This morning I followed the Olympic marathon trials on Twitter and by the end of it all, I was so ready to race hard and fast, you wouldn’t believe a series of 140-character headlines could have such power. A week too late, unfortunately. In 2008, the day before I ran the Boston Marathon, I watched the women’s Olympic Trials in Boston from the Cambridge side of the river, enthralled by how speed can look so graceful. It was damn near religious. Deena, Magdalena, Blake, and oh my God, Saint Joan ran by us lap after lap like exquisite ectomorphic fillies. If I could keep up for even 10 yards, I would have tagged along like a disciple, begging them to take me with them to the Promised Land.
We took these photos there:
It’s a feeling I’d lost touch with after Chicago, and though I want a 3:30 and know I can run a 3:30 on the right day, I actually wanted the work more than the goal in the weeks between Chicago and Disney. I was set to race the marathon but I didn’t feel that lust for competitive running until I read that series of #Houston2012 posts this morning.
My stomach kept me from gutting it out last weekend, ironically enough. Four years after the Boston trials, I’m sitting here wanting to release my own marathon trial from last week, but it still itches me. Like, for real. I kid you not, I got poison ivy on my left calf when I peed in the woods just before the race. I refuse to see it as a metaphor, but the literary floozy in me says, “If you leave it alone, it will go away faster.” She really pisses me off sometimes, so here’s the rest of the story.
In the first mile, I immediately knew my stomach was not right. I ran the first mile in the low 8:30s, and the pace felt way too effortful. I wouldn’t say I was working, but I should be running an 8:10 at that effort. I thought back to my last speedwork session before Disney, when I ran 12 miles at an 8:10 average and felt composed and ready throughout the run. Mile 1 of a marathon at an 8:35 pace felt harder than mile 12 at an 8:10. Something was very wrong.
I tried to pick it up for the second mile and ran an 8:14, but my stomach churned, the effort felt risky, and I felt a chill. The air was cold, and I could see the breath of everyone around me on that dark highway, but I had a dizzy chill that came from far under my skin. This was not good. My thoughts ran much faster than my legs. I was completely confused by how hard this pace felt. What to do, what to do, what to do.
We kept running along the highway. I’m not sure what the exact ratio is, but it felt like 20 of 26 miles of that race ended up being on highways and access roads, sometimes a parking lot. Spectators were a rare blessing. In so many ways, this was not Chicago. While I ran mile 3 in the dark with nothing to look at but my strategy, I weighed my options. I could try to hold the low 8:00s and risk getting sicker. I already wanted a walk break at mile 3–not an auspicious situation. In that scenario, the DNF loomed bigger than the giant moon we had that black morning. I refused to DNF my 10th marathon. I felt sick enough that I wanted to DNF, but I refused to. No fucking way.
I remembered writing that I wanted to prove I’d learned something in 10 marathons, 11 if you include my DNF in 2007. So I ran from experience. Enough marathons and you know that the first 20 miles must be dominated by the feel of effort more than loyalty to a pace. Otherwise, you are probably screwed in the last 10k. If it doesn’t feel easy, you will suffer the wrath of glycogen withdrawal. And you’d best not fuck with the glycogen.
So I ran by the feel of effort, which was a decent option, given that I couldn’t read my watch for the first couple hours anyway. I held between 8:30 and 8:45 as we ran behind and around and towards and very occasionally through the Disney World parks. The Disney empire is a sprawling landscape that isn’t bad to look at within the property you pay to enter, but outside the parks, it’s all asphalt, fence, and big machines that process stuff.
As I ran my effort race, my stomach twisted, then relaxed, then twisted, then relaxed. It was clearly processing stuff, too. My stomach did not appreciate processing the stench of Disney sewage treatment plants at a few points on the course, and it was particularly angry when I took a Gu, but fortunately, the sewage and the Gu didn’t happen simultaneously or I might have puked all over one of the many runners dressed as Tinkerbell.
By 7:30 a.m., the sun had risen, but the views weren’t much improved. The organizers had planted several signs with Disney factoids at various places on the course, but I stopped reading after the first one, which proudly informed us that Disney has more AED units than anywhere else in the world. Thinking about needing resuscitation was not all that motivating, so I stopped reading.
…Until I got to mile 17, when a series of signs asked us some pointed questions: “Are you tired?” said the first. “Are you dead tired?” asked the second. I squinted beyond the signs and the organizers had built a small graveyard. To be funny? I think I actually groaned out loud, “What?!? They’re trying to motivate marathoners at mile 17 by reminding us we’re tired?” You don’t need to be a sports psychologist to know a joke about death-by-exhaustion isn’t all that invigorating. So weird. As I ran, I waited for the DNF anvil to fall on my head. Maybe it never fell because this was Disney and not Loony Toons, but at the time, it felt inevitable, and the graveyard episode wasn’t cute.
