Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Awesome Marathon Year!

My goal going into the 2012 Marathon training season was to finally get my head in the game and conquer the distance both physically and mentally. Now that I've completed the two marathons I signed up for, I can honestly say I met my goals. And even though my super stretch goal of a 4:15 wasn't reached (or even attempted), I'm not disappointed in the least.

On January 15, I ran the Houston Marathon - you can read my race report here - and it was the first time in 5 marathons that I overcame all my mental obstacles and managed a strong negative split. I took 14:29 off my marathon PR and ran 39 minutes faster than the previous year's Houston Marathon. My confidence after this race was HUGE.

5 weeks later would be the Austin Marathon, my 4th in a row on this course. It's a much more difficult course but I thought with the proper rest and preparation a 4:30 was a reasonable goal. Because the ultimate goal for us (me, my coach Tony, and my friend Karen), was to get Karen to a PR (4:43 or below), we had a lot of wiggle room in that goal. Any time around 4:30 - 4:40 was acceptable. I also really wanted to finish a marathon with someone. Finishing alone is fine, but to cross the finish line with a friend would be a billion times more meaningful.

There were a lot of things that we had going for us prior to this race. I think we recovered properly, we had run a strong 13.1 miles 3 weeks before and only 2 weeks after Houston, and the weather was setting up to be perfect - nearly identical to Houston's weather on race day. Our race plan was very conservative - we'd start off super slow and build up slowly, but we never needed to run a single mile under 10 minute pace. Mentally that's a huge bonus going into a race. Knowing we could run much slower than what our long training runs were helped us feel confident going into the race. There could be factors beyond our control during the race, of course, but we went into it feeling good.

Me, Karen, and Tony - we're a great team!

The race started nearly as planned. I say nearly because our first mile was actually 30 seconds too fast, my headband came off and after I bent down to pick it up I almost ran into a barricade. All in the first mile! We settled down in the second mile and ran it conservative before we picked up the pace over the next several miles. There was a good group of us running together - me, Tony, Karen, James, and Wendy. This was James and Wendy's first marathons and we really wanted them to have a good experience. James had been sick the week before and just really wanted a shot at 4:30. Wendy had been injured and then got a terrible cough after a recent ski trip, so her goal was to just finish, but she wanted to hang with us as long as she could. Our other friend Todd was hovering ahead of us for most of the first half of the race.

Our first 10 miles were very easy, nothing major happened, we ran almost exactly as planned, we hit our split right on target, and it wasn't until this point that Wendy decided to hold back so she didn't fall apart later in the race. Karen even got to pee on the same tree as last year, so that was exciting. Haha. I saw Greg and the kids at Mile 9 for my water bottle exchange and that was a really great boost before we headed into the hilliest part of the race.

Ah, the HILLS. I don't know why but every year I forget how ridiculously hilly this course is. After doing Houston, it's a total shock to the body to have to run that same distance with hills that just never stop coming. Miles 2-5 are a steady uphill climb down South Congress, then you get a reprieve coming back towards downtown on South First Street, but downhill isn't always better. If you don't run smart you will burn your legs up. The last thing you want to do is fatigue by Mile 8. Karen made her tree pit stop at about 6 miles so that forced us to slow it down so she could catch up to us again. We ran the downhills very well - we didn't really increase our speed much, so our legs were in good condition when we made the turn onto Cesar Chavez at 8.5 miles. You want to feel like you just started running at this point in a marathon, and that's exactly how I felt.

At mile 10, Wendy slowed down, so it was down to me, Tony, Karen, and James for the next several miles. This is where the non-stop hills start. Just when you think you've conquered one they just keep on coming. I remember telling James to be sure on the downhills to totally relax, including shoulders and arms, keep your feet close to the ground, and try not to speed up too much. We still had more than half the race to run and didn't want to burn out. If we ran the hills in the middle miles well, we could have something in us to tackle to net downhill final 7 miles without fading too badly.

At 12.5 miles is the biggest, most daunting hill on the marathon course, at Exposition and Westover. I knew that once we tackled this it would be a big mental boost. There were still going to be more hills and a few boring stretches, but once you get that nasty hill out of the way, anything else that comes isn't nearly as crazy to overcome. It sucked to run up it, though. I think we all did very well, however. The 12-13 mile split was right on target, so we did a good job pacing ourselves.

