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’s no coincidence that in the aftermath of a four week music tour then running the New York City Marathon soon after, I’ve gone through my house and filled bag, after bag, after bag, of things I don’t need. For one thing, I found on tour that I was perfectly happy living with only what I had in my suitcase. I missed nothing from home, save my cats. When I crossed the finish line of the NYC Marathon in Central Park, I felt as if I had shed whatever emotional weight I had carried with me up to that moment. After a year of worrying, fretting, stressing… I made it. I did okay. No, I did just fine.
It’s been a year. Eight months in, and I’m in a wildly different place than where I thought I’d be. I just looked back on my first post of the year, when I written about my goal or theme for 2017, which was to dig deep and let racing hurt a little. To go beyond my comfort zone. I accomplished that exactly one time, at the Bloomsday 12K in May. My fitness wasn’t where it had been the year before, but I boarded the pain train and managed a new personal best by several seconds. It was the week after that race that things went south. Rather than taking some time to recover and have a “down” week, I plugged away and trained harder, and pretty much immediately strained my hamstring. I should have known better. Hindsight is everything! I got greedy. When things started to go my way, I wanted even more. For the next ten or so weeks after that, I couldn’t run at all without my leg hurting. I had to cancel my trip to Duluth, Minnesota, where I had planned to run Grandma’s Marathon in June. I spent a lot of time worrying about my future goals and how I’d ever accomplish them. I was adamant about maintaining my fitness by cross training, until even pool running aggravated my leg. Right around that time, I listened to an interview with Olympian Kate Grace where she spoke on her experience with injury- that there are only so many hours of pool running you can do before you drive yourself crazy. At some point you just have to let yourself heal. It was like Kate was speaking right to me! I had to let go.
I have never started a race without a healthy dose of optimism. This was true as ever at the Lilac Bloomsday Run yesterday. I had my first experience racing the challenging 12 kilometer course last year. I finished with a time of 47:32 and thought immediately after crossing the final timing mat, “I can do better,” (as any runner does) and vowed to return the next year.
The Bloomsday course is a tricky one. From the starting point in downtown Spokane, you run west out of the city, plunge into a valley 1.5 miles in, run up a long gradual hill until you’re back at the elevation you started at the halfway mark. Then you drop down into another valley, cross a bridge over Spokane River, then up and up the infamous Doomsday Hill which brings you to starting elevation again, this time over just three quarters of a mile. From there it is 2.5 mostly flat miles to the finish.
Last year, knowing that the dreaded Doomsday Hill was coming, I start the race fairly conservatively and saved a little something for the climb. It paid off as I felt good on the hill and even passed a few people along the way. The final 2.5 miles, however, felt like dreck. It was as if I were running slow motion through sand. My legs were so tired from the hills and I just could not kick it in at the end.
Going into the race this year, my plan was to start the race more aggressively and drop a few more seconds on the downhills while I actually had fresh legs and momentum. I remembered wishing I had stuck with some faster women at the start the year before, as 7.5 miles really wasn’t too far relative to the longer distances I usually race. I felt I had approached it more similarly to a half marathon than a “10K + some.”
I stuck to my plan and my first three miles were each about 5 seconds faster than the year before. My 4th mile was a tad slower, but overall my goal of sub-47:00 was well within reach. I didn’t exactly bound up Doomsday Hill as I had done the year before, clocking in at 3:10 vs. the previous year’s 2:54 (they place timing mats at the bottom and top), but even so, I passed through the five mile mark ten seconds under goal pace. However, while I anticipated feeling terrible in the next couple of miles, I wasn’t prepared for just how terrible. Well after the hill I was still gasping for breath. I tried to stay light on my feet and get my legs to turnover, but they simply wouldn’t.
