By Katie Merrill, FHR member since 2013, who swore she'd never run another marathon...
My alarm sounded at 5am. I didn’t need it though, since I'd already been up for 45 minutes. Thinking about the day ahead as I lay in bed in the darkness, I wondered what the next few hours would bring? I was excited and scared, but ready to finally do this.
My decision to run another marathon was made (as all good decisions are) around a table loaded with food and friends, after a few adult beverages. It took a few weeks later to actually click the “submit” button on the online registration form. I was committed, for better or worse.
As I began thinking about my marathon training plan, I couldn’t help but recall two years earlier when I ran the Providence Marathon. I ran Providence in May 2013, and it had been a struggle. During training I was plagued with IT band issues and I even saw a physical therapist for my sore hip that wouldn’t go away. On race day, around mile 17, I got a pain in my knee that progressed into all out throbbing by mile 21, and I was forced to hobble the last few miles in. I finished, but I didn’t enjoy it. I thought my marathon-ing days were over.
I wanted this time to be different. I wanted to use the knowledge I had gained from FHR over the past two years, and train as smart as I could. Most importantly, I really wanted to enjoy it and finish feeling strong.
I began researching training plans and testing the waters with some long runs. For all my previous marathons I had only done one 20 miler, and then tapered. This time I wanted to be really comfortable with 20 milers, so I scheduled myself three of them, staged throughout my training. Because life includes other things than running, I also took into account my need for a summer vacation and a week at work that I knew would be tough. I connected with some great running buddies (hello Marc and Rosie!) who were willing to do some of my longer runs with me. Finally, I fortified my injury prevention plan. I started foam rolling after every run and on my lunch breaks at work. I took ice baths after my really long runs, and got a lacrosse ball to roll my hamstrings out, which I kept in my desk at work. I went swimming for cross training, and worked on strengthening my core. I also started switching up my sneakers- one pair for speed, one pair for long runs, and one pair for recovery runs, so that I never wore one pair out. Most importantly I listened to my body, pushed when I knew I could handle it, and eased off the gas when I needed some recovery- and I tried to get a ton of sleep.
On race morning I was nervous, but ready to finally put my training to the test. I felt good physically, but my confidence was shaky from four weeks of gradual tapering. My goal was to do a 3:40 (really a 3:39:59). This would be a half hour PR. But was my last long run too long ago? Would I still have my endurance? I would soon find out.
Our car pool pulled into downtown Lowell, and I recognized the streets well. It was my third time there in 2 weeks (once for my last training run, and once to get my bib). We pulled up to Tsongas Arena, and the whole area was alive with activity. To my surprise and delight, we were able to park in a parking garage right next to the starting area. For the next half hour I kept goofily smiling in my nervous excitement. I took care of my last minute prep- contact lenses in, hair pulled back, shoe laces tied- and walked down to the corrals.
Like many races, the start was a bit of a blur. Luckily I noticed I was in the corral for the half marathon, not the marathon, just in time to squeeze through the bars into the correct chute. Looking around in the crowd I couldn’t see the promised pacers anywhere. Then, far off in the distance ahead of me, I saw the 4:00 sign waving high. "Crap," I thought. "Too late to squeeze by fellow racers to get up there, so I am going to have to just be strategic in the first mile."
The gun went off AND…. I waited. I was behind so many people it took about 30 seconds at least to even get to the starting line. But then I was running, and smiling, and darting a little bit. I heard one woman say to her friend “Don’t waste too much energy moving around people, it will thin out!” I took it as if she was speaking to me and decided to set myself up to take advantage of the first tangent, which would turn in my favor. By the time my watch beeped for the second mile, I had caught the 3:45 pacer. I decided to hang out there for a moment to see how things felt. I knew I could definitely push harder, but I was worried about using too much energy at the start since I would surely need it later. Gradually, I drifted away from the 3:45 pacer, and suddenly up ahead I saw the 3:35 pacer, with a large group of women about my age. “Okay,” I told myself. “Stick here, see how it feels and hangout with these people for a bit.” A few shifts in the group due to the road barriers brought me to the front of the pack, and then in front of the pacer. About this time at mile 3 I ran past the first group of Forest Hills Runners cheering. I was so excited to see them, and smiling like an idiot. After I passed them I realized I had also dropped the 3:35 group, and was a good 100ft in front of them. Fine I thought. Put some money in the bank as long as you are still feeling good, and then later when you slow down it will be okay. For the next few miles I hung in that place. Every time I wanted to speed up I told myself to relax and enjoy the ride. If its easy now, great, enjoy it, it will be hard later. I stopped at mile 6 to use the porta potty, ran back out, and resumed my place in front of the 3:35 pacer. I got a bit of a side cramp, but took some swigs from the Skratch in my handheld bottle and told myself I would run it out as long as I kept steady in my pace, and I did.
