To Marathoning, With Gratitude

Marie Barnett

With the rush of spring marathons coming up, I look back over the last year and my races, miles, and goals. For a few years, I had been approaching a barrier that seemed impenetrable: a sub-3 hour marathon. This past fall, I set my sights on the Chicago Marathon and ran straight into it with full force. I wanted to break 3, and I did. In some ways this is a race report from Sunday, October 8th, 2017. More importantly, it is a report of the steps along the way – because the marathon is not only a race, it is a arduous, stubborn, grueling, inspiring, beautiful, and epic journey.

If you do not have a running spirit guide, I highly recommend it. I have had the voices of many running mentors. They have guided me in advancing my leg speed, mental grit, and navigating life after competitive college running. My high school coaches helped me develop a quiet confidence and discover the joy of simply running.  My college coaches and teammates moderated my anxiety and taught me how to train and race as a pack. And my Dad and brother are also accomplished runners and metronomic pacers; they are a reminder that my drive for running is in my genes. My Dad has run 23 consecutive Boston Marathons (his 24th is next weekend). I have cheered at almost every one, assuming the sub-3 marathon was forever beyond me; an accomplishment achieved only by non-mortal runners.

North Brooklyn Runners is also my running spirit guide: incredible people, support, and daily meet-ups around Brooklyn. We all come to running from difference places, and support each other in quiet pursuit of solitary goals.

My personal introduction to marathoning came during my last year of my collegiate running career, when my Grandfather passed away from cancer. I decided to quit before my final season of track and joined my Dad on the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team, raising money for cancer research and first marathon – the Boston Marathon – at 21. It was incredible. I ran 3:27:45 and was in awe of the excitement of the runners, race, and atmosphere. The following six years I continued my study of the marathon, running by feel and experience: Boston ‘09 (3:24:57), Los Angeles ‘11 (3:13:34), and NYC ’11 (3:08:37).

With motivation from NYC, I began to believe in my own sub-3 fantasy. I followed a “homemade formal” training plan for the 2014 Sugarloaf Marathon – a mainly downhill course – and ran 3:01:43. So close. Disappointed but encouraged by my progress, I was determined to try again at Boston ’15.  In the frigid rain and sleet on that day, I finished in 3:05:37. That race was so hard. After almost two years of pursuit, I had given it my all but still came up short. I questioned if sub-3 was really within my reach.

I took a marathon breather. And then, in 2017, I found another running spirit guide: Caitlin Philips. If you don’t know her, she is absolutely awesome, lovely, smart, and unassuming in the best way, until you watch her run: humble, precise, and totally badass. At a bar, I pitched to her the idea of me being her coaching guinea pig for the Chicago Marathon. My terms: “I’ll do anything you say. And, I have to break 3.” Challenge accepted, the bar was set.

The Build Up

Many of my training partners were injured this year, creating for me a sense of sadness and loss, aware of runners’ fragility, and gratitude to do what you can, with intention and gusto, when your body is healthy. At work, I am psychologist for incredible children and young adults going through cancer treatment. I understand the body’s fragility is real. But. The strength of our mind and capacity for human grit is immense.

Using this mental strength and grit, and with Caitlin’s roadmap to sub-3, I approached this race with more science and structure than ever before. The workouts on paper appeared so hard, but new and exciting. Before workouts I went to bed visualizing the pace, the challenge, the finish. While brushing my teeth I stared at a sticky note with the pace per mile for a 2:50:00 through 2:59:00 marathon. I enlisted my husband and teammates for workouts and started consistently hitting and surpassing my goal race pace. I am so grateful to them. My long runs themselves became marathon pace workouts. You can’t wait for a race to run a PR race pace – you have to practice, practice, practice. During the buildup, I ran my lifetime highest weekly mileage. I visualized myself looking down at my watch to see my splits. I tried new cross training routines and, trusting the process, rolled with it week to week. With past race times, I was accepted into the American Development Corral for the Chicago Marathon. It still felt unreal.

