I was not planning on running a virtual marathon this Fall; quite frankly, the idea of running 26.2 miles on my own without an official chip time just didn’t sound appealing or exciting to me. Little did I know back in the spring, I would end up running two.
I waited by my computer in late July to try to be one of the first 1,000 people to get guaranteed entry to a future NYC Marathon by registering for the virtual race. I had qualified for the race twice in 2019 with both a half marathon and marathon time, but when I tried to register in early 2020, they had severely limited the number of time qualifiers allowed in this year and I was shut out. I was frustrated and sad that I had worked so hard to get the time qualification for the race just to be turned away, and just settled for trying again in 2021. When this guaranteed entry via virtual marathon was announced and with it becoming harder and harder to get into NYC year after year, I decided to bite the bullet and pay the price for entry if I was able to get through the queue. Sure enough, after a half hour or so of anxiety trying to register, I was in, and then the real work began.
I emailed my coach, Jessica, July 29th letting her know that I had gotten in and asking how we could make this work since I had already signed up for Virtual Boston. I was very clear that I was not expecting to run a personal best and would rather just be doing it to qualify, and with her help, had a plan to complete two marathons within 6 weeks of each other. This marathon training would be different from the last several races in that I wouldn’t be doing any pace work during my long runs and would stick to one speed workout a week to stay sharp, but not doing anything too crazy.
Here is what my weekly mileage and long runs looked like from when I started the training after training for the mile all summer:
July 13-19: 44.8 miles, 10 mile long run
July 20-26: 48.8 miles, 12 mile long run
July 27-August 2: 49 miles, 14 mile long run
August 3-9: 52.1 miles, 16 mile long run
August 10-16: 45.9 miles, 14.5 mile long run (this should have been 18 but I had run a 5K race the day before in Montana and was having a rough time at higher altitude so I called it early)
August 17-23: 55.1 miles, 20 mile long run
August 24-30: 57.4 miles, 18 mile long run
August 31-September 6: 50.3 miles, 14 mile long run
September 7-13: 49.9 miles, Virtual Boston Marathon 26.2
September 14-20: 27.1 miles, 8 mile long run
September 21-27: 48.9 miles, 12 mile long run
September 28-October 4: 52.1 miles, 15 mile long run
October 5-October 11: 58.5 miles, 18 mile long run
October 12-18: 60.8 miles, 20.5 mile long run (12.5 miles outside in some nasty rain and wind, then came inside and did 8 more on the treadmill)
October 19-25: 47.4 miles, 13.2 mile long run
October 26-31: 47.5 miles, Virtual NYC Marathon 26.2
Virtual Boston was tough – it poured the entire time we were running, was very windy, and the elevation gain and loss at 1100 feet a piece was tougher than the actual Boston course itself. I set off to run about 9 min pace for it and that’s what I did but even though it was nearly an hour slower than my PR, it was a hard run. A big part of this was just not having enough miles on my legs up to this point and so it really hurt after 18 miles; that’s not a fault of the plan – it’s just the reality of having done a whole summer of speedwork hovering around 35 miles a week and then only giving myself about 8 weeks to really build up to the marathon distance. After this experience, I wasn’t really in the mood to run another marathon but knew that the guaranteed entry to NYC would be worth the grind. I had a recovery week after the virtual to recuperate and was pleasantly surprised with how quickly my body bounced back from the marathon – yes, I hadn’t raced it so my body wasn’t completely spent, but I think a big piece of this had to do with my strength training which I’ll touch on a little later.
NYC Marathon Build
After the recovery week, my first speed workout back outside did not go well at all and I dealt with a big asthma flare-up in the middle of it and ended up calling it early and walking home. I felt a little defeated, but had a feeling it was asthma, and not overtraining, that was causing my breathing troubles. For those who don’t know, I have exercise-induced asthma which means my airway often starts to close when I run. I have a non-steroid inhaler that I take before every run and it usually does the trick, but some days are worse than others and it’s unfortunately just something I must deal with when those days do happen. Wanting to test my theory to make sure I wasn’t sending my body into a state of overtraining (shortness of breath can be a sign of this, too), I decided to repeat the intervals on the treadmill to see if it induced the same problems. Sure enough, running inside in a little less dry, cold air helped and I hit every split which meant it was safe to continue with my training. My weeks went well from here on out until I hit the 20-mile run. It started off with high winds, then transitioned to high winds and rain, and I called my husband from a sidewalk at 12.5 and asked him to come pick me up because I was having 0 fun and was starting to feel a little hypothermic. I ended up finishing 8 more miles inside on the treadmill where I felt much more comfortable.
