When we started 2021, the fate of races was still very much up in the air but many of us chose to continue training anyway, knowing that regardless of what came or didn’t come at the end of the cycle, it would still be beneficial for future training. Knowing an April Boston wasn’t going to happen and having just completed two virtual marathons in Fall 2020, training for another possibly virtual marathon just wasn’t very exciting to me and so I decided to turn my focus to the half marathon. It was a distance I felt comfortable potentially time-trialing on my own if it came to that and also one that I was interested in training for. I like the half marathon – it’s an event that you can still run decent weekly mileage with but I didn’t have to run beyond 15 miles for a long run. Training began in January and I didn’t sign up for a race to wait and see what might be available depending on what things looked like with vaccines, but I was targeting a “race” at the end of April or beginning of May.
The first few weeks of training were really challenging. I felt out of shape and being January, there was a lot of snow on the ground and frosty temperatures. The first month or so of a training cycle I usually feel a little rusty coming off of a break but I know the break is always necessary to give my body time to recover and be ready to work hard again. I remember having to stop in a couple speed workouts early on in the training cycle, hunched over with my hands on my knees, and wondering if I’d ever feel back “in shape” again. In January and February I would often take my speed workouts indoors between icy roads and super cold temperatures that makes breathing hard in (my asthma really flares in the super dry, cold winter), but with covid, masks were required at the gym and so it was the same issue indoors – bad breathing conditions either way. I’m not complaining, I was fully in support of it, it’s just the facts of what I was choosing between. I have a basement treadmill and I utilized it a lot more this winter than I had in the past; my treadmill isn’t particularly fancy (Costco purchase a couple years after undergrad when I was on a tight budget) and I do think the speeds feel faster on it than at the same speeds on a nicer treadmill at the gym, but I was able to run on my own treadmill without a mask and so it was often a better option than trying to run hard in negative windchills.
By the end of January, things still felt pretty hard, but I was continuing to show up and try my best. When February rolled around, speed workouts started clicking again just in time for a polar vortex. This meant more time inside, including a couple long runs on the treadmill where I’d watch old marathons on YouTube to pass the time. There was a lot of snow in February, too; I swear we were shoveling the driveway every day! I was a little nervous that all of the treadmill time was going to affect my fitness, but when I ran a 5K PR (19:36) in the middle of a workout towards the end of February, these doubts quickly faded. I wasn’t gunning for a 5K PR, it was a 20 minute tempo run, but things came together and it just happened – my first negative split 5K, too! This was the reassurance I needed that my fitness was there and that training was working. Later that week, though, I set off for a 13-mile long run that became 8 miles as I felt super fatigued and like I was sprinting when I tried to hit tempo paces. I stopped so many times and remember making my way to my parents’ house because it was closer to where I was than my own home and having to get a ride home. It was frustrating but at the time I chalked it up to my body must have still been been recovering from running a 5K PR earlier in the week – looking back now I don’t think that’s what it was, but more on that later.
March started off with several strong workouts prior to leaving on a backpacking trip to Arkansas. We went overnight backpacking for 3 days hiking 40 miles in that time with 25-pound packs on our backs. Suffice to say there was no running for those days as I was getting plenty of exercise! Backpacking was easily the toughest thing I’ve ever done. When you’re in the middle of the woods with no cell phone reception or other people close by for miles, you truly feel all alone and vulnerable. There was no option but to keep moving and there were several times I fought back tears just wanting to be done and being in so much physical pain. Being in running shape really meant nothing out there – my heart rate stayed lower and I did recover quickly each day after a good night’s sleep but that’s about the only benefit I got from running! When we got back from the trip, I got back into training and felt pretty good that first week, but the week after I received my first covid vaccine which left me with some fatigue and a higher heart rate for a few days. I definitely noticed its effect on me athletically, but within a week I felt back to myself.
