(This report has been 90% finished since hours after the race. Seven weeks later, I’m finally adding photos and finishing it off. Also, it’s long-winded. A double-whammy of absurdity?)
[Click on the photos to see larger versions. All photos are my own; if you use them, please credit “Layla Bohm” or “theSmudge.com.”]
One-sentence recap: Good weather, good course, great people, and my strongest finishing kick ever.
One-paragraph recap: I almost backed out of this race a month earlier because my neck went out and I could still recoup race and travel fees. Then my neck got better and the Boston Marathon bombing happened, and I knew I had no excuse not to run and give it my best. I ran as hard as I could and beat my previous best time by a little more than two minutes.
Training, briefly: After running three marathons in 77 days, two of them in December, I turned my attention to trails. I offered to pace my friend Chris for the last 18 miles of a 50-mile race in April, so I also threw my name in the lottery for the Way Too Cool 50k. I got into the lottery and crossed the finish line of my first ultra (31.2 miles) in March. Along the way, I ran a couple hundred miles of trails, some of them with my friend Kristen. After running mostly solo for a year-and-a-half, her company was a very welcome change.
The pacing gig at the 50-miler was timed perfectly: It was four weeks after my 50k and four weeks before the Pittsburgh Marathon, so it served as one of two long training runs before the marathon. That plan was perfect, except that my neck suddenly got painful for no reason on the Monday before pacing. It improved in time to pace Chris that Saturday, which was a very fun day.
And then my neck pain returned with a vengeance the following Monday. I tried valiantly to exercise, but by that night it hurt every time I accelerated in my car. I made a rare-for-me trip to the doctor, got a prescription muscle relaxer, and lost two days of work. The drugs worked in time to run a trail half-marathon the following Saturday – I felt miserable the whole time and gave myself one more day to decide on Pittsburgh. That night involved a bunch of alcohol and chatting with girlfriends, leading to three hours of sleep. But then I went out and ran 10 miles at goal marathon pace, with no music on a boring route.
The next day, two idiots bombed the Boston Marathon. My decision was made: I was going to run Pittsburgh, and I was going to run as hard as I could. Life is short, and there is no time to wait for the most ideal conditions. My neck was better and I wasn’t one of the victims with horrible amputations – there was no reason to back out of the race. I would run it for Boston and to prove that terrorists will never win.
That weekend was my last 20-miler. Due to a comedy of errors, I wound up running 11 miles, going to a baseball game and eating ballpark food, then running another nine miles. The next weekend I ran a trail half-marathon with the only goal being: “Do no harm.” I started too fast, made myself walk for a while, almost fell, got hot, then found a second wind at mile 10 and passed half a dozen people. I told myself to remember that feeling for Pittsburgh.
Race weekend: I flew into Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon, and my friend Corey spoiled me by picking me up at the airport and taking me to her lovely house for the night. The next morning I ran 4.25 miles of endless hills.
Corey dropped me off downtown Friday afternoon, where I met up with my sister, Chloe. The number of bridges amazed me; they were the reason Chloe had convinced me to come to Pittsburgh (which resulted in me registering both of us for the race). An “Earn the Title: Runner of Steel” banner hung from one of the bridges.
Race Eve: Chloe, her friend Elizabeth, and I went to the expo on Saturday, where I got to see Michael Wardian break a world record by running a half-marathon in 1:08:50 on a treadmill.
We went to Chloe’s boyfriend’s restaurant for a very late lunch, where he didn’t give us menus but instead just asked about meat/veggies and any food allergies. The plan was to get a little food there, then go out for pasta or pizza for dinner. He brought us amazing dishes that were a variation on the restaurant’s popular warm beans and greens, along with freshly baked bread. I was in heaven. Then he brought out pasta, and our mouths dropped open in surprise. And then he brought out a large warm veggie sandwich that we were going to have to take home at that rate. And then there was dessert. It was all delicious, and then he refused to bring us a check. If he was trying to impress Chloe’s big sister, he did a very good job.
Chloe, her boyfriend and I went on a walk along a riverfront trail to a dog park, and I rested my tired feet. They were starting to worry me, but the views were great.
We got home, got everything ready for the morning, saw a lovely sunset and then I went to sleep. I’d woken up at 5:30 that morning (for no good reason), so when I did finally fall asleep, I slept soundly and didn’t wake up once with pre-race nerves. I also slept through my alarm…
Race Morning: Chloe, Elizabeth and I got off to a bit of a late start, and as a result I didn’t put on sunscreen. I paid for that later. However, we caught our bus and were at the start line with plenty of time to spare.
