Monday, October 20, 2014

The Agony and the Ecstasy of a "Perfect" BQ

A Six-year Journey
March 2008. Upon completion of the Shamrock marathon in Virginia Beach, with a shiny new PR of 3:51:49 I set out to qualify for the Boston Marathon. My first six marathons were all PRs, and significant ones, and I had trained for them on relatively low weekly mileage. I figured I would bump the mileage up into the 50 mile range, follow a tried and true plan and qualify in the fall. Easy peasy.

But I got really sick that fall and wasn't able to race the marathon. And on the following attempt in January 2009, the weather was abnormally hot in Phoenix, and I ended up run-walking my way to a 4:10. I prayed for cooler weather for an April marathon of that same year, and got my wish, along with a dose of hypothermia and an unsatisfying 40-second PR. An injury prevented me from racing the Toronto Waterfront marathon that fall, and in the Spring of 2010, I was once again greeted with abnormally high temperatures and my first DNF. I tried to make up for it by running the Bob Potts marathon six weeks later, but I once again bonked at the end, finishing in a disappointing 3:53. Agony.
Potomac River Marathon, 2012

That fall, I didn't make a BQ attempt and instead ran with Greg during his first marathon in NYC. In the spring, I ended up with multiple stress fractures in my shins, which sidelined me from racing. By the time the fall of 2011 rolled around, I had put so much pressure on myself to finally qualify for Boston that my anxiety got the better of me. I ended up bonking big time at the Milwaukee Lakefront marathon for no other reason than an inability to arrive at the race rested and relaxed. At one point, I felt so defeated that I started crying and laid down in the grass somewhere near mile 19. Agony.

I once again attempted Shamrock in the spring of 2012, and had to drop out at the halfway point due to a combination of anxiety and heat exhaustion. I made another attempt six weeks later at the Potomac River Marathon, which also resulted in a DNF due to an elevated heart rate caused by anxiety. Agony.

That's when I started to see a sports psychologist to address my performance anxiety issues.

But then I got mono, crushing any hopes of a fall marathon. In the Spring of 2013, I was in excellent shape for the B&A trail marathon, but some stomach cramping and digestive issues landed me a very modest PR of 3:48. I took a few seconds off of that 3:48 in Chicago of the same year, running the race on a very short, 7-week training cycle due to a stress reaction in my shin during July/August.

Finally, I made some significant headway last spring at the Mississauga marathon where I pushed through a very windy course to get a 3:43. Ecstasy!

During this six-year period, a lot of other stuff happened. Boston qualifying standards became more difficult and I moved into the the 35-39 age bracket. I won age group awards at almost every distance, including the marathon. My times at the shorter race distances fell significantly. My half marathon time dropped by 9 minutes, my 10K time dropped by over 5 minutes, and my 5K time dropped by 2 minutes. But the marathon wasn't really budging.

Injuries, illness, anxiety, weather-- at least one of these factors seemed to be the rule rather than the exception when it came to my marathons. But my desire never waned. Nor did my will.

October 2014
In order to know what works for you in running, you have to try different approaches. For the first time in over three years, I changed my training program. I got a new coach, who built me a custom program with new types of workouts that I had never done before.

I was in the best shape of my life, and shaved over a minute off of my 10K PR just two weeks prior to the Columbus marathon.

I was also doing great from a mental perspective. I slept very well in the week leading up to the race, despite a major career change. I arrived at the race feeling excited, relaxed, confident and simply ready.

The only "watch out" on my list was that my right hip was not 100%. It had started aching about 10 days before the race, resulting in more of a taper than originally planned. I knew it would probably hurt during the race, but I didn't think it would stop me.

Before the Race
It was a very typical race morning for Greg and me. We ate breakfast, got dressed, walked to the start line and waited in the corral. Everything went smoothly and the weather was ideal. Low 40's and sunny.

My pacing strategy was to go out at a pace of 8:20, but then speed up slightly to run a half marathon of around 1:49:00. Then, I wanted to negative split, resulting in a time of around 3:35 (give or take 2 minutes in either direction).  I was in new territory with my fitness level and relaxed mental state, so I had no idea what I was capable of. It was exciting!

Miles 1-7
What an exciting race start! There were fireworks loud music, all sorts of lights. I felt like a rock star! I ran with Greg for the first mile and then turned my headphones on after he ran ahead. It was crowded. I think this race has over 15,000 participants if you include all the half marathoners. I knew that with so many people blocking my view, running the tangents would be impossible for the first half.

