Report from the Trenches: Philadelphia Marathon

Saying I was nervous about the Philadelphia Marathon would be an understatement. I am sure Chris, friends and family were beyond tired of hearing about it by the time we got to race weekend. Yes, I always have nerves before a goal-race, but I had made Philly 2013 into this epic come-back chance for myself. After being plagued by four bad marathon experiences in a row (Boston 2012, fighting a stomach bug and the heat was a combination I couldn’t push through, causing me to DNF. NYC 2012 was canceled. Harrisburg Marathon 2012 was a nightmare where I injured at mile 12, and SHOULD have DNF’ed, but was too stubborn. Boston 2013, for the obvious reasons.) – THIS was my chance to get that PR I so badly wanted, and I craved a GOOD marathon morning.

I knew that the original goal I had set of a 3:00 marathon at Philly just wasn’t in the cards. My training and mental state just weren’t ready. So I reassessed and set new, smarter goals.

The new goal time: sub-3:10, seemed possible. I had been on track for it a year before in Harrisburg before my foot and ankle ruined that race. I knew stepping up to the Philly Marathon starting line that I had to keep my head, and let my body do it’s job.

Race morning was a cool 51 degrees at the start, but also a suffocating 93% humidity. I do not race well in humidity, but knew my only choice was to give it my all. As the sun slowly rose over my home town, I found myself in a packed corral with other nervous runners. I wondered how many of them would be an intimate part of my 3+ hour journey. I gathered myself for a few quiet moments in my head while announcements were made, and before I knew it, we were off!

I had two plans for this race: Run smart, and negative split. I had NEVER run a negative split in a marathon before. That was my weakness. I decided I was going to see if I could change that, so I started out conservatively. As runners flew past me, I settled into a 7:14 minute mile groove, and told myself to settle. I also decided it was smart to hydrate early and often, especially with the humidity.

I remember being annoyed in the early miles because my damn sunglasses were fogging up. It was distracting, until I told myself to not let it be distracting. I had a long day ahead of me, and I was going to need my energy later. I relaxed, enjoyed the music that streamed through my ipod, and smiled at corny signs the spectators held. I had a few very emotional moments in the first few miles, but told myself to get it together. Crying and running, especially in humidity, don’t work so well.

As I merrily trotted down Chestnut Street, I cheered on a few wheelchair athletes as I passed them. I kept my eye out for Chris as I approached the 10K mark at 18th street, as he planned to cheer me on from the corner. Not only did I see Chris, but our good buddy Alex was with him! A big surprise! I squealed, smiled, and was so thrilled. That energy carried me the next few miles.

Coming up Chestnut Street and spotting my cheering section!

Coming up Chestnut Street and spotting my cheering section!

Right around the turn onto 35th street, my trusty Garmin decided it was done for the day. This could have really thrown me. I almost never run without it, and I ALWAYS race with it. I quickly had to accept that the rest of the race would be without my watch.

I should note here that I did indeed run the Queens Half Marathon a few years ago without my Garmin (not by choice!), and ended up with a big PR – even in the hot and humid July weather. Perhaps that experience kept me from panicking.

As I approached the two biggest climbs of the marathon, I relaxed my pace a bit. I reminded myself that I wanted to go out conservatively, and that this technical part of the course was where I needed to pull back. I still had a long way to go, and I was finding it hard to breathe in the heavy air. I felt as though a weight were sitting on my chest and I couldn’t get a full breath. Relaxing the pace helped. A brief stop to fix a shoe lace that had started to loosen chewed up a few minutes, but I kept my head.

The few miles before the Half Marathon mark were mentally hard. I began doubting my ability to run a smart race without my Garmin. The clock on the watch still worked, so with some simple math I had rough estimates of what pace I was on. Still, I mentally struggled here. I looked for Chris at the next spot he was supposed to be, but I had missed him. Slightly defeated, I trotted on.

Then something happened that made me shift to a second gear. I don’t know if it were seeing some friends along the course, or if I just told myself I had come too damn far to not give this race my all. I shifted into a slightly fast turnover, telling myself to relax and that this was easy. Miles quietly went by, as the field had thinned out significantly after the Half Marathoners split ways to finish.

