I ran my fourth marathon this past weekend in beautiful Birch Bay, near Bellingham, WA. By all counts, it was a successful race. I walked into the race with a lot of calm and confidence, I accomplished my top race goals, and I got a 5-minute personal record. Although this was my fourth marathon, I feel like it was the first one that my body was actually ready to run.
In order to tell the story of my Birch Bay Marathon, I need to start at my third marathon, the California International Marathon (CIM), which was only ten weeks before Birch Bay.
I decided to run Birch Bay less than 24 hours after finishing CIM in early December. When I ran CIM, I was not fully prepared for it, with only 8 weeks of solid training due to a chronic sickness since July that turned into a full-blown strep infection in September. The recovery from strep took several weeks longer than I expected, and did not set me up for a great 10k or half marathon, let alone a marathon. If it weren’t for the fact that I had already deferred my CIM entry from 2015 due to injury, and that I had friends coming from Boston to run CIM, I wouldn’t have run it. I’d rather not start a race then to race in a state where I know I’m not giving my absolute best. Thankfully for positive peer pressure, I decided to go to CIM and just run. If I felt like I had to stop after 1, or 2, or 10, or 20 miles, I would just stop. No goals. No pressure. Just run and have fun.
Because the pressure was off for CIM, I didn’t follow a training plan, I just listened to my body. If I ran 8 miles one week and felt terrible after, I would run 8 miles (or less) the next week – and I would just camp out there until I felt strong enough to ramp up the following week.
In the final 4 weeks leading up to CIM, I was gaining run strength and confidence again. I was completely pumped, really excited to see my friends, and anxious to run! The result was that CIM ended in glory. I completed all 26.2 miles. I even got a 47-second PR, finishing in 3:54:03. Looking back on that race, I was super impressed with myself. It was my third marathon – my second was more than 2 years earlier – so I was pretty much a novice. I had finished without injury, without a complete training cycle, and I still ran a good race. I compared CIM to my second marathon, Portland. I remember hitting mile 11 in Portland and becoming overwhelmed with pain and doubt. I knew that mile 11 was far too early to be in pain during a marathon. I walked a lot of the second half of the Portland Marathon and felt like I completely blew it. At CIM, I didn’t feel that kind of pain until mile 22. By comparison to Portland, I had extended my “marathon life” by 11 miles, which is a lot.
After crossing the finish line at CIM, I knew almost immediately that it was just a training run on my journey to my next marathon, which I would make sure happened in the next 8-12 weeks, while the experience was fresh in my mind. My friend Genn from SGLRG mentioned that Birch Bay was a small race in February that fit my timing. The seed was officially planted. I stewed on it for about a week before I dove in and continued structured training for what was now to be my A-race, the Birch Bay Marathon.
Since completing CIM, training just got better. I got stronger, more confident, and even a little bit faster. I became more excited to test myself on race day with each passing training week. Race day arrived, and here’s how it all went down…
I’ll recap my race from the perspective of my Top Goals. My Top Goals are my primary purpose for doing a race. I don’t like placing bets on time goals because there are too many factors that I don’t have control over which time goals depend on, so I set other goals which motivate my training and my racing strategy. My Top Goals are things that, if I accomplish them, I’ve grown as an athlete and as a person. These are things that are nearly 100% within my control, but still a challenge to achieve.
Goal #1: No Injuries
Having spent the past two years as an injured runner, watching my other running friends playing together and getting faster, my top priority for this race was to not get injured. The pact with myself was that if anything starts to hurt, back off and even walk or drop out of the race if necessary.
GOAL ACCOMPLISHED! I met this goal 99%. I felt a tiny nag in my left knee (my problem knee) after mile 16, but the pain came and went and never progressed. It was not distracting and it did not slow me down.
