404 Runner Not Found: Chicago Marathon Recap

“I have a good feeling about tomorrow. I feel really good.” That’s what I told my husband André the night before running the Chicago Marathon. My training leading up to the race had gone as well as I could have asked for. The 60, 70, and 80+ mile weeks had been logged. I could run six minute and 40 second miles in my sleep. I flew to Chicago a few days early to adjust to the time change. I did my little shakeout run and strides that morning to stay loose. I had the perfect pre-race pasta dinner and had my race day spandos laid out. My breakfast of two stroopwafels and a banana was perched on my hotel desk next to the coffeemaker, prepped to brew at the flick of a switch. I felt calm and excited. I was ready.

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Taken during one of my last easy runs in Wheaton, IL

While I ate my breakfast race morning, I picked up where I left off in The First Ladies of Running, a book profiling pioneer women in the sport of running by Amby Burfoot. I was particularly inspired by a quote from Julia Chase, the first woman road racer who did so at a time when women were not permitted by the Amateur Athletic Union to run more than 1.25 miles. This was in 1961.

“Running puts you in touch with your primal self and your deepest resolve. You learn how to deal with pain and other obstacles. You realize that it’s not important to do conventional things. You can do whatever feels worthwhile to you.”

That really said it all. I’ve never known why I’ve felt the need to run. It’s always been in me. It’s shaped who I am and how I live my life and solve problems. I wanted how I raced in Chicago to be an expression of that.

I warmed up by running from my hotel to the starting area of the race. I had qualified for Chicago Marathon’s American Development Program, which allows faster amateur runners a chance to start right behind the professionals, plus amenities like a private warm up area, tent, restrooms, and gear check. After passing through security, I took a second to take in the scenery. Dawn was about to break, the hum of news choppers could be heard in the distance, groups of elite athletes from various countries jogged laps around the warm up area, and solo runners like me were just milling about. It hit me that I had been at that exact spot before, when I played Lollapalooza Music Festival with RAC just two years prior. Worlds collide!

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Around 15 minutes or so before the race, the American Development runners including myself were shepherded to our own separate entrance into the first race corral. We formed into a line to make way for the elite athletes going in ahead of us. At one point a very petite Florence Kiplagat breezed by- she would be the defending champion that day. Once they had entered, we were allowed in the corral but had to stand back and squeeze in tight together to allow room for the elites to continue warming up and striding out. It was cold and I could sense the runners around me getting antsy to move. Minutes later, we were finally allowed to jog forward and tuck in as close as we could to the start line. One catch of being in that corral was that you were eligible for top placement and prize money, meaning only your gun time would be recorded. Every second would count! The top male and female contenders were announced for the crowds and television broadcast alike. I could see them waving from where I stood. It was a very “20 feet from stardom” moment. The national anthem was sung. The gun went off.

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Can you spot me?

The beginning of the race played out just as I had imagined it would. I had watched a course preview on video, so I knew I’d be running through a large tunnel right away and I anticipated all of the quick turns within the first few miles. What I didn’t expect was just how many participants would be filling the street in a matter of seconds into the race. If I thought I was anything special for my 2:55 time goal, there were literally hundreds and hundreds of men and women flooding around me. I didn’t allow myself to get swept away and kept at a pace that felt comfortable and easy.

Mile 1 – 6:53

Mile 2 – 7:00

Mile 3 – 6:51

5K – 21:27

The next ten miles or so were completely methodical. The water and Gatorade stations came in steady waves every couple of miles. I kept an eye on my watch to make sure I was keeping at a steady, conservative pace. I took my GU gels filled with sugar and electrolytes exactly as I planned. I smiled and waved every time I saw my husband and parents-in-law, who had strategically planned out how to see me at as many points of the course as possible.

Mile 4 – 6:45

Mile 5 – 6:45

Mile 6 – 6:39

10K – 20:57

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Mile 7 – 6:34

Mile 8 – 6:42

Mile 9 – 6:41

15K – 20:48

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Mile 10 – 6:48

Mile 11 – 6:44

Mile 12 – 6:51

20K – 21:18

Mile 13 – 6:49

Halfway at 13.1 – 1:29:09

As I went past the eleven mile mark, I did a quick check-in with myself. I was feeling good and the pace was still comfortable. My average mile split was somewhere in the 6:40s. If I could maintain that for the rest of the race, I would be in the 2:57-58 range which I would have been very happy with. If I could drop it down even more, I wanted to wait until later on, when I was positive I had the reserves to hold on. I deliberately eased up the pace through miles twelve and thirteen and cruised through the half in 1:29:09. Side note: En route to running a 2:59 in the 2014 Philadelphia Marathon, I had gone through the halfway point in 1:30:30 which included a 60 second pit stop. When I attempted a 2:55 in Berlin 2015, I went through the half a smidge under 1:28 then crashed and burned with a 3:08 finish.

Right around the halfway mark was my very favorite part of the course. After the runners were taken way up north beyond Lincoln Park and back, we were once again in the heart of the city. The crowds were enormous and they were LOUD.  I loved it. How often do you get to run through one of the biggest cities in the US with massive amounts of people lining the streets and cheering for you? That part I will always remember.