It was along this out-and-back second half that my ipod decided that it was done too. I couldn’t believe my luck with electronics. This was unreal. Too much sweat had made it unhappy clipped to my sports bra, and I was left to run with no Garmin and no music. Not the race day plan I had in mind, but I’ve raced without music many times before. Ironically, I settled into an even faster pace with ease, sans music.

The energy near in Manayunk, at the turn-around mark and a long 10K to the finish, always gets me going. Mentally, its a blur of energy and I can barely remember specific signs or costumes at this point, but there were the frat boys handing out beer, like they do every year. I recall thinking that beer at the finish line would be good, but there was no way I was grabbing a cup mid-marathon!

I dug deep and kept pushing forward. I took whatever energy I could from the spectators around me. I focused on a mile at a time, slowly chipping away at that long out-and-back. I somehow missed a few friends and team mates out there running, but I did get words on encouragement and a high five from Cip – my lovely friend and team mate with whom I’d run Boston. She told me I looked good, which was clearly a lie. I was around the 24 mile mark, and I was hurting. My strides felt labored, my mind felt fuzzy, and it was all I could do to keep my eye on the prize. Cip’s lie was enough to help me finish what I started.

Based on the clock on my watch, I knew if I just kept one food in front of the other, no matter how hard it felt, that PR was mine. What the time would be, I didn’t want to guess. Those last few miles were hard. At the 25 mile mark, a photographer yelled that I only had a mile to go. I told it would be the longest mile of my day. Plus .2, of course.

Thankfully, I knew Chris would be standing at the 1/2 mile-to-go mark, near Lloyd Hall. What surprised me was the crowd of support that was with him! My parents, his parents, and some friends from NYC were all there, yelling for me. Being the work-horse that I am, I surged up that final incline, using anything I could to finish strong. I noticed that I was running with my arms like a mad-woman at this point, but I don’t think I was capable of correcting my form.

The slight down-hill finish, through a chute of screaming people, it was amazing. I wanted to kick, but I had nothing left. There was no kick. And to my shock, the clock time was reading a time I never thought was in the cards today: I finished in 3:05:27. I could not believe it. I still cannot believe it.

This marathon reminded me a bit of my most recent Broad Street Run. Back in May, I didn’t PR, but I somehow pulled off a time that physically I NEVER would have thought was in the cards. It’s not that I always doubt my training, but back in May I had barely done any speed training (thanks, heel injury!), but I still pulled off a 6:33 mile pace for 10 miles. At that race, I remember mentally being so fired up over Boston, that something mentally snapped and I refused to do anything less than my best. At this Philly Marathon, that same grit and refusal to accept defeat had kicked in again. Man, I wish I could summon that mental state all the time!

As I slowly walked away from the finish line, my mind never went to Boston bombing flashbacks. Perhaps my shocking finish time was so much for me to handle that it pushed out the possibility of any other thoughts. I couldn’t believe it. I had achieved a finish time I didn’t think I’d had in me, on a day when few things went right. I suppose the lesson here is that through your training for a marathon, your body adjusts to a natural rhythm and internal clock that we can’t always see on our Garmin’s face. Sometimes we are stronger than we think we are, but we rely on tools to dictate our potential. And support, support from folks on the course can greatly change the game. My new Philadelphia Marathon PR is proof of that.635204711723558107

Taper Tantrum

Philly Marathon 2011, and my current marathon PR of 3:15:46. Time to step it up and crush it.

Philly Marathon 2011, and my current marathon PR of 3:15:46. Time to step it up and crush it.

With less than a week to go before my goal race, I am deep into tapering. For those of you who don’t know what tapering is, it’s the few weeks leading up to a marathon where mileage and intensity is cut down in order to give the athlete time to rest, recover, heal, focus, and be ready to hit the pavement hard on race day. While tapering can sound delightful while in the middle of marathon training, actually doing it is rough. As an athlete, I despise it.

Realizing that perhaps many of you have dealt with tapering, I decided I would share my own experience this time round – in case it helps you. The truth is that tapering never gets easier.

If you are like me, you handle stress one of two ways: eating and exercising. Well, since my mileage has gone down, and I am no longer allowed to strength train until after the marathon, all of that pre-race stress goes into eating. My dreams have also been flooded with race-day visions. My mind is going wild.

