I'm a very sentimental creature. I have a hard time letting go -- of anything. Literally anything.
I was handed a red carnation by a volunteer at the finish line of Grandma's Marathon, and to keep it fresh for the rest of the weekend, my dad filled an empty Diet Mountain Dew can with some water and used it as a vase.
I only recently threw out that homemade vase. The race was a month ago.
Like I said, sentimental.
Needless to say, I've had a hard time letting go of marathon weekend. Memories are precious to me, always. For the first couple weeks, I'd look at the calendar and think about what I was doing at that exact moment the week (or two or three) prior.
On our way to Duluth.
Slumber partying with mom and dad in the hotel.
Ten miles in to the race.
It was actually one of the best weekends of my life -- all of it. Every moment. But it wasn't just the race. It was the road trip with my parents; sharing my accomplishment with my two biggest cheerleaders.
As with all moments like this, it's an ongoing battle between wanting to hold tightly to all the memories or writing them down, sharing them, and having a place to come to when I want to remember the details.
So I write my memories in bits and pieces. A blog post here, another there. I have to tell the stories in fragments, or I'll never get all of them out in any coherent way. Plus, I like to drag it out as long as I can because once the memories are written and out of my mind, I've let them go just a little. And then there are no more stories to tell.
Other than the finish, I've yet to write anything about the race, itself. I'm not one for traditional race reports with mile-by-mile breakdowns because even I'm too bored to write it. I save most of the technical mumbo-jumbo for Dailymile. Instead, I tell the story. And sometimes it takes me a month to get it out.
The weekend didn't start off on a bad foot, necessarily, but perhaps like a foot wedged into an ill-fitting shoe, and though it does the job, you really just want to take it off. The drive to Duluth was long. I ate Taco John's for lunch in the backseat of the car. Not just Mexican food the day before a marathon, but fast food tacos from a gas station.
Like a(n irresponsible, risk-taking) boss.
The beautiful day back home turned about 40 degrees cooler and full of fog once we reached Duluth, and we were instantly met with terrible traffic. Nerves were a little rattled, and though dad and I ran (literally) through the race expo to gather my things for the following morning, it'd gotten a lot later in the day than we'd hoped.
Enter a 45-minute wait for a table at the restaurant across the street from our hotel, and you'd find me eating a bacon cheeseburger and sweet potato fries for dinner at 8 o'clock the night before my race. Surely it enjoyed the company of my lunchtime tacos.
The thing is, though, none of this bothered me. Very untrue to form, I was relaxed. I had my parents, I was feeling good. I didn't even have the nerves that tend to paralyze my insides before a big race. I could tell my parents were worried some of the hassles of the day were toying with my pre-race mojo, but the truth is, it was perfect.
Before bed, I curled up -- phone in hand, naturally -- smiling over kind well-wishes sent from friends. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't also busy Instagramming the shit out of my trip thus far, but that proof is everywhere on the internet already. After a quick bedtime phone call from Travis, I put the day to bed.
I slept. I actually slept good. The 5 a.m. alarm didn't even hurt. I was up, smiling, race day pigtails braided under my Badgers running hat. IT WAS GO TIME. Only less capital lettered because it was also 5 a.m., after all, and my parents were still wiping sleep from their eyes.
I squeezed both my parents into good luck hugs, knowing the next time I'd see them would either be full of capital letters or branded with disappointment. Mine, not theirs. Equipped with my bottle of water and breakfast bananas, I boarded the shuttle to the start line.
Grandma's Marathon is known for being laid out on a beautiful course along Lake Superior. The temperature typically perfect, the course flat.
Excactly one of those things rang true on June 21, 2014. The temperature. Cool. A little chilly, even. The rest? I'd have to argue.
Don't get me wrong, I have no doubt the scenery is gorgeous. I saw the lakefront for myself. Twenty-six miles is a long way to see a lot of beautiful things. Want to know what I saw? Fog. Foggy fog fog. Fog. A little drizzle. Mostly fog. But I couldn't even hate it because I couldn't have imagined a more perfect temperature. My biggest fear -- for months -- was a hot race day. I chose a late June marathon, wasn't it destined to be?
My first big win of the day.
I made a few fast friends at the start line, where I hovered near the 3 hour and 35 minute pace team. The woman was shooting for her own Boston qualifying time. She'd met her race partner at the 2013 Boston Marathon. That Boston Marathon. We chatted about Boston and the difficulty of qualifying by enough time.