Mile 14 – 6:42

Mile 15 – 6:43

25K – 21:19

After the high of running through the city, it was back to business in mile 14 and 15. Mile 14 took us out directly west, then I was in for a rude awakening as we took two quick left turns to head directly east toward Lake Michigan, which happened to be directly into a headwind. I tried to find small packs of people to draft off of, but I never like running in the back. I compromised by running with a pack for a few seconds, then picking another pack a few steps ahead to work my way up to, then another, and so on. I was surprised when I looked down at my watch to see I was still on pace, but targeting little groups of people to chase must have helped to keep up the tempo.

Mile 16 – 6:47

Now this is when things started to get a little hairy. That mile into the headwind was when I began to notice little signs of fatigue. I was working a little harder to maintain pace and I could feel just a little twinge in my ankle. One of my goals for the race was to stay relaxed and comfortable through at least mile 17, if for no other reason than knowing a big group of my teammates from the Oiselle Volée team would be there. Leading up to the race I had even mentally envisioned myself running by my team with ease, smiling and waving, feeling amazing. Presently, I was unsure of how I was feeling. I felt okay, but I was nervous. My ankle didn’t feel great, and each step was a little more painful. Then little by little, another point of pain began to creep into my knee on the same side. Efff.

Mile 17 – 6:52

I spotted André, Arménio, and Elizabeth for what I knew would be the last time I’d see them before the finish. I wanted them to know I was still doing okay so I perked up, waved, maybe gave a thumbs up. I ran by my team. They had all kinds of hand painted signs and were cheering their hearts out. They were awesome. Megan Murray tweeted out that I had just gone by their cheer squad “at a SPICY pace!” I smiled, waved, and ran with ease… or at least pretended to. My knee ached even more. Not fifty meters later it became too much to bear and I stopped off to the side to stretch my leg out, just for a few seconds.

Mile 18 – 6:52

30K – 21:09

Mile 19 – 6:54

My leg was not getting better. In fact, it was rapidly getting worse. I stopped somewhere in mile 20 to stretch out again, and I knew then it was a losing battle. My ankle was throbbing, my knee was wonky, and my hip was getting tighter and tighter, as if there was a taut wire running down the right side of my body and someone was pulling the crank.

Mile 20 – 7:48

I jogged until I arrived at a water station just past mile 21. I stopped and asked a volunteer if a medical tent was nearby and she directed me across the street. I checked in with the course medics. They logged my bib number and offered me Gatorade. I told them I was in pain and I wasn’t sure what to do. They offered me ice, but I didn’t take it because I didn’t want to freeze up my muscles if I was to continue running. They offered me a ride to the finish. I debated about whether I should take it. A DNF would be devastating. But what could I do? Hobble it in for five miles? A volunteer was kind enough to let me use her personal cell phone. I called André but it went to voicemail. As it was ringing, a volunteer told me there would be a medical tent at every mile from there to the finish line, so I could get a ride to the finish from any of those points if I needed to stop. I saw the three hour pace group run by and my heart sank a little bit. I left André a message saying that I hurt my leg, that I was okay. I was going to keep going, but would take a ride to the finish if it was too much. I ended the call, stretched out one more time, took one more swig of Gatorade, thanked the volunteers, and went on my way.

Mile 21 – 11:17

35K – 27:02

The next few miles were a little better. My leg felt okay after stretching it out, and it was more manageable to run with at an easier pace. I could see the three hour pace group not too far ahead and tried to go with them.

22 – 7:11

23 – 7:07

Annnnd nope. My leg and my hip did not like that. I shortened my stride which seemed to help. I came up on a guy that was walking and felt for him as he was struggling too. I said, “Hey! Want to run with me?” and to my surprise he said “yes!” then together we were shuffling. We chatted for a bit and he asked me a few questions, but he had just about the thickest Scottish accent I had ever heard and I couldn’t understand a lick of what he was saying. Plus I was practically in some sort of dream state as I was trying to process what was happening to my body and the rapid deterioration of whatever aspirations I had for that day. I could hardly form sentences myself. But even if for a few moments, we were strugglebus buddies.

24 – 7:48

25 – 7:52

I don’t remember a whole lot from the final miles. I thought things like, “Stay in this. You’re still in this. Less than 5K to go. Two more sub-8 minute miles and you’ll beat your Berlin time.” The most tortuous part was how easy the pace felt versus the pain I was in. It was like any other long run on a gorgeous, perfect day. In marathons I’ve run in the past, it has always seemed the last few mile marks would take forever to show themselves. I would desperately be looking for those big flags reading 24, 25, and so on. This time, the mile marks came and went just like that, blips in time. When I envisioned the last mile of Chicago Marathon, I thought seeing the cityscape and Grant Park coming into view would be this huge relief, like this big arrival. But in that moment it came as a shock- I was that close already? How could that be?

26 – 7:35

.2 – 1:47

I was still in shock as I crossed the finish line in 3:07:52, my second fastest marathon finish. I put both hands over my heart in gratitude. I stumbled my way around the many other finishers celebrating around me. A volunteer put a medal around my neck. I started bawling, which was super embarrassing but I couldn’t help it. I was grateful to have made it to that finish line and simultaneously really upset that everything had gone so wrong. Moments later a photographer snapped my picture. It pretty much says it all.

