July 11, 2011

2011 Grandma's [Almost] Marathon - Recap and Lessons Learned

So what's with the "Almost"? This is an "Almost" marathon recap because I almost finished. Grandma's watched me post my first ever DNF. I know it's bound to happen to all of us at some point. After a few weeks of reflection and some time away from running altogether, I'm ready to share the details about this very memorable race and the valuable lessons Grandma taught me along the way.

The Race

Hubby and I were staying at one of our BFF's parent's farm in Maple, WI. Just about a 45 minute drive from the place in Duluth, MN, where we would be catching a train with the other marathoners to the Start. We could have taken a bus I think, but spending 30 minutes on a good old fashioned train sounded like a great start to the day.

The race didn't start until 7:30am and we had to be out of the house by about 4am to make sure we would be in time to catch the train in Duluth. It was too early to eat so I just had a banana and a cup of coffee to get my system going. I planned to have a Gu just before the start of the race. Hubby had a little muffin with some peanut butter, but food was just not sounding good to me at all. I was going to stick with the Gu. I had plenty of fuel on me.

We boarded the train, dressed in humongous, thick commercial garbage bags to keep us warm and dry. The atmosphere inside the train was peaceful but definitely energized.
I was still feeling pretty tired but chalked it up to jet lag and lack of sleep. Then something really strange happened - I fell asleep for a good part of the train ride, waking up just as we were pulling into the Starting area. Me? Falling asleep before a race? Weird. I'm usually so amped up and nervous that I can barely contain myself. We step off the train; it's finally stopped raining. Wait. Do I see blue sky breaking through the clouds?

It's about 30 minutes from "go time" now. Time for a pre-race porta-potty stop!  No problem there. THIS is a well thought out Starting area - mass quantities of porta-pottys!! This is one of either 2 or 3 huge parking lot sized areas full of porta-potty's.

The line went relatively quick, but it's close to 7:20am now. Only 10 minutes to go! Just before parting to our separate corrals, a photographer snapped this great photo of hubs and I.

I find the 4:30 corral and before I know it, we're on the move and very close to the starting line. Here we go!

I was definitely feeling a little sluggish for the first few miles, but again, there was no doubt I was feeling tired. I've had training runs like this before where it takes a good 30-45 minutes to really feel like I'm "into the run" but thinking back, I can't recall having that feeling on race day. Having completely forgotten to have that Gu before crossing the Start line, my guess is I started out low on fuel. I didn't have my first Rocktane until about an hour in. Boy did that wake me up!  It's at mile 7 that I realize I haven't really been feeling "into it" until that point. No problem. I've recognized it. Now it's time to work with it. A little after mile 7, I'm feeling great. Despite feeling a little off for the first 7 miles of the race, I was still hitting my pace as planned for the most part. I let a few downhill segments speed me up by 15-20 sec/mile for a few miles early on, but nothing outrageous.

I distracted myself with the awesome sights and sounds around me. Lake Superior, outstanding and organized volunteers, the outpouring of community support and the beautiful course. Here are some of my favorite moments on the course:

The ever-popular fan-favorite motivational sign.
I thought this bridge was beautiful. This was a very peaceful part of the course.
I ran near this newlywed couple for several miles.
They were being congratulated by a lot of other runners passing by!
If this looks cold, it IS! We hit Lake Superior and a cold wind off the lake rode our shoulders for several miles. BRRR!!!
The sole official photo of me taken on the course
I remember my calves feeling a little sore around mile 10, but I put it right out of my head. I was running for a PR so I was expecting to feel a little challenged. Hitting mile 13 was awesome. This was the Start for the Half Marathoners so there were some decorations up and at least 25-30 porta pottys. I didn't really HAVE to go, but since there was no line I ditched the course for about 60 seconds hoping that would be the only stop I'd have to make.

At mile 16 is when I started picking up the pace a little. I'd planned on holding back for the first half and finishing the second half with a negative split. Here is how the first 15 miles went. I went out a little fast, but nothing too crazy. Miles 8-10 are a little quicker because it was a downhill section. Mile 13 is where I stopped to use the bathroom. Looks like I'm just clicking right along, doesn't it?

