It’s threatening rain. I just checked the weather forecast an hour ago – on two different apps – and both said NO RAIN. So I am not wearing my hat, nor am I mentally prepared for rain. A few raindrops hit the car windshield. But I’m holding out hope. After all, as hubby points out, it looks totally clear overtop the start line – of which we’re about 20 minutes away from at this point.
I’m in the backseat of the car with Ocean and Skye (our two rescue chihuahua mix pups) eating a banana muffin. I’ve already had one earlier this morning in the hotel along with a huge cup of banana strawberry orange juice. Devon is in the passenger seat, and hubby’s driving us both up, up, up the mountain to the start line of the Jack and Jill Marathon.
This is my fourth consecutive year running J&J, and I swear I love it more with each passing year. The first year we went down, back in 2016, hubby ran what still stands as his personal best and I ran a 3:32 – which was totally unexpected. We returned in 2017, severely undertrained, and ran it together in 3:43. Last year, just coming back from my broken foot, I ran it in a surprising 3:34 – I’d only been running again for 2 months and had done zero pace training (only easy runs).
Now here I sit in the car with zero idea of how to race today. I had grand plans after running the Eugene Marathon in April (in 3:37) of finally running sub 3:30 – however that entailed actually training for a fast marathon. After spraining my ankle in May at Pigtails (where I ran 139 miles before I DNF’d the 200 and running way too many miles with my sprained ankle) and then barely getting past that only to have my hip do something weird… Needless to say, ZERO marathon training has happened. I did run Tenderfoot Boogie 50-miler a month ago, and had one really strong high-mileage week (2 weeks ago). But my hip was still hurting as of a few days ago… I ran all my runs this past week at an average pace of 7:00/km to 7:30/km. No joke – going super duper easy was the only way I could run with minimal to no hip pain.
As we continue up the highway, I ask Devon what her race plan is. She’s much faster than me – she ran a 3:21 two years ago!! I’d been joking the night before that I’m going to go out with her and hang on as long as possible.
She says she’ll go out with the 3:30 pace bunny. And while I’m totally joking, I’m not totally joking – um, I might actually go out with her. If I blow up, I blow up. All good. No harm in trying. I’m okay with walking it in if that’s what it comes down to.
We reach the start area – Hyak parking lot. It’s misting. Leaving hubby and the furkids in the car, we run over the portapotties with a thankfully shortish line up (5 minutes tops despite another busload being dropped off minutes before we arrived), and back into the comfort of the car. I pop a matcha energy chew (so as to get my typical pre-race caffeine boost, which I usually get from espresso, but this also has matcha and l-theanine in it, so basically it’s a better ergogenic aid than caffeine alone). It’s full on raining now.
With 10 minutes to go before the start, Devon and I reluctantly step out into the rain. Hubby, Ocean and Skye too. We all head to the start line. Ocean and Skye keep stopping so hubby urges Devon and I to go get in line at the start. I kiss him bye, and at the last minute shove my GoPro into his hands. I’ve decided I don’t want to carry it. It’ll be annoying in the rain, sure. But mostly, I’ve just decided that I am indeed going to try to run fast and to truly do that I’m pretty sure I can’t also navigate talking to the camera.
I line up with Devon and with the 3:30 pace bunny. I’m doing it. I’ve no good reason for doing this. In fact I’ve got every reason not to. But I’m going to do it.
The fast runners take off… And after a 3 minute wait (so as to not bottleneck the tunnel we start in), the announcer sends us off. Running along the gravel path I notice how rough it is to start. I wore my trail shoes but maybe they are wearing out. I can feel the stones. I can also feel my hip. It’s not great. Um, a warm-up would have been smart. Oh dear, what a bad example for my clients I am. My hip hurts.
I can also feel this pace. Oh dear lord, what have I done? Is my hip going to be okay? Will I be able to hold onto this pace? I can already picture myself having to let the 3:30 group drop me before we hit the tunnel. That, and my hip falling off. Obviously that would not be good. I’m supposed to run Tahoe 200-miler in 2 short months.
It only takes just under half a kilometre, and there it is. The tunnel. Nearly 4 km of complete blackness, thus why most runners including myself have headlamps on. Devon is just ahead of me, immediately behind the 3:30 pacer. I’m just behind her. I flip my Petzl Myo on and pretty much light up the entire tunnel – ahh haha I love my headlamp.
