(The short version: It was a tough day, but today - a day later - I'm feeling just proud and happy!)
Back at the start of summer, I picked the Mankato Marathon as my fall race, for several reasons:
- Perfect timing (still in October but after Twin Cities Marathon weekend and the conference in Montreal)
- An even better chance of cool weather than races in early October
- A soft spot in my heart for the energy of small-town races
- Super-easy logistics and much friendlier on the wallet than registering for and traveling to a big race like Chicago
But I'm getting ahead of myself! I got through a long, hot summer of training and basked in fall's cooler temperatures and faster paces. I was happy with the 18-week training plan I chose. I was happy with my tune-up races this fall: Bolder Dash, Bear Water Run, and the Jon Francis 8K. I was even happy with my taper period, the three weeks leading up to the marathon during which you cut back your mileage to rest up but subsequently often get cranky with all the extra energy. I didn't get too cranky and I didn't have any of the aches and pains that typically fuel the pre-race nerves. I just felt really good leading up to the race.
On Saturday, Josh and I dropped Wish off at my mom and dad's house and headed to Mankato to check in at our B&B and pick up my race packet. We ran some errands around town to grab dinner and some Gatorade, and then hung out in our room to watch Alabama throttle Tennessee (sadface). I fell asleep around 10:00, woke up to my alarm at 4 a.m. to chug some Gatorade, and then woke up for the day at 6 a.m. to have my real breakfast: a cup of coffee and an English muffin with peanut butter.
By the way, I have to show you the room key we got at the B&B!!
Isn't that so much more fun than a little electronic card!? I want all of my keys to be like that!
Okay, back to business. Getting to the start line is one of the great perks of a small-town race. Josh and I left at 7:10 or so and drove five minutes to the starting area at the university - with no traffic at all - and parked in a huge lot 25 yards away from the actual start line. It was so easy and low-key. I relaxed in the warm car for awhile, and then hopped out and he went on his merry way to the first cheering location at mile 3.5.
Conditions at the start felt just about perfect: 42 degrees and partly cloudy with a light breeze. I dreamt about weather like this all summer, folks. The 10K started at 7:30, and then the half-marathon and marathon started at 8:00, right on time. It was never crowded, and the half-marathon split off in a different direction just before Mile 3.
My game plan was to be very relaxed for the first half of the race. Some people break a marathon into two 10-milers and a 10K; others think of the two halves. Either way, the real meat of the race (so to speak) comes in the second half, and it's just imperative to hold something back in the first half to save enough energy for when the race gets tough. The first few miles are actually supposed to feel almost too easy.
And they did. I started out gently, keeping the four-hour pace group ahead of me but in my sights. After a couple of miles, though, we got into more open farmland and it became apparent that the wind was probably going to come into play. I debated between keeping my pace all by myself or inching up just a little bit to catch the 4:00 group for the wind protection, and decided it'd be worth the risk to boost my pace ever so slightly to be part of a crowd.
The pace group offered lots more than wind protection. Sometimes I am wary of running near pace groups, which is funny because I would love to someday be a pacer. The pace leader holds up a little sign that says the goal pace and finish time (i.e. 9:10/mile, 4:00 finish) and is also in charge of motivating the group and also running the appropriate pace (not too fast, not too slow). They are really amazing and often finish within a minute of their marathon goal time. I sometimes avoid the groups because at larger races, though, because people can jostle to stay right on the pacer's shoulder in an effort to stay right on pace, so it sometimes feels too crowded for my liking.
But this group was really fun, and I really liked the pacer. She chatted a bit, offered tips and really just was a great example of staying calm and relaxed. And I felt calm and relaxed - I'd stick by the group but felt like I was holding back energy.
Here was my home for the first half of the race. I'm feeling great and am apparently having the time of my life!
I like our shadows, too. Near the start of the race, we ran past a cornfield and the runners' shadows were making a long, beautiful pattern over the field in the early morning daylight. It was beautiful.
Anyway, I was planning to move up ahead of the pace group after the halfway point. Then, from about mile 11.5 to 16, I ran into a virtually constant headwind that I'd learn later was a sustained 18 mph with gusts up to 28 mph. Oof. Choose your analogy of something screeching to a halt, and that'd be yours truly. It really, really took a toll on me (and most of the people around me). I was leaning forward and scrunching up my shoulders and just struggling to keep running, which is not the feeling at the halfway mark that I had expected. I saw Josh at Mile 13 and told him I was having trouble.
