Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon 2009: If You Have Forty-Five Seconds to Spare

Call me morbid, call me pale
I've spent six years on your trail
Six full years of my life on your trail.1

Where it all begins.

Ah, marathon morning. Is there a time which is at once so peaceful yet so calamitous? The stillness of a late spring dawn, cold and quiet, but what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and at 4:35 am a runner awakens in the blackness of her bedchamber and lies motionless, staring at the ceiling, thinking, I am going to run a marathon today. And then the flurry of activity so early in the day, the donning of the special outfit, the arranging of the items, the packing of the bag, the trimming of the toenails, the brewing of the coffee. The heart rate monitor is strapped on, the Body Glide is applied, the D-Chip is fastened, the wild hair is contained, the laces are tied. The laces of the shoes (Brooks Adrenaline 9s) which will carry the runner girl 26.2 miles to either glory or heartbreak.

I ate a banana and a scrambled egg for breakfast, followed by a cup of coffee. Then I took two anti-diarrhea pills. I wanted to avoid the porta-potty fiasco which befell me during the Detroit Marathon last fall. In doing so, I broke the cardinal rule of marathon racing: never try anything new the day of your marathon. I had never taken anti-diarrhea medication before. It was a reckless and potentially disastrous move, but I was determined not to let my GI tract have the upper hand.

We rolled into downtown Cleveland around 6:15 am. At 6:50 I was still trapped in the seemingly endless line for the porta-potties. I squeezed myself into the crowded field as the national anthem was ending and managed to thread my way to a spot near the 3:40 pace group. The sun was rising into a cloudless sky, the temperature was about 45 degrees, and a stiff Lake Erie breeze was coursing down East 9th St. into my face. There was some noise, the crowd surged forward and relaxed, surged and relaxed, and then surged and kept moving. This was it. No hesitation, no doubts, no excuses. It was time for me to run.

Before I had gone even half a mile, I heard it from behind me: "Fuck Michigan!" I turned and saw some guy behind me with a smirk on his face. I shrugged and said, "I knew I was going to get shit for wearing this shirt!"

Brazenly flaunting my Michigan allegiance all over the streets of Cleveland. The nerve.

For the record, that guy never passed me. I totally crushed him. So there.

In addition to my U of M Alumni Association T-shirt, I wore a Dump Runners Club headband which I received from the head Dump Runner himself. My awesomely retro DRC headband plus one of my Bondi Bands kept the 'fro nicely contained and the sweat out of my eyes.

In the very early part of the race I had to deal with a serious problem. The night before, I had set Garmy in its cradle for overnight charging. Except instead of charging, it...didn't. It anti-charged. I got it out to strap it to my wrist once we reached Cleveland and when I pressed the power button, nothing happened. Nothing. The screen was as blank and expressionless as Keanu Reeves' face. Immediately I started to wail, because my entire marathon race strategy was connected to Garmy. My mom came to my rescue, taking back her Garmin 305 which she had given to my dad (my dad ran the half marathon) and giving it to me. But her Garmy was not my Garmy, configured the way I liked it. I got the Auto Lap set up to record each mile, and the display to show pace, distance, HR, and elapsed time, but when we started I realized it was also going to be angrily barking at me because my heart rate had immediately exceeded my mom's maximum HR, and I had programmed her Garmy months ago to chirp if her HR went above a certain level. That had to be stopped RIGHT NOW. I remembered how irritated I had been during the Martian Half Marathon in April when some woman's Garmin kept jingling incessantly, and how I had sped up during the second half of the race for the sole purpose of getting the hell away from her and her annoying watch. Irritation, not strategy or physical conditioning, propelled me to a PR in that race. Thus, I spent the majority of the first mile frantically pressing buttons to make the heart rate alert stop. When I finally lifted my head I was already passing by the baseball stadium. I took the time to look around and enjoy the view from on high as I crossed the Lorain Ave. bridge over the Cuyahoga River and the Flats to the West Side.

My carefully planned three-part race strategy was shot in the first mile. I hit mile 1 at 8:03, which was considerably faster than I had intended (no faster than 8:30 under pain of death!). I forced myself to slow down with limited success. My splits were all over the place. I was executing poorly and I knew it. Yet, it was a beautiful morning for a run, I felt amazing, and I couldn't help myself. The course passed by the West Side Market, St. Ignatius High School, and onward through historic Ohio City to Lakewood with its beautiful old homes along Edgewater Drive. Crowd support in this area was excellent, and I received a number of hearty "Go Blues!" from Michigan fans along the course. There was one guy with a huge Michigan flag attached to the side of his truck, wearing a Michigan sweatshirt and hat, and when he saw me passing by he yelled, "Now that's what I'm talking about!" I pointed at him and yelled back, "Go Blue!"

