2015 Chicago Marathon Recap: Humbled, Thankful and My Legs are Ka-put!

2 marathons, 2 weeks, 2 countries = never again. This is what I posted to facebook immediately following the 2015 Chicago Marathon. Why? After returning from Berlin just about one week prior and trying my best to recover, my body ached all over. Besides the 2012 Boston Marathon, this had to be one of the worst, most painful, emotionally draining races of my life.

The Week Before

Leading up to race I did everything I could think of to rehab my legs and body to be in top shape come race day. I drank loads of cherry juice, ate clean with an emphasis on quality carbs, got a massage (thanks to the fabulous Terri at Urban Wellness Chicago), tried my best to get 8+ hours of sleep per night, kept my workouts to a reasonable pace, talked through my race plan with my coach at least twice, drank plenty of water and kept stress to as low a level as possible. Despite all my efforts – sometimes life just gets in the way. And I really can’t complain as some of the opportunities I had those days before the race will stay with me forever.

Mariano's Fun Run Group
Mariano’s Fun Run Group

The Thursday before, I had the chance to lead a group of local runners on a fun shakeout run through my role at Mariano’s. Joining me for the run, courtesy of PowerBar, was Josh Cox, American 50k Record Holder, PowerBar Team Elite and Desiree Linden, 2012 Olympian, Top American at 2014 NYC Marathon,Top American at 2015 Boston Marathon, PowerBar Team Elite. Both were beyond nice – wishing me luck in my effort at the marathon (neither ran this year). We had a great time and were able to capture a pretty epic group pic with my favorite view of the city skyline in the background.

Friday and Saturday I had to work the expo for Mariano’s as well as had the awesome opportunity to speak 4 times on the Runner’s World Stage talking nutrition for recovery and women’s running with another running great – a legend in my eyes: Joan Benoit Samuelson. It was truly and honor and a treat to hear her speak and I had to fight back tears as she recalled some of her best and worst running moments. As we walked off stage she took a genuine interest in my running history and goals for the marathon. I truly can not thank the folks at Bank of America and Runner’s World for asking me to participate in this awesome opportunity.

Speaking on the Runner's World Stage at the Marathon Expo
Speaking on the Runner’s World Stage at the Marathon Expo

As I made my way home on Saturday after the expo – after meeting my superfan and her friend for lunch and then dropping them off at their hotel – I couldn’t help but reflect on how lucky I was and that no matter how this race would turn out – the experiences in the days prior truly showed me that if you follow your heart and do what you love, things will have a way of falling into place.

I got home from the expo mid afternoon on Saturday. My feet were a bit achy from standing most of Friday and Saturday despite my efforts to stay off of them. I decided to get a pre-race mani/pedi. It helped – but my legs still didn’t feel fresh. I washed the negative thoughts from my head and fixed my typical pre-marathon meal – pasta with red sauce and a couple turkey meatballs and made it an early night – asleep by 9pm. For once, I slept so soundly, I wondered what was wrong with me when I woke up just before my alarm Sunday morning. I hoped my being well rested would pay off.

The Morning Of

As I always do, I had my pre race breakfast of a bagel, peanut butter and a banana, 2 cups of coffee and about 20 oz of Nuun and left for the start. I opted to take the L vs. a cab as I wanted to feel the energy from the other runners. For the first time in 2 years, I would not join my friends/family at the Chicago Endurance Sports Race Day Resort before the race as I had the fortunate luck to be placed in the American Development corral which has private area for athletes to warm up before the start. I’m not sure this was my best decision or that I would do it again – but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Before the Start
Before the Start

At about 7:15 we were ushered to the start line. The nerves were really going at this point. I was so close to the starting line and surrounded by folks I was truly just humbled to run with. I reflected on how far I had come – my first marathon hoping to just break the 4 hour mark to today, hoping to again break the 3 hour mark. I felt ready but was also ignoring some lingering soreness.

The Race

The start was sudden – most of us not realizing the gun had gone off. I quickly settled into my usual too fast pace. I am notorious for going out way too fast – and despite knowing it for at least the first 5k, I managed to stick to that pace for the first 10k – just like Berlin. But unlike Berlin, once I settled into a more reasonable pace, I did not feel good. I was also being passed left and right by fit men and women from the A corral. My coach had warned me about this – and no matter how much I recalled his advice to not get caught up with it – I started to lose confidence. As we made our way through Old Town, I knew today was not the day. It was all I could do not to break into tears. I fought through it – but around mile 12 I started to feel deep pain in my glute – similar to what I struggled with most of July. I couldn’t help it and started to sob. Leave it to the race photographers to catch this fateful moment on camera. How was I going to finish this race?

About to Cry at Mile 12ish
About to Cry at Mile 12ish

I started to play mind games with myself – make it to the halfway point and you can visit a medical tent and consider quitting. So I did – with a new 1/2 marathon PR despite having slowed to almost a minute behind goal pace. OK – maybe not all is lost – I said to myself. So I went on like that – toying with the idea of quitting each time I passed an aid station/medical tent for the next 7 miles.

Around mile 18 I saw my superfan and her friend. There they were both smiling and screaming my name. I lost it – the pain was too much – but somehow seeing them pushed me through it. I would do my best to just finish. It was also about this point I recalled one of my favorite runner’s story (Dean Karnazes) about finishing an ultra on his hands and feet – crawling his way over the finish line. ‘Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.’ I would do this – if I had to – I would walk – and even crawl.

20 miles in I started passing people. I had no idea where it came from. I started to enjoy myself. The pain was still there – but at this point I knew I would finish and while I might not get the time I wanted – I knew I would accomplish another goal – 2 marathons in 2 weeks – both with respectable times that I could be proud of.

