5

What I learned from running the worst race of my life

As if I haven’t spoken about this enough on Twitter and in my race recap, I had an awful marathon last Sunday. This was, by far, the worst race I’ve ever run. However, it’s in these moments of failure where we truly learn the most. There are probably thousands of clichés I could drop in here, but that doesn’t make this any less true of a statement. And here’s the thing, I walked away from this race even more in love with the marathon and running than ever before.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on my race and trying to find every takeaway there is from the experience. This started the moment I finally gave up on my C goal way back in mile 15 of my race. I knew it wasn’t going to be my day and, even though I was super bummed and sort of wanted to just pull over and collapse into a ball of tears on the side of the course, I started looking forward to the next race. When would I give it another shot? What happened today and what could I do between now and next time to be better?

So far, this is what I’ve come up with…

Always take a moment to appreciate the positives

This one is the most important and this is why it’s first (the others are in no order).

Guys, I ran my sixth marathon! Come on, that’s awesome! Even if it didn’t go anywhere near how I wanted it to, I still got my ass across that finish line. As a distance runner, it’s easy to lose sight of how few people actually complete marathon in their lifetime, let alone come back for more. When a large portion of your life is spent talking to other runners and talking about running, it’s easy to forget this isn’t a common thing.

And even though I’m chalking this entire race up as a disaster and my worst performance ever, I was still just 3.5 minutes off my time from last November in Richmond, which I considered to be a great race with almost perfect race day execution. I think that says a lot about how much stronger of a runner I am now than I was five and a half months ago. My training wasn’t for nothing.

I also proved to myself that, even though I can’t run nearly as fast as I used to before transitioning, I still have a lot of room to push myself and improve.

I’m strong and determined

Very little of this race went well for me. At mile 6, I was starting to have doubts. At mile 8, I was about 90% sure it wasn’t my day. By mile 10 or 11, I was 100% sure. It’s tough when such a long race goes south so quickly, but quitting was never an option to me. As upset as I was by how crappy my race was going, I stayed strong and resolved to finish the race instead of just giving up. I showed up to run a marathon, not to quit when it didn’t go according to plan.

I learned that I have it in me to keep that attitude going and use it as motivation to get to the finish. In the marathon, this kind of willpower is essential.

Spring marathons can kill you with the weather

As we’re all aware, this past winter sucked in the Northeast. I trained through it all and if this race had been on a day when it was 35º out I would have probably rocked it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reality of the situation. Winter rather abruptly turned itself off at the very end of March and left little time to adjust to the warmer temperatures. I’m used to running fall marathons which result in weather conditions that are generally more favorable than training conditions were. With this being a spring race, it was the opposite. I didn’t have enough time at the end of training to get used to the weather I’d be running in.

My last two long runs and a few of the medium long runs at the end of training were rough. I had to stop a couple times because of dehydration and just feeling worn out. This should have been a bigger red flag to me, but I ignored it and told myself I’d be okay by race day. I wasn’t.

I’m not sure what can be done about this kind of thing. Really, there isn’t much. I suppose I could do a run or two a week at the gym on the treadmill since it’s always warm and a little humid in there. Better than nothing.

Don’t rely on the pace groups to keep you on track

You need to take responsibility for your own race. I like to run with the pacers for my goal time to help keep me in check. In Richmond, this worked out perfectly and the pacers were dead on the entire race. In New Jersey, they were about 5-10 seconds/mile fast while I was with them. That may not seem like a lot, but when you’re already planning to run at pretty much your max ability, it’s enough.

I forgot to look at the clock as I crossed the start so I didn’t know how much time to subtract from the clocks at each mile. I had no way to do the math in my head while I was running to even know I just a little too fast.

The pace groups can be a great tool to use when they’re on point, but you can’t put your race in their hands. It’s your race and no one else’s. That makes it your responsibility.

If the pacers are supposed to keep you in check, who keeps the pacers in check?

I’ll likely still run with a pace group next, but I’ll be more cognizant of what pace we’re running and adjust accordingly.

It’s important to start slower

This ties in with the last point about the group starting out fast. In previous races, the groups have started 10-15 seconds/mile slower for the first couple miles before bringing the pace down. This always felt like it worked well for me and mirrored the way I train. That’s really the point here, your training should reflect the way you plan to run the race. And even besides that, you should always start out a little slower for the first couple miles and ease your body into race pace anyway.

