Blogs tagged with "marathon"

Metal (Steel?) Medal

Running the Pittsburgh Marathon this year was never about time. It was never about place. And it certainly was never about money. I know those things as motivators in past races. And no, this year, running the Pittsburgh Marathon was about the demons.

Everyone who knows me knows I have demons. The demons tell me I'm not good enough to toe the line with other athletes (or even be in their presence). They tell me I'll never be better than a mid-packer at best. They tell me all my good performances were one-off flukes. Simply put, they make me hate myself. And they have owned my soul for the last two years. I wanted it back.

I chose the marathon as the race distance in which to wrestle back my soul. And I chose the Pittsburgh Marathon because it's a race and a city that are very near and dear to me (despite the scorn of my Cleveland-based social group). I've always loved Pittsburgh races: I ran the marathon once before (race report from 2010) and I've even won the Friends of the Riverfront Triathlon a few times. One of the great things about the marathon is, by far, the crowd support. I don't know how they do it, but it's like the city informs all of their residents to be out cheering and holding up posters that make runners laugh (more on that) along the entire route.

I registered for the Pittsburgh Marathon even before I considered the training. Since the beginning of 2014, my training has been focused on increasing time and frequency without re-injuring my severely messed-up hamstring tendon. I had two PRP treatments and have worked with a physical therapist for a year and a half. I've spent many hours on my bike and bike trainer and my fitness level was getting there, but with the marathon approaching, I needed more time on my legs just to feel a tiny bit of confidence at the starting line in Pittsburgh. But my running has seriously lacked distance - as my running partners of late have been doing hilly trail runs (read: slow.. well, slower than marathon pace for me). What made things most difficult was the atrocious Cleveland weather this winter - unbearably cold and snowy. If it weren't for those friends, I never would have gotten out the door. Even so, my longest run this year (and since March 2013) was only 18 miles. My second-longest was 14.


This mileage doesn't bode well for the marathon distance, and I knew I couldn't possibly go to Pittsburgh with a time goal. I fully expected to walk the last 6-8 miles. In fact, it's exactly what I told my physical therapist. He agreed that I could cover the distance and by covering the distance, I would prove something to myself that I needed (for sanity? for my upcoming season? for my return to ironman distance? all of the above?). I guess the most important thing was to not DNF.

Good Morning Pittsburgh! Land of bridges.

Of course, I made it a little more difficult for myself because I also went to Pittsburgh without a taper. I mean, like, NO taper. This was a first. I couldn't afford to break my triathlon training for the possibility of a fast marathon. No, I had to get in a decent-length bike ride the day before (which actually turned into a tough 50 miles of fighting wind and rain). To say the least, I wasn't giving myself much of a chance on May 4 in Pittsburgh. Yes, I had accepted that from the moment I hit the submit button in the race registration form.


But toe the line I did. At 6:50 am, on very little sleep and tired legs, I stood in my start corral behind the 3:15 pace group and hoped (prayed) I hadn't made a serious mistake. Spectators, including my husband Jim, were not given access to the starting area, so I had no one to help beat down the rising fear - the demons and their constant chatter of "oh my God, what have I done?" and "you are SO screwed, it's really not funny." I tried to shake them off with my own positive thinking: "this is going to be FUN!" and "I love Pittsburgh!" but the fight was on - and it would surely haunt every step.

Then, it started to rain.

Demons: 1
Me: 0

I took in the scene. There were helicopters and loud speakers. It was cold (50 degrees) and raining and dark. There were people jumping up and down trying to keep warm. People stretching. People saying their own silent prayers. There was a drone hanging in the air over the start line. Weirdly, it was a familiar feeling (well, not the drone part). I truly missed the marathon starting line. Just runners, pavement, and running shoes. No bikes. No wetsuits. No transition zones. No goggles. No caps. No tires to inflate. No wet grass. No mud. No worries.

Me in my new team 
At least Jim got photos of some fast people.

Take that! All tied up.
Demons: 2
Me: 2 ("I'm still smiling, the hill was surprisingly easy thanks to hill training!")


The 3:20 pace group kept me going for a bit, but I decided to pick up the pace around mile 15. It was another huge assumption - that picking up the pace wouldn't be a mistake. I noticed that my form is better when I run faster and with that, the increasing pain subsided a bit too. Expecting to hit the wall at 18 miles (since that was my longest training run), I thought it was nothing short of a miracle that I was still running well at 20.

Woo.
Demons: 2 ("You'll be walking at 18!")
Me: 3 ("Bite me!")


I can see the the finish line.

My first-half splits had been 7:30-7:45 pace, and my second half splits were looking a little better until about mile 22. That's really when everything started to hurt. Bad. There was a considerable amount of pain (not cramps) in my legs and my hips. I kept running at least until the downhill at mile 23-24, but the leg pounding had really taken a toll. I was barely hanging onto a 7:45 pace after mile 24, and I could tell I was starting to drag my left leg - the hamstring-injury side. During the last four miles, I ran with two guys who were also struggling, but we supported each other to the finish. I kept telling myself that if I couldn't keep running in THIS marathon, what chance did I have in my next Ironman run? Then I saw on a poster that age-old expression - you know it - it starts with "Pain is temporary..." And it was all I could do to roll into the finish at a barely sub-8:00 pace. It was far from my best. My watch said 3:20:something. It was officially my third-slowest marathon ever.

Demons: 3 ("Here comes the pain!")
Me: 4 ("Oh yeah? I've run through much worse pain and fatigue - including vomiting - in Ironman!")
WIN!


Rewards.

I purposely didn't look at the results because I wanted to celebrate the accomplishment while Jim and I immediately made our way to our favorite place, Piper's Pub, to have breakfast - and a beer. I now know my official time was 3:19:33, I finished 3rd (of 129) in my age group (W45-49), and 24th woman (of 1789) overall. Years ago, this result would find me kicking myself for all the things I didn't do to prepare for the race. But no one was more surprised than I was that I was even under 3:20. In reviewing my splits, I found a fairly even-pace run from start to finish. I didn't walk, I drank at every aid station, and I had no nutrition issues. During the race, I adjusted my goals according to how I was feeling and the bottom line was: be happy with a sub-3:30, finish running, and enjoy the day. Yep, goals accomplished.

