Slaying the Dragon and Finding a Starting Point
Yesterday I ran, and finished, the Carmel Marathon in 2:52:05 for 4th place. If you are close to me, and you asked me how I was feeling this week, I told you that I felt good but the first marathon after a DNF marathon is always a little scary. There is definitely a monkey you feel like you need to get off your back. What I didn’t realize before the race (and I’m glad I didn’t realize this) was that 4 of my last 5 goal races have resulted in a DNF. In total, I have DNF’d 5 races in my life, and four of those occurred between spring 2018 and spring 2020.
Inherently, there is nothing wrong with a DNF. Sometimes they are extremely necessary. Sometimes you foolishly start a race. Sometimes you get injured mid-race. Sometimes you save yourself for something better.
Regardless of the reason, there is no denying that DNFs take a mental toll.
Even when a DNF is totally justified, you are left with a gnawing feeling that something was left undone. You fail to complete the bow that nicely wraps up a training cycle. There is always a lingering, “what if” and a question of whether you should have done things differently. You are left with inevitable disappointment. There will also always be a person who says exactly the wrong thing to you. You will project how you personally feel about your DNF onto other people. In short, it’s tough, mentally, to get past.
Maybe the worst part is that the first DNF lifts a veil and you realize it doesn’t really matter. My first DNF of my life happened in 2012 in Chicago. I went into the race a little banged up and the extreme crown of the streets left me dragging my leg after mile 16. At mile 22(ish) I dropped out in Chinatown. I was devastated and embarrassed. I thought people were going to judge me. I was judging me. When I realized the world didn’t end and people actually don’t care if you DNF, well, it changes things. The fear of a DNF keeps you going for so long, and then the realization that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of life....I would be lying if it didn’t make it easier to drop out of future races.
Spring 2018: Pittsburgh, DNF around mile 21(ish); hamstring (could I have finished? Yes. Should I have finished? I don’t know. Maybe. I was definitely worried about tearing a hamstring since that’s an injury that takes a LONG TIME to bounce back from, but I do wonder how much of it had to do with being emotionally burned out (we were at the start of our house mold situation and I didn’t know it) and knowing I was well off pace to qualify for the trials.
Spring 2019: US champs 25K: dropped out around 4(ish) miles. Felt very off; wound up going to the dr a couple days later and being diagnosed with mono or a mono-like virus that was going around (didn’t get a test because the PA said recovery would be the exact same either way). I was sleeping 11 – 12 hours for weeks and had zero energy. Could I have finished? Probably. Should I have finished? Probably not on this one. Just driving home from MI felt like a monumental feat after 4 miles of running.
Fall 2019: Monumental half: dropped out around halfway. Undertrained, high external and internal expectations, burned out, worrying way too much about uncontrollables. Could I have finished? YES. Should I have finished? YES. (although that’s easier to say in retrospect)
Spring 2020: Olympic Trials: dropped out around 16 miles. I didn’t want to be there in the first place, I had just finished 10 days of strong antibiotics and felt like garbage, my hamstring hurt, I was bringing up the rear of the field and feeling sorry for myself, and it’s highly probably I had covid. Could I have finished? Yes. Should I have finished? Unclear. I now *wish* I had finished, but if I did have covid it’s definitely best I didn’t. I also have been dealing with pain since that day, although I guess it’s unlikely that running 10 more miles would have made *that* big of a difference at this point.
Here’s the other thing: I get fit from racing. Uncomfortable truth: while a DNF doesn’t make the work you did leading up the race go away, finishing the race seems to lead to a bigger fitness jump than not finishing. I have DNF’d two marathons after 20 miles. Even though it *seems* like there might not be that much difference between 22 and 26.2 miles, my legs never feel as trashed as they do when I finish the full distance, and I’m certain there is benefit to that.
It’s hard to argue that I’m not going to be in peak racing form when I’ve finished so few races in the past 3 years. In fact, I look back to what led up to some of my absolute best racing:
Fall ’14: Chicago marathon Spring ’15: Pittsburgh marathon Fall ’15: Twin Cities marathon Spring ’16: Olympic Trials
Fall ’16: US champs 20K + 10 mi Spring ’17: Houston half + US xc champs + US 15k champs + US half champs
In total, between fall ’14 and spring ’17 (2.5 years) I ran 30+ races, mostly half – marathon and/or high quality
Fall ‘ 17: DNS Spring ’18: DNF
Fall ’18: Philly Spring ’19: DNF Fall ’19: DNF Spring ’20: DNF Fall ’20: 25K trail race Spring ’21: Carmel
In total, between fall ’17 and spring ’21 (3.5 years) I completed 21 races; mostly small/local, 5K – half.
So, when I started to get down on the fact I ran my slowest marathon ever yesterday, it was very easy to turn this around and say, holy shit, I am rusty AF at racing right now and don’t have nearly the same base I had spent years building. That slowest time? Well, that was a pretty incredible starting point after a long rough patch.
As for the race itself, things went out the window pretty early. I had trained with the course record (2:42) in mind, so my goal was 6:10 pace. For me, ideally goal marathon pace feels relatively comfortable for about 16 miles. I’ve stretched it out as far as 20, and I have had good races where it started to hurt a little earlier. I’ve never had an experience where I am not on target even from the first mile. Yesterday I hit 6:10 twice: mile 2 (6:09.8) and mile 7 (6:10.0). After mile 7 when I saw I was back on target I was feeling pretty good and thought to myself – yes! You just needed to warm up and get out of the wind! Things are going to roll from here!!!! Then, the next mile was 6:24 and I thought, “okay – that’s fine – it’s completely possible that mile marker was off” and kept trying to roll. However, despite feeling like I was on the edge of a faster effort than marathon effort, my splits never got faster than 6:22.