At this point, I'm feeling really strong. I started picking up the pace at mile 16 as I'd planned, but I think it may have been too much too soon. In my head, holding a 10 min/mile for the last 10 miles did not seem unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination. I play this "10 in 100" (10 miles in 100 minutes) game with myself as a tempo run once every 6-8 weeks and have done so for about a year. So it was without hesitation that I sped up, excited to hit my 4:30 goal (10:18 average pace). The next 5 miles are feeling good. My calves are starting to really feel tired and "stretched". I down a packet of salt to ward off any potential cramping and have another Gu around mile 17 or 18. Coming into mile 20 was amazing! We're running through a town now. It seems like the entire community is out cheering everyone one. There's a local fraternity that hands out beer shots every year at this point and several runners are taking advantage of the free beer! The excitement and adrenaline boost from the supportive and festive environment got me through mile 20, but it was soon after that I really started unraveling - physically and mentally.

Here's how fast it all happened. Check out miles 21 and 22. Reminds me of an old Mary J. Blige song.... "I'm going down". As it turns out, I only had 4 miles of a 10 min/mile in me; 5 miles if you count the 10:22.

I had pushed through 21-22.5 miles in a lot of pain (only in my calves), fighting tears through the last half mile. I dropped my run/walk intervals from 3:1 to 2:1 to 1:1 to 0:30/0:30. I even stopped a couple of times in that final 1.5 miles and added extra walk breaks to see if I could recover.  I have an interval timer that vibrates at the end of each run and walk segment. By mile 22, I started getting pissed off that I wasn't able to start running when the timer started vibrating. I finally just shut the thing off. I'm telling you, I was going down physically and taking my mental state with me! Mile 22.5 is where I called it quits. I think it took me about 8 or 9 minutes to go that last half mile.

 A really nice man and his wife pass me and he yells out to me to keep going! I want to cry and tell him how hard I'm trying. My calves were almost completely seized and I could barely make it to the sidewalk at the water stop at 22.5 miles. A volunteer runs over to give me water but I don't take it. A Security Guard asks me if I need help and I said yes. Within minutes, I've got 2 Army guys with me who basically had to carry me to a nearby Army Medic truck. I am totally FREEZING in the truck so the boys turned the truck on to get the heater going. One of them is checking my heart rate and both are trying to get me to down some Powerade. Their Sergeant, who is an RN, comes to the back of the truck and asks if there's someone she can call for me. I knew our friend Dee would have already crossed the finish line since he ran the Half, but his wife Bridget (who is currently injured and wasn't able to run the race) was there also and she was my emergency contact. Hubby was likely an hour behind me. I managed to get Bridget's name out and repeat her phone number but I was feeling pretty out of it. [I didn't know it at the time, but the reason one of the Army guys stayed with me in the truck for a while was because my heart rate was irregular; going from a normal heart beat detection to it being very faint.] I knew I wasn't too far from the finish line but I didn't know how long it was going to take Bridget to get to me.  I don't know how they did it, but both Dee and B were right there with me in a very short time. Dee took this pic from outside. You can see Bridget sitting across from the bench in the truck where I was laying down. I love you guys!!!

I don't really have much more to say about the race because this was the end for me. I heard the last few miles were great - lots of cheering, support and a little entertainment. When Dee, B and I got back to the Finish line, I really wanted to see hubs cross the finish line, but when I tried to get out of the car, I could barely stand so I missed out on that moment too.

Here a couple of moments from his victory - shaving an HOUR off of his former PR time set in January 2010 at the Walt Disneyworld Marathon.

Way to go baby! You rocked it! I love you!

Reflections and Lessons Learned
Grandma's Marathon was the 3rd marathon I trained for - and I trained harder than I ever had in my life. For almost 2 years my physical progress was slowed by injuries. Thank goodness for the Galloway run/walk/run training programs. There's no better feeling than having the gift of being able to train and heal at the same time. After shaving over 30 minutes off of my marathon PR at the very hilly 2010 Santa Barbara Marathon after 9 months of moderate training, I set my aspirations high for Grandma's. I was attempting to shave another 27 minutes off my time using a new Jeff Galloway training program schedule I had not followed before - and it was a HUGE step up for me in terms of time and distance spent training.

In addition to trying out this new Galloway schedule ("Boston: How To Qualify"), I also started a completely new Galloway Training Programs running/training group in Southern California. Balancing the two schedules would be challenging, but I laid out both schedules well in advance, being mindful of both mileage and pace. I was excited by all of it - a whole new group of runners to inspire and be inspired by, coupled with an aggressive but not intimidating personal training schedule. Ambitious? Yes. But this was my time. I was healed, confident and ready to achieve new milestones.

