One-word St. George Marathon summary: Ouch.
Two-word summary: I finished.
One-sentence summary: I clocked a new personal worst time (on a downhill course with perfect weather and light tailwinds), and for the first time I used my phone during a race because I was about to quit.
Training: In mid-May, I didn’t run for five days while on a road trip. I came home and found myself running at a faster pace, cruising uphills with no problem. On a 16-mile run, I kept trying to slow down so I wouldn’t burn out at the end, but the last mile was still the fastest. I finally put clip pedals back on my bike and conquered them, and added in some more cross-training. Overall, I was running faster than ever before, and my body was feeling fantastic.
Then, on June 24, I fell over on my bike because I couldn’t unclip from my pedals. I was unscathed except for my left knee, upon which my whole body landed. That’s also the leg I use to operate the clutch in my car, and the drive home was painful. It swelled and hurt, and I struggled to keep from limping. Running was out of the question. Days passed, and I even dragged myself to an orthopedic doctor, who said it was likely a bone bruise but they would do an MRI in a couple weeks if it wasn’t better. It kept hurting, and I scheduled the MRI. Despite my insurance, it was going to cost me over $1,000, so I forced a couple half-mile runs. They weren’t too bad, so I postponed the MRI and went on a three-mile run. It didn’t hurt! Two days later, I went on another three-mile run at midnight under a full moon.
So, after five weeks of almost no activity (biking had also hurt, so I basically sat around being lazy for 1.25 months), I looked at the calendar and decided that I’d try to run this marathon, after all. That meant I had six weeks to ramp up the mileage and two weeks to taper.
I am injury-prone, and there are only so many miles I can safely run in six weeks. I know now that I didn’t cross-train enough, so my cardiovascular fitness never fully returned. I battled high heart rates (only while running, which is a constant source of confusion for me), I tried to find air in my lungs, I tried to avoid passing out due to lack of blood and oxygen in the brain. I ran 12 slow miles with a new friend, followed by six faster, miserable miles in heat. One Friday, I ran 10.2 miles for my official “longest pre-run work ever” run. The next day, I ran 20 miles with a friend, which was one of the stupider things I’ve done — running 10 and 20 miles consecutively was not smart, but my body held up. Two weeks before the marathon, I ran another 20-miler that included being ignored by a new running group, getting lost, AND return of the knee pain at mile 17. It didn’t go away.
A few days later, a run ended after 0.4 miles due to too much pain. But the marathon registration fee had long since been paid (it’s a lottery, and it happened to be my third successful race lottery entry, out of three I’ve entered). My airline tickets were booked. The deadline had passed to get a refund on my hotel deposit at the Grand Canyon. Speaking of that, I had planned a five-day trip to new places, including Las Vegas, the beautiful area of St. George, the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. So, I stayed with the plan. I rested the knee. I tried the stationary bike at my tiny gym. Rather than just tapering for two weeks, I had to do an extreme cut-back.
I wound up running just once during those two weeks — five miles with Katie at the end of the Lake Tahoe Marathon. My knee didn’t feel too far from normal.
Pre-Race: I flew into Las Vegas early Thursday afternoon and proceeded to walk 4.5 miles (the non-running part of the trip will be a separate post). My knee had complained after sitting bent on the plane, so I decided there would be no running until the race. On Friday afternoon, I drove two hours to St. George.
Race Expo: This race has 7,000 runners, and the expo was actually pretty well done. The marathon was selling pleasantly low-priced logo gear, which included the currently trendy “YOLO” (“you only live once”) phrase that is used on Twitter by teenagers and wannabe gang members who misspell every single word they type. It needs to die. Yolo is a county in California — that’s it.
The race schwag was pretty good. Well, except for the fact that, for the first time ever, a shirt’s sleeves were TOO SHORT for me. I can only wear the shirt if I push the sleeves up to the elbows, or else I look like I don’t know how to dress myself. That’s a bummer.
