marathon running

Strength

Sarah Bard and I all smiles at the finish line of Comrades 2017.

Sarah Bard and I all smiles at the finish line of Comrades 2017.

I can't believe I am doing this (terror- early miles)

I can't believe I am doing this!!!! (elation- finishing straight)

This is so hard. This is too hard.

This is dumb.

This is amazing!

Why do people do this? I am never doing this again.

I can't wait to do this again!!!

I feel terrible. I am going to pass out. I am going to barf.

I feel amazing! I can't believe I didn't pass out and now I feel so good!

This was a terrible idea. Who thought I could do this 2 months after breaking my foot.

May the lord open.

1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4

They are playing my song!!!

Ok, reel her in. Just don't cramp. Don't cramp.

Don't look back. Keep it cool. Pretend you've got it together.

(blubbering sobs) Holy CRAP, I did it! Gold medal!!!

These are my thoughts while racing Comrades. That in a nutshell is my Comrades 2017 experience. I've been trying to get motivated to write a race report for the race but honestly feel like I am over race reports for their own sake. I am just looking for the take-aways, the lessons, the things I want to remember. I raced Comrades despite having only a very short training block after Two Oceans and London, races which I did coming straight back from a very extensive and long injury.  I knew that Comrades would be hard. It is a hard, fast, competitive race and I was in good shape, not great shape. I was in good health, but not niggle free as my foot continues to adjust and settle and relearn. Comrades is hard period. And I tried to steel myself for it to be harder than a normal healthy well-trained race might be.

And it was freaking hard. I battled both mental and physical barriers to get to the finish line. I had a good day for my fitness level, but not a great day. I faced down a deep undercurrent of desire to quit that was almost incessant. I had to trick myself, distract myself, bribe myself, and make deal after deal with myself. There were moments where a DNF threatened for both reasons: mental and physical (great article AJW!). But somehow, I made the choice time after time to not quit. Yes, there were good, even great reasons (like when I nearly passed out), to contemplate quitting but ultimately, time after time, I found the strength to keep going. It was not graceful or easy or even close to a great race for me, I got super ugly, but I made it to the line.

Getting to the finish line of Comrades and two weeks later, coming in third at Rock and Roll Seattle marathon, as well as "watching" Western States stories unfold have made me think a lot about strength. Strength does not mean never breaking down, never falling, never failing. It means bending, adjusting, persevering, enduring, staying steadfast and yes, even sometimes knowing when to quit. Strength can be having a perfect day where everything clicks. Strength can be being ready for a great day and finding yourself in the chair for hours, but finally finding a way to move on. Strength can be recognizing that you have nothing left to give. In our sport, there is a such a beautiful display of strength from the first to the last finisher. We put ourselves through so so so much adversity. We prepare as best we can, but when you are out there on race day pushing limits, so much can happen. Strength is working the problem, strength is honoring the journey.

In my 11 years of ultrarunning, I have had near perfect days, had perfectly crap days, had days in which I unlocked the magical power of simply not quitting when I really wanted to, had DNF's that were both heartbreaking and some that I am totally at peace with. What I have realized through those experiences is that no matter what, whether I win, finish or stop, that it doesn't define my strength. My strength is defined by how hard I work, how much I am willing to endure, how much I honor the journey, the sport and who I want to be. Strength is going through the darkest depths and simply not giving in to the darkness, knowing that there will always be light again. Sometimes that light is a finish line, an outcome, a resolution. Sometimes that light is a new race, a new opportunity or a new life. 

There will be light after the dark.

There will be light after the dark.

The last year has been a pretty hard one for me. I feel like it has been like jumping from bad patch to bad patch, with only temporary glimmers of hope that have kept me pressing forward, slowly, painfully. There have been things in my life that I was certain would fail. There have been things in my life that I was ready to abandon. There were times when I had absolute certainty of what must be done. And yet, I did not quit and do not want to quit. Instead, I started to look at the struggle and say, "perhaps this is the only way through, perhaps what is on the other side of this is growth, is a deeper sense of connection, deeper understanding, valuable lessons and a deeper understanding of strength, both mine own and others". Perhaps, enduring what can be endured is absolutely life affirming. When I made the choice to stand on a start line, begin something, involve myself I had good reasons, big goals, positive feelings, hopes, dreams, etc. So when things go south, does that mean that I was wrong to make a start? Usually not, usually it just means that just because something isn't easy, doesn't mean its not worth doing. Just because it gets hard at some point, doesn't mean that this is a "stupid race and I am a stupid idiot for ever thinking it was a good idea". Yes, sometimes we have to stop. Sometimes we have to change, let go or choose a different path and that's ok. But sometimes we can endure things that are hard and face shredding and come out the other side saying, "I am so glad that I survived that. I am so glad I did not quit". We don't have to laud a sucky experiences, but we can be grateful for our own ability to go through tough shit, to survive and the once again live in the light and thrive.

