Usually, I don’t have a lot of words to describe my race experiences. But I think the Twin Cities marathon is an exception because I feel like I was incredibly aware of how my body was feeling and the thoughts that were running through my own head. I’ve been thinking about ‘what happened’ since 11:18 AM last Sunday morning when I crossed that finish line with my fists in the air and tears in my eyes. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
I ran a 3:17:47 marathon on Sunday, which was a 15+ minute PR from my Chicago Marathon 2011 time of 3:32:53. Twin Cities was my second marathon and I know that my ability to run the distance is only going to develop more in the coming years. It’s mindblowing to think about the miles I’ve run and what my body was able to do on Sunday morning.
The Prep: Race Week
To say that I had the most ideal prep in body & mind for the marathon would be a lie. I spent the early part of the week resting as much as possible in advance of a business trip to San Francisco on Thursday and Friday. I slept 11 glorious hours on Monday night and my body thanked me, but each consecutive night consisted of at least an hour less sleep leading up to Race Day. A Friday afternoon flight back to Chicago meant that I would arrive home around 9 pm before my flight to Minneapolis the following morning at 9:30 AM. Unfortunately, my master plan of arriving one night and departing the next with plenty of sleep in between trips didn’t work out as I’d hoped. Two things happened. One, my flight from San Francisco was delayed by 2 hours, which meant that I didn’t get to bed until 12:30 on Friday night. And second, my flight to Minneapolis was changed by the airline from 9:30 AM up to 7:45 AM. Because of both of these things, I slept for just under 5 hours on Friday night, which arguably is the most crucial night for pre-marathon rest.
I was nervous and tired and frustrated that I couldn’t do anything to change my schedule or to squeeze in a few more hours of sleep.
Within 8 hours, I had landed at O’Hare, arrived home, unpacked, packed, ate a huge bowl of pasta, slept, and made the commute back to the airport for yet another flight. And before I knew it, I was in Minneapolis. The pre-race nerves and anxiety suddenly hit when the wheels touched the runway.
So much had happened in the previous weeks, days, and even hours, that I didn’t even have the time to get nervous, much less think about the marathon. In fact, it wasn’t until the Wednesday of the same week that I even thought about “strategy”, pacing, hydration, nutrition or otherwise.
After devouring some hashbrowns, eggs, bacon, toast, and a liter of water at the airport while I waited for The Man to land (yes, we took separate flights), we went straight to the expo to pick up my bib & chip. I was determined to get in and out of that expo as fast as I possibly could. I’m not a huge fan of expos, mostly because I don’t need to spend time sampling random energy drinks, gus, or performance products that I know I won’t buy or use. I was there long enough to meet up with Brady, grab some Gus, and decide that I didn’t want to buy anything (thank goodness).
The first thing I did after checking into the hotel was to close the curtains and black out the entire room. I texted Coach earlier that day and asked him if he had time for a pep talk. He called me right as I laid down to rest. I was in this weird physical and mental state that involved exhaustion, apathy, anxiety, and nervous energy.
All week, I wrestled with an internal debate that went something like, “Wow, why am I so calm? I’m not even nervous. …Wait, that’s weird. I should be nervous about my second marathon! Am I not nervous because I doubt myself? Because deep down I know that I can’t run under a 3:20, or 3:18 for that matter?!” All week, I played this game with myself and questioned whether or not my calmness was a symptom of extreme confidence or incredible self-doubt. [I feel like a lot of runners probably know what I’m talking about. But Lora put this feeling into words in a way that I simply cannot in one of her latest blog posts. She called it the chicken vs. egg debate between confidence and self-doubt.]
But Coach laid all of these thoughts to rest with his pep talk. He’s the king of analogies (most of them corny as hell) and he probably gave me four or five that made me feel comfortable in my preparation. He also reminded me that, this past March, I returned from a business trip to Madrid just ten hours prior to Rock ‘n Roll DC and managed to run a 5+ minute PR. I was, in fact, prepared for a challenging travel schedule coupled with an “A” race weekend. It was old territory for me and I needed to remind myself of that experience. I was in Minneapolis, I had sufficient time to rest, and the hard work had already been done. All I had to do was allow myself to soak up the experience (or so I kept telling myself!).
So, I slept. From 12:30-5:00 PM on Saturday, I put my legs up and closed my eyes. I think I managed to get about 2 hours sleep but I felt like myself once I woke up and showered to get ready for dinner with the crew. There were 8 of us running Twin Cities and I was excited to enjoy a good dinner (and one good beer!) and some fun conversation before calling it a night.
