Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lehigh Valley Marathon Race Report

This is not exactly the race recap I hoped I would be writing, but it kind of is the race report I was expecting to write. Is that strange? I went into this race from such a different place than any marathon that I've done previously, and I like to think I've come out the other side in a different place too.  The short story is this: I ran a 3:45, I did not BQ, which was the entire point of doing the race from the start. Weather, humidity specifically, was definitely a major factor, but when I dig down to the nitty gritty part of myself that knows the things that I don't always want to admit, I also know this know this: my training wasn't adequate, and I ran the race that I deserved. And strangely enough, after all of the whining and hatred of every second I spent training for this marathon, knowing that makes me want to do it again, and do it right.

But back up the analysis bus because first we need a race report.  The journey began on Saturday when I met up with my teammate Aly to drive down to the race. We really only became friends over the past few months but I would like to think that we bonded on the 5+ hour journey to PA, which included one stop at the 7th largest mall in the US! It has a ferris wheel. And lazer tag. And a ropes course. That's not a mall, that's an amusement park.  We eventually made it to the expo, which was at this sort of bizarre place called the Steel Stacks - basically what appeared to be an old mining (?) operation that had been converted into an entertainment complex...it was interesting. The entire time I had been training for this race, my brain had never fully made the connection that I was actually attempting to run a fast marathon, but suddenly holding my number in my hand forced me to realize that I was doing something ridiculous.

Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day, and we actually ended up relaxing with a beer outside of the expo center before heading over to the hotel.  I don't know what it is, but whenever I'm staying in a hotel and I'm not on vacation (aka, whenever I travel for races which is almost never) I automatically connect it with dance/pom competitions, which were some of the most exciting times in my young life, and it doesn't matter that now I'm 26 years old and I'm running a marathon, being where I am just becomes the most exciting experience ever. I suddenly feel special and like every action I do is meaningful in the context of this big event that I'm doing that's the reason that I'm at this hotel. (If those last sentences made no sense to you, I completely understand, because they don't make much sense to me either, but that's the best I can do to verbalize the way staying in a hotel the night before a competition makes me feel.) I headed out for a quick 10 minute shakeout around the various parking lots surrounding our hotel, and after a brief drive through some sketchy areas of Allentown Aly and I found our way to dinner at a Bravo at the Allentown mall, where the servers were exceptionally cheery, the salad was covered with bacon bits, but the pasta was actually really good.

Carb loading complete, we headed back to the hotel to get into the zone before our 4 am wakeup call. I watched the Notre Dame-Michigan game for a bit, as there is truly nothing more calming to me than a football game which I'm really not invested in. I drifted off at about 9:30 and actually slept remarkably well given the circumstances - I'm pretty sure I was actually awake before my alarm went off on Sunday morning which is fairly unbelievable. I got up pretty quickly and was into the prerace routine: 2 pieces of bread, one with peanut butter, choked down even though I have no desire to eat it, washed down with Gatorade. Aly had been asking me about what I ate before races since she had bad stomach issues with her last marathon, and so she followed my lead - I think I have a new convert to my pre-marathon breakfast! We were out the door by 5 am to head over to Lehigh Valley Hospital for the start. Unfortunately, there is more than one Lehigh Valley Hospital...and the one that comes up when you enter that into your GPS is not the one where the race start was being held. Luckily we had left early enough that it wasn't a big deal, and finally made it to the actual start with over an hour to spare (I found out later that the traffic situation turned into a disaster close to the start and people were jumping out of their cars to run to the line, so retrospectively I'm EXTRA glad that I'm ridiculous about getting to races early.) Highlights of the drive were listening to techno and a very bright billboard with a man on it who appeared to be staring into your soul...it was 5 am, we were a little loopy.

The start was pretty low key, although they were pumping early 2000s jams such as the Evanescence song "Bring Me To Life" and also "1985" by Bowling for Soup. We chatted briefly with a guy who noticed Aly's Greater Boston jacket and was also from Boston - I do think one of my favorite parts about this race was that, as the LAST CHANCE TO BQ, there were people from literally everywhere converging on these random towns in eastern Pennsylvania to run a marathon.  The weather was not as cool as I had wanted or anticipated, and I was concerned about the 80% humidity, but I tried not to worry about it as I went through my prerace routine. Stretch, leg swings, a few downward dogs for good measure, GNB on the hand (long story), drink water, munch on Gu chomps, hit the porta potty, etc. At one point Aly and I had what felt like our own personal paparazzi as this guy from (I assume) a local newspaper hovered around us taking action shots of us warming up and stretching. I was trying to stay focused but it was also difficult to keep from laughing as this guy circled us trying to get that perfect shot. [Edit: I discovered the photos, but I will not be posting them here. They are hilarious, however.]

