Thursday, April 23, 2015

Chasing Unicorns

If you’ve run a marathon or know someone who has, then you know that it’s an emotional experience. Ask any of us why we started, and usually, the story is never simply, “Because I like it.” Rather, the story is usually centered around a charity, a bucket list item, or the challenge. In other words, something bigger than ourselves. 

With the Boston Marathon, the emotional experience is just that much more magnified. It’s one of the oldest marathons in the country (119 years and still going strong), and the only ways to get in are by qualifying in a previous marathon or by running on behalf of a charity (and raising a minimum dollar amount for said charity). That being said, part of the emotional experience is actually running it, and part is getting into it.

My journey (from when I first started trying to qualify to when I actually ran the race) was 3+ years — 1.5 years and three attempts to merely qualify, another year of waiting to apply, and then another seven months of preparing to run it. For me, running Boston has always been a dream. When I first started running marathons (in 2007), I never imagined that I’d meet the stringent qualifying standards, so qualifying at Marine Corps (in October 2013) was about succeeding at a challenge that had once seemed impossible, and more importantly, about all of those people who believed in me and kept reminding me that anything is possible. In other words, something much bigger than myself.

The application for the Boston Marathon opens in September, and by the time I qualified, the 2014 marathon had already sold out. As a result, I had to wait until September 2014 to apply for the 2015 running. In those 11 months, I was able to improve my finishing time for submission by 3 minutes and improve my chances of getting in. (Because of the increasing number of people who qualify and apply, the BAA can’t accept everyone who meets their standards.) So when I received the acceptance notice from the BAA, I was on cloud 9. 

Unfortunately, the next seven months were not as magical. Achilles’ tendonopathy and plantar fasciitis forced me to seek chiropractic care, and sidelined me for nearly two weeks of my training cycle. Worse, it took another couple weeks to safely build up my mileage enough to be able to do long runs, and while I know that patience is required for injury recovery, it isn’t one of my strong suits. In addition, I had to readjust my training plan to accommodate this forced time off. And when I finally did rebuild my mileage, I had to cut one of my 20-mile runs short because of dehydration. All of that was really discouraging, and I started doubting whether I’d be able to train sufficiently to complete Boston. But the last few weeks of my training cycle were good, and by the time I started tapering (16 days pre-marathon), I felt like my pie-in-the-sky goal of running a sub-3 hour marathon was within reach. Six days later, I developed an ear infection that required seven days’ worth of antibiotics and a decongestant. Additionally, I was supposed to have a massage eight days pre-race, but the LMT got sick and had to reschedule it to five days pre-race, and because of that, he didn’t feel comfortable doing as intense of a massage as I probably needed. As the saying goes, “It’s always something.”

As I mentioned previously, I was oddly calm in the days leading up to the race. This was odd because of that recent series of events, and normally, I’m a giant ball of stress and a nervous wreck. But as I also mentioned, I had received so much encouragement from my family, friends, and coworkers that I felt like I won without having actually crossed the starting line. The day I left for Boston, my coworker Mandy left blue and gold balloons at my desk, along with one of her favorite Clif bar flavors. My colleagues are a pretty wonderful bunch. I think it also helped that I had a pretty busy schedule, and subsequently, events to keep my mind off of the marathon.

Balloons and Clif bar at my cube

I started the carb loading process on Friday (three days pre-race), and soon noticed that my skin was drier than usual. Which is bad because “drier than usual” for me is “cracking and bleeding, even after applying moisturizer several times a day.” (Is dry skin a known side effect of eating too much sugar? If not, I want to conduct this study.) But I digress. Breakfast was steel cut oats with a banana, honey, nuts, and cinnamon-sugar, lunch was a chicken burrito bowl from one of the food carts with a side of corn tortillas, and dinner was vegetable fried rice with chicken. Unfortunately, I think the chicken had been marinated in normal soy sauce, despite the clerk’s insistence that it was gluten-free. (Earlier, he tried saying that the yakisoba noodle dish was GF, even though “enriched wheat flour” was the first ingredient in the yakisoba noodles that they use.) I also consumed some other snacks (including baby carrots, leftover chick peas and Sriracha, a Clif bar, a GF granola bar, Gatorade, and coffee with sugar).

