On Sunday, May 5th, I participated in the 2013 Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon. This was my second Pittsburgh marathon, after running the 2012 race, and my sixth marathon distance overall. Last year, I finished in 5:47:20, my slowest marathon time (excluding my 26.2 mile time during my ultra).
I spent eighteen weeks training and preparing for this marathon. My training plan accounted for a 4:30 marathon, so that was my goal. Very aggressive, seeing as my PR was 5:43 on a totally flat course. However, as training went on, I nailed the distance, speed work, and race-pace runs, so I figured that meant this thing was doable. In theory.
I spent much of the second half of those eighteen weeks completely consumed with stress. I obsessed over the marathon, my time goal, the course, becoming injured. This all came to a head the Sunday before the race, when I began laying out the gear I would need for race weekend. One would think that it would have calmed my nerves, but it seemed to do the opposite. I barely slept that night.
Then, the week before, I spent a lot of time without feeling any sort of pre-race anxiety, which, to some might be ideal, but to me was extremely alarming. Did I just not care anymore? Was it simply taper madness? Who knows. All I knew was that thinking “I’m not running a marathon today” is really bad BECAUSE ACTUALLY YOU HAVE TO RUN A MARATHON TODAY. It made me think something bad was going to happen.
I spent the weeks prior to race day staring at the weather forecasts, willing the sky to be cloudy and the temperature to stay under 50 degrees. Of course that was not the case, but at least this year the temperature stayed probably 15 degrees cooler than 2012. The sky was cloudless, but this year I managed not to get burned. Yay!
The morning began very early, with oatmeal, hydrating, and still… no anxiety. My things were packed as much as they could be, in case I got back to my room close to my 1pm check out time, so that packing with the post-marathon shuffle could go much faster. I had all my gear laid out and ready to go.
The race started at 7, had to be in our corrals by 6:45, and I needed to meet my fellow Steel City Road Runners for a group photo at 6. Somehow I did not budget my time well, and found myself leaving the hotel 5 minutes before photo time. Our photo-op meeting place was the Warhol bridge, about a half mile away. I found myself running to make the picture, something I didn’t want to do because… marathon. Fortunately I made it with a couple of minutes to spare.
During the 5k, Jen said that I could leave a drop bag at her tent in Charity Village, which is part of the finish line festival. I was incredibly grateful and opted to do just that, because I knew if I went up to my hotel room to change, I wasn’t going to venture back out to the finish line party. I had packed a bag with a dry shirt, face wipes, and flip flops, and I dropped it off at the ABOARD’s Autism Connection of PA tent.
After hanging out at the Point for a little while, with more time to kill, fellow SCRR member Shannon and I went up to my hotel room (to use a clean bathroom with no line!). I grabbed a granola bar and a small hotel-provided bottle of water, and we headed out to find our corrals.
Shannon was looking for the 2:15 half marathon pacer, and I was looking for the 4:30 full marathon pacer. This meant we would be together in Corral E, the last and MOST GIGANTIC CORRAL EVER. Corral E is for anyone running over a 9 minute mile pace, which is the majority of the runners. This was a total disaster, especially in the wake of Boston, because there were more “security” measures. Basically these measures meant only a few entrances for runners, and we couldn’t even get into the corral for 20 minutes. We had been told that our bibs would be checked at the corral entrance, but we weren’t. We were told only runners would be allowed in the corrals – a dude with a camping chair and an inexplicable bucket passed by me in the corral. It was all a mess.
During the messy time, I ate my granola bar and panicked that I couldn’t find my pace group, and therefore couldn’t find the friend I had planned to run the entire race with. This caused me anxiety. There were two 4:30 pacers, but if we all didn’t cross the starting mat together, it would be hard to gauge what their time was compared to mine. As the front corrals began running, this eased the congestion ever so slightly, and we were finally able to get into the corral. Shannon headed off to the 2:15 pacer, and I could see a 4:30 sign way up ahead in the corral. I tried to squeeze in between people to get to the group.
This went on for several minutes, and I finally crossed the starting line. The race had begun, with me already trailing my pacer. Arg. Fortunately I managed to spot Kim, a woman I had run with a lot this training cycle, and we both realized that the other 4:30 pacer was even further ahead of where we were. We decided to try to catch him, and hopefully find our friend Mira, who I had planned to run with.
