When I signed up for Eugene last October, I had every intention of being in PR shape. Sure, I was getting over a stress fracture at the time, but up until then but I'd also had a really strong training cycle targeting the Santa Rosa Marathon in August. So I figured I'd start running again soon, build up to normal mileage by the end of 2015, then BOOM! Hardcore Eugene training January through April.
Of course, the universe loves when you make plans like this. Probably because it likes reminding you what a puny, small, insignificant little human you are and how puny and small and insignificant are all your little dreams, relatively speaking.
So, yeah. Instead I spent most of the rest of 2015 not running, so my Eugene training cycle ended up 1) kind of abbreviated 2) lower mileage than ideal and 3) built on an aerobic base like a wee baby bunny. Add to that the problems I've been having with my left foot and how work basically did nothing but kick my ass for March & April, & it should be obvious to anyone with half a clue that I had zero realistic chance of a PR or even a reasonably fast-for-me race. Yes, I was fit enough to run the whole thing & maaaaaaaybe not PW, but that was about it.
A few years back, knowing this, I probably would have said, "Eh, screw it." My philosophy about marathons then was that they are so hard physically and mentally and require so much prep and recovery time relative to shorter distances that it's only worth it if there's a chance of a PR. I think that was healthy in the sense that it probably kept me from registering for and/or trying to run more marathons that I should. But since then I've relaxed that theory a little; yes, marathons are still super hard & time/energy intensive enough that I don't want to run them too often, but I also think there are a few other good reasons (for me, at least) besides trying to PR.
I don't really have a sense of how nerdy my throngs of blog readers are, but if your personal brand of nerdiness extends much in the Star Trek direction, you're probably familiar with the Kobayashi Maru. For those that aren't or who need a refresher, the Kobayashi Maru was a simulated training exercise given to Starfleet cadets in the command track wherein they had to decide what decisions to make after receiving a distress call from the eponymous civilian freighter.
Ostensibly the goal of the exercise is to rescue the vessel. To save the civilians, the cadet needs to enter the Neutral Zone & violate the treaty, whereas honoring the treaty means leaving the disabled freighter and its occupants at the mercy of the Klingons. Entering the Neutral Zone to save the civilians also results in Klingons attacking and boarding the ship which the cadet is commanding. As we learn in The Wrath of Khan, James T. Kirk was the only cadet in Starfleet history to ever beat the Kobayashi Maru, by reprogramming the simulation so that it was possible to win.
The Kobayashi Maru comes up over and over again in Star Trek movies and books as a metaphor and/or thematic element. In the recent film Into Darkness, young dickish Kirk's reprogrammed test results in a disciplinary hearing. Kirk argues that the test itself is a cheat since it's unwinnable, so cheating is the only solution. Young Spock (a Starfleet instructor at the time) counters that the point of the test is not to win, but to face fear and accept the possibility of death, as Kirk's father did [in the opening scene of the movie]. Basically the whole film is about Kirk's transformation from a cocky, immature, dickish yet brilliant cadet into a competent (slightly less cocky) commander, and the theme of how one deals with a no-win situation as a test of character is woven throughout.
In the weeks leading up to the race, I knew that I would really only be running to finish and maybe not PW, but also that I still really wanted to do it. Why was that? Why did I still want to put myself through it all, knowing that it was 100% "unwinnable"? (Especially when I could instead be sleeping in & having tasty brunch & winez & also not caffeine fasting all week.)
At some point it hit me that Eugene '16 was maybe kind of my Kobayashi Maru. Yes, it was "unwinnable" in the sense of a PR or even a particularly fast-for-me race. (On top of my poor fitness, the forecast called for warm weather and full sun.) But I've had some real struggles lately with the psychological/emotional parts of racing, particularly once I realize it's "unwinnable," so I was kind of thinking of this race as a test of character or mettle or courage or whatever you want to call it, a chance for me to face fear and doubt and pain, knowing it was a no-win situation, and still give it my absolute best effort (AND have a good attitude about it).
- No expectations. Basically, accept that it's "unwinnable" and don't harbor any secret fantasies of miracles occurring, or even avoiding a personal worst. I wanted to run by effort--relatively comfortable but not lazy for the first 18-20 miles, then push as hard as I could manage for the last 10K. Be satisfied with an honest race and a strong finish.
- Own the experience. This was my personal take on the "trust it will pass" point from the TrainingPeaks article I mentioned in my last post. I think feeling out of control and like the race was something happening to me was a big part of why I felt so panicked and negative at the Oakland Half. This time I decided to keep reminding myself that I chose this no-win situation and I could just as easily un-choose it any time I wanted without losing anything.
- Talk to myself. I cannot tell you how many times in the past I have rolled my eyes at things like race mantras and "power words" because they seemed like such utter woo-woo bullshit. But desperate times call for desperate measures, so I decided ahead of time that whenever I started to feel tired or negative I would start mentally chanting to myself "calm" or "strong" or "smooth" or some other horrible distance running cliche. It can't make things worse, right? Let's go with that!