Challenge of Balance

 Photo by Sherry LaVars

Looking back on this awesome article from a few weeks ago, I kind of chuckle to myself and long to be that busy. What I mean by that, is that day was leisurely and relaxed comparative to the days since. 

I knew that the SF Marathon would be the kick off to a very busy time in my life. Not only did it commence another training/racing season, it also was the start of wedding season (for me and many close friends/family), the busiest part of opening our cafe MH Bread and Butter, moving to Marin and still running my own business at the same time. It is a lot to manage and I tried to prepare myself for the big life changes.

Managing the day to day stresses has been a great learning experience. I have found myself to be able to handle a lot more than I ever thought I could and also buckled into a giant heap on the floor (before picking myself up and carrying on, of course) more times than I can count. 

 Photo by Sherry LaVars

One of the hardest things for me has been redefining myself as a runner. For the better part of the last two years, my running goals have been the primary motivator for how I schedule and navigate my life. While I am not and have never been a professional runner, running was my priority from how I ran my own business to how I structured my days. 

Now my days are much more demanding between the cafe and personal cheffing. Our cafe is becoming a reality (thanks in part to all of my awesome friends, family and supporters through our Kickstarter campaign) and the new onslaught of activities surrounding that endeavor get squeezed into every nook and cranny of my day (Nathan and I have had more productive "meetings" on runs than I can count). I am still working full time as a personal chef and have focused intently on maintaining awesome service for my clients, even as I am building another business.

I am still running and training hard. I have an insane racing schedule through the rest of the year which includes a marathon every month (Kauai, Chicago, NYC) until December, when I will be racing the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler. I want to do more than just participate in these races, I want to do big things. But the new paradigm of my life also means that I have been forced to redefine what I am capable of.

It is a hard thing to reprioritize.  Part of my struggle is that I am still doing the workouts and putting in miles, I am just not able to lead a running lead lifestyle anymore. Having different priorities means gone are the strategically timed meals, the luxurious naps, bi-weekly personal training sessions and weekly massage appointments. My energy is also eroded away (or should I say, otherwise utilized) so often times I am unable to get in a desired second run. My weekly mileage is less than it was, even though I cling to the idea of squeezing in a 100 mile week, somehow. 

Photo by Sherry LaVars

All of this has reminded me of what I can and can't do. I can shoulder a lot and have multiple chain saws in the air all at once. I can't drive myself into such exhaustion that I spontaneously fall asleep at my computer at 2 o'clock in the afternoon (not that that ever happened today). I can't expect too much of myself and I can't ignore my limits. I can remember to be kind and supportive of myself. I can remember that falling into pieces doesn't mean I've failed, it means I just needed to release a bit of the stress. It is a challenge to find the balance of all of these things.

I know for many people, I am just preaching to the choir about managing stress and balancing everything we have going on in life. It is a challenge, but I truly believe that I will find a way to fit everything I need to onto my plate. I know I will get through all of the challenges ahead. I know I will not navigate it perfectly. But I also know that everything we are undertaking is so important and worthwhile to us that there is nothing that will stand in our way from achieving our dreams.

The SF Marathon- race report

photo credit Tony Medina

Heading into Sunday's Wipro San Francisco Marathon, I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to win. I have run this race twice before and neither time was the my primary objective. The first time I ran it, I paced my sister the whole way through as it was her first marathon. Last year, Nathan and I ran it together and I used it as a training run leading up to WC100k.

Despite really wanting to win, I also was not sure I could. After Comrades, I took the month of June easy and once I started back training in July, I was doing more base building and moderate mileage than peak training. I did one track workout and one tempo workout before SF Marathon, with the later happening Tuesday before the race (you know, since it is such a great idea to run sub 5 min pace before you run a marathon). Needlesstosay, I had no real basis for judging what kind of shape I was in. I felt like I was running well, but had no training indicators to buoy my fitness.

