Last May, actually this same week in May, I screwed myself. I’d had a crappy Boston, and I wanted some kind of redemption at Comrades. So 12 days after running Boston, I did a 35-miler on roads. My hip and hamstrings were in pain for the last six miles, but Comrades was worth that pain, I said. If I wanted to race 56 miles, I’d have to deal with some kind of pain, I reasoned. Training through that mileage could only make me stronger. The next few weeks of tapering to get to Comrades healthy did not go well. I raced a 10K and a three-miler in pain, and while I did set PRs in both, I kept pushing through that hip pain, training at speeds I had no business running. After Comrades, I was diagnosed with a labral tear, and I spent a month working my way past that.
So this year. This year was supposed to be different. I was done with ultra road races for a while. Instead, I would take on another challenge. I would run two marathons in six days. I’d done this two years before, and I knew I had trained to run strong. The training season went well! But Boston was hot, so while my training and racing indicated I should be able to run fast there, I bonked a bit in the heat. I got a little redemption in London and was able to run seven minutes faster than at Boston, with no taper and jet lag and even, amazingly, some vomit in the middle. Spring racing season: success. I should have been thrilled with two hard races, a string of PRs at shorter distances, no injuries, a stronger core, blah blah, blah, but was I happy? No.
At the end of four months of some intense training, I should have taken a break. Even a week of absolutely no running would have been understandable. But I had Grandma’s Marathon on my calendar in seven weeks. So on the Wednesday after London, I decided that maybe I had enough juice left to try for another sub-3. Now, why I continue to think I am superhuman and do not need much rest after hard races is a mystery. It’s endorphins and stubbornness and optimism and stupidity all at once, I think. Am I still able to run 6:20 miles right now? Yes. How do I know? Because I did that the week after the marathon. Like an idiot. That landed me at PT last week with the start of some hip pain. Surprise! It wasn’t terrible, but I’m at least smart enough to have a minor ache in that area checked out when it pops up. My therapist said I wasn’t injured, not even close. He said my hip felt better than it had when I’d run Cherry Blossom. So that’s good. But if I was going to put in 80 miles that week (my actual plan!), I certainly would injure myself. “Your engine is much stronger than your chassis right now.” Maybe I should cut that mileage in half. Take a few weeks easier than I’d like. But I had so many fun runs lined up — runs with people I like to chat with, runs that make me so happy. I had fun training to do, and I was able to run fast without pain. But my hip still kinda hurts, just enough to make me pause before I start my runs. It goes away after I warm up, but yes, it’s nagging, and it would turn in to something big if I don’t give it some time to heal. Also, for the last four months, I have been nearly wholly focused on a time goal. I have added 30 to 45 minutes of strength training and preventive PT exercises nearly every day, limited alcohol, been in bed by 9 and up again at 5 every day, added biking, canceled weekend plans, been boring. In pursuit of this goal, I’ve neglected my personal relationships. When I jumped right back in to training on Wednesday, I also hadn’t taken any time to reset personally. I need that.
So here we are. It’s the same week I got injured last year. I would have been heading that way if I’d run the hilly 18-miler I planned to run tomorrow. Instead, this time, I plan to not end up on the start line of the next race, wondering if I’m going to run myself in to the ground. I will not do what I did at Comrades. I will take more time to let my body catch up, and I’ll spend more time being not-just-a-runner. But making that decision is harder than going out for a fun run and feeling great for the rest of the day.
When I told my running buddies that I wouldn’t be able to run this weekend because I need to take care of myself for a bit, they were so, so supportive. That’s because they are amazing, and they know we need to look out for each other. Of course I should listen to my body and take a break, they said. They understood completely. Then I was worried that I’d get crap on Strava for not being amazing and not running my normally high mileage, so I’ve made my activities private until June. I already put enough pressure on myself, and I don’t need more criticism from people I barely know.
To sum up: No, I’m not injured, thankfully, not yet. Yes, I should have gone easier on myself after two marathons like a normal person. Yes, I’m still running and planning to race in May and June. I wanted to write down how I’m feeling now so just maybe after my next hard race I will take that break at the right time.
It’s easy at the end of the year to really get caught up on the last racing season. When I put together this year’s running stats, I came in to it with a bit of a pessimistic attitude. My mileage isn’t its highest ever. How could it be when last year was a gradual buildup toward Comrades and I took the month of June quite easy? I dealt with a bum hip in the middle of the year and again near the end, and I still didn’t break 3:00 in the marathon. But I came out mostly unscathed. This year, despite running like an idiot for about six weeks in the spring, I even ended up with PRs in several distances. I’m 33, so running faster is not getting any easier. That tells me I’m getting smarter, maybe. Or lucky.
Maybe a better way to look at this year’s training is see how I did with the goals I set last year. Ready?
2016 health resolutions revisited
Goal: Strengthen and stretch
Grade: A! I stretch, foam roll and do 10 to 12 minutes of planks nearly every day. I also discovered the magic of a lacrosse ball and sports massage every six to eight weeks.
Arrive at the Comrades starting line healthy
Grade: D- Damn I really didn’t listen to my January self on this one. Wise December 2015 Amanda said, “This might mean not running junk miles in April and May when I most want to bask in the spring running weather.” Guess who raced a whole bunch in May and decided she needed to run a 35-mile long run the week after Boston? And who arrived on the starting line at Comrades unsure if she was going to be able to even run a single mile downhill because she had the beginning of a labral tear?
Take easy runs easy
Grade: B Solid B here because I stopped calling 7:30 an easy pace. For me, “easy” doesn’t just mean I can hold a conversation. It means my heart rate is around 130 bpm. Running easy is hard. I got better at slowing down and listening to my body this year, but there’s room for improvement.
Sub-3 for the marathon and sub-10 at Comrades
Grade: C Well, I ran a 9:31 at Comrades, so there’s that.
Continue with steady mileage
Grade: B Most of my training weeks were consistent. No major mileage jumps except when I was coming back from injury. Plus I forced myself to run fewer miles than I wanted to in the weeks following my fall marathons.
Total distance: 4,150 miles
Total miles raced: 293.96
Marathons raced: five
Walt Disney World (Goofy Challenge) Marathon (3:37:46)
New York City (3:15)
Ultramarathons raced: two
Cowtown 50K (3:53:40)
Comrades Marathon – 56 miles (9:31:20)
First female awards: 1st female PVTC By George 10K (45:08), 1st print female ACLI Capital Challenge (18:47), 1st female Seashore Five-Mile Run (33:26), 1st female Gar Williams Half Marathon (1:26:49)
Top five runs
Looked back through the Strava log for this one. This is a combination of runs where I had fun and emotionally fulfilling stuff.
Wedding day run: Imagine running around Lake Tahoe with your closest friends on your wedding day. Dressed in a cutesy outfit! I used this as my long run. It wasn’t fast. It wasn’t supposed to be fast. It was fun. And given that I wasn’t sure I would even run on my wedding day a few months before, the fact that it felt amazing was even better.
Cowtown Ultramarathon: I wrote about this already, but perfectly executed races don’t come easily. I hit my goal pace dead on, and I hit the finish line with almost nothing left. Recovery was great after the race, even. For me, running a road 50K so well let me know I could complete Comrades.
18 miles after injury: I didn’t write much about my labral tear because there wasn’t really a good time to write about it. At no point was I positive it was actually going to go away. I thought I would turn a corner and have it feel amazing after some rest. But the next day, I would have a familiar pulling, aching feeling. Here’s a summary of that injury and why I put this random 18-miler on the list. The aching in my hip started in early May after my longest training run ahead of Comrades. Then I tried to will my way through two short races in May ahead of going to South Africa. Hell, I PR’ed at those races. My fitness was there. I could tell in the week heading to Comrades that something still wasn’t right. My easy runs felt labored. I freaked out when faced with a 15-hour flight where I wouldn’t be able to stand up. I sprung for business class seats. I ran Comrades on a combination of hopes, dreams, adrenaline and willpower. When I got home, I kept my ten-mile Tuesday streak alive and pounded out that run the day we landed. It wasn’t pretty. In the middle of this, I drafted a blog post about the month of June and how it was going to be an easy month. In that post, I made some resolutions about pool running and not running too many miles and listening to my body. I got better at listening to my hip. The next time the hip started talking to me was in September right before Chicago. I listened. I cut my long run and went out the next day. That helped. This 18-miler did not hurt. It took me about a month of easing back in to running to get to this point. I can’t explain how happy I was that day.
