Sunday, December 5, 2010

An Uphill Battle for an Important Cause

I ran the St. Jude Memphis marathon yesterday morning. The company that I work for is a gold sponsor of the race because St. Jude is our charity beneficiary. As the director of marketing, I was responsible for coordinating our sponsorship and our involvement in the race. The company is relatively small, so it was quite a "high" to see our logo on all the shirts and on the huge LED scoreboard in Autozone park at the finish line.

Tour of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
On Friday morning, my husband Greg and I got a private tour of St. Jude Children's hospital. This came as part of our sponsorship. We expected the tour to be depressing, but it was actually anything but. The hospital doesn't look, feel or smell like a hospital. The focus is on the quality of life for the children. They even continue to go to school while in the hospital. There is bright artwork all over the walls and ceilings and our tour guide told us how the hospital came to be. It's really a fascinating story of how Danny Thomas, a man who had almost no money, prayed to St. Jude (the St. of lost causes) and immediately things started to turn around for him. His vision for St. Jude would be a world-class facility to treat childhood diseases that would be funded strictly by donation. The operating costs of the hospital are $1.6 million per day, and that's all achieved through donations. Of course, they could choose to sell their research and become for-profit at anytime, but if they did that, then the research wouldn't be freely disseminated and there would be special interest groups controlling things. Greg and I were both so inspired by the hospital and the generosity of all the people and organizations who contribute money to make it all possible.

The Expo

Greg and I manned my company's booth on Friday and we got very little traffic. Even though there was no shortage of runners at the expo, no one was really interested in what our technology company did. Which is okay-- we were mainly there for awareness and to show support of St. Jude. The CEO of my company ran the half marathon with two of his sons, age 16 and 12. They all did very well, considering they didn't really train for the race. (Actually, the 12-year-old trained and he ran a 2:11:02).

Race Strategy & Goal
This was not a target race for me. In fact, I wasn't even sure if I would do the full marathon based on how torn up I felt after NYC just four weeks prior. But I felt strong enough to run the full, so I decided to go for it. I didn't have a goal in mind, but I felt like I was a shoe-in for a PR, given my recent half marathon and 10-mile times. Also, given the fact that I ran a 3:51 nearly three years ago, and I was in much better shape now, 3500 training miles later. I decided that I was not going to try and BQ, but go out at a pace of 8:40 (just 9 seconds per mile faster than my PR) and then speed up at the halfway point if I felt good. I figured I would end up with something around 3:45. I ran the half marathon last year, and I reviewed my half marathon splits, which were based on feel and the elevation profile. Miles 1-13 of the full marathon are the same as the half marathon so I knew what I was in for.

The Start

Unlike New York, where we had to wake up over five hours prior to race start, we only had four blocks to walk to the start line. We left the hotel at around 7:15 and ended up walking there with my company's CEO and his kids. The 5K race started at 7:15, so we were able to see our CFO and his wife participate in the walk.

The weather was 54 and overcast. I was really happy about the overcast, but 54 was about 10 degrees higher than I would have liked. Last year, it was 27 degrees at the start line and I was really happy about that. I thought that as long as the sun didn't come out, the weather shouldn't hold me back too much.

This race uses a self-corralling system. I think it works a lot better than the assigned corrals. Instead of assigning you a corral based on a predicted time from when you registered, runners could choose where to line up. This was also a wave start, and corrals were released every two minutes. Greg and I lined up in coral 4, which included the 3:40 and 3:45 pacers. He was going for a faster pace, but we lined up at the front of the corral so that he wouldn't have to weave through people. Very well organized, in my opinion.

Miles 1-7
These miles were relatively crowded, given that both the half and the full marathoners were on the same course. My strategy was to walk through the water stations, Galloway-style, so as to preserve my legs. I did this in my marathon back in March of 2008, so I figured it would work again. I really didn't want to bonk and I wanted to play it conservatively. For these miles I was running in the 8:30-8:45 range, depending on the hilliness. I hit the 10K at 53:37, which is an 8:39 pace. There seemed to be an equal amount of uphill and downhill, and I ran based on effort. It felt very easy, but I kept telling myself that it should feel really easy.

Miles 8-13
I remembered miles 8-10 being the toughest part of the course last year, so I slowed up quite a bit-- to about 8:55. This portion was run through the woods and it's where Greg lost me last year in the half. The 3:45 pace group got way ahead of me, but I was okay with this. These miles were all uphill and I did not want to overdo it early in the race. I also remembered that the elevation profile showed miles 11-13 being downhill, but this wasn't the case. It was a net downhill, but those last few miles are all long rolling hills. It wasn't as if I was "out of the woods" when I got out of the woods. I didn't make up any time during miles 11 and 12, because they were hilly. Mile 13, on the other hand, was all downhill. I crossed the halfway mark in 1:54:30, which is a pace of 8:45. During all of my previous BQ attempt bonks, I had reached the halfway point in 1:50 or faster. So I knew I had set myself up for a smart race.