My cousin suggested I take melatonin to help me sleep on my red eye flight, but because I had never taken it before (I know, I know — nothing new in the days leading up to the race), I didn’t know how much to take. So I popped 6 mg about 30 minutes before my flight, but that didn’t seem to have much of an effect, so I took an extra 3 mg. Between that, the sleep mask from JetBlue, and using my jacket as an extra face covering (because the guy across the aisle from me seemed to be the only nocturnal fool on the plane who thought that 2am was a great time to have his reading light on so he could read a book), I was able to doze off for about 3-4 hours of fragmented sleep (which somehow felt like hours of quality sleep). During my layover in NYC, I snagged some oatmeal and a large amount of coffee (with added cinnamon and hazelnut syrup) from Starbucks. 

As expected, my flight to Boston included several other marathoners (one of whom was from Oregon and on my flight from Portland). Once I arrived, I had to make my way into the city and get to my friend Cai’s place (and ate a Clif bar en route). Cai is one of my dear friends from grad school, but left Portland for Boston and now lives very close to the marathon finish line. After having more coffee with sugar and a shower, her boyfriend Tim and I decided to do brunch at Tico, where I ate a breakfast burrito (sans tortilla) with potatoes. (In hindsight, I should’ve ordered extra potatoes, but what’s done is done.) After brunch, I ventured to the Adidas tent (to buy the official race jacket) and then to the expo (to get my race stuff and check out the vendors). I anticipated spending a couple hours there, but after walking around once, I was overwhelmed. There were a lot of vendors crammed into a relatively small space, which made it difficult to navigate. So I left and did my pre-marathon grocery shopping (sugary lemonade, bananas, and other sugary/salty junk that I don’t normally eat), and went to drop everything off at Cai’s before the DM runner/Strength Running meet-ups that were happening that afternoon (they were both at Dillon’s). 

At the Expo

Goals. (The deal with the unicorns is that the Boston Marathon's logo is a unicorn.)

The unexpected pit stop afforded me extra time to catch up with Cai, who I hadn’t seen since August. I got hungry (damn sugar and its effects on insulin levels), so I ate a GF granola bar en route to Dillon’s. The meet-ups were great — it was wonderful to see Meredith, meet a whole entourage of runners I knew from DM in person, and finally meet Jason (the founder of Strength Running, co-founder of RYBQ, and one of the most instrumental figures in my development as a runner).

While I was out, I received a text from my friend Ellen, saying that she finished her last long run for Eugene '15, and that I was an inspiration and helped her push through her last few miles. That made me feel amazing! I was touched.

Dinner that night was with Cai and Tim at City Table, where I ordered vegetable risotto (sage, butternut squash, wild mushrooms, and parmesan) with a side of Brussels sprouts and bacon. We also shared a half-dozen oysters. Everything was delicious — I can see why it’s one of Cai and Tim’s favorite restaurants. We enjoyed a nightcap of David’s Tea (Forever Nuts flavor) at Cai and Tim’s. If you haven’t tried this tea yet, do yourself a favor and order some. It tastes delightful, and all of their flavors (at least the ones that Cai had) smell wonderful.

Sunday morning (Marathon Eve), I ended up sleeping in until 7am (a change from my usual 4:45am wakeup call), and joining everyone and their mother for a shakeout run on Storrow Drive. Alright, let me clarify. I ran by myself, but lots of other marathoners were out there doing shakeout runs. I ran for 20 minutes, and ended at Dunkin Donuts, because I felt like I should get the quintessential New England experience and have Dunkin at least once on my trip. The last few times I’ve had Dunkin coffee, I’ve been disappointed, but this time, it was really good! I’ve concluded that Dunkin coffee requires sugar to taste good. I returned to Cai’s, and prepped my millet porridge for race morning (along with some extra to eat as breakfast), foam rolled, and showered before meeting my friend Melissa, her boyfriend, and a friend of her’s (who’s originally from Portland) for brunch at Sonsie. Brunch was a smoked salmon plate with extra GF toast (I wasn’t in the mood for eggs, and that was the only non-egg, non-salad dish on the menu) and more coffee with sugar. Great food. I also answered their many questions about running, including “What do you think about when you’re running for that far?” (I think I need to start an FAQ list.)