During your taper, it s a good time to go back over previous races, how paces fluctuated, how training went up until that last big race, how you handled race day, etc. It’s also a good time to reaffirm your goals. I always advise my athletes to have three goals for a marathon: the goal that is the reach (everything may need to go perfectly to achieve it), the goal that seems tangible as long as they keep their focus and don’t do anything stupid, and the goal that is the totally achievable unless something goes terribly wrong. After all, it is easy to lose your head out there if things fall apart or don’t go according to plan. Having different goals gives you the opportunity to salvage the day and refocus quickly.

Here are my three goals:

The safety net goal: BQ. Unless I get injured out there, my training indicates that a sub-3:35 will be easy to achieve.

The possible with hard work goal: PR, ideally with a sub-3:10 (7:13 minute miles)

The reach: As close to 3:05 as possible. (7:03-7:05 minute miles)

My original hope for Philly was the 3:05 area and faster, but my training and mental game simply don’t show any sign that I’m there. That’s okay, and I’ve abandoned that goal. It can be saved for another time.

That’s not to say I am cutting my expectations short. My top two goals are ambitious, and I need to play it smart.

The positives: I am healthy. No plantar issues (that’s rare for me!), and no posterior tibial tendon issues, like I had last year. Last year I also battled the norovirus for a week, three weeks before Harrisburg Marathon. Plus, I know the Philly race course like the back of my hand. Knowledge is power. And it looks like I may have some crowd support from friends and family. These are all good things.

The one thing I may do this year is run with music. I generally prefer not to, but since Boston, I have had a hard time keeping my head in the game on long runs without it. Negative thoughts kick in, and I need to avoid that from happening on those quiet miles on Kelly Drive. It doesn’t look like I’ll have any pacers hop in, so I am going to be alone with my own thoughts – which I know is my weakness right now.

I am excited for Philly. I am ready to race again, healthy, and ready to leave it all out on the course. I am not going to Philly to have fun. I am going back to my home town to leave my blood, sweat and tears on the course, and to do my best.

Until then, I’ll keep eating my nerves. Mmm. Carbs.

Marathon Mind-Games

elizabeth_corkum-5810web-320x444If you’ve ever run a marathon, you know that the journey is a mind game. While it’s a given that your body will scream for you to stop – no matter how great your months of training went – your head is what will make you or break you on race day.

Personally, I’ve had marathons in my past that rank as “best day ever,” and I’ve also had a few that count towards “worst day ever.” While for me the “worst day ever” has unfortunately always involved an injury or illness, it’s also always a mental struggle. Do I push through and just finish? Do I DNF? What’s smart? At the end of the day, the decision when injured is never easy.

On the “best day ever,’ marathon, the journey is still something of a mind game. Honestly, it’s the hardest mental test I can think – perhaps second to Ultra Marathons. Ultra Marathons are a completely different mind-game.

Here’s an example of a “good” race day:

Mile 3 – I feel awesome. I can go on forever!

Mile 6 – Man, I have 20 MORE MILES?

Mile 10 – My legs feel tired, but I CAN DO THIS!!!

Mile 13 – I’m only half way there?!?

Mile 15 – Come on, trust your training. This is LIVING!!! Remember, you love this!

Mile 17 – This sucks. Why did I think a marathon was a good idea? This is AWFUL. What other bad life choices have I made?!?

Mile 20 – Jesus Christ, how can I keep this pace for another 10k?

Mile 22 – Focus and get this shit done. You are stronger than this.

Mile 24 – Oh hey, this isn’t so bad! Man, I cannot wait to enjoy a nice cold beer as soon as this is done!

Mile 25 – Dear God, everything hurts and everything is tired. I just want to lay down and sleep.

Mile 26 – Total euphoria. THIS IS IT!!!! Focus is back in my eyes, as are sometimes tears. Push through and finish strong! This is the best moment ever!!!!!

Folks, in my experience, that’s often how a good day goes.

A bad marathon looks too scary to document. If you’ve been there, you know.

The good news is that if you train properly, the mental strength you’ve wielded and mastered on your long runs prepare you for your race morning mental challenge.

