Monday, March 28, 2011

Oakland Marathon Review - March 27, 2011

When we reach a certain milestone in life, sometimes we try to link it with something even more meaningful. Like turning 40 or 50 when we might decide to run a marathon, bike 100 miles, or jump with a parachute. Years ago, after completing 2-3 marathons, I thought, if ever I get to 20, I wondered how special would it be. Will I feel any different? Will I be overwhelmed and cry at the finish? Yes I was being overly dramatic. Little did I know that every single one is going to be as equally memorable. Nothing stands out more than the other. Today's Oakland Running Festival (ORF) stands true to that statement. As I found out, there is no significance in 10, 15, or even 20. What's more important is that I continue to learn and evolve as a person and as a runner.

Sizzling right at your plate
Check out the tastes good too.
But first, let's get the good and the bad out of the way. With each race, I continue to learn what works and what doesn't. There are so many variables to training and racing that when I finally put it all together, there might still be something left to tweak, whether consciously, a simple error in judgment or my plain nature as a risk-taker. My bad move with ORF: I made a mistake of foregoing carbo-loading. I knew better, but I succumbed to the treat of having Korean BBQ the night before. It was something we didn't have in San Luis Obispo, and my family loves it. I knew it was going to bite me in the race. In fact, as early as the 13th mile where I bonked. My good move: I finally got down what it is to run tangents. For the first time, my Garmin showed 26.25. That is the closest I've ever run to date. In the past, I've done as much as 26.58 (SFO). I weaved in an out of the course, thus making my time slower and making the course longer.

My Bib & I

I am so grateful and proud to be able to run ORF in its second year simply because it's like coming home. A lot has changed over three decades since my family first move there. There's nothing like being on foot and seeing the city like a tourist. Over the years, we've moved out of the area. We've driven by, in and around Oakland and we've notice changes in the skyline with new skyscrapers, storefronts changing and etc. It is a different experience being on ground level and seeing the minute details up close and personal. Oakland has had its share of bad reputation. Again, the race organizers did a fabulous job of showcasing all the diverse neighborhoods of Oaktown. For one day the community came together as one, with Oakland PD, FD, the residents, the vendors and all the volunteers showing how proud they are of the city. We runners felt their warm embrace when they all shouted out “Thank you for running Oakland.”

When I see the Tribune Bldg, it reminds me of home
This is new addition on Clay St.

ORF had 7,284 participants in the marathon, half marathon, 4 person relay team, the 5K and the Kids Fun Run. The full marathon had 1200 signed up and only about 75% finished. It had been raining for 3 straight days and on Sunday we were finally blessed with a perfect running weather. The marathon started promptly at 7:30 after a few welcome words from Mayor Quan and the singing of the National Anthem. I still get goose bumps when the announcer welcomes us runners. I looked around and everyone's faces were the same with that wide eyed anticipation. People tried to keep themselves warm by jumping in place and shaking their bodies to keep the blood flowing. There's always someone at these races who offers this info, “This is my first marathon.” Everyone was so eager to get going. The blow-up start arch and confetti sprinkling was perfected this year. Last year, that start arch deflated because the confetti blocked the air blower. I noticed pacers were numerous this year. I happened to stand by the 4:00 pacers.
The 4:00 Geico Pacers

I thought, why not? What do I have to lose, let the pacer do all the work and just follow along. Eh, not so easy to do.

