I ran my 8th marathon this weekend in Limerick, Ireland, to cap a three+ year comeback. It was a long journey, but I learned a number of important lessons along the way. If you are only interested in the race report, skip the prologue!
After the 2016 Boston Marathon, a disappointing race for me in which I split 1:30/1:46, I was disillusioned with running. In retrospect, I likely went into that race overtrained and mentally burnt out, and then the weather on that hot day went in for the kill, sapping my spirit.
I took about a month of running, decided to do one of those dumb Beachbody programs instead to mix things up, and when I got back to running I promptly strained my calf (yes, I blame that Beachbody program – it left my calves like rocks). But (spoiler!) I didn’t realize I strained my calf. I thought I had Achilles Tendonitis.
Lesson #1: If you are not a doctor, don’t pretend to be one and diagnosis yourself. Go to a real doctor sooner rather than later.
I ran on that strain from July-November 2016, before finally receiving my diagnosis: full thickness soleus strain. Fast forward five months: calf healing has stagnated. By continuing to run on my strain, my body forgot how to heal itself. I had to re-trigger that healing response, so I got an autologous blood injection (ABI). It was magic. A month later, May 2017, the tear is finally gone.
Thus began a slow build up. I took 5 months to reach 35 miles per week before reintroducing workouts. Build up is going great, I feel strong. It’s January 2018, I’m running 45 mpw. I’m about to start training for the 2018 Grandma’s Marathon. I run a 5K to check in with my fitness, run a 19:54. My groin feels off. Something’s not right. I go to the doctor (see lesson #1), I receive a diagnosis: a pubic ramus (pelvic) stress fracture.
Lesson #2: A slow build up means nothing if your nutrition is off.
After my pelvic stress fracture diagnosis, I worked with a nutritionist. Pelvic stress fractures are rare – most are caused by poor nutrition rather than poor training. I had to accept that my target “race weight” was lower than my body could sustain while training hard.
I end up taking another 13 weeks off running, and the first 7 weeks I’m basically not even walking. I’m working from home, sitting on the couch all day to avoid using any of the muscles that attach to the pubic ramus (hamstrings + groin). I get back to running in May 2018. I stop updating my blog. I am afraid to jinx myself during my recovery, so I just stop.
I run a 5K fitness test in September 2018. I run 19:54…again. But then my calf – the same one I injured before, feels a bit off. Take a couple days off. Decide to still run the half I had planned with friends as a progression run – run a 1:33:12, with the first miles at around 7:35 and the final miles around 6:35. Calf definitely doesn’t feel good.
Lesson #3: Muscle tears are a bitch. They take a super long time to recover to 100% because the scar tissue can continue to give you issues for a long time after the muscle is healed.
I go to see my PT who is a very close friend at this point. She has recommended it before, but she recommends it again, “Maybe you should work with a coach. I know just the guy.”
In October 2018, I started working with my coach. He ran DI in college, but more important is his day job; he’s a physical therapist. When I’m nervous about how I’m feeling, he can level-set me. We discussed my goals: ideally, I’d like to go sub-3 (my goal from Boston 2016), but I’d be happy just to get near my PR (3:06:34, 2015 Philadelphia Marathon).
Working with a coach required me to let go of a lot of control. For all my prior marathons, I’d written my own plan (mostly using the Pfitz approach for my last two). Meanwhile, my coach’s approach is only to give me a week of training at a time. I tell him on Saturday how the week went, he tells me on Sunday the plan for my next seven days of running. This wasn’t an easy adjustment. I had my moments of doubt in part because he was training me more conservative than I might have planned to train myself. I didn’t know how I could run a PR on training so much less intense than the training that got me to my PR.
From October-early February, we focused on building up my base after my two weeks off in September from the calf scare. In November, he started with simple fartleks (10×1 min, 5-4-3-2-1 on/off), before progressing to longer intervals mostly at about goal marathon pace (6:45-55).