The Finish and Aftermath

With about 2 miles to go I saw my coach and another teammate and I screamed at them – it was great – their energy powered me through those last 2 miles and over Mt. Roosevelt. I turned the corner onto Columbus and picked up my pace for the last 400m. Seeing my superfan in the grand stands – it was all I could do not to fall apart again. I crossed the line at just over 3:05 – my fourth fastest time (of now 11 completed marathons) – and almost immediately fell down. My legs were shot. With the aid of one of the volunteers, I walked through the finish area, grabbing my free 312 and post-race refreshments. Finally – after what seemed like the longest walk of my life – I got to the American Development tent. I changed into some dry clothes and made my way to meet my superfan and some other friends at the Race Day Resort. Seeing her waiting outside the ‘Resort’ I broke down into tears again. She hugged me and said she was proud and I told her I had never wanted to quit so bad in my life. Thoughts of so many things carried me through – from knowing that the pain I experienced that day was only temporary to how lucky and appreciative I was just to be able to run and be healthy.

I met up with some of my other running friends who had had both good and bad days. The weather had been warmer than ideal and the wind surprised us all. We all hobbled our way home, cleaned up and then all met up again to continue to reflect on the race while celebrating with a couple more beers, lots of food and laughs. No matter how the race went, we all revelled in our the sense of accomplishing something great – of finishing something less than 1/2 of 1% of the US population (according to a 2012 Runner’s World study) have completed.

Celebrating the Day After with my Superfan
Celebrating the Day After with my Superfan

It’s taken me a bit longer to write this recap. I think because I’ve spent the better half of the last few weeks really reflecting on how lucky I have been this year. While the two marathons I had this fall didn’t go exactly how I wanted – I am fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive team, coach, family and friends and it has made all the difference. I honestly don’t know how to end this post – so instead – I’ll leave you with some quotes from Joan Benoit Samuelson that really resonated with me prior to this race and that I’ll take with me into future running adventures and races.

For my Fleet Feet Racing and DWRunning teammates – you make running fun!: ‘As every runner knows, running is about more than just putting one foot in front of the other; it is about our lifestyle and who we are.’

For my coach, Dan – thanks for all your support and positive energy this season: ‘Love yourself, for who and what you are; protect your dream and develop your talent to the fullest extent.’

To Jolice – my running buddy who listens to me no matter how silly my concern: ‘Years ago, women sat in kitchens drinking coffee and discussing life. Today, they cover the same topics while they run.’

And to the superfan – 11 marathons strong by my side – no quote could sum up how thankful and lucky I am to have you there for each marathon supporting me.

Cheers to you all!!

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Berlin Marathon Recap: Jet Lag, Pretzels and Beer

Just over a week ago I ventured off to Germany for a week-long vacation that kicked off with the Berlin marathon. This was not my first time running in a foreign country but the first time where I crossed an ocean and would need to adjust to the time change in < 2 days as well as navigate a city I’ve only been to once before when I was 16. I was nervous, excited and most of all – scared – scared I would have a horrible race due to multiple factors working against me in the months leading up to this race.

In the week leading up to the race my workouts could not have gone better. I started to adjust my mindset about the marathon and began to get a lot more positive. Given that I also planned to run Chicago two weeks after Berlin, I set out to run a respectable time of 3:05-3:10 – a long ‘training run’ in prep for Chicago. This would not be a PR race (although for many it’s a PR course due to its flat, net downhill course). I would enjoy the sights and just take it easy for the majority of the race – and attempt to kick it into high gear for the last 1/2. Boy was I in for a surprise.

Despite just wanting to sleep, I got my bib!
Despite just wanting to sleep, I got my bib!

I arrived in Berlin on Friday morning after a night of travel with my ‘superfans’ (mother who has been at all 10 of my marathons and my brother for who this would be his first time spectating a major marathon) exhausted but also excited to finally be back in Berlin. We dropped off our luggage at the hotel and set out for some lunch and then made our way to the expo. After getting lost near the finish line, we finally made it to the expo where we fought massive crowds to get my bib and some souvenirs. Once that hassle was out-of-the-way, we enjoyed our first pretzel and beer. Now normally, I would not drink much – if at all – the week prior to the marathon. But seeing all the other runners partaking, it was hard to resist. Beer is a source of carbs after all…

After we checked in that afternoon we set off for a very authentic german dinner (and more pretzels). I skipped the fried, covered in gravy options for a piece of fish and potatoes. Not what I really wanted but I could have my fill of all the german delicacies after the race. For now, I would rein it in. An early bed time followed. I don’t think any of us made it past 9pm.

As seen on my shakeout run
As seen on my shakeout run

Saturday I woke for my shakeout at 4:30am. I knew that this was too early, so I reviewed my race day materials until a more respectable time (and when the sun finally rose) and ventured out for a 3 mi shakeout. I took many pics along the way and really enjoyed just moving my legs again. After my run we did a bus tour of the city followed by lunch and then the 4:30am wake up hit me. I said goodbye to my superfans and returned to the hotel for a 2 hour nap. It was exactly what I needed.

After my nap we grabbed dinner at a cute little Italian restaurant on the same block as our hotel. Following dinner, my superfans talked me into a night-cap at a pub near our hotel. I was hesitant but my mom noted that prior to Boston, I had one beer in the hotel lobby before I went to bed. So I joined them. This may have been mistake number one (although it was delicious).

Pre-race beer with my superfan
Pre-race beer with my superfan

I slept soundly that night – which never happens prior to race day – and for which I was grateful. I ate my typical pre-marathon breakfast – bagel with nut butter and sliced banana and Nuun (all but the banana were brought from home). My stomach felt a little off but I just assumed it was nerves. I walked to the start, mom by my side, and once we got to the start area I said goodbye and we confirmed our plans for meeting up post race.

The pre-race area was very confusing for me and resulted in a lot of stress and anxiety. First — I couldn’t find my tent to check my gear. Once I did check my gear I couldn’t find a port-o-potty. Once I found that, I questioned whether I really had enough time. The line was quite long and moved very slowly. I made it through and had to jog to my corral. Once safely in my corral, I started my warm up stretches and looked around to see if I could find any of my fellow Fleet Feet/CES teammates that I knew were also in the same corral. All of a sudden I heard my name and saw my teammate Colin. We were between a barrier so couldn’t start together – but planned to meet up once we got past the first kilometer. I also noticed that I was one of the only females in this corral. A bit intimidating.

