“Well, this wasn’t exactly part of the plan” I thought to myself as I was walking out of a Tucson church in December, blinking against the brilliant morning sunlight, carrying my stepmother’s ashes to her final resting place. It all seemed so surreal.
Flashback to six months earlier, when I wrapped up my first Half-Iroman in June (2012) and found myself feeling very fit and ready for more. I set my sights on the Kiawah Marathon in South Carolina, lured by the flat course as well as the free lodging graciously offered by my BFF’s parents. It also seemed like an ideal opportunity to test out a new training program that I’d been eyeing. I had stumbled across the Hanson Brooks Distance Project plan a couple of years ago, but never felt confident enough to take on the higher weekly mileage totals. The foundation of triathlon training was just the confidence I needed to engage in this experiment. The stars seemed to be aligned.
Of course the plan got off to a rocky start: I miscalculated the start date and began three weeks later than originally planned. The sudden increase in both miles and speed left me with a tender hamstring tendon, and after a brief flash of panic, I found myself seeing an A.R.T. practitioner on a weekly basis. He was able to calm down the acute symptoms and got me to a level that I could tolerate while continuing to run the miles I needed. We agreed that I probably wouldn’t improve the tendonitis much more until after the race, when I could incorporate some rest and cross training into the plan. But for the time being, it kept me on the roads.
The 6-days-a-week training plan moved along quickly and included a speed/strength day (long intervals) and a weekly mid-distance run at marathon pace. The theory was that by Sunday’s long run, my legs would be exhausted as I tackled between 10-16 miles. On paper, it looked completely manageable and not vastly different from what I had done in the recent past. My legs felt otherwise. By the middle of the Sunday long run, I felt like I was at mile 18 of the marathon. Brutal but with intention – it was exactly how the Hanson brothers designed it.
With the Big Day only three weeks away, I got a call from my stepmother (in Tucson) telling me that she was going to be in the hospital over Thanksgiving for a chronic health issue with which she’d been struggling. She’d be able to go home after a few days in the hospital and then some time in rehab. But the next thing I knew, she was moved to a hospice facility and passed away five days later. My father was devastated and I was absolutely heartbroken.
And just like that, my plans changed. Instead of South Carolina, I was headed to Tucson. As fate would have it, there just happened to be a marathon taking place in Tucson that same weekend. It may seem callous to some that I would still participate in a race given the circumstances, but for me it was the right thing to do. Running through the desert would be therapeutic for me, and it was my way of honoring her. She was plagued by foot neuropathy for years, and would have given anything to be able to walk, let alone run. She was always so supportive of my athletic pursuits.
It felt odd to register for a marathon just days before the race. No hours of research, pouring over logistics and course maps. Just a few checks of the web site and then I kept my fingers crossed that I was going to make it to the correct start line at the correct time. The Tucson Marathon is a point-to-point course with 2200 feet in elevation drop from the start to the finish. The logistics were a little tricky, having to park in a remote parking lot, grab a shuttle to the start line (40 minutes away), run 26.2 miles to the finish line and then get on another shuttle back to the parking lot. The half marathon started at a later time, at the halfway point on the course, so we all finished together (note: this was great – kept the start from being congested and resulted in more people on the road towards the end of the race, making it a little less lonely).
Somehow, despite my last minute planning, I managed to pull it all off. The shuttle to the start found me sitting next to a woman who was a NYC Marathon “orphan” and she was not the last orphan I would come across that day. It was great to see so many other races reach out to the NYC runners, offering them discounts to help ease the sting of their missed opportunity.
I had hemmed and hawed about what to wear for the entire bus ride and while waiting in the bathroom line (twice). The start temps were in the low 40s, with finishing temps predicted in the mid 50s to low 60 with some strong winds. I conferred with neighbors; analyzed what others were wearing and finally opted for shorts and a t-shirt. This required a complete wardrobe change, but I was perfectly prepared with my overly stuffed I-should-be-a-Girl-Scout drop bag and I never regretted my choices.
In the midst of the wardrobe change, I managed to rip my bib just before heading to the start line. I pleaded with a stranger for just one of his FOUR safety pins to fix my bib. You would think I had asked him for his shoes, he was so disgruntled to give up the one pin. Thankfully he did though, and I promised him good race karma because of his kindness.
