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20 Years of Running and Still So Much to Learn

TLDR; I DNF'd a race this weekend that in retrospect probably should have been a DNS. This Spring season of racing and training has showed me I still have so much learn about this sport, even though I have been competing for nearly 20 years.

If you know nothing about me, you should know that I am not a people pleaser. On the plus side of this, I have a small number of intensely cool, like-minded close friends. On the down side of this, most people are people-pleasers, so they view my actions through their own lens and don't always understand where I am coming from. I guess I am more of a hedonist, and someone who focuses primarily on her own happiness.

At mile 6 of yesterday's US 25k Championships I ultimately chose to walk off the course because I was utterly unhappy and not having any fun whatsoever. As I sat in the sag van making awkward small talk with the two volunteers driving me back to the finish line, I couldn't help but wonder how did I get here?

I guess to answer that question I have to back up to November. Post Philadelphia I knew my day was coming. I felt so hopeful that if I could run a 2:40:11 marathon while fighting through everything I did in the second half of the race, Spring '19 was going to be mY sEaSoN.

Fast forward to February and March, and I am racing and training like shit. Lesson #1 learned: blood work every 3 months IS a necessity.

6 weeks later and I was feeling great. I ran a local half marathon in 1:16:38 and while it certainly wasn't my fastest half ever, it was a great performance on a chilly, windy, rainy day. I was also very hopeful because my left foot freaking fell asleep at mile 7 of the race and I nearly destroyed the left side of my body keeping everything going.

At the time I was experimenting with the Nike 4% shoe. For me, it turns out this shoe does something to my left foot that makes it fall asleep if I'm running anything longer than a mile. I'm guessing this has something to do with the fact my left foot is ever-so-slightly smaller than my right, and I really need women's-specific sizing since I have narrow feet. I'm curious to try a half size smaller, but not eager to shell out another $250...

Regardless, I knew that if I could run my 4th fastest half in those conditions and with only half my body functioning properly, then things were looking pretty good.

After Carmel (and a week of easy runs while my left side healed), my fitness was really starting to shine. I was running workouts that I haven't touched in a while. A couple that stand out to me are a tempo where I did 25 minutes on the hilly section of Eagle Creek at 5:45 pace, then a final 7 minutes at 5:24 pace. The following week I did 7 x mile on a road loop at half marathon effort with 400 m jog recovery. My first was 5:42, then I worked down to 5:15 and felt fantastic.

My long runs were also going better than they had in a long time, and I was hitting paces that I haven't hit since I was training for the trials in 2015/2016. Based on how I started feeling after I got my iron back up, it seemed safe to say that my iron had been low for a while - potentially since well before Philadelphia. This revelation made me even more excited for what was coming up! Also, lesson #2 (for everyone in the back): blood work every 3 months is extra super duper important.

As my coach and I talked about my goals and potential plans for the fall, we decided to go into the 25k fully tapered. I cut down to 80 miles last week, and race week was super easy, with Monday off, Tuesday short tempo, Wednesday an easy 8 miles, Thursday 6 miles before heading out of town, and Friday 4 miles + strides and drills. There was no reason for my legs not to feel 1000000%.

A lesson that I have learned over the years is that when a race doesn't go the way I have planned, there is always an external reason. It might not be immediately obvious, but there will always be a point where I can look back and say, that was the problem. Knowing this actually gives me a lot of peace going into races. I cannot think of a single race where I have let myself down just for the sake of letting myself down. My biggest "failures" have led to some of my biggest successes. So, when I stand on the starting line I know that I am either going to have a successful race, or, the less likely scenario, is that something outside of my control will slow me down. However, there is no in between. I either succeed, or I learn.

My race yesterday was literally rough from the very beginning. I told someone while I was warming up that I was nervous, but in a very different way than normal. The whole weekend I had jitters that didn't feel like my normal pre-race jitters. When the race started, I remember thinking I don't want to be here. I remember looking up at the truck we were following that contained the race clock. It read :14. Nothing hurt, I hadn't gone out too hard. I just had this wave of this isn't fun.

My super power is that I am incredibly good at listening to my body. I think this is partly why I am never injured. If I start a training run and I get the feeling that I am not having fun, I am unhappy, etc., I stop. This probably happens 3 or 4 times per training cycle. If yesterday had been a normal run at home, I absolutely would have called it a day.

Racing is my favorite, though. For me to not be having fun in a race is very strange. The irony is that I overheard Dot McMahon telling someone during our warmups that when you're not having fun, you have to pull the plug. I remember thinking, I totally agree. I'm glad I don't feel that way.

As I was watching the clock and thinking, 14 seconds? That's it? I was trying to bargain with myself. It's okay. It's chilly and maybe you're not warmed up enough. You probably just didn't do enough strides. Get through two miles and your body and mind will be warmed up. I had settled into the chase pack. 3 women (Sara Hall, Emma Bates, and I think Lindsay Scherf) had taken the lead, and 7 of us formed a pack behind them. We went through the first mile in 5:27 and while my mind wasn't totally on board, I couldn't deny that the pace felt great. We went through two miles in 11:05 and I thought I was starting to feel better. The pack started to string out and I settled into my my goal pace. I went through 4 miles in 22:40, which was perfect. I was trying to put any thoughts of why am I here. I want to go back to the hotel and take a nap out of my head.