Chloe, Elizabeth and I went our separate ways, since we were all in different start corrals and they were running the half-marathon. I dropped off my bag of dry clothes, then went to the port-a-potty lines. I turned a corner and discovered no toilet lines, despite the fact that there were 30,000 runners between the full, half and relay. I went inside one and saw that it had hand sanitizer inside, but even more remarkable was the presence of A FLUSHER. In 13 marathons/ultras and a bunch of half-marathons, I’ve never seen that before. I could keep raving, but you probably don’t want to hear about toilets anymore.
I got to my corral, someone sang the National Anthem, someone else sang God Bless America, and then we were on our way.
The Race: I had expected congestion and had created a pace band that had a slower first mile. But I was in a perfect spot and was on pace immediately.
Miles 1-6: 8:48, 8:48, 8:45, 8:48, 8:28, 8:41.
OK, so I was going faster than planned. My main goal was to get a PR (personal record), faster than my best time of 3:58:55. I hadn’t gotten a PR in a road race for 16 months, and I’d only ever broken that 4-hour barrier once. So a sub-4 would be the secondary goal, in order to prove that the previous one wasn’t a fluke. But I really wanted 3:57:59 or faster. I made a pace band for 3:55, knowing the course would probably measure a little longer on my watch because it had a number of turns and I wouldn’t run the inside corners perfectly.
I hit the 10k (6.1 miles) point in around 54 minutes. We had already crossed three bridges, the weather was lovely and spectators were cheering. I powered up the little hills with no problem and used the descents to stretch out my leg muscles while calming my breathing.
Miles 7-10: 8:47, 8:32, 8:44, 8:59
Somewhere in here, a Marathon Maniacs member came up beside me and said hi. Scott had been at our photo meet-up that morning, and he was hoping for a 4:05 to PR. He’s a Pittsburgh native and pointed at an older man just ahead of us. “When I was a kid, I would always see him running around my neighborhood. Back then, he ran marathons in 2:30. He’s still running.” That was great inspiration.
Also in there, a woman came up beside me and said, “OK, fellow Maniac chick, where are you from?” She was from Georgia and is working her way through marathons in all 50 states. We chatted for a little while and caught back up to each other a couple times as she sped up on the uphills and I caught her on the downhills. It reminded me of running with Kristen, so that was cool.
Miles 11-13: 8:44, 9:19, 10:07
We reached a Big Hill at mile 12.5. I knew it was coming, so when I felt my heart working hard, I started walking. A young guy near me said something like, “Don’t stop now; keep going.” But I knew we weren’t yet halfway done with the race, and I’d be better off conserving energy now so I could zoom down the other end of this hill later.
I reached the halfway point at 1:58 and change by my watch, though the official results say 1:57. This is because I had already run longer, due to the multiple turns. Regardless, I knew that I’d be cutting my PR goal close so I had to keep my head in the game. I stopped at an aid station long enough to fill up my water bottle with Gatorade and to turn on my music. I had a two-hour playlist, and it was time to attack the second half.
Miles 14-17: 9:55, 8:50, 9:31
I think this is where I lost a guy who had been running with a full-sized American flag. We had been near each other for most of the race until then, so it was neat to hear spectators chant “USA!” for him. My leg muscles were grumbling a little and I was fighting mentally, so I stopped to briefly stretch my legs. I walked, then forced myself to jog. I had the “I can PR another time” thought, but I forced it out of my mind. I had a Boston ribbon pinned on my shirt, and I was running in their honor. The three who died will never have a chance to run, and a number of the injured will have a lifetime of dealing with artificial limbs. The time to chase my PR was now, not later.
It helped that I had strategically ordered my playlist with Metallica songs interspersed throughout. I have this mental thing where I cannot walk when Metallica is playing; I must run. So, when one of their long songs came on, it kept me running and made me forget that I wanted to walk.
Miles 18-20: 9:19, 8:52, 9:50
I stopped to refill my bottle with more Gatorade. By that point, I really just wanted water because I’d had four gels (every five miles) and was tired of sweet stuff. But I knew I needed the sodium to avoid muscle cramps, so I kept forcing Gatorade.
Later, I found out that I officially reached mile 20 in 3:01:43, and at that point my predicted finish was 4:02. My memories are fuzzy, but I remember doing the math, knowing the course was running long, and calculating that I needed to run 9-minute miles to PR. And this, fellow distance runners, is where my marathon pace training played a huge factor. I had recently done a number of five-mile runs that averaged 8:45-8:55 pace. I had run 10 miles at 8:56 pace. There, at mile 20 in the marathon, I knew I would PR if I could just keep running. It was mine to lose.
