Brace Yourself: Houston Marathon Race Report

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A kiss for my mama at the finish (Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik)

On Wednesday, we laid my mother to rest.

On Sunday I ran the Houston Marathon and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials. It was the last possible date to do so. I was wearing my mother’s ring and holding back tears.

On the first day of the New Year, my Dad had called during dinner. Immediately, I threw a few items in a case and engaged in a panic-filled, adrenaline-fuelled 5-hour night drive. During which time I clung to the hope that I would arrive and miraculously everything would be ok. We’ve made a mistake, they’d say. She’ll be just fine, they’d say. After all, if anyone could beat the odds it was her. She always was a tough one.

But it wasn’t ok. She had suffered a massive brain aneurysm. Which then caused her to suffer a cardiac arrest. Which threw a blood clot into her brain. Which led to a stroke. The stroke that eventually obliterated her entire right frontal cortex. As if that wasn’t enough, when she lost consciousness, she had aspirated fluid, later developing severe pneumonia. When the full picture about her condition emerged, it quickly became clear that my mother’s condition was almost hopeless.

Yet hope we did. What else could we do? While simultaneously bracing for the worst, my Dad and I, and later my brother, who flew across from England, spent agonizing days at the hospital by her side. We were desperately searching for signs that she would come back to us. It was utterly alien territory and we were unsure how interpret her ‘poor’ (hospital-terminology) responses. We were told she was a ‘5’ on the scale of consciousness used by the medical profession. We knew that this was the worst possible score, but I only looked it up for the first time in writing this blog. The brief description cuts to the bone. Level 5: deep coma; decerebrate rigidity; moribund. Chance of survival: 10%. Regardless of the grave assessment, we talked to her as she lay unconscious and intubated. We told her what she meant to us, why we needed her so very much.

When the time came, we held her hands and gently stroked her hair as she passed. The heart-wrenching hospital visits ended, but a new undertaking awaited. We worked as a family on the myriad arrangements, and there was much to do. We spent two days searching through thousands of photos, organizing them by date and selecting only the very most meaningful for an electronic photo gallery to be played at her service. Moments captured that made us laugh and cry, but most of all, remember. Things and times I had long since forgotten became instantly, immeasurably, treasured. Heed this: take more photographs.

Wednesday’s service was a beautiful tribute to her life of joy, adventure and laughter. When we arrived home late on Thursday I quickly unpacked and repacked a case for Houston and set the early alarm to catch my morning flight out of LAX. One busy activity rolled into another. For over two weeks, each waking moment had been filled with tension, tasks, grief, too-little sleep. Or running. Never have I been more grateful for the outlet of running.

I arrived in Houston late on Friday afternoon. Collected my bib, hopped on the hotel treadmill, got food, fell into bed. A familiar sense of hustle.

Then, on Saturday, for the first time since my Dad had called to say my Mum collapsed and was being airlifted to UCSF ICU, I found myself alone in a quiet hotel room. There for the sole purpose of running my fastest marathon to date and qualifying for the Olympic Trials. In the silence, my world abruptly stopped turning so confusingly fast. At last I tuned inwards. How was I feeling as I readied for the next day’s race? Beyond exhausted. Emotionally wrecked. Empty.

I was awoken on Sunday morning at 12:30am by a piercing, crushing headache. Two Tylenol, a few more fragments of sleep, and it was go-time. My head throbbed mercilessly under the quilt of acetaminophen, but it eventually subsided before the start.

As a new American citizen, I wept at the national anthem, choking back emotions that were all too ready to spring to the forefront once more. The gun went off and I tried to settle into a rhythm. I took great comfort from a training block that assured me I was more than capable of doing this. No matter what the day brought, I held myself to meet the task at hand unrelentingly, to get the job done. Nothing else would suffice.

Predictably, there was nothing easy about it. My body ached and grumbled almost from the start, pleading with me to stop this madness. There was no lightness, no flow. Even the early miles took commitment, effort, focus. I shut it out and thought of all the people who believed in me. I thought about pain and how nothing could compare to the last couple of weeks. If there was a mantra I held dear in this race, it quickly became the lie I told myself over and over. There is no pain. There is no pain. There is no pain. Sure there was — a virtual avalanche of the stuff — but it wasn’t enough to stop me. Not today.

The mental intensity I mustered to continue running at a qualifying pace was ugly. It was so much that I could not gather the physical strength to take my usual last gel at mile 21/22. It sat right there in my pocket. I thought about it a lot in those last miles. I really should take that gel, I thought. It would help, I thought. But I knew that if I did, the effort of carrying out this small, simple act would break my stride, and with it risk breaking my very will to continue. So I didn’t.

I crossed the finish line, expecting a flood of emotions to hit me. I kissed the ring I had worn in my mother’s honor and blew it to the sky. In truth, all I felt was a sense of calm relief. A goal so outrageous that I couldn’t even acknowledge it out loud at the beginning of 2015 had been achieved. It brought me a moment of peace in a storm of tumultuous emotions. My efforts had been worthwhile. I had done it, and Mum would have been so very proud.

2:44:25 (gun), 21st female, 6th American, 2nd Masters

Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik

Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik

Equipment/Nutrition/Coaching:  Note, this is a mixture of sponsors and non-sponsors. There’s no favoritism here. It’s just what I use because I like it.

