When I stepped off the plane in Houston, I knew I was ready for the adventure that lay before me. I was finally in a good mindset and had shook off the taper crazies. Nathan and I arrived on Thursday and I deliberately tried to soak in the whole experience because I knew before I could even think about it, it would be gone in a flash.The experience really did go screaming by. And wow, what an experience it was.
I have never been in an event like this. There really is nothing akin to trying to make the Olympic Team. Sure, I have run races with more people but I have never experienced running amongst the best of the best. The only thing I can liken it to is times in my high school days when I went to all-start tournaments with All-Americans from around the country. I played with and against some of the best players currently in the WNBA. But even that experience, doesn't really come close. It was incredibly special, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Looking back now, just a few days later, it already feels like a dream. And it hard to put into words what being in that race truly felt like.
I toed the line with no expectations. It was really hard for me to form time goals for this race because while my training was good after NYC marathon, I just wasn't sure it was enough time to drop another huge PR. I resolved to listen to my body, be smart and see how things unfolded.
Leading up to the race, my runs felt ok, but not great. My cold/sickness seemed to be outbound as I had given it to Nathan, but my energy was still a bit off. I was tired but couldn't manage to sleep in or take naps. Even as I warmed up for the race, running laps around of the exposition halls in the convention center, I couldn't really tell where I was at. I didn't feel zippy but I also didn't feel lethargic.
It was amazing to be surrounded by so many incredible athletes. And though the air was thick with tension and nerves, I felt really calm all race morning. Before the race, I set myself up with my headphones and waited to be called to the start. When we were finally called to the start, I took several deep breathes and remembered to take in every single moment.
Outside we had a huge staging area to warm up in. There were lots of fans surrounding the gates and I could hear the crowds beyond in starting area getting charged. The men were started and before I could form another thought, we were jogging up to the line to begin the 2012 Olympic Trials.
I was surrounded by the best of best in American marathoning. I had been having a hard time believing that I belonged there. Yes, I qualified but I still felt on the outside. I wasn't seen by others or even by myself as a marathoner, I was an ultrarunner. A stranger in a strange land. Standing there on the line though, I knew that labels didn't matter and any dog can have its day. I wasn't there just to be there, I was there to run my ass off and that is all that mattered.
We were set at the line. The pause before the start. I stopped the world for a moment. I stopped my brain. I held the moment. Snapped it in my mind and became completely present. It is a moment to be savored, it is a moment in which I felt completely prepared for the 26.2 mile journey ahead of me.
The gun went off and the crowd pressed forward. We went out incredibly slow and the huge pack of women made it hard to get into stride. I just let myself be carried along with the crowd, unconcerned about the initial miles pace. I knew a few runners with 2:35 time goals and I positioned myself just behind them. We ran nearly the slowest split of my entire race (6:18) but dropped the pace easily over the next mile (5:52) to stretch out the group. My legs felt good as we finished up the first 2.2 loop through downtown and made our first pace through the finish line. We headed back through the downtown and out onto the big 8 mile loop.
I was slightly behind the 20 person deep 2:35-ish pace group, but they weren't pulling away so after a few miles of being slightly (25-30 feet back) behind the group, I gassed it a bit to join the group and benefit from the drafting. It really is a huge energy savings to run in a group like that. Not only does it block the wind, but it takes your mind off of regulating your own pace. I looked around the group several times and felt like I wasn't working harder than anyone else to maintain the low 5:50s we were clicking off. I wasn't breathing hard and my legs felt good. I was taking in my water and starting taking in 1/3 of a GU each time I got one of my bottles after mile 8.
We worked our way around the loop and I soaked up each stride, each cheer, each time someone recognized me and screamed my name or cheered "Go Fast Foodie!!!!". It was so cool. A few people would drop out of the group and others would join, but a decent sized pack was still together as we completed our first loop. I hit the 10 mile mark in 59:29, which is by far a 10 mile PR.
Before the race, I toyed with the idea of not wearing a watch. After the first loop I decided that, just like my gloves and sleeves, I was going to toss my watch. I had purposefully worn a simple watch that I wasn't attached to, so as I headed out for my second loop, I tossed it to the crowd and decided to continue to run by feel.
The group got smaller and smaller as we headed towards the half way mark. I kept taking my water and GU, but noticed that my stomach would become quite unsettled each time I would take a gel. I made sure that I only took a small nip and backed off the pace a bit each time I took one in. I maintained the mid 5:50s through the halfway mark, cruising through just under 1:18 (another huge PR).