- Accept what the day brings. I knew it would be a warm, sunny race, and although it was not supposed to be windy and the course is pretty flat, I didn't want to be surprised by anything. So I tried to visualize a hot, sunny, windy race with unexpected hills here and there where also I felt slow and crappy from the beginning. "This will all probably happen," I kept telling myself, "and you'll own it anyway, and be grateful for the experience to even run this freaking race."
- Fake it til you make it (or don't). I was a psych minor so I'm well aware of how actions, even non-genuine ones, can influence our emotions. So I decided that no matter how awful I felt, I would smile at and say think you to every volunteer and high five the hell out of every motherf**er who offered.
- Run with music.I've never raced with headphones before and sometimes have been very vehemently against it. But again, desperate times/desperate measures/etc. I really, truly felt like this would help me tune out some of the stuff that tends to distract me and/or send me into a downward spiral (others trying to talk to me, people who sound like they're about to die, spectators yelling YOU'RE ALMOST THERE!!! anywhere other than at mile 26, anyone soulless enough to carry sports beans, etc.). Since it was a no-win situation to matter what, it seemed like as good a day as any to try it once and see what happened.
- Leave it all out there. The time would be whatever it would be, but I wanted to leave Oregon with no regrets & knowing I'd left everything I had to give out on the course.
In terms of more traditional racing strategy, I just decided to go out by feel, comfortably but faster than la-la pace, settle into it, and not look at my watch for the first few miles. I did want to race and leave it all out there, but I also knew it would be a warm day and didn't want to end up crawling to the finish line.
We left Jacksonville Saturday morning, broke up the 2 hour 40 minute drive to Eugene with a few wine tasting stops in the Umpqua Valley, and arrived at Hayward Field for the expo around 5:30.
It's just a track, you guys.
Afterward, we checked into the Days Inn half a mile away and grabbed a tasty pizza dinner with my friend T (who was running the half) at La Perla (highly recommend!). After dinner I laid out all my race gear, cursed at my dead-and-refusing-to-charge watch for a while (it worked eventually), then spent some time fighting with Spotify and the bluetooth headphones I never use. (WOO LEAVING THINGS TO THE LAST MINUTE!)
I think by the time I actually got to sleep it was close to midnight, but somehow I still woke up at 4:45 awake and alert and ready to go.
My body is ready
Hayward Field & the start were an easy half mile walk from the hotel (probably less, actually). Although the highs would be in the 80s, it was probably 45-50 when I arrived around 6:30--just chilly enough to wish I'd brought pants but not miserable.
I headed over to sweat check around 6:40 & was aghast to see a line a good 100m long. After 10 minutes I was nearing the front, & that was about when they announced for everyone to just drop their bags where they were & head to the start. I did a little jogging around in front of Hayward, pleased that my foot seemed to be feeling okay, then jogged to the start and slipped into the back of Corral B. (Honestly I have no memory of what projected finish time I told them but I didn't want to feel rushed so the back of my assigned corral seemed like a good choice.)
BRING IT EUGENE
(but not too hard tho)
Someone sang the National Anthem, the gun went off, and we started shuffling towards the start. I popped my earbuds in, hit play, & did my best to relax into Jack's Mannequin & The Resolution as I jogged across the start line.
It was crazy how good I felt at that point--not anxious or nervous or really anything but relaxed and excited and pretty much ready for whatever happened. The first few miles were fairly crowded, but ultimately I think that worked in my favor because it kept my optimism in check and helped me settle into a pace that felt comfortable but not lazy.
I didn't look at my watch but I think somewhere around mile 3 or so I realized I was kind of gradually reeling in the 3:45 pacer, which was surprising as I'd been thinking 3:50ish was probably a best case scenario. It was hard not to get excited at that point and start thinking things like "Imagine if I beat my best case prediction!" and "Imagine if I ran a sub-3:47 / my second fastest marathon ever!" It was really all I could do to squash those thoughts as soon as they popped up and remind myself that down that path lay only expectations and the temptation to do something stupid way, WAY too early. Still, sticking with the 3:45 pace group felt pretty comfortable, and it was nice to have something to focus on visually and just sort of zone out and follow. For the most part that seemed to translate into paces between 8:20 & 8:50, which wasn't so fast that it felt unreasonable.
And I ended up staying pretty much right there for a good long while. I tended to slow a bit through the aid stations while the pacer didn't, and every time I kind of thought, "Eh, whatever, it was cool while it lasted." Sooner or later, though, I'd find myself drifting back toward the group. It was a comfortable place to be so I decided to just hang out there for as long as it felt good.
Which ended up being until maybe mile 15ish. I still felt really good, but the sun was coming out as promised, and sticking with the pace group was starting to take a little more effort than I was comfortable with. If it had been a 20 or even a 22 mile race I think I could have stuck it out, but I knew the sun was only going to make things tougher and I didn't want to risk an ugly finish (accept what the day brings). So I just tried to keep my effort level in about the same place and not worry too much about the 3:45 sign.
