Over the course of the four months of training leading up to the Clearwater Marathon, I practiced a lot of visualization exercises as part of my attempt to perform amateur sports psychology on myself, and every time I envisioned crossing the finish line, I’d see “3:53” in the big digital readout over the finish line. For some reason, my brain had locked onto that number, and later, when Brian and I laid out our strategy for the race, I realized 3:53 would be just about what I was aiming for.
Our plan was to hit nine minute miles for the first half, then to kick it up a bit and run the last 13 miles at around 8:50 per. My training had been conducted with these paces in mind, so it seemed doable. In fact, it seemed more than doable. Here’s my Facebook status update from the day before:
Less than 24 hours remain until I run my fourth marathon, and I’m already noticing something different about this one. For prior marathons, I usually spent the days leading up to it in a state of anxiety punctuated by moments of abject terror. This time, though? I’m mostly feeling – dare I say it? – excited. And wait, what’s this? Is it…could it be…confidence?
It’s like I don’t even know who I am anymore.
Even waking up race morning to the always-unwelcome feeling of menstrual cramps (and by the way, nice timing, uterus, thanks a billion) wasn’t enough to put a damper on my excitement. I knew that 26.2 miles was going to be a hell of a long way to run and that a lot could happen in that time, but even so, I never thought about it in terms of “I hope I’ll break four hours” or “I’m going to try to break four hours.” It was always, “I’m going to break four hours today.”
This race was particularly cool for me because it was the first time I’d gotten to run a marathon after sleeping in my bed the night before. From 2010 to 2012, there were no full marathons in the Tampa Bay area, which meant that anyone who lived here and who wanted to run one had to travel to do so. Chris Lauber, who is a really excellent local race director (and also a friend of mine, and of just about every local runner in these parts, really) put in a lot of work to change that, and so last January, he brought back the Clearwater Marathon.
The course for the Clearwater Marathon covers some of my favorite local running territory, including the bridges to and from Clearwater Beach and Gulf Boulevard, which is the main artery that runs north and south through the barrier islands along the coast of Pinellas County. At about the half-marathon mark, the course heads over the Intracoastal Waterway and back onto the mainland, getting onto the Pinellas Trail at mile 17. This was an extra bonus for me, because it meant miles 17 through 24 were going to be run on my training territory, including the part of the trail that runs right near my house. The last two miles go through Clearwater before finally ending up at Coachman Park, which overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway. The course has lots of water, lots of palm trees, and even a short stretch that runs alongside the Gulf of Mexico. Simply gorgeous, and a good reminder as to why I may very well never move away from this part of the country.
So the course was flat and familiar, my training had gone well, and the last piece of the puzzle – the weather – was perfect. From the beginning, I knew the goal was mine for the taking. The question was, did I have the guts to grab it and hang on?
The starting gun went off and Brian and I started running along with everyone who was taking part in the five-miler and the half-marathon. We worked to keep each other in check, because it was easy to get caught up in the excitement of the start and to fall in alongside the runners who were running shorter distances. Even so our first couple of miles were fast, so we pulled back considerably to protect our legs.
Over the course of my training, I found that I liked running best when I approached it from a place of mindfulness and focus, and so I brought that mindset to this race. I did regular check-ins with myself – how was my posture, how was my foot turnover, was my breathing reasonable – and I checked with Brian to make sure he was okay. (He had recovered substantially from Ironman Florida, so we were cautiously optimistic that we could run this together.)
I also tried to take in the environment around me, to notice the way things looked and smelled, to smile and wave at spectators, to thank the officers doing traffic control and the volunteers handing me water, to enjoy the songs as they came on my iPod. Not only was it more enjoyable that way, but it also paradoxically made the miles fly by, and before I knew it the five-milers had peeled off, then the half-marathoners, and then it was time for us to cross the bridge to the mainland, and to also start to pick up the pace a bit.
By this time – miles 14-15 – my legs were starting to feel a bit tired, but I was still running strong and on pace. I thought of the times I’d run a 16-miler on some tired-ass legs the day after running a 10-miler, and I knew that I was going to be fine as long as I stayed focused. I had done well with my nutrition, taking sips of Gatorade at each stop and eating an energy gel every 45 minutes, plus every twenty minutes or so, I felt like someone had hit me with a shot of some kind of opiate – the elusive runner’s high! I just had to keep doing what I was doing and everything was going to be great.
We made it to mile 16 before I realized I could hear Brian’s breathing over my music. Then I noticed he was slowing down. I slowed down too, which is when he tried to pick it up one more time, but he couldn’t. He said his legs just couldn’t go, and then he told me that he wanted me to leave him and go get that sub-4:00 and to not let all of my hard work go. My eyes teared up – shoot, they’re tearing up now just thinking about it – because I wanted to share this with him so badly, and so I said, “No, I’m not leaving.” But he kept insisting, and even though my chest tightened up and I knew I was on the verge of crying, I finally agreed.
I took off running while he stumbled to a walk, all the time feeling like I was betraying him. I’ve lost track of the number of races that he’d stayed with me, even though it meant running slower than he was capable of, and I don’t feel like I’ve been able to repay that yet. So I spent the first half of mile 17 fighting back tears and feeling like a shitty wife, but then I realized that I needed to suck it up and keep going. I also decided that I wasn’t going to let Brian down, and that I was going to make my goal, even if I had to run on bloody stumps to make it happen. So I started picking up my pace, and soon settled in at a comfortable 8:50, just as we had planned.
