On Sunday, October 13, 2019, on a chilly morning in Chicago, I finally had the breakthrough marathon I've been chasing for over three and a half years. Even writing this now I get chills talking about it because it's been such a very long time coming.
I arrived in Chicago the Friday before the race and in the days prior to the race (and even the morning of) I was weirdly calm. I couldn't tell if I was in denial, so stressed that I just wasn't processing, or maybe just calm because I was ready. I kept being like "Oh yeah, I'm running a marathon Sunday/tomorrow/today." It was unusual because normally I am a nervous wreck before the race. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be because I was ready and I knew it. But I also wondered if that was truly it with a few hiccups throughout the training cycle (falling and fracturing my arm in my second 20 miler; missing my last long GMP workout and having to call my last 20 miler at 18 due to food poisoning; a calf tweak in the middle of the cycle that cost my a GMP workout).
My friend and coach, Lindsey and I discussed goals the day before the race. She thought we should shoot for a sub-3:38. I wanted a sub-3:35. Lindsey told me "Look, if we shoot for a sub-3:35, you could blow up. But if we shoot for sub-3:38, you might feel good enough to get your sub-3:35 anyways and if not, you still walk away with a 10 minute PR." I agreed and she sent me the pacing plan with the instructions "If you hit 20, and you feel good, then you start cutting time off the prescribed paces."
The morning of the race, I woke up early and had my breakfast while watching some inspirational running videos, motivational videos, and meditation videos that I usually watch pre-race. Videos focused on teaching you to not give in when it hurts, to find sources of confidence, and showing others doing the same.
I left my hotel and walked to start. It was chilly but not unbearable--we had a little wind but nothing crazy. The line to get into Grant Park was crazy but I knew I had enough time. I got through security and dropped my bag. Then I went to the porta potty line which took way too long (the corrals were closing in 5 mins by the time I came out of it). I got into my corral and positioned myself near the back (per my running partner Mike's instructions, since I was the last corral in wave 1, he said if I went to the back, no one would push, it would be less crowded and no one was coming up after me for another 10 mins so it should give me a clear zone to run my pace). I calmed any nerves I had by talking to people around me and we all gave tips to a first timer. A good 30-40 mins from corrals closing went by before we go to the start, but the NYC marathon had me used to that. When I got up to the line it was all thinned out and I knew I wouldn't have issues with crowding.
Start - The pace plan had me going out at 8:50. I took off an I could tell already the satellites weren't working. Luckily I prepared for this. "Listen to your body. You know what 8:50 feels like. That's your long run pace." I eased into it. "Let everyone sprinting off the line pull away and settle in." I had autolap off on my watch so I would know how accurate I was when I crossed the first mile. I took in the sites and spectators and relaxed. My body felt good and my legs were ready to go.
Mile 1 - 9:01. "YES!" I knew it was ok to take the earlier ones a bit slower than planned. Lindsey had told me, even if the first 5K is all at 9s, you'll easily make that up later. Mile 2 was supposed to be 8:45. Ok so just a hair faster. You should not feel much change in the effort at all. I looked at my watch. "2:45/mile" "Ok, so you're completely useless" I laughed. And somehow I felt instantly freed. I wasn't going to have to check my watch constantly because I knew there was no point. Instead I focused on my body. How the effort felt. What was my HR and breathing like and what should it be like at this pace. All of a sudden I had a thought I've never had at mile 2 of a marathon before "Oh my god, I think I'm going to PR today and I'm going to PR big". Something about being aware of my body and not relying on the watch to set the pace let me see how good I was feeling and in that moment I decided that this was going to be my day.
Mile 2 - 8:51. "I'm doing it. I'm staying on pace without satellites. This is possible." I knew I was still a hair slow but I remembered what Lindsey said about the first 5K. Mile 3 was supposed to be an 8:40 so I picked it up just a hair. "Wow, I feel really good."
