Life often throws obstacles in the way of goals, but every once in a while everything goes better than you plan. This was my experience of the 2017 Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. In a way, this is where it all started.
April 28, 2013, I ran my first half marathon at Oklahoma City. I registered just a week prior to the race with my thoughts on the Boston Marathon bombing. I had been working on longer distances, but really wasn’t sure of my ability yet. I ran 2:12:40 and immediately decided that I would never run a full marathon! My legs were sore for the better part of a week.
Fast forward four years, two 50Ks, five marathons, and many half marathons later, and I found myself back in Oklahoma City. I have been working on increasing my speed. Last fall I adopted a goal of running a 4:15 marathon, and missed that mark by quite a bit at a race on New Year’s Eve. (Marathon Runner) Within days of that race, I signed up for OKC determined to hit my goal.
My training went very well. I consistently ran five days a week, increasing my speed with guidance from my coach. Most days I felt very good and confident in my runs, amazed at what I could do when I set my mind to it.
Another big factor coming into this race was my nutrition. Two months out, I started teaching another “Journeys: Back on the Court” class for Cox Monett Hospital. I have always had issues with food (Why 2ndLifeFit?), but this time I used the course as a direct support for reaching my marathon goal. I dropped nearly 20 pounds between my last race and OKC.
The week prior to the race, I had a conversation with my coach about race strategy. My nutrition strategy included running with a handheld, as I’ve had issues with dehydration in the past. I also carried 8 GU gels with me with the plan to take one about every thirty minutes. My coach asked how I felt about pace. Did I want to stick with the 4:15 goal? Did I want to try and push it? Constant pace, or negative splits? Do I want to run with the pacers? I was feeling really good about my training, and my coach thought 4:15 was too easy for what my training block looked like. “What do you really want to do,” he asked. Though I couldn’t really believe it, I said, “I’d really like to try and beat 4 hours.”
And so it was set. I was going to stay with the 4 hour pace group and then speed up if I had any gas left in the tank in the last few miles. I think as soon as I agreed that was the strategy, I wanted to throw up. All the negative thoughts came crashing in. “You can’t do sub 4!”, “What if you bonk?”, “You can’t run 9:09 miles for 26 miles!”……blah, blah, blah. I had several friends running this weekend as well, and when they would ask me what my goal was, I would often answer with something like, “I’m going to try for 4 hours, but I doubt that will happen.” This negative talk can be so destructive, but as it turns out, another part of my personality worked out as a bit of a secret weapon.
I am a numbers guy. I can be overly analytical. I’ve often had analysis paralysis when trying to weigh big decisions. However, in this case, knowing the numbers seemed to be creeping in to support my goal. That voice said things like, “Remember, you never thought you could run 7:30 miles either,” or “9:09 miles really aren’t that hard to run any more”…..maybe this was possible?
On race morning, my nerves weren’t as bad as I thought they would be. I just kept telling myself, “Just get through the first few miles and see how you feel.” Possibly through a mistake in my registration, I had been assigned to Corral A, where the fast people start! However, when I went to line up, I found the 4 hour pace group in Corral B, and that seemed to take a little bit of the pressure off as well. (I am aware this is all in my head) After announcements, the national anthem, the wheelchair start, and Corral A was clear, our pack started the walk, then jog to the start line. I passed under the timing clock and heard all the GPS watches beep, and I was in the thick of my 6th official marathon.
I think of long distance running as a very solitary sport. Yes, I am running with literally tens of thousands of people, but I don’t really spend much time on conversation. I try to keep my mind on what I’m doing. “How’s my form?”, “keep your head up”, “does my heel feel ok?”, “how’s my heart rate?”….these are the things that generally occupy my focus. Then there’s pace….
I was hoping to avoid my sometimes obsessive amount of looking at my watch by running with the pacers. My coach suggested that I check and make sure that they were running on pace and not to go out too fast. I must have looked at my watch every minute or so, and by the time we reached the first mile, 9:13, a tad slow, but good cause still warming up. Mile 2, 9:04, we’re a little fast, but could be terrain. Miles 3-6 all sub 9:00 pace, and I was starting to worry.
“If I keep this up I’ll blow up”, “This seems harder than it should”, “My heart rate is higher than expected”, “These guys are easily keeping this pace, and aren’t paying attention”…….these are just a few of the “super supportive” things going through my head. So somewhere between miles 7 and 10, I backed off and let the pace group go on without me. I never really let them get out of sight, but I did let them get several hundred meters ahead. But my numbers told me that I was doing alright. I wasn’t sure I could keep up this pace for 26.2 miles, but for now I was OK.
I had run this course before, so when I got to the half, I knew that the miles by Lake Hefner were just ahead. I turned on my headphones for the first time and kept up my pace. These miles are notoriously windy, and this day was no exception. As I crossed an overpass, the wind hit me in the face. This is where I was sure it would all fall apart, but I kept running. At this point the pace group was well ahead of me. I remember smiling as I watch the runners ahead of me leaning slightly into the wind as they ran. I was surprised to be able to keep my pace.
After the lake miles, I hit a bit of a low point at which time I remember taking a gel and thinking, “You’ll feel better when you get that sugar in you”…..Turns out that was true. There is a long sweeping downhill through Nichols Hills on this part of the course. I thought this would be a good time to kick it up a bit and soon felt better both physically and in spirit. The next big point was to get to the long Classen straight away.
Feeling better and running well, to my amazement, I caught the 4 hour pace group around mile 22. This section on Classen Blvd is a longer than three miles, crazy straight with a slight uphill the whole way. It can be positively mind numbing. My coach told me after mile 20 to concentrate on my form to take my mind of the pain. “It’s supposed to hurt” he told me, reminding me not to freak out and start walking. So I tucked in with the pace group and kept my mind on my form. This brought me to a turning point.
Just after mile 24, I happened to be running side-by-side with the pacers, and one of them shouts out to the group, “photo-op ahead!” There were several places on the course where photographers were placed on ladders to get good shots. Jokingly I responded by speeding up, jumping ahead of the pacers saying, “well, I have to be ahead of the pacers for the photo”…..The funny thing is, I felt pretty good at that point, so I decided to see if I could keep that up, knowing that I had around two miles left.
I dropped the pace group, and to my surprise, my legs continued to respond. There is one short but pretty steep hill in this section, and I remember thinking, “Don’t you dare slow down now, with the pace group behind you! You are going to break 4 hours, and you have less than 20 minutes left to run, just keep going!” So I kept going.
Knowing the course, I came to the last left turn. Apparently I still had another gear left, and increased my speed. I also knew that I could skip this last water stop, and kept pushing. My heart rate was pretty high, but nothing abnormal for the effort, so I just kept going.
As I made the last right, and caught sight of the finish line, I heard the announcer say, “these runners are still sub-4”. I had figured out a few miles back that I was going to beat 4, but this announcement had me create a new goal in the last few hundred meters. “What if I could actually beat 4 hours from the actual gun time?” so I picked up my pace again. I seemed to have another gear. Then an interesting thing happened.
With about 200 meters left, a runner who had been struggling collapsed and medical personnel ran out to aid them. That voice in my head literally said, “You’re doing fine, no need to actually hurt yourself.” I finished the race with a strong pace, but decided that sprinting to the end wasn’t worth a couple of seconds. The clock read 4:00:25 as I crossed the finish.
I didn’t beat the gun time, but I did finish with an official chip time of 3:57:53! I crushed it!! That’s a 37 minute, 15 second personal record!
Pick a goal. Break it down into trainable chunks. Be consistent in training and manage your nutrition and you’d be surprised what you are capable of!