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How Do You Finish a Marathon You Probably Shouldn't Have Started?

What would you do if you knew you were probably going to fail?

During this training cycle, I often thought about a quote and my new mantra:

The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start – John Bingham


Do it anyway

I caught the marathon bug again in the late fall. My body was feeling good, and I made it a goal to chase mileage I hadn’t run in a while. I tend to respond very well to high volume (70 – 100 miles per week). I like to think of long-term training as the opposite of peeling an onion: to get to the best part, you have to constantly add layers.

The time that I have taken off due to COVID and injury and stress had me starting at a different point than I otherwise would have liked. I know it isn’t going to be an overnight process. My first layer is to just get comfortable with 70+ miles per week (mpw) again. Layer 2 will be adding in longer tempo work at goal pace. Layer 3 will be upping the mileage closer to 100 mpw. It will all have to come together in its own due time.

By mid-November, I had hit 70 miles and USATF, in their infinite wisdom, finally announced that the 2024 Trials were actually going to happen. Frankly, I thought they would announce 2 weeks after the Olympics had ended that they had finally chosen an Olympic Trials location. Now, I am basically the queen of FOMO, so as soon as the Trials became real, I couldn’t resist the call to try and hit a 3rd OTQ. I am not dumb. I knew that I was not going to go from 40 – 50 miles per week of hobby jogging to qualifying for the Trials in 4 months. My goal for the Spring was to remind myself what marathon training looked like and felt like and get the ball rolling again (basically, building the onion’s core). This not only gave me some mental freedom but also helped me slow down and focus on what mattered most, which was getting a base under me.

feeling good about where I was!

Next, I started looking at races. I knew I didn’t have enough time to get ready for Houston, but waiting until May would be far too long. Early Spring marathons in the Midwest can be very dicey, weather-wise, so I looked West and settled on the LA Marathon. The timing was perfect, and I knew I had enough time to throw together some solid training.

My training was mostly unremarkable until it wasn’t. In late December my dad went to the hospital again for his 5th 7-14 day hospital stay of 2022 and 2nd round of sepsis. I took a week off of training while I was home for Christmas due to a blizzard, polar vortex, and general Christmas stress. When I got back to Indy I jumped right back into 70-mile weeks. I generally felt strong, but my biometrics were saying otherwise. My resting heart rate was very high for me, my heart rate variability was very low, and my sleep quality was poor (all according to my FitBit). I also noticed that I felt anxious ALL the time. I was experiencing many physiological signs of anxiety without any new mental stress. The last time that happened, my ferritin was low.

I tried to schedule an appointment with my dr in early January, but he didn’t have any openings until late February. I sent him an email and explained how I was feeling. Since I have a history of these symptoms combined with low iron, he said he didn’t need to see me. He ordered blood tests and said if my ferritin was below 50 (my goal), he would order another round of iron infusions. This past June, my ferritin was 61 after two small infusions in April. Our hope was that the infusions would help me build a good iron foundation so that I could avoid having my ferritin dip to a level where my performance was affected, but we knew it might take a couple of rounds of infusions before reaching that point.

My ferritin in January was 31. Athletes will feel symptoms when their ferritin is below 35. My dr immediately ordered a couple of infusions for me. My insurance company immediately denied them. My Dr said there wasn’t anything he could do at that point, so he referred me to a hematologist, with the hope that if a specialist ordered the infusion the insurance company wouldn’t deny me. Unfortunately, the earliest appointment was on February 27th.

I kept trucking along. My long runs got longer. I got up to 80 miles per week with a 22 mile long run. Every 5 weeks I took the entire weekend off (more out of necessity than planning, but it was interesting how my body really seemed to be on a 5-week clock). I avoided workouts where I had to look at my pace and mostly stuck with fartleks. I knew I wasn’t operating at 100%, but was confident that training essentially at altitude (due to the effect of low iron) would pay off once I had my infusions. When I saw the hematologist, she didn’t order any blood work because she looked at my history and saw a clear pattern: my ferritin had been low for years; my past iron infusions gave me an unmistakeable improvement; my ferritin had dipped again despite supplements; and she felt that 3 infusions (versus 2) would give me the boost I needed to hopefully be able to sustain my iron levels for longer than 6 months.

