Rocket City Marathon

I started training with my coach in June. I knew I wanted to do another marathon because I felt like New Orleans went really poorly. It wasn’t really about my time. I didn’t love my time, definitely thought I should’ve done better, but it was about more than that. It was about the fact that I started to feel bad at mile 16 and it was all downhill from there. My pace started to slip. I started to feel MISERABLE. I do feel I underperformed with a 3:26 but it was a respectable time for my first marathon.

So my coach and I discussed a fall marathon. He threw out some options and Rocket City on December 14th seemed like a good time and the course sounded great, so that became my goal race. It seems like I trained for it forever but at the same time, it went by so fast. I won’t recap all of that because it’s too much to try to catch up. But, overall, training went great. I trained so much smarter thanks to my coach and began to improve pretty quickly. When he started having me do marathon pace workouts at 7:10 pace and then started throwing around the idea of a 3:10 marathon, I almost couldn’t believe it. After running a 7:52 marathon and feeling like death, a 7:10 pace marathon less than a year later seemed almost impossible! Except that all my workouts were going great. My longer work at marathon pace, my fast finish long runs. I was hitting the paces pretty comfortably and feeling like I had something left in the tank at the end. 3:10 was the basic goal but I was hoping to squeak in under 3:10 if I was having a good day.

This was towards the end of the last mile of my first marathon. We had to come over a small bridge and the meager hill felt terrible at the time. Much to my dismay at the bottom of the bridge was a photographer who managed to capture this reaction.

This was towards the end of the last mile of my first marathon. We had to come over a small bridge and the meager hill felt terrible at the time. Much to my dismay at the bottom of the bridge was a photographer who managed to capture this reaction.

Leading up to the race, I was pretty nervous. My races had been going great, my workouts had been going great, but it was still difficult to fathom how I could really hold that pace for 26.2 miles. My first marathon was my only experience to compare to and I remembered how good I felt until suddenly I didn’t. I was terrified of running along comfortably and then the wall showing up out of nowhere.

My coach gave me a lot of great advice and strategy leading up to the race. The main things I drilled into my head were to be patient, not go out too fast, and not to get greedy too early. I had run a lot of my workouts just slightly fast but I knew for the marathon I needed to be disciplined. Even just slightly too fast early on could really come back to haunt me (and hurt me) later.

The basic strategy was to get with the 3:10 pace group and hang with them at least through the half. Rocket City has three sections. The beginning goes through downtown and then residential streets. Then it goes down a long highway for several miles which is boring and this year had a nasty headwind. Then, it turns back around mile 15ish (I think?) and it’s back up through residential streets to the finish. My coach advised me to stay with the group and shut my brain off through the highway stretch and then if I felt good, I could SLOWLY pull away.

I was nervous about the pace group and letting someone else set my pace. But, I knew how much mental energy and focus it takes to keep yourself on pace and as much of that as I could conserve for later in the race, the better.

My boyfriend was out of town for the race which was a big disappointment. He was a saint for my first marathon and he is very low anxiety which really helps balance me. I tend to get pretty anxious about the little details leading up to the race so having someone who is patient and not getting anxious too helps. However, my mom agreed to come down to cheer me on. We looked at the race map and decided to best place for her to be stationed was at the elementary school because we’d pass by there around mile 7 and then again shortly after mile 21. I armed her with gu and a water bottle with an electrolyte tablet.

Coming back by at mile 22ish

Coming back by at mile 21.5ish

When I woke up race morning, it was raining. Pretty hard. I was bummed about the rain but thankful they weren’t predicting strong winds. Rain isn’t fun but I don’t think it slows you down like wind can. Leading up to the race it was showing the rain stopping around the race start time (8 am) but the morning of the race the forecast changed and it started showing it raining through the race. I don’t think I’ve ever put more vaseline on my body before that morning and I still chafed in weird areas, like my wrist where my watch was.

