Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Third time was not the charm....

January 30, 2011, was going to be the day that I ran my very best marathon.  If you know me, you know that the 2011 Chevron Houston Marathon would be my third marathon.  My first two were in Austin and were "okay."  My first was coming off injuries that altered my training and then a very nasty illness that had me feverish, coughing, wheezing until just a couple days before the marathon.  My finish was about 20 minutes off my goal. My second marathon came amidst my family being very, very sick. I did my best to avoid it, but unfortunately was sick the day of the marathon.  I did it, anyway, and finished only a few seconds behind the previous year's time.  I had a lot to prove in 2011.  Third time's a charm?

Last year was a bit of a rough running year for me.  I went through a bout of exhaustion, did some cross training, and struggled through the summer months.  Training was okay, but slower than I normally run.  I didn't fight my body and just let it do what it needed to do.  If that meant I was going for a 4:30 marathon instead of a 4:20 I was okay with that.  I wanted to stay happy and injury free.  I think I did pretty well in training...not my best, but not bad.  I definitely felt that I could get my 4:30 marathon without a lot of heartache and pain. 

One thing every runner knows is that the weather can make or break your race.  And if you know me, you know that the one kind of weather that I struggle with is warm and humid.  I can run in 15 degrees and be just fine, but once that temp creeps above 65 and the humidity peaks, I fall apart.  Part physical, part mental I know. It's something that has frustrated me to no end. 

So what kind of weather was Houston going to give us?  With temps hovering in the 30s and 40s in the mornings, it was looking promising.  But OF COURSE race morning was a whole different ball game.  The low temp forecast kept creeping up closer to 60, with rain a foregone conclusion...in other words - a soupy mess.  To say I was freaking out was putting it mildly.  Our training runs had been cold every single weekend with the exception of one or two. I tried to channel my experience running 14 miles in 70+ degrees, but that had been back in October....and that seemed light years ago.  I was hoping for a lot of rain just to keep me cooled off, but there was nothing I could do about what the humidity was going to wreak on my lungs.

When I got to the expo at the convention center on Saturday, I was greeted by this sign:

Someone was clearly smoking crack.

While getting ready in the bathroom of my hotel on race morning, I had to awaken Greg just so he could sit in there with me and help calm me down.  I was intensely nervous.  I KNEW I was going to complete the marathon, but I was scared of disappointing myself and my teammates. After running 2 marathons under sub-par physical conditions, I was finally feeling good and knew I was fueled and ready to conquer the distance. But the weather was bound to hurt me and I was beyond worried about it. The plan was for me to run with my girlfriend Karen and help push her to a new PR (her best is 4:53 and some change), with our stretch goal being 4:30.  She and I ran the entire 21 mile training run together and averaged about a 10:13 pace, which brings us within a good shot of hitting 4:30.  Of course, we're used to 40 degrees....the temp in Houston at 6am? 63 degrees.  Humidity? 100%....

By race morning, they had raised the alert level to yellow, which means moderate conditions and a possibility of heat illness.  Gee, ya think???

Unfortunately, because I checked my phone at baggage check prior to the race, I didn't catch the last text from Karen on a meeting spot.  We never found each other before the race started.  I sucked it up like a big girl.  I wanted my Karen, but it wasn't meant to be.  I think I may have been more worried about her than myself.  I really wanted to help her make her goal....and I REALLY needed her to keep me going. I took a deep breath, gave up on finding her, and went to the start line.  I didn't make my start wave, but managed to be up front for the second wave and we started right on time.  Of I went to see how this journey was going to shape up.

I cruised through the first 10k with little problem or icky feelings.  I could definitely tell the difference in temps very early on, however.  Within a mile I was already sweating.  Within 5K, I could feel my legs.  Within 10K, I was definitely wishing this was only a half marathon.  I tried to maintain as close to a 10 minute pace as possible, figuring if I got a few minutes in the bank it might help me later when I would be slowing down.  I was at about a 10:06 pace through the first 10k.  I saw the family for the first time at around 7.5 miles and was so happy to see them.  I had already pounded 16 ounces of liquid, so I switched out my bottle with a new one and continued on my way.  I remember telling Greg "this is going to suck...."

A lot of people have asked how much it rained during this race.  It's clear from the pictures that it's very wet on the roads.  I do remember a lot of sprinkling and a few good dumps of rain, but in all honesty, I wish it had rained more.  Everytime it rained a bit harder, I took off my hat and turned my face up to the sky to feel the cool rain in the hopes of keeping my body temp down.  It just wasn't enough.  And even harder to deal with than feeling so warm was just keeping my breathing steady in the soupy air.  Taking a deep breath to calm down was tough...there was just no room in my lungs!

At this point I thought I would get a third of the way done (8.7 miles) and then walk a 1/4 mile, and then alternate running a 5k with walking a 1/4 mile.  That didn't quite pan out.  I walked twice between 8.7 and 12 miles, but did start feeling a bit better by the time I saw the family at the halfway point.  The fabulous "second wind" is always my favorite part of a race.  It's so hard to mentally get to that point but I do know that sometimes toughing it out when all you want to do is quit can be well worth it.  I actually felt pretty good at this point. 

I think this is my favorite picture from the race....you can see the 13 mile marker, my feet are off the ground, and I'm throwing the Longhorn sign...it's like the trifecta of a fabulous race picture.

It was a slow first half...2:19...but I was figured this still put me within reach of going under 5 hours.  As I was passing Greg I told him to expect 5 hours.  He gave me the thumbs up and off I went.