We started downtown along 14th Street and Broadway. We traveled through Broadway, then up, Rockridge, Piedmont and Claremont Districts in North Oakland. Up to this point it was a gradual incline, hardly noticeable because the adrenaline was flowing. I was keeping along with the 4:00 pacers, but when I looked at my Garmin to verify the pace, I noticed they were going a little too fast. I knew I have to drop them if I was going to stay alive today. Notice I said I would drop them? Really they dropped me. But no hard feelings.
Check out the gnarly elevation

When I hit 51st Street, I started feeling the effects of the earlier incline. Then the 4:15 pacers came up behind me. I thought, hey, let's see what these guys are all about. So I chugged along with them. For a little while. Little voice inside me, STICK TO your pace. But I argued with the little voice, I'm just going to see if I can hang with them, if not, I'll drop them. Going up the Broadway Terrace I felt the slowdown. According to my Garmin, the 4:15 pacers were also going way above the pace, so again, I let those guys loose at mile 6. At the pace they were going, they were going to kill me if I kept up with them. Plus, at this stage of the course, the hills were already showing me who was boss. I reminded myself to press on and that there was an end to this madness. I reassured myself, this is temporary. How did I do this last year? It just seems so much harder this time aroun

Down by the horizon is where we had to go

The Montclair District had sparse spectators. There were occasional residents who stepped out into their yards and yelled “good luck” to runners. There were some who were wondering what the heck was going on, wearing puzzled looks. Mountain Blvd. was a grind and I could not wait to see the Mormon Temple which was the highest elevation. Once there, everything was downhill. Sounded easy, but that was when the wheels began to fall off. Once at the top, I was able to catch my breath and I was treated to an incredible view of Oakland and at the same token, it revealed what grounds I still needed to cover.

It was overwhelming. I took one shot, and put the camera away. I still have a job to do. The Temple looked so beautiful and so triumphant with its white walls and strong points. I've seen it so many times driving along I-880, up on the hills. But now up close, looked so huge. The next two miles were a steep downhill. I was careful not to jam my knee at this part. It was crucial that I maintain an even effort to save whatever I have left for the next half.

Mormon Temple in the background, notice the steep grade?

Miles 12 through 19 had rollers. It was not as flat as I had remembered. From Coolidge, to International Blvd, to Laney College, through Chinatown, Jack London Square, Mandela Parkway and West Oakland and its industrial side, it was a crawl. It took me about an hour and eleven minutes to get through. It was bittersweet because I love seeing the vendors, the grocers in this side of town cheer on the runners last year. But this time, in my attempt to keep it together and maintain my pace, I was not in the moment. I was losing energy fast, and no matter how much Power Gel I downed, it didn't matter. It was a band-aid. I was missing the sustained energy that that pasta would have given me. I was fading fast.

The Crucible: I didn't quite get the significance of it is.

By the time I hit the 20th mile marker my time was 3:19 and some change. Three weeks ago in Napa, I was at 3:12 at mile 20. That was demoralizing. Maybe I shouldn't have memorized my stats. I kept reaching back to what my time was at particular mile markers. It didn't do me any good. Around mile 21, I recognized some folks whom I passed some earlier miles back. Now they were reeling me in. I've been here before.

The route change at Mile 23 was the hardest change for me. Last year, we went around Children's Fairyland by Lake Merritt. I knew exactly where I was. This year, we were re-routed to the inside perimeter of the lake, which hid the landmarks that I was familiar with. In so doing, I had miscalculated the finish and thought it was a lot closer than I thought. Coming out from the inside perimeter of the lake, I was disappointed to see that I had come out only to see Grand Lake, whereas I anticipated to be by Lakeshore Avenue already. You're probably asking, why not look at your Garmin then? I stopped looking at my watch, because I was getting down on myself. Each time, I looked at my watch, I was losing 3 seconds of my pace. So to prevent myself from getting disappointed I stopped checking.

With the rain that showered the Bay Area from Thursday, Friday and Saturday, a “negligible” part of the track at the Lake became muddy. It became an issue when runners bottlenecked in this one area. It was single track and with the ½ marathoners and walkers who were also in the mix, the faster, speedier runners felt their time were compromised. There were runners who stopped at their tracks at the sight of mud, which caused a minor traffic jam. I understand how this could be annoying. By the time I got to that spot, it was already a muddy mess and there was nothing anyone can do about it. To tell you the truth, the only thing that annoyed me somewhat was the walkers who didn't want their shoes muddied that they took their time to go over it like they were walking on hot coals. I was doing my best trying to keep up with this one runner who got away from me because I got stuck behind these walkers. It was minor, I was over it quickly as my pace was reduced to a crawl anyway. My goal was just to finish. At this stage time was not as important anymore...well until the 4:30 pacers caught up with me.