After this point, I ran to get it done without punching anyone. The course is relatively flat, except for a few ramps, but most people agree it’s pretty boring (and, I would add, sometimes stinky and tactless). There are spectators in “cheer zones,” but I was coming off Chicago, where it seems like millions of people are there to fire you up with the kind of zeal you’d expect for professional athletes (and you don’t care that they get drunk to do it). The Disney spectators were rare and to be honest, most seemed like they were there for a single runner and not inclined to cheer for anyone else. I can’t really blame them on that, though, since they had to get up at 4:00 to get out there, but I definitely missed my rocker Janis and the Chicago cheer zone that lasted 26.2 miles.
I was holding pretty even splits, but it was getting warmer. It was also getting weirder. Between the parking lots and highways, the AED sign, the dearth of spectators, the graveyard, and the costumed characters waiting for a revolving door of photo ops, it was already the trippiest marathon ever. We hit a zenith of weird when we got to the Animal Kingdom, ran a long and plain hairpin out-and-back, and headed toward a faux railroad track. Just before the track, I smelled farm animals. Actually, my stomach smelled them and turned over much quicker than my gait, but when I saw the goat, I still thought I was having a feverish hallucination. The goat came first. Then a miniature donkey, which disappointed me by not turning into Pinnochio. Then a small pig that could have cared less about the runners. Maybe there were some sheep, too. It was fucked up.
Just finish and be done with this, I coached myself. I didn’t care about my time, I just wanted to be done. I passed a medical station and realized I needed Vaseline for chaffing and I actually turned around and went back to it. This was not a race. This was just a long Sunday run, and I wanted my post-run margarita. The miles after 20 ticked off slowly, and I charted them with songs. George Jones, Bruce, and Black Eyed Peas got me through mile 22. “Wipeout” started mile 23, and for some reason, that was kind of funny when that graveyard had made me livid.
And then it happened.
In mile 24, my stomach relaxed and my legs felt lighter. My energy surged slightly. I had no muscle pain anywhere because I’d been running so slow, and my body felt more fresh and ready than it had at mile 2. I ran under 8:30 for the first time since that second mile. Mile 25 was similar. Legs turned over faster, and I was passing runners as they fought the late-race fade. My 26th mile was in the low 8:00s. I’d run off the stomach bug and I felt good, but still keen to be done with this strange event so I could let my body chill out from its own weirdness. I’d run decently even, but wicked conservative, splits for 23 miles and was finding my legs in the final three. And thus was the Strangest Race on Earth.
At mile 26, you pass a big gospel choir. I couldn’t hear what they were singing, but I thought that was a nice touch. Kudos to Disney on that feature. Minnie Mouse was frolicking in front of the finish line, and lacking the enthusiasm for a high-five, I side-fived simply out of the vim of being done. I crossed the line, and walked off with fresh legs. If you watch the video here, I’m the one swinging her arms and walking away casually. What a crazy nonrace.
It was what it was. I’m oddly proud of how I ran. If I wasn’t going to PR, there was no reason to push the pace at all. I decided to just run my long-run training pace and survive the event, and as a result, I ran pretty even for 23 miles, save for the miles where I walked to take water and Gu, and when I felt good, I went faster because my body wanted to. It was so totally bizarre to feel better at mile 24 than I did at mile 2, and I barely felt the effects of the run on Monday and Tuesday.
I know I was sick (and sicker than I thought I was), but I can’t believe that it affected my energy so much when I didn’t feel all that bad on Wed-Sat. It was an irritating little bug that completely totaled my body on Sunday. The itch I can’t scratch (other than the poison ivy) is that I don’t get how something that was relatively minor could derail my body so much. I ran 12 miles at an 8:10 a week before and couldn’t even manage the first 2 miles at that pace on Sunday.
I am taking a break from marathon training for a few reasons, but mostly because I’ve run 3 marathons in 9 months, and my body needs a break from that distance. I don’t bounce back like other people seem to. My back was unhappy for a month before the race and didn’t bother me on Sunday only because I wasn’t running at race pace. I’m competitive and I don’t like leaving the marathon scene to race shorter distances with such a debacle, but I am fired up to crush my half-marathon PR this Spring. The only positive outcome from my sluggish Disney marathon is that my recovery for training for the 1:36 half-marathon is going to be a lot shorter than if I’d really raced hard last weekend. Jack called it “training through a marathon,” and I like that.
Following the Trials today relit my fire for running when my sense of efficacy has been all muddled and damp this week. I love the half-marathon distance and it’s where I run my best. I know I’m not a natural marathoner, that I thrive on the middle distance course, and while I want to run more marathons, my racing passion isn’t there. The feeling of holding, then surging past, my half-marathon pace is an unmatched high. Last weekend was trippy, but I think I’ll go buzz at the half.
Apologies for the epic rehashing of this one. I felt like everyone else there loved it from start to finish, which only itched me more, and I needed to purge my leftover race demons. Of course, I could have probably summed it all up with this photo of “me” running out of a castle.
And that’s the fairy tale.