Goal #2: Race by heart rate, not by pace or by RPE
I’m going to get sciencey for a sec. As a triathlete and as a coach, I am highly motivated by heart rate training. It’s a factual representation of the state of your body. If you race by pace, you can very easily be setting yourself up for failure if your body is not capable of supporting your goal pace on race day. Similarly, racing by RPE (rate of perceived exertion) is an emotional approach to racing. Anyone who has competed in anything is familiar with event-day butterflies and adrenaline. You need to be keenly self-aware to be able to perceive your rate of exertion in the midst of race-day excitement. My goal for Birch Bay was to start in high Z1/low Z2 and don’t go one freakin’ iota over Z2.5 until the second half of the race; finish the last mile in Z4. (Don’t worry about what these zones mean if you don’t know … they’re just numbers for the sake of this race report!)
GOAL ACCOMPLISHED! I met this goal 95%. I felt fantastic during the first half of the of the race. I executed the heart rate zones as planned (with the exception of a brief bump here or there because of hills). For the first 13 miles, my mantra became “Relax. Don’t be greedy.” From miles 13-23, I progressed as planned into Z3. By mile 23, a side stitch (my ultimate nemesis) came on. As luck would have it, that is also when I noticed that the tiny neon yellow dot on the horizon that had been getting larger during past couple miles was actually a fellow marathoner, a woman, approximately my age, which meant that I had to push past her because she may be in my age group and, well, I’m just competitive like that. I was on her heels by mile 23.5 and pushed myself into Z4 to get a good lead on her. It turns out this was just too early for a Z4 effort! There was no way I could sustain that effort for two more miles. My side stitch now had me in severe pain. Barry was driving along the course, cheering me on at every mile or so from 16 to the end. It was around this time that he said that the expression on my face changed considerably for the worse.
Here is a geeky chart with the course profile and my heart rate and pace data:
Goal #3: Drink 3 full 12 oz. bottles of water, eat solid foods with fats, and take in 4 gels (or ~500 calories) of simple carbs/sugars without getting GI issues
This may seem awfully specific, and it is. This was my nutrition plan, arrived at from many years of nutrition failure mistaken for lack of training. Going into this race, I felt more confident than I have ever felt about my ability to run 26.2 miles at a constant pace. I knew my run fitness was finally there, and surviving the full 26.2 at my goal pace and heart rate was going to be up to my ability to execute my nutrition plan. In the past, I’ve relied on aid stations for fuel. I usually walk through every aid station to make sure that I’m drinking enough, but this strategy doesn’t work for me. I’m no good at drinking and running, or even drinking and walking. More fluids end up dribbling down my face and end up on the pavement instead of in my belly. With poor hydration, having an aid station every 1-2 miles is just not enough to keep the fuel tank topped off. During CIM, I ran with a small 12 oz. water bottle in my hand for the first time and it was one of the best decisions I made. It was small enough to not feel like it was in my way, and having it immediately on hand allowed me to take a small sip every 2-3 minutes, so I ran Birch Bay with the same water bottle.
To get calories, I wanted to try to eat solid foods because every time I’ve relied on gels for calories, the taste and texture starts to make me nauseous. On top of that, I end up getting really hungry. I figured that if I had some slow burning fuel (i.e. fats) in small doses, mixed in with the gels (i.e. readily-available energy/carbs), this strategy would stave off hunger. For the high-fat fuel, I trained with Lara Bars, ProBar Fuel Bars, cashews, dates, brazil nuts, and Honey Stinger waffles. I randomly decided to race with the waffles.
GOAL ACCOMPLISHED! I executed my nutrition strategy 100%. The day before the race, I checked where the fueling stations were and planned my three water bottle refills – miles 7, 13, and 21. These checkpoints ended up being great mini-goals during the race, helping to break the marathon into smaller chunks. After mile 5, I opened my first gel and slowly ate it during the next mile. When I filled up my water bottle at the first planned stop (mile 7), I had a quarter of a waffle. From that point on, I just kept slowly eating and drinking. I would open a gel and run with it, taking a little bite every 2-3 min until it was gone. Then I’d wait another 5 min or so and reach into my pocket for a bite of a waffle. And in between was just mini sips of water. It was a slow drip of fuel for the entire race. This seemed to work for me. By the end of the race, I had eaten 4 Huma gels and 2 waffles, for a total of 680 calories (130g carbs, 16g fat, and 6g protein). I could have (should have?) eaten more.