I briefly got confused while on my way from the expo to a pizza place, but it’s Utah, so all roads are centered around the nearest Mormon temple. Find that, and work your way out from there.
I got to my price-gouged motel (normal price: $69. race weekend price: $135) and was relieved to discover that I had a refrigerator. I had imported normal beer from Nevada, since Utah only allows 3% alcohol-content beer. Don’t judge: YOU run 26.2 miles and then be told you can’t have one normal beer afterward.
Race morning: I’d gotten an amazing nine hours of sleep the previous night, which hadn’t happened since I can remember. On race eve night, I was ready for bed early and relaxing while putting together a playlist for the next morning. I turned out the light at 10 and lay there willing sleep to come. I looked at the clock at 10:15. Then I drifted off to sleep — only to wake up at 10:30. Oh, that was not fun! I tossed and turned for a while but must have fallen asleep again, because I woke up at 11:27. And 1:30. And 3:30. And 3:45. I was so happy when the alarm went off, because this nonsense could end.
My rental car keys barely fit in my shorts pocket. Note to rental car companies: Why do we need two huge keys and a sharp-edged plastic key chain firmly attached together? We can only use one key at a time. Also, as I type this a week later, I still have chafing marks from those keys. Hertz, you chafed my ass — literally.
I got outside and met a woman who was looking around for other runners in our motel, hoping to catch a ride to the starting line rather than waking up her husband and four kids. That worked well, because she knew the area and directed me around detours. We wound up sitting together on the bus and chatting while trying to ignore the fact that the 26-mile drive to the start line was Really Really Long.
It was cold, but bonfires were placed all over, which is the best idea I’ve seen at a starting line. They also had enough lights at the port-a-potties, so they didn’t have to be navigated in the dark. (Trust me: That’s a big deal.)
Start: I went into this race with no expectations, though I figured a 4:10-4:15 was doable. My dreams of a PR (personal record) had died during the five weeks of injured knee, and had been confirmed in the two weeks of grumbling knee leading up to the marathon. I had no race day plan, other than to run by feel, and to take it easy on the one uphill.
Miles 1-7: 9:26, 9:29, 8:52, 8:44, 8:55, 8:32, 8:27.
The first 10k clocked in at 55:38. Yes, those 8:32 and 8:27 miles were entirely too fast — by about a minute each. I knew it, but it didn’t feel that fast at all. We were going downhill, and I was trying to just be relaxed and run by feel. I kept checking in on my breathing, which felt fine, and I didn’t feel my heart racing at all.
Miles 8-13: 11:10, 10:33, 11:32, 11:27, 10:39, 10:06.
No, those miles splits are not lies; I reached the halfway point in 2:10:19. At mile 7.25, we started going uphill. I knew this hill was coming, and I knew I was going to take it as slowly as my body wanted. My heart started pounding, my lungs began laboring. I started walking. The hill continued until mile 8.5, where I started running again. Marathoners talk about “hitting a wall” around mile 18 or 20, which I’ve only slightly done. I’ve instead described it as the point the race got harder. Well, in St. George I hit a wall. At mile 8.5. With 16 miles to go. I kept trying to run, and I kept having to stop and walk.
Miles 14-16: 10:33, 9:20, 13:37.
I have never felt so defeated in a race. I blew up in May 2010 at a marathon, and I remember feeling so hot and awful. I also had a torturous four-hour trail race last summer, and I remember feeling so alone and tortured. This was worse. I didn’t want to go on. I’d already had to stop to put my head down and get the blood back to it (I hate that, and I should probably try to find a way to prevent it). A shuttle van slowed down next to me, the driver obviously thinking I was another runner who needed to drop out. It’s pretty demoralizing to realize you look THAT bad. Now I just wanted to sit down and cry. I rarely ever cry, but at mile 16, I felt tears coming. Then the 4:30 pace group leader passed me, and I realized I was probably going to clock my slowest marathon ever — and I had been with the 4:00 pace group earlier.
