11 Apr 2013, 10:12am
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SLO(w) and unsteady (san luis obispo marathon report)

I finished the SLO marathon on Sunday (spoiler alert). I am really sort of struggling to come up with words to describe it. It was easy, and hard, and really easy, and really, really hard.

We drove down to SLO on Saturday — picked up my mom at the San Francisco airport and headed south. Checked into our hotel (which my mom chose out and generously paid for, a super-convenient two-minute walk from the start line — VERY appreciated the next morning when everyone else was waking up at ridiculous-o’-clock to catch a shuttle bus) and then went to scope out the finish area and expo and get my race packet and all of that stuff. Saturday night was the Team In Training “inspiration dinner”; I showed up early and helped my team’s mentors and captains shake cowbells at everyone arriving.


(me with my mentors, Rachel & Marssie)

TNT had a bunch of regional teams from all over California participating in the event; a bit less than 200 runners total, I think. Cumulatively we raised half a million bucks for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Anyway there were carbs and speeches and then they sent us home to sleep. Or lie in bed, anyway.

One of my teammates kindly brought me some puff paint so I could add my name to my jersey, so I did that, showered, braided my hair, and then unpacked the GPS watch I’d finally bit the bullet and bought and had my mom bring down from Portland for me (my folks run a bike shop that conveniently carries such things). I poked around at it until past when I ought to have been lying horizontal in the dark, shrugged, and added it to my stuff laid out for the next morning:

I set my alarm for the entirely reasonable hour of 4:30. I actually woke up at 3:30, managed to kinda sleep again until 4:00, and then gave up and got up, got dressed, got breakfasted, and sat around until my mom was ready to walk me over to the start. I found some of my teammates back at the 5:00 pace corral and we chatted nervously until the minutes had ticked past to almost 6 and the powers that be encouraged us to move towards the start line. Dean Karnazes made some bad jokes, someone sang the national anthem, and then we were off!

Along with a few other teammates, I started the race with my teammate and mentor Rachel, who does a five-to-one run/walk ratio. We ran the first five minutes and then walked — she took an extra walk through the next interval to warm up, and since I was trying to take it easy what with my cold and all, I walked with her. After the next run interval, I kept going.

My pace for the first few miles (except for the walking at the beginning) was pretty similar to what I’d been doing during long training runs — 12:30-ish minutes per mile. The half marathon runners had started a half hour after us, and a little less than an hour in, the lead half marathoner’s bicycle escort passed me, followed shortly thereafter by the lead half marathoner himself, and soon after that a whole slew of very fast runners. I started speeding up too, without really intending to. There were plenty of purple-shirted TNT runners to exchange “go team!”s with as they ran past. The next few miles passed quickly. Somewhere in there I saw my coach Geoff, I think. He was happy to see me doing well and not suffering from my cold. I also remember passing a TNT booth where our team manager Liz was hanging out with a cowbell cheering for us.

After the half marathon turn-around, the road got a bit lonelier, and I plugged my headphones into my phone and turned on some music. I felt great. I remember at one point having a kinda spiritual experience while listening to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” of all things: “you build me up / you break me down / my heart, it pounds / yeah, you got me / with my hands up…” I kept cruising and started to keep an eye on my fancy new watch. I was running 11:30 miles like it wasn’t no thing. I felt like I had a lot more in me. When I hit the halfway point at around 2:40, I thought: whatEVER, I can totally run the second half in 2:20 and make 5:00. LET’S GO.

And I went. Miles 13-19 or so rocked. I pushed my pace a bit and my splits here look like: 10:25 / 11:04 / 10:56 / 10:29. I hit the marathon turnaround and passed Rachel going in the opposite direction, cheered her enthusiastically and kept going. Geoff was somewhere along the course in here and he ran with me a little ways. I was feeling pretty high here. Pretty sure Geoff tried to temper my enthusiasm a bit but I was not gonna be dampened. Especially when he pointed out a runner just ahead who turned out to be my mentor Marssie, who I had never come close to passing in training. In retrospect, I should’ve taken a hint from that. Instead, I waved goodbye to Geoff (”see you at the finish!”) and caught her. I was imagining my triumphant finish and in my head I was already checking off the goals I’d set (finish, finish happy, finish strong, finish in under 5 hours) — “check, check, check, MOTHERFUCKIN’ CHECK!” (Hubris.)


(I’m not actually sure where on the course these photos were taken, but there you go.)

There were some hills in this section, and it was starting to get a bit harder, but I was close to the 20-mile mark — the “just a 10k to go!” mark. I hit it, passed it, and tried to up the pace again. I ran the 21st mile in 11 minutes even. Then I got to the 21st mile marker, and… here’s where, when I told the story to my teammates later, I gestured with my hands diving towards the ground and then exploding. With sound effects.

