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My Surprising Sub-4 Marathon

Race: Steamtown Marathon (Scranton, PA)
Date: October 13, 2013
Clock Time: 3:57:21
Chip Time: 3:55:23
Average Pace: 8:59
Overall Place: 871
Age Group Place: 47

It's taken me some time to sort out all of my emotions from the Steamtown Marathon, now over a week ago. All of the feelings I've had (except the physical ones) have been purely positive. I was trying to avoid the long blog entry that'd been brewing in my head for over a week by offering you a sort of time-elapsed recap of my experience--but I realized that just because I made a numbered list didn't mean I wouldn't ramble. My apologies anyway.
  1. A last-minute decision.
    My initial goal was to finish under 4 hours and 30 minutes. Then, when I posted my last blog entry before the race, I made a daring decision to change my goal time to 4:15. And then, while at dinner in Scranton the night before the race, I overhead a friend say that Chuck, a longtime (and fast) runner, would be pacing another friend to help her finish her race in under four hours. The wheels began spinning in my head, and I thought that maybe I could at least start out with them. By the next morning, I was convinced I wanted to push for that sub-4-hour time. It happens that easily.
  2. Wow, hills are fun!
    The first half of the race has the majority of downhills, which makes it easy to run too fast initially and then struggle to maintain that speed. As I was running downhill, Chuck noticed my apparently poor form and advised me to lean forward and run on my toes--two things I never do when I run. He said I'd stop my body from braking too much and spare my quads some pain later on. I felt pretty silly trying to prance downhill on my toes, but I did my best to comply. I also felt like I was leaning forward a lot, but Chuck kept telling me to lean forward, so I guess it wasn't evident to him, which means I probably wasn't doing it right. But this is the posture I attempted each time we encountered a significant downhill portion of the course. (I'll let you know later how that worked out for me.)
  3. Who put that trail in there?
    With Chuck by my side for most of the first half, time went by pretty quickly. He's super friendly (read: talkative) and kept making me laugh, which probably made me use more of my energy than I should have, but it seemed like a good trade-off. He also kept me at a steadier pace than I think I would have managed on my own (which is the entire point of a pacer). It was nice to not have to think too much about it. Around mile 15, we entered the Rails to Trails part of the course, which is a hard-dirt trail, lined with trees, and with enough loose rocks right in the middle of the trail to be really annoying (I found a rock in my sock after returning to the hotel). Ordinarily, I would have found this trail to be a perfect place for a training run--but not for a road race. I will say, though, that I actually had some faster times while on it, because the trail was only two-to-three runners wide, so I felt I had to keep passing others or fall in line behind them, and I chose to pass.
  4. OMG, hills are the worst.
    At some point, when I was still with Chuck (I think we parted around mile 16 or so), he asked me how I was feeling. I said my lower legs were beginning to hurt around the Achilles tendon, but otherwise good. But this pain began to increase with each mile and went further up into my calves. I realized it was from my downhill prancing. So not only was I bemoaning the seemingly endless uphill portions of the course at this point, but I was also dreading the downhills because of the pain I felt in my lower legs. To add to this, I believe the force of Earth's gravity became stronger as I got closer and closer to the finish (and climbed more and steeper hills), as my legs practically stopped lifting off the ground. There was a definite pull working against me.
  5. I love Scrantonians.
    When I first told family and friends that I was running the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton, PA, their general reactions were of befuddlement as to why Scranton? I was told numerous times that there's nothing interesting at all about the town--aside from its fictitious setting in the American version of The Office (alas, I would not really get to meet Jim and Pam). But many things ended up being remarkable about this town. Its people were all very friendly and welcoming and interested in our visitation there for the race; the scenery was gorgeous--especially to a Floridian who rarely sees any significant rise or fall in landscape or changing colors on trees (except from green to brown); and all along the race course, locals were scattered and cheering, with water and food that they provided of their own volition. They appeared sincerely invested in helping with the race efforts, and for that reason, I didn't want to disappoint them. So when, toward the end, I had to mount a giant hill and could barely make my legs go, I did not give in to walking, because the locals did not give up on cheering me on.
  6. OK, seriously; get out of my face.
    All that being said, some people go a little too far out of their way to "support" runners. When I had just passed mile 23, this one guy on the course (I don't think he was a race participant) ran up alongside me and started shouting in my face that I could do it; I'd made it this far, don't let another 2.5 miles defeat me (which was actually less than I had left to run and therefore irked me). He continued, "Use all that emotion [whatever that meant, coming from a perfect stranger] to push to the finish line!" He was part drill sergeant and part over-zealous motivator--but completely annoying. I still managed to mutter a thank-you and a cracked smile once he finally stopped running with me. Mostly because he finally stopped running with me and yelling at me.
