This was not part of the training plan. But then again, the training almost never goes according to plan. Some days are smooth, and other days rock you and bring you to your knees. Both types are important for progress and growth.
May 10, 2022 started off pretty well. I had recovered enough from recent surgery to do yoga with my beloved teacher and mentor, enjoyed a delicious salad for lunch from my dear friend, and was looking forward to a fun and relaxing summer with my family. After lunch while chatting with a friend I saw a notification pop up on my email with the subject line, “New Test Result.” My initial response was to keep chatting with my friend and check it later. However, feelings of anxiety and panic started to flood my body. My chest tightened, hands started trembling and my heart was racing faster. I could no longer hear any of the words coming out of my friend’s mouth. I told my friend I’d call her back. I opened the email with my shaking hands and saw the words I feared but never really expected to see there. “Carcinoma. High grade. Present in margins.” As I scanned the pathology report trying to understand what all of the words meant, I felt my heart rate increase even further. My vision seemed to narrow and my world came to a complete stop. I had just received a life changing cancer diagnosis over email. We have dealt with a lot of cancer in our family, but nothing could have prepared me for my own diagnosis.
The next several hours are a blur. I called my husband to help me decipher the report and tried to get in touch with my doctor’s office. The trauma of receiving a cancer diagnosis was being compounded by the fact that I had no doctor or medical professional to speak with me about the pathology report, explain the diagnosis, and discuss potential treatment options. Just three weeks earlier I had run the Boston Marathon. How did I go from Boston marathoner to cancer patient in three short weeks? How would I possibly tell my kids? I had always pictured myself growing old with my husband and having grandchildren, but suddenly felt like this vision was in question. My own mortality was staring me straight in the face and it was not a comfortable feeling.
When I ran Boston in April, I fell at mile 8, hurting my shoulder and ankle. In the later miles of the race as I pushed through the pain wondering why I fell and why I was up most of the night with puking children I thought, “it’s going to take me a while to integrate this.” I knew there was some lesson to be learned but that it may not be revealed to me immediately. One of the things that I love about running, and distance running in particular, is that it is a contained field upon which to explore my inner landscape. Each time I run a marathon I learn something new about myself and the world around me. Each time I go deeper. I come away with pearls of wisdom that can be extrapolated and applied to the larger canvas of life. After I fell in Boston, I got up, focused, and got the best out of myself that day. And my best was good enough to re-qualify. I learned that in the face of adversity I can persevere.
Navigating a breast cancer diagnosis has been devastating and emotionally draining. I have spent many nights in bed crying asking why. I know that I am fortunate that my cancer was caught early and is very treatable. However, the treatments do not come without significant side effects, and I will live in fear of it returning for the rest of my life. The psychological toll should not be underestimated. Although we did plenty of fun things this summer, I also feel like I spent half of the summer in doctors’ offices and on the phone with insurance companies. However, just like I ran with the sore shoulder and ankle in Boston, I am proceeding through this as best I can. I may be down, but I am far from out. I know from past experiences that I have the will and spirit to triumph and that is exactly what I plan to do here. I will persevere, I will integrate the lessons, and I will thrive.
I was honored to run this year’s 126th running of the Boston Marathon which was also a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first official women’s division in 1972. In honor of women running Boston, I will start this race report with a couple of quotes from two women I admire very much.
“Boston is one of the most magical marathons in the world, but it will also break your heart. And honestly, that’s what makes it great- it makes you feel.” – Kara Goucher
“There are a lot of emotions to being human. Somehow in the marathon, you feel them all.” – Amy Eyler
I felt immense gratitude just to make it to the start line feeling healthy and good. My two boys unfortunately got food poisoning the night before the race, and my husband and I were up over half the night taking care of them and cleaning up vomit. I got a few hours of sleep and was thankful to make it out the door and to the bus pickup area without feeling sick myself.
Miles 1-8: My wave of runners was ushered to the start line in one huge mass. I could see about where the start line was located, but had a hard time seeing the timing mat due to the large number of runners packed into the narrow streets of Hopkinton. Eventually the walking pace turned to a jog and then a slightly faster pace and we all moved over the mat practically in unison. We were off and running the 126th Boston Marathon! It was hard to get into any sort of rhythm or individual pace at the start due to the crowds so I focused on trying to relax and find pockets where I could run without having to weave in and out too much.
I was so excited to see my friend Amy when she ran up behind me and called by name. It’s amazing to me that we were able to find each other in a sea of 30,000 runners and seeing her smile lifted my spirits even more.
On each downhill I reminded myself to relax and tried to reign in the pace while also not braking.
Miles 8-16: Mile 8 is where the trajectory of my race changed. Mile 8 is usually where the marathon starts to feel hard for me, and with 18 additional miles to run, the realization that you are tired at mile 8 can shake your confidence. I was prepared for the Mile 8 fatigue and armed with tools from my mental toolbox. I told myself, “This is normal. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. Find your breath and return to center. Keep grinding.” I heard two women nearby chatting about how tired they were feeling already as well which further validated the thought that Mile 8 fatigue is nothing to worry about and just part of the process.
