Thursday, March 26, 2015

Surprise! I Qualified for Boston at the Shamrock Marathon!

Just over a month ago, I came back from a long silence and told you all that I was focusing on quality over quantity... and that I wasn't going to run a spring marathon.

Well, here's the full confession: when I wrote that entry on February 16, I was already considering attempting to qualify for Boston at the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach on March 22. 

It is completely true that at the start of the year, I decided that 2015 was going to be focused on one goal and that goal was to qualify for Boston in the fall. After Steamtown and the knee pain that kept me from running Richmond, I was convinced that 1) my body just wasn't made to run more than one marathon every twelve months, and 2) it was going to take me some time to build up the speed and stamina required to attempt a BQ - after all, my mileage plummeted in October and November and didn't recover much in December and I could barely run 10 miles without a knee flare up. Toss in the fact that after last year's debacle at the Rock n Roll Raleigh Marathon, I swore off spring marathons and the deal was sealed - I would spend the spring season focusing on speed, try to PR the crap out of a 10k and a half marathon, and then go into MTT season focused on building myself to qualify for Boston at the Richmond Marathon in November.

That was the plan, at least.

But then something crazy started to happen. First, my knee stopped hurting. Then, I found myself keeping up with the Boston training group during Saturday's long runs with the Spring Marathon Training Team (which I joined only with the intention of getting faster and dropping out once mileage got past 15 in mid-February). I started running crazy fast tempo runs with Kit - 4, 5, 6 miles at a 7:25-7:30 pace. And it started to feel comfortable. 

By the end of January, I felt like something was happening with my running. Like I suddenly was an altogether different runner - a faster, somehow stronger runner. Not only was I running faster, I was also logging more training miles than I ever had before yet my knee, hip, and piriformis weren't protesting. I started thinking about Boston, and about the fact that if I waited until November and managed to BQ, I wouldn't be able to actually run Boston until 2017. That is a long time to wait.  

Then I started asking myself - why wait? For me to qualify, I'd need to run a 3:35:00 - more ideally, I needed to run a minute or two under 3:35:00 to ensure selection. That meant an 8:12 average pace for the full marathon. I had been doing that - and faster - during SMTT long runs. What was the point in waiting 9 more months to attempt to do this when there was a flat, fast race (that just so happened to fall on my birthday) coming up in March?  So, I decided to test myself on the first Saturday run of February by trying to run the 15 miles at a sub 8:00 pace. And then I did it... and felt great doing it. That was February 7. On the 14th, I ran 18 with an average pace of 7:59. At that point, I told myself that if I could run a 20 at my BQ pace, I would take dive and sign up to run the Shamrock Marathon on March 22. 

Not only did I do it, but I ran that 20 with an average pace of 7:54. I went home and signed up for Shamrock.

...and then spring arrived in Richmond to knock me down a few pegs and bust up my confidence. After training in temperatures that ranged from 10 degrees to a downright balmy 30, the 50s and 60s that hit Richmond during my taper absolutely killed my speed. I was hot, I was crampy, I was slow. "Here we go again!" I thought. "Don't you remember that this is precisely why we said we'd never do a spring marathon, you dummy!?"

While the rest of Richmond (and the country, no doubt) rejoiced in the warm weather, I was miserable and praying for a return to cold. Not even 30s would do - I wanted those 20s back. Heck, even the teens! I watched with dismay as the race day forecast went from 50s to 100% chance of rain to 40s. "Not cold enough!" I wailed. "I'm doomed!"

Husband and I arrived in Virginia beach on Saturday the 21st, and I was filled with trepidation. It was going to be too warm. Every run I'd had since March 6th had sucked. My legs had felt heavy. My stupid knee had been a  little bit creaky and my right calf tightened up. After running all those fast training miles in a group, I was going to have to now face the 26.2 miles of flat, boring Shamrock all by myself with no conversation or company to distract me. 

What was I thinking??