Nike gear:

  • Lunar Racer shoes
  • Epic Run shorts
  • Western States Nike Trail team singlet
  • Sunglasses: Run X2 S

Pre-race fuel:

  • 2.5 hours before: bowl of oatmeal with whole milk and sugar, cup of black tea, cup of coffee
  • 1 hour before: 2 scoops Gen UCan (I like Tropical Orange or Pomegranate-Blueberry)
  • 10 mins before race: 1 Mountain Berry VFuel gel, sips of water

In race-fuel:

  • VFuel gels, Mountain Berry flavor (at miles 6, 12, 17)
  • Sips of water from Dixie cups

VFuel have been my go-to gels for a couple of years now. Why:

  1. They *never* upset my stomach, even without water
  2. They aren’t as thick as some other gels out there
  3. They taste great

Post-race recovery:

  • Picky Bar (favorites are Need for Seed, All in Almond or Blueberry Boomdizzle)
  • 2 scoops of Hammer Recoverite (Strawberry)
  • An enormous protein and carb-rich meal
  • Celebratory beer

Coaching: Mario Fraioli

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Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon Race Report

Eyes fixed firmly on the clock at the finish line (Photo: Finisher Pix)

Eyes fixed firmly on the clock at the finish line (Photo: Finisher Pix)

Oh man. They got me. One solid road race performance and all I can think is, I wanna do that again. Faster.

It doesn’t hurt that this is undoubtedly one of the coolest half marathon races going. Wine country? Yep. Elite athlete field with — in running circles at least — household name appearances? Got that. Gorgeous scenery? Uh-huh. Fast course? Well, ask new course record holder Sara Hall, who ran an impressive 1:13:16 or defending four-time champ Tesfaye Alemayehu who ran a 1:03:22, and holds the men’s course record of 1:02:38, and I’d venture to say, yes, the course is fast. Just enough spectators to make you feel appreciated and add an energy boost? Definitely. Rare combo of a small town feel, but decent sized race? Yeah, it’s got that too. Apparently there’s also a pretty awesome party on the Sonoma town Plaza after the event, but I had a plane to catch. Next time.

The race begins at Cuvaison winery, with truly awe-inspiring views of rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see. It would be a good way to start, well, anything. The day before, I had driven the course and to be honest it made me a smidge nervous. They don’t call that first incline “butt burner” for nothing. Says an ultrarunner. But you know what? On the day, it barely registered. I should have known. I frequently find hills that seem intimidating from the perspective of car windows are much easier on foot. Plus, since the hill occurs at the very start of the course – with, thank you very much, a nice down-slope leading in to it to get turnover going — I felt like I just floated right up and over. It didn’t hurt that for a few seconds at least I was running only a little behind Runner’s World columnist, 5000m specialist and Oiselle pro athlete Lauren Fleshman. That’s pretty decent motivation, even if I had to cool it after that so as not to race the first few miles like a 5k, which would have spelt disaster. The few rollers that followed were fairly gentle, and net downhill. There was plenty of stunning scenery to distract if you looked, but the truth is, most of the time I was so focused on my race, my breathing, my pacing, that it all went by in a blur. A shame really, but I’d had the whole week in Napa to enjoy wine country already.

My coaches had emphasized the importance of trying to negative split the race, that is, to run the second half faster than the first. Wise advice, especially since my tendency is to go out burning hot and find I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. It’s simply lack of experience, ridiculous enthusiasm for this incredible sport and, yes, unwarranted over-confidence. I’m getting better. Still, I imagine it’s something I’ll always struggle with, particularly over shorter distances which seem deceptively “easier” somehow — which in reality, of course, they are not.

Each mile took focus and concentration to sustain the effort, but I felt in control and capable of more, more, more. Then, right around mile 7, I started to feel an uneasiness in my stomach. Having dealt with some monster stomach issues in the past, this made me, let’s just say, a tad anxious. The plan was to take my one and only gel around mile eight. Aid stations were spaced around miles 7.5 and 8.5 for this portion of the course. If I was going to take my gel as scheduled, I had to choose an aid station, since I wanted a gulp of water to accompany my gel. I took a gamble that the nausea was simply the very beginning stages of fatigue or an indication of my effort-level and that the gel could help, so I downed it right before the 7.5 mile aid station, grabbing some water on the way out. I have great faith in my gels, which has been a real trial and error process for me  — mostly a series of big, ugly errors — and now that I have found ones that work it makes taking a risk with a dodgy tummy at least plausible. (In case you’re wondering, I use VFuel gels and have never, not once, suffered stomach issues with them no matter the pace. Also, no, they don’t sponsor me but, yes, wouldn’t that be lovely. Hey, a gal can dream). Miraculously, the gel settled my stomach and I continued on my way feeling better than ever and determined to keep up the pace until the finish line.

I’ve been reading a lot about mental conditioning for races lately. It’s a topic that fascinates me, especially since I tend to struggle deeply with negativity toward the end of an ultra. I was determined to push any unproductive thoughts away the moment they entered my head. I kept telling myself all manner of reasonably cheesy self-cheerleading things like “you got this!” “stay strong” “make it happen” and my personal favorite “how bad do you want it?” (oh, I want it bad). You know what? Not one single negative thought successfully crept in. I did stay strong. I did make it happen. On that day, I gave what I had to give. I even negative split (who, me? yes, me!).

Now that the race is over, I can’t wait to do it all again at November’s Temecula Wine Country Half Marathon — only, you know, faster.

1:22:54 (PR)

With Olympian, 2014 Boston Marathon winner, and all-around amazing/inspirational human being, Meb Keflezighi

With Olympian, 2014 Boston Marathon winner, and all-around amazing/inspirational human being, Meb Keflezighi

With 2nd place finisher Lauren Fleshman. Who is also pretty darn awesome.

With 2nd place finisher Lauren Fleshman. Who is also pretty darn awesome.