6.5 Marathons in One Year by a Masters Competitor
TWO THOUSAND ZERO, ZERO, PARTY OVER, OOPS OUT OF TIME
Unlike your average person, most runners look forward to turning forty because Masters competition can provide a new lease on one’s running life. Racing in my late 30’s, I was competing against women closer to my daughter’s age than my own. With my 40th birthday looming, I made the commitment to do my “prehab” and speed work, so I could enter my Masters career healthy and fast.
My debut as a Master was Grandma’s Marathon in 2013. My training indicated I could run in the mid 2:40’s again. (My marathon times had been creeping into the low 2:50s.) Clicking along at 6:15 pace through the first 13.1, I felt very in control. But then, I started feeling like my blood sugar was off, so I took a gel at mile 17. At mile 19, I stumbled off the course and put my head between my knees. My peripheral vision was closing. I sat on the curb, too dizzy and nauseated to stand up. I watched runners zoom by in disbelief. I was finally healthy enough to complete a solid training cycle, and in a matter of minutes my race was over. I could possibly hobble in, but what was the point? I walked on the sidelines and veered off the course toward my house. I went to the doctor to get a blood test a few days later to see whether there was a logical explanation to my sudden demise in the race. I was in total disbelief when he told me I was pregnant! (Get your vasectomies checked guys even if you have had several years of clear sailing!) Now I have three children, 18, 15 and 2. To anyone who might be wondering? Yes, it is much easier to be pregnant in your 20’s than in your 40’s and also much easier to return to your pre-pregnancy fitness.
Even with an old body and a young baby, I could not wait to get back racing. While I was pregnant, the 2016 Olympic Trials qualifying window had opened. Qualifying for the Olympic Trials has defined my running career as a “sub elite” or whatever you want to call someone who still tries to be competitive at the national class level but has a full time job and children. I was determined to make my 4th Olympic Trials. I returned to hard training cautiously, having learned my lesson ramping up too quickly and suffering a pelvic stress fracture after the birth of my second child. It wasn’t until Grandma’s of 2015 that I felt in striking distance of the OTQ. All my training and tune-up races had gone well, and I was confident I was in sub 2:50 shape again. Grandma’s would be a steppingstone to hitting the 2:42 qualifier at Twin Cities (TCM) in the fall at the US Masters Marathon Championships. I was excited to run 2:48 at Grandma’s after a two-year hiatus and win the Masters division in my first serious race after giving birth.
I felt confident heading into TCM though I had a bout of fatigue over the summer. I moved to Flagstaff and was struggling to keep my iron levels up at altitude. I went out at qualifying pace at Twin Cities, but right away the effort felt too hard to maintain, and by half marathon, I had slowed and was just hoping to finish under 2:50 again. The rest of the race I felt like a tire going flat. I finished in a very demoralizing (for me) 2:57.
Well, you can’t keep a good woman down, especially in a Trials qualifying window. I set my sights on Cal International Marathon (CIM), which is a notoriously fast course. I began pounding the red meat and iron, and after a short break, jumped back into training. I had some encouraging workouts heading into CIM. I knew I was fit after the build up to TCM, so I felt I didn’t need to train harder to hit the standard. I just needed better iron levels. The race organizers at CIM went to great lengths to help people get the standard. They even had two pace groups. One pacer would start right at qualifying pace, and the other would start at five seconds per mile slower to accommodate the rolling hills in the first half and count on negative splitting the second half, which is a gradual downhill. All my best marathons have been negative split races, so I went out in the slower group. I grabbed some Gatorade at mile 7, and as soon as the liquid hit my stomach, it came back out again. I tried taking water at the next stop and threw up again. When I saw my family a little past the halfway mark, I dropped. I couldn’t take in any fluids, and my pace had slowed to nearly 3 hours. I cried in the back seat of the car. Feeling very sorry for myself, I thought, “2:42 just isn’t in the cards for me anymore.” The next day my little guy threw up all over me on the plane. Yep, I had checked my carry-on when the airline had asked for volunteers! When we got home, about 30 hours after dropping out of CIM, I spiked a fever and starting throwing up too. To all women making a comeback after having a baby, be prepared for the toddler years to be the hardest. Not only is a toddler non-stop motion, often hurdling toward disaster, as soon as your little one starts going to daycare, he/she becomes a germ-growing-petri dish. Plan on being sick constantly until your little one develops his or her immune system. This usually takes 6 months to one year. Often when you’re the fittest, your immune system is the most taxed from the hard training, which means you will probably be throwing up or coughing up a lung at all your big races.