So I did what anyone would do in my postion: go for broke and see what happens.

 photo credit SFM

Before the race, I familiarized myself with some of the competition and looked at marathon PR's across the board to carefully consider the capabilities and speed of the field. Knowing SF is a much harder course than most, I knew the times would be slower but wanted to be mentally prepared if I was going to have to go out on PR pace practically. When I got to the starting line, I knew I had the fastest PR in the group by nearly 11 minutes. While I didn't necessarily think I was in PR shape, I knew that I would likely be looked to dictate the pace and lead the field.

photo credit SFM

Anna Bretan (sister of my fellow ninja Jonathan Bretan) is a two time winner of the Oakland marathon. She is tough on a tough course. Before the race she told me that Jonathan told her to keep an eye on me and stay with me. Standing on the start line, I decided on my strategy. If the field was going to look to me to dictate pace, then I was going to take the race out hard and splinter the field early, after which I could settle into the pace (2:45) that I thought it would take to win.

The gun went off and I just went for it. As I started running, I considered if it was a smart strategy. My legs didn't feel warmed up and I knew that taking the race out on 2:37 pace was risky for me as well. I could blow up hard later. I didn't want to be scared though. Part of learning to race marathons for me has been learning how to get in the pain cave and relish it. To hurt and keep pushing. I figured that this race was a perfect opportunity to practice racing and hone my skill.
photo credit SFM

I clicked along at around 6 minute pace and charged towards the Golden Gate bridge with a little pack of ladies and guys tucked in behind me. The first 6 miles only have one real kicker of a hill, so it felt good to get the legs turning over. I wasn't sure how many ladies were with me as we headed up the steep climb to the bridge. I was pretty sure that at least a handful had backed off from my kamikaze of a start. I felt really good though and knew that I was going to have a solid day. I just felt strong. Not necessarily as fast as I've felt, but just felt able to maintain the pace all day long.

photo credit SFM

I run back and forth and back and forth across the bridge for training all the time. I know its curve, I know how hard to push when. By the time I was headed back to the SF side, I knew that my strategy had paid off. A quick glance over my shoulder registered that I was gapping the field and pulling away. I fell in with a group of guys and worked my way towards the park. I rolled with the hills, not throttling back too much on the few challenging up and hit the park feeling good. I was excited to feel so good heading into the park because I knew that the second half was faster and if I was feeling good I might be able to even or negative split. I passed through the halfway point just around 1:22. 

To the beach and back is one of my bread and butter runs (speaking of Bread and Butter, have you checked out our Kickstarter campaign yet?!?!), so I locked in and got my legs moving fast as the course slopped downhill. I was running with a guy named Gavin who was doing his first marathon. It was nice to have the company and we caught another duo shortly thereafter, whom I helped coach through a bad patch, reassuring them their race wasn't falling apart because they felt crap. That instead they just each needed to take a gel. I spent a few miles with them and then decided to push on ahead. I got onto the Stow Lake loop that is next to the 1st half finish and was excited to see Nathan, Georgia and Larissa (with the whole Strava crew).

 photo credit Tony Medina
I was on my own then. Just pushing along, managing my time and my energy. I apparently had not been running tangents well because my mileage vs. the markers was off, so I just resolved to stay locked in on my 6:11min/mile pace and focus on that. Loping down the Haight the cheers for me changed from "yeah 1st woman" (in the park) to suddenly "you are second woman!". Wait, what? I was confused and told the leader bicycle pacer that people were saying I was second. There are two places on the course where it is possible to get confused and cut off significant mileage. I figured that someone had turned left going into the park and skipped the bottom section of the park (which friends later confirmed). The bike pacer took off after the woman and I decided to turn her into a rabbit instead of being frustrated by the situation. I knew I was winning, but I also wanted my moment. If I am going to win, I want to come tearing into the finish line and break the tape. 

