Race report: Going for sub-4:00 at the Clearwater Marathon

Over the course of the four months of training leading up to the Clearwater Marathon, I practiced a lot of visualization exercises as part of my attempt to perform amateur sports psychology on myself, and every time I envisioned crossing the finish line, I’d see “3:53” in the big digital readout over the finish line.  For some reason, my brain had locked onto that number, and later, when Brian and I laid out our strategy for the race, I realized 3:53 would be just about what I was aiming for.

Our plan was to hit nine minute miles for the first half, then to kick it up a bit and run the last 13 miles at around 8:50 per.  My training had been conducted with these paces in mind, so it seemed doable.  In fact, it seemed more than doable.  Here’s my Facebook status update from the day before:

Less than 24 hours remain until I run my fourth marathon, and I’m already noticing something different about this one. For prior marathons, I usually spent the days leading up to it in a state of anxiety punctuated by moments of abject terror. This time, though? I’m mostly feeling – dare I say it? – excited. And wait, what’s this? Is it…could it be…confidence?

It’s like I don’t even know who I am anymore.

Even waking up race morning to the always-unwelcome feeling of menstrual cramps (and by the way, nice timing, uterus, thanks a billion) wasn’t enough to put a damper on my excitement.  I knew that 26.2 miles was going to be a hell of a long way to run and that a lot could happen in that time, but even so, I never thought about it in terms of “I hope I’ll break four hours” or “I’m going to try to break four hours.”  It was always, “I’m going to break four hours today.”

This race was particularly cool for me because it was the first time I’d gotten to run a marathon after sleeping in my bed the night before.  From 2010 to 2012, there were no full marathons in the Tampa Bay area, which meant that anyone who lived here and who wanted to run one had to travel to do so.  Chris Lauber, who is a really excellent local race director (and also a friend of mine, and of just about every local runner in these parts, really) put in a lot of work to change that, and so last January, he brought back the Clearwater Marathon.

The course for the Clearwater Marathon covers some of my favorite local running territory, including the bridges to and from Clearwater Beach and Gulf Boulevard, which is the main artery that runs north and south through the barrier islands along the coast of Pinellas County.  At about the half-marathon mark, the course heads over the Intracoastal Waterway and back onto the mainland, getting onto the Pinellas Trail at mile 17.  This was an extra bonus for me, because it meant miles 17 through 24 were going to be run on my training territory, including the part of the trail that runs right near my house.  The last two miles go through Clearwater before finally ending up at Coachman Park, which overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway.  The course has lots of water, lots of palm trees, and even a short stretch that runs alongside the Gulf of Mexico.  Simply gorgeous, and a good reminder as to why I may very well never move away from this part of the country.

So the course was flat and familiar, my training had gone well, and the last piece of the puzzle – the weather – was perfect.  From the beginning, I knew the goal was mine for the taking.  The question was, did I have the guts to grab it and hang on?

The starting gun went off and Brian and I started running along with everyone who was taking part in the five-miler and the half-marathon. We worked to keep each other in check, because it was easy to get caught up in the excitement of the start and to fall in alongside the runners who were running shorter distances.  Even so our first couple of miles were fast, so we pulled back considerably to protect our legs.

Over the course of my training, I found that I liked running best when I approached it from a place of mindfulness and focus, and so I brought that mindset to this race.  I did regular check-ins with myself – how was my posture, how was my foot turnover, was my breathing reasonable – and I checked with Brian to make sure he was okay.  (He had recovered substantially from Ironman Florida, so we were cautiously optimistic that we could run this together.)

I also tried to take in the environment around me, to notice the way things looked and smelled, to smile and wave at spectators, to thank the officers doing traffic control and the volunteers handing me water, to enjoy the songs as they came on my iPod.  Not only was it more enjoyable that way, but it also paradoxically made the miles fly by, and before I knew it the five-milers had peeled off, then the half-marathoners, and then it was time for us to cross the bridge to the mainland, and to also start to pick up the pace a bit.

By this time – miles 14-15 – my legs were starting to feel a bit tired, but I was still running strong and on pace.  I thought of the times I’d run a 16-miler on some tired-ass legs the day after running a 10-miler, and I knew that I was going to be fine as long as I stayed focused.  I had done well with my nutrition, taking sips of Gatorade at each stop and eating an energy gel every 45 minutes, plus every twenty minutes or so, I felt like someone had hit me with a shot of some kind of opiate – the elusive runner’s high! I just had to keep doing what I was doing and everything was going to be great.

