On my accidental Personal Best

Almost exactly one year after my last marathon I tossed and turned in bed all night wondering WHY ON EARTH I was going to wake up at the crack of dawn and run my third marathon the next day. I sometimes wonder if I have some lingering emotional trauma (I’m not kidding!) from when I ran Chicago injured in 2017. I actually was laying there wondering why ANYONE would choose to run a marathon at all. You see, even though I had an amazing and positive experience in New York in 2018, here I was wildly undertrained, much like I was for Chicago, heading out to run 42.2km in a few hours anyway. The pain of that day in 2017 and those long slow miles spent limping that never seemed to end kept creeping to the forefront of my mind, stopping any possible sleepy feelings in their tracks. While Chicago definitely brought it’s share of lessons and I was proud to finish it, I was not sure I could endure pain like that again. After Chicago it took me 6 months to run again without pain and much longer to learn to trust my body again.

New York was magical, and everything I needed it to be to make me feel like a true marathoner since I was actually able to run the whole thing. I wanted to experience that marathon magic again, but after I put my name into the lottery for Berlin and wasn’t chosen, I decided to take a year off from the marathon. Training for Around the Bay affirmed that decision for me. My long training runs for New York were a struggle, but my long training runs for Around the Bay felt nearly impossible. In the Spring I decided firmly that I just wanted to run a few half marathons and focus on getting faster- quality work vs. quantity, cutting back on my long runs significantly and enjoying the process more.

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Saturday night legs up! Is there any better recovery position for a runner? I don’t think so. Had such a glorious, wonderful, positive, happy, easy 16k run today. All I could think the whole time was “oh my god I am so glad I don’t have to run 25km today” because I can’t lie- ever since New York (and actually even during most of my New York training) any long run that was 22km plus or so felt like one big terrible no fun slog of a CHORE. I’ve been dealing with anemia for months and months and months and my long runs left me so drained, sore, tired and just defeated. After a long run I felt like a shell of a human for at least a day. This spring I decided that I want to focus on quality and speed and not mileage- I want to keep running long but get my confidence back by staying at distances that feel GOOD for now. I’ve tied up so much of my identity in training for long distances that I almost feel like less of a runner by admitting that I just don’t want to marathon train right now, which is just absurd because there is SO MUCH more to being a runner than the marathon. There really is something to be said about pushing yourself and making your impossible possible but there is also something to be said about knowing when it’s not fun anymore, when it’s time to step back. Today was proof that I really needed to honour that. Perhaps my new impossible may just look a little different this year. 🙏🏃🏼‍♀️

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Well fast forward to a few weeks later when I learned about the somewhat random way I could get a guaranteed entry into the 2020 NYC marathon. I knew I wanted to run a marathon again in 2020, and I loved New York so much, so I was excited to learn that NYRR offers a “virtual race” for 500 participants where all you have to do is cover the marathon distance in one go the same week as the real NYC marathon, upload it to Strava as a race, and voila, as long as you compete it in under 6.5 hours, you’re in for next year’s race! Of course there was a fee to register this way, but paying $120 (I think) for a guaranteed entry into 2020 seemed 100% worth it given the odds of the lottery acceptance.

I figured I may as well sign up, cover the distance in Toronto with friends along the way, take lots of walk breaks and finish it in 6 hours and change. When I told my coach about this, I made it pretty clear that I didn’t want to actually build for it but just be sure I had the fitness to cover the distance without hating every second, even if that meant walking half of it. We came up with a plan that had me focusing on the half marathon with a few runs taking me north of 21.1km in August and September so I could really work on my A goal of running a faster half this year while still giving me some confidence that I could cover 42.2km in early November. When I say a few I literally mean a few. I think I ran one 21km run, one 22km, one 25km and then went back to 20km. We also decided I would sign up for the Hamilton road2hope marathon, the same day as New York so that it would be more enjoyable- thinking of it like a supported long training run without stop lights and temptations to take long breaks.

I didn’t really tell too many people about this outside of running teammates because it wasn’t really a goal of mine. Just something that I saw as part of the process to get the experience of training for and running a big A goal marathon in 2020. I figured if I made a thing about it and told everyone, I would put pressure on myself to perform knowing that people would ask me about it afterwards and it was guaranteed I would be much slower than my last marathon.

Yet, somehow I found myself laying in bed on Saturday night trying to summon the positive memories from New York so I could stop freaking the eff out about a race with zero pressure for results and something that was meant to be fun. I wasn’t injured this year, but those damn memories from Chicago could not be buried. I eventually fell asleep for a few hours and when I woke up the nerves seemed to have subsided. I was definitely still doubting my ability to cover the distance the whole drive to Hamilton but Zach assured me I would be fine. He was going to meet me at 31km and run with me to the end for support and told me for the 100th time that if we have to walk at that point, who cares!