As I was standing in the corral, waiting to start, I caught a glimpse of a pacer to my right, with a hand-written sign held high which read “3:30.” Scarcely able to believe my luck, I asked him if was the official 3:30 pacer, and he replied in the affirmative. I was shocked and elated, as I had heard that there wasn’t going to be a pacer for 3:30 – he was clearly a last minute addition as evidenced by his less than official looking sign.
This was it. The weather was perfect, the pacer was in place, my race day nerves were completely in check. How could I fail?
The first few miles the pace leader kept us just around 8:00 min/miles, if just a bit faster. The downhill course made it tough to slow down too much, but we had some hills to handle at the halfway point and again at miles 23-25. The pacer had a solid plan and I vowed to stick with him.
As the 3:30 group was getting acquainted, I became vaguely aware of some chatter about swimming, and next thing I know, I am running side by side with Sean from Connecticut (yes, my home state) and Mark from New Mexico, both triathletes. Mark was also an ultra-runner, so the conversation flowed easily over the next few miles. Suddenly we realized that we were AHEAD of the pace group. We kept trying to slow down to keep closer to them, but as we hit the halfway point, we were about a minute ahead of them and about two minutes ahead of our projected finish.
The halfway point is the only section of the race that has anything remotely resembling hills, which were ‘rollers’ by my definition but they still managed to slow us down as this section was so different than the downhill flow we’d been riding the whole time. This is also one of the few sections of the race that is not on Route 77/Oracle Road, and we were able to catch a glimpse of BioSphere2, as well as cheer on our fellow runners as we passed by each other on the out and back stretch of road.
The second half of the race was more downhill, all along Rt 77 and had great views of the desert and the mountains. In training, my longest run was one 18-miler, so I was very interested to see how my pace would hold up over the last few miles. I stayed just ahead of pace until about mile 21, which was just around the time that the headwinds picked up and my calf muscles started to shut down. The Wall was pushing at my edges and over the next few miles, my 2-plus minute cushion started to dwindle. My foot cramped up inside my shoe, and I felt my toes splay apart. I forced down a gel, with the hopes that the electrolytes would help keep my feet and calves from completely cramping.
I dug deep and used all my mental tricks. I thought of my mom and her strength. I thought of my stepmother and how important it was for her to be able to walk in Relay for Life each year…and how proud she would have been to see me race. I thought about being a “strong bear” and asked myself “Why not me? Why not today?”
I won’t lie…it was ugly. Mile 25 was the slowest mile of the day and it was by sheer will power alone that I made it to Mile 26. Somehow, I was able to rally for the 1.2 miles, spurred in part by finally being caught – and passed – by the 3:30 pacer. Panic set it…I couldn’t let him get too far ahead. I heard him say to his group “We’re running a 7:40 pace right now” which made me wonder if they were pushing to finish in time or if they were ahead of schedule. I turned that last corner having NO IDEA what the clock would say…my feet hit dirt (Seriously! Dirt?! NOW?!) and I grit my teeth, looked up and saw the clock said 3:29:40…ten seconds later and I was over the mat and Over. The. Moon. (Actual finishing time was 3:29:29)
After stumbling around for a few minutes, I found one of the guys I had been running with earlier. He finished just ahead of me. We wandered around stiffed legged and collapsed into some chairs. The food tents were just too far away for me to even attempt to reach. After sipping some water and getting my heart rate back under control, I stumbled over to the baggage claim area, and shuffled ever so SLOOOWLLY down the stairs – failing to notice the RAMP that would have saved me some pain – and made my way to the shuttle buses.
A short ride back to the parking lot, and I was back in the rental car, heading back into town. A quick stop at my hotel for a shower and some fresh clothes, and then dad and I went out for margaritas and burritos at our favorite watering hole. A rather drunk local befriended us and interrupted our small celebration for a while – also not part of the plan – he reluctantly moved on, and we went back to sharing stories about my race, my stepmother and all the other unexpected things that life tends to throw at us. Sometimes it feels easy, sometimes it feels like a headwind at mile 24, but either way, there is always a celebration just around the corner. It truly is the journey that matters in the end.