Sometimes my coach swears. It’s not often. But sometimes he does. And that’s when I know he means business. When I saw this in my training plan, I was shocked. Shocked and doubtful. You see–I’m a perfectionist. Type A. Meticulous. Over-achiever. Call it what you will…but I like things when they line up perfectly. The training leading up to Hartford was not perfect.
First, I had to dig myself out of the hole I put myself in from the Boston/Buffalo double marathon thing. I finished Buffalo with a busted ego and hamstring that was just about torn to shreds. It took a month of very little running and LOTS of strength training to start feeling better again. Even still, in July, I found the only thing that made me feel better was maintaining 2x/week 90-minute strength sessions on top of mileage that was gradually increasing.
But by the end of July, the pieces seemed to be falling back together! I was feeling stronger and recovered, and ran a 61 mile week the first week of August–my highest mileage since marathon training–and I was feeling strong. I wanted to try to hit 1:23-24 at Hartford, and it seemed scary…but attainable
But then August wasn’t a kind month to me. I dealt with a family death and the sudden loss of my dear kitty, Fred.
So I took a string of days off and none of my workouts felt great once I got back into things. It seemed as though I had taken a huge step backwards. And, of course, I became my own worst enemy, comparing workouts to when I did them before Boston. Before Boston, I felt like I was on fire. Everything felt great. Everything felt easy. I felt SO FAST. Now? In August? I felt slow. Everything felt hard.
“You can’t compare training blocks,” my coach (James) told me. I tried to believe that, but it’s so easy to compare.
Then, as though August couldn’t get any worse, I scored my first DNF at the end of the month. It was a 10k…a 10k I actually had a GREAT run at last year. My stomach had been off that entire morning, but I didn’t think twice about it until I was in the middle of the race and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Something didn’t feel right…so I stepped off the course.
The week after the 10k was the New Haven 20k, which I went into as a training run with ZERO expectations. I even taped the face of my watch and decided to run the race entirely by feel. No watch checking allowed. My goals were:
1 – negative split the race
2 – run my OWN race. No getting swept up in the raceday commotion
3 – a PR would be cool
I honestly anticipated running 7:00 pace the entire time. I have TERRIBLE runners math, so even though I looked at the clocks on the course, I truly was pretty clueless about the pace I was running. I just wanted to feel STRONG. When I crossed the finish line and ripped the tape off my watch, I was completely shocked at how fast I had run. I finished in 1:23:09 and ran the second half 13 seconds faster than the first. Mission accomplished! I even scored a new 20k PR out of the day AND a personal course record by over 5 minutes.
September was off with a bang! I had 4 weeks to get my shit together for Hartford.
But then I had another family death, which was heartbreaking. This was turning into the summer from hell.
I kept looking ahead, though. Tried to stay positive. The week after New Haven, I ran a 65 mile week with a killer 4×2 mile + 1 mile hard workout embedded in a local half marathon (I even finished in 5th place with a 1:31). Maybe things were turning around?!
…but a few days later, I woke up Monday morning with an acute case of Achilles tendonitis. Like…REALLY bad. Sometimes my Achilles flares up, but it’s usually fine after a day of rest. This time, it was completely debilitating. I took most of the week completely off from running…received dry needling treatment on Friday…and FINALLY ran without pain a few hours after receiving the treatment. But at this point, I had taken over a week off from speed and several consecutive days of no running–during the most important point of training.
I told James I thought I should bag Hartford. The Achilles injury was the icing on the cake to a shitty summer of training…I was surely doomed. He insisted I’d be okay; that this was just a hiccup. I tried to believe, but I really didn’t.
My final tempo leading up to Hartford was 3×3 @ 6:43 – a workout I’ve done plenty of times before, with ease. I went into the workout pretty excited…and finished feeling deflated. I had hit my paces…but I was sucking some serious wind. How was I supposed to run a half marathon at that pace…and faster????
Bottom line: everything felt just so damn hard. 6:40s? Hard. 6:20s? Harder. Sub-6 intervals? Impossible. So when James gave me my plan for the race, I laughed:
This should be read as:
- 6:35-40 through mile 3
- Hit sub-20 at mile 3
- Miles 4-10, run between 6:25-35, “but don’t go below 6:25”
- 5k -> GO, but focus on controlled effort, between 6-6:20
I wrote the plan down but maybe glanced at it twice before the race. It looked nice on paper…but executing it? Doubtful. To be honest, I was shocked that he even gave me such an aggressive plan. I truly thought I’d run around a 1:27-28. “He’s just being optimistic,” I told myself. When he instructed me not to go below 6:25 in the middle section of the race, I assured him, “that won’t be an issue.”
Of course I was hopeful. How could I not be? For the first time in a very long time, I had been training well for over a year with no major injury or interruptions…I was overdue for a great race. I also felt super healthy! Zero nags or issues in my legs to complain about, unlike most of my other races this year. And, having not raced since April/May, I was HUNGRY for a fast run. But with the way the summer’s training had gone, I was very doubtful.
