Monday, March 12, 2018

Snickers Albany Marathon Race Recap

On Saturday, March 3rd I ran the Snickers Albany Marathon in Albany, GA.  A city, I learned, that was named after my old home of Albany, NY, due to both cities being based near a river head (there's your fun fact for the day!) It was a race I chose based on the fact that it is supposed to be a great race to try and qualify for the Boston Marathon. It is BQ-friendly in that it is flat, typically has good weather, pacing groups, is uncrowded, and for Atlanta athletes, it is local at only 3 hours by car. I know numerous people who have BQed in Albany and decided to take my shot at it.

Going into the week, it felt a bit odd. The race is on a Saturday, which I feel like most major races are on Sundays and you have a free weekend day beforehand to prep. The fact that I could work a full day on Friday when I had a marathon to run the next day felt so odd to me. I felt really anxious and nervous the entire two weeks prior to the race. I am used to traveling for races and without that aspect of this trip, I had nothing to think about or plan for really. All my energy was going into stressing about the race itself, but I felt like I had no adrenaline or excitement around it. Not having to travel was originally supposed to be a pro but in the weeks before, it began to feel like a con. Everything in my life felt too normal and THAT made me nervous.

I tried to do everything I could to "take advantage" of doing a local race. I saw MY chiropractor, I got a massage from MY massage therapist, I met with my coach, I drank lots of water, made sure to sleep soundly in my familiar bed, and spent time with friends and people who make me happy and feel calm. I ate home cooked meals and prepped my food to eat the day before the race exactly as I wanted it. I took the Friday before the marathon off from work and that morning, went meticulously through my packing list, bringing everything I could think of I might possibly need because, hey, it's a local race!

I drove from Atlanta to Carrollton, where I met up with Jonathan, ate some of my "Marathon Lasagna" that I had cooked from Shalane Flanagan's cookbook for lunch, and then we head out to Albany. We made the trip in good time and it was a gorgeous day out. We stopped once to use a restroom in the middle of Georgia's pecan county. In addition to using the restroom, we browsed and picked out some sweets and snacks for POST race before continuing on.

We went right to the race expo, which was a pretty uneventful and small expo at the civic center that gave us the opportunity to also know where we would be going in the morning for the start. Jonathan was coming to be my support and I was so thankful for all he did to help me stay stress free and basically just be there for whatever I needed. He also took lots of pictures of me. There wasn't too much to look at or buy at the expo, but there was a copious amount of fun size candy bars for the taking, which I did help myself to!

From the expo we went to the hotel, where we unloaded the car and then rested for a bit. I was starting to feel a bit nauseous and overwhelmed so laying down and doing some meditations seemed to help before we walked across the street for dinner at Mellow Mushroom. I got a salad with chicken and we split some "pretzel bites" which were really just hunks of pizza crust. I also sipped some of his beer and tried some of his pizza.

Back at the hotel, I took part in my normal night-before-race prep of listening to some music, rereading old blogs and training notes, things that inspire me, and putting together a race plan. I talked on the phone with my mom and grandfather, laughed a lot at my mom's reaction to this photo we sent her, and head to bed early.

We were up at 5:00 a.m. to get ready for the race and head over to the start at 6:00 for a 7:00 a.m. race start. When we arrived over, I was bundled up in a pair of sweatpants, and 3 layers on top. It was chilly and I wanted to stay warm! We sat in the car a bit before heading over to the race start, where I got in line for the porta potty at the exact right time. After using the bathoom, we started to coordinate meeting up with other people. I am incredibly fortunate to have such supportive people in my life and of course, my number one fan, Brick, and her husband G, had come down for the race. As well, my coach, who has been such a big part of this journey, had all left at 3:30 in the morning to make the 3 hour drive and arrive in time to see me before the start.

These people are beyond a blessing in my life and the fact that Brick has been at every one of my major races that has been stateside in the past three years is such an important thing for me. I don't know what I'd do without her!

I was able to see Staci and Jessie, who other ITL athletes running the race, before we all head off to the corrals and I met up with the 3:30 pace group.

As far as how the race actually went - it was tough. From the very beginning, it was tough.