Between November 2010 and May 2011, my average monthly mileage crept up from just barely 90 miles a month to over 150 miles (+60% on average).
Monthly mileage
My weekly stats saw a similar progression as the long runs were getting longer and longer. Peak, recover, peak, recover.
Weekly mileage ("3" - mid Jan; "25" - the week of Grandma's marathon)
I diligently tracked my mileage, shoes, effort level, enjoyment, etc for the first several months. I was hitting milestone after milestone. Sure I had a twinge of pain here and there, but for the most part, I couldn't believe how well I'd transitioned from a 3-day a week runner to a 5-day a week runner. I also changed my long run shoe to the Asics GT-2160. I'd been practicing my midfoot/forefoot plant for quite some time and my old Kayano 15's were too narrow. The new Asics made my long runs SO much more tolerable - enjoyable is how I described them in my journal.

My first 20-miler hit in March. After that, I had one 20+ mile run every month leading into Gma's. The longest one was going to be 29 miles, four weeks before the marathon. The 20-miler went great. Better than I could have expected - and I was still months away from the race. I stuck to that schedule like glue for the most part, but did change up my run/walk intervals to include more walking and less running when I was feeling tired or like I needed more recovery time. On the flip side, I ran faster than I "should have" during the week sometimes.  I like to push myself when I'm feeling good. I know it. I have to keep an eye on it. As long as I wasn't getting hurt or entering an effort level of 10 on a 3 mile training run, I knew my body was doing just fine......  at least physically.

On May 1st, I was up to 26 miles for my LSD. I stuck my pace at 11:30 min/mile (my calculated LSD pace) and it felt great. Only 6 weeks to go.  Somewhere around this time frame, hubby and I decided we were ready to buy a house. We had [mistakenly] entered into a short sale that turned into an emotional train wreck involving a very shady real estate agent and escrow company, undisclosed tenant issues in the home, questionable ethics, thousands of our dollars at stake.... I could go on and on. It was a mess. Then we had a loss in the family [see A Different Kind of Heartbreak Hill]. All the while, I'm using running as my outlet but eventually, my body had had enough. I let the 29 miler slip a week because I just didn't have the energy or the motivation to get out and do it. In fact, I didn't run that weekend at all. I picked up my training again the following week. That coming weekend was Memorial Day and I decided to run my last LSD on Memorial Day itself. What's one week, right? And here's where my thinking went awry.

Never before have I consistently run 20+ mile runs on a monthly basis for any period of time. Not only that, I was running back-to-back medium long runs (10-15 miles) on a few weekends here and there just for the sake of time because I didn't have 5 hours to run in one day sometimes. People visit, you get sick or you're having an off day (or maybe an off week), things come up - we all have lives outside of training that make it impossible to train every day just like you planned. I made the adjustments I thought were the smartest for me at the time.

My compromise for missing the 29 mile run was to run 27 miles. Looking back, it wasn't really a compromise. I had a great day, it was gorgeous. I felt so alive and lucky to be healthy enough to be out there. I even blogged about it. I definitely took it just a tad too fast (avg pace - 11:10 min/mile) and I know I was testing myself a little. Twenty seconds faster per mile may not seem like a lot, but over 27 miles, that extra speed likely equated to the amount of physical work that a 29-miler would have taken out of me, maybe more..... and this was just 18 days before the race, 4 weeks after a 26.2 mile training run and 8 weeks after a 23 mile training run. Did I mention I had not run more than 22 miles prior to either of my other 2 marathons while I was training? I didn't even get past 20 miles for the 2010 Santa Barbara Marathon. In the 3 weeks following this 27 mile run, my attitude went to crap. I felt tired a lot. My legs were constantly heavy. I couldn't eat enough food - I was starving all the time.  The weekend after the 27 miler, I ran 3.5 miles of a planned 10 mile run with some mile repeats before I quit. It seemed so overwhelming. I scaled back on my mileage considerably, but I think the damage had been done by this point. The weekend before the race I was able to run an 8-miler with our Galloway training group but it was at a pace that is more than 3 minutes slower than my LSD pace.