At the top of the HILL...look at the church steeple to get perspective
We got a nice surprise once we crested the hill - my family was there! I wasn't expecting to see them. My daughter was giving out Mardi Gras beads and Karen took advantage and grabbed some. I tried to give Greg a running hug but wasn't all that successful. I got crap from my buddies for just doing the water bottle exchange at Mile 9 without hugs and kisses, so I tried to make a bigger effort this time. But I just didn't want to stop. We were in a zone with more than half the race left and I just didn't want to mess with that. I know they understood. Greg and I had talked about it before so he wouldn't be surprised when I didn't stop to chat each time I saw them.

Karen is showing me her beads from Daniella
And now we're back to work
At the half marathon split point, I started feeling a little more relaxed. I know "halfway" in a marathon is really at Mile 20 when you think about the effort you make before that versus after that point, but it's still a boost to know that you have covered half the actual distance. I still felt very good...very little fatigue, I was breathing well, and we hit the split at the perfect time - 2:15:47. Our race plan was being executed well. A few more miles and we'd be at the farthest north point on the course, ready to tackle the net downhill in the last 7 miles, and hopefully get some wind at our backs. It wasn't supposed to be a windy day but there was a surprise north wind blowing at us. It cooled us down a bit, which was nice, but I was looking forward to it not being in my face.

During Mile 15 we got a bit of a reprieve when Karen stopped for a potty break. That was our slowest mile by far in the race and it gave us an opportunity to stretch out our muscles. James went ahead of us at this point and I hoped he continued to do well. I know the distance was starting to get to him. I was surprised that even with coming to a complete stop I didn't have any trouble restarting. Good sign 15 miles into the race! At this point I was looking forward to seeing the 16 mile sign and knowing that pretty soon we'd be down to single digits on the miles we had left to run. I was also happy to know I'd be running the 1.5 mile stretch of Great Northern with people instead of alone. That stretch has been my nemesis every single year and I've never run it non-stop. It's long, boring, and directly into the wind. But this year I wasn't feeling the fatigue I normally feel and felt so much more mentally tough. There was no way I was stopping during this race!

Unfortunately, Karen wasn't feeling well at all. She was having stomach issues that just wouldn't quit and we realized that her goal of 4:30 just wasn't going to happen. I'm not sure what she and Tony talked about when she stopped just before 17 miles at another aid station, but when he caught back up to me, he said we were just going to keep running. We had also passed James on this stretch, unfortunately. So it was down to me and Tony with 9 miles left to run.

For the next 4 miles he and I ran a faster pace, not really intentionally, but it was more comfortable for us to pick it up at this point. I didn't know how long that would last, but it was a nice change to see sub-10 minute miles for a bit, and it made up for the 11:50 Mile 15 when we stretched. We were back on target for a decent finish and I was excited about it. I remember telling Tony at 17 miles that if we ran 10 minute average pace we'd have our 4:30, but even at 11 minute average we'd still be under 4:40, which was a great goal for the day. It would still be an Austin PR for me. But in all honesty I didn't think we'd end up maintaining 10 minute pace. I was SO wrong!

I had to slow Tony down a bit on the stretch between 18 and 20 miles for fear we'd burn out. I wanted to wait until we hit the 20 or 21 mile mark before we let the downhills carry us a bit. We saw my family, plus my friends Gail and Clay at Mile 19 and Brady did the most awesomely perfect water bottle switch with me. Greg told me later that they were really happy to see how steady and relaxed we were still at that point in the race, smiling and happy, and not slowing down. I knew we were coming up on the turn to start heading back towards Downtown Austin, and that's always a boost. Even the idea of there still being 7 miles left wasn't even daunting to me yet.

Hello and Goodbye!

At 20 miles, we were at 3:27:08. If we maintained a 10 minute average, we had a 4:29. But a 1:02 final 10K? My fastest final 10K was in Houston at 1:05 and it was a little intimidating to think that I had to do better than that. I knew I couldn't stop running if I wanted to make that goal. Very intimidating indeed.

We got through about 22 miles before it hit me that my body was tired and overtaxed. I suppose this was The Wall, but looking back on it, it wasn't as bad as it's been in the past. My body was sore, but it wasn't agonizing. My breathing was heavier, but I was managing it. I wanted to be done, that was for sure, but I didn't feel completely overwhelmed. I never really spoke much except when Tony would ask "Are you doing okay?" I think I answered "I think", "maybe", "yeah", "I don't know" a few times, but I have no idea. I was super focused on maintaining a 10 minute pace and not giving in to the urge to walk. Having someone running with me was the motivation I needed to keep going, even if I had to slow down. The last thing I wanted to do was disappoint Tony. I wanted to be Tough Steph for as long as I possibly could. I know I had to slow him down a couple times, but overall I think I hung in there pretty well.

