Saturday, March 16, 2013

B & A Trail Marathon Report: Adversity, Anxiety, and Attitude

This morning I ran a marathon! And I finished! It was my 14th marathon since I started running them in 2006.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I have struggled with the marathon for the past five years. Heat, hypothermia, stomach issues and most recently anxiety. In fact I wasn't even able to finish my past two marathons because my anxiety levels were so high. My heart rate soared and my body started to break down before I even got to the halfway point.

Given all of these past struggles, I reset my expectations. Even though I had the most amazing training cycle ever, and I am in the best running shape of my life, I wasn't pushing for a specific time goal. All the "signs" pointed to 3:30-3:35, but being too focused on time has played a major role in my anxiety, so I learned that I had to focus on other things. Primarily- simply running my best race possible in whatever circumstances were handed to me on race day.

Hell Week
(I realize that a good percentage of this "race report" focuses on the pre-race, but for me, that's the biggest challenge in a marathon. Not the race itself, but the buildup. )

Most marathoners are very familiar with the "taper madness" that occurs in the 2-3 weeks before the race. Training volume is down, pre-race jitters settle in and we have all this extra time on our hands. Last week, when I was two weeks out, I had the most relaxed taper week ever. I was actually sleeping 8-9 quality hours a night (my normal is 7 hours, and usually not straight through the night). I felt super relaxed and it didn't feel as if a marathon was approaching.

But then last Sunday night, I suddenly wasn't able to sleep. I've since identified many reasons for why this might have been (daylight savings time affecting my circadian rhythm, the house being too warm, the fact that I bought a new car that day, and the fact that I had slept so much the previous week that my body wasn't tired). Anyway, I tried to just brush it off on Monday and figured I would just make up for lost sleep on Monday night. Well, no, that didn't happen either. I only got 3-4 hours of off and on sleep and during that time I just felt so tortured. I woke up feeling like crap and I started to worry that this was becoming a pattern.  I went to see my sports psychologist, and that helped me a lot.

Finally, on Tuesday night, I slept. It was 7 hours and while I was hoping to make up for Sunday and Monday, I was happy to not have had another tortured night. When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I had this huge knot in my chest. I tried to ignore it, but the more I tired to ignore it, the tighter it got. Greg and I went on a 4-mile run, and my heart rate was elevated by 15 beats per minute. I was running a 8:45 pace, but my heart rate was as if I was running a 7:30 pace. And of course this freaked me out even more, and then I had a downward spiral from there, freaking out about the fact that I had a knot in my stomach and that I was experiencing physical anxiety.

I decided I wasn't even going to run the race. It wasn't worth all this physical anxiety. I was just going to call it quits before I even started. I hadn't expected I would feel like this in the week leading up to the race, and it upset me. I had worked so hard over the past nine months addressing my "perfectionist" attitude about marathons, and yet I was still getting knots in my chest and not sleeping.

After the run, Greg talked me down from my state of distress and I felt much better. Slowly, the knot in my chest went away. The key thing he told me was that my goal wasn't to eliminate anxiety, but to know how to manage it and react when it hit.

Back to the sports psychologist I went and he gave me some great advice on how to focus my thoughts during the next few days.

By Thursday I was feeling better. During my run, my heart rate was elevated by only 5 beats per minute. Still not ideal, but it proved that I was able to lower it from the previous day. Knowing that I had the power to lower it gave me hope and made me feel more in control. I wore the heart rate monitor while running, but I didn't look at the numbers until post-run, which was a good idea. During the run, I stayed focused on the music I was listening to and did everything I could to keep myself positive.

Thursday's run was perhaps just as big of an accomplishment as the marathon itself. Yes, running a marathon is very hard. But for me, being able to manage my anxiety and stay positive when all signs pointed to me having yet another bad marathon experience was huge. I had overcome a major hurdle. Even though it seemed like my anxiety would cause me to have yet another bad marathon experience, I did not let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I fought hard against it and insisted on staying positive.

I had a horrible start to my week, but I was getting back on track instead of continuing the downward spiral.