Early in the race - wondering where the other women are
Early in the race – wondering where the other women are

The start came and went and we were off. I settled in to what I knew was too fast of a pace. Looking at my watch I saw 6:30. ‘Control it, Allison’ I thought. But it felt so easy. And the energy from the crowd surrounding me just pushed me forward. My splits for the first 10k ranged between a 6:30 and 6:45 min/mi pace.

Somewhere around the 10k I ran into my teammate Colin. He asked me my goal and I his. We both took another glance at our watches. “I’m going too fast,” I said. He agreed and said even for his 2:55 goal, he too was going too fast. We should slow down. We ran that pace about another mile and then I decided to slow my role. Finally. Settling into a more attainable/realistic pace of 6:50-55 min/mi.

At some point I was engulfed by the 3 hour pace group. I literally had to slow down and let them pass just so I could have enough personal space. It was about this time I also had one of the worst water stop experiences ever. I often joke that water stations are ‘full contact’ in big races – but this was like nothing I had ever seen. I literally was pushed and kicked as runners made their way over to the water station. One push too many and I opted to push back. No one apologizes – even in a foreign language – just a lot of grunting and hitting. Not ideal.

Eye on the finish line
Eye on the finish line

I hit the half mark at almost an even 1:29. Better than I had run in Boston. Was it possible I could break 3? Should I go for it. Not even 2 miles later I quickly decided no. I did not taper for this race and my legs were starting to feel the last weeks workouts and the jet lag. I saw my superfans around this time – which was a serious motivational boost as my legs started to go ka-put. I was paying for that first 10k. I aimed to just keep the pace under 7min/mi for the rest of the race.

With about 5k to go, I was in a full on battle with my thoughts. I knew I’d finish, and that the time would be good, but I was starting to consider walking. I wanted to stop so bad. I saw my superfans again – cheering and screaming with huge smiles on my face. I could do this – just 2k to go! That’s when the hurried bathroom stop hit me. I needed to go. Do I dare stop when I’m this close to the 3 hour mark? I ran through it – but that definitely showed in my last mile – being my slowest of the entire marathon.

So happy to be done!
So happy to be done!

Running under the Brandenburg gate and to the finish line was dream like. I finished with a time of 3:02:21 – almost a minute faster than my time at Chicago  in 2014 and my second fastest marathon ever. I was also the 98th female and 6th American woman to finish. That in and of itself is a pretty cool stat. And I felt good – legs were tired but not destroyed as they had been post-Boston. I grabbed a medal and immediately found the port-o-potty. I have never been so happy to see one – with no line – in my life. As I made my way to gear check, I recalled the mention that there were showers at the finish line area. I opted to check it out knowing my fans would want to hangout and enjoy the after party and despite being hot at the finish – the temp was hovering around 60. I thought this was a nice feature – a shower at the finish. While not high-tech by any means it was just what I needed – minus the number of men who clearly could not decipher between the male and female symbol on the door who got an eyeful.

Enjoying a celebratory beer and curry wurst near the finish
Enjoying a celebratory beer and curry wurst near the finish

Feeling refreshed, I headed over to the family meetup area. There were my fans happy as ever to see me and I them. Glad to be done with it all, we ventured over to the finish area to enjoy a celebratory beer and lunch. I opted for the curry wurst – a street food I had been told I needed to try. It was great. Once we had our fill of post marathon celebration, we headed back to the hotel and out for the night which included my first full litre of beer at Berlin’s Oktoberfest and a pork knuckle for dinner the size of my face. It was a good day and I was happy.

Special thanks to Dan Walters for his great coaching and encouragement and of course my mom and brother for making the trip to Berlin to cheer me on. I could not have done it without you!

Now… to do it all again this Sunday in Chicago…

Race Day Nutrition: Practice Makes PRs!

With fall racing season around the corner — and many of you prepping for marathons — and my longest run of the season planned for this weekend, I thought what better time to revisit what to practice from a nutrition standpoint for race day. Just as you practice for the race with long runs, you should also be practicing what you’ll eat come the big day. Whether it’s your first marathon or tenth, you are likely striving to achieve a new personal record (PR as it’s commonly called in the runner community) and in order to do that, you need to practice.

breakfastPre-Race: at least two hours before your event, consume a meal rich in easy-to-tolerate carbohydrates – about 0.5-1g carbohydrate/pound body weight. For someone 120-150 lbs, this equates to about 90-115 grams of carbohydrate or about 360-460 calories from carbohydrates and around 400-600 calories overall. You want easy to tolerate carbs so that you won’t experience stomach upset around miles 2-3 (this is not the day to go high fiber in your breakfast cereal) and these carbs are meant to top off your glycogen stores (or the primary fuel we rely on for exercise) for the race – which can only happen with carbohydrates.   The goal of your pre-competition mean is something that prevents hunger during the race, stabilizes your blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels and adequately hydrates you. A little bit of protein and fat are good to help you maintain blood sugar levels and to prevent hunger pangs mid-race—but these shouldn’t be the sole focus of your meal. Below are a couple of good options, all of which you can obtain at your local Mariano’s. Make sure to include about 1½ -2 cups fluid with this meal as well to ensure adequate hydration pre-race. Water is fine – but a sports drink would also be a good option.