And somehow…it worked. Something happened when I got to the race, and everything clicked. That “magical race day” that so infrequently happens…happened…and I walked away with a PR, but most importantly, a solid run.
Miles 1-3: 6:27, 6:34, 6:29
Alright. Not according to plan. But as soon as I started, I knew something was right in my legs. For the first time in literally MONTHS, my legs felt light and springy. Bouncing from one foot to another felt effortless. My breathing was easy. I felt timid…but optimistic. I ran through the center of Hartford and saw lots of friends I know, so the first mile flew by.
I said, “today is going to be a good day,” very early to myself in the race.
I settled into a rhythm alongside a guy pretty quickly as we got into the second mile. He had a thick accent-I’m not sure where he was from-but he asked me, “are we running sub-90 right now?” I snickered and said, “uh…yah,” as we ticked to a 6:34 mile together.
I quickly checked my watch at the 3 mile mark and it said 19:30. “Perfect,” I told myself.
5k – 20:10 (6:30 avg)
As we cruised through the first 5k mat, I immediately thought of James and how he would get the alert. “This is the point where he knows I feel really good.” I was a little faster than the plan, but I don’t regret it. The first few miles of the course is a bit of a net loss, so I was fine being a little quick. And besides: my high school coach had recently posted this to my Facebook page after hearing about my “blind” New Haven 20k experience:
The watch often clouds our judgment…if it says we’re going too fast, we worry; if it says we’re too slow or off pace, we wilt….going by ‘feel’ is often the best way forward…
Mile 4: 6:33
The Hartford Half course is not flat. Garmin gives it 324ft of elevation and Strava gives it 421ft…so I assume, the true gain is somewhere in between. BUT, it is a very forgiving course. There is only one hill that’s truly horrible (the one at 10.2)…the rest are pretty manageable.
Because I ran Hartford last year, I knew the first steady incline would begin at mile 4. In here, I found myself settling in the high 6:40s, which wasn’t the plan. Usually, I would’ve just sat pretty and stayed comfortable. But today was about having faith and following the plan. One of my close friends said before the race, “you have to just run the mile you’re in. Focus on one mile at a time…then reevaluate. Don’t think about the rest of the run. Run each mile individually and don’t get ahead of yourself.” -so that’s what I did.
I increased my cadence for a short, 30-second burst…and my overall pace settled back down to the 6:30s. Perfect.
Mile 5: 6:45
The hill continues at a much steeper grade from mile 4 into 5. Instead of focusing on the pace this time, I focused on just getting over the hill. I saw my watch tick 6:45, but I didn’t panic. I thought, “you ran the first 3 miles a little quick. That was your cushion. Now continue to push this pace and run this damn race.”
Mile 6: 6:26
Once I got over the hill, I was running under 6:25 and I chuckled. James was right. I was going to be running in the high 6:20s with no problem. I tempered the pace and did a body check. My legs still felt REALLY good. My breathing was good. I was enjoying myself and actually smiling at the crowds on the side of the street. I thought about how tired I had felt at mile 6 in the New Haven 20k…but today I felt great.
And this is where I started repeating positive words over and over in my head, because this is a portion of the course that tends to get a little lonely. Cheesy, I know. But it worked. The mile 6 mantra was “believe.”
“Believe,” I whispered to myself. “Believe that this PR will happen today. Believe you are ready. Believe your training is behind you. Believe. Believe. Believe.”
10k – 40:35 (6:32 avg)
“That’s a PR” was my first thought. My second thought was, “this is where people tracking me know I’m really going for it. Can’t fuck up now.”
Miles 7-8: 6:28, 6:40
I couldn’t believe it was already mile 7. This thing was already over halfway through, and I still felt really great. I wasn’t paying too much attention to my pace, but I was still in mild disbelief that sub 6:30 felt so easy.
I had been dreading mile 8 for most of the race. It’s a short hill, but the steepest grade of the entire race. I got to the top feeling pretty dogged, but didn’t take my foot off the gas, as I normally might have in the past. James had reminded me before the race not to be afraid of breathing heavy mid-race, and to not be afraid of getting to a top of a hill and feeling tired: my training would recover my body quickly and I’d be able to push the pace once I crested the top.
Miles 9 & 10 – 6:30, 6:25
And he was right. I entered into Elizabeth Park and recovered fairly quickly. My legs still had some pop but it was the first point of the race where I felt like I was starting to push a little bit. I joked to a guy running next to me, “that hill sucked!” and he laughed, agreeing.
I had already caught up with several girls who started in front of me, but at this point, I caught up with Anne, a runner from West Hartford who I’ve briefly met before. I said hello and we worked together for a few miles. It was really nice to see a friendly and encouraging face on the course.
