Alaska Marathon: The race

(Part one of this saga is here. It was just too wordy for one post.)

One-word summary: Wow. (Yep, that sounds familiar from my half-marathon in March.)

Two-word summary: Just wow.

One-sentence summary: I thought that having to take time off and then going into a marathon seriously undertrained would result in my slowest time yet, but the opposite happened.

So if you read my last post, you know about the less-than-stellar running I did before the marathon. I truly believed this might very well be my slowest marathon ever, though I began to be a bit more optimistic in the week before the race. I figured 4:20ish was realistic. A couple days before the race, I said that if I had a good day I might hit 4:15. I honestly, completely believed that.

In fact, I kept believing it until around mile 3 of the actual marathon. I was perfectly content with just getting to the start line and knowing I’d “finish a marathon in freaking Alaska!” as I phrased it more than once. Waiting at the start in perfect 52-degree temperatures, I didn’t have a hint of nerves. (I don’t really get nervous before a race, anyway, but sometimes it manifests itself in excitement.) I hung out with Twitter friend Brandon at the start, and told him to go ahead because he was aiming for a faster pace.

The race swas congested for a while. The marathon field is small, but the first few miles were on a bike trail that didn’t leave a lot of room for passing. I’d lined up at the start in a fairly good place, and I found myself running a little faster than the 9:30 pace I’d planned. It was better to stick with the crowd’s pace, though.

Mile 1: 9:16
Mile 2: 9:14
Mile 3: 9:02
Mile 4: 9:02

I caught up to Brandon and we chatted a bit. I told him, “I’m really scared. My legs feel so good and this feels so easy!” I was running faster now, and I didn’t even notice.

Mile 5: 8:55
Mile 6: 9:13
Mile 7: 9:14

At mile 7, we hit a wide trail that was a mix of dirt and gravel. It was as if I kicked it into a different gear. My legs took off, and the rest of me kept up. Trails make my legs happy, and they were in heaven. I was even able to chat with some other runners. (Hi, Julia from New York!).

Mile 8: 8:09 (yikes!)
Mile 9: 8:19
Mile 10: 8:44

Subconsciously, I began chasing a faster finishing goal. I began hitting more uphills, though, so I slowed and focused on not exerting too much energy on them.

Mile 11: 9:18
Mile 12: 9:07
Mile 13: 9:42

I reached the halfway point in 1:58, nowhere near what I’d expected. I was feeling good, but I knew I stood a very high chance of crashing and burning in spectacular fashion — in fact, that’s what I did a year earlier.

The last and steepest hill was at mile 14.5, which I’d committed to memory when I looked at the course elevation profile a couple days earlier (no joke — I really didn’t look at the course before then except for months ago). I’d told myself that if I reached that point and wasn’t feeling like death, the last 12 miles were completely doable. So, after passing through an aid station, I pulled out my earbuds, turned on the music, and took off.

Mile 14: 10:22
Mile 15: 8:50
Mile 16: 9:00
Mile 17: 8:28 (!)

We returned to pavement at mile 16, and I was having a blast. Case in point:

Both feet off the ground, hamming it up for the photographer.

Mile 18: 8:51
Mile 19: 8:57
Mile 20: 9:32

We were on city streets for a little while, and around mile 19 I passed a thermometer that said 61 degrees. The weather had cooperated wonderfully. Things didn’t start to feel hard until around mile 21. I’ve battled calf cramps in higher mileage runs, and I could feel that they were unhappy. However, this is something I’ve really tried to conquer for over a year now. My Achilles issue was probably a blessing in disguise, because that seemed to be connected to the calf problems. Once I started stretching regularly and focusing on my gait, both improved drastically. So, as the marathon got harder, I kept reminding myself to lift my legs rather than pushing off, and to keep my stride in check so I didn’t over-reach.

Mile 21: 8:43
Mile 22: 9:18

Somewhere in here, I got very distracted by people running the opposite direction, shouting for medics. One girl was specifically shouting at each of us, yelling, “We need a medic! Runner down and he’s BAD!” I know she was just panicked, but it felt like she was accusing me of not helping. I got to the runner, who was lying on the ground with several people around him. There was absolutely nothing I could do, since I have no medical training, so I kept moving. I passed an Internet friend (Chris, who I’d finally gotten to meet at the race expo); he was there coaching and was sprinting toward the runner. I was so distracted and worried — a 22-year-old runner had died two weeks earlier at a race in Chicago that I’d wanted to run — that I took an unplanned walk break just to calm my breathing. (The next day I would learn that the runner was fine.)

Meanwhile, my legs were getting more and more tired. We were running on a path through pretty woods, and what saved me was being able to run on the dirt beside the pavement. Every time I returned to the pavement, my calves complained. The last four miles were a mental battle. I was doing the math and knew I was on my way to an amazing finish if I could just hold on a little longer. I also knew I had a shot at breaking four hours, something I hadn’t planned on attempting until January 2012. I was leap-frogging with a guy who also ran on the dirt. I took a couple short walking breaks but I’d always catch up to him.