1 medium bagel + 2 Tbsp peanut butter + 1 medium sliced banana
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Medium, wheat bagel (Natural Ovens, 85g) 230 40 3 10
Roundy’s Organic Peanut Butter (2 Tbsp) 210 7 17 7
Banana (1 medium/126g) 112 29 0 1
Roundy’s Organic Honey  (1 tsp) 20 6 0 0
TOTAL 572 82 20 18
1 cup cereal + ½ cup milk + ½ cup blueberries + 6-8 oz orange juice
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Frosted Mini Wheats Cereal ( 1 1/2 cup) 315 68 2 8
Roundy’s Organic Skim milk (1/2 cup) 45 7 0 5
Blueberries (1/2 cup) 42 11 0 1
Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice (8 fl oz, available in the produce section) 110 27 0 2
TOTAL 512 113 2 16
½ cup oatmeal + 1 Tbsp sliced almonds + ¼ cup dried fruit (like raisins) + 1-2 tsp honey + 1 cup apple juice
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Quick Oats (2/3 cup instant, plain, prepared with water) 205 37 4 7
Roundy’s Sliced Almonds (2 Tbsp) 67 2 6 2
Raisins (2 Tbsp, unpacked) 54 14 0 1
Roundy’s Organic Honey ( 2 tsp) 40 12 0 0
Roundy’s Apple Juice (8 fl oz) 120 30 0 0
TOTAL 486 95 10 10
Nutrition information from items obtained at Mariano’s Bucktown store.

gelsDuring the Race: Hydrate smart – you don’t want to overdo it but you also don’t want to get dehydrated. I like to alternate between water and whatever sports drink the race offers every 2-3 miles. I don’t gulp it but rather take small sips and usually don’t end up drinking the entire cup. You want to take in about 8-12 oz/hour of fluid – about ½ of which is sports drink. After about 45 minutes, I recommend taking additional fuel such as gels or chews. You might not feel like you need this additional nutrition yet – but by taking in extra calories and electrolytes sooner than you feel like you have to, you are less likely to deplete your stores. Make sure to chase these with water (NOT sports drink) to ensure adequate absorption and to prevent stomach distress. Why isn’t a sports drink enough to maintain your energy during these longer runs? The gels/chews provide additional calories (more than you would get from just sipping on a sports drink throughout the race) plus an added boost of electrolytes (the most important of which are sodium and potassium). When we sweat, we not only lose water, but we lose important micronutrients called electrolytes. Electrolytes are important for fluid balance, muscle contraction and neural activity. When we get dehydrated or over-hydrate, we throw our electrolytes out of whack – which can negatively impact our race day performance and may be one of the main reasons people DNF (another acronym commonly used by runners, it means: did not finish).

To prevent fatigue, experts recommend 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour. So what does that look like? Here’s what I do: I try to take in about 12 oz fluid each hour – half of which is sports drink. I also take 2 energy chews every 45 minutes. This equates to about 115 calories, 30 g carbohydrate per hour. This is what works for me and what I have practiced. What works for you might be different – so make sure to figure that out now and NOT on race day. Here are how all the different gels, chews and beverages stack up. You might even try some more natural nutrition sources during the race – like raisins or applesauce. Just note – these aren’t going to have the same amount of sodium as something that has been formulated for endurance athletes – but I’ve known runners who have used a combination of these and all have had success. Again – it’s about what works for you.

Item Calories Carbs (g) Sodium (g) Potassium (g)
8 oz sports drink (like Gatorade) 55 14 95 37
6 Gatorade energy chews (1 package) 100 24 90 30
1 PowerGel 110 27 200 20
1, 1-oz package Roundy’s Raisins 90 22 5 220
1 (90g) Roundy’s Fruit Pouch (like applesauce) 40 10 10 65
Powerbar 240 47 200 105
Nutrition information from items obtained at Mariano’s Bucktown store.

chocolate milkPost-Race Recovery: the most important thing to remember post-race is to rehydrate and restore. This can be as simple as a sports drink and an apple or banana. If food sounds like the last thing that would appeal to you – try a smoothie or some toast. The sooner you refuel the better you’ll feel (I promise). After such a long bought of exercise, your body is in negative energy balance. In order to prevent further muscle breakdown, you need to further replace the glycogen lost as well as protein. Studies have shown that consuming protein within an hour post-workout can help enhance the muscle recover process. You want to aim for 1 gram of protein for every 3-4 grams of carbohydrate consumed, or about 35-50 g carb and 10-20 g pro in the first 2 hours post exercise. If you have no appetite, try small, frequent snacks every 15-30 min, such as:

Chocolate Milk
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Organic Milk (Nonfat/Skim, 1 1/2 cup) 125 18 0 12
Roundy’s Chocolate Syrup (2 Tbsp) 100 24 0 1
TOTAL 225 42 0 13
Greek Yogurt Parfait
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Plain Nonfat Greek Yogurt (1 container, 150g) 100 14 0 12
Blueberries (1/2 cup) 42 11 0 1
Roundy’s Granola (1/2 cup) 200 33 6 5
TOTAL 342 58 6 18
PB&J
Item Calories Carbs (g) Fat (g) Pro (g)
Roundy’s Wheat Bread (2 slices) 200 36 2 6
Roundy’s Organic Peanut Butter (2 Tbsp) 210 7 17 7
Roundy’s Strawberry Jam (1 Tbsp) 50 13 0 0
TOTAL 460 56 19 13
Nutrition information from items obtained at Mariano’s Bucktown store.

So what’s the bottom line?

  • Never try anything new on race day
  • What works for you may not work for others
  • Treat your long runs as an opportunity to try something new
  • Pre-race – focus on carbs/hydration
  • During – hydrate and adequate fuel
  • Post-race – recover with protein AND carbohydrates
  • Don’t take it your nutrition too seriously! Food is meant to be enjoyed!

(this post originally appeared on the Chicago Hyatt’s blog in advance of the 2014 Chicago marathon)

The Road to Boston: Chasing the Unicorn with a Team by my Side

This will be my third time running the Boston marathon and my eighth marathon total. Many people wonder why – why one would choose to put his or herself through running 26.2 miles voluntarily – and then do it multiple times. For those that have done a marathon – whether you chose to be a one and done runner or are toeing the line of your 20th, a big part of it is getting to that finish line. And the finish line at Boston is like no other experience you will have. As a runner – and I can proudly say that – crossing that finish line in 2008 and again in 2012 were truly moments in time that I will cherish. But running with a group – like the one I’m heading to Boston with in just over a week – has shown me that running can be more than just about that ultimate prize.

2008: You Never Forget Your First Time
My road to Boston started in 2008. I was in graduate school at Tufts and had never run a marathon before. It was on my bucket list – and when the president of the school announced a charity program that would guarantee entry into the coveted race, I jumped at the chance – figuring it’d be my one and only chance to run it – and that I’d never be fast enough to time qualify.

