Race Recap: Lehigh Via Marathon (or, The Race that Made Me Cry. A Lot.)

[On Sunday, I ran the Lehigh Via Marathon in Pennsylvania in an attempt to qualify for the Boston Marathon again, so I can run it in 2015. For my age, I needed a time of 3:45. My previous marathon best is 3:35 (BayState Marathon, 2011), but that was long ago. I was pretty sure I could do 3:45 on Sunday…until the race started.]

The first 18 miles were so easy….

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The next morning, Monday, I held my 4-year-old son, his school snack, and his water bottle as we waited for his classroom to open. I dropped his water bottle and watched as it rolled away. I knew I could probably crouch down to pick it up, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get up again.

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When the airhorn blew, signifying the start of the marathon, I burst into tears. Absolutely everything depended on this race, on qualifying for Boston. The rest of my life was feeling tattered, and if I hit my goal time for this race, then at least there’d be ONE thing I was good at. I wouldn’t be a total failure if I could just do this.

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“I don’t think it’s gonna happen for me today, Jen,” I told my friend and pacer…at mile 3. My bad calf was already a ball of pain, and there was something funny and bunched up under my left forefoot. “This isn’t going to happen, not today.”

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At mile 18, I grabbed a water at the water stop, as I’d done at all the earlier water stops, except for some reason I started sobbing. I have no idea where that came from. I just started sobbing. And then I stopped, and I drank my water, and Jen teased me that I’d actually been laughing, but I hadn’t been, and on we went.

That was strange.

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 My foot kept hurting, hurting worse, and I kept trying to think of the finish line because once I crossed it I could finally take off my damn shoe and stupid sock and make the pain stop. It felt like my sock was a little bunchy or something, but I didn’t want to take the time to adjust it along the way, and after mile 21, I knew that if I stopped to fix it, I would not get going again.

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She didn’t notice I’d given up. She didn’t notice I’d started walking. She was all talk, talk, talk about pace and about how much under my goal pace I was and how we could keep it at 8:40s now and still be OK as long as we didn’t slow down at all. I didn’t want to hear anymore, so I stopped running. She was getting further away from me and I didn’t care. I stumbled to the water stop and leaned over the table and started weeping. I couldn’t get water into my mouth. I got most of a gel in, but was sobbing too hard to drink much water. I couldn’t stop crying.

I think that was mile 23. I was done. But I didn’t know how to get to the finish line, and there was no ride for me, and I knew my dad was there waiting, and the damn course itself was probably the most direct way, and I didn’t know what else to do so I wiped my nose and started running again. I couldn’t think of any other way out of this.

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I hated everything and everyone and my breath was gross and my lips were dry. I wrestled cinnamon breath strips from the pocket of my shorts. They were kind of stuck together, so I just got what I could and jammed them into my mouth. Sweet fresh-breath relief. Then the whole wad got stuck somewhere next to my tonsil and burned like hell for another two miles.

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 Fuck it. Just fuck it. I don’t even want to qualify for Boston. Who cares? The registration fee is too high, anyway. I don’t care. I don’t need to qualify. That’s stupid. I don’t need that goal. I can volunteer at the marathon instead. I can help at a water stop. That would be awesome. That would be so much fun. I can give up now. I hurt. My leg hurts. My calf hurts. My foot is killing me. I don’t care about Boston.

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 I hate her. I love her and am very very grateful to her, but I hate her. Why is she telling me what kind of pace I need to keep? “Julia, that last mile was 9:47,” Jen said, all business. “We can’t do that again. We just need to stay at this pace and you’ll come in 2 minutes under. We just need to stay at this pace.” I hate you. Stop talking. I can do another 9:47 mile if I want to. I can stop and die right here if I want to. Don’t tell me what to do. So if we have 2 minutes to spare, why can’t we slow down? Stop making me go.

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 I went deep inside my head, kind of like where I go when I am in a great deal of intense pain, like just near the end of transition in childbirth, right before it’s time to push. Way inside my head, and I can hear people talking, but I don’t respond, or maybe I just grunt, but I don’t, I don’t respond at all. I don’t need to. I’m way inside my head and it’s the only place I can be. I’m way in here. Way in here. Way….in…..here.