Unfortunately my second wind didn't last me long.  By 14 miles I was starting to fatigue quickly.  My quads were feeling sore already, I was slowing, and it was getting painful again to calm down, breathe right, and just get through the yucky feelings.  I knew I had time in the bank and could take breaks and still break 5 hours so I didn't worry too much.  The next several miles were a mixture of running, taking advantage of any uphills and downhills so I could use different muscles, and finding the water stops to refill my bottle and catch my breath.  Mile 17 was probably one of my hardest and certainly my slowest...14 minutes.  Needless to say I walked the whole mile.  It was clear this was going to be a test of wills to get me through the last 9 miles.  My plan to run 5k and walk a 1/4 mile?  Yeah, I forgot about that.

When I heard my name at 19 miles and saw my friend Lauren on her bike it made my day.  I ran to her, crying, and gave her a hug.  She told me I was already through 19 miles and I was going to make it.  It was what I needed to hear.  I had done a calculation back at 18 miles on how fast I needed to average each of the last 8 miles to make 5 hours.  I needed 12 minute miles.  It was going to be close.  I just wasn't moving fast. 

I saw the family at 20 miles for the last time during the race.  Greg was telling me he had just seen the 4:45 pacer a few minutes earlier and I could still catch him...I just needed to run!  Yeah, look at me....I wasn't in the mood - ha!



(by the way, who's bright idea was it to make us pass Picnic Lane at 20 miles?)

The last 10K was a combination of me shuffling, walking, chatting with other struggling runners (and let me tell you, there were SO MANY struggling runners), high-fiving the awesome spectators braving the rain, and calculating what I needed to pull out of my butt to break 5 hours.  I ran mile 22 to see how fast I could actually run - 11:43.  I now needed a sub-12 minute average to break 5 hours and I could barely RUN that.  By mile 23 I knew a sub-5 hour marathon was going to be a stretch I probably couldn't make. So I made the choice that no matter what, I was going to enjoy my last few miles, knowing I was going to get my medal and knowing I could do it again in 3 weeks. 

At the 24.7 mile mark there is an overpass and on that overpass was a sign that read "1.5 miles to go".  It was what I needed to see.  Once I had a mile to go, I ran.  I got faster.  I felt pretty darn great.  We were now on Lamar St. in downtown Houston, with high rises around us, the marathon flags lining the roads.  The specators were deafening in their cheers, and I could see the convention center ahead.  I saw my buddies Lauren, Dan, and Jeff with a half mile to go.  They yelled to me to keep going. I pushed on.  My last mile?  Sub-10 minute pace.

Making the final turn and seeing the finish line brought the waterworks.  I heard someone yell "just 1/10th more - you look great!"  I cried that last 10th of a mile, cried as they put the medal around my neck, cried as I walked back into the convention center.  I looked at my watch - 5:05.  I knew I couldn't break 5 hours today, but I honestly didn't think I was 5 minutes off...in my head it was so much closer.  That last half was incredibly slow.  Through my euphoria of finally finishing the physical and mental battle, I was dejected.

I caught up with most of the rest of my crew....Dan, Jeff, Tony....and found out that Karen had quite possibly gotten her PR.  But she was angry and tired, too, and left the convention center right away to go back to her hotel.  Dan had gotten his PR, Tony had crashed at 21 miles and missed his goal by 17 minutes and was frustrated and angry like me, and Jeff had a great half marathon race.  It was a mixed bag of results, but we all did agree that the weather conditions were awful, it was tough out there, but we had all finished what we came to do.  It didn't matter if our times had 3's, 4's, or 5's in the front.

As with every marathon I take away a few lessons.  This is what I learned from Houston:

1. I need to make a better plan with Karen so I get to actually run WITH her
2. The second wind will come if I believe and push through the strong desire to stop.
3. Running faster sometimes feels better
4. Slow down but don't walk except to refill your bottle.  It's always harder to get restarted from a walk.
5. The miles will fly by if I let them.
6. Talk to people during the race
7. Picture the medal in my head.
9. Visualize a glass of wine and a plate of bacon.
10. Hydrate early and often, refuel on schedule and don't alter this! (for the record, I got this part right!)
11. I can do it. Again and again and again.

19 more days....marathon #4....and a personal best.


  1. I am super proud of you! The simple fact that you run marathons is amazing to me...blows my mind, actually (in a good way ;). I'll continue to follow your adventures. You rock!

  2. way to go Steph!!! congrats.. I'm looking at your half through your marathon like WHAT.. that's faster than my half!! LOL.. so don't beat yourself up.. your goal time is soon to come!!!

    I know how the heat affects your race.. my 1st half that happened to me.. it was awful.. almost 80's at the 7am start!!! humidity??? insane!!!

    look forward to following your journey


  3. I would think that a 30 degree difference would challenge most runners - this one included. Way to stick it out!!!

    I've tried to run with a friend and it turned out about the same as with you. Bleh. Better planning on BOTH our parts next time!!

  4. You are so hard on yourself. You need to remember that even though you want a PR every time, the conditions aren't always going to allow that... unless you train in every situation, which isn't necessarily possible. So, start being PROUD of the fact that you finished! I bet there were plenty of people who didn't even show up on race day because of the conditions!
    As long as you finish, and you do your best... then that should be your PR... not the time on the clock. (and yes, as your best friend, I know the perfectionist in you will never accept that)
    We will just have to get a bigger cheering crew for Austin, so we can be more places. And maybe we can record sound bits to put on your race mix to have encouragement throughout your race :)
    I love you and I will always be proud, even if you walk the entire thing! :)