I had just passed the 26th mile marker and had 0.20 to go, when the pacers crept up behind me. My first thought was, "Oh no, I am being passed by yet another pacing group." I was going to let them go, seeing that it was so late in the game, I was not sure if I had anything left. But what I witnessed, changed my mind. One guy in the pacing group, clearly with leg cramps and one knee wrapped up in tape, was suddenly increasing his pace. I thought if he can pick up his pace, cramps and all, then I, with no cramping, can surely follow his lead. But up ahead, it all made sense. Just before reaching Telegraph Ave, his daughter, maybe 9 years old, jumped in the race. The father gained his form back as if he had a renewed energy. He lost the limp, sped up and together they ran to the finish. It was hard to hold back tears. We had three more blocks to go and I tried my best to keep up with them. They finished 15 seconds ahead of me. They didn't realize it then, but they helped me finish in 4:28:48. I tried to look for them at the runner's chute, to thank them for being an inspiration at the very last second when I needed it the most, but I couldn't find them. I grabbed my space blanket, got my medal and water, and found a quiet space to sit down to soak up the moment. It was hard to imagine that only a few hours ago, I couldn't wait for this to be over. This was a harder course. First, tenth, or twentieth--it never gets any easier. If it did, everyone would run one. Boy was I glad it was over.

The back of the awesome shirt

Notice the timing chip at the back of the bib?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Seven days to the Oakland Marathon

Back at it again, yes, the taper period.  Seven days and counting. This go around however I'm feeling like the legs have a little bit more pep to them than in Napa. Nowadays, before I head out to a run, I've learned to take my time to stretch and make sure the legs are properly warmed up.  I know I should do an easy miler first before the stretches, but I feel weirded out when I have to stop in the middle of a road or street corner to do the stretching. I don't like cars seeing me in my stretching modes, plus the kind of stretching I do, I have to have a clean place to sit or lie down. So with that, I do all the stretching at home and then I run.

I've been putting off this 4 miler all morning. I need to run it easy just to keep the cobwebs off, but I am torn. As I sit here typing, I am looking out at my front window and all I see are gray skies, and occasional wind blowing the branches. It's been drizzling on and off. What if this air and rain contain radioactive stuff? Am I wrong to think this? But then again, I already know of a family this past week who has already taken potassium iodine as a precaution. Consider this, we're five thousand miles away from Japan.  But what about  residents in Sendai and Fukushima? I wondered if they've taken their iodine. This morning, news from Tokyo revealed that they found radiation in the water supply, however "neglible". I can't help but think about the Japanese engineers who have to work so closely at the Nuclear reactor sites, in their futile attempt to cool it down. They know in their hearts of hearts that they are facing radiation levels that are way above normal. I can't even imagine what they are going through. And all the families who have lost their homes, their land, especially their missing loved ones.  This catastrophe is truly a test of what we, as humans are made of.  The effects will never be known. But what else are they waiting for? Why not encase the doomed reactors in sand and concrete like they did in Chernobyl in 1986? Stop the radiation leaks before catastrophic levels are released in the air. They are probably doing the best they can, with the best engineers from around the world. The rest of us will have to hope and pray that it will be fixed soon.

We are fortunate, everyday that we can wake up and still be able to do what we want to do.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

After the Marathon, Then What?