If there was ever a point where I lost the race, it was the sixth mile. I was aiming for an overall pace of 6:17 per mile, which I had managed so far while feeling pretty good. Then I ran that particular mile in 6:52, despite it being mostly flat as a pancake. Ouch. My reasoning was, just get past Doomsday Hill and you’re home free! I couldn’t have been more wrong. The sixth mile was by far the hardest part of the race. If I had been competing against my past self, 2016 me would have passed 2017 me at that point with a 6:31 mile. Slower than I would have liked, but still it would have made my goal salvageable! All that work to bank some time (which I now can’t believe I thought was a good idea) was out the window and I was worse for the wear.
One of my goals for this race was to be mentally tough and to push through the really nasty parts and make myself run fast anyway. I’m generally so quick to just accept discomfort as a sign that I’m running beyond my abilities, so I back off- but that’s exactly what my brain wants me to think. Pretty nifty survival mechanism, but not great for racing! I’m still wondering if only I were better at overriding that pain signal, could I have run better than a 6:52?
I felt so unbelievably dejected by how hard I was working for the numbers steadily creeping upward on my watch. How cruel running can be! I told myself all kinds of things through that last mile, anything to pick it up just a little bit. Pain is temporary. Less than ten minutes to go- what a short amount of time! What did you even drive all the way out to Spokane for, if not to try? See that church? Just get to the church and around the corner then you’re home free!
My next mile, which I didn’t even see at the time, was 6:26. Not enough to balance out the last mile, but an improvement. From there I had just half a mile to go. I sped by the church, rounded the final corner, then began the very welcomed descent to the finish line. From a distance I could see the clock at 47:01, 47:02, 47:03. I was so tired and felt compelled to close my eyes as I do when I’m fatigued, but I really made myself focus on that clock because I would have been so upset if I missed beating my previous best of 47:32. The clock was literally flipping from 47:30 to 47:31 as I crossed the timing mat! The agony! The suspense! In the end, my chip time read a comfortable 47:26. A six second improvement from last year!
The Lilac Bloomsday Run, as it was last year, was a great challenge and humbling experience. On paper, I looked at my 47:00 goal and thought, of course that’s within reach! I badly want to qualify for the 2020 US Olympic Trials Marathon within the next few years which will take a marathon effort at around the same pace of 6:17/mile. Surely I should be able to run at least 12K at that pace. And then I couldn’t! That’s a tough pill to swallow.
On the positive side, I ran a personal best. It was only by six seconds, but still. I did something with my body that it’s never done before. World record for one Liz Anjos running a 12K! And more significantly, it’s the first race I’ve improved on since last year. My Shamrock 15K time last year was 59:55; this year it was 61:07. My Corvallis Half Marathon time last year was 1:24:54, this year it was 1:27:12. Bloomsday last year 47:32, this year 47:26. It took some time following an injury earlier in the year, but I’m finally starting to feel up to snuff.
I’m a long way from where I want to be, but I hope with consistency and small improvements over time, that next breakthrough will come. My next goal race is Grandma’s Marathon on June 17th and I’m just entering the meatiest part of training. You can follow my progress on Strava. ‘Til next time!
The sun began to cast its first glimmers of pink and orange across the Willamette River. I rummaged through my sock drawer until I found what I was looking for: my white knee-high compression socks, reminiscent of those made famous by local Olympian Shalane Flanagan. I told myself I wasn’t going to race in the Portland Shamrock Run that day. I would run the 9.3 mile course, maybe at a slightly-faster-than-usual pace. I had missed out on some winter training after pulling my hamstring in January. I had already registered though, so I might as well earn my commemorative bottle opener for finishing, right?
I donned my running gear, took a look in the mirror and frowned. I was in layers since I’d surely get too cold if I wasn’t racing racing. However, the long sleeve shirt under my singlet looked frumpy and out of place. I tried again with just the singlet. Much sleeker. I reached for my lightweight training shoes but then a pair of low-profile racing flats that I had acquired on a recent trip in Japan, the adidas Takumi Ren, caught my eye. I mean, it would be a shame to have bought these cool racers and not even take them out for a spin, I thought. I grabbed them instead.
