Race Strategy Going In
I had my race prep call with Coach J the weekend prior to Eugene and during it we talked about the cycle and a plan for the marathon. At the beginning of the cycle, I had been chasing a sub-3 hour marathon, but nothing really clicked this cycle and I wasn’t feeling very confident. The plan was to start with the 3:05 pace group instead and then if I felt good around mile 16 to start picking it up. It wouldn’t be a sub-3, but I should be running within myself for that first part of the race and hopefully have enough energy to close strong or at least hang onto the group. I felt comfortable with this plan and on Tuesday of race week, had a confidence boosting workout that made me think maybe I was fitter than I thought I was and gave me hope going into the weekend.
We took a morning flight to Portland from Chicago since there weren’t any direct flights to Eugene. After a very turbulent 4-hour flight, we landed and rented a car at the airport to drive 2 hours south to Eugene. We got to the Airbnb shortly after 2 p.m., got a little organized, and proceeded to take a nap; I wanted some extra rest for the race and Ross had been traveling for work on the East coast through Thursday so he was pretty tired as well. Around 5:30 we headed to downtown Eugene to get my race packet and try to grab a snack before The Rambling Runner live show with Peter Bromka at 6:30 (aka 8:30 Central Time where we came from). I got to meet one of my teammates, Kristin, and the live show was cozy and intimate in a small local running store; we even got to stick around after and talk to Peter and Matt! After the show ended around 8, Ross and I swung by the grocery store to pick up food for the weekend. Part of the reason I wanted to rent the Airbnb was so I could cook my own food to stay in my routine through the race. We had a late dinner of some pizza and salad and then went to bed.
I was co-hosting a Team Sugar Runs Shakeout Run Saturday morning at 9 a.m. which meant plenty of time to sleep in and eat some breakfast. We met everyone outside of a local coffee shop, went for a 20-min shakeout, and enjoyed some tasty coffee afterwards! The weather was cool but humid, something I haven’t experienced in a long time, but my body felt ok. After coffee, Ross and I went to drive a couple of the hills on the course so that I knew what to expect for race day; the mile 4.5 hill was gradual but not too bad, the mile 9 hill was steep and .3 miles long so I knew I’d just have to focus on powering up it and then be rewarded with a downhill on the other end. I was feeling ok about these hills since they were the only ones that showed real elevation gain on the course map so we didn’t drive more of the course; I’d see it tomorrow.
I had wanted to do more of the Rambling Runner live shows Saturday but made the call to just relax at the Airbnb to save my energy for the race; it’s fun to do all the things but I was afraid of zapping all my energy too early, especially since I’m more introverted by nature so social outings can zap a little more energy for me! Ross and I hung out and watched TV back at the house and around 4 p.m. went to my athlete Megan’s hotel room to get some race braids done! She lives an hour away from Eugene and her hair stylist is local to the area so she offered to get my hair done; I usually do a french braid myself the morning of the race but after this experience I think I might get someone to braid my hair professionally before a big marathon from now on! It stayed in so well and was so fun to feel fierce and confident on the starting line with pretty hair! I made my typical pre-race dinner of spaghetti and marinara with some meatballs, we watched some Disney+ before bed, and then I tried to get some sleep before an early alarm the next morning (4:15 a.m.).
Race morning! I woke up with some nerves as is normal for race morning but had a hard time getting my food down as a result. I ended up eating 1/4 of my bagel, nibbled on some oatmeal, and got down some sips of UCan. Fortunately I had been carb-loading for 3 days at this point so I had plenty of carbs to go around but I was hoping to have topped things off a bit more in the morning; I just couldn’t get the food down without feeling like I was going to puke.
We picked up a couple teammates of mine (the two Katie’s!) on the way over to the start line and were able to find street parking easily. Race weather was pretty ideal with 45-degrees at the start and almost no wind, the only downside was 95% humidity but I was hoping with a lower air temperature that it wouldn’t matter. We hung out in the car for a bit to stay warm and one of my athletes, Maggie, joined us. I had a gel around 6:30 and was fortunately able to get that down for some extra fuel before a 7 a.m. start. Maggie and I headed over to the porta-potties for one last bathroom stop, said good luck, and parted ways. I had my throwaway clothes on and realized I was so close to the car that it would be a waste to get rid of the clothes for this race so I was able to hand them to Ross before getting into my corral. Kristin was in my corral as well and we had similar goals for the day so we were able to start together; it’s always nice to have a friendly race at the start of a race! The gun went off and not far behind we crossed the start line to go!