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Is this real life?

Another volunteer wrapped me in a Mylar blanket. I continued to move along, one in a sea of little white capes. It was a looong walk back to the tent where I had left my belongings. At one point I accidentally dropped my water bottle. I had to stop, grab onto a trash can or something, and slowly bend down to grab it without toppling over. The next ordeal was walking down approximately three steps to get to another section of the park. All around me finishers were groaning, “what were they thinking putting stairs here??” Yeah, marathon runners are silly.

Little did I know, Chicago Marathon’s race tracking app stopped recording my splits at the 40K mark, a little over a mile from the finish. No one including my family had any idea that I had finished. When I finally got to my phone, there were a lot of messages from people just wondering if I was okay. Yes! I was more than okay! I had finished the Chicago Marathon!

Another short hobble to the finish party zone and I was reunited with André, Arménio, and Elizabeth. There was much hugging and photo taking. It was the first moment that I really allowed myself to be happy and proud of what I had just accomplished. You can set the loftiest goals you want in the marathon, but at the end of the day there is no better feeling than finishing (relatively) in one piece. Especially when I had come so close to giving up.001-6.jpg

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Cubs fan in the background, little did he know…

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Later we returned to our hotel and I opened up my laptop. The quote that I had posted earlier that morning popped up again. I read it again, a different person than I was just several hours before.

“Running puts you in touch with your primal self and your deepest resolve. You learn how to deal with pain and other obstacles. You realize that it’s not important to do conventional things. You can do whatever feels worthwhile to you.”

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Drawing on Heroes, Art, and Imagination

Last weekend I ran the 2016 Oregon Wine Country Half Marathon. It was my first time running it since it was established in 2011 and afterward I couldn’t believe what I had been missing all these years. It was by far one of the prettiest courses I’d ever experienced and one of the most challenging too. Being in wine country there were lots of rolling hills and a long gravel stretch in the later miles. I admit I’ve shied away from it in the past because I had heard how difficult it was. I would only sign up for the flattest courses I could find, thinking that was the only way I could successfully run a fast time.

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Let’s rewind a little bit. A couple months ago I flew to the east coast to run the Virginia Wine Country Half, part of the same Destination Races series. I was in great shape based on a stretch of good workouts and I was ready to prove it. On a humid day and on a tough, rolling course similar to the one in Oregon, I ran my heart out for the first six or seven miles, completely hit the wall, had a very painful second half, ran a big positive split, and lost my first place position within the last two miles of the race. That was one big slice of humble pie.

This summer I began my training building up to the Chicago Marathon in October. My coach Greg suggested running the Oregon Wine Country Half as a fitness check point. It was a no brainer- it would be like getting a do-over after Virginia! I thought of all the things that I wished I would have done differently. Go out relaxed. Don’t run scared. Trust in your fitness.

Trusting in my fitness was a big one for me. The night before running Oregon I thought of one of the marathoners I admire the most, Desi Linden. Every time I’ve watched her compete, she has always seemed so cool and calm. She would always run her own race and not allow herself to get swept up in the pack. You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to be able to let other runners go. On the flip side it takes guts to keep the pace honest and quick when no one else wants to take the reins. I told myself to be like Des!

At the wee dark hour of five in the morning on race day, my husband André and friend Dani trekked out to wine country. As we approached the start area at Stoller Family Estate, we were treated to the most beautiful sunrise over Mt. Hood with a hot air balloon dotting the horizon. The general atmosphere among runners was calm and carefree. Everyone was stopping to take photos of the pretty scenery before dropping their bags.

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Dani and I, ready to run!

The start line of the race was stacked, as there were at least three women that have run Olympic qualifying marks (including my Oiselle teammate Lyndy Davis) in various events plus some of the fastest runners in the Portland area. In a way that took some of the pressure off. I wasn’t out trying to make the podium. I just wanted to run the best I could on that day.

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Dani on the far left, me in the yellow, Lyndy on the right in red, white, and blue!

The race began on a nice little downhill out of the Stoller Family Estate and from then through mile six or so the course dipped and rolled along. The faster runners probably had 20-30 seconds on me by the first mile mark, but hey, if I were up there with them I’d be worried! I was a tad fast in my first mile at 6:19 but settled into the next four miles at 6:38, 6:40, 6:39, 6:49. I took quick small steps on the uphills and opened up my stride on the downhills. I kept yo-yoing with a woman who was stronger than me going uphill, but then I’d catch her on the way down. She eventually took off, but I let her go- not that I had that much of a choice, she was speedy! I needed to run my own race.

After zipping through a nice little residential area, the road opened up to vast fields and vineyards and I allowed myself to enjoy it and take it all in. I let my imagination run away with me and pretended I was on some epic quest to deliver an important message or escape some evil empire or go for gold as an Olympic runner. I also kept myself in check by imagining that I was part of a big beautiful landscape painting and had to look the part. No slouching, no slogging, just running gracefully and effortlessly. The runners had gotten pretty spread out so at that point I was running solo. With an open road and only the occasional passing car, I felt I had the scenery all to myself.

