Monday, February 27, 2017

BMO Phoenix-Mesa Marathon: The joy is in the journey, but a PR is sure a wonderful place to land

The short version:

If you love what you're doing, you've already succeeded! I love marathon training, but the marathon is a race that can leave you smiling for weeks or break your heart - it's done both to me. You train for months for a single event, and there are always variables you can't control that affect the outcome. When everything comes together on race day, it's truly a miracle; on February 25, that happened for me. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see 2:49:20 on a marathon finishing clock (6:27.5 pace per mile for 26.2 miles), but with a solid training block, the right weather, a fast course, smart pacing, and blessings I can't even explain, I did!  I am so appreciative of my family for supporting me, of my training partners for friendships forged over mile and miles, and of everyone who has listened to me talk/write about my running dreams!  I am thankful for the journey and that God brought me to the starting line - and in turn to the finish line - healthy and happy. 

Final stretch with a 2:49 in sight!
 The long version:

Although the journey really is the reward when it comes to marathoning, it sure is sweet when everything comes together on race day and you get more sweet rewards in the forms of a joyful race and a PR!  The marathon is alluring because it is the cumulation of months and months of training, but this also makes it terrifying.  I became so enmeshed with the day to day training for the BMO Phoenix-Mesa marathon that I almost forgot that the end goal was a PR marathon - and in the end, I think that helped me.  I showed up at the starting line feeling like I'd already won.

My goal for this marathon was always to PR.  When I began training for it, I thought my time goal would be 2:55.  As my training block progressed, and I improved my half PR to 1:21:26, nailed the Hardest Workout Ever despite just finishing a round of antitbiotics and running in insane wind, finished a 24 mile run with a 6:17 mile also in insane wind, and played around with race time equivalent tools, I decided I could potentially run faster than 2:55.  I got 2:49:59 stuck in my head, and for awhile I kept vacillating back and forth between 2:49 and 2:55 as time goals, until one day I realized that there are several minutes between those two times and there was no reason I couldn't settle on a goal in between!  So with input from my coach, I decided to target 2:52 via a slight negative split.  However, I couldn't get 2:49 out of my head, even though it seemed too aggressive and scary, and I even put it as the label on my daily alarm so I saw it every morning bright and early when I got up to train.  But it was my "secret goal"; my public goal, and one I knew I would be beyond happy with was 2:52 - this was also the time I targeted with my pace band and for the first half of the race.

Course specific pace band
"2:49:59" has flashed at me every morning for awhile
Race week came, and for the first time I didn't experience any taper crazies or nerves beforehand.  I was so calm about it that I started to wonder if something was wrong with me!  I think that running the Rock 'n' Roll Arizona half 6 weeks prior went a long way in easing my mind, both because of the trip and the half PR I ran there.  I knew what to expect with traveling, I'd driven the race course, and I knew that I could perform well off of traveling.  Even when some travel snafus on Thursday evening resulted in a midnight dinner from the only restaurant open (McDonalds) and a 1:00 a.m. bedtime on Thursday night, I didn't freak out.  I figured that I'd been eating and sleeping well for the whole training cycle, so one meal and one night wouldn't hurt me.
Race expo with my supportive hubby
On race morning, I got on the bus to the starting line of the point-to-point course with a couple of guys from Oklahoma City who I'd connected with through a mutual friend.  One (Roger) had run the race last year and was very helpful in telling us what to expect, and the other (David) wanted to run about the same pace as me so we were planning to work together.  We chatted as we were bussed out to the starting line, sat on the bus to stay warm until about 6:00 a.m., then went out and started warming up.  I peed in the desert twice (the porta potty lines were far too long!) and begrudgingly checked my gear bag, as I was quite cold before I started jogging.  I kept a throw-away long sleeve shirt on until a minute before the gun, and questioned if I was doing the right thing starting in a sports bra, shorts, throw-away arm warmers, throw-away gloves, and a light headband at 38 degrees (i.e., perhaps I should have worn a full shirt).  I was extremely thankful for the perfect race day weather, but perfect racing weather is too cold to stand around in!

Before I knew it, it was 6:30 a.m. and the gun went off!  I saw a few women in pro racing kits on the starting line, but I really wasn't in this one for place, so didn't worry as seemingly 20-30 women were out ahead of me.  David and I had a pace plan and stuck with it, and many of the people in front of us we would soon pass.  Miles 1-4 of the course are down declines, and this results in many people going out far too fast.  In the beginning, everyone around us was talking about how they were going for their first sub-3:00s, and David and I were like, "Yeah, we are going for 2:52..."  We were pretty much right on our paceband pace and it felt effortless.  Then miles 5-6 climb about 200 feet.  Since I'm used to running in the Ozarks, the steady incline didn't bother me, but I did slow down my pace as planned in order not to expend too much energy too early.