My coach sticks to 12 week marathon plans, so I technically started training for Limerick Feb. 11. Workouts over the 12 weeks included:
- 3 x (4 x 400) at 90-92 seconds, 60 second jog between reps, 3 mins between sets
- 3-2-1 mi Progression, 3 mi @6:50-7, 2 min off, 2 mi @ 6:40-50, 2 min off, 1 mi @ <6:30 on the Wednesday before a 15k at goal marathon pace on Saturday
- 3 x (2 x 1) Alteration – First mile 6:45-55, second mile 6:30-35 (45 seconds between miles, 3 mins between sets)
- Lots of long, intervals in the 6:40-50 range, including 10 mi with 6 mi, 11 mi with 7 mi, 12 mi with 2 x 4 mi.
Of course, it wouldn’t be marathon training without some obstacles. A month before race day, my wonderful, amazing husband threw me a surprise 30th birthday party. It was fantastic and fun on a Saturday night after a pretty tough long run – 3 x (30 min @ regular long run pace, 3 mi @ 6:40-50). All in, that run was 20.7 miles in 2 hours and 30 mins.
The party ended with some dancing, where drunk me got a little too into getting low on the dance floor. And my right quad was NOT cool with that. I had a sharp pain in my quad adjacent to where I had a really bad tear back in college (caused by getting doored by a car while biking – not running related). This is where having a physical therapist coach was really great. We agreed no running until I no longer had sharp pain just doing normal, everyday stuff like standing up from a seated position.
Lesson #4: Once you turn 30, you’ve got to watch out for that dancing.
Fortunately, it faded quickly and I only took four days off – but it meant missing my longest long run (supposed to be three hours). And I was at risk of peaking too soon. To combat that risk, I had a very untraditional taper. My last long run (2 hours with 60 min @ 6:45-55) was 11 days before the race. I failed that workout. I only managed 45 mins at pace, split up into 30 min and 15 min at pace. The pace felt too hard after the break in my training. Then my last real workout (2 x 1 mi @ 6:30, 4×400 @ 91-93) was seven days before the race (thankfully, this felt much better), with a 10×1 min fartlek four days before the race.
All in, for the 12-week training cycle, I averaged 38.125 miles a week, peaking at 47 miles. I only had two 2 hour 30 min long runs (20.7 mi and 19.6 mi) and four 2 hour long runs (16.1, 15.7 mi, 15.7 mi, 15.5 mi), plus one tune up half at GMP (1:29:15) with warmup/cool down for 17.1 miles.
With the hiccup of the final month of my training, I definitely wasn’t feeling confident heading into race day. My coach and I agreed that sub-3 was not in the cards this time around. Instead, he wanted me to plan to go out at a 7 min/mi pace (3:03), to pick it up at the half if I felt okay and just give it my all in the final 10k. My number #1 goal heading in was to just PR if I could. Anything faster would be gravy.
My husband and I flew into Dublin on a redeye, landing Friday morning, and then drove across the country to Limerick (about 2.5 hour drive). According to my Whoop, I got about four hours of sleep, which isn’t bad for a 6.5 hour flight.
Saturday, I ran a quick 20 min shakeout on the course (uh oh, hills), before we went to the expo – which had a queue out the door. I’d never seen anything like it. We waited in line for 40 minutes before getting in line and being told that marathon runners could skip the line. SIGH. The Great Limerick Run race weekend is made up of three races – the full, a half and a 6 miler (why it isn’t a 10k, I don’t know). It’s a big weekend, but the marathon is pretty small with only 825 finishers (and only 173 women, which is nuts). Meanwhile, the half had about 2,200 finishers and the 6 miler about 5,500.
Anyway, I got my bib, kept myself to just one Guinness at lunch that day, had some salmon and potatoes for dinner and got to bed early – only for jetlag and pre-race nerves to keep me from sleep. I only got about 6 hours before my alarm went off, which is definitely not great. I ate a cinnamon raisin English muffin with some peanut butter and sliced banana, drank a bottle of Nuun and then brought a bottle of Maurten 160 to drink on the walk to the start and in the corral. It was about 45 degrees out, low humidity and a light breeze, but not a cloud in the sky. (For the record: I picked this race because after how warm Boston was in 2016, I figured signing up for a race in Ireland was about the best I could do as far as guaranteeing myself good race conditions.)
Another interesting thing about the race: the start at 9 a.m. was only for the full. The half would start at 10:30 a.m. and merge in with the full.