On the course in Lakewood.

Passing by Browns Stadium again. Almost halfway there.

Miles 1-13: 8:03, 8:40, 8:23, 8:18, 8:09, 8:09, 8:22, 8:16, 8:19, 8:18, 8:41, 8:29, 8:13. Half marathon split: 1:50:03 (8:24/mile pace).

After I passed the half marathon split near Burke Lakefront Airport, the course began the long march eastward on North Marginal Rd., a three-mile straight shot sandwiched between the highway and the lakeshore. After driving this portion of the course the week before, I knew this could be a potentially dangerous area in terms of my morale. And so it was: spectator support dwindled to nothing, my only accompaniment was the whir and rush of cars (and the occasional honk), and the sun glared down, unhindered by any tree. Around mile 14.5 I took my only porta-potty break of the race. The anti-diarrhea meds had done their best, but I still had to stop. Until that point I was on pace for a 3:40 finish. I had a 3:40 pace band on my wrist upon which I had been keeping a close eye, and I knew I was well ahead of my Boston Marathon qualifying time of 3:45:59. If I could maintain my speed, a BQ was in the bag.

Oh, hubris! I was sort of asking for it, wasn't I?

After the long tiresome drag of North Marginal Rd,. the course followed East Blvd and then Martin Luther King Drive, two beautiful, winding, tree-shaded streets encompassing miles 16-21. I was still feeling energetic, eyeing my wristband, mindful of my pace, taking in the scenery, enjoying myself.

On MLK Dr., around mile 19. Looking good.

At mile 21 the course went up a short but painfully steep hill to St. Clair Ave. I walked through the water stop there, at the top of the hill, and getting moving again was difficult. I was starting to drag. The end was tantalizingly close, but as every marathon runner knows, the real race takes place in the final 6.2 miles. It was time to buckle down and put my training to the test.

And then, around mile 22, the pain ripped through my left hamstring, the same pain which had caused me to abort one of my runs several weeks earlier. My stride became lopsided as I began favoring my left leg. Pain shot up and down the back of my leg with each step and I groaned inwardly, wondering if this was it, if it was all over, if I was going to be forced to stop and walk. Then, unbidden, a little ditty swam up from the murk in my mind. Just keep swimming...just keep swimming...It was the character Dory from the film Finding Nemo.

Just keep swimming...just keep swimming...

So that's what I did. One foot in front of the other, just keep swimming. The course entered St. Clair Ave. at East 82nd St. and it would not turn until East 40th St. Two miles of pure BLAH. I tried not to look at the street signs as they painfully ticked off one by one. I alternated that thought with "Boston, Boston, Boston." My leg hurt like hell. My calves were beginning to tense up. I limped. Just keep swimming...Boston, Boston, Boston. At mile 23 I peeked at my watch and I had been running for 3:16. I did a fast calculation in my head: 3.2 miles left. I have 29 minutes to run 3.2 miles. That's essentially a 5K. Can I do it? I've done it before. 3 miles in 29 minutes, that's nothing.

However, this wasn't me starting a 5K race fresh as a daisy with a spring in my step and a couple of sub-7:00 miles in me. This was mile 23 of a marathon and I was tired and in pain. The thought that I might miss my goal by mere seconds weighed heavily on my mind. I stared at the pavement, the three miles left to run feeling more like 20.

Then, at the corner of St Clair and E. 40th just after mile 23 I looked up and my running partner, FK, was standing on the sidewalk. I was so glad to see him. He jumped into the road and started running beside me. I groaned, "Oh my God, I'm so tired." He inquired how I was feeling. I said, "My hamstring hurts. I just want this to be over." We ran along E. 40th and turned onto Euclid Ave. around mile 24. I said, "Talk to me...about anything. Just talk."So he did. He rambled on and we made the northward turn onto E. 18th at mile 25. Only 1.2 miles to go. I looked at my watch. Holy shit, it was going to be close. Now is the time, I thought. You want this so badly. Don't give up.

I made the final turn onto Lakeside Ave. at mile 25.5. I could see far off in the distance the Cleveland City Hall building which was adjacent to the finish line. It might as well have been ten miles away. That's what it looked like to my exhausted eyes.

