what not to do before a marathon

Houston Marathon Race Report

Houston, we have a problem....

I am having a hard time being inspired to write this race report. It is weird. Yes, I am disappointed in my result but it is not because of that that I am uninspired. I am clearly very able to be inspired to right about disappointing days. I think that it was an uninspiring race in general and my uninspiring performance just means that the way I usually write a race report is not as applicable. My race reports are usually an emotional journey, I like being a story-teller and carrying you through the journey with me.  Houston was a very short story in a lot of ways. I did however, learn a great deal and I think that is much more of what I want to focus on and share. I didn't meet my goals, any of them, with the exception of the most basic one: whatever happens, just don't quit.

The story

Race week didn't go as planned. I had to fight off a virus/cold/flu (so I didn't miss my 4th race in 2 years because of illness) and took down heavy doses of vitamins. After seeing Dr. Maderas at Marin Natural Medicine for a immunity boosting IV push, I was feeling pretty darn good and was just a of a lingering tired feeling from the virus. I got it early enough in the week that I was hoping it wouldn't affect the race. I traveled to Houston on Friday, brought along a bunch of my own food and tried to stick to my own "safe" foods before the race and not start adding back anything too drastic, while still getting in my carbs before the race. But my stomach felt off Thursday, Friday and Saturday was a mess. I attributed it to a case of nerves, this was after all my first road marathon in over 2 years and I was looking to PR bigtime. I attributed it to the rice I ate with lunch since I hadn't eaten rice (or any other grains) in two months. By bedtime Saturday night, I was feeling ok and just figured that a bad race week usually meant a great race day. 

It is what it is ultimately and I didn't get too stressed out over how the week went. It is the breaks of the game. I was happy to have made it to race day, excited to see if I could achieve my goal of running the OT standard and just get back into marathoning. I am especially thankful for the Terranovas as they gave me a place to stay both Friday and Saturday night, let me follow them around like a puppy dog and comforted me after the race. Not to mention Paul was pacer extraordinaire for the 2:39 pace group!

When I woke up Sunday morning, I was very happy there was no lightning. They said that there was a high chance of thunderstorms and that would have meant the race would have been cancelled or delayed or stopped and restarted. We started on time, but the weather was not fantastic, it rained a pretty constant drizzle, there was a heavy downpour at one point and it was very very humid. Before the race I ate 2 bananas with peanut butter and hoped that my stomach problems had worked themselves out. I drank a cup of coffee and we headed to the elite starting area. I felt calm, ready to go but not exactly how I wanted to feel. My body didn't feel that energized. But I also reminded myself that I am in completely uncharted waters here. Heck, as good as my training was and it was very good and hard and on point, I was trying to run in a way my body had never really done. Go hard from the start, be uncomfortable and keep going. Ultras I am very comfortable, marathons are a whole different ball game.

What I really was hoping for was what Ellie Greenwood dubbed a "Devon day". I trained to have one, I am the fittest I have been that I can remember, I even achieved my goal race weight. I was ready to not only make the 2:46 standard, I was ready to push the limits and get close to 2:40. Or so was my thought, hope, prayer. As I warmed up, it started drizzling and my legs didn't feel like wild horses so energetic I needed to rein them in. They felt just fine. And then we were off into the early morning light, splashing in puddles, dodging raindrops but not lightning bolts. 

I ran a 6:18 first mile. There was an overpass about 200 meters in and the little climb kept everyone honest. Paul took off at his prescribed 2:39 pacer duties pace and I knew right away I wouldn't even try to hang on. I scooted ahead of the 2:46 pace group (6:18 pace) and ran my next mile in 6:00. From there, I ran virtually alone for the next 11 miles. Through the non-descript streets of Houston. We were in neighborhoods still sleepy with the early hour. We ran past Rice University. There were fans but when you are running alone, down (painful) concrete roads, it is lonely and hard to keep your own time. Which is why pacers are provided and why they are important. I was in the nether realm between the two OT qualifying standards pace groups. I knew if things started going wrong that I could slow up and hitch my wagon to the 2:46 pacers and cruise in with them. There were suppose to be two of them, one for the first half and one going the full distance.

