Saturday, March 4, 2017

Faster than I could have dreamed of

About four years ago, when I was working with my sports psychologist, he asked me what I thought my fastest possible marathon time ever would be. I told him that I believed I was capable of a 3:30, which seemed fast at the time, and the notion of running even faster than that didn't seem realistic. For years, I had plateaued at around 3:50 and even though I believed I was physically capable of
Myrtle Beach Marathon 2017
faster, I knew I had some mental roadblocks to overcome.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2015 when I finally qualified for Boston and ran a time that truly reflected my physical abilities, now that the mental barriers were gone. I was elated with a 3:35, and thought I was very close to, if not at, my lifetime peak.

But once I learned how to relax and not put pressure on myself, I opened up a whole new world of possibilities. The following summer, my coach had me work on speed and I trained for a half marathon instead of a full. Over the course of six months, I dropped my half marathon PR from 1:41 to 1:37 to 1:35 to 1:33. And the following spring, while training for Boston 2016, he upped my mileage 60-65 miles per week, running seven days a week, which built my endurance.

Boston ended up being a different kind of victory. With its 70 degree sunny weather, I was happy to finish the race in one piece and I realized that running a "fast" time wasn't realistic in those conditions. However, it did leave me wondering what I could have done. So I registered for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, which would take place in the fall.

But God had different plans for me. I ended up spending 12 weeks with mono, unable to run or do much of anything. It was a difficult time for me, despite all my best efforts to stay positive, but I resolved that once I recovered, I would get back out there and start training for a marathon ASAP. My coach was conservative about my comeback and I spent about five weeks doing nothing but easy running. It bored the crap out of me, but I trusted my coach. By November, I was finally back to racing and doing harder work outs.

My coach finally agreed to me running the Myrtle Beach marathon. I chose it because it was known for being a fast course with good weather. And it was early in the spring, which would allow me four weeks to recover and then run the Cherry Blossom 10-miler. So I trained through December, January and February, averaging about 65 miles a week, with 3 weeks above 71 miles. I ran seven days a week and from the start of the year until the race, I only had two rest days. I never thought I would be capable of training at this level without getting injured. And I never thought I would be starting a marathon at a 7:45 pace. But here I am!

Training Cycle

The taper went pretty well except for Wednesday, when I felt like I was getting sick again. I was having trouble focusing at work, I felt like my head was in a haze, and my throat was a little sore. It took me over an hour to drive home from work, and I found myself getting abnormally angry at the situation since I was so tired and just wanted to get home. I told myself not to freak out, but part of me was convinced that I was getting sick again and I wouldn't be able to race. Turns out this was just taper madness, or a possible result of the decreased mileage. My body is so used to running lots of miles each morning, and I had only run for 40 minutes on Tuesday, and 30 on Wednesday. Thursday was a rest day and that's when Greg and I drove down to Myrtle Beach.

We had all day Friday to go to the expo and check out the course. We drove most of the course and discovered that there was a mini-golf course at mile 20 which had zebras! I would get to run by zebras!

Before the Race
Race morning went like clockwork for Greg and me. Greg was running the half, with a goal of a sub-7:00 pace. The race had a 6:30am start time (another reason I chose it -- get it done before it gets too hot!) so we were up at 4:00am eating our bagels and bananas with peanut butter. I had decided to take a different approach to hydration with this race. I hypothesized that I had a tendency to over hydrate
Everything is ready to go!
during races and it would cause issues. I did my training runs this cycle on less water, but made sure to keep myself much more hydrated on a day-to-day basis. This really worked for me, and it was kind of liberating to not feel like I had to be drinking so much water the day before the race and during the race.

Thankfully, I had slept relatively well the night before the race and the previous night. I actually fell asleep with my head on Greg's chest at 7:30 on Friday night. I was up for about an hour in the middle of the night, but then went back to sleep for another restful 2 hours.

The weather was forecast to be nearly ideal: sunny and 36 at the start, warming to 46 by the finish. We'd have a headwind from miles 8-18, but the forecasts all disagreed about how fast it would be. The most I saw was 15 mph, which I thought would be annoying, but manageable.

Yet another reason why I chose this race: easy logistics. Our hotel was literally two blocks from the start line. This allowed us to stay in our hotel room until 20 minutes prior to the start, with the ability to use the bathroom. We took our UCAN at 6:00 and by 6:15 we were approaching the start line. The race has about 5000 combined participants. The 1:45 half marathon pacer was standing at the very front of the race, and there was no corralling system, so there were many slower runners who started farther forward than they should have.