It’s funny, you always expect to feel physically spent after a marathon. You anticipate walking like a broken person, having limited range of motion, dealing with chafing and blisters, and having to rehydrate like a camel. The biggest shock to me, every time, is how mentally drained I am after the marathon. Your brain feels like mush, even when euphoric after succeeding at said goal. It reminds me of how I felt after taking the SATs or GREs. My brain feels completely drained.

So, if you are nervous about your looming marathon, you should be. It means you care. It also means you respect the marathon, and that you realize that a whole lot can happen within 26.2 miles. Take heart, your training is preparing you. And yes, on race day you will struggle to keep focused and to keep your brain in a positive place. But keep putting one foot in front of the other, and I promise you it won’t take long until your head shifts into a different space.

Ride the Highs

img_6399-editBest. Workout. Ever.

You know the feeling. You lifted more than ever before. Sweat out a terrible day. Ran a hard track workout strong. Conquered that 20-mile training run like a badass. Whatever the accomplishment, you know the feeling. I LOVE that feeling. It’s the feeling of progress. Of success. Of pay-off.

While that feeling doesn’t happen every day, or even every week, it’s one that we relish in when it happens. It’s what drives us to push through those tough or mediocre workouts. There’s always the chance that this could be the day for that great triumph.

When marathon training, these workouts are what keep us sane. Months of training not only wears on our bodies, but also on our minds and spirits. Injury and burnout are potentially knocking on the door. When a workout goes wrong, we question or abilities. When a workout goes right – we dream of progress, and what we are truly capable of.

The best thing, and what we all hope for: come race day, we have that awesome “workout.” That its the day we feel optimistic and focused in the eyes of fatigue and hitting the wall. That we push through, knowing it can get better. Our training, the combination of good days and bad days are what mentally prepare us for race day. We’ve learned when to push, and also learned when to settle and relax.

The marathon, just like most goals, are about the journey. We wouldn’t truly appreciate the highs without the lows.

So the next time you have a terrible workout, remember that you are just setting yourself up to really enjoy the thrill of a fantastic workout in the future.

Boston Marathon 2013: Part 3

730052-1094-0025sIMG_2410Crossing the Boston Marathon finish line next to Cipriana was a wonderful, emotional experience. What happened next has changed me forever. Within five minutes of crossing the finish line at 4:05:56, the first bomb went off at 4:09:43. it sounded like a cannon. I felt it in my chest. We watched in horror as smoke engulfed the spectators on our right. My first thought was that something accidently went off – fireworks, a gas tank, some kind of accident. With barely a few seconds for Cip and I to react, the second bomb went off. At that point we knew that the explosions were no accident, and our lives could be in danger.

We hadn’t even made it to receive our medals, mylar sheets, or water bottles when the explosions occurred. We were maybe 50 yards away from the first explosion. Silence and confusion fell, and fear consumed us all. If two bombs had gone off within seconds of each other on Boylston Street, how many more bombs were there? We didn’t know, but we knew we had to get off of Boylston Street, and fast. As we tried to run around tired runners, some of whom seemed too wiped out from the marathon to even realize what had happened behind them, we ran as fast as we could away from the finish line.

A woman near us began to break down. Clearly she had spent every ounce of energy on the marathon, and she started wailing that her husband was standing where the first bomb went off. She kept screaming that she had just seen him there. She half crumbled to the ground, her legs buckling under her, and she was going to try  to get to where she thought her husband was. I told her to stay calm, to come with us, away from the explosions, that she didn’t know anything for sure about her husband, and that we needed to be concerned about our own safety, and not be in the way of first-responders. I don’t know what happened to this woman, since she was hardly responsive.

IMG_20130417_091416_251I will admit, as Cip and I ran away from the terror, for a moment I thought of turning around. Not that I could have helped much, but with being certified in CPR and first aid, I thought maybe I could do something. However, I quickly reminded myself that if people had lost limbs, I didn’t have the medical ability to do anything for them, and I didn’t think it was safe for me to head back.

Luckily, the bus with Cip’s baggage was directly down Boylston Street, so we went there and grabbed her bag. Unlike my bag, hers had a phone in it with battery power. We then retraced our steps by a block to try to exit the blocked of streets. We grabbed my bag, and had turned the corner off of Boylston Street. Around this time, I heard the first sirens. Still not feeling safe, but a bit safer than we had on Boylston Street, we slowed to a walk and tried to come up with the best course of action. Just then, we heard people yelling, and volunteers and staff cameramen came running at us, telling us to run. My thought: what do they know that we don’t know? I kept expecting an explosion to happen any second. Perhaps out of a building, a trash can, or under my feet. I kept telling myself that I might not still be safe. I might be blown to bits.