So close.

My running partner left me on the course just before mile 26. I was alone, ready to engage in the final battle against the clock, against myself.

My dad took this picture from the sideline. I heard him shouting my name as I ran past and all I could do was roll my eyes helplessly in his direction.

SO CLOSE. Within 100 meters of the finish.

I could see the blue banner over the finish line. My heart was thundering in my chest and I was panting. I didn't look at my watch. I didn't want to know. I screamed at myself inside my head: "HOW BADLY DO YOU WANT THIS? DON'T LET IT SLIP AWAY! JUST RUN! RUN! RUN! JUST FUCKING RUN HARDER THAN YOU'VE EVER RUN IN YOUR LIFE! RUNNNNNNN!!!"

And so I did. I ran. My entire world narrowed down to that little strip of blue. There was a dull roar in my ears which I was dimly aware of as crowd noise. I could barely hear it.

You want suffering, here it is. Gosh, doesn't this make running a marathon look like so much FUN?


MOST...(woah, check out those calf muscles!)


As you can see, there was no lifting of my arms in victory or punching at the air as I crossed the finish line. I was totally, utterly spent. I could barely lift my hand to stop Garmy. I looked down. 3:45:16.

I had done it, yet it barely registered. I was preoccupied with the fact that I felt as if I were about to collapse. I moved to the side and put my hands on my knees. My chest was heaving. I saw two pairs of feet appear: race volunteers who had come to see if I was okay. One of them voiced as much and that's when I pushed myself up to a standing position, took the proffered bottle of water, and blurted out, "I JUST QUALIFIED FOR THE BOSTON MARATHON!" They congratulated me and I staggered off through the finishing corral. That was when it finally crashed down on me like a ton of bricks. I had done it. I had really, truly, done it. I started to laugh hysterically, a whooping, crazed sound. Then I began crying at the same time. I covered my face with my hands. Someone said, "I hope those are tears of joy!" I uncovered my face, took a banana from the race volunteer and yelled, "I just qualified for Boston!" I came to the end of the finish corral and my parents and running partner were waiting. I screamed, "I DID IT!"

My final official chip time was 3:45:14.

My Boston qualifying time had to be 3:45:59 or better.

45 seconds. That was how close it was. 45 seconds.

Miles 14-26.2: 8:21, 9:49 (bathroom stop), 8:36, 8:33, 8:46, 8:35, 8:39, 8:31, 9:11 (long walk at water stop), 8:55, 8:42, 8:59, 8:19, and the final 0.2 at a 7:49 pace. Second half: 1:55:11 (8:47/mile pace).

Behold, a Boston Marathon qualifier. I could barely stand up.

FK swapping my shoes for me while I excitedly text a whole bunch of people. I'm so lazy (tired?) I can't even tie my own shoes.

We slowly made our way back to the car, where my dad went inside the parking garage to retrieve it so I would not have to navigate the stairs. In the middle of the street opposite the garage was the 26 mile marker which I had passed not even an hour earlier.

I came, I saw, I conquered this mile.

Then we went down to the Flats for lunch at the Flat Iron Cafe. I wanted a beer and a greasy hamburger, dammit! I got both.

With my long-awaited pint of Smithwick's. It was delicious.

My dad and I back at the parental homestead after the race.

It has now been nine days since the race. I am still recovering physically and getting used to the idea that I am going to be running the Boston Marathon next spring. Me, who three years ago couldn't even run half a mile and weighed 65 pounds more than I do now. Me, who had never run farther than 8 miles at once before I began training for my first half marathon. Me, who could barely maintain a 9:15 pace for a 5K a mere two years ago.

I will be toeing the line in Hopkinton in April 2010.

Final race stats: 3:45:14; 8:35/mile avg; 154 avg HR; 170 max HR; 19/127 AG; 106/854 women.

1: At least that's what it felt like at the time.


JenericFN said...

OMG this was the most awesome race report EVER! Didn't hurt that you had a little Dory in there (come visit me, you'll see why I like it)

I just found you and now I'm going to have to pore over your archives to see how I can become like you. I always thought BQ'ing was a pipe dream, but...now I want to more than ever! And in only 2 years? Really?


Anonymous said...

As I said before. Truly awesome result! Enjoy/endure? Boston, you deserve it! Well Done

Tyrese said...

Amazing race report! Congratulations on your BQ. You are truly inspiring! I can't wait to read your Boston race report

Unknown said...

