Reflections on Houston Marathon

After Rio, I decided I wanted to take a break from triathlon training and have a little fun.  So naturally, I signed up for a marathon because isn’t that what people do when they want to take a break and have fun?  I ended up choosing Houston Marathon because a group of athletes from Catapult were doing it as well, and I thought it would be a great way to support their cause and be reunited with some of my friends from the Paratri world. When I learned that Houston typically averaged January temps in the 50s (pretty much ideal marathon weather) the deal was sealed.

Though I continued working with Mark through the fall, I brought in Robyn – a coach in Chicago, the owner of EDGE, and a great friend – to do all my run programming.  It was great to get another perspective in my training, and I loved being able to do a lot of my runs with her in person. She also offered to come to Houston to support me pre-race and pace me for part of the race.

Houston ended up going though a bit of a heat spell the week of the race, and forecasts for that Sunday were showing a high around 70 and wicked humidity. I tried not to pay too much attention to the weather, and instead just enjoyed spending time with good people in a pre-race environment that was virtually free of stress (which like, never happens).

I ended up getting a lot nuggets wisdom in the hours leading into the race – wisdom that certainly colored my experience of it. On Saturday, I received a good luck message from my friend/running idol, Jerry.  The note ended with this:

“Do good, don’t let you beat you, and we’ll all be cheering back home.”

I did an immediate double take, scanning backward to re-read that middle fragment.  Surely he meant to say, “don’t let her beat you.”  But when I read it a second time, I realized that Jerry’s use of pronouns was entirely intentional.  What I did not realize, however, is just how much meaning those words would come to take on.

The other great wisdom came from Robyn as we made our way to the start corral on Sunday morning. She told me how she loves racing for the same reason that some people love weddings — it’s a time when people show up as the best version of themselves.  At weddings, you wear your nicest attire, you’re on your best behavior, and for that one day, you put your own stuff aside in order to celebrate two people’s love for one another. And it’s kind of the same on race day.  You reserve your favorite shorts and most comfortable socks, you show up with freshly shaven legs and the best fuel in your body, and for that one day, you check all your insecurities at the door in order to celebrate your love for your sport.

And so I started the race ready to be my best self and ready to face my toughest competitor, yours truly.  I was excited to be there, confident in my preparations, and (in retrospect, perhaps naively) optimistic about the conditions.  I had Stephanie, a Catapult volunteer and guide extraordinaire, at my side from the very start and looked forward to Robyn joining us a few miles in.

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It was 68 degrees with 100% humidity when the race began. Knowing this, we decided to start the race a fair bit slower than my goal pace, with the intent of getting faster as I went along. But I was feeling good and barely noticing the humidity, so I split the difference and settled in to a rhythm just slightly slower than goal pace – which at the time, felt pretty conservative.

It was at mile 6 that I was supposed to start speeding up, but when I got to that point, the opposite started happening. As the numbers on my watch got larger instead of smaller, I started to notice how much I was sweating, how the socket of my prosthetic had already rubbed away the skin on my leg, how fast my heart was beating, how difficult it was to get air into my lungs. That was the moment when I realized just how hard my body had been working in those first few miles. By running at a slightly too aggressive pace, I had dug myself a hole; but because of the humidity, every shovelful was twice the size as it should have been. So by the time I got to 6, that hole was so deep that there was no coming out of it. And let me tell you: to feel that bad, that early on is one of the biggest mental challenges you can face.

The next several miles were a pretty dark time. Robyn jumped in at 8, and instead of being excited for her company, I barely acknowledged her.  The pain that I was feeling was all-consuming, and I felt almost zombie-like. I was trying so hard to stay within the mile that I was in, but all I could think about was how these early miles were not supposed to hurt this much.

Then around the halfway point, I finally told Robyn the thought that had been going through my mind for the last 7 miles.  I told her I felt like I was wasting my fitness.  The message between the lines was that I wanted to stop.  I wanted to pull off right there, call it a training day, and pick a new race in a few weeks — a race where I could actually achieve what I knew I was capable of.

I could tell that she understood my underlying message, but she was not going to entertain it. “You’re not wasting your fitness,” she insisted. “You’re testing it in a way that’s tougher than anything you could have prepared for. The only thing that matters in this moment is that you’re doing your best. But it actually has to be your best.”

She paused.

“And you telling me at mile 13 that you’re ‘wasting your fitness’ is not your best.”

Those words really got to me. In that moment, I was not being the best version of myself. My best self does not dwell on discomfort so much that it debilitates her; she uses the discomfort as fuel to move forward. My best self doesn’t ignore the people around her or roll her eyes at signs of encouragement; she opens herself up to human connection. My best self does not spend a quarter of her race wishing she could quit and choose an easier one; she stays in the present moment, and does everything that she can in that moment to maximize her effort.

I was allowing me to beat me. A version of myself that I don’t really like very much was beating the version of myself that had planned to show up that day. But I realized in that moment that my best self could still make an appearance. I just needed to do something differently.

Empowered by this shift in my mindset, I knew I needed to make a physical change too. So I took off my hydration vest, then realizing how good I felt without it, I stripped my sopping wet shirt as well. Between the loss of weight from shedding the vest and the air that was getting on my skin, it felt like a flip switched.  Suddenly my pace dropped what felt like minutes. My form tightened up. I began to notice the things around me again.  I even started to laugh. I was back.

For the rest of the race, I felt like a different person.  Instead of being consumed by the suffering that I was experiencing, I was working with it. To be clear, I was still very much suffering; but it no longer felt like this indomitable force that clouded the entire experience. Instead, it became one sensation that I was experiencing in addition to a gamut of other feelings. Rather than allowing the pain to hold total power over my race, I acknowledged its existence while making space for feelings like strength, amusement, joy, and pride.

There were some tough miles near the end, but for the most part, I took that second half stronger than the first.  And when I finally crossed the finish line – a full 30 minutes after I originally planned – I was so full of pride.  Because to be as low as I was, and then to turn it around…that is a really beautiful thing.

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Now I’d be lying if I said I’m happy with how things ended up.  In reality, the days after the race were really hard. I was mad at myself for how I paced the first section, mad at the weather for messing up my plan, and mad that I probably wouldn’t have a chance to redeem myself in this distance for a long time.  When you’ve worked so hard for something, it’s disappointing when the result doesn’t reflect the effort that you put in.

But here’s the thing: outcomes aren’t everything. This was a difficult thing to remember, both in the middle of the race and in the days afterward. But the farther removed I get from the race, the more I’m accepting that it is, in fact, the process that matters. And the truth is that the 14-week process of preparing for the marathon was absolutely amazing.  I challenged my fast-twitch dominant body in new ways. I sustained the most volume for the longest period of time than I ever have before. I ran 20 miles on a treadmill. I negative split a 22-miler outside. And through it all, I had so.much.fun. When all’s said and done, the hundreds of miles I ran in training matter much more than the 26 miles I ran on race day, and that incredible training is what I’ll take with me.

But the most important lesson that the Houston Marathon taught me is that my toughest competitor is not another person — it’s myself.  But no matter what feelings I may experience in a race, they only have as much power as I give them.  I always have the choice to bring my best self, and when that choice is made, I reclaim all the power.  I can change the rest of the race.  I can hit rock bottom, and then somehow find what I need to turn it around.

And that is what I’m choosing to take with me.

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