Goal #4: Embrace the pain
I’ve got some lofty goals over the next few years. My 3-year goal is to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon. My 5-year goal is to qualify for Ironman World Championships in Kona. Going into this race, I knew that at some point I would start to hurt. I was looking forward to the pain because I wanted to observe what happened to my mind when I got there. I know that reaching my goals is going to be a hell of a lot harder than running this marathon, so I need to learn to embrace the pain when it comes.
GOAL ACCOMPLISHED! This one’s hard to quantify, but I’d say I did an ok job – I’d give myself an 80% on this one. I probably employed more mental stamina to keep the pain at bay than I did from embracing it when it came – but maybe this is the trick. When I felt the pain coming, I started repeating to myself “relax.” And then when my mind got busy with self-doubt, I could only respond by saying “trust.” Trust myself, trust my training, trust my strategy. For positive reinforcement, I started saying “believe.” Believe you can finish this race strong. And then I thought of my desire to embrace the pain, to know that it’s going to be worse as I work toward my goals, so I just said “Kona” to myself. My mantra for the last 30 minute of the race was “Relax, Trust, Believe, Kona”… over and over and over and over and over again until I crossed the finish line. Although I found a coping mantra for the pain, I really played it pretty safe and don’t feel like I tackled the pain demons. Hence, the 80%.
Goal #5: Relax and enjoy the privilege of running
In all of the race prep craziness, with waking up at 4:30am, long training runs, keeping a regular work/life schedule, worrying about X ounces of water or what type of carbs/proteins/fats I’m going to eat, it is so easy to take a simple run for granted. I am lucky to have legs. I am lucky that they work. I’m lucky that I have the ability to run. I’m privileged to be able to race. In Steve Prefontaine’s words, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” It’s easy to lose sight of gratitude. I also have a tendency to be a pretty unpleasant person before my A-races, so I tried to stay chill this time, and truly just enjoy it, no matter what happened.
GOAL ACCOMPLISHED! 100% accomplished. I never had a moment – before, during, or after the race – where I was frustrated, or filled with negative self-talk. It was all good. Everything was good.
My official time was 3:49:42. In addition to my Top Goals, I have time goals too, but time goals can be a brutal way of tearing myself down if I don’t hit them and there is too much that happens during a race that is out of my control – the weather, the course conditions, life demands during race week. To make sure that I am not putting too much pressure on myself around time goals, I set a few levels of time goals.
Pillars of Training
It’s always hard to say what will happen on race day, but I’m a firm believer that if you fail to prepare, then you should prepare to fail. There are a few things in my preparation that I believe set me up for success in this race.
1) Consistency. I decided to run 4 days/wk. This is the most I’ve ever run. I knew I wanted to push the miles a bit and thought that if the miles were too much, I’d break them down into shorter runs during the 4 days. I was generally able to hit the mileage that I wanted to and even had my highest mileage week ever (48.6 miles!) during my training.
2) I listened to my body. I had goals throughout my training, but I didn’t push the pace or up the mileage until my body was good and ready for the additional stress.
3) Strength training. 3 days a week, 15-30 minutes per session. All bodyweight exercises. Coming off 2 years of injuries and surviving more running than I’ve ever done, I feel pretty strongly that I was able to do this because I was dedicated to my strength training. During the last 6 weeks, I started incorporating more plyometrics to get my fast twitch muscles fired up. During the race, I really felt my hips and my glutes firing on the hills. Comparing how I felt during this race to how I felt at CIM, on mile 16 at CIM, my quads were screaming! I just didn’t have the strength that was needed to run a marathon. At Birch Bay, I never felt any cramping or serious fatigue. I was strong to the finish.
The challenge ahead… My friend Guido told me that if I want to qualify for Kona, I need to focus on my weakness. In triathlon, running is my weakness, but with this race, I feel like I turned a corner and am now on the right path with my running. I need to continue building run strength and fitness while staying the course on my bike and swim.