Somewhere between Mile 8 and 9, I must have taken a misstep or rolled my ankle and found myself falling straight into the asphalt. I have fallen multiple times on trail runs and once during a trail race, but I had never taken a tumble in the middle of a road race. Two kind runners immediately stopped to help, encourage and check on me. I popped up declaring, “I’m fine! I’m good!” not knowing if it was true and kept running. One of the runners who stopped to check on me gave me a swift pat on the back and said, “You got this! All the way to the finish!” I appreciated their kindness so much and wish I could find them to thank them again. Although I could see the red mark on my shoulder from where it hit the road and feel the sting on the palm of my hand from trying to break my fall, I didn’t allow myself to inspect them too much. I kept running and as I ran I tried to conduct an internal scan of my body. What hurt? Was I okay to keep running? Did I need to stop at a medical tent?
My body and mind have not always had the best relationship. Could I trust my mind right now to make decisions that were in the best interest of my body? Would my heart interfere? I kept running, assessing the situation, and returning to my breath. At some point I looked at my watch and noticed that my pace had picked up, no doubt due to the rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins, and I settled and slowed the pace back down.
I had no idea that Tommy Rivs was running Boston (if you don’t know his story, read this and this), and I had the surprise and absolute honor of seeing him for a moment and knowing that I was sharing the course with him. His courage, resilience and amazing outlook on life inspires me.
I ran by the Wellesley girls, giving high fives and blowing kisses. The more I could smile and focus on the crowd and other runners, the less I thought about the pain in my ankle and shoulder.
Miles 16-21: Miles 16 through 21 is where the Newton Hills are located, the 4th and toughest hill coming at about mile 20. I reminded myself that the hills are a welcome opportunity to use my muscles differently and made a note to run by effort. As I crested each hill I tried to take a few quick steps to reset my pace and relax on the downhill. I had seen a post from Featherstone Nutrition about how to fuel for the hills and took an extra gel around mile 19. This worked well for me and helped me ingest all six of my gels prior to the final stretch of the race.
Miles 21-26.2: I had told myself that if I had anything left in the tank after the hills, I could pick up the pace slightly after Heartbreak Hill. Although I tried, I did not have anything left in the tank. My quads and hamstrings were feeling the fatigue of the prior 20+ miles and my shoulder and ankle were aching more as the adrenaline had worn off. I thought multiple times about slowing down intentionally or stopping and walking for a bit. However, I remembered my goal to get the best out of myself on the day.
These last few miles of a marathon are a sacred space. We don’t get to this number of miles in training, and for many of us, we will only be at mile 21+ of a run a handful of times in our lives. This is the space where we dig deep, find new strengths, and learn new lessons. This is the place where if we are able to turn towards the discomfort and surrender to the process, we can receive the greatest gifts. We are doing all of this as a collective community with roaring crowds who cheer, hold space for, and support the journey of each and every runner. It is a beautiful thing to witness and an amazing thing to be a part of.
I was hurting, but I held on as best I could knowing each step was taking me a bit closer to to those magical final turns. I saw the Citgo sign in the distance, a landmark to indicate that Boston was near. As I passed the 24 mile marker, I told myself that I could do two more miles and imagined doing one of the two mile repeats I had done in training. It is amazing what the body can accomplish with a little encouragement from the mind and leadership from the heart.
I turned right onto Hereford, then left onto Boylston, soaking in the magic and energy of the final stretch. I glanced at the crowd looking briefly for my family, but knowing that they were likely recovering in the hotel room. I stretched my arms out and up in gratitude.
In spite of being up half the night with sick kids, falling at mile eight, and struggling to hold my pace the last few miles, I crossed the finish line in 3:48:51, a Boston qualifying time, my second fastest marathon, and faster than my time in the fall. Most importantly, I crossed the line full of gratitude and joy.
There are many lessons that I learned from this run, and ones I am still learning and trying to integrate.
My body is wise and I can trust the messages it sends me. In spite of worrying that I did not have the intuition and wherewithal to properly evaluate how I was feeling after my fall, my assessments were correct. I was fine running through soreness and mild bruising and almost a week later feel mostly recovered.
The stories that we attach to experiences shape our reality. I could have told myself after being up most of the night and falling at mile 8 that it just wasn’t my day. Or I could tell myself that falling led me to a connection with two amazing strangers and gave me the opportunity to further understand my resilience and strength. Which one do you think would lead to better running for the next 18 miles?
We are all connected. Those two runners who stopped to help me at mile 8 likely saved my race. The crowds cheering in support boosted me when I was low on energy. There were so many runners who were making the 26.2 mile trek for causes and reasons larger than themselves. We may run with individual bibs on, but the journey from the start line to the finish line is a collective one.