Seven days and counting I haven't run a single step. My "hold-out-as-long-as-I can," self-imposed rest and recovery is going rather well, if I may say so. I am forcing myself to rest even though by the fourth day after the marathon, the soreness was gone and I could have run an easy six.  The old Aileen would have gone out between  8-12 miles today.  With temps today in the 60s, it's not easy. It's only noon, the day is young. There's still a chance I can break my streak.  My legs are itching to run.  In a weird way, I am missing the soreness and the ungraceful descent down the stairs with co-workers giving me their quizzical yet concerned looks, "What happened?"

Experts say for every mile you raced, you rest a day. So if you ran a marathon, which is 26 miles and some change, then you have to rest at least 26 days.  As my fitness increased over the years, I have broken this rule at least eight times in the past, with no dire consequences.  Considering the bumps in the road I've had in training earlier in the year, I've had to make some serious adjustments, with respect to rest and diligent stretching. With this newfound appreciation for staying injury free and heading to the start line healthy,  I am still amazed at some folks who can break this rule. I know of one such person who has been running for years, who clearly is so fit that he is the exception. My friend, Rich, ( whipped out a five miler the day after Napa. Not only that, he continued with another five miler the day after that--which, in the running world is known as DOMS day. DOMS is short for "delayed onset of muscle soreness."  Usually the second day after a grueling race you will feel worse than the day before.  It's like the peak of the soreness pains. The top elites, don't surprise me if they are running the next day.  They've got a recovery teams in place. From massage therapists, to gizmo's like "space legs" (a pressurized suit to speed the body's ability to flush out imflammatory products that reduces swelling) and ice cold dunking barrels--they have most of everything to bring their muscles back to normal in as little time as possible.  Without the of state of the art help, normal Janes and Joes like you and me just have to go through it the normal way.  With Rich's ability to run the day after, without any gizmos--is simply amazing! Maybe he's got good genes? I don't know.  Hats off to you RunSpittle!

I will have to admit that I can't go the distance of resting 26 days. Seven days will have to be my cap.  Fearing that the Oakland Marathon might sell out early as popular marathons have been selling out, I signed up as an early bird. Unknowingly, I put myself in a quandry.  Being injured was not in the cards when I signed up, but I'll just have to make the most of it. The best thing about Oakland being only three weeks to Napa is that I am once again in the taper period.  I'll run 8-10 next Sunday, one week before the Marathon on the 27th.  You are probably asking, why so close? The simple answer is, Oakland is my hometown. I wouldn't miss it for the world.  Last year was the inaugural race and the experience was just phenomenal.  I would even go as far to say that is was like a miniature ING NY Marathon experience for me. But I will save that topic for my next blog. When I ran Napa and Oakland back to back last year, I couldn't be any happier with my results.  I will be closely following my same schedule. It worked last year, I am hoping it will work again this year.

Goodbye to my Brooks Ravenna: It was good while it lasted.
I am a little sad: It's time to retire my shoes that had accompanied me to my PR in NY and the rain soaked ups and downs of Napa. The threads are bare and, as equally important, the cushioning.  I've put over 500 miles on it--a hundred more than I had planned.  I was a bit superstitious. I thought of it as my good luck charm in NY so what's one more marathon?  My old kicks wore out its cushion in Napa and left me with blisters. Time to go old pal, thanks for the memories.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

2011 Napa Valley Marathon Race Recap - Part 2

In my previous post, I talked about the gory details of my 19th marathon.  Part 2 of this experience is the race review.  Some of you are thinking of jumping into your first marathon. I am hoping that this will give you an idea of what happens the night before from carbo-loading to the finish line when you earn your medal.  Enjoy!

Saturday at the Expo
It was already drizzling in Napa when we arrived at the Expo on Saturday.   I tried to jog my memory to remember what I did to prepare for wet weather running. I remember torrential rain in 2006. Two-ply lawn liners were distributed at the start and I wore that trash bag practically the whole time. This would only be my second time running a full 26.2 miles in the rain. This ought to be fun.