I walked the next four miles. Marssie passed me again, of course. The barefoot guy I’d passed a little bit before (whose feet were clearly very tender at that point) passed me too. I’m not really sure what happened exactly. My calves were tight and my left groin muscle was kinda twinge-y and weird; I couldn’t seem to stretch it out. I don’t know if those are things I couldn’t have run through. Maybe I lost the mental game when I realized I might not make my 5:00 goal after all (I was not getting the speed I was hoping for for the effort I was putting in). Maybe I had really outrun my body’s capabilities. I was surprised to discover that “the wall” is not the same thing as a bonk. I have bonked before, on bike rides — not getting enough calories or salt sucks. That was not my problem on Sunday. I was hydrating and fueling like a machine. I was totally on the ball as far as that went. I guess, like a machine — the tank was full but the engine wouldn’t start.

I think I’d also expected to be back in town at this point (we were out in farmland/vineyards outside of town for much of the race) and thought there’d be more spectators, but no cigar. Let’s be real — even when I did get back into town, I’m sure many folks who’d been out to cheer had long ago gotten bored and gone home. There were a few awesome folks out, and a lot of the race volunteers and course marshals were great about cheering and encouraging runners, though.

I got back to the TNT booth I’d passed earlier and Liz very kindly walked with me for quite a while, telling me about hitting the wall at her first marathon. She headed back to her post and I walked on into town — kept telling myself, “I’ll run after the next aid station” or “I’ll run when I get to the next mile marker.” I finally started running when the course turned onto a multi-use path, with maybe two miles to go, hoping to keep my time under 5:30. Running actually kind of made my groin muscle hurt less, but everything else hurt more (my calves were so tight it felt like there were baseballs shoved in there underneath my skin. Or something). Anyway, I was shortly thwarted by a bridge over some railroad tracks with steep ramps at either end. I ran again on the other side, though, and managed to shuffle-run the rest of the way to the finish. I felt really, really slow, but apparently ran the last mile and a half at a 12-minute pace. Right before the downhill finish, we crossed under the highway and then went up a little hill. I think it was on this little hill that I felt the first sharp pain in my left foot. I kept running because at that point there was no. other. option.

At the top of the hill (pretty sure it would not qualify as a hill in any other context), with the finish line in sight, a TNT coach I didn’t know (from the LA team) greeted me — my mom had been talking with him and sent him to run me in. He was very nice and chatted with me for a minute, then peeled off to let me run the last few hundred meters by myself. I smiled at my mom and my teammates as I passed them and high-fived Andrew as I passed him.

About ten feet from the finish I burst into tears. It was a completely unexpected and completely uncontrollable reaction. I shook my head, wiped my eyes, put my arms up and a smile on my face to run across the line, got my medal, started crying again, and stumbled past the “finish photo” set-up mumbling “not right now.” I was simultaneously happy and proud and completely devastated, by which I mean empty — without reserves of emotional and physical energy — just totally spent.

I had to walk through a “recovery tent” sponsored by Jamba Juice that contained NO JUICE (their logo had been on the mile markers, along with silly taglines, some of which referenced the AWESOME JUICE they were going to give us at the finish line, so I felt pretty let down), just lots of sweet snacks that looked utterly unappealing (I had been force-feeding myself sweet stuff for 26.2 miles). I wandered in it for a moment, disoriented and crying and avoiding eye contact with the volunteers (I was the only runner in there), grabbed some apple chips and walked back out onto the grass. Andrew and my mom were walking towards me and I burst into tears again.

That and the next bit of this report probably sounds like complaining, but I was not at all unhappy, exactly. I felt awesome, too. I have no idea how to effectively communicate what was going on in my head and body.

All I wanted to do was take off my shoes and lie down on the grass. Eventually they let me. I peeled off my socks and discovered I’d totally destroyed two toenails, despite zero blister or toenail problems in training. Big ol’ blisters underneath them and weird discoloration. Pretty sure I will be losing them in the near future. The medic who my mom eventually had me talk to told me they grow back in six months to a year. This was not a disappointment — just something to note. It happens. At least I won’t have to worry about those particular toenails in my next few races. ;)

My official time, conveniently texted to my mom, who’d set up her phone to receive updates every time I crossed a timing pad — technology is nifty! — was 5:30:40.

I was pretty sure that I have a stress fracture in the third metatarsal of my left foot. A few days later, it’s feeling a little better…

I got some ice for my feet and sat in the sun by the TNT tent. Eventually a volunteer came by with smoothies, partially redeeming the lack of juice in the recovery tent. I was not at all hungry for anything else. Geoff came by too and only kinda-sorta said “I told you so” (kindly). I hoped to see Rachel finish but didn’t feel capable of getting up. We ended up passing like ships in the night, I think, but I saw her out at a bar later that night.

When Andrew and my mom got me back to the hotel, I took a shower, got dressed, and tried unsuccessfully to eat some chips and guacamole from the Mexican restaurant next door. I felt kinda headachey, dizzy, and nauseous. So I took a nap instead, and woke up a few hours later feeling much refreshed and, at last, hungry. We went out to dinner and then dropped my mom off at the hotel again so we could go hang out with a bunch of my teammates and celebrate.

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