The 2019 Cleveland Marathon is a weekend I will never forget.
The local running community suffered a devastating loss and I think we are all still reeling from it. About a quarter mile from the half marathon finish, a young woman, Taylor Ceepo collapsed and ultimately lost her life running her first half marathon. Taylor was 22 years old, a former college athlete, a local runner, and a recent graduate with a degree in biology. While I didn't know Taylor, the loss stuck me hard as a member of the running community and also because when I ran my first half marathon, I also did it at the Cleveland Marathon when I was 22 years old, a former college athlete, a local runner, and a recent graduate with a degree in biology.
I still don't exactly have the words to process the loss, other than to realize that we have to live our lives like there is no tomorrow and make the most of every moment. I'm still trying to figure out how best to honor Taylor since I am resting post-marathon and cannot participate in the #runforTaylor movement.
What I do know is that in the hours and days since the race, I have seen the best of the running community, locally and across the globe, come together to honor a person that the majority of us did not know, simply because she is one of us. There is truly no other community like the running community and I am so grateful to be a part of it.
While I'm still processing the events of the weekend, I think it's important that amidst the tragic loss, we can still celebrate our own accomplishments from the weekend. For me, that is celebrating my 8th Marathon finish and a strong performance on a tough day. For those who don't know, the weather gods dealt us a pretty unfair hand on Sunday. Although most days this year have been cool and we haven't even seen much weather in the 70s, race day was 86 degrees, full sun and about 80% humidity. No one was really prepared for that. I personally had done all my long runs and hard workouts in cool or cold temperatures with my hottest long run being about 45-50 degrees. To say I was nervous during the week when the forecast started trending towards the 80s would be an understatement. As we got closer to the race, my only choice was to accept it and prepare the best I could with hydration, electrolytes and proper attire.
Friday evening I headed downtown for the expo and a dinner with the Cleveland Marathon Ambassadors and race staff/organizers. It was a nice way to de-stress before the race and to eat pretty much every form of carb that I could find. I chatted with my fellow ambassadors, ate good food, and called it an early night to make sure I got a lot of sleep, since I knew I'd be more restless the following night.
On Saturday, I woke up and got my shakeout run done. The temperature was cool and the humidity was pretty low. I thought to myself how the weather would have been perfect for Sunday's events, compared to the hot and humid weather in the forecast. I made sure to wear extra layers to give myself an idea of how warm I would feel on Sunday. Everything felt good and my legs had a spring in them making me feel confident about the race the next morning. I lounged around the rest of the day, monitoring my hydration, making sure to take in a lot of electrolytes (I was doubling up my dosage of Nuun Hydration and eating salty foods), and eating foods rich in carbs, iron, and other nutrients. Around 3:45 I picked up my pad thai and headed downtown to check into my hotel. I spent the rest of the evening relaxing, carbing up and hydrating, and reviewing my race strategy. The plan was originally to go out slow and speed up from there, but with the heat, we decided I would go out even slower and pick it up more in the later miles. I laid out my race outfit and everything I needed and called it an early night.
I was restless most of the night and once my alarm went off at 5am, I was wired and jittery. I ate my prerace breakfast, popped some salt tabs, and downed a bit more Nuun before heading off to the start. When I got outside, I could tell it was warm already. But there was a breeze and it was overcast, which helped me stay calm about it. I dropped my drop bag off, met up with my running partner and then headed to the corrals to meet the ambassadors for a photo. Time flew by between chatting with ambassadors, seeing other friends, and getting a place in the corrals. Before I knew it, the national anthem was playing and then the gun went off and we were moving forward as Cleveland Rocks! started playing.