On race morning, I woke up at 7:00 and went through the motions of getting ready. It still felt surreal to me that I was going to run a marathon that day - and not just run it, but try to take 13-15 minutes off of my Steamtown time. I realized that I had ended up choosing the same running top that I wore at Raleigh and told myself that clothing can't possibly be cursed. I ate my usual half a peanut butter sandwich, peed about 500 times (I pee every 5 minutes when I'm nervous), and got Husband to take pre race pictures. 

Thankfully, I had discovered that BFAM (my Brother From Another Mother, That Guy With a Beard) was also running the full and I had talked him into meeting me at my hotel and walking with me to the start. As soon as I saw him in the lobby, somehow I felt 100% better. I gave him a gigantic hug that I don't think he was expecting ("Wow, you're nervous, aren't you?" was his response) and we set out to the start. Just spending those 10-15 minutes talking with him did so much for me - having a runner to talk to about my anxiety but to also take my mind off of what I was about to do was key. So a huge thanks to you, BFAM, for getting me calmed down.

At the corrals, I made a bee line to the 3:35:00 pacer and introduced myself and talked with him and the gathered group about the strategy for the race. I made a few fast friends - lots of other women were planning on trying to BQ and were going to try to pull ahead of the group in the second half of the race to ensure they'd finish a little bit under our required time. (Unfortunately there was no 3:30 group, which is what I had really wanted to try for.) I got a lot of birthday wishes and even found some birthday twins - all of which served to distract me so well that before I knew it, the national anthem was being sung and then all of a sudden we were running a marathon.

The first few miles flew by - and I mean flew. The pace group quickly split into two - the "fast" 3:35 and the "real" 3:35. We ran the first few miles at a sub-8:00 tempo. We chatted about where we were from, our marathon histories, our goals for the day. And then somewhere around mile 5, I realized that myself and another girl named Chelsey had gotten ahead of the group at one of the water stops. We were still averaging a pace in the 7:50s but we both felt good, so we stuck together; sometimes we talked, sometimes we just ran along with each other in companionable silence. Even when we weren't talking, it was nice to have someone beside me. I have grown very used to that. 

At the half marathon mark, I was already starting to feel my legs. The sun was peeking through the clouds and I was also feeling hot and thirsty. I took water or Gatorade at every opportunity and willed myself on. Chelsey and I were still hovering just under the 8:00 average as we started the long lonely stretch of road that led to the toughest part of the course- Fort Story. 

Though I'd never run the Shamrock marathon before, I had done the half twice. In fact, it was my first half back in 2012. And as it happens, the second half of the marathon course is the half marathon course, so I knew exactly what to expect: wind on Fort Story - and lots of it.

My strategy for dealing with Ft Story had been tuck in behind someone taller (and for me it's not hard to find someone taller) and draft. During SMTT, I had heard the group talk about how great, flat, and easy the Shamrock course was - except for Ft Story - and that the key to getting through it was to draft. Not only is it windy and exposed, it is also during every marathoner's most favorite stretch - miles 19-22 - right when marathons often stop being fun and start being painful. 

The only problem with that strategy, as it turns out, is that you have to be close enough to someone to draft. By the time we made it up there, Chelsey had gone ahead of me. Just before we entered the fort, I had opted to use a gel (something I never do at marathoners, but figured I might need during this hard effort) and therefore also decided to walk through the mile 18 water stop to make sure I got a full cup of water with that gel. I no longer had Chelsey to share the drafting duties with and the rest of the field was very strung out at this point.

And then there was the matter of my legs. Sh*t started getting real once I entered Fort Story. I crossed the 19.3 mile timing pad at 2:35:16, still on pace for my target and with a little bit of time in the bank - thank goodness, because after that things went down hill. 

This is when I discovered that running a marathon at full effort really is not a fun experience. I thought that I had run Steamtown at full effort, but now I wasn't so sure. The last 10k of Steamtown was hard - but it was nothing compared to the last 10k of the Shamrock. I spent that last 6.2 miles either a) cussing at my cramping left calf - ironic, since my left calf has never in my life caused me trouble - and quite literally talking out loud to said muscle, b) chanting to myself that I only had "x" number of miles to go (for instance, "3 miles, 3 miles, 3 miles... 2 miles 2 miles 2 miles..." etc), and c) frantically trying to make my oxygen-deprived brain do the math to figure out if I was going to be able to achieve the BQ at my current pace. 