In crept the first wave of nerves.
But they were so friendly. Everyone was friendly. And excited. There was so much happy energy in that crowd that I don't think the fog and gloom phased a single soul.
I snapped a quick photo of the 3:35 pace team sign and waited. Those last few minutes before the start of a big race are full of every emotion you can pack into the briefest of moments. I imagined succeeding. I imagined failing. I imagined reuniting with my parents. I imagined Boston. I imagined all the hard work I'd done and realized, "Holy shit, I cannot mess this up because I cannot do it all over again."
It's always best to start a race by placing all the of the pressure directly on top of yourself. Thankfully, the race started before I had a chance to further sabotage my mind.
Taking those first steps across the start line was such a relief. It was here. The race was happening. I'd spent so long stressing about this day and the weather and my legs and my ability. Regardless of the outcome, the race was here, and despite the previous day's tacos and bacon cheeseburger, I felt pretty damn good.
Though all of our surroundings were draped in fog, it still felt beautiful and refreshing to be outside in the damp, cool air. Spectators lined a surprising amount of the course, gathered more heavily through each little town we ran through. I remember one man, who had a little boy parked on his shoulders, waving a Badgers flag. Each time they'd spot me and my Badgers hat, I'd get a little extra cheer. It felt like a little piece of home came out to play.
My coach, Caleb, gave me two directions: run the first half of the marathon at a mile pace between 8:05 and 8:10. Run the second half of the race at a pace of at least an 8-minute mile. It's called running a negative split race, and that's the way to go, he told me. I pretty much listen to every word that's ever come out of his mouth.
So if there's one thing I've gotten good at over the course of the last year, it's nailing a pace plan. Did I doubt my ability to knock out 8-minute miles for the last 13 miles of the race? Hell yes I did. But was I going to do it anyway? Hell yes I was. Come hell or knee pain.
Which happened later. The knee pain, not the hell.
But first came the part, just four miles in, where the 3:35 pace group passed me. If there's one way to psych out a person who believed all she had to do was keep the 3:35 pace group behind her, it's to have the pace group pass her just four miles in.
I could feel myself physically reacting to it, even though I'd been hitting the mark on every mile. My heart rate was jacking up because of the nerves. I started second-guessing my plan. I could feel myself losing focus. The panic started running for me, which I knew would blow the entire race.
At that point I did what I'm very bad at doing -- I let it go (there's a song about it, look it up) (I'm sorry I just did that to you) (I've never even seen the movie).
I decided to trust Caleb, trust myself, and keep nailing my mile splits. But I'll be damned if that panic didn't keep buzzing in my ear every time I looked up and saw my Boston qualifying time ahead of me with 22 miles left to run.
But, as will happen when you simply trust your training and ability, I caught back up within a few miles. My miles started ticking off just a bit quicker than my prescribed pace (which I knew to also keep in check), and smooth sailing, I thought, was imminent. Pace felt great, body felt great, my breathing was in order -- it was happening.
Just in time for my left IT band to begin tightening 10 miles in. It threw me for a loop because for the few weeks before the race, it had been my right IT band causing me trouble. So this was new and unwelcome.
I spent the next hour stopping every mile to stretch out my left leg. Like clockwork, every time I'd stretch it out, I'd get a good mile in before the tightening began to seize again. And every time I'd stop, the pace group would catch back up. And every time they caught up, I spent the next quarter mile running faster than necessary to get myself back on track.
I knew then I was done.
The stop-stretch-catch up game was working for the time being, but it was tiring me out. Despite the troubles, I was still hitting my pace target (which had bumped up to the faster pace by that point), but I wasn't going to be able to keep it up. The catch up was wearing me out, and the feeling of being "chased" by the pace group was stressing me out. The combination sucked.
It also pissed me off.
The rest of me felt so great. HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN NOW? The capital letters returned.
But sometime during the 17th mile, as I was waiting for the inevitable knee tightening, I found myself still waiting. And waiting. And it never came back.
IT WAS GONE. WHERE DID IT GO? HURRY UP AND MAKE THIS RACE BE OVER BEFORE IT DECIDES TO COME BACK.
I couldn't believe it, but I wasn't going to try too hard to figure it out because by that point, not only was I being chased -- though not as closely -- by the pace group, but also by the knee pain that was sure to return.
