The Rock'n'Roll Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans this Sunday was not that race.
What it was, however, was one of the best experiences of my life.
My pre-race routine went great; the only thing I'm changing is switching to bagel breakfasts from oatmeal on race day. (Much more portable and easy to consume, and much less likely to make me feel bloated later.) The weather was gorgeous (if brisk), my body cooperated in allowing me to use the facilities in a timely manner, I wasn't hurting, and I got over 8 hours of rest. Perhaps the single greatest part of my race was hitting the streets about 5:30 to walk to mile to the start line, accompanied by a jazz band and a mob, all the way through downtown New Orleans. We marched and danced and cheered our way to the start line with the band – an experience I will never forget as long as I live.
I felt like the marathon gods were smiling on me.
Boy, was I wrong.
I don't know whether my legs were still too tired or what, but even though I managed to recover from the soreness for the most part, they just didn't feel "fresh." Group after group passed me like I was standing still, even through the 5k. My high spirits fell further and further. And then, around mile 7, the half marathoners went their way and I was left almost completely alone. As I chugged along through mile 9, despite starting to pick up my pace and pass people, I saw the SAG and trash vehicles cleaning up mile markers for the half. My arthritis and legs were starting to hurt. I saw almost no DetermiNation people. I didn't even see Blake anywhere. I was feeling desperate. My excitement fizzled.
And then I did the unthinkable. Something I have only ever done in ONE other long distance race (a race I DNF'd).
I started to wonder if I was going to make it.
But I was right after all. The marathon gods WERE smiling on me – and they sent me a pair of marathon angels.
Around mile 13, one of the DetermiNation coaches named Alyson caught up with me. She ran with me for a bit and I was able to improve my speed. Then we saw Blake at mile 14. He gave me some water and ibuprofen. I started feeling spritely; the bands cheered me up; I thought, if I can just make it to mile 16, then there are only 10 miles left. And once I make it to mile 20, it's all downhill.
Alyson needed to take a break, but Meredith, another DetermiNation coach, met up with us. I really hit it off with her and we talked the whole way about strides and Gu and heart rate and just training life in general. Next thing you know, I made it to mile 18. At this point, the legs were still stiff, but I was doing this damn thing no matter what.
Mile 20 . . . if I can make it to mile 20 by 4:30, I can finish this race in 6 flat. That's the 42-minute PR I wanted. But I didn't make it to mile 20 at 4:30; I made it there around mile 19. A few times, I would check in with her and let her know, I can't make the time I wanted. And she would say, "That's OK, you can make THIS time instead!" And then, at mile 23, a giant blister threatened to pop on the bottom of my pinky toe.
I learned a lot from Meredith in those last 7 miles, but I also learned a lot from myself. I learned that even if a race doesn't start out feeling good, it can still end well. I learned that sometimes over-planning and over-pressuring myself results in the exact chaos and disorder I'm trying to avoid. I learned that I am, INDEED, faster when I walk water stations toward the late part of the race instead of pushing until I can't move anymore and walking all of the end. The other thing she kept telling me was, "No one is going to win this but the people who finished already, so all you can do is your best."
But the number one thing I took away from running with Meredith was that I have got, got, GOT to be more positive when I talk to myself. Just hearing her tell me, "You're doing great," and even more than that, "Ok, so you can't make 6 hours; you can make 6:10," really made me realize how mean I am to myself in my head.
Because some days you just CAN'T make it. But if there's even a SLIVER of a chance that you CAN, why wouldn't you GO FOR IT?
Meredith talked me into running the last 1.2 miles. At the end, Uncle Bill was there with me; so was the DNation team. I crossed the finish line in 6:18:21, a 24-minute improvement over my last marathon.
3 states down, 47 to go.
So, did the new plan (mostly speedwork, less distance) work? Yes and no. I definitely did not feel confident and comfortable with my body through the half. That's a feeling I usually master by running a few more long runs (164-20) during the plan. However, I DID make a major breakthrough, and I can NOW sign up for future marathons without worrying about missing the cutoffs. Because next time, with the same speedwork and a few more long runs, I am breaking into the 5s.
And now it's time to rest. Because Florida 70.3 is about 12 weeks away and I need to recover so I can make that course my bitch, too.