On September 13, 2017 – my birthday! – I registered for the Boston Marathon.
This may not seem particularly special to some of you. To others, it may seem like a goal you’ll never achieve. The beauty of running (at least to me) is that we are all on our own journey, fighting our own battles, and working towards our own goals.
Qualifying for Boston sort of opened the floodgates to goals that I never would have imagined before; I came to realize that the ever-elusive BQ was almost a self-limiting time standard in my own head. However, in the pursuit of these new dreams and faster marathon times, I don’t want to lose sight of just how hard qualifying for Boston was for me. I don’t want to forget the struggle. And in an age where social media makes it seem as though people just crawl out of bed one morning and go run a BQ, I thought sharing my own journey to a Boston Qualifier might help those who haven’t quite gotten there yet. Because if nothing else, it’s a story of perseverance – even in the face of multiple failures.
Marathon #1: Empire State Marathon, Syracuse NY 2011
Goal: Finish in one piece
Training: I averaged 17 miles per week so it’s hard to say that I trained at all. I completed a 16 mile and a 13 mile run, and had no other runs greater than 10 miles. Um… yikes.
What Went Wrong: I wore brand new shoes for the race (a model I’d never even trained in before) – my feet hurt worse than anything else on my body in those later miles.
What Went Right: I ran almost perfectly even splits. I freaking finished a marathon.
Marathon #2: Empire State Marathon, Syracuse NY 2012
Goal: BQ (<3:35)
Training: Ran a little bit more for this one, averaging 20 miles per week. Started doing some very basic speed work.
What Went Wrong: I dropped out around mile 12. Started the race running 8:00 pace and knew very early on I couldn’t hang.
What Went Right: I ran a <1:38 half a month before the race so I wasn’t completely insane to think that I was capable of eventually running a BQ time. However, I knew nothing about marathon training and hadn’t done nearly enough volume or marathon-specific work to run half-marathon-pace+30 seconds for a full marathon. (Turns out, you can kind of fake a half… a marathon? Not so much.)
Marathon #3: Shamrock Marathon, Virginia Beach 2013
Goal: BQ (<3:35)
Training: Ran a little bit more for this one yet again, averaging 25 miles per week.
What Went Wrong: I stubbornly went out at 8:00 pace once more, despite not really changing much in my training. I had no indicator that I was in shape to run a 3:35 in good conditions, and that day was windy which should have had me adjusting my expectations even more.
What Went Right: I didn’t drop out, even though I really, really, really wanted to. I still ran a 12ish minute PR despite poor training and stupid pacing.
Marathon #4: Wineglass Marathon, Corning NY 2013
Goal: BQ (<3:35)
Training: I would consider this to be the first race I actually trained for. I averaged 39 miles per week with one-a-week speed workouts and 4 long runs over 18 miles in distance.
What Went Wrong: I didn’t adjust my pace for the conditions (warm, humid morning) and I completely faded by mile 20. I took absolutely nothing during the race. No gels, no water.
What Went Right: Honestly, it’s hard to say anything went well about this race. I made a lot of foolish mistakes in the race, from pacing to nutrition to shoe/clothing choices, and paid the price.
Marathon #5: California International Marathon, Sacramento CA 2013
Training: I jumped right back into the same training as I was doing prior to Wineglass – long runs, speed, and about 40 miles per week.
What Went Wrong: I didn’t give myself any time to recover after Wineglass and my body freaked out. I had a stress fracture scare in my foot and I took about 10 days completely off right before the race. Adjusting goal time by 5 minutes was still way too aggressive given the circumstances. I still didn’t take any fuel or water during the race.
What Went Right: I didn’t have any foot pain during the race, which was my biggest fear going in. I didn’t drop out which was a plus, since my completion rate for marathons going into this race was 50%.
Marathon #6: New Jersey Marathon, Oceanport NJ 2014
Goal: BQ (<3:35)
Training: I … didn’t. I was running still, but only a handful of miles with no structure whatsoever.