I decided to hit the porta potty one last time, and man, the line was rough. It was probably 6:35 at this point, with the race starting at 7, but I figured I was still in OK shape, and I really needed to get in there. Opening ceremonies began...line barely moving. It was 6:45...line barely moving. The fear of a bathroom related emergency kept me in line for quite awhile, but all of a sudden I came to the panicked realization that there were 5 minutes until race start and I was still in my sweats, hadn't checked my bag, and was not at the start line. Cue near panic attack, sprinting over to my bag (during the national anthem no less, gah, I felt bad about that after the fact), desperately trying to find the bag check, and squeezing into the start. I couldn't find Aly, but managed to immediately find my friend Jen and started talking at her - "oh my god, I really have to pee...but the porta potty line was so long...omg, I'm just going to go pee in that park over there. I'll be right back." And so I popped a squat behind a tree with 2 minutes to go until the start. Not my most dignified hour, but I'll be damned if I didn't start that race feeling comfortable and ready to go. The next thing I knew I was back next to Jen and holy shit, they were counting down, and suddenly we were running and this was just...happening.

Actual race report time

The first mile was a bit of a cluster and was more crowded than I expected, but true to my ONE goal for myself I stayed relaxed and just let myself be moved along by the crowd. I had sworn that I would not under any circumstances allow myself to be sucked in by any sort of desire to go out fast, and although I missed the 1 mile mark so I can't say for sure, I'm pretty sure I succeeded. We headed through a short neighborhood loop and then we were off on the point to point. Now, a word of warning for anyone considering running this race: it's advertised as a net downhill, and I'm sure that it is. What they don't tell you is, that net downhill? Like, 90% of it happens over the course of one ENORMOUS downhill in the first mile of the race. So I definitely would not consider this a downhill course by any stretch. The first 6-7 miles of the race are on roads, and I felt like I was doing a good job of staying relaxed and just moving myself along. I had chosen "calm as still water" (oh Arya, I heart) as my mantra for this race because I felt that above all else, not getting ahead of myself would be what would save me. This turned out to be fitting as the entire course runs along a river, which, due to the lack of wind on Sunday, was actually incredibly calm.

I didn't actually take any splits during the race, just kind of stayed aware of my watch, and throughout the first stretch I was clocking in nicely between 7:50-7:55s and feeling very relaxed doing it. I started to notice the humidity pretty early and started taking water from the get go, because if there's one way for me to crash and burn in any race, it's dehydration. FORESHADOWING.  I had a little bit of a down time as we went uphill over a bridge around mile 6, but took a Gu and we headed into the forest and it passed. I/the volunteer trying to hand me water botched the handoff twice at that particular water stop, so I didn't get any water with my gel, which was...unfortunate. As we began running on our first trail section of the race, I felt AMAZING. I was proud of myself for picking a pace that seemed to be reasonable, kept repeating "calm as still water" in my head whenever I felt myself start to tense up, and honestly - I was really enjoying myself. The trail along the water was lovely, although rocky and root covered in many spots, but mostly I just allowed myself to kind of enjoy the moment for a little while. At one point a group of guys running just behind me burst out singing "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" and I couldn't help but smile. I just remember thinking to myself "oh my gosh, this so much more fun than I thought it would be!"

I hit mile 10 and I was still sticking to my slightly sub-8 pace, still feeling really good, and the ideas were starting to hatch that maybe I could make this work after all. My one problem at this point was that there hadn't been a water stop in a LONG time. Like 3-4 miles long. I was starting to come down from my post-Gu high and was starting to feel that dehydrated sensation creeping in. Everything else was smooth sailing, so I didn't worry about it too much, but I definitely wanted to get myself to a water stop, and stat. The miles ticked by, still on this legitimate trail by the river. At mile 12 I noticed a Gu on the ground, thought it was empty, and so didn't worry about trying to avoid it. As it turned out, it was full, so when I stomped on it it exploded all over my legs. It was disgusting. This was the first in a series of several unfortunate events that would befall me before the end of the race, but for the time being things were still going well. Soon after the Gu incident, we came off of the trail and back onto the roads for a rather obnoxious loop around the parking lot that finished at the halfway mark before dipping back down onto the trail. Since the beginning of the race I had been able to see Jen in my sights up ahead, but kept quelling the urge to chase her down because, as I kept telling myself, "you need to run your race, not Jen's". But as we approached the half, I found myself in a bit of another low, and closing the gap between the two of us seemed to be the best way to break out of it. It seemed to work, because I passed her right around the half and managed to have the energy to cheerfully be like "stay relaxed! We're halfway there! Have a great race!". If only I knew what was going to happen a few miles down the road, I certainly wouldn't have been so chipper, but for the moment, I was loving life a surprising amount and just allowed myself to enjoy some signs (this one woman, who I saw like 6 times, had a sign that said something like "Run faster! There's a fire! Ain't nobody got time for that!" I didn't really...understand it, but I liked it.)