Good value for my racing dollars, I must say.
Our first stop was the race headquarters at the Marriott Hotel. The free seminars by legendary marathoners such as Joan Benoit Samuelson and Bill Rodgers were already done by the time we got there. I have become a pro at these Expos. I wasted no time, I was in and out. I picked up my bib #, timing chip and the awesome schwag that everbody went ga-ga over. I had a choice of a duffel bag or a backpack. It is similar to last year, the only difference was the color.  It was a steel gun gray, this year.  My duffel bag was attached with a laminated baggage tag where my race number was written. The idea was to use the duffel/backpack as our sweat bag to take to the start area, where the bag would be transported to the finish area at Vintage High School.   Next, I picked up the finisher's long sleeves Asics tech tee. As late as we got there, I was surprised they didn't run out of the small sizes.  That's what usually happens to me.  The t-shirt design this year was drawn by  a San Rafael artist and marathon runner, Tina Cash. It is a great looking shirt I must admit. New this year was the disposable timing chips.  It makes me laugh whenever I am asked, "Do you know how to put this on?" I want to be sarcastic and say, "Duh?" But I didn't.  I remember the first time I wore them in 2008 in Big Sur Marathon. There was a crowd of people milling around a monitor and I wondered what the commotion was. Runners were intently watching a video on how to put the chip on step by step. I thought it was overkill. It was as easy as peeling the adhesive off, slipping it in between your shoelaces, sticking the two ends together and whola.  The only tricky part was not to flatten the tape, so that the sensors could read the magnet as you glide over the timing mats. I remember people watched the 2 minute video over and over again to make sure they got it right. By then a huge traffic jam had formed. But I digress... 

At the HQ they offered pasta dinners for $30 a plate. I took my family to Marie Callender's instead. It was a good choice since kids ate free and they had my pasta dish that was suitable to my taste. After dinner, we went back to our lodging to unwind. It was time for me to lay out my clothes for the big day, pin my bib on my shirts, and do all my quirky night-before-the-race routine.

The Night Before
One thing I forgot to ask about our room was the availability of microwave and coffeemaker. Those are my two necessities for my power breakfast, coffee and oatmeal. I thought nothing of it, since they reassured me that they have continental breakfast at 5am.  Great, I thought. What I forgot was that I had to be at Vintage High School where the buses would transport us to the start in Calistoga at 5 am. Slight time conflict.  Especially that it was raining, I wanted to be there on time. My plan was to wake up at 3 a.m. as I needed to eat 3 hours before start time for digestion and allow time for the usual business we runners have to take care of.  At 3 a.m., I asked the  night auditor nicely if he would let me get hot water for my oatmeal.  I was turned away and told to go to 7 Eleven across the street instead. "In the rain?" I asked. "Sorry ma'am" Dismayed I went back to my room.  My husband still half asleep suggested that I use the hot water from the sink for my oatmeal.  Desperate and coffeeless, I tried it.  But it was not hot enough and didn't cook the grains. But I ate it anyway. I ate a banana and two Luna Protein bars, hoping that would fuel me for at least 3 hours.

Race Morning
At 4:45 am my husband dropped me off in front of Vintage High where all the buses were lined up.  I was among the first runners to arrive and I was on the lead bus.  No one was allowed to drive to the start. Everyone had to ride on the big yellow school buses.  The buses promptly left at 5 a.m. The road to Calistoga was dark and narrow and with the rain, the buses were even slower. Runners seemed happy and excited. the constant chatter of training, number of marathons they've ran, running advices and tips were all ringing in my ears.  I kept to myself, all I could think of was I wished this bus would get to the start so that I can go pee.  I imagined myself pulling the bus driver from up the driver seat, who seemed to be torturing me with the nice leisurely sunday drive. I tried not to think about it.  I had downed 20 oz. of water before getting dropped off. Whew! It took an hour to get to Calistoga. 
The Starting Line
Once in Calistoga, I did first things first. I had an hour to drink more water, do some strides, stretch and finally discard my warm up suit before the prompt 7 a.m. start.  I bought second-hand clothes to wear at the start and discard so that I didn't have to use the bag check. I like the ease of crossing the finish line, finding my family and getting back to the hotel to shower. Having to line up in rain-soaked/sweaty clothes to look for my bag is not appealing to me.  By 6:45 a.m.the sun was slowly rising. It was raining, but it was not that cold considering it was in the mid 40s.  The hour of waiting was too short.  In almost no time, the place got packed with runners.  One nice thing about NVM, is that it is a fairly small race. You're spread out after awhile and there is no bobbing and weaving you have to do unlike big races such as New York or Chicago.  While standing and waiting for the green light, I noticed that there were rebels all around me.  Under RRCA guidelines and USATF rules of competition, headphones are prohibited on the course otherwise you'd be facing disqualification. I had mine on.

