So what happened and where do we go from here?
It’s hard to want to “re-live” a race gone wrong but I’ve had to in the last 48 hours to try to figure out what went wrong while it’s still a fresh (albeit, raw) memory. My training cycle was solid – I was able to do every single run and every single workout with 0 interruptions from pain flare-ups or illness which is super rare if you’ve ever trained for a marathon before. I didn’t hit every workout and had to adjust a lot this cycle with hot and humid conditions but felt like things were starting to click when I ran a 16-miler 2 weeks out in cooler weather with 10 consecutive miles at a 6:47 average. Part of me wonders if things were clicking just a little too late and maybe I could’ve benefited from another week or two of training, but the way my body shut down on me in the race leads me to believe something else had to have been going on because that would’ve just left me a little less sharp by a minute or two, not full on implosion running over 30 minutes slower than my PR.
I’m pretty confident that the root of my problems Sunday stemmed from logistics of racing a major point-to-point big marathon. I was up at 3:30 a.m. to eat breakfast before heading to the subway to get to the library for my 5:15 a.m. bus. I was on a bus by 5:05 and we were on our way to Staten Island, but this meant getting off the bus prior to 6 a.m. and sitting around outside in 39-degree weather for over 3 hours before my start time at 9:10. I had brought layers of throwaway clothes expecting to be outside for awhile, but one thing I didn’t bring was extra warmth for my feet. My feet were so cold – lucky for me, a teammate of mine (hi, Lindsay!) gave me one of her extra hand warmers and I stuck it in my shoe and rotated it between shoes to try to warm my feet up. This helped a lot but only lasted so long.
By the time I got up to go use the porta potty one last time before entering the corral, I was shivering uncontrollably. I thought maybe it was nerves, but I was so cold. We were asked to shed our layers about 15 minutes before heading up to the start line since there wouldn’t be places to leave clothes on the bridge. The start line was surreal – we heard and felt the cannons go off to signify the start of our wave and music playing on the bridge. Being in a pack of runners at the start helped me feel warmer, but as soon as I started running, I realized my feet were still numb and I could barely feel them. It took about 3 miles for me to feel them again but within the first mile I was also dealing with a side cramp as I climbed the Verrazano. I told myself to relax and to pay attention to my breathing because this is often the cause for side cramps. It never really went away.
I settled into my goal pace after coming off of the bridge but didn’t feel as fresh as you should in the first few miles of a marathon at goal pace. If you’ve trained properly, the first 10 miles of a marathon should be relatively comfortable – you should feel in control and exerting maybe 75-80% effort. I knew by mile 6 that this felt more like half marathon effort and that I’d likely have to back off, but I was expecting my crew at mile 8 so I used that as motivation to keep up my clip and maybe if I was lucky seeing them would spark me to keep going at this pace. Sure enough I saw them at 8 but shortly after that I started stepping off the gas because I was having a hard time breathing. I have exercise induced asthma so I carry my inhaler with me just in case but this was the first time I’ve ever had to take it at mile 9 of a marathon that had good conditions. It was really early on to be having breathing problems. I started slowing, seeing 7’s on my watch instead of the 6:57’s I’d been holding consistently. If I tried to pick up my pace, my breathing would just get more out of control and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish at all.
My legs felt so heavy from mile 10 onward and they completely stopped turning over. I’d try to run with pace groups that ran by, matching their pace for a minute only to let them go because I couldn’t hold on. I remember hitting the halfway point in 1:35 and knowing this was going to be the hard way to run a marathon – progressively getting slower as I went on – but I was hopeful maybe I could still hang onto an 8ish min pace and clinch a BQ for 2023. That goal slipped further and further from reality as stomach cramping took over and I started feeling really nauseous if I picked up my pace anymore than a recovery effort. The Queensboro bridge really did a number on me and I was pretty sad when instead of getting to run down the bridge on the other side after cresting it that we just ran down a short exit ramp instead. I had so many people passing me on the uphill climb here and it was disheartening – usually I’m the one doing the passing on an uphill, a strength of mine, but my body would not move any faster.
I was counting down miles to the finish. I knew my crew would be at mile 17 and that they had to know something was wrong based on my tracking time. I clutched my stomach as I ran past them to make them aware that I was dealing with stuff but kept on running. When I hit 18, I remember thinking 8 miles to go seemed like a lot but it was manageable even if I had to walk the whole darn thing. I was finishing this race and at least going home with my 4th Abbott World Marathon Major star. Please note that sometimes it doesn’t make sense to finish a race – had I been experiencing any pains reminiscent of injury pain, I would’ve called it because it wouldn’t be worth risking a long-term injury for. This was different – I knew I could finish if I kept moving slowly and that it was just an off-day. I remembered that Shalane Flanagan had to walk in London and that she had recommended walking through the aid stations if you were struggling to get you back going again. I tried this method starting around mile 19 and it helped but it was the first time I had to walk in a marathon in many years and I was a bit defeated and embarrassed by that as people were cheering me on to keep going but my body just was rebelling in every way.