Thankfully my mom put up with me that morning because I was hyper focused and not talking. I did my usual race morning stuff. Woke up and ate first thing. Normally I eat pretty light before a race, just a banana and peanut butter, but I added half of a gluten free bagel to it because I didn’t want to screw up my race by not having enough carbs. I tried to finish drinking everything an hour and a half before start. This worked well because I was able to find a bathroom before the race and didn’t think even for a second during the race about needing to use the restroom. After eating and drinking, I put on my clothes, vaselined up, and did my foam rolling. I started the tradition of foam rolling before I run when I had an IT band injury in the spring. It’s worked great for me. Also, the night before a race or a long run, I always foam roll and stretch.

This is my torture device of choice. Except on the IT band. It kills and I always end up with many bruises.

This is my torture device of choice. Except on the IT band. It kills and I always end up with many bruises.

I got to the Holiday Inn about 50 minutes before the race start. I am not sure why I arrived so early because once I went to the restroom, I just stood around. About 20 minutes before the start, I went outside and did my very very easy (seriously, like 9:40 pace) warm up jog for 5 minutes and 2 easy gentle pick ups.

I lined up in the 3:00-3:15 area. I started to get nervous because people were filling in and the announcer was telling everyone it was almost time, but the 3:10 pacer was nowhere in sight. I started to realize I might have to pace myself for this whole thing. Then suddenly, an older man in the shortest shorts I have ever seen, appeared! He was wearing a headband and he had gels stuffed into them. That was a new one for me! Several people seemed relieved to see him so I was glad there would be other people running with us. I soon found out our pacer was named George and he knew EVERYONE. Every area where people were standing someone shouted out to him by name. A local running celebrity apparently. He had run 2:38 on that course before so I guess the 3:10 pace would be pretty easy for him (thankfully-you don’t want a pacer who can barely squeak by at the pace!).

I got nervous because George didn’t seem to know how to show his splits on his watch and was asking some of the guys if their watches did that. Uhhh…have you used your watch before? I started to get nervous about the pacing but figured I’d just go with it and see where we ended up.

Before I knew it, we were off. I kept my watch screen on the lap pace but I turned auto-lap off so that I could manually hit the lap button at the mile markers and have a better idea of what our splits were. I just ran with the group and didn’t pay much attention to my watch but I could tell we were starting fast. We were sub 7 pace for a significant portion of the first mile before we settled in. My first mile measured long, 1.04, so the pace showed 7:05 but the split was 7:21, so a little slow for 3:10 which is 7:15 pace.

Early on in the race. Yes, I am stealing these pictures. Sorry...

Early on in the race. Yes, I am stealing these pictures. Sorry…

The first several miles were a blur. There was a big group running and it didn’t take long for everyone to start talking. This was wonderful and helped keep nerves and everything in check. It was really easy to just run with the group and not stress about pace or constantly check my watch. They call out the time at each mile marker which was great and kept George in check on how we were doing relative to the pace. Almost all of the miles we ran measured long and I ended up with 26.47 on my watch at the end. The course has something like 70 turns I think and running the tangents perfectly is all but impossible. The next few miles were: 7:08 (1.01), 7:07 (1.02), 7:09 (1.01), 7:06 (1.01), 7:24 (1.03-slowest mile the whole race). I took a gu at mile 5 and planned to take them at 5, 10, 15, and 20 which worked out great.

I saw my mom at mile 7 which was nice and something to look forward to. Then I saw Jackson who handed me a Huma gel. Scott was nice enough to talk to Jackson the night before and set it up and I really appreciated that! We saw a guy already walking at mile 8 so that’s pretty rough. Not sure what could’ve gone wrong so early in a race but I felt for him. There was another girl running with me named Laura. She had only run one marathon 8 years before and totally crashed so she was nervous about the race like I was. We started talking about goals. She was hoping to hold on for a 3:10. I told George I hoped to squeak in under 3:10 but it was too early to tell. He said I seemed strong and was talking like normal. Next miles were 14:32 (2.02 miles-didn’t see the mile 7 marker), 7:11 (1.01),  7:11 (1.01).