ACLI cooldown: For the past three or four years, I’ve come in first print female in the ACLI Capital Challenge. This year I swear there was a woman with a media bib ahead of me. I shrugged it off and said better luck next year and trotted off for my cooldown. I was coming down a bridge on my cooldown run and heard the faintest, “Amanda Hicks?” over a loudspeaker. Then I saw a tiny dot of Meb waving his hands and shrugging his shoulders. I sprinted down the hill. Meb said, “Oh there she is!” and handed me the award.
Epic 35-miler: Alright. Even though it might have led to an injury, I got to run with so many friends and fun people. The pacing on this run was great, and the fueling was perfect. This run, more than the 50K, gave me the confidence I needed to run Comrades and take fuel appropriately.
Best running discoveries
Jasyoga: In the last month, I’ve added Jasyoga as part of my daily or every-other-day recovery routine. Just a few minutes a day of doing this in addition to the planks and strength training I was doing before has made me less stiff and more centered.
Takumi Sens: Found some new racing flats and bought a whole bunch before they discontinue them. Thanks, Paul Karlsen!
Nikki and Katy: I had been a pretty solitary runner before this year. Starting in late 2015, I got to run some great miles with Nikki, who pushed me to hit my MP splits, and in early 2016, I met Katy, who Strava tells me I ran 48 hours with! That’s two days! I still consider myself a bit of a lone wolf, but I really love ticking off miles with these two.
Hot Hands: Nikki introduced me to Hot Hands, and I don’t know why my hands were so stupid cold before. Why did I use two pairs of gloves when I could have put these nifty packets into my gloves?
Overnight oats: Pinterest has a million recipes for overnight oats. I prefer mine with unsweetened almond coconut milk, chia seeds, Sun Warrior protein powder and maybe some dried berries. My poops have never been more regular.
2017 health resolutions
Take easy runs easy: The next day’s run is better if I run slower than I think I should the day before. When the training plan says easy, I run easy. Period. Also, I need to continue to listen to my body. If something hurts, I need to stop. Missing one run isn’t a big deal, as much as my Type A, OCD self says it is.
Continue with steady mileage: My training has gone best when I’ve kept my mileage consistent with a down week every four or five weeks. With a long training block leading up to Boston, consistent mileage is going to be key.
Race strategically: I am promising myself to not sign up for another spring marathon. I injured myself worst when I raced far too often last May. This year, I am going to take a long look at my calendar before adding any random pickup races. And I’m planning on maybe just one fall marathon. Gasp!
Whittle down my marathon pace: I plan to run marathon pace workouts at 6:45 instead of 6:52. I was locked in to 6:52 for a while, so this is going to take some work. I need to get used to going a little faster than the absolute minimum so I don’t have to worry about tangents for that sub-3 attempt in the spring.
The marathon is my favorite distance. You start off feeling good, amazed that you can run so far at the pace you’ve dreamed about. The pain and fatigue set in at some point. You know that going in. And you hope that point is late. But you know it will happen. It’s a metaphor for lots of things in life. You go all in, but you know it might not work, but you still, foolishly, give it your best shot.
The training is a metaphor. You get out what you put in. Or if you put in too much because you love it and you are worried you aren’t doing enough or don’t recover well enough, you get hurt. You learn to deal with the hurt. Dealing with the hurt makes you stronger and smarter. It teaches you to not get hurt that way again.
When I started training to run my first marathon about nine years ago, I didn’t think about any of these things. I thought about running a long way and trying to hold a pace for 26.2 miles. I didn’t know the pain of mile 24 or what hitting the wall feels like. I didn’t stretch or strength train or do speed work. But I had a damn good time running that first marathon. I knew this distance was the one for me. I was sad I couldn’t race it more often.
My 40th marathon was not anything special. It was not in a foreign country or a race I hadn’t run before. It wasn’t particularly fast or memorable. It came as the third marathon in 11 weeks to end a strong fall marathon season. It was damn fun, but it all kind of blurred together.
I had restarted training after Comrades in June unsure if my hip would let me run more than a few miles at a time. With grit and some legitimate cross training and strength work, I’d been able to build up a lot of mileage over the past four months. I set PRs in the five-mile and 10K along the way. The smart runner in me says I need (deserve?) some downtime. If I am ever going to break 3:00, I need to put in a good, long block of training. The stubborn runner says downtime is dumb.
But. I just finished my 40th marathon. I am not dumb, most of the time. I’ve learned that rest and recovery are sometimes more important than the training itself. November is for turkey trotting and a bit of resting. I will run for fun and run for me. I’ll enjoy that I have come so far, relatively unscathed, and I’ll set my sights on 2017.
To understand why I was standing in the middle of a South African town at 5:30 in the morning surrounded by 20,000 mostly South African runners, we have to go back to April 2014. In our normal pre-Boston race week buildup, we tried to pass the time with running documentaries — trying to get ourselves keyed up to run fast on Marathon Monday. We came across Bart Yasso’s Runner’s World feature about the Comrades Marathon. Bart has run everything and been everywhere, and he had not run this one so he put it on his bucket list. We were in awe. On Monday, endorphins still raging and drunk from our Boston finishes and a few cocktails, Michael said, “Hey we should do that Comrades thing!” He’d heard about it before we watched the documentary. “Ha!” I said, “We aren’t ultramarathoners.” But Michael insisted we might be. “That’s more than two marathons. Think about how trashed our legs are right now! You want more of that?” I told him I would ask him in a few weeks when he wasn’t drunk.
Comrades is the world’s oldest ultramarathon. It is filled with badasses. Each person is a badass in their own way. South Africa television devotes an entire 12-hour block to covering it. Everyone knows whether it’s an “up” or a “down” run. When you tell an American that you’re running Comrades, though, they don’t understand. Rugby and running feel like South Africa’s national pastimes. The nation seems to rally around this event. It’s their Boston and New York and Super Bowl all in one. OK.
A few weeks later, I confirmed that yes, Michael was serious about wanting to run this thing. We’d need to wait for a “down” year, which would be an even year. The Comrades course changes directions every year, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban for the down years and vice versa for the up years. Downhill running seemed easier. Who doesn’t love running down a hill? But that meant having a goal for more than two years. And we aren’t ultramarathoners. I had two years to turn myself in to an ultramarathoner. OK. That was a long way away.
I know I somehow ended up at this point, in May 2016, a point where I can reasonably imagine running 56 miles. My weekly mileage increased by about 15 percent, steadily and with the help of an amazing coach. But this also meant I needed to slow down some runs. This training was more about time on my feet and less about building speed. Except when it wasn’t and I was training for marathon PRs at the same time. Somehow, with a series of stepping stone endurance races and steady mileage buildup, the ultra seemed doable.
The first step I remember in the ultramarathoner plan was running a long way and practicing fueling. I ran Boston 2 Big Sur in 2015, which let me know that my legs could tolerate two marathons in a week at a pretty quick clip. But the first time I ran 50K on the roads, I hallucinated a dead bird. I had plenty of work to do. Aside from mental grit, fueling is a something you have to get right in ultras. Your body cannot run much farther than 26.2 miles without taking in some additional fuel — in my case, something solid. With some amount of fueling strategy figured out, I came in top female in my first trail ultra, The March, a non-technical fire road trail ultra in North Carolina. That was a building block for Stone Mill, a 50-mile trail run. I was mentally zapped after that race and I fell down in the first mile. But covering 50 miles is something my body can do.