It took us a little longer than expected to get to the start line, but I stayed calm as we literally approached the corral during the National Anthem. I felt relaxed, confident, and ready. It also felt a little bit surreal. I had been thinking about this race every day since November, and it was finally here!

Miles 1-5
I settled into a comfortable pace pretty quickly, and it was only crowded for the first three miles. It amazed me how many conversations were going on around me. I can understand a little dialog, but when running at marathon pace or half marathon pace, the last thing I want to do is talk. These miles went by pretty quickly. My plan was to start at a pace of around 7:40-7:45 and just take it from there. The paces felt really easy, so even though I'd never started a marathon any faster than 8:20, I was confident. Greg zoomed off ahead after the first half mile, and I noticed he was having trouble weaving through the crowd.

Mile 1: 7:47
Mile 2: 7:42
Mile 3: 7:41
Mile 4: 7:42
Mile 5: 7:37

Miles 6-10
Everything was still feeling really good, and during mile 7, I ran past two people who recognized me
from my blog and my Instagram. One of them is someone who I follow on Strava, but I didn't know who the other person was, so please comment and identify yourself! I chatted for about a minute with the person from Strava, Bronwen, and she told me she was going for a 3:30. It would have been nice to have run with her longer, but she mentioned wanting to dial it back and I was actually in the mood to get a little faster.

At mile 8, we turned into a headwind. I knew to expect this, as I had studied the course map and wind direction beforehand. I knew that miles 8-18 would all be directly into a headwind, and I just had to hope it wasn't too bad.  I would estimate (and Greg agrees) that it was a sustained wind of 10-12 mph. Nothing horrendous, but definitely challenging. Unfortunately, the crowd had thinned out too much to be able to draft off of anyone. And I kept passing people, which was good for my race, but not good for trying to draft.

Mile 6: 7:40
Mile 7: 7:40
Mile 8: 7:35
Mile 9: 7:41
Mile 10: 7:37

Miles 11-15
I hoped I wasn't screwing myself royally by running in the 7:30's so early in the race, but I was keeping the effort steady. Plus, I knew that the last 8 miles would have a tailwind, so hopefully it would get easier.  (Okay, the last 8 miles of a marathon are never "easier"!)
Mile 12, just took my UCAN

The half marathon runners turned off and the course really emptied out. There were now even fewer people to draft off of, and I suspected I'd be running alone for most of the rest of the race.

I took my UCAN gel at mile 11 and it went down pretty well. I had been carrying a bottle of water the entire time and I was drinking from it about once per mile, but only in very small amounts that would be easy on my digestive system. Most of this section of the course was shaded, which was good because even at 40 degrees, direct sunlight can feel too warm. With the wind, though, my hands were starting to get really cold. I was having trouble holding onto my water bottle with my nearly numb hands, so I tossed it at mile 14.

I hit the "half marathon" mark at 1:39:17, which is a pace of 7:34. I put "half marathon" in quotes because this was actually mile marker 13, not halfway. According to my Garmin, I hit the halfway mark at an average pace of 7:40.

When I got to mile 15, I still felt good, but running was noticeably harder than it had been at mile 5!

Mile 11: 7:41
Mile 12: 7:36
Mile 13: 7:36
Mile 14: 7:38
Mile 15: 7:35

Miles 16-20
Okay, enough with the headwind! Miles 16-17 were tough. The wind was picking up, there weren't many runners around and these miles were actually slightly uphill. On the plus side, we had a really
nice view of the ocean, and I used that to distract me from the discomfort I was beginning to feel.

Finally, at mile 18, we turned around. It felt great both physically and mentally because now I just had to run straight to the finish, with a tailwind most of the way. It also energized me to be able to see runners on the other side of the course.

Now that I was no longer carrying my own water, I had to remember to take water from the stations. I could probably only take in 3 ounces at each station, but that was enough to get me through. At mile 20, I came upon the zebras! It was such a nice pick-me-up. I also took six honey stinger chews, which I thankfully was able to take without water. Those went down well and I knew I'd be be good from a fueling standpoint for the remainder of the race. Nothing left to do but focus on running.

Mile 16: 7:40
Mile 17: 7:40
Mile 18: 7:39
Mile 19: 7:30
Mile 20: 7:32

Miles 21-Finish
Even though the race was starting to feel hard, I didn't feel like I was going to crash, and I knew I had enough time "banked" to run a really great time even if I slowed down. But I didn't want to use that as an excuse to slow down, I just used that as a way to stay positive about the race.

