The four-word summary of Sunday’s Texas Marathon: I broke four hours!
The one-sentence summary: At times it was a tough fight, but I pushed through and finished with a huge smile on my face and the realization that a years-old dream had come true.
The sad part: I ran in honor of my friend Jim, who had terminal cancer and entered hospice care in November. As I sat down to write this Wednesday evening, I realized I hadn’t looked looked at his facebook page since Monday, due to traveling. (He had stopped doing much typing/correspondence because he was weak and was instead spending time with family.) That’s when I learned that he died Tuesday morning. I started crying, went and got Kleenex, scrolled slowly past all the tributes already accumulating on his facebook page, then got more Kleenex. Now, as I type, I need more Kleenex. However, I’m going to write this race report. Jim found and befriended me because of my writing, which was truly one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. I wrote about him in November, and now I’m going to include him in this blog post, too. (If his friends and family are reading this and don’t want to sift through all the running stuff, you can skip down to mile 22, as well as the last two paragraphs.)
The Texas Marathon is held every year on January 1, north of Houston. They limit it to 650 people for the half and full marathons, so it’s basically the opposite of the New York City Marathon. Like NYCM and the Santa Rosa half, this was another of my “redemption” races from the previous year, when I had to cancel a number of races due to a stress fracture. The race got rave reviews from several runners whose expertise I respect. And participants get a massive 3.5-pound medal.
The catch with a New Year’s Day race is that you need to get to sleep at a decent hour and hydrate (with water, not alcohol) the previous day, also known as New Year’s Eve. But I’ve had a lot of holiday/birthday let-downs over the years, so I figured I had better odds of beating my marathon time on a flat, fast course. Plus, I could still celebrate the new year ON New Year’s Day.
I’d run New York eight weeks earlier, and it took me a little while to recover. My feet hurt pretty badly for a week after, and that led me to switch shoes. The new shoes caused blisters, so then I took a gamble by dropping to a slightly less supportive shoe. That worked. Three weeks before Texas, I suddenly got a crazy pain in the side of my knee. Thankfully that day I was hanging out with Kerry, a physcial therapy student, who diagnosed it as IT Band troubles and told me to roll my hip (yes, hip — not just the knee) on a foam roller. It hurt, but rolled religiously several times a day and got through a 21-miler two weeks before Texas.
A few weeks before the marathon, I unintentionally lost seven pounds in nine days. While I do want to lose weight and do think that would ultimately make me faster, I did NOT plan on doing so mere weeks before a marathon. But I had absolutely no appetite and could not eat. I did gain back three pounds when my life calmed down, before the race. (I have probably since gained back more weight due to delicious food I ate while in Texas.)
I ran four miles on Thursday, three miles of it on a packed dirt path around the Rice University campus in Texas. In California, I’d been running in the dark in temperatures ranging from 27 to 37, so shorts and a t-shirt in daylight were a nice change. On Friday, I stole an idea from Alyssa by running 2.62 miles. I always run the day before a race — usually about 3 miles, but I liked the idea of 2.62 before 26.2. That day, I stepped outside into what my weather app said was 100% humidity. It sucked. It did, however, slow me down so I wouldn’t run too fast the day before the marathon.
Dinner was pizza and a viewing of “Cowboys and Aliens” with the awesome HellaSound (yes, he makes music specifically for running) and his lovely wife. I got in bed around 10:30 p.m. and was wide awake. I lay there for a while and began to stress myself out. I’d gotten eight hours of sleep the previous night, which is very good, but that meant that now I wasn’t tired. My mind was on overdrive.
A year after my first marathon, I ran the 2009 Chicago Marathon in 4:08. That day, a dream began: I wanted a marathon time that began with 3. I’d be perfectly happy with 3:59:59, just so long as it was under 4 hours. Then I bombed in my third marathon in May 2010, posting my slowest time ever.
It took 13 months to run another marathon, due to a stress fracture, but in June 2011, I ran the Mayor’s Marathon in Alaska in 4:00:21. I’m still amazed, because my training shouldn’t have allowed that time. In November, I ran NYC in 4:02:24. I was happy with my time, since I’d taken a nasty fall two weeks earlier and it was a hilly course.