As planned, at mile 8 I took my first gel. Things were pretty enjoyable up to this point, and as I reached the turnaround point (the downhill bridge!) I kept thinking “Wow, this is going well. I am so glad I tapered!”
When I got to mile 9 or so I caught up to a group of people moving very methodically. Two women were in Somerville Road Runners shirts and I thought, "Oh I bet they will be good to run with for a bit." I over heard one say something about a 3:32 and decided that as long as this felt comfortable I would run with them for a little bit. I had built up some space between me and the 3:35 pacer which would mean that I could drop back a bit if I needed to and still be in the 3:30’s. At about mile 11 I saw the awesome FHR cheering squad, including Marc who jumped in with me for a bit. He refilled my handheld and we chatted a little. It was at this time that I finally acknowledged to the group of women at the front that they had in fact been pacing me for about three miles. They laughed and said something to the effect of “Oh yea stay with us! We’re all going to get 3:32 together!” I laughed along but thought “Suuure, until I drop way back at mile 18 or something.” Together we completed the first loop of the course and turned back to complete the second.
Over the next few miles, in a weird way, I felt like I was part of something. There were about 8 of us, and we all moved together. We each took turns taking the lead, we moved through water stops together, chatting along. When we hit mile 13.1 someone yelled “it’s time to start counting down miles instead of up!” We all got a little excited about that. I took my next gel at mile 15 and slugged some water from my handheld bottle.
At mile 17 or so at a water stop everyone slowed to take some water, but because I had my handheld I just kept moving right through thinking the rest would catch up. By mile 19 however, I realized it was just me, and the 3:32 group had dropped a bit behind. I caught up to another woman, who looked at me (somewhat frantically) and asked “What are you going for?!” I responded 3:40, but that I thought that maybe wasn’t a good goal anymore. She laughed and pulled ahead of me.
I knew Marc was meeting me at mile 20, and I was so excited to meet up with him. He handed me my last gel (planned for mile 21) and encouraged me that I was doing so well and to keep at it. He talked and I listened and we kept moving.
At mile 22 I did some math. I had been doing very even splits all hovering around 8 minute miles. I still felt good, and only had a little fatigue creeping into my left quad. I realized that at this point, with only 4.2 miles left, I had a really good shot of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. I whispered “Marc, I think I might qualify for Boston.”
His response- “Don’t worry about that, just keep doing what your doing, just keep going!”
Mile 23 and 24 I felt myself start to slow a bit. I was finally feeling the tired legs I had expected to feel 10 miles before. But I knew I was so close to the end, and the excitement from the runners around me was tangible. Then, from behind, the two women in Somerville shirts from the magical pack earlier caught up to me. One of them was pacing the other, bringing her into the finish. Like before, I tagged along, dropping my pace back down again. We moved forward to mile 25, and before I knew it I had one mile left.
Though I had been running almost three and half hours, I wanted to stay in this moment and remember it. In the next mile I would finish a marathon in a time that would qualify me for Boston. I never, ever thought that was something I would do in my lifetime. Most importantly, I had enjoyed the hell out of myself and had met some incredible people along the way.
At this point, I waved, I fist pumped to the crowd, I gave a thumbs up to the race photographer. Marc was cheering and I was turning the corner to the finish line. The FHR cheer squad was screaming and I was so excited to see them. I looked up as I was coming in the home stretch and saw the time clock. An uncontrollable goofy smile spread across my face. I gave the last of my finishing kick and BAM! I was being handed water bottle and a metal blanket was draped across my shoulders. I couldn’t believe it. Marc was hugging me and laughing with excitement. A volunteer joked that I looked too good and didn’t push enough as I danced through the finishing area. A woman behind me (just as excited) grabbed me and hugged me and told me I had paced her the last 5 miles. I found my friends from before and shook their hands.
I got my medal and went over to the timer to see my official time- 3:31:15!!!!
The rest is a blur of photos, Thom telling me to eat, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and wanting to hug everyone. I called my parents who were so excited. I also learned our friend Rob had won the race with an excellent execution of the course (go Rob!).
Later that day, as I sat with good friends around some pizza and adult beverages, I thought about a similar day months before when I had boldly said I would run another marathon. I never imagined it would go this well- my training and my race. In hindsight though, I know a few things definitely contributed to my success. Proper fueling in training and during my race prevented the dreaded Bonk. I took three gels, as opposed to the one and a half taken in my previous marathons. I also drank Skratch and Nuun throughout the week leading up to race day and during the race. I treated recovery and foam rolling as part of training. Additionally, many of my long runs I deliberately designed to be a very similar route to the racecourse, and then I practiced holding a steady pace. Finally, having FHR as a support system provided built-in training. Tempo Tuesday and Track Thursday allowed me to work on speed, not just distance. The Baystate course is such a favorable one (flat, crowd support, amazing volunteers) it really allows your training to shine.
I think the most important thing I learned was not to limit myself. I took the leap, clicked submit, and challenged myself to train smart and enjoy the ride.
Can’t wait for Baystate 2016!