As we came off of mile 6, we came onto two more miles of decline for miles 7-8, and my plan was to settle in around 6:30s from there to the end.  Around 6 miles, David and I got separated, with him slightly behind me.  The race was sorting out, and I hoped he would come back beside me and looked back for him at one point, but we didn't reconnect after that point; however, he went on to PR in 2:53 (and also used the paceband I made for him!)!  For the next 20 miles, I played look at the person in front of me and go get him/her.  From mile 9 to the finish, the course flattened out; and by flat I mean pancake flat (something I don't have on any runs except track workouts in the Ozarks!)!  I shed my arm warmers around mile 8 and my gloves around mile 12 (I took my headband off and put it around my arm around around the 10K; it was my favorite one and I couldn't bear to part with it and hadn't planned to start it in for that reason, whoops!).  The sports bra and not a full shirt was a good choice!

I was really happy with how relaxed my pace felt, and kept clicking off miles close to 6:30 pace.  Before the race, I'd had a hard time wrapping my head around running a marathon at 6:3X pace, even though I thought I had it in me, but once I was out there it felt so natural and I really knew I could do it.  I came through the half in 1:25:45 and grinned because a 1:25 half had felt so easy!  I felt really good about hitting a 2:50-2:51 at that point, but I was doubtful I'd be able to pull of a 2:49, as a 1:24:10 or faster second half seemed pretty ambitious.  At the same time, I felt great, and had to make myself hold back.  I thanked God for bringing me halfway through feeling so fresh, and asked Him for strength throughout the second half.  He and I had a lot of conversations throughout this race!

I didn't use my paceband or Garmin much; basically just looked at my Garmin when it beeped to monitor that I was staying right around 6:30 pace, but I paced by feel.  I picked up a few seconds here and there, but I didn't realize quite how much because my Garmin splits were also about 2 seconds slower than my course splits.  At one point I counted and my Garmin beeped about 15 seconds after the course mile mark.  Somehow I lucked out and got a conservative Garmin, as particularly on courses without many turns it always hits mile splits slightly after the course mile markers, which accumulates over the course of a marathon, and reads a tad shorter than the certified distance; my old one would always read a little faster than the course splits and therefore end up reading longer than the certified distance.  My Garmin was close enough that I knew I was going to be perfectly on pace for a low-2:50, but I didn't think I'd be under, and I didn't look at my pace band closely because I knew it was around 6:30 across the board once the elevation changes because minimal.

When I passed mile 18, I really thought I had it.  I've done enough marathons to know how I feel at that point in a good race vs. a bad one vs. a so-so one, and I felt really confident about running 8 more miles at 6:30 pace.  I was also pulling up on a female, and that spurred me along for a 6:19 mile 19.  I told myself not to go too much quite yet, but I also passed her with authority.  I was anxious to hit the 20 mile marker, as I knew at that point I'd have a good idea of my finishing time if I did the math on my final 10K.  The fact that I could still do math at that point was also promising!

I passed the course mile 20 in 2:10:05, and at that moment I knew I was going to give everything I had to run the final 10K in 39:50 or faster, and I felt like I could do it.  I told myself to stick around 6:25 pace.  As most runners know, on a good run when you're riding endorphins, you solve all of the world's problems.  At that point, for me, that high meant that I knew I could finish with a sub-40:00 10K.

Mile 20 was 6:27 by my Garmin, so probably 6:25 per the course.  Around this time, we started passing the half marathon walkers on the course.  Initially they were pretty thin, but as the miles passed the crowd became thicker and thicker.  This is my only complaint about the entire event; the last thing anyone wants to do at the end of a marathon is fight through seas of people walking!  I really like it when marathons separate the road if the half and full courses are the same at the end (one of my only positive comments about the Dallas marathon).

During mile 22 I starting pulling in another female.  I had no idea what place overall I was -- at some points people had told me "top 10" -- but when I saw her I knew I was going to push to move up one.  I passed her and like the gal at mile 19, she made no attempt to respond.  In my opinion, there are a million reasons to negative split your marathons (the most important one being that you'll run a faster overall time), and one reason is because you will pass, pass, and pass people - and on the Phoenix course it was even more pronounced because the net elevation loss in miles 1-4 and 7-8 made people take out irresponsibly.  Passing her gave me a 6:15 mile 22, and I also felt really good about pushing through to the end.