Miles 14-19
Greg finished the half marathon in 1:42:47 (a 5-second PR). He came to watch me just after I crossed the halfway point. It was really a mental boost to have him cheering for me. He also got everyone around him calling out my name.

According to the elevation profile, miles 14-20 were uphill. I figured this was a net uphill and that there would be downhills as well. I was wrong. It was just a steady climb, all the way to mile 20. I even said to someone running next to me: "Is this entire race uphill?" This was very disheartening to me because I was hoping that after a conservative first half, I'd be able to speed up during the second half, but I was still running in the 8:50-8:55 range on these hills. And by mile 18, I felt like I was running out of gas.

I had walked through almost every water station, pouring water all over my head (I felt hot, and the sun did start to peak through the clouds) and I knew I was well hydrated. I had taken my honey gels at the appropriate time, but by mile 18, I just felt like I couldn't handle the constant uphill nature of the race.

I also had to pee. I've only stopped to pee at one marathon out of the 11 I had done, but there was no avoiding it this time. Luckily, there were plenty of porta potties on the course so I didn't have to wait too long. Having to stop really killed my time for that mile and it made me realize that I was tired. This is why I hate stopping during marathons (except for the controlled waterstop walks). I never realize how tired I am feeling until I stop, and then it's so hard to get going again. But I did get going again, and I was still hopeful that I could gain back some time during the last 10K with the downhills.

Miles 20-Finish
Mile 20 was a nice downhill and I started cruising again. Suddenly everything felt good and I thought I could still PR, despite the bathroom break the slowness of miles 14-19. But I began to feel nauseated all of a sudden, and my stomach really hurt. I've been fortunate to never have an upset stomach during a race before. It happens to me a lot during long training runs, but never during races. So, I guess it was my day to finally join the ranks of the many runners who've had stomach issues during an actual race. I had to go to the bathroom really bad, and I started looking for places along the side of the road I could go. I really just didn't think I could wait for a porta-potty or a restaurant of some sort.

We were running through a residential area, and I asked someone standing outside of a house if he lived there. He said no and I said I really needed a bathroom ASAP. He told me that there were some porta potties up to the left. It hurt so much to run, but I needed to get to those porta potties, or I was just going to explode. Finally I got inside a porta potty and had a diarrhea attack. Ugh. It felt really good to finally go to the bathroom, but I realized how bad the situation had gotten. This was at mile marker 22.

The last four miles were just awful. Even though I had gone to the bathroom, the pain moved to the right side of my belly button and felt like a cramp. Every time I ran it was a sharp pain so I had to walk. It actually didn't hurt when I walked, but the moment I started running, it would cramp up. And as I expected, miles 20-26 were all downhill. It wasn't rolling hills like miles 10-12, this was just nice consistent downhill to makes up for 14-19. It was so frustrating. My legs felt good and I had a lot of energy. I didn't feel at all like I had hit "the wall" and yet my stomach hurt so badly when I ran. Other runners and cheerers told me "I could do it" and that's what you hear when you bonk. So even though I ran a smart race, and even though I wasn't bonking, I still had that embarrassing "I am walking the last four miles of this marathon" experience.

I really wanted to drop out. But I didn't drop out because I was doing this for St. Jude children. And I was also representing my company, a gold sponsor of the race. It would have been bad PR and I think I would have regretted it. The people I work with don't care how fast I finish, they just care that I do finish. Even a 5-hour marathon would have been better than stopping. If I had been doing this race just for myself, then I probably would have dropped out. But I was strong for my company and for St. Jude. Seeing the hospital and understanding the cause really helped power me through.

I was able to run for about 20-30 seconds at a time, but then the pain would get really bad. When I got to the last mile, I realized that physically holding the side of my stomach helped to some extent, so I was able to run for a minute at a time. Slight improvement.

In all 12 marathons I've done, I've never walked during that last 0.2. No matter how badly I felt, I have always run that final 0.2. But not in this case. I was in so much pain! But as soon as I entered the stadium and I knew that my co-workers and husband would be cheering, I held onto my stomach and ran through the finish line.

I finished in 4:14:38, which is my 3rd slowest out of 12 marathons.
I placed 57 of 188 in my age group, which is still respectable.

As I finished, the medical people swarmed around me, as they had seen me holding my stomach, I assured them I was okay. I felt nauseated and tired, but I knew I would be fine once I sat down for awhile. I made my way up to the suite that my company had in the stadium where everyone was waiting for me (I was the only one doing the full marathon). They were all very supportive and understanding. I was so happy I finished and didn't bail out.