Committing to the Glass City Half Marathon
At the beginning of April, I finally committed to a race, the Glass City Half Marathon in Toledo, OH. I was excited to run and in-person race and one that I felt really comfortable with – they were requiring proof of vaccination or a negative covid test within 72 hours of the event. Having a race on the calendar encouraged me to keep training hard the next few weeks. Unfortunately, we got hit with a heat wave in early April (80-degrees after it had been a full winter of 10s-30s) and it really rattled my confidence when I couldn’t hit any of my splits in a speed workout. Fortunately, the weather cooled off the following week, but it only gave me about a week to feel good before I received my second covid vaccine. My second vaccine fell on the Monday before race weekend. I had considered waiting a week until after the race to get it, but came to the conclusion that it would be really irresponsible to put off my vaccine for a race when there was a global pandemic. My second vaccine knocked me out pretty hard for a couple days – I had the chills, a fever, a headache, bodyaches, and a lot of fatigue. Later on I would read that pro runners were reporting decreased performance for up to 3 weeks after receiving their second doses and I definitely felt this way. Running was hard and it wasn’t until the Saturday shakeout run the day before race day that my heart rate finally came back down again and I felt a little more confident that I might be able to run hard in Toledo.
Ross and I made the 4.5 hour drive out to Toledo on Saturday afternoon to pick up my race packet. I provided a negative covid test since my second vaccine was earlier in the week (they asked for it to be completed at least 2 weeks prior to race day or to come with a negative covid test taken within 72 hours prior), we got my packet, and headed over to the hotel. It felt so weird to be back at a race weekend again but I was excited. The weather was looking perfect for racing – low 40s with mild wind and overcast skies. On race morning I woke up early to do my ritualistic shakeout mile that I do 2.5 hours before every half marathon. It’s just an easy 10-minute mile that gets the blood flowing prior to eating breakfast. I ate my breakfast, put on my race outfit, and headed out the door to drive over to the starting area. I remember having a hard time getting there with so many closed off roads and I was so stressed that I was going to miss the start of the race. When I finally got to a parking garage, I started running to the start, but then realized I had forgotten my mask in the car which was required to be in the starting corrals! I sprinted back to the car, grabbed the mask, and then sprinted some more over to the start. I’m honestly glad I had this experience in April and not the Fall because now I’ll remember to check for the mask if it’s needed in the starting area! I lined up in Corral 1, just behind the elite corral where I could see Noah Droddy, a professional runner for Saucony, who was there to pace his fiance in the half marathon. It was so cool to be that close to the pros! My goal for the day was to run a 1:25 which was right around 6:30 pace. Fortunately, there was a pacer and I lined up behind him to hopefully tuck in and let him do some of the “work”.
The gun went off and the pacer went flying. I tried to keep my eye on him from a distance but he was pushing 6:10/6:15 pace and I knew it was a horrible idea to try to keep up at that pace not even a mile into the race. I was in no-mans land as a result with a couple people here and there but it was tough to not have a group to work with like I was hoping. Mile 1 clicked in at 6:31 which was perfect and I was proud of myself for running my own race and not getting too overzealous like the pacer. I felt smooth and settled into this rhythm, mile 2 was 6:30 and mile 3 was 6:31. Mile 4 had more incline and this split was a little slower at 6:38 but I wasn’t concerned – I was hoping to stay between 6:30-6:40 early on in the race and so this is right where I wanted to be. And then, disaster struck. At mile 4.5, a volunteer mistakenly turned around the elite corral and corral 1 and sent us running back the way we came. The elites were yelling “turn around, they sent us the wrong way!” at us, but I kept running until I saw an official volunteer who was turning people around. And so I turned…and by the time I had course-corrected I had gone an extra half mile and my goal of running a 1:25 let alone a PR was out the window in that moment. I was crushed. I tried to get my body back into things but my mind was just so thrown off by the chaos. I stepped off the course shortly before 7 miles and called Ross telling him what had happened and we both agreed that the best thing for me to do was to drop out and try to race again soon. I feel extremely fortunate that I dropped out when I did because I learned that the elites were turned around yet again later on and ended up running 15 miles which is just so disappointing. After having made the long journey out to the race, training so hard, and being excited to run my first race back since 2019, this was the most 2021ish thing that could’ve happened.