Congrats! I've been reading your blog for awhile and always love your music tips. I laugh out loud at your funny stories! Keep the entries coming! And good luck in Boston. You inspire us all!

Carolina John said...

NICE!!! Great report sarah. I'm so proud of you for BQing! That was so close too. You really had to push through a wall there. Good thing your running buddy found you.

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

It's always easy for those of us on this side of the blog to say "I knew you could do it" - but -

I really did know you could do it as long as you managed to stay uninjured.

But you did it despite being injured!

All I can say, Sarah (BQ-MI), is:


You'll probably BQ again at Boston in the spring.

Congrats, sister!

Nitmos said...

I can see - none days later - you are still on your BQ high!! Congratulations again.

Based on that final 1.2 miles, you really went for it too.

Now, get busy reserving a hotel. They go quickly.

Heather said...

This was so inspiring. YOU are inspiring. I actually got a little teary-eyed reading this. Good job. Gives me hope that I might make it to Boston some day.

Eric said...

Your race report gave me chills...there is something unique and harrowing about the morning of a big race and you captured its essence beautifully. Congrats on the BQ finish.


Angela said...

Congratulations Sarah! You are such an inspiration. I can't imagine BQ but now you've made me think just maybe I CAN do it. I'm always looking out for you at races. By the way...best race report ever!

LBS said...

Woooooohooooooo!!! I'm so impressed!

Kristin said...

Great race report! Congratulations again!

Spike said...

simply amazing, no doubt. Way to keep going and fighting and pushing those last few miles! Congrats again on a BQ. I'm so very happy for you!

raulgonemobile said...

Wow, what a great accomplishment! Congratulations!

(This was a wonderful race report, too)

muh said...

That is awesome, and congratulations!!

Unknown said...

Awesome race report! Congratulations on the BQ and heading to Boston in April!

MCM Mama said...

Great race report and AWESOME job on the race!

mr loser said...

Great write up and pictures: you've got female huevos muy grande wearing a Michigan shirt in Clev-burg. Congrats again and keep the Smiths references coming.

C said...

Amazing race, amazing report. Congrats on the BQ! I'm so happy for you.

Also, I see on your sidebar that you PR'd in a 10K this past weekend. Look at you, Ms Running Machine! :)

Vava said...

A little late on this comment since I just discovered your blog (via FMS), but had to leave a big CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR BQ! Great report, and great race!

B. Kramer said...

I took my time getting around to reading this since you took your time writing it. Again, Congrats!

jen said...

I'm so late on this, but DAMN woman. Congratulations. Seriously, awesome race and report. Inspiring run to say the least. Congrats. Yay Boston. :)

Maggs said...

Sweet! You had plenty of time to spare :-)

joyRuN said...

What a great race report!


"Me, who could barely maintain a 9:15 pace for a 5K a mere two years ago" - sheer inspiration.

hoodie said...

Amazing! Congratulations!
I went to Boston this year as a spectator and it was incredible. Can't imagine what it'll be like for you as a RUNNER!

Mike Fox said...

Congrats!!!! Wow!!!! A BQ marathon - amazing!!!

(I'm a bit behind on blog reading...but I am enjoying catching up finally)

I also wore my UofM running shirt at a recent race (a Half Marathon) and PRed...GO BLUE!

Chrissie said...

I have read your blog for a couple of years and rarely commented, and now I'm commenting on a super old post! I'm trying to get myself ready for a BQ this spring. I need a 3:40. Do you think Cleveland is a good course for BQ'ing in general? i.e. Is it as flat and fast as advertised?

Sun Runner said...

@Chrissie: I did think it was a good course for BQing. There is only one major incline on the whole course, and that is the Main Avenue Bridge as you exit Lakewood and head east back into the city. It starts around mile 9 and goes on for a very long time. It's not very steep, just very LONNNGGGGG...and it does start to wear on you after a while. Otherwise the course is flat and very fast.

If you're near the area you can always drive the race route to get an idea of what's in store. I did that a week before the race and it was helpful.

Scarlett said...

Hello! I just discovered your blog, thanks to the Redhead and all I can say is WOW! Your posts are super funny and your story is incredible. I wanna be like you! Thank you and congratulations!!!

Chrissie said...

Hi, I just wanted to come back and tell you I am running Cleveland, thanks to your advice! I am so nervous and excited. They changed the course this year, due to construction downtown, so I'm not sure what to expect from that. Thanks again for the input.