I slept decently Thursday night, and woke up feeling good on Friday morning.

Packet Pickup, Dinner, Etc.
Once Greg and I left the house, I started to feel excited and even more relaxed. Yes! We had a nice trip to Annapolis, got our bibs, browsed around a few stores and had dinner. I was living in the moment and not stressing or obsessing about the next day.

I met up with a friend and her running club after dinner, and it was awesome to get to chat with her for awhile.

Finally, it was time for bed. I kept waking up every hour and didn't sleep well, but by this point, I didn't think it really mattered. I was in an "I'll take what I can get" mode in terms of sleep. (I'm down by about 15 hours for the week at this point- I sure do hope I sleep tonight!)

I felt pretty calm before the race. Greg and I got up, I had my typical breakfast, went to the bathroom a lot, and we were off. I kept going back and forth between long sleeves and a singlet with arm warmers. I eventually decided on long sleeves since it was supposed to be 43 and raining for most of the race. There was a 100% chance of rain starting at 11:00 and I didn't want to get hypothermia like I had at a previous rainy marathon. I also wore a hat to keep the water off of my face.

We got to the race about 30 minutes before it started and I went in search of a bathroom, as per usual. The bathrooms were located inside the fitness club that was hosting the race. The line was long, but it moved quickly. My sports psychologist pointed out that I get un-necessarily anxious when the lines are long and I fear not being able to use a bathroom. He told me that I can't control the bathroom line, so instead of focusing on it, I should really just think about whatever I would be thinking about if I weren't in line. So, I started talking to the woman behind me and asked her a bunch of questions about where she lived, where she worked, etc. The time went by quickly and before I knew it, I had only 5 minutes left and I was still in line. Well, instead of letting it bother me and throw me off my game, I just accepted it and headed to the start line without getting to pee.

Greg, who is coming off an injury, was running the first 5 miles with me. Since I know that my anxiety is at its highest early in the race, this was the best time for him to be there. The plan was for us to treat it like a training run and talk as we normally do.

Miles 1-5
Greg and I started slow. I didn't even bother looking at the Garmin for the first mile because I knew it was super slow and was good with that. During mile 2, I found a porta potty and stopped to use it. I didn't worry about how it would affect my time, I just knew it was something that had to be done, so I did it and moved on.

Greg and I really enjoyed these miles. The weather was perfect-- overcast and 43. It was nice to be running in a new area. We even joked about how there were water stops on our training run. And how people on our training run were wearing race bibs. Laughing and chatting away made the miles tick by fast and distracted me from what I was really doing. Greg held my water bottle for me (filled with G2), which was a huge help. I took a Honey Stinger gel at mile 5.

Mile 1: 8:53
Mile 2: 8:59 (includes bathroom stop)
Mile 3: 8:31
Mile 4: 8:36
Mile 5: 8:29

Miles 6-11
These miles were my favorite part of the race. I knew that I was over the initial hump and I was still feeling good, so all signs were pointing toward a strong race. I turned my music on and let it carry me. I got into a groove and everything felt awesome. During mile 6-7 I was chatting with this guy about his race history. I normally would never be so chatty during a race, but I needed all the distractions I could get. Ultimately I went ahead of him because my plan was to speed up after the 10K point. I didn't want the speed up to be like "Okay, it's been 6.2 miles, now is the time to start racing it!" I didn't even want to feel like I was getting faster, I just decided to give a little more energy.

I had a huge smile on my face. I high-fived the little kids, I said thanks to the volunteers, and I just soaked it all in. I just felt so, so happy to be in a marathon where my body was cooperating. The weather was perfect, the course was nice and it was just amazing. This is why I run marathons. I used to get this feeling back in 2006-2007 when I was new to marathons, but ever since I decided I wanted to BQ, I'd taken myself too seriously to high-five the kids or "waste" the energy to thank the volunteers.

