If I could use one word to describe my taper week pre-race it would be this: ANXIETY.
And that general anxiety had me questioning if my goals for this race would pan out. My nutrition had changed in the weeks leading up to the race, I wasn’t sleeping well, I didn’t stick to my run schedule as *perfectly* as I could have, and sometimes life just happens. Would my lack of sleep and additional stress cause poor race results?
So the day before the race, I still stressed and decided – why not add fuel to that dumpster fire? I did all the things you shouldn’t do before a big race day. I walked around a TON (what better day to clean your entire house than the day before a goal race?). I ate an “adventurous” meal out. I drank a beer (or two). I didn’t try to get to bed early. My mom slept at my house before the race so we could go together and she asked if her being there would mess up my pre-race process. At this point, I knew that the race was out of my control anyway. The only thing I COULD do was trust my training.
My goal for the race was sub 1:45. Based on my training, I felt I could end up between 1:41 and 1:45 somewhere. My strategy was to hold on to the 1:45 pace group and break off when I felt comfortable speeding up on my own.
So mentally, I shifted my mindset to the work I had put in and what I could control. I thought back to my training journal and how great running has felt in the past few weeks. I’ve been building my mileage. My workouts have been clicking. My strength routine was better than it had been for about a year. I felt strong. But was it going to be enough to run sub-8:00 for 13.1 miles? I had never even done this for a 10K, let alone a half. Only time would tell.
The morning of the race I woke up at 1:00 AM, less than four hours before my alarm was set to go off. I was panicking again. I realized didn’t physically prepare anything for race day. I didn’t set out my clothes, I didn’t pick out an outfit, I didn’t make a to do list. Why was I becoming so lackadaisical about racing? Maybe drinking beer and having a fun night out beforehand was a recipe for disaster? This was my goal race for the season for goodness sake!
I was starting to spiral down a dark path. So instead of continuing to panic, I made a to-do list at 1:30AM, grabbed a glass of water (to ward off the potential hangover, of course), and went back to sleep.
My alarm went off and I realized I had finally slept. HARD. Thank goodness. Time now to prepare! I made breakfast, had a Nuun Energy, made coffee, and found an outfit to pin my bib to. I packed a few options because of the potential for rain. I checked my list a million times before we left the house — it was time to go!
We got in to Philly and got to park about a mile or so from the start. The only warm up I got was walking, and looking back, that was plenty. We got in to the port-o-potty lines as soon as we got to the race start area. As always, I compare them to Broad Street, so I didn’t think they were that bad (they got worse behind me though)! I looked around for friends and found some. All of a sudden it was time to get in to the corral.
I did some dynamic stretching and drills. I fumbled with my headphones and playlist. I found the 1:45 pacers (one of them being a friend — yay for support from people I knew!) and anxiously waited for our corral to get up to the start.
And off we went. And the pace felt freaking FAST. Wasn’t it supposed to feel easy after a taper? Thank God for my pacers keeping me going, because my body wanted to fall back. I held on to that 1:45 pace sign. The pacer group said they were going out to do perfectly even mile splits, but I knew that first mile we were chugging along faster than expected (7:52).
I saw my husband right after the start and settled in a bit. Mile 2 still felt fast, and according to my watch, it was (7:40). We were going through the city and seeing all the sights. I was too much in my own head to enjoy it, though. It all felt too hard. I was beating myself up, mentally. I told myself I was not going to hold this same pace at Mile 2 that I would at Mile 12, there was no way!
I went back to one of my two mantras I had set for myself that weekend: “Run the mile you’re in”. I had been listening to Ryan Hall’s podcast circuits and that’s the name of his new book. He’s a retired runner who was known for his fearless racing. I decided to hang on to his words. I could run THIS mile at THIS pace. I just had to do that 13.1 times.
I saw more friends along the course in their own cheer squads. It gave me another boost in mood, and had me doubting myself less and less. Then I saw my mom on the course. She was going out while I was coming back at one point. I yelled “Mama!” and she said “Hi Sheek!” (my nickname from her) in the most cheerful, encouraging voice. It was enough to give me another huge boost. Somehow, it reinstated my belief in myself. I knew that moment alone could get me through the rest of that race.
Shortly after, we passed the 7K split. Which meant some people were going to be finished their race soon, and I felt like I was just starting mine. We were on our way to the biggest out and back of the race on Kelly Drive.
Suddenly I heard my name from behind me — a friend (and athlete I had been coaching for the race!) had caught up to me. Our goal times were similar and she looked strong! She darted ahead and I was beaming with pride. I thought about going with her, but my strategy was to stick with my pace group until later on in the race. I settled in.
I took fuel at Mile 5 — I didn’t think I needed it then, but in my experience, the earlier the better for me. From there, we were just cruising along. I chatted with a few folks around me. I told myself to run the mile I was in. I smiled. I avoided pot-holes. Things were clicking along.