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” – Kathrine Switzer, first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon
To keep people spread out due to COVID, the 2021 Boston Marathon start was a rolling start. Instead of bringing everyone out to the start line and starting all at once in a big mass, runners were bussed out to the start gradually over several hours and started whenever they got to the start line and felt ready to go. I personally liked the rolling start. It was nice because it was not overly crowded, and the port-a-potty lines were short. It was definitely a different vibe though without the excitement of a mass race start and the national anthem. It felt a bit strange just to walk to the start line and start your watch whenever you wanted like you were going on a Saturday long run.
After some final stretches and one last trip to the port-a-potty in Hopkinton, I walked up to that beautiful blue and yellow start line, pressed the start button on my Garmin, and started running. A few steps later I heard a volunteer shout, “You’re running the Boston Marathon! How cool!” I felt the tears well up in my eyes again. I could not believe this was happening. As I passed the mile one sign, I blew a kiss into the air and thought to myself, “I let go of expectations.” My plan for the race was “Be here now.” I knew it would be hard with warmer temperatures and a shorter training cycle, but I wanted to enjoy every moment. I had worked so hard to get to the start in Hopkinton and I wanted my run from Hopkinton to Boston to be a celebration.
I started my run around 10:30am. It was already 70 degrees with 80% humidity. By mile two I felt too hot. Slight panic started to creep up, but I came back to my race plan, “Be here now.” At the water stations, I started taking a couple of sips of water and dumping the rest of the cup on my head. I tried to keep my pace smooth and not get carried away by the early downhills. With long deep breaths, I tried to hold myself back because I knew I would need to conserve my energy for later in the race. One spectator was yelling at people to relax on the downhills. I felt like he was speaking to me personally, and it reminded me to let go of the tension I tend to hold in my upper body.
By mile nine, I felt tired. Too tired. I just noticed the feeling and told myself, “It’s ok to feel tired. This is hard.” Then I thought to myself, “You are running the fall Boston!” I did my best to ground myself in the present moment, observing the leaves and the beautiful fall colors reflecting in the nearby lake. Be here now. It is interesting to note that by doing this practice I seared that moment into my memory. I can still clearly remember the beautiful fall leaves on the ground and the humidity hovering above the water.
The Boston spectators and volunteers were phenomenal. After almost two years of no races, having the opportunity to run a large and well-supported race was electrifying. Many spectators shouted, “We missed you!” because there had not been an in-person Boston Marathon since April 2019. They had Halloween decorations, therapy dogs, trick or treat stations, otter pops, beer (I was very tempted by the Coors Light within grabbing distance at mile eight!), and anything else you could think of. I was wearing my Boise Betties singlet and every time someone would shout, “Boise Betties!” I would feel so much gratitude towards my Betties teammates and coach who helped me get to Boston.
Mentally, I had broken the race up into segments: Miles 1-10, 10-16, 16-21, and 21 to the finish. Although it felt hard early on, I focused my attention on breathing, relaxing and holding back a little bit, and noticing the beauty around me. I knew that there were some hills coming up later in the race in the 16-21 segment and I didn’t want to blow up prior to the hills! I would not allow myself to mentally calculate how many miles were left in the race. When my mind tried to go there I reminded it, “Be here now” and came back to the present moment.
As I approached Wellesley at the halfway point, I could hear the cheering from the scream tunnel of Wellesley College girls almost a half mile away. The high pitched roar sent chills up my spine. It was so fun to run through and high five some of the girls. I didn’t see anyone actually kissing this year, but many of the signs said “Blow me a kiss!” so I did lots of that!
After making it through Wellesley, I knew that the Newton hills would be coming up shortly. I tried to absorb the excited energy of the Wellesley girls and keep it in my back pocket for the Newton hills. Around mile 14 or 15 I saw some spectators with a “Go Go Idaho!” sign that looked like a play on the famous Citgo sign. I ran all the way to the other side of the road to give them some Idaho love, show them my Boise Betties singlet, and take a photo of their awesome sign.
As I entered Newton and approached the first big hill at mile 16, I tried to focus on running it by effort and not by pace. I was about to find out if I had relaxed and taken it easy enough on the downhill during the first several miles. In my mind, the first hill was the hardest. It was hot and the incline seemed long. I made it past that one and thought, “three more of these?!” However, I didn’t really notice the second or third hills because they were much shorter. The spectators helped carry me up and over the fourth hill (also known as Heartbreak Hill), and once I made it over Heartbreak Hill, I was done with the Newton hills!
I knew from studying the course map that Boston College was just after Heartbreak Hill around mile 21. This University of Virginia alumnae has never been more excited to see Boston College fans in her life! I made it past the hills and still felt OK! These last few miles were going to be amazing! There might be some suffering along the way, but if I stayed with the discomfort, there would be joy as well. I was big enough to hold both.