Trying to keep with it on Fort Story
Somewhere around mile 24 I was really and truly struggling. I was starting to wonder if I was going to be able to make it. Stabby shots of cramping were coursing through my left calf, then turning it into a stone. And then my worst fear: behind me, I heard the distinctive voice of the pacer who had been leading our 3:35 group. 

They were going to pass me. 

I tried my best to pick it up, but I was truly spent at this point. They caught me. And then, they passed me.

But all was not lost - my frantic math told me that if I just maintained my pace for 12 more minutes, I would still finish just under 3:35 and have that BQ. I had come to far to give up and even though there was nothing left in my legs as I rounded the last turn onto the boardwalk, I willed myself forward to the finish line, now in sight.

The problem with the Shamrock finish line is that even it seems so close when you turn that last time onto the boardwalk, it really isn't. At all. It's still probably a half mile to 3/4 mile away - so close that you can taste it, but still incredibly far on spent legs. I felt like I would never get there. I kept looking at my watch and feeling like the line never got closer but time was passing faster and faster - and that the BQ was slipping out of my fingers in the last half mile. I felt like I looked like death. I didn't even have the energy to pop up the victory arms, peace sign, or even acknowledge the photographers. Ever fiber of my being was focused on one thing - and that one thing was getting to that finish line before the clock said 3:34:00 because dammit - this had NOT been fun and I was NOT going to walk away - or more accurately, shuffle - away from the finish line with out that BQ.

Pure determination.
(Also, LOOK at that quad! DAMN!)

Husband was there, cheering me on. When I saw this video, I was downright shocked with how almost ... normal/easy my stride looks. I felt like everything was falling apart. (I come into the frame around 00:15 - you'll hear Husband yell.)


When I finally crossed the finish line, I immediately stopped my Garmin and looked down, almost afraid to see what it said.


I had done it.

I shuffled to Jason, who hugged me across the barrier Then I demanded my phone, and still heaving for breath, called Kit. Kit had known what I had been attempting that day; the past three months of pushing hard during training runs with Kit by my side, along with his (crazy) belief that I was ready to do this were why I even signed up for Shamrock.  I can't remember exactly what I said but it was something along the lines of "Holy f*ck Kit... I did it... I did it... I'm so tired... Oh my God..."

Truly, I have never been more exhausted in all my life. Or hungry, or thirsty. I was downright parched and ravenous. So hungry that I actually ate half a banana (I won't touch a banana with a 10-foot pole in normal circumstances). I shuffled to the medal station, mumbling to myself about how much I hate bananas. I continued down the chute, stopping for food, swag, and beverages and making trips to the guard fences to drop stuff off to Jason. It probably took me 15 minutes to get down the chute. I made Husband take a quick finisher photo for me and then we  hobbled back to the hotel room, where I immediately flopped onto the bed and then begged for Husband to go obtain a cheeseburger for me. 

I really, REALLY wanted a cheeseburger.

So here I sit, 4 days later and still feeling like this was all a dream. But it wasn't... I did it. I am a Boston Qualifier. I've got the sore legs and giant blisters to prove it. And this:

Of course earning a BQ doesn't necessarily mean that I'm guaranteed entry into the 2016 race. My time is still very close to my cut off - just an 80 second cushion. In some years, that is enough; for instance, in 2015 everyone who ran 62 seconds faster or better than their qualifying time was accepted. But that gap was 98 seconds in 2014 - and according to those standards, I would be left out.

Part of me wants to try another, just as an insurance policy. But most of me doesn't. "Fun" is not a word I would use to describe my marathon this past weekend. It was tough. There was suffering. At the end, I was too desperate to be finished to enjoy what I was about to accomplish. 

I guess all I can do now is hope... and figure out what I'm going to do with the rest of 2015.