The morning of the race I woke up early. And by early I mean 2 am. It seems impossible to get good sleep the night before a race, plus I was nervous because I had an ambitious goal: qualify for Boston. I eventually fell back asleep, waking a couple more times before getting up at 5:30. Ugh.
I got dressed, attached my race number, put my chip on my shoes, finalized my pace band and made breakfast: coffee, bread with peanut butter and a banana. I don't normally eat that much, but I knew I was going to be arriving at the race 90 minutes early so there was plenty of time to digest. The race started at the Boston mills Ski Resort, which is accessible only by a couple small 2 lane roads. I luckily overheard that traffic is terrible the morning of the race when I was picking up my number, so I planned to get there early. Nobody wants to be stuck in traffic worrying about whether they'll make the start.
I was feeling pretty good that morning. It was cold, although I knew it was supposed to get hot before the race ended. Not great, but I was trying not to think about it. (If I finished fast enough maybe I could beat the heat?) There were a ton of people who arrived early, so we were sitting in the dark of the ski resort lodge, stretching and talking about other races. When they announced we should head to the start, I stopped at my car to drop off my warm up pants and sweatshirt, and double checked that I had everything I needed: Garmin. Armband with iPod and gels. Sunglasses. Check, check, check.
We would run South along the trail for around 9 miles before turning around and heading North. I felt pretty comfortable keeping my pace, but I knew that it was my upper limit and it would be a challenge to stay there for 26 miles. The first guy to pass me going the other direction passed around mile 7 (their mile 9) and I was still feeling pretty good. There weren't many people out cheering - the trail is not easily accessible at many points, but there were water/HEED stops every mile or so and the volunteers were well organized.
By the time I hit mile 12 or 13 I was starting to doubt myself. The mile markers were slightly off from my Garmin, so when I would hit mile 7, for example, my Garmin (which I started when I crossed the mat) would read 7.08 or 7.13. So I was running faster than pace "just in case" and it was starting to take its toll. I was still keeping pace ok, but those little voices, "maybe I'm going too fast" and "you'll never keep this up" started to echo.
What didn't help? Passing the half mark, I started noting a nagging pain in my feet, knees and my right shin. I never have foot and knee pain <knock on wood> and the shin pain I only get when I'm wearing shoes that are too old. I'd realized 2 weeks before the marathon that my shoes reached the 500 mile mark, but 2 weeks is not enough time to transition to new shoes. Bummer. That wasn't going to stop me, but it certainly wasn't going to make it comfortable.
As I approached mile 16 and 17, I was starting to hurt. I knew I could finish. That wasn't the question. But it became increasingly clear that I wasn't going to be able to qualify without hurting myself, either because of the shoes, the pace being too much or the increasing heat. So I began to consider my options. Keep pushing at the same pace and see how far I could make it. Or back off and save my legs for another day. I stayed at a 8:20 pace until mile 19.
So I walked. That moment was a mix of emotions. Walking when I'd already stayed on pace for over 19 miles, I knew I wouldn't hit my goal, but I knew that already. Yet I also realized that I'd been missing the point. Trail races offer the opportunity to get out of our usual city grind and wander through nature. They offer a breath of fresh air. There aren't the big crowds of city events, and that's part of the point. And I'd been plowing through the race, pushing myself, and missing everything.
After mile 19, I watched my average pace creep up second by second. At first, I felt disappointment. But as I started paying more attention to my fellow runners and the beauty around me, I cared less. Save it for another day. I started taking regular walk breaks. Partly because I'd burned out my legs - I didn't have a choice, and partly because I was enjoying myself.
The other runners were amazing. Everyone was cheering each other on, even when you could tell the encouragement was as much for themselves as for you. And most managed to keep a smile on their faces, which is as it should be. We all want to challenge ourselves, and that's a good thing. And sometimes that extra push is painful. But, I feel that if you can't come out of the day with a smile on your face, perhaps it wasn't worth it.
So keep smiling. And remember: You run because you love it.