Between mile 20 and 21 a woman ran out in the street after seeing me walking and cramping and handed me a 16 oz bottle of Gatorade. I don’t normally mix Gatorade and my gels on course because I’ve had GI issues in the past from this but figured this was already a train wreck and it couldn’t get any worse. I think sipping on this helped me get through the next 3 miles. There is one final bridge around mile 21, the Willis Bridge, and someone was out with a sign that said “Last Damn Bridge”. I pointed and laughed at that and thought, “thank goodness”. Convinced my crew was going to be at 23 (they had said 24 but I had a mind lapse), I kept moving not wanting them to see me walking. This pretty much kept me going except for aid stations – I was able to take all 5 of my gels, forcing the last one down at 23 knowing I’d feel better if I got calories in I even if I didn’t want it at the time. I eventually saw the group at 24 and yelled out, “2 more to go” as I entered Central Park. The Central Park hills were the first true “rolling” hills on this course. The bridges are straight up and straight down and the same with the roads. If I ever do this race again, I need to practice on more gradual mile-long slopes vs rolling hills like Boston I think because it was very different. The fans in the park really helped push me along, though. This course is completely lined with spectators and it was amazing to have so much love and support on the course from total strangers. This is one reason I love the marathon majors – the locals are always so proud of their marathon and come out in force to support it.
People aren’t kidding when they say the finish is uphill. Usually I can kick in hard at the finish of a marathon, closer to 6 min pace, but again my body just would not let me. I’m pretty sure this was the slowest 400 meter finish I’ve ever had in a marathon even though I was so ready to be done! I crossed the line in 3:41; with a first half in 1:35, that means my second half took 2:06. I felt every minute of that second half. Crossing the line we were encouraged to keep walking and I had several volunteers keep coming up to me asking if I needed help and if I was ok. I appreciated it but waved them off. I got my poncho on and again was asked by more volunteers if I was ok or if I needed a wheelchair. A wheelchair? Did I really look that bad? I eventually got to the “hill” to get out on 72nd and my body stopped wanting to move. I sat down on the side of the path and a volunteer came over to make sure I was ok. I chugged the protein shake in the bag they had given us at the finish, knowing that if I didn’t get calories in soon I’d likely end up with GI issues (I’ve found if I can get some protein in within 30 minutes of finishing a marathon that I can avoid the GI issues typically.
After drinking the shake, I continued out of the park until someone from the med tent suggested I come inside. I was freezing and they wrapped me in blankets to warm me up, stretched out some muscles, and had me eat some saltine crackers. I guess I looked as bad as I felt. When I came out of the med tent, I dropped my phone and my SIM card got loose in the phone so I no longer had service. Fortunately we had planned a meet up spot in case phones weren’t working (battery life was the primary concern, lol) so I found Ross and Lindsey and got to give them big hugs before we headed down to the subway to go back to the hotel.
Recovery so far as been pretty easy. My energy levels were normal the day after and while my body is sore from running 26.2 hilly miles, it doesn’t feel as beat up as after a typical marathon, likely because I slowed things way down. We were tourists in the city on Monday and I enjoyed walking around to shake the legs out a bit. I’m still respecting the fact that I ran the distance regardless of the time on the clock and giving my body time to recover, but trying to figure out what my next steps will be. Coming into NYC admittedly I was ready for a break from the marathon and excited to be going on vacation later this month where running was not on the schedule, but now I have a little bit of an itch to settle some unfinished business after so many months of hard work and fitness built. Fortunately I have Jessica to talk through options with and see what makes the most sense both physically and mentally for me. I don’t like to make decisions right after a race so I have just been thinking about options at this point, not acting on any impulses.
I think what I’ve taken away most from this experience is that while I love these big major marathons so much, they aren’t always the best places to run faster times at with all the logistics involved on race day. There’s something to be said for the medium-sized races that still have good competition but where you can show up to the start line less than 30 minutes before and be ready to go. I’m not sure what’s next for me but I’m figuring that out one day at a time. This experience was disappointing, but if there’s anything the pandemic taught us about running it’s that all of the work when races aren’t in season doesn’t go to waste and will be able to be tapped into in the future.