It was a beautiful sunny day in Track Town USA. Absolutely perfect running conditions. It seemed like it had taken forever for race day to finally arrive. Tapering had been immensely difficult for me. Not only was I forced to cut down on my mileage, I had bi-monthly chiropractic appointments for my IT band, caught my daughter's cold and had tummy troubles the day before the marathon. I had no idea what the day would bring. All I knew is that I wanted that sub 4 hour marathon more than I've ever wanted anything before. Upon waking up race day morning, I felt great! My legs were completely pain-free [Shout out to Doc John!] and other than nerve-induced queasiness and multiple trips to the bathroom, there was no sign of the stomach flu that I had the day before. I thought I was up for the task.
There was so much infectious excitement at the start. It was impossible not to get swept up with the eager runners and encouraging spectators. The plan, that quickly flew out the window in the race excitement was to start out nearly 30 seconds slower than my desired marathon pace and to increase that speed by five seconds each mile until I was at race pace. I was feeling good. I had no leg pain whatsoever so I thought that I might as well take advantage of the situation and go with what was feeling good at the time. I couldn't help thinking that my sub 4 hour goal was mine for that taking. It wasn't going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination but I was going to go for it. Finishing my last few races with steam still in the tank left me full of regrets that I had not completely thrown down. Today I wanted to be ballsy enough to give race every ounce of my effort. I can't tell you how scared I was. What if I gave too much too soon? Was I indeed capable of maintaining the 9:07 pace needed for my coveted sub 4 hour marathon?.
The first eight miles of the race felt glorious. I was having fun chugging along looking for people I knew on the course or on the sidelines. My form felt great. I felt loose and my breathing was under control. I was drinking plenty of water and GuBrew, had sucked down my 1st Gu and even managed to eat a Fig Newton. I was delighted that I had no urge to use the portapot. I would need every precious minute of this race to be spent in relentless forward motion.
I got a huge boost seeing my family and friends at miles 3 and 6. Somewhere in between, I was passed by some friends happily blazing through their half marathon like pros. At mile 6, I grabbed from Steve what had to have been the heaviest 20 ounce disposable bottle of GuBrew I have had the misfortune to carry. It was nice to be able to avoid the bottle neck watering holes and to be able to easily sip without dumping water all over myself but seriously, carrying that thing for 3-4 miles without a bottle holster probably wasn't such a good idea.
The pace, time and mileage data on my Garmin revealed that if I maintained what I had done for the first 10 miles, that I could do it, but dang I was getting tired! My legs, the biggest of my pre-race worries, were fine. It was my cardiovascular system that was being pushed. Around mile 11, going into Glenwood, armpit of Lane County, I got a side stitch that rudely hung around for at least the next three miles. I am not familiar with these at all so I was taken by surprise and disheartened when I saw how it effected my pace. The best I could muster was between 9:17 and 9:23. Doubts began creeping into my mind. I tried to replace them with thoughts of my 18 weeks of serious training, especially all that speed work that I put in. I had some extra time cushion due to my faster miles at the beginning and hoped to pick up pace toward the end. My mantras became: "I'm strong" and "I can do this". At mile 13.1, I was pleased to discover that I had made a new half marathon PR. I made the halfway point of my race at exactly 1:59:56. That perked me up along with the fact that Steve would be joining me for the second half of the race.
Steve had volunteered to run with me and carry/dispense my aide. Even though I couldn't do much more than grunt and grimace, I had never been so happy to see him. At first I tried to politely use complete sentences when I wanted something. "Can I have a Gu?" "Water, please." His reaction to all these requests were "huh?" I was the one with the iPod going and HE couldn't hear ME? I just didn't have the energy or breath to speak clearly or loudly or more than one word at a time. I quickly figured out that it was most efficient to just yell "WATER!" or "GU!" when I needed something. He even opened my Gu packages for me. *swoon*. My only complaint was the time when I grunted/yelled "Gu!" and he responded by dangling the Gu package just out of my arm's reach and continued to speed up. I wasn't going to sprint for the darned thing! Just give it to me already!
Once the side stitch thankfully subsided around mile 14, my attention turned towards my quickly fatiguing legs and glutes. This was new to me. I didn't feel tired or the slightest discomfort on my second marathon until mile 23 nor did I feel fatigue on any of my 20 mile training runs. Today it was creeping in really early! This was going make for a LONG tough 4 hours. I knew I could finish the race no matter what, but completing with a time that I could be proud of would be another story. From mile 9 on, it was all work out there. I got lost in a deep place within myself. Most of my running was done in that surreal state. I would occasionally have 3 to 4 minute long stretches that were very difficult or simply bearable. I dug deep and literally ran as fast and as hard as I could. The lactic acid was doing a job on my legs. I kept sucking down Gu (five in all) and sipping GuBrew to try and fend off muscle cramps and keep from bonking.
