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.

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.