After brunch, I trekked out to the burbs to my cousin’s house for some family time and a homemade pre-race feast with my mom, my mom’s friend, my cousin’s boyfriend, my cousin’s friend Melissa, and Melissa’s family. My mom and cousin cooked, and I watched. I figure that since they would be watching me work the next day, that was a reasonable trade-off. I also read the lovely unicorn books that Erin shipped to my cousin’s house. Anyway, the feast was fantastic (as homemade family cooking usually is), and to top it off, my cousin and mom surprised me with GF, DF, marathon-themed birthday cupcakes (my birthday and the marathon were within days of each other) from Augusta Street Kitchen (a gluten-, dairy-, soy-, and nut-free bakery in the area)! And to top it off, Shanel (the baker) went above and beyond and put a little runner on top of one of them and used Portland’s area code as his bib number. Such a nice personal touch! All of Shanel’s products (we had some cookies of her's as well) taste amazing, so if you live in the Boston/Providence area and need food-allergy friendly desserts, check her out. 


More feast

Marathon birthday cupcakes

After dinner, my family kindly drove me back to Cai’s so I could get to sleep in time for the marathon morning wake-up call. I had some trouble falling asleep because of pre-race excitement, but once I got to sleep, I slept okay. Of course, I only ended up sleeping about 4-5 hours. 

My alarm went off at 3am, and remarkably, I got right out of bed. As I usually do, I took my pharmacopeia of vitamins (iron, vitamin C, vitamin D, probiotic, and magnesium), and started getting dressed for the race. About an hour later (because my body needs time to absorb the iron), I ate my millet porridge (millet with dried cranberries, honey, cinnamon, and walnuts) and drank my coffee, while I listened to music to help get me in the zone. For some reason, 16 oz of coffee didn’t seem to wake up my GI tract. Sometimes, that much coffee stimulates it, and sometimes, it doesn’t. I feel like my GI system is one big enigma. Anyone else have a similar experience?

I was in wave 1, so I needed to be on the bus to Hopkinton between 6 and 6:45. Therefore, I left to head to Boston Common around 6. Because wave 1 didn’t start until 10, I brought some garbage bags to sit on, a bottle of water, a Clif bar, banana, and some Jelly Belly sport beans with me (in addition to my four gels). I opted to not check a bag because I would’ve had to walk an extra half-mile to retrieve it and then walk that same half-mile to get back home. Extra mile of walking after a marathon…umm, how about no? To help prevent any communication issues after the race, my cousin loaned me her iPhone armband (yeah yeah, I know, I broke the “nothing new” rule once again!). Once I got to Boston Common, I used the porta-potty, and then boarded the bus. I sat next to a rather reticent guy from DC, and I was grateful that he was so quiet because it let me sleep a little more on the trip to Hopkinton.

Selfie in the Starting Village

The huddled masses, yearning to stay warm

While waiting to get funneled into the starting corrals, all of us runners huddled under these massive tents and tried to stay warm and dry (the forecast called for temperatures in the 40s, some rain, and some ridiculous headwinds, and it was already windy and drizzly when we were waiting). I managed to score a spot in the middle of the tent, which meant that everyone else helped shield the wind. I didn’t see anyone I knew (not that I planned on it, but I thought I might run into at least one runner I knew), so I ended up talking to a group of three first-timers (one from Calgary, one from Minneapolis, and one from LA). During this time, I ate my Clif bar and drank some of the water. Despite the cold, rainy conditions, we saw one runner with a chiseled physique wearing nothing but shorts that resembled a Speedo, shoes, and his bib. Showoff.