Up until this point, I had done a good job of fueling and hydrating. I had been taking water and/or Gatorade from every water stop and a gel every four miles. After mile 20, however, slight nausea started to creep in. I opted to skip the mile 23/24 gel, but was able to keep up on the water and electrolytes. Anyone who has run a marathon knows that the real part of the race starts after mile 20 and that anything can happen during that last 10k. I tried to stay focused and keep grinding – one step and one breath at a time. I said the sound of OM a few times and thought of my yoga family and perhaps others around the world who also might be saying the sound of OM. I connected with something larger than myself to propel myself forward.
When I passed the “Entering Boston” sign, I could again feel the tears. I couldn’t believe that I was running the Boston Marathon, made it into the city of Boston and hadn’t hit a wall yet. I started hearing people cheering “Go Danica!” and realized that I was running just behind NASCAR driver Danica Patrick. I saw the famous Citgo sign on the horizon. My family told me that they might come to cheer around mile 24 so I started looking for them which was a nice distraction. When I didn’t see them I figured they had found something more fun to do.
After I gave up on finding my family I realized that I was getting really close to making what I consider to be the most famous turns in running: Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston. I had imagined making these two turns in my head for years: while visualizing and preparing mentally for other races, while doing hard workouts, and while just daydreaming about what it might feel like to run the Boston Marathon.
What actually happened as I made the final turn and ran the last 600 yards or so down Boylston Street far exceeded anything I had imagined. I blew a kiss at the street sign at the corner of Hereford and Boylston. I made my way down Boylston Street feeling good and strong, shouting “F*&! Yeah!” (sorry to any kids that may have heard) and “Thank you, Boston!” The energy on that final stretch was absolutely phenomenal. I glanced at the sidelines about 400 yards from the finish and saw my husband and kids there cheering for me! (They were shouting “Hu! Hu! Hu!“) I crossed the Boston Marathon finish line with one hand over my heart to honor my inner child and the other hand extended upwards towards the sky in gratitude. We did it!
Going into the race I had an A, B and C goal. My A goal was 3:50, B goal was under four hours and C goal (which really was the most important one) was to have fun! I crossed the finish line in 3:51:07 and was absolutely ecstatic to have run the Boston Marathon in under four hours.
Every physical or mental setback, every tear, every workout or race where I imploded – it was all a part of this journey and it could not have happened any other way. No matter what that big, scary, seemingly unattainable thing is that you dream about, I am here to tell you that you can make it a reality. Write it down, be consistent, keep showing up for yourself, and when it’s time it will all unfold with beauty and magic.
What’s meant for you will never miss you, and that which misses you was nevermeant for you. – Unknown
Getting to the start line in Hopkinton was the hard part. I wasn’t sure if this day would ever come. After working for years to qualify, then finally qualifying in December 2019 with a 6 minute and 14 second buffer, I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about getting into the race. However, COVID related delays, cancellations, and reduced field sizes proved me wrong. I went from elation and excitement over the anticipation of running in April 2021, to riding the roller coaster of uncertainty for months.
In a strange twist of fate, instead of running Boston on April 19, 2021 (the originally scheduled date of the 2021 race) I was getting an MRI for mysterious ankle pain. In all of the visualizing I did for my qualifying race in December 2019, this was not how I pictured April 19, 2021 going.
I was not initially accepted into the 2021 Boston Marathon during registration in May 2021. After allowing myself to feel grief over not getting into the race, I was able to somewhat let go of my attachment to running it. Deep in my heart I knew I would run Boston one day. I had no idea that day would be October 11, 2021.
On August 18, 2021, I was eating lunch and checked my emails on my phone. There was one from the Boston Athletic Association that said, “Limited In Person Entries Available.” In disbelief, I said to my husband, “I think I may have just gotten into Boston!” I wasn’t sure if the email was real or not, but I eventually decided it was legit. I registered with the code provided in the email and received my confirmation of acceptance a couple of hours later. I couldn’t believe it! The Boston Athletic Association had offered entries to qualified U.S. entrants of the Virtual race as well as to athletes who narrowly missed the qualifying cut-off time. The universe was showing me that if I could trust and let go of the desire to control and attachment to outcomes, things might just work out ok.
I quickly booked a hotel and flights, and my amazing and brilliant coach put together a 7.5 week marathon build. The training part was mostly uneventful, with the most stressful part being trying not to get COVID. The fear part of my brain worried that getting COVID at the last minute might be the thing that derailed the dream. Then I realized that by worrying about getting sick I was denying myself the joy and excitement of looking forward to running the race I had dreamed about for years.
The entire trip to Boston felt surreal. Going to the expo, seeing the finish line that I would cross, and sharing the experience with my family who has supported and encouraged my dream from the start was amazing. I had tears in my eyes when the volunteer handed me my race bib.