Plotting a revenge half marathon
After we returned from Toledo, I took the rest of the night to wallow and then the next day went to work figuring out if there would be another opportunity to race. Jessica (my coach) and I agreed that I should avoid traveling too far if possible since racing is hard enough on the body and throwing off your routine doesn’t help. We contemplated running a small, flat race in Wisconsin just a week later or waiting 4 more weeks and running a more local-to-me race in Busse Woods. After thinking about it for a couple days, I decided the thought of extending my cycle for another month just sounded terrible as I had built it up in my mind that I would be done and on a break so I signed up for the Wisconsin race in Oconomowoc where 3 of my friends were running the full marathon. It would be less than a week after the other half marathon but I essentially ran a 6-mile tempo run so we were hoping it wouldn’t affect me too much. I didn’t feel too great the week of the race but was eager to give myself an honest shot since I didn’t get that in Toledo.
I headed up to Oconomowoc after work on Friday to pick up my bib and meet my friends for a pre-race pasta dinner. It was our first group dinner since the pandemic began since all of us were fully vaccinated and it was so nice to eat a pasta dinner with good company again and really felt like a real race weekend! The weather was not looking so great for race day, with a wind advisory out for gusts up to 50 mph and sustained winds of 20 mph, but that’s not something I could control so I tried to just relax in the hotel that night and appreciate that I was getting another shot to run a race in 2021. Sure enough I woke up on race morning and the wind was intense, but what was more concerning to me was that my legs just felt so crampy. I have no idea why this was the case since I was fully hydrated and hadn’t spent much time on my feet the day before and I’m still not really sure what the deal was. I had to put it beside though and focus on getting to the starting line, this time leaving even more time to not be stressed like I was in Toledo.
The course was set up as and out and back and you had to provide your own hydration due to covid protocols. We set up 3 tables along the course with our water and fuel and hoped that it wouldn’t blow over in all the wind! Doing my warm-up I felt like the wind was coming from every direction and knew we’d be in for a fight. We were released in small waves with our masks on which could be removed after crossing the starting line – mine got stuck in my headphones and I probably looked ridiculous trying to get it off in my first few strides! Because it was such a small field, you were running by yourself for the most part and I went out again at goal pace, clocking a 6:24 first mile which was a little too fast for that 6:30 goal. We were headed directly into a headwind, however, and I could feel that this effort was not going to be sustainable in the weather so I tried to pull it back closer to 6:40/6:45. Miles 2-4 were between 6:40-6:47 but I developed some strong stomach cramping and pulled back on my pace further, running mile 5 in 6:56 and mile 6 in 6:59. Between the crazy wind and the cramping, I watched my A & B goals go by and it became more about finishing the race than the time on the clock. I was in such a world of hurt when I went by our friends’ families cheering before mile 6 and they told me after that I looked so mean. I tried to smile but I guess I wasn’t faking it well enough! My paces kept getting slower and slower and everything in me wanted to stop – and I probably would have had I not dropped out of Toledo and felt like I owed it to myself to finish the darn thing. Mile 10 was my slowest at 7:56, a pace slower than many of my aerobic long runs. I just had nothing left to give and my body had gone into survival mode; I let it dictate the pace and ignored my watch. I crossed the line in 1:34, a far cry from the 1:25 I had been hoping for (not realistic with this weather) or even sub-1:30 given the windy conditions. I wasn’t upset at my body because I knew it had done all it could do, but I was disappointed that this was how my spring 2021 racing season was going to end. I am, however, grateful that I did not continue my training cycle for 4 more weeks as the Busse Woods race ended up being nearly 80-degrees with 100% humidity – it would’ve been really sad to have extended my cycle just for that when my brain and body were ready for a break back in April!
This was not the smoothest training cycle for me but I’m glad it helped shake off a lot of the rust that had accumulated during the last year of the pandemic. There were a couple things I didn’t write in detail on that I believe contributed to the rocky cycle beyond the typical winter weather or cumulative fatigue that I’d like to share more about because I wish more people would be honest about some of these things to normalize them/provide more information!
