Last Sunday, after crossing the finish line at the local Bridge to Brews 10K, I joined a throng of runners at the post-race party on the grassy waterfront park in downtown Portland. An energetic cover band was blasting some tunes, and my friends and I celebrated our completed races with commemorative plastic cups filled with beer and cider–never mind that it was 9:30 in the morning! It struck me how long it had been since I’d been in any kind of party-like or celebratory atmosphere, considering the past two years. It felt familiar and normal, like a marker of old times.
On Monday, perhaps against my better judgment since I’m still recovering from the Pinhoti Trail, I’ll join 30,000 runners on the famous route from Hopkinton to Boylston Street in the 126th Boston Marathon. It will be my first road marathon since Houston in January 2020, and first Boston since April 2019 (the photo above is from one of my training runs that winter). I’m a wildly different runner, athlete, and person now, with thousands of trail miles on my legs and many personal trials endured since that time. There’s part of me that wishes I could recreate the “Liz” that I was then–put together, speedy, focused, ambitious, optimistic. Maybe it’s possible I am still some or all of those things, but they’re manifesting in a different way than they used to.
Pretty much every marathon I’ve run, I’ve treated as the be-all and end-all of my training and self-worth. Never would I have jeopardized a goal race with a near-350 mile hike ending three weeks out from race day. The only other time I’ve really broke from that pattern was jumping into the Hellgate 100K five weeks out from Houston, which ended up being my best marathon to date. I think that experience helped me to let go of the idea that there’s a perfect way to train for 26.2 miles. That being said, I am not expecting to fly over those Newton Hills at personal-record-breaking speed. When asked in a blog interview for Rose City Track Club about what success would mean to me on race day, my response was, “Success is getting to the start and finish line healthy…I really want to feel good in this race and enjoy it.”
I completely underestimated how quickly I’d be able to recover from the Pinhoti Trail. I’d done some intense, weeklong training stints to prepare for my AT record attempt, and always bounced back from them pretty quickly. I thought I’d feel fine after the Pinhoti Trail (haaaahahaha… joke’s on me) but if I look back at the facts, my AT training sessions were pretty moderate comparatively, averaging a little over 40 miles over five or so days, plus I only carried a light hydration pack and had support. On the Pinhoti Trail I hiked 348 miles over nearly eight days, carrying a full pack every day except the first day. That’s a pretty significant increase in time, distance, and weight carried. The only less-difficult aspect of the Pinhoti Trail was the relatively tame elevation and terrain, not to discount the 80 miles of road sections that were hard on my feet. That being said, no wonder I’ve been feeling wrecked!
The first week after the trail was the hardest. I finished the trail at 12:14am on Monday April 28th, flew back to Portland that afternoon/evening, and went to work Tuesday morning. I carried a backpack full of snacks around with me everywhere I went as I needed to eat constantly. I knew getting in lots of calories would help me recover more quickly, plus I just had a huge appetite following the big effort. My right shin/ankle area was puffy and irritated. I made sure to wear compression socks on Wednesday, because I was on my feet most of the day from 8am to 8pm. I couldn’t point or flex my right foot without discomfort. I drank a looot of coffee because I got so sleepy during the day. By Saturday the puffiness had mostly gone down and I had my first day “off” since completing the trail, with the bonus of recording a podcast episode on a channel I’m a big fan of, interviewed by someone I greatly admire. More on that in a few weeks!
That Sunday, a week after finishing, I accepted an invite from a friend to go on a trail run (though not without a bunch of disclaimers that I wasn’t sure how far I could go or whether I’d even be able to run). I had to go really, really, easy but surprisingly felt okay. Considering how I felt earlier that week, I never would have thought I’d be going for a run that soon. I took the next day off, then on Tuesday I ran a mile and a half around the track before calling it quits. I felt like garbage. Nothing was acutely bothering me, but my body really did not want to run, so I listened and I stopped. Afterward, my left hip majorly tightened up. I took the next day off, then ran slow, short, and easy on Thursday and Friday. My hip began to loosen up and I felt better with each run. I took Saturday off, but was on my feet from about noon to 8pm for a track meet and feeling a little wary about the 10K I was registered for the next day. I’d only ever planned to run it “for fun”, but a 10K is a 10K!
That same day, I opened up Instagram to see a post from ultra runner/race director Candice Burt sharing about how great she felt after completing 400+ miles on the Arizona Trail, how she started running again three days afterward, and was now back to running two hours a day with lots of energy, ten days since being on the trail. That’s wonderful for her (also I’ll add that I enjoyed following her AZT hike and how transparent she was in her post-hike reflections on multi-day FKT efforts), but, being human, I immediately felt bad about myself for not feeling amazing nearly two weeks removed from my own hike.
On those few, short runs since the hike, my pace hovered around ten minutes per mile. That’s where I felt comfortable and it’s what my body seemed to be allowing. When I went out my front door on Sunday morning to warm up to the start line of the 10K, which was just a mile down the road, I felt surprisingly energetic. Maybe it was the espresso, maybe it was the race day mentality, I don’t know, but I felt good! As I zipped down Naito Parkway, the wheels in my head started spinning. Maybe I can run eight minute pace. Maybe seven minute pace! Sub-seven?? The optimist in me was beginning to emerge. At the start corral I gingerly made my way up until I found a spot just behind a bunch of runner friends.
We took off and immediately a gap formed between me and my friends, and they eventually disappeared up ahead of me. I felt like I was cruising pretty well though, and tried to find a comfortable but quick pace to settle into. I ended up hovering around the 6:20s and 6:30s through the whole race! Considering how I’d been feeling the past two weeks, I have no idea how that happened, but it happened. I texted my coach saying as much, and he said, “Your body is strong. A race made you change gears and off you went.”
The next day I went for a short recovery run, reverting back to my ten minute miles. It was like the 10K never happened and I picked up right where I left off in my recovery. However, my hip felt fine and I was able to point and flex my right foot again, no problem. The day after that I did some product testing for a local shoe company, 7 x five minute intervals at 6:45 pace on a treadmill. I was intimidated by the workout on paper, but it ended up feeling effortless, like I could have kept going–not forever–but for a long time!
In a span of maybe five days, I went from feeling like there was no way I was in any position to run Boston, to feeling like I actually stand a chance of putting together an okay run. That being said, I respect how difficult the Boston Marathon course is. I’ve run it three times and have walked away humbled every time. Even when I went into it in tip-top shape in 2019, I still had a tough day. Those hills chew up your legs, and the weather can be totally brutal, whether you’re exposed to the hot sun or a rainy headwind. So, how I’m defining “success” on Monday is certainly different than how I would have defined it in the past. I’d almost like to think of running Boston as a continuation, or pinnacle of all of the different sorts of run/hike events I’ve done this spring. Like my own personal quadrathlon: 50K, 348M, 10K, Marathon. It’s also possible this is up there with some of my worst ideas ever, and I might simply not be ready. I could start the race and realize I’m in way over my head. I have these same thoughts before any big event. If you’ve been reading my letters, you might remember I had thoughts before the Pinhoti Trail like, “Maybe I’ll realize this was a terrible idea and bail after two days.”
I may be a different person now than I was several years ago, but maybe the part that’s remained unchanged is the never-ending curiosity, the questions beginning with “What if…?” and of course all the nerves and doubt combined with that little bit of hope and optimism. It can be a heartbreaking way to move through life when things don’t pan out–and they often don’t–but in the rare times they do, I’m always glad I gave myself the chance to find out.
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