I had lined up behind the 3:05 pacer (7:03 pace) and was focusing on just running with this group to begin. I knew the race started on an uphill so I wasn’t surprised when we started climbing and fortunately it didn’t last very long. My breathing was in control but I did feel like we were moving a little fast; with most of my runs, it takes me a good 2-3 miles to really get into things so I assumed that’s all this was and carried on. We hit the first mile in 6:58 which was a little fast but really anything under 5 seconds I’d consider excellent pacing. The first part of the course goes through some industrial and residential areas so there weren’t as many fans and I focused on just running, staying within myself and staying with the group. Mile 2 was a 6:57 which was consistent with the last mile. I still didn’t feel amazing but continued to relax and run with the group, hoping the feeling would pass. By mile 3 we had settled into the low 7’s, running a 7:02. I knew that the next couple miles would bring some uphill climbing after having driven the course the day before so I didn’t freak out on these when things suddenly felt harder. We made it through with a 7:01 fourth mile, I took my gel around 30 mins, then hit a 7:02 fifth mile and things flattened out again. We were headed back towards campus town and the pacer was doing an excellent job of holding a steady and accurate pace. Mile 6-8 were 7:00, 6:59, 7:02 respectively. Between 8 to 9 was where the big hill was and we surged up it, or so it felt like we were even though our pace was slowing down; it’s a steep grade for .3 miles (gained 68 feet in that .3) but the other side of the hill is a steep downhill that you can make up some speed on. I’m not great at running fast downhill so I felt like the pace group took off but I told myself to stay within myself and controlled knowing I’d catch them on the flat. Sure enough, I reeled them back in. At 60 minutes I took another gel and shortly after saw the elite men half marathoners coming in to the finish. I don’t love seeing a half split from the full and at this point we still had about 17 miles to go! Mile 9 with all its elevation changes was a 7:04, but still pretty consistent with the rest of the miles.
I knew Ross would be close to mile 10 and I was planning on tossing my handheld to him there. This was the first marathon I’ve carried a handheld to start with carried with Skratch in it for extra electrolytes since I’m a heavy sweater. I felt like it was so heavy in my right arm and my shoulder actually hurt from carrying it again so I’m not sure if I’ll do this again, but it was nice to control how much liquid I was getting in when with the cups everything just kind of splashes all over your face. This is where it would be nice to be an elite and have your bottles ready for you and be able to toss them off when you were done! I saw Ross shortly before mile 10, tossed the handheld to him, and we hit mile 10 in 7:06. Somewhere between mile 10 and mile 11 on an open road with no fans, I began losing contact with the pace group.
I hit mile 11 in 7:10 so not far off from what the pacing had been but the group was pulling away from me. I tried putting in a surge, then another one, but it felt like my legs just wouldn’t turn over anymore and my breathing was off. This was so early on in the race to be hitting a wall and it wasn’t for lack of nutrition or for going out too hard so it was incredibly frustrating. I still had 15 miles to go which is a longer long run. I started having some people pass me on the open road and had a headwind here; it wasn’t much but it felt like a lot between the getting passed and the slowing pace. I tried to stick with the few people passing but my body was not letting me. I hit mile 12 in 7:43; to be honest, I was surprised I was still hitting sub-8 at this point because it felt like I was barely moving. Somewhere around this section Kristin came up on me from behind and we exchanged a few words; “I hit the wall at mile 10,” I said, “I don’t know what’s happening.” She tried to encourage me and I tried to stick with her but it only lasted for maybe 30 seconds before she pulled ahead and I cheered for her to keep going because she looked strong. I held steady for another 7:43 mile 13 and crossed the half marathon in a 1:34. At this point, A goal of sub-3:05 was certainly out the window and B goal of hitting a new PR running under 3:07 meant I’d have to run a faster second half than first half which didn’t seem possible with how awful I felt.
Fortunately I had a C goal to keep me going – to hit the BQ for 2023; Boston 2023 falls on my 30th birthday and it’s been a dream for several years since I found that out to ring in my 30s by running the marathon. This is what kept me in this race when everything in my body was telling me to stop and drop out. I considered it for sure, but I thought about how I’d have to run another marathon to qualify when I had already run half of one so far and could hold it together enough to finish, and I thought about Ross and how he came out here to support me all the way from Chicago and what a waste it would be to drop out and have made the trip out here for nothing. With more people coming up on me, my pace picked up a bit and I hit mile 14 in 7:31 and mile 15 in 7:33. I was counting down every single mile to go at this point. I had planned on taking a gel every 30 minutes and only carried 5 which would’ve been enough for this so when I slowed down, this threw my fueling plan off a bit. I was downing extra Nuun and water at every aid station, feeling like I could never get enough liquid in. It was 95% humidity at the start and I wonder if this got to me even with a cooler air temperature since we hadn’t had any consecutive warm, humid days during my training cycle. I had to readjust when I took my gels so that I’d have enough fuel for the rest of the race and made sure to take in the extra electrolytes from Nuun for the extra time I was spending on my feet. Mile 16 was my last sub-8 min mile of the day in 7:42 and then the last 10 miles were some of the most grueling I’ve ever run.