I really did feel great. I was kind of marveling at it. It took very little focus early on and I was able to talk comfortably. But I knew it was too early to get cocky so I remained conservative. Not too long after that, we hit the highway stretch. This is definitely the worst part. I got lucky and got to draft off people most of this stretch. I’m too short to really break the wind for anyone so no one wanted me up front! For awhile, George and a few of the guys were just too far ahead of pace for my comfort so I let them slightly ahead of me. They never started to break away so I felt good about that. There was a pretty nasty headwind and eventually I felt like it was in my best interest to catch up to the group and let them break the wind. It didn’t take too much to speed up just a little and tuck in behind them. The next several miles were:  7:00 (1.00), 7:11 (1.01), 7:13 (1.00), 7:07 (1.00), 7:09 (1.02). The highway stretch definitely caused us to work more and I found myself really sweaty after it. We dropped a 7:00 early and the girl I was running with was like, “wow that was 7? What is that, like a 3:05?” I decided to slow it down a little at that point because I felt like it was way too early to get greedy.

Coming off the highway stretch was such a relief. The wind stopped and the pace felt easier. Coming off the highway was kind of a milestone for me because that’s when I thought it was time to start doing some work. I had a few milestones in my head for this race. One was the halfway point. I wanted to get there without having done much mental work yet and still feeling relatively good. Another milestone for me was 16 miles. That’s where I began to feel bad in my first marathon and I thought it would feel meaningful for me if I still felt good. Then of course, 20 miles. That’s a milestone I think of any marathon and feeling strong there would mean I could start to push the pace a bit.

The next several miles I continued to run with our (much smaller) group. We had lost almost everyone. At that point it was just me, Laura, George, and one other man whose name I forgot but was from Brentwood. I kept waiting for the wall to show up. I was mentally focused and prepared to put in the work mentally if the wall did come. But it didn’t arrive. I started to feel more confident and excited as the later miles passed, but I stayed conservative for awhile. The next several miles we ran as a group and our splits were 7:05 (.99), 7:07 (1.00), 6:57 (1.01), 7:03 (1.01), 7:06 (1.01), 7:03 (1.01). After the highway stretch, we wound through residential streets. There were lots of turns but I loved that because it kept the race interesting and the sections mentally manageable. In any workout I struggle with long straight stretches. We hit a gradual uphill on mile 16 and so for mile 17 we had a bit of a downhill and we were rolling. We realized we were running well ahead of pace but we all felt good. I was still nervous to go too fast early on but my confidence was building.

I continued to run with Laura and George through mile 20. Around mile 21 I started to break away. It wasn’t a conscious decision but I was feeling strong and it was feeling like it was now or never. I was afraid to get cocky but it didn’t feel like the wall was coming. I took my last gel at mile 20. When I came back by the school, Jackson handed me another one and I held onto it just in case but never used it. I saw my mom around mile 21.5 and she handed me my water bottle. I was all smiles as I told her, “I’m doing it!”

I wanted to make sure I got plenty of fluids and it’s hard to drink out of the cups. I put an electrolyte tablet in the water bottle and drank most of it. I saw a guy standing by his car on the side of the road and I shouted to ask him if he’d throw it away for me. He agreed so I flung the bottle at him. Man, spectators can be so nice! I just couldn’t litter but I also didn’t want to hold a bottle the rest of the race.

Somewhere around mile 23 I saw that I was coming up on a girl. I didn’t realize at the time but passing her would mean coming into 5th place. She seemed to be slowing down and I was able to pass her fairly easily. Knowing she was behind me though really pushed me the rest of the race. I couldn’t let myself slow down because I didn’t want to get passed by any women.

My boyfriend loves this picture because of how happy I look with the girl I just passed in the background.

My boyfriend loves this picture because of how happy I look with the girl I just passed in the background.

