Over the years the best racing advice I’ve heard is to make sure you get an AWESOME night’s sleep 2 nights before the race, because no one sleeps well the night before. I took this to heart and was asleep by 9pm Thursday night. Which is good since I was super-restless/nervous Friday night.
I got up around 3:15 Alabama time for the race (Chattanooga is Eastern time, so 4:15 their time) and read for awhile to try to calm my nerves. It didn’t help at all, of course.
I geared up in my favorite Nike shorts (I have to run in compression shorts or I chaffe and/or get SUPER irritated having to constantly re-adjust fabric that get bunched up between my legs) and Nike Dry-Fit T-shirt. (I have to have sleeves on long runs because I chaffe with too much skin-on-skin around my armpits.) I had on my trusty sweaty band and my Dirty Girl Gaiters to keep debris from getting in my shoes. I had my compression socks to prevent shin/calf pain I’ve dealt with periodically and my ankle brace to help with my recent issues.
I was READY TO GO.
And all of that said? I finished the race with not even one gear-related problem. This is great since I’ve had everything from blisters to shin splints on recent long runs. If I could wear that same outfit/gear for every race from here until the day I die? I’d be happy!
But the race…OH MAN.
The course was basically 2 loops, with the half-marathoners ditched at the end of the second loop. The trail surfaces were much easier than what we deal with here at Monte Sano, but there was definitely plenty of uphill. My group went into it planning on walking the hills to conserve our energy and I am SO GLAD WE DID. We ran some of the slight uphills, but most of the steep stuff we walked. And this worked out great because towards the end were still capable of running…even to the finish line!
But my problems…I started struggling EARLY, around mile 3-4, with heart-rate and breathing issues. I just could NOT catch my breath. This happened on my last trail race and I’m now thinking it’s some weird Race Day Anxiety thing I get. I struggled until about mile 11-13 and it was ROUGH. I had some dark moments and I’m not lying when I say I would have quit had I been out there on my own.
But I’m so glad I didn’t!
It turns out I missed some sort of key information in training about the importance of salt tablets. I had taken one on our 21-mile run because someone offered them, but I didn’t know why I was taking it and I didn’t notice it do anything. I guess it’s to help you actually retain the water you’re drinking. I think I just assumed since I never had a problem on other runs that maybe my protein bites were sufficient.
Key difference? I had avoided training in the heat. FOR OBVIOUS REASONS.
My running buddies and coach kept pushing salt on me and my breathing/heart-rate started calming down.
Quick stories about the first loop:
1) There were these roller-coaster type hills and at first I was all blarrrgggg…more hills. This was towards the end of the first loop, around mile 12 maybe, and I was starting to feel better. One of my running friends pointed out that if I tried to run down the steep DOWN fast instead of shuffle-footing, it would propel me UP the up part. So I tried it a few times and it was SO MUCH FUN. I’ll come back to that in a minute…
2) We got LAPPED. As in, around mile 11-12 someone yelled, “Fast runner coming!” I was all, “Huh? How is there someone fast back here with us?” I hopped off the trail and he ran past SO FAST and it hit me: SHIT. He’s almost done. He’s on lap TWO. It has taken him the same amount of time to go 23 miles as it did me to go 11 or 12. AWESOME.
So…second loop I just get to feeling better and better. I was cheery at the aid stations, professing my love to all of the volunteers. I was running stronger on the flats/downs than I did the first loop. I was even able to run the periodic short uphill. MUCH BETTER.
And usually, in a marathon, miles 20-26 are when people are just ready to be DONE. Having cheered on runners at marathons I learned that people just don’t even look at you past mile 20. They have their heads down…just trying to finish. But I had been feeling better and I was starting to TASTE the finish so I was…happy. Just HAPPY. Then…around mile 22, we got to those roller-coaster hills again? And we encouraged EVERYONE to use our technique and y’all? It was one of the best moments of my life.
Imagine this: 4 newbie trail runners and their coach on mile 22’ish of a marathon and we were “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”-ing through the woods. We all did it. Some of us (ME) even spread our arms out like Superman, somehow trusting ourselves down the steep DOWNS so that we could be pushed on the UPS and it was SO FUN. We were on some bizzaro human roller-coaster complete with the screaming as you see the ground rush in front of you. We laughed at mile 22 and I think that may be what I’m most proud of from this whole experience.
The worst part was that when we got to the last aid station we knew we had 2 miles left. None of us were really using our Garmins because they didn’t work accurately out there. So, we were just guessing and we kept hearing the finish-line PA system! And then the trails would turn us back. And then we’d hear it again! And then we’d lose it. And then AGAIN! And then gone. It was the LONGEST 2 miles I’ve ever run.
But we finally got on the road and did one loop to the Finish and it was AMAZING. One of my friend’s whole family was there screaming and it was flawless. I cried, I smiled, and I thought in that moment: I CAN DO ANYTHING.
And that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted to finish feeling good about this journey I’m on. I mean, the finish-line was a ghost town when we got there. It took us 6:30 (about) and some of the people we knew from Huntsville had been done for 2 hours. (Although, if you’ll recall my first marathon was on the road in 2007 and I trained so poorly I walked most of it and it took me about 7:47.) The rumor is that next year the cut-off time will be 6 hours. So, you know, we would have missed that. But, we did it. And we felt really good about it.
But the best lesson I take away is something I learned on a smaller scale on my last trail race. It can get better with more miles. That’s a hard thing for me to wrap my head around. That I can feel crappy at some point on a long run and somehow, miraculously, actually feel better 10 miles later. It seems so weird because my brain tells me that 10 miles should make you feel worse. More tired. More sore. But, No. I felt better at mile 22 than I did at mile 3. MUCH BETTER. Which is why I’m so glad I had my group to help push me through the dark miles. And I hope I helped them at least a little bit along the way too. It was a great group to cross the finish-line with. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.