I settled into an 8:45 pace for the first mile, right on my goal. I was so proud of myself for sticking to the plan and not getting caught up in the excitement of other runners taking off fast from the start. I let people go away from me and pass me and for once I wasn't all stressed by the tight pack of runners and people cutting in on me. The clouds had moved out and the sun was in full force but I didn't pay much attention to it. My watch clicked the first mile at 8:44 (as did all of those around me) but I didn't see the mile marker anywhere in sight. Nearly a quarter of a mile later we passed the mile marker. "Ok that was a bit long, but you can make that up later." For once something uncontrollable like that didn't stress me out. Miles 2-3 were supposed to be 8:40. I picked up the pace ever so slightly and the miles flew by. I appreciated the easy pace as we climbed the hill up from Browns stadium. 8:41 and 8:39 respectively on my watch - the course was still measuring long at this point, but I was still unbothered by it. "This feels great! Look how controlled you're being!" I could feel my confidence growing.
Miles 4-5 were supposed to be 8:35s and we were down in the Flats. We climbed a few hills and I started noticing people around me struggling in the sun and heat. "People are walking already? Oh wow that person is stopping. Am I ok in this heat? I don't run well in the heat. Wait, Heather do a body check. Do you actually feel that hot? Well no, I actually feel fine. I know it's really warm but I'm not uncomfortable and I feel strong. Ok then focus on yourself." This internal dialogue would reoccur every time I caught myself worrying about how I felt because of how other runners were handling the heat. It was something I learned from reading Deena Kastor's Let Your Mind Run. The miles both clicked at 8:34. Mile 6 was supposed to be an 8:30 and I clicked at 8:29.
In the middle of the next mile there was a large hill. I knew this hill well. It was where all of my symptoms started the previous year on the course which led to me collapsing a little under halfway through the race. I was little afraid of the hill and as I approached, the memories of the previous year came flooding back and I started wondering if it would happen again. The previous night, I had talked to a Ashlee, a member of my run club, who had given me advice for taking on the hill. She told me embrace the fear rather than fighting it. To acknowledge it, process it, and then let it run out through my feet onto the pavement. I did just that as I approached the turn to the hill. I hung a right, headed up the hill and before I knew it, I was at the top and happy crying about how good I felt. I got some strange looks but I was too happy to care and screamed when I saw my friends Michelle and Leah spectating shortly after the top. The mile clicked at 8:24 (goal 8:25). The one after clicked at 8:22 (goal 8:25). I felt so good.
Miles 9-14 were supposed to be 8:20and I knew it was time to settle into my rhythm, especially since we would be losing the half a little before mile 11. I went back to my body checks and found I still felt good in the heat. I focused on watching my hydration and nutrition. Taking two cups of water at the stops (one to dump on my head and one to drink) and ate a salt tab every 2-3 miles. At 11.7 miles we passed the point where I collapsed last year and I thought about how completely different I felt this year in much more extreme conditions. Shortly afterward we turned onto Clifton Ave and we entered Lakewood. I was pumped because I knew this is where I would see a lot of my friends and run club members. I waved to people I knew, high fived some kids, and before I knew it we crossed the half marathon mark. My watch said I went through around 1:51 (which was right on the plan) and the clock had be at 1:53since it was measuring over 3/10ths of a mile long at that point. Either way I felt confident about cutting time off because I felt strong. After the half, there were a lot of people walking, sitting on the curbs and stopping at waterstops. On the other side of the road, I saw pacers and elites that had dropped out. Again I wondered if I was feeling bad but my body check reassured me that I was ok and I kept moving forward. 8:17, 8:15 (oops), 8:18, 8:18, 8:17, 8:17.
At mile 15 it was finally time to drop into my goal marathon pace (8:15) and maintain through mile 19. I noticed I was getting a slight cramp in my side and that I could feel the gel I took back at mile 13 in my throat, but I worked on deep breathing and felt a bit better and hit the mile in 8:13. The next mile though, the feeling returned and I ultimately pulled over to the side and threw up my gel (something that happens to me when the temperatures soar and at this point we were at about 83 degrees). I started running again after and managed to still hit the mile in 8:25. "Ok well I feel better again, so try to get back on pace." I did and was able to click at 8:16, but then immediately had to pull over and throw up the rest of my gel. I took off again a bit slower and tried to get the nausea under control. I still didn't feel bad overall, but I could tell the cramp in my side was still there. I saw my run club members at 17.5 and they handed me a full bottle of water. I chugged half, poured the rest on my head, and then tried to take another gel. I knew it wasn't a great idea but I also knew in the heat and distance I needed nutrition. That gel ultimately came up too and I was severely cramping in my side and at about 18, with the mile being close to on pace, but a bit slow, I decided that if I wanted to finish the race without feeling completely horrible and risking getting into a worse state, I would need to back off.