Practice your race hydration plan on long runs

I follow the same plan every marathon when it comes to fueling and hydration and it’s never failed me before. A vanilla energy gel every five miles and water at every stop in the first ten miles and whichever sports drink they’re giving out after that. In training, I don’t practice the hydration part, only the gel part. Actually, I don’t hydrate at all during my long runs, even when the weather is warm/hot. Normally, none of this is a problem.

Unfortunately, last Sunday, it became a problem. Because it was the warmest marathon I’ve ever raced (I’ve done “fun” marathons in warmer temps), I ended up switching to Powerade (or was it Gatorade? I don’t remember) a couple miles earlier than normal. It could have just been because I was off all-around, but I could feel it sloshing uncomfortably in my stomach. It didn’t feel right at all. At points, I even felt nauseous to the point of fearing I may end up puking on the side of the course.

Take nothing for granted

Going into the race I kept saying all I needed for a BQ was to not have a terrible day. Anything better than terrible and that BQ was mine, even if my goal of 3:30 was going to require nothing short of a great day. So what happened? I had a terrible day.

It’s good to have confidence in yourself and believe you can achieve your goal, but remember that anything can happen. Don’t assume that anything is owed to you–which, to be perfectly honest, is not the attitude I had. I say it over and over about the marathon, but anything can happen and it’s true. Nothing is guaranteed until after it’s in your hands.

Don’t pack your backup goals too closely together

My A, B, and C goals were all within a five-minute window and I think this plays off the last point very well. I shouldn’t have taken 3:35 as being so “in the bag” as to make it my C goal. 3:35 should have been my B goal and C should have been to simply PR. When things went to crap and I blew through all my goals within the span of a few miles, I had nothing left to fight for. Nothing mattered to me except finishing because I had already gone into the race with the mindset that slower than 3:35 was a failure, even if it was still a PR. If I’d already failed, why bother trying? I was making up new goals on-the-fly, but none of them really meant anything to me.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to takeaway here and I have no doubt, as I continue to reflect on the race, I’ll find more. Some of my mistakes were new and others I repeatedly make. While no single one of these is to blame for my bad race and even all of them together may still not cover it all, they didn’t help matters any.

I’ll never run a perfect race and that’s good. It means I can always be improving and growing. Even if I fix all of these things for the next time, I’ll make other mistakes. That’s what life is, making mistakes and learning from them.

I just want to always be moving forward and improving.

28

New Jersey Marathon – 3:48:25

2014 New Jersey Marathon medal

Some races are great, some are just good, and some are bad. Then, there are the ones that are just straight up terrible, even comically bad. That was my day at the New Jersey Marathon yesterday. I’m not even going to beat around the bush here, this was the worst race I’ve ever run, performance wise. Some days are just off days and some races are just off races. It happens. I can accept that.

The marathon is a beast of a race and it’s nothing to take lightly, you have to respect it.  It can humble you in so many ways and simply kick your ass. As a distance runner, you have to accept this and you have to be able to live with that. And after yesterday, have to live with that.

Pre-race

Surprisingly, I had no trouble getting to bed at 8:15pm on Saturday to give myself a solid 8.5 hours of sleep before waking up at 4:45 am for the race. When I woke up, I felt good and prepared.

Transgender pride nails

A little transgender pride going on with my nails for the race!

Flat Amy New Jersey Marathon

Flat Amy is ready to go!

Pre-race was like most races, I peed a couple times and drank some water. Did a little bit of a warmup and mostly just tried to stay warm. I was relatively calm. For as nervous as I’ve been the last few days about this, my nerves were under control yesterday morning. The highlight pre-race was meeting Adam, the Boring Runner.

Entirely Amelia and The Boring Runner

After we snapped the above photo together, we walked over the corrals and wished each other luck. A few minutes later, the race was underway.