There wasn't really music or anything to hype us up at the start. There was no countdown, just a large cannon blast and all of a sudden we started running. I don't know that race day EVER really and truly felt like race day. I don't think I ever had the excitement and the adrenaline I have at other races with the hype leading up to it. Of course, I had prepped everything as if it were race day but when I started running, it felt like another training run.

The course started with a 4 mile loop that then took you back past where you had started. I tried to get settled in and chat with the pace group and the pace leader, Jackie Merritt, a well known and really successful trail runner in the region. After just 4 miles, I already knew I wasn't running as comfortably in that pace group as everyone else was. I figured it must have been visible on my face as when I ran past my cheering crew for the first time, handing my long sleeve shirt to Jonathan, my coach Jerome shouted at me to smile.

As we kept going, I told myself not to talk myself out of this and that I was hanging with the pace group just fine. I told myself over and over I was doing fine and that me not feeling good was just in my head. I was still with the pace group. I didn't need to be at the front of it, just needed to be right with them and I was doing great. I knew it didn't feel the same as I did in the beginning of Berlin Marathon, where I was telling myself to slow down the entire time, but I just kept repeating that I was fine. I told myself I would discover a new level of how much I could push myself and how I could perform today. I just focused on keeping on going. I never once looked at my splits on my watch and just focused on staying with the group.

Starting at around mile 7, I could feel it starting to slip and I wasn't quite with the group anymore. The road started to get very boring and there were no people cheering. At this point I didn't know when I would see any of my support crew and I started to feel like I really needed them. I was dropping back a few strides and I needed a boost and nothing I was telling myself was working. I was desperate to spot my coach along the course for a pep talk or adrenaline boost. There was NOTHING interesting to look at. We were running on a stupid highway, there was nobody cheering, and I felt like I needed SOMETHING to keep me going. I started to have thoughts of "Oh my god, it's ONLY mile 7 and I already can't do this." But then would quickly beat myself up for having a negative thought and told myself to stay positive.

I started to feel angry and embarrassed but I told that voice to shut up and to just keep moving. I told myself I was capable of more than I knew, to be positive, and keep moving forward at this pace until my legs physically stopped moving. I had no idea what mile I was at at this point, I felt like it should be 18 or something and was discouraged when I would pass a mile marker and it was just 9.

I felt frustrated at everyone that I was just out running on this dumb straight highway and started feeling really negative. I finally saw my support crew after what felt like forever and passed Jonathan, then Jerome, around mile 10. When I passed Jerome he told me I was only a few seconds behind the group and was doing fine, but by mile 10.5 I was dropping back more. I looked down at my watch for the first time at mile 11 and saw that my mile split was 8:44 and just thought "Shit." I was trying to focus on one mile at a time so I told myself to keep going for mile 12 and then saw 8:48. I already felt like crap, was 1:30 behind, wasn't running at pace and didn't feel like I could make that up. It just was downhill from there.

I wanted to quit completely. I wanted to stop and just give up. I didn't want to be out there any more. I was disappointed that the race was over so early for me and now I had all these stupid miles to figure out how to get through. Going into the race, I had known that I just needed to go for the goal from the very beginning. It was 8:00 minute miles, hanging with the 3:30 pace group, and that was that. BQ or bust. It made me a bit nervous because usually I head into a race with an A goal, B goal, C goal, etc. Whereas on this day, on purpose, there was only one goal. We figured if I busted, I would bust, but I had to go into the race with my goal in mind from the very start. Even though I knew that busting was a strong possibility (which may have been a problem altogether) I was hoping I would be able to hang on at least halfway! I was questioning myself while trying to keep going, why did I die SO early on in the race???

As much as I wanted to and the thoughts were flying through my head, not finishing the marathon was never actually an option for me. I know some people who attempt to BQ take the approach of dropping out of a race when they know they aren't going to make their BQ time to save their legs and some of the damage. That way they can recover and try again or pursue other goals quicker. The thought flashed through my mind but it was never a question. Leaving Albany, GA without a finisher medal around my neck was not going to happen. To drop out is not the type of athlete I am. I knew I was making it to that finish line and I needed to mentally figure out how to get there.