I kept chugging along, my pace dipping into the 7:50s and 7:40s and 7:30s. But I felt wonderful. At one point, the song "Summer" by Calvin Harris popped up on my iPod, and I grinned my way through happy tears just completely overwhelmed with what was happening.
It occurred to me while high-fiving excited spectators, I realized we'd been running up for a hell of a while. Just the steadiest of inclines. I still to this day don't know if I imagined the whole thing, but I'm convinced miles 16 through 22 or 23 were a constant incline, peaking at (terrible, awful) Lemon Drop Hill.
You know what? Now that I look at it, it kinda was. It was the kind of incline you barely see, but feel in your legs. Just so very tiring. My legs screamed for any change in elevation. Thankfully we got it on the back side of Lemon Drop Hill, and by that point it was three miles to go.
Mom and dad were just three miles away!
I knew then that I'd obviously been nailing my splits, which naturally would mean I'd hit my goal of a 3-hour and 33-minute marathon, but it's the kind of thing you absolutely don't believe until it happens. You can't. Anything could happen in those three miles, and at that point I was convinced anything would happen.
The final miles weaved through downtown Duluth, on brick roads and through throngs of spectators. It's an actual blur. I was so dead set on getting to that finish line with a Boston qualifying time that I barely registered what was happening. I just kept watching my splits tick by on my Garmin.
Mile 25 is when I knew.
As my Garmin ticked off the 25th mile, I (for the first time) looked at my overall time. Three hours and 19 minutes. I was so far ahead of schedule that it nearly knocked me on my ass. I had more than ten minutes to get in the final mile-point-two and be under 3 hours and 30 minutes.
It didn't occur to me to anticipate that outcome. I was fighting so hard for 3 hours and 33 minutes, I didn't realize it could be better than that. Those 33 minutes were all I wanted. But this was a whole new race. Coming in under 3 hours and 30 minutes would nearly all but solidify my chance of actually getting in to the Boston Marathon as registration opened on a rolling scale to faster qualifiers first.
In the two seconds it took me to realize that, I was on a brand new mission. I had to get to that finish line in the next ten minutes. Somewhere in a faraway corner of my brain, I knew it would happen. I had ten minutes to run just more than a mile, and I'd been ticking off 7-minute and 45-second miles. But again, these are things you can't let yourself believe until it's over.
You can never get too cozy. I could fall and break a leg, you know.
We crossed a timing mat at mile 25, which I knew meant all my friends and family who'd signed up for text alerts would know I was there. I was so excited just thinking about their excitement, it practically fueled me the entire final mile.
There were so many people rooting for me, and it felt like they were right there with me. I thought of Travis, who'd sent me off with "run fast flowers," as he couldn't make the trip to Duluth. His confidence in me never wavered, not once. Even as mine wavered all over the place. "Of course you're going to qualify," he'd tell me with so much ease.
I knew my parents were waiting at the finish, and I could practically see my mom wildly updating Facebook with updates of my progress, which I soon found to be true.
I rounded a corner and spotted a huge ship in the harbor that I knew signaled a very near finish line. I whipped around another corner, and another, and there it was.
I ran that final straightaway with every fiber of my overactive heart, and the story of those final six seconds is another blog post to be read another time.
I finished the race in 3 hours, 29 minutes, and 6 seconds. I finished 11 minutes faster than my fastest marathon, four minutes faster than my goal, and six minutes faster than my Boston Marathon qualifying time.
It was done and I did it.
I relaxed in the grass with my parents for what felt like a wonderful eternity, crying happy tears as I read texts, tweets and Facebook messages. That time in the grass with wickedly sore legs, blistered toes, a bruised toenail, and a melting ice cream sandwich that was handed out at the finish made it all real. All the months of running and worrying and wondering and calculating had culminated into the happiest twenty minutes ever spent sitting in the grass.
The rest of the day was spent celebrating with the kind of joy that comes with having not a single worry in the world, for at least that day. It was like being a kid again, playing in the hotel water park with my parents, pigging out on pizza and chicken wings. Truly celebrating with the two people who watched this entire transformation transpire from the moment I learned I had a talent for running at 12 years old.
They'll be in Boston with me next April, and I already know it'll be full of capital letters.
By then there will be a whole new story to tell.