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Photo by André, I am clearly happy to see him!

After the halfway mark there were some longer and more gradual uphills and downhills. My sixth and seventh mile were 7:15 and 7:17 then my eighth was 5:08. I couldn’t quite trust those numbers (5:08 would have been a mile PR) so I just ran as I felt. I quickened my pace a bit but told myself to stay cool until mile ten where a long stretch of gravel road would be waiting.

When I race, I try to draw from people and stories that inspire me. One of my favorite Olympic moments was American figure skater Evan Lysacek winning gold in the 2010 Winter Olympics. His final routine was performed to a medley of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade. Whenever I hear that music, it brings me back to that moment, so all through the half marathon I let it play in my head. I decided that since Scheherazade had four movements, so would my race.

Movement 1, miles 1-3 – The music starts off really big, grim, and foreboding, calms down for a bit then goes into this sweeping, crescendoing ascent, like something really awesome or terrible is going to happen! It perfectly embodies the nerves and excitement of the opening miles in a race.

Movement 2, miles 4-7 – As I ran through the countryside and imagined myself in different story-like scenarios, the lyrical style of this music was the perfect accompaniment.

Movement 3, miles 8-10 – The most heartbreaking and beautiful part of the suite. I knew in these miles the pain would be setting in and I felt like this music was saying, “Yes I know it hurts!! It’s okay to have feelings!”

And that bring us to mile 10 and beyond. Not only were these toughest miles as they were the last, but there was gravel road to deal with, plus the temps rising with no cover from the sun. I felt like I had saved something just for that though and I told myself as soon as I hit the gravel it would be go time. I thought of the frantic, driving staccato rhythm in the fourth and final movement of Scheherazade and matched it to my footsteps. I caught a few runners and off in the distance I could see the next woman ahead of me. As we continued over the gravel I reeled her in little by little, though she was still running strong. My miles from 9 through 11 were in 6:32, 6:30, and 6:32 again. It turned out I wasn’t even running that much faster than before, but I wasn’t falling off either.

Once we hit the pavement again close to downtown Carlton, I held nothing back and ran as fast as my legs would allow me. There was one last turn with about a half or quarter mile, after which you could see the finish arch way off in the distance. It took a solid three minutes from the time I could see the finish line to the time I reached it! I kept trying to close the gap between me and the woman ahead of me but she got away. My final mile was in 6:19 and I finished in 8th place with a time of 1:25:27- exactly three minutes faster than my time in the Virginia Wine Country Half, and my third fastest half marathon ever. Dani finished strong in 9th place and we were both top 3 in our age groups.

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Tired high five with André! Photo by Rockne Andrew Roll
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Volée and Haute Volée! Lyndy Davis bettered her own course record from last year, finishing in 1:18:53 for 4th place!
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Post race concert by Beth Bombara and Kit Hamon
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The prize for 3rd in my age group was- you guessed it- wine!

All in all I’m really happy with the way this race went. I had a totally different approach and mindset going into this race compared with Virginia. It was a really good learning experience and will be good to draw from when I run the Chicago Marathon less than two months from now. The event itself was probably my favorite half marathon ever. You can’t beat Oregon wine country as a setting and overall it was extremely well organized and fun. The participants got to sample all kinds of wine by local vendors at the after party and we were treated to a wonderful post race concert by my friends Beth Bombara and Kit Hamon. Thank you to Destination Races for putting on such a great event. I certainly hope to run it again in the future!

Duking it Out at Doukenie

Last weekend I flew across the country to Virginia to hang out with my sister and friends, enjoy a weekend of fine dining and wine, and oh, race the VA Wine Country Half Marathon!

Leading up to this race I had some of the best running weeks of my life. I ran some of my fastest intervals on the track and tempo runs on the road, and the most exciting part was that I was reaching my goals without going all-out, plus I was bouncing back and recovering from each workout pretty quickly. It had probably been my best ever block of training and I couldn’t wait to see what I could do in the half.

Race morning I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I stepped outside into the thick humidity that was Virginia in June. It was so different than the crisp, relatively dry mornings I was used to in Oregon. I took a shuttle from Leesburg to the start/finish area at Doukenie Winery about 20 miles deep in wine country and silently thanked the running gods as the fog rolled over the meadows and hung heavy in the sky. It may have been humid, but at least it was cool and overcast.

My fellow shuttle passengers and I were dropped off in a lot and were then directed to make a single file pilgrimage across a field to the winery. The scene was quiet and serene, but as we got closer to the start area, festive music and and announcements over the loudspeakers soon filled the silence and we melted into the crowd.

I picked up my bib number (cleverly shaped like a wine barrel), and exchanged hellos with the race director Matt Dockstader, who I learned founded the entire Destination Races series. I took off for a warm up and ran into a few other women from the Oiselle team. It was great to have teammates there to chat with and shake off some nerves even though it was our first time meeting.

When I lined up at toward the front of the crowd over 2,000 runners and walkers, beads of sweat were already trickling off of me. I learned later that the humidity was at 98%! When the race began I bolted away and couldn’t get enough of that free feeling of cutting through the cool, open air. The nice part about starting in that type of weather was that my muscles were warmed up and ready to fire away!