My hip started to hurt at around mile 5. Instead of worrying, I told myself "think of it this way, you don't have a bad hip--- you have one good hip!" I stayed really relaxed during these early miles and everything felt great, as it tends to do at the beginning of a marathon. I was really focused on my music during these miles, and that definitely helped me relax.

Mile 1: 8:41
Mile 2: 8:34
Mile 3: 8:14
Mile 4: 8:16
Mile 5: 8:10
Mile 6: 8:08 (downhill)
Mile 7: 8:23 (uphill)

Miles 8-14
These were the glory miles. Everything felt so wonderful. I was speeding up according to plan. Well, not exactly to plan. The second half of the first half of Columbus is mainly downhill. (This makes me
really want to go back there and run the half marathon). I was just cruising miles 8-13. I was going a little bit faster than planned, but it was downhill, it felt easy, and I had no idea what I was capable of.

I also realized that my Garmin was beeping well before the mile markers. About 0.2 mile before each marker. I was doing a miserable job at running the tangents simply because I couldn't see when the turns and curves were coming up. This meant that my Garmin pace would be faster than my actual race pace. I knew this wasn't something I should be focusing on, so I quickly got that thought out of my head.

I stopped during mile 11 to refill my hand-held water bottle. It took me about 20 seconds, which I hated, but I figure it made up for not having to stop at any stations prior to that point. According to the race results website, I passed 49 people during the first half of the course and 67 people passed me. Interesting stat. My half marathon split was 1:48:46, which was almost exactly what I had planned. It gave me a huge confidence boost that I was executing well. Ecstasy.

Mile 8: 8:12
Mile 9: 8:05
Mile 10: 8:08
Mile 11: 8:23 (water bottle filling)
Mile 12: 8:17
Mile 13: 8:06
Mile 14: 8:08

Miles 15-20
Mile 16 through a stadium
Ouch. I knew that this would be the toughest part of the course and was mentally prepared. Miles 17-19 are a net uphill, and there were some pretty large ones in there. I kept telling myself it was going to get better, and not to worry if I slowed down a little bit. I knew that a downhill section would be coming once I reached mile 19.

It was hard, and it took a lot out of me. More than expected. At mile 18, I ditched my hand-held water bottle even though I still needed it to take one more gel. It was just too exhausting to be carrying it and I needed to be pumping my arms on the hills. These hills were not as steep or as long as they were in Mississauga, but for whatever reason, they just hurt a lot more. And my left hip was in full-on pain mode. Agony.

Mile 15: 8:14
Mile 16: 8:15
Mile 17: 8:16
Mile 18: 8:40
Mile 19: 8:41
Mile 20: 8:20

Miles 21-25
These miles were advertised as the fastest of the course and my coach told me that this is where he really wanted me to speed up and hammer home. Well, I ended up just being happy to hang on to a decent pace rather than speeding up. My original plan was to be running these last miles at a sub 8:10 pace, but that just wasn't happening. Aside from my hip (which was really killing me at this point), my legs felt really strong and not as tired as they normally are at this point in the race. The limiting factor was my energy level and overall feeling of fatigue.

I think the problem in these last miles was my lack of nutrition and hydration. I had one more gel that I planned to take at mile 22, and I had to stop at a water station to do so since my bottle was gone. When I did that, my reflexes had me spitting the gu out of my mouth just as quickly as I squeezed it in. And then I tried having some water, and I spit that out as well. My stomach wasn't hurting me, but it clearly didn't want to take in anything.

I was super frustrated that I had wasted 15 seconds at a water stop where I failed to get any nutrition or hydration. Agony.

I pushed forward. I felt like death and every time I started to question why I put myself through this
torture, I immediately replaced those thoughts with "you can do it" and "stay strong". At this point, I had cut off the music in my headphones because it had come to be more like noise than anything else. At Mississauga, the music really helped me all the way through the finish, but that was not the case here.

I started to think about my finish time in hopes that it would motivate me to stay strong and keep pushing the pace even though it hurt so much. At this point, all I wanted was a sub 3:40 and a BQ. I knew my original 3:35 goal was out the door, but I told myself a BQ was still salvageable.

