Olympic runner Kara Goucher once said, “Nothing in my life has ever broken my heart the way running has. And yet I cannot breathe without it.” I thought about this quote as I sobbed loudly through mile 22, ignoring the concerned racers passing me with looks of understanding masking their own agonies. I was so dehydrated at that point, no tears actually came out, just a sort of choking, snarffling, chest heaving, tearless, ugly cry of the utterly broken.
For those of you non-runners who would rather jump to the life lessons from this race, scroll down to the bottom.
Those that follow me on social media know that last year, I decided to try for the impossible – to qualify for the unicorn of marathons, Boston. To me, the task seemed literally like chasing a unicorn (Boston Marathon’s mascot). I had run only one marathon at that point and I was a slow, self-trained, new runner who didn’t know the difference between a fartlek and a tempo run (still don’t). But, I wanted to try something impossible. I wanted to challenge myself to excel at something, not just be good or passable. I picked the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon in Ventura since it was advertised as a very fast, gradual, downhill course (hey, I would take all the help I could get).
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What Went Wrong
For those with short attention spans like me and that want the TL;DR version of what I believe contributed to my poor race:
- Training Plan left me injured, burnt out, and structurally weak
- Slept 2 hours the night before
- Hip and glute spasms brought on by a misaligned left hip
- Poor race nutrition
Hanson’s Marathon Method
After hearing great things about Hanson’s Marathon Method, I decided to ditch my typical Nike Run Club training plan and go all in on this intensive method that I’d heard really good things about. The basis of Hanson’s Method is cumulative fatigue – teaching tired legs to run day after day for 16 weeks to prepare you to run strong the end of a race. The intimidation of the high weekly mileage (50-60 miles per week) was offset by the fact that the longest run was a 16 miler. Since most plans have up to 22 miles for its longest run, a 16-mile run seemed easy and the plan very attractive.
Hanson’s has worked for so many people but for me, the high mileage made me feel very burned out in the last month of training, the 16-mile maximum didn’t instill in me enough confidence and I felt structurally weak since this program discouraged cross training of any kind. By structurally weak, I mean that aside from some kick ass looking calves, I felt I had no strength in my core, glutes and upper body, with a hip that was prone to be misaligned frequently.
During the last month and a half of training, my legs were definitely tired and my calves were constantly in pain.I don’t know if the calf pain was due to the high mileage or that I switched over to Hoka One One shoes for this training plan, but they bothered me so much that in the weeks before the race, I could barely complete an easy run without stopping. I took 10 days off of running before race day instead of the traditional taper. That decision helped a lot. My calves didn’t hurt a bit during the race due to the combination of rest, ample amounts of KT tape and my CEP Compression Socks.
Two days before the race, I started getting some pain on the bottom of my left foot while walking around the mall. The next day, I ran a 3-mile shakeout run and it felt okay. I knew my left hip was not in alignment even with a chiropractic adjustment the Thursday prior. I had a little bit of ankle and foot pain, but I knew that KT tape would keep that at bay for much of the race.
Mountains 2 Beach Marathon
Obviously, I had high hopes for this race. As I lined up at the start line, a man next to me threw up and nonchalantly said, “That typically happens after the race.” I knew the feeling. I had spent the week battling doubt and the pressure to perform and an almost sleepless night in an uncomfortable hotel bed, but I was ready. I logged over 700 miles of training for this race, often waking up at 5 am to run in the cold and dark. I had a solid race strategy and what I hoped was a solid nutrition plan.
Taking a 5-hour energy right before the gun went off as I always did, I started running. Everything felt normal for the first few miles. It wasn’t wonderful, but it wasn’t painful either. I was pacing a bit slower than my goal time of 7:57 per mile, but I figured as long as I kept the 3:32 pacer in sight, I would be fine and I’d get a negative split using the downhill portion of the race to propel me. I planted a large cheesy grin on my face to convince myself that running was fun and sang to myself. For the first time, I decided to not listen to anything until the end of the race – no audiobook or music. My friend saw me at mile 6 and I grinned and waved for a picture. Around mile 8, I really had to pee and began looking for a porta potty. My calves felt surprisingly good, but my right glute was starting to hurt. I tried to focus on my breathing and keeping my heart rate down. But soon all my thoughts were centered on trying not to pee my pants and my pace began to slow. I finally saw a bank of 3 porta-potties at mile 13 and quickly relieved myself.
It started going downhill from there. Literally.
As we descended down the mountain from Ojai to Ventura in mile 14, both my glutes started spasming. Hoping they’d ease, I continued to run knowing that if I stopped and walked, it would be the end of a possibility for a BQ. I’ve never been the one to find some magic energy to crank out the last miles at blazing speeds. The 3:42 pacer passed me and at mile 17, with my hips and glutes on fire and my stomach hurting from the gels, I knew it was over. I began to walk, with feeble attempts at running after every few steps. By mile 19, I’d pretty much given up running more than a few steps altogether as I could barely even walk at that point. At mile 20, my boyfriend surprised me on the course. As soon as I saw him, he said my face crumpled and I started toward him like I was going to quit (which I was).
DNF and the Finish Line
I read a book by Elizabeth Clor who took seven years to qualify for Boston and she talked about the races she DNF (did not finish). I remember thinking, “Wow, I don’t even know how people wouldn’t just walk and finish at least to get the medal unless they were unable to due to injury.” But now I know and now I understand. My boyfriend read the situation correctly and cheered me on as I passed him. I continued on. If I picked up the pace, even at that point I could get a PR and salvage some of this race. But the pain increased each step and even though I was drinking two cups of water and electrolytes at every station, I was getting weaker and weaker. I finally broke down at mile 22 and started my cryfest.
I limped slowly toward the finish, running a few feet at a time and finally my ego forcing me to shuffle the last 0.2 miles. The cameras captured my disappointed face and when someone handed me the medal, I didn’t even put it on. With the sound of the Boston gong going off all around me, reminding me of my failure (people who BQ’ed got to bang the gong), I gave the medal to my boyfriend and headed straight to the porta potty, feeling nauseous from the caffeine and sugar from the gels (I don’t ever drink caffeine so post race is NEVER pleasant).
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I never put on the medal. I can’t actually stand to look at it or hang it up. To me, it represents failure and the sting of it still hurts. I’m sure I’ll hang it up eventually and it won’t always radiate such negativity, but it will always be a reminder of not reaching my goal. My aching body also reminds me of my defeat at every movement. Mental pain aside, I’ve never hurt more physically after a race – not even my first half or full. This just shows me how structurally weak I was going into the race.
After the race, I said I didn’t want to think about running for a long time. That lasted for about an hour when I started thinking and talking about what I needed to do differently for the future. There are many lessons that I still need to cull from this race. The easy ones pertain to training, nutrition, and possibly shoes. The hard lessons won’t come till later, once the body is healed, the ego feel less affronted, and the mind starts to assimilate what it can to use for strength.
Failure is the best way to learn and it builds mental character. It’s the hard things in life that make us great and I look forward to using this race as a propellant toward greatness…and ultimately, to my BQ.
Note: My official time was 4:13:09 which is around the same time I ran my second marathon.