Mile 6: 8:35
Mile 7: 8:20
Mile 8: 8:21
Mile 9: 8:26
Mile 10: 8:18
Mile 11: 8:26

Miles 12-18
I took my second gel at mile 11.5. I had been drinking a bottle of G2, and finished it at around this point. I threw the bottle away (actually found a trash can) and I knew I would be getting another one from Greg at mile 12.5. It felt awesome to not be holding a water bottle anymore.

Mile 12.5
Greg was waiting for me where I expected and I breezed by him, taking the second bottle of G2. It was completely full, and I knew I wasn't going to drink the whole thing, so I squirted some out so it wouldn't be as heavy. The music was still motivating me. I was still running strong. There were some minor inclines and declines on the trail, which I knew were subtly impacting my speed, so I didn't get hung up on the Garmin. I was looking at the Garmin about 1-2 times per mile, which is a lot less than I used to do. It was for informational purposes only, and I never let it change what I was doing. Even when it said 8:00 at one point, I just kept on going at the same effort level.

I realized that the paces I was running probably weren't going to get me to a BQ, but I wanted to play it safe given my lack of sleep that week. I wanted to avoid a crash at all costs. And I knew that if I was feeling good, I could just really turn on the gas during the last 10K.

The turn around was at mile 16.5, and there was a big hill. I knew that the course had one major hill, but I didn't know where. And this was it. It felt like a dream to go down the hill, but going back up didn't feel as good. I had actually ditched the water bottle at mile 14, so I was in search of a water stop. I felt myself craving water, which is never good in a race, but I figured one would show up soon enough. Mentally, it felt great to have hit the turnaround point, even though there was that huge hill still ahead of me.

Mile 12: 8:26
Mile 13: 8:31
Mile 14: 8:38
Mile 15: 8:22
Mile 16: 8:18 (fastest mile of the race)
Mile 17: 8:34

Miles 18-23
There was a long-awaited water station at mile 18. I was very thirsty so I quickly gulped down two cups of water. I took my 3rd honey out (which I had ideally wanted at mile 16, but there was no water there) and the minute I put it in my mouth, I felt like I was going to vomit, so I spit it out. After that, I still had the honey on my lips and when I got a taste of it, it made me feel sick.

I was at that water station for about a full minute. Stopping there for so long may have been a mistake because it made me realize that I no longer felt good. And now there was a pain in my chest and I felt like I needed to throw up.

Mile 20, Photo by Greg
The next few miles were just hellish. I went into survival mode. I didn't try to think about what caused it, I just did my best to power through it and prayed that it would go away soon. I kept burping, and each burp felt like a release, but the pain was still there. In retrospect I think a number of things could have contributed. It could have been anxiety-related because it was in the same area where I felt that knot in my chest earlier in the week, it could have been from drinking too much G2 early in the race, and no water. It could have been from gulping down the cups of water too quickly.

Anyway, the unfortunate thing was that I hadn't had any calories since I tossed the G2 at mile 14 and with the way I was feeling, I knew it would be nearly impossible to take any more in.

I knew to expect Greg shortly after mile 20 and I wanted to look good for him. I put on my best game face, but I walked as I approached him, threw down my gloves and my hat, and took a sip of water. The water made me feel like I needed to gag. I didn't even say anything to Greg other than that I couldn't drink the water. I didn't take the water with me, or the Honey Stinger chews. I walked away, and then slowly started to run again.

Meanwhile, the sun had come out! There had been a 100% chance of rain starting at 11:00, and instead of rain, we got sun. My hat had been completely un-necessary and my sleeves were rolled up. The weather was still nice-- I just wasn't dressed for it.

Mile 18: 8:24
Mile 19: 9:40 (includes water stop)
Mile 20: 9:10
Mile 21: 9:21
Mile 22: 9:40
Mile 23: 9:40

Miles 24-Finish
At this point, I told myself "You are going to run to mile marker 24. And then you will run to mile marker 25. And then, marker 26." I didn't think of it as three more miles. I thought of it as manageable chunks of distance. Thinking about it like this was very helpful and gradually, my chest/stomach problem started to dissipate. Instead of getting frustrated and discouraged about how this was impacting my time, I powered through it, determined to have a strong finish. In the past, I think I probably would have given up mentally and turned it into more of a catastrophe than it needed to be. Plus, even though I was struggling I was still passing people.

