Thursday, March 1, 2018

Time to run

So, there’s something I have been doing these past few months and I haven’t been writing about it. Which is weird, because it is exactly what I always write about. I have been training for a marathon. Marathon #6 and my first attempt at running a marathon where the goal going into it was to try and qualify for the Boston Marathon.

Yup, I said it. I want to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

For many, the next sentence might be something like, “Qualifying for the Boston Marathon has been a dream of mine for X amount of years.” but not me. Because that’s not true. For me, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is something that I NEVER even thought imaginable for myself and never even had the frame of mine to even consider having as a goal.

It is the holy grail of marathon running. It is the Super Bowl. The Olympics. The World Series of running marathons. Imagine playing outfield in a weekend softball league – would you ever set a goal to be in the World Series? Absolutely not. That'd be crazy. That’s how I always felt about the Boston Marathon.

I have always wanted to RUN the Boston Marathon and assumed it would happen someday, as part of a charity team. However, to actually qualify? No, not at all. Not even in my world of thought.

But in just a couple of days I will run my first marathon where the goal going into training and the goal going into the race is to try and do just that. That statement alone brings tears to my eyes and feels a bit unbelievable to me. It feels a bit unbelievable to me because I never thought it would be possible for me and because this journey has not been easy. I feel grateful to be at this point and proud of myself for being brave enough to identify that this was something I wanted, was willing to work for, and work for it, I did. Through some tough and unexpected things.

I started thinking about the Boston Marathon a few years ago. I have the goal to run all of the World Marathon Majors - Chicago, New York, Berlin, Tokyo, London, and Boston. I sort of had Boston in the back of my mind as one to do at the end, after I had done the global races. I knew I would have to do it as a charity run and I ran Chicago as part of a charity and hit up friends and family for money in 2015, so didn't have that in my sights for the next couple of years. Especially because the Boston charities I have heard you had to raise a lot more money for. Boston is a special race, and I thought it would be cool to complete all the world majors in this way.

Then, a year or so ago, my grandfather, who has been one of my biggest fans since I got into running and probably the biggest fan of my writing that there is, said to my mom my mom that he would love to be able to see the day that I ran the Boston Marathon. Well, dang. Really? I never knew he cared that much and that really impacted me when I heard that. Now what do I do? It shuffled my plans around a little in my head.

So pause time to go back to the beginning of 2017.

My coach set the goal for me to run Berlin Marathon in 3:45 - something that seemed unrealistic at the time. It felt like a dream goal for the majority of the year but I just kept putting in the work and doing the workouts that were given to me. As the year progressed, I started improving, and it felt like after nearly every run I had the comment of "I can't believe I ran that fast!" Slowly, tentatively, I started to believe that maybe I could run 3:45. And although I wasn't entirely confident about it, I knew I was improving, and that it was happening quickly.

I started playing with the "If / then" game in my mind. "IF I can make an improve of 13 minutes off my PR and run a 3:45, then how much could I keep improving?" "IF I can run 3:45 in Berlin, then I wonder if I can 3:35 sometime in the future?" It all still seemed so far off and so hypothetical but for the first time I starting playing with the numbers and the idea of actually QUALIFYING for Boston started to tinker around in my mind.

However, even vocalizing that was all contingent for me on Berlin. I was scared to even say Boston out loud. I saw improvements in my training but had no idea how much and had no idea how it would play out on race day. I told myself to just see how Berlin goes, and use that as an indicator of improvement and use that to set the next goal. I hadn't run a fast marathon in 2 years since Chicago in 2015 so I just wanted to know where I was currently before thinking about goals for the NEXT marathon. I felt confident going into Berlin that I would do well, but the question was really around how much I could push myself.

Well, then Berlin came and I ran 3:40 (3:39:57 if we're being technical...) Five minutes under the goal pace that I was training for. I was ecstatic. I cried. I couldn't believe it. My coach could. He said he knew I had it in me. We spoke at length the afternoon of the race and I thanked him and told him that he had the next couple of weeks off while I traveled in Europe and we'd regroup when I was back. 

But even hours after that, I couldn't quiet my mind. I ran 5 minutes UNDER my goal time... which was also 5 minutes OVER the Boston Qualifying time for my age group. I texted him the night of the race. "So... I know I said you had the week off... but I can't stop thinking about this... do you think I could qualify for Boston?"

The seed was planted.

