How Taking a Naked Approach Helped me Run a 17 Minute Marathon PR
Before I begin I need to address my post marathon behavior that offended so many people. My actions were inexcusable and I feel terrible for the pain I caused. I didn't think my decision would impact so many people, and for my lack of consideration I sincerely apologize. I promise I will never wear jeans immediately post marathon again. In all seriousness, I posted 2 videos to my IG story of me trying to get out of the car and me trying to walk down the stairs after the 90 minute drive back home. Did my friends express their sympathy? Did they convey compassion? No. They expressed horror at the fact that I would willingly put a pair of jeans on post race. I don't think I have ever received so many strongly worded IG story responses before in my life. In my defense, I had forgotten my sweatpants and didn't really feel like wearing my short spandex to brunch in Davis. Jeans were not my first choice, they were the only option under the circumstances and I stand by my decision. So now that we have cleared that up, let's get to the good stuff.
The California International Marathon hosted the USATF National Marathon Championship race on Sunday and I was lucky enough to be part of a spectacular day. Distance running in the US is having a moment. 99 women and 54 men qualified for the US Olympic trials and hundreds of others ran Boston qualifiers and huge personal bests. I fall into the last category and had arguably my best race of the year. But I have a confession: I have seriously considered dropping out of almost every marathon and ultra I have participated in. Sunday's race was no exception. I may have run a 10k, half marathon and marathon PR, but there was a significant amount of self doubt before and during the race that I had to overcome to get to that finish line. I think this is something most runners grapple with at some point, I know I have, so hopefully sharing my experience will be helpful to someone else.
To Run or to Watch
I had a solid, albeit low-volume, training block after some much needed downtime post CCC but the final weeks of training and tapering were pretty much a mess. The Bay Area got hit by a suffocating layer of smoke from nearby devastating wildfires which exacerbated my asthma so much that I felt like I had a chest cold for the final 3 weeks before the race. I had an extremely high pressure conference presentation and travel for work and was really stressed. I had several missed or shortened runs and my last long run / workout a week before the race was a disaster. Then, on the Tuesday before the race, my doggie nephew who lived with us for four years died suddenly and I was an emotional wreck. It was the straw that broke the camels back. My wavering confidence was completely shot.
I seriously considered not running. I didn't think I had the mental or emotional capacity to work hard and suffer in the way that only marathons can make someone suffer. I was tired. But as the day got closer, I realized that I was not injured and thought about the numerous people who would have given anything to be able to run even one step, let alone a marathon and decided I had no legitimate reason not to be out there. However, I didn't have the energy to invest in all that comes with targeting a specific time / pace. I hadn't done any course research, hadn't frantically hounded my coach to give me target splits or a race plan and frankly just couldn't muster the motivation to think about it. So I said to myself "Fork it. I will run without a watch and give myself the freedom to go with what feels right on the day". Coach was supportive yet still encouraging. He told me he thought I could run a 2:52:30 and to go out with the 2:55 pace group through the first 16 miles or so and then if I'm feeling it, punch the gas. Sounded good... in theory.
Spoiler alert. I made it to the finish line
The "Oh Shit" Moment
Road marathons are all about pacing. Hitting the splits, and hitting them consistently through the first 20-22 miles, is the key to marathon success - and here I was throwing out any external feedback on pace. I don’t know if this was brave or stupid, but once I decided to run without a watch, I felt about 10 pounds lighter. I ran far from the perfect race, with over a three minute positive split, but it was the most pure racing I have done since college and it was all because I didn’t wear a watch. My decision to run with naked wrists was both obvious and actually kind of terrifying, but it taught me a thing or two about self-belief and the power of the mind. Could I have run a faster time if I had paced more evenly? Maybe, but I actually doubt it. My coach will probably kill me, and I do not condone "banking" time, but in this case, I think the "go out too fast and hold on for dear life" approach is what allowed me to have such a big breakthrough. Racing without a watch let me explore my limits in a way I don’t think I could have done if I had been able to check my pace and it was a super valuable exercise for me.
The start corrals were a complete shit show. I went in the pack of the sub-4 hour corral and only made it up to about the 3:40 pace group before not being able to go any further. I jumped the barrier and ran up the side to try to sneak in at the front of the general corral. Once I got up there, the barrier was open into the sub-seeded area and the public corral was totally shut-off so in I went. As I looked around for the 2:55 pace group, I realized they were behind me. So I tucked in and decided to just go out easy and find a group to hang with and that would be that. I found myself running along chatting with another MUT runner, Camelia Mayfield (who absolutely crushed with a 2:42 finish btw) and settled into a little group. There was a very large group of speedy women in front of me who I assumed was the 2:45 pace group so I felt pretty good. I thought I heard a guy around me say 6:28 at the first mile marker which confirmed I was exactly where I needed to be. As it turns out what he said was "6:08".