Mentally these long runs were so hard preparing for a virtual race because I would often tell myself that it was ok to give into the pain because “it was just a virtual and I wasn’t going for time.” This part was tough because I’ve worked so hard on reframing and blocking out negative thoughts when pain creeps in but that’s usually because I have a goal at the end of it all that motivates me to keep working hard. However, I really got to see the fruits of my labor from mile and 5K training come out during my speedwork sessions the last couple of months and was so proud of a tempo run I did in my last big workout running 4 miles @ 6:30 pace with no breaks or pauses and feeling like I could’ve held that for longer. I like to visualize my training like little building blocks building up a strong foundation and walls of a house and workouts like these remind me that having the long game in mind this season is going to really pay off next year when we’re hopefully racing for real again.
Picking a Course, Self-Supporting a Marathon, and Race Strategy
With the bulk of training behind me, I turned to mapping out my race course. I would be running this effort completely solo and would also need to self-support with fuel and liquids. I had done a couple of my long runs out on the Fox River Trail and loved how flat it was with minimal street crossings so I thought this would be a good spot to pick for my virtual marathon. I mapped out my route as an out-and-back and picked a couple spots that I wanted to drop off a water bottle at since I could realistically only carry about 16 ounces at a time without weighing myself down. I went with plastic, disposable water bottles that I could throw out in trash cans along the way, and that I also wouldn’t be too sad about if they were taken (well it would’ve been awful for fueling but at least I could only be out a few cents).
I talked to Jessica about a plan for the race during race week and we both agreed that mixing up the pacing would be both fun for me as my last big run of the season and also a way to distract myself from running the marathon distance solo. She suggested 3 miles at a comfortable, aerobic effort (7:50ish) and 2 miles at my CIM marathon pace (7:00-7:10). This sounded fun to me and I was on board, programming it into my watch to make it feel more like a workout.
The night before my run, I made some vegetable pasta and marinara sauce with chicken and finished it off with a slice of cake! I eat dessert often in my dinners before long runs, not before a race, but I had baked a yellow cake with cheese cream frosting that week and there are no rules in 2020!
Race Morning & Logistics
Race day was projected to be windy with strong winds out of the south and cold. It was about 34 degrees when I started and I think around 42 when I finished. It was in full sunshine so this made it tricky to pick an outfit; in 34 and cloudy I probably would’ve worn a long-sleeve top, but the sun threw a wrinkle into things and not wanting to overheat I went with a tank top, arm-sleeves, gloves, a headband, and shorts.
I had aimed to start my run around 8 a.m. so I woke up at 5:30 to get up, make some coffee and oatmeal, and to eat. This is my standard pre-race breakfast and sometimes I’ll add half a bagel with some peanut butter for protein but lately I’ve been using UCan before my long runs, so I skipped the bagel this time to not have too much on my stomach. I drank my UCan around 7:30 before leaving the house to go drop off the water bottles along the course.
I underestimated the time it would take to drop off the water bottles, planning to place them at mile 5 and mile 10 which would be about mile 16 and 21 once I turned around at the halfway mark, so I ended up starting my marathon around 8:30 instead of the 8:00 a.m. start time I had planned on. Not a big deal, though, since there was no official starting time! I took a gel on the drive to my starting point at about 8:15 to start with some extra fuel in my system.
I decided to track the race both on my Garmin and on the NYC Marathon app to make it feel more like a race effort with people following along with my progress. I don’t feel pressure to perform from others, so I made my tracking public and appreciated all the support I got from people following along! I also turned on my favorite playlist, “Running Radio” off Pandora and set off on my way! The NYC Marathon App was awesome to have in the background as it would call out my mile splits and have encouraging messages along the way from past participants talking about their experience in NYC. It was cold out – my toes got numb in the first few miles, but I hoped they would warm up as I kept going (they did). Within the first mile, I had to cross a bridge that was covered with a thin layer of ice and I had to really slow down to make sure I wouldn’t eat it. Fortunately, the pavement wasn’t slippery and this wooden bridge was the only real footing issue I had. I had printed out a race bib to wear on the course too to simulate a real experience and within my first mile, a group of women out for a run stopped and cheered me on and I smiled and gave them a big, “thank you!” Another reason I picked this route was because I knew there would be other people out running and cycling and that always gives me energy. I felt great heading into the first 2-mile pickup and ended up coming in faster than planned (6:56 and 6:49 splits). I knew that this was only the first 5 miles of the run, though and that I needed to stay smart. I had started off with a water bottle and did not need to pick the one up at 5 miles since I still had more than half of it left, so I continued and took in my first gel on the run.
