Backing up for a second, this performance is even more amusing because this week I felt like TRASH. Running has felt like a total chore and I've had various minor aches and pains flare up throughout the week, stomach issues likely related to a salad that I meal prepped that just didn't work for me, in addition to some kind of low grade sinus virus thing that resulted in me just feeling super run down and fatigued all week. On Friday I actually told my colleague and teammate that the thought of running 20 miles at all, let alone racing, the following day made me want to cry - and it did! When I woke up at the crack of dawn on Saturday (8 am races 45 minutes outside of the city...woof) I had similar feelings - I was so tempted to just roll over and go back to sleep! But instead I got up and got ready and just tried to console myself with the fact that at least I was just running the race as a long run/workout. My thought was to run the first 5 miles relatively easy, go into a couple of rounds of 4 or 5 miles at goal marathon pace with a mile or 2 easy in between, and then just see what I had left for the end. I had toyed with the idea of just trying to run the whole thing at goal marathon pace, but that seemed really aggressive! I figured my plan would result in something around 7:20 pace average, which would be a solid long run and faster than I've finished this race in the past.
We had a great squad of women racing, which was a plus, and we were able to hang out in the hotel ballroom near the start line until about 5 minutes before the race, which was also really nice. This year's weather was by far the most pleasant weather I've had for this race - 30 degrees, sunny, and no real wind to speak of. It took me awhile to figure out my outfit, but I think I've finally realized that 28 degrees and over has become shorts weather for me - I went with shorts and a light long sleeve under my singlet and honestly I was perfectly comfortable throughout the race. Soon enough we headed over to the start line, they played the world's longest rendition of the national anthem (I remembered this from the last time I did this race), and we were off!
As planned, I made an effort to keep myself feeling very chill for the first couple of miles. I went out about exactly where I expected with respect to my teammates, and just bopped along through the 'easy' miles. My first couple of miles were right around 7:18-19 which was actually faster than I was aiming for but I was fine with that - the effort level felt right. I sort of felt like I had to pee from the moment we started running, and while it was uncomfortable it was tolerable, so I just figured I'd reassess if I needed to hit a porta potty later on. As we ran out towards Marblehead, I started pondering what the new section of the course would be like - due to huge snowbanks/safety issues (the roads aren't closed for this race), the course had been changed to something advertised as "a little bit hillier and a little less scenic". As we turned into the 'new' section, the truth of that was unfortunately confirmed - the whole section, which we'd have to go through 4 times (as an out and back on a double loop course), was a whole mess of rolling hills. However, on the first pass through, I actually didn't mind those hills one little bit - in fact, I was actually feeling FANTASTIC. I hadn't caught a split on my watch in awhile but I could tell I wasn't slowing down, and I had pretty much already made the decision that I was going to throw my workout out the window and just do whatever felt good.
One of the nice things about the out and back course is getting a chance to cheer for your teammates as they come through on the other side, and I definitely got a little boost of energy from that as I turned around to head back towards Salem. I tried to be aware of the fact that we were only 5 miles into a 20 mile race, but the fact was, I was feeling strong as hell. There's just a feeling I have on some days that I've really only experienced a few times in my life - the last couple marathons I've run have been two of them, and I was starting to feel something very similar now. Things were just...flowing. That being said, when I finally caught my watch at the 6 mile split I was completely and utterly SHOCKED to see a 6:59 pop up on the screen. Er, excuse me? I assumed that I had just been feeling good flowing along at 7:15 pace, but this cast things in a whole new light. Well, I wasn't here to argue with my body feeling fantastic and doing it's thing! And that it did - for the next few miles, I found myself in such an amazing flow state that I feel like I almost never experience in races! I was just rolling, 6:57, 6:56, 6:53, and it felt SO EASY. I almost couldn't even understand what I was doing. It was a very similar feeling to Boston last year when the thoughts running through my head were just this giddy "I can't believe I'm doing this? Can this last?" Clearly all thoughts of doing a workout, "not racing", etc were completely off the able now - I had found myself on this train and there was no way I wasn't going to see where it would take me.
At mile 9 there's a long, straight stretch through Salem with some cobblestone sections that I really didn't enjoy much, and that kind of took me out of the moment for a second - though based on my splits, I perceived that I was slowing down when I actually wasn't at all! One saving grace of the course modification was the elimination of one particularly nasty hill that showed up around the 8/18 mile marks, so it was nice to be able to just make a turn at 9 and know it was a straight shot back to the finish line, or the second loop in this case. As I ran down the 10 mile stretch, I thought to myself how grateful I was to be having a day that was so validating, that proved that my training actually WAS doing something. Then I giggled, because the phrase "it's WORKING" is something one of my clients says all the time, in kind of a euphoric way, and it was just so fitting to how I felt in that moment. But now it was time for the second loop. It's one thing to run 10 miles feeling great, but 20? That could be a different story.
Absolutely the most ridiculous thing that's ever happened to me in a race happened early on in this second lap. While the local police and the race organizers really do their best to make the course safe while being open to traffic, drivers are idiots and things got really chaotic in the busier section at the beginning of the loop. But the random cars driving around had nothing on the Uber driver who was driving behind me, pulled directly in front of me (double parking in a bike lane), and then when I tried to go around on the inside of the car to avoid being hit by traffic attempting to squeeze by this double parked jerkface, the passenger OPENED THEIR DOOR right in front of me, almost hitting me, and blocking my way! I had to jump into a snow bank, over and onto the sidewalk, and then repeat the process to get back into the road a little further up. Let me just say that some choice words were expressed (by me) and some middle fingers were raised (also by me). For the love of God, pay some attention to what's going on around you! I have to say, I was extremely proud when my split for that mile was STILL A 7:01!