And then that week, the BAA announced who had made it in for the Boston Marathon in 2018. And there was a record year of fast runners and this year you needed to be 3:30 minutes FASTER than the qualifying time to actually get into the marathon. In comparison, the year before, it had been 2:00 minutes faster. So that's quite a jump.

Your mind can play tricks on you. When you think, "Man, I ran a 3:39 and qualifying time is a 3:35!" it feels so close - it's like it is right there! However, in reality, I ran 3:40 and for even this most recent year, you needed to run a 3:31:30 to get into the marathon... that's a much bigger jump that I needed to make.

I knew that I didn't want to just qualify for the Boston Marathon - I wanted to actually run it. My driving force of doing this now, rather than waiting, was my grandfather's comments. He wanted to see me run. As I thought more about this goal and when to go after it, my coach and others told me that there was time - that the improvements I was making with running weren't going to go anywhere. I could keep going with the other triathlon related goals I had and come back to Boston for a later marathon.

But that didn't feel right. It felt too risky. Not that I expected my grandparents to be going anywhere - they were in as good health as anyone in their 80s could be. But it didn't feel like something that I wanted to put off. I wanted to keep going. I wanted to chase this goal for my grandfather. I knew it was a risk and still a pipe dream and would require a LOT of work... but I wanted to keep going.

So after a month off following Berlin Marathon, in about November I started training again. I went right into it aggressively and fought through some tough weeks where my fitness wasn't where I wanted it to be. My heart rate would be high on every run and I felt like I was digging myself out from a trench to get to where I was at the time of my last race. Whereas in my mind, I had imagined myself just continuing to build off of where I had been right at the time of Berlin. Not fighting to put the pieces back together again.

I kept pushing.

I raced the Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon - the first half marathon (or race in general) in recent years that I have run and not recapped here on the blog. But in summary, I went out aggressive and I blew up around mile 7 and finished in 1:50:20. It was technically a standalone half marathon PR, and on a TOUGH course. But all I could think was, "I ran faster splits in Berlin."

I kept pushing.

On Thursday, December 14th, I had what has become my normal Thursday workout - a tempo run in Brookhaven. On this morning I ran with my friend Lauren and had a day where I felt good. Lauren had been looking at our splits every mile and when we finished she said to me, "I think you're going to be happy with this run." We did 5 miles under 8:00 minute pace. It was a small victory but I was so happy. I texted a screenshot of my splits to my coach right away and later that morning messages to Lauren gushing over our run. I told her over text that morning, "Today was the first run I feel like maybe it's a possibility." Later in the afternoon, at 1:21 p.m. I texted again, just to say, "I keep pulling up Garmin to look at the splits because they make me happy!"

Less than an hour later, I got a phone call from my mom and my whole world crashed. She told me that my grandmother had suffered a stroke and she was on the way to the hospital. Everything felt surreal and that morning run was the last thing on my mind.

Being far away and not really knowing much of what was going on, I wasn't sure how to react to the news of my grandmother. Nobody really knew how bad it would be or what recovery would look like. I was anxious and upset but I met with friends for dinner that Thursday night and started Friday morning with the meeting I had previously scheduled with my coach, Jerome. As I usually do when I go into a meeting with him, I had a list of things to discuss. But when we first sat down, I prefaced everything with saying, "So I have a list - but none of this feels important or like it matters anymore." I explained what was going on with my family and the giant unknown around my grandmother's health in the air. Jerome encouraged me to do whatever I needed for my family and at the same time, we also discussed the items on my list.

At this point, I still didn't know what race I would actually be training for. I had researched races that are good for BQ attempts and the Snickers Albany Marathon was an option, as it is a local, flat race that many people I know have run - but it was also very early season in the beginning of March. I was also thinking of a race in Maine, the Sugarloaf Marathon, which would give me a little more time and was in late May. That Friday morning, on December 15th, given my own confidence boosting run from the day before and Jerome's support and encouragement - we settled on the early March race as my target, Snickers Albany Marathon.

After that morning meeting, my day became one of the most emotional and scary I have ever had with the news of my grandparents' health (my grandfather had a scare that day as well!) coming from my family in Boston. I ended up changing flights twice and getting on a plane that Friday evening and flying home last minute to be with my family as soon as possible.

The next 15 days I spent staying at my mom's in New Hampshire, driving back and forth between there and Boston, and going through one of the most agonizing times of my life. While the outcome of everything with my grandmother and her passing continues to be something that I, and my family, work through grieving and living with, I will talk about those two-ish weeks in the lens of my training.