I hit my splits pretty well for the first few miles, still feeling comfortable around 6:07-6:12 pace. I didn't feel like I was pushing too hard. I knew I would need to start challenging myself but one thing I couldn't figure out was when? When do I go? When do I push myself into the uncomfortable place and hold it? Pretty quickly there after, I had an answer, but it was not what I really meant. My stomach had felt disquiet but manageable during the first 5 or 6 miles. I hit the 10k at 38:45 which is 6:14 pace. But then my stomach started to go. I was drinking water but the disquiet became barfing. Not projectile, sweeping heaps but the small contents of my stomach, mostly liquid. I'd struggle to keep pace and my stomach would object. I had to utilize my ultrarunning skills and barf and run. Didn't even get it on my shoes. I was forced to back off. I was upset, I knew if I couldn't get my stomach under control then I would not be able to let me legs do their job. From mile 6 until 10, I tried to maintain but started to slow into the mid 6:20s and even 6:30s after mile 10. Just before the half way mark, the 2:46 pace group caught me. The pacer told me to jump in with them and I replied, "I've been waiting for you guys!" I was very happy to see them because I felt that I could just switch off my brain and tuck in and run the pace set by others. We ran through some bigger downpours but it stayed humid which I am sure didn't help my stomach.

We hit the half in 1:22:49 and the first half pacer peeled off. There was a pack of 8-10 ladies and we all looked around for the other pacer. No where. Not to be seen, no one had seen him at all that day though the day before he had introduced himself to all of us. Within a half mile the group obliterated and try as we might to hold ranks, the group fell apart. Only 1 out of the group made the standard. Let me tell you, running with a pacer really helps. The race provided pacers for 5 different elite women's speeds (3 of those speeds were basically personal pacers for the top 3 women) and it makes a difference. That is why I chose to do a big marathon, I wanted company. I didn't want to run alone (into the wind) like I did in Boston.

My stomach wouldn't settle. I would take nips of gel when I could, drank water but nothing helped. I got slower and slower. Once the group obliterated and I started hearing that I was on more than a 6:20 pace and slower and slower, I had a hard time convincing myself to do anything but run at a pace that didn't disturb my stomach. From miles 15-23 I pretty much just did everything in my power not to quit. I didn't push, I just ran. I just resolved to have pride and not step off the course despite being sick and not being able to achieve my goals.

I saw Meredith at mile 20 and I told her not to wait for me at the finish line and to go with Paul since I wouldn't be just a few minutes behind him. She cheered for me and I remembered that she had given me salt caps before the race to deal with the humidity, which up until this point I hadn't taken. After I ran by her, I decided, what the heck, I downed some salt caps with a swig of water. And then something weird happened, around mile 23, I started to feel a bit better. Not great but I was able to drop my pace back down to the 6:20 range instead of the upwards creeping 6:45, 6:50s I had seen in there. And I got my pride back. Damnit Devon, I said, even if you can't get the standard (I calculated quickly in my head), maybe you can still PR (my PR is a 2:49:51). I focused on the girl I was running close to and put a move on her. Then I focused on a guy ahead and reeled him in. I pushed and pushed and could tell by how easily my legs responded that it was clearly not my legs that had failed me on this day, it was my energy, it was stomach.

As I pushed the last miles, all those tempo workouts, all those track workouts proved their worth in gold. It felt effortless to push the pace, with the exception of the now intense gusts of wind that was hit us full on in the face every 30 seconds or so. I cranked and my stomach held. I couldn't do the exact math but I figured I would be close to my PR and would at least finish with my pride. I knew I would have to run nearly sub 6 to realistically make it but ran as hard as I could, without looking at my watch.

I hit downtown and spotted a string of 6-7 guys scattered various distances ahead of me, each looking tender footed and hurting. I passed them with such conviction not a single one of them even had a chance to try and keep up. I came down to the final turn and hit the home stretch. There was one more guy I could get. The announcer was calling marathon finisher's names and he recognized that I was in hot pursuit. "Andrew, andrew" he said to the guy in front of me, "Watch out Andrew you are about to be passed by a girl". I flew by him crossing the line in 2:50:55. My second fastest time ever in the marathon. I was 18th woman overall and have to be proud of my effort on a day that didn't unfold as I liked.

I was escorted back to the elite area, met up with Paul and Meredith, commiserated with my fellow 2:46 hopefuls who didn't make it and headed back to the hotel room. It took a long time before I could eat anything and my stomach refused to settle for days afterwards. I headed back to San Francisco that evening and am now considering the all important question: what now?