The first mile was spent dodging four-abreast runners, walkers (WTF – this is why an additional corral is needed), and trying to keep sight of the 4:30 pacer. We finally managed to catch up and got to Mira. We planned to stick with the pacer for as long as we could. We had trained for a 4:30 marathon, where the average pace is 10:18/mile. When we got to mile 5 and my split was 9:28, I knew I couldn’t stick with the pacers. The next thing I knew, I heard one say to the other that he was going to bank time early in the race. This was a bad sign.
See, the first couple of miles had plenty of distraction: dodging walkers, keeping up with the pacers, spectator-spectating. However, I couldn’t be distracted by the fact that the soles of my feet were already burning and my legs felt as heavy as lead. This was another bad, bad sign. I wondered later if my legs felt heavy from standing at the expo on Friday, because really, I should have had fresh-feeling legs. I very quickly began to think negatively.
Mira and Kim agreed that we should try to maintain our own pace (10:18), and fell back from the pacers before crossing the West End Bridge. We hit the 10k timing mat at 1:04:22, a new 10k PR for me. I managed to keep a decent pace over the bridge and through the West End Village, but I felt myself slipping. We began our journey down Carson Street, and close to mile 8 I decided to start taking fluid at the water stops. Basically I wanted the walking break, because I had 20 ounces of Nuun-flavored water on me.
The South Side is where I began to fall apart, and soon I was struggling to keep up with Kim and Mira. I tried to keep my mind on the spectators and my breathing, and soon Shannon came up beside me. I voiced my displeasure and she did her best to lift my spirits, but we were right at the course split, so we didn’t get to run together for very long. Still, it was a great pick-me-up.
Oh, Birmingham Bridge. How many times had I run you during my training? Through wind, rain, and snow? On tired legs? Why did you destroy my soul on this particular day? My pace slowed, and I watched as Mira and Kim got farther and farther ahead. I realized very quickly that I would be running the rest of the race alone. The 4:45 pacer, Tom, came up behind me towards the end of the bridge and sped past much more quickly than I expected. This may have been the point of no return for me, as far as realizing my 4:30 was at the bottom of the river.
This is a REALLY inconvenient point in the Pittsburgh marathon to totally lose your shit, because it’s the dreaded 230 foot climb into Oakland. Knowing that it was already a bad day, I decided to hike much of that hill. Despite all my training up that hill, I walked. Despite knowing how hard it would be to start running again, I walked.
I was so disappointed in myself. I know that I shouldn’t have been, but I had such expectations. I followed my training plan to the letter. I was 15 pounds lighter than I had been last year at that time. I hadn’t been perfect, but I suppose I felt that I had done enough that this shouldn’t have felt so difficult. I just couldn’t seem to get out of my own head.
Despite all of this, I reached the halfway point in 2:20:30, yet another PR. My previous half marathon PR had been achieved at the downhill Deckers Creek, so to have reached a half marathon PR during a full marathon on a difficult course is pretty amazing. Unfortunately, I didn’t come to this thought until days after the race.
I spent the next several miles running with intermittent walk breaks, trying to talk myself down. I tried to run the flats and downhills, and hike the uphills if I felt I needed it. I honestly can’t remember very many details about how I was feeling other than generally negative and self-loathing.
I remembered Homewood fondly, and again, they did not disappoint. So many people out cheering us on! Lots of Penguins fans, too. Some folks had an unofficial aid station, handing out Styrofoam cups of water. Back in the South Side, I had begun taking water and Gatorade from every aid station, while still drinking from my own bottle in between.
Again I saw the Animal Rescue League and the Steel City Greyhounds in between Homewood and Larimer, and around mile 18 I began to feel better. I got excited – was this my second wind? It would be perfect timing, since most people tend to crash and burn around this time in a marathon. Unfortunately, my good feelings lasted for approximately three minutes. ARG.
Soon I found myself in the beautiful Highland Park neighborhood, and tried to force myself to feel better. The twenty mile mark was coming up soon! I also had to try to not hate the relay runners – looking all fresh-legged and high-kneed. Smug bastards.