In January, I ran the Goofy Challenge in Walt Disney World, which is a half marathon on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. The U.S. doesn’t have a ton of ultra-distance road races, and I wanted to train in conditions close to Comrades. In February, I ran the Cowtown 50K and broke the course record. With a pacing strategy and fueling plan nearly locked down, I was quite confident I could run Comrades.
I haven’t written about my disappointing performance in Boston here, but gosh, I felt like my training was finally coming together for that race. A combination of a warm day and a migraine at mile 8 meant I wouldn’t be breaking 3:00 in the spring this year. But in 2016 I have set personal records in every other distance I’ve raced: 50K, half marathon, 10-mile, 10K and three-mile. And with as long as I’ve been pushing and racing, I am pleased to see my times continue to drop. But I digress.
Comrades was on the horizon. I took a deep breath after the Boston setback and was determined to build my mileage up again for the six weeks between races. Twelve days after Boston, I organized a 35-mile long run around Washington, Maryland and Virginia where I really settled in on my Comrades race fueling plan. Without that confidence-building run and the miles in my legs, I wouldn’t have arrived at the start line with much confidence. Thirty-five miles on roads is a long way to go.
After about two year of gradual buildup and confidence building, I was ready to glide in for a smooth landing and an easy taper for the race. But I had two of my favorite May races on the calendar, races I don’t miss — the Capitol Hill Classic 10K and the ACLI Capital Challenge Three-Miler. Plus before Boston, I’d been having a weird kind of hip pain across the front of my lower abdomen. It wasn’t exactly my groin — a little higher. It woke me up at night a few times. I shrugged it off as maybe my period or maybe running too many miles ahead of Boston. I did put in a few 100-mile weeks. Then some time around the second week of May, the pain started again. My training was slowing down in to taper mode. I thought the pain would go away with a bit of rest or easier days. It didn’t. Then I raced twice and PRed twice in four days. At the start line of both of those races, I was telling people around me I wasn’t sure if my hip would hold up. It was tender. I was walking a fine line for both of those races.
I went to the physical therapist on May 18. Comrades was on May 29. She said she thought it wasn’t a stress fracture or a hernia (those things don’t wake you up at night) and gave me some exercises to help with the pain. But the pain kept happening at night, even with the taper. It didn’t happen the nights after my races, but it would come back on random easy days. On Monday night before my Tuesday evening flight, my massage therapist worked on my psoas muscles, which helped with some of the tension and let me get back to some ab exercises. The 17-hour flight to Africa wasn’t terrible. I slept for about six hours, and I managed a quick mile when we landed on Wednesday night to keep my running streak alive. The streak is almost seven years long. You don’t just throw that away because you had a late flight. Right?
We woke up in Johannesburg on Thursday morning and went for an easy shakeout. Bad news: the groin pain was real, and it was happening during the run. It was on the right side, and it had moved a bit to the right butt cheek. My goal was to finish Comrades — all 56 miles of it. Period. It is not a race for which I had a firm time goal. I wanted to finish the race in the 12-hour allotted time window. So I decided I would take a rest day. A real rest day. Aside from the fact that I felt kind of “off” in the morning — kind of how you feel when you haven’t had enough coffee — I think my rest day went fine. We flew from Johannesburg to Durban. We ate dinner with international runners. I slept well and without hip pain that night!
On Saturday, Michael and I ran a shakeout — him guiding us so we wouldn’t get hit when I looked the wrong way for oncoming traffic and me babying my hip and listening to it for any signs of pain. Everything felt … fine?
The Comrades race expo is like Boston but a little smaller, far less crowded and full of strange African things. Comrades knows how to treat its international runners, too. There is a special line for bib number pickup, and the volunteers walk you through every piece of what you need to bring. Plus there is an international food tent at the finish. And international runners get special bibs. We picked up our numbers and tog bags (drawstring drop bags are “tog bags” there) at the expo and dropped off fuel for our three drop bags at the Hilton across the street. The two best choices I made in preparing for this trip were signing up for these drop bags and for the course tour. In my drop bags I had:
13.1 mile: 3 GUs, one Stinger waffle, one sweet potato baby food pouch, three salt tabs
26.2 mile: 3 GUs, one Stinger waffle, cashew Larabar, beet baby food pouch, three salt tabs, pair of socks
39 mile: 4 GUs, three Clif block shots, three salt tabs
I overdid it with the salt tabs. But I like to overpack those in case I lose one or my fingers don’t work. My fueling plan was to have one salt tab every 90 minutes.
On Saturday morning, we took a fantastic course tour with Bruce Fordyce. The goal, he said, of the tour is to scare us. Without the course tour, I would have been cursing myself for being in way over my head. With the course tour, I knew I was in over my head. But I knew when the going got tough (and it WOULD be tough), I would have lots of beautiful views.
After thoroughly shitting our pants on the course tour, we panicked and thought our best course of action would be to hang out in our hotel for most of Saturday afternoon. We ordered an early dinner. We were both asleep (asleep!) by 8 p.m.
The alarm went off at 2:15. I made a French press cup of coffee for each of us, and we staggered around the hotel room until we kind of had our wits about us. Neither of us pooped. We were overseas and had no hope of anything happening at 2 a.m. anyway. We put on our race stuff we’d carefully laid out the night before when we were lucid. Then we took a quick photo where we look really awake and hopped up on something (life?), and we stumbled into the South African darkness to our cab. Wait, the third best idea I had on this trip was ordering a cab two days early. Otherwise I doubt we would have been able to easily get to the bus departure area at 3 a.m. on race morning.
The start of this race reminds me, oddly, of the start line to get to Big Sur. It is dark as hell. Everyone is kind of quiet. You’re waiting on a random street for cushy buses. All you want to do as you careen through the darkness is sleep. The trip to Pietermaritzburg doesn’t feel like 56 miles. When you get off the bus, because you’ve gone up 3,000 feet, it is 10 degrees colder than in Durban. I was still nervous about my hip, so I gingerly walked down the street toward the portapotties, halfway expecting my leg to buckle because maybe my hip realized what was ahead. But no, everything felt fine.
We stood in what appeared to be the only line for tog (drop) bags (?) and then went to our separate corrals. Until this point for the past few days, I’d been doing stream-of-consciousness with Michael about my hip. It was like my security blanket of someone to talk to, to assure me that I WOULD finish the race, was gone. We said bye to each other and he headed to the C corral. I was in B. I made my way through a little group of guys trying to get in to the B corral. Not sure what that was about. This was around 5:15 a.m. I took a seat next to a fence and sat there in a daze. I tried to remind myself that I should run by feel and not let emotion overtake me. I remembered my fueling. Oddly, I wasn’t nervous. Just sleepy, mostly. One of my Facebook friends Richard walked by and gave me a few Clif bars. He said something about needing to get to the front of the corral. More power to him.
You don’t remember the start of most races you run. It’s just people milling around. The anthem plays. The race director might say something that you can’t understand over a loud speaker. Here, you remember the start. I am not South African. In fact, this is the first race I’ve been at where another anthem played. Well maybe in Erie, Penn., they played the Canadian and United States anthems. In my corral, when the South African anthem played several groups of grown-ass men wrapped their arms around each other and swayed from side to side. And when the Shosholoza played, a woman in front of me grew more and more animated the longer it went on. These were runners, and they were great, great people. The cannon went off (not a gun, guys, a cannon), and we were on our way. It was 5:30 in the morning, and I was running in South Africa while everyone I know was asleep. In one of those surreal holy shit this is my life and it’s weird moments, that thought occurred to me when I looked around at the stream of runners darting in to the night. What was this?
I don’t recall a ton about the first 10 miles or so. A lot of dark. A lot of houses. It was cool. Hills were starting. We came tumbling down Polly Shorts, and I knew my quads were going to have a long day. My hips, though, were not in pain. Admittedly, I was taking the downhills quite easy because I had this nightmare of cracking my hip with one wrong step down the steep declines. I kept my long sleeve shirt on for the first seven or eight miles. In any other race, this would have felt like a long time. But my breathing was not labored. My heart rate seemed fine. I felt like I was out for a nice run in the cool morning air.