At mile 23 there was a small out-and-back, and as I was coming out of it, I saw Laura, who I had met on Instagram. We had followed each other's training every day and I was so excited to see her just a few minutes behind me. This meant that she was at least 5 minutes ahead of her goal! It totally energized me to see a friendly face, and it made me smile. Being in a good mood that late in the game is so important. It's easy to get stuck in your own head, thinking about how hard it is.

At mile 23, I realized that I was slowing down a little bit, but I told myself just to maintain the effort as much as possible. As with all marathons, 3 more miles to go seemed like an eternity. Everything in
Approaching mile 26
me wanted to stop, but of course I knew that would be a horrible idea.

Finally, I approached the intersection where Greg said he'd be, and I saw him jumping up and down and cheering for me. He snapped some photos and then ran with me for about 30 seconds. It was nice to have him there so close to the end. He pulled off as I approached the final turn and I was able to find a faster gear and pick up the pace a little. We had suddenly merged with the half marathon runners so I had to weave around a few of them, which was an unwelcome challenge at that point. As I approached the finish line, I glanced at my watch and saw that I could run 3:21 if I gunned it. I gave it everything I had, and finished with a time of 3:21:54.

Mile 20: 7:32
Mile 21: 7:42
Mile 22: 7:45
Mile 23: 7:51
Mile 24: 7:52
Mile 25: 8:05
Mile 26: 7:55
Last 0.2: 7:29 pace

After crossing the finish line, I felt a little like death. I very slowly walked through the finish line chute and my Instagram friend, Laura, was close behind. I used her boyfriend's phone to call Greg and it wasn't long before we were re-united.

Once he got me settled on a grassy knoll with my space blanket, he headed over to the results tent and came back to told me that I had won my age group! I was elated! I thought I might win an age group award, but I never expected to come in first.

Finisher Certificate
After the awards ceremony, Greg ended up carrying me back to the hotel. I was able to walk, but because my hip was killing me so much, we were going at a snail's pace. Everyone we passed told Greg what a great guy he was! If it hadn't been for that, we might still be walking back.

Greg crushed his goal of a sub-7:00 pace and ran a 1:29:49. He's gotten so fast lately!

I'm still processing this race, so I don't think I've gotten as excited yet as I will be! On the one hand, I'm shocked that I set a PR by over 13 minutes. But on the other hand, this was the time I was going for and I was confident I could do it, so I shouldn't be all that surprised! I qualified for Boston with an 18:06 cushion. And to think that I spent 7 years of my life agonizing over getting a 3:40. Just letting go of the obsession and enjoying racing is so much easier!

I'm pleased that:
  • I had a generally healthy training cycle with only a minor cold and an infected blister to cope with
  • I found a new hydration strategy that works for me (more water is not always better)
  • I got lucky with the weather
  • I was able to execute on my race strategy, including my nutrition plan
  • I left it all out there on the course. At the end of the race I had absolutely nothing left in the tank!
  • I placed first in my age group, out of 105 runners.
  • I'm elated with my huge PR and BQ!
Myrtle Beach Marathon Medal

I would definitely recommend this race to anyone who wants to run a fast marathon. It's logistically very easy with hotels within close proximity to the start/finish, the beach area itself is really nice, and the race is well organized.

Overall, this is an experience I will remember for the rest of my life and I'm so happy I was able to share it with Greg.  Up next is the Cherry Blossom 10-miler!


  1. Wow! Just wow. I'm so impressed and proud of you! Congrats!

  2. Oh, Elizabeth!!!! This is so terrific!! Mega congrats! The splits through 22 are amazingly consistent... Then your training got you to the end! Way to leave it all out there!! So happy for you. The AG win plus overall female place is great. And Greg rocked the half.. wish him well for me please!!

    1. I will definitely give him your congrats. Thank you!

  3. Congratulations on your success!! It's so fun to see you accomplish your goals!

  4. First, I'm *really* sad we didn't get to meet and really sorry about the texts yesterday and if it seemed short. I was actually driving Melissa home and was very worried about her post-race because she was sick and hadn't eaten a lot. We wanted to get back to Summerville ASAP, so as soon as we got her to the room, showered, checked out, and ate breakfast we headed home. It was the best decision but a tough ending to the weekend because instead of seeing our marathon friends finish and meeting you, we were basically monitoring y'all from an app in the pancake house.

    Congratulations to you on another BQ and an amazing finish time, even winning your AG in a *marathon*! Isn't it so fun to see people you know and know you on the course? Blogging is such a small world because even in your recap I recognize names of other people like Bronwen and Laura (who I also follow).