Anyway. Just past the 20 mile mark I began to feel a burning on my ankle, as though a blister was forming. I was not pleased. Fortunately for me, however, was the giant aid tent complete with Vaseline on a stick at the 20.4 mile mark. Hooray! I stopped for a few seconds to dab some on what turned out to be a hotspot, not a blister. Double hooray!
I set off down Negley Avenue, still run-walking (ARG) and just trying to keep going forward. I really felt like I was moving in slow motion. I was so frustrated and disappointed, but the tears wouldn’t fall. I wish they would have so that I could have gotten it out of my system, but no such luck. I moved through Bloomfield and began the descent down the quad-killing Liberty Avenue.
My pace was decent for mile 24, but once that downhill ended and gravity stopped helping me along, my spirit broke. The tears finally came when I saw the 5:00 pacer pass me by. Instead of getting angry or resolute, I just watched her go. It kills me now. I know I could have at least attempted to keep up. Instead, I gave up.
Knowing that I had let a sub-5:00 marathon pass me did not help me keep moving – in fact, mile 25 was just about my slowest mile. I just totally lost it. I don’t know how I made myself keep going other than to just get it over with. I was crushed.
We made our way back into downtown, and I began to run slightly more than I walked. Basically, I was shamed into it because there were more people around me. Shannon popped out of nowhere and ran a few steps with me in her flip flops! It was so sweet. I also saw Jeannette and Eric, who took this picture (of me dying):
I had very little left in me (or so I thought), so I didn’t turn things up until I could see the actual finish line. At that point I was running around a 9:30 pace, which to me said that I still had plenty of gas left in the tank, and why hadn’t I used it earlier?
So, I finished. My time was 5:02:51, or an 11:34/mile pace. However, according to my Nike+, I had run 26.6 miles with an 11:22 average pace. I cut tangents all over the place, so I think the extra mileage was most likely in the beginning of the race and at water stops.
I was extremely unhappy with my time. In fact, I felt no pride in what I had done. I posted this later in the day:
I wish I could say that I was proud of myself, but I’m not. I think I just need some time to let everything sink in, and then maybe I’ll feel good about a 40 minute marathon PR and a 44 minute course PR. I fell off pace early in the race and did not feel good at any point. My legs were like lead from mile 1, my feet burned by mile 2, my pace group decided to bank time early in the race. The weather was beautiful for anything but running a marathon.
Unfortunately, it was just not my day. I’m going to spend some time reflecting on the day, and on the 18 weeks of preparation, and try to learn what I can do better for next time. I will probably feel better soon, because I know that sort of PR is nothing to be ashamed of, but I can’t help but feel great disappointment in my performance. I feel like I gave up way too soon. I still don’t know what it feels like to leave it all out on the course.
As whiny as that sounds, it’s pretty soul-destroying to train for a certain goal and know that it’s impossible within 5 miles of 26.2. To be honest, after all my reflection, analysis and denial of the situation, I think I figured out the biggest reason that I did not run my 4:30 marathon: I simply didn’t believe that I could do it.
That’s a heavy thought to process. I did all the work, although I certainly could have done much more. I did the work for a 4:30 marathon, but as race day grew nearer and nearer, I couldn’t visualize it happening. I felt the fear telling me that I couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t possible. I guess I listened, and it certainly manifested itself on race day.
This is not meant to discount what I did on May 5th, 2013. I ran a marathon. I ran the fastest marathon I’ve ever done, by over 40 minutes. I ran this exact course 44 minutes slower in 2012. These are some real accomplishments.
The times in the 2013 column are all PRs. My prior marathon PR was at Erie, a totally flat course, where I ran in 5:43:29. My new marathon PR is 40 minutes and 38 seconds faster. I can’t be disappointed with these facts, yet I am disappointed that I didn’t believe in myself and try harder. Now I know what I have to do in the future.
In the meantime, let’s look back at the past. I’ve definitely made some strides in the last year.
I’ve put Pittsburgh behind me, although I am looking forward to my rematch in 2014. I’m going to work hard over the summer to become better, faster, stronger – all in my quest for the 4:30 marathon. Steamtown, I’ll see you on October 13th.