Driving to Wynne, Arkansas on the morning of Saturday, November 2nd, I had no intention of doing anything spectacular. I had set down with my coach two days before, looking at the options of races I might do throughout the remainder of the year. I had suggested going to run the Midsouth Marathon as a workout. I half expected him to shoot the idea down, but instead he encouraged it. He said as long as I could go with a plan, and not be upset if it didn’t go as well as I wanted, that it seemed like an okay idea. We agreed that based on my recent training, and the progression since my surgery in March, breaking 2:50:00 was a reasonable goal.
The course in Wynne is an out and back, known for it’s tendency to have a nasty headwind in your face over the second half of the race. I had calculated that I would have to run just under 6:30 per mile to hit the time I wanted. I was hoping that the pace would feel easy in the beginning, and that it would just be a matter of maintaining plus a slight push over the second half. Just a mile in, I was feeling like I was working harder than I wanted to. I expected that maybe this meant I was out a little too hard and needed to back off. Hearing the beep of my Garmin, I glanced down to check the split….6:35. Shit.
I told myself to just chill out and that the slow first mile may have just been my body warming up. Since I didn’t really intend to race hard, I hadn’t done any sort of warm up before the gun. I made a deal with myself to not look at another split for a few miles. There was no sense in freaking out 2 or 3 miles in to a marathon. At mile 4 I checked again, and hit a 6:18. Honestly, I still felt like I was working harder than I wanted to, but at least I was out of the red zone on my pace. While typically I encourage people trying to run even or negative splits, I knew that having some “money in the bank” would probably be a good idea if I was going to face the last half into the wind.
Working through a marathon is always a mental game of some kind. It may be trying to figure out race tactics of the other runners, it may be self checking your body over the terrain change of a challenging run, it may be monitoring your nutrition, or it may be (as was the case with me and Midsouth) math. Every mile I ran towards the turnaround, I was seeing splits of 6:15-6:18. Every mile I was calculating “okay, if I hold this to the half, then I would get my goal even if I slowed down to 6:38 pace on the way back”…. I felt like I was running at a very slight downhill, which I remembered being the case over the first 5 miles, but not the whole first half. This put another element of worry in my mind, momentarily. Surely I could hold 6:38 pace even if I turned into a headwind, even going slightly uphill, right?
When I hit the turnaround, I felt a sense of relief. The tension of having to hold that pace was gone… and… I was still going downhill? (I would later discuss this with my girlfriends as we drove home, and they would tell me that I was nuts, and the course absolutely was not downhill in both directions) Over the next few miles, I had one of those days that is like running magic. The temperature was perfect, the sun was out but not hot, and the breeze that was blowing seemed to actually be at my back! I checked my watch at the 16 mile split… 6:07? While part of my brain said “whoa! slow down killer” another part of me felt like speeding up. I was running close to my PR pace, and felt better than I had all day. Maybe it was a fluke mile. I tried my best to just set my cruise control, and it seemed to work. 6:09, 6:08, 6:01. Suddenly it dawned on me, maybe I needed to be doing some new math….maybe I could actually run under 2:46:00, the Olympic Trials Marathon B standard!!
20 miles in to a marathon, your body is going to be tired, and so is your brain. I couldn’t make perfect calculations at that point of exactly what splits I would have to run to get under 2:46, so instead I looked at my total running time at 20 miles, and started making estimations “if I run 6:30s from here to the finish, will I get it?” and the answer was yes. After that every mile was a hand I was dealing myself. 6:30s will do it, don’t slow down. I was definitely riding a high at the prospect of this run turning into a trials qualifier. I could already imagine the phone calls to my coach and my family and friends, “I just qualified for the Trials!!” and hear the stupified “huh? you what?” responses on the other end. I would have been happy with a 2:49 at this stage in the game. Instead, I might be going home with an OTQ!
