Catching the Unicorn! My 2019 California International Marathon Race Report

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.

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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.

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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.

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When the moment you have dreamed of for years becomes a reality

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The best sound!

 

The Girl in the Arena

Man in the Arena

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.

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Dear Santa, I’ve been good this year

Jack and Jill went down the hill

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!

JJ Half

Famous Potato Half: Say yes to the pain cave

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.

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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.

Lessons learned:

  1. Don’t fight the pain cave. Say yes.
  2. The only way to get to the good stuff on the other side of the pain cave is to run through the pain cave.
  3. Keep going. Always keep going.

 

 

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Outside of the pain cave with giant potato. Much better.

Pocket Bikes

2018 was a banner year for our family. My father in law passed away from pancreatic cancer in May. Exactly one week later my brother-in-law was diagnosed with a rare stage 4 duodenal carcenoma. In between all of this my husband had his own cancer scare which included major surgery and several months of rehabilitation. And I learned that a close family member had been keeping a fairly large secret for a significant amount of time, resulting in some anger, resentment, and a breakdown in trust. It was a lot to process in one year. I am still processing it.

We lost my brother-in-law on January 22, 2019, just eight months after his diagnosis and eight months after we lost my father-in-law. For so long, I have felt like this wasn’t my grief. This grief belongs to other people. My husband, my sister-in-law, my niece and nephews, my children. My role was to support. I would cry quietly, and away from others. And while it is true that it has been incredibly important for me to support my husband during this time, it is also true that my grief is legitimate. I have tried, however, to “dump out” and am fortunate to have some friends who have been willing to listen to the depressing saga that has been my life over the past year. These same friends are now having to listen to me talk nonstop about Virginia basketball. (Did you hear we won a national title?!?! Sorry not sorry.)

Growing up, I looked up to my older cousins and I often wanted an older brother. When I married my husband, I got one. Our personalities were very different. He thought I was too uptight and needed to take more chances. I thought he needed to think things through more before taking big risks. We were both probably right. He was an attorney by training, but like many of us, he was always looking for a way out.

John was a dreamer with big ideas, and he went after his dreams with fervor. A fellow large law firm refugee, he didn’t like being tied to an office job. Some of that was because he loved spending time with his family. Some of it was because he didn’t like being told what to do. That’s pretty prevalent among the McCalls. I think my kids got that gene.

From supplements to geode kiosks in the mall, there was always a fantastic business opportunity awaiting. One year he imported pocket bikes and tried to convince me to do it with him and sell them under my eBay account. He got so mad at me when I refused to buy thousands of pocket bikes from China and resell them on ebay because obviously it was going to be such a big money maker. I am sure I missed a big opportunity to retire from the law there. I still laugh about it.

John loved his kids more than anything. He was constantly singing their praises, going to all of their sporting events, and talking about how he was raising three Olympic athletes. His hands on and loving parenting style was a huge positive influence on my husband. As many fathers in the 1970s, their dad was not a hands on dad. Watching his brother parent with such joy and love paved a path for my husband and gave him the confidence that he too could be a good dad and do things differently than his own father had done. And, indeed, he is a wonderful father too.

My grief is certainly different than my husbands’, than my sister-in-law’s, than my niece’s or nephews’, but it is mine. I feel it when I hear certain songs. When I hang up my visor after a run. When my husband makes smiles in the same way his brother did. And when I see or think of a pocket bike or some other half-baked idea, I am reminded of the fact that life is too short to stay in your comfort zone.

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Boise Spring Run 5k

My father-in-law used to say that even a blind squirrel catches an acorn every now and again. And so, too, even a middle of the pack runner can win a 5k every now and again. I ran the Boise Spring Run 5k as a fitness test. The field was small and none of my teammates were running, which is precisely why I was able to place first overall female. The other reason is that something happened to the woman ahead of me. She either got lost or went to the bathroom or decided that she wanted to go for coffee or something?! There was a super fastie woman in front of me that I had no chance of catching who somehow ran across the finish line several minutes after me and I never passed her. So I don’t know what happened there. But somehow I crossed the finish line first. And it would have been a PR if the course had been measured accurately, but since this is Boise and we don’t have accurately measured courses, I can’t claim this one. This course was too short. But I did get a prize bag and I got to tell my kids that I won a race. They always ask me if I won and I always tell them, “No, I am not trying to win, I am just out there to have FUN!”, but this time I actually got to say, “Yes, I won! The blind squirrel caught an acorn!”