I seriously felt like crap though. Even after my pace dropped and I accepted it, I felt terrible. My knees hurt, my legs felt dead. It didn't make any sense to me. Two weeks earlier I had run 17 miles the day AFTER running 15 miles with some fast pickups! I was doing 10 mile tempo runs on fatigued legs after days and days of hard work. And now here I was at 14 or 15 miles in, tapered, in peak condition, but trudging along at not much different of a pace than my easy training runs and I felt SO much worse. It made me mad and frustrated. I reminded myself to keep my race strategy the same, even though my goal shifted to just finishing, and take the race one mile at a time.

I enjoyed looking out for Jonathan, Brick and Jerome throughout the course. Those were really exciting bright points for me. I wanted to walk really badly but told myself not to do that until I got to mile 20. Knowing I had people throughout the course that I could be seeing at unexpected times kept me from walking as well. I didn't want to disappoint the people that had come all the way down to Albany to see me go after this goal. However, at mile 19 I stopped to use a bathroom at a Porta-Potty after an aid station. I didn't have to go SO bad that I couldn't have held it (if I were racing, I would have been fine) but I figured why not be comfortable.

Going to the bathroom was difficult because my hands were so cold. The circulation in my hands can tend to be a problem for me because my hands get so cold that I can't feel or move them and I have a hard time taking in nutrition. Although I was running in shorts and a tank top and it was ideal running weather, I wore gloves for most of the race and my hands were still frozen. I was struggling to zip open and shut my Spibelt that had my nutrition in it and it was hard to pull down my shorts and pull them back up when I went to use the bathroom so it took me longer than planned to get in and out.

After the bathroom break around Mile 19, I dropped off my nutrition a lot. It was getting really hard to move my fingers and get out my nutrition so I just stopped. Especially since the goal was out the window, I sort of figured what's the point? "Might as well save the calories for post-race snacks instead of these Gu Chews" is actually a thought that went through my head. I decided to just take what was offered along the course and drink water and Gatorade and whatever else they gave us instead of fighting with my nutrition any more. There really were very few spectators along the course, but if there were people with beers or snacks like at some big races, I 100% would have taken anything offered at this point (I've always wanted to be one of those people that takes a beer handed to them on a race course, but I am usually way too goal oriented to do that!)

When I hit mile 20, I started walking on/off. I walked for 2.5 minutes, then ran for 10 minutes, walked for 2 minutes, ran for 20 minutes, walked for 3 minutes, stuff like that. The most I walked was 5 minutes in a row at the beginning of mile 25. I knew I would then have about 15 minutes to run into the finish and there is no way it is acceptable for me to be walking with less than 1.5 miles to go in the race. When I saw my coach the last time, he told me I was still looking strong, but I knew I was just trying to pull myself to the finish line. The race was not an enjoyable one for me, although I tried my best to focus on the positives.

But basically, nothing in this course ever excited me. At one point there was a main road that we crossed where myself and the one person running next to me literally couldn't even tell where we were supposed to keep running once we crossed. There were so few people that the crossing guard had been waving cars through as we came up and we had to ask the police officer which direction to go. We ran through some pretty neighborhoods but it was so boring to me. The very last couple miles we were back to running on big main roads with cars flying by and it just felt so not special.

At one point when I saw Jonathan I shouted to him, "This sucks." I knew I could get away with saying that to him, whereas my coach Jerome would never have heard it. He responded back, "It's supposed to," which was actually exactly right. It's a marathon. It is not supposed to feel good.

During the race I carried with me in the back pocket of my shorts two special momentos. One was a picture of my grandmother who passed away this past December. The other was a pin of a guardian angel. It had been my mom's and she wore it during the marathon she ran when I was a senior in high school. She had given it to me when I ran my first marathon in 2014 and I had worn it during that race. It has new meaning to me now and during challenging moments during the race, I thought of these things with me and touched my back pocket to remind myself of their presence.

I thought about my grandmother a lot during the tough moments as well. During a few of the pretty neighborhoods, I knew my grandmother would have loved them and I imagined myself out walking with her. I pictured us from this past summer, walking from the cottages down to the beach at Lake Waukewan. With my arm locked around hers, to help hold her steady, as her balance and stability had been beginning to go in recent years. This time, I imagined her helping me hold steady and keep going. These thoughts are what carried me through.