The Race

I started out with the 3:30 pace group, just like I said I was going to. Unfortunately, the pacers were running slightly fast, closer to 7:55 rather than the 8:00 we were supposed to. According to my phone, which I do take with a grain of salt, a lot of miles seemed to even be around 7:50. Definitely too fast for where I am right now. I stayed with the group and used them to draft when there was a headwind, but it was mostly fine early on. Problem was, by mile six, I already knew I wasn’t going to have a good day. My legs didn’t feel like they had it, my lungs couldn’t keep up, I was feeling nauseous, and I was also fighting some dehydration. I didn’t feel like I was particularly working too hard, but my legs were already starting to feel it a little. Not good at all. I knew the day wasn’t going to be easy, nor did I want it to be, and I’d have to give everything, but this was just too early to start feeling the pace.

By mile eight, I knew the deal for the day. There was no convincing myself that I was going to be able to keep this up all race, but I stuck with the group and stuck to my race day plan for a while still. I knew my wife was going to be cheering at mile 11 so I just focused on getting to her. One step at a time, right? She was right where she said she’d be and, as I went by, I gave her a big thumbs down. Sometimes, when runners do this, it’s not really an indication of how things are really going, but she seemed to be able to tell this was a serious.

New Jersey Marathon

Not sure when this is, but I think it’s pretty late in the race.

Somewhere not too long after that, I can’t remember exactly, maybe around mile 12, I kissed my 3:30 A goal goodbye and dropped back from the pace group a tad. I slowed down heavily through a water stop and didn’t pick it back up to get to them. For a while, I ran not too far back from them, but I was feeling awful. My wonderful wife actually took the time to come down the course and see me at mile 16 with the help of Running Bun Ashley driving her. I wasn’t expecting her again until mile 24, but there she was. She knew I needed the support. She hopped out on the course and ran with me a bit while giving me a little pep talk. Still, this race continued to head south for me quickly. I didn’t have a plan or strategy for this kind of a race. Not long after seeing my wife, I started having to walk. At this point, I knew any sort of a BQ was out the door. To make matters worse, I couldn’t really control my pace the way I wanted either. My legs were stuck in a certain rhythm for an 8 minute/mile and I couldn’t get them to run another pace no matter how hard I tried. So I’d run a bit at this pace and then walk and then run again. Over and over. It was awful.

Throughout the rest of the race, things continued about the same with the walking bits getting longer and the running bits getting shorter. I got a lot of support from other runners though, mostly other female runners. A few really pushed me to run with them. It was much appreciated and I had the chance to thank one of them after the race. I was really grateful for that. This is one of my favorite things about running, the community is so so so supportive and awesome. It was also really nice to get lots of “looking good, girl,” “you got this, girl,” and other bits of motivation addressing me as “girl” from both spectators and other runners. To be honest, this was probably the only real positive of the race today. Nice and affirming of how others see me, especially when I’m running and don’t look much like a woman.

Somewhere around mile 17 or 18, the 3:35 pace group passed me and, after that, I lost all real will to try anymore. My BQ was gone, not that I didn’t already know that, and it just didn’t matter to me anymore. Maybe I could just save my legs at this point? I kept fighting through the course, running and walking, but I watched goal after goal pass me by. I had blown through my A, B, and C goals and kept making new ones as each one faded away. I think I ended up finishing with something like my K goal.

Miles 17 to 24 had a lot of walking. Eventually the 3:45 group passed me and…that was tough. I ran a 3:44 in my last race so knowing I was still miles from the finish and already on pace for a personal worst marathon time (if we’re only counting marathons I’ve raced and not the “fun” ones I’ve done in Disney during the Goofy Challenge). And sure, I’ve only run one marathon since transition and the ones before that don’t really count anymore, but you get the point I’m making here. This was the going to be the worst time I’ve ever raced a marathon in. The only bit of determination I could put together at this point was to not let the 3:50 group pass me. Though, I was still fearing a finish over four hours might be possible.

I saw my wife again not long before mile 22, another surprise. I was walking at the time and she again came with me to talk to me and see how I was doing. She asked if I wanted to stop. It was more of a “where are you at with this? Do you want to save your legs for another day?” type of thing than encouragement to quit. I told her there was “no fucking way” I was quitting. I was going to cross that finish line no matter how I felt. Shortly after that, a little past the 22nd mile marker, I started running again and saw my parents. I was really glad to be running when I saw them and not walking. I fought through a bit more before walking again.

New Jersey Marathon mile 24?

I *think* this is later in the race, like mile 24ish? At least I *look* good here!