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I didn’t pay too much attention to the numbers on my watch, but I clipped along at a pace that felt fast but manageable, similar to the many tempo runs at goal race pace I had done in training. A group of men took off and strung out in front of me. Within the first quarter mile or so a cyclist peddled up next to me and told me he’d be hanging with me as a guide since I was the lead woman. Cool!

I had no idea how close the next woman behind me was, but I ran as if she were right on my heels. Overall I felt good and kept a steady pace, taking water at every aid station, just getting the job done.

Somewhere around mile six or seven, the paved road turned to gravel and we approached the rolling hills, as promised in the course description. I had gotten a lot of practice in similar conditions on Leif Erikson trail in Portland, so I felt pretty confident in my gravelly hill running abilities- so much that I attacked them with gusto. I was running close behind a man that I believe was wearing an Ironman shirt- or was it a tattoo? My memory is a little fuzzy. With each hill we climbed I got a little bit closer to Ironman and eventually passed him… for a moment.

We were soon at mile eight and the hills continued on. None were especially steep or especially far, but they just kept coming and coming like waves in the ocean. With the gravel underfoot, each step I took had the slightest slip to it. As the hills began to wear on me each little slip seemed to become more pronounced. Slip, slip, slip. It didn’t take long for Ironman to pass me back. We told each other “good job” and off into the distance he went.

Around mile nine or so I started to fade badly. I could feel it and I could see it in the way the lead cyclist had slowed down to what must have felt like a crawl. By mile ten the struggle was very real. My friend who’d recently raced in a 50 mile trail race told me he had come up with the mantra, “rest while you run” as a way to keep himself running whenever he got the urge to stop and walk. I gave myself permission to “rest while I ran” through the remainder of the gravel portion though I knew every second I lost was a second gained by the next woman behind me. I told myself when I hit the pavement again, I had to go.

I was fully anticipating for the paved road to feel like a fresh of breath air- a reset. While it was a relief to get my footing back, my legs continued to rebel. I remembered the start of the race, when the first 5K was a nice, ever so gradual downhill. I also remembered thinking, “Shoot, that last 5K is going to be tough!” as I’d be going back the exact same way. Well, there I was, in the midst of the last 5K, suffering and mentally kicking myself for thinking it would be a good idea to tear it up so early in the race!

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I was still leading the race on the women’s side but my body was in shutdown mode.  I was running about a minute per mile slower than the pace I had started at. I was sweating buckets with salt accumulating on my skin, my ponytail whipping from one side of my neck to the other. The lead cyclist kept glancing over his shoulder, which could only mean one thing… the next woman was closing in! Soon I heard light footsteps coming up behind me. It felt like one of those key moments where all I needed to do was dig down deep and find that extra gear to power to the finish. I tried to think of how the pain was only temporary, how my sister and friends were waiting to see me finish, and how good it would feel to have flown across the country and then go home with a win.

Alas, she sailed on by looking so smooth and comfortable. We gave each other some words of encouragement and off she went, the lead bike by her side. I tried so hard to hang on. I couldn’t match her pace, but chasing her helped me snap out of the funk I was in. We were getting closer to the finish and had nothing to lose. I had no idea if any other women were closing in and I had to defend second place!

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I rounded the final corner of the road leading back up to Doukenie Winery. From my position about 40 seconds back I could see the first woman crossing the finish line and hear the crowds applauding and cheering. It was a touch heartbreaking but also exciting to be so close to the finish! I charged up the final hill with all the strength I could find. I ran past my sister Katie with Jess and Lisa who were cheering like crazy people and holding up big signs- best moment of the race by far! I continued to dash through the tunnel of spectators until finally crossing the mat. Stopping was wonderful. I finished with a time of 1:28:27 and placed 2nd overall woman.

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Best feeling!

From there, the celebration began! The vineyard was set up with a wonderful array of tasting stations from local wineries. I may or may not have made a beeline for the sangria slushies. I met up with my awesome crew and we cheered on the rest of the runners coming down the homestretch.

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Jess, Lisa, and Katie!
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Close up of the poster my sister made! Guess my favorite part…

The award ceremony was held soon after the race on a grassy lawn. Runners and walkers with their families were lounging about, sipping wine, and just generally having a pleasant time. The event overall was done impeccably well. We were in a beautiful location, everything was organized to a T, the volunteers were outstanding, and the post-run goodies which included a coaster finisher medal and commemorative wine glass were fabulous.

The top three men and women were announced then we received some fun prizes (including a gift card to a nearby winery!) and got our photos taken together. It was great getting to meet the 1st and 3rd placing women, Sarah and Jessica, who were both so kind. We’re all Strava buddies now! I also got to meet a group of women from the Oiselle team after the race. Even though I was far from Oregon, I felt right at home with so many new friends in the running community.37468326_race_0.4865885150962159.originalEarlier this year I regretted not putting myself out there more in the Bloomsday Run. I approached it conservatively and felt I didn’t really stick my nose in the competition. At the VA Wine Country Half, I put it ALL out there and went after what I wanted. It didn’t work out the way I hoped, and of course I wonder what could have happened if I went about it differently. The outcome might have been the same, but maybe the last few miles wouldn’t have been so painful! I’m disappointed that I didn’t have a better finish time to show for all the hard work I’ve put in this year, but as my coach pointed out, that fitness won’t disappear. After taking a few down weeks since the race, I’ve been looking forward to some fun summer racing including the Butte to Butte 10K on July 4th and the Bowerman 5K on July 23rd. After that I’ll start ramping up training for the Chicago Marathon in October.