I ran next to a man from Lesotho for about 12 miles before we spoke to each other. He finally complemented me on my careful pacing. I don’t remember the names of anyone I talked to at this point. Knew about half of them yesterday. But this guy was wearing a yellow bib so he must have been going for his 10th Comrades and green number. There is a whole system to bib colors and numbers that is infinitely interesting and quite helpful. By the end of the race, I’d started to really enjoy looking at bibs.
The course doesn’t offer a ton of fueling options other than water, Coke (sometimes) and Energade, which is Gatorade but a little different. The liquids are all in plastic tubes. I enjoyed the tubes and wish America would switch to that system, though paper cups might be better for the environment. The tubes were really easy to bite in to once I got the hang of it. And if I took two tubes, I could use one for drinking water and squirt another one on top of my head to stay cool. But great news. If something isn’t supplied by the course, the spectators will certainly have it. I passed so many people handing out oranges, bananas, potato chips, salted potatoes, candy bars, you name it. And the spectators genuinely know how fast you’re going and what your predicted finishing time might be. Michael had one guy tell him how far ahead of the 9:00 cutoff he was when he was 10 miles away from the finish line. I mean, what the hell.
Through mile 26, my pacing and fueling were pretty steady. We were approaching some bigger climbs and, worse, some legit downhills, that I was not excited about. At the drop bag checkpoint, I was talking to the volunteers telling them if they saw Michael to tell him I was doing well and looked good. But then damn it if Michael didn’t come charging up the hill. He looked great. He grabbed some stuff from his fuel bag, and we took off together. The next downhill was a little too graded for me, so he went ahead. I caught up to him a few miles later. Then he caught me again shortly after that. My hip still wasn’t bothering me, but I took the downhills easy.
Somewhere around the 40th mile, the course goes straight down. For about three miles. No rest. No slightly flat stretches. Nope. Just straight down at a 6 percent grade. These kinds of hills are lots of fun to run down when you have fresh legs or when there’s some variation in terrain like on a trail. Straight down in the blazing sun on pavement is no fun. Anyway, I walked some of this portion. At the bottom of the crappy downhill, I stopped to ask a spectator to tie my shoe because my laces kept hitting my ankle. I grabbed a handful of potato chips and some water from his table and told him he’d pretty much saved my race. He had.
Past mile 45, I started counting down miles. The markers at Comrades are kilometers and they count down, not up. So I was trying to do all kinds of mental math about how far I was from the finish in terms my exhausted brain could understand. So 20K is 12.5 miles, so like. Like 17K is how long? When I started doing that, I hit another uphill section that was too steep to run at that point. The hills in this course are not to be taken lightly. I tried to compare them to anything I know. Hurricane Point? Like 12 climbs like that. Or the hill on Harvard that I run up almost every day? It’s like that but five times as long and steeper. And hot. More hill training next time.
When I realized I was close to the finish, near the 3K mark I guess, I decided I could stand to accelerate a bit. My legs wouldn’t move that fast but they still had a bit of turnover in them. And once we entered downtown Durban the streets became streets, not mountains. I could finally see the Hilton, which I knew was next to the stadium finish line. I picked it up a bit. With 2K to go, I wondered whether I would get super emotional at the finish. Probably too exhausted to cry that much.
Comrades finishes with a lap around the inside of a stadium. It’s something you remember, almost like coming down Boylston. There also is a strict 12-hour cutoff. So you could have, say, entered the stadium but not made it quite to the finish line, and the finish line could just close. Think about that. You’ve been running since 5:30 in the morning. It is now dark. And you are within shouting distance of the finish line, and that thing closes. Bull shit. That’s the rule. The last stretch of the course is on grass in this stadium and damn, it feels great on your feet. I kept walking through the chute to find Michael, who’d finished in 8:52, and I grabbed my rose, my medal and my Comrades patch.
We hung out for about 30 minutes and then caught a cab back to the hotel. The hotel staff had tuned our television to marathon coverage for us. We looked at each other and had a “holy shit, we did that thing we said we’d do” moment. Then we drank some beer.
After what I calculate to be about three years of nearly non-stop training where I’ve pushed my body to PR at every distance, I am going to take some down time. This might mean easy miles. It might mean more rest days. On Monday, the day after I ran 56 miles through Africa, I took a two-mile walk through the city and another two-mile walk on the beach. And it was fine. This means not pushing myself before I am ready. It means listening to my body and hoping that the hip thing was a blip but being prepared to take more time than I want to for healing. Elite athletes take rest days. They take down time and come back stronger. Now, I’m not saying I am an elite. But they know what works.
So onward to fall marathons. Onward to more long-distance racing. And onward to being healthier, happier and in a better position by the time I get to Tahoe the third Sunday in August.
Food and beverages consumed: 10 GUs, two Stinger waffles, sweet potato baby food pouch, beet baby food pouch, six Clif shot blocks, seven salt tabs, five orange slices, a banana, a handful of potato chips, Energade, water
Hallucinations: kept seeing South African people who looked like people I know, but nothing too crazy
I’ve been away a few months. Training takes time and energy, and writing takes time and brainpower, and working on caucuses and primary nights and through Super Tuesday as a project manager in a real live newsroom takes a lot of time. But here I am on the other side of a bunch of hard work with a shiny new 50K road PR, legitimately pleased with my training and racing so far this year.
I sat down to write a post about how oddly well my training was going in early February, but I scrapped it. First, I’m superstitious, and I didn’t want to jinx a good training season by acknowledging that I was making progress. I’d written virtually the same post about a year earlier. The paces that were amazing to me then seem like my normal fast runs now. The post I wrote about being ecstatic to work in one 90-mile week seems like it was ages ago, but it’s really only been 18 months since I hit that first peak. I’m now stacking up multiple 90+ weeks to train for ultramarathons. I’ve changed my training to take easy days absurdly easy, pace-wise. Instead, I started using a heart rate monitor to keep my training in the 130 to 140 bpm zone on easy days. And I continued my strengthening and stretching routine from my hamstring injury in the fall, so I’ve maintained glute, hamstring and core strength that I think has kept any new injuries away.
I consider most of 2016 so far to count as a gradual buildup toward the Boston Marathon where I’m hoping to break 3 hours. On the right day, I’ve got that. For now, I’m pushing Comrades to the back burner but maintaining a legitimate mileage base while I work on speed. I would like to run well at Comrades too, but that’s not this year’s “A” race. I know I’m physically capable of covering the distance but that it might mentally wreck me without some longer runs. But if I have to choose one thing to focus on, it has to be sub-3 in April.
To continue to build mileage and work on time on my feet, I ran the Goofy Challenge in Walt Disney World in January. The goal there was to have fun, relax and put in a bunch of miles. I ran my slowest marathon and half marathon times in years, in costume(!), in the heat at 5 a.m. Neither race was meant to be fast. I did nothing resembling a taper, and I walked around the Magic Kingdom until 10:30 the night before. But over the weekend I certainly got in a lot of time on my feet. After putting in 89 weeks the week of the Goofy Challenge, I dialed back the mileage the following week for a mini recovery. To build toward Cowtown and to build a base for Boston, I put in four more 90+-mile weeks. And in December I met a new running buddy who has helped push me to run faster earlier in the morning than I’m used to. She has helped me build that tired-leg speed as well, I’m sure!
Two weeks out I tried a legitimate taper leading up to Cowtown. The race was important to me, and I wanted it to go well. I didn’t want to run it on tired legs like I’d run Austin on much the same training schedule in 2015. So I ran a trail half marathon at a moderate pace, though not all out, eight days before Cowtown and put in one nice hilly workout the Tuesday before the race. Then I did several easy runs and one steady run over the last few days. I didn’t doubt my training or the taper, and I felt entirely ready leading up to the race.