Around 9:15, they summoned all of the runners from my corral (corral 5). So I switched my phone to Do Not Disturb (I didn’t want it vibrating and dinging during the race), and headed over. While en route, I used the porta-potty again (I’m assuming that peeing three times in as many hours was an indication that I was sufficiently hydrated). Around 9:45, I stripped down to my race outfit (LS tech, North Face shorts, and gloves) and ate some of the banana, and then went to my corral. At 10, they fired the guns and we inched our way to the starting line. I crossed the starting line about two minutes after the gun went off. 

One of the major challenges with Boston is that the first mile is a drastic downhill, so you need to control your speed if you want anything left at Heartbreak Hill. According to my pace bracelet, I needed to do a 7:18 on that first mile. Fortunately, the crowds were so thick that it forced everyone else to go a little slower, and I was able to hit that pace. Somewhere in the first mile, a runner informed me that I knocked my salted caramel Gu out of my back pocket. I didn’t think that was worthy of turning around, going back to grab it, and stopping to stuff it in my back pocket (especially since I was still holding onto the sport beans), so I cut my losses. Shortly after that, I managed to knock the cold brew Gu out of my back pocket. The caffeine from that one was essential to my strategy (take it at mile 18, and hope that the caffeine kicks in by the time I needed to power up Heartbreak Hill), so I backtracked to grab it, and ended up holding onto that and the sport beans.

Mile 2 was a couple seconds off of my target pace, which wasn’t too alarming since I had to backtrack. Mile 3 was way faster (about 10-15 seconds faster) than my target pace. The crowd support during the first few miles was much larger than I expected, given how small the towns of Hopkinton and Ashland are. But the whole town must come out to watch the race (especially since it’s on Patriot’s Day, which is a Massachusetts state holiday).

Awesome New Balance ads. Specifically, the blue one above the Red Line and Orange Line signs

Around mile 4, I caught up with Ken (one of the DM runners I met on Saturday) and we exchanged a few words before I went ahead. I was still feeling good about averaging sub-7 minute miles. However, I was getting annoyed with the pace bracelet because the font was a little small and it made it difficult to read. At the mile 6 water stop, I grabbed some Gatorade. Just before mile 8, I started chomping on the sport beans, and washed them down with water. By mile 10, I felt like I was losing steam and was hating life. To make matters worse, it started raining and the wind was blowing in my face. It was also around this time that Lynton (another DMer) passed me. To keep myself encouraged, I broke the race into smaller segments — one mile until I saw Kelly, two more until I saw my friend Jessalyn, four more until I saw my family entourage, three more until I saw my friend Steven, and another six until I got to the finish. Once I saw the 11 mile marker, I knew I had to look reasonably strong and look for Kelly at the water station. When I found her, I yelled for her (and snagged some Gatorade — thanks so much, by the way!). The next mile or so were fairly quiet, and I realized that I forgot to attempt to read my pace bracelet. I attempted to read it again at mile 12. I ran some more, and then reached Wellesley and the scream tunnel (i.e., all of the girls at Wellesley screaming and willing to dole out kisses). They also had some great signs — among them, “Kiss me if you’re an Oregonian” and “Kiss me if you’re gluten free”. I didn’t look for a kiss, but I did give out a few side-5s and get a good laugh out of their signs.

Shortly before mile 13 (I wanted to make sure I ate my gel by the time I hit the water station), I took gel #2. I meant to grab the vanilla bean Gu, but I grabbed the Honey Stinger one instead. Wasn’t the first time I deviated from my gel plan. Anyway, after I hit the mile 13 marker, I was on a mission to find St. Paul’s Church (where my friend Jessalyn was standing). While looking for her, I passed the halfway mark in about 1:31, and just told myself that I only had about an hour and a half left. Part of me also knew at this point that sub-3 was out of the cards, and given the Newton hills, a PR was a long shot too. I passed what looked like a church, but no sign of her. Eventually, she yelled for me, and I turned to see her and yell back. Yay, 2/2 on seeing people!