Three days after the 8-miler (just 4 days prior to race day), I got on the treadmill for what would be my last run before the marathon. I had only been running in the Asics for my LSDs. I was running in my Lunar Glide +2 and Pearl Izumi Isotransitions during the week. Those 2 shoe models feel considerably lighter and form to my foot now much better than the Asics. My legs felt like dead weight in the Asics and they just wouldn't go. "Forget it" I told myself. "You didn't even run the entire week prior to the Disneyland Half Marathon last year and you still PR'd. Why push through this?"  I stepped off after less than 5 minutes and didn't try to run again until race day. THAT'S how exhausted my body was. And when the body is exhausted, the mind can play some dirty, rotten tricks on you. My brain believed I could push through anything. This was my race! The one I'd been training so hard for! Nothing is going to stop me!  But something did stop me - ME.

My bottom line is that I overtrained which completely wiped out any chance of me hitting my 4:30 goal. Yes I could have done better with my pre-race nutrition, but looking back at all my Garmin data and my training log, that age-old adage of "better to be undertrained than overtrained" just punched me in the gut. Trying to keep up with a heavy training schedule while dealing with heavy personal stressors was not a good decision. In fact, I don't think I can say I consciously made the decision. I had a schedule, I knew my goal... I might have been tired once in a while, but shit, Vera, suck it up and stick with the program. Do you want this or don't you?!?

Considering all the changes in my personal life that were going on in the last 6 or 7 weeks of my training program and how heavy and tired my legs felt in the week leading into the marathon, I should have modified my race day plan by starting much slower and picking up speed later IF I was feeling up to it. My advice:  Read your journal - and not just the good parts either. It's hard to look at entries where I have a tough run. Almost like I want to avoid them. I'm thankful I have this blog as an avenue to honestly evaluate my training.

In the end, I knew finishing wasn't worth getting hurt and I'm pretty sure that's where I was headed if I'd tried to continue. When finishing to get the medal and the shirt started being my motivator, I knew it was time to stop. While it took me a good part of the rest of the day to walk normally again, I was not sore or hurting anywhere the next day. Almost like I hadn't run at all the day before. So weird.

I will be back for you Grandma - hopefully a lot less tired and stressed, and whole lot wiser. Next year you ask? Yeah, probably. :-)

And while the marathon didn't go as planned for me, both hubs and Dee PR'd that day, as well as Bridget's Uncle, so there was much to celebrate! After all, this trip was about spending time with people we love who we don't get to see very often. The marathon was just one day. Love and friendship is for life.

Back row L-R: Bridget's Mom and Dad, and my hubby
Front row L-R: Dee, Bridget, me


Ilona Meagher said...

Thanks for sharing your heart + soul here, Vera.

I read every word and wanted you to know that you've always inspired me with your grace + passion for running. I'm nowhere near most of you in mileage or pace, but I have similar struggles and desires to be the best I can be.

One thing that I've noticed about you is that you give so much of yourself to others (leading the Galloway group, blogging consistently, etc), which is such a gift. A full life like the one you lead sometimes has a not-so-funny way of piling on extra responsibilities + stresses + energy-zappers when you least need them, when you're already spinning the plates as fast as you can. No fair! I'm sorry that turned out to be the case for you (w/the home financing issues really causing so much grief and loss of sleep...ugh...hope that's resolved itself by now), because you did a lot right during your training.

Great advice about trying to really listen to what your body tells you, esp leading up to an important race. Nutrition, overtraining, keeping stress in check...those are things that I think most ppl struggle with (esp ppl who run not only for themselves, but to inspire others, too, as you do).

Shaking my head in agreement when you write about how our minds sometimes make us feel like we can do more than our bodies can. Other times, it works in reverse, where our negative talk gets the better of us (and our bodies). Still so much for us to learn about the way our body + mind can play tricks on us! ;-)

It sounds like you gave yourself room to be human, and didn't minimize the effort it took to get you to Grandma's (and your other marathons). You were strong enough to overrule your heart and allowed yourself to stop. I think that's a truer reflection of how serious a runner you are than any medal you might have gotten.

Glad you gave yourself a few weeks to just breathe + BE. We all need to take those breaks. You've come thru w/your indomitable spirit intact...way to go, Vera! You show that the beauty in the human experience is that we still aspire to do so much, even when we know the work is hard and the payoff may not be there waiting for us in the end. Like you said, it was just one day. Just one race. The important thing is your health, your family, and love. And you are abundant in all of those most important things.