I spent 19-21 alternating between an running an 8:45 when I felt ok and walking when the cramping would start. I took more salt tabs which I think helped make the cramping more manageable and I decided I was done with gels (which was the right call for the nausea). I relied on the spectators who had set up makeshift water stops, those who brought out hoses and sprayed us down, and the truly amazing humans who handed me an ice pop at 20 (it was a great way to get sugar in that actually stayed down). At 21 I met up with Michelle and Leah again who were on bikes and went with me from that point. They made me laugh and I was able to focus on the positives -- "Hey you're 2x as far as last year, you still feel pretty decent overall, you made it really far before the heat hit you - usually it gets you immediately."
Once we turned onto the Shoreway in mile 23, I got a pretty bad cramp in my side and had to slow to a walk again. I walked a bit with another runner who was getting sick and was pretty emotional (I think she was in a pretty bad state of heat exhaustion). We stayed with her a bit and calmed her down and encouraged her on. I started running again and Leah went with me but Michelle stayed with her to make sure she was ok.
Mile 24 was pretty much all uphill and I took it pretty easy, figuring there was no real point to overdoing it, especially knowing that once I reached the top, I was home free. I got in some water and really worked out the cramp in my side. At the top of the hill, Michelle caught us (the runner was ok to continue on her own) and I told them they could go ahead of me to find our other friends. I kept the pace easy through 25, knowing my plan (even from the beginning of the race) was to give that last 1.2 miles hell. I crossed mile 25 and took off. At first I eased into it, just above 8:00 but then I got Michelle and Leah in my sights. "Go get 'em". I took off and watched the pace drop. I powered up the bridge and past them, waving as I went by. Leah went with me, and Michelle stayed with our other friend who they had been next to. The top of the bridge came quickly and it was a kind of surreal feeling because it was just me and the other half marathon walkers on the downhill portion of the bridge with no other marathons around. As I crested the bridge my watch was showing a 7:36 avg. "Make it drop lower." I pushed it down the hill with Leah cheering. When I hit the bottom I was in the chute and being the only marathon coming in and coming in fast the crowds were screaming at me. "Use the crowds to push harder" I had about 2/10ths to go and just gave it whatever was left. I threw up my arms in celebration and crossed the finish. My Garmin would later tell me I averaged 7:11 for that last 1.2 miles - my fastest finish to date.
After the finish I chugged a lot of water and headed off to find a cool spot to lay down. Unfortunately, right after I crossed I learned about Taylor Ceepo's passing and that it had happened just a shortly before on the ground that I had just sprinted across. My heart ached for her family and friends. I was also thankful to have finished my race in good health on that day regardless of missing my goal.
While my result may not have been the one I trained for, it was a success in so many other ways. First and foremost because I finished feeling strong, in good health, and with no issues (apart from sunburn). I know that was not the case for so many others out there. On top of that, I had made my comeback from my collapse and DNF the year prior, I made it up the hill at 6.5, I didn't go out too fast and I ran my paces per my plan, the heat didn't affect me until mile 18, I had control of my mind, I listened to my body and backed off instead of pushing into a worse state, my finish was faster than either of my marathons in 2018 (crazy heat and all), I had my fastest last mile ever, I stayed mostly positive in the later miles, and of course because I finished another marathon.
Now it's time to rest up, enjoy the downtime, and shift gears to shorter stuff this summer building toward Chicago this fall.