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 Once I got to mile 24, past that deep deep childbirth-transition horror of miles 19-24, I knew I had it in me and could do it. I could run for another 18 minutes, or 20, even. I could do it. I think Jen was talking to me but I was focused on getting to mile 25. Then I could breathe. Then I knew I would live.

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 Mile 25. Sweet beautiful sign I love you so much and I love you Jen and stop talking to me keep talking to me keep moving, legs, I can do this I can do this I can do this WHOA SWEET JESUS is that cheering that I hear? Are we finally near the end?

And I could hear the announcer and the cheering getting louder, louder, blessedly louder, and I could see people and white tents….but I was confused, my watch said we still had too far to go….oh. We had to go up this ramp to the highway, down, across the bridge—but there are no runners on the bridge, is there a second bridge? How far down before we can cross and get to the finish line? Please? Oh, there are runners on the bridge. We cross on this bridge, just up this ramp…

and the traffic/race volunteer was saying, “Just to that cone, that’s the top of the uphill, you’ve got it, you’ve got it” and in my head I cursed his cheerfulness but I did need to know that was the last cone, thank god I was passing that cone (“that’s it! that’s the cone!”) and ’round the bend and Jen said, “I can see the finish line!” and I couldn’t, not yet, and I wasn’t going to pick it up until I could—OH THERE IT IS BEAUTIFUL BLUE AND WHITE HERE I COME TO END THIS PAIN—and I wanted to get there so badly, and a glance at my Garmin said 7:00 pace, I’m not dead yet, and I just went there, just went there, just went there, there was no sound, no one else in the entire world, possibly didn’t even exist, I was just moving as hard as I could, and there were three strips to cross, and I heard Jen’s voice at my shoulder saying, “Don’t stop until you cross all three” and I churned onward

and I was done, and I could stop, and I did stop. And there was my dad, smiling just past the barricade, and Jen said, “YOU DID IT!!” and my father untied my shoes because my foot was almost numb with pain.

And it was over and I’d qualified for Boston and that was awesome. 3:42:06.

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Also apparently our other friends from Boston (another qualifier and her pacer) were screaming my name as I came down the finish, but I had absolutely no idea there was any sound at all from anywhere at that time. And Jen says there was a big screen overhead and she said to me, “Hey, we can see ourselves on the big screen!” and I think she is making it up because nothing at all—no crowd, no sound, nothing to see, not even her by by side—existed from that last bridge until the finish line.

Things I’d have done differently, in hindsight?

  • Get massage and bodywork, to deal with the seizing-calf problem, much earlier in training instead of two weeks before the marathon. (What was I thinking??)
  • Wear my lucky shorts instead of my favorite shorts, because it turns out the favorite shorts were totally not my favorite shorts at all by mile 17 and I don’t want to put them on for a good long time. Why didn’t I wear my lucky shorts?
  • Train better. You know. Train better. Not run races the day after long runs, things like that. 
  • Not wear Balega socks for a race ever again, because it turns out they have some extra kind of cushioning under the forefoot, and when I got home I examined them and found that the left sock had thicker stitching and sort of a lump there. !!!!! Well. Now we know for next time.  

My friend Jen is a saint and marvelous human being. She talked me through it, did some massive psychological work on me those last 6 miles, carried my crap including my sweaty, snotty tank top and my handheld water bottle (she read my mind, somewhere during that time I was deep in my head, and offered to carry it for me, like she somehow could exactly tell that I hated that thing more than anything else in the world right then). She got my lip balm out for me, told me the story of how she got engaged just to keep my mind occupied, talked me up a little uphill that came late in the race, reminded me to stop grabbing gels from the aid station, since I still had plenty of my own, and kept me laughing.

And kept me running. I might well still be sobbing there at mile 23 were it not for her.

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I got a lot of amazing support for this race, much of it on Facebook from my trail-running community, road-running friends, old high school friends and acquaintances…everyone. Way back in training, when I had my make-or-break it 16-miler, so many people said they believed in me.

Thanks, everyone. It helped so much more than you know. And thanks to my family for believing in me and to my husband for getting up with the kids and getting them fed and dressed on my long-run days, while I was still out running.

And now let’s hope Boston registration doesn’t fill up before it’s my time to register!!!!! Because wouldn’t that be hilarious?

 

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