You may not have nabbed that Grandma's t-shirt or finisher's medal this time, but the things you take away from the experience make you the wonderful person that you are.

Cheering you onward, Vera!

Anonymous said...

That's a great post, Vera! You had a hard run, and there is not shame in hitting the sag wagon if you are in distress. This month I learned to listen to my body. It's a hard lesson, but a good one to learn!

Luc said...

I'm glad you share this painful experience with us. I can also read that there will be more marathons to come.

Wendy K. said...

Vera I so admire your strength and honesty, and I thank you deeply for what you have given to me: time, energy, patience. You got heart, girl! I have no doubt your next marathon will ROCK!!! Love you! ~Wendy

chris mcpeake said...

great post... tough day for you, nobody likes a DNF but take it as a learning experience and it will help you in the future.
A couple of things I noticed in your training that you might want to consider. I dont think anyone that is in training for a marathon should ever run more then 23 miles as a training run (not sure what galloway says about this) unless you have a deep base of many years of long distance running. For most people this will only cause fatigue that they will not recover from before the race. There is little to nothing gained by doing those extra miles.

Also although its currently trendy trying to run a negative split in a marathon is a fools errand. I run with many very experienced marathoners as well as teach a marathon clinic and I dont know anyone who is able to run a negative split unless they ran way, way to slow in the first half. The last 6 miles of a marathon are super hard. Even when I run marathons as part of my Ultra marathon training (at training pace) the last 6 miles are tough and it is almost impossible to keep pace little lone speeding up. I would suggest trying to run an even split.

Just my opinion however.

Good luck training for your next race!!

Emily said...

Great honesty all the way throughout! I personally have never run a race in my life, but would like to get started soon. (My mom used to be a very avid runner until her knees gave out. She she's always been a great inspiration on that.) I have also always wanted to do the Grandma's race. When I go there to eat I see the photos on the wall and think, "Gosh that looks like fun! Right on Lake Superior too." :)
Your blog is so full of advice and ideas. Thank you! x

G. E. Anderson --- said...

So sorry to hear that it wasn't your day, Vera, and I know what you mean about overtraining. It's the story of my life: one DNS after another. At least you made it to the starting line. :)

I'm betting you'll nail the next one.

Ann Brennan said...

I don't know if I ever told you that I DNFed my Ironman in 2004. It was a gutting experience and for months afterwards I questioned the decision to quit. Then one day my husband said "you didn't quit, your body did." and it clicked. Sometimes there is no going on. There are so many lessons I walked away with from that experience. You got there a lot faster than I did. Smart girl for knowing when to say when and understanding it is a learning lesson.

Leslie Chisum said...

Vera, your story was amazing and made me cry. Thank you so much for sharing what was clearly so painful. You have so much to be proud of. I know I've learned from your experience, both in regards to running and regards to the toll stress can take on our training.
You are inspiring!

Anonymous said...

Vera, I know just how you feel. I had a similar experience at the LA marathon. The weather sucked at the LA marathon (as you know), but I definitely felt like I was tired from overtraining and missed my goal time by 40 minutes! Don't worry-you will have many more marathons to come. Thank you for sharing your experience!

Running With Charlene said...

Vera, I went through the same thing during my Half in March. I overtrained, I was not listening to my body nor paying attention to the stress factors in my own life (my dog recently died).

I did finish the race, but I literally drug myself to the finish line. I did a great Hunchback of Notre Dam imitation!

From that moment - I trained and raced differently. I was mindful of who I did and didn't listen to and most importantly, I trusted my own instincts. After intensive therapy and rehab, I am back stronger than I ever imagined.

You are doing the same. G'ma is a blip and you will soon thank it happened to prevent yourself from further harm, in other races.


Mike and Julie said...

Great post Vera. You really lay it all out there and I enjoyed reading about your experience. Sorry that the race did not go better for you, but it sounds like you really identified your problem areas. I'm looking forward to following your training here and on the DM.


Karna Davis said...

What a heartfelt account of an extremely challenging day. You are a wonderful story teller. I was holding back tears reading this which seems silly, but I was. I am so proud of you and the effort you put in striving to achieve more. I want you to know that I am running again and you were my motivation. I'm just a 3 miler but it's a start. I hope your toe heals completely and doesn't bother you much longer. Love your last sentence, well said!!!