I lined up right at the front for this. The race has pretty decent prize money, and in past years, 3rd place tended to be anywhere from 3:09-15, so placing wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
While we were waiting for the start, we had the typical remarks from the race director and title sponsor – and then something different. In lieu of a national anthem, we had a prayer from a priest. I thought that was pretty funny, and I’d take the blessing. Then we were off. I settled in to a good pace nice and early and felt good. But in the first mile, I immediately let go of any hopes of placing. I saw four women go off with the 3:00 pacer, and then another woman passed me, though didn’t seem to be going with them. I was manually splitting the race, with my Garmin on the Race Screen that I had downloaded and experimented with in the tune up half leading up to this race. This screen shows you your current pace, your average pace, elapsed time, heart rate, cadence and projected finish time. Two things I realized in the first 5K: 1) My chest strap heart rate monitor was just straight up wrong. I decided that today, of all days, was the day it wasn’t going to work for me. 2) There were going to be a lot of rolling hills.
6:52, 6:58, 6:55
After the first 5k, we exited the downtown area and headed out toward University of Limerick. I felt really comfortable and did my best to high five local kids and just enjoy the beautiful day out there. But it also got pretty lonely. There was a pretty big group with the 3:00 pacer, then there was the woman in 5th about 50 yards ahead of me and growing and then there was me, just chipping away at my pace on a stretch of road with few spectators. I took my first Maurten gel at mile 5.
6:56, 6:55, 6:57
Mile 6-8 was particularly lonely as we ran out through a Johnson & Johnson industrial park, up a decently steep climb to a sharp turn at mile 7 to head back through that JNJ business park. I passed a couple people in here who fell off the 3:00 pace group already. One thing to be grateful for was the water stops – they were handing out little 8 oz bottles. I’m terrible at drinking on the move, so this was FANTASTIC for me. At the end of the third 5k, we ran through University of Limerick’s campus to get on a pedestrian path. The good: it was shaded and had lots of volunteers pointing the way. The bad: There were no spectators and I couldn’t even see the person in front of me anymore.
6:58, 7:03, 6:48
I took my second gel on the path at mile 9.5, and just tried to keep my pace nice and steady through here, even though it didn’t really feel like I was running a marathon with no one around me and no spectators. Luckily the path came to an end around mile 12.5 as we re-entered the city. I took a SaltStick pill around here when I came across my next water stop (the other downside of the path – we went from mile 8.5-12.5 without water, which was too long IMO).
6:49, 7:01, 6:53
I still running all alone saw my husband just before the half, which circled back past the start. And then something really cool happened: I saw the start of the half field surge around a corner to merge in with the marathon. There was just something pretty neat about seeing the start of the race like that. My timing was perfect (thankfully). I had been worried about how this would work and I knew with my goal time I should be merging in with them pretty much exactly as they started at 10:30 a.m.
They had the half runners on the right with the marathon runners on the left, separated by a barricade for about a half mile before they merged together. For people going slower, I could imagine how this could be frustrating. Because if you were running say a 3:30 marathon (10:45 a.m. through the half), you’d end up having to pass all the slower half runners. But for me, I merged in pretty perfectly. I just had to be careful not to get caught up in there early race adrenaline when I was only halfway through my race.
I was also just SO thankful to have more people to run with for the second half of the race so I was no longer out there on my own. It was particularly helpful as this 5k involved a long, low-grade climb out of the city again, before a steeper climb up and over an overpass. I took my third gel at mile 14.
7:01, 6:57, 13:29 [mile 15 + 16]
I was definitely feeling the hills at this point. It felt like no stop rolling. Other than the pedestrian path along the river, this course doesn’t have much flat sections. We came down into a neighborhood after crossing over the overpass, and I dreaded that downhill since I knew we’d just have to go up it again. At this point I passed the 5th place woman who had pulled away from me in the first 5K. I had stared at her back long enough that I recognized her despite the decently large crowd of half marathon runners. I tried to get her to come with me but pulled away.