I also love this tunnel. Something about the tunnel just revs me up. Every year without fail, the tunnel portion goes by in the blink of an eye. It’s actually hard to believe the tunnel is 4 km long, seeing as every year it feels less than half that.
A huge drop of water falls from the tunnel roof and hits my right shoulder. I wonder if there’s bats in here. I splash through a puddle with a squeal and my left shoe gets all wet. I’m amazed I’m still with the 3:30 group. I’m also amazed my hip hasn’t gotten any worse.
As we exit the tunnel and I toss my headlamp into the box provided, I miss grabbing a drink of water. My general rule of thumb is to grab water always from every single water station I encounter. Well, that’s a fail. All good though. It’s raining – we’ve run out of the damp tunnel and into the rain, so don’t really need water anyway. Right?!
And so here we go. We run. I’m already uncomfortable and I know my heart rate is high. When I train, I try to keep it aerobic – below 140 bpm. Right now I feel it’s definitely higher (and later I find yes, it was in the 160’s the entire race). I can’t talk. No way. Unlike Eugene when I was smiling and laughing and chatting away, I can’t imagine any of that. This is WORK. I’m fighting to stay with the 3:30 group and barely succeeding.
There’s a really loud runner behind me. Every time we pass a mile marker he feels the need to sing and yell. I realize he’s the 3:35 pacer. Well, one of the pacers is clearly off, seeing as the 3:30 and the 3:35 are one in front of the other. I hear him tell his group he’s ‘running hot’ because he’s actually aiming to get them across the line in 3:33.
When he yells out “What time we gonna cross?”, I hear one of his group members mumble “3:30 at this pace” and I want to laugh. But I cannot seeing as I have no breath to spare. At least the whole thing is entertaining.
I grab water at the next aid station, the 5 mile mark, and slow ever so slightly to ensure it goes in my mouth. But that costs me a good 10 seconds and now I’m caught up in the 3:35 pace group as my 3:30 group pulls ahead. I can’t find the energy to pull around the runners (it’s a double track trail, 2 ruts as if for tires to drive in, and a middle hump which is annoying to try to run on). So I just hang with them.
Finally after about a mile, the trail smooths out a bit for a short bit, and I pull ahead. I put on a burst of speed (where is this coming from?) and catch back up to my 3:30 pace group. I see Devon right up there basically beside the pace bunny. It’s all I can do to hold on to the very back of the group. I’m literally just riding their coattails, holding on for dear life.
I think I really should take a gel. I should’ve taken one at the last aid station but too late now. So I plan to get it in at the next one, at 7 miles in. I begin calculating how far I’ve yet to go… And start totally freaking myself out. So I bring myself back to the now. I do so with an affirmation I’ve used time and again, with great success (such as at Javelina Jundred).
“I move forward with confidence and joy, knowing all is well with my future.”
I’ve learned in the past 1.5 years that to succeed in running, I must keep myself in the now. If I begin to worry about what’s to come or how far I’ve got left, it all feels like too much. But if I can stay in the present moment – literally just appreciate where I’m at and what’s around me – I’m good. I can be with the discomfort I’m feeling and it’s okay. I’m okay.
I look around me. The rain is hitting my face but in a way it’s quite refreshing. It’s a bit humid but I’m not overheating at all. It’s cloudy and overcast but the flowers on the side of the trail are every bit as beautiful as all the sunny years I’ve run this race.
And look – I’m running my favourite marathon with the 3:30 pace group. My hip actually feels okay. The dull pain I’d felt earlier has dissipated and is just vaguely sitting there in the background. I’m not worried about it anymore.
And OMG look – I’m running with the 3:30 pace group!!! Did I mention that already?!
All of a sudden I get this crazy surge of excitement as I imagine myself crossing in 3 hours and 30 minutes – or wait, better yet just under… And boom, I’m just as thrown off my game just as much as when I started worrying.
“I move forward with confidence and joy, knowing all is well with my future.”
I bring myself back to the present. I am calm. I am centred. I am okay.
As I see the aid station at the 7 mile mark coming into view I take my mocha Huma gel – I’d pulled it out a few minutes prior anticipating this aid coming up soon. The aid stations do seem to be popping up quickly – that is a good sign.
Tossing my cup from the water I’d just grabbed I look up for the 3:30 pace group, now a good 20 seconds ahead of me. I make my way forward, trying desperately to make up lost ground. I cannot. I can barely maintain this pace let alone try to make up time. I see Devon still at the front of that group – I think she’s talking with the girl with the red, white and blue bow in her hair. Okay, if she’s got breath to chat I know she’s going to be okay – she’ll run a good race, the one she was hoping for (she totally does).