I passed a ton of people in the last 5-6 miles. Lots of people were walking or jogging slowly. Unfortunately there was only 1 woman to be passed. The rest of the women were way faster than me and the top 4 were all under 3 hours.

Around mile 24 I started to feel tired but it was manageable. As I came up on a water stop at mile 24, I grabbed a cup and then quickly had to turn the corner. I ended up rolling my ankle. I panicked but after a few steps I felt fine. I had an extremely sore calf for the next 5ish days though and I think that little moment was the culprit.

Late into the race and super focused

Late into the race and super focused

I was so elated that I was actually going to run this marathon and hit my goal that I think my enthusiasm kept me going at the end. It was really emotional for me. My coach believed in me and that was a huge boost but man I really almost couldn’t believe that I was capable of running a marathon as fast as I was running it. The last mile I repeated some mantras to myself (I don’t remember specifics but just reminding myself I’m almost there and to not slow down now, etc) but I kept up the pace. As I was rounding the final turn, I heard a spectator shout to someone behind me, “Go Leslie! Yay Leslie, you can do this!” I didn’t think there was any way a woman had caught up to me but I was not chancing it. I put on the gas and ran as fast as I could towards the finish. As I was making the final steps, I was running faster than a guy in front of me. His ego couldn’t handle being outkicked by a girl, I guess, so he started to sprint towards the finish. I am not ashamed to say that I was not going to have that and so I started to sprint too. However, my legs and butt started to lock up and I couldn’t overtake him. We crossed the mat at the same time but I am happy to report in looking at the times, I beat him by 1 second based on chip time 🙂

My mom caught this one of me coming into the final stretch. I was going to overtake this guy but I guess his ego couldn't handle getting outkicked by a girl.

My mom caught this one of me coming into the final stretch. I was going to overtake this guy but I guess his ego couldn’t handle getting outkicked by a girl.

I crossed the mat in 3:06:44 gun time and 3:06:41 chip time. I was ecstatic. I never hit the wall and felt strong through the finish. My final miles were 7:06 (1.01), 7:02 (1.01), 6:58 (1.02), 7:02 (1.00), 7:01 (1.01), 7:05 (1.01), 8:14 (1.22, 6:46 pace-never saw the 26 mile marker).

I kind of couldn't believe it was already over at this point.

I kind of couldn’t believe it was already over at this point.

I felt so great about this race and I think it will continue to be one of my favorite memories. The day was really magical and everything went right. I’m not naive enough to think every race will be this wonderful and perfect. I’ll have hard races and I’ll have races where I don’t meet my expectations and I’ll have races where the last miles are a death march, etc. But I treasure how well this race went. My coach won’t take much credit and it’s true that I had to put in the work. But without his guidance and training plan, I would not have run a 3:06 marathon less than a year after a 3:26. It’s just fact. I had no idea what I was doing and going by the Blair method of training was leading to injury and burn-out. I have fallen back in love with running and it’s so satisfying that all the hard work I put in really does translate into progress.

This race has helped me get over my intense fear of the marathon. I still respect the distance, of course. You have to. It’s unpredictable and requires serious strategy. But now I know it is possible to be prepared for a marathon and it is possible to not hit the wall.

For now, I am easing back into hard training. Immediately after the marathon, I had a lot of soreness in my left calf and my right foot. I only ran every other day for the week after the marathon which was torture but necessary. I’ve been slowly building mileage. Last week was around 40 and this week is around 50. I’m doing a lot of easy running and am trying to enjoy this phase. However I’m excited to get back into harder workouts and start to get faster again.

Next goal race is ultimately Boston in April but I am looking forward to running some other races in the meantime, including the Tom King Half Marathon in March which is one of my favorite Nashville races.

Thanks to my mom for this photo

Thanks to my mom for this photo

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2 thoughts on “Rocket City Marathon

  1. wlburnettejr

    This is a great write-up. It really gives a non-runner like me insight into the mental part of doing what you do. I know I’ll never do it- no desire to- but I am very proud of you for what you’ve acoomplished!

    Reply

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