After the climb back over the overpass, we started the long downhill into the city. And at this point, I knew I’d have a problem. My pace was still fine, but on those downhills, my calves (gastrocs) were giving me that shaky feeling like they were ready to give out on me. I took my fourth gel at mile 18.
By mile 20, we were briefly back in the city before we’d head out for our third and final out and back loop. And I knew from my shakeout run on Saturday that this out and back wouldn’t be fun. At this point, I just wanted to keep my pace as long as I could. Which it turned out wouldn’t be that long. This is the point when I really felt the lack of endurance from my limited long runs.
6:54, 7:12, 6:57, 7:08
I saw my husband at mile 21 and then the struggle really began – mentally and physically. Mile 21 started with a really minor 25 foot climb. Then mile 22 took you up 50 feet in about 0.33 miles. (I also took my fifth and last Maurten gel.) Then, cruelly, mile 24 takes you down 50 ft only to take you back up it 0.25 miles later, only to go BACK DOWN 50 ft and back up it, to crest that final hill at mile 25.5.
Mentally and physically I was spent on those hills. And suddenly I wasn’t happy to be surrounded by all those half runners any more. Having them tell me I could make it up the hill when they were at mile 12 of a race I was at mile 25 for made me unreasonably angry. Good ol’ marathon brain.
At mile 23, my projected race pace was about 3:02. Over the last three miles, as I walked on a number of the hills, I watched it slip. And I had that internal debate over how much I really wanted a PR and how much more pain I could handle. I cursed my lack of long runs. I cursed my lack of hill training and just wanted it to be over. When I finally crest that final hill at mile 25.5, I told myself I wasn’t allowed to walk any more, I told myself that all I had to do was fall down that last downhill, let gravity carry me to the finish.
Apparently that image of letting myself fall to the finish did wonders for my form, because although I personally felt like the T-rex diving headfirst and I try to get away from the impending meteor strike, I don’t look that bad in the pictures. Still, each stride hurt and it took all I had to keep pushing when I saw that I would only PR if I gave it everything I had. At this point, the woman I had passed back around mile 16 passed me again and I couldn’t chase her. All I could do was keep going. At this point, it was all heart and it worked.
14:09 [mile 21 + 22], 7:25, 7:53, 8:52, 7:39, 1:33 (0.2)
Official Finish: 3:06:23 – an 11 second PR. 6th woman, 65th Overall.
I was so relieved and so happy crossing that finish line. Relieved that it was over. Relieved that I hadn’t totally deluded myself in my training and comeback. And happy to have this comeback, three years in the making, behind me. Happy to know that my PR wasn’t a one-time fluke. Happy that I trained for a marathon and made it to the finish healthy.
Getting to this finish line required a fundamental shift in how I approached my training and overall health. Most of my workouts were at goal marathon pace. My average weekly mileage was 8 mile per week less than when I last ran my PR and about 15 miles less than my last training cycle.
Lesson #5: High mileage isn’t everything. Don’t let the desire to run as many miles as someone else distract you from your big picture goals.
And on top of that, I’m about 8 pounds heavier than I last ran 3:06 and 10 pounds heavier than when I ran Boston. I stopped tracking calories about six months ago. I stopped weighing myself all the time. Over the last 3 months, my weight has held steady without tracking anything. It hasn’t gone down, sadly, but it also hasn’t gone up. It has found its equilibrium.
As a woman in our society, accepting my current weight was hard. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel fat on every starting line and around other women in the sport. But I learned that my “race weight” was just a number I invented and that I was trying to force my body to be something it wasn’t meant to be.
Lesson #6: Running is more important to me than meeting some arbitrary race weight or than trying to look like other runners around me.
Looking Forward Chicago, then Boston and then the unknown. I’m a 30 year old married woman. My days of being selfish are limited because my husband and I do want kids. I’m hoping to make the most out of the next year before turning my focus elsewhere. This is a big reason why the past three years have been particularly hard for me – it was hard not to feel like I was losing my opportunity to better myself at this sport I so love. It was hard not to feel like I was running out of time.
This is the next thing I’m working on: learning how to love the sport and love the opportunity to push myself and grow without losing sight of everything else.
TL;DR I struggled for three years and all I got was this 11 second PR. JK – I love each and every one of those seconds with all my heart.