I took another Gu just before the 14 mile mark as we dipped back down onto the river trail, which I would grow to deeply hate in the hours to come. I had to stop briefly to readjust my left sock, which had decided to bunch up and roll down into my shoe - I picked the ONE pair of socks which have never given me a problem with this, and of course they decided to fail on me come race day. I was irritated, but I would say it cost me 15-20 seconds at most, which didn't turn out to matter in the grand scheme of things. But let's be honest, if I had somehow managed to miss a BQ by just 15-30 seconds, I probably would have gone Hulk style on that sock. After the sock debacle, things started to get a little dicey. I was still doing...okay pace-wise, but it no longer felt relaxed and I was starting to really resent the fact that we were still running on this stupid dirt trail. And then all of a sudden, around mile 15 or 16, I don't even know how to explain it, but everything just imploded. My legs still felt pretty acceptable given what I had run so far, but I was nauseous and feeling more lightheaded and dizzy by the second. I sprang into action at the next water stop, grabbing water and a Gatorade and walking through the station to make sure I got to drink it all, but unfortunately it seemed to be too little, too late.

Miles 16-20 were some of the worst miles I have ever run in my life. It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks how awful I was feeling at the moment and how far I actually still had to go. My legs began feeling the way I feel when I'm dehydrated, which is to say, bad. I continued to take water/Gatorade every chance I got but the aid stations just couldn't seem to come fast enough. Right around mile 17 I kind of got overwhelmed and decided I got 10 seconds to walk and compose myself...and as soon as I stopped running, I literally felt like I was going to pass out. I had a similar vertigo problem about a mile later, when I was focusing on a girl running directly in front of me who was wearing shorts with zig zags on them and I started feeling lightheaded just looking at the pattern. The sun filtering in and out of the trees wasn't helping my cause. I was just feeling shitball awful, and I couldn't seem to do anything about it.

It was around 18 or 19 that I realized that I had fallen dramatically off pace, and given the events that were currently happening, any shot at a sub 3:35, let alone sub 3:30, was out the window. And then I did something that I am actually quite proud of, and that I know the Audrey of 3 years ago would have been unable to do - I acknowledged this fact, I accepted my current situation, and I resolved myself to finish the race as fast as I could given what was happening. That's it. There was very little beating myself up or berating myself for sucking, there were no tears, and I think only one swear escaped my lips. I won't say I was happy about what was going on...I felt like death. But I wasn't going to just give up and die just because my goal wasn't going to happen today.

At long last I reached mile 20, feeling less like I was going to pass out but still having a pretty rough go of it between water stations. I was so unbelievably thirsty that nothing was enough, and I wasn't necessarily hot but it was so humid that my singlet was drenched. We were STILL running on this god-forsaken trail - another note to anyone interested in signing up for this race: while the course is really pretty, the narrow, rocky trails do not make for what I would call a "fast" course. The mile markers seemed to be getting further and further apart as I trudged along. I kept telling myself that I had almost an hour to run 6 miles to come in around 3:45, which was the new goal that my brain had selected.  It's interesting trying to write about this part of the race right now because I'm pretty sure my brain has blocked it out. I hated it. I wanted my super caffeinated Gu but I thought I had lost it (I found out hours after the race that I had not, because I'm an idiot). I popped a blister on the tip of my toe which stung like a beyotch. Everything hurt and nothing was beautiful. These are pretty typical feelings for those post mile-20 miles of a marathon, but they seemed to be worse than I remembered.

Mile 22 finally arrived, and as I began to process the fact that I had only 4 miles to go, a change came over me. Maybe it was my aggressive hydration from the past several miles kicking in a bit, or maybe it was just delirium, but I suddenly said to myself: you know what, you need to man up. I doubt that I truly picked up the pace by much, but at least I felt like I was moving forwards instead of scrambling futilely in place. I started passing some people who were walking. I continued to walk through the water stops long enough to get some fluids down, but forced myself to start running again as soon as the cup was empty. I hated the trail and my legs and the sun and the weather and I hated everything, and all I had left to not hate was the fact that soon I was going to be finished, one way or another.

I feel like every time I run a marathon I say that the last 2-3 miles were "THE HARDEST MILES I HAVE EVER RUN". But no, seriously, these were the hardest. I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and 3:45 seemed like it was going to happen, which was cool, because back a few miles ago I had seriously thought I was looking at another 4+ hour finish which would have been significantly less OK. But dear lord, mile 26 of this race. So we had barely passed the 25 mile mark when we started to go up this hill, and I just lost it. I told myself I got 10 seconds to get my shit together. But no sooner had I begun to slow than this old dude comes running past me and no joke, YELLS in my face "HALF A MILE TO GO YOU DO NOT GET TO STOP". I was ridiculously taken aback but I thanked him because seriously, I needed that. And I ran it in. It was the cruelest thing in the world. You could see the finish line on the other side of the river when you were almost a mile away from it, but first you had to run out, run back uphill, run over a bridge, and then run down the longest straightaway in the history of humanity.  That final .2 miles felt like it lasted 17 hours. I was running completely alone, too far from the woman in front of me to catch her with whatever pathetic attempt at a kick I could summon, and with no one coming up on me from behind. I could see the clock clicking around 3:44, and I basically was just like I don't even care, I am getting there before it hits 3:46, and I can be OK with myself.  And I did.