So, here I was on the eve of another marathon. I’d made my goal public, and everyone knew I wanted to break four hours. To add to matters, I’d decided to run this marathon for Jim. He’d fought the terminal cancer, trying to find treatments while also trying to go on some adventures before his life ended. I couldn’t cure his cancer, but I could run a good race in his honor. I’ve been proving my childhood doctors wrong by running, so this would be one more way of making running meaningful. As I lay there in bed, I knew that it would be OK if I didn’t reach my goal this time. But I also knew that Jim was dying, and this would be my only chance to break four hours while he was still alive. I picked up my phone and turned to Twitter, where I got supportive responses from amazing people.
Finally, just before midnight, I put the phone done and went to sleep. I awoke at 5:21, before the alarm. I made my standard pre-race peanut butter and banana sandwich. We stopped at Starbucks, where I got a small decaf coffee. Yes, decaf. Except for one half-caffeine latte on Wednesday morning, I’d cut out all caffeine for a week. This has been an ongoing experiment since August, and it seems to have helped with some heart rate/semi-blacking-out issues. However, Sunday would be the first race without a little regular coffee on race morning. I also wasn’t going to take any caffeinated gels during the race, though I’ve always relied on one final burst of caffeine in the last few miles.
We got to the race in Kingwood and parked in a residential neighborhood. Yep, it was a small race. We got our packets, which came with a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt and a cute little duffel bag, which will actually be the perfect size to hold running stuff when I drive somewhere to run with friends. There were no lines for the port-a-potties, and I was extremely relieved to note that the humidity was nowhere near the previous day’s 100%. It was a little windy, but I’d take that over humidity any time.
I found Kathy, who I’d happened to run into at the NYC expo.
Kathy started introducing me to her Marathon Maniacs friends (qualifying for that club has been my other big running goal). I know some Maniacs members, and they’re always fun, nice people. Soon I was holding two cameras at once, helping take photos as 75 of them gathered for a group shot. And then there were race announcements, a girl was attempting to sing the National Anthem, and we were gathering at the start. A funny horn sounded, and we were off.
Mile 1: 9:11
Mile 2: 8:48
Mile 3: 8:55
The first couple miles, I had trouble finding my pace. I knew I wanted to aim for around 9:00 to 9:05 miles. A 4-hour marathon is a 9:08 pace, so that would be right on target. The start was a bit congested, of course, but with only a few hundred marathoners, it wasn’t bad.
Mile 4: 9:04
Mile 5: 9:12 (gel)
The course is run entirely on a paved path that goes through tall trees, under a couple small overpasses, over a couple bridges, and past a lake. In other words, it’s pretty. The lake was lovely, but that area was more open and the wind was pretty strong.
Mile 6: 9:03
First 1/4 of the race: 58:28 (8:55 pace)
The race is a loop; half-marathoners run it twice and full-marathoners run it four times. This meant I would pass the start/finish area four times. That sounds awful, but friends had assured me that it was not. One advantage was that I would see the official clock time and would know that I was still on pace if I could finish each loop in 59:59. This is a good thing, because there was a little GPS interference, so my watch was slightly off. Thanks again to friends, I’d known this ahead of time.
Mile 7: 8:55
Mile 8: 8:51
Mile 9: 8:56
The half-marathoners started 15 minutes after the full-marathoners, so I’d wondered if it would be a traffic jam at times. Plus, the course isn’t just a loop — it actually has a turn-around with an out-and-back portion, so you’re passing runners and also seeing oncoming runners. Believe it or not, this actually wasn’t that big of a problem. A vast majority of the people were following proper etiquette of staying to the right except to pass. Plus, I loved seeing all the people. I saw HellaSound and his wife about six times each, so that was fun.
Mile 10: 8:56 (gel)
Mile 11: 9:17
I stopped to fill my bottle and went with the sports drink, because I know I need as many electrolytes as I can get in order to fight off calf cramps. They were serving PowerAde, which I find to be sickeningly sweet, but I went with it.
