Leah Thorvilson

2012 Olympic Trials Women's Marathon Qualifier

Tales from “The Jim”

I didn’t realize until I arrived in Wartrace and was thumbing through the race program for the Strolling Jim 40 Mile Run just how long I had been planning for it. I am not used to even seeing programs for races this size (132 entrants prior to race day). This program has the race history, a course map, lists of previous winners, lists of “most Jims completed”, records, and a list of this years entrants. On the entrants, you are given name, age, home state, number of marathons completed, number of ultras completed, occupation, and gender. Reading through the list I quickly realized the “occcupation” slot was a place for people to show their smart ass side. A few examples are “trophy wife”, “dead animal parts buyer”, “kilt model”, and “president of Hannah Montana fan club”. Not remembering what I had put down, I searched for my own name and found the obviously un-privey to the joke listing of “retail sales/running”. Then I noticed my “marathons completed” number, 20. That is when it hit me just how long ago I had decided this would be a fun adventure….I have now completed 26 marathons…so it was 6 marathons ago…almost a year. I vaguely remember a friend sending me a link about the race, knowing I was getting a bit of the ultra bug, but also that I am more a road girl than trail. I’m sure he had just thought it would be something entertaining for me to ponder, but I am pretty sure I registered that day. I didn’t initially have a whole lot of expectation of myself other than to finish. I did a few extra long long runs to be sure it wouldn’t completely shock my body to be running for that amount of time, but that’s it. This wasn’t meant to be a monumental race in my career, it was just something to make 26.2 feel short….and to satisfy my craving for distance. In the few weeks leading up to race day however, I found myself searching….what would it take to get the women’s course record. The answer was 5:13:45, run by Janice Anderson in 1995. Calculating splits out that would take roughly 7:30 per mile. I thought that seemed doable enough. I set that in my mind as my primary goal, and tried to silence the voices in the back of my head saying to go for sub 5:00. No woman had ever done it, and of course it would be cool….but I wasn’t really willing to even maybe get hurt over this with the Olympic Trials around the corner. I even verbalized at the point that I started to feel some nerves “I don’t know why I feel a little nervous…I don’t have anything to worry about”. However, Chrissy Ferguson, who is a bit of an ultra running legend and has completed 10 Strolling Jims, was quick to jump in and say “Yes you do! You’ve never run this far before!!”…haha! Thanks Chrissy. :) I had talked a few friends, Jonathan and Presto, into coming to run The Jim with me. Jonathan’s wife Jana and Dan (the man) were our crew. While the race supplies ample water along the course, and 4 (i think?) manned aid stations, they tell you if there is anything you want to make sure you have, your best bet is to bring it yourself. Dan had a cooler in the van where we stashed all kinds of things…bottles of water, bottles of Ultima, Powergels, Endurolytes, Stinger Waffles, pickles, potato chips, Tums….anything we even thought we might need, the Dan van had it. We had orchestrated a plan for the van to be on the course every 6 miles or so. This would help save time because instead of having to stop and fill up water bottles from the jugs on the course, we could just swap out old for new from the back of the van. It seemed simple enough. Race morning I was trying to figure out a good plan for pacing, and for ensuring I wouldn’t get lost. Stan, Chrissy’s husband, introduced me to a few guys at the start line who he thought would be good for me to start with. The ceremonial conch shell was blown, and we were off. I stayed near these guys for probably close to a mile. There was some chatter about how the little incline we were going up was nothing compared to what was ahead in the next 40 miles. That didn’t bother me…I was just concerned with not going out hard, and eager to get to the first mile to gauge if I needed to pick up or slow down. We hit it in 6:59. Okay, I thought…that seems fine…a little quicker than I had planned, but fine. What concerned me a bit was I was starting to pull away from everyone but the lead guy, who was almost out of my sight already. Was I going too fast? Should I slow down? After ticking off a few more miles under 7:00 pace I ust decided to go with it. I felt relaxed. It was a beautiful course, with rolling hills of green countryside all around. We had also gotten extremely lucky with the weather. In the dog days of May where it can be (as the Watrace Farmer’s Market folks say about their peppers) purrrdy hottt, we landed a race start temperature just under 60 degrees. It was perfect. I started to calculate mile by mile…knowing 7:15s would crack the 5 hour barrier…Every mile I hit under 7 I thought “okay…that’s one more 7:30 I can run and still be sub 5.” Each mile’s cushion I piled up knowing there would come a point where I would be able to run 7:30s to the finish provided that I didn’t fall apart. I got used to seeing familiar cars of other runner’s crews, and the race workers at every 5 mile mark giving splits out of the back of a pickup truck. One crew guy yelled to me about 6 or 7 miles in “he’s about 2.5 minutes ahead”. The next time I saw him, he said “he’s got 4 minutes on you now.” I smiled and replied “I think I will let him have it.” I wasn’t concerned with being first overall. It had honestly never crossed my mind as a possibility. The winner’s times were often in the low 4:50s or even sometimes in the 4:40s. I didn’t figure my hoped for 4:59 would contend. Things started to change around the 30 mile mark. I felt about as good as can be expected 30 miles in to anything, but that is not to say things weren’t getting tired or hurting. I was entering a section of the course they call “The Walls”. ┬áIf there is a more back road portion to the course, this would be it. Not that any of the course is in a major populated area, but this particular section was roads with no lines painted on them, and