5:30 AM alarm set. I slept SO well the night before the race—it was probably the deepest sleep I’d had in over a week and my body soaked it all up. I wake up, throw everything into my gear check bag, drink my coffee, eat my oatmeal, bundle up, and head over to the Metrodome where the runners were free to relax and prepare before heading to the corrals at the Start. It was so nice to see friends and laugh to calm my nerves before heading to the start corrals. I felt like my heart was pounding fast and I kept sighing to slow my breathing. I was excited and HAPPY about getting to the start line. We dropped our gear backs and headed into the coldI. It was something like 30 degrees when we started, so I wore a few light layers. I had a Saucony singlet on with Nike armwarmers, topped with a super light long sleeve throwaway shirt, and a cheap windbreaker jacket from a previous race. I’m a wuss when it comes to the cold, but I knew I’d warm up quick and I’d be able to take off the jacket and the throwaway shirt pretty quickly. I had a pair of cheap gloves that I’d wear the entire race.
Let me just preface this section by saying that I can be pretty technical when it comes to pacing, fueling, and hydration strategy. I like to have a firm plan going into any race, but I have to know it’s achievable. Throughout this past training cycle, Coach determined a conservative and stretch time goal, but we never talked about it in our phone conversations leading up to the race. Because Twin Cities was only my 2nd marathon, I still feel like I’m in ‘fresh territory’ and my body will continue to surprise me until I reach times that are extremely competitive (and maybe even then?). Once I ran my 10 x 800s at an average pace of 3:13 (while my goal was 3:18 for each repeat), I knew that I was in a good spot and I began to become comfortable with 3 hrs, 18 minutes as a time that I could fully commit to.
….But then I sat down to actually write out my pace strategy. I’d begin with a conservative 8:00-7:50 pace in the first few miles. I’d get comfortable and remain patient. I’d let those people pass me because I’d be back to catch them in a matter of miles. Runners could rush past me in their early-mile excitement because I’d be doing the same thing at miles 22-26. But as I kept entering paces and recalculating, the paces seemed unreal. Could I really run a 7:00 min/mile that late in the race?! Would my legs be able to carry me that far, that fast? I didn’t give myself any excuse to recalculate the numbers again, I printed the spreadsheet, and took off for my business trip to San Francisco.
I carried the spreadsheet with me, but didn’t take one look at it until Saturday when I arrived in Minneapolis.
I split the race into sections just as I did at Chicago last year. I’ve become really comfortable with a negative split racing plan over the past year and I always seem to find that kick at the end. Every race that I’ve achieved a PR has been because I’ve been able to negative split by at least 1-2 minutes. Mentally, it’s easier for me to remain patient in the first miles knowing that I will be running much faster paces later on.
I made sure I had 4 fields on my Garmin home screen: time, distance, lap pace, and average pace. I printed my pace band and ‘laminated’ it with packaging tape before wrapping it around my wrist right next to my Garmin (see? pretty technical). I kept my eye on my splits at each mile marker and let the miles come to me.
After saying bye to Matt and Chanthana in our corral, Mile 1-3 flew by, as they always seem to in a distance race. I looked down at my Garmin and realized I was running a lot faster than I should have been (surprise surprise…). I kept telling myself that I’d be back to get those people later and that my patience would pay off in time. I was relaxed and listening to my music, although I couldn’t tell you for the life of me which songs were pumping through those headphones.
Near mile 4, the course runs alongside several small lakes and the roads narrow. I remember thinking that it was more congested than I anticipated but just tried to stay steady. At mile 5 I took my first Gu and grabbed a few sips of water. At that point, I couldn’t believe that we were already 5 miles in. (I planned to take a Gu every 5 miles I had in every one of my long runs and thought “wow, only 3 or 4 more Gus to go!” It’s always helpful for me to split the race up into sections, not only physically but mentally).
Around Mile 9, I realized that I’d likely have to make a pit stop in order to get to the finish line without peeing myself. And this marks the beginning of the section about peeing your pants and the crazy thoughts that can go through a runner’s head. I’m no stranger to peeing my pants. I did it during the Chicago Marathon, my first marathon, last year. My decision to say ‘yes’ to my body doing something that I likely hadn’t done since I wet the bed at age 3 came out of pure determination that day. I HAD to get to the finish line in under 3:35 and I didn’t care what I had to do to make that happen.
But at Twin Cities? Let’s put this decision-making process in perspective. It was THIRTY DEGREES at the start line. There were periods of light wind. And I was wearing booty shorts. So, let’s be serious. Those last 14 miles would have been pure cold torture if I had decided to pee my pants.
Next stop: an empty port-o-potty around Mile 12-13. I can safely say that the pit stop took all of something like 14 seconds because I have never been more determined to pee faster that I did on Sunday (and my splits help prove it too!).