What Went Wrong: I was determined to continue chasing the unicorn after coming up short at CIM, but that feeling dissipated quickly and I was unmotivated to do much of anything in the months leading up to this race.
What Went Right: Not starting this race was absolutely the right call.
Marathon #7: Lehigh Valley VIA Marathon, Bethlehem PA 2014
Goal: BQ (<3:35)
Training: Averaged 46 miles per week with one speed workout per week, and did 5 long runs of 20 miles or more.
What Went Wrong: I once again did not adjust for the conditions. It was a warm and humid day yet I still went out at 8:07-8:10 pace, despite having no recent races or workouts to indicate that I was in that kind of fitness. I also didn’t fuel adequately. I took in one gel over the first 13 miles of the race, and not much water.
What Went Right: Is it starting to sound redundant when I say I didn’t drop out even though I really wanted to? I think this marathon was truly the catalyst for all the changes I made over the next couple years, so I’ll count that in the win column.
Marathon #8: Philadelphia Marathon, Philadelphia PA 2015
Training: I followed the 18/55 Advanced Marathoning plan by Pete Pfitzinger. I decided that the training I had been doing wasn’t working and I needed a change. Ended up averaging 39 miles per week; cut down on the length of the long run but added in mid-week medium long runs.
What Went Wrong: I ran over my Garmin with my car two days before the race, so I ran with Laura’s watch. I had some user errors while manually lapping splits due to unfamiliarity which made it a little hard to pace myself during the first half. Here’s some solid advice for you: don’t run over your Garmin with your car.
What Went Right: I finally achieved a goal I set in a race… that hadn’t happened since my very first marathon. I recall my legs hurting around mile 10 and thinking that a bonk was coming, but I kept telling myself that I could do it and ended up with a slight negative split. I blasted Macklemore’s ‘Downtown’ on repeat for the last 4 miles heading back into Philly (and this legitimately worked some voodoo magic on my addled brain… downtowwn… just get back to downtowwwn…)
Marathon #9: Utah Valley Marathon, Provo UT 2016
Goal: Somewhere around 3:40
Training: I started working with a coach halfway through this training cycle. I was doing nothing of structure prior.
What Went Wrong: I underestimated the amount of damage downhill running would do to my quads (this course starts at approximately 7000ft and descends to 4500ft over the first 18 or so miles — and my quads have never been so sore in a race).
What Went Right: I executed well within my fitness given the challenges of the course. Although I started a bit aggressively, once I realized it I backed off and adjusted my pace. I didn’t mentally give up at any point.
Marathon #10: Dublin Marathon, Dublin IE 2016
Training: This was my first full training cycle with my coach. I averaged 46 miles per week with two workouts per week; this was my first time incorporating a lot of marathon pace miles into long runs.
What Went Wrong: This was as close to a perfect race as I’ve ever had, but I did start to let my mind get the better of me in the last few miles. When it really started to hurt, I backed off a bit, afraid that I would blow up and ruin my race even though I was already at mile 24.
What Went Right: Smart pacing – started slower than goal pace and when it was time to work, I was ready to roll into it. I had 4 gels during the race and wore appropriate shoes (first time wearing racers for a marathon rather than trainers).
If you made it to the end, first of all – thank you – but second of all, I hope you arrived at the same conclusion that I did while writing this which is that marathons are HARD. Period. There’s so much that goes into a well executed race and running to your potential, way beyond just the workouts and weekly mileage (though that is important too *ahem* Heather of 2011 I’m looking at you *ahem*).
An honest assessment of your current fitness, setting realistic goals, practicing nutrition strategies, wearing the right shoes, adjusting for the conditions of the day – these were the biggest lessons I needed to learn before I was able to break through that BQ-barrier. But at the end of the day, even though looking back at my past races is slightly cringe-worthy, I realized that the one thing I had going for myself was that I never actually gave up. I had low points along the way but I never stopped believing that I could actually qualify for Boston. And I hope that’s the message that resonates here – don’t ever give up on your dream.