Soon thereafter the group splintered and I was pretty much by myself. Looking at my splits now, I clearly downshifted just after the halfway mark. I consciously decided to run comfortably instead of gambling by pushing too early.
I like loop courses. For me the familiarity makes each loop seem smaller and smaller. In the blink of an eye, I was back in downtown finishing up my second loop. I kept my head up and smiled and smiled and smiled. I just kept telling myself "what an adventure!!!". It was incredibly. The crowd was electric. While I liked the loops, I definitely don't think the course was that fast. The surface we ran on was pretty taking and there were lots of tight turns.
I took a moment to think about the fact that I was about to start my final loop of the Olympic Trials. I knew it would go by in a blur and so I made my mind a sponge and absorbed every detail I could. I decided that I would keep maintaining pace until about mile 23 and then really go for it. Before the Trials, I thought I might gamble and try to red line for a long time, but as I started the final loop, I knew that I was on track for a PR despite the slower pace I was holding and didn't want to blow up.
I never bonked, I never felt really bad. My stomach did flip flops a few times and my energy was not 100% even from the start (from being sick), but I couldn't have asked for a better race. At mile 23, I started working my pace down back into the low 6s. I started reeling women back in and focused on whomever was right in front of me. I didn't want to get caught so I just kept pressing towards the next target. Coming back into the downtown I saw Mike Spinnler (race director of JFK 50 and friend), he had been cheering all day on course (which was hugely appreciated!) and he informed me that the next lady in front of me was 4 time Olympian Colleen De Reuck. And I was going to try and catch her.
With less than 2 miles to go, the emotions of the experience were starting to catch up with me. I told myself not to cry, that it didn't make breathing easier. I just pressed as hard as I could to try and catch Colleen. She was a good bit ahead of me, so I had my work cut out from me (I nearly caught her, but she got me by 3 seconds!). I floated towards Discovery Green and the mile 26 sign. I was flying.
I hit the mile 26 marker and couldn't stop the tears or the huge cheesy grin on my face. I beared down as hard as I could, trying to leave it all out there and rounded the final turn to the finish line. I pushed as hard as I could, arm swinging, feet flying.
I crossed the finish line in 2:38:55, 36th overall and a huge PR on the biggest stage there is other than the Olympics themselves. For a moment, I felt exhausted, but then just like NYC marathon, the feeling passed and I did a little happy dance saying "first ultrarunner!!!". There were many other women who had just come in and many of them looked like they were about to pass out and die. One of the volunteers remarked that I didn't even look tired and I said "well, I am use to running another marathon plus 10 more miles usually". I made my way out of the finishing area and was reunited with Nathan before being ushered back into the convention center. I cried when I saw him, the whole experience, the accomplishment washing over me. I was so blessed to have Nathan, my mom, Sarah and Steven there to support me. They made the experience so special for me.
Finishing the race and having such a huge PR didn't feel like the end to me, instead it felt like the beginning of an entirely new adventure. When I crossed that finish line, I knew I belonged there. I knew it was not a crazy fluke or out of my mind insanely good day. I had run within myself and my training had brought me continued improvement. I know now based on how good I felt all day that I haven't even reached my true potential.
It is amazing for me to think that until March 20 of last year (LA marathon), my PR was a 2:49. In less than a year, I have steadily improved at the marathon and begun to learn what makes me body adapt and develop. While I put all my eggs in one basket for this race in the last 10 weeks, I still did run 4 100ks and 4 marathons and plenty of long adventures as well. In the past year, I have had my cake and eaten it too. I feel out of my mind with joy right now and not simply because of the accomplishment, but because I see that my potential is only beginning to be tapped. By far the coolest feeling is knowing that there is more to be discovered, deeper to dig, more to uncover.
At the beginning of last year, I thought the journey was to the 2012 Olympic Trials. I thought that that is where the chapter would end. Now I see, it wasn't the end of a chapter, it was the introduction to an entirely new book. I look forward to discovering what I can do, following the thread of adventure and discovery before me.
For now, I am just going to soak it in. Soak in every fleeting morsel of pride and endorphins. Bask in the accomplishment. Allow myself to have this moment be everything and the only thing for just a bit. Soon enough I will be heading towards for new adventures and climbing new mountains. I am so excited for the challenge and adventure that is before me.