Mile 12: 9:10
Mile 13: 9:18
Second 1/4 of the race: 58:39 (8:57 pace), almost exactly the same time as the first loop.
The PowerAde was a bad choice. I have a very solid stomach, but as soon as I started sipping it, my stomach began to feel upset. This never happens to me. I thought it might be a coincidence, but it also tasted awful. So, at the aid station at the start/finish, I took the time to pour out the PowerAde and refill with water. No more electrolytes from sports drink for me, but the water tasted so much better. I also turned on my music at this point.
Mile 14: 8:46 (gel)
Mile 15: 9:05
Mile 16: 9:12
Mile 17: 9:00
Things started to feel harder. My legs started to feel tired. I knew I’d hit the halfway point around 1:57:24, and I knew that was a bit too fast. I should have been about two minutes slower. I don’t believe that “banking time” is good, because if you run too hard and burn out too early, no amount of time will be enough.
Mile 18: 9:28 (gel)
Mile 19: 10:16
Third 1/4 of the race: 1:00:56 (9:18 pace)
I was crashing and burning. Everything was hurting. I stopped more than once, stretching out my legs and bending over because my lungs and chest felt tight. I grabbed a piece of banana at the start/finish aid station, knowing the potassium would help my muscles.
Mile 20: 10:32
Mile 21: 9:28
I didn’t want to head out for yet another loop on that never-ending course. I just wanted to stop. I could try to break four hours some other time. I had tried, but it just wasn’t my day. Then I realized that I was stopped on the side of the path while Metallica was playing in my ears. I’ve done some of my fastest runs to Metallica. Why wasn’t I running? I had no excuse. So mile 21 was at least back to a 9:XX pace. At the start of the last loop, I knew I was in a place where I would break four hours if I could just hold on and run 10-minute miles. That was a good position to be in, because normally 10-minute miles are too slow for me.
Mile 22: 10:22 (gel)
The determination had barely lasted through one mile. I was done. I couldn’t do this. Everything hurt. I thought of Jim and felt tears in my eyes because I was going to fail and I wouldn’t have another chance to break four hours before he died. I remembered NYC, where I’d focused on channeling Chrissie Wellington, who hadn’t given up despite very bad injuries two weeks before she conquered the Kona Ironman. I remembered Alaska, where I was 21 seconds over the four-hour mark.
Then I thought of Jim again. He’d fought to live as much as he could in the last few months until he’d had to enter hospice care. If he could fight, so could I. Then a phrase came into my mind: “Fight for it.” RoadBunner had given that mantra to Alyssa before Alyssa went out and conquered the California International Marathon. Fight for it.
Mile 23: 9:19
I was fighting for all I was worth. I told myself I would not stop again, no matter what. I was NOT going to miss the four-hour mark by seconds again. I was going to do this for Jim. I would fight for it.
Mile 24: 9:16
I passed Kathy one more time. “Go girl, go get that PR!” she shouted after me. Yes, that PR (personal record) was actually still in sight. I could do this. The last loop seemed to take forever, but I knew I just had to keep running. I felt slight threats of calf cramps, and I told myself they would NOT take me down. I would fight them off, too.
Mile 25: 8:55
“Whoa, she’s speeding up,” I heard a volunteer say. (The volunteers were fantastic, by the way.) Yes, I was speeding up. I was fighting for it. Dammit, I was going to break four hours. After all, I’d told Jim I was doing it for him.
Mile 25.9: 8:21 pace (the GPS on my watch was off; the course is certified to 26.2 miles)
Last 1/4 of the race: 1:00:53 (9:18 pace), also almost exactly the same time as the previous lap.
I crossed the finish line in sheer joy. I’d been watching the time on my watch and had seen it reach 3:58 near the finish line. I saw a 3 on the clock at the finish. I’d done it. I had broken through the 4-hour barrier.
Official time: 3:58:55.