Meanwhile, I had been gradually reeling in a girl wearing a Black Cat shirt from 2014, and my annoyance at the Uber driver and my off roading adventure gave me the fire to make the pass. I have to admit that every time I passed someone in this race it was SUPER fun...maybe I'm just not used to being the strong one in the later stages of the race, but there's something nifty about blowing by people and putting minutes on them in no time (this particular girl ended up finishing 5 minutes behind me). As we had now lost the 10 milers the race had spread out quite a bit, and I was surprised to see that the next person in front of me was one of my teammates, Caroline! She has a big red bow in her hair that I tried to stare at and get back into a rhythm as I tried to see if I could reel her in. This is someone who I definitely view as faster than me, so when I ended up passing her at mile 12 (after running a 6:47, my fastest mile of the day) I was shocked. I knew that the next 5 miles through the hilly section were going to be a challenge, but I was still feeling so strong that I had a suspicion that I could hang on. The uphills were definitely getting to my legs more and more as time went on, but I felt like I was able to use the downhills to recover pretty completely before attacking the next hill. My confidence got another hilarious boost when I crossed the 13 mile mark in 1:31 something. I literally was like...hold on...am I going to run a half marathon PR right now. I hit 13.1 miles at 1:32:15, which is literally only 5 SECONDS SLOWER than my half marathon PR....so apparently I need to run a faster half marathon, stat. Of course, I thought to myself, when you run a half marathon PR in a 20 mile race, that could bode poorly for the last 7 miles. But there was nothing to be done for it now - all I could do was keep running and find out!
There was a nasty hill up to the turnaround near the 14 mile mark, and then we headed back towards the finish. This section was definitely where some of the fatigue started to catch up with me - it was becoming more challenging to recover from the uphills and the last few steps up to the crest of any given hill were feeling a lot less strong than they had a few miles before. Mile 14 was slower at 7:08, but I thought to myself, hey, that is STILL below your goal marathon pace. You know, that pace that you said it was "too aggressive" to run this whole race at? Things were decidedly getting harder, but when I hit mile 15 at 7 minutes flat I knew I could hold on for 5 more miles. Mile 17-18 were definitely the worst of the race - there are some longer, low grade but steady uphills heading back towards Salem and one of them in particular really got me good, resulting in a 7:13 split for mile 18 (honestly at that point I felt like I was CRAWLING and I can't believe I was even running that fast lol). Finally, we hit the downhill heading towards the long straightaway, and I knew there were no more hills to contend with and it was just time to push the last 2 miles. At this point I had been running completely alone since the turnaround with the only runner in sight a guy in a gray shirt maybe 200 meters ahead. I pushed down the lonely straightaway, taking care not to fall on my face over the random cobblestone sections as my quads started to make some noises with flickers of cramps. The turn just after mile 9 for some reason felt like it was straight uphill (it was not lol), but did give me a chance to glance back and see if there was anyone else around. My teammate was out of sight, but there was a girl in blue capris looking a little too energetic maybe 30 seconds behind me. It had been super tempting to just relax for the last mile, but seeing this girl was a great motivator and kept the fire underneath me. While I didn't exactly light the world on fire (my last mile was a 7:04), it was faster than any mile since the fatigue had all hit me at mile 17 and I was able to hold her off by about 10 seconds. The course was a touch long (I think where they had to put the turnaround for the modified course added about 0.1 in the end) but regardless, my finish time of 2:22:12 was a massive PR (7:30 better than my previous official 20 mile PR and probably 4 minutes faster than any "unofficial" time I've hit in a marathon) and a MASSIVE breakthrough!
I'm not going to lie, I almost started crying at the finish line. Sure, this is just a random 20 mile race, and yes, the weather was perfect, and whatever, a lot can happen in the next 5 weeks and if it's hot at Boston I'm still screwed. But after running Boston last year, there was a part of me that felt like that was it - I had fulfilled my potential, and that was as fast as I was ever going to run. And there was a part of me that was very OK with that! But this race...for the first time in a LONG time, I actually feel like I am capable of going faster. I was talking with a friend after the race and laughing because I had told her about my "running goal marathon pace sounds too aggressive" before I ran the race 7 seconds faster than goal marathon pace. And she was like, well, maybe this IS your goal marathon pace! And I was like, AHH, because that pace equates to a 3:05. THEN two different people commented on my Strava and a teammate commented in person that I should put a sub-3 in my sights (a goal that I have NEVER had, nor pretended to have, at any point ever, because I don't feel like it's realistic). Which again, I was like, AH, I don't really know about that. But then again, if you'd told me 3 days ago that I was about to run almost sub-7 pace for 20 miles, I would have told you you were insane. During the race, I kept thinking "I can't believe I'm doing this" and then being like "Well, you SHOULD believe it. You earned it. You're doing it. BELIEVE IT!" And honestly, I have 100% confidence that if I had been running a marathon yesterday, I would have run a PR - I 100% had 6 more miles left in me at 7:05-7:10. So, who knows anything, really? All I can do is keep putting in the type of work that I know works for me, keep going into races in the mindset that I know works for me (with low/no expectations, relaxed, running 100% by feel, and never EVER focusing on hitting a specific pace) and know that sometimes, when things fall into place, the magic is there waiting to happen.
(Also, can it just be 30-35 degrees with no wind for every race I do for the rest of my life, THANKS IN ADVANCE MOTHER NATURE!)
Black Cat 20 Mile
21/241 OA, 5/148 F, 1/56 F30-39 (after top 3 removed)