After 16 weeks, I shifted from the training grind and began my race day countdown: 10 days out. I tried to reduce stress (really hard) and visualize success (your greatest control), but I could not shake my nerves. I got my nails done, blue and glittery. The forecast called for highs of mid to high 60’s: warmer and sunnier than desired. I made adjustments. Caitlin and I planned and debriefed, and established a race plan with room for adjustments. Lauren Perkins and Angela Ortiz passed along their wise words of wisdom: set your intention for the last mile to be your fastest. I liked it.

The Final Countdown

Race weekend! On Saturday before race day, I jogged the last three miles of the course with fellow Mourning Dove leaders Sue and Matt, and Xander. I took in the sights that I knew I would not notice during the race. We turned left onto Michigan Avenue where the remainder of the race is before your eyes. Sue and Matt narrated their mental journeys from years prior. They broke the race into four parts: 1) the north (“the hip area”), 2) the west, 3) the south (sun exposure, industrial, sorta boring), and 4) “then left onto Michigan” (where it gets real). Sue took me back to 1997 at her first Chicago Marathon in a cotton t-shirt and shorts. I laughed nervously and let the excitement build. We examined the last two turns, which included a short uphill and sharp left onto the final 150 meters of the race. I could only think how much work would go into those 150 meters.

The race expo was crowded, congested, and the best place to have a panic attack, feel insanely overstimulated, or mentally implode. My advice for marathon expos: get in, and get out. Lauren Perkins and I met amidst Nike apparel and swag for a pep talk and hug. I got my bib, #93.

Caitlin and I talked through the most updated weather report and finalized my race plan with special attention to the heat. My race outfit was set out, my morning food and drink regimen prepped and bag set. Bring it. The hay is in the barn… time to light it up!

 

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Race Day

I woke up at 4:30am, feeling more excited than nervous. All I needed now was myself. I moved through my morning plan and walked out the hotel door accepting that I had everything I needed in my mind and legs. I felt grateful for Caitlin and the incredible training I took my body through.

I walked to the starting line for my warmup, about 1.5 miles, and soaked up the excitement as more runners emerged from side streets. It was oddly dark, quiet, and peaceful.

I reached the American Development pre-race tent with just enough time for adequate pit stops, chatting with the tough-as-nails Lauren Perkins, and final adjustments to get into race mode. With 25 minutes to go we were shuttled into a corral waiting area. As women were casually chatting about their training and 6:10 pacing plan, I swallowed the feeling that I was an imposter. Comic relief was provided by witnessing how much resourceful and creative urinating happens in the coral.

The day before, I had learned in the fine print that the time for elite and American Development runners only goes by “gun time.” This increased my anxiety and pushed me out of my comfort zone to weave my way to the front. With 4 minutes until the gun I stood three people back from the starting line. Holy shit. Screw anxiety. I wanted every second it would take to cross the start.

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The gun went off. I was free! I was glad to finally be running, the thing I love to do. I had to take it all in. I saw Lauren’s neon jersey up ahead and felt camaraderie and confidence in our training. I refocused. The crowds were energizing and dynamic. I missed the first mile split. Not sure how that happed. Stay focused. Mile 2 split was 12:48. A bit fast. Mile 3, 6:23. I tried to pull back the pace, but averaged 6:27 for the next two miles – what what the heck? The course took several turns, and I lost track of north and south. I didn’t care. It was all about the pace. … 6:27, 6:26, 6:33, 6:28. I knew I was running faster than my plan, but I had a strange sense of calm and decided to forge ahead without regret.

I hit the 20k and saw Sue, Matt, and Xander screaming and jumping. I found it calming that they knew how hard the marathon is. They could relate. I zeroed in and acknowledged the race hadn’t started yet. I crossed the half at 1:25:17. Those numbers looked so fast on my watch. This is what I had prepared for – literally seeing those numbers. In this moment, seeing was believing.