Around mile 7 or 8 a large group caught up to me and out of the corner of my eye I see my friend Ben. "Not running with the 2:45 group huh?" he says. Oh shit.
My friend Ben Koss was one of the 2:45 pacers and I saw him in the corral before the start of the race. He asked if I was going to be running with him to which I scoffed some haughty reply since that was the most ridiculous thing in the world. There was no way I would even see the 2:45 runners after the start. Things were rolling along well and I felt comfortable. I didn't see the 5K or 10K splits (I remained blissfully unaware of my 10K PR until I was updating the results section of this site), and thankfully after the first mile, I didn't hear splits again.
Around mile 7 or 8 a large group caught up to me and out of the corner of my eye I see my friend Ben. Before I had time to process, he sees me. "Not running with the 2:45 group huh" he says. It is then that I realize that I have in fact been running ahead of the 2:45 pace group, who were themselves running ahead of 2:45 pace. My friend Devon was tracking a bunch of runners and she said she pretty much lost her mind when my 10K split came up and showed a predicted finish time of 2:43. She was stressed. She's an experienced marathoner and OTQ qualifier who knows that going out too fast not only doesn't pay off, but often results in catastrophe.
As the reality of my situation hit, I definitely felt some panic creep in. I tried to make light of it and made some quip about how this was going to make the final 10K or so of my race really interesting, but tucked in and hung with the pack until about the halfway point. I found the rollers to be really beneficial and the pack was hitting 6:15 - 6:18 per mile through the rolling miles. The lead pacer for the pack was communicating splits and pace fairly frequently and giving race beta. While this was his job, and I am sure very appreciated by the others in the pack, I found it to be bad for me. Every tiem I heard him say 6:15 or 6:18, I freaked out a little more and felt myself ease off the gas just a tad.
Trying to Finish What I started
I went through the half in 1:22:22, over a minute faster than any half marathon I had ever run before. Oh. Shit. That freaked me out big time. I was starting to feel a little ache creep into my legs and I knew I had my husband waiting for me an mile 16. I spent 3 miles convincing myself that it was ok to stop at mile 16. I went out fast and freaking PR'd in the half marathon. You are not supposed to do that while running a marathon. I had a tough week and didn't have the mental energy to be that uncomfortable for the final 10 miles. You name a validation and I told it to myself. Then as I came upon my husband and friend Shannon, I grabbed my bottle from him and just ran right by. It took about a mile, but around 17, something clicked and I just decided to give it my all.
The second I made the mental shift, I started running faster and caught up to several people who had recently passed me and then kept on picking people off over the final 9 miles of the race.
I was still slowing compared to the first half, but the aches in my legs had kind of leveled off, or they just went numb, and I was able to grind out some pretty fast miles. The second I made the mental shift, I started running faster and caught up to several people who had recently passed me and then kept on picking people off over the final 9 miles of the race. This was a huge confidence boost. I had no concept of how fast I was running and it didn't matter. Seeing that I was running 6:30s per mile had no bearing on my ability to run faster. I just focused on catching the next person in front of me and getting to the next mile marker.
At around 35K two things happened. I started doing some mental math and realized I was in range of a sub 2:50 and my calves started cramping. Just as I got a little boost of confidence, it got ripped away by the first involuntary muscle spasm. My calves rarely cramp. I have had two races where they started to, but then it went away. In the last 5 miles or so, anytime I changed form in any way, my calves cramped. I started to fear every little dip in the road, every turn, every change in surface material, because I was afraid each one would be the end of my massive PR bid. I saw many elite walking along the side of the road stretching out their calves and I did not want to join them.
Somehow I powered through and made it to the final stretch. There was so much crowd support along the race and the final mile or so was amazing. I was half smiling half grimacing and trying to encourage fellow runners who were struggling through but once I turned that corner and saw the clock say 2:47:XX with 400M to go I put my head down and gave the final stretch all I had left.
I crossed the finish line in 2:48:31 earning a 17 minute PR, a 1 min HM PR and a 15 second 10K PR. I had found more strength in myself than I knew I had - and was done in time to cheer on friends, go to brunch, take a nap and meet friends for dinner. These marathoners are onto something.
The power of squad. Inspired by so many amazing performances.
So What's Next?
I had no plans of running another marathon anytime soon before this race. I enjoyed the training insomuch as it was actually kind of a break from the long slogs required for races like CCC, and I enjoyed getting fast. But after that race, I feel hungry for just a little more. I came within 3 minutes and 30 seconds of qualifying for the Olympic Trials, which was never a goal for this race, but seeing so many of my friends achieve this goal has inspired me to go for it. I want to build off of this transitional training block and see if I can't find another 4 minutes or so in there.