I woke up early in the morning on October 11, 2021, put my hand on my heart, and told my inner child, “Today we get to run the Boston Marathon!” Although a bit skeptical, she felt joy and excitement. I crept around the hotel room in the dark trying to get ready without waking my family. In doing so, I caught my pinky toe on the edge of a chair, bending it backwards. I felt the pain in my toe and tears welling up in my eyes. I examined it, iced it for a few minutes, took an Advil and hoped for the best. Although the throbbing was there for a while, by the time I got on the bus to Hopkinton a couple of hours later, it felt fine.
I made my way from the hotel room, to the bag check, to the security line for the busses. At every step of the way I was greeted by excited and helpful volunteers. They let me on a bus a few minutes before my scheduled bus time. I was on my way to Hopkinton! The excitement and anxiety on the bus was palpable. I did my best to tune out, ate my Need for Seed Picky Bar and focused on taking deep breaths and feeling so grateful for the opportunity to run.
After about an hour on the bus, our driver pulled into a lot of empty busses. Other runners on our bus quickly realized that our driver was lost! Some runners were sticking their heads out of the bus window yelling for help and asking for directions while others tried to use their phones to navigate to the start line drop off point. I could feel my anxiety increasing. Although there was a rolling start, the forecasted high was in the 70s. I wanted to start running earlier rather than later in an attempt to avoid overheating. I also really had to use the bathroom! After 30 more minutes of driving around, we eventually made it to the correct drop off point.
I followed the lines of runners a little less than a mile down the road to the start area. I found the “It all starts here” sign. After years of dreaming about it, it was time to actually run the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston!
I worked hard for six years to qualify for the Boston marathon, and I dreamt about it for many years prior to that. I followed training plans, fought through injuries, and spent countless hours fantasizing about what it might feel like when I finally got that coveted Boston Qualifying time. The goal seemed so elusive to me, and the target time kept moving further out of reach, but I was relentless. Crossing the finish line would be a huge celebration. I would finally belong. Having proven to myself that my body could run the required pace for 26.2 miles, I would finally accept it. Sure, there was plenty of happiness and celebrating at the finish line when I achieved my goal, but those feelings of not belonging lingered. The body image issues did not magically disappear now that I could call myself a Boston qualifier.
February was still dark. One night the following winter I tossed and turned all night long, wrestling with the demons I thought I had outrun. They were still there, demanding my attention. Hadn’t I done enough? I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I didn’t yet understand that there would be no outrunning the so-called demons. I needed to run towards them and not away from them.
The harder I tried to outrun them and the more I pushed them away, the stronger and louder they became. They demanded my attention until I had no choice but to stop and look them directly in the eye. Upon further examination, I started to see that it was not demons I was pushing away. I had been rejecting parts of myself.
For the past six years I thought I had been running towards a huge goal. But was I ever really running towards anything? Or was I just running away? It is not the Boston Athletic Association where I am seeking belonging, I am seeking to belong to me. To feel safe, accepted and at home in my own body. And so began the real marathon. The one back to myself.
For this journey, however, there is no training plan. No track Tuesdays or structured Thursday tempo runs. No concrete way of measuring progress. My Garmin will not give me any feedback. Rather than my watch, I am having to learn to rely on an internal knowing that I locked away decades ago and was not sure I could still access.
But she is in there, calm, curious and waiting. If I am quiet and still, I can hear her.
Exactly one year ago today, I qualified for the Boston Marathon. Years of hard work, dedication and commitment to a goal had finally paid off. Now (except for that pesky training for another marathon part) I could relax and celebrate all the way up until April 19, 2021 when I would get to cross the finish line on Boylston street! It was like waiting for Christmas! Except that is not what happened at all. In March of 2020, the world and racing came to a screeching halt. Boston 2020 was postponed and then changed to a virtual race and Boston 2021 is an uncertainty. What started as a year of excitement and planning turned into a year of doubt, fear, and anxiety.
I tried to shift my running focus. What virtual race or challenge might excite me? Perhaps this would be a good time for something new or different! Every time I tried to do a hard workout or virtual race I would enter the pain cave and quickly abort the mission. What was I doing? Why was I there? Why did I want to run so hard, to push myself like that? I must admit that I also allowed myself to engage in some self pity, even though I know that worrying about running and racing while the world is burning to the down is downright silly. I remembered all of the times I had pushed myself last year and thought of it as a “waste.”I had to take several steps back because I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I asked myself, what is your WHY? Yes, qualifying for and running Boston is a great running goal, but is that really the WHY? Is that what gets you out the door every morning? The answer, of course, is a resounding no.
I believe that running goals are two dimensional. There is the lowercase why that gets you to do a specific workout (ie, “I will do this tempo run because I am training for a half marathon with a certain time goal.”) and then there is the all-caps WHY. This is the WHY that gets you out the door every morning, the WHY that helps you get through the pain cave. The lowercase why might be able to help you somewhat in the pain cave, but you need the uppercase WHY to dominate it. The uppercase WHY is what keeps you going day after day, year after year, long after that race you trained for is over.