And I have to say I was pretty proud of myself at that moment for 1) not getting too invested in 3:45, even after so many miles with the group (no expectations), 2) staying positive when I decided to let them go (own the experience), and 3) still sticking with a race-level effort rather than easing up & phoning it in (leave it all out there). Even at mile 17ish, I still felt so happy and positive. I ran by a group of teenagers cheering with bells and tambourines an drums and I swear I actually clapped and "woo'd" and high fived the shit out of every one of them. I'm not exaggerating when I say that at that point I was having such a great time that I kind of didn't want it to end. P!nk was blasting in my headphones and I was soaking in every second of it.
SEE SMILING POSITIVE
As I recall, it was around mile 18 that things started to feel hard, and my splits reflect that. Not hit-the-wall hard, but it was hot and there was less shade and for whatever reason my IT bands were starting to talk to me. I was doing gels every 3 miles from about 5.5 on, so I started thinking "two more gels, then gun it for the finish" (talk to myself). I knew my pace was slowing considerably, but paradoxically I still felt strong and steady (accept what the day brings). I was looking at my splits, but only really out of a kind of dissociated interest, not because I was concerned with what the actual numbers were (no expectations).
I did at that point start using the 3:50 pace group as motivation to keep hustling--they hadn't passed me yet, and I thought I might have banked enough sub-9:00s in the cool earlier part of the race that maybe I could slide in under my best case prediction of 3:50. But I was careful not to let myself get too attached to that thought & be prepared to see them trot past me & into the distance at any moment.
As I approached mile 20, I remembered back in my first marathon reaching mile 20 and thinking "SERIOUSLY 50 MORE MINUTES OF RUNNING EFF THIS SHITE FOREVER." Somehow remembering that I'd had that thought kind of prepared me for it this time around, so when I started thinking about how I had close to an hour of running left ahead of me I was ready to counter it with thoughts like "just don't stop" and "one more mile" (talk to myself). Yes, those were some long, tough miles and I gave it 50/50 odds whether my IT bands would melt or spontaneously combust before I finished, but I stayed positive the whole time, passed way more people than passed me, and kept giving it everything I had. It was hard, incredibly effing hard, but only in that baseline, SN:AFU way that the end of any marathon where you're actually giving 100% is super effing hard (and to be honest I think I mostly got through it by fantasizing about the epic ice bath I was going to take as soon as we got back to the hotel).
But oh man. What a thrill to head back into town at around 25.5 miles. Crowds lined the streets and the cheering was so loud and earnest that for all the pain I was in, I couldn't help smiling. When I spotted Hayward Field I ripped my headphones off and sprinted around the curve of the track for all I was worth.
This picture pretty much sums up my entire race.
For a moment I was very slightly disappointed to see 3:54:xx on the clock. I knew for certain that the 3:50 group had never passed me and I was pretty sure it had only taken me about a minute or so to cross the start mat after the gun, but as soon as that thought surfaced I immediately smothered it. It had been such a fantastic race in so many ways and hell if I was going to let something so stupid and arbitrary spoil it.
I grabbed my medal and chocolate milk and got my picture taken and pretty much spotted Don as soon as I was out of the track area. I remember kind of getting choked up for a minute about what a great race I had had, regardless of the time, and apparently was still grinning like an idiot as I left the chute.
I'm pretty sure his first thought when he saw me was "Oh thank god she's not an emotional wreck."
I'm also pretty sure the first thing I said was "Oh my god that was so hard." And it was--I really do believe that I left it all out there and gave it everything I had under the circumstances.
BLISS. Also pain.
Obligatory post-race Krusteaz pancakes.
FOOTSTEPS OF LEGENDS (or something)
I mentioned to Don about how I'd lost the 3:45 pacer but never saw the 3:50 group, and he told me that the 3:45 group had apparently come in at 3:48 but he hadn't seen the 3:50 group either, so I wondered if maybe that pacer had been slow as well and had been just behind me. Funnily, I found out later that there was no 3:50 pace group--just increments of 15 minutes, so joke's on me. Still, thanks for lighting a fire under me in those last miles, phantom pace group!
Part of me kind of wanted to hang out & soak in the post-race experience, but to be honest, once you'd got your free pancakes there wasn't really much else to do. So we headed back to the hotel, I showered and changed & bandaged up my chafed bloody places as best as I could, & then we met T for post-race beers & a delicious lunch.
So, yeah. I'm not really sure what else to say except that I feel like I acquitted myself well against my personal Kobayashi Maru to the extent that one ever really can & beat the crap out of some psychological demons that have been terrorizing me lately. AND, I really honestly don't feel that shitty about my time. I'd always said 3:50 best case, and while you can never really know for sure what might have been, I kind of think that if the day had been cooler I might have actually managed something in the 3:48-3:49 range. Which tells me that while I am still a long way from the shape I've been in in the past, I'm maybe not *quite* in a giant black hole of un-fitness.
- Official: 26.2 miles / 3:53:03 / ~8:54 pace