My race plan for this race was no race plan since I wasn’t racing it. I had briefly talked with my coach about using a run 10 min, walk 1 minute strategy the whole way, but I decided I would just run for as long as I felt comfortable running and then take breaks whenever I needed to after that. She had emailed me early Sunday to say have fun and just use it as an experience to listen to how my body feels.  I re-read the email a few times in the car and felt a bit better. Nothing to lose.

Once I arrived at the start I haphazardly warmed up, afraid to actually do a running warm up because I was convinced a few extra km would ruin me towards the end of the race. A few lunges, drills and strides later and suddenly it was time to go. I turned on my headphones, excited to just drown out any fears with my loud New York themed playlist and some nerdy running podcasts. I don’t always run with music or podcasts but decided that this was the kind of day that really warranted it. Only, as they were counting down to the start, I realized my headphones wouldn’t connect to my phone. “oh fuck it” I thought, and right as the start horn went off I shoved them in my pocket.

I tucked in right behind the 4:30 pace bunny knowing I could sustain that pace for the first half no problem and it would keep me slow. My legs felt fresh despite running a PB half marathon two weeks prior. I had only run 4 times in those two weeks, so I was ready to roll. And roll I did. Those first 10km just easily rolled on by. The first half of the Hamilton marathon is mostly farm land, and since the race is pretty small (especially for an “average” marathoner like myself), it’s not very busy so it felt pretty quiet and peaceful, with only a handful of other runners around me. This worried me a little bit as my only other marathons were world marathon majors, with insane crowd support and thousands of others at my pace keeping me company. So without my music, crowd support and a pack of runners, I decided to just focus on running and enjoy it.

The first half had some rolling hills, and it seemed like every time there was an incline, it was accompanied by a fierce headwind. While this was a nuisance, I kind of just took it on as a bit of a challenge asking myself with each one “can I pass this person on this hill? Why yes I can” and did just that. I was glad I had decided to wear a long sleeve and pants at the last minute, knowing that since I wasn’t going to be racing I likely wouldn’t overheat. Approaching the half way point there was a long flat stretch with a ridiculous cross wind that was COLD without the protection of buildings, but again, I didn’t let it phase me, it was such a beautiful day.

I hit the halfway point at about 2:16 (same as NYC in 2018), feeling calm. My coach had spontaneously come up with a mantra for all of us right before a large chunk of my teammates went to go run Chicago this year. It was “be calm at the start, committed in the middle, and brave at the end”. I kept saying to myself “stay calm and enjoy it” over the first half and it really worked.

I expected to tire significantly somewhere after this point but wasn’t feeling it yet and I knew there was a long stretch of downhill coming up. Just before that point I met Zach who had some extra fuel for me (I had heard there wasn’t any on the parkway, which actually turned out was wrong). “See ya in 9km!” I said happily, and was on my way. At 22km, the downhill on the Red Valley Parkway began and HOLY, what a downhill that was. I think I actually said “let ‘er rip” out loud once I realized how big this downhill was. The next 6km flew by. I reminded myself to pick my feet up and not just fall down the hill. I clocked my fastest splits during this stretch and later learned that because of this downhill, my 20-30km split was my fastest 10km split of the whole day. On the downhill, I was basically alone out there, passing a few people but thoroughly enjoying the process. “I have so far to go still!” I told myself, but also “isn’t this just lovely, this ability to put one foot in front of the other for such a long period and a body that just keeps going”. At one point right after 22km I started to wonder if I could maintain this and thought “wouldn’t it be something if I somehow managed to run a PB”. I chuckled at myself, knowing that right then I still felt good, but I hadn’t trained for this, and the tough part was about to come. Still, I once again found myself saying “oh fuck it, just keep going and have fun and see what happens…you never know!” But I think I really did know at that point. I was heading towards a PB and everything just felt so amazing. I kept thinking about my New York playlist I had made and found myself repeating the Taylor Swift lyrics “welcome to New York, it’s been waiting for you” over and over which made me giddy at the thought of New York 2020.

Once the course leveled out, a bit of fatigue set in, and my legs started to tire. “Stay committed” I told myself. I still didn’t feel any desire to walk, knowing it would take away any momentum I had going. I remembered to pick my feet up and smile, throwing in a few surges to keep my legs going and remind them of their job. I hadn’t really been paying too much attention to my watch because it just wasn’t about that, but more so was using it to know when to take in a gel. Though as I approached 31km where I was going to meet Zach, some brief calculations told me if I kept it up at my current pace a PB actually was very likely in sight. “As if,” I thought, knowing what was to come.