a bit more narrow… Looking at the elevation chart, it is a bit hard to understand why it is called the walls other than the fact that …well, it’s 30 miles! The hills in “The Walls” don’t look to be very menacing in comparison to what you have already overcome at that point….and as far as length, they aren’t. They are just short, steep, energy sucking little bastards that make you feel like you are crawling. I think I was on the downside of my first little grinder when I saw someone up ahead, standing on the side of the road. He was fidgeting with a fuel belt or something, facing the direction I was coming from… As I got closer is when I had my first “aw crap!” moment. It was my buddy Josh. He had showed up from Cookville, TN that morning and said he was going to go for a 20 mile run and then might run the last 5 in with me. Well, here he was and I had 11 to go (the race is actually 41.2 miles). It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy to see him, it was just one of those moments when I was thinking, I am back here tucked away on these roads…accountable to no one if I feel like slowing down into granny gear…no pressure…no need to be a hero… and then suddenly I had a friend, and a sense of guilt over slipping into creepy crawl mode. I had to work. In hindsight, having Josh show up totally made my race. I am so grateful he was there. The distance between myself and Jonathan and Presto had grown so that it was becoming difficult for the Dan van to supply them, and then get back up to me. I didn’t see him at one point for almost 10 miles. Josh was able to take my bottles and fill them with the jug water, and then sprint back up to me. I know it was a lot of work for him but it was so much help. When we first started running together he said “do you want to know how much of a lead Owen (the leader) has?” My response was no. I didn’t want to know. It didn’t matter. Josh was encouraging, giving me nothing but positive feedback. Somewhere around mile 34 he said “do you see that?”….”See what?”…he motioned ahead with his hand….my second “aw crap!” moment. There was Owen, probably 300-400 meters ahead. “Do you want to race?” Josh asked. “Not yet.” The 5 mile marker guys were getting excited too. At 30 they had made some comment about me being able to catch him that I hadn’t paid too much mind to. At 35 they were in a bit of a frenzy about it “if you keep this up, you’re gonna win the whole dang thing!!” I chuckled. I was starting to realize that it would be a pretty big deal to them to have a female winner. I still wasn’t ready to push too hard though. Josh had started telling me things like “just 42 more minutes of running…” to which I eventually told him he would have to stop telling me. 35 minutes was sounding like quite a long time. I had no feeling of doubt that I could complete the race strong, and I was certain at this point that I would break 5 hours, but still…..that sounded really long. We were gaining on Owen and his pacer, and passed them somewhere around the 36-37 mile mark. I squeaked out a “good job guys.” Part of me contemplated saying something along the lines of let’s finish this strong together…but I didn’t know if that would cause Owen to surge and I didn’t know if I had the desire to go any harder than I was. My mind flip flopped between wanting to push harder and get done quicker, and telling myself to not try to be a hero and ust maintain a strong pace. I told myself not to back down, that this was good training for the time in the marathon when someone may come make a move on you and you have to be ready to react. Josh asked me about mile 38 if I wanted to know how much of a lead I had. “No.” It may have been phantom footsteps but I swore I could still hear Owen. If he was close enough to hear him, the amount of lead I had didn’t matter. Even if he wasn’t that close, it didn’t matter. I thought hearing I had a bigger lead could only possibly make me think it was okay to back off, and I didn’t want to back off. I wanted to practice being tough. I passed the split guys for the last time just before turning on to the last stretch of highway, and the final 2 miles of the race. Josh had hopped in a fire rescue truck on the course and they drove beside me and he said “i’m gonna get a ride to the top of this hill and I’ll run you in, okay?” …”okay.” When he met me on the road, I finally wanted to know…”can he catch me?” It hadn’t been a goal, but now that I had taken the lead, I felt some sort of duty to maintain it. His response was the same simple response I’d been giving him all day “No.” He ran with me for maybe a half mile and then told me to go get it, and he would see me at the finish. The crew guy who had been telling me how far behind I was in the beginning was parked at the finish now (his runner would end up finishing 3rd overall) and he was walking down the street hollering as I came towards the finish “Yeaaaah!!! Awesoooommmme!!!” I had contemplated in the final mile if I would karate kick the finish tape, something I have always wanted to do, but never had the energy at the end of a marathon. When I saw that there was no finish tape, I instead jumped up and gave the finish post a victory slap. Thrilled to be done. My finishing time was 4:44:49, a new women’s record by almost 30 minutes. I don’t much like to brag on myself…and I don’t know that this is such a huge time…I was just excited because this was the first race in a while where I exceeded my own expectation. It was a much needed confidence boost, and I have been enjoying the afterglow (although my legs are still feeling a bit of race “hangover”). I learned a few things that weekend. I learned that there is a reason southern hospitality has the reputation it has (we stayed in an AMAZING bed and breakfast), I learned what a “meat and 3″ is (fried everything–camoflauge food), I learned that having friends to push you on when you are ready to back down is a most wonderful gift, and I learned that for me, trying to satisy my apetite for endurance events by tasting a little 40 miler is about as useful as trying to stave off your hunger at Thanksgiving by sneaking a scrap of turkey before mealtime….. more bacon please?…..waiting…..

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