The hard part may be yet to come. I have to kick the demons out of my head and not re-evaluate and overanalyze this thing to death... or to the point where I DO start beating myself up over what could have been.


But for now, once again, the demons are at rest.
Sunrise on Staten Island, Nov 6, 2011

It's been 14 years since I ran my first New York City Marathon. The title sponsor has changed. The location of the expo has changed. The size of the race has changed (drastically). And sadly, the skyline of my beloved New York City has changed. But, as they say (and to quote a tired cliché): "the more things change... the more they stay the same."

First, a run-down of time spent in New York.

After a 6.5-hour drive from Cleveland, we arrived at our hotel in the wee hours of Saturday, November 5. Our hotel was in Secaucus, New Jersey - better (or more widely) known as the place you stay when going to the Meadowlands Sports Complex - which is not better (and less widely) known as the Izod Center. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a marathon runner who was apparently looking for someone not only to tell his life story to (which included being a 2:30-something marathoner to getting leukemia to separating his achilles tendon which would probably cost him a finish on Sunday - it was actually quite poignant but it was 1:00 am for crying out loud and some of us cared about getting sleep before the marathon), but to also complain that he had no idea how he was going to get to the starting line because he missed the online Meadowlands bus sign-up. Thank heavens we could assuage his fears about the latter. In the gobs of pre-race information, it was mentioned that bus signups could be taken care of at the expo Saturday.

Thus, it was 2:30 am before I was in bed and asleep on Saturday morning.

The alarm clock went off at 9 am. Why so early you ask? Because there was NO WAY I would miss spending time in New York City by convincing myself extra sleep would help me run faster in a marathon that I was wholly untrained for. When one day in New York City awaited, 6.5 hours was all I was willing to spare.

First up - breakfast. Then a quick jog to shake off the day-before's drive. Jim was skeptical that I would find a place to run from our hotel along the New Jersey Turnpike, but he severely under-estimated the area. This was, after all, "the Meadowlands,"and as luck would have it, about a half-mile from our hotel, there was an awesome trail through the restored wetlands of Mill Creek Marsh.

NYC Skyline from the bus showing both the
Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building

With my run out of the way, we set our sites on the quickest way to Manhattan - which happened to be the New Jersey Transit bus. Parking in NY would be one less thing to worry about. The bus took us directly to the Port Authority terminal - within walking distance of the marathon check-in and expo at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on 11th and 35th. The expo and packet pick-up ran like clockwork as long as you did the prep work (i.e., printed out your marathon entry card and pulled out your id). In a matter of minutes, I was checked-in and had my t-shirt and goodie bag. We only had to stop and ask questions about transport to the start - I had originally chosen the Staten Island ferry because we were expecting to stay in Manhattan, not New Jersey. The line for bus sign-up was akin to something you'd wait in to get on a ride at Disney World. Luckily there was a volunteer with answers: the line was for tour groups only. I asked her how to change buses and she just took my number and gave me a new bus sticker. Wait, what? Really? It was painless.

The last thing I had to do (to Jim's dismay) was browse the expo. Fortunately, there were no great deals, and the only thing I stopped for was to try on a new pair of running shoes at the New Balance booth. The NB 890s turned out to be a must-have, but the deal-breaker was that they only brought them in light purple. Really? Despite having worn some of the ugliest running shoes ever made (cases in point: original quilted Adidas Ozweegos, Saucony Azuras), apparently even I have standards, and there was NO WAY I was running in (light) purple shoes unless they were the last pair of 890s on Earth. (Note: the only purple shoes I will wear are my purple Doc Martens boots.) Sorry New Balance. I postponed the purchase because they also come in black and blue.

Early Sunday Morning, Edward Hopper
- arguably one of the Whitney's most
iconic pieces.

We high-tailed it out of there to do what you are supposed to do in NYC - get some culture! First stop: the Whitney Museum of American Art. We made one race-related stop on the way to the Whitney - we explored the post-marathon bag pickup area to choose a location to meet after the race - on 78th Street. THEN we headed to the Whitney. There were two exhibits that I wanted to see: Real/Surreal and David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy. Neither were a disappointment, although Jim would disagree - his exact words in the David Smith exhibit were: "I'm just not feeling it." At least he liked seeing the Hoppers. Besides, my new job at The Cleveland Museum of Art was good for a complimentary entry.

Rudy's Music (a.k.a. window
shopping for Jim)

We didn't spend a huge amount of time looking at art because we wanted to make a quick trip to Times Square then get down to Greenwich Village for dinner. While we were passing through Times Square, Jim was able to check out guitar shops in the famous 48th street "Music Row"- specifically Rudy's Music. I like it when Jim has a hidden agenda - i.e., we always just "wander across" these music shops.

Murray's Cheese Shop

Then we took the subway down to the Village to browse shops (specifically Murray's Cheese) and have pizza. Instead of our normal slice at Joe's on Carmine Street, we went for an excellent sit-down at John's of Bleecker Street. It was a great way to end a whirlwind day in NYC and get my carbs for the marathon. On the way back we stopped at other favorites Bleecker Street Records and Rocco's Pastry Shop for dessert.

Can you tell how much
Jim likes the subway?

We caught the subway and then the bus back to the hotel, and I packed up my stuff for marathon morning. I was exhausted from being on my feet all day but was very happy to remember the clocks went back that night and we would get an extra hour of sleep. I still had to be up at 4 am to catch the bus at 5 to Staten Island for the marathon start.

I slept like a log and in a few hours, it was Marathon Morning.