Somewhere earlier in the 24th mile, I made the promise to myself that I was going to run the rest of the race with no more walking. I picked myself up and pushed my way along. I passed runner after runner, but I hated how I felt. Just before mile 25, the course curved onto the boardwalk and I started giving what I had left. Then I heard my wife again yell out my name and she came bounding up alongside me to run with me. She gave me some encouragement before sending me on my way and I pushed with all I had. I passed as many runners as I could, but I was really hurting. This final stretch of the race felt FOREVER long. I didn’t know exactly where the finish was, but it was a lot further than I thought it was. This last bit was painful and a never-ending hell, but I held on and got across the finish. I took a few steps past the finish line, moved off to the side, and immediately bent over for a few seconds to cry. Then I stood up and accepted my defeat.

Just to show how much of a mess this race was, here are my splits (FYI, my phone measured 26.58 miles, so there’s a little extra in there somewhere). Warning, these are really a mess!!

Mile 1: 8:00 (a little fast to start, but exactly my target pace)
Mile 2: 7:45 (uh oh)
Mile 3: 7:56 (okay, not bad)
Mile 4: 7:49 (wait a second here)
Mile 5: 7:51
Mile 6: 7:46 (yeah, and I’m surprised this race didn’t go well?!)
Mile 7: 7:49
Mile 8: 7:50 (come on here!!)
Mile 9: 7:56
Mile 10: 7:52
Mile 11: 7:53
Mile 12: 7:49 (STILL going too fast)
Mile 13: 7:56
Mile 14: 7:58 (well, this looks better)
Mile 15: 8:30 (and it begins)
Mile 16: 8:59 (uh, yeah, wasn’t supposed to slow down this much)
Mile 17: 8:24
Mile 18: 8:52
Mile 19: 9:56
Mile 20: 10:14
Mile 21: 10:19
Mile 22: 11:19 (really?! really.)
Mile 23: 9:02
Mile 24: 11:06
Mile 25: 8:43 (oh hey, running. I remember that)
Mile 26: 8:13 (close to a BQ pace…if I did this every mile)
Mile 26.2: 7:56 pace

Finish time: 3:48:25

2014 New Jersey Marathon medal

Sweet medal!

Thoughts

This race sucked. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I got my ass kicked. Not much else could have gone wrong for me to still been able to finish. I knew all I needed to at least BQ was to not have a terrible race. Unfortunately, I had didn’t just have a terrible race, I had the worst race I’ve ever run. I’m not going to make excuses for it, it simply wasn’t my day. This race was not at all an indication of my training and the effort I put in. This is not the level of marathoner that I am. I mean, I’ve already proved that before. On a faster course and with much better training, I ran a few minutes slower than I did in Richmond five months ago. That should not be.

While, I do chalk this up mostly to just being a bad day, there are a few things I can point at as contributors. My legs were not as rested as I would have liked after last weekend and cheering the day before at my wife’s half marathon, but they also weren’t super tired either. The wind that I was so worried about was pretty much a non-issue for me. Early in the race, it was light and I had no trouble drafting other runners in the pace group. By the time I left the group and was running mostly alone for the rest of the race, the wind just wasn’t that bad. It was mostly a crosswind, with only a couple spots where there were heavy head-on winds. The temperature was probably the biggest problem on the day, to be honest. It wasn’t as warm as it could have been, but the course has pretty much zero shade so you’re out there in the beating sun the whole time. And following up this brutal winter, it was a little too much. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, there simply wasn’t enough time to adjust to the warm weather before taper. The winter was almost never-ending; when it finally did end, there were only a couple weeks left in training before taper. Not enough time to adjust. I should have taken the fact that both my 21-milers were rough and required stopping a bunch as a bigger indication that the temperature might be a problem.  Lastly, I can also look at the fact that I don’t think I ran enough miles at marathon goal pace or faster. I certainly ran enough miles overall, but I think having more of them be faster would have gone a long way.

Combining all of this explains still only a small part of my day though. At the least, I should have been able to come away with a small PR. I have to just accept it wasn’t a good day. And you know, I can accept this. I can accept that just had a bad day and a bad race. This race did defeat me, but I am not defeated as a runner and I will not be defeated. I will recover and then work even harder to ensure that next time I do hit my goal. I won’t feel sorry for myself. My wife was surprised by how well I took it, but when a race goes this bad, you just have to laugh, right? There are some things to learn here and some adjustments I can make. I don’t run marathons because they are easy, I run them specifically because they are hard.