It was starting to get warm and I took water at about every other aid station. At around mile 8 I was thirsty and looking for the next aid station, and it just so happened to be on the steepest hill of the course. We joked about bad placement, but then I panicked– there was no way I could stay with my pacers up this tough hill AND grab water. I chose to try to stay with the pacers. And it didn’t matter – I was falling back on that hill regardless. It felt so hard! I did very little hill training (other than trail races earlier in the month) and I feared my race was going to end right then and there.
They were leaving me. I was huffing and puffing and finally the course flattened out a little. I caught up and couldn’t wait to settle in. Suddenly, the pacer said “now we have a long gradual hill ahead”. I looked up and wanted to cry. Another one? I couldn’t do it. There was no way I had fuel in the tank to stay at this pace up another long hill.
I told myself to run the mile I was in. It wasn’t enough. That’s when I came to my second mantra. It was something I journaled about the day before that had nothing to do with racing, but I knew I could apply it here anyway.
“I get to.”
Sometimes I get anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed about life (don’t we all?). The week before the race was no different. To find gratitude for what I do have in my life, and agency for my own choices, I decided to write down all the things I get to do. I reframed all my stresses into my choices. I’m grateful and deserving of so much that I have and it was time to mindfully practice that.
In that moment I told myself :”I get to give it my all. I get to try my hardest here and now. I get to race my heart out. I get to suffer through this pain and feel the glory afterwards. I get to pass this person, I get to catch up to the pacers again. I get to… I get to… I get to.”
By the time I rationalized this for myself, we were on our way back down the hill. In my head I exclaimed: “I get to push down this hill. I get to pass all these people!” And I was. And I finally made it back to my pace group. Phew!
At this point, it was around Mile 9 and I decided to refuel again. My breathing evened out and I figured I’d replenish what I lost from the Mile 8 sufferfest, then use the rest of the fuel to get me to the finish line.
And suddenly it was Mile 10, and I felt great. I was naturally passing my pacers, slowly but surely. I kept going and going. I had less than 5K to go and I knew I had it in my legs to push the pace for the next 3 miles.
And then I realized I was alone, and it was only up to me to pace myself. I got a little nervous. I decided to just reel in the runners in front of me, one by one. I found someone, caught up to them, passed them, and picked someone new.
Then the sun decided to come out in full force and I wished for sunglasses. The heat was coming on and I started pushing a little less — it time to settle in to my new, faster pace. We came to the last aid station and I knew I needed a lot of hydration. I knocked a water cup out of one volunteer’s hand (sorry!), grabbed another, and then was grateful for the Nuun on the course. I had about a mile to go and the electrolytes gave me that last bit of life I needed!
From there, I knew I could keep pushing. I thought back to how I hung on during speed workouts during training, and I knew I could hang on here, too.
Finally I saw the hill that led to the finish line. I could already feel the pain in my legs and stomach. Then I saw my family and friends cheering me on and the pain lifted. I got a huge boost in confidence and energy and knew I was so close to accomplishing my goal. I charged up the hill and the final few minutes to the finish line. I ended up running 7:10 pace in the last 0.2 mile of the race!
I was beaming. I caught up with friends and family at the finish line. I had no idea what time I ran, but I knew I hit my goal. I finally checked the watch.
1:43:48 – GOAL ACHIEVED!
We decided to stay and spectate for a little while. I had another athlete I was coaching still running and plenty of folks from my running club still coming in to the finish line. It was so fun to cheer people on. I saw tears of pain, faces of joy, a couple holding hands, and everything in between. The rain started coming down and I was getting hungry. After watching hundreds of more athletes cross the finish line, we went to grab brunch.
And eventually, it all hit me. I PRed by ~9 minutes. I felt strong. I executed the race well and got a negative split. Maybe I ran a little too cautiously because I still had a little left in the tank at the end. No regrets, though! I’m happy with my strategy and I enjoyed crossing that finish line giving it my all (unlike at the Marine Corps Marathon). I love the experience I’ve been getting from races and things I learn from them.
And with every race comes that shadow of doubt. Every runner can celebrate their heart out at the finish line, but eventually at least one or two regrets pop up. I know I could have trained a little harder and gotten an even bigger PR. However, realistically, I know that I trained smart. With a 50K and many more races to come, I am gradually building my running and speed. I know pushing too hard and too fast can lead to injuries and overtraining. I know the incremental success I’m having is smarter than a huge breakthrough (and a huge blow up). I will recover smart and continue to train smart. I want to be a runner for life — not give it my all for one training segment and then be too beat up to continue the training process.
My training strategy lately can be summed up in the quote” “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. For this training block, I increased my mileage slowly, and then upped my intensity, and balanced half training with 50K training. I used recovery runs for true recovery for the first time ever (my heart rate was nice and low!). Those recovery days allowed my speed workouts to be faster and stronger than ever. I progressed smoothly. I’m doing what works for ME. And I love seeing this steady progress. I’ve been able to execute my goals in every race I’ve had this past year. I’ve surprised myself with this consistency, actually, and it’s been a blast to see what I’m capable of.
Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. And I can’t wait to see what’s next.
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