Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Journey to a Boston Qualifier

I spend a restless night at the Marriot listening to the elevator go up and down, up and down, all night long. The digital clock continues clicking though the numbers as the time slowly moves toward 3:45 a.m. - my wake-up time. The Colorado Marathon begins at 6:15 a.m., but you are required to take a bus 17 miles up Poudre Canyon to the start. The last bus leaves at 4:45 a.m. I am wide awake at 3:30 and figure the extra 15 minutes of tossing-and-turning will do me less good then a nice long hot shower. I look up the current weather conditions - it's in the 20s and cloudy with a chance of showers (rain or snow). Light winds - that's good. I shower, I eat my specially formulated pre-run/race super chocolate-chip cookie, I thoroughly enjoy some much needed coffee - and I try to figure out what I should wear and what I should bring, just in case it's raining or snowing. I make my way to the car and drive through the deserted streets of Fort Collins blasting "The Verve" on my stereo. An hour later I am at the start. It is cold. Runners jog around in plastic trash bags, drink one last hot cup of coffee, down a GU, visit the loo...

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I've been running for a long time, but I've really only considered myself a marathoner for, oh, perhaps a year. After all those years of running mostly 10ks to half marathons, I was bitten by and smitten with the marathon. I don't know how, why, or when it happened, but the milady seems to be getting worse with time. When I was younger I was fairly competitive usually winning or placing in my age group at bigger local races, and sometime even placing overall. But those days are behind me. I'm probably not going to be setting any personal records at this point in my life. But there are still other things I hope to do with my running. One thing is to just keep on running for as long as possible. Another is to run some of the races I've always wanted to run.

When I was 30 I ran my first marathon, the Maine Marathon. I trained for that race in a fairly haphazard manor. This was my first experience with the marathon and I approached it with great respect and low expectations. The morning of that race I drove the half-hour from my apartment to Portland in a torrential downpour. The temperature hovered around freezing. At the start I looked at my boyfriend and said "Well, we'll see how this goes". It continued to rain and blow hard for about 16 miles. I had no idea what my pace was and I didn't have much of a time goal. I just ran. The idea of qualifying for the Boston Marathon occurred to me, but it wasn't something I was particularly invested in. For some reason I believed the qualifying time for my age was 3:30 (I don't think I actually checked on that). As I hit the last mile the proverbial truck fell on my back. My shoes, completely sodden, felt like leaden weights of torture as I made slow progress to the finish. I remember passing people and wondering how it was physically possible to go slower then I was going without going backwards. I crossed the finish in 3:41:20. I believed I had missed the Boston mark by more than 10 minutes. Later I found out that I actually missed it by 20 seconds (3:40 + the 59 sec. grace). Well, that's a bummer I thought, and let it go. But did I?

I wouldn't run another marathon for 14 years. While I continued running many miles a week, I pretty much stopped racing entirely. I was burned out and my athletic focus became rock climbing. Years later I was recovering from an injury many doctors told me I would never recover from. I remember promising the forces-that-be that if I did manage to recover and run again that I would run a marathon to raise money for a charity. Slowly I began running. After 10 months sitting on the bench, even a mile challenged me more than I ever could have imagined. I had always taken my ability to run long distances for granted. Suddenly I found myself so very grateful for any running I could manage. And I began thinking about the promise I had made. That year I signed up for the Boulder Marathon and raised money on my own for Camfed (Campaign for Female Education). This marathon was a horrible experience. I probably ran it too soon after my recovery, and it was hotter than Hades the day of the race (and the race ran out of water). The last 7 miles were a cramped hobble to the end. I can only compare the experience to child birth without the happy ending. Never again, I proclaimed to all who were willing to listen to my sad tale.

But a few months later I was back - this marathon bug is a sickness. That marathon was so bad I just had to do another one. This time I approached things more methodically - and I wanted to qualify for Boston. One fatal flaw doomed my plan: I went into my training with a case of calf tendinitis hoping it would improve, which of course it did not. I missed the Boston mark by 8 minutes. Now, this was becoming a issue.

Something that initially really didn't matter to me started to matter way too much. This time I had a plan and I trained with that plan in mind. I raced a bunch during my training getting used to running hard when I was tired. I did tempo runs and long runs and VO2 max runs all based upon my target - which was set to be reasonable and conservative. And I had a plan for the race itself. I was determined to stick with it.

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The tuba player plays a somewhat tortured, frozen lipped, National Anthem and the horn sounds. We are off, some still donning plastic bags. The first 17 miles of the Colorado Marathon move down the canyon, a very gentle downhill grade. Everyone is off like a shot. I look at my watch as runners stream effortlessly past me. "No" I tell myself "stick with your plan, don't go with them", and I don't. The first 5 miles feel painfully slow, but I stay on target. I've written my aimed for 6mi, 10mi, 13.1mi, and 20mi splits in ballpoint pen on my arm. I'm a little ahead at mile 6. I back off. A pit stop around 10 miles puts me on pace, and at 13.1 I'm just about spot on. We leave the canyon and head up the one long hill on the course from miles 17 to about 20 - and I feel great! I decide to start pushing it just a bit. I start passing people who flew by me earlier - I look at my watch - I'm still on target. By mile 20 I feel I'm hitting my stride and I start to really push it. This is where the race begins. I focus on my form, on running the tangents, on continuing to drink, - and I stay on pace. The last few miles I push hard and find I'm able to do what I will my body to do. It hurts and it's hard but I can actually do it. At this point many runners are struggling, many are walking, and many are stopping to stretch cramping muscles. There is one other woman running about 100 meters ahead of me, and we're both cruising - passing one person after another - her form looks strong - And in a way I feel we are in this together - I'm running with her not after her. At this point my watch goes blank - a "low battery" message covers my time. I'm on my own. As I approach the final stretch to the finish I look for the clock and push with all I have left.

I cross the finish in 3:53:22 - a Boston Qualifier by 8 minutes. I thank the woman ahead of me for being there and she thanks me for pushing her. We congratulate each other and disappear into the crowd of satisfied, blissfully exhausted runners.

But, now I know I can run a faster marathon...Dang it all...

4 comments:

  1. Nice story. I relate to it in that I ran my first marathon at 16 in Dallas and nearly broke 3 hours. For some unexplainable reason, I still want to break 3 hours. I'm now 49, but I think it's doable - although my focus is not on marathons this summer. But it's in the back of my mind.

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  2. Congratulations! Enjoyed the story and I'm glad you're getting to Boston. I'm starting to get a little Boston envy myself, but I'm over an hour from a qualifying time. It's not a question of can I do physically do it, just in my case will that turn a hobby that I work hard at but do enjoy into something that is too rigorous and too challenging to be fun.

    I've always said I don't care about Boston, but hearing everyone's "qualified for boston" and boston marathon stories is tempting me to go for it.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Thanks for the comments - Ed I'll see you at Bolder Boulder - what wave are you in? Oh, and we still have to qualify for NY ;)

    And Brian - I still keep it enjoyable - Running is not my life, but it is an important part of it. I did it when I really wanted it, and things lined up right. If that time comes for you, then good luck. It's a very personal thing.

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  4. What's really great is how you were able to stick to your plan even though others around you were passing you in the early miles. Yay for your speedy finish!

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