To say the least, it was challenging. I arrived into a freezing cold spell of record low temperatures in New England. I flew into Boston late on a Friday night, went immediately to the hospital, then arrived back to my mom's (an hour drive from Boston) past midnight. Not wanting to get off schedule, I woke up early on Saturday morning for my scheduled run of a 30 minute warmup and a 5K - as I had been planning to run the ITL Lakeside 5K in Atlanta that morning. It was single digit temperatures, but I ran a 30 minute warmup and my own mock 5K, despite being alone on the salty, dirty streets of Merrimack, NH. It was my fastest 5K ever.

I continued to fit in every. single. one. of my runs. Despite a tough schedule of long days spent driving back and forth to Boston at early and late hours, I fit it in. I ran outside as much as possible in "feels like" temperatures below zero. I would return back inside after my long runs unable to bend my fingers, feel my face, or move my lips. I scared my mom as I would enter in the house and yell for her help to try and warm up my hands and return blood flow.

Some days running outside just wasn't safe. We continued to get more snow and there are no sidewalks where my mom lives, so I am running on the shoulder of the main roads. When it snows and the plows push the snow to the side, you cannot run without being in traffic. Between that, ice, and my mom sometimes flat out telling me she didn't want me running outside - I ended up running many miles and many hours on the treadmill in her basement. Now, I'm very appreciative of the fact that she has a treadmill at home that I had access to, but I started to dread that thing with all my might. It took so much will power to just get myself out the door or down to the basement to get on the treadmill that by the time I did it, I had a hard time pushing myself through whatever it was that I had to do that day.

The weather struggles were just one thing though. This was on top of getting very little, very poor sleep, the emotional stress of everything going on, later planning my grandmother's services, poor nutrition from days on end at the hospital trying every soup Au Bon Pan had to offer, comforting myself with cookies, brownies, and junk - and oh yeah, it was also Christmas and the holidays.

But at the same time, I had literally JUST decided on the goal of Albany - I wasn't going to quit or give up. Plus, to be honest, I was having some good runs while I was at home. And the one thing I could get my grandfather to talk to me and smile about in the midst of all this was my running. He told me multiple times in those weeks about how my grandmother's father was the "biggest Boston Marathon nut you'd ever known!" And stories of how they'd all go together to watch the race year after year and how much it was his - and my grandmother's - dream to see me run the Boston Marathon.

I couldn't quit or give. I started to put this pressure on myself. The runs did not feel like something I could skip or I could miss. I needed to do this. I lost enjoyment in my runs while at home, but I felt like I had to do them. I was crying before, after, and sometimes during my workouts. But I needed to train for this race. I missed the lightness and the social-ness of what running usually is to me, the better weather conditions in Atlanta, and longed for a break from the weight of being a support to my family, as well as dealing with my own grief. I felt guilty feeling that way but I couldn't wait to get back to Atlanta and a normal running routine.

I hyped it up in my head of "When you get back to Atlanta it will be better" but then when I did get back to Atlanta - it was still cold. It was still (shockingly) snowing and icy at times. I was still grieving. I was still doing what I could to support my family. And to be honest, it was January and there weren't very many people training intensely. It was tough.

I ran the Red Nose Half Marathon on January 6th and ran 1:47:33 - a new PR. But I wasn't excited, I felt it wasn't good enough.

Once we hit 2018, the race felt so close and everything from this point out mentally became a test of "Is it or is it not good enough?" I had this looming goal and looming deadline that felt more and more important and more and more pressure filled as every week passed. I was analyzing and evaluating every run, comparing myself to others around me, and it was consuming me to the point that I was not being the athlete, friend, daughter and girlfriend I wanted to be. It didn't feel like the joyful thing running usually is in my life.

Every time I spoke to my grandfather he asked about my running and told me about how much Boston Marathon meant to my grandmother. Now, I know, logically, my grandfather is proud of me no matter what and he loves me no matter what, but the emotional side of me wanted to do this for him so badly. Now, more than ever, I wanted to give him something to be excited about, to look forward to, to smile about. I started to just load on the pressure on myself. On top of everything that had happened, the race itself felt so serendipitous. It is on March 3, the day before my grandmother's birthday. And in Albany, GA - a city with the same name of Albany, NY, where my whole running journey began.