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Mile 14, 6:35. Mile 15, 6:34. Imagine those expandable sphere toys. They expand and contract to a set diameter and size.  Sometimes I use it at work with kids, to illustrate breathing and mindfulness exercises. This is the best way I can describe my thoughts at this point. You are in control of your thoughts, where you rest your mind and prioritize the weight and importance of what you perceive. I was absolutely determined to keep all my thoughts on the race, in the race, for the race. . I forced any negative thoughts and doubts outside of my expandable sphere.

Mile 16, 6:33… 17, 6:41… I saw NBR crews cheering along these miles, the mile markers blurred in my mind. The cheers refocused me to the pace. The course was remarkably flat. These miles were concrete, sunny, and hot. I kept going. Mile 18, 6:36. Mile 18 is really the first time to truly take an inventory of a marathon, and make assessments on what’s to come. My legs were ok. I have been to “The Wall,” – the dark place of the marathon – before. I knew I was not there yet. Back to the expandable sphere. Stay in control. I felt like I was going to puke. I threw the thought behind me with a Dixie water cup. If you can learn anything, it’s how to throw thoughts away. My legs felt heavy but I knew my knees were up. I had to get to 20.

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Mile 19, 6:43… Mile 20, 6:39. It was getting warmer and sunnier. I took water at every mile and dumped it on my head. This was business time. I imagined mile 23, turning left onto Michigan. 6:50, 6:39… mile 23 at 6:40. It was getting real and I felt equal parts exhausted, exhilarated, disbelief, confident. I was doing it.

Xander jumped in to throw me some tough love: “You are GOING TO BREAK 3 HOURS. By how much is up to you!” I immediately soaked this up, yelling to myself internally: I REALLY REALLY WANT IT.

Down Michigan Ave I kept my eyes ahead, focusing on my knees, arms, and thinking about every second counting. I was determined for the last mile to be the fastest. Apparently Sue and Matt were screaming at me in the middle of the street around mile 25.5. I am confident that this made run faster, but apparently my focus overpowered by ability to see or hear them. With 0.2 mile to go I looked at my watch and realized I might beat my Dad’s PR of 2:52:25. My mind was officially blown and I leaned in, staring ahead. A wave of gratitude and awe pushed me up the last hill, 200m from the finish. My body was completely numb. I had no concept of space or people around me. Last mile: 6:13.

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The Chicago Marathon “chute” is adorable, efficient, and kind. After proceeding for quite some time after the finish, I was adorned with goodie bags, bars, an ice cold towel for my head, photo shoots, and that famous Goose Island beer. The taste was good on so many levels.

And there was Lauren Perkins, who impressed everyone and no one with her badass time of 2:46:17. Now that is a woman that gets it done. Of course her first remarks to me were: “…well, if you can run 2:52 you can run sub 2:50, or ....”

Quickly friends and NBR crews gathered and we processed the day, the race, the heat. I was so grateful for the congratulatory messages from friends and family. My final time was 2:52:03 (6:33 average pace), slowing down the second half by 1:29. To me, I was thinking about much more than just that one morning. It was the marathon experience that was part of me for almost a decade. It was the relationships made along the way, my running spirits guides, my normal and weird injuries, the places I traveled on runs, and spiritual weekend long runs. The race was one form of all of this.

So. This was a marathon of lifetime for me, with years of buildup before I even set the goal for Chicago and sub-3. If you want to run fast, set your physical goals with determination. And train. Train daily. But do not just train your body. Train your mind to match your physical goals, live and visualize your goal and trust the process without questioning.

If I do not ever run a marathon again, it will be ok (unlikely, but genuinely ok). I know I can always look back at this and say, “it’s possible, I can.” I hope other people can start approaching marathons with this approach too: mental resolve and focus first, followed by the grit of training. Both are paramount.

 

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