Once I hit the 14 mile marker, I attempted to read my pace bracelet one last time, and caught the paces for miles 14 and 15. This ended up being the last time I tried reading it. I knew that around mile 15 or 16, there would be a significant downhill, and then the Newton hills would start. For those of you unfamiliar with the course, the Newton hills are a series of five hills between miles 16 and 21, the last of which is known as Heartbreak Hill. I also knew that my family would be somewhere in the beginning of that series. I started looking for them, and got elated when I found their sign that said “RUN TIN RUN!”

Family with signs

After that, I just told myself it was one more mile to cold brew gel, two more to Steven, and six more to the finish. During mile 17 is the turn onto Commonwealth Avenue, which is one of only five turns on the course. Shortly after that turn (and by shortly, I mean that it could've been during miles 17 or 18), I hit what I think was the third (and steepest) of the five Newton hills. I remembered thinking to myself, "These Newton hills are no joke!" I also took my cold brew gel at mile 18. After 18 miles of holding onto that thing, my hands were finally free!

During mile 19, I heard somebody scream, "Go Front Runners!" I turned to see three guys from Front Runners NY on the side. Not sure who the three were, but yay for seeing my old running crew! Around this time, "Austin", "Awesome", and "Boston" all sounded the same. Probably an indication that I was half-delirious, but I really just felt like everyone was cheering especially for me. 

I reached mile 20 in about 2:21:00, and knew that even re qualifying was a long shot. But I still trudged up Heartbreak Hill and kept my eyes peeled for Steven. (I didn't see him, but he saw me and got some good photos.)

Going up Heartbreak Hill

I saw the top of Heartbreak Hill and just reminded myself that it was all downhill into Boston. I reached the top and was greeted by screaming BC students. Everyone talks about how loud the Wellesley girls are, but nobody talks about how the BC kids are just as loud. And right then, I needed those extra loud cheers. The rain returned, and it suddenly felt colder than it did at the start. At mile 23, I took my last gel (vanilla bean Gu), and could barely grab it because my hands were frozen. At that point, the main thing helping me out was that I was only about 5K from the finish line. 

Around mile 25, I reached Kenmore Square and started trying to find my family. Sadly, I didn't see them. I saw the "One mile to go" mark, and knowing that I was fewer than 10 minutes away from finishing the race I always wanted to run just made me emotional. But it wasn't over yet, so I funneled all of my energy into getting to Boylston and Exeter (the finish line). In the process, I missed Cai and Tim, as well as Melissa and her crew. They all saw me though. 

Melissa with her sign and marathon bingo card. For more information on marathon bingo, please consult her.

I made the infamous right on Hereford and left on Boylston, and just did everything I could to get to the finish. And that third of a mile seemed SOOOO LONG. As I approached the finish line, the announcer called my name and I threw my hands in the air and took those final steps. Once I finished, I just lost it. I may have caught the sub-3 unicorn, but I caught the unicorn that I had been chasing for so much longer. In my tired, sore, delirious state, I knew that was the bigger deal. And dare I say bigger than myself?

I navigated the finish area so I could get my medal, poncho, and recovery food. I got my medal, and then the paparazzi started snapping photos. Okay, maybe I'm being dramatic, but they took a bunch of photos, and I look like a basket case in all of them. It's as if I were either overwhelmed with emotion or pain. Oh, who are we kidding? Both are accurate.

Eventually, I got this poncho. Thankfully, they helped me put it on, because I was too cold and sore to do anything unassisted. And then the paparazzi snapped more photos. I found the food, and finally switched my phone off of Do Not Disturb. Over the 3+ hours, I received 15 texts, with exactly what I needed to hear (namely, that I may not have run that sub-3 marathon, but I still ran my dream race). I also had several Instagram notifications waiting for me, 3 tweets, and 40+ Facebook notifications. So much social media love!