To another season of getting fitter and wiser!

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Cheers!

The Lilac Bloomsday Run: An Epic Journey of Ordinary Heroes

On Sunday, May 1st I raced in the Lilac Bloomsday Run, a 12K that’s been held annually in Spokane, Washington since 1977. The race was created by Don Kardong, who while on a training run with a buddy likened running a race to an odyssey, an epic journey. He charted a course that would be “taxing for modern heroes,” with a length that was challenging but not impossible. Kardong certainly delivered- the 12K is a bit of a strange distance in that it’s tough to duke it out like in the more standard 10K distance, but it’s short enough that you can’t ever really settle in- throw in some rolling hills plus a monster 1.1 mile climb, and you have the Bloomsday Run!

I felt pretty confident leading up to this race. I had a strong half marathon in Corvallis without a taper in my training. Bloomsday was my spring goal race, so I rested a lot more and had much fresher legs going into it. The drive from Portland to Spokane was a pretty epic journey in itself, as I cruised through the Columbia River Gorge then up into the drier, sweeping plains of eastern Washington.

I arrived Friday and had an adorable little house to myself for the weekend via Airbnb. Like a crazy person I brought my own food processor, muffin tins, and ingredients to whip up some pre-race blueberry maca muffins for the morning of the race. I got an awesome night of sleep Friday as it was my first night away in a while from Bo & Juno, who love to wake me up every morning at 5:30AM when they’re ready for breakfast.

Saturday morning I drove to the starting area of the race so I could get in a shakeout run while previewing the course. I got to experience the dramatic downhill of the first mile and the beginning of some the rolling hills later on. Along the road were permanent signs marking the race course, which made it clear how deeply rooted the Bloomsday Run is in Spokane.

As I made my way back toward the beginning of the course, I felt a sudden stab of pain in my back. It seemed like a fluke and I continued to run, but it continued to feel worse and worse. I stopped on the side of the road a few times to bend over and stretch it out, but nothing seemed to help. I ran back up the hill from the first mile of the course, and even just breathing harder seemed to aggravate my back more, so I stopped several times just to catch my breath and ease the pain. What was happening??

Through the afternoon the pain became almost unbearable. I drove back to my little house and tried to stretch, rest, but really I wasn’t sure what to do. I had to keep my spine perfectly straight; otherwise I couldn’t help but yelp out in pain. I had to leave the house eventually to get to the expo and pick up my bib number. The walk from my car into the Spokane Convention Center was excruciating. I arrived at the elite athlete table to pick up my bib. I had a starting number that had me placed right behind the elite men and ahead of the rest of the 40K+ field. The coordinator that helped me asked if I would like to switch my entry to start with the elite women, a women’s-only field that got a 15 minute head start. He said if I could reasonably expect to finish in under 48 minutes that it could be a good option. As a citizen runner, opportunities to run in a world class field don’t exactly come around too often so I accepted! Never mind that I didn’t even know if I would make it to the start line in my current state!

I hobbled around the expo, hoping by some miracle a local massage therapist or chiropractor would be onsite, but no luck. I stopped by a pharmacy on the way home, bought a tube of icy hot to use on my back and some ibuprofen and hoped for the best. By 9pm or so, I felt almost 100% back to normal.

The morning of the race I repeated exactly what I had done for my back the night before and hoped for the best. I jogged the two miles from my place to the start and (knock on wood) felt totally fine. I ran by the entrances to each start corral, which were organized by estimated finish times, until reaching the very first corral where the elite women would start. I ran into Lyndy Davis, Trisha Drobeck (who won the Corvallis Half), and Catherine Watkins of Haute Volée, Oiselle’s team of emerging elite athletes. It was great to see familiar faces at the start and to be in such good company. All around there were news reporters and film crews covering the race. I ran a few strides and did some stretches and in general tried to look I knew what I was doing. The women’s field had international class competition from Kenya, Ethiopia, Japan, and the US. The very top contenders were announced and each runner did a little jog and wave to the crowds. There were only about forty runners in the field. I positioned myself toward the back and thought about the kind of race I wanted to have. I saw myself as the underdog with a chip on her shoulder and something to prove. I wanted to show that I belonged there and could mix it up with some of the best.

Well, I was served a big slice of humble pie just seconds into the race. The field took off like lightning and I followed. I quickly found myself in last place, or close to it. I told myself to just stay relaxed and comfortable down the huge hill in mile 1 that I had previewed the day before. A quick look down to my watch showed I was running at about 6:10 per mile, which was my overall goal pace. As I was on a downhill, that pace was really a bit too comfortable and just not aggressive at all, considering the hills to come. It wasn’t as if I was running a half or full marathon with tons of time to make up for lost seconds. I tried not to let it shake me and continued to work my way through some more rolling hills over the next few miles. I focused mostly on how I felt, without looking down at my watch at all. And I felt good! I began to catch up with some women that seemed to be settling into their race pace. I noticed everyone was following the curves of the road, but I did my own thing and ran the tangents. The entire road was closed after all, and every second counted. I was able to pick off some runners here and there. It was really fun to race against only women and know exactly where I stacked up.