I love this Lauren Fleshman quote, and it so eloquently captures my WHY.
“The more I pushed myself in running, the more I discovered the weaknesses of my mind. These were the same dragons lurking in my life. To compete is to voluntarily come into contact with your dragons so you can learn to slay them.” ~Lauren Fleshman
I struggle with all sorts of weaknesses in my mind, including self-doubt and impostor syndrome. There is no room for thoughts like that when you are trying to execute a difficult workout. The hard runs give me a playing field upon which I can learn to navigate my mental demons and come out triumphantly. If I can beat them on the track, I can beat them in other places, too.
Running without races on the horizon has also reminded me that I love running just for the sake of running. Running is how I connect with nature and my sisters in sport – many of whom I am missing dearly since we have not been training together for most of the year. It really is easier to stay motivated when you are training with your friends! Running is an escape from the realities of 2020, the one thing that has felt somewhat “normal” during an anything but normal year.
Finally, this year has been a stark reminder to be mindful of the things I can control and the things I cannot control. I can’t control Covid, I can’t control whether there will be a Boston 2021, and I can’t control whether my qualifying time at CIM will be good enough to get me there. Just like I can’t control the weather on race day or the outcome of a race on any other year. I can, however, control the work I continue to put in each day and my attitude.
I believe that I will cross the finish line on Boylston Street. I don’t know if it will be in 2021, 2022, or 2026. What I do know is that I will continue to look for joy in the journey and in doing so will continue to learn more about myself. It turns out it was never about chasing the unicorn or catching the unicorn. It was about becoming the unicorn.
I ran my first California International Marathon (CIM) on December 4, 2016. I had been running on pace to break four hours, but also running with a questionable femur. Things had been going well, but with less than 5k to go, I felt a pain in my leg that I could not run through. I stopped to stretch it and was not able to start running again. By the final mile, I could barely walk. I hobbled my way to the finish line, limping over it in 4:22. I received some crutches and a femoral stress reaction diagnosis to go along with my medal, and I could not ski all winter. It was my second stress reaction diagnosis of the year, and my second marathon (of the five I had completed) that had ended with crutches, which left me wondering if my body just could not handle the distance.
In spite of my broken, depressed, and defeated state, I still had my dream of running Boston. I had joined the Boise Betties in 2014 when my friend Gretchen started this coached women’s running group in hopes that I would become a faster and better runner. When I told her that I wanted to run Boston one day and she told me it was possible, I didn’t really believe her. I thought that she was just being nice and encouraging, as any good coach would be. I didn’t tell other people that I wanted to run Boston because I thought they might look at me as if I had just told them I wanted to build a rocket ship and fly to the moon. However, slowly, over the years, I began to admit to people, one by one, and then to everyone, that this was my goal. Someday. I would inch towards a place where it would seem somewhat attainable, but then the qualifying times would get harder. It is a moving target.
There was also the issue of my brokenness and inability to run a marathon. Or at least that is the story I was telling myself. In 2018 at Onward Shay Boise Marathon, I was finally able to execute a marathon properly and break four hours. It took me seven marathons to run one well. After seven marathons, I finally felt like I had the capacity to run the distance. Now I had to convince myself that I could run a Boston qualifying time. It didn’t matter how much my coach believed in me. If I didn’t believe that I could do it, it wasn’t going to happen.
Ever since my heartbreaking run at CIM in 2016, I dreamt about going back in 2019 to run a Boston qualifying time. I knew the course. I knew what the finish line looked like. I pictured the last 5k, except instead of limping the last 5k I pictured feeling strong during those miles. I had the 2016 poster in front of my treadmill with a Boston 26.2 sign right in front of it.
View from my treadmill for the past three years
The week before CIM 2019, I was not in a good headspace. My anxiety was high (partly seasonal, partly due to the race), I was stressed out about the weather (the forecast included lots of rain and wind), and I wasn’t sleeping well. At one point during the week, I was standing in the kitchen in tears telling my husband that I really needed my mind to participate in this run and I wasn’t sure how to get it on board. I went to the library and checked out every book I could find on mental training in a last ditch effort to fine tune my brain game. I picked up a few tips from a book called The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion (the title really spoke to me!), and I’d recommend it.
I got a migraine the day I flew to Sacramento and it never completely went away before the race. I almost gave up on my goal and thought “well, I can try again in June.” But I also remembered how hard I had worked, all the money I was spending on travel, all the time spent away from my family for training and to race, and all the extra work my husband does so that I can train for and run marathons. And then I recommitted to my goal. Or at least leaving it all out there. If I left it all out on the course and didn’t give up on myself when it got hard, I would consider the race a success.
