It is hard to describe the feeling of crossing the finish line on Sunday. It is hard to explain how far away I felt from the person I was when I ran the Olympic Trials in 2012. When I was running amazing in 2012, I never wanted to let that feeling, that rush go. I wanted to stay at that fitness level and see what I was capable of. And I had a great stretch there in 2012. But as any athlete knows, the highs and the lows last only so long. That time was over in the flash of an eye after a freak fall during a routine trail run in my new, at the time, neighborhood. Then came the bakery. And frustration, trying to run when my life of 100 hour work weeks wouldn’t allow. I stopped beating my head against the wall finally and realized that trying to do the same thing over and over again was unproductive. So I flew to South Africa and ran a marathon and then two weeks later, Ultra Trail Cape Town. It was the hardest 100km I have ever done, but I finished, proud in 3rd place. A few weeks later, I ran Javelina 100 and set the third fastest trail time ever (at the time). I enjoyed immensely the reinvigoration of my ultra running career that had taken a backseat to the life of a small business owner. 2016 brought golden tickets instead of OTQ’s as a realized my head and heart just weren’t into the quest. The fast marathon had become something overly complicated in my mind and I found myself self-sabatoging my races and really not enjoying myself. And so, I raced WS and finished 3rd. My satisfaction immense, my love for ultra running true.
And then came the struggle and the fighting for my running life. To be honest, the last 2.5 years have been intensely hard. I was fighting almost constantly just to keep my head above water. I suffered my first major injury in the fall of 2016 and at the time I thought it would be just a blip on the radar, but instead it became an incessant test of my fortitude and will. Sure, there have been amazing bright moments in the last 2.5 years- two top 10 finishes at Comrades, winning Leadville, 2nd in the 50km national championships, winning a marathon outright for the first time- but mostly, it has just pressed me to wonder if my best racing days were behind me, if feeling good as a runner and sometimes even just as a human, was something I’d feel again. The spiral began when my foot exploded and was misdiagnosed in March 2017, fast forward to major foot surgery and recovery, followed by a swift decline into extremely poor health in 2018. I’ve fought like hell over the past few years. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. I’ve found myself lower than I could remember and it wasn’t just because of running or not running. I felt like I was floundering around in the world at times and being kicked in the face at other times. I started to joke that March was a cursed month for me after experiencing major illness and missed races, totaling my car and one other very terrible experience that I still cannot reconcile. When I was knee deep in it, I didn’t think much about how hard it was or the depth and breadth of all that was seeming to go wrong, I simply focused on trying to fix what was right in front of me, what I had the power to change or control. And sometimes, that was just my perspective. A perspective of gratitude and of hope was something I returned to again and again.
If I have learned anything in my life, from the very earliest of my days, is that you ultimately need to be willing to do what it takes for yourself. What it takes to feel better, what it takes to heal, what it takes to learn. I never abandoned my faith in myself, I never lost trust in myself that I could weather the storms. A few months ago, I was thinking about the moment in Billy’s movie, Life in Day, when I am sitting in the chair, unsure of how I can keep going. I realized, watching that for the nth millionth time, that I had been thinking about that moment wrong. I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I ended up in the chair. Trying to figure out how to avoid the things in life that stop us in our track. But as I watched that moment, I realized: it’s not about if you end up in the chair, it is what you do after you get out of the chair that matters.
You get up. You move forward. That is what matters. What you do next is what matters. Its not the faltering or failure. It is what you do with it. It is weathering the storm, it is surviving and coming out the other saying “holy shit, I’m just soaked”.
That is when I realized that I had to let go of the hurt, the failing, the faltering of the past few years. What mattered was how I chose to proceed. Would I play small and safe or would I again risk it all? It is scary to take risks when you’ve felt the intense disappointments of epic failures. I felt that last year when I tried to go all in post foot surgery on London Marathon. I couldn’t even toe the line I was so ill. Heck, I could barely move off the couch. Watching TV was exhausting. I had been humbled again by the sudden onslaught of a barrage of health problems, a pattern that had played out every few years of my running career, heck of my life. Once in 5th grade, I missed an entire month of school (probably the month of March ;) ) because I was sick. In high school, I spent half of a summer in bed with mono. My college boyfriend called me “sickly D” because I caught every bug that I came in contact with.
