Monday, October 24, 2011

First and Last...Do I smell Boston?

The alarm went off at 3:45a and the nerves automatically kicked in.  We were headed for Morganton NC to run in the Ridge To Bridge Marathon. This race would be my first official marathon and it was no coincidence that it is also a Boston Marathon qualifier. I decided to give qualifying a shot even though I didn't know if it was possible. After grilling all the marathoners that I knew (Theoden, Emily, Tracy S., Tracy T., Molly, Becki and Tom) I still had a raging case of nerves. I spent the past two weeks after my worrying, asking questions and running the race over in my mind... then a little bomb dropped.  I misread the qualifying times thinking I only had to run a 3:40 to qualify. For the 2012 race that would have worked but since that registration is already closed out,  I would have to qualify under the new time of 3:35 minutes. I found that little factoid out the Saturday prior to my race.  Five minutes faster...that is a big chunk of time. I realize that wanting to qualify for Boston is a lofty goal and a lot of runners spend years chasing it and this was my first but I felt the need to prove myself. The competitor in me wanted something tangible to feel that I was good. Silly I know,  but for those of you who know me this makes perfect sense. Qualifying for Boston is considered the Mecca to being have to be fast to get in...end of story. I wanted it and wanted it bad. My running coach Tom and I had reviewed the race plan on Friday via phone and discussed what I needed to focus on. There is 9+ miles of downhills in this race and the biggest mistake that is made is runners tear down the mountain and run out of gas on the flats. I needed to stay controlled on the hills and as long as I stick to the plan, I would be in under the time. But as I looked at the plan I had scratched out on paper, I still didn't have a sense of if I could do it or not. Tom reassured me "trust your have done all the preparation you can, now just run." If it's one thing I am good at, its following the race plan. I had a layout and I would stick to it come hell or high water. I even wrote it on my hand in sharpie marker to reassure. All I had to do was run.

John and I got up, went through the morning routines and hit the road at about 4:40am. We needed to be in the parking lot of the Brown Mountain Beach Resort by 6:30am to catch the buses to the starting line so I wanted to be sure we had plenty of breathing room. As we headed up, we talked about the race. I told him of my fear of not performing well, of worrying about racing too many races in too little time, that my knee was still sore on my Friday run, etc. He reassured me that I would be ok. We found our way to the parking lot (which happens to be the finish line) and headed to the buses. We met with Tom, Melinda and DC just outside and hopped on. At precisely 6:30 the buses pulled out for the 40 minute trek to the start line. We made small talk as the buses ascended but as we got closer, my heart started to pound and I grew quiet. I downed a plum and said a few silent prayers.  The sun was rising over the mountains as we pulled into the tiny gas station that was just across from the start streaking the sky with first pink then orange...God's morning paint job. It was a gorgeous day for a race in the mountains that were showing their full fall colors. It was a bit chilly but I opted for my same old race gear of my Nike compression shorts, Mich Ultra race shirt and knee socks that were dubbed the "Big Bird Legs" because they were fluorescent pink and orange striped. I added my Mountain Hardwear vest and Nike running gloves (I hate when my hands are cold) and decided to carry my small Amphipod so that I always has a supply of water/Gu Brew to sip off of.  I did add a new accessory of my Spibelt to carry my Honey Stinger Gels  (which didn't seem to stay put and migrated north every few miles during the race). After spending some time on the bus pinning on numbers and chips, we hopped off and headed to the line. This race was full of people I knew....Emily, Theoden, Leah, Steve and Tom and so we were in good company. After the few race announcements and lots of "good luck" the countdown was on...I remember looking up and a thought crossed my mind "Do I smell Boston?" It was odd at the time but became my race mantra. The crowd took off and I pressed start on the Garmin as I crossed the timing mat.

The first part of the race is pretty flat with a few gentle rises and drops and a little out and back turn around, complete with an orange cone with an impossibly tight turn. As we headed towards the turn, everyone I knew was in front of me and running back past. I tried not to panic because I was sticking to my plan of 8:30 miles in the first part of the race and I knew those downhills were coming. As we made the turn and headed back past the first aid station, I pulled out the first of my gels, washed it down with Gu Brew and found myself on the longest downhill I had ever run. John and I were both exchanging how we were feeling and dodging runners and cars as the switchbacks continued down. We crossed the half way mark and were almost exactly on time. I let out a big sigh; my Garmin wasn't synced with the miles and my pace was jumping all over so hitting that mark was a big relief.  I kept saying to myself "trust your training."

We came down off the mountain to the second little out and back (complete with orange cone)  and caught a second glimpse of the other runners. Tom, looking relaxed and cool as ever,  encouraged us with "good pace guys" but  I was starting to feel the fatigue. The flat was claiming a lot of victims and we were starting to pick them off but it wasn't feeling good. My legs felt like lead as we headed out past the local country store, across the bridge and  back out to the the rolling hills. This part of the race threatened to break me, as the gentle rises gave way to more flats, I struggled with the pace. I knew I was out of downhills for a while and this was the stretch the veterans of the race had warned about. If you take the downhills to fast you won't feel good on the flats...they will feel all uphill. I wasn't completely out of gas, but I was tired. I kept telling myself to just get to the last 6 miles and it will get better. I have a healthy fear of the "mile 19" curse because I have fallen victim to it in a few of my Ultras. This mile seems to be a breaking point for a lot of runners and can make or destroy your race. I just needed to hit mile 20 to get the feeling of doom out of my head. John was beside me pushing me the whole way and at about mile 22 I broke. John was pushing me to stay on pace at 8:15 and I couldn't take it. I snapped at him to stop "half wheeling" me. Note:  Half wheeling is the term that I learned from Tracy when a fellow runner runs that 1/2 stride ahead of you and drives you insane. I couldn't push any harder and I couldn't deal with being asked to. John decided to take off since he was feeling good and I was on my own.
The finish line...and the proof (gun time)

Those last few miles tested me mentally and physically more that I could have imagined. I began doing the math in my head for the pace I needed to maintain to get my qualifying time. All I could do was put the hammer down and run like hell to finish. I passed a few other runners and fought the urge to quit, cry, scream and sit down. I knew it was possible to attain and I wasn't going to give up easily. I could stand to hurt for 20 more minutes.

As I came within 3 of the finish, the flats gave way to a meandering downhill and before I knew it I could see the blue blow up finish line from the road. I saw John cross the line and hope spurred me on. The race volunteers steered me into the parking lot, the course flattened again and my legs were heavy. The cruelest part of this race is the "parking lot loop." You actually run past the finish line (its below you and off of the road) turn into where you park and loop the entire lot for your final .2 mile. Just as you feel motivated by the finish line, you have to run away from 26 miles it's a bit of a mind trick.

My form was horrible, everything hurt but as I inched close to the line I looked at my watch and thought again, "Do I smell Boston?" My time was going to be good enough to qualify. As I pushed those last few strides, I saw Tom beaming just past the finish line. As I glanced at the clock (gun time) and saw the 3:31 on it, I let out what was a combination of a sob and laugh. I had done it. Tom's first comment... "I am so proud of you" brought me to tears. All the training, all the downhill repeats in the God awful hot days, all the long runs and worry had paid off. I had finished what I set out to accomplish. For all of you that encouraged me, I felt you out there pushing me on...I carried your hopes with me on that course and am glad you were there with me for every step. Thank you for all your kind words and encouragement I am truly grateful to you. I ran my first and last marathon with all my heart and all the effort I had. If by a miracle I actually get into Boston, I will come out of my marathon "retirement" to run it but for now I will hang my hat in the house of the Ultras.

No comments:

Post a Comment