The Course
A few words from 1984 Gold Medalist Women's Marathon, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and singing of The National Anthem, and then we were off.  The rain did not dampen our spirits. When that gun went off, it was all game. I happened to be in the wrong spot, as I got sucked in the energy of the crowd.  Runners blew down the trail in full speed.  As I ran, I noticed a few casualties on the ground--dead frogs, the size of my hand, laid sprawled out on the asphalt.  Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They didn't know pandemonium was about to shake the earth.  A few more steps will reveal detached frog parts...I stopped short of stepping on some, as I looked away trying to hold my breakfast in.

The course was point to point from Calistoga to Napa, along the Silverado Trail. We ran along the world famous wineries of the Napa Valley.  The course was not flat, as it was rolling and some gradual incline were rather long.  Photographers were spread thinly, mostly concentrated in the second half of the course. I would have preferred to see them in the front as well so that they can record the before and after story. But that's just my two cents. If you're one of those runners looking for crowd support, this may not be the race for you. There was no spectator cars that were allowed on the course so runners have the full span of the road. At certain intersections, suppport crew, friends and families were permitted.  But mostly it was just you and the scenery. The CHPs were all along the course and they adhered to the rolling closures. The course was shut down after 1 p.m.

The aide stations were evenly spaced at 13 points of the race, roughly about every two miles. NVM has a special program for being green called BYOB which stands for "Bring Your Own Bottle". It is an effort to reduce the usage of paper cups at aid stations. I decided that it was less stress for me to have to be on the lookout for my bottle had I used their program.  I figured it was easier to grab whatever cups came my way.
The volunteers at the course were so awesome. Even in the rain, they stood out passing water. One even asked me if I had everything I needed. I must have looked odd licking my last salt packet after it had busted in the plastic bag.  I used it in my last two ultras to relieve leg cramps and it worked like a charm.  But this day, it busted and I didn't have enough which hampered my progress as early as the 14th mile.

The Finish Line at Vintage High School
The course in Napa was re-certified this year and the finish line was moved to the front parking lot area of Vintage High School. This gives a much nicer view of the the runners coming as they approach the finish. This change makes it easier for families to meet afterwards.  Prior to that runners were fenced in and families had to remain outside the fenced-in area. I had to rely on my cell phone to find my family.

After you crossed that finished line, one thing that no other marathons have done is to be greeted with your very own personal volunteer. Water and the finisher's medal were handed to me. I appreciated the helping hand, making sure I am upright and not falling over right after stopping. The volunteers asked if there was anything I needed, whether I was in pain, if I needed some medical support. After reassurance that I was okay, they directed me to get my heat shield, more finisher's photo and the massage tent.  I was so sore, I couldn't even think of anybody rubbing my legs. It sounded great the day before, not this day. At the quad area was the gymnasium where hot showers were made available to runners.  After the shower, runners were treated to warm soup, bread, fruits and water, and coffee in the cafeteria.  
The race organizers have done a fabulous job with this event, year in and year out. This year was no exception. It is no wonder they have been around for 33 years. I must admit that it is here at the finish line of NVM in 1998 where my source of inspiration was sparked.  I stood there in awe as I watched runner after runner cross that finish line.  I remember feeling their joy, their tears and their excitement, in ultimately conquering a 26.2 miles of pure grit and determination, I wondered, if ever I would be able to, one day, run a marathon--just like them.