I was mostly at peace having failed to make another Trials because I had certainly given it the college try. Then the USATF changed the Olympic Trials standard to align with the Olympic Standard. The qualifying time changed from sub 2:43 to sub 2:45. As anyone who has been close to a qualifying standard (like for Boston), these were critical minutes. At 43, and with 5 weeks left to qualify, why not give the Trials one more shot? Rock and Roll AZ was a last chance qualifier. It is a flat, fast, course. Several other women I knew from racing had the same hope. We’d have a decent pack of women running and an easier standard. I ran 6:18s for the first 10 miles before the “flat tire” feeling set in again. After the DNF at CIM, I slowed down to 7:00 pace, wanting to finish and at least run sub 3:00. I thought, “Enjoy the race even if you’re not going to qualify. Camelback Mountain is beautiful in the morning sun.”
The course has an out and back from miles thirteen to twenty. In that section, I realized a lot of women were blowing up who had also gone out trying to hit the standard. I did a quick inventory and realized I was actually feeling pretty good after “sight seeing” the last several miles. At mile 16, I saw my friend Trina, who is my training partner, and has been my inspiration over the years, deftly juggling being a mom, career woman, and fast Masters runner. She screamed at me, “You’re looking strong! They’re coming back to you!” Then the race became a game to see how many women I could catch. I was so sick of stressing about splits. I missed racing! Women were strewn out on the course in front of me. I’d pass one and look to the next runner. This was fun. At mile 24, I passed twin sisters. Two for one! I pushed hard and could see 3rd place in the distance. I pressed all the way to the finish but didn’t have enough real estate to catch her. I finished in 2:50:28, 4th place. I was in 16th place when I saw Trina. My last 10k was the fastest split of the race. I was sad my quest to qualify for a 4th Trials was definitely over, but I also felt a huge sense of relief. No more racing to hit that bloody standard!
After Rock and Roll, I was running on fumes, but I had serious marathon FOMO. I did IMS Marathon in Buckeye, AZ on Valentine’s Day “for fun”(2:57). It was also the weekend of the Trials, and I didn’t want to sit around moping that I wasn’t running. I did Boston (3:12) in April because I was going to be there with McMillan Running as one of the coaches. Then I did Grandma’s (3:07) in June because I ALWAYS run Grandma’s. It’s my hometown race, and it was the 40th anniversary. Boston and Grandma’s were hot, and I didn’t adjust enough for the temperature and headwind so I suffered in the second half of both races. Even though those races were not what I’d hoped for in terms of my times, I still have great memories of both with my colleagues at McMillan Running and my friends in the running community.
Many would question my sanity, especially as a running coach, starting 6.5 marathons in one year. After some reflection, I think I know why. Since I began running in junior high school, it has been the one thing that I do no matter what else is happening in my life. It’s true running is a selfish endeavor, but every woman needs to carve out some time in her life that is nourishing for her self-esteem. Being a runner provides you with a huge coping mechanism for life’s rocky spots. I’m glad that both my older children have become runners because I believe they will be better prepared to handle the emotional challenges in their lives. Having a baby at 40 shook up my life in ways I didn’t think possible. Running was constant. Running was familiar in a very tumultuous time. Running enabled me to think clearly, feel good about myself, and blow off steam. I was racing marathons last year as a form of self-preservation. Most moms feel guilty about the time they spend doing something for themselves. We need time with our friends and that is separate from our partners, children and careers. Although I am excited about taking a break from marathons and working on getting faster at shorter distances again, be selfish I say. Sign up to run a marathon! They not only provide a great means of catharsis. There is also no better way to test yourself against your dreams.
Check out Greg McMillan’s Surviving the Marathon Freak Out: A Guide to Running Your Best Marathon