  7. "Catch me, I'm falling."After willing my body forward in a sort of runner's shuffle through miles 24 and 25, I was a little ways in to my final mile when I needed something--I didn't know what, but something to pull me through to the end. And as if on cue, my friend (and running coach) Lyle appeared on the course running in the opposite direction. He didn't see me at first, so I yelled his name, hoping he'd know that meant for him to come get me through this thing. And he did. He turned around and ran next to me, told me I was at a good pace and that just over the hill we were on was a downhill run to the finish. He told me to just let the momentum of the downhill work for me. His encouragement was very helpful, but so was his description of the finish. I hate not being able to see the finish line, which in this case was obstructed by a hill. Knowing it would all almost be over after I cleared the hilltop helped me keep my focus. And as soon as I got over that hill, I could see the finishing banner, and I let it all go. When I was close enough to see the clock, I was shocked. I really wasn't sure which side of four hours I was on, and I thought it might be a matter of seconds if I were going to come in under four. But I saw 3:56 something and knew that I'd pulled it off--by minutes! I heard my name announced as I ran in, and I collapsed on a volunteer (that's what they're there for, right?). I couldn't believe I had done it. I also couldn't walk just yet. The volunteer was very concerned, but I knew I just needed a moment to collect myself. 
  8. I can't move my arms. I'm glad nobody was around to take my picture as I moved through the finishers' tent to get food and water. The expression on my face was a mixture of disbelief carefree crying. It couldn't have been pretty. I grabbed my water and banana and looked for Tim. Luckily, Lyle had told me where to find him as he was running me in. When I saw him seated on a grassy mound, I started crying--but in a nonverbal, tearless kind of way. I was so happy but also in so much pain. I couldn't tell which one was winning out. So as I stumbled toward Tim, I put my arms out in front of me, as if to reach for him, hoping he would just come collect me. But he didn't seem to be in great shape either. So I had to walk all twenty feet to get to him. As we hugged, he asked me my time, and I said "3:57:18" (officially it's 3:57:21). He was ecstatic for me. He had also PR'd, but wasn't happy with his performance. As we were talking about our respective race experiences, I realized I couldn't move my arms without a feeling an intense, stinging pain in my shoulders. I became very alarmed. My lower calves hurt, too, which made walking difficult, but the shoulders issue was something I'd never felt before. I really wanted to go see my friend Nicole finish, so I got up to do that, which was very exciting--she ran a huge PR, too--and after going back to our grassy patch, where most everyone had by then congregated, I realized I needed to leave. I was in far too much pain. Tim was hurting a lot, too. After getting lost for a while and then eventually finding our rental car, we made it back to our hotel. I took a warm bath and lots of ibuprofen, which helped dull the pain in my shoulders. We slept for hours. It was wonderful.
  9. I love my running family.
    When I began running with a certain core group of runners over two years ago, I didn't realize how much they would come to mean to me. And even though I haven't been consistent about going to the group runs, I still feel as supported by this particular group as if I were going regularly. Lyle and Chuck, mentioned above, are from this group, and as I've already mentioned, I don't feel I could have done what I did without them. But the more recent extensions to this family (of which I am one, I realize) have also been hugely impactful in my training and races: Tim, Nicole (my main training partner), and even Cathy's sister Betsy, whom I met for the first time and whose own personal goal helped me achieve my success. Chuck, while conversing with me about family in general at some point during our first half of the race, mentioned this other notion of family, and it really resonated with me. I feel so fortunate to have a loving and extensive biological family, but also this highly supportive running family.
  10. I think I did it wrong.
    In the days following, I had severe pain in my lower calves. Everyone else I talked to had quad pain. My quads felt great. I think it's because of how I ran the downhills (Chuck was right: I did save my quads). But after getting an "emergency" sports massage, doing some moderate walking, and otherwise just resting, I was able to walk normally again by the end of the week. Whew.

Picture Highlights

Nicole and me, just before dinner on the night before the race. The landscape really was beautiful.
The gang, staying warm and stretching in the high school gym prior to the race. 
Tim and me, on the bus ride to the race. We look like we're conspiring . . .to kick ass! (Just kidding.)
I did actually take a couple shots from the run. This is the best one I got. It was on the trail--which was very scenic. 
Nicole and me, after killing our PRs!
We were in so, so much pain here. This was when we had finally found the car, after walking around for probably another couple of miles.
After our nap, we were ready to take on the town! Or at least the hotel bar.

Comments

B.o.B. said…
This is probably one of my most favorite race recaps of all time. I love it. It's hilarious and sweet and inspiring all at once. Love love love it!

Congrats again Lee! You did so so so well.

Oh, and, the last time I had to run for a while barefoot (during a long triatlon transition) I ran forward on the balls of my feet and my calver were murderous for the next two days. Lol! I can only imagine how yours felt b/c I ran maybe a half mile like that.
shirley said…
I caught myself holding my breath while reading this. And you know me, because you cried you made me cry. You are an amazing young woman Lee! Your determination and hard work are inspiring and I'm so proud of you. Well done Lee Bird ~

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