Boise Spring Run 2019

Carry on Jesus

“I’ll leave these shoes,” my new husband said while he tossed a perfectly good pair of dress shoes over by the trash can. “I guess we don’t need the boxes for all of these things either,” I responded as I removed gifts from packaging and re-wrapped them in dirty clothes. We then rearranged our belongings in our three suitcases desperately trying to  fit an entire Lladró nativity set with all of its packaging along with the rest of our wedding and travel stuff in there. It was like a bad game of Tetris. Thanks to my father in law, Jack McCall.

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Jack never did anything in a small way. He also always did things his way. The first time I met him he asked me if I had closed toe shoes so we could go cut cows. I had no idea what he was talking about, and he was one hundred percent serious. I was horrified. Cut cows? Did he mean castrate? I then learned that cutting cows meant sorting them out so that he could sell some at the local auction, and that the sandals I was wearing were not appropriate for the task because I might get cow poop all over my feet. I guess he thought this was a good way to screen a potential daughter-in-law.

Later that evening, he told me that my then boyfriend (now husband and father of my three children) and I should probably not have children because they would be ridiculously hard headed. He may be having the last laugh about that one.

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My husband and I were married in Spain. To honor his mom who had passed away before we met, we bought a small Lladró angel to place on the altar (small being the key word here) once we had arrived in Spain, but before our wedding. Lladró is a Spanish brand of beautiful ceramic figurines. They are fragile, many of them are expensive, and they come in tons of packaging in order to protect the figurine.

Jack was with us when we bought the Lladró angel. The next day, he and some other family and friends (because it took multiple people to carry it all) showed up at our hotel with four bags of Lladrós containing: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, three wise men, a cow, and a donkey. The entire nativity set. The not religious Jack McCall had purchased the entire nativity set of Lladrós. Which was of course beautiful and very generous, but I also couldn’t help wonder if he was just wanting to sit back and enjoy watching us figure out how to get it all back to the States.

Along with the typical wedding stress, Project Get Jesus and Friends Home Safely was suddenly in full swing. We looked at mailing it. Prohibitively expensive. Other forms of shipping. Same problem. So we went to the local department store and bought the largest suitcase they had. And there we were in the hotel in Spain the night before leaving trying to fit them all in and having to ditch some of our other belongings. WWJD?

In spite of the fact that the Lladrós had lots of packaging, we (read: I) were still worried about putting them in checked bags. I didn’t want them to break. It seemed ok to put the animals in there, maybe the wise men. The wise men were the largest with the most packaging so it made sense to put them in the suitcase. Joseph had a very fragile staff. Maybe we shouldn’t put him in checked luggage. And what about Mary. And Baby Jesus? Jesus can’t go in checked luggage. Jesus goes in the carry on. Amazingly, they all made it back in one piece. They have survived a move and three kids (knock on wood) and every Christmas we bring them out and laugh at having carried them across the Atlantic.

This is just one of the many, many stories that Jack McCall left with us. Everyone I meet that knew Jack has a Jack McCall story. Most of them are not suited for small children. Almost all of them are hilarious. He was a good father-in-law (even if he liked to give me a hard time, all the time) and a good grandfather to my kids. He instilled in my oldest a lifelong love of fishing, and in all of them a deep love of the land and respect for the armed forces.

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Who wore it best?

Even when he was sick, he never lost his wit or sense of humor. In fact, one of the very last things he did on this earth was make fun of my youngest for whining. This year that Lladró nativity set is extra special, as it is out first year without Jack here with us. It is a great memory and a reminder of the importance of family, friends, and spending time with people you care about. It’s also a good lesson on the importance of commas (carry on Jesus v. carry on, Jesus) and that when faced with a packing dilemma, you should carry on Jesus. Always carry on Jesus.

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