Monday, March 7, 2011

2011 Napa Valley Marathon- Part 1

My most hard-earned medal...
Funny thing about marathons, "You never know what's going to happen when the gun goes off." That was what Joan Benoit Samuelson, Keynote Speaker, said at the Expo in Napa Valley Marathon on Saturday.  I would have to agree with the Gold Medalist. As for my first marathon in 2011, I didn't expect the course to bring me to my knees.

Standing in the midst of marathoners in the cold and wet rain, I was so grateful to even make it to this day. There was  a point in time during my training where I thought I might have to pull out due to injury.  I had issues going on with my lower back, sciatica, piriformis, psoas--
you name it, I got it.  It felt great to be present at the starting line, waiting anxiously in the rain. Even with rain, the temperature in the lower 50's was near perfect running conditions. And so begins my journey into one of the hardest marathons I've ever had to run.  And no, I didn't run in the merciless heat of the Sahara Desert nor did I test my lungs to climb Pike's Peak in 14,110 feet of elevation.  My journey had everything to do with race execution and finding that inner strength when the going gets tough.
Just finished mouthing off "I got leg cramps"
Gearing up for that last turn, but man in yellow had enough real estate to pass me!
Can you feel our exhaustion?

This race became hard because I made it harder.  I have plenty of experience to draw from, yet  I still fell prey to the pitfalls of marathoning.   From gun start, my race plans went out the door. At the first mile, I succumbed to the excitement, the exuberance and the thrill of finally being able to run after the long merciless 8 weeks of holding back.  I stood in the front, among the fast starters.  The energy of the crowd was contagious.  Running fast felt so effortless. I clocked in one of my best 10K times in the first six miles. Mistake number one: this is not a 10K.  When I checked my Garmin, I realized I was going too fast, but I didn't reign it in. It was a huge gamble and I would pay for it in the latter miles.

When I reached mile 13, I had 8 minutes in the bank. Mistake number two: there is no such thing as banking time.  My past experiences have taught me so. At miles 14-15, I saw my splits gradually slip away. I felt the pace harder to maintain. My breathing was more labored and my calves cramped prematurely.  In the past, I don’t usually feel the cramps until mile 18 or so.  I knew the early fast pace was directly correlated to the cramps.  They came noticeable stronger on the flats.  When I would pick up the pace, my cramps would get even tighter.  Every step required constant negotiation. Walk a little, run a little.  I was forced to slow down to relieve my aching muscles.

Surprisingly, even with the rain, I felt a little warm. I didn't mind the rain in that sense. But wet shoes, I could have done without. My toes became pruny and no matter how much Vaseline I slathered in anticipation of rain, it proved futile. Blistered and cut, maintaining any kind of pace was difficult. I wanted to cry, but I was too tired to cry, having been up since 3 a.m.  Already exhausted, I was barely in the 16th mile and I still had 10 miles to go.  Thankfully at this point, my attention was diverted to another runner who came in front of me. A girl who was running in grey Goretex rain jacket, and hydration backpack, in what I perceived to be a slow pace, suddenly passed me. We've been back and forth, trading leads along the course in the early stages. I felt somewhat defeated. Hmmm, I thought,  maybe she had some Goretex underwear to match that running suit. I supposed I was being bad.