My huge stretch goal going in to this race was to break the course record. With two elite athletes running ahead of me, I knew I wouldn’t win the thing. The course record was 3:54:20. On the right day in great conditions, I could break that. If I didn’t go out too fast, I at least had a shot. Plus there was a cash prize for breaking the record. I came up with a plan — decided to stick to 7:20 pace to leave room for tangent-running errors or late-race bonking. I would need 7:32 pace to break the record. Even if I didn’t break the record, I was sure to PR at the 50K because it was on a road. It would have to be faster than the 5:09 I ran in North Carolina last year.
On Sunday morning, I drove to the start from Mom’s house, did a quick jog to the line-free(!) portapotties, and then found a spot inside on the floor of the expo building to relax and stay out of the wind until the start. Conditions were not ideal. It was already in the low 60s with winds gusting to 20 mph.
I relaxed inside and then jogged out to the first corral with about five minutes until the gun went off. I’d run the marathon here twice before, so I knew where I was going. The first corral was a bit crowded, but I edged my way toward the middle of the starting pack. The gun went off at 7 a.m. My first mile was a little fast on the downhill, and yes, it was hard to hold back all that taper energy. But damn it if I didn’t knock off consistent 7:20 miles. The miles seemed to come to me. There wasn’t a struggle to get there. The wind was pushing me along, and the pace felt remarkably easy. People were kind of passing me at the start. Everyone seemed to go out too fast. I stuck with my pace, even on the uphills, drawing from the fact that I could go much faster than 7:20.
About a mile before the half marathon turnoff, I started talking to a guy from Ireland who was going for a 1:35 half marathon time. He was right on pace. He was great company, but when I start talking, I run faster than I should. We pushed the pace to 6:40, which, yes, felt good, but, no, was not in my plan. He turned off to run the half course, and I kept going. I was alone here, but I knew if I kept the pace consistent, I could probably hold it for a while. The 3:10 pace pack was just ahead of me. At this point, what was a pleasant tailwind turned into an awful headwind. Still, I maintained my pace into the wind and up the hills. The temperature was climbing, and I started to take a Powerade (to drink) and a water (to dump on my head). Then some amazing angel from heaven handed me a damp blue towel around mile 14. This thing was like my security blanket. I dipped it in water. I sweated all over it. I might have waved it around a little bit. I’m carrying it in all my pictures.
Most of the middle miles of this race are blurry. I ran through neighborhoods where the roads were severely slanted. Maybe they weren’t that slanted in reality, but I had a hard time discerning where to put my feet. I didn’t specifically hallucinate anything, but I think the roads couldn’t have been that slanted there. Things were a little blurry as I continued to pass people and meander along between water stops. Still I held my pace. A woman on a bike kept hanging out near me. Then I realized HOLY SHIT she’s WITH ME. She had a sign on her back that said something about third place ultra woman. People started telling me I was in third in the ultra. Ran some more. Held my pace. Ate salt tabs and GU right on schedule. I ate a banana, so I know I’m at least still fine at taking in solid foods. I made a 20-second pitstop (I timed it) and tried to sing to myself to keep myself from freaking out too much or cramping. I finished the marathon portion in 3:11. That would be good enough for 11th female in the marathon if I’d stopped. It would have been faster than my stupid Hartford Marathon time from the fall. But I didn’t stop.
The last part of the race is quite clear. Once we made it to the Trinity Trail around 22 miles in, I knew where I was, basically, because Michael and I ran that part of the course in December. In December I didn’t know we were running the course, but when the race turned on to the path, it was instantly clear that some part of the course would be windy. In December, we had tailwinds and headwinds coming off the flat land and the water on a day that wasn’t specifically windy. On race day, there were gusts from all directions and some fun bugs and mosquitoes blowing in the gusty wind. The day was still heating up, and my pace started to fall off. In my head, I was trying to figure out how much longer until the turnaround and how much longer I needed to hold my pace. I went through two water stops where I had to come to a complete stop to pick up water because the volunteers weren’t paying attention. When I came back through after the turnaround, I yelled out, maybe in a slurred way, “Powwahryayyde!” and someone handed me Powerade. Honestly, that’s my only complaint about this race. The volunteers were great for the most part. The crowds were supportive in the right parts. I would have loved a day that was about 20 degrees cooler, but hey, what can you do?
Once the course joined back up with the full marathon course, I breathed a sign of relief. With a few miles to go, I always start counting down the portions left in Yasso 800s. You know how fast I can normally run an 800? Knowing that I can string just a few more of those together gives me some kind of mental trick to piece out the last part of the race. I rounded the last two corners to finally see the finish line. My pace had dropped with the wind and fatigue in the last few miles, but around mile 29, I knew if I could just keep a decent pace, I would beat the record. The finish line stretch was a little rough. My legs started talking to me, telling me they were starting to get tired and that maybe another GU or salt tab would have been a good idea. I powered through the last few hundred feet, which were cruelly a little bit uphill. I crossed the finish line in 3:53:40, beating the course record by 40 seconds. But hey, a course record is a course record, right?
A volunteer flagged me down and told me they were holding an awards ceremony. I’ve won recreational, small-scale races, but I’ve never been flagged down at a major event. The elites were hanging out and talking about the course. I felt out of place, but then when I started talking to such friendly people, I thought you know what? Maybe the fact that I’ve had a podium finish three weeks in a row says my training is going well. I should enjoy this. Here’s a writeup of the event. The woman who won is a complete bad ass who actually would have won the marathon if she’d stopped. This was her first 50K. She won the Cowtown 5K the day before.
Recovery this week so far has been a dream. I took Monday easy, but I was happy enough with a decent pace on Tuesday. I don’t want to jump back in to speedy stuff yet, and my legs are still not quite back, especially after not getting enough sleep this week with work duties. But I’m easing back in to the big miles and hard efforts that will position me for a strong marathon performance this spring. I have to think this race was one more building block to get me ready for longer road races. I stuck to a pace, I handled pain, and I hit the time I needed. Can’t ask for more than that.
On to Boston
I will most likely drop from the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA full marathon to the half. When I registered for the Rock ‘n’ Roll race, I don’t think I looked at a calendar. It’s just 10 days from now and way too close to Cowtown for me to run it well. Still I’ll get in lots of big miles next week to keep building up.
Because the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler is 15 days ahead of Boston, I’m planning to race it like I’ve always wanted to.
Finally, I have a trip to Tahoe planned for the week before Boston, so I’m hoping to relax and get in a few beautiful, easy runs before Marathon Monday.
Again, this year was my highest-mileage year yet. I set PRs in marathon, half marathon, 3-mile, 5K and two new ultramarathon distances. And I ran in the Cherry Blossom 10-miler on pace to set a PR if the course hadn’t been cut short. I know these kinds of gains won’t continue forever, and the gains I’m seeing right now are incremental compared to the leaps I’ve seen for the past five or so years. I was injured once with a hamstring strain and can chalk that up to running like an idiot. I just looked over my training log, and damn it if I wasn’t consistent. Again, I ran every day and kept up my 10-mile Tuesday streak for the fifth year straight. I made some resolutions last year, but I sucked at keeping them. By March, I’d forgotten most of what I’d planned, but I still managed to run well.
First female awards: 1st female High Cloud Snapple Half Marathon (1:29:09), 1st print female ACLI Capital Challenge (18:59), 1st female The March 50K (5:09:28), 1st female Teddy Roosevelt 5K (19:55), 1st female Christmas Spirit Classic V 5K (19:34)
Top five runs
Last year I had a tough time coming up with five runs. I had the top three, but the rest were a little meh. This year, I had a hard time narrowing down this list to just five. This was a big year for scenic, fun runs. Wow.