I looked around for Zach at 31km and couldn’t find him, but didn’t want to stop. I was feeling too good to be annoyed that he wasn’t where he said he was going to be and just kept going. At 32km, where the pain of the marathon really begins, the fatigue set in. “Stay committed” I reminded myself as my back and hips began to ache. Another look at my watch made me realize that even if I slowed a lot and had to take a lot of breaks, I’d likely match my time from New York in 2018. “That’s pretty cool” I thought. I was prepared and calm at the thought of it all falling apart at that point, but at the same time was confident enough to know it likely wouldn’t. It was such a powerful feeling to be able to tune into and trust my body like that. I kept asking myself “can I maintain this?” and the answer every time was “heck yes’. At the next km marker, I realized my calculations were actually kind of off. I then knew, even I ran 7 minute kms the rest of the way, it wouldn’t be a small PB, but it would very well be at least 5 minutes.

The thing is, at that point the marathon pain had really set in. Yet, instead of wanting to stop and walk, all I wanted was for the race to end and be over with which kept me going. “Be brave,” I told myself, once again throwing in a few surges and trying to pick my feet up best I could. While the first 32km flew by, these ones started to feel impossibly long. “Brave, brave, brave” I repeated, “just one foot in front of the other, you’re almost there”. I started “fishing”, picking those in front of me and reeling them in, slowly passing everyone in my line of sight, smiling with joy at my now obviously imminent PB.

Just after 37km Zach found me. “You were too fast!” he told me. “I waited for you for over 20 minutes worried, but then realized you must have already passed, you beat me to 31km!” I was so grateful for his presence, but I told him not to talk to me, I had to focus. But first I had to ask him who won the NYC marathon of course. After what felt like an eternity I was so relieved to finally reach 41km. With 1200m to go I was able to find some pep in my step, pick it up and pass a few more people as I sprinted over the finish. It took a few minutes to set in, but after checking my watch, I knew I ran a nearly 7 minute PB. And I wasn’t even trying. I was in giddy shock. I immediately emailed my coach and text my mom. What had just happened!?

Here I am a full day later after a lot of reflecting and still thinking “how did that happen!?” I went from being unsure I could even finish 42.2km prepared for doom, gloom and misery, to running a 6 minute 44 second pb! Even right now writing this, knowing it happened, I am still baffled that I have the ability to run a marathon at all. That ME, of all people, can get up one day and just go run a marathon in 4 hours, 33 minutes and 40 seconds, for FUN. I truly can’t believe that I did it, and how things that feel so impossible, even when they hurt like hell, somehow become possible.

Of course, I also know that it doesn’t “just happen” and that while I ran significantly more last year in my build up to New York with multiple 30km + runs and only “peaking” this year at 25km, I am a much stronger runner now than I was then. I didn’t have much of a base going into New York, but since the beginning of that build, it’s been 17 months of consistent running, 17 months of showing up for myself, strength training to remain injury free and many much needed lessons about learning to enjoy the process.

I think in many ways, this race showed me that I knew exactly what I needed to become a better runner. I knew I didn’t want to put my body through a big build when I wasn’t finding it fun anymore and I didn’t have any confidence with my long runs. PB aside, I think a part of me knew I had the ability to run a really strong race, and while I knew I have become a faster runner over the last year, the proof that I have become a better runner is really what means the most to me from this experience. The time is really just the cherry on top. Taking a step back and leaning into the “less is more” feelings I had been processing since New York are really just proof that I have become a better runner. Out of everything I’ve learned, listening to my body and being able to acknowledge what it needs, is the strongest evidence that I am now a much stronger runner than I was a year ago.

I’ve run so many races where I constantly am calculating splits and thinking about the finish. This race truly gave me the opportunity to be present in the moment, taking it kilometer by kilometer and focusing on each one with intention. I knew, almost intuitively, when to push forward, when to surge, when to tell my mind positive thoughts and push away negative ones and when to recognize that a kilometer just felt damn good and should be enjoyed. Even in those final kilometers when it would have been so easy to slog along and sleep, I knew I somehow had to focus instead and stay brave.  

I’m going to be riding the high of this one for quite some time. New York was an amazing comeback race and one of the best days of my life, but Hamilton was easily the strongest race I’ve ever run and the one I needed the most to show me how far I really have come. As my coach said afterwards “it’s amazing what happens when you take the pressure of results away” and that’s something I’m going to carry with me. When I have those days where I question why I do this, how I’ll finish a race or when I feel guilt for missing a run I will tune into this feeling, knowing once again that this is really what it’s all about. Showing up for me, doing my best, finding strength in struggle and pushing through impossible.

Some days I wake up and can’t believe this is who I am now. Life is funny that way. You never know where it will take you, and I can’t wait to keep going. I don’t want to put pressure on results but I am so excited to see what can happen with a big marathon build now that I have my confidence for it back. Bring it on 2020!

P.S. I had to come back here and edit this to add that I somehow ran a marathon and had NO blisters or toenail casualties. Something magic really did happen out there.

Marathon PBs call for the good stuff
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