I don't think anyone passed me from about mile 10 onward. It makes sense because I started on the slow side and then sped up. I was thankful that nobody passed me as I slowed down, because that would have been discouraging.

I looked down at my Garmin and realized I could still PR. My average pace per mile was 8:44 and my PR pace per mile was 8:49. I was determined to get it.

With two miles left to go, I came upon someone who was hanging in there, but obviously going slower than me. I said something encouraging to him as I passed. Before I knew it, he was by my side and we were running together. Yay! I had someone to run with. I kept saying "we got this" and my big smile returned. I knew that things were only going to get better as I felt strong again and my chest pain was now just a minor annoyance.

I can't say enough how great it felt to be feeling strong at the end of a marathon. I haven't had a strong marathon finish since March of 2008. It's been five years. It was euphoric. It didn't matter that my time would be slower than what I was physically capable of. All that mattered was that I was going to finish happy and strong, and that I was pulling someone else with me.

"I see mile marker 26!" I said. I got pumped up, we ran to mile 26 and then I realized if I sprinted I could get under 3:49. I ran that last 0.2 like the end of a 10K and my final kick was awesome. It was so awesome that I felt like I could have kept going. In fact, I think that if the race had been 28 miles, my overall overage pace would have been faster. Ironic, but true, since I had plenty of energy and my legs felt good.

Mile 24: 9:01
Mile 25: 8:55
Mile 26: 8:23
Last 0.2: (7:43 pace)

After the finish
I was actually perfectly coherent and I felt great. I've never felt so good at the end of the marathon. And not once during the entire race did my legs get tired or hurt. This proves that my training paid off and I was truly in shape for a much faster marathon. It's just that I wasn't able to exert the energy I had when I was in so much discomfort. And it's amazing I had the energy that I did given that I hardly drank any water from mile 18 to the finish, and my last calorie intake was mile 11.5.

My time was 3:48:50, good for 3rd female, ages 30-39. It was a small race.

I found Greg and he said "You look much better now than when I saw you last!" I was so happy! I haven't felt so satisfied with a marathon in years!  And the funny thing is, if I would have run a 3:48 last year at this time, I would have been crushed. If I had the exact same race experience, I would have been so upset that I didn't qualify for Boston despite how great my fitness level was and how hard I trained. It wouldn't have mattered that I broke 3:50 for the first time, or that I beat my PR by over 2:00. It would have been a depressing day of "this is so unfair, why can't I just run a good marathon". But not today. I was fulfilled in so many ways. And as for that fitness I built up? It's not going anywhere! I still have the Cherry Blossom 10-miler ahead of me!

We waited around for the awards, which were given pretty quickly. Thankfully, they didn't wait for the 7-hour finishers before giving them out. Normally with a time like mine, I wouldn't expect an age group award. However, being an out-and-back race, I hadn't seen too many women ahead of me. I won a $20 gift certificate to National Running Center. I think I was supposed to get a plaque, too, but I didn't realize that until after I left so I hope they mail it to me.

Final takeaways
The age group award and the PR were just the gravy in this race. I am most proud of how I conquered my pre-race anxiety and got to the start line feeling relaxed. This resulted in a strong, happy finish and an affirmation that I have made some major fitness gains over the past few months. Especially coming back from Mono last summer.

I really hope I never have a "hell week" again during my taper. But if I do, I know now that I can manage the physical anxiety, and that a sleep deficit won't kill my race. I actually felt great physically during the first 18 miles, and again during the last 2.

In terms of lessons learned, I think I need to drink both water and G2 early in the race. Since G2 is a watered down version of Gatorade, I figured it was kind of the same thing, but it's probably not. And also- never trust the weather, even if there is a 100% chance of something! I can't help but wonder what would have happened if I pushed a bit more before the stomach issues. I'm not thinking about that in terms of what I did wrong, but just for next time I would like to have more confidence and be a bit less conservative. This race was not focused on speed or testing my fitness-- it was about refining the process. I've made huge progress and I now know what I need to do next time.