I pushed the pace on a few downhills into the mission and turning on to 16th spotted the lost lady. Her pace was significantly slower and I ate up ground and passed her quickly. With less than 5 miles to the finish line, I was starting to smell the barn. I wasn't sure what my gap was on the field, but I knew that if anyone was going to catch me, I was going to make them earn it. I just locked in and went. 

 photo credit Tony Medina

I never felt bad. I felt like a machine. I did work through the Dogpatch and crossed the bridge to ATT park flying. I looked at my watch and saw that even with the extra .25 miles I had run that I was going to be able to run sub 2:45. I pushed myself towards the finish line. Hitting the mile 26 sign I looked at my watch (marathon split 2:42:44) and pressed forward. The finish line announcer was saying that they had word that I was at ATT park a few minutes out, but I was flying down the finishing straight. The announcer caught sight of me and the crowd started going wild. I soaked it in. This is what I came for, this is what I had earned. I came to represent for my home and I protected my home turf.


photo credit Tony Medina

Victory. I have to say that this is one of the more satisfying wins I've had. It wasn't just about the fact that I won. It was that I ran the race I wanted to, I took risks, I pushed myself. I came to win: mission accomplished.
Photo from SF Gate

Thanks to The San Francisco Marathon for inviting me as an elite (and putting me in bib #2 for motivation!), North Face and all of my other sponsors!

Comrades Marathon Race Report

Ever since I began running ultras, I have always said that the things I truly love about running ultras is the spectrum of factors that can affect your race, the variation of emotions you can experience and the extreme highs and lows you can weather.

Never have I experienced those things so completely as I did at Comrades marathon. If you asked me how I felt.....

At 30k into the race, I would have described the race as surreal, I was leading the race, joking to the motorcycles that they should find a better way to radio back about me other than "the tall one". It was truly surreal. I was leading the biggest race of my life. I was telling my bicycle escort, this wasn't exactly where I wanted to be right about now, pushing to the front of the pack towards the first hotspot (a Bonitas money mid-race cash prize).

At 45k, I was devastated and debilitated by abdominal cramping. 

At 60k, I was on the verge of quitting, tears streaming my face, being convinced by Nedbank handlers, strangers I didn't know to continue. Just to keep going.

At 75k, I refused to quit.

At the the finish, I would have described myself as relieved.

The day after, disappointed.

Today, proud.

There came a point during Comrades where I cursed the race, wondered aloud why the HELL anyone would want to run the damn thing, let alone over and over again. But now I know; it captivates you. And now I feel like if I could only ever do one race ever again (or over & over again) it would be Comrades (preferably paired with Two Oceans) .

Comrades is everything I love about running (except for the lacking trails part), it is intensely challenging, competitive, supported by the entirety of not just the community itself but the nation and absolutely embodies why I even bother to race at all. I did not have the race I was capable of fitness wise. But I didn't quit. I did not have the race I wanted mentally- I struggled to enjoy it. But I realized now, sometimes gritting your teeth and bearing the extreme pain surpasses the experience of simply enjoying every step.

Last night, I fell asleep on the airplane disappointed, frustrated I didn't have the race I know I am fit for and without answers for why I cramped so bad. When I woke, the whole race experience seemed to slip away, like it never happened, with each passing mile I flew away from Durban. Then, in one conversation, my entire experience truly set in.

Although I'd had many conversations about the race from the border patrol agent who recognized me from being on TV to the extra chatty seatmate on my flight from Durban to Joburg, all of those conversations did little but remind me of my own disappointment. This morning was different. The conversation itself was not much different than the others I had had about the race. He'd run the race 4 times before, although not this year. But something triggered inside me.

I realized the true depth of my experience. I realized that I had accomplished something incredible, even if I hadn't had the result I wanted. I was a part of something special. They call it "the ultimate human race" and it truly is the ultimate human experience. After that conversation, I went from disappointed to feeling like the member of an exclusive club.

Those who know what it is like, KNOW. I feel inducted, in the club. I have NEVER been more proud to cross a finish line and that is regardless of position, time or even the struggle to get there. Comrades is truly, incredibly special. There is just no other way to describe it.

I know I usually write complete blow by blow recaps, but I feel, for maybe the first time ever in my short running career, that words can't even begin to capture my experience. I cam to South Africa to run an epic, classic race. I left with an epic experience. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity.

I truly appreciate my sponsors, Nedbank and North Face for making it possible. 5th place in 6:39 in the biggest ultra (and one of the biggest races in the world, period). First novice, first American. It doesn't matter, what matters is entering that stadium to the deafening roar of the crowd held held high, tears on my face and crossing that finish line. It is unlike any other experience I've had before and I will return time and time again.

Check back for photos and videos soon. I am not home from my journey yet!