In the months, weeks, and days leading up to the Steamtown Marathon, everything was lining up perfectly for me.
I was the healthiest I’ve been in years, I was trying out a high volume training plan that seemed to be working well, and I was kind of successfully balancing work and play. Kind of.
I loved training for this race. I know I’ve shoved that sentiment down the throats of anyone who will listen to me, but it’s true. The Steamtown training process was such a rewarding one for me.
And because I loved every minute of my training — even including the oft-dreaded taper period — I’m actually completely OK with the fact that my race went terribly.
The day before the race, I got my stuff from the expo, I chilled out at lunch with friends, I spent some time blogging and reflecting in front of the fake fireplace at the dicey Four Points hotel, and I ate an early dinner at Outback Steakhouse. That warm brown bread and soft butter is my second favorite suburban treat. (Olive Garden breadsticks are first, and I had had those the previous night.) I ate just enough steak (filet, always medium rare), baked potato, and asparagus (why does it make your pee smell? I’m new to asparagus so I haven’t Googled it yet) that I was filled up without being grossly full. Nailed it.
I slept surprisingly well Saturday night, and woke up Sunday excited but not nervous. I just felt ready.
I suited up, bathroomed up, bibbed up, and ate up (plain bagel and, about an hour later, a protein bar), and then Brian drove me to the start line at Forest Hills High School.
It was the perfect day to run a marathon. The weather couldn’t have been better, and everything about Steamtown was lovely. There was so much support, from the cheerleaders greeting runners at the school to the volunteers all the way to the finish line.
I was able to find Paul without too much trouble (or so I thought — he told me he’d been wandering the high school halls for half an hour trying to find me and starting to panic), checked my bag with my warm clothes in it (I totally forgot I checked a bag, since I never do, and definitely forgot to pick it up at the finish, so I hope someone in Scranton, PA, is enjoying those fleece unicorn pants and hot pink sequined fleece hat), and used the bathrooms a few times.
My stomach felt fine. My head felt clear.
So Paul, have I told you about him? Probably. We work together and he has to hear about my running and my brain thoughts all day every day, because we sit right next to each other. We’ve become great friends, and he offered to pace me for this marathon because he had a bib but “wasn’t in shape” to run it on his own. In other words, he’d go for a nice leisurely jog with me instead of attempting a 2:40 marathon for himself.
We did a few workouts together during training, and he thought I could definitely PR at this race. I thought I could, too, but I didn’t necessarily want to put a time goal on the race. So I told him he could run with me under the condition that I don’t wear a watch and I just trust him and try to hang on, and if I can’t, we’ll slow down, and that’s fine. Everything is rainbows. No pressure. Good times.
We lined up at the start, there was a National Anthem, and there was a cannon which scared the Crohn’s out of me. Almost.
And then we were running.
Steamtown is a downhill course.
They warn you about the course relentlessly.
They tell you that people go out too fast, or that people get trashed on the downhills, or that you should really consider training on downhills to prepare for the race.
All the while I’m thinking running downhill is fun and sometimes I can go fast down Harlem Hill so heyooooo I will rock this race, right?
PROBABLY NOT, ALISON.
Mile one shoots you out of the high school parking lot and straight downhill. And also it’s very crowded and congested so it’s a bit of a mess.
The first downhill is quite steep, and there’s a sharp right turn at the bottom of the hill, which was kind of scary. But then it’s a more gradual downhill for the next 10 or so miles.
But it’s still downhill.
And it trashed me.
By mile 10, my quads were like, “Game over, cutie pie, we’re done!” Except there was no cutie pie.
The day I ran the Steamtown Marathon was just not my day.
I felt like everything went so perfectly leading up to the race, but then my body and mind decided they were content with the work we’d done and didn’t really feel like making the race come to fruition.
Yes, the downhill course was very difficult for me. But there were so many other elements that came into play and tore me up.
The first four miles flew by. Paul and I were chatting a bit, the course was great, and the foliage was spectacular. I was into it. I loved not wearing a watch and just cruising along with my buddy.
I was running with my water bottle in my left hand, which I had done during the New York City Marathon, but it was driving me bonkers crazy. I barely even noticed it during NYC, but for some reason it was irritating the ever-loving hell out of me. I needed it off my hand. I hate water stops — I’m not great at drinking on the run, and I don’t like walking through them because I don’t want to break my rhythm — so a handheld is a great solution to force myself to drink more along the way, and because I can stash my fuely treats in the pocket. But something about that water bottle threw me on this particular day, and I couldn’t shake the irritation.
Around mile eight, Paul needed a bathroom, so he told me to “keep running, and stick close to the girl in the white top and crazy shorts.” Evidently she was going at the pace we were going at, so she was my rabbit while Paul porta-pottied.
Hey go figure, almost immediately after Paul stopped for a bathroom, Crazy Shorts Girl ducked behind a white picket fence on someone’s front lawn and popped a squat of her own. I had no rabbits left!
And that was fine — I was plenty comfortable just running along without needing to know my pace — but I was thrown off my mental game. I don’t know what happened, honestly.
Paul caught up with me around mile 12 or so (he ran sub-6:00 miles to catch back up to me NBDDDDDDD, Paul) and says, “When I got back to you, you were in a dark place.”
My brain was a mess during almost this entire race. I can’t pinpoint it. I never hated running. I never questioned why I do this. I was just very aware that it wasn’t my day, and that I had a very long way to go.
I’ve often heard people say that the race stops being fun when you start counting down the miles, and that sure is true. I started counting down the miles way too early.
I ate a few Honey Stinger Fruit Smoothie Chews between miles 7 and 8, but I had a hard time tolerating them.