At around mile 22-ish, as we ran down another uninteresting road with cars driving down it and nobody out cheering, I saw a sign outside a building for the Albany, GA Amputee Center. It seemed like a place to have prosthetic limbs made and fit... and that did give me some perspective. I wasn't feeling well but reminded myself that whatever the outcome I am lucky to be healthy. I am fortunate to be able to do these things, to be able bodied, to be fit and strong, to be able to move myself 26 miles. I did not let that fact be taken for granted and focused on gratitude for everything I am able to do and all that I have in my life.

The finish was a bit weird, we ran through a building basically and onto a little path, you literally had nobody around you and couldn't see the finish until it was directly in front of you. I loved seeing my cheer crew as I ran through the finish line and was so thankful and happy to be done at this point. It was so special to me to have my coach, my best friend and my boyfriend all at the race. I crossed the finish line like I have every other marathon finish line I have crossed - exhausted, happy to be done, so thankful to see that finish line in front of me.

They came over and met me after the finish area, I gave them hugs, and I think everyone was holding back waiting to hear what I had to say and how I was feeling. Was I going to be happy or sad?

The day had not been what we had all hoped for, what I had trained for, or what I had wanted. I told them as I stood there after crossing the finish line that disappointment might come, but at that moment, I was just happy to be done the race and happy to have them all there. I grabbed my post-race beer, left the finishers area, and we all sat down in the grass enjoying the sunshine and watching the other finishers come through. It felt quiet. I feel like nobody really knew what to say. I congratulated the others I knew that where there who had hit their goals, and just sat there totally drained.

As we sat there, the emotions started to come. I watched others ringing the "BQ bell" and as my HR started to settle, I started to feel the tears coming. Tears at a marathon finish line are not unexpected. Completing 26.2 miles on foot is an amazing accomplishment, regardless of how many minutes and seconds it took you to get there. It requires strength, determination, hard work, and it is an emotional thing every single time.

(This picture was taken moments before Jerome distracted me from getting too sad and teary by accidentally knocking my beer out of my hand.)

It was hard to explain exactly what I was feeling. I was crying for all of the months of hard work. I was crying for all the heartache and pain I pushed through in training with losing my grandmother. I was crying because I missed my grandmother. I was crying because I had put so much into the training and I felt like my race day didn't reflect that. I was embarrassed. I was jealous. I was tired. I was feeling so many things and I am a crier so tears aren't an abnormality for me.

In the 24 hours after the race, the tears came on and off. We left the finish line, stopped to grab EVEN MORE free Snickers bars, returned back to the hotel where we quickly showered, packed up and head back to Atlanta. That three hour card ride was filled with some laughs, some Celine Dion, lots of snacks, the fanciest Dunkin Donuts I have ever seen in my life, and a few spells of tears.

Sunday morning after the race, I woke up and felt lost. I didn't have a run to prepare for. I realized that I didn't have absolutely anything in my schedule to start to think about next. Since the beginning of 2015, I have had one goal lined up after the next and I knew what was coming in the future after I recovered from one thing. However, this time around I have nothing else planned. I had changed my initial thoughts for 2018 to give a BQ attempt a go. Qualifying for Boston was a dream big enough for me that I was okay making the sacrifices that go along with training as well as bike and swim fitness, but with an empty TrainingPeaks, no goals lined up and not sure what to do next, and my friends all out running... I felt empty.

There is always a low/down for me at the end of a training cycle and after a race that I have been training for and working towards for months and weeks on end. Regardless of outcome, the thing that has been your focus and what you have been consuming hours upon hours of your week in dedication towards - is over. When you have realized that goal, there is a blissful feeling unlike anything else. While your schedule may feel empty and your mind space unsure what to be directed towards, you have that satisfaction and buzz of a high that keeps you going and tells you that it was all worth it. 

But when you don't hit that goal, that low of the race being over, combined with the disappointment, is tough. Especially that this race was so emotional and personal for me for many reasons.

Overall though, I feel okay with not meeting my goal. I am proud of myself and I have learned and grown and I wouldn't change anything. This is all a part of my journey.