I'm really, really tired right now and I'm looking forward to a relaxing evening.


  1. Congratulations!!! I felt your 26.2 miles thru your words. Wow, you conquered more than the miles it sounds.

    Happy recovery and wishing you awesome sleep :)

  2. Congratulations, that's awesome! Time to update your PR sidebar! :)

  3. Awesome job! I ran yesterday too. I stumbled upon your blog today while looking up race results. When I showed it to my husband, he said that he had met your husband. My husband and kids were hanging out at the 20 mile aid station with your husband, but I was a good 40 minutes behind you. :)

    1. Congrats, Heather!!! My husband told me about you about you and your husband! He really enjoyed getting to know him. :-) So awesome that you found my blog.

  4. Congrats Elizabeth on the effort and the PR! So glad to see you figuring it all out - sweet on the age group award too! I can't wait to see your next marathon - you're going to blow it out of the water!

  5. Congrats! So glad to hear you had a GREAT race on Saturday.

    I was in DC running too and the race held off despite the weather forecasts. It was a boring course but oh well.

  6. ***CONGRATULATIONS*** Really, really well done on all counts! So happy for you!

  7. congratulations elizabeth!!!! i heard this race was really tough and you did an amazing job!!! yayy!!!

  8. Great job Elizabeth!! I love reading about your races, I've got another 1/2 marathon April 28th. Maybe I should continue, and try for my first full this summer. :)

    1. Thank you! Yes, definitely try for a full! But wait until the fall for cooler weather.

  9. I'm so proud of you, Greenlee! I remember back in 2010 when you dropped out of a race that would have been a PR because you were so focused on the BQ or bust mentality; I think you've learned a lot about yourself, and you're making great progress on overcoming your race-related anxiety. I'm certain you're going to continue to learn to relax and take what the day gives you, and make use of your great training, and get better and better! Yay! Congratulations! And I look forward to your new half marathon PR which is doubtless just around the corner...

    (just in case the openID doesn't work, this is Ilana)

    1. Hi Ilana! Thanks so much for the support. Looking back now, I can't believe I dropped out of that 2010 race. I would now just LOVE to be in a race that I truly thought was a training run. And I have a few half marathons on the schedule this year to get that sub-1:40!

  10. Hooray! Congratulations! So happy for you! 14th marathon is INCREDIBLE!! And anything sub 4 is phenomenal to me.

  11. BIG congrats on the PR & the age group award!! I like how you're open about your journey w/ marathoning. Make sure to celebrate :)

  12. Congrats Girl! How I wish we lived near to each other :-) so we could be running partners. You are a champ for getting out there and fighting through all the mental hurdles. Sometimes we forget that we need every experience good and bad to get us to goal. Keep using all these experiences to keep you moving forward. So happy for your race and AG award.

    1. Yeah, it would be awesome if we could run together. Thanks for these affirmations- you inspire me so much and you have the attitude that I am working toward!

  13. Congrats on starting and finishing a great race!!!

  14. Random comment here... I recently moved into this area after separating from the military and actually ran RnR DC last weekend and stumbled across your blog reading other race reports. Found our similarity of PRs intriguing (just ran PR 3:44 on Sat, half 1:43, 10k 45). It took me a long time to get out of a marathon "funk" as I'd run 14 previous marathons before finally breaking 4 hours on Saturday, and then blew it away, so I empathized with your story.

    Reading back you might actually remember me from the Disney World Half, as I was standing at mile 2 in a sorcerer Mickey hat and gloves with two flashing light sabers, and then again at mile 10 or so up on the overpass waving them around. Anything I can do as a spectator to help my fellow athlete... :)

    You can spam me at matthew dot wilson at gmail dot com, I'm sure I'll see you around some more local races!


    1. Cool! I think I remember that sorcerer! That's awesome! Congrats on getting out of your marathon funk. Now that we are both out of the funk we can really start tearing up the race courses! And welcome to DC!