Forest Park proposal run: Some dude proposed to me on a run this year, guys! Michael and I run a lot of trails together. We run long together. We know the drill with the fueling and the GU and the probable getting lost. Even in new places, we kind of go with the flow and expect the runs might not go as planned. This run in Portland felt different. We’d never been to Forest Park before, so we took the light rail to the bus to somewhere close to the park. This was supposed to be a 24-mile trail run, but the significant ups and downs quickly told us otherwise. Around 10 miles in, Michael started saying he wanted his GU in a little while and that we needed to stop soon. He never broadcasts when he’ll take his GU. A mile later he said I needed to remind him to stop. OK? Then he stopped near a bench. I took a panorama of the forest because it was damn beautiful. I turned around to see him down on one knee. It was a short run. It was the best run.
Ophir Creek to Flume Trail: After Portland, we went to Tahoe. Two of my favorite runs are from our week here. This is one of those runs where we spent 15 minutes taking pictures. We cheated by having my mom drop us off at the start and then running back downhill to Incline Village. I love this run so much, I’ll be doing it on my wedding morning.
To the top of Squaw: We gained almost 3,000 feet in this run. Also busted my elbow wide open and didn’t care at all. I don’t know if my smile could be any bigger in this photo. Tee hee. You can’t even see where we came from down there.
Boston Marathon: The weather sucked, but I ran the fastest marathon I’ve ever run. And I was smart about not going out too fast. This result is what is keeping me going toward that sub-3 goal.
Tennessee Valley Trail: The shortest run on this list but the most beautiful one. It was a simple five-miler in the Marin Headlands with the ocean in the middle. This was the kind of run I should have been doing all week in San Francisco between Boston and Big Sur instead of the crazy running I was doing.
Best running discoveries
Trigger point massage: I now sit on top of a tennis ball some evenings and wait for the muscles in my ass to loosen. I make noises no human should make, but man, you wouldn’t believe how good that release can feel.
Salt tabs: My coach got me hooked on salt tabs when I was wiped after my first 50K training run. For my first 50-miler, they brought me back from the dead several times, and they helped power me through a few longer training runs.
HOKAs for recovery runs: Every shoe can’t be a lightweight racing flat or a midweight almost racing flat. Every run can’t be a trail run or a speed workout. HOKAs are perfect for slower runs where I need a bit more cushion. They slow me down a bit and remind me to straighten up. I’m trying to get better at engaging my core when I run, and the Cliftons seem to help with that.
Chamois Butt’r: I tried out about five different anti-chafe products this summer when I was spending three or four hours sweating and had trouble with red marks on my sports bra and shorts lines. This product seems to work best. It’s a cream, so it absorbs better for me.
2016 health resolutions
Strengthen and stretch: I’ll continue to develop core strength and strengthen my glutes. Compared to last year, I do at least 200 percent more strengthening and stretching every week. When I don’t do it, my legs feel tight, and my form breaks down. I guess this is what getting older and being smarter feels like.
Arrive at the Comrades starting line healthy: This might mean not running junk miles in April and May when I most want to bask in the spring running weather. When I came to the Boston starting line healthy, I ran a PR. The Boston taper was the best taper I’ve ever had.
Take easy runs easy: The next day’s run is better if I run slower than I think I should the day before. When the training plan says easy, I run easy. Period.
Sub-3 for the marathon and sub-10 at Comrades: I’m putting time goals on my resolution list. I know I can pull off a sub-3 if I let the marathon come to me instead of getting worked up before the race. It’s a mental issue. I have no problem putting in the work for this time goal, but I need to concentrate on staying calm during the taper and before the race. And gosh, I should be able to run a 50-mile PR on the road if the weather cooperates.
Continue with steady mileage: I don’t want to set a mileage goal for next year. Something like what I ran in 2015 is probably reasonable. If I can continue to run healthy and stay consistent, I’ll be happy. Looking back over the past six years of running logs, my biggest strength has been consistency. I see big gains when I put in hard work balanced with easy days. I’d love to keep that up.
Scanning through my recent posts here, it might seem as though nothing has gone right with my training or racing. I didn’t meet my 3:00 marathon goal in the fall, I pulled a hamstring and dropped out of Marine Corps, I had an awful trail training run where I sobbed and fell down a bunch of times, I busted my knee at Stone Mill. But really it’s easy to take the good days and great outcomes for granted. Just now I hunkered down with a jar of peanut butter and a sour expression to try to write through the shitty experience I had this morning. (I’ll get to that in a bit.) But before I do that, I’m going to list 10 things that have gone well lately. My problem is because I turn to writing to vent about a bad race or a terrible injury, this blog ends up looking like a list of failures. I’m actually improving! And in reality, things are not bad.
I ran my 4,000th mile of the year. Already! My goal for 2015 was to run 4,000 miles, which is just slightly more than the 3,968 I logged last year. I blew through that goal on Dec. 1.
I set a 5K PR (19:24) last week. It was 12 days after my 50-miler.
My hamstring is pretty much healed. I haven’t had significant hamstring pain since before Stone Mill. The injury forced me to take a few easy weeks and slow down. There are worse things. Plus I am taking more time to strengthen and stretch because I’m more mindful of the hamstring.
We booked our hotel and trip to South Africa. Comrades is starting to get real!
My recovery after Stone Mill went as well as I could imagine. I didn’t overdo it for once! The first day was a little rougher than after a hard marathon. After that, I recovered in the same way I do for a hard marathon effort. A week after Stone Mill, I was back to running a steady 7:35 pace. On Thursday, my steady pace was down to 7:17.
I’ve returned to feeling great running roads. In preparing for trail racing, I neglected road running a bit. Now I’m remembering how great it feels to glide along and not worry about my footing.
We’re about a month away from the Disney races, and I have two great costumes lined up. And I’m not too concerned about times there, so it’s going to be a great vacation too.
My diet has stayed remarkably not awful during the first few holiday weeks. I’m trying to cut down on sweets until I have my aunt’s chocolate pie on Christmas Eve. With less sugar, I’ve been able to maintain a pretty steady weight.
I have a great week of running planned for my trip home to Dallas.
I have two fun holiday races coming up: a holiday lights fun run in two weeks and a 5K in my hometown on Christmas Eve.
OK. That’s all great. But today I royally bombed a 50K. I signed up for a trail 50K kind of on a lark a few weeks ago as I was recovering from Stone Mill. And the problem today was not that I hadn’t recovered. It was that I haven’t taken care of myself this week. Our neighbors have thrown late-night parties twice this week — on Wednesday and Friday. They’re so loud we can’t block out the noise with our normal tricks like shutting the door or turning up the air for white noise. They’re the loudest they’ve ever been. That means I got five hours of sleep, maybe, for two nights this week. And on Thursday night, I was up half the night with awful cramps. My workday Friday had me moving to a new building and having one of the all-time worst workdays. I lost my key fob on the first day in the new building and managed to lock myself in an elevator well. Then I got more crap sleep on Friday night because of the partiers.
Maybe planning to run the 50K on a somewhat technical course I already know I hate wasn’t the best idea in the first place. I knew I was tired going in. I gave myself an out. Told myself I would be happy with 20. What I was not happy with was the terrible stomach cramps I had around mile 4 that had me dry heaving behind a tree at mile 5 so people would stop asking if I was OK and then cursing under my breath as I returned to the start at a jog. Not even a jog. A stagger. My planned “50K/maybe 20 miles is OK” became “10 will have to do” and then on the way home when I realized I’d been driving for longer than I ran, it became “fuck it all I’m going to pound the steering wheel and cry at this gas station goddammit I’m exhausted.” The only bright side to this one is I didn’t have any pain at all. I feel like I didn’t run. So I’m going to try for a low-key long run tomorrow on roads.
When things don’t go as planned, I lose my shit. Really. I have to get better at letting things go. If I don’t feel great, I shouldn’t feel bad for giving myself an out. There’s no reason to push through something if you aren’t feeling it. At least that’s what I would tell someone else.
No more trail races for a while. I don’t know why I thought this one would go well, given the week I’ve had and the disdain I have for trails. Roads, stupid.