Mile 5 was a 5:55. Somewhere between 4 and 5 my body started follow the fatigue I was feeling in my mind. Since I was using a chrono watch, I told myself it was possible that the mile markers were just off. I increased my effort, but something just felt seriously wrong, like my body and mind weren't connected. It was clear I was slowing down and there wasn't much I could do about it. I had bargained with myself to get through 4 miles, then once i made it there my next bargain was 3. I had been pushing the thought of drop out of this race from my head since 14 seconds in. I saw an aid station coming up after the 6 mile mark and knew it was going to be hard to keep going past it. I told myself that if I'm going to drop, two things are going to have to happen: there will be absolutely no regrets, and there will be no tears. If I can't promise myself both of those things, then I better keep my ass moving.

As I came up to the med tent, before I even knew what was happening, I looked back to make sure I wasn't cutting anyone off and veered left and into the tent.

I run my best when I want to be there and am happy and smiling. I am a Type-B person. There is no doing-things-for-the-sake-of-doing-things in my life, for better or for worse [this drives my Type-A, we-do-things-because-they-should-be-done, duty-proud husband crazy]. I have heard others say they finished a race when sick or injured because they didn't want to let down friends, family members, coaches, etc. That just isn't me.

The only reason I would have finished that race feeling the way I did was if not finishing would have somehow let me down. [such as when I finished the Trials even though I definitely wasn't having a whole lot of fun that day either!]

Immediately after the race, I started looking for clues with my coach, as well as with Dave. It's pretty clear that I missed some big ones. First, about 10 days ago I started sleeping 10 - 12 hours a day and never really felt rested. I chalked this up to cutting out caffeine two weeks before the race, but in reality I'm sure that was my first sign something was up.

Next, my Tuesday workout didn't go well. As in, I couldn't hit my race day splits in a 15 min tempo to save my life. I ran 5:45, 5:53, and then .6 mi at 5:47. I don't put too much stock into this when it's the only thing that happens. Race week workouts sometimes really suck. I was chatting with Becki afterwards and I told her about the workout and she said, that's not a big deal as long as you're not sick or injured. I remember thinking lol, I'm neither! I haven't been sick in a long time!

Then the next day I woke up with swollen lymph nodes.

Thursday I woke up semi-early (6:15) to run with Dave before heading out of town to drive to Michigan. We went for an easy 6, and afterwards I was SO tired. I told Dave I was going to have to cheat on my no-caffeine clause and have coffee for my drive. As I was leaving Speedway I stopped to put gas in my car, and when I was done I sat in my car for 5 minutes giving myself a pep talk for the drive. As weird as it sounds, every part of me was telling me to go home. I just wanted to sleep. Instead, I ate an RXbar and chugged some coffee and hit the road. I wound up stopping once an hour to get out of the car to stretch and wake up.

I made it to Grand Rapids around 3 and checked into my hotel. I laid in bed the rest of the night, and dragged myself out only to get dinner. I was so excited to go to bed, but then couldn't fall asleep. I blamed it on the hotel's horribly firm pillows. Why else would I have a pounding headache?? I literally forced myself to believe that since I'm used to a soft pillow, a firm pillow was causing my terrible headache. I didn't sleep great that night.

Friday was a busy day. Run, press conference, tech meeting, lunch, (decaf) coffee with one of my athletes, course tour, paint my nails, dinner, and then sleep. I was pretty tired and had a headache, but I also had done a lot that day. Caffeinated Starbucks coffee gives me a headache, and I remember telling my roommate that they must have just messed up and not given me decaf. Regardless, I slept like a rock.

and that leads to race day, where 14 seconds into a 15.5 mile race I knew my day was done. There are good things, though:

1. I'm really happy with how I started. I put myself exactly where I needed to be. I at least gave myself a shot.

2. My April goal was to work on my form. I send my coach race day pictures every time I race, and there were definitely areas that needed improvement. He sent me exercises and I took my best ever race day photo ever [clearly doing it for the 'gram], so at least we got some data there?

The left is from yesterday, and the right is from 6 weeks ago. I have been doing exercises to address hip drop and overall lack of core engagement.

3. I have another data point on how-far-can-you-push-your-body-when-it's-not-100%. I can pretty much conclusively say that 4 miles is my limit under 5:40 pace when I'm sick, injured, or anemic.

How do I feel today? Like utter garbage. During my drive home I was hit with the type of headache where your face and teeth hurt, and it hasn't gone away for 24+ hours. I slept 11 hours last night, and haven't left my couch. Dave offered to take me out for breakfast, coffee and to Whole Foods [three of my favorite things] and that sounds miserable. I knew it would be evident what was wrong eventually, but didn't expect to figure it out so soon!

I'm not totally sure what's next. I know that I am fit, and I know the work I did doesn't disappear just because I didn't get to show it yesterday. I will either take my originally planned break now, or try and find a race in a couple weeks. It will depend a lot on how this whole illness thing shakes down. As of now my lymph nodes are still swollen so I'm guessing I have a few more days.

As I was talking with my coach yesterday he told me that if he had known all of these things, he never would have let me race this weekend. I suppose that's another lesson I'm still learning. For me, I was afraid to say out loud how I was feeling, because why say anything negative during race week? It never actually occurred to me that I wouldn't race, so verbalizing that I wasn't feeling 100% didn't seem like it would be productive.

As I continue to improve in running, I think one of the hardest lessons is that I have to treat myself differently. This isn't high school or college, where you run short races and can get away with pushing yourself too hard for 14 - 20 minutes. The faster I get, the more I have to recognize that there is a time to push, and a time not to push. I have learned this for training, but it never occurred to me that races might fall into this category too. So, lesson #3: do a better job listening to your body and recognizing what to ignore and what to verbalize.

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