When a Step Back is the Way Forward: Chicago Marathon Race Report

Brimming with misplaced optimism on marathon morning (Photo: random stranger)

Brimming with misplaced optimism on marathon morning (Photo: random stranger)

It’s never too late to be what you might have been.

– George Eliot

About three weeks before the Chicago Marathon, I knew I had a problem. All my runs felt like crud. (See? Problem!)

Where I had been running long tempos feeling like marathon pace was a breeze, now I couldn’t hold it for more than a few miles without gasping for breath or desperately pushing through wet cement. Even though there was no specific part of my body that raised a red flag, my muscles were perennially tight. I felt stiff and slow, on the road as well as off.

So what went wrong? I have some ideas:

  1. Too much … of everything. Too many miles. Too many workouts. I’ve lost count of the number of 100+ mile weeks I’ve had lately, with days off a rarity. I also started a new job, so life was busier than usual. I love my job, but it’s still a time commitment that adds one more ball to the juggling show.
  2. I’ve been primarily self-coaching for a few months now. Seems like I might need a guide to save me from myself.
  3. I committed the cardinal sin of going deep into the well in a training race too close to my goal race. The Ventura Half should have been a comfortable long tempo, not the main event. But I went out a little fast and had to push hard (like, really hard) the last four miles to avoid a total meltdown. Directly afterwards, I ran a six mile cool down, capping off an almost 90 mile week. The next day, it was back to training as though the race hadn’t happened.

I know, I know. Hindsight 20/20.

It’s not the first time the lead up to a focus race has left me feeling low. Before running the Boston Marathon in April, I had a similar sense that it had all been too much, too soon. Again, my body felt indescribably “off.” That time it was not due so much to overreaching in my running, but rather a lack of attention to the importance of getting plenty of rest to balance the workload. I decided to run Boston anyway, and a disappointingly slow marathon ensued. A couple of weeks later, I became injured.

Last year, I also ran Ice Age 50 miler when I knew I was tired from a bout of back-to-back racing. I stubbornly held on until mile 47 in that race, earning myself a torn calf muscle that put training on hold for weeks. My only other DNF.

So much has been written lately about overtraining that it’s hard not to pay attention. Once the warning signals manifested this time around, I knew I had to back way, way off. I’d been emailing back and forth with Nike teammate David Roche on some training ideas, and thankfully he steered me in the right direction. I’m not sure if I would have had the willpower alone to cut back so dramatically, but I’m quite certain doing so saved me from longer term damage. In fact, by the time race week came along, there was even a little pep in my step. I thought there was a chance of a good race. I’d put in the work (and then some), so it was just a question of whether my body had bounced back in time.

The reality is, that’s something you can never be sure about until you get out of the starting gate and run a few miles. So I took the plunge, hoping against hope that it would work out. If not an Olympic Trials Qualifier, then at least maybe another PR — something to build on for next time. But true to form, my PRs don’t seem to come in increments, but either not at all or in great heaping chunks (usually after a setback).

By mile four I knew I was in trouble. Keep going, I said to myself. It might turn around. My legs felt heavy, my breathing too hard. I had thought that a bunch of OTQ-focused ladies would go out in a pack and hang tight, but it didn’t happen. It also didn’t help that the tall buildings rendered my GPS useless. It vacillated between telling me I was running 5:30 pace and 7 min pace. Since my Garmin is usually pretty reliable, I didn’t figure out until later what was going on.

If I hadn’t been having such a rough go of it I’d really enjoy the course. I love Chicago in the fall. Having lived in the suburbs for about ten years, it was something of a homecoming. I treasured the memories that came floating into my head as the race progressed. Live blues bands, dark bars. Volleyball with friends along the lakefront. Clubbing til the early hours on a fake ID in Wrigleyville. Smoking a vanilla cigar (so gross!) at the Crow Bar. Sox games, beer, hot dogs. So much you don’t know about my misspent youth!

Also swirling around in my head was some other hard-earned life wisdom. I knew that with each passing mile I tried to beat my body into submission came an increased risk of injury, whether during the race or after. It was time to stop. So at mile 14, I did. While I hope never to DNF again, I can honestly say I have no regrets about it.

The good news is that I believe this can be turned around with a brief prescription of rest, yoga and a sprinkling of cross training. My sense is, I’m right on the verge of climbing back out. If I’d continued pushing and completed Chicago, that wouldn’t be the case. I’m committed to finishing what I start, but I’m not willing to do that at the expense of my long-term well being.

I’m learning to respect the process. During this cycle, I’m excited to say that workouts took me to a whole new level of fitness (right before I cratered). I’m confident that one day in the not too distant future, if I play my cards right, I’ll earn the right to reap the reward of all that hard work. Like I did at Santa Rosa. It’s easy to take a perfect race like Santa Rosa for granted and feel that maybe I could have given more. Harder to embrace it for the rare gift that it is.

Nothing can stop me believing that I have a great deal more I’m capable of. I continue to be optimistic: it’s who I am and I couldn’t change that if I tried. That’s why I included the George Eliot quote above. I came into running later in life, and there’s so much I want to do! Sure, time is not on my side, but it’s NOT too late to chase outrageous goals. That’s all part of the fun. Maybe sub 2:43 won’t happen this year, but maybe sub 2:40 will come next year. (Yes, I’m serious. It’s okay, YOU don’t have to believe. Only I do). Whatever the outcome, it’s never too late to try.

At this point, I’ll confess to feeling a little road weary. And I’m not sure exactly where that leaves me. After taking the break I need, do I try again for an OTQ or do I switch gears and target some ultra goals?

I have no idea, but I do know I miss the trails. We moved to a new area and I haven’t even had the opportunity to see what’s out there.

So… no goal setting for me for at least a couple of low-key weeks. Nope, it’s time to go exploring!