IMG_2412With Cip’s phone we were able to make a few phone calls. We decided to walk toward her hotel, right near Boston Common, and away from the finish line area. More sirens and helicopters. More people crying and screaming. We got to Cip’s hotel room, where I was able to charge my phone and we could turn on the news.

A few hours later, Chris and I walked back from Cip’s hotel (he walked to find me) back to The Eliot. We walked as far away from Boylston Street as possible, considering our hotel was a short two blacks away from the location of the second explosion. I was in a state of shock, still unable to totally process what had happened. Survival mode had kept me from becoming emotional. Between being emotionally and physically drained, and the request from the Boston PD and FBI for everyone to stay where they are, we stayed in the hotel for the rest of the night.

Monday night I barely slept. my mind was haunted with images, emotions, fears – things I could not shake from my conscious or unconscious. I kept waiting for our hotel room to explode. For something else to happen.

904376_902782584544_2034901455_oTuesday morning was a strange time. The sun was shining, and it was a beautiful spring day in Boston. We packed our bags and checked out of the hotel, headed back to Back Bay Station and our Amtrak ride home. Exiting the hotel, there were police and swat teams on every corner, including outside our hotel. Our block was part of a crime scene, and we had to detour around Boylston Street.

Being outside made everything worse. It was all too real. The roped off blocks, the medical tents and finish area abandoned, standing just as it had Monday afternoon. News teams swarmed like vultures, all looking for marathoners to interview. They were set up with their vans, cameras, and lighting equipment by the dozens on every block.

As we walked, I lost it. I could not stop crying. I could not handle being there, and fought off panic attacks a few times. We walked past a young woman, and she handed me a white rose and thanked me for running the Boston Marathon. If I had any control over how I was conducting myself before, this gesture made me lose it entirely. I carried that white rose back with me to NYC, and it is currently in a vase in my kitchen.

I was asked for two interviews by news teams, both of which I declined. I didn’t want to keep reliving what I had experienced. I was already incredibly tired and frustrated from all of the questions everyone was already asking me. I know it was coming from a place of caring or curiosity, but every time I was asked what happened or how I was feeling, I had to revisit that pain. I wanted to yell at everyone to shut up and leave me alone.

155738_10101268085877673_955661079_nI am sure, like the city of Boston, that I will at some point get past what I experienced on Monday. I have overcome PTSD before, though this is my first time personally experiencing a terrorist attack. Everyone has questions, which is natural. Just please, before jumping to any conclusions, consider your resources. The day of the explosions, all kinds of false claims were being made, and many people were buying into them. Right now, the most important thing on everyone’s mind should be the recovery, healing, and grieving regarding the people injured, traumatized or killed.

I keep telling myself that I am incredibly lucky. I am also incredibly thankful that none of my friends, team mates or loved ones were injured. Many people were not so lucky. This is a time for healing and coming together, not for self-promotion or jumping on conspiracy band wagons.

While I won’t be running Boston in 2014 (I’m not running a qualifying race), I will probably be there to cheer on my friends. Come 2015, I hope to be there as a runner, looking to run a hard race. Until then, I am going to go out and run. I am going to run to celebrate life. I am going to run to clear my head. I am going to run because I can, some others are no longer lucky enough to have that gift.

Boston Marathon 2013: Part 1

IMG_2414It is with heavy heart, mixed emotions, and some signs of PTSD that I sit down and try to put into words my experience at the Boston Marathon. I am going to write my experiences in three blog entries. After all, many things happened before the bombs went off, and many things have affected me since.

I arrived in Boston on Saturday afternoon via Amtrak, with Chris and Ben. It was a cool spring day, and a bit more cloudy than I had expected. On our way from Back Bay Station to our hotel, we walked past the famed finish line. The entire 600 meters of Boylston Street’s race course was filled with runners, tourists, and Bostonians, taking pictures and taking in the most famous finish line of all marathons. We stopped and took a few photos ourselves.