Insurance immediately denied her order for infusions and required me to return to the hospital within 48 hours, or the process would start over. I was able to go back immediately. Unfortunately/Fortunately, that blood work showed that while my ferritin was the exact same, my iron had dropped from 133 to 66, and my iron saturation had dropped from 45% to 21%. I thought this would FOR SURE mean that my insurance would approve my infusions. WRONG. For them to approve my infusions, they said my ferritin had to be 30 and my iron saturation had to be 20%. Seriously.

mmm, that's not great

At this point, I was 2 weeks from LA. While I realistically know that things were not working in my favor, I never truly gave up hope that something might happen in those two weeks due to the magic of taper and a gritty bitch mindset.

8 days before LA, Dave and I went for a 12-mile run. I remember telling him a couple of miles into the run that my hip was tight but I didn’t think much of it. Afterward, I could barely walk. I took Sunday off and did a light workout on Monday. Tuesday was even worse, and I couldn’t take a step that wasn’t painful. Fortunately, I already had a massage booked for that afternoon. The massage therapist told me it was my piriformis and she thought I had caught it in time. She gave me a great massage, and things started to feel better, slowly but surely, every day.

I was nervous because I have been in this position before. I know what it’s like to go into a race with a little bit of a niggle, only to have it blow up and DNF. That was my greatest fear, and it was constantly in the back of my head. Things were getting better, but I could tell they weren’t 100%. I was praying that race-day adrenaline, ibuprofen, carb loading, and KT tape would get me through.

They did until they didn’t. Here’s the thing: I knew, deep down, that LA was going to be a majorly tough day for me. I also knew, deep down, that the most important thing for me to do was finish. I can’t describe why I felt this way, but something has told me that before I could move on, I had to face a lot of my fears head-on. Did this become a self-fulfilling prophecy? I don’t think so. I have also convinced myself that planes I am on are going to crash, and they haven’t, so I wanted to stick it out with optimism in case my gut feeling was wrong.

But I also wanted to be ready in case it was right.

before it stopped feeling good

For the past couple of weeks, I have been visualizing what I would do if things went to shit. In the past, I have been quick to pull the plug on races, particularly marathons, if things like low iron popped up during the training cycle. What’s the point of doing it if you’re not going to be able to do it at your best? Had this been a local race, I probably would have pulled the plug when I still wasn’t running pain-free by Friday of race week. But, my mantra had been: do it anyway. It won’t be fast? Do it anyway. Your low iron makes every run feel like shit? Do it anyway. You don’t feel like getting out the door? Do it anyway. I told myself that if I got to the point where everything in my body hurt, I was going to do it anyway, even if that meant I had to run/walk 26.2 miles.

me, doing it anyway, somewhere between a run and a walk

I had decided going into the marathon that my best day/best case scenario was probably 6:30 pace [my PR is 6:04 pace]. It has always been important to me that I at least start where I want to finish so that I know I gave myself the chance. I had the biggest smile on my face when I came through 2 miles of the race, feeling relaxed and comfortable, in 12:52. Hey – maybe this was going to be my day after all?!? Through about 10 miles, I was clicking off 6:30 even and adjusting my effort on the hills extremely well. Side note: I didn’t catch the 3-hour group until around 8 miles. This is exactly why I tell my athletes NOT to use pace groups. I was solidly on 6:30 pace, and that is solidly not 3:00:00 pace.

before I blew up

Around 11 miles, both of my hips became very tight. I decided to back off a little bit and my new pace became very consistent 6:45s. This didn’t bother me. I was doing it anyway. I told myself that I would stop and stretch when I saw my training partner, who was planning to be around 15 miles, and maybe that would help me reset. As I neared 15 mi, still feeling like I was on pace, the 3:00:00 group passed me. Huh. That’s weird. I figured they must have picked up the pace a lot or were still on 6:30 pace. I hit 15 miles and it was like a switch had completely flipped.