We made it to mile 16 before I realized I could hear Brian’s breathing over my music.  Then I noticed he was slowing down. I slowed down too, which is when he tried to pick it up one more time, but he couldn’t.  He said his legs just couldn’t go, and then he told me that he wanted me to leave him and go get that sub-4:00 and to not let all of my hard work go.  My eyes teared up – shoot, they’re tearing up now just thinking about it – because I wanted to share this with him so badly, and so I said, “No, I’m not leaving.”  But he kept insisting, and even though my chest tightened up and I knew I was on the verge of crying, I finally agreed.

I took off running while he stumbled to a walk, all the time feeling like I was betraying him. I’ve lost track of the number of races that he’d stayed with me, even though it meant running slower than he was capable of, and I don’t feel like I’ve been able to repay that yet.  So I spent the first half of mile 17 fighting back tears and feeling like a shitty wife, but then I realized that I needed to suck it up and keep going.  I also decided that I wasn’t going to let Brian down, and that I was going to make my goal, even if I had to run on bloody stumps to make it happen.  So I started picking up my pace, and soon settled in at a comfortable 8:50, just as we had planned.

Aside from that momentary emotional hiccup, everything was perfect until about mile 20.  I was still running strong, passing a lot of racers who were walking on the trail.  I hadn’t walked yet, which meant I was well on my way to at the very least making a new personal record for longest stretch of uninterrupted running (22 miles at Big Sur), and my legs were so tired yet still strong.  I’m not sure exactly what happened at mile 20, but my strategy of focusing on the miles as they happened was no longer sufficient.  I had entered the part of the marathon that I once described as “utter emotional desolation.”  You’ve run so far and yet you still have six miles left to go, and it can feel overwhelming.

But instead of giving up, I changed my psychological tactics, and I began running an increasingly disjointed and at times deranged monologue in my head that lasted until mile 24.  I wish I could replicate the whole thing in its Dada-esque glory but instead I will share the highlights:

  • “Enjoy the pain, let yourself go into the pain.”  I was deep in the pain-well at this point, where the whole world was starting to narrow around me, but instead of wasting energy fighting it, I chose to embrace it.  Even though doing so meant that all I was able to do was rasp “water! water!” as I came up to each water stop.
  • “The pain is the price! The pain is the price of going sub-4:00!”  I actually said this out loud at some point, and I am so grateful I was mostly alone because I’m sure I would have scared other people.  This led to a mental digression in which I thought about Game of Thrones and “the iron price” and what the runner’s equivalent would be.  The sweat price?  The blister price?  The lactic acid price?
  • For some reason the line from Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” started rattling around in my brain: “Nothing hurt and everything was beautiful.”  Well, everything fucking hurt like hell, so I modified it to meet my needs, and so for about a mile, my mantra became, “Everything hurts and everything is beautiful.”
  • My friend Lindsay had given me a blue rubber bracelet that read “Boston Strong” and “4/15/2013” and I kept looking down at it and telling myself that I needed to be worthy of that bracelet, that if I quit I was not fit to wear it.
  • “Do it for Brian.” Self-explanatory.

Miracles of all miracles, it actually worked.  All of this actually worked.  My pace stayed fast, with my fastest mile – an 8:47 – coming at mile 23.  I don’t know how to convey the surreal experience of hurting so badly and yet still feeling so strong and fast, because those two sensations so rarely co-exist in my body at the same time, and yet there I was, running hard, awash in an ocean of pain and yet somehow, against all logic on earth, feeling immensely powerful.  I was simultaneously at my most human while also feeling at my least human, all of the pretense and artifice and rationalization and bullshit stripped away to reveal the muscle and bone and blood and breath and raw will that comprises who I am at my core.

This is, by the way, what I love most about distance running.  Sure, it keeps me in good health and has given me an outstanding pair of calves and it can be as fun as hell, but when you start pushing into those double-digit distances that take multiple hours to complete, it becomes a spiritual reckoning of sorts, where you have the chance to see if you are truly as tough as you hope you might be.  The great thing is that even if you weren’t before you complete a run like this, the very act of completing that run will make it so.  Very few people come away from a run like this without feeling transformed on a molecular level into something a little harder, a little more resilient.

Back to the race. In the past I have found that mile 24 is the point at which things get easier. Brian says it’s close enough that the finish line can start to pull you in.  This was not the case for me this time around.  Mile 24 was alongside a busy stretch of Fort Harrison Road, with racers running with a line of cars on the right and a line of empty storefronts on the left.  At this point it became a matter of pure guts and persistence.

I did the math and realized that I had twenty minutes to cover a mile and a half, so I knew that short of getting hit by a car or breaking my leg, I was going to get my goal.  The question then became, was I going to make 3:53?  I told myself that I could give myself a bit of a break to recuperate, but my legs had other ideas.  We turned off the road and onto a leafy suburban street with a gentle rolling decline, so I took advantage of the slightly more beneficial conditions to pick up my pace again.  At this point I was done with the soul-searching, done with the meditation, done with all of it.  I just wanted to be done.

