Two weeks since running CIM, yet I’ve barely been able to stop. On the one hand, that race was everything. Not a day went by in 2018 when I didn’t think about the impending journey from Folsom to Sacramento. On the other hand, it was just another Sunday in the swirl of work and general busyness. Time management has never been my forte, yet somehow I just barely squeeze it all in, imperfections be damned. If marathoning is any sort of reflection on life, that was the picture I painted with this one.
Curled up in an aisle seat of one of the hundred or so school buses parked by the start line, I stared straight ahead at the stretched vinyl of the seat ahead of me and let out a slow exhale. The guy next to me in the window seat removed one of his earbuds, smiled at me, and asked, “Nervous?” “Yes.”
It was a chilly morning, crisp and clear, and I wasn’t going to leave that heated bus until it was absolutely necessary. Once my wristwatch read 6:35AM (the race would begin at 7:00AM), it was go-time. I wished my seat buddy good luck, hopped off the bus and jogged into the frigid air under a still-dark sky.
In a sea of strangers, I was lucky enough to spot some familiar, friendly faces in Chloe, Grant, and Dominique, all friends I’ve met through the running circuit in Portland. I remembered that Grant and Dominique had a similar goal time, so I planned to find them at their meeting spot by the 3:00 hr pace group in the starting corral. Little did I know, the only entrance into the start corral was from the very back! The gun would go off in about ten minutes, and there I was (along with many other frantic runners) clamoring my way toward the front of the pack as if I was trying to battle my way toward the stage at a sold out Taylor Swift concert. I finally made it to about ten feet behind a sign reading “3:00” before the runners were so packed in it was impossible to squeeze through any more. Thankfully I found Grant, but we were unable to spot Dominique.
I crouched down in the minuscule space I could call my own to retie my shoes. I finally removed the old sweatshirt I’d been wearing as a “throwaway” warm up and tossed it over the center barrier (it would be collected and given to a charity later). I placed my hand over my thumping heart for the singing of the national anthem. A growing chorus of runners sang along. One more exhale. We were off.
I was in no rush at the start and just allowed the first couple miles to unfold. I knew there would be a right angle turn early on, and positioned myself on the outside of the curve as to not get tangled in the mess of legs. Grant and I ran side by side.
Mile 1 – 6:51
Mile 2 – 6:48
At first I thought I would settle in with the 3:00 hr pace group, but it was a mob. Maybe 50-100 people. The sheer sound of footsteps was nothing short of thunderous. I couldn’t see the ground in front of me and had to get out. The crowd had settled on the left side of the road, and I was running on the shoulder in the thick of it. I weaved deftly forward and to the right, trying to waste as little energy as possible, until making my way to the right side of the road, finally able to breathe, and nothing but clear views ahead. A few seconds later Grant caught up and said, “Wow, you’re good at that!”
Mile 3 – 6:36
After that I settled into a groove. It occurred to me around 4-5 miles that nothing was bothering me. I spent much of this season rehabbing from a tendon strain near my ankle. It never truly went away, the pain always somewhere around 2-3 on a scale of 1-10. But that day I felt nothing. I had a perfect, working ankle, with a low mileage training cycle, a whole lot of rehab with Vince at North Lake PT, Rachel at Tangelo, Amy & Olivia at Athena, Tracey & Ivy at Katona Pilates, and two weeks of tapering to thank.
Mile 4 – 6:41
Mile 5 – 6:48
Mile 6 – 6:47
It was somewhere around here that Grant started to pull away and I didn’t go with him. I wasn’t sure how I felt so early in the game, with 20 miles ahead.
Mile 7 – 6:48
Mile 8 – 6:51
Mile 9 – 6:57
I was feeling pretty good though still a little unsure at this point. Every time I slowed down just a hair, there would be a rumble of footsteps encroaching on me–the three hour pace group. For the past four years I’d been trying and failing to better my personal record of 2:59:22, and just behind me was a very real representation of that monkey on my back.
Mile 10 – 6:45
Mile 11 – 6:43
Mile 12 – 6:58
A few steps forward, a small step back. Again, the dull roar of footsteps crept up behind me. No. I wasn’t having it. A mantra entered my head which is too inappropriate to post here, but the more polite version would be, “Away with this noise!” I pulled away from the pace group, sailed across the timing mats at the halfway point, and glanced at my watch. 1:29:26. Time to go.
Mile 13 – 6:50
Mile 14 – 6:40
Mile 15 – 6:42
Mile 16 – 6:45
Mile 17 – 6:35
It was during this stretch that I finally felt like I could tell myself, “I’m doing this.” It was all happening. My body felt good, I had a ton of energy, and I’m pretty sure endorphins were kicking in all over the place because I felt high as a kite.
Mile 18 – 6:50
Mile 19 – 6:47
For as good as I’d felt in the miles past the halfway point, it was around 18-19 that the fatigue started kicking in. I can’t pinpoint exactly what felt bad. Nothing felt bad. I was just tired. I’d taken a Honey Stinger gel at mile 5 and another at mile 10. I knew I should take another one, so I did, but it wasn’t easy. The simple act of tearing the tab off the capsule seemed an awfully arduous task. I’d been taking water or electrolytes at every aid station (as was the plan). The intake of calories combined with the fatigue was just making me feel super nauseous.