I’m finally on the other side of running 50 miles. Last week, I woke up on Monday and Tuesday morning with the jarring reality that I was running 50 damn miles straight. Realizing that made my heart beat a little faster and made me a little queasy. It’s a long way. I had never run that far, and I wasn’t sure I could finish it. But as the week wore on, I became more and more zen about the experience. That 6 a.m. Saturday morning start was barreling toward me whether I liked it or not. I love running, and I love being outside. This is just doing that for a long time with lots of fun people every five or six miles. Going in, I was mostly worried about my stomach and fueling and then about keeping my head right for many hours. I just needed to drag myself to the start line and not screw up any of my taper runs. Perhaps I should approach big goal marathons this way, too. Worrying about it won’t change a thing. I just needed to step up to the start line, push myself over the threshold and get on with it.
The logistics involved with running 50 miles are more intense than running a marathon. I can throw some GUs, a watch and a pair of shoes in a suitcase and be pretty set for 26.2 miles. Fifty requires more planning and longer checklists. Some people use backpacks, but I felt more comfortable with the handheld bottle I trained with over the last six months. I never ran out of liquid because the stations were pretty close together. And the handheld bottle ended up breaking my fall once, so win-win!
Stone Mill allowed two drop bags for miles 28 and 40. And with a 6 a.m. start, it required a head lamp for the first 45 minutes or so. I decided to over-pack my bags with treats so I could choose what sounded good at the aid stations.
At the 10-mile/40-mile aid station, there were two bins for headlamps — to be taken back to the start line or to stay at the aid station for slower runners to pick up if they needed lamps for the run back. I decided to be pessimistic and put my light in the “I’ll need this for the run back” bin.
The 28-mile gear bag seemed like the better bag to overpack. In that one I packed a second pair of shoes, a clean pair of socks, a Larabar, a Clif bar, a packet of peanut butter, a Stinger caramel waffle, four GUs, four salt tabs, moist towelettes to wipe my face, lip balm, Tums. Of all those items, I took all the GUs, all the salt tabs, one towelette, lip balm, peanut butter, the Stinger waffle and a Larabar.
When I got back to the 10-mile/40-mile point, I grabbed my headlamp. At that point, I didn’t think I’d need it, but I didn’t want to be stuck in the woods at dusk. It was a security blanket. In my 40-mile gear bag, I packed a second watch in case my first watch’s battery stopped working after 10 hours (it didn’t), more Clif bars and Larabars, Tums, a few GUs, salt tabs and an extra shirt. There, I took one GU, the spare watch and half a Larabar. I knew at mile 40 I could make it home on what I had in my handheld, even if that meant walking.
Scrapes and bruises: both knees scraped and bruised (right knee now black and blue and yellow), road burn on both quads, elbow gash, black toenail, windburn, minor shorts chafing, but the hamstring is fine!
Times I fell down: five
Food and beverages consumed: nine S-Caps, caramel Stinger waffle, miso soup, chicken soup, banana, Goldfish crackers, Cheez-Its, Tailwind, Gatorade, GU chomps, Clif shot blocks, two Larabars, Nathan’s maple peanut butter, half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one donut hole, potato chips, half a piece of bacon
First of all, without a doubt, the best part and an unexpected surprise, of this race was our friends Jen and Tom coming out to crew Michael and me. They were at four aid stations and the finish. I didn’t ask them to be there, but they showed up at 7:30 in the morning at the first station and drove all over the course to meet us. They brought potato chips and bacon for me because I know I love salty, crunchy things in the middle of races. At times, especially as I neared the 40-mile aid station, one of the only reasons I decided to run a section and not walk it was because Jen and Tom were on the other side. If I ever run another trail ultra, I will nearly insist on knowing people at aid stations. Plus I saw other friends (Jamey and Ellie, Robin, Leah, Betsy, Sara) scattered throughout the course. I’ll certainly be volunteering to crew other races. The volunteers are just the best.
Michael, Matt and I arrived at the elementary school at 5:35. The volunteers were letting cars with three runners or more in to the lot, so we got a close spot and stayed warm until a few minutes before the start. The school wasn’t open at that point, so runners had to go to the woods to use the bathroom. I did my duty in the woods at around 5:55 and then headed to the start. We were all a little nervous, but the low-key, meandering start and slow first mile both helped set the tone for the day.
This brings me to the trail and to mile 2. At mile 2, I was just starting to wake up and move my legs. I was with a group that was keeping a 10:30 pace, which felt unbelievably slow. I noticed myself watching everyone’s feet and listening to all kinds of conversations. People were wired and ready for the miles ahead. Then I ate it. I wiped out. I don’t know if it was a root or a rock or what. Ugh. It was bad enough that for the rest of the day people asked me if I was the woman who ate it at mile 2. So my right knee had a gash on it, and as the next few miles wore on I could feel it bruising and swelling. Not good. But I still felt decent — maybe it was just endorphins — and picked up the pace on the road until an aid station at mile 14.
After a quick stop, I was back on the trail and kept a pretty steady pace until mile 24. I was running with a guy named Chris who was also running steady and hoping to break 9. I thought we’d do it together, but he went ahead when I started to fade.
The towpath portion was a nice break from the mental strain of the hills. My cadence clicked back in to place, and as I crossed the 25-mile point, I started to think maybe I could finish the race.
Then around mile 32 the downhills started giving me trouble. My swollen knee would lock up a bit as I tried to charge down hills. Charge might be a strong word. I mean, I was pushing the pace to around 10 minutes for a group of at least five people until that point, but then my knee started talking to me. I pulled the pace back and decided to pick my way down the rootiest downhills, walk the steep uphills and jog the flats. It was going to be a long day. Even with this strategy, I tripped again and again.
The next two aid stations are a little blurry. I remember peeing behind a bush and trying to scoot a little out of the way mid-stream so a little girl wouldn’t see me. I remember soup and crackers. I remember many stream crossings and one where I had to balance on a log much narrower than any logs I’ve ever been on. And I crossed it like I knew what I was doing.
I remember looking around through the trees at about 3 p.m. and realizing it was the afternoon and thinking I’d been running a long time. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and the trail was just glowing. The leaves stopped blowing, and I was alone and at peace. I wish I could run more in the afternoon.
The final run through Riffle Ford at mile 40 is pretty vivid. This is when I knew I was going to make it. My head was fine, and my fueling was decent. I put the 10 miles ahead of me in perspective. I run 10 miles every Tuesday, and I’ve been doing at least 10 on trails lately. I knew I had it.
I apologized to Tom and Jen for taking what felt like forever to get from mile 28 to 40. They were awesome and said it wasn’t a problem. I picked up my headlamp in case I ended up slowing more and couldn’t beat the sunset. I would be fine, though. Tom ran with me on the road to get to the trail entrance.
The last 10 miles were slow and lonely. But they were familiar. Michael and I had run about 7 miles of the course in training the week before, and this portion was and out and back, so I knew the big obstacles like the slanted rocks under the bridge and the big ups and downs.
When I finally got to the road section, I was relieved to be able to run without worrying about my knee locking on the downhills. I felt like I was charging up and down the final few hills. I wasn’t really going that fast, but at that point, this felt like the final quarter-mile stretch of a marathon. My final mile was at 8:35 pace. With the grade, it felt like a 7:25. I had plenty left in the tank.
The only thing that didn’t go well, aside from my dumb knee not cooperating, was a little stomach swelling. I probably took in too much liquid or didn’t pee enough. Something wasn’t right about my liquid situation. When I finally stopped running and went to the bathroom, my bloated belly went down. At the finish line, I was feeling a little waterlogged.
This run gives me all kinds of confidence that I can complete the Comrades ultramarathon in May. I can probably go sub-9 if I’m smart about it. Stone Mill was probably harder for a cautious, non-trail runner like me, and I came in to it with general marathon training and a recovering hamstring and without the long runs I will put in for Comrades. I don’t know if I’ll ever do another 50-mile trail run again. Getting back to that point mentally will take me a good year. But I think I can do well at the 50K distance on trails as part of Comrades training.