I mean, obviously, it would have been amazing to feel great and crush things on Saturday. But I have done better than I expected in race after race for a couple of years now, and I can't expect that to happen every time - even though I worked hard during training. I was trying for a 9 minute PR on top of a 19 minute PR I had made less than 6 months prior. I don't know many people who have BQed on their first attempt. In running and triathlon, I haven't had a disappointing race or a missed goal in a while and I feel like that is something that is just unavoidable in sports. So yes, of course I am upset, but I also at peace with it.

Looking back, I think that a part of me never really believed I could run a 3:30 at all. I had so many people saying to me, "You can do this!" and I wanted it to be true. I felt like I had a chance, and that chance was worth it enough for me to try. But I don't know that I fully believed I ever could. I thought of that as the one-in-a-million, if the stars align, type of a thing versus something seriously attainable. Like when the Megabucks gets really high... you want to at least buy a ticket and not rule yourself out completely from winning the lottery, right?

Just as I started to build confidence in my ability to reach the goal, December happened. In debriefing with my coach, I don't think I ever recovered mentally from that month. It makes sense, I personally have absolutely not gotten over the fact that I can never talk to my grandmother again or that she is no longer with us. I had a hard time being positive. I knew I needed to be and I tried, I wasn't going to quit, so I had to. But I struggled with the pressure. And the goal shifted for me from the RACE to just GET THROUGH TRAINING. By the time the race came, I had nothing left to fight with.

And I was PROUD of myself ALREADY for finishing training! So proud! Because it was hard! I needed to train hard because I was going after a big stretch goal. We couldn't slack off with the work load to adjust for life, because I had a lot of ground to improve on. And I did it. I hit some really tough workouts and things I didn't think I would be capable of doing or struggled with in the past. I am still proud of those big builds and tough weeks and pushing through so much. This training cycle proved how strong I am, how much I can push myself physically, and I was healthy and strong throughout everything we threw at my body. I was already feeling accomplished and satisfied before the race even got here.

An interesting thing I noticed is that I have a pattern now of flip-flopping a marathon where I feel good with a marathon where I feel bad, and my times bounce up and down. Particularly they go down when I do a race with quick turnaround from another major goal. Marathon finish times are listed first, then the race details.

4:37... April 2014 - Paris Marathon; GOOD race, felt great
4:58... October 2014 - Kansas City, MO; BAD race, felt terrible
3:58... October 2015 - Chicago Marathon; GOOD race, felt great
4:34... November 2016 - NYC; BAD race, felt terrible (Raced a major 70.3 two months prior)
3:39....September 2017 - Berlin Marathon; GOOD race, felt great
4:01... March 2018 - Albany Marathon; BAD race, felt terrible

I have learned a lot and know some things to change and focus on that I think will help me when I try again. Because I will try again. I feel confident that my story is just not yet finished being written. I have learned from this. I have and will continue to grow from this. I am PROUD of all of this. And I am so happy that I set out to try and qualify now. I wouldn't change how I went about this and I wouldn't change that I tried.

I realized that this is the first time that I personally set a big goal for myself. Because of my lack of confidence, I tend to take baby step goals. I doubt myself and have a hard time setting a goal until it is something I feel confident I can reach. The fact that I personally set this big, scary, hard-to-reach, aggressive goal for MYSELF is huge for me. That shows huge person growth for me in this sport and in life in general.

There are so many defining moments that I will think back on when I think about this training cycle and this race. The pain, the heartache, the days and weeks I thought there was no way I could get through everything on my schedule, the long runs early in training with Jonathan, the really long runs where he'd jump on a bike when he was done his runs and ride beside me as I finished, the miles after miles on the treadmill that were both physical and mental battles, the cold and the snow, the solo miles on the Beltline and through my neighborhood, the track workouts, early morning tempo runs, getting pushed by my training partners to not slow down during my pickups, and the long lazy weekend runs in the rain and on the trails with friends.

I'm proud of myself. Everyone's journey is different and I believe this race and this training cycle was an integral part of mine. My story is not yet finished being written and I am not done going after big, scary, hard to reach goals. To be continued.

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