The NYC Marathon has a late start - the first wave was scheduled to go at 9:40 am. What this really means: you must rethink your race-at-7-am morning rituals. For me, this meant all I had to do was take a shower and grab my breakfast for the road. I knew the following facts (important when amidst 50,000 runners):

  • I was wearing an orange number (there were three colors: orange, blue, green).
  • I was in Wave 1.
  • My bus left between 5 and 6 am at the Meadowlands Sports Complex... ahem, I mean, the Izod Center.
  • It was cold (about 37 degrees F).
  • Breakfast, water, Gatorade and Dunkin' Donuts coffee would be available at the start.
Early Sunday (Marathon) Morning. By Yours Truly
- arguably one NYC's most iconic views.

I mostly kept to myself from the moment Jim dropped me off at the bus. However, it was weirdly coincidental that I sat next to a guy from Columbus, Ohio, on the bus. He would be doing his first Ironman triathlon in 2012. We swapped a few war stories and I learned he was a Canadian national team swimmer. I have to say that I struggled with my reaction when he went off on how amazing and wonderful Chris McCormack is.... um.... no comment... I considered telling him how I felt about Craig Alexander but kept it to myself. As much as I like these happy coincidences that spark conversation, I really wanted to get off the bus and go back into my shell and contemplate being alone amidst 50,000 people. It was just one of those days. 

The orange area was called Grete Waitz
village - in memory of the woman who
inspired most my generation's women to run

Once off the bus, we made our way to the start areas which were grouped by color. The directional signage was wrong and many people ended up in the wrong areas - not a good way to start off the morning. It's a good thing we had more than three hours to figure it out. The volunteers straightened things out and directed people to the correct areas. When I got to the orange staging area, the first thing I saw was the Verazzano Narrows bridge rising majestically above us. In the early morning light, it was one of the most spectacular views I've ever experienced before a marathon - or anytime for that matter. I was thankful I brought my old iPhone (re-purposed as an iPod Touch) so I could take photos before the start (and listen to music).

I wandered around, listened to music, sat down, drank some awesome coffee and ate my breakfast. Being the pre-race minimalist, I was blown away by the amount of stuff people brought with them: blankets, sleeping bags, wardrobe changes, TENTS! And to think I was so easily satisfied to receive a free Dunkin' Donuts fleece beanie to keep me warm. Who knew we could bring a personal shelter to the start? I actually found myself spending more time than necessary warming up inside the portajohns (hey, you do what you can in these times of need - especially when you forgot your tent).
Dunkin' Donuts starting line freebie

The "way" to the start was less confusing than the first time I ran the race. Despite this, I almost missed the start just like I did 14 years ago. That year, I was late to the start because of the massive jam of people all trying to get to get to the bag drop through a tiny opening in a fence. This year, there was no mass pileup and no fence - we were directed to drop our bags at the UPS trucks (for finish line delivery) not less than 45 minutes before our start wave. I was 10 minutes early, and yet, as I was making my way to the start (via one last bathroom break), I heard something terrifying come over the PA: "Wave 1 start corrals are NOW CLOSED!"

WHAT??

I panicked. I was IN Wave 1. Every ounce of my mental organization evaporated in that instant as I made a mad dash for who-knows-where-but-where-ever-the-other-mad-dashing-people-were-going. I asked anyone who looked like they had a clue: "which way to the start corrals??" only to be met with "you've got an orange bib, you're not in Wave 1" - WAIT! WHAT? I could have sworn I was in Wave 1! Um... quick! check my bib! yep, it said "Wave 1." I kept running towards that distant who-knows-where following orange arrows and hoping they were pointing the way.

When I arrived at the start corrals, slackers like me were being hurriedly herded in so the gates could be closed. My corral (numbers in the 5000s) was the furthest away so I was directed to jump in with the 13,000s because there was "no way I would make it in time" to the 5000s before they closed. It was almost identical situation as in 1997 when I had to crawl my way up the bridge to my start corral and rely on the generosity of people in the crowd to let me through because I was wearing a seeded number. On Sunday I remembered this and made my way through the crowd, touting my number as the reason I could move up. No one complained. I finally saw bib numbers in the 5000s and I rejoiced because I had finally made it to "my people." Almost immediately, we were herded to the starting line on the bridge to await the start. It was just after 9 am.

Unlike the last two times I ran NYC, this year, the start was at the bottom instead of partly up the incline of the bridge. Right after the elite women's race started, we all moved up and I was surprised to actually see the "Start" sign only about 20 feet in front of me. There was a speech from Mayor Bloomberg and the playing of the National Anthem. In the final ten minutes, another coincidence happened in finding out the runner next to me was from Toledo, Ohio. Then the horn went off and we were on our way.

Running over a suspension bridge is one of the great pleasures I've experienced as a runner. Running over the Verazzano-Narrows bridge - the seventh-longest suspension bridge in the world - is a revelation. Mile 1 occurs very close to the apex of the bridge and makes you realize exactly how much road is suspended across the water by cables hanging between the pylons (almost a mile). The Verazzano-Narrows bridge is an incredible feat of engineering and held the record for longest suspension bridge in the world for 33 years (the previous record was held by the Golden Gate Bridge - another bridge I hope to someday run across).

Moving from bridge history back to the NYC Marathon...

After the bridge, the next twelve miles of the NYC Marathon runs through huge crowds in the diverse neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. There was music everywhere, mostly in the form of bands playing right on the sidewalks. At one point, I found myself cringing from a really discordant note that one of the bands hit at the end of their song. I laughed and turned to the runner next to me and said: "I think they need more practice." His response was totally unexpected: "give me a break, it's only my THIRD marathon!"

Wait, what? Did he think I said "YOU need more practice"? Yikes - I cleared up the misunderstanding. But after that, all I could think of was: does this guy actually think I just run along and insult other people? How completely bizarre. I didn't talk to anyone else on the course after that.

During the first half, the great spectator support made it all too easy for me to be lulled into a false sense of speed and stop focusing on my race (I use the term "race" loosely). I kept an eye on my Timex GPS (first time I've worn it in a race) but I was paying more attention to the mile clocks (and the fact that there was a clock at EVERY mile, every 5K AND the half). Even though I tried to keep a lid on it, I was shocked to find my mile pace near seven minutes at the half. Yes, this was a mistake. And I made the mistake by going to "what if" land. What if I can hold this pace? What if I don't really need to train to run fast? What if my post-Ironman fitness can carry me through this?