I staggered over the line and shortly after yelling guy (who I had apparently passed, no recollection of that happening) came up behind me and was like "nice finish, sorry I lied, it was more like a mile to go". I thanked him anyway for the kick in the ass and was about to wander away to find a place to lay down when I heard Jen's name being announced at the finish. We slowly made the journey to the beer tent, with several seated rest breaks. My lower back was cramping really badly, and I just felt generally unpleasant. We finally located Aly, who had done REALLY well, and the 3 of us lay in the grass and enjoyed our free beers. At that point, my only emotion was just relief. I was so unbelievably happy that it was over, and I could stop stressing about it. I had made it through relatively unscathed, albeit not exactly in the way I had hoped, and for that I was glad.

After awhile we decided to try to find the shuttle buses back to the start to attempt to get back to the hotel in time to shower before hitting the road back to Boston. This is where things got...well...interesting from a logistical standpoint. Everything else about the race thus far had been really well put together, but these shuttles were just a nightmare. First of all, we waiting in line for literally an hour and 45 minutes to get on a bus...and there was a long line of runners snaking behind us. We all kind of agreed that we were too tired to care, but it wasn't terribly enjoyable. Hilariously, there was a native Easton-ian who decided he wanted to make a quick buck in his sketchy blue windowless van with an eagle painted on the side by offering rides back to Allentown for $10...shockingly, several runners took him up on his offer. Finally, the bus arrived - hooray! Except then we boarded the bus, and entered into the most hellish 25 minutes I have ever experienced in a vehicle. Do you know what doesn't sound good after running a really humid, dehydrating marathon? A bus, filled with sweaty, hot runners, with no air conditioning. Not joking, I felt like I was in a hot yoga class. The one moment of levity was seeing the aforementioned blue bus of creepiness....broken down on the side of the road. So at least someone was having a worse time than we were on the bus of doom.

So that is the story of how I didn't BQ, but didn't beat myself up over it. I was actually surprised to learn that I ran about a minute faster than Boston 2010, when I trained for a 3:30 like it was all I had in the world and was left devastated when things didn't go my way. I think the difference in my reactions from then to now is a testament to me being more mature as a runner and as a person at this point in my life. (And also, apparently, eff shooting for a 3:30. 3:29 or bust!)  This is my 3rd best out of 5 marathons, and with my PR and Boston 2012 being major outliers, the middle 3 have actually been not that far apart. I'm not sure what that says about me - does it mean I'm actually kind of mediocre, and my 3:22 was a fluke? Does it mean that I haven't quite figured out how to dial in my training or how to execute on race day? It's hard to say. All I know is that next time I race a marathon, I mean to do it for real. For how slackadoodle I was about my training for this race, quite frankly, I knew I wasn't going to qualify. I think in a way I set myself up for a feedback loop of bad: not having enough of a base/enough time to put together a proper training cycle --> feeling overwhelmed by training --> "well, I'm not going to qualify anyway"--> slacking off because "it doesn't matter, I'm not going to qualify anyway", etc. But amazingly, for how much this race sucked, it had the opposite effect as I expected: it made me want to do another one, and do it right.

It's hard for me in this particular scenario to tease out how much difference would have been made by better training and how much was due to the weather/race conditions. Even with perfect training, could I have PRed with that type of humidity and on trails? I honestly don't think so. How much of feeling awful in the late stages of the race was undertraining, and how much was dehydration, or lack of mental toughness, or fueling, or humidity, or any number of other factors? I suppose that's always the question that you could ask in any race. And looking back on it a few days later, I am a little disappointed, not about the way I performed on race day, but about the fact that I couldn't suck it up to make more of the training time I had. But of course it has me questioning...if I could do what I did on Sunday with what I consider to be quite sub-par training...what could I do with excellent training? And that is the question that I hope to answer at some point in the future, whether it's somehow at Boston 2014 (goddamn it, I really want a number), or at a fall 2014 marathon.

And finally, I apparently can say I am a true runner now, because I realized after the race that the skin under my right second toenail had been replaced by a giant blood blister. I will spare you the details of my impromptu self-surgery, but let's just say I don't think I'm going to have a toenail to worry about for quite some time...you win, marathon. You always do. And that pretty much sums it up.