15k – 1:00:59 (6:33 avg)
The most fun part of the course, in my opinion, is from mile 9.5-10.2. You exit Elizabeth Park and go down this looooong decline, and you start your journey back into the city of Hartford. I cruised down the hill pretty easily, dreading for the mountain that was about to come.
I hit mile 10 in just over 65 minutes with ease and thought, “wow, that’s a first.”
Mile 11 – 6:44
Ugh. The hill. I didn’t even look at my watch to see what pace I was running. I just needed the hill to be OVER with. For the first time in the race, I was really tired.
I started repeating my second mantra of the race that popped into my head: “demons out,” as James had written in my training plan. HA…I don’t even know what that means. I just knew I’d be smooth sailing once I got over the hill.
Miles 12-13.1 – 6:27, 6:27, final .15 in 5:31
I got to the top of the hill and let my legs go as much as they could. My new mantra was: “recover…recover…recover,” because the final hill had totally killed me, and I needed my breathing to settle down and my heart to stop pounding. I did a quick pace check and was shocked to be around 6:15 on the downhill entering into the city–I felt like I had bricks on my feet. Unfortunately, there’s a baby hill just before the mile 12 mark, so my pace plummeted and I only averaged 6:27 for the mile. Crap!
It was the first time the entire race, I wanted to be done. I remember thinking how wonderful it was that it took me until mile 12 to feel this way, whereas in past half marathons, I’ve started feeling awful around mile 8. Positivity!
One of the McKirdy Trained athletes, Herry, passed me in here too. He FLEW by my left side, and turned around saying, “COME ON,” trying to drag my sorry ass along. I had nothing left. Nothing. I remember closing my eyes in pain at one point, thinking “THIS. NEEDS. TO. END.”
From mile 12-12.5, I was in a world of hurt, barely running under 7:00. Running 1 more mile seemed like an eternity. “Shit, Mary. You’re about to lose your PR,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t believe it was slipping away after having run such a perfect race.
Then, I don’t know what made me do it…but I looked up and saw one of the towers of the Memorial Arches that we cross as we finish the race.
“HOLY SHIT. The finish is literally right there.”
I let everything go and broke out into a full-on sprint towards the finish line. If I hadn’t looked up to see the towers at that very moment, I don’t know if I would’ve broken 1:26. The race photographer even caught me at the very moment I looked up and saw the tip of the arch:
My pace dropped from a 7:07 to a 6:07, as I had no clue what my overall time was, but I knew I needed to hurry the hell up. You make two quick right turns before you finally get to the finish chute, and as I rounded the second corner, I saw the clock triumphantly proclaim 1:25:xx.
HOLY ACTUAL SHIT, I’M GOING TO GO UNDER 1:26.
New mantra: don’t stop. don’t stop. don’t stop. don’t stop. don’t stop. don’t stop.
Ignoring the puke gurgling in my stomach, I lurched towards the finish line, knowing that every second counts. Crossing the finish line, I stepped to the side in a manic pant. A volunteer asked if I was okay, and I breathlessly responded, “yeah, I’m good.”
I checked my watch, stood up, and smiled ear to ear. I did it.
FINAL HALF MARATHON – 1:25:47
I turned around and James was there with a huge smile on his face too. “I RAN A 1:25!!!!! THAT WAS FUCKING AWESOME!!!” I exclaimed as I gave him a huge, sweaty hug.
With immediate amnesia from how painful the past 13 minutes of my life had just been, I continued to marvel: “I can’t believe it. I really can’t believe that happened. That was PERFECT.”
“I knew you could do it. I’m so proud,” he said in return. He looked like he might cry.
I was floating with happiness as Gabe appeared to the side barricade and gave me a huge kiss. It was over and I had somehow done it. Finally…things had come together in a race. After so much hard training with disappointing races this spring…I finally had a run where the stars aligned.
I gave every ounce of what I had into Hartford, and I walked away with zero regrets and a shiny new PR. For the first time in a very long time, I truly believe I produced a PR because of sheer will and determination…combined with a day that magically made everything click in my body.
Sure, I was probably in better shape in the spring, and probably could’ve run a faster half, given the opportunity. But this race is proof that the hard work doesn’t just *poof* go away. It’s there…maintenance is easy! -creating the speed in the first place is what’s hard.
This was the first race in a very long time where my expectations were very low…and training was less than perfect. But I went in saying, “I’m going to do my very best,” and I did EXACTLY that. And that’s what running is about, isn’t it? To execute and feel awesome (minus the 13 minutes of hell at the end of the race) and do your very best…and walk away feeling like you’ve just accomplished a major feat.
This year’s Hartford experience has taught me a valuable lesson: to keep the faith and trust the process, even when things don’t go according to plan–because this summer’s training definitely did NOT go according to plan. What mattered most in the end was belief, positivity, some wacky mantras, and an amazing support system that lifted me up, even when all I was filled with was doubt. And for all this, I couldn’t be happier and more thankful.