By mile 10, I was desperate for a bathroom of my own, but I couldn’t stop because then Paul and I might never find each other again.
There was also a long stretch without any bathrooms.
I saw my friends, Jill and Carrie, around mile 12, soon after Paul caught up with me, and I was so bummed that I felt so shitty at this point. I wanted to feel amazing when I saw them. But instead I worked up a tiny smile and powered on.
Soon after, I saw Brian, who was on his bike at this point, cheering and taking pictures and I love the guy, but I didn’t have it in me to put on a happy face for him. (Though, maybe I did? It didn’t feel happy.)
I had to stop and use a bathroom at the halfway point, which was frustrating, because I had come through the half in about 1:54 (it was the only clock on the course), and I was pumped about that. I knew the bathroom stop wouldn’t really hurt me, but I also knew I had a lot of other factors that kept coming into play and kicking me while I was starting to feel down. Also, I thought we were past this stomach stuff.
I got a killer side-stitch cramp soon after I used the bathroom and hey, this is fun: It never went away. I had that cramp for the rest of the race. Not the running companion I wanted!
I ate a Hammer Gel (chocolate flavor, and I tell myself it’s Nutella) around mile 15, and had a hard time keeping it down. I was nauseated, salty, dizzy, the whole deal. I tried to figure out if I felt dehydrated or under-fueled or on the verge of bonking, but I mostly just felt cranky. It was very out of character, and that was jarring.
All the while, the course was so pretty! And Paul was doing a great job trying to keep me in good spirits. I could tell he was a little worried about me, and I didn’t want to let on about just how badly I was feeling. He repeatedly told me I was tough and that I was doing great, and gave me my music when I told him I just needed to “snap the F out of it.” A little T-Swift helped. Slowing down also helped.
I don’t remember when we took our first walk break. But I know that there came a point when I told Paul I needed to walk for a second for a few reasons. My legs needed the brief change of pace, I needed to try and work out the cramp situation, and I wanted to pull over for a second to give myself a mental pep talk.
We spent the final seven miles slowed down in a major way. I didn’t care about my time — I just wanted to get through the race. And as much as my legs hurt, as much as the cramp hurt, it was the brain stuff that had me the most out of sorts.
When we got to mile 20, I told Paul that “running six more miles is impossible.” I never actually contemplated not finishing, but I did envision myself crawling for a little while, or maybe finding a child with roller blades and hitching a ride on his or her back.
When I couldn’t find a kid on wheels, I assumed my best course of action was just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
And that worked!
Each time we got to a new mile marker, I’d want to walk for a minute or two, and then try to keep shuffling forward. Of course, this is where the course changes and you start having to run UPhill. Cute, right?
The hills weren’t bad, but of course to me, a bruised and beaten little runner, they were bitchmountains. I had to walk up most of them, and I wasn’t the only one. Almost everyone around me was walking at this point. It was part reassuring, part hilarious. All these crazy, aching people, doing this for fun. I love it.
I obviously knew a PR wasn’t going to happen, and that was never a problem. I was never overly attached to that idea anyway. I just wanted to have a good race, and that’s what was sad to watch slip away.
At one point, I asked Paul, “Are we at least going to come in under four hours?” and his response was, “Do you really want to know?” That was discouraging, too, since I really would have liked to finish in a 3:xx time. That was the only time during the race I got bummed out about the pace or number on the clock. But I knew I couldn’t change it, so I accepted it and got moving.
Once we hit mile 24, I knew I could run the rest of the way to the finish. We ran through a neighborhood that was crazy-packed with spectators out on their front lawns, and that gave me the last boost I needed to push through the pain and get to the party.
The finish line felt years away, but once it was in sight, I found my kick. There was one final hill we had to climb to get there (who designs these courses?! ouch on ouch on ouch!), and Paul just put his hand on my lower back as if to give me a little physical push. Then it was go time.
The finish was packed with spectators. It was amazing. I heard Brian screaming on my right, and the girls on my left.
I felt like I was flying, and we picked off a ton of people in the final stretch.
I may have had a really rough previous 25.5 miles, but if there’s one thing I can almost always do, it’s salvage a strong finish.
I saw 4:08 on the clock and I didn’t care that I ran 20 minutes slower than I felt I was probably capable. I made it. I had felt like shit for almost the entire race, and I powered through. I fought a heck of a mental battle and a bit of a physical one, and I got it done.
Paul and I crossed the finish line together (official finish time 4:07:11, a 9:26 pace), and I don’t remember if we hugged or high fived or acknowledged each other. I just wanted to sit down, and I remember finding a chair, and Paul sitting next to me and telling me my face was really salty and that I had a booger sticking out of my nose. I remember wiping my face and asking if I got the salt and the booger, and he said no on both accounts.
We found our loved ones and I think they expected me to be depressed and disappointed and dramatic, but I was actually OK.
Trust me: No one is more surprised by my reaction than I am.
I sort of expected to beat myself up, question what I could have done differently, and re-hash every detail leading up to the race.
But instead, I’m completely at peace with not having a great race. I still got to run a dang marathon. That’s pretty sweet.
And you know what? I had the best weekend.
Brian went to Rhode Island for a race of his own after my finish (he got second place! someone had to represent, ya know?), and I spent the rest of the day and night with Paul, Jill, and Carrie at Jill’s parent’s house in Scranton.
I have the best friends.
We went back to Jill’s, and by the time I was showered and sweatpants-ed, I had a strawberry mojito in one hand, a glass of rosé champagne in the other, and chocolate chip pancakes and jicama in front of me. They had all my favorite things ready, and we spent the day eating, drinking, playing games, and watching Mean Girls.
I even used my mango soap.