Hot Enough For Bikinis: Olympic Marathon Trials Race Report

 

Enjoying a brief moment of shade on the first loop. (Photo Credit: Tim Meigs)

Enjoying a brief moment of shade on the first loop. (Photo Credit: Tim Meigs)

“You’re here! You made it! You’re running in the Olympic Marathon Trials! You are my inspiration! Make today count!” shouts the world’s best spectator, who is literally jumping up and down, arms pumping wildly with enthusiasm as she stands on top of a concrete post at the USC campus. It’s the first lap, and she’s no less animated on the second, the third or even the fourth. Come the final, fourth lap, though and I decide to throw some love back her way. Fixing her in the eye, I yell “THANK YOU! Thank you for being out here supporting us. You’re amazing!” Momentarily, she ceases her tireless cheering, flashes me a smile of gratitude, and then proceeds to get right back to the task at hand. By this point in the race the front runners have long since passed, Olympic rings branded on the podium finishers on the sizzling tarmac. Lap four, and the spectator is no longer encouraging the lead pack with her seemingly endless fervor. Instead, she’s doing her very best to rally some of the nation’s fastest marathoners as they suffer through classic marathon apocalypse.

For as tough as my race was, I had plenty of distinguished company. The stats are telling. Two hundred and forty six women ran under 2:45:00 to qualify for the Trials. With a relatively generous two-and-a-half year qualifying window, it’s safe to say these are currently the top marathoners in the country. Fast forward to the Trials, though, and the numbers start to get a little funky. Of the 198 women who started the race, a full 49 of them didn’t finish — 25% of the field. It’s even worse on the men’s side, where there were 166 starters and 61 drops, a 37% attrition rate. Moreover, on the day, only 18 men and 40 women were able to run paces that would have met the bare-minimum qualifying standard to be there in the first place. I started the race ranked #159 and ended #108. If you ignore my slowest-in-two-years finishing time and simply look at finishing place, it appears as though I had a stellar day out there. Professional marathoners far more accomplished than I trailed behind, including two members of the famed Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, as well as several 2:30-something marathoners and sub-1:15 half marathoners.

Photo: Robert Boller

The route sure was spectator friendly, though not exactly scenic. Photo: Leilani Rios

I only just ‘squeaked’ into the Trials. So why was I in such unexpectedly esteemed company? The course’s 80+ turns didn’t help, but mostly it was the weather. At the athlete technical meeting at 4pm the night before the race, we were told the women’s start would be 77 degrees, with temperatures rapidly climbing to a high of 81. As if that’s not crazy hot enough, it always feels so much worse early-season, especially on radiating, shadeless asphalt.  In the end, actual temperatures were somewhat lower. Despite this, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any runner who didn’t think it felt every inch as oppressively, stiflingly hot as forecasted. Even though I had tried to squeeze in some last-minute heat training, it simply wasn’t enough to prepare me. It’s one thing to run in warm weather and quite another to run fast. On the wise advice of my coach, I started conservatively due to the conditions. Still, my overheated body threw on the emergency brake with a long ten miles to go, and thus began my descent into the apocalypse.

Lap 1: I’m at the Olympic Trials! This is freakin’ awesome!!

Lap 2: Slow, but still awesome!

Hot and lonely (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

And, then there’s Lap 4: hot, lonely sufferfest in full swing (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

There were many reasons I didn’t give up. My Dad had come to watch me for the very first time and my kids were out there. I couldn’t face letting them down. The painful events of the past few weeks left me comfortable with the suffering, those I’ve lost ever-present in my thoughts. At the same time, I relished the raucous cheering of the plentiful crowds, thrilled to hear people calling me by my first name many times (only my last name was printed on my bib!). Most of all, I continued because when I look back on the experience, I wanted to be able to know I did it. No mental asterisk, no qualification. When I finally made it within sight of the finish line, I took a long few moments to savor it. To soak in the applause and to appreciate that I had run against the country’s fastest. To know that in a lifetime of events, this is surely one of the most special, most magical of them all. It had been a rough day for so many, but the real prize, at least for me, was in being there.

I’ll finish with a few tricks, tips and observations that proved useful on Saturday, as well as some things I learned about the world of professional marathoning:

  1. When the forecast calls for warm weather, it may sound extreme, but consider investing in an ice vest. I was surprised to see that there were dozens of marathoners pre-cooling with them before the race. Men’s champion Galen Rupp even used some high-tech ice mittens in conjunction with the more ‘traditional’ ice vest.
  2. I was far too conservatively dressed, being one of about three ladies not wearing race briefs. I imagine it would be quite freeing to run around in my undies, and I’m definitely going to try this at my earliest road-racing opportunity. (I don’t think they’re really the done-thing on the ultra scene). I took inspiration from the fact that just about everyone was doing it, even the ones who, like me, don’t quite have the rockin’ bod of Amy Cragg.
    Ladies in bikinis: I mean, they look good! (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Ladies running in bikinis: It’s genius! I love it! (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Running with practically the only other girl who isn't wearing briefs. (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

    Running with practically the only other girl who isn’t wearing briefs. This must be early. I look happy and there is shade. (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

  3. Heat train. What’s the downside? None. Upside, potentially lots. Unfortunately, I live in a fairly rural area with only one sauna that I know of, and it’s at a hotel. And they won’t let me use it. Boo-hiss.
  4. If you’re lucky enough to have access to personal fluids during a marathon, put a handle on the top, so you can grab it easily while running. With this approach, out of eight bottles, I only missed one. Between perspiring hands and a relatively fast pace, it’s harder than you might anticipate to pick up and keep hold of your bottle. Also, consider how much fluid you’ll actually drink. Even on a day as hot as Saturday, I struggled to down more than about 4oz from each water bottle, yet I had mixed the VFuel concentration as though I was consuming all 8oz each time. Given that I failed to grab one bottle, this meant I consumed less half the calories I normally would in a marathon, a huge miss. (As a side note, I give enormous credit to the race organization for successfully executing the largest personal fluids operation in race history. It was flawless.)

    Effective water bottle technique

    Effective water bottle technique.

  5. Note to race organizers: if you’re kind enough to set out water bottles for hydration or cooling, please consider asking the volunteers to loosen the lids first. It’s a small thing, but without it, the ‘neutral water’ station we passed multiple times on the course became a horrible tease. I’d pick up a bottle and try as I might my sweaty palms could not open the dang thing. I tried hands, I tried teeth, but those Dansani bottle tops are practically glued on.  Eventually, I would have to throw it down on the ground, unopened, which was impressively frustrating.
  6. Always view the big picture. For as hard as parts of the race were, I never lost track of my joy. My gratitude. The fact that participating in the Olympic Marathon Trials is a momentous moment in my life and my finishing place in it largely irrelevant. I took the time to soak in every precious drop of the beauty in the accomplishment. I will never, ever forget.
  7. To all who organized, supported and sacrificed to make #LA2016 happen, not just for me, but for every runner entering the race, we owe you an unpayable debt of appreciation. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! We couldn’t do it without you. Truly, this was your moment too.
    My support team (Photo: Robert Boller)

    My support team (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Photo: Robert Boller

    Photo: Robert Boller

    Still covered in salt after the race, but at least I have my priorities straight (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Still covered in salt after the race, but at least I have my priorities straight (Photo: Robert Boller)

    imageimage

Brace Yourself: Houston Marathon Race Report

image

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

078_78