What if I am a complete idiot?

The truth of the matter is that the NYC Marathon is an extremely deceptive course. Long gradual inclines masquerade as flatness. The damage was done by mile 15 when I was climbing the "hill" of the 59th Street/Queensboro bridge. I knew Manhattan (and Jim) would be waiting for me on the other side of the bridge. In face, I always tell NYC Marathon virgins that coming off the bridge is the most exciting moment of the entire race. On Sunday, I would need all the support I could get by then - because on that uphill, my left hip finally had enough and began screaming in agony.

Entry into Manhattan via 59th Street

When I came off the bridge, I heard Jim yell my name and I was so happy to see him - I wanted to stop and hug him and yell about the pain. But I didn't want him to worry, so I just smiled and waved. I really wanted to finish and enjoy this marathon, but the next ten miles would be an exercise in survival and avoiding injury. I eased back on my pace to reduce the pain and avoid major damage to my hip (remembering I had promised Jim I would not do anything stupid). My goal became "to not walk unless I was limping" (the red flag of impending injury). I had the same problem in the 2008 Philadelphia Marathon and managed to get through it without further decay, so I knew it was possible.

Almost finished

Despite the pain and my major slow down, the miles ticked away in Manhattan's Upper East Side with crowd support even more dense than Brooklyn. And the usual dead zone - the short jaunt into the Bronx - was hopping this year with music and big crowd. From there, we ran back into Manhattan through Harlem, then along the east edge and into Central Park near mile 24 - this where the race gets really hard with rolling hills and turns. Those last three miles are when the crowd is at its very best, and although I was struggling with my hip and starting to feel some nausea, I was carried along almost in a trance from the screaming spectators. The hardest thing was having to ease back in the last half-mile because of stomach issues - but I still managed to get across the finish line (barely) under 3:15 with a smile. The weather had been dry and sunny and damn near perfect in the mid-50s.

Crossing the finish line was the beginning of a death march because of my hip pain. My walking stride became a slow painful dragging of my left leg and my body was cooling off in a hurry. Volunteers wrapped us in mylar blankets and gave us food, but all I really wanted was to get into my warm clothes and find Jim. I should have expected some kind of disaster any minute.

I slowly inched along through the park and continued on the long block of W 77th Street from 8th to Columbus Ave, past the UPS trucks with our bags. As I imagined getting my bag and getting warm, I started having flashbacks of the finish line in 1997 when my dry clothes bag was "lost." That year, it was 45 degrees and raining and I stood around shivering for over an hour, finally breaking down in tears because I was so cold and no one would help me (they just gave up looking). One of the UPS guys took pity on me and gave me his jacket, helped me calm down and somehow found my bag after about a 30 minute search.

This year... I was sure that couldn't possibly happen again. Right? Walking by the trucks, I saw runners' bags laid out on the road in organized, numbered rows. The truck with my bag (numbers in the 5000s) was at the very end of the block. As I approached it, I noticed a huge crowd surrounding it (the only truck like this). Runners were standing around frustrated because of total disorganization. In the chaos, several runners just gave up and walked away, while others begged to help. After close to an hour of standing and getting crushed by the angry mass, shivering, and finally losing the feeling in my fingers and toes, my bag was finally in my hands. But my fingers were so numb I couldn't even open it. I could barely move my left leg, I was going hypothermic, and I desperately wanted to get into the sun and find Jim. With the crowd and the cold and the pain, moving one short block from that truck to Jim was a bigger ordeal than the marathon I had just run. Crossing the street, I was almost run over by one of those bicycle-rickshaw things trying to get to him. Jim was able to get my bag open and help me get my sweats on before we started the long walk to the car - parked on 49th street.

I didn't mind the final walk because it was in the sun and the feeling in my fingers came back. I was als able to get some nourishment in the form of hot chocolate, water, and a Powerbar. We also grabbed a final slice of pizza. I don't even remember the name of the place. (Can you get a bad slice in NYC?) It was a great way to head out of the City for the long drive home to Cleveland.

1997 NYC Marathon:
yep, that IS a cast on my leg

The Marathon. The first race distance I ever truly learned. The first race distance I ever truly respected. And the first race distance I ever truly loved. From 1991 to 2001, I was a student of the marathon. It taught me more about myself than anyone or anything ever had. It chewed me up and spit me out. And it made me stronger - both physically AND mentally. So when I get overwhelmed and stressed out and want to return to my comfort zone, I go back to marathoning. It's what I know best. And it feels like home.

And no other race feels more like home to me than the New York City Marathon - for two reasons: it's "my" distance; and it's "my" city.

During my formative years, there were two major cities that a Connecticut native could identify with: Boston and New York. My brother's passion was north - in Boston. Mine was south - in New York. I don't know why. It could have been the high school field trips there. It could have been the two college boyfriends from there. It could have been something else entirely. All I know is that somewhere after the age of 16, I began referring to New York as "THE City" (as in "let's go to the City"). It didn't matter where I was in the world - "the City" meant New York. And the City has never disappointed me. It is the place where dreams came true and some of my greatest memories were made (although Disney World has also been known to possess this power).

Disaster Magnet with Olly and Gale of Turin Brakes
(this photo doesn't really indicate how much pain
I was in from my bike accident )

My favorite moment in the City happened in June 2003 - about a month after my horrific bike accident. And it was just what I needed to lift my spirits. My husband Jim and I traveled from Cleveland to New York to see the English acoustic duo Turin Brakes at the Bowery Ballroom on their first U.S. tour. I had never met them but we were acquainted because I had painted portraits of them. The long-story-short version of this story is that it all ended in one of those once-in-a-lifetime fan experiences - not only did I have the opportunity to meet them in person, but they actually played my favorite song and dedicated it to me after telling the audience about the portraits. I still tell the story in awe that it ever even happened - and yep, it proved to me for the nth time that New York was a very special place indeed.