However somehow I do manage to at least keep a 3:30 pace. For now. There’s a few other stragglers I’m running with. There’s a silent understanding among us that we’re now in this together, having been dropped from the pack. Or at least that’s the vibe I’m picking up on – fully aware I could totally be making it up. With a sense of purpose and determination, we make our way down the hill.
Before I know it, there’s the 11 mile marker. I grab my second gel out, another mocha, and squeeze it quickly down my throat. My tummy doesn’t want it, but I do it anyways. As I run by the table I see gatorade being offered. I need water. The table disappears behind me. All of a sudden I realize there are no more tables. No second table with water on it. I stop dead in my tracks and turn around. I need water – no way I can stomach this gel without water.
I walk back a few steps and grab water off the table. I’d missed the fact the second half of the table had water on it. I turn back around and run, drinking my water.
It’s so quiet save for the dozens of pairs of running shoes hitting the gravel in an even monotonous tone. I’m holding space only for the present moment, unable to control what happened behind me nor able to manipulate what’s in front of me. I’m firmly planted in this moment.
My mind wanders over to the thought of how nice it’d be to slow down just a bit. This is so damn hard. I hold the thought gently for a moment, but it doesn’t serve me in the least. So I remind myself of how I get the chance to run fast down this hill only once a year, and then let that thought of easing up float away.
As I cross the half way point, and the timing chip mat, I think I should look at my time. Give me an idea of where I’m at. But I don’t. But then I change my mind and glance down at my watch for the first time today. I see a 1:45 something. I don’t know how far I’ve run since crossing the half way point but it’s looking unlikely that 3:30 – or should I say, sub-3:30 is going to happen today. There, can I slow down now?
I immediately dismiss that thought, but after another mile goes by I worry I have slowed. The 3:30 pace group is really pulling ahead. At times I can no longer even see them. See there I go worrying again. Why am I worrying? Just do the best you can in this moment. That is all you can do. With a burst of speed I pass the girl I’ve been drafting.
Did I mention there’s been a headwind? Nearly the whole way. It’s not terrible but it’s there. Devon and I noticed at the start line how windy it was. We joked maybe we’d get a tailwind all the way down the mountain… How great would that be?! Lol, we forgot to even entertain the possibility we’d be running into the wind the whole way. So basically I’ve been drafting other runners as often as I can. I do find it helps.
I suck back my third gel at the 15 mile mark. I do not want this one any more than I wanted the first two. But I take it anyway, grabbing water to go with it no problem from the great volunteers. I double fist this round, one cup in each hand. I greedily drink as much from both cups as possible, slowing a bit as I do.
I’ll wonder later if each of the four times I slowed to drink water with my gels was worth it, as between all four plus other water stations I just grabbed water from without gels, it most likely amounted to close to a minute lost. But for now I just really appreciate the water. I do know that without water to go with my gel, there’s a real chance my stomach would cramp, and that’d cost me a lot more than a minute of lost time.
A girl with neon straps on her shirt pulls up beside me. I think she’s the one that’s been following me, drafting me just as I’ve been drafting the girl in the green shorts I’m currently running just a few feet back from on the other side of the path.
She asks if me and green shorts are running together. I can’t talk so in less than three words I try to explain that no, I don’t know her, it’s just happens girl in green shorts is running a perfect pace. Girl in green shorts is either working too hard to talk, or doesn’t want to talk, as she doesn’t acknowledge the conversation.
Apparently the former, as a mile later as we come upon the next aid station she drops back and I never see her again. Girl with the neon straps pulls ahead of me. Ah yes, she did seem to have some extra energy.
I remember how in the Eugene marathon I was talking and laughing until mile 22 or so, annoying the heck out of everyone around me. Right now I’m like the ‘everyone that was around me’ – this is HARD and I’m giving it ALL I HAVE and please don’t talk to me – no offence, I love you all, I just have no spare breath.
I do try to keep up with neon straps, but I cannot. She pulls further ahead and then I can no longer see her. I plunge into disappointment of how I must surely be slowing terribly now – but I don’t allow myself to look at my watch for fear it mess with my head. Instead I turn to my affirmation.
“I move forward with confidence and joy, knowing all is well with my future.”