Miles 21-23: 8:58, 8:59, 9:09
We turned onto my sister’s street. I remembered noticing that it had a gradual uphill, but that the road then shifted to a gradual downhill. I held out for that downhill.
They say not to try anything new during a race, and I firmly believe it. But at mile 23, I took a Gu Roctane gel. I hadn’t tried Roctane before, but I since regular Gu is in my rotation and I’d read Roctane’s ingredients, it wasn’t much of a risk. So I downed the Roctane and then I set out on a mission: I was going to run these last three miles as hard as I could. My lungs would complain, my leg muscles would threaten to seize up, my brain would tell me to slow down – but I had already planned to ignore those weaknesses. These last three miles would be for the Boston victims, and they would make or break my race.
Miles 24-26: 8:37, 8:57, 8:34. Mile 26.43: pace of 7:25 (3:10 total time)
I pushed and pushed and pushed. Mile 26 apparently had a slight uphill, but I ran it in 8:34. And that last almost-half-a-mile at a 7:25 pace?! I still have no idea how that happened. I have never run sub-8 pace in a marathon, especially for nearly half a mile at the very end.
In mile 25, a slow relay runner suddenly swerved in front of me to high-five kids on the sidelines. I came to a screeching stop and I’m sure my face was in full panic mode, knowing this could cause me to cramp up. High-fiving kids is awesome, and I had high-fived a whole row of Junior ROTC kids earlier in the race, but swerving to do so requires a look over the shoulder. That was the only time the half-marathoners and relay runners caused me any problems; unlike some races I’ve run, it never felt too crowded.
At any rate, I kept moving and picked up the pace. They had a flag marker for mile 25 but if there was one for mile 26, I never saw it (which is likely). I ran in a straight line, focusing on the path straight ahead of me, vaguely aware that I was passing people. My vision was blurring and I was light-headed. I came upon two men and slipped between them, because there was no way I could function enough to swerve around them. WHERE was the finish line?! Finally, it appeared out of nowhere, less than a block away.
I usually lift my arms in celebration, or punch the air in victory. This time, I had wanted to put my hand over my heart, as many have done at marathons since the Boston bombing. But the only thing I could manage was to keep moving forward across the finish line. I had just left everything on the road and there was absolutely nothing left in me.
I got across the finish line, took a few more steps, and stopped to get my head down. A volunteer asked if I was OK, and I tried to tell them that, yes, I just needed blood in my head. I’m sure I made no sense, but I must not have looked bad enough for them to call for medical, as they did at New York (though I didn’t need it there, either).
I lifted my head and moved forward, where someone put a very large, very heavy medal around my neck. I saw water to my left and moved toward it. That tasted ever so much better than the Gatorade I’d been forcing myself to drink for the last two hours.
My delirious stumbling continued as I got my photo taken, took a heat sheet and more water, then moved through the food line. For some reason, they were already out of bagels and smiley-face cookies. That’s the only race flaw in an otherwise impressively well-done race: I finished faster than thousands of other runners, so why were they already out of the main carbohydrate replenishments?
I found Chloe and eased myself down onto the very welcome grass, overjoyed with my finishing time.
A girl near us had just run-walked her first half-marathon, and she and her mom smiled at my silly excited babbling. And then my calf seized up. I shrieked, then gritted my teeth so I wouldn’t scream again. The pain was incredible, and the whole muscle locked up. Now the concerned mom and daughter looked at me with the “why do people run 26.2 miles??” gaze. I finally managed to pull my foot back and ease the cramp enough to unclench my teeth and say something about needing salt. Chloe opened a bag of chips (thank you, finish line food, for not running out of chips), I opened my mouth, and she hand fed me. Having friends or loved ones at the finish line is an Amazing Thing.
We eventually dragged ourselves to a bus and got back to Chloe’s house for a most welcome shower and compression socks. That evening, Chloe and I finally went to the tram (called the Incline) that goes straight up a mountain. This was the one thing I HAD to see in Pittsburgh, since I always like heights. The views more than lived up to my expectations.
And that’s how I went from nearly canceling my trip to beating my marathon time. It took a little bit of luck with my neck recovery, and a lot of determination. Perspective also helped: I was physically able to run 26.2+ miles, while many Boston victims were not.
- Finish time: 3:56:45
- 67th of 354 in my division (females, ages 30-34). Top 19 percent.
- 342 of 1,921 female finishers. Top 18 percent.
- 1,428 of all 4,834 finishers. Top 30 percent.