What’s that saying, “The 13th time is the charm”? Well, if it’s not already a saying, it is now. Because it took me twelve failed marathons (including not just one, but two DNFs) and one beautiful not-a-failure-at-all to finally grab that coveted BOSTON QUALIFIER. (Oh, yeah. Spoiler alert. I qualified for Boston yesterday! *squeeeeeeeee*)
My training for this race was definitely better than some years (ahem, all but last year), but far inferior to last year’s rock star training. I gotta be honest here: It took me forever to feel recovered after this summer’s 100K. I mean, I was running and putting in the miles and doing the work and more or less following a plan, but my legs just weren’t giving me anything. No snap, no sparkle. I started planning for a 4:30 marathon, maybe a 4:15 if I felt great.
And I was 100% okay with that! 4:15 is nothing to sneeze at! (And, last year, when my confidence was high, I was aiming for a 4:15 at best. Look at me, being all sassy and shit this year, “Well, I guess I’ll settle for a 4:15.”. Geez!)
Finally, though, about two or three weeks ago, I was starting to feel almost back to normal. (Recovery math: that’s nearly three months post-race.) I started to think a little bit of “What if…” I had no right to think that I might hit another marathon PR (Three in a row? Daaaaaaang!), but I wanted it just enough that I let myself dream about it anyway. However, the reality of the situation was that my training was not complete. I only had one 22-miler under me, and that one had not gone especially well.
But hope wasn’t paying attention to that. Hope wanted that BQ.
I lined up at the start of the race with UltraIronHubs (whose training had been absolutely spot on!) and Little Boy (who was running the first leg of the 4-person relay challenge with three of his Cross Country teammates). The weather was amazing – about 41F at the start with no wind and maybe a few clouds. I couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions!
I kissed my boys good luck, then lined up at the back-ish. The first mile of this course is all downhill, and it’s incredibly easy to go out too hard, so I did my best to box myself in a little and take the first few miles at a conservative pace.
My first mile was just over a ten minute pace, so mission accomplished! I felt good, but definitely not great. I really, really didn’t know what I had in me for the day and kept going back and forth on how hard I should push and when. This internal debating wasn’t doing good things for my stomach.
About a mile or so in, I felt a hand on my shoulder – my friend, pacing her husband to an eventual 30+ minute PR! I was happy to see her, but she fell back quickly and wished me a good race. Knowing approximately what time they were aiming for (low to mid 4 hour, just like me maybe possibly), my only thought after our exchange was, “Oh, crap, I went out too hard!” Or perhaps not hard enough. Ugh! I really didn’t know.
I tried to stay loose. I ran easy. My iPod was serving up some good songs and I was drinking on schedule. Things felt mostly fine. I had the 4:08 pacer in sight and was honestly giddy that a finish time that had seemed so unreachable only a year ago felt like an easy pace today.
My friends appeared again at my right shoulder and we ended up running nearly all of the fifth mile together. We chatted about our kids and UIH and our expectations for the day and possible plans for next year (my friend is an amazing ultramarathoner and Ironman athlete and her husband is an extremely accomplished cyclist). I expressed my uncertainty with what my day might hold, but the conversation was a really pleasant distraction from my internal dialogue. By mile 5, I realized I was pulling ahead of them. Just a little, then a lot. We wished each other a good race, and then I returned to the task at hand.
I knew what had to be done. It was time to let my legs fly.
I crept up on the 4:08 pace group, then put them in my rear view mirror. I passed over the 10K timing mats at just over an hour on the clock (59:03 chip time) and wondered exactly how far off my chip time was. I had forgotten to look when I started, but knew it was probably at least two minutes (2:14, to be exact), so I was very happy with this split.
I did some people watching and enjoyed the spectators, but mostly I felt focused. All the dithering I had done in the first few miles was gone, and I had decided that today was the day this BQ was going to happen. Run hard or die trying.
I cruised over the half marathon mats with the 4-hour pace group (2:00:00 chip time). There was definitely a part of me that wanted to just tuck in with them and be satisfied with another sub-four finish. I mean, really, until about an hour ago, I hadn’t even thought sub-four was going to be possible today, why not be happy with that?
But, no. I wanted more.
I knew I was running “too fast” and wondered if I was going to hit the wall at Mile 20 like I did at the Modesto Marathon earlier this year. I didn’t think I was going to, though. I didn’t feel good, exactly, but I felt determined. It’s a different feeling, and one that I haven’t experienced during a race in quite this way before.
By Mile 14 or 15, I saw another bobbing red sign in the distance and couldn’t believe my eyes. Was I seriously creeping up on the 3:55 pace group already? What a day!!
Ahh, but no.
It was the 3:58 pace group. I was both relieved and discouraged to come up behind them (I think it was Mile 15). Relieved because it really did seem too soon in the day to be so far ahead of my most recent PR, but also discouraged because that meant I still had some chasing to do. At some point, I had been hoping to slow down a little.
I gave myself until Mile 20 to find the next red sign and I firmly put the 3:58 group behind me.
By this point in my day, things were starting to get a little rough around the edges. I was hurting. And I really had to go to the bathroom. Like, imminent code brown emergency. I kept eyeing the port-o-potties, but there was a line at every one of them and damn if I was going to waste time like that!
On I ran.
