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Strength in Numbers: Chasing the OTQ at the Houston Marathon

Photo by Fredis Benitez

As eager runners crowded into the corralled start area of the Houston Marathon, I stepped off to the side, took a deep breath, and removed my fleece hoodie which had been my only protection from the wind and cold. I looked ahead at the shivering, lanky runners bunched together tightly; partly to be as close to the starting line as possible, but also to keep each other warm. I ran up and squeezed in to join them. We were like a colony of penguins huddled together in a tundra.

It would take about ten long seconds to cross the start mat after the gun sounded. My teammate Lauren darted ahead while more runners swarmed around and ahead of me as if I were a rock in a current. I spotted Pacer Rick and his balloons up ahead to my right. He would be pacing the runners aiming for the 2:45 women’s time standard to qualify for the US Olympic Trials. Leading up to the race I had hemmed and hawed about what my race plan would be. The pace of 6:17 per mile to hit the standard seemed unbelievably fast, but somehow I felt I could justify running 6:20 per mile, so I told myself I would do that while keeping the group in sight, then try to run a nice negative split. In the days leading up to the race, however, I thought about my new experiences running multiple 45-50 mile days in a row on the Appalachian Trail, along with how I approached running the Hellgate 100K, a 66.6 mile trek through the woods. I wasn’t analyzing anything or putting limitations on myself during those experiences. I just ran! It was like my inexperience and naivety were actually advantages in those situations. Why not apply the same thing to my road racing? To stop thinking so much… and just run!

I made my way up to the 2:45 pack, which had to be made up of around one hundred runners, including women aiming for the Olympic Trials standard, a smaller contingent of men, and plenty of half marathoners. We glided along the course as one, like a squid moving through the ocean. We’d bunch up tightly together until we hit the water stations, scatter in our haste to snatch little lifelines in the form of small cups of water and gatorade, then go right back to being a compact unit with Rick at the head. I settled into the rhythm of the pack and let my mind go. I listened to the hundreds of footsteps around me, which didn’t sound scattered or thunderous as I would have expected, but in sync with each other, like a march. A very, very, very fast march.

The high concentration of runners made it very difficult to grab the small paper cups of water and Gatorade at aid stations. I’d reach out toward a volunteer holding out a precious cup, then another arm would dart out in front of me and take it. This would happen over and over again. Many runners were missing the aid stations, but other runners who did manage to get a cup would take a swig, then shout, “Anyone need a sip of Gatorade? Anyone need water?” All of the changing of positions during these sections made the footing quite tricky too. Occasionally a runner would cut in front of me then slow down, and I’d clip their heels by accident. Other times, my heels would get clipped by the runners behind me. Whatever was happening ahead, any shift in positions, would cause a ripple effect in the repositioning of the runners behind.

It was impossible to see what was ahead from within the pack, so runners ahead would exclaim things like, “speed bump!” or “right turn!” so the runners behind would know what to anticipate. I never saw the mile marks along the course. I never looked down at my watch. I just focused on the singlet or feet of the next runner ahead. We were positioned as if we were in the nosebleed seats of a theater, tightly packed together in rows, and staggered so that one could see just over the shoulders of the two people directly ahead of them.

It was starting to feel as though we were a well oiled machine, until I heard a scream and just up ahead to my right, a woman flew forward and went sprawling down onto the pavement. As a result, runners began to scatter to either side and push into each other, then another woman tripped and fell down toward the pavement just ahead of me. I heard later there was a third. Runners called out, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” I saw the first woman get up and continue running with the pack. In an attempt to stay upright, she had grabbed and torn another runner’s bib off their chest. She got back up, bib in hand, and sent it on up the pack of runners, calling out for “Amy” whose name was printed on the bib, and miraculously the group returned it to its owner (edited this bit for clarity).