The half walkers got thicker and thicker in the final 4 miles, and the course also has more turns in those miles.  Going through the half walkers made me antsy.  For the most part, they were not in the bike lane on the inside of the road, but in places I had to weave around them.  After 22 I didn't try to take anything from the aid stations because of it, but I don't think I really needed anything either (before that I'd drank a little from every one, and also taken Accel gels around the 10K, half, and mile 19 marks).  In the final 2 miles, I stayed in the bike lane, which was the shortest route for the most part, and when it was blocked by a half walker I just said, "on your left, full runner" before I came by, and each time the walker moved over for me.  I felt like I was being rude doing this, but at the same time I was gunning for that 2:49 and I was NOT going to repeatedly run across 2 lanes of the road to go around groups.  I don't blame the walkers, as they have just as much right to be out there as I do, I imagine most/all of them have a different mindset about the event than I do, and I am happy to see them out there experiencing fitness and joy -- however, race organizers should at the very least disseminate information that a clear lane should be left open for the competitive full runners coming through, and more preferably they should have separate lanes for the two races.  Many blessings come in disguise, so maybe this whole conundrum actually pushed me on faster because I was so ready to get out of the masses!

As I passed mile 23, I reveled in how wonderful I felt for that point of the race!  The wall can come in marathons at mile 20, or even earlier if you pace poorly, but for me if it's going to hit it usually hits at 22-23.  I knew I had a good final 3.2 miles in me, and a quick check of my watch confirmed that even if I ran the final 3 miles in 7:30s I would hit my public goal of 2:52.  I know I already had a grin on my face!  I continued pressing on, and miles 24 and 25 were both 6:32 on my Garmin, so I was a little worried I was going to be too close for comfort on the 2:49/2:50 situation.  I felt like I had a good final mile in me though, and kept pushing with everything I had.  My head was cloudy, but it also felt so good!  I ended up with a 6:10 final mile, although I never looked at my Garmin during the mile so did not know until later.  I focused on going forward and getting to that finish line as soon as I could!

When I turned the final turn towards the finish, the full and half runners got separate lanes and I had a clear path in.  As per usual in the marathon, the finish felt so close yet so far away.  I felt simultaneously wonderful and depleted.  I felt better than I ever have at the end of a marathon though!  Marathoners know that typically when you finish a smartly paced marathon strong, it hurts so good at the end (if you bonk, it hurts so bad!).  When I could first read the finishing clock, it was still in the 2:48s, so I knew my 2:49 was in the bag!  I heard the announcer mispronounce my last name and note that I was another female coming in under 2:50 (I would be the 6th, and first in age group 35-39)!  I finished with a huge smile plastered on my face and halfway in disbelief!  Even when I imagined 2:49 as my time goal, I never imagined how fantastic it would feel.  I can't even describe it; I felt so exuberant and blessed!  I celebrated with a random stranger in the finish chute who felt the same way -- he excitedly told me that he'd broken 2:50 for the first time and I said "me too!!"  I never thought I'd be able to say that -- and I am still wrapping my head around it!  I don't deserve it -- none of us deserves anything really -- but by God's grace and strength I did it.  The whole race was such a joyful experience too! 

Official results can be found here, although the mile 20 split is wrong, as the mat was about 1:30 after the actual mile 20 mark (I only wish my final 10K had been 37:44 as it says here based on the misplaced mat; it was actually 39:15...but I am happy with that, especially considering that not that long ago my 10K PR was 39:13).

I had a dream and went for it.  I guess that 2:49 was stuck in my head for a reason.  I knew that I had to put it all out there and chance it; there is always a chance of a marathon not going as we plan, but there is also a chance that it will!  Never regret taking that chance (in a smart, calculated, and responsible manner of course)!  If you don't dream big, how can you ever expect it to come true?

“Anything is possible for one who believes.” – Mark 9:23

Jon nailed the clock shot, as per usual (that clock was 10 seconds off at 2:49:10, though)
Running joyfully around mile 20
The emotion of knowing I had it (pace is wrong on the professional pics though)
Smiling, crying with happiness, celebrating
I added my time to our sign from the expo (it was Jon's idea to leave a space for it)
I wasn't sure I could run 26.2 at 6:3X... I did it at 6:27 instead


  1. Wow, Sara. So incredibly happy for you. Maybe it's true that no one deserves anything, but if there's an exception to that rule, this is it. All those weeks of 4:30 am runs, miles and miles of really hard work and dedication should result in something amazing, and they did.

  2. Congrats! What an incredible experience, and so inspiring. Once you've soaked in all the good emotions and healing, perhaps you might consider the OTQ (:

    1. It's quite possible I've caught the OTQ bug already! ;-) And thank you!