At mile 21 you turn a corner on to a busy section of highway. You are running on an ugly cambered shoulder of the road, and the ever so slight uphill begins. It is slight, but just enough that when you are already fatiguing, it makes you dig. And, though I won’t complain because it wasn’t there the whole last 13 miles, the notorious headwind showed up in those last 5 miles too. I continued checking my splits, 6:15, 6:12…..and continued my math. Every time it was a check to see if 6:30s would do it, and while it seems obvious now, to my marathon brain, it was a big relief every mile that the answer was still yes. Miles 23-24 have an uphill you can actually see, and I felt my legs start to slow uncontrollably. I heard the Garmin beep and glanced down, 6:23. I started to talk to myself out loud. At this point I was passing some people who were finishing the half marathon, and they probably thought I was crazy as I ran by them saying (while breathing heavily and grunting) “you’re okay, relax, you’re okay” The race director later told me that some people I passed had said I was “growling like a dragon” I got a good laugh out of that. I knew if I could get to about 24.5, it was a slight down and then flat to the finish.
I crested the little hill and felt a huge relief. I knew I was going to do it. I came around a corner right about mile 25 and there was a family standing in their yard cheering. Something struck me as I passed them. I can’t remember what they were yelling, but through my panting I burst into tears of joy and disbelief. What a year this had been! Dropping out of Little Rock Marathon, surgery, rehab, months of hard training wondering if I would ever get back to my old level of competing again, a new job that had put a major strain on my training schedule…. all those moments came down to this, I had made it. I gathered myself together and pushed for the finish. There had certainly been no hype about me attempting to qualify for the Trials, because I had no idea that I would even try.
I really didn’t know how far under 2:46 I was, I just knew I was going to make it. As I came around the bend of the Wynne High School track, and the finish line came into view, I saw 2:42:something….I didn’t pay much attention. I jumped into the air and screamed “F yeah!!!” (I later apologized for my profanity, but at the moment I couldn’t help it). As the volunteers in the finish chute handed me a mylar blanket, water, a medal, and all said “congratulations” I just started screaming and laughing and crying all at once. I grabbed one poor girl by the shoulders and looked her in the face and said “I just qualified for the effing Olympic Trials!!!!” …she responded with another “congratulations”. It wasn’t that she generally wasn’t happy for me, I just don’t think she got it. I needed to find someone who would understand, and I did. My friend Erin and her husband Dan had been there running the half, and she came running over, simply ecstatic that I had won, having no idea about the qualifier. When I told her, she hugged me and screamed in total shock. Yes, this is what I needed. I got to replay the scene again a while later when I went to run in my friends Annette and Paula, who were on the way to running Paula to a new PR too. I probably cost her a few seconds, because they stopped dead in their tracks when I told them “hey guys….I have some news…”
It wasn’t until that evening, after floating around on cloud nine all day, still hardly able to believe what had happened, that I realized the truth. The window to qualify for the Trials had just opened August 1st. I was curious how many women had already qualified, and got online and began searching for a list. I never did get so far as finding a list. The first page I came to damn near gave me a heart attack. It was something I had known, but completely forgotten all day. Earlier this year, the standards were changed. 2:46:00 was the standard I had needed to qualify in 2012. For 2016, the B standard was lowered to 2:43:00. I had made it, by 5 seconds. I couldn’t help but think about how different that moment would have been if I had run a minute slower. I would have thought all day that I had made it, and then had the crushing blow that I had actually not. I thought about all the little things I could have done that would have been the difference in the outcome of the day…. Had I decided to just cruise it in at 6:30s, knowing I would still be under 2:46, or had I stopped to give high fives to people along the track coming in to the finish…hell, had I stopped to scratch my butt, I might not have made it…. 5 seconds.
I was talking with my friend Camille the next day, and she told me “I was wondering what was going through your mind as you watched the clock tick towards 2:43….but you didn’t have a clue!” How funny….the mentality of it all. To be honest, I am not sure I would have gone for it if I had remembered. I don’t think I would have had the confidence that I could make it. It turned out to be a blessing that I chased the wrong time.
This was not a big race, 144 marathon finishers, about 300 half marathon finishers. The course rolls through a country town, there is nothing real noteworthy to look at…a field here, a tractor there, the occasional random dog. While the race organizers and the people of the city who support it do a wonderful job, I never would have suspected the Midsouth Marathon to turn out to be the stage for what may be one of the best race stories of my career. What started as a workout and a road trip with a few of my best friends, turned into a Trials qualifier, and a turn in the road where for the first time since my surgery I can honestly say “i’m back”.