1st 10 miles – Grateful
I thought about how thankful I was just to be there, just to make it to the start line with a healthy body and the fitness to go after a big goal. As my friend Sarah reminded me, “it is a gift.” I thought of my coach and family who were instrumental in getting me there, my training partner Amber who was also running, and anyone who had run miles with me to help me through this training cycle. I thought of all of the people tracking me and cheering me on. By miles 3-5 I started wondering if I was going to get tired too early. I went back to feeling grateful. “Run with joy,” I thought. “This could be IT. This could be THE run. Enjoy EVERY step. Run like you never want it to end.” At mile 8 I definitely was worried I was too tired for that point in the race and I started to tell myself that it wasn’t going to be my day. I got scared. Then I remembered what my coach had told me before my marathon last year. “Don’t get scared if it starts to feel too hard.” I also identified it as “just a thought,” (a tip I got from The Brave Athlete!) and tried not to attach too much meaning to it, to let it float on by. I kept running, tried to notice other things around me, and soon forgot about it. I eventually saw the 3:45 pace group ahead of me and felt reassured that I had not gone out too fast.
2nd 10 miles – Grind it out
Miles 13-16 had a headwind. After a brief panic, I thought to myself “ok you have done this before” and remembered my marathon last year with the headwind. I also thought about how unlike my marathon last year there were all of these people to help block the wind. I tried to find a group to run behind and also reminded myself we’d be turning in a few miles.
I stayed behind the 3:45 group and noticed that the pace felt relaxed. I thought “oh my gosh I am almost at mile 17 and I feel GOOD!” and then I remembered that I was only at mile 17 and never to get excited during a marathon at any point until you see the finish line. But I did allow myself to feel THANKFUL that I was feeling good at that point and just kept running. I also saw a spectator dressed as Santa on the sidelines cheering and told him I had been good and could I please have a PR. I think he heard me.
I reminded myself that the race had not started yet.
CIM spectators are awesome! I saw this gentleman at least twice on the course and he brought a big smile to my face. Thank you, sir!
Last 10k – Grit
At mile 20 I told myself, “OK, this is the race. This is where it starts. 10k to Boston.” I had my Believe journal sitting in my hotel room which contained entries of the 1500 miles I have run this year in preparation for this race. I just had this 10k to go. And there were all of these people around to support and encourage me. I looked at my watch and knew I was about where my coach and I talked about me being at the 20 mile marker. I just had to hang on. It’s a big request for the last 10k of a marathon, but there was a lot on the line.
After one of the aid stations I kind of naturally went ahead of the 3:45 group and I just kept going. Once I passed them I was running a little scared because I felt like if they passed me it would be mentally defeating. I had no idea how far behind me they were, but I figured they were just a tad behind me because I could still hear the crowd yelling “3:45!!!” at the pace group as they saw the sign that one of the pacers was carrying. Every mile for the last 10k I told myself “OK, just one more mile like that. Just one more 8:30.” I said out loud, “BOSTON.” I told myself, “You have worked SO hard for this. Do NOT lose this race in the last 5k.” I told myself that I had done track workouts or tempo runs during this training cycle that were harder than this. I vividly remembered the last time I was at the end of that course and could barely walk. To be able to run strong down those streets was such sweet redemption. I can’t even describe the feeling. The last mile I looked at my watch and knew I could make it in under 3:45. I told myself “this is your victory lap!” I had the *intention* of speeding up and it sure felt like I was, and I was picking people off, but in reality I was just hanging on to my pace. Which at the end of the marathon, I will take! I ran down those last blocks before you make the two turns towards the finish wanting to cry. I felt so much emotion, but I was still running my heart out and trying not to feel all of the emotions yet because I still had to make it to the finish line. When I turned and saw that finish line, it was amazing. Since I was there in 2016, I have imagined going back to CIM and doing this. I have visualized this moment SO. MANY. TIMES. Every track workout during this training cycle that was hard, I visualized turning the corner and running towards that finish line victoriously. I would look at the poster in front of my treadmill during treadmill runs and picture it. For months and weeks before the race, I would lie in bed and night and visualize it. AND IT WAS FINALLY HAPPENING. My coach was right. If your mind can conceive it, and your heart can believe it, your body can achieve it.
When the moment you have dreamed of for years becomes a reality
Growing up I was never an athlete. I was usually picked last in gym class, unless my friend Katie was the team captain and would take pity on me. (Thanks, Katie!) I played field hockey for a season, but spent most of the time on the bench. During adolescence, I hated my body and abused it through vicious cycles of bingeing and purging. In early adulthood, I discovered distance running and gradually learned that if I treated my body well and fueled it right it could do some cool things. I was strong, I was capable. My body could run long distances. It could make babies and birth them. If I gave my body the respect it deserved, it would perform well in return.