But last year really scarred me. And I became afraid to go all in on a goal. I raced sure and did some pretty decent things, but the reality is, I was undermining myself. Not allowing myself to risk too much, put too much on any one thing. While this makes for some fine results, they are pyrrhic victories. After a series of 4 races in 7 weeks of that sort, I emailed my coach Ian and said “I have the next great idea! I’ll do CIM!”. He responded in a way that I cannot appreciate more. He told me that if I want what I say I want (a marathon PR) then I needed to stop all the unspecific racing, traveling, stress and focus. He told me CIM was the wrong choice and I should instead focus on Houston Marathon. He told me that I had to go ALL IN. It was uncomfortable for me because it was true. I know I can perform at a very high level on non-specific training, but I also know I can’t run my best if I am not focused. And so for 12 weeks we focused. I narrowed my life down to this one goal. I set aside the fear. I showed up and did the work, day after day. I didn’t race, I didn’t travel. I just burrowed down into the details of this one goal. I put all my eggs in one basket. And while it terrified me, I knew it was the only way.
Day in and day out, I was just married to the process. I removed unnecessary distractions. I did all the little extras. I neither stressed the failures or celebrated the successes to much, I just built myself brick by boring brick. When things went suddenly sideways in the first week of December, I didn’t panic. I suffered a crazy nerve impingement in my leg, got sick and then fell over my foam roller and broke a rib. I just stayed with the process and realized one bad week didn’t matter, I simply had to stay focused. And workout after workout, I saw paces I never thought I would. I found myself having to hold back instead of stretch. I arrived to my two week taper excited, confident. I had trained for 12 weeks, run hundreds of miles and only taken one day off. I knew I was strong and ready.
But as tapers do, I started feeling the doubts, I started to question what I had done, I started to question each and every brick I had laid. And then came the weird niggles and my legs #notfeelinggood. I honestly had to make an immense effort to get my mind right in the last 72 hours before the race. I read the book “Mind Gym” after taking the USATF Level 1 Coaching clinic and found these words to be the game changer for me: “Since you don’t know what’s going to happen, why not act as if you’re going to have a good day. When you are not afraid to fail, your chances of succeeding improve”. I stopped wallowing in the idea of “ending up in the chair” and started to embrace the infinite possibility of good. I didn’t focus on the weather report of 10-15mph winds and freezing cold temps, or my leg feeling weird. I focused on eating, resting and calming my mind.
By the time I toed the line at 7:01am, I was free of doubt and ready to celebrate the fitness I had cultivated over the weeks and months. I lined up with the other sub-elites in the ADP corral and we shivered and finally were allowed our place behind the elites. The gun, the frenzy, I found myself calm among the surging masses. I started my Coros watch when I hit the start line a few seconds after the gun, but I quickly turned the screen to daytime, knowing I did not want the feedback of GPS pace. I settled in and chanted to myself “right effort, right mind”. I knew that if I wanted to run a PR, I needed to run on the more uncomfortable side of uncomfortably hard, but I also knew that I needed to stay calm and patient in the first half. I floated through mile 1 in 5:45. Oops. There were people around as the half and full went off together, but I was surprised how, within 4 miles, I was basically running alone. Welp, guess I don’t get that CIM type group magic today! The wind gusted and I just hoped that that meant I would have a tailwind on the way back (spoiler alert, nope).
Finding myself alone so early, I knew that I HAD to stay focused, I had to stay strong and on plan. I followed the instructions I had written on my hand for each Maurten gel. I followed the instructions for my mind. I smiled and remembered that this race was a celebration of my fitness. It is not a test, it is a celebration. At mile 12, a woman was holding a sign for me and I damn near started crying because it feels so awesome to have people out there rooting for me.
I hit halfway in 1:18:40, about 40 seconds slower than coach and I had planned, but I barely even acknowledged it (although to be fair, hit the 13.1 mile sign at just over 1:18 flat, but that mat was another 40 seconds beyond the sign). I was focused, focused on running a PR effort, even if the wind meant it wasn’t much of a PR day for me. I stayed calm, I stayed on it. I pushed as hard as I could and smiled as big as I could. I was wholeheartedly determined to have no regrets at that finish line.
I knew with about 12km to go that my goal of a PR was gone. I was running as well as I could, feeling good actually and just not able to take anything back from the wind. I remained undeterred, I would not back down, I was not going down without a fight.
At long last, I made my way back into the heart of Houston. With 1.5 miles to go, I reminded myself that my goal was to “drain the tank” and I pressed harder, unwilling to let go of the sub 2:40 and my fastest time in 7 years. I ran the last 1.5 miles in 5:43/mile pace. I powered to the line, 2:39:37 my 3rd fastest time ever (and my 2nd fastest time is a 2:39:36!). What a moment. Joy, relief, all of it. I ran the effort I came to and am so proud.
It is what matters what you do after you get out of the chair that matters. Failure, faltering and flops are part of life. We must take lessons from them sure, but we cannot become defined by them. It is a choice where we go from the low points. It is a choice if we let it those things break us or lift us to greater heights. I know that in life I will surely find myself in the chair again, I will certainly cry out “but I don’t know how to keep going”, but I also know that I will get out of that chair and I’ll walk until I can run again.