We continued to move as a collective, though I noticed runners were spreading out and taking up more of the road, likely shaken from what had just happened. I stayed tucked in with the pack, but moved a little closer to the outer edge, as to have a quick escape route if needed. I was amazed at how effortless the pace had felt so far, no doubt a result of having so many people to run with, and with the stakes so high. Anyone that runs long distances at a pace like ours would know how rare it is to have multiple people to run with in a race, let alone an absolute herd like our 2:45 pace group in Houston.

The miles continued to fly by. There was noticeably less chatting among the runners. The half marathoners split off at some point, cutting down the size of the group. The breaths around me were becoming more labored. Our once-empire of Olympic hopefuls had a small puncture wound and was beginning to bleed.

I found myself starting to slip off the back of the pack. The first sign of my mere mortality. I could no longer simply float along and let the group do the work for me. I threw in a surge to catch back up, and once again found a rhythm. After having gotten a wider view of the pack from 20-30 feet behind, it became apparent that the tight knit group was an oasis in an otherwise desolate space. Ahead and behind the pack was a smattering of solo and duo runners. In my growing fatigue, I was presented with a choice: run with the large group at a pace increasingly out of my comfort zone, or back off a bit and run solo. Just from my brief experience of detaching from the back of the pack minutes earlier, I knew how hard it would be to continue on by myself, so I resolved to hang onto the pack for a few more miles. We were 9 or 10 miles in at that point. I wasn’t confident that I could hold onto the current pace for the remainder of the race, but I was positive that I could hold on through the half marathon… then after that, I’d let the chips fall where they might.

Over the next few miles my fatigue increased and I found myself repeatedly playing the game of “slip away, catch up”. At around 12.5 miles the pace group charged up our first real hill and I let them go. I’ve never been a good uphill runner, but I’m great on downhills. Knowing that, I sailed up at my own pace, reached the crest, then opened up my stride and nearly caught the group on the way down. We took a hairpin turn to the right, then around the next corner to the left, and there lay the timing mat for the half marathon, which I crossed in 1:22:37. A half marathon personal best, bettering what I had run just a month before at the Holiday Half in Portland.

I thought I would feel more disappointed seeing the 2:45 pace group, and my Olympic Trials goal, float away before my eyes as I made a deliberate shift in gears. Strangely though, I felt at peace about it. I had given myself a chance and put myself in a position to try. As early as 8 or 9 miles, it had become a losing battle. Wanting to salvage something out of the day, my thought was, at least walk away from this with a half marathon PR.

Once I crossed the half marathon mark and the decision was made, I started to think through how I wanted the second half of my race to be. I reflected on my running journey since my first marathon in 2009, and my singular focus on chipping away at this Olympic Trials goal for the past ten years. There have been so many times I’ve felt frustrated and disappointed with myself for not being better, or not feeling like enough. I refused to punish myself any further. I did not want to close this chapter of my running career with suffering and pain. I wanted my lifelong relationship with running, and the way I view myself, to be positive and celebratory.

I resolved to run at a pace that felt good to me, and to just enjoy the rest of the race and hope for the best for my friends and teammates that were continuing their OTQ chase. I’d pass the occasional runner, and runners would occasionally pass me. Once the big group was long out of sight, runners were all pretty strung out. If I were to guess my pace in the moment, I would have thought somewhere between 7:00-7:30 per mile. After a while I looked down at my watch and saw that it read 6:44. Huh! I glanced down a few more times in the next mile or two, and the number wasn’t changing.

I had no idea if I’d be able to continue on at that pace, but I felt good, and there was no reason not to keep it up. I felt a little bit like I was on autopilot. I began to recognize the singlets of runners that had been in the original big group. They had held on longer than I had, but were fading and coming back to me. The weather conditions were cool, sunny, and quite windy. I didn’t try to fight the wind, but rather eased off anytime it got really rough, then surged ahead with any window of calm (not unlike my approach to the Chicago Marathon a few months prior). There were some rolling hills toward the end, due to some underpasses. I would stride out down the hills, and take my time going up, staying true to my desire to run how I felt, and not to hurt or suffer. I would say I felt extremely uncomfortable and was very ready to stop, and also felt nervous about how much longer I could keep up my pace. I’d like to say I was totally cool and collected, but I still had to be deliberate about not getting too much in my head, not worrying about the miles ahead, and just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.