That’s okay. I kept telling myself, “just because you’re not having a great day doesn’t mean you still can’t have a good day.”
The way I segmented my race was CLUTCH. I love descending segments. My focus was: 6.5 miles, 5 miles, 3.75 miles, 2.75 miles, 2 miles, 1.5 miles, 1.25 miles, 1 mile, .75 miles, 1K, 800 m, 600 m, and so on. Just focusing on one small segment really helped me get through the race. The worst part for me was going past half knowing how easy it would have been to finish there and drop for the day. It took everything I had to make the turn to keep going, only to be met with a wall of wind that I knew I would be running into the next 3.5ish miles. A bike lead for 4th place picked me up and I asked if she could hang back. I was having a bad day, and having a bike next to me while I suffered solo just didn’t sound that fun. She was very kind, and I appreciated her company after I got over myself.
My mind set was just to get through each segment. I would bargain with myself. Once I got to 15.25 (through the 3.75 mi segment) I could walk. Then I would tell myself once I got there, okay, get to 18 miles, THEN you can walk. Then it was, get to 20 miles and THEN you can walk, and so on. (I did not wind up walking, but I wanted to!)
The most frustrating part was that I aerobically felt FANTASTIC. I was able to talk and converse with my bike escort, talk to my friends who were out there cheering (SO APPRECIATED), talk to Dave who was my bike support (elites were allowed to have friends/family hand them bottles), etc. I just couldn’t make my legs move any faster.
It was a bit demoralizing to see paces really start to slow; 6:40 -7:00. But, I rationalized, at the end of the day this is your starting point. To be good at the marathon, you have to string a bunch of good marathons together. Will it be slower than you wanted? Yes. Will it be the fastest 26.2 miles you’ve completed in 2.5 years? Also yes. And that’s important.
Maybe the biggest thing I’m missing from lack of longer races is familiarity with the mental grind that you really only can get from racing 13.1+. Miles 18 – 22 were by far the hardest of the race. I’m pretty sure I vowed at 18 to never run a marathon again 😊
But, then I finished. And I was overwhelmingly proud of myself. I did not reach my A or B goal, but I finished. Completing the race, working the problem, and continuing to put one foot in front of the other even though I had 23.2 miles to go when I first realized this wasn’t going to be the day I wanted isn't exactly easy for me. For that, I am extremely proud.
Now I need to look objectively at why I don’t think I had the day I wanted. Of course it will not be just one factor. I think we often get hung up on the ~one~ thing that will change us, whether it’s a shoe, or a supplement, or a superfood. I do think there were some contributing factors:
-I probably overestimated my fitness a bit. Actually, that’s my MO. And that’s okay, because it usually works out in my favor. I decided 13 weeks ago I was going to start training for a marathon. I literally went from zero to marathon. I had some good workouts, but given where I was starting from with lack of solid race efforts behind me, I probably didn’t acknowledge enough that it was going to be harder than anticipated.
-the wind. The fast times yesterday were impressive. I personally struggled a lot with the wind. Granted, I was also alone for much of the windy sections which definitely isn’t ideal.
-day 27 of my cycle. We know more about the effect of hormones than ever before on performance. We do know (and if you are unfamiliar, ROAR is a great resource) that “high hormone” days (~7 days before you get your period) aren’t the most conducive to endurance activities. One symptom is feeling like your body is unresponsive. We also know dehydration is more likely due to progesterone’s effect on sodium levels. I absolutely struggled with hydration yesterday, especially because it was such a windy day. I knew this race would either be terrible timing (last day of my cycle) or perfect timing (first day of my cycle) and I did all my tempos on high hormone days to best prepare. It wasn’t something I was thinking about this week or letting it affect my mental game, but I also can’t deny that it was likely a contributing factor. In the future I would like to work more on the protocols recommended for nutritionally preparing to race at the end of your cycle.
-I spent too much time outside this week. I know that probably sounds silly, but I know better. Monday and Tuesday I spent all day outside in the sun. Wednesday we met a friend for lunch and sat for 2.5 hours outside on a cold/windy day and I know that drained a lot of energy. Friday we got lunch outside and then stood for over an hour at the (outdoor) expo. When temps are 40 – 50, that can be very draining.
These are all lessons I will take away from yesterday. At the end of the day, improvement is just about making bad days better. I can say, without a doubt, this is one of my better bad days because in the past I’m fairly sure I would have convinced myself that being so off at the start was a sign something was really wrong and that a DNF was probably the best idea. I drew a line in the sand pre-race that there was no way, no reason, I was going to DNF. I was going to crawl across that finish line if I had to.
Today my legs are completely trashed, in a good way. This is only the second marathon I’ve finished without injury, just typical destroyed quads and overall soreness. Looking back over my data, my heartrate was pretty high for the race – in the 170s after the first 10 min (I forgot to stop my watch after the race). This, too, is normal for high-hormone racing. While it probably made yesterday feel harder than it had to, it also means I spent a really good chunk of time in a high heart rate zone which will lead to a big boost in fitness after some time off. At the end of the day that is EXACTLY what I wanted, to gain fitness, regardless of how the day actually shook out.
Yesterday afternoon I couldn’t stop thinking about all the racing I want to do this year. Even though I was sore and aching and tired and miserable, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was going to fail forward <3