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.


  1. Congratulations on your 19th marathon!! Given all of your late training woes you should be very proud of the accomplishment. "Victory" can be defined in many ways. After reading this latest post i think this race was very victorious for you. In just the past few weeks you have grown in your body awareness/biomechanics and during this race you have scored some very key points in grit and determination as well. I'm not saying you were lacking in any of those areas before, but look how refined you are now - as a result of this race! A victory indeed! Congratulations again! - Jason

  2. Jason! Thank you so much for the kind words. I tried to run tall and remember what you said about posture. I know it helped me a lot in the very last miles. In these past few weeks, being injury free has been in the forefront of my consciousness. This marathon put everything in perspective for me. Happy Running!