After jostling through the first 11 miles through rolling hills and winding roads, I was so happy when things started to open up at Mile 13. I didn’t feel like I had to move around anyone and the crowd had thinned out so that I could just run my own race and not worry about the possibility of tripping over someone. (I had taken off my windbreaker layer at Mile 10 after the sun peaked out). At this point, I felt amazing. I felt like my legs wanted to go faster than my pace band told me to. I was supposed to be running 7:35s, but my watch consistently rattled off 7:2x miles. I tried to slow myself down and remain patient. But something clicked near Mile 15. I realized that I only had ~10 miles to go. TEN MILES!? “I can totally do that!”. And that’s right when I saw the best spectator sign of the entire race. It read: PAUL RYAN ALREADY FINISHED. It made me and the other runners around all laugh. I agreed with the woman next to me that said, “that is the best sign…by far!”. I was so happy to BE so happy at this point in the race. My legs weren’t giving me much grief besides a slight niggle in my left calf (which is the opposite of the one that’s bothered me a bit this past training cycle, oddly enough). I felt like the miles were going by quickly and I was able to pass more people the closer I came to the finish line.
I continued to take my Gus at 5-mile intervals and sipped on water at stations that weren’t overly crowded. I think I stopped at 5 water stations during the entire marathon and each time I only took a few sips. I had hydrated nonstop since the previous Wednesday and felt comfortable with what I’d taken in. The water I sipped on made the dry throat (from the coldish air) disappear.
I don’t really remember Miles 15-19, to be honest. It’s like someone came in and erased them from my brain. I know they happened, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about that run by the river until I reached the bridge at Mile 19, when I finally shed the final throwaway shirt (I told you I’m a wuss when it comes to the cold!). Once you cross this last bridge, it’s a straight shot into St. Paul and the finish line. Those last 6 miles are all mental and I told myself that there’s no way I’d stop or slow down. At worst, I’d continue running a 7:2x pace. At best, I’d gradually increase the pace until the last mile when I’d give it everything I had.
I had planned to take my last Gu at Mile 23, but my stomach was on the verge of giving me problems so I opted to skip it. At Mile 22, I knew I had to conquer the biggest incline of the entire race. It’s not actually that steep (you only climb 175 within about 1.5 miles) but it seems much bigger than that so late in the race. This was the first time that I saw people start to walk. I knew that I wouldn’t be walking. All I had to do was keep my legs moving and stay in my own head. I was running step-by-step with this one dude for about a mile at that point when I gave him a high five. It’s so much easier for me to maintain a steady pace when I’ve been doing it with someone at my side (mind you, that’s the only time I actually like to run with people!) and I think it gives the other person a boost too.
I remember looking down at my Garmin at Mile 24-25 and seeing 6:58 flash as the lap pace. I was right on target (or faster) and all I had to do was hold on to it through the finish. Brady, who lives in Minneapolis, had given me a ride from the expo to my hotel on Saturday and told me she’d be standing at the cathedral just 400 m from the finish line. I reached the cathedral and looked for her (no luck!) before heading into the final downhill section. I felt like I was Roadrunner and I couldn’t stop my legs. The downhill actually hurt my knees and ankles and I felt like I had to make me legs move faster than they actually could. I clenched my fists as I crossed the finish line nd began to cry immediately. My pace when I finished was 6:27….and I looked at my watch. All 4 numbers were good.
LET THE FREAKIN’ WATERWORKS BEGIN! I was speechless. I put my hands on my knees, tried to breathe through the tears, and…..I didn’t know what to do with myself. The finish line had been pulling me toward it the entire race. There wasn’t ONE mile when I felt like I couldn’t achieve a 3:18 time. It was a mixture of the weather, the months of hard work, the pre-race meals, and the extreme determination and grit to run the paces listed on my wrist that allowed me to run at 15 minute personal record on Sunday. Once I reached the start line that morning, there was NO WAY it wasn’t going to happen. I had worked too hard to not see sub-3:18 on my Garmin.
I passed 600 people from the 5k mark to the finish. My patience in the first 3 miles really paid off. I literally remained steady between miles 4 and 20 (that’s just insane!!!) And then? Then it was GO TIME! I just had to run straight to St. Paul and have a volunteer put that medal around my neck.
There were only a few miles that I didn’t run at pace or faster according to my pace strategy. Mile 7 was off by two seconds, I made a pit-stop at Mile 13, and Miles 22-23 were only off by a few seconds following the ‘big hill’. I don’t think I could have run a better race.
It’s hard to think back to last Sunday and not be happy. I’ve been reliving the moment all week through the finish line videos and the few photos Brightroom was able to capture of me.
All smiles and tears at this point.
Well….that’s HAWT. #not (200 m from the finish line)
Twin Cities was my 2nd marathon. I think I’ve learned a lot about racing in the past two years. And so far, my body hasn’t given up on me. Most importantly, I think my mental strength always seems to give me that boost on race day, whether or not it’s there for me in the months leading up to a race. Next up is Boston 2013 and I’m already looking forward to it. I’ll remember my Twin Cities finish line moment when I’m training in the bitter Chicago cold. The hard work is always worth it when you reach that finish line (and drink a post-race beer!). Cheers!