Even though I am in the best shape I've ever been in (well, maybe I was in better shape in the weeks leading up to NYC) I ran my third slowest marathon ever. I went into this race with no expectations and I ran it conservatively, based on feel, and I still had a bad experience. I wonder when things are finally going to line up for me in and when I'll be able to run a marathon that truly reflects all the training I've been doing. The last time I ran a good marathon was in March 2008-- nearly three years ago. I only trained for 7 weeks, and I averaged about 35-40 MPW. For over two years now, I've been consistently running in the 40's and 50's, and my race times at other distances have dropped dramatically. Half marathon is down from 1:50 to 1:41. The 5K is down from 23:30 to 22:21.

After my experience with Bob Potts last may, I changed my perspective and I decided I wasn't going to use a BQ as a motivator. I was obsessing over it and it wasn't healthy. Since then, I've just wanted to run strong and put in good training miles. I feel wonderful about everything I've accomplished over the past two years, both in terms of my actual race times, and in terms of where I am mentally. I am much more relaxed about it now, although still as focused on training and racing to the best of my ability. So, I'm not really upset about this experience from yesterday. I'm not disheartened like I was after Bob Potts in May. I'm just wondering when I get to run a marathon when I say "Wow- I rocked it!" instead of "Oh, that was miserable." I remember how it feels to run a strong marathon. My first six were awesome. All of them PRs. The next six were plagued by injury, illness or bad weather.

I am just going to continue training and doing what I love to do-- run. My legs don't feel like I ran a marathon yesterday, because I didn't run a marathon. I walked most of the last four miles. I'm hoping to be back running by Tuesday.

If I can offer one piece of advice to marathon runners, it's that you need to love the training for the sake of the training and for the sake of it making you a stronger person. Your race might not reflect your hard work and dedication, but the important thing is that you know you've made yourself stronger.


  1. A-freaken-men. It's important to enjoy the journey.

    I am so sorry about the stomach issues, though. I've been there (though not in a marathon) and it sucks.

    Could it have been something you ate the night before?

  2. Yes- enjoying the journey!

    I always eat the same thing the night before a marathon: pasta with marinara sauce and either chicken or shrimp. This time it was shrimp. I think I was safe unless it was undercooked. I didn't eat anything else out of the norm the day before or the morning of. Although I might consider going back to sports beans (instead of honey stinger) because those definitely never gave me stomach issues. Maybe a combo of the two?

  3. The worst. i am so sorry. There is nothing like pouring youself into training and not seeing results. I've had a not so great year of runs (halfs and fulls) and still PR in the shorter races. I know I'm getting faster and stronger but I think thats why Im struggling to motivate post NYCM.

    Keep chugging along!

  4. Elizabeth, I have had my share of utterly disappointing marathons, including one with stomach issues like you describe, only it was at mile 16! You have the right attitude about your running - just run for the sheer joy of it. Keep with it and you will run an awesome marathon soon. By the way, finishing under those tough circumstances is a bigger achievement than a PR!

  5. That last paragraph, your advice to other marathoners is great. I need to always keep that mind.

    Nice job Elizabeth! I have had the D-explosion before also, in a half marathon. It was absolutely awful and painful. Way to stick through it!

  6. This is a really interesting post and I am inspired by your strength to get through it. It takes so long for the GI system to recover and I can't imagine what those last miles were like. What is so emotionally strong about you is that you started thinking about the kiddos at St. Jude and what they endure everyday. What a great way to look at the discomfort and mission behind this marathon.
    What kind of honey gel do you take and do you time your nutrition by mileage or time?

  7. Sorry you had such a tough race, I've been plagued with stomach issues previously and it's not pretty and it really wipes you out! There seems to be no rhyme and reason to it, I hope this is a one and only race one! You may want to try that Pepogest stuff Miss Zippy swears by. I may buy some before I race a long race again, just in case! Anyway, kudos to you for finishing and you should take a much earned marathon break for now!! You'll get the BQ. The races I don't worry too much about always seem to be my best ones!

  8. Kathy, I roughly take the honey gel ever 45-55 minutes. In this case it was mile 5, 11, 16. And then I felt too nauseous to take any more after that. The brand is Honey Stinger Gel, and I just use the "Gold" flavor.

  9. Dash-- Thanks for the support! I've been reading some articles on it, and I think it may have been heat related. I know that 55 doesn't sound that hot, but there were others out there who had heat-related problems.

  10. Okay, this seriously hit home for me. My PR was THREE years ago, and I have only gotten slower since. This is despite MANY more miles, and smarter training. I'm also waiting for the marathon tides to start to change for me. Hang in there..