Mile 3/5k - 8:45/8:40. "You did it! That 5K was controlled and now you're ready to start picking it up." The 5K was 8:50 avg. and had passed in a flash. I remember hitting the timing mat so excited for Lindsey to see that I had stuck to the plan and so proud to have done it on feel. My brain instantly switched to thinking about the last 10k of the race and thinking about how much I'd be able to pick it up later on my conserving energy in the first 5K. "Ok that's great, but you need to focus on the mile you're in. Focus on your breathing. It seems like you're getting excited and pushing harder than you should." I backed down a bit.
Mile 4 - 8:33. "Another successfully paced mile. You've got this. Next one's an 8:30, just bring the effort up ever so slightly"
Mile 5 - 8:30. "Yes, Heather! You have got this! You don't need a watch to pace." I checked the paces written on my arm. "Time to settle in for a bit, 6-10 are 8:25s. So just pick it up a bit and then maintain."
Mile 6 - 8:27. I pumped my fist as I crossed my 6. I felt so good. I thought back to last year in NYC which my hamstring strain came alive at 6 and I knew I was in trouble. And then I thought about how great I felt in this moment, finding paces, holding them, and staying confident and controlled. I noticed my watch was starting to work again as the time displayed matched the effort and seemed to line up with the miles.
Mile 7 - 8:25. "Nailed it. Stay right here, don't change a thing. There goes the 3:50 pacer who I knew I had started at least 5 minutes behind. I cheered for the drag queens putting on a show for us as we ran by and soaked up the crowds. This would be one of my only 2 memories of the course.
Mile 8 - 8:26. "I feel so good. We are almost to 10 and I do not even feel like I'm racing."
Mile 9 - 8:24. "Another mile, just like that. YOU HAVE GOT THIS! I cannot wait for the back half of this race. I want to pick it up. No, stay consistent. It's too early to start cutting, stick to the plan and you'll get to throw the hammer down later."
Mile 10 - 8:21. "Ok we are done with 8:25s, time for 8:20s through 13. Again, just a slight little pick up. That last mile was nearly an 8:20 so really you shouldn't change the pace much at all. Am I really 10 miles in and still feeling this good? 16 left and that seems like nothing."
Mile 11 - 8:20ish. "Where was the mile marker? Did I miss it? We should have passed it by now. Ok, well don't get stressed. The effort suggests you didn't slow down so I'm guessing you missed it. Wow, did I really just calm myself down that quickly in a race environment? Who is this Heather racing today."
Mile 12 - 8:15. "See, you definitely missed Mile 11 because here's 12 right where it should be. We took that one a hair fast but nothing too crazy. So this one can be a little slower."
Mile 13/13.1 - 8:17/8:15 "1:51 something for the half. You. Are. Nailing. This. Race starts now and we are officially into GMP--8:15s from 14-16. This is what you have been waiting for. You wanted to pick it up and now you get to." I wanted to start pushing harder than the prescribed paces but Lindsey's voice echoed in my head. "Get to 20. See how you feel. Then you can start pushing." I locked into what felt like 8:15 from all my practice while my watch was displaying 4:40 pace the whole way through.
Mile 14 - 8:12. "Yes! I hit the pacing and it felt good. 12 miles left. I have got this." Instantly I had to go to the bathroom. "Nooooo. Ok, think logically. Even if you did have to stop, you'll lose ~30 seconds. You've had a few faster miles and you can totally run a fast mile after you come out. It's not a huge deal. But don't stop yet. Breathe, relax, and see if it will pass. No gummies or water at this next aid station.
Mile 15 - 8:07. "Wooo, it passed! Ok, focus back in, that one was a little bit fast. One more 8:15 here and you are feeling good."
Mile 16 - 8:01. "Ok, easy, that one was definitely too fast. I know you feel really good but you don't want to go too early. Scale it back a bit. We have 8:10s from 17-23. We can pick it up when we hit 20ish but stay controlled now."
Mile 17 - 8:04. "Still a little fast but not bad. I do not feel tired at all. This is nuts, I'm 17 miles in, how in the world is this possible. Oh my god, I'm going to PR today." I started crying. "Ok too early for that, Heather, save it for the finish. Focus back in, these need to be 8:10s."