That stretch was one of the toughest I've ever experienced during a race. I was confused about where we were on my mental map of the course and didn't know how many miles this headwind would last, and that uncertainty was discouraging. Maybe it's because you have to break the marathon down mile by mile, minute by minute, and at that moment, it felt like the headwind had lasted forever and would continue to last forever!
But here's where the mark of a truly dear spectator is made. I saw Josh again at Mile 15 and instead of kind but general encouragement, that sweet, wonderful man had studied the course map and was able to say, "Listen, if you can get through one more mile, the entire next 10K will be with the wind either at your side or completely at your back," and that was exactly what I needed to hear. In every marathon, there are hard sections and easy sections, and it's not always possible to anticipate where they will be: you just have to ride out the tough parts. I did get through the next mile, and even though the wind had left my legs tuckered out, I was able to rebound - not to the 9:00/mile pace, but not too far off it.
Here, for example, I am motoring along so quickly that the police car is obviously primed to give chase:
I was happy with miles 17-22. One of the lessons this fall was learning to trust my endurance and training: that even when I started to tire in the second half of a race, I could hold a pace and not let the wheels come off completely. I thought about that lesson often during this section and knew that I didn't need to throw in the towel just because of that headwind. I wasn't breaking any world records here, but I was making good progress and getting back into a stride that felt pretty nice.
One of my favorite parts of the last nine miles was the Sport Psych Team, a group of sport psychologists that rode the course on bikes and would somehow know just what to say. They'd offer really specific, helpful encouragement - the perfect blend of getting through one mile at a time while remembering the big picture. They'd say things like "You worked so hard, you're fit, and this is your big day" and I'd think, Hey, this is my big day! and get a little pep in my step. I had never run a race that included a group like this, and it was awesome. There were also various community groups and other spectators, and lots of people were holding posters, including one that said "BINDERS FULL OF RUNNERS" that made me laugh nonsensically.
And the rest? Well, that was just plain old hard, as miles 23-26 usually are in my experience. I started to walk more during that stretch, especially around mile 23 and 24 when it still felt like the finish line was so far off in the distance. Once I got closer to the end, the mental cajoling got into high gear. We were out on a bike path with no signs of a finish area anywhere in sight or sound, so I had to remind myself that the finish line was only 15 minutes away.
I got into Mile 25 and remember looking down at my Garmin and seeing that I had about three-quarters of a mile to go - the old "three laps around a track" trick that I employ often at this part of a race. This is where time really slows down for me, and I remember so much more of that last mile than many of the preceding miles. Can you run for seven more minutes? I remember thinking, and then rephrased it: You can run for seven more minutes. Then six minutes to go. Five minutes left. Four minutes to go. Then the finish line was in sight. Three more minutes. Two more minutes. I saw Josh a minute before the finish line and was pretty happy, albeit with eyes half-closed. That wasn't part of my finish strategy, I promise. The perma-smile leading up to the finish is, though. I told Josh later that even after eight marathons, the approach to the finish line never fails to be a wow life moment.
And then I was done! I crossed the finish line in 4:26, about half an hour slower than my personal best but half an hour faster than my previous marathon in Chicago.
Josh found me right away, and I wobbled over to sit down for awhile and then get to the car. I was not feeling good physically at this point - nothing serious, just an upset stomach. (I still haven't figured out the right Gu-and-water ratio for my body. Ugh.) We got back to my mom and dad's house and were ambushed by the dog, who had the Best Time Ever with my mom but was thrilled we were back!
Then I felt much better after some saltine crackers and ginger ale. Yum. And then I became a bottomless pit, starting with a wonderful Thai curry soup my mom made for dinner. (Thanks, Mom!) I modeled my t-shirt and medal, too!
For me, this race's lesson is the old adage that you can't control everything that happens, but you can control how you react and respond. With the unexpected wind in my face, it was hard to let go of my pace goal after feeling so good for half the race, and Josh can attest that I definitely had a little moment of metaphorical foot-stomping around Mile 15. But readjusting and moving on felt so much better than just checking out of the race mentally and dwelling on my original goals - and I know this summer's training gave me the tools to refocus and keep moving forward.
Today I feel a little sore, but mostly just happy and grateful: for the cheers and support from family and friends all weekend, for a partner who gets to eight locations over 26.2 miles and somehow manages to be energizing and calming in the same moment, for seeing what how my mind and body can tackle a challenge like the marathon. I am going to eat pizza and rest (that's today's plan, anyway!) and then I'll ponder what the spring might hold. But first: the pizza!
Thanks for reading - and for all of your kind words of encouragement along the way, too.