The New York City Marathon has also played a role in memory-making - not once, but twice. My first experience running the New York City Marathon almost didn't happen. It was 1997 and five weeks before the race, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my tibia. My orthopod, Dr. Sam Patterson, did something extraordinary that year to get me to the starting line (although he would probably claim it was the only thing he could do to avoid having me commit suicide right there in his office upon diagnosis). He let me train every other day on land with an air-cast. On the other days, I trained by running in the water. By race day, I had the choice of running with or without the cast - I chose the cast. Even though race day was cold and wet and miserable, I had so much fun with crowd interaction (mostly because I was running with a cast and wearing my Cleveland Indians hat right after the Indians knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs) that it remains - to this day - the only marathon for which I purchased the finish line photo. My air-cast stunt also resulted in an invitation to run with the Wackos - a legendary Northeast Ohio running group.

The second, and last, time I ran the New York City Marathon was a very somber event. It was in November 2001 - less than two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There was some fear that the run over the Verazzano Narrows Bridge - from Staten Island to Brooklyn - would be in danger. Rudy Giuliani made a moving speech before the start, and I got the feeling every American who ran across the bridge that day felt it was a collective act of defiance. I still have the singlet I ran in that day - it has the Team Wacko logo on the front and an American flag hand-sewn (by me) on the back. And the show went on.

So, yes, New York has been the place of special moments - in life and in running. And I will return there in two weeks to end my racing season, hopefully on a better note than the one I tried to end it on on October 8. It doesn't matter to me that I'm not really in shape to run a marathon. Because the New York City Marathon is more than just a race to me. It's a return to my comfort zone. To my roots. To my home. And no matter what the outcome, I know I will always be welcome back.

The medal - yes I am aware that it is
covering my super cool Punk Rock Racing shirt

The name Walt Disney conjures up many thoughts to many people. Some are good. Some are bad. For me, Disney means animation. And Disney means Mickey Mouse - my favorite cartoon character.

I LOVE Mickey Mouse. Some might say I'm OBSESSED with Mickey Mouse. My poor husband Jim was the unfortunate witness to said obsession in 2009 when he took me to Disney World. I dragged the poor soul through three theme parks in search of the ultimate prize: my photo with Mickey Mouse dressed as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" from 1941's masterpiece "Fantasia." Not only did he have to facilitate my ultimate photo op, but he also had to put up with my nerve-wracking borderline-insane fanatical behavior. I suspect it was terribly embarrassing at the very least (Mickey's assistant was charged with the task of calming me down when Jim had had enough). The ONLY thing I DIDN'T do that day was cry.

The first time I met The Mouse.

No, I saved my best Mickey Mouse "cry" for yesterday.

Yesterday, I ran the Walt Disney World Marathon, a race I've wanted to run since the year it was created. But I never wanted to run it for the same reasons most people run marathons - the challenge, the sense of accomplishment, the performance, the course, etc. No, I ran it for one reason. The medal.

The medal has Mickey Mouse on it.

Getting into the Disney Marathon was almost an accident. Jim had a conference in Orlando the first week of January. I planned to fly down and spend the second weekend with him and meet up with my great (and generous) friend Kris who works at Animal Kingdom. I had not even considered running the marathon on Sunday, January 9, because it was undoubtedly sold out.

Or so I thought. An email from active.com said otherwise. Upon finding out the race was 98% full, I signed up immediately. My friend Jess jumped on the bandwagon and entered too. After having to drop out of the Detroit Marathon with an injury, she decided that Disney was the next best place at which to become a marathoner. And what northerner could argue with going to Florida in January?

Only after registering did I realize the marathon was a mere five weeks away. Was I even ready to attempt a marathon? Time for a crash course in marathon training. In those five weeks, I ran three or four times per week, with a few 8- or 9-mile speed sessions on the treadmill and two long runs of 2:10 and 2:30. In addition, I had started building up swim yardage and bike mileage (on my trainer) for Ironman St. George in May.

Jim & me at Harry Potter "World"
at Universal Orlando

In terms of training and racing, I decided to treat the Disney Marathon as a hard long run. To force myself to take it less seriously, I only tapered my running for a week. Then, four days before, I did a (previously-scheduled) bike time trial on my CompuTrainer. I didn't even take it easy in the the two days leading up to the Marathon. On Friday, I did a swim workout at the hotel, then we visited Disney's Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom, and on Saturday, we spent most of the day at Universal Studios (did you really think I'd miss the new Harry Potter ride?). All of the walking and (not so balmy) fresh air, along with two glasses of wine with dinner, took care of the one thing that usually plagues me before races: sleep.

I slept like a rock -- right up until the 2:00 a.m. alarm. The Disney Marathon starts at 5:30 a.m. Yes, I said 5:30.... A.M. Jim has probably still not forgiven me.

The Walt Disney World Marathon runs through the four Disney theme parks: Epcot, the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. If you're planning on going just for the race, it's almost a logistical nightmare for spectators. To see your runner from somewhere other than the parking lot, you'll have to purchase park tickets. Families with "park hopper" tickets will make out best.

For us, the logistical nightmare actually began at check-in and packet pickup. I had to go on a wild [mouse] chase to track down my pre-purchased commemorative pin, the one with Mickey Mouse on it. Two buildings, an expo, several volunteers, and a help desk later -- followed by an incredulous outburst (by me) -- finally landed the pin in my hands. (That's the prepaid pin with Mickey Mouse on it that was supposed to be included with my number and chip when I checked in.)

Jess & me before the start
(our smiles give no indication how cold it was)

We arrived at the race start at Epcot early enough to avoid traffic and parking issues. Although, the second logistical nightmare came in the form of very bad driving directions in the race packet (judging by others making U-Turns, we weren't the only ones who made the mistake).

Then came the next logistics problem. Runners need to be at the starting line by 5 a.m. and spectators cannot accompany runners to the corrals. It was close to 40 degrees F and I was very glad Jim insisted on buying me a cheap throw-away paper shell at the expo. Even with gloves, my fingers were numb well before the start.