It was at some point during this yucky stretch that Tony said to me, "We are NOT doing sub-4 hours in Austin", which was exactly what I was thinking. Our goal for next year is to run a sub-4 and we've been talking about where we should accomplish that. I was saying Austin might still be possible. After running the entire distance this time around, however, which I have never done before, there was no way we were going to kill ourselves attempting that goal on those hills. Although we said we wouldn't do Houston next year, I'm pretty sure it's back on the table!

When I saw the Mile 24 sign I felt a sense of calm come over me. Only 2.2 miles left. We were at about 4:07. We still had that shot at 4:29, so I told Tony we weren't stopping and were going to finish this race well. He agreed that's exactly what we were going to do. Unfortunately for him, he hit the wall at about the Mile 25 sign. We still had the San Jacinto hill to tackle at 25.8 miles. It's not a horrendous hill, but coming at that point in the race is tough to say the least. I think it was weighing heavily on Tony. He knew exactly how fast we still needed to go and could see that I was getting stronger rather than fading.

The family was stationed on this hill and it was so great to see them all again. It's really cool to get pics running up this hill, so I was happy. Plus, seeing the 600 Meters To Go sign when I still thought we had at least 800 meters was a huge relief to me.

Best photo ever!
Tony said to me more than once he was empty and couldn't go any faster up the hill, but I knew we had it in us to finish strong. I grabbed his hand, squeezed it, and reminded him we had very little left to go and we had our sub-4:30 in the bag. Greg captured that even though it was only a few seconds. It looks like I'm dragging Tony up the hill, but that wasn't the case. He was doing great and hanging in there but just needed a quick moment of moral support. I don't remember the last time our roles were reversed, where I was the stronger one and he was the one who needed support....it's almost always the other way around!

SO close to conquering that hill!
When we crested the hill, saw the Mile 26 sign, we couldn't contain our excitement. It was almost done, which I think I kept saying out loud for that last 200 meters. Seeing the finish line is always the absolute best feeling, especially when you know you've ran well and are going to be super pleased with your time. I knew we had the 4:29 and it was exhilarating.

For the first time in 6 marathons, I got to cross the finish line with a friend. That was priceless to me. There is no comparison to doing it alone versus doing it with someone else there. AWESOME FEELING! I can't wait to see the finish line photos.

The walk back to the Round Rock Fit tent was a slow, painful journey. We both said that pretty much every body part was hurting in some way. My head, my back, my shoulders, every muscle in my legs, even my butt.  Those hills completely wiped us out.

Back at the tent we enjoyed the company of the other Round Rock Fitters who had already completed the race, and once Greg, Heather, and the kids got there with the cooler, we got to have some adult marathon hydration as well, which was exactly what we needed!

Me and James
Tony, Karen, me and Wendy
My head coach Mark, Tony, me and first time marathoner Scott
As more runners trickled in, we started feeling much better. It was a perfect, although painful, race, and we strategized very well to pull off what we didn't think would happen 20 miles into the race. I kept saying I was shocked we did it...and I still am. Really quite shocked we (well, really ME because of course Tony could do it) could hang in there and run a 1:01 final 10k to pull off our ultimate goal for the day. James, Karen, and Wendy made it back to the tent and all of them finished the marathon with really respectable times. I'm proud of each and every one of them for what they did out on that course. Mental toughness took over for the physical discomforts they experienced and they all did GREAT. It wasn't a 4:30 day, but that doesn't matter. There will always be another shot at it.

Marathon #6 is in the books in 4:29:01!!  An Austin course PR by 11:55, a final 10k PR by about 4 minutes, and I ran the entire distance (except for the stretch stop). I'll take those milestones!

I think the biggest thing I learned in this race is that it really DOES hurt more to stop running. Even if you slow down, you must continue to run those last few miles. To stop, walk, and then try to restart your legs will hurt far worse that if you just keep that running rhythm. I really need to remember this in future marathons.

Now to pick the course for that sub-4....


  1. Wow, that's amazing. Way to go! I'm totally in tears from having read this... and thinking seriously about doing Austin again next year.

  2. Great report, and congratulations you guys. Almost makes me want to run Austin again.