Mile 18, was a rough patch. The unforgiving hill between miles 18 and 19 slowed me down a bit.  But as I came up, I saw the silhouette of Goretex girl in the distance. I might have a chance to catch her, I thought. I looked down on my feet with my blistered toes, and told them I would spoil them with love and devotion if they let me run a little faster.   I blocked the pain and managed to run baby steps.  I played mind games do diminish the distance between my subject and I.  I focused on the white painted divider on the road. What if I slid here, will I gain an inch per step? What would that equate to in a mile? In ten minutes? I didn't have any answer. I was in a zombie state. The random thoughts made time pass quicker. Before long, I was running side by side with her. "I'm still in this race," I said to myself. Charlie Sheen ringing in my ears, "Winning."

Miles 20 to 21 had the gradual incline but it was punishing.  I felt the brunt of the mild 8 mph headwinds and I was annoyed. I couldn’t tuck behind a taller runner even if I wanted to because we were so spread out by this time.  I put my head down and trudged on. This felt like a death march. I was wet, tired and slowly losing focus.  I remember thinking vividly that this ranks as one of my hardest marathons ever. My early fast start was now showing its evil head.  It seemed that every mile marker from 21 on, was longer than it should have been.  I secretly wished that the RRCA or whoever was responsible for re-certifying the course made a grave mistake of overestimating the mile markers. Yes, it was just that--a wish that will never be.

Seeing an ambulance on the side of the road in mile 23, I entertained the thought of hanging it up. Would they give me a ride to the finish? But that would mean going home without a medal and my first DNF. I shudder at the thought.  I was not sick, bleeding, nor was I dizzy. My lower back/sciatica/piriformis are unbelievably cooperative. I was just tired--not enough to warrant a DNF.  I unleashed the cheerleader in me, "Shake it off slacker and quit whining."   Just when I was about to scout another runner to pick off.   I heard that familiar shuffling and rhythmic swishing of nylon rubbing together.  It couldn't be.  I turned to the side and there she was. Goretex girl was at my heels, again. I picked up my feet just a tad faster.  She was keeping up with me.  This battle was taking more out of me. I decided to let her go and watched her take off.  The second blow came when  my watch confirmed what I was afraid of: I consoled myself to settle for a 4:18-4:19 finish.

The last mile and a half seemed like an eternity.  I wanted the suffering to end. I noticed the majority were running in the same way: head down, shoulders hunched, one foot in front of the other.  There were a handful of strong runners who sped past the shuffling wounded.  But most of us were slowing down--some grimacing in pain, others trying to stretch their cramping legs. We were all in the same predicament, some worse off than others. But no runner was immune to this kind of suffering in the last miles of a marathon.  I find some solace in this commonality, for I know that I was not alone.  As I try to pick up my pace a little, I found myself staring at the backside of Miss Goretex yet again.  For the last time, I had no answer.  She finally reeled me in.  I was okay with it.  I had to let her go as I was just fighting to keep what little I had.  I was sure I was going to finish, but the looming question was 'when'.  Deflated, I kept on.  Just then, I saw my husband and daughter at the second to the last turn before the finish. They were rooting me on, my daughter was taking pictures, camera in hand with a big smile.  I wanted to stop, but it I didn't know if my legs would let me start again once I stop. I got a bit of energy surge from seeing my family. I picked up my pace I didn't care that my cramps seized me. The crowds are thickest at the finish. They were loud, but the sound I hear were only muffled noises. At the final turn, I could see the red finish arch and the clock underneath. I saw precious seconds ticking away as I limped closer to the clock, chanting, "Don't turn, don't turn." Then finally my last step touched the mat at 4:20:24. This was all I had today. It will have to do.

My race execution was by far, my worst.  The only thing I did right was adhere to my nutrition and hydration plans, eating and drinking at mile markers as I planned.  At the same token, I can walk away and feel proud that I was able to overcome the difficulties of this day. Through the effortless early miles and the rough patches in between, I cannot deny the multitude of challenges I had to face--challenges that I brought on to myself that could have easily been avoided.  My 19th medal proved to be my hardest earned medal and by far, one of the most memorable.  I am grateful for this most humbling experience. The course brought me to my knees. Bruised and blistered, it is not enough to turn me away…Here's to next year.