The first has to do with birth control. I made the decision in January 2021 to come off of my birth control after talking with my doctor. I had been on the pill for the last 6 years and for the last few had suspected that something was not quite right with my body being on it. I had crazy mood swings, I felt depressed often for no reason, and my face had developed melasma which is a side effect of hormonal birth control. I was sick of feeling like a stranger in my own body and I wanted to test the hypothesis that I had that it was my birth control causing my hormones to be out of balance. Like any good experiment, I needed a control factor, in this case, the pill, and did not want to just jump to a different kind without ensuring that this was truly the root cause of how I was feeling. Since I was working from home for the foreseeable future, I thought it would be a good time to make the change in case I didn’t feel well or my strong period cramps/flow that I had pre-birth control came back. Fortunately, my period returned right away (I had never lost it while on birth control but had read that some women experience period loss for a few months after coming off of it), but unfortunately so did a lot of the nasty side effects like bloating in the days leading up to my period, strong cramps, and a heavy flow.
However, after a few months, my body felt like my own again. The mood swings stopped, the melasma has slowly been improving, and I feel happier overall. The reason I bring up birth control, however, is because of the effects that now having a “real” period has on athletic training and my performance. Being on birth control, you have a period, but it’s not quite the same as having one without all of the hormones regulating it in the pill. I had read the book, “ROAR” by Dr. Stacy Sims last year, and a whole section of the book is dedicated to talking about the menstrual cycle and learning how to train properly during each phase of the cycle. When I looked back on the bad workouts that I would have where I felt extra fatigued and like I was sprinting at tempo paces, I realized they were often falling in the week before my period which is during the luteal phase, or the phase where you don’t recover as easily or have as much endurance. I also get pretty bad bloating during this time now; I sent a photo to my sister who thought I looked pregnant by how bloated I got.
I have had to learn how to train to work with my menstrual cycle and not against it which is something I will take moving forward into my marathon training cycle. The luteal phase is good for a cutback week whereas during menstruation I’ll be able to push harder because it’s when estrogen and progesterone drop and women are actually most like men funny enough since it seems like the least masculine thing possible! I have also been trying to eat better to avoid the bloat that I get that is extremely uncomfortable. I get cravings for salty and sweet things and instead of reaching for the chips or the ice cream to satisfy those cravings, I’ve been trying to make choices that aren’t going to leave me extra bloated and uncomfortable. I’ve been doing a lot of research on this because going off the pill has helped me in so many ways that I don’t think I want to go back on something that could mess with my hormones again. I am going in for an annual physical this week to get some bloodwork done to make sure everything is looking good prior to starting a marathon training cycle in July; my birth control had iron in it and this is one thing I want to make sure doesn’t get affected as I have dealt with low iron in the past. I take a daily multi-vitamin so hopefully that is doing the trick but bloodwork will reveal any deficiencies that I should work on. (Note: I share this all as a personal anecdote, not as a recommendation. Consult your doctor before making any changes to medication you are taking just as I did!)
The other thing I didn’t realize would have as much as an effect on my training as it did was the second covid vaccine. Because it is so new, there wasn’t a whole lot of research done on the effects of the vaccine and athletic performance, but we are learning more now about how long things like fatigue linger in the body after receiving it. Many athletes are reporting decreased performance for up to 3 weeks after the second dose and that felt pretty accurate to me. I felt fine after a week in aerobic efforts but speedwork was definitely affected and as much as I’d like to believe I could’ve hung onto my goal pace at Toledo, I’m not sure I could’ve done it with how I felt that week after getting the vaccine. I don’t regret my decision to get it – I feel totally back to normal now and it has been such a blessing to feel safe again and get to live more normally again. I’ll be interested to read up on more studies as they come out but if we end up needing boosters in the Fall (it seems hopeful that we won’t), it’ll be something I take into consideration for the timing with running the marathon.
So, What’s next?
I’ll be running the NYC Marathon November 7th and I cannot wait to start training for it! I’ll share goals and more about the process in future posts but I think this post had enough info in it for now!