The second 3-mile portion ended, and I was off again, settling into a nice rhythm. My splits were 6:42 and 6:48 here and I was happy with how good these paces were feeling. I found a trash can to throw my empty water bottle into before picking up the one I had hidden in the bushes just past mile 10. I took in another gel here, and then things got a little interesting. There was some construction on the path so I had to follow a detour that wasn’t super clearly marked and required crossing a 4-lane highway. I lost some time waiting for cars but left my watch running the whole time to get an accurate race result. When I crossed over, I saw that they hadn’t actually started the construction yet and there were just signs out, so I made note of this for my way back to hopefully avoid more waiting for cars. There were lots of trash cans along this portion of the river trail so I was able to throw out my gel packet and find a place to stash my water bottle around mile 11 to come back for it. It got a little heavy carrying around 16 ounces of water the whole time so I figured I could go 4 miles without it since it was pretty cold out.
When I was approaching 13 miles, I knew I’d be starting my faster miles again and have to turn around shortly into them since I was turning at about 13.15, but it felt good to hit that turnaround point and know that I just had to run back to my car now and that I’d finally get a tailwind since I’d been running into the headwind for the first half marathon. The tailwind felt great and I logged a 6:39 and 6:40 for miles 14 and 15. I ran back to get the water bottle around mile 16 and took in my third gel here. I couldn’t believe I only had 10 miles to go because I felt great! I lost some time chasing down my water bottle cap after it fell in mile 16 but fortunately it was in my easier miles so it wasn’t too big of a deal. Soon, the easier miles were up and I headed into my fourth set of faster miles, with mile 19 being 6:44 and mile 20 being 6:53. I was still running these faster than the planned 7:00-7:10 but the effort felt controlled with a slight push. After 20 miles of feeling great, I started feeling the wall creeping in, but told myself that I could run a 10K to finish at this point and that I was still feeling much better than I had when I hit 20 miles in the virtual Boston. At 21, I picked up the other water bottle I had left for myself and took another gel. 2 more miles to go till I would pick it up again. When the time came for that pickup, I started driving my knees and arms but they weren’t turning over as easily as they had been before. For the first time during these speed portions, my watch was beeping and flashing “slow” instead of “fast”. That darn screen, right?! Because my legs weren’t turning over, I tried to do shorter pickups instead like running hard for a minute, then easing up, etc. It helped a little and I ran mile 24 in 7:35 but I knew I couldn’t continue like this if I wanted to finish without having to stop so I backed off and settled into a more comfortable pace, hitting mile 25 in a 7:57. I was able to pick it back up again for the final mile in a 7:41 and then tried to push it for the last little bit, running that sub-7. I ran 26.26 miles to ensure that my distance would be counted since Strava has the tendency to cut off the last .01 of a run and I couldn’t imagine being shut out from the guaranteed entry because of a technicality! Finishing was very anticlimactic as I clicked off my watch and started walking back to my car. No fans, no finish line, just me, my watch, and I. Lucky for me, though, one of my former athletes, Paola, was so kind and surprised me back in the parking lot! I am so lucky to have coached people who are not only dedicated athletes but who are also amazing, kind-hearted human beings. This meant so much to me that she came out to cheer for me and was such a special way to end my training season.
The NYC Marathon app had me finishing at 3:14:50 while Garmin had it at 3:16:00. I started both at the same time so it’s a question of which distance is more accurate. I made sure to run 26.26 (a little extra) miles on my Garmin just to be sure. I did have to run past my car where I had started which shouldn’t have been the case since I went out 13.15 miles and it should’ve been at 26.3 by the time I got back to my car since I did an out-and-back, but it wasn’t! It was a little annoying to have the phone app telling me splits a little faster than my Garmin was and since both are GPS enabled devices, I’m unsure which is the most correct, but either way, it would have been my second fastest marathon ever and it was in a workout which is pretty darn cool. I think that was telling of the fitness that was maintained over the course of the last 10 months coming off CIM and of new fitness built through speed and strength.
Strava splits because data is fun!