2008 Boston Marathon
At the finish of the 2008 Boston Marathon – completely exhausted.

Looking back on that race, it’s amazing I did as well as I did for my first marathon as I barely made it through my one and only 20 mile training run and did not log nearly as many miles during the week as I do now – and I did absolutely no speed work—things that have become second nature to me going into my 8th marathon and 2nd year running with the Fleet Feet Chicago Racing Team.

Starting in the third wave – with a bib number in the upper 20,000s, it was quite the experience. I trained and ran the race solo and saw my friends and mom at different points throughout the race. I wore a brand new Timex watch that I didn’t even know how to use and had no idea what a split was, didn’t monitor my pace, and did my nutrition all wrong. But rounding that last corner onto Mass Ave made all the pain, blisters, and stomach aches suddenly disappear. The crowd consumed me and it was all I could do not to break into tears at the sight of the finish line. I finished around the 3:52 mark – meeting my goal of finishing in less than 4 hours and I was utterly exhausted but oddly fascinated by the realization that I wanted to do it again – and I wanted to go faster.

2012: The Hardest, Hottest Run of my Life
Fast forward to 2012. At this point, I had completed 2 more marathons (my second being Marine Corp Marathon where I time-qualified for Boston by just about 5 minutes). Having moved to Austin, Texas – I had enjoyed a great training season as I did not have to deal with weather conditions like I did when I lived in the northeast. I was feeling pretty confident going into the race. I had moved up to wave two and my bib number again improved by almost 10,000 numbers.

2012 Boston Marathon
Forcing a smile at the end of the 2012 Boston Marathon.

Rather than recap the whole race, I’ll sum it up by saying this experience was truly the hardest, hottest, most difficult run of my life. When forecasters started reporting that it’d be in the 80s the day of the marathon – I thought I’d have a leg up – but I learned the hard way – to respect the conditions and readjust expectations. I finished – but not where I wanted to. Going into the race, assuming all went well, I had not planned to make another appearance in Boston again– but because I want my last time running Boston to end on a high note, I decided I’d have to do it again.

When the bombings happened in 2013, I was sitting at my desk, now living and working in Chicago. My heart broke. It was gut wrenching to watch a town I used to call home and my community – the community of runners – get beat up like that. But it was also so encouraging to see everyone come together and really support one another. I decided in that moment – no matter what – I would cross that finish line at least one more time.

2015: Chasing the Unicorn with a Team by my Side
In the fall of 2013 I toed the line of the Chicago marathon for the first time. I had trained hard and for the first time ever, with others through the Chicago Endurance Sports (CES) marathon training program and the Fleet Feet Racing Team workouts. I felt ready – more ready than I have ever felt in my life. I not only PR’d but shaved off 20 minutes finishing in just over 3 hours and 15 minutes. I was beyond ecstatic. I would run Boston again in 2015.

Since then, I have run two more marathons – Lake Placid and Chicago again in 2014. My last experience was another huge improvement – finishing in just over 3 hours and 3 minutes. I can honestly say if it had not been for the support, encouragement and constant challenges I receive from my running family at Fleet Feet and CES (because I truly see them as an extension of my family) there is no way I would be where I am today.

With some of my teammates at the finish of the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Can't wait to run the streets with them in Boston!
With some of my teammates at the finish of the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Can’t wait to run the streets with them in Boston!

So this will be my third time running Boston. I have moved from the back of wave 3 to the middle of wave 1 – averaging about a 10,000 bib increase each time. I have trained through a terrible Chicago winter – and yes, mostly outdoors in occasional white out conditions and through bone-freezing negative wind chills. I did speed workouts on treadmills when the ice made it unsafe to attempt to do them outside, woke before dawn for double digit training runs during the week. Ran a 20 miler by myself because I had to skip the planned one due to a slight injury and travel plans. I even broke down in tears due to a tight hamstring 2 miles into a speed workout on the lake front path only to be met by fellow teammates who stopped and run/walked me back to the store – foregoing their planned workout for the night to help me. I ran through a lingering illness for over two weeks and started a new job in the middle of some of my highest mileage weeks. And when I wanted to quit – which was multiple times– I did not because of the support and encouragement of my teammates and our coaches.

So what have I learned throughout this training season? That while we may not always run together – and we sometimes even compete against each other – we are one community – a community of runners. And I am so grateful for the friendships, bonds and miles we’ve put in this together.

And in my dreams – there’s that finish line – the ultimate prize. Here’s to chasing that unicorn in less than a week! Good luck to everyone who has trained hard. May this race be all you hope it to be!

A Word of Thanks and Chicago Marathon Recap: Practice Makes PRs

Before I recap this race, I wanted to send out a few words of thanks:

As I reflect on my recent marathon experience, I can’t help but feel overcome with a great sense of gratitude and support. Having started training with Chicago Endurance Sports (CES) about a year and a half ago – I never imagined the times that I have been throwing down this fall would actually be a reality. I joined to meet people, being new to the city, and it truly has changed my life.

This marathon will also go down as the season of superstars – at least in my eyes. Yes, I had the opportunity to pace a ½ marathon with a female Olympic contender (Lauren Fleshman), sit on a panel of experts with Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor, speak on the main stage at the expo and even get interviewed on 670 AM about what to do post-race. And while all those experiences were ones I’ll never forget, it was pacing a pack of amazing people all summer long that really, truly has changed my outlook on running.

The Great 8s after our last long run of the season
The Great 8s after our last long run of the season

While racing for me is a constant internal struggle with ‘can I do better?’ and pushing myself to be the best runner I can be, pacing provides me the opportunity to help others meet their goals and gives me a sense of reward that a new PR could never provide. I am so fortunate that CES has afforded me this opportunity. To the ‘Great 8s,’ you have no idea the courage and strength you all have and your positive energy and support of one another really helped fuel my run on October 12th. Running with you all this summer has been a complete pleasure. We toughed it out – through down pours, the heat, and some injuries – we overcame with smiles on our faces. We laughed, some of us cried, and we triumphed.