As we walked to the start, Jess and I laughed at the irony that they call the start line "corrals" because we felt like livestock being herded towards them. With over 17,000 participants, the start would be in waves. Luckily, my previous marathon performance landed me in the first wave.

Jim actually got a photo of the start fireworks.
(He missed the photo of the giant flame throwers!)

Disney does everything big, including the marathon start (and the size medium tech shirt that was so huge it comfortably fit my 6-foot 4-inch husband). Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy were on stage in track suits. The starting line had huge pillars of fire and fireworks.

And finally, in a flash (literally), we were off and running, or at least shuffling. It was still cold. And dark. In fact, we covered two theme parks before even a hint of sunlight appeared on the horizon.

After over a mile on the parking access road with quite a few spectators lining the course (where did THEY come from?), we entered Epcot. The entry and run through Epcot, despite its brevity, is nothing short of breathtaking. The crowd was very supportive and before I knew it, we were five miles into the race, and looping back on the start to see the final wave go off (with just as much fanfare and firepower as the first).

I can't say I was feeling great for those first several miles. My legs were fatigued but after a 7:33 first mile, I managed a 7-7:10 mile pace through mile 8 when, just like in Detroit, disaster was on the rise. I realized a portajohn stop would be necessary (but, unlike Detroit, not urgent).

Around mile 9, I heard Jim yell to me from a crowd on the sidelines. I saw him and waved. Then came the pitt-stop. I ducked into a portajohn right before the next water stop. Thankfully, unlike Detroit, my colon cooperated, and I made it out in record time - mile 10 in 7:45!

I was so busy trying to get back on pace, i almost didn't notice we entered the Magic Kingdom (it should have been obvious by the humongous white gloves of Mickey Mouse that someone was waving from an overpass). I looked up from my watch to see Cinderella's Castle all lit up right in front of me as we ran down "Main Street USA."

Cinderella's castle at night
(photo taken the day before)

The run through Magic Kingdom was truly THE magical part of the race. I felt like a kid again as we ran into Tomorrowland and past Space Mountain, then around the back of and THROUGH the castle and then through Frontierland -- with cheering crowds throughout the park. But it was over quick, and we were back on the access roads and spectator support dwindled once again, except for the occasional costumed characters, performers and marching bands (who were AWESOME but sparse). The most fun I had when the crowd thinned was watching the occasional runner in costume, for instance, a guy from Japan dressed as Minnie Mouse stopped to take a photo of each and every mile marker. I am NOT making this up. He was in front of me for a WHILE, which is how I know that.

After running through Magic Kingdom, I caught up to the 3:10 pace group. In retrospect, it may be the single most important thing that happened to my race. They were holding an almost dead-even 7:10 pace. My comfort level with the pace came and went, but I hung with them through the half (1:34), through Animal Kingdom -- which was entirely too brief -- and through Hollywood Studios.

Besides the theme parks and the AMAZING volunteers at the water stops (which might very well be the best I ever experienced in a marathon), some of the highlights of the course during my stint with the [self-declared "Boston bound"] 3:10 pace team were the following: two different performances of "Sweet Caroline," accompanied BY the men of the 3:10 pace team, an appearance of Captain Jack Sparrow ("look it's Johnny Depp... Damn! No it isn't"), Chip and Dale, a run through the movie costume production area, high fives from the Richard Petty Driving Experience, Ballou, King Louie, various faries, Phineas and Ferb, Donald, Goofy, and Minnie in safari digs. At one point, we were greeted by an overly peppy Peter Pan ("runners, go to your happy place!"). When I declared (out loud), "I'm gonna strangle that guy!" it drew a round of laughter from my fellow runners.

The finish (note I was just about to high-five Goofy & Donald).

At mile 23, I got cocky, picked up my pace (to 6:54) and shook off the 3:10 pace team. I chased town three women on my way past Disney Resorts and back through Epcot. But I soon became aware that I surged too early, and the 3:10 pace team was eventually back on my tail by the finish line.

Similar to Detroit but not as agonizing (or debilitating), the last three miles of the race were marked by a sharp stabbing pain in my left hip. It slowed me a bit (to 7:25s), but I ran hard right to the finish line to cross in just under 3:10 (official chip time 3:09:42, for 15th overall and first in my age group). When they put that big gold Mickey Mouse medal around my neck, I could only think of one thing to do. I cried.

Volunteers came up to me hugging me and congratulating me. I started to think I had missed the fact that people in Orlando were overly friendly and not respectful of my personal space. Then it hit me. By my behavior, they mistook me for a first-time marathon finisher -- which, I might add, Jess actually did become that day (read her race report). Little did they know I was no more than a sap. A sap who ADORES Mickey Mouse.

FINISHERS! (check out the medals on those chicks!)
Jess's smile was worth the trip.
The Ultimate Prize.

Two blogs ago, I discussed my version of those lingering questions that fall out at the end of one athletic season and the beginning of the next. Question number two in that list is one that plagues me to no end: "How do I reconcile my passion to run marathons with my desire to race well in triathlons?" After the question, I included the following parenthetical thought: "Whether you call it a need or an obsessive-compulsive behavior, it's something I MUST do."

What the hell does that mean? Will I die if I resist running marathons? Probably not. But I don't really want to find out. A month ago, when I realized I'll be in Orlando the weekend of the Walt Disney World Marathon (January 9), I registered immediately. I gave it very little thought -- it didn't even occur to me that I had not run over 13 miles since October.

The thing is, I sometimes do believe I have a basic NEED to run. If I don't run, I get crazy and I can't think straight. No other sport has this effect on me (i.e., avoids making me crazy and helps me think straight). There may have been a time I didn't run, but I don't remember it. Even in elementary school -- it may not have been organized running, and some people may have called it "playing" -- I ran. I was restless if I didn't. My athletic "career" probably started with being the fastest 50-yard-dash runner in my elementary school. Yes, I even beat the boys. I'm sure my girlfriends were mortified and it probably eliminated my chances of having a "boyfriend." But I was 10. I still had places to go (and run to).