I had about a half-mile left when my friend Lara’s teenage son, Christian, met me shortly before the top of the spiral ramp whose descent marked the last real moment of the race.  He started running with me as a pacer, telling me I was doing great, that I was going to make my goal.  I said, “Yeah, but the question is, am I going to die before I get there?”  He said, “I doubt it, it’s too close.”  I bombed my way down the spiral ramp, taking everything gravity had to offer, and then when I hit the ground and looked off in the distance, I saw the finish line.

Christian bid me farewell, and I started running as hard as I could possibly muster.  As I got closer, I saw the digital readout, and it said “3:53.”  I knew I wasn’t going to make it before it flipped to “3:54” but I didn’t care, because what was actually important was that the first number still read “3.”  I covered my mouth with my hand to hold back my sobs while tears leaked from my eyes and streamed down my cheeks.  I sprinted down the finisher’s chute and as I hit the finish line, I threw my arms in the air in triumph and sprinted across with everything I had left.

Lara caught the moment on camera:

finishingNumber of fucks given: zero.  Or maybe all of them.  Who knows?

Not only did I break four hours, but I ran a negative split and I also ran the whole way.  I never stopped once to walk, not even at the water stops.  Even when shit got tough toward the end, my training with the Hansons program was more than enough to carry me through.  Brian had sent me a quote from Sara Hall a few days earlier, in which she said that you have to trust your training, and I did, wholeheartedly.  What can I say?  I’m officially a believer.

After I got hugs from my running friends and my medals and a Diet Coke from Christian, we stood and talked running while we waited for Brian.  I had all of these mixed feelings, both of pride and excitement and also of concern and sadness over leaving Brian, so I was slightly distracted, and after a while I excused myself so I could walk out the cramps in my legs.  As soon as I was alone, I burst into tears.  I started walking back along the course like a disconsolate puppy, looking anxiously for Brian, hoping he was okay.  And then I saw him, a big smile on his face as he ran down the finisher’s chute, and I started crying again.

We hugged at the finish line and he told me he was so proud of me.  I was proud of me too.  My quads felt like hell and my feet had blisters on them and I kept bursting into tears at random moments and I had done it. I believed in myself and I had not let myself down.

Everything hurt and everything was beautiful.

75 responses to “Race report: Going for sub-4:00 at the Clearwater Marathon

  1. I’ve been reading your blog for a while but I’ve never left a comment. This post left me in tears. Congratulations to you! What a great story. Keep writing and telling us more.

  2. What a thrilling read! So inspiring! What I was reminded of very strongly was my home birth. The pain does break you down to your core strength, and that experience changes your image of yourself. As someone brand new to fitness, it is exciting and motivating to realize that maybe one day I could have that experience again, without having another baby!

  3. Wow, I definitely teared up reading this! I loved your mantras (and thank you for admitting going through a weird cycle of mantras… I do too). I’ve only done a half marathon, but I really liked thinking about digging for it, like, the strength is in me, and I have to dig really deep inside myself to find it. That got me through mile 12!

    Congrats again!

    • Thank you! Yeah, it’s funny what words sort of bubble up to the surface when we’re pushing ourselves like that. I sometimes plan out mantras ahead of time but they never end up being the ones I go to when things get tough.

  4. Woah. What an awesome recap! Amazing what the power of visualisation can do! Must focus on that a bit more too! Congratulations on that sub-4! Love the photo, you look so happy!

    • Thank you!
      When I was a kid, my HS basketball team brought in a sports psychologist and she was really big into visualization. At the time I thought it was hokey but now I’m SUCH a believer. It’s crazy how much of a difference it makes, not just with running but with EVERYTHING.

  5. Pingback: Race report: Going for sub-4:00 at the Clearwater Marathon | Fit and Feminist | Lonan O Farrell·

    • Thank you! And good luck to you! It was a challenge but it was so worth the pain and effort when I saw that 3 on the digital readout.

  6. Congratulations! Fantastic post, brilliant finish line picture, really inspiring too – if I ever do a marathon I might be borrowing those mantras. Well done! 🙂

    • Thank you! And feel free to borrow them, although I’m sure your brain will bubble up some strange old brew of its own to get you across the finish line.

  7. So incredibly impressive!!!! I love your amazingly joyful finish line picture. I tried the victory arms in my first marathon, but I guess only had the energy to raise them in front, kind of “zombie victory”. Anyway, I am going to borrow your “everything hurts and everything is beautiful” at Boston this spring. Thank you for your blog. It is such an inspiring and safe place to be a female athlete without the usual body hating bullshit. I wish you a gentle, speedy recovery.