Great 8s, this race is dedicated to you – thank you for being an awesome group to have the chance to lead all summer long. And to CES and the rest of the Chicago running community – for showing the world what a top-notch city we are.

Now – the race report:

When I woke up the morning of the race, I wasn’t feeling great. Something felt off. Without jumping into details, let’s just say Paula Radcliffe’s 2002 Chicago Marathon started in a very similar way. I thought, “if this is the worst thing that happens today, I’ll be ok.” Lucky enough for me, it was.

Pre-Race at the CES Race Day Resort
Pre-Race at the CES Race Day Resort

I considered a cab to the start but then opted to take the El to share in the experience with other Chicago runners. With my super fan (thanks, Mom) next to me, we made our way to the CES Race Day Resort – something I’m so grateful for as it offers a warm place to change, food, post-race massage and a meeting place for friends/family. We could feel the nervous and excited energy the minute we walked in. I finished my ritual pre-race breakfast (peanut butter, bagel and a banana) and applied my pace tattoos – one arm with a 3:10 and the other with a 3:05 goal times. 3:10 was what I was claiming was realistic, 3:05 was my stretch goal. I felt confident I could reach 3:10 – but 3:05 was only if everything came together, or so I thought.

As I made my way over to the start with some of the Great 8s, I started to get really excited – maybe too much – I now had to pee and those port-o-pot lines are not fun. It was 20 minutes to the start. I decided to test my luck and ended up listening to the national anthem in line. I finally got to the start of the line as they announced the corrals were closing. I just made it and had to sprint to the corral to find the pacer that I would intend to run with for the rest of the race.

Smiling away at about mile 6-7
Smiling away at about mile 6-7

I opted to go with 3:05 – ignoring advice that I start out conservative and then speed up on the 2nd half. Well I stayed with that group for all of a minute. Soon I was closer to the 3:00 pace group than the 3:05. I felt good. I looked at my watch and noticed the first 5 miles were done at about a 6:45 – 6:50 min/mi pace. What?!? I knew I could do that for a ½ but not a full. No way? Or maybe I could? I felt strong – not like this pace was a struggle. I maintained that pace for the next 15 miles. When I hit the half way mark and just under 1:30, I met up with some friends from CES/Fleet Feet’s Racing Team. It was so nice to see some familiar faces. By the time I hit 20, my legs felt ka-put. But I told them to shut up and kept pushing through. Endurance wise I knew I was there – just needed the legs to back me up. I dropped to about a 7-7:15 min/mi pace for the last 6 – but still felt strong – even on the dreaded incline during the last ½ mile.

As I crossed the finish line at 3:03:36, I raised my hands in the air and could not control my emotions. I started to cry. Having beat my ‘stretch goal’ I could not be more ecstatic. From the days when I couldn’t even break the 12 minute mark in a mile in gym class, I am reminded of how far I’ve come – and it’s very much in part to CES and the Fleet Feet Racing Team. I owe this PR to you and truly believe in the process. In the various presentations I’ve given this summer, I’ve consistently said – practice makes PRs. All those speed workouts, tempo runs, long runs and shorter races have led to this and I can not thank you enough for the constant encouragement and support.

Post race smiles (and beers)!
Post race smiles (and beers)!

So now, it’s on to the next challenge – a 50k in December followed by the Boston marathon in April. And maybe – just maybe – a sub 3 hour marathon is in sight. For now – I’m enjoying some relaxed runs and much-needed R&R.

Special thanks to friends and family who came out to support – whether in person or virtually – your well wishes and kind words are what continues to fuel me.

Lake Placid Marathon Recap: One of the most Unforgettable Races of my Life

The beautiful scenery - Mirror Lake
The beautiful scenery – Mirror Lake

It’s been a while since I wrote a recap of a race. But this one was just too good not to. When I signed up for this race I wasn’t sure if I’d have it in me. It was late February in Chicago – running outside was not happening due to it being insanely cold and sloppy, I had the flu and could barely get off the couch, and I knew getting some hill workouts in was likely not going to happen. Despite the forces telling me I was crazy, I fondly recalled childhood memories of camping and vacations in the Adirondacks and made the decision to commit to the full marathon. I even talked my friend into joining me.

And today, I couldn’t be happier with my decision.

Pre-Race

My friend Josh and I before the start
My friend Josh and I before the start

From the cute relaxing condo we rented just a couple blocks off Main St, to the serene, calm and crystal clear air of the mountains, this was truly a weekend to remember. We arrived Friday night after about 5 hours on the road. My superfan (mom), friend and I were tired and ready for dinner (carbs for my friend and I, scallops for my mom). It was an early night followed by another restful and relaxing day filled with more carbs, a short 2-mi shakeout run with–by Lake Placid standards–a “small” hill thrown in for fun, and packet pickup. After packet pickup we visited the Olympic museum at the 1932 ice rink which was inspiring in its own way. The day was capped with another carb-heavy meal and an early bed time – if we could sleep at all.

Marathon Sunday

Sunday’s forecast was for low 80s with very little cloud cover. Not ideal, but I didn’t let this scare me too much – I knew it was going to be tough and there wasn’t much I could do about the weather. I just had to slightly adjust my expectations for the day and hydrate a little differently (more Gatorade than I normally would). It was in the upper 50s at the start and very few clouds in the sky. The energy of the crowd was buzzing. We were ready to own the town.

The start included a sweet and slightly awkward wedding proposal that brought a tear to more than one eye. They played what they called the ‘National Anthem’ which was really America the Beautiful – but no one seemed to mind. With a verbal countdown we were off for the most populated first 3 miles around Mirror Lake. I saw my superfan at the top of the first hill in front of the Olympic ice rink. Smiling, waving and taking pics – she truly is a superfan (more on that later).