Right around that point I saw my Rose City Track Club teammates who gave me big cheers, were holding a giant pink RCTC sign, and Shasta one of my best buds gave me the biggest smile and just looked so excited. It was exactly the lift I needed.
Then, somewhat cruelly, at the 20 mile mark there was a giant inflatable arch made to look like bricks with a giant banner reading “THE WALL” that the runners had to go through. Perhaps it was meant to be a morale boost, like, “break through the wall!” But to me it was a like an announcement saying “Here is the dreaded wall marking 6.2 miles of torture ahead! Good luck with that!”
I took my lap split one more time.
Mile 20 – 6:53
From there, I vowed to not look at my watch again and to just run as fast as I could. That’s all I could do. No energy wasted. 10K to go. Just get to the Capitol Building in downtown Sacramento. Every step forward was another step closer.
A few days before, my coach Greg and I talked about a game plan going into the race. I would be “nice Liz” at the start and cruise through the hills and get to the halfway point feeling comfortable. But then once mile 20 hit, I’d unleash “Black Friday Liz.” BFL! We knew there would be carnage from those chasing faster times in that final 10K and I’d be picking off as many as possible.
I summoned another burst of energy. A pack of runners that had gotten away from me around middle miles were starting to come back.
According to Strava data:
Mile 21 – 6:47
Mile 22 – 6:49
Mile 23 – 6:55
It wasn’t really that I was going faster, but many other runners were beginning to fade. At that point I had to create so many mental tricks to keep going. What helped me the most was thinking back to my many long runs on Sauvie Island in Portland. When I’d hit the 20 mile mark at CIM, I told myself, “Wow, that’s only half a loop on Sauvie! I’m so close!” When I got to the 23 mile mark, I told myself, “Okay, pretend that you just made it back to the parking lot, but you have to add on 3.2 miles. That’s just 1.6 miles out, 1.6 miles back. Treat it like a progression run. Just maintain to the turnaround then finish strong.” This was all imaginary, of course, but visualizing those familiar check points really helped break down the rest of the race into manageable portions.
Mile 24 – 6:58
Mile 25 – 7:08
My plan to not look at my watch sort of backfired, in hindsight. I had no idea I was running that slow. That’s not to say had I known, I would have run faster. Who knows? I’d also just like to say “run brain”, as many like to call it, is tricksy, farce, and apparently makes you mildly delusional. My thinking in those later miles was “Wow, I feel surprisingly good this late in the game. I’ve got 2:58 in the bag. Maybe even 2:57! How low can I go? Better start composing a tearful, self-congratulatory speech now!”
At the 40K mark I did some quick math- add 2K worth of time to the current clock time. Okay, say I run a 6:50 mile, that’s 1600ish meters. Add a 400 to that for 2000, that’s one lap around the track, maybe call that another 100 seconds just to be safe. How, or why, I was calculating anything at that point is beyond me (just run, idiot!), but what I did conclude was that I was far behind where I needed to be and had to HURRY UP!!
I made so many promises to myself in that last 2K. You never have to do this again. No more marathons ever. Call it your swan song. I don’t care anymore. You don’t have to care.
I saw the familiar royal blue of Grant’s Portland Running Co singlet just ahead. Get to Grant. He went with me. We tore toward the capitol side by side. Ahead of the final turn they separated women to the left, men to the right, and just like that he was gone. I kicked an ugly kick toward that finish chute, crossed the finish mat unceremoniously, and peered down hesitantly at my watch a second later. I told myself I didn’t care, but the truth is I was prepared to be pretty crushed, again. I did it, by a hair. 2:59:18 on my watch, and later 2:59:17 on the official results. Five seconds better than my best from 2014. I buried my face in my hands and stumbled down the finisher zone, half in shock and half in a daze. After a year filled with anticipation and many years of heartbreak, I finally found what I was looking for–hope, relief, and finally a step forward.
I found my friends Fionna and Carissa in the finish chute. They were chasing the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying standard of 2:45:00 or better. I tentatively asked, “How did you do?” Instead of responding they asked, “How did YOU do?” “I did it! I PR’ed…” and then I couldn’t help myself, “Did you do it?” “We did it.” “YOU DID IT!!!” We gave each other huge hugs. I couldn’t have been happier for them. They trained hard together all season for that goal and they both made it by a long shot, with minutes to spare. Then I suddenly realized how horrible I felt and had to politely excuse myself to go puke. The humanity!
Little by little I found my friends and teammates; those that ran and those that had come to cheer. We exchanged race stories and took photos. There were tears of joy and tears of heartbreak. I noticed that every marathoner finishers’ lips had turned blue and we should probably get inside before we all got hypothermia. My teammate Ashley brought me a cup of hot soup and it was the best thing I’d ever tasted. And just like that, a very long chapter finally came to a close.
I wrote the following caption on an Instagram post but thought I’d share it here as well.. a glimpse of what’s next.
When I met you I was blown to pieces
Heart all over the floor
Ever since you put me back together
I can’t believe it, won’t believe it, uh!
Look what I found
This song (Look What I Found from A Star Is Born – yes I am super basic – also it is a great song) has been in my head on repeat since CIM. I found what I’m looking for in Sacramento. A small step forward after seemingly a million steps backward. The dream is still alive. Next stop- Boston Marathon in April, with the goal of placing as high up as possible. Winter in Portland is just beginning. Lots of dark, cold, rainy days ahead. Let’s do this thing.