I spent Wednesday traveling to Duluth. Thankfully, it went smoothly and there were no flight delays despite heavy fog at the tiny Duluth "International" Airport. I was picked up by the Hospitality committee and driven to my hotel. After checking in and decompressing a bit I went for a short jog along the waterfront. The weather was crisp, cloudy and breezy, a good sign for Saturday's race! I basically spent the next two days bumming around Duluth coffee shops, finishing a couple books, getting some good jogs and walks in and holing up in my hotel room watching movies on HBO. Friday I put Mary's rice cooker to work and ate lots of rice all day between picking up my race packet and sorting out transportation and clothing details.
The Play by Play:
Saturday morning I woke up bright and early at 4:30am. I made myself coffee with the French press and grounds I had brought along and suited up in my new Asics Aggies uniform and (almost) brand new Asics shoes. I will admit I spent about 15 minutes switching pairs of shoes and taking little jogs around my hotel room trying to see which felt more "right". I finally decided to just go with the Asics and stop stressing about it. I caught our Elite Athlete bus at 5:30am and off we drove to the start! On the bus I sat next to a nice guy named Leo from Ohio who was going for the men's standard. On the bus ride there I felt the most relaxed I have ever been before any race. My stomach was quiet and my brain was surprisingly quiet. Usually some nerves right before a marathon are a good thing but this morning, nada. Cool as a cucumber.
When we got to the start we had a short walk to the "elite staging area" which was really just the stretch of road in front of the starting line with some special port-a-potties lined up. No heated tent this time around. I got in line for the bathroom, went, and then put my bag down on the side of the road, ate two packs of Gu Chomps and went for a short jog. The weather was shaping up to be perfect, cloudy and cool with a definite tail wind. I chatted briefly with a few other women and there was clearly a group there going for the B standard and also a small group going for the A standard. I did a couple short pickups and felt that my legs were there this morning, they felt springy, light and ready to roll. Before I knew it, it was time to strip the layers and line up! I kept on a fleece headband, arm warmers and gloves for the start, all of which I expected to gradually take off and throw away.
Hanging out at the start
Once the wheelchair racers went off, we pressed forward to the starting line and waited patiently for the starter to blow the horn. And then after 2 minutes of eternity we were off! The lead men took off FAST but the road was wide enough there was plenty of room to settle into a reasonable pace. I had my Garmin on and it was behaving surprisingly well! I wanted to start at 6:10-6:15 pace and that's exactly what I ran for the first 3 miles or so. I was definitely holding myself back to get really warmed up and all of a sudden the 2:46 group of women was on me. I could hear them talking a LOT about how FAST this pace was and how hard it was going to get because geez they went out way too FAST. I decided there was no way I was going to stay with them because they talked way too much. And all this talking about how hard the pace was was no good.
I picked it up to under 6:10 pace mainly to get ahead of these Chatty Cathies and looked for another group to latch onto. I could see the 2:39 group waaay in front of me and it was going to take a big effort to catch up to them so I decided I would just be patient and not make any sudden moves. Somewhere before the 5 mile mark a guy in a red singlet started running close to me and our pace was syncing up as well as our strides. I decided I would run with him for a while to see what happens... maybe I could use him to catch up to the 2:39 group. I asked if he minded me running with him and he said of course not, so I just latched on! It was great, we started rolling off the miles and I felt so smooth and comfortable just chugging alongside. When we got to the 10 mile mark another guy caught up to us. We will call him Tall guy. Tall guy fell into pace with Red Singlet and me and the three of us stayed close together for the rest of the race.
There were water stations every two miles or so and I was taking a cup of water at each station. I would drink a couple sips and then dump the rest over my head. The Grandma's course was pleasantly rolling with gentle uphills and downhills where we could really crank. Every downhill the guys would really pick up the pace and I just went with them. Occasionally I would glance at my Garmin and see that we were well under 6-minute pace and have a momentary attack of "What am I thinking??" But then I would remind myself that as long as I felt nice and relaxed I should stick with it. Whatever happened, I absolutely did not want to leave these guys and get left in no man's land. Go big or go home.
We went through the half in 1:20 ish and this was when I first realized that I was having a banner day and would definitely get under 2:46 as long as I stayed smart and in control. Miles 14 through 20 flew by and I kept telling myself to think of it as a long tempo. I just had to make it until mile 20 and then push the last 10K hard. When we passed the 20 mile marker I started pushing the pace and the two guys responded. We started running 5:55s and I just kept telling myself it was a 10K race. And I can run a 10K at 5:55 pace any day of the week, with both eyes closed, with a bag around my head...
With my impromptu pacers
The dreaded Lemon Drop Hill at mile 22 was a piece of cake. It certainly doesn't compare to anything we train on in Marin. Running up the fire road to Phoenix Lake is much much harder! We had started passing many many runners at this point and the more women we passed the more confident I became. At mile 23 I was starting to hurt but kept focused on catching and passing whoever was in front of me. When we hit the cobblestone section at mile 24 the change in surface made it a bit hard to keep my pace going and the two guys started pulling away. But Tall Guy kept waving for me to catch them and I tried so hard to not let them get away. I dug deeper than I ever thought I could dig and found a level of effort and grit that I never even knew I had to not let the gap get any bigger. I was slowly inching up on two women running together ahead of me and I wanted more than anything to catch them and pass them. We passed the 25 mile marker and I had gotten just a little bit closer. Suddenly, a few strides later I was right behind them! Then I let myself go into a sprint mode and flew by them, I swerved around the last couple turns before the finish and almost caught back up to Tall Guy. When I finally saw the finish line and the clock it read 2:38:10. I kept staring at it in disbelief watched it inching slowly up towards 2:39:00. I sprinted those last couple meters and crossed the line in 2:38:46!
I can only describe how I felt at the finish with the word Cathartic. I felt such a sense of release and relief compounded by disbelief in my own performance. It was a perfect culmination of months of hard training and focus and I felt a huge flood of euphoria. Now I no longer had the nagging moniker of ALMOST getting the qualifying standard. I can proudly say I got the standard and the A Standard at that. Next up, Olympic Trials in Houston!