It’s been a wild year! At the beginning of the year, I had written a post about how 2020 would be a building year for me and would likely not be a big PR year like 2019 had. That has held true and I laugh looking back on that knowing what I know now. I was lucky that I didn’t have any big Fall plans that got canceled on me. I wasn’t signed up for anything beyond Boston (I had an entry to Chicago but was planning on deferring it to 2021) so I didn’t have any real plans for how I was going to spend this training season other than thinking I would be focusing on the half marathon distance and taking a little break from the marathon. That part makes me laugh the most since I ended up running not one but two marathons after saying I needed time off from them. The marathon is funny that way and always seems to draw us back.
Looking back on this race, I think the reason I started hitting the wall at mile 20 was likely because I needed another gel a little earlier to keep my glycogen stores from dipping too low which is hard to course-correct once it happens. I had planned to take 4 total over the course of the marathon at 5, 10, 16, and 21, but I think I should’ve taken them closer to 4.5, 9, 13.5, 18, and 22.5. Note that this is all based on time on your feet, not distance. It’s recommended to take a gel every 40 minutes in a marathon but from what I’ve learned, the more I can take in without upsetting my stomach the better off I’m going to be because our bodies need the calories when they’re working that hard. In CIM I held off the wall until about mile 23 but I would love to get the fueling down to a point where I never feel that (marathons are hard so it’s going to hurt either way in these final miles but being able to pick up the pace with turnover in those miles would be awesome).
Being able to run my second fastest marathon ever while not racing was pretty special. I think this tells me that my fitness was likely right around where I left off in December had I tried to race and while sure, that means I hadn’t gained marathon fitness, being able to maintain that for a year while remaining healthy and injury-free means there’s going to be a huge base to build off of in 2021. I was also able to maintain it off one speedwork session a week with all my long runs being at an aerobic effort, so add back in the speed to the long runs next year and I’m excited for the possibilities. A big part of why I’ve felt so strong lately is because of the strength training I’ve been doing. I worked with a strength coach (big shoutout to Natalie Sanger!) for 7 months to learn how to properly combine running and heavy lifting and then for the last 11 months have taken what I’ve learned and built off that. I’ve felt stronger, recovered faster than ever before, and I’ve grown to love lifting as not just a supplement to running but as an activity in itself.
It’s tempting to want to keep training after coming off a race that goes well thinking you’ll build fitness off of it, or after a race that doesn’t go to plan wanting to get revenge. With the marathon, both are typically bad ideas if you’ve been training for months and months because your body needs time to recover. I took 6 full days off of running after the virtual NYC, then ran less than 5 miles total over the weekend split among both days. It’s not that I couldn’t have run more, it’s that it wasn’t going to really do anything for me besides delay the recovery process. I plan on taking the rest of 2020 easier after a long training season. I’ll still be running, but my mileage will stay lower and efforts will be easier. During this time I’m going to continue with my lifting and trying out new things like Pilates or yoga classes, maybe even a spin class! Overall, I love being active and while running will always be my first love (in sport), I’ve discovered that I love being new at something too and being able to build my way from the ground up. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s often where the most growth occurs.
My big, scary goal coming off of CIM last year running a 3:07 was to go after a sub-3 marathon. While this season was anything but traditional, playing the long game has set me up to go chase after that goal next year. I’m ready to put in the work to do that next year and see how far my body can take me. But I’m not jumping back into the marathon just yet. My initial plan for Fall 2020 was to focus on half marathon training, which obviously changed when I signed up for two full marathons. The half is a distance that I believe I have untapped potential in because it’s an endurance race that has you running just slightly slower than threshold pace which is typically where my sweet spot is – I love that zone. Now that I’ve brought my threshold pace down a bit in speed training, I’m excited to focus on the half distance specifically. Nearly all my half marathon PRs have come in the middle of marathon training when I’m running on very un-tapered, tired legs. I’m curious to see what I could do when this is the goal race that I taper for and focus on. My current PR is from the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon last Fall where I ran 1:27:48 in the peak weeks of CIM training. I’d love to improve upon that and bring that time down as much as I can. I don’t have a goal race lined up for the spring, I think I’m really just going to have to wait and see what’s available next year, but right now the plan is to start training in 2021 for a spring race and to be flexible with whatever lines up and is available, or to just run it as a solo time trial. After having practiced that this season, I feel confident that I’d be ready to do it again and grateful that I spent the time conditioning my mind this season to be strong enough to take that on!