    Also, thank you for everything you pointed out in the recap because you saw a side of the race I obviously didn't see as a spectator. I am surprised in the lack of corrals for a race this size too. I was under the impression there were corrals as I read something that said "Be in the corral at 6:15" I guess it didn't affect your race much but I am a little surprised. All of your splits were spot on until the very last mile but I guess if there's any time to fall off the pace in a marathon it's better at Mile 25 than Mile 15, right?

    I think you'll do even bigger things in the shorter distances and maybe future marathons. Thanks for inspiring us all.

    1. I agree with you that blogging and being active on social media makes racing more fun! It was such a pick-me-up to see Melissa, Bronwen, and Laura out there. What a great community runners are! During those last 3 miles, I just focused on maintaining my strongest effort, and I was pleased that (with the exception of 25) I stayed under 8:00. I think that because this was such a jump that I can still make gains in the marathon, even if they are 2-3 minutes and not 13 each time! I hope to break 20 in the 5K this year. We shall see!

    2. First off CONGRATS again on such a great race!!! It was nice to meet you in person even if was only for a few seconds! I really wish Amy and I could have stayed and got to see you and our friends finish and even get to hang out...but unfortunately I was the sick friend :(
      I have enjoyed reading your blog and following you along in your training and races over the past year. I agree with Amy that you still have some big things headed your way! keep up the great work and hope you enjoy a little R&R before the next adventure begins!!!

  5. Incredible performance Elizabeth, but you simply ran what you trained to run...a fast marathon...conditions and other factors favored you and you run faster. I dismiss any mentioning of mile 25 and splits somewhat slower. By the time you that far out and taking the race have so much time in the bank and you know you going to log your fastest marathon...falling back a bit for a mile...maybe just helps you pick it up that last mile and metric partial to the finish.

    You did the training, you had the performance conditioning, you had your new "mind-set" as you have evolved to become...and you simply did what the final aspects of your book is all about! Congratulations on that! I never in my life took overall gender place in a you got something to treasure there! It makes you an elite runner! You are Boston-caliber...and you need to be going back to that race, every year from 2016 and on! I hope you are running Boston in 2017 cause would be cool to shake hands with who I refer to as the "Zebra-gal" and I not as good as you, but I going back for 9th consecutive...and I think this is another zebra you might want to chase! Awesome training and awesome did it and then some!

    1. Thank you for reading and for your support. I am not running Boston 2017, but I will certainly be there in 2018!

  6. SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO awesome! This was a great read! Congrats again!! You earned this!

  7. This is just so amazing. First to come back stronger than ever after mono and second to run an absolutely phenomenal marathon! You are so capable of great things! bask in the glory of your hard work.

  8. Well done!! You totally deserved this awesome time. You're training was so good and you're so dedicated. Nice work.

  9. Hi Elizabeth. Great Run!!! I see you are planning on running the Cherry Blossom 10 miler. How are you planning your training to recover and be ready for Cherry Blossom? I'm thinking about a 10 mile race a few weeks after my upcoming marathon, interested in how you are planning it...thx. Scott Harmon

    1. Hi Scott! This first week is all rest days with the exception of two 20-minute easy jogs (Thursday and Saturday). I don't yet have a plan from my coach for the next three weeks, but I can let you know once I get it, and I'll also be blogging about it as I do it. I think I can mainly rely on my marathon fitness for the 10-miler, and prioritize recovery so I don't get injured.

  10. Hey Elizabeth,

    I wanted to thank you for your story. I just finished your book last night and I took five pages of notes as I was reading it! I just graduated from college and have always struggled with perfectionism. I worked through an eating disorder over the last few years, but I could see that the perfectionistic tendencies weren't gone, they were just sliding around into other parts of my mind. Your story gives me courage to continue on, even in things I have historically experienced failure in. Your focus on process goals rather than outcome goals really impacted me. The idea of releasing the reins when trying harder isn't getting you to your goal is something I want to experiment more with in my own life. I'm actually signed up for my first Ragnar and marathon this summer, and I can't imagine a better book to help me prepare mentally. Thanks again for all of the time you put into the blog and book! You are one of my biggest role models.

    --AK Toronto

    1. It's so great to hear that the book was inspiring and helpful! That's exactly why I wrote it and I appreciate you reaching out. I think true recovery involves so much more than just getting back on a normal eating schedule. You have to address the root cause, which is really difficult to do! I love the idea of "trying easy" which can be translated into "chill out" in many cases! You still care, and you still want to put forth an effort, but not in a way that's interfering with other areas of your life. I wish you best of luck in your first marathon. You will love it and hate it at the same time! That's what makes it so wonderful. I'd like to hear more about how it goes for you, so definitely feel free to comment more!