Mile 18 - 8:08. "There you go. And you have 8.2 left. Honestly that seems like nothing and at the pace you're running, that's like an hour left. You CAN 100% do this. Why don't I feel tired? Everyone around me looks tired. Should I feel more tired? Am I missing something? No. Focus on yourself. Do a body scan. Yeah, you don't feel tired because you're pacing correctly and you are in shape for this. Oh my gosh, I'm passing the 3:45 pacer. I started way behind them. This is big PR territory.
Mile 19 - 8:04. "You are really doing it! I think it's time. I think you should go for it. I feel so good, I don't even feel remotely tired. Let's do this."
Mile 20 - 7:50. I saw signs about the wall all over and I laughed. For the first time ever I was going "what wall?" I laughed, then I cried, then I smiled and cried some more. 6.2 to go and I felt so fresh. "You're going to PR and you're going to PR big. You have got this."
Mile 21 - 7:45. "Five more. You're picking up the pace and you still feel good. Should I push more? No. This is good here for now. Don't push too much yet. You want to save it for that last 5K."
Mile 22 - 7:42. "Oh hey, Chinatown! How cool!" My second and last memory of the course. "4 miles left and like 30 minutes of running. I still feel good but if I start hurting, just remember is 30 minutes. You can push through 30 minutes."
Mile 23 - 7:34. "Ok, a little over a 5k to go. Time to make it hurt. I feel the slightest bit tired but I should! I've been running for 23 miles. No backing off now. Make. It. Hurt!'
Mile 24 - 7:30. "2.2 miles. Am I feeling the pace a bit now, yes. Can I hold on for under 20 mins. Yes." As the mile went on I felt a bit more tired. "Maybe I should ease off a bit, this is uncomfortable. No Heather! It's not supposed to feel comfortable! This has always been your weak spot. You have to push through it. You told yourself last night when it came down to it, you would make it hurt. SO MAKE IT HURT." We crossed the 40K mark and I thought of my friends tracking me and realizing I was ahead of the goal time with 1.5 to go. So I pushed.
Mile 25 - 7:28. "Yes! You fought through it! 1.2 miles to go. Like 10 minutes of running. You can survive 10 more minutes of this. A quote flashed into my mind that I had read the night before "At the end of a marathon, it's going to hurt whether you are speeding up or slowing down. So you may as well push." I passed the 3:40 pacer. Based on how far ahead of me I started, I knew I had to be down under my 3:38 goal and wondered how close I was to my stretch goal of going sub 3:35. We passed the 800M to go mark. "Push harder, Heather! You have more to give! Push now!" The 400M mark went by and we turned and headed up the biggest hill on the course.
Mile 26 - 6:52 I didn't even see the pace because I was so busy thinking "Ok this hill really does suck like everyone says. So just maybe ease off....wait...NO! There is no easing, put your head down, push harder, and get your ass up that hill." I crested the hill and clicked my watch to overall time as I made the final turn back into Grant Park. 3:34:11. "GO! GO AS HARD AS YOU CAN AND YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO GET ACROSS THAT LINE IN 49 SECONDS." I sprinted. I only remember a blur of me trying to do the math to see if it was possible, and running as hard as I could while feeling like I was the only one out there. (I saw later from pictures that there were a number of people around me but in that moment it was just me and the clock.) I broke into tears as I crossed in 3:34:51. My last quarter of a mile as 5:50 and that 200M kick was around 5:30.
I stood there in disbelief. Was this that breakthrough race I've been chasing for so long. Had I dreamed it? No. This was the result of hard work, a proper training and pacing plan, taming my mind, showing control, and learning to push through when it hurts. I went to do the math to figure out the PR and negative split, but I didn't have to--people were sending my splits to me. Nearly a 14 minute PR and an 8 minute negative split. 1:51 first half and 1:43 second half. Every 5K was faster than the one before it. But even better was realizing I finished in good shape. Was I a little sore? Of course. But nothing was hurt, I wasn't collapsing or locking up, and I was able to walk away on my own.
This was how marathoning should be and I couldn't wait to do it again. To quote Lindsey, "This is the beginning of a new era of racing."