    • AUGH YOU’RE GOING TO BOSTON!!!! Yes, by all means please use that mantra! It will thrill me to know that even a teeny tiny part of me is running Boston this spring. It doesn’t look like you have a blog so will you make sure to pop back in and let me know how it goes?

      And also, thank you so much for this: “It is such an inspiring and safe place to be a female athlete without the usual body hating bullshit.” That means the world to me.

  8. Fantabulous post! Fantabulous marathon! Wow!
    And, can you believe it, here I am in little old Ireland but I actually was in Clearwater way back in 2006. What a beautiful part of the world. You`re right to want to stay there forever.
    Gonna check out that Hanson programme. I`m really impressed by your success.
    And the pic says it all!

    • Thank you! And so yes, you understand just how lovely it is here. 🙂 The amazing thing is that the area – particularly St. Petersburg and downtown Clearwater – has only gotten better in recent years.

      Now I just need to make my way across the pond to visit Ireland…one of these days…

  9. Congrats!! I will definitely use your mantras when I run my half this weekend that I am not quite prepared for 🙂

  10. CONGRATULATIONS! I love reading your race reports and I am not even a runner and (so far) don’t even have an athletically competitive bone in my body.

  11. CONGRATULATIONS! So true – whatever training plan you follow, you’ve got to trust your training. And the deranged internal monologue…that should be a familiar one to all marathoners. (Mine went something like ‘How much do you want this? More than you mind the pain.’) I like that your subconscious throws up Game of Thrones references.

    • Thank you! And I love that mantra – it so accurate! Although sometimes I’ve found myself suffering in the middle of a race and I’ve just been like, “Nah, I don’t want it that badly.” Fortunately now I’m about 10000% less whiny than I used to be so I imagine it would work a lot better on me now.

  12. I am smiling and bawling like a little baby and smiling some more.

    CONGRATULATIONS! I am so happy for you and proud of you. You absolutely crushed it and you’re an inspiration for all of us.

    Now, go enjoy your hard-earned recovery time and rest on those very impressive laurels.

  13. YAY THAT’S AMAZING! I’m not a runner but I still love reading your posts and must admit to getting a little teary reading today’s. ; )

    Congratulations, woman!

  14. This is beautiful. I cried like a big baby while reading it. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I’ve completed two half marathons, but never felt I could ever do a full marathon. This post makes me want to try. Thanks again.

  15. Wow – this was quite emotional just to read, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live it. Well, actually I can…. because your writing makes me feel like I was there with you. Congrats! And what a wonderfully supportive husband you have too!

  16. Long time reader, first time commenter — congratulations!!!! Thank you so much for sharing this. Your writing about running has helped me get back into running for myself and reading this piece gave me the final encouragement I needed to sign up for my first 10k.

  17. I’m a week late here, but whatever – CONGRATULATIONS. I’m not usually one to get all soppy and teary over race reports, but this one was awesome. I loved sharing your experience, and was feeling so excited for you, from a week later and 8,000 miles away, as you were coming into the Finishing Chute. *high five!*

  18. Just found your blog via CoachHolly – congratulations! And thanks for the inspiration as I enter the last weeks of training for my mid-March big goal marathon.

    • Thank you! I’m glad I could give you an extra boost for the last few weeks of your marathon! Which one are you doing? What’s your goal?

  19. I must borrow your mile 20-26 tactics. What a strong and fierce way to end a marathon. Super congrats on a great training cycle, gaining race confidence, and a (14 minute?!) PR!

  20. I’m a regular reader (and another 6’+ lady!) who rarely comments, but am always inspired by your posts. This one, though, I had to comment on–I actually burst into tears at the end of it, I was so happy for you. Thanks for giving me a sense of what it feels like to attain a goal you once might have thought was impossible–gives me renewed motivation to my half-baked attempt to complete a tri by my 40th birthday in August. Congratulations on breaking 4:00–and on having the skills to write about it in such a moving way.

  21. Just found your blog while doing a search for Hanson’s training/race reports, and I got a little teary reading this. Amazing effort & result! I am using Hanson’s to train for my first marathon and I’m more than a little nervous about it, but trying to follow it exactly and trust in the training. Your posts give me inspiration and confidence. Thank you!

    • Aw, thanks! And good luck to you! Hansons was a tough plan and I wasn’t able to do it 100%, but I did the best I could do and I’m more than satisfied with how it turned out. Plus the effects of the training plan are continuing even now, as I’m training for my first ultra. I am definitely a much stronger runner because of that plan.

  22. Found your blog searching for stuff about Hansons Marathon Method and this post is what is going to keep me inspired, and keep me pushing while training for NYC Marathon in the Fall. Wow. What an incredible post!!! Congratulations! I don’t even know you, but I’m so happy and proud of you.

    I’m currently reading the Hansons book and I am pretty convinced, yet scared to use it for my next Fall marathon.

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