 Start OffsetPaceProj TimeOfficial TimeOverallGenderDiv
-0:06:32 2:50:5560188

Lessons learned

  1. Sometimes it doesn't matter how well you are prepared, your chance will come when it comes. Good days don't always fall on race day.
  2. Running at the edge of red line is very hard. It takes practice to know how to handle it. I am thankful for this race in that it gave me experience with feeling out my body at that speed.
  3. I need to get a flu shot and stop getting sick before races.
  4. Concrete hurts. Humidity sucks. Flatter is not always better. And everything is funner with another runner (pacer!).
  5. You can be thankful that lightning doesn't strike, but still get caught in the storm.
  6. I love love loved my training for this race and my nutrition plan too. I feel very fit and feel like I am moving in the right direction.
  7. Ultimately, missing a goal is not the end of the world. I have more chances to get there and it is still an adventure to see if I can do it. 
  8. Even when things aren't going your way, adjust and take pride in your effort. I would have felt a hell of a lot worse about the way things turned out if I had wallowed in things and slowed down or given up. Don't give up, unless of course they are putting an IV in... and even then, don't give up, just listen to the doctors orders.
  9. Remember it is suppose to be fun. The reality is that I am unlikely to make this or any Olympics (statistically speaking and realistically as well) and so I can set goals and pursue them whole-heartedly but also remember that this is my passion, my love and I am not defined by it. (And the same is true even if I do make the Olympics).
  10. There is always a next time. And the next time and the next time.

Watch on the right half of the screen, light blue top as I sprint past a guy and chick him 10 feet before the line. I am not very nice :)

Lithia Loop Trail Marathon

Photo courtesy of Scott and Christi Dunlap

About 2 weeks ago, I got my first post-Tussey workouts from my coach to take me onwards towards TNF50, the first week in December. Tussey was definitely my big A race. I wanted to savor it, recover from it and generally not rush back in to training but with only a bit over a month between the two races, it also really wasn't an option. On the schedule from my coach, there was a listed a 3:20 long run for November 6th. I did a quick check and sure enough, as I thought, Lithia Loop Trail Marathon (the trail marathon national championship) was that day. And last year, I ran a 3:18. Sounds like the perfect workout to me.

If you were to do a quick search of all of the things you shouldn't do before a marathon, you would find lists and lists of things ranging from eat different things to do big workouts. Usually, we do a nice taper, watch over every last detail and generally wander around in a weird taper induced mental state. But not for me, not this time.

Instead, I kept on as usual. Well, slightly less than usual. Since Tussey, I haven't brought back my second workouts of the day and have tried to keep my mileage relatively moderate. Last week, however, was a pretty hard week. After taking my usual Monday off, I hammered out the hardest track workout I've done in a while on Tuesday and followed it up in the evening with a hard training session with my trainer that included plenty of squats and lunges. Wednesday was a recovery day and my legs were singing and I don't mean that is a good way. By Thursday, my hamstrings and glutes were super tight and sore, so much so that it took most of the day to get me out the door to run. I almost didn't run because I was worried that if I did I might really ruin my run at Lithia. Ultimately, I got out the door and did another hard workout, tempo this time in 14 miles total. On Friday, I drove up to Ashland by myself. By the time I got there, my legs felt horrible. They were seriously tight and sore from the drive and I was actually worried that I was going to do really horribly and not be able to get my legs moving. While Lithia Loop was going to be a training race, it is still a race (and a race with money due to being the USATF National Championship) and I wanted to at least run it as a hard workout.

I spent about an hour stretching in the room of my hotel (Peerless Hotel, super cute) and ate a hearty meal of baked potato with vegetables and a huge vegetable salad from Greenleaf. I was happy to see they had take away since I didn't much feel like eating in a restaurant all by myself. By the time I went to bed, my legs were feeling better but not great. I was feeling no pre-race nerves and fell asleep just fine.

I woke up at 6am, gobbled up a small pb and banana sandwich, put on my race kit and got back into bed for another hour. I knew there was no reason to be super early to the race start (8am) and I also wanted to get a cup of coffee from Noble Coffee, which was recommended to me by Erik Skaggs, but didn't open until 7am. My legs felt okay and I was glad that at least they didn't feel like crap from the start.

I grabbed a coffee and headed off to the start. It was a really pleasant temperature at the start and I was excited that it seemed to be a lot warmer than the weather report had predicted. I was comfortable in a short sleeve shirt, but wore my 3/4 Salomon tights with compression to support my worked legs. The pre-race reports were that there were lots of speedy women in the field and the men's field was really stacked as well. Last year, I came in 3rd place and nearly caught 2nd place in a dash to the finish. My goal for this year was to run a hard workout and place in the top 5. I was hoping that my worn out legs would be able to muster at least that.