Suddenly I was in that nightmare I often have where I am in a race and my body won’t propel itself forward. I am clawing and scratching at the ground just trying to get whatever leverage I can to make myself move. Nothing I could do would help me move forward. My hips were locked and my left quad was very tight. I saw my training partner at 15.5, and told her to let Dave know I was okay, but that the next 10 miles might take a while.

around the time the switch flipped

At 16 I decided to walk through the aid station to see if stopping would help reset my muscles. Instead, it seemed like I only got slower once I started back up. Person after person after person was passing me and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I noticed I had stopped sweating and my stomach was very red. I walked through the next aid station to try and drink as much water as possible – maybe I was dehydrated?

Ultimately, I just became slower, and slower, and slower. I knew that mile 18 went past the finish line. My next 8 miles were an excruciating out and back, filled with the temptation to step off the course and turn around. I continued to put one foot in front of the other and do it anyway. The time spent between mile markers became unbearable. I was now stopping to walk for a minute or two at every mile. People would encourage me to keep going, but I physically couldn’t. After mile 20, I would run until it was faster for me to walk, and then I would start over. After 22 miles, I decided to try and run 5 minutes and walk 1 minute. I very slowly (excruciatingly slowly) ticked off the miles. Pace groups continued to pass me. I went between anger, frustration, amusement, and sadness. As I approached 25 miles I forgot where I was on the course and was worried I still had 2.2+ miles left. I almost cried. When I did get to 25, I realized that if I ran the last 2K without walking I would be under 3:20, and that became my new goal.

the moment I became very angry

When I crossed the finish line, one of my athletes was working the chute and grabbed me. I cried. Her job was “hot walker” (which is an awesome title) and she got me to my medal. I don’t remember her leaving, but all I could focus on was how much intense pain I was in. My training partner yelled at me while I was finishing that she would meet me at the family reunion area. I truly didn’t think I was going to make it and regretted not trying to get a wheelchair.

These last few steps took every ounce of strength I had

She later joked with me that she wished she had taken a video to show everyone how much I looked like a Grandma crossing the finish line (these are things that only your training partner can say to you without you getting mad). She also reminded me that I don’t give up easily and that she knows I ran as fast as was physically possible for me on that day (also things that only your training partner can say to you and you know they are being sincere). I know I looked rough because while I was waiting for her to get the rental car, a couple who had just finished the marathon stopped me and asked if I needed help, and offered to call an ambulance.

How did I find the mental capacity to keep going, when I know from a lot of experience that 1) you recover faster if you DNF, 2) a DNF doesn’t matter as much as some people/coaches may have led you to believe, and 3) it’s entirely possible/likely I was doing more harm than good after 20 miles?

this is as painful as it looks

I wish I had something profound to tell you, but this was simply a line in the sand that I had drawn, long before the race. Deep down, I know that my ego has prevented me in the past from finishing races when I knew the time wasn’t going to be anything to write home about. I know I have blamed the fear of injury on not finishing when truly it was my ego that got in the way. There have absolutely been times when a DNF was warranted, but I believe there have been times when it wasn’t, either. I wanted to go into the next few weeks having finished a marathon, and I’m a stubborn B, so that was that.

I focused a lot on doing it anyway, and I focused a lot on how I wanted to feel (as well as NOT feel) after the race. I didn’t want to sit on the airplane and have any doubts. Of course, half of your life experiences are learning what you don’t want, so if I hadn’t had DNFs in the past, I doubt I would have thought twice about stepping off the course on Sunday. I knew it would be over eventually. I knew that even if I walked the last 10K, I would finish at some point. I also know from experience that the fastest way to being done and finding your people is to just cross the finish line.

There will one day be a race where I am as happy as those around me

In many ways, I felt like this marathon represented me having to face a lot of my fears head-on, and doing it anyway. The marathon is scary, even on the best days. DNFs are easy in the moment, but very difficult long term. I knew that on the best day, my iron was going to make it tough. I knew that my piriformis could, and very likely would, blow up. As someone who has often preferred to do it anyway, but only when success is guaranteed, I knew the biggest battle would be in my mind. I knew I had to let my ego go. Bodies often heal a lot faster than minds.

What do you do when you know you’re whipped before you even begin? You take a deep breath, put your head down, settle in for a long ride, and you do it the fuck anyway.

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