I bring myself back to the present moment – calm, centred and okay. A runner passes me and asks what distance I’ve got on my watch. I look down at my watch for the second time today and register a number on it reading 29.6 km, which I share with him but immediately realize it does him no good as he’s looking for distance in miles. I apologize, as good Canadians do. He pulls ahead of me, but then all of a sudden stops, steps off the path and stretches out his calf.
Goodness me this is hard. I realize I’m about 2-3 km away from turning off this path and onto the path that I remember as being more flat instead of slightly downhill. This entire course is obviously a downhill course, but it’s just slightly downhill. Then at about 3/4 way through, it levels out. The elevation profile doesn’t really reflect this fact – but I swear it’s a fact.
I pull out my fourth gel at 21 miles, and about a half mile later I see the aid station so I shove the gel down my throat and grab a cup of water as I run by. Gah, it doesn’t sit well at all. I try to burp but can’t. Finally I do and it provides a bit of relief.
I will my legs to turn over as fast as they can. It’s so hard, so uncomfortable. My hip isn’t hurting any longer – well maybe it is, but my other hip, both my knees, my quads, hamstrings and my calves are all screaming at me now – so everything’s just all blended together.
I imagine myself in my Tahoe 200-miler. The world of hurt I’ll be in and how this is nothing. Not even close. I know in that instant I can push hard for another hour. I will push hard for another hour.
I feel like my pace is good. Later I’ll see this is actually where I slowed a bit (km’s 32-39), but just a touch. I only felt like my pace was good because I’d started passing others who’d slowed down a lot. Some are walking.
With maybe 3 miles to go, I can see girl with the neon straps. It takes me some time, but about a mile later I finally pull up to her and pass her. I offer her some words of encouragement. At least I think they managed to tumble out of my mouth – my entire being is drained of all energy right now. I’m surprised I’m still moving forward. But now I can taste the finish line. It’s getting close.
I can see the marker up ahead that reads 25 miles. As I pass it I allow myself to look down at my watch one last time. Oh my goodness – it reads 3:22 something. Dare I allow myself to believe it? Could I cross in 3:30? Sub 3:30?!
I run hard. Oh, I’m giving this everything. I feel like I’ve never pushed so hard in my life, but in reality I know I have, many times before. It just never gets any easier.
One mile is still a very, very long way, and I’m getting deflated. That finish line is not coming into view. I go over a little bridge. Still no finish. WHERE IS THE FINISH?!!!
Finally I turn to the left and I can hear it and see it. I try hard to pick up the pace, really drop the hammer down. But I’m flailing.
All of a sudden I see hubby and he yells at me how every second counts. That was exactly the reminder I needed. I run harder than I’ve run in a very, very long time, leaving everything possible out there on the course.
And I cross the finish line in 3:30:23.
Honestly, I’m ecstatic. No, I didn’t get sub-3:30 but well obviously that was a bit of a pipe dream anyway. And if I’m continuing to be honest, well, what I just did was also a pipe dream.
It takes me a few minutes to realize the next fact – but after finding hubby and Devon, who’d already crossed over 3 minutes ahead of me, I realize I just ran a personal best – by 8 seconds.
My last fastest marathon time was 3:30:31 and that was in November 2014 – at Revel Canyon City Marathon. That was nearly 5 years ago. I’m in complete disbelief that here and now, at the age of 40, without any dedicated marathon training, I’ve just run a new personal best.
But if I stop and think about it, there’s plenty of really good reasons why I just did what I did. It’s literally why I coach the way I do. I know why I PB’d today. It’s why I decided to go for it, because in reality I did know I could do it.
1. A strong aerobic base is invaluable
According to Dr. Philip Maffetone (and others, but he’s probably one of the most outspoken on the topic) building a strong aerobic base is necessary not only for performance but also longevity in your sport. One can get away without taking the time to build an aerobic base, possibly, but to the detriment of the body.
Operating mostly in the anaerobic system (the system that uses only glucose without the presence of oxygen), as most athletes tend to do, can yield short term performance benefits, but over time the body will break down and end up exhausted, injured and with multiple health concerns.
Conversely, spending most of your time running in the aerobic system (the system that burns fat as well as carbs in the presence of oxygen), helps build injury-resistant muscle fibres as well as the strength and health of the entire body. The Maffetone Method suggests training below your aerobic threshold by keeping your heart rate below 180 minus your age (for me that’s 140) – and adapting according to fitness and health level (for example subtract 10 if on medication).