Now, here’s a list of things I thought of on a 50-mile run:
All the words to Bohemian Rhapsody
Were there dinosaurs in Maryland? Why are these rocks slanted?
Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango
Yelling at anyone who has a dog off leash. (This might have been in gibbberish.)
Here come guys on bikes. Guys on bikes. Big tires.
Bright Eyes songs and then I tried to stop thinking about that.
How many miles until the next aid station? (Over and over again.)
Do I have to pee or do I not have to pee at all?
I should probably try to clench my butt more or at least pretend to use my glutes.
What time is it and do I need more salt pills yet?
I reread my post from about two years ago — last time I was injured before the Philadelphia Marathon — and I tried to spot some trends. Too many races? Yep. Too close together? Yep. Running like a bat out of hell because the weather is so beautiful and I’m so happy and it’s fall wheeee? Yep. So if I stack a bunch of races up and don’t adequately rest between them, you’re saying I might get hurt? Gosh. I’m an idiot.
Let’s pick up 10 days ago when I last posted about my revised Marine Corps goals. I was going to have fun and run smart and do all that feel-good stuff. In the next week, I proceeded to run 80 miles. They were 80 fast-ish, fun miles that I cranked out because I loved being able to put my taper rested legs to good use. For the weekend I cleared it with my coach to run a few more miles than we’d originally planned. On Saturday I kept the paces quick for a 16-miler, and I built a ton of confidence that I could still hold marathon pace. Felt like a million bucks. On Sunday instead of my planned 12-mile easy run, I did 15 at a decent pace and mixed in some trails. And I pushed the pace with a group running along Beach Drive. That felt great, but my hamstring was a little wonky by the end. Something was a little off. On Monday I stuck to my taper plan. Go me. On Tuesday, my plan was to run 10 miles (Ten-Mile Tuesday) with four super quick, 30-second pushes. The run started fine. Going fast. The first two pushes were OK. The third push was not OK. The fourth push wasn’t much of a push. Hmm. I kept running for about three more miles, my pace gradually slowing. I stopped to try to stretch. When I started running again, I felt an odd pain in my wonky hamstring. Nope. I ran/walked the two miles to get home and then started freaking the eff out.
My friend Sara is a saint and recommended an acupuncturist who might be able to patch me up for the race. He got me in at 8 a.m. this morning. When he was working on me, he told me he “could just tell” I was fast. That made me want to cry. I used to feel fast. Last week I was able to pound out bunches of marathon pace miles like a boss. Sigh. After the acupuncture session, both of my legs feel much better than yesterday or even Sunday when the hamstring started to feel a little off. Plus I feel like I’ve been run over by a train. I’m physically drained and cranky as hell. When I got home, there was an envelope in the mail. I got some gift certificate from the Georgetown Running Company for an 8K that I apparently won the age group award for back in June. I thought back to the race and how good I felt. Then I started to cry like a goddamn idiot.
So new plan. Lots of deep breaths between now and Sunday. This week was supposed to be a taper week, so my mileage isn’t too far off from where it would otherwise be. I’ve been on the verge of tears most of the day because I hate uncertainty and I hate not running. And I really hate not running in the fall. But if I can pull off a marathon on Sunday without injuring myself and without DNFing, I will have performed some kind of voodoo miracle comeback that I so far haven’t had to pull out in my short running career.
These posts are the ones I’ll look back on when I’m faster and stronger and I’ll say, “See, Amanda. See where this series of setbacks got you? You should be happy you are where you are today because without those little blips, you’d never know how good you have it.”
I prepared for the Hartford Marathon as if it was the race of my life. On Friday while I was lying on the floor with my legs stretched up the wall, Michael said, “I’ve never seen you rest this much the day before a race.” I replied, “I don’t want to have to break 3:00 again.” Breaking 3:00 had become a kind of quest over the past five months. In April I surprised myself by pulling out a 3:01 in Boston in suboptimal conditions, and I crossed the finish line convinced I had a sub-3 somewhere in me. Then I ran a 3:15 six days later in Big Sur with lots of miles between the two races. Between Big Sur and the start of the Hartford Marathon, I’d put in more than 2,026 miles. I was faster, stronger, smarter, completely rested, even more rested than I was coming in to Boston. And I believed on a good day I could put down a fast time. So why didn’t it happen? I’m healthier than I’ve ever been and running stronger and more consistently than ever. By all measures, it should have happened.
I don’t know. I can point to several reasons why I finished my goal race in 3:14, which is 15 minutes off where I wanted to be. The answer is probably some combination of the reasons below. And I know a 3:14 is not a bad time. Plenty of people would be thrilled with that time. Hell, it gets you in to Boston Marathon registration on the first day. It just wasn’t the time I was supposed to run.
I went out too fast. I started the race about 10 rows behind the 3:00 pacer because I screwed up my seeded corral bib and then couldn’t inch my way up far enough. After weaving through people for the first mile, I found the group. The group’s pacer was going way too fast. I should have backed off right there, when the group members started mentioning that the pace seemed a little too fast. There’s no reason I should be putting down a 6:33 on an uphill mile seven miles in to the race. That’s running like an idiot. My legs knew this. They gave out around mile 16. I couldn’t convince them to move. The second part of the race felt like a training run — like I’d run 100 miles the week before. Like my Jello legs were running through more Jello.
I was too nervous. In most races, I show up and just start running when the gun goes off. I haven’t mentally played out how the run will go mile by mile. I go with the flow and follow the crowd. I mostly follow my body, and I’m sometimes pleasantly surprised by my mile splits. Maybe I have a pace in mind, but maybe I’m there to have fun. Most of the time, I have no race jitters. This week, I must have repeated “6:47, 6:47, 6:47,” to myself 50 times. My heart was beating out of my chest at the start line, and I wandered up to the start line after my warmup like a zombie. I was mentally exhausted before I’d started.
I ran too many training miles. While I doubt my high mileage was the only source of a bad race, I ran about 10 percent more miles this training cycle over last. When I ran the 3:01 in April I wasn’t also training to run an ultramarathon , and I certainly didn’t put in as many trail miles. The trail miles and mileage increase both seem to have helped me race stronger at other distances, so I tend to think more mileage isn’t to blame.
The wind. When I started slowing down the most, I was running alone and against what felt like a pretty legit headwind. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. By the time I turned around with the wind at my back, I was mentally wrecked and had seen the 3:00 goal slip away a few miles before.
I ate beets. When I ran a sub-par marathon in Austin in February, I had terrible stomach cramps around mile 25. I’d had beets the night before and the morning of the race. I ate a huge bowl of beets for dinner Friday night and had stomach issues around mile 24.5. No beets next time. They’re good for training, but I can’t have too many of them before a race.
But I really don’t know the answer for my poor performance. I beat myself up most of the day yesterday. I ate some cheesecake, had a beer, pouted. Why couldn’t it happen? What did I do wrong? I’ll probably never know the real answer. But I woke up this morning, and ran a 30-minute easy run at a startlingly fast pace. It was faster than I’ve ever been able to go the day after any race — even a 5K. I went to the gym and then later today went out for a second, even faster run. I think the race is out of my system.
Marine Corps is still on my race calendar for two weeks from today. I don’t know if I’ll try to break 3:00 again. It depends on the day, and I don’t want to stress about it (see 2 above). But Marine Corps has tons going for it.
I’ve run this marathon more times than any other one except Boston (2008, 2009, 2010, 2014). I know the course because I train and race on these streets. My friends and family line the racecourse; people I don’t expect to see will magically appear on the Mall or in Georgetown. I love it. So the goals for Marine Corps are to relax, have fun and be smart. There’s no crazy pacers to mess with my head. There’s just me. Dressed as Wonder Woman. Getting cheers from strangers and running because I love it.