What I call my Running Renaissance began in April 2014, when I had the idea to train for my first full marathon. Let me tell you how this happened.
Up until this fateful April, I had been content to run half marathons and trudge along with painful knees and an out of shape mental game. However all that time I had spent NOT running in 2013? Apparently that did wonders for my knees… all that time off healed them right up! When I went out one day for a 7 mile run and returned home only to realize that my knees weren’t sore and I wasn’t even tired mentally… that was when I started to get the idea. A half marathon? Of course! A full marathon? Perhaps!
As I got through an 8 mile run… a 10 mile run… a 12 miler… all with ease, I decided to give 14 miles a try at the end of June. And while it wasn’t a breeze, it wasn’t painful — physically or mentally. So I shopped out a few marathons within an afternoon’s drive of Princeton and decided on the Baltimore Marathon. We had a family friend I could stay with, and that was that. I registered and tweaked a Hal Higdon training plan to my liking and got on the training band wagon.
That first training cycle was not ideal by any means. I would run 16 or 18 miles on a Sunday and then half-ass my way through meager mileage the rest of the week. I think I topped out at 32 or 35 miles in a week during that training cycle. I was definitely overtraining; my long runs were often 50-66% of my weekly mileage. I ended up with a calf strain after a local half marathon that utilized some sandy trails for a couple miles — a hot late August race that netted me a 2:02:02 finish and a blow to my confidence — and then suffered with IT band pain in the weeks leading up to my marathon.
But race day morning, my knee finally bounced back and gave me no problems. However that marathon was a hot mess. I was so anxious I barely slept the night before. I felt confident when we started. The first few miles were a breeze. But I started to deflate around mile 11 and by mile 14, I hit the wall… and the many hills of the Baltimore Marathon. I walked about 30-40% of the next 12 miles and came across the finish line at 4:43:43. It was a true slog, and I was exhausted, but I was done. And I was the fittest I had ever been in my life… so immediately I began shopping out my second marathon.
I decided on the Minneapolis Marathon (not to be confused with the Twin Cities Marathon!). It was May 31, which was right after the end of the first year of my Master’s program, so I could fly into Minneapolis and meet my parents at a hotel and we could stay there for the weekend, then they could bring me back home to Iowa with them. It ended up being a great plan. Recovering from my marathon in the gigantic, soft guest bed at my parent’s house was a great way to kick off my summer vacation!
Training for Minneapolis went much better than training for Baltimore, but it wasn’t perfect. I had some overtraining strain my left calf, but I was able to run through it and it went away on its own in June. I ran the half marathon at the New Jersey Marathon that spring as my race prep race and surprised myself with a 1:53… a 5 minute PR! It was my ninth HM and the first one in which I didn’t walk a single step. I felt unstoppable.
The race in Minneapolis went much better than Baltimore as well. Though my training still maxed out around 35-40 miles, I was much more mentally prepared. I started out pacing 8:40s as the first half of the course trends downhill. My parents met me at mile 11 to give me the water bottle I’d carry the rest of my race, the pocket filled with gels. They barely made it down to mile 18 in time to cheer me on as I was still running a much faster pace than we’d planned on the night before when we came up with their spectating plan. My dad ran with me from about mile 18.5 to mile 20.5 which was a big mental boost. And then I slogged through the last 5+ miles alone. Going into the race, I expected a 4:20… 4:15 at best. I was shocked to cross the finish line in 4:04:39, a 39 minute PR!
And so I wondered… if I stepped up my mileage, how much faster could I run? I hadn’t really done anything new this training cycle besides add about 5 miles a week to my schedule. What if I added even more? How much faster could I get… could I qualify for Boston?
And so the summer of 2015 was the summer of “trying out high mileage to see if I crash and burn.” And you know what? I didn’t. I didn’t do a single mile of speedwork from June through August; all my miles were easy. But I stepped up to 45, then 50 miles a week. By September, my training range was 45-60 miles. And I had an amazing racing season. I dropped my 5k PR from 24:40 to 22:17. I lowered my half marathon PR from 1:53 to 1:43:38. I expected that I could run my fall marathon in 3:40… maybe even somewhere below a 3:35… I was not-so-secretly hoping for a 3:32 so that I could qualify for Boston under the buffer time.
My third marathon was late in November at the Philadelphia Marathon. And despite all my amazing fall races, this one did not go well at all. I decided during my taper madness to do some yoga, despite never doing yoga otherwise. And in the midst of this yoga, I strained my right hamstring. And because I was in a taper, I had no way to evaluate how injured I was. I optimistically believed I’d be fine by race day. But oh boy, was I wrong!
The race started and I was on pace, hitting my 7:55-8:10 splits on the nose. I was feeling good, feeling confident. But around mile 9 or 10 of the Philly marathon there’s a hill. Basically the only major hill on the course. And after that I could not get my pace back on track. My legs felt weird and tired. I thought about pulling away with the half marathoners and cutting it short, but — ever the optimist — I chose to continue on the marathon course. By mile 15, my calves started to cramp. Then my quads. Then my feet. All my muscle groups were overcompensating for my strained and uncooperative hamstring. By mile 18, I figured it’d take me just as long to drop out and walk back to the finish than to just push on and run-walk the last 8 miles, so… continue I did.
My amazing Oiselle teammates met me around mile 24 and ran with me to mile 26. I just had to make it through 0.2 miles on my own at the end. But those last miles were miserable. I was swearing up a storm, almost in tears, and I instructed them not to let me stop under any circumstances! I was running on cramping feet, and I was in so much pain. I crossed the finish line in 4:02:32, a two minute PR. On one hand, I was happy to have finished at all, but on the other hand… I had wanted to run thirty minutes faster. I was disappointed. I even cried a little — the only time I have cried at the end of a marathon to date! — because I was so mad to have all that season’s hard work be “wasted” because of my stupid hamstring.
I let myself take a week to have a pity party. I rehabbed the hell out of my hamstring. And then I got back at it. I got back to 35 mile weeks… then 45 mile weeks over winter break. And I started up training at the end of January 2016 at 50 mile weeks, with my schedule’s training mileage ranging from 50 to 65 miles per week. In my mind, I’m not training as a 4-hour marathoner. I know that I could have done 3:40 at the very least at Philly. I’m working hard not only for a BQ but for redemption, to prove that my fast fall times weren’t flukes, and that I can run a Boston Qualifying time… and even faster.
For the first time since I started running ten years ago, I finally see that I have some potential in this sport. As a high school and college athlete, I thought that I just wasn’t fast… as if fast was a trait you were born with. But it just took me a lot longer than some to realize that to be successful in running doesn’t require innate ability. Rather you have to learn to be comfortable with discomfort, to embrace suffering, and overcome self-doubt. Now that I’ve finally learned that I can do this, I’m eager to see how far and how fast I can push this body of mine.