I share all of this not in an attempt for empathy or to be all "woe is me" - people go through hard things all the time. But this blog is where I share the ups and downs of my mental and physical journey with training. And all of this has been a part of my mentality the past few months. It has been some of the hardest times in my life, nonetheless my running. It has for sure, been the toughest mental training cycle I have ever gone through. And likely physically as well. I have run longer, harder, and more intensely than I have in the past. But the mental hurdles have been harder.

A few weeks ago I talked on the phone with Adam, one of the coaches at ITL, and I expressed my struggle with the pressure I was putting on myself. I ended up in tears and he expressed to me that sometimes the pressure is too much. And that I have had an amazing year and a half of racing, with not much down time.  He said if I decided not to run Albany, nobody would think poorly of me and would support me either way. Now, I don't know if it was his intent to light a fire under me with the suggestion of not running. But I got off the phone feeling determined. Katelyn Buress does not crack under pressure. I thrive under pressure. Not running was never an option for me. It never crossed my mind. I knew I was running this race and I was going to give it my best shot. But I also realized that I was the only one that was adding all of this extra weight on top of the race. Sure it was a tough stretch goal, but all of that other stuff was just mental that I was creating. And that was a bit of a wakeup call for me.

In the last month and a half, I worked to pull myself back from that pressure and that negative place I alone had put myself in. It has been really hard work (on top of the actual running!) but I am proud of myself for recognizing and working to reverse the space I was in. And I am really thankful to the people I have in my life who have supported me. I have worked to stop trying to overanalyze my runs. In the mindfulness class I take, we had to make a list one day of things that we do on a day-to-day basis that "nourish" us and things that "deplete" us. I had "running" on my list as nourishing and "analyzing my runs" as depleting. That was a big wakeup call for me.

I have actually tried to stop thinking about the race entirely. I focused on each week of training and each day of each week within that, and each mile within each workout. Just trying to execute every day. My coach doesn't even upload my schedule for the next week until after I have completed my workout on Sunday. Despite me always asking for it, I am pretty sure he did that strategically so that I wasn't caught up in what was to come.

I also stopped weighing myself and scrutinizing my weight and if it is "race weight" appropriate. I focused on eating healthy, whole foods, and treating myself when I felt like I needed a treat. It's only been about a bit over a month, but this is now the longest I have gone without weighing myself in about 2 years.

I prioritized running with friends for some runs. I let myself skip some swims. I stopped beating myself up if I had a bad day or a bad run. I focused on the mental training as much as the physical and really had to work to change around how I approached each week.

Over the past few weeks, I spent a lot of time watching the winter Olympics. I love the Olympics and I have always taken a lot of inspiration from the athletes. As I think about the race that I have coming up, I imagine I feel similar to many of the athlete at the Olympics. In reality, probably very few of the athletes there have a super realistic shot of getting a medal - or a gold medal at that. However, they've all worked really hard, accomplished a lot, and sacrificed in order to be there. They are already winners just for being at this point. Just to compete in the Olympics is an incredible achievement and worthy of celebration, whether or not they end up with a medal.

And I am honored and proud of myself for just getting to this point to be able to race, to be able to compete. My coach Jerome said to be via text a couple weeks back, "You are trying to accomplish a stretch goal that you didn't believe you could get to just a couple months back." And that's exactly right. That's what's been sticking with me.

On March 3rd, I am trying for something I never thought was possible for myself. I've made it to a point that many runners never get to. I've made it to a point that for the majority of my life, I never thought I'd get to. I have pushed through a training cycle that many others maybe would have abandoned or put off until a later time. I am trying for something that I never even had the idea to dream of until recently.

I have no idea what will happen on Saturday. And I'm not a shoe-in for a medal by any means, but I have made it to the Olympics. And for that, I am proud.

Now, let's go give it all I've got.

1 comment:

  1. I am so proud of you for all of the work you have been doing! It is crazy to think where you started when I first started following you- no marathons, no ironmans- just working on yourself and now you’re a flipping major athlete on the verge on conquering BOSTON! I am SO PROUD of you!!! You’ve been so dedicated and hardworking and have accomplished each of your goals! It is inspiring and makes it all the more attainable for the rest of us coming up behind you!

    I am assuming this didn’t come out quite the way you hoped but there’s going to be another shot! Hang tight. Your time and your race is still coming. One bad day is not the end of your hopes and dreams! I have to remind myself of this too! I ran payis in 8:30:31.... the thought of being able to run a normal time seems insurmountable right now but I want to. We are each going to climb our mountains, we just just need to hang in there!