Mile 23: 9:22
Mile 24: 9:26
Mile 25: 8:58
Mile 26: 9:40

Some twisted person decided to have the race go straight up the world’s biggest hill at the end of the race. I’d seen it on the course map, and I’d heard that it was every bit as hard as it looked. I was now racing my own clock, but I simply could not run that thing. I walked, knowing it was better to save the last of my energy for the top. That hill finally ended, and Mr. Leapfrog and I were now side-by-side. As we picked up the pace, we chatted briefly about how close we’d be to four hours.

Now that the hill was done, I gave every last bit of energy to the finish. We seemed to take turn after turn after turn; I saw the flags at the finish, but the end kept eluding me, and then I had to dodge half-marathoners who were walking two and three across! The final push was on a track, where I took the shortest possible path to the finish and sprinted for all I was worth, vaguely hearing cheers and someone say, “Look at her go!”

Last 0.44 miles (measured by my watch): 3:30/8:01 pace.

Half a mile at an 8:01 pace after running 26 miles. Focusing on gait/form is paying off!

Official chip finish time: 4:00:21, 26.2 miles, 9:11 pace.
My watch time (since I didn’t run the tangents perfectly and did a little weaving): 4:00:26, 26.44 miles, 9:05 pace.
Age division: 9th out of 96 (top 9.3 percent).
Women: 45th out of 526 (top 8.5 percent).

Take that, you doctors who said I’d never do much running! After four marathons, I am still proving you wrong!

It took me about 10 seconds to be able to see anything after the finish, and then I walked in a daze for a little while. Somewhere along the way someone handed me the biggest medal I’ve ever gotten. I pulled out my phone and saw some good luck texts from earlier (I’d put my phone on silent so it wouldn’t distract me). I tried texting but my fingers were shaking and also getting the touch screen all sweaty.

After I called Staci, the friend I was staying with and who was also running, a couple people were priority calls. One was Janine, the woman who three years ago got me through my first half-marathon and then convinced me I could run a marathon. “I just ran a 4-hour marathon!” I gasped into the phone. I was so exhausted and so exhilarated all at once. Then Staci found me and gave me a cookie, which was quite possibly the best thing on the planet at that point.

We're a bit unkempt after all that running, but this is Staci, a rockstar runner and an amazing person.

Days later, I’m still beyond thrilled. Do I wish I had run 22 seconds faster to reach 3:59:59? Of course, but I also have no regrets and I’m not kicking myself. I ran a smart race, I warded off the calf cramps that struck me in the last two marathons, my Achilles felt fine, and except for the worst toenail blisters ever, I have no lingering pains. I can say with pride that I am a four-hour marathoner.

But of course that leads me to the future. What’s next? Well, I had planned to run New York in November as a fun run, and to attempt to break four hours in Texas on Jan. 1. Now my goal is to break four hours in New York. It’s known for hills (lots of bridges) and crowds. But I now live where I run hills, and I’ve paced myself very well in large races (Chicago, for instance, with 45,000 runners). Who doesn’t like a challenge?

13 Responses to Alaska Marathon: The race

  1. Fricking awesome sauce girl! You totally killed it out there! Don’t you just love it when everything just comes together and it’s your day?!?!? I hope you are STILL floating on Cloud 9 over this a whole week from now because the first week is always a given. :)

    Congrats, congrats, congrats!!!

  2. Love it! We had so much fun that week and you did so awesome! Thanks for getting me to run the half. I honestly probably wouldn’t have done it without you. You’ve totally gotten me addicted to running 😀

    • Mwahaha, I am evil and have brought you over to the dark side! Funny how we wouldn’t have run the races if it hadn’t been for each other. And I think the week before was a perfect “taper” of sorts — having fun, cross-training (falling off a mountain bike…), yep, good combo. I’m still so proud of your half-marathon time!

  3. dude this is awesome! congrats on such a great race. it was really fun meeting you today! see you soon hopefully!

    • Thank you! Yes, it was so fun to meet more area runners! I’m still a bit behind, but I plan on going through and checking out all the new-to-me blogs!

  4. I didn’t get to tell you today, but fantastic job on your marathon!!!!

  5. Congratulations! I loved your race recap. Sounds like you had a fantastic time (oh and also a speedy time!), and running a marathon in Alaska is just extra cool. Good luck in New York!

    • Thank you, and it was nice meeting you the other day! The Alaska factor definitely added to the race — I now think everyone should see Alaska (which I’ve also said about New York City).

  6. Hi there, I just discovered your blog, and wow what a great post to discover. I love your non-traditional training methods and these stellar results. Congratulations on a fantastic marathon.

  7. I ran the Mayor’s Marathon too!! Nice job!!

  8. Just getting to this now — man, I am behind on blog reading.

    I AM SO PROUD OF YOU! Such awesome, consistent (oxford comma), and amazing splits. You’ve got so much more in you; can’t wait to see and hear how it goes!