a mental game now! I simultaneously wanted to cry and quit and punch her stupid perky face. I only allowed myself to walk for like 2 or 3 cones before I forced myself to run again. You’re fine. It’s almost over. Just keep going. You got this.
Something a good friend had said to me popped into my head at this moment. You’ve earned this pain, Karen. I breathed in and out, trying to relax into the discomfort, and kept going.
And then I realized – I hadn’t taken my salt pills. So I took them at the next water stop. With Gatorade.
Probably placebo effect, but whatever, after two slow ass miles at 23 and 24, I pulled it together and started running again, getting my mojo back. Not going to lie: those were the hardest miles I have ever done, but I did them.
And then? I was nearly there. I made the turn to the finish, where I could see the finish line. There was a clock at the end, and I couldn’t tell exactly, but did that clock say 4:06?
OMG I MUST BEAT MY BAYSTATE TIME AND GET A PR. I CAN DO THIS! DO NOT LET THAT CLOCK GET TO 4:09.
So I sped up. And then kept going, and I swear I thought I was going to die, but there it was, that clock DEFINITELY said 4:07 now. I could beat my best marathon time. I just had to keep going and run hard. I ran past my family and friends and heard them screaming my name and I couldn’t even look over because I had only enough energy to beat that damn clock.
And then I was finished. My official time was 4:08:21. I had bested my marathon PR by a little under a minute. But a PR is a PR!
Lots about this marathon went well; I was fueled and controlled with my pacing and had the right plan for hydration. But I am so much more proud of how I managed the mental game. When it got hard, yes, I walked, but I didn’t give up. I didn’t panic when it hurt, I didn’t freak out. I just kept going. And really, that’s what I went into this to do. I wanted to figure out the mental game.
And even better, I now GET why people love marathons. That feeling of utter JOY and well being at mile 17… man, I wish I could bottle that up.
So I’m definitely not done with marathons. My loose goal is to do one in the winter/early spring each year, before triathlon season starts.
And maybe I will get my sub-4 hour marathon in the coming years.
You just never know.