I stepped out my front door and jogged along the river until I reached the staging area of the race. I took my place among the thousands of runners lining up toward the start. From my standpoint, the floating arch over the start line seemed awfully far away. Maybe I should get a little closer to the front… after all, people can get so jumbled up in the first mile. I inched my way up and found two friends I knew through the running circuit. We asked each other about our race plans; they were both going for a time of under 60 minutes, a pace of 6:26 minutes per mile. I told them I’d be happy with anything under 7:00 pace. We nervously shuffled around, shivering under the occasional peek of sunlight through the clouds, until we received a 30 second warning that the race would begin.
We took off and I tucked in behind my two friends, who both (lucky for me) started on the conservative side. We sailed through the first mile in 6:56 and I didn’t feel too bad! From there, they began to pick up the pace but I just went into cruise control, hitting the second mile on a gradual uphill at 7:03. Up and up Barbur Boulevard I went, finding my stride with a few runners in the familiar red singlets of the Team Red Lizard running club. I didn’t worry too much about pace, but every time I looked down at my watch I was pleasantly surprised. 6:48, 7:17.
After a scorcher of a hill cutting up to Terwilliger Boulevard and cresting to the glorious drone of live bagpipers, I did a quick assessment. My breathing was calm and my legs felt fresh. I dashed down the rolling hills, catching glimpses of the sparkling Willamette and snow-capped peak of Mt. St. Helens between the Douglas firs lining the road, when I heard a spectator calling out, “12th woman… 13th woman… 14th woman…” 14th place, not bad! The woman up ahead of me wasn’t too far out of reach. I thought, what if I just catch up and run with her a little? I threw in a little surge and closed the distance between us, but I couldn’t help myself and continued to blow on by. Even after 10+ years since running in high school, it’s been ingrained in me to “pass with authority.” After making that little move, it was as if a switch flipped and I went into full-on competitor mode. 6:15, 5:38.
I then focused on not only reaching the next woman ahead of me, but another woman way ahead of me, who happened to be one of the two runners I started with! In the seventh mile the course led the runners up one last gradual hill, which felt torturous so late in the race. I passed the first woman and we told each other, “Good job!” We came up on a hairpin turn, and it was then I could see just how much my friend had on me, maybe around 30 seconds. I kept trying to close the gap between us, but every time she had a little more to give. 6:19, 6:13.
One mile to go. The last four had started to take their toll on my body. I could feel my stomach churning and legs revolting. When I looked back on race photos, I could tell which were taken in the later miles because my eyes were closed in almost all of them- a dead giveaway that I’m pretty much toast!
I reached the last straightaway toward the finish on Naito Parkway, the finish line looming in the distance. I opened up my stride and tried to keep myself together. The woman I had passed earlier moved up alongside me. She said something along the lines of “C’mon, let’s go!” and I wheezed something like, “You got this!” She passed by me and I just tried to hang on. Soon after I heard cheering and cowbells ringing and realized it was coming from a group of my Volée teammates alongside the race course. Knowing there were people rooting for me, I pushed back and strode past the woman again. I could hear her footsteps behind me for a few seconds, but soon they faded. I pumped my arms harder, gasped for air, and powered to the finish line. Last mile, 6:09. Finish time, 1:01:07. 12th woman overall, 1st in my age group! I turned around to cheer on the next woman but was swiftly overcome by the urge to puke. It was a close call. We congratulated and thanked each other for pushing one another. As we walked down the finisher shoot we were greeted by several other women that had finished just ahead of us. While we may have been competitors on the course, I felt such a camaraderie among everyone that had just given their all.
The Portland Shamrock Run was four days ago and I’m still over the moon about it. The string of seemingly random injuries, time off, and low mileage this winter had me feeling a bit hopeless about what the future held. I was convinced I had lost my speed and wondered how long it would take to get back. It turned out that residual fitness is quite real, as my coach has told me over and over again. This race to me was confirmation that I’m not crazy to keep shooting for big goals. It also reminded me of how much I love to compete. The thrill is far from gone… I’m back, baby!