It would be easy to write a quick recap highlighting all of the successes of last Sunday – a win, my third Olympic Trials qualifier and an overall smooth, strong run. All of those things are true, and they all combined to make the 2018 Austin Marathon one of my favorite race experiences yet! But, it’s not fair to tell that story without discussing some of the struggles I dealt with leading up to the race, because they are no different from what every marathoner deals with at some point and because there are lessons to be learned from it. So, let’s rewind a bit.
Last year I won the Austin Marathon, set a PR in May and then didn’t do any more road running until Thanksgiving. The year was spent guiding running trips and prepping for the Wonderland Trail FKT, so it was all about trails and traveling. When I finally came home to Austin in November, I felt like I was starting over – achy knees, slow paces, even shin splints! Over a couple of weeks I started to feel better – not great, but better – and publicly committed to the Austin Marathon despite feeling incredibly uncertain about my ability to be ready for it.
As the weeks went by the paces got a bit easier, but still felt more difficult than they should. I did several lonely Sunday morning long runs on the course, and all of them were discouraging. Heavy legs, low energy and – most worrying – I didn’t really care. My fiancé Gabe and I have a lot of (good!) things going on – Rogue Expeditions is growing more quickly than ever, we’re planning a wedding for June, house-hunting in Colorado and, to top it all off, I leave at the end of February for six weeks in Morocco. The brain can only prioritize so many things at once, and I just felt like I didn’t have the mental energy to focus for 26.2 miles. But, I kept doing the workouts assigned and hoping that a switch would flip.
One month before the race, when I’d normally be doing the final set of key workouts, I boarded a plane for Chile to guide our Run Patagonia trip. Two weeks of trail running, hiking, late nights and absolutely no speed workouts followed, and when I got home it was time to “taper.” In full disclosure, I got off the plane with every intention to withdraw from the race. I had a lot of excuses saved up to help justify it, but in reality I was just scared of failure. After a good night of sleep I talked some sense into myself and kept quiet. After all, showing up is the hardest part.
Race week arrived, and by now there was no backing out. The attention garnered from winning the year before had been the source of a lot of my anxiety, but now it began to help. The week filled up with interviews, well-wishes and my usual pre-race visits HealthPlus for chiro work and Austin Massage Company for a final tune up. All of this kept me busy, distracted and surrounded by positive energy, which was critical to holding the nerves at bay.
I often say that I prefer to race on feel: find my own rhythm and not worry so much about paces or strategy or the course, and that’s often worked out for me. However, that method wasn’t going to work if I suddenly found myself at mile 20 with no motivation to continue – something that had been happening in workouts. So, it was important to turn this into a number-based task, a job. On Saturday I had a brief race plan discussion with my coach Steve Sisson –
“if someone is racing you, drop her on Enfield” – and spent the afternoon scribbling all over a printed copy of the course map, playing with paces, sectioning out the route and reflecting back on how amazing it had felt to break the tape the year before. I publicly posted about my intention to win again, just to hold myself accountable. My mantra: the finish line is always worth it.
Race morning dawned with the usual butterflies, and I fought them in usual way – with routine. Up at 4:30 for breakfast and coffee, put on my Skechers gear, headed downtown by 5:30. 10 minutes of jogging, then drills. One last bathroom stop. Stick a couple of gels in a spibelt. With 20 minutes to go the nerves were mounting, but friends and teammates – many of them getting ready to pace – were everywhere and the good vibes were infectious. One of the elite half marathoners asked me if I was aiming for an OTQ (Olympic Trials qualifier, which is sub-2:45) and I told her that I thought it was impossible on this course – then I headed for the start line.
There were announcements, the anthem, the good luck wishes among all of us on the front line and then, the gun. D’Ann Arthur and I were together from the beginning, reminding each other not to get caught up with the half marathoners. The first mile came in too fast, but we pretty quickly settled into a more reasonable pace. Up Congress, down S. 1st, across the river – we were hitting the mile splits a bit faster than I’d planned on, but I wasn’t going to let her get ahead and besides, the mile fly by when you’ve got someone next to you! We were stride for stride all the way down Cesar Chavez and LAB, occasionally exchanging a few words of encouragement but ultimately each focused on our own race.
D’Ann had told me that her plan was to do whatever she could to get her OTQ, so I knew that I needed to take her seriously – she’s a really strong athlete and was obviously motivated to take chances. Doubt started to creep in – what if I don’t win? – but I pushed it away as we turned up the steep climb onto Enfield. This is where Steve had told me to make a move and, whether it was conscious or not, I did. The terrain rolled and I ended up covering that stretch about 10 seconds per mile faster than I’d planned on. By the time I turned on Guadalupe I was alone and it pretty much stayed that way.
Without someone to race, it became all about the task. I split every mile on my watch, grabbed water at every water table and took it section by section. When I’d start to feel like things were getting tough I could see that my paces were still consistent, and that there was no reason to panic. When I’d start to feel lonely, a familiar face or five would appear just ahead with cheers and signs and put a huge smile on my face. When I wanted to stop, I looked at the camera truck in front of me and reminded myself that all of this was being live-streamed. No choice but to keep going!
The east side of town flew by – I spent so many years training on those roads with Rogue Running, and I know exactly how long it takes to go from Pleasant Valley to Chicon to Comal to Waller. The wheels were getting shaky at this point, but far from falling off. The crowds got bigger and louder as I neared downtown. I hadn’t looked at my cumulative time at all during the race, but I had seen every split and I was pretty certain that I was well ahead of my prediction. I turned onto the 11th St. hill – it was steep and slow, but the crowds carried me up, over and into the finish chute. That was where I saw the clock for the first time – 2:43. I was going to qualify for the Olympic Trials again!
Like last year, the finish line experience was a blur of happiness, disbelief, relief and a lot of cameras. The event organization was stellar, and I was politely herded through a few different interviews and then over to the VIP tent for dry clothes, food, friends and a front-row seat to watch the other finishers stream in as they finished their own journey.
No matter how fast or experienced you are, the marathon is an event that can’t be overstated. The training process will push you, the commitment required will test your loved ones, the starting line will terrify you and the race itself can break you, both physically and mentally. To outsiders it might all seem frivolous. But, those who experience it know the truth: that training instills new levels of confidence that spill over into every aspect of life. The commitment required inspires others, and the starting lines are electric with the shared energy of thousands. When the race does break you in some way, you will come out the other side stronger, wiser and (eventually) ready for more. And when you get that rare day like I did on Sunday, where everything clicks and the final miles feel like a celebration, there is no better feeling on earth.
Every marathon has a lesson to teach. For me, there were several this time around:
Showing up is critical. Magic can happen. Austin has one of the best running communities on earth. And yes, the finish line is always worth it.