During the first 3 miles - the girl in the red socks won
During the first 3 miles – the girl in the red socks won

After a relatively easy 3 flat, slightly downhill miles around the lake, the true race started – out and back twice down what you might consider country roads. The marathon also includes a ½ marathon and for the first 12 ½ miles, we ran with ½ marathoners. They also don’t fully close the roads so you are occasionally fighting some oncoming traffic. Either way, this had to be one of the most serene or picturesque marathons I’ve ever run. From the open fields surrounded by mountains to the view of the Olympic ski jump, to the fly fisherman, I really enjoyed and tried to take in everything around me (also because it took my mind off of anything negative).

Forcing a smile after about 22 miles
Forcing a smile after about 22 miles

At about 7 miles in we turned around and headed back to the start – this was great because you could see who was ahead of you and behind you and also meant I would get to see my friend–who’s sight motivated me further and brought a smile to my face in the midst of the grueling terrain and heat. It was also at about this point when runners started to let me know I was second place female for the marathon. SECOND PLACE?!? Seriously – this was never something I could fathom. Second in my age group maybe – but second place! When I saw the first place woman she and I made eye contact and both encouraged each other. If you’ve ever run a race before – this is not all that common. The leaders hardly even look at you let alone encourage you. This proceeded to happen with not only her but the male leader as well (who, by the way, won with a 6 min margin and ran in flip flops). At the ½ marathon point she probably had about a 2 minute lead on me. At this point my game plan changed. I felt good – the hills were tough but manageable and I wasn’t overheated. I saw my superfan (mom) and got another surge of motivation. I could do this if I could just keep a good lead on the third place woman – who might have been about 30 seconds – 1 minute behind me. It would be tough but I told myself – you’ve done the training, you ate right, you can do this. For those that know me – and/or run with me – you may also know I’m not the best about positive thinking. I tend to beat myself down during runs – something I’ve been working on especially this year to stop doing. I tried to focus on the words of wisdom I’ve gotten over the past year from some of my training buddies and stayed positive.

Super happy at the finish
Super happy at the finish

The second half was much more of a battle with myself than anyone else – primarily because we lost about 1500 runners to the half. For most of the rest of the race you were alone. At one point I could not see anyone in front of or behind me and it was a moment I’ll never forget (along with many from this race). At around mile 18 I was running pretty close to a guy who I could tell was struggling a bit. We were just about to the last turn around point and about to head in to the finish. I had 2 gels left that I was timing to take at 18 and then again for a last surge of energy at 24. I grabbed them and somehow they slipped through my fingers. Instead of stopping (stupid, I know), I just resolved to take more Gatorade and decided maybe I don’t need them. I heard someone coming up behind me and it was the guy I had just passed who had been struggling. He knew I was in second and with a French accent handed me my gels and said “you got this – go get your win.” This small act of kindness powered me through some of the toughest miles of my life as a runner.

When they warned us there’d be hills we shook it off (for those interested, I compared the course profile of Lake Placid to Chicago and Boston – see below). When they said the finish was tough, we figured it can’t be that bad. No – it’s worse. For those that have run the Chicago marathon, you know about the cruel hill they include at the finish. Take that hill and multiply it by 10 – that was the finish of this marathon. For those that have run Boston, you’ve heard about heartbreak hill – take that and make it significantly steeper and put it at mile 25 ½. Not only were there multiple hills throughout that makes a Midwestern runner like myself cringe, this last hill seemed to go on forever. It was also during these last 3-4 miles that fans started to let me know that the leader was walking – and just in front of me. If I could just keep up the pace up the hill I might catch her. While I closed that gap to only about 30 seconds, catching her on that hill was next to impossible. I could see her and I could tell she was walking but so was I. Well – what I would call a walk/trot. That hill was a very mean thing to do to someone after running 25 miles. I did my best and was beyond ecstatic to round the last corner onto the flat speed skating oval to run the ½ lap to the finish. I heard them announce her name and knew that I would clinch the second place win with a gallant effort to overtake her. It was also at this point I knew I would PR (personal record) – on a considerably more difficult course than Chicago where my previous PR had been made < 1 year ago. I was emotional, happy, sweaty, sore and sun burned but still felt surprisingly strong.

Course profiles: Lake Placid on top, Chicago in the middle, Boston on bottom
Course profiles: Lake Placid on top, Chicago in the middle, Boston on bottom

My Superfan

Superfan posing as a speed skater
Superfan posing as a speed skater

And there – standing at the finish was my superfan. Here’s why she gets that title: she drove my friend and I over 4 hours into the Adirondacks, accompanied us to meals where we stuffed our faces with carbs galore, gave up a weekend of her life to devote to ours, got eaten alive by black flies and other assorted bugs while trying to get pics of us at the ½ way point and finish, dealt with our numerous complaints pre- and post-race and just was an all-around super fan for both of us. Thank you mom for being you. I cannot tell you how happy I was to see you at the finish and for your added support along the way. Whenever I wanted to quit or thought I couldn’t do it, I thought of you and your smiling face at the finish and it made all the pain worth it.

Post-Race

Accepting my second place award
Accepting my second place award

Following the race, I was lucky enough to be interviewed by the local paper – which was fun because I had marathon brain, and wasn’t all that clear in my responses but I think the reporter captured what I was trying to get across (check it out here: http://bit.ly/1lkxd4B). We waited for the awards ceremony then shuffled our way back to our condo. After a shower, we hit up the Lake Placid Brewery for a couple post-race celebratory beverages. My friend and I had thought we might be ready to ride the bobsleds at the Olympic Training Center but quickly decided we were in no shape for that and to add it to our bucket list for next time. Instead, we went for a scenic drive, visiting ADK loj – a place I camped numerous times with my family growing up.

The weekend was capped with a 14 oz NY Strip steak, a couple more celebratory beverages and an early bedtime. In all, this truly was one of the best weekends of my life. Special thanks to Chicago Endurance Sports and the Fleet Feet Racing team for helping me get to where I am today and to Josh and my Mom for putting up with me and for sharing in one of the most unforgettable moments of my life!

The Hardest, Hottest Run of My Life

As you may have read in previous posts, I have run a couple of marathons and aim to now run at least one or two a year. The past few months, I’ve been training for the Boston Marathon, which took place Monday, April 16th. Many would say just to qualify is an accomplishment, and I would agree. I qualified with a time of 3:35 in 2010 at the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington D.C.