Mile 21: 8:22
Mile 22: 8:18 (including the water stop!)
Mile 23: 8:25
Mile 24: 8:38
Mile 25: 8:24

Mile 26 and the Finish
During the last mile, I started thinking about my finish time as motivation. I told myself I had to speed up if I wanted to qualify for Boston. I thought about all of the years of hard work I had put into this. All the tears and disappointments. Over 10,000 training miles logged. This was it. All I had to do was run fast for another mile and half. I channeled all of my resources and it wasn't until just before the mile 26 marker that the adrenaline truly set in. The runner next to me, "Sarah," had a huge cheering section and I fed off of her crowd support. She was staying strong, and I was going to stay strong.

Ecstasy: My Garmin showed 26.2 miles in 3:37:xx
Agony: I would not get "credit" for this, and I might not even qualify for Boston

I was so pissed at that. Dammit! Agony, agony, agony!!!! I wanted that BQ. I deserved it. Today was supposed to be the day. For real this time!

Somewhere deep within me, I found this hidden gear and I just bolted for the finish. According to my Garmin, the last half mile of the race was a 7:21 pace. Previously, I hadn't even been able to maintain an 8:21. My desire for this BQ was so great that I tore through those last 0.2 passing everyone in my sight. Blowing by people thinking "I am getting a BQ!"

The finish line was in plain sight. I could literally see my BQ potential slipping away by the second. I wouldn't let it happen. It would not get away from me.

I crossed the finish line.

Ecstasy: My watch read 3:40:01, which could mean an official 3:40:00 BQ
Agony: My watch read 3:40:01, which means I could have actually missed it by just 1 second.

I found Greg shortly after crossing the finish line. My hip was on fire. Physically, I felt horrible. Mentally, I was so proud of my final kick.

Agony: My hip hurts so much I can barely walk
Ecstasy: I might have qualified for Boston
Racing stripes!

The hotel was less than half a mile away, but it took us forever to get there. My hip hurt me so badly that I had to walk at a snail's pace. I even tried walking backwards.

One Milestone at a Time
As it turns out, I did qualify for Boston. With a 3:40:00. Not a single second to spare. I fought hard for every second, and I am owning every second. Sure I would have loved a sub-3:40, but this allows me to enjoy one milestone at a time. A 3:40:00 is the only non sub-3:40 time that is still an official qualifying time.

I think it suits me. It's kind of funny. And kind of appropriate. In the grand scheme of things, the Boston qualifying journey has been about so much more than running. It's been about perseverance, dedication, mental strength and most importantly, learning how to truly accept my imperfect self. I would not be the person I am today if I had qualified back in 2008.

The reality is that a 3:40:00 will likely not get me a spot in the 2016 Boston Marathon. Because the race doesn't have enough spots for all of its qualifiers, the new registration process only accepts the fastest of those who have met the official qualifying standards. This year, I think you needed to be over a minute faster than the qualifying time to actually get a spot in the prestigious race.

Ecstasy: I qualified for Boston
Agony: This time won't get me into Boston

As much as I want to run Boston, I don't feel like this diminishes the achievement in any way. I will try to get my time down next spring, but yesterday was my first official Boston qualifying finish. It's mine. The fact that it was the slowest possible BQ I could have possibly gotten is kind of special. And now that I've done it, I will have the confidence to know I can do it again.

I set a PR by 3:44, which is significant chunk for someone who has been running for over 10 years. According to the results website, I passed 140 runners in my age group over the course of the race, and was only passed by 20 people. So even though I didn't get my negative split, most people slowed down to greater extent than I did.

My coach tells me it's amazing that I was able to run as fast as I did during those last 5 miles without any hydration or nutrition. And with an injured hip. Before I run another marathon, I want to experiment with different hydration strategies, as I think that I would have been more successful at the end if I had more fuel and water.

Overall, I think I had a very strong performance yesterday. Even though I didn't hit my goal time, I still accomplished quite a bit and I'm ready to train even harder for the next one.  Boston I qualified for, and Boston I shall run. The journey continues.


  1. Congratulations! What a motivational journey!

  2. So FREAKING HAPPY for you! What an awesome accomplishment to work through everything you had going on - you DID IT! I hope you are celebrating - huge!

  3. This is really quite wonderful. I hope you just savor and enjoy this right now. You did it!

  4. Congratulations :). You're right, it was a perfect BQ. I do hate that the people who qualify don't always get in though, because you have to "over qualify" since so many people do. I love your positive attitude and you have had an amazing racing season to go with it.

  5. SO happy for you, again, gotta say it. It has been a long time coming, and you put in the work, overcame your demons, and GOT IT. Congratulations!

  6. Great job! So happy that you got your BQ! I have no doubt that you will get an even better time that will get you that spot to run.