HellaSound was right there at the finish, congratulating me. One of the best things in the world is to have a friendly face at the end of a hard race. I was only catching half of what he was saying, but he was cheering for the fact that I’d broken four hours.
A volunteer gave me a little pink pig with the number 33 on it. I knew the pig was coming — it’s a unique Texas Marathon thing, where every year they have a signature animal and give out miniature versions. But the number was the icing on the cake. I am attempting to run three marathons in three months to qualify for Marathon Maniacs; my third race will be the weekend I turn 33; and 33 is a multiple of 11, the number that has always followed me. If I’d finished 19 seconds slower, that number 33 pig would have gone to the person who finished after me. This was the reward for that last gasp of an 8:20 pace.
Then they gave me a monster of a medal that came in its own box because it was too heavy to actual place around the neck of someone who just ran 26.2 miles. Then I wandered toward the food, knowing I needed something solid to clear my head. This was a bit of an adventure, because they had lots of boxes of cookies, but I had no idea which ones might contain walnuts. They won’t kill me or send me to an emergency room, but walnuts make my mouth BURN. So there I was, half-delirious, trying to read ingredients on boxes of cookies. I couldn’t do it. Someone said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe they all have nuts in them.” Really? That’s ridiculous! I finally focused on a box of chocolate-chocolate chip cookies, didn’t see any mention of nuts, and took a bite. It was fine, though extremely dry. I managed three bites of dry cookie.
HellaSound had said something about where he and his wife were sitting, but for the life of me, I had no idea what he’d said. Finally things came back into normal mode and I saw them on a nearby bench. I walked over to them and learned that the pizza promised at the finish line was gone. So we took a couple pictures with the inflatable pigs and made the slow walk to the car. On the way, we passed more pizza being delivered, but by then none of us wanted to walk back and deal with a mob of hungry runners.
Age group (women, 30-39): 4th out of 23 — top 17.4 percent
Gender: 9th out of 90 — top 10 percent
Overall: 34th out of 221 — top 15.4 percent
These stats say several things. First, this race was a fast course, but it attracts people who run a LOT and focus on distance more than time. In New York, I was only three minutes slower and had pretty good stats, but I was nowhere near cracking the top 10 percent in any category. Second, the stats are still proof that I’m in a tough age group. The women’s winner was in my age group, and she was second overall. Second place woman was also in my age group.
First half: 1:57:07
Second half: 2:01:49
As I said earlier, this isn’t the ideal way to run a race. It’s just too risky to go too fast and expect to bank enough time. But it worked on Sunday, and I had just over a minute to spare.
It’s taken me two years and four attempts to break four hours in the marathon. (I’ve now run six marathons, but I hadn’t dreamed of sub-4 at first.) Thank you to my friends and family who have put up with my jabbering about running, who have consoled me when I’ve been injured, and who have encouraged me to keep going.
Thank you to Janine, who got me started down this crazy marathon road. Thank you to the Lodi Running Club members, who provided many hours of companionship on the roads, carpools to races, and coffee shop chatter. Thank you to the Bay Area runners who have welcomed me, accepted me, and given me some true friendships. Thank you to the Internet friends who send encouragement from afar and who often care more than my “real life” friends. Thank you to Katie, who called and texted me every single day last month when I felt like I was alone and drowning. Thank you to Deanne, who still stands by me after a decade of friendship. Thank you to Paulo, for the typos and book material. Thank you to Ron, for the support. Thank you to Alyssa.
And thank you to Jim. Thank you for taking a chance and contacting an Internet stranger. Thank you for reading my writing for years, which is one of the most sincere compliments anyone can give. Thank you for offering tips when I was job hunting. Thank you for cheery comments, even when cancer hurt you, and then when cancer hit you. Thank you for reminding me that life needs to be lived, and that it’s worth fighting for as long as possible. Thank you for being an inspiration. And — this may sound weird but I know you’d have understood — thank you for hanging on until after the marathon.
I wanted to break four hours for so long. I’ve finally done it, and I did so in honor of a friend, which means I’ll never forget him. I can only hope that someday I am worthy of being someone else’s unforgettable inspiration.