Right now, I’m a bit sore, but easily the least sore I’ve ever been after a marathon. I feel more like I had a really hard long run than having raced a marathon. Yesterday, I was still able to walk and go up and down stairs just fine. The walk back to the car was over a mile and that wasn’t even an issue. After we got home, I went for an almost two mile walk just to keep lose. No problem. In fact, the most pain I felt was actually the chafing in my armpits. Today, I feel the soreness more, but I can move fine. That’s a pretty clear indication of how off everything was and just how much I walked. I’m hoping to recover quickly and do some more work so I can make another attempt soon. I’m not giving up on Boston 2015 just yet. And I think I deserve a race worthy of the effort and training that I put in.

I don’t know exactly what my plan going forward is, but I’m going to take a complete week of from running and gauge how I feel, but I’m looking at another attempt before Boston registration opens. Possibly Eugene in three months?

I’ve been quoting Shalane a lot with this, but I really feel like it’s apt for all of life. “I don’t wish it were easier, I just wish I were better.”

And some thoughts on the New Jersey Marathon itself

This is basically my home marathon so I was really excited to run it. I’ve cheered at the race before, so I kind of knew what the deal was. The course wasn’t quite as flat as I expected, but it was mostly fine. There weren’t really hills so much it it just being typical Jersey and not being exactly flat either.

I like the size of the  race, it’s not too big at all, but that did mean I spent a lot of time running mostly alone. This also meant getting my checked bag at the end of the race was quick and easy. The biggest complaint I have is that the crowd support is really light through large sections of the course. The last mile or so is pretty good, but the middle of the race was a bit quiet.

But the finish with the ocean to your right is really great and the medal is a rather awesome spinner medal!

9

New Jersey Marathon training recap and race goals!

NJ Marathon TrainingWelp, my marathon is just about here! Even though I’ve been training literally the entire year for this race, it kind of feels like it snuck up right up on me, to be honest!

Training recap

Looking back at my training, I’d said it was solid overall. I ran a lot more miles than I ever have before. I broke my weekly and monthly training distance records with 60 and 213 miles, respectively, and I  put myself on pace for a whole lot of miles in 2014. I also  got in two 20-milers and two 21-milers. I think that’s pretty damn huge. I’ve only ever gotten up to two 20-milers before so I’m hoping the addition of the two 21-milers helps me stay strong late in the race when I’ll need it most.

The only thing I’m worried about from my training is the lack of consistent speed work. That was my biggest goal for training, but too many things got in the way (see below) to make it much of a possibility. I did some fartleks here and there and got in some tempo runs, but I’m a bit concerned that I didn’t push my paces enough in training to be able to sustain my goal pace. Though, to be fair, I didn’t do any less than I ever do and my overall paces were a lot faster than they were for Richmond Marathon training last summer/fall. While my 21-mile runs were a lot slower than I would have liked at 8:39 and 8:37 paces, my second 20-mile run was on target at 8:20. My first 20-miler was actually just about at goal marathon pace and included a 20k race (at a blazing 7:37 pace!) after 6.1 “warmup” miles.

This training cycle threw just about everything possible at me: tons of snow, ice, freezing rain, slush, sub-zero temperatures, high winds, a knee injury, and international travel. This winter was absolutely brutal and pretty much turned New Jersey into little more than a frozen hellscape, but I was out there six days a week running in whatever the weather could throw at me. It wasn’t easy and it made most of my speed work impossible, but I have to feel good about sticking with it and not letting the weather beat me. For a while, the only thing keeping me going was keeping the streak of not letting the weather stop me from running alive. It wasn’t until my knee injury back in the middle of training that I had to miss a couple runs. Luckily, I was able to bounce back from the injury quickly and get back into without too much of a hit thanks to treating it very aggressively.

After a week and a half of taper, I feel like I haven’t been running at all. My last long run feels soooo long ago! And my normal pre-race phantom pains everywhere have kicked into full effect.

Race day

2014 New Jersey Marathon Course MapThe only thing I care about right now is getting my BQ. It’s that or bust, as far as I’m concerned. Being up in Boston to cheer for the marathon earlier this week made it even more important to me to nail this race and get up there for 2015. Nothing. Else. Matters.