For the first time ever in a race, I pulled out my phone and took it off airplane mode (normal setting in a race so I’m not distracted by any texts). I sent desperate posts to Facebook and Twitter, and I texted a couple friends. I was so close to quitting.
Miles 17-19: 12:01, 13:06, 14:09
I looked at Facebook to see if my post had gone through, and there were already replies. “Be kind to yourself. At least you are there! 99.99% of the world will never attempt what you are doing!!” was the first thing I saw. “Go Layla!!! Most people only dream about what you are doing. Take a deep breath and think of the cold beer at the finish!!!” And: “It’s tough. It hurts. But you can push through. You are tougher and stronger than this race.”
Alyssa texted me. Katie texted me. Karin texted me. Everything was fuzzy, but one line in Karin’s texts stood out: “Show those doctors once again that they’re wrong.” I’ve now spent four years proving wrong the childhood doctors who said I’d never do much running. Deep down, I knew that another finish line would be another win, no matter how long it took. So, I moved forward. Walking more than jogging, but I tried.
Then Katie called me. She asked how I was doing. She asked if it was my knee. The thing is, yes, my knee had started to hurt, but it really wasn’t that bad. I think it hurt just enough for me to start compensating and altering my gait, which in turn made the rest of me start hurting. But I actually think I was mostly feeling the effects of not running for the previous two weeks. Katie encouraged me and cheered me and then gave me some tough love and orders: Get through mile 19, relax, calm down, then turn off the phone. Then I would have a 10k left. “Get your green ass moving. I love you,” she said. It took me two days to figure out that the green was a reference to my shirt and hat color, but that was also something to puzzle over during the next few miles.
Miles 20-24: 15:04, 11:31, 12:20, 11:15, 11:00
I obeyed Katie’s instructions and put my phone back on airplane mode. Everything hurt, but I kept moving forward. The race had extremely well-coordinated aid stations every two miles, and volunteers were offering to apply Icy Hot. This was a masterful marketing ploy by the Icy Hot manufacturers, and I’m now sold. The first time I asked for some on my knee, I was skeptical. But I’ll be damned if it didn’t feel better when I started jogging (yes, jogging; not running) again. It wore off, but when I had more applied at a couple more aid stations, things felt better.
Miles 25-26.27: 12:49, 10:49, 2:36 (9:43 pace)
Most of the race was run on a road through pretty canyons that offered little crowd support because the road was closed. When we got into town, spectators were lining the course and cheering. At mile 24.5, residents were handing out popsicles. I hadn’t tried that before, but I took a lime flavored one, and it was an ice cold bit of heaven. Those spectators were awesome.
Then I saw a sign: “Mortuary ahead. Dig deep.” Now, THAT was brilliant and funny, especially to this former 10-year crime reporter. A little further down the road, they had another sign: “Mortuary in three blocks. Keep running!” I did, because I wanted to see these guys with their great humor. I got to the mortuary, and they had a huge congratulations sign.
I took out my earbuds and looked at the crowds along the finish. I heard them announcing finishers, so I figured that for once I’d actually hear my name, since usually I’m sprinting and delirious. Nope, they missed my name. Oh well.
Official finish time: 4:47:59.
I crossed the finish line and began crying.
In eight marathons, I’ve felt tears at the finish line twice: my first one when I saw my friends cheering and thought of those childhood doctors; and in January when I broke four hours in honor of my friend who was dying of cancer. But I’ve only felt the tears and have managed to keep them at bay, since I really do not like crying. In St. George, I held things together long enough to thank the volunteer who placed a medal around my neck. Then I started sobbing.
I drank two cups of ice cold water. I took a chocolate milk. I stumbled around until I found a shady spot on some grass. I managed to sit down. I forced myself to drink all of the chocolate milk. Everything came back into focus. I looked around me. I was surrounded my runners, each of whom had their own story. I knew that, if asked, they would help me and cheer me, because they understood. I also knew that many people from afar were still sending me cheer and good thoughts (the number of Facebook comments and twitter replies is far higher than I deserve). I was not alone, after all.