Church on Boylston Street on Saturday.

Church on Boylston Street on Saturday.

After checking in to The Eliot Hotel (on the corner of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues, about 800 meters from the finish line), we went to the race expo, grabbed lunch, and settled in to our beautiful hotel. I took to the streets of Boston that night for an easy 5 mile run, passing the famous CITGO sign and the Boston University Campus.

On Sunday we took the T out to Brookline, to meet my cousin, Kristen, for brunch at Zaftig’s Delicatessen. Carb-loading on pancakes and catching up with my cousin was great. After brunch, I met up with Cipriana, my friend and team-mate with whom I would be running the marathon. Cip and I were both coming back form injury, and so just being medically cleared to complete the marathon felt like a huge blessing. While this wasn’t going to be the Boston I had been planning on since last April (I set the goal of a 3:00 marathon), I was thankful to be able to go and run – regardless of the pace.

Finish Line, photo taken on Saturday.

Finish Line, photo taken on Saturday.

Sunday night, Chris and I stuck to my one race tradition: Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. It doesn’t matter if I am racing a 5K or a 50K, I always have my ice cream. It’s probably silly, but it’s my one race tradition. After ice cream, my friend and fellow running coach, Gary Berard, met us for a few beers. For the record, I only had one beer, and figured that since I wasn’t racing, and was sufficiently hydrated, one beer wasn’t a bad thing.

Around 11pm I hopped into bed. My alarm was set for 5am. I was ready to finally run the race course I had dreamed of for so long. Last year I had come to Boston to run, only a nasty stomach flu and the heat (a terrible combination), caused me to DNF at mile 10.5. That experience had left me broken-hearted, and very much looking forward to Boston 2013.

Ode to Boston

892897_10101263724393123_1303757231_oToday is the 117th Boston Marathon, one of the most famous marathons in the entire world. As this blog is published, your coach is somewhere en route from Hopkinton to Boston, running this famous race course.

The Boston Marathon is a special race for many reasons. Besides it’s history, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a goal for many runners. Besides the Olympic Trials, Boston is the only marathon with a strict qualifying requirement (minus charity entries).

If you have ever run Boston, or spectated, you know that Boston celebrates the race for the entire day, the elite field is the best in the world, and the entire city’s energy is incredible.

Is qualifying for Boston one of your goals? If you want it bad enough, you never know what’s possible.

My bib for the big day!

My bib for the big day!

Burned Vs. Consumed

_MG_9291_finalIn our own delusional world, we’ll say an hour at the gym equals the ability to eat whatever we want for the rest of the day and we’ll end up calorically at zero. Ah, our foolish delusions. If you are still clinging onto those delusions, your coach is going to give you a reality check.

Folks, as I have mentioned before, gym equipment lie about your calories burned. Ignore that lovely, delusional number and know your own stats and calories burned. Refueling (also a previous blog topic) is important, but refuel with a purpose: to replenish and aid those muscles.

Personally, when I trained for my first marathon, I gained weight. Why? Well, part of it was a delusional mentality. I wanted to be fueled for my next workout, and had no concept of what was necessary instead of excess. Another reason I gained weight was that my appetite seemed out of control, and I kept feeding the beast. The last reason was my work environment. At the time I was working on the set of “Blue Bloods” full time, and the dreaded Craft Services was a constant temptation for my out-of-control appetite. The long hours, and unpredictable running schedule left me shoveling trail mix, pasta, and bagels into my mouth.

Yes, while training for a marathon you will need to eat more than before you started training. (HOORAY!!!!) However, if you use that as an excuse to eat everything, you will be in the same boat as the gym rat who decides an hour on the elliptical equals indulging on 2000 calories out at the local pub. Folks, it’s a matter of calories consumed versus calories burned.

Here’s a secret: If you love to workout and/or run, and you love food, you get the best of both worlds. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love a juicy cheeseburger with fries and a few pints, or a large piece of cake as much as the next person. I LOVE FOOD. I love to cook. I love to bake. I love to eat. HOWEVER, I have learned since that first marathon season how to fuel, refuel and train without gaining any weight while savoring those indulgences too.

Do you need help balancing your food versus exercise? I’m pretty sure you know a coach who can help.