Ever since I broke my foot 1.5 years ago, I’ve committed to training this way. No, I don’t do it perfectly – but mostly I do manage to train by heart rate.
2. Mileage is everything
I’ve been stating this as fact and training by it since 2012, after reading Daniels’ Running Formula (by renowned run coach Jack Daniels). This led me to utilize his training plan as I prepared for the BMO Vancouver Marathon where I finally broke 4 hours with a time of 3:33 and qualified for Boston all in one swoop. That was the first training cycle I’d ever run upwards and over 100 km in a single week, week after week.
I then don’t think it’s any surprise as I train for ultras and continue to log high mileage weeks (not every week, but there’s plenty of them in there) that I have the mileage needed to run a fast marathon.
I’ve seen it time and again – you can go only so far without raising the mileage. I have rebuttals for all the arguments one can pose for lower mileage (however here’s not the time nor place to dive into such arguments).
3. Confidence is paramount
Looking back over the years, I can see I did well in races where I had confidence going in. I think fat loading / carb loading works so well in part that it builds confidence in the runner. I think marathon specific workouts work in part so well because they build confidence. Coaches can help build confidence in their runners. Anything that builds self-confidence can help.
However, there is nothing that compares to believing in yourself and your ability because you are so tuned into your body, that you just know. This takes a long time to build – it’s a practice that must be honoured and held over weeks, months, years. It doesn’t mean the practice is daily and it doesn’t mean it’s perfect (trust me, I’ve not been daily or perfect by any stretch), it just means there’s a dedication to the practice.
To honour and build that intuitive connection that allows you to know yourself so deeply is by far the best place that confidence can come from.
4. Joy is key
I’ve had times over the past 17 years of running where it was not fun. Since rooting out that the real core reason I run is for the feelings of joy and freedom it brings me, I hold that with me everywhere I run now. I can guarantee you it comes from practicing mindfulness, at least to a degree.
The other part is plain and simple that I truly do love running – ‘they’ can argue if humans were born to run or not until the cows come home, it doesn’t change what I know beyond a shadow of a doubt – that I was born to run.
5. Self-care is non-negotiable
Practicing mindfulness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance / self-love has led me to care for my body, mind and spirit in an entirely new manner. I went into the race fully rested, fully nourished, fully present and more or less fully detached from the outcome. All were necessary for my success.
6. Ability to endure discomfort is essential
Another reason pace workouts help so much is because they teach runners to be okay with enduring pain for short periods of time. Running a fast marathon is hard and very uncomfortable. Therefore, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable (instead of suffering through the discomfort) is a skill or simply way of being that must be conquered.
Certainly I’ll admit that running 100-milers has exposed me to such a level of discomfort, over so many hours at a time, that it’s completely changed the way I view marathons. This discomfort only lasts a few hours, and in a way, I see it as valuable training for my 200-miler where I’ll probably be uncomfortable for multiple days.
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I’m still working on truly embodying this – but seeing suffering as an option is an invaluable part of my quest to strengthen my mental resilience.
There’s a seventh competent that I was absolutely missing – and that was marathon specific pace work (any semblance of speed work whatsoever). But honestly? That’s really all that I was missing. Well, that and a consistent schedule (my runs were all over the place). Okay yes and I also had niggles that could have blown up into full out injuries – I was aware I might have needed to stop and pull out of this race. Thankfully that didn’t end up being the case. Thank you body.
So here’s my hypothesis. We know there’s many, many, many ways to train for a marathon. One can run a successful marathon off many combinations of the above seven components. I’d argue all seven must be present for true optimal performance and most runners will never reach their highest potential because those components take a lot of dedication to put into practice regularly.
We live in a world of ‘no pain no gain’ mentality, which directly opposes the methodology I’m suggesting. Instead I propose there’s a time to be gentle and there’s a time to push – it’s about finding the right balance (which looks different for each individual). This can only be done by learning to listen to your body – its’ cues, its’ signals and its’ innate wisdom.
Seeing as I had six of the seven above listed components, I managed to run a successful marathon. Thus I shouldn’t be surprised – and I’m not. I also know that a sub 3:30 marathon is still in me. And I’m not giving up on that sub 3:21 yet.
Give me another year… Let me master all seven together… And I’m pretty sure I’ll be unstoppable 😉
For now, bring on Tahoe 200!!
Much love xx