I kept looking at my watch hoping that it would acknowledge all the hard work that I was putting in. No such luck. Mile 20 revealed 9:33. SHIT! I was getting mad. I was also scared and didn't feel like I had anything left in the tank to give. Completing the next 6.2 miles, even at this slower pace was going to be a challenge. Was I hitting the wall? I couldn't tell. I tried to distract myself by thinking of other things that I've done that have been really hard. Interestingly, I couldn't come up with any. Instead I dedicated the next miles to my loved ones that have fought cancer. If they had the courage to undergo invasive surgery and the strength to endure chemo or radiation, I most certainly could suffer for four measly hours and finish this race with pride.
Somewhere around mile 22, Steve who had been relatively silent but sneaking peeks at me, noticed that I was struggling mentally and physically. He knew that my sub 4 hour goal had slipped away but was kind enough not to point it out. Although I wasn't at the pace I had hoped to maintain, I was still running. There were times when I desperately wanted to walk but I worried that I wouldn't start running again if I did. Runners who had indeed hit the wall were stretching on the sidelines or walking with that vacant spent look on their faces. I felt their pain and wanted to offer encouraging words to get them running again. Like I said before, I barely had enough wind and energy to utter more than one word. To distract and encourage me, Steve decided to count my road kill. I was passing a lot more people than people were passing me. How he managed to remember these numbers, I'll never know. It gives me great joy to report the following: Mile 20: I passed 19 runners and was passed by 1. Mile 21: I passed 33 runners and was passed by 2. Mile 22: I passed 15 runners and was passed by 3. Steve says he lost track after that but I'm thinking that since I ran miles 22 through 24 at 9:42 pace, that I started becoming road kill as opposed to a road killer.
I started swearing around this point. Dammit, I wanted to be done. My breathing was labored and I was wheezing here and there. My legs and butt were burning. My form still felt good. I just lacked the leg turnover that I needed to increase my speed. I was angry that the sub 4 had slipped away from me. I wasn't going to quit though. Steve's announcement that I only had a 5K left to run from this point gave me hope. Sub 4 would've been AMAZING, but I guess I wouldn't be terribly ashamed of a 4:05 finish. I'd have to work for it until the bitter end though. I somehow managed to pick up my pace. When my energy started waning, Steve informed me that I had only 20 minutes left. I could smell the finish line! I glanced at my watch to find that I was back at 9:31 pace. I could do this! I took a last swig of water and set off to finish this race. Steve bee-lined to Hayward Field to take pictures and see my finish. I was on my own for the last mile.
My legs knew what to do. I pumped my arms with the hopes of increasing my speed. I couldn't believe how hard my legs, heart and lungs were working. I'd really pushed them today and they were mad at me. The crowd along Agate Street was thick and jovial. I could see the mile 26 marker. Just below it was an even more welcome sight, the entire Bunson family waving and yelling. I tried to muster a smile but who knows what it looked like. Shortly thereafter I spotted my running partner Laura, who I run with twice and week and who has trained right by my side for this marathon. I almost started crying seeing her standing out there cheering like a madwoman. As I entered Hayward Field, I looked at my watch and saw that I could indeed make the 4:05 time. They had a jumbotron set up for runners and spectators to watch the last 100 yards of the race. Right before Steve sprinted ahead he told me not to forget to smile for the jumbotron. I smiled and ran my tail end off. I ran, ran, ran right across the most welcoming finish line I have ever seen. [Steve, my number nerd, proudly shared with me that I was going at 8:03 pace.] My official finishing time was 4:05:32.
I kept walking, breathing and crying bittersweet tears, tears of relief, tears of pride. The friendly volunteers cut off my race chip, wrapped me in mylar and put my medal around my neck. I was very proud of myself and emotional. I looked around to try and find someone I knew before I keeled over. My legs started locking up and I suddenly got light headed. As if on cue, Laura and her friend Michelle walked through the gates and right to me. Considering the sheer volume of people milling about that was quite amazing. Through our tears, we managed to give quick summaries of our races and offer congratulations to each other. It took Steve what felt like an eternity to find me. He was the proud partner. I was so grateful that he ran the last 13 miles with me. I am afraid to think of how differently it would have turned out without his crewing, pacing and encouragement.
It's amazing how quickly all the pain and discomfort vanished the minute the race was over. Fortunately the lessons I learned about racing and pushing my limits will stay with me forever. I intend to continue my weekly speed work and to test my marathon pace every three weeks by sustaining many miles at that desired speed. More than anything, this race renewed my love of trails. Road racing had lots of excitement, spectators and pomp and circumstance but in my book, is a bit monotonous. Give me the trails any day! Adventure and excitement around every corner, the opportunity to get muddy, run on softer surfaces, and graze at well stocked aide station tables with real food without feeling pinched for time. I am so looking forward to my next adventure and challenge... Siskiyou Outback 50K Trail Run, my first ultra-marathon.