That day I became a competitor. And a "runner." At only one other moment in my life did I become acutely aware of the importance of running. I was a senior in high school. I was having a very bad day. "Bad" is relative when you're in high school -- this particular bad day, embarrassingly enough, may have been due to a "B" on an exam. After mentally beating myself up at track practice, my track coach, the incomparable John Klarman, kicked me off the track and sent me off on a three-mile run. ALONE. I had never run ALONE before (I was a quarter-miler, for cryin' out loud, we LIVED in a group on the track). As I pounded the pavement, ALONE, my mind cleared. Upon returning to the track, I didn't (and still can't) remember exactly what had sent me into such a bad state that day.

From that day on, running has become the antidote. All the people close to me have discovered it: when Jeanne is having a bad day, send her out running. My room-mates in college did it. My friends do it. My husband does it. Like a Hyde-Jekyll transformation, I usually come back a different person from when I left.

Unfortunately, as a triathlete with a running problem, I still want to run (and excel) at marathoning. I used to think it would be difficult because of the required time commitment -- just for running and not including the other two sports. But if 2010 has taught me anything, it's that it may be possible to have both. In Detroit in October, I learned I can actually perform somewhat respectably (3:06) at the marathon distance with as little as 35-40 miles of running per week. In Pittsburgh in May, I also learned, to my own shock and disbelief, that I possess the ability to run a marathon "for fun." (Although, it's only fair to note that my attitude in Pittsburgh may have been additionally influenced by the rewards: breakfast at Piper's Pub and a trip to IKEA on the way home.)

Heading into 2011, then, will require me finding a balance. Racing marathons while training for triathlons IS possible, with a slight adjustment of goals and a constant reminder to myself why it is that I run in the first place. Running is the reason, the mentality. Racing is just the icing on the cake. I'll can still go on eating the cake...

...wait, that was a bad analogy. I like the icing better (sometimes I only want the icing and NOT the cake)...

...Let's try again. Running is the basic need, the way of life. Racing marathons is just another data point. It proves to others that you do it, but it's not really necessary for survival. My ultimate goal must lie elsewhere until I stand, once more, at that beach on Ali'i Drive.

Yesterday, October 17, I finished my second marathon of 2010. The first one was in Pittsburgh in May, a warm-up for Ironman Lake Placid, and it would not be an all-out race. This one was in Detroit, an alternative plan for not making it to Ironman Hawaii, and it WOULD be a race. They were both supposed to be "fun." But Pittsburgh didn't hurt. Detroit would.

I entered the her blog). After being sidelined by injury and taking time off to have her first child, Jess was finally ready to tackle her goal of running a marathon this year. Knowing how badly she wanted to run a marathon and how excited she was to be healthy and at the starting line, I would enjoy seeing her finish as much as having a good race myself.

In the two weeks leading up to the marathon, I tapered my running mileage while keeping my swimming and biking volume up. Although I wanted to have a good marathon, my goal race of the season was still Ironman 70.3 Clearwater in November. It may not have been the best way to approach it, but I had already worked too hard to sacrifice my ultimate goal. Throughout last week, I never felt fully rested and my running legs continued to feel fatigued even with low easy mileage. I constantly complained to my husband Jim about "how crappy I felt." His answer? He wished he had recorded it every time in the past that I complained during my taper. That way he could play it back to remind me that I sounded like "a broken record." So I tried not to worry. Even when my legs felt wasted on my jog the day before.

Cold and dark, I dreaded taking off my sweats

Sunday, race day, began in the upper 40s. We met Jess and her husband Chris (who was running the half-marathon) at 5:30 a.m. in the hotel lobby to take Detroit's People Mover to the starting line. I was bundled in sweats, a beanie, a long sleeve shirt and a t-shirt over my race shorts and top and was still cold. But somehow they got by with only short sleeves and shorts. We hung out on the street as a record-crowd showed up -- over 19,000 runners in four events: the marathon, marathon relay, half-marathon, and 5K.

Runners at the start were divided into corrals which would be started as waves -- waves would be separated by two-minute intervals. Based on my predicted finish (an optimistic 3:10), I was designated to start in the second wave. I had never seen waves in a running race. The wave start was expected to alleviate congestion on the Detroit-Windsor bridge.

This brings me to my next point. The Detroit Marathon is mostly in Detroit, Michigan, but features a few miles in Windsor, Canada. At registration, all runners are required to provide their passports or international ID's, and runners and bib numbers are scrutinized as they cross the border(s). And on the way back into the U.S., every runner does an "underwater mile" -- complete with certificate and mile split -- through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. How cool is that?

The race began at 7 a.m., just before the crack of dawn. Before I started, I made one race vow to Jim: I would not do anything to jeopardize my race in Clearwater, even if it meant dropping out. This is NOT the best attitude with which to approach a marathon. Within the first mile, I was already feeling heaviness in my legs. As I approached the 5K marker near the apex of the bridge to Canada (and the only real hill on the course), I was very concerned that I would have to end my race when I got back into the U.S.

By mile 6, I had settled into an uncomfortable seven-minute mile pace as a new problem arose. I needed a porta-john. And I needed one soon. This could not be taken care of, as they say, "on the run." The first opportunity was a line of porta-johns at the first relay exchange. I passed it up because of the wait lines, remembering there were porta-johns at every water stop. And... there was a water stop just ahead. Did I say "just ahead"? I meant "right now"! The water stop and the relay exchange were one and the same, and yes, you guessed it, those WERE the only toilets. As I continued on, I prayed that I wouldn't have to ask someone in Canada where their nearest toilet was.

As we headed into the tunnel at mile 7, conditions changed from the 40s and cold (outside) to near-stifling (underwater). The short climb out was a great relief, as was mile marker 8 and the expectation of another "bathroom break" opportunity. At the water stop, I grabbed a cup of water and carried it until I saw the great plastic answer to my prayers. I was at such a point of desperation, I didn't know if I'd even get the door open in time. And at that particular moment in time, I can say, without a doubt, that I didn't care how much time I lost. However, upon regaining my composure, I did manage to maximize my "down time" by multitasking -- consuming a Gu Roctane and the aforementioned cup of water.