In 2005, my friend Laurie convinced me to run my first marathon, the Chicago Marathon. Sometime during the training cycle I looked up the Boston qualifying times out of sheer curiosity. They seemed totally and completely unattainable. I remember thinking that if I was still running in my 60s, I might have a chance of getting in. Fast forward to 2014. My friend Gretchen, a fellow mom I knew from preschool, mentioned that she was thinking of starting a coached women’s running group. I sheepishly asked if I might be able to join, not knowing if such a group would include middle of the pack runners like myself. Fortunately, the group was for all types of runners. All paces, all ages, all distances.
I joined. I got up early. Really early. In all sorts of weather. I began doing more structured speed workouts. I committed. I got injured. I got back up. I recommitted. I kept going. And I kept this idea of Boston in the back of my head. Maybe? Could it be possible? Someday? I shared my goal with my coach and my family, but not many other people. I didn’t want to share with too many people because a) I didn’t want for them to think my goal was ridiculous and unattainable, and b) what if I tried and failed? Also the qualifying times and accepted qualifying times kept getting harder so that when the goal might seem within reach, the goalposts would move further away.
As I told more and more people, I realized that those around me (at least the ones that matter) believe in me and support me, but the only person that needs to believe that I can reach this goal is ME. My coach believed in me from the very beginning. Now I realize that it doesn’t matter how much she believes in me. If I don’t believe in myself, I cannot get there. As for the failure part, if I am not willing to risk the failure, I can’t get to the triumph. Big goals come with big rewards, but they also come with risk.
On December 8, I am going to chase that big goal. After years of hard work, many training cycles, and years of thinking “maybe someday, but not today,” that someday is now.
I took a quick trip to North Bend, Washington this weekend to run the Jack and Jill half marathon. There are several marathons on this rail trail course and I wanted to run the half to see if I might be interested in doing the full. Having done just a moderate amount of training since my half in May, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was also going into the race with a migraine and it was 70 degrees with 70 percent humidity. So there was that. But it was beautiful!
The course is a net downhill and I had no idea how to adjust my pace to compensate for that, so I just ran by feel. My first few miles were about 8 seconds under my recent half marathon pace and that felt comfortable, so I just decided to roll with it. I also had no idea if some of the miles were more downhill than others, which is another reason why I wasn’t overly focused on my pace. Just as the Famous Potato Half I ran in May, this one also started to feel hard around the 8ish mile mark. I reminded myself that the pain cave was coming and that when I saw it I was going to say YES to it and run directly into it.
I refused to let the negative voices dominate, pushed myself as hard as I could on the day, and surprised myself with both a PR and an age group win! Up next: CIM!
Since Boise races are notoriously inaccurate and I had heard this course was long (spoiler: it was), I did not go into this race with a time goal in mind, only an average pace goal. I have found that I do better with average pace goals anyway, as it helps me focus on the process and run the mile that I am in.
The start of this race was a little hectic. It was delayed due to the fact that not all of the busses had arrived. The port-a-potty lines were long. I was standing in line with my friend Laurie when she pointed out to me that I really needed to calm down. I know that my pre-race anxiety is an issue and one that I need to get under control in order to keep my heart rate low at the start of races, but what I did not know is that it is an issue that is apparent to those around me. I thought I hid it well. I guess not. While we were still in line, the MC suddenly announced, “ok, everyone is here, let’s start!” Laurie was kind enough to offer to drop off my bag at the gear check for me and I ran off to the start line, trying my best to get a place at least in the middle of the pack. This was not the best way to begin a race.
I plodded along on pace and did fine until about the 7th or 8th mile, when it started to feel hard, as it typically does in a half marathon. Around mile 10, things really started to feel awful. Also around mile 10, the race goes by the finish line and then loops around the last 5k. I do not like races that give you a preview of the finish before you finish.
The 10 mile mark of this race also marked the entrance to the pain cave, and it was a place I did not want to go. I was afraid of the discomfort, fearful of failing, so I let the negativity creep in. “You could just stop right here,” I thought. “Just step off the course right here and this all stops. All of it. The pain, the agony. You don’t have to do this. Why are you doing this?” I thought about stopping. Then I wondered what I would say to my kids at home. That I stopped because it was hard? That I didn’t know if I could stay on pace the last 5k? That I didn’t even try? No, that wasn’t acceptable. As in life when things get hard, we must stay the course and keep going. One step at a time. Because the way out is forward. So I moved forward. Slowly, painfully, up the hill, past my teammates and coach who were so kindly cheering but who I can only remember in a blur because I was so deep in the pain cave, and towards the finish line.
In the pain cave. Unhappy. (Photo @boisebetties)
Although it felt like I had slowed exponentially in the last 5k, I had really only slowed down one, maybe two seconds per mile, and when I crossed the finish I had met my average goal pace.
Don’t fight the pain cave. Say yes.
The only way to get to the good stuff on the other side of the pain cave is to run through the pain cave.
Keep going. Always keep going.
Outside of the pain cave with giant potato. Much better.