The back half of the race course was incredibly boring. There were barely any fans on the river trail, there weren’t many people around to run with, and I felt like I was on a bad long run. I saw Kristin close to mile 16 again on an out and back section and cheered for her as she passed by going the opposite direction. My pace hovered in the low 8’s for the next several miles, 17-19 were 8:02, 8:08, 8:05, about the pace I’d run a comfortable long run at in training only this did not feel comfortable at all. When I got to mile 20, this is where things started to get a little dicey and I was a little afraid I might not finish. I felt like I was going to black out at mile 20, getting a little dizzy and things going a little dark temporarily. Being only a 10K away from the finish and having about 63 minutes to still BQ (I remember doing the math on my watch at this point), I knew I could do it if I kept putting one foot in front of the other even as I got slower. Around mile 21, we came off of the bike path temporarily and there was a man handing out whiskey shots in his front yard; it made me want to vomit, but I didn’t fortunately. “5 more miles, Katherine, you can do this.” Miles 21-24 felt like eons (20-24 split: 8:15, 8:23, 8:13, 8:39, 8:24). The sun came out briefly around mile 24 and it felt warm; I was grateful when the cloud coverage came over again. At this point, I knew I’d finish, and when I hit mile 25 in 8:26 I tried to run a little faster but the turnover just would not come back. I focused on just shuffling to the finish line because I needed to cross it for the BQ. I hit 26 in 8:18 and then tried to pick it up to finish strong into the stadium.
Coming into Hayward Field was amazing and an experience I’ll never forget. I remember looking up into the stands, then hitting the track and feeling the softer surface and powering myself to move faster and faster trying to channel the energy from the crowd and thinking of all the fast athletes who have raced on this track over the years. I threw my fist up as I crossed the line, grabbed a medal, then hunched over on my knees so happy to be done. I had someone take my photo down in the finish area and then made my way to the refreshments through the stadium. I was so thirsty and downed the whole bottle of water they gave us in no time; I couldn’t find any electrolyte drinks anywhere and instead chugged some chocolate milk to get my protein in for muscle recovery. We walked up a bunch of stadium stairs (cruel after a marathon!) and all I could find was beer which is not what I wanted in that moment. I felt out of it and a little sick, so I sat by myself for awhile in the stands until I had the energy to call Ross to meet up. Once I found him we watched the finish line for a bit waiting for my athletes to come through. I was able to see Maggie afterwards and we talked about how we both felt out there – the course had about 500 feet of gain and loss which was a little more than I was expecting so I wouldn’t consider it totally “flat” as advertised, but what struck me more is even she commented on the humidity and she’s from Miami, so that tells me it was definitely in the air that day. (She still ran a PR, taking 7-mins off going from 3:52 to 3:45!)
I’m still going over and over in my head what could possibly have gone wrong on Sunday and it’s confusing and disappointing. It’s been over 2.5 years since my last marathon or half marathon PR and that’s been hard to stay motivated through this rough patch; I was optimistic that Eugene would be the day I finally broke out of the rut but my body had other plans. A few thoughts I have upon reflection:
- Maybe I was overtrained. I wanted to try higher mileage this cycle and did so successfully staying healthy and injury-free, but I never felt like I had that pep in my step and didn’t feel good on any of my long-run workouts this cycle. It’s possible between all the miles and the lifting that I did too much. Usually over-training is also accompanied by inadequate nutrition, lack of sleep, and signs like a missed period, none of which I had. Working with a RD this cycle meant I was on top of all of my nutrition, eating to fuel my training, and my menstrual cycle actually normalized after it had been getting longer and longer last year. Overtraining signs also include feeling tired all the time and potentially even being depressed which are both things I did not experience this cycle but after talking with Jessica, we both agreed maybe we caught it early enough to avoid going over that ledge but it still left me a little overbaked by the time I made it to the starting line.
- I’ve come so far in just the last 3.5 years. September 2018 was my first BQ (3:28) and since then I’ve run 5 total BQ times. Sunday’s race of a 3:21 would’ve been a time I could only have dreamed of back in 2018 and that helps me keep things into perspective a bit. I can still be disappointed that my fitness didn’t show this weekend but how far I’ve come that a “bad day” can now still be a BQ time; that’s something I won’t take for granted.
I’m taking time to think about what’s next for me. Before this cycle was up, I had told my coach that I wanted to take a break from structured training for a bit hoping to find that spark again after a couple years of not feeling like I’ve progressed (which is false, all this work is base building but it’s tough to keep at it when you don’t see the fruits of your labor), and while I do think I’ll take a little break since clearly my body needs it, we have an idea for what’s next (but not sharing that yet because I reserve the right to change my mind lol).
I think what I’m most disappointed with is that even after making a better schedule for myself having taken coaching full-time and no longer trying to balance a full-time job, a full roster of athletes, and my own training, my times didn’t improve. I’ve been able to sleep more, stress less, and train more and in my mind that would mean improving in sport. But it could have also meant doing too much and maybe my schedule before prevented me from being able to do all of the things which in turn may have been a good thing! What’s important is that this was a learning opportunity (thanks, Coach J for the reframing) and we knew going in this could be an experiment that could go really well, or not as well as hoped, and unfortunately, I landed on the wrong end of that. I accept responsibility for that and now I know what the limit is and what works best for my body!
Running humbles us and I’ve been reminded once again that this journey will never be linear. I’m proud of running my fifth BQ-time, but I’m really itching to be the athlete I was back in 2019 again. And maybe that’s the problem. I’m not that same athlete anymore after the pandemic so I need to start becoming the athlete I want to be in 2022. It’s good to look back, but the rest of our story takes place in the future and that’s where the focus needs to be right now.