The most fabled part of the course was quickly approaching just beyond mile four- Doomsday Hill and beyond, the 1.1 mile stretch covering 157 feet in elevation gain, equivalent to climbing nearly sixteen flights of stairs. I knew Doomsday was coming and I was ready for it. Going up the hill I tried to stay light on my feet and drove up as efficiently as possible. There were lots of spectators at this part of the course cheering on the runners and that’s definitely when I needed the encouragement the most. As the hill began to level out toward the top, some women that had just been specks in the distance before were suddenly within reach. My quads were screaming, but as the top of a hill always presents the perfect opportunity for passing, I seized the moment and passed two women “with authority,” one of the best lessons I took away from way back in high school cross country.

From that point to the end of the race, I was in a bit of a no-woman’s land. The next runners ahead of me must have been a quarter mile up and I couldn’t bridge the gap. I ran as hard as I could, afraid that the women I had passed after Doomsday would catch me again, but I felt as if I were running through quicksand. It was about a mile long straight shot to the final turn toward the finish, and it felt like an eternity. I kept watching desperately for the women ahead of me to make the final turn, but they just went on and on and I followed in their footsteps. I glanced down at my watch for the first time in ages and read that I was at about 6:26 pace, a pace that would normally feel like no big deal.

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Dying

At last I made the turn around the final corner followed by a plunging downhill to the finish line, and could see the watch ticking up. I was well off of my “A” goal of 46 minutes, but I tried to salvage every second I could and crossed the line in 47:32. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but I was very glad to have finished in under 48:00, the cut off time for qualifying to run in the elite field. I belonged, even if just barely! I was greeted with hugs and high fives by the Haute Volée runners, who all ran incredibly well with times ranging from 43:00-45:00. Catherine placed 2nd master behind Blake Russell! I ran into a past teammate Marla from Portland Running Co, who ran a PR and was one the women off in the distance that I had been chasing in that long final stretch. Marla ran an incredibly gutsy race and I only wished I had tried to stick with her in the beginning.

We all made our way through the finish shoot and toward the area where volunteers were handing out the famous Bloomsday finisher shirts, which you can only receive after finishing the race- that’s a tradition I’m into! They hold a t-shirt design contest every year so the graphic changes every time. Marla said she had participated in Bloomsday every year since I think 1995 and had enough t-shirts to make a quilt.

As far as my back, that was the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me. It felt fine on race day and it hasn’t bothered me since. I’m summing it up to a random fluke! Maybe it cramped up because I had been sitting in a car for five hours the day before. I do know that from now on I’m taking icy hot and ibuprofen with me everywhere I travel!

I loved the Bloomsday Run. It was every ounce as challenging as it was made out to be, which just makes it all the more alluring. I can’t wait to go back next year (and hopefully many years after) and try, try again!

Fields, Flowers, and Alpacas: A Corvallis Half Recap

This past weekend I raced in the Corvallis Half Marathon. I had mentioned to my coach Greg that I was interested in trying some new races this year and this was the first one he suggested. I’m so glad he did! I had never been to Corvallis, which is home to Oregon State University and located a couple hours south of Portland.

I was feeling pretty confident leading up to the half marathon. I had a strong race at the Portland Shamrock 15K last month then finished within six seconds of my 5K PR at the Willamette University Invitational in Salem a couple weeks later. I didn’t get a chance to write a race recap, but here’s a pic!

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It was really fun to mix it up and compete with collegiate runners. I didn’t race with a watch or focus too much on splits but tried to just stick my nose in it and race. I placed fifth in my heat and finished in 18:19, my second fastest time ever.

After the 5K I had some bigger training weeks with increased mileage and two speed workout days instead of one. I was definitely feeling the change and specifically remember feeling like garbage the weekend before Corvallis. My legs weren’t particularly happy with me I was craving a noticeable amount of more sleep and food than usual. Last Monday I woke up around 6am, had some coffee and breakfast, but then literally couldn’t keep my eyes open and ended up crawling back into bed. It felt so silly but I didn’t know how I would make it through the day otherwise.

I had a track workout the Wednesday before Corvallis, 8 x 1000m @ 10K race pace and I really wasn’t sure if I could handle it. I ended up approaching it ultra conservatively, tried not to go faster than I absolutely had to, and ended up nailing all my splits! It definitely wasn’t a fun workout, but it gave me a ton of confidence because I still hit my goal even when I wasn’t feeling 100%.

Anyway, back to Corvallis. I went down the day before and drove the course so I would know what to expect. It began at OSU campus then made its way out into the country among fields and rolling hills, then eventually looping back through some residential neighborhoods and back to campus. I couldn’t believe how at home I felt. The terrain and scenery reminded me of my alma mater, Greenville College in southern Illinois, and the training runs I did with my team there every day. As it was a particularly warm weekend in Oregon, the heat was reminiscent of my days running in Illinois as well.