I estimated I lost about two minutes for the stop, but once I was back on my feet, I felt much better. And lighter. I knew from experience that trying to make up the time I lost was a bad idea, so I settled back into my "uncomfortable" seven-minute-mile pace. Feeling so fatigued so early, I didn't think I could hold that pace for the entire marathon. In fact, it was around mile 10 that I started to have thoughts of dropping out. My mind started asking those tough questions: "Can I live with myself if I don't finish?" and "Is it better to DNF than to embarrass myself with a really slow time?" Yes, my legs were tired. But not once did I consider dropping out because I would hurt myself and/or ruin my race in Clearwater.

And, in a nutshell, that was it. I made one vow. I would only drop out to save my race in Clearwater. A slow marathon would NOT sacrifice my race in Clearwater, it would only hurt my mental state. Time to suck it up. I began the wrestling match with my demons.

I look like I'm going faster than I am

I went through the half at 1:35. To finish in my predicted (read: acceptable) time, I would have to negative split this marathon, something I've only ever done once (without a bathroom break). At mile 13, I consumed  another Gu, and, to my surprise, by mile 16 I felt like I was gaining stamina even though I still seemed to be running on the edge of anaerobic. I knew that around mile 19 or 20, the race headed out to Belle Isle and would almost certainly lose crowd support until we were back on the mainland at mile 23. The demons fought back. I wrestled them down.

And at mile 17, along came my race savior, an angel by the name of Laura. For two miles, I chased her down, only to find that she wasn't IN the race at all. She was one of a group of high school runners who were running seven miles of the marathon course as a workout. Her coach told her not to take any aid or hinder runners. And Laura did quite the opposite. She ran my pace and she made me laugh. She told me she "loved to run" and wanted to be an ultra-marathoner someday. I don't know who was pushing who, but by the time we hit mile 23 and her workout ended, I was mentally energized and ready to tear up my final 5K. The only thing threatening to stop me was the onset of a sharp pain in my left hip at mile 20 that was steadily increasing in intensity.

The last thing Laura said to me was "Do it for me, Jeanne!" and I took off. I don't know how many people I chased down in that final 5K, but I do remember the ones who had passed me earlier in the race. My pace was slowing, but to my surprise, I managed to get through mile 24 in seven minutes.

From Belle Isle back to downtown, the Detroit Marathon is one of the prettiest urban courses I've run. It travels along the waterfront on something called the "Detroit Riverwalk" (I think) while heading to the finish line. And you can tell how close you are by spotting the towers of the Renaissance Center just up ahead. For me, the last mile and a half was agony as my hip decayed further. I just tried to maintain my stride and hoped it wouldn't give out. The only thing worth fighting for was to close the gap on two women in front of me, but I ran out of road. When I saw the finish chute, I finally looked at the total time on my watch. I would, indeed, finish in under 3:10 - in 3:06 - 87th overall, ninth woman, third master and first in my age group (45-49). And I wrestled the demons into submission -- for now.

But Detroit wasn't a disaster-free race. I met Jim shortly after the race and we found Chris after he finished the half-marathon. While we were deciding what to do next, Chris got a phone call. It was Jess. She developed a severe I-T band problem and had to drop out at mile 16, unable to take another step. My heart sank. I knew what she was going through. I know what she will GO through in getting to the next marathon start line. But Jess has one thing going for her. She's a bona fide angel. I knew it the moment I met her -- she was an angel in my devil's classroom. And, therefore, she has the one thing she needs -- the ability to fight those demons. All the way to the finish line.

Here's a 17-second video of my start if anyone is interested:

Detroit's "Underwater Mile" is International

After the Columbus Marathon registration disaster, I thought long and hard on two questions:

  1. Which marathon should I run on October 17, Detroit or Toronto?
  2. Was the Columbus Marathon rejection a message from God that I should not run a marathon this fall?

The answers to these questions were more questions:

  1. Which marathon is better, Detroit or Toronto?
  2. Why would God have any power over my OCD running behavior?

I had to come up with answers:

  1. Detroit was better for four reasons: it's closer than Toronto, one of my good friends is running her first marathon there, a well-respected running friend (Tim Budic) convinced me it was just as good as Columbus without the stress, and the kicker: it's got an "underwater mile" (surely, that's reason in and of itself to do it).
  2. I am the Disaster Magnet and I'm running a marathon whether God wants me to or not.

Now comes the biggest question: with a marathon less than two weeks away and my goal race, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, less than six weeks away, how should I taper? Will the taper screw up my half-ironman plans? I gave it some long hard thought.

I looked in my past for evidence of good race performances without much recovery between races. In 2008, I raced two half-ironman triathlons separated by eight days. The second one was not only harder, but I did it faster. And, not just faster, but five minutes faster on the run. In 2000, I ran two marathons five weeks apart. The second one was faster. Only a minute faster, but they were the third (2:50) and second (2:49) fastest marathons of my life.

Knowing that I only have to run 13.1 miles in the half-ironman, I've convinced myself that doing a hard marathon four weeks before will not sacrifice that, my most important race of the year. In fact, I hope that all the marathon training will do just the opposite and give me the boost I need to tear up the run course in Clearwater.

Because of my late decision to race, my taper won't be a full three-week affair that I usually afford my marathons. But then again, my running mileage is hardly where it was when I was just a marathoner. I guess it's an experiment, really. I've been running hard and long mileage but in only three or four sessions per week. Therefore, if I think about it, my "running" recovery is done in the water and on the bike, even though I put in up to ten hours weekly in those sports, including hard training.

Thus, my marathon taper will only be this week and next week and will mostly involve dropping my running mileage, but not intensity. I plan to continue to swim hard throughout the taper and probably drop my bike mileage around the middle of next week just to rest my legs. Three or four days of good rest will probably be all I can mentally handle anyway. I suspect I'll be bouncing off the walls by the end of next week.

Then I'll work on race strategy and pacing next week with all that extra time and energy. But I may still have to cut down on my daily Starbucks.

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