My training for Boston went so smoothly, that I set a lofty goal of beating my Marine Corp time, about 2 weeks before the race. I was averaging 7:30min/mile on my long runs, so I really felt like this goal could be achievable. The week of the race, forecasters were warning that the temperature on marathon Monday would reach into the 80s. I thought – I’ll be fine – I’ve been training in the Texas heat. Little did I know that even the TX heat (which has really only been low 80s at the peak of my training) could not even compare to what I would encounter on April 16th.

Dean and I at the Runners World booth at the Boston Marathon Expo

I arrived in Boston on the Saturday before the race minus one bag (thankfully I packed my race day gear in my carry-on). My bag arrived later Saturday evening and I enjoyed seeing some of the sights and sounds of my old home (I lived, studied, ran and ate in Boston between 2006-2008). Sunday, my faithful super-fan (my mom) and I made our way to the over-crowded expo to pick up my bib and roam the expo hall. We met Dean Karnazes, a running idol of mine, and bought a couple souvenirs. The rest of the day was full or R and R as well as a lot of carbs and fluids.

Throughout this time, all registered runners were receiving warnings and updates from race officials about the heat. They even offered participants the opportunity to defer their entry until next year. I felt as though I would be OK – but seriously started doubting myself when I learned a fellow Texan would likely defer. Would I really be OK? Would the heat allow me to finish? Should I go through with it? Ultimately, through the encouragement of a few others as well as my super-fan, I decided to run – but to take it easy – and still aim to finish under 4 hours (another mistake I’d soon learn).

The morning of the race was a warm one – upper 60s at 7am. By the time of the wave 2 start (10:20 am) the temp was easily in the upper 70s. I was sweating at the starting line and all I could think about was whether or not I could handle this. Before I had time to think too long we were off.

Miles 1-13.1

I carried a bottle of water with me for the first 2-3 miles – a recommendation from one of my fellow runners, so as to avoid the full-contact water stations at miles 2 and 3 as the running crowd started to spread out. I felt good and was really starting to feel like maybe my TX training would come in handy. The first half went by relatively fast, but the heat was definitely there, lurking. Every chance I had I ran through sprinklers and sprayers and poured water over my head. My feet and clothes were soaked by mile 5. I alternated between water and Gatorade as I normally do and took spectator offerings of oranges and additional water. I finished the first half with a pace of 8:19/mile. Perhaps I could do this under 4 hours after all.

Miles 13.1-21

At the Athlete's Village awaiting the start of the Boston Marathon

We passed a group of women outside Wellesley College – I believe somewhere between miles 14 and 15 and the crowd was amazing. The girls all had signs requesting runners kiss them. Personally I felt as though there should be a few men out there too – to which one guy offered to kiss me. I laughed and continued my pace into the streets of Wellesley. Then, reality set in.

I got a cramp in my lower stomach. I tried running through it. I tried putting my hands over my head. I tried massaging it out. I tried everything I could think of but it kept getting worse. Finally at around 15 1/2 I entered a medical tent. My body did not like me – I was hot, tired and now very emotional and I could barely stand up straight. I was mad. Why didn’t I just defer? Four months of the best, most dedicated training I’ve ever given towards a marathon – all to be ruined by 90 degree weather. It wasn’t fair. I started crying. The medic took my blood pressure, which was normal, and offered me some ice cold diluted gatorade. He gave me his cell phone to call my mom – something I hesitated to do as I didn’t want her to worry. I called her regardless, let her know I was thinking about quitting. She said she was proud either way. I told her I knew that but that I wasn’t – that I had to finish this race. We hung up and another runner who had entered the tent for some vasoline and to take some salt pills approached me. He looked familiar and we started talking about the race’s brutality in this heat and he told me he had set out to run it in around 3 hours. He wasn’t happy with the conditions either – but he encouraged me to continue and even offered me a hug – to which I gladly accepted. Then I found out – of all places – he was from Austin – and helps out with a local running group there that I have been thinking about joining. What are the chances of out of the over 24,000 runners that choose to start the race, he’d enter the tent and talk to me? I suddenly felt like I could at least jog/walk the next few miles. I thanked him for his encouragement and told him I hoped to see him back in Austin.

So I set out on the next 5-6 miles. The worst 5-6 miles of my life. I essentially ran 1/2 a mile and walked 1/2 a mile the entire time. I walked all of Heart Break hill. I was hot and at one point felt as though I might be sick. At the top of Heart Break Hill the second amazing thing happened that would motivate me beyond what I thought was possible. I happened to see a sign with my favorite Dean Karnazes quote ‘Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.’ Having just completed his first book about 2 months ago, which has significantly impacted my outlook on life and running, the quote was so significant in this moment.

Miles 21-26.2

Big Smile after Crossing the Finish Line!

I suddenly felt a surge of energy. I started running. I didn’t stop. I embraced the crowd – I even smiled a bit. I really started to enjoy this race and realize it’s importance. It’s significance. I ran with joy, passion and love of the experience. I slapped the hands of spectators, enjoyed the most amazing Popsicle of my life at mile 23 and allowed myself to really just take it all in. This was Boston, on the hottest day in over 30 years and possibly on record – and I was going to do this – I was going to finish.

When I turned the corner onto Boylston and saw the finish line I became emotional again. I reached deep to compose myself so that I could finish. Tears streemed down my face and at one point and I could not believe that the finish was actually in sight. While I may not have finished with a time I’m proud of. I finished. Many did not – including the 2011 men’s champion. I could wear my medal with pride.

I found my super fan and it was all I could do to keep myself from collapsing in her arms. I could see the tears streaming from her face. Every marathon comes with emotions – but this one – this one was different. With so many people just happy to finish – I too joined them in a celebration of success.

A couple hours later, as I sat in the car, I turned to my super fan and asked “you think I could run another one in May?” She responded that I might consider taking a little more time off. “You are probably right,” I said. “Fall sounds more realistic.”

Thanks, Mom, for your support, encouragement and guidance. This run is dedicated to you.