The miles flew by, thankfully, and before I knew it I was rounding the last corner toward the finish line. When or how I would finish had remained a bit of a mystery to me throughout the race, so I was eager to catch my first glimpse of the big clock by the finish arch. I almost couldn’t believe what I saw- 2:51 and change! Now motivated to keep the minute reading “51” and not “52”, I kicked it in to the finish with a big smile on my face.

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Photo by Dr. Sarah Lesko

2:51:34. I was a 2:51 marathoner! My previous best was 2:57:37 from three months before in Chicago. It was one thing to have this steadfast belief that I was capable of more, but a completely new feeling to have actually achieved a new, higher level of running. If someone had told me a week prior to the race what my result would be, I might have been a little disappointed knowing that I didn’t qualify for the Trials. Instead, all I could feel was pride and happiness for having accomplished something well beyond what I’d ever done before. It gave me a new understanding of what’s possible. Between the collective effort and shared goal of the OTQ chasers, having a whole lot of faith, breaking through self-perceived limitations, and simply taking a chance… I ran one of the most extraordinary races of my life. The best part was that I finished feeling great. It made me wonder how much more I can accomplish in the future with this new perception of myself.

IMG_3518
Photo by Fredis Benitez

I’d been holding off on making plans for the spring, not knowing whether or not I’d be heading to Atlanta in February. Now that an additional marathon is off the table, I’m taking some time off to recover after the most fulfilling season of training in my life and figure out what’s next. I feel a ten year weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Maybe I’ll try again leading up to the 2024 Trials, but there’s also more to life than banging my head on a wall trying to achieve this one solitary thing. After having tunnel vision for the marathon trials for so long, I’m ready to see what else is out there. To those chasing after big goals of their own… speaking from the other side, as someone that didn’t get the perfect storybook ending: you will never regret giving yourself the chance to try.

15 replies on “Strength in Numbers: Chasing the OTQ at the Houston Marathon”

I was hanging onto every word of your recap. Those crowds at the beginning sounded intense. Beautiful job, Liz! How special to be able to have that kind of soaring, positive experience.

That last bit: “you will never regret giving yourself the chance to try.” 100%

I am proud of your accomplishment, but much more proud of your attitude and proud to know you!

Well done, Liz.

We have a very similar experience with marathon running. Back in 2014, I completed the Portland Marathon in 3:27. I needed to have a day like that to fully understand what it would take to become a “marathoner”

6 marathons later, I lined up in Houston with more Miles and races under my belt. During this build up, I did a few races to make sure that I was race ready for Houston – Vegas (1:22) & Portland Holiday Half (1:21) with you.

I was behind the 2:45 pack for most of the race on Sunday and saw the athlete fall down. Watching and feeling everyone speed up and slow down at the water stations made me nervous. Kudos to you for hanging in there and rolling with the group, it’s not an easy thing to do.

Around 14 or 15 Miles, I passed you in the city. We were both silent, but I could tell that you were mentally preparing yourself for the final 10 miles. The marathon is such a mental game and keeping your composure in that tough situation speaks volumes about your character.

Houston was also a big victory for me – mentally, emotionally and physically. I needed that day and I applaud your write up. Running can be extremely vulnerable and it’s not easy to put yourself out there. It was an honor to share the roads with you on Sunday. Can’t wait to race with you again.

Enjoy your downtime!

Derek, thanks for reading and sharing. It registered right after you passed me that it was you. I almost said something, but I think the shared silence said it all. I’m so glad you had the race you wanted and needed. Let me know if you’re up for a run sometime now that you’re back!

I love your perspective on this. I hope to have the same mentality as I continue toward a BQ.

You ran Hellgate? That’s close to my neck of the woods and I had plenty of friends run this year (one was even crazy enough to run it twice). What did you think of it?

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