Mile 20 came and went (2:59:31 – I’ve never been here that early before!) with no sign of the next pace group. I smiled for the cameras and passed people left and right. I saw another rock star friend of mine (oh, you know, good enough to make it to age group nationals in triathlon and an Ironman finisher – just your every day suburban mom) who gave me a very big and much needed hug and told me I looked great.
I didn’t feel like I looked great anymore, but I kept my shit together (literally and figuratively) until a little after Mile 21 when I went to take a drink and my pack came up empty. NOOOOOO! It was way too early to be out of fuel! How in the world was I going to finish the last five miles with no liquid, no calories? How was I going to BQ if I couldn’t find that damn pace group?
I clamped down on that panic right away. Freaking out wasn’t going to help, so I stayed “calm.” This was fine. I was fine. If I was done with my Tailwind, that just meant that I had hydrated really, really well for the first 21 miles, so I was fine. Everything was fine. But I really wanted to go to the bathroom. And find the 3:55 pace group. And be done.
OMG, this wasn’t fun anymore.
I usually see my mom and my sister at Mile 21, but I had made a big point this year of asking them to be a little bit further down the race course. Every year, I see them and I’m so excited and I feel great, and then about two miles later I realize that I still have a whole lot of race left in front of me and it gets tough to keep going. So I asked them to be near Mile 23 instead.
Best. Decision. Ever.
The race course winds into the heart of Sacramento around Mile 22, so the streets are all letters and numbers. I knew they were going to be at J and 52nd, so I started counting it down as soon as I saw numbers: six more blocks, five more blocks, four more blocks…
I gave my mom a big hug (and managed to both step on her toes and almost knock her off her feet, oops!) and went to hug my sister, but she was screaming at me, “YOU LOOK GREAT!! GO!! GO!!” with the pointing hands aimed at the finish line and everything. I hugged her anyway, but then she yelled again, “GO!” I really wanted to stay and talk to them. I really wanted to sit down. I really wished they had a secret hidden bathroom I could use. I really wanted to ask them how far behind the 3:55 pace group I was. (Seriously, I was obsessed with that pace group at this point.) I really wanted to do almost anything but keep on running, but on I ran.
It hurt like nothing has ever hurt before.
I felt desperate. Unhinged.
I was scrambling to do math in my head. I was so, so, SO close. What time would I finish if I was running a 9 minute pace? Was I running a 9 minute pace? Was I actually even running anymore? I couldn’t feel anything but pain.
I ran through what I thought was the final aid station and congratulated myself on not walking. Oh, I wanted to walk SO badly! I ran past people who were barely hobbling. I ran through screaming spectators who had gotten a little punchy waiting for their runners. I ran through that weird no-man’s land of most of Mile 25 where there aren’t many spectators because they went to the finish line. I ran through the actual final aid station and said to myself out loud, “Don’t walk now! Don’t walk now! Don’t walk now!” I got some strange looks from the other runners, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t walk now. Not after I’d come this far.
Here was the thing: I was close, really close to running a time that every runner in the world acknowledges as a gold standard. I would have been okay with a time somewhere in the 3:57 – 3:59 range, but I swear to god, if I ran a fucking 3:55:01, I was going to be pissed at myself for the rest of my life. And I was pretty sure that I was going to be that close.
I had to run faster. So I did.
The thought that kept pounding through my brain was I can do this. I’m good enough for this.
I’m good enough.
What a beautiful thought.
Mile 26 was my second fastest of the day, and the .3 to the finish (because I don’t hit tangents very well) was faster than anything I’ve run all year. I kept looking at my watch. I alternated between hysterical laughter because this was actually happening, and ugly crying because THIS WAS ACTUALLY HAPPENING!!
I crossed the finish line and promptly burst into huge, gulping sobs. I screamed (in a nice way, I think) at the lady who handed me my medal, “I JUST QUALIFIED FOR BOSTON!!”
Because I did. I qualified for Boston by a mere 53 seconds.
FINISH TIME: 3:54:07
First Half Marathon Split: 2:00:00
Second Half Marathon Split: 1:54:07 (A nearly six minute negative split! Best half split during a marathon by over three minutes, and third best half marathon EVER.)
I found UIH and Little Boy (that’s a lie – they found me, I was completely delirious at this point) and burst into tears again. One of the first things out of my mouth (other than tears and “how was your race?” – by the way, they both kicked ass and took names, so we were all super happy! – and “where’s the nearest bathroom?”) was, “I get to ring the BQ bell!!”
It’s weird how it’s the little things that make an experience so wonderful, and ringing that bell was something I had been looking forward to since my first marathon seven long years ago. The line was ridiculous, but I didn’t care. I earned it, and I was going to ring it.
I can’t stop smiling today. And happy crying. I think I’m still a little dehydrated and crazy, truth be told. And good lord I’m SORE. Like nearly immobile sore. But it’s all good.
Everybody I know is asking me if this means I’m going to Boston, and until yesterday, until I had actually run that time, I had always kind of demurred. Like, “Oh, spring of 2018 isn’t a great time to run it. It’s Little Boy’s senior year, and it’ll be in the middle of track season, and that costs a lot of money and we’ll soon have two kids in college, and…blah blah blah” And the reality, of course, is that my time is almost certainly not fast enough to actually gain entry (this year’s applicants needed to run about two minutes under the qualifying standard to get in).
But it’s kind of all I want in the world right now. So, cross your fingers for me next September when I offer my name and my squeaker of a qualifying time up to the Boston gods, okay?
Because wouldn’t that be awesome??