My BQ time is 3:35, but I’m setting my “A” goal at sub-3:30:00. This is what I’ve been training for all year. This will mean an 8:00 min/mile pace. I think this is possible and a reasonable place to set my goal, but it’s not going to be easy. McMillan predicts 3:30:29 based on my 20k time. While I take that kind of stuff with a grain of salt, it does put me close to where I want to be. My “B” goal is a not-much-slower 3:33:00. This is basically just fast enough to give me a good shot of actually getting into the race, but it doesn’t leave much room for a fast field of qualifying runners. And, lastly, I don’t really have much of a “C” goal, but I guess 3:40 would be about right. I ran a 3:44:55 on a tough and very rainy course in November, so I damn well better do better on a dry and super flat course now!

My race strategy is roughly the same as it was in Richmond and Chicago, I’m going to stick with the pace group through most of the race. I like that it cuts out the variable of having to keep myself on pace and keeps me honest when I say I’m not going start too fast. I plan to stick with the 3:30 group until at least mile 20. At mile 20, I’ll start to evaluate how I feel and whether or not it’s a good idea to pick it up. If I’m feeling really, really good, I’ll pick it up at 20, but if I’m still unsure, I may wait until 22 or 23. I’d be great to have a fast, strong finish, but I don’t want to run a great race and then blow it at the end. I’ll stay conservative here, I think, but once I hit 24 or 25, I plan to push with everything else I have left. Hopefully, I’ll be doing that in front of the pace group and not from behind!

I’ll do what I normally do and have a bagel, apple, and Picky Bar for breakfast and then a vanilla Clif Shot gel while waiting at the start. Then I’ll take another vanilla gel every five miles through mile 20. It looks like the temperature could be hitting 60 by the end of the race so I’ll take water at every stop and probably switch to Powerade/Gatorade at mile 10 or so.

Outlook

I have a habit of really working myself up before a big race and this one is no different. I’m super nervous about it, possibly even more so than I’ve ever been before. I’m actually nervous like I’ve never done a marathon before, which is silly. I’ve done five marathons and I’m better trained for this one than any before, but I’m still a bit of a wreck. What if I don’t have the resolve to fight through the pain late in the race? Will my lack of consistent speed work become an issue? What about the 15-20 mph winds predicted? Is a high of 60 on race day going to be too warm? Why are my calves so tight right now? Did I make a mistake being on my feet so much this past weekend while in Boston? The list of worries goes on and on.

I’m trying to stay positive about it. I know I put in a lot of work and did the absolute best I could given the weather this winter, but I just fear it’s not enough. I keep reminding myself it’s not the end of the world if I don’t hit my goal. There will be other races. I will get to Boston. And I also kept telling myself that this is a much easier course than Richmond was and I nailed that race in the heavy rain with shoes that were soggy and soaked through before the race even started.

If I don’t BQ this time, I’m not sure if I’ll try again in the fall or not. I’ve got a lot going on this fall and this will be my second 100% effort marathon in five months so I should probably not throw my body into a third-straight hardcore training cycle without a break.

If I do hit my goal, I’m planning to take it easy this fall. I plan to run more races, but do them for fun. I’d like to do two fall marathons at an easy effort and just enjoy them. I’ve already got the Disney Wine and Dine half marathon scheduled for November and I’d like to add another half in there somewhere. I’m also planning to do the Goofy Challenge for the third time in January. All that’s going to be a lot, but I’m not planning to race any of it. Though, I would like to race a few 5ks. I’ve already decided that I don’t want to race Boston either. I see that as a reward and when I run it, whatever year it may be when I finally get there, I want to do it for fun. I want to just take in the experience and enjoy it.

So, I guess that’s about it! The race is two days away and I’m going to try to rest my legs as much as possible and continue eating piles of bagels! I went to Target yesterday to refill my hormones and grab a few high-carb snacks. Instead, I just bought a bunch of candy. Oops!

BmA4rrCIUAADEiH.jpg-largeLastly, thanks to everyone who provided much-needed support over the last sixteen weeks! Your tweets and blog comments were greatly appreciated! If you want to track me on race day, my bib number is 1217.