I did a quick warmup, chatted with friend Scott Dunlap and some others, then Hal gave a quick pre-race briefing and we were off. Up the big ass climb.

Pretty much the first 10.5 miles are uphill. Thankfully, I knew this and could pace accordingly. Hal sent us off and a huge group of men dashed out. Scott had told me he was going to aim for a sub-3 hr finish, so I knew that whatever speed he was going, I should NOT be going with him. I noticed two women go out ahead of me, right on Scott's heels and figured that things would shake out pretty quickly at that pace. Pretty soon, the two women ahead dropped behind me and I trucked along in the 8:30-9min/mile range. Slow and steady. I was running with Katie Caba and Melissa Shweisguth and just tried to be comfortable. They moved ahead of me, but I refused to change my strategy of going ultra speed up the hill. Last year, I survived the hill, the got to crank out tempo speed on the slightly downhill miles from 10.5-20 and then hammer the steep and technical (in places) final 6 miles. I was hoping that this strategy would again work and simply tried to suffer as little as possible up the climb. Katie moved ahead and Melissa dropped back and we chatted. She mentioned that "everyone has their strategy" for the race and I thought about it for a minute and considered if I did really have a strategy. At that point, Katie was in 1st and 2nd-5th place were all right there with me and I was kind of ready to be running by myself and according to how I felt. But alas, I had to make it to the top of the hill to shake out of a group of both men and woman. When we hit the aid station at mile 8, I passed off my gloves to Erik and dropped the pace a bit. I knew that the fire road continued to roll uphill, so I didn't push too hard. 

My legs were definitely not feeling as spry as I would have wanted, but I was not surprised at all. Considering the hard workouts and the hill we'd just climbed, I was at the very least, not worried. I dropped the pace to the low 7s and made some space for myself. I hit the distinct point on the course when it starts to lope downwards and I let my legs go a bit more. Or I tried. Last year, I was easily able to drop into the low to mid 6 minute per mile range. But my legs were not having it, I felt like a car stuck in 3rd gear, I could manage a decent and steady pace, but as soon as I tried to speed up, the engine (my legs) would strongly object and make a lot of noise. I was a bit bummed by this because I had been secretly hoping for some magic race adrenaline to kick in that would make all of the week's hard work wash away.  But it didn't. And that was ok. I just thought about Nathan telling me to run a hard workout and IF there was someone to chase that I could see (or someone chasing me), to push it and if not, just be steady. I decided to be steady. I managed a few high 6's and low 7's. And the miles ticked off quickly.

It is amazing how fast a marathon seems to go by when you are use to running 50 miles and beyond. Before I knew it, I was filling my bottle half way up and taking a swig of coke at the mile 20 aid station. From there, we dive down a steep hill and I cranked out a few sub 6 miles. I passed a handful of guys on the downhills. Thankfully the one part of my leg that wasn't really sore was my quads which allowed me to float down the hills. I worked my way through the very technical gnarly section from mile 24-25 (passing another guy) then hit the road, eager to be done. It was indeed a hard workout and I was ready for it to be over. 

Learning from last year (and how I nearly caught 2nd place in the last mile), I was slightly paranoid that another girl was going to do that to me. I kept checking over my shoulder, just in case. I didn't want to relinquish 2nd place at that point since I was pretty proud of that considering how messed up I felt coming into the race. I was able to cruise out the last mile pretty strong and finished in 3:28:36, a full 10 minutes slower than last year and in 2nd place. Katie had run a great race (her first marathon since Lithia Loop 2008!) and finished in 3:23:12. 

Katie and I after the finish.
Photo courtesy of Scott and Christi Dunlap

3rd-6th place women all came in pretty close to one another about 5 minutes after I did. I hung out at the finish and chatted with Katie, Max King, Jeff Browning, Richard Bolt and Yassine Diboun. I changed my clothes, as it was getting chilly, collected my USATF 2nd place medal and headed out to make the long drive back to San Francisco. 

But not before a stop at Morning Glory for coffee and an egg scramble. Which, let's be frank, was the real reason I drove all the way up to Ashland. So delicious. 

I got in the car, drove the 5.5 hours home to SF and by the time I got home, my legs were so sore, I walked like a cowboy. But after a nice long walk to and from dinner, the soreness disappeared, the tiredness subsided and I was left with nothing but warm fuzzy feelings for following up my National Championship in the 50 miler with a 2nd place finish just a few short weeks later. A satisfying workout indeed.