I tried calling my mom and cousin because they weren’t at our meeting spot. Because it was raining, I sought shelter under the awning of some fancy apartment building. The doorman must’ve taken pity on me, because he let me inside the lobby so I could have a dry place to make my calls. I later learned that they were stuck in a detour, so I hobbled back to Cai’s. I was so thankful I didn’t check a bag, because my three-block walk probably took about 15 minutes, and I can only imagine how much time an extra mile would've added.

Little burrito
The rest of the evening consisted of showering, eating (massive shrimp salad with sweet potato fries, sangria, and Pinkberry), hanging out with my family, and having celebratory cocktails with Cai. Just a few of my favorite things. :) 

Shrimp salad

Sweet potato fries


Netflix time!

To all of you who helped make this possible and who encouraged me along the way, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Calming Down During the (Taper) Storm

For those of you who’ve known me for longer than about 5 minutes, you know that I’ve had my sights set on Boston for years. And in a matter of DAYS, I’ll be making that dream a reality. For those of you who’ve known me for a little longer than that (maybe 10 minutes), you know that I’ve also had my sights set on a sub-3 hour marathon. I'd be lying if I said I weren't scared shitless. Scared shitless of what? Stumbling. Starting out way too quickly and bonking. Not getting sub-3. Disappointing all of my friends and family who will be watching from Boston and elsewhere. I know they'll all say that it's merely an honor to even toe the starting line. And rationally, I know they're right. But just toeing the line isn't enough. There's that fervor in me to give it everything that I possibly can. Because the reality is that there's no guarantee that I'll qualify again. No guarantee that I'll get a second shot at running Boston. So I have one chance to run the best that I can in the best race in the world. 

Throughout this training cycle, I dealt with Achilles tendonopathy and plantar fasciitis and started doubting myself. Even with the outpouring of support, I was still wondering, "What if I fail and let everyone down?" I started pondering this on one of my runs (go figure), and ended up asking myself, "You have all these people who believe in you. Why don't you believe in you?” My subconscious made a good point. So often, I find myself advising others to stop the negative self-talk. But yet, I can’t seem to take my own advice. 

Dailymile has been a great source of encouragement over the last 3+ years. But this training cycle, I found myself logging on, reading everyone's workouts, and feeling like I wasn't doing enough to get ready. I think this was more when I was injured, but regardless, I was doing just about everything I could do. That never-good-enough feeling never seems to do anyone any good. And so I tried to tune out dailymile as best as I could. I dealt with that injury in February, and managed to log 177 miles in March and have a good experience racing the Shamrock 15K in the rain. 

Toward the end of the race

While my goal of sub-3 is scaring me, I'm also strangely calm. I can't explain it. I remember feeling this way before MCM, and the only thing I could attribute the calmness to then was the feeling like I had already won. I know, I know, it makes absolutely no sense to feel as though you've won before you've crossed the starting line. But all of the love and support I received just made me feel so happy. Plus, I got to catch up with some incredible friends during that weekend. So far, this marathon trip looks like it'll be very similar. I've received so many well-wishes from friends and family, and even tips from a few. I have plans to see friends who I haven't seen in over a year (some even longer). I'll be staying with one of my best friends from grad school (who lives super close to the finish line!). I'll be having pre-race dinner at my cousin's house. But what's most touching is that my mom will be making the 3,000 mile trip to merely WATCH me run. (Okay, maybe she's tacking a family visit onto her vacation plans, but the primary purpose of her trip is to watch me run.) How awesome is that?

Over the last few weeks, I've also received so many words of encouragement from my coworkers. Even they know this is a big deal for me. Now I may have sent them all an Outlook invite with my bib number so that a notification pops up around marathon starting time, but they started asking me about Boston before I did that. That makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. 

As the saying goes, "the hay is in the barn." In other words, what's done is done, and I can't do a damn thing to change it. It won't help me any to worry about it either, because that'll just translate to me being a nervous wreck for the next 4-5 days, coming out of the barn way too quickly, and then running out of steam. The level of support I’ve received from everyone is helping to keep me calm during a time that I’d otherwise be ready to jump out of my skin. And that makes me feel like I’ve won, whatever the outcome of Monday’s race may be.