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Driving the course on Saturday night

The race began at 9:30AM Sunday morning. It was the most luxurious amount of time to get ready for a morning race maybe ever. I got a ton of sleep, had hours to laze around and sip coffee (I still woke up at 5:30AM), and took my time deciding between which combo of race apparel I would wear. I parked about a quarter of mile from the start area, jogged over to the expo to pick up my bib number, did a few strides and drills and arrived at the start line with a few minutes to spare. I said a quick good luck and gave a hug to my speedy Oiselle teammate Trisha Drobeck, then lined up a few rows back.

The first few miles went off without a hitch. I had forgotten to reset my watch after warming up and totally messed up starting it again. I also kind of missed the first couple mile marks. So really I had no clue how fast I was going! Looking back on my Garmin data I had settled into about a 6:30-6:40 per mile pace.

One of my goals, based on what I had seen in the results from previous years, was to place within the top five overall women. Trisha had taken off at a blistering pace in the beginning and a woman in a black sports bra strode off not too far behind. After that was a woman in a white t-shirt and another in a green tank top, then there was me. White tee and green tank got away for a bit in the beginning, but I slowly gained on them as we made our way through the campus of OSU. I passed them for third, but soon after another woman coasted right by me, cool as a cucumber. She had a friend running alongside her, and I heard him say something along the lines of, “We’re good, we’re right on pace,” so she must have been going for a certain time goal. Her effort seemed steady and measured. I felt okay, but it was so early in the race I wasn’t sure if I should expend the energy to stay with her. So I let her go and hoped she’d come back.

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Be cool, be cool!

We made our way off campus and onto a bike path that brought us out into the countryside. There were fields, flowers, and adorable alpacas grazing about. Or were they llamas? This was my favorite part of the course by far. I did start to question whether this would be an “A” day for me, because I had already run 4 or 5 miles at 6:30-40 pace, which was slower than my personal record pace, meaning I’d need to run a fairly sizable negative split in the second half of the race to match it.

A little after mile five the course took the runners to the road again, then the first major climb of the race began. This was the point where I felt it was okay to start pushing a little. I was deep enough into the race to know my legs were holding up okay, and we were getting close to the halfway point. I was running solo at the moment, but focused on picking off the runners ahead of me one at a time. The climb lasted for maybe one or two miles, and while some of the runners around me were starting to falter, I was beginning to pick up steam. My eighth mile uphill split read 6:53, which wasn’t too much slower than my pace on flat turf! I could also see that the woman with the pacer friend was starting to come back to me. My competitive mode kicked in and I put all of my focus into reeling her in. We hit a flat portion where I gained a bit of ground then had a push up one more major hill. I chased her to the top, around a corner, then as soon as the road sloped downward I zoomed on by, moving from fourth to third place. I opened up my stride and put as much distance between us as possible. I ran the next two miles in exactly 6:16 each.

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Lots of brow furrowing going on.

I turned the corner that marked mile 10, and while I had visualized the previous day how good I would feel at that point, I felt pretty darn terrible. It was a little after 10:30AM at that point and the sun was getting hot. I was thirsty, despite having taken water or sports drink at every aid station. My breathing was starting to get out of control (as usual). At around mile 10.5 I realized that I had totally forgotten to take a second energy gel back at mile ten like I had planned. Stupid stupid stupid! I quickly ripped open the gel packet I had on me and sucked down about half of it.

I don’t remember a lot about the last few miles, except that I was hot and tired and wanted to stop. I remembered something Sally Bergesen, the founder & CEO of Oiselle, said on Julia Hanlon’s Running On Om podcast on the topic of running through pain and having to override your brain in a sense. I kept asking myself, “Can I do more?”, and the answer was yes. Of course I could do more. I kept pushing and pushing.

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Just dying a little.

Somewhere between the 12th and 13th mile my brain was in such dumb-dumb mode that I dashed straight by a group of volunteers, missing one of the final turns on the course. They yelled and yelled for me to come back and eventually I heard them! I turned around and went back the correct way. Oh, the agony! I knew I would be so mad at myself if I missed out on my goal time (1:25:00) because of a silly error, so I went into total overdrive and kicked it in as hard as I possibly could to the finish.

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I crossed the line in 1:24:54 and placed third overall woman! Trisha (who won and set a course record in 1:19:39) and Camille Shiflett, who finished second with a time of 1:23:51, hugged and high-fived me at the finish. A reporter was interviewing Trisha about her win and then soon after several people took our photos together. We were told that we’d all earned cash prizes, which was a first for me! Afterward we shared our race stories with each other and what we were getting ready for next. I immediately felt this sort of shared experience and sisterhood with these women and it was so cool to be on the figurative podium with them!

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From left to right: Camille, Trisha, Me

Overall I couldn’t be happier with how this race went. I felt like I was ready to PR and I did. I received more confirmation that I’m on the right track with training. This was also the most fun I’ve had racing in a while.

Next up, I’m planning to race the Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, WA on May 1st. Bloomsday is a huuuuge race with over 40,000 participants and a large international draw. This will be my goal race for the spring, so I’ll be tapering and resting up for this one!

‘Til next time,

Liz