Aside from that momentary emotional hiccup, everything was perfect until about mile 20. I was still running strong, passing a lot of racers who were walking on the trail. I hadn’t walked yet, which meant I was well on my way to at the very least making a new personal record for longest stretch of uninterrupted running (22 miles at Big Sur), and my legs were so tired yet still strong. I’m not sure exactly what happened at mile 20, but my strategy of focusing on the miles as they happened was no longer sufficient. I had entered the part of the marathon that I once described as “utter emotional desolation.” You’ve run so far and yet you still have six miles left to go, and it can feel overwhelming.
But instead of giving up, I changed my psychological tactics, and I began running an increasingly disjointed and at times deranged monologue in my head that lasted until mile 24. I wish I could replicate the whole thing in its Dada-esque glory but instead I will share the highlights:
- “Enjoy the pain, let yourself go into the pain.” I was deep in the pain-well at this point, where the whole world was starting to narrow around me, but instead of wasting energy fighting it, I chose to embrace it. Even though doing so meant that all I was able to do was rasp “water! water!” as I came up to each water stop.
- “The pain is the price! The pain is the price of going sub-4:00!” I actually said this out loud at some point, and I am so grateful I was mostly alone because I’m sure I would have scared other people. This led to a mental digression in which I thought about Game of Thrones and “the iron price” and what the runner’s equivalent would be. The sweat price? The blister price? The lactic acid price?
- For some reason the line from Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” started rattling around in my brain: “Nothing hurt and everything was beautiful.” Well, everything fucking hurt like hell, so I modified it to meet my needs, and so for about a mile, my mantra became, “Everything hurts and everything is beautiful.”
- My friend Lindsay had given me a blue rubber bracelet that read “Boston Strong” and “4/15/2013” and I kept looking down at it and telling myself that I needed to be worthy of that bracelet, that if I quit I was not fit to wear it.
- “Do it for Brian.” Self-explanatory.
Miracles of all miracles, it actually worked. All of this actually worked. My pace stayed fast, with my fastest mile – an 8:47 – coming at mile 23. I don’t know how to convey the surreal experience of hurting so badly and yet still feeling so strong and fast, because those two sensations so rarely co-exist in my body at the same time, and yet there I was, running hard, awash in an ocean of pain and yet somehow, against all logic on earth, feeling immensely powerful. I was simultaneously at my most human while also feeling at my least human, all of the pretense and artifice and rationalization and bullshit stripped away to reveal the muscle and bone and blood and breath and raw will that comprises who I am at my core.
This is, by the way, what I love most about distance running. Sure, it keeps me in good health and has given me an outstanding pair of calves and it can be as fun as hell, but when you start pushing into those double-digit distances that take multiple hours to complete, it becomes a spiritual reckoning of sorts, where you have the chance to see if you are truly as tough as you hope you might be. The great thing is that even if you weren’t before you complete a run like this, the very act of completing that run will make it so. Very few people come away from a run like this without feeling transformed on a molecular level into something a little harder, a little more resilient.
Back to the race. In the past I have found that mile 24 is the point at which things get easier. Brian says it’s close enough that the finish line can start to pull you in. This was not the case for me this time around. Mile 24 was alongside a busy stretch of Fort Harrison Road, with racers running with a line of cars on the right and a line of empty storefronts on the left. At this point it became a matter of pure guts and persistence.
I did the math and realized that I had twenty minutes to cover a mile and a half, so I knew that short of getting hit by a car or breaking my leg, I was going to get my goal. The question then became, was I going to make 3:53? I told myself that I could give myself a bit of a break to recuperate, but my legs had other ideas. We turned off the road and onto a leafy suburban street with a gentle rolling decline, so I took advantage of the slightly more beneficial conditions to pick up my pace again. At this point I was done with the soul-searching, done with the meditation, done with all of it. I just wanted to be done.
I had about a half-mile left when my friend Lara’s teenage son, Christian, met me shortly before the top of the spiral ramp whose descent marked the last real moment of the race. He started running with me as a pacer, telling me I was doing great, that I was going to make my goal. I said, “Yeah, but the question is, am I going to die before I get there?” He said, “I doubt it, it’s too close.” I bombed my way down the spiral ramp, taking everything gravity had to offer, and then when I hit the ground and looked off in the distance, I saw the finish line.
Christian bid me farewell, and I started running as hard as I could possibly muster. As I got closer, I saw the digital readout, and it said “3:53.” I knew I wasn’t going to make it before it flipped to “3:54” but I didn’t care, because what was actually important was that the first number still read “3.” I covered my mouth with my hand to hold back my sobs while tears leaked from my eyes and streamed down my cheeks. I sprinted down the finisher’s chute and as I hit the finish line, I threw my arms in the air in triumph and sprinted across with everything I had left.
Lara caught the moment on camera:
Not only did I break four hours, but I ran a negative split and I also ran the whole way. I never stopped once to walk, not even at the water stops. Even when shit got tough toward the end, my training with the Hansons program was more than enough to carry me through. Brian had sent me a quote from Sara Hall a few days earlier, in which she said that you have to trust your training, and I did, wholeheartedly. What can I say? I’m officially a believer.
After I got hugs from my running friends and my medals and a Diet Coke from Christian, we stood and talked running while we waited for Brian. I had all of these mixed feelings, both of pride and excitement and also of concern and sadness over leaving Brian, so I was slightly distracted, and after a while I excused myself so I could walk out the cramps in my legs. As soon as I was alone, I burst into tears. I started walking back along the course like a disconsolate puppy, looking anxiously for Brian, hoping he was okay. And then I saw him, a big smile on his face as he ran down the finisher’s chute, and I started crying again.
We hugged at the finish line and he told me he was so proud of me. I was proud